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Halo: Avenger's Quest

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40px-Terminal.png This article, Halo: Avenger's Quest, was written by Actene. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.
Halo: Avenger's Quest
Avenger's Quest
The path of vengeance is one that will be steeped in blood regardless of whether the avenger desires it or not. But even to those who reach the end of this slippery road, solace is not guaranteed. Even the noblest soul may find nothing but destruction... or worse.
Protagonist {{{protagonist}}}
Author Actene
Next Story Halo: Indelible Past
Story Series The Avenger Trilogy
[Source]

Prologue

Senta 'Refum rushed away from the door, her long plain robes billowing around her as she fled down the hallway and into the humble townhouse's main room.

"They're coming!" she called out to the half-dozen other Sangheili who had been reclining nervously around the sparsely decorated room. "The Jiralhanae have reached this sector!"

One of the Sangheili, one of three who wore armor, snarled impatiently. "So? They're killing all the Sangheili on High Charity! They aren't looking for us anymore."

Another armored Sangheili, much taller and commanding than the others, stood up sharply and grabbed a plasma repeater from the hover-couch he'd been sitting in. "It doesn't matter, you fool!" he barked at the one who had spoken. "Just because my brother's madness wasn't the thing that brought them down on us doesn't mean there isn't a danger!"

He gestured to the other Sangheili. "We can't stay here, and I doubt our brethren will care about the heresy in our bloodline anymore. Arm yourselves! We must join the others in the evacuation!"

All of them started moving at once. The two other armored men readied their own weapons and headed to secure the townhouse's back door. Another man wearing the plain robes of a civilian tore open an upright purple crate and tugged a trio of plasma rifles from within it. He handed them out to the two women in the group and kept the third for himself.

Senta rushed over to the corner of the room where a small child was huddled, shivering in fear. "Get ready Tuka! We need to hurry and get away!"

The child, Tuka 'Refum, thrust his small arms around his mother's elongated neck and allowed her to lift him up. He leaned over and whispered in Senta's ear, "Please, mother, make the noises stop." Even from within the secure townhouse, the blasts and plasma fire from the fighting outside could be heard all around the room.

"They will," she promised. "They'll all stop. But first they need to get louder, much louder. You need to be brave if you want them to stop for good, Tuka."

Tuka nodded, his mandibles clenching together as he tried not to be afraid.

Vonu 'Refumee, the tall leader, leaned over a holographic console and entered a short code. He'd been prepared for such an escape ever since his brother, Sesa 'Refumee, had been exposed as a heretic and a traitor. He and the rest of the 'Refum bloodline had fled here in the fear that they'd be targeted and killed for their kinsman's blasphemy, but now it seemed that a far greater heresy was afoot. At least now they'd have the chaos sparked by the Jiralhanae's sudden uprising to cover their escape.

"The front door is sealed," he told the others. "The surveillance systems show that our warriors are holding the alley at the back. We can escape that way, but we need to hurry!"

The three civilians rushed to join the two warriors, their weapons held nervously in their untrained hands.

His plasma repeater in hand, Vonu crossed the room to where Senta held Tuka. "Get moving," he told her gently. "Keep my brother's son safe."

She looked plaintively at him. "And you?"

Vonu spread his mandibles in a thin smile. "No fear, I'll be right behind you."

Another blast from what must have been a Wraith's mortar sounded, this time from behind the house--their escape route.

"No more delays," Vonu snapped, his military instincts kicking in. "Go-!"

There was an even louder explosion, one that rocked the house to its metal foundations. Tuka started to wail.

Vonu sprinted over to the hallway leading to the back door, but it was too late. It was open and the sounds of plasma fire could clearly be heard throughout the room. And an even worse sound could be heard over them: the whistling noise of Jiralhanae spike rifles.

One of the women tumbled in through the open back door, a trio of spikes embedded in her throat. One of the warriors leapt over her corpse as he tumbled back into the house; his shields failed just as he crossed the threshold.

"They broke through!" he bellowed over his shoulder to Vonu. "An entire pack of the mongrels!"

Vonu leaned around the hallway corner, aiming his plasma repeater at the open door. "Get Senta!" he snapped. "Unlock the front and take her through there!"

Before the warrior could reply, a dark figure bounded in through the door. Vonu let off a trio of shots from his repeater, but the Jiralhanae warrior dodged past them and unloaded his spiker into the retreating warrior. Dark purple blood splashed across the walls and the dead warrior's blue armor as he fell.

Vonu primed a plasma grenade and hurled it down the hallway. He didn't even wait to see if it made contact with the enemy warrior as he darted back around the corner and motioned furiously at Senta. "The console! Get to the console and unlock the doors!"

Back in the hallway the plasma grenade exploded and the Jiralhanae howled in agony.

Senta hesitated. "The others--"

"The others are dead! We must save ourselves! We must save your son!"

Senta hurried to the console just as an even larger Jiralhanae rounded the corner and barreled into the room. This one was clad in the elaborate armor of a chieftain, and he held a massive gravity hammer in his hairy claws. Its sparking head scraped against the ceiling, leaving a long scrape as its owner bellowed with pleasure.

Vonu didn't hesitate; he opened fire, spraying the chieftain's armor with the repeater's plasma. But even as he did so, his life was flashing before his eyes. There was no way he could kill this thing before it swung the hammer, and with him so close to Senta... the blast from the weapon would kill her and Tuka in seconds.

There was no time to think.

Discarding his repeater, Vonu lunged for the chieftain and pushed him back into the hallway. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw more Jiralhanae warriors spilling in through the back door. They held their fire, fearing their chieftain's wrath if they struck him by mistake.

Activating his left wrist's energy gauntlet, Vonu plunged the small glowing blade into the chieftain's side. A burst of red blood coursed down the creature's side, but it didn't even flinch. Instead, it tore him from its body with a single massive fist, then hit him from the side with its hammer faster than the eye could see.

Vonu's shields failed immediately and he knew he was dying before he even had time to feel the pain. He collapsed to the floor in a lump of purple blood and broken bones, but he still managed to draw his plasma pistol and let off a few paltry shots.

The chieftain sneered, not even bothering to dodge the green bolts that splattered against its chest armor. "You're kind's days of arrogance are finished," it gloated over the wounded Sangheili. You have held my people in degradation and humiliation for far too long."

It raised its hammer above Vonu, who had already gone limp from the sheer magnitude of his injuries. "May you rot in all the hells that ever were."

But before it could strike, a renewed barrage of plasma bolts struck his armor and drove him back. On the other side of the room, Senta had retrieved Vonu's plasma repeater and was hammering the chieftain with wild, untrained shots.

"Run Tuka!" she cried to her son, who had returned to the corner, trembling with fear. "Run! You have to live!"

The repeater overheated and Senta dropped it, screaming with pain as the weapon released its pent up heat onto her unprotected arms.

Cursing under his breath, the Chieftain crossed the room in a single stride and struck Senta down with a single blow from the blade on the other side of his hammer's magnetic head.

Tuka screamed as his mother's body collapsed, her purple blood staining the folds of her robes.

More Jiralhanae entered the room now, their weapons at the ready. One wearing violet armor stepped over to the shaking Tuka and aimed its spiker at the small child's head. But instead of firing, it merely let out a small growl of disgust and turned back to its chieftain. "Mallunus!" he called. "There's no one left here worth fighting! Let's move on!"

The words embedded themselves in Tuka's grief and terror wracked mind. Mallunus. The name of his mother's killer.

Chieftain Mallunus chuckled at his young subordinate. "Brash as ever, Kenpachus. But never fear: there will be plenty more of these Sangheili vermin to dispose of before we've had our fill."

"Have your fill of this, murdering traitors!" thundered a voice from behind them. Three black-armored Sangheili disengaged their active camouflage and lunged at the Jiralhanae with their energy swords. Two warriors were felled with in an instant, but Mallunus and the one called Kenpachus fell back. One Sangheili dodged past Mallunus's hammer and landed a swift blow across his shoulder. The chieftain bellowed with rage, but could do nothing but retreat in the face of the three furious swordsmen.

"We must pursue!" snapped one of the black-armored Sangheili. "Mallunus mustn't escape!"

The one who had wounded the chieftain set a hand on the speaker's arm. "No. We have more pressing matters than vengeance to attend to here."

He stepped respectfully over Vonu's corpse and knelt over Senta's body. Tuka was tugging at his mother's robes as if trying to wake her from a deep slumber."

"You've seen enough, young one," he said gently to the whimpering child. "Come with me. I'll take you away from here."

"She said we'd leave," Tuka whispered helplessly. "She said the noises would stop. But they killed her. Mallunus killed her."

The black-armored leader lifted the child into his arms. "But you're still alive, young one. You can still live on in her name."

He motioned for his comrades and they hurried out the way they'd come.

"My name is Roni 'Visagee," the swordsman said into Tuka's ear as they ran. "You're safe now."

Tuka just closed his eyes as the sounds of fighting got louder and louder. His mother had been right: the noises did need to get louder before they stopped. But after what seemed like an eternity, they did.

His mother and everyone else he'd ever known was dead. But he was still alive and he had the name of the one who had done all that. Mallunus.

One day he would be strong enough to make Mallunus and all the other monsters like him answer for their crimes. He'd be strong enough to make the galaxy safe for everyone.

Someday...

Chapter One: Graduation

The gathered Sangheili pupils tried to hide their stares as the blademaster introduced their twentieth member, the one who would complete their class size.

Roni 'Visag nodded at the human by his side. "While I understand that many of you will be uncomfortable working alongside one you view as an outsider, particularly with the many wounds from our long war still taking their time in healing, my decision here is final. I have reviewed him thoroughly, and I judge him worthy of my tutelage. I hope the rest of you will come to the same conclusion."

Tuka could feel his classmates struggling to repress their protests. Roni 'Visag was one of the most respected sword instructors on Sanghelios and throughout the whole of Sangheili space, and almost all of them were guests training in his keep at their families' request. As Kaidon of the Visag keep, all of the decisions he made were more than final, they were the law. But this was too much, even for one with Roni's reputation.

"This must be a joke," whispered Tuka's friend, Ventu 'Kosol, beside him. "The blademaster's human pet will be training with us?"

Tuka didn't whisper back, unwilling to do anything disrespectful towards the person who had been as much a father to him as a teacher for almost as long as he could remember. Instead, he examined the "human pet" more carefully.

The human was short, though that was true of most humans when compared to Sangheili. Though Tuka hadn't studied much about them other than what pertained to the Great War, he was fairly certain that this human was young, most likely a phase or so younger than the rest of the class. The hair on his head--Tuka had always thought this to be the strangest thing about humans, the way hair only seemed to grow on their heads--was black and reminded Tuka of a tangled bush he might have seen while hiking in the mountains above the keep. His skin was pale, though this was far less unusual for humans than it was for Sangheili.

Roni seemed to have arranged for the keep's tailors to piece together some sort of human-shaped garb for his guest to wear, because the human was wearing what looked like a regular Sangheili robe that had been cut many times too short. A white bandage was wrapped around his head, covering up the forehead, and through the opening in the human's robe Tuka could see more over the chest. He wondered if the human was badly wounded or if he always dressed like that.

And then there was the arm. The human's left arm was completely gone at the shoulder, and in its place was a smooth, metallic prosthetic. Tuka could easily tell that it was Sangheili made--the keep's technicians had most likely constructed it--but it had been modeled after a human arm rather than a Sangheili one.

Roni had brought this human in several cycles ago, after he had personally led a clan raiding party against a Jiralhanae slaver camp. Tuka had wanted to go, but he was, of course, too young. But he'd be ready soon enough. Ready to go out and hunt down the Jiralhanae that had butchered his family before his eyes so many phases ago.

"... show proper patience and thoughtfulness..." Roni was telling the class. Tuka hoped that his mentor wasn't so naive that he'd believe that a little speech like this would convince them all to treat the human well. He'd do his best, if only to please Roni, but he wasn't sure the others would follow his lead.

"His name," Roni said, finishing his talk. "Is Simon."

How strange,Tuka thought. No family name. Doesn't he have some human clan or bloodline he belongs to?

He took another look at the human, not gazing at him in his entirety and instead concentrating only on his face. There was a look in those strange, grey eyes of his, one that Tuka understood completely. There was a fire in those eyes, one that spoke of steely determination and deep hungers and yearnings. Yes, Tuka understood that look completely. He felt that fire within himself every day.

Perhaps this human wouldn't be so bad after all...

Two Years Later

The ceremony took place in one of the Visag keep's many gardens. This one was a simple enclosure, with only the grass and a handful of shriveled-looking trees within it. Sparse, perhaps, but like just about everything else within the Visag keep, it had a kind of natural, unassuming beauty about it. The Visag clan had always been as passionate about their natural art as they had been about swordplay, and the gardens within the keep were one of the best testaments to that passion.

The entire class was lined up on the grass, their large, bare feet resting comfortably within its cool blades. In other Sangheili circles, a ceremony like this would have called for some sort of armor or other military apparel, but Roni--or Blademaster 'Visag as he was called in these situations--had requested that the class wear only simple robes for their graduation ceremony. This was as much a celebration of the pupils' growth on their path to adulthood as it was about how well they had mastered Roni's sword teachings.

Tuka 'Refum fought to stand as straight as he could manage. He was certain that the back of his robes had somehow gotten stained, but he wasn't sure how this could have happened or what exactly had put that idea into his head in the first place. At least the suspected stain wasn't on his front where everyone could see it. He felt both furiously excited and terribly nervous at the same time, so much so that he almost felt as if he would split apart right then and there like one of the fruits they cut with their blades in midair during daily exercises. He'd been waiting for this day his whole life: the day the great Roni 'Visag acknowledged him and the rest of his friends as having completed his training and sent them out into the great unknown galaxy.

Well... most of his friends would be acknowledged. One was no longer here to receive such an accolade.

Beside him, Ventu shifted uncomfortably. Tuka's shorter friend had never been much for ceremonies and rituals. A short letter of congratulations from the blademaster would probably have been just as meaningful to him as this observance and most likely would have been far more welcome to boot. Tuka wondered how Ventu would manage once he entered training in the Sangheili military. From what he'd heard, there was just as much ceremony and tradition within those ranks as there had been during the old Covenant times, if not more.

Of course, Tuka wouldn't be in much of a position to learn any of that for himself because he, unlike more than half the class, didn't plan on entering training.

He had more pressing matters to deal with.

After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, the blademaster himself stepped out of a nearby doorway that led into the keep's main building, which had massive wings and dormitories that stretched throughout the keep's walled interior. He was wearing his Kaidon's robes, which were emblazoned with many intricate patterns colored with the Visag clan's signature red and silver markings. His wife, Benta, followed behind him wearing a similar but slightly less elaborate garb.

Roni 'Visag paced across the grass, scanning each and every one of the assembled pupils with his emerald eyes. Time may have been beginning to take its toll, as his slightly stooped shoulders and fading skin could attest to, but in Tuka's eyes he still struck the same imposing figure that he had when he'd rescued him from the Jiralhanae all those years ago. There was a grandeur about him that couldn't be diminished merely by an aging body. The blademaster carried it within him and it shone out from his eyes and through the very words he spoke. All present had been affected by that present at some point during the phases they'd spent training with him, and the utter silence that greeted his appearance was a testament to their unwavering respect for the blademaster. No one so much as twitched a muscle as Roni continued to pace up and down their ranks, appraising them each with his solid, unblinking gaze.

He paced like this at least three times before finally stopping and gazing at them all. Even from his place near the end of the line, Tuka could see the pride that radiated from his eyes. Even if he'd been blind, he'd have been able to understand that merely from how the blademaster sounded when he began to speak.

"When your families sent you from all over our people's territory, they wished for me to teach you all that I knew of swordplay," Roni began solemnly. "They wished for you to honor your bloodlines with the skills I would impart on you, and they were right to do so. Though the Great War may have ended, the sacrifices of my generation have not brought our people a lasting peace. We live in times that are still troubled by war and strife, much of which stems from the divisions we have allowed to come between ourselves. I fear that it must fall to your generation to do what my own could not and purge our great people of the miserable curse of constant warfare.

"Victory will not come from strength of arms, but through our own determination and convictions. Only by holding true to these can we be successful, for without them we are nothing. Family, rank, status; all are worthless without honor and loyalty. Those are the true spirit of the Sangheili, and we must all never forget our duty to uphold them with our dying breaths."

He began to pace again, but he never tore his eyes from the line of his pupils. "I did not set out to teach you how to kill with a blade. My teachings in that regard were merely the vessel through which I gave to you my true gift: the gift of knowledge. After this day you will go out into the galaxy and you will have more than just the skills to survive in it. No, you will also have the teachings of honor, nobility, and faith that have kept us all strong throughout our people's many trials and tribulations. As long as those teachings remain alive, the spirit of our people stays alive as well."

He faced the front once again and snapped his right arm over his chest in the time-honored respectful salute of the Sangheili. "My students, it has been a pleasure to instruct you. I ask you not to seek to honor me with them, but to honor your bloodlines, your ancestors, and your gods."

Tuka and the rest of the class did the same, but they all bowed deeply as well. None of them said a word, and they remained silent after they had risen and the blademaster had begun to walk down their line. He stopped at every pupil and placed his hand at the center of their chests in blessing. Benta followed him and anointed each one on the forehead from the small dish of water she carried with her.

Tuka fought to keep the emotion from showing on his face as Roni neared his place in line. His whole life had been leading up to this moment. Even before he was old enough to be instructed, he had been practicing to wield a blade. Roni had given him everything he had ever needed, but this honor... this honor trumped them all.

As Roni reached him, Tuka locked his body ramrod straight and stared straight ahead. When his mentor placed his hand on his chest, Tuka met his eyes with what he hoped was the steely determination he wished he was feeling at the moment. Instead, his gut was clenched tight with nerves.

Roni merely nodded and moved on. He had never shown Tuka any preferential treatment during the training, and Tuka loved him for it. He inclined his head to Benta to receive the anointing water and as the cold liquid spilled down his forehead he knew that he would feel its cool touch on his skin for the rest of his life.

His training was finally complete. Now his real work could begin.

Roni finished his path down the line. Nineteen pupils had been blessed and anointed. There should have been twenty, but Simon was gone. Tuka had to bite down his disappointment for his friend. He hadn't really reflected on the full cost of the human's departure until now: Roni, the one who had saved him and given him a new life within the keep, would be unable to bless him and welcome him into the Visag fold.

The blademaster bowed again to the line of graduates before heading out the way he had come. None of them moved as he departed, and they remained perfectly still long after he and Benta had vanished into the main household.


Tuka felt strangely drained of energy after the ceremony, as if he'd just undergone a rigorous sparring match rather than a simple ritual. He'd expected to be refreshed and full of energy, but instead he just felt like he needed to go lie down.

But he'd been taught to ignore these feelings, so instead of taking a nap he was helping Ventu pack. It was more of a friendly gesture than anything else, as the living space each student was allowed barely fit one Sangheili, let alone two, but he felt that Ventu appreciated it anyway.

"So," Ventu said, folding one of his robes and settling it into a small bag. "An inspiring ceremony, of course."

Tuka nodded, handing his friend a stack of holopads. "The blademaster would do nothing less for us."

"Well, of course." Ventu inspected the small room for anything they might have missed. "We do have his star pupil in our class, after all."

He cast a meaningful glance at Tuka, who looked intently at a crack on the far wall. Ventu snorted.

"Stop being modest and acknowledge it," he told Tuka. "Everyone knows that you're the best student this keep has ever seen. I bet you'll even be a match for the blademaster himself one of these days."

"The rest of you are just as good as I am," Tuka said quickly. "I've just been swinging a training sword around my whole life, that's all."

"Skilled and modest," Ventu mocked playfully. "You'll make a fine Kaidon yourself if you ever get around to finding a keep of your own."

"It was a good ceremony," Tuka said firmly, changing the subject. "I'm sorry Simon wasn't here to see it."

Ventu snorted. "I'm sure that nasty little human's doing fine out in the real world. You think about these things too much."

Although his words were harsh, his tone remained playful. Ventu had actually been one of the first pupils to really warm to their human classmate. After Simon had beaten him senseless during a sparring match, Ventu seemed to have decided that he was worth getting to know.

"Yes," Ventu continued. "He's probably out there right now, farming rocks or whatever it is humans do when they aren't fighting."

Tuka decided that another subject change was in order.

"What about you?" he asked, stepping out of the cleared-out dormitory. "Joining the military?"

Ventu nodded. "That's where I'm headed once I leave the keep. Once training's over, I'll probably wind up on the frontier, looking out for pirates."

"You don't think you'll be hunting the Fallen, do you?" Tuka asked, thinking about the anti-human separatist faction that the military was fighting as they spoke.

"No, I doubt they'd give that kind of job to a raw trainee like me," Ventu replied, stepping out into the hallway as well. "The Council probably has whole legions of veteran warriors crushing them this very moment."

He paused. "And you? Going to try for the military as well? There's still time for you to apply, you know."

Tuka shook his head. "I wish I could come with you, Ventu, I really do. But there's something else I need to do now that I've graduated from this school."

Ventu stared at him for a moment, then flexed his mandibles slowly. "Oh, right. I keep forgetting about that. I should probably tell you that you haven't got a chance, but I'm sure better tongues than mine have tried that before."

He shouldered his pack and smoothed his robes. "Well, I'm off to my family's keep now. It'll be a while before I can see them again."

Tuka crossed his arm over his chest. "Farewell, Ventu. May the gods smile upon you."

Ventu clicked his mandibles impatiently. He, like many other Sangheili, did not bear the same patience with the gods that Roni had drilled into Tuka. "If they exist," he said in that blunt way of his, but he also returned the salute. "Best of luck finding that chieftain. Try not to get yourself killed."

He headed down the hallway, but threw one last remark over his shoulder as he vanished around a corner. "And if you find Simon out there, tell him I still need to hit him back. He'll know the spot."

Then he was gone, his footsteps vanishing quickly into the air.

Tuka stood in place for several moments. Yes, Ventu had read him right. It was time for him to hunt down that chieftain, Mallunus. Foolhardy? Quite possibly, but Tuka had spent his training getting ready for this. There would be no better time than now.

But there was one person he needed to convince of that. He refused to leave the keep where he had grown up without Roni 'Visag's blessing, and he knew that the blademaster would be opposed to his plan. But he wouldn't give up now, and he knew exactly where to find his mentor.

As he headed towards the keep's council chamber, Tuka pondered the last thing Ventu had told him. He'd been thinking about it himself for some time now, but Ventu's words had driven the idea home.

Once he went out there, he wouldn't just be looking for Mallunus.

He'd also be looking for Simon.

Chapter Two: The Blessing

Tuka walked quietly as he entered the Visag keep's council chambers. Technically he wasn't permitted in this area of the keep at all, but for as long as he could remember Roni had allowed him access to the room so long as the council wasn't in session.

The council room was circular and housed a series of hover-chairs where the Visag elders sat during council meetings. The chamber was large, allowing them to raise themselves high off the ground while discussing clan matters with the Kaidon. This was yet another one of the clan's famous methods of promoting free, natural thought. The irregularity of the hover-chairs' flight paths was meant to remind the Kaidon and elders about the often chaotic nature of the galaxy.

Running up the chamber's walls and onto the ceiling was the Visag clan's family saga: a record of all the greatest deeds performed by their ancestors. Every keep was supposed to have one, but Roni had told Tuka that since the Great Schism many clans had been erasing their sagas and starting fresh. They believed their time in the Covenant had tainted their honor, but the Visag clan felt differently. The Sangheili people had lost countless warriors in defense of the Covenant, and they deserved to be remembered, regardless of whether or not their cause had been completely just.

Tuka gave the saga a respectful bow as he edged past the dormant chairs, arranged in a circle around the room as they always were when not in use. He passed over the tiled floor, which had been painstakingly constructed to form a complex pattern like the one Roni had worn on his robes during the ceremony. When he was younger, Tuka had managed to awe himself every day at the sheer mastery inherent in every aspect of the Visag keep, and even now he couldn't help but admire every architectural work of art in the compound he'd lived in for over half of his life.

Maybe one day, when there was nothing left for him to do out in the galaxy, he'd come back to Sanghelios and tour every keep he could to see if any could match this one's beauty.

But that day would be a long time in coming. There were more important things for him to do in the here and now.

He stepped out of the council chamber and into a long hallway with curved walls and a low ceiling. The hallway lacked any light sources, meaning that Tuka had to rely on the light that entered in from the council chamber and his own body's memory of this path to guide him. He ran his hand over the curving wall as he did so, his fingers feeling the grooves and lines created by a series of carvings etched into the stone, each depicting a different scene from the Sangheili's ancient history.

Reaching the end of the hallway, he paused before a small door. Unlike most doors in the keep, this was not an automatic entrance but rather an archaic wooden one with a simple metal handle set in its center. There were no markings on this door, but there was a small basin of water not unlike the kind Benta had used during the morning's ceremony sitting beside it.

Tuka dipped his finger into the water and anointed his head with it, murmuring a small benediction as he did so. With this finished, he grasped the door handle firmly and pulled it open. Lowering his head in a small genuflection, he entered the Visag keep's chapel.

The Visag bloodline, and Roni in particular, were known not only for their legendary swordsmen but also for their piety and dedication to the gods. Even after the stunning revelation that the Covenant's long sought-after Great Journey was nothing more than a misinterpretation of ancient artifacts--a revelation that Tuka's father, Sesa 'Refumee, had helped spark--and the Sangheili's species-wide descent into religious confusion and disillusionment with even the belief in gods, the Visag clan still clung stubbornly to the gods and traditions that their pre-Covenant ancestors had worshiped. The Great Schism had not disproved the gods' existence, the Visags argued, but had instead showed the Sangheili people just how far from the true path the Covenant had drawn them from. It was not a commonly held belief and certainly not a popular one, but Roni and his clan remained firm in their commitment to upholding it.

Tuka had been raised with this mindset ever since Roni had brought him into the Visag keep and overseen his upbringing. He'd faced skepticism and even derision from his fellow trainees, including friends like Ventu, but he'd remained firmly set in the faith throughout it all. He didn't mind it all that much either. The Sangheili people had just emerged from countless ages of deceit and blindness. It was only natural that their rude awakening would jar many from the path.

This chapel was not the only place of worship in the keep, but it was by far the most important. It was circular, as the council chamber was, but far smaller; at best it could only house about a dozen Sangheili at a time. Carved entirely from stone, it lacked any sort of carvings or even writing on its walls. The only decorations of any kind were located within a series of small alcoves that had been carved along the length of the curved walls. Each alcove housed a statue depicting a different god in the Sangheili pantheon. The statues were the work of master craftsmen who had chiseled lifelike features into the tiny statues.

There were no seats in the chapel save for a single stone bench, which sprouted up from the stone floor as if it had grown from the rock itself. This bench was currently occupied, and the Sangheili sitting in it was gazing at the chapel's centerpiece: a larger alcove protected by a glowing energy barrier, the only source of light in the entire room.

From where he was sitting, Roni 'Visag raised his head at the sound of Tuka's entrance. He didn't turn his head, but Tuka knew that the Kaidon could tell it was him. He stood over the chapel's threshold and hesitated. What should he say?

But Roni beat him to breaking the silence. "Ah, Tuka. I wondered when you would come."

Tuka took a moment to collect his thoughts, which had suddenly been churned up like a cloud of disturbed dust, before replying. "You knew I was coming?"

Roni chuckled softly. He still had not turned to face his pupil. "Tuka, I've known you since you were a child. I haven't gotten so addled that I can't predict my own students."

He motioned towards a space on the bench beside him. "Come, sit with me a moment. Tell me what's on your mind."

If Roni had known that Tuka would seek him out here, than he would also be quite aware of why Tuka had come as well. Tuka couldn't quite grasp why Roni didn't simply get to the point, but then again, that had never been the way the blademaster did things. Although he wouldn't approve of the comparison, Roni carried out everything the same way he carried out his swordplay: calmly and patiently, always giving his sparring partner time to set up their own attacks before he moved in with his own swift combinations.

Tuka slowly crossed across the chapel, the cold stone stinging his bare feet. His robes brushed against the floor and he drew himself up a little straighter as he neared the venerable Kaidon.

In the flickering, watery light cast by the energy field, Tuka saw that Roni had changed out of his formal robes and wore simple robes like his own. And yet even with his aged features and humble garb, the blademaster still radiated wisdom and authority.

Roni indicated the large, shielded alcove, or rather, the object within it. Suspended by a gravity field within the barrier floated a massive sword. Although shaped like a regular energy sword, this blade was composed entirely of grey metal and its twin prongs jutted out far past its grip, which was double rather than single handed.

"Magnificent, isn't it?" Roni asked, his voice low with reverence. "Out of all the many treasures within this keep, the Sword of Harka is the one I cherish above all the rest."

Tuka nodded, his gaze fixed on the sword. Harka was a legendary Sangheili warrior who had lived back during the formation of the Covenant. It was he whom the Visag bloodline considered their first ancestor, and it had been he who had become one of the first clan leaders to support the Sangheili people's union with the Covenant. Harka had been the one who opposed the Arbiter Fal 'Chavamee's attempts to oppose the Covenant's formation, and the two warriors had died at each other's hands.

Now that the Covenant had been broken and its promises revealed as lies, many amongst the Visag wished to remove the sword and distance themselves from its owner as much as possible. But as with the clan saga, Roni had refused to do so. To him and to many of the clan elders, the blade was an embodiment of duty and loyalty, and he never missed an opportunity to relate this to his pupils.

"I have spent my whole life looking at that blade," Roni murmured. "I see it every time I grasp my own sword and every time I instruct others in the use of the blade. Though many wish it were not so, it is as much a symbol of our clan as our emblems and colors are."

Tuka had always tried to share his mentor's appreciation for the ancient weapon, but it had always reminded him too much of the savage-looking bladed weapons the Jiralhanae wielded. "I understand why it is so important, Kaidon," he said slowly. "But doesn't it bother you that its wielder was a supporter of the very Covenant that betrayed and led us away from our gods?

Roni inclined his head. "It has occurred to me from time to time," he admitted. "But I believe that a warrior can live and die nobly even if the cause they believe in is the wrong one. We all must believe that, or risk dishonoring the countless warriors who died during our war with the humans."

He sighed. "Even so, we still must make amends for the destruction we brought upon them. I thought I could assuage my own guilt by bringing one in to learn our ways, but I was wrong."

Tuka looked at the Kaidon with surprise. "You didn't make a mistake by bringing Simon to us, Kaidon," he assured him.

Roni's mandibles parted in a slight smile. "I never said that I thought it was a mistake," he said calmly. "But perhaps it was a mistake to let him leave."

Tuka remembered the battered human ship that had somehow found its way to the keep and contacted Simon. There had been someone aboard it, someone who had convinced him to leave the keep and vanish into the galaxy. Roni hadn't lifted a finger to stop his human pupil from leaving; in fact, he had given Simon his blessing as the young man departed. And now it was time to get a blessing for himself.

"When Simon left," he said quietly. "You gave him your blessing. I've come to ask for one as well."

Roni lowered his head and did not speak for several moments. Tuka's entire body was stiff with nerves and anticipation. Would the blademaster be angry at his request?

But the Kaidon merely sighed. "Yes, I know what you're talking about."

He looked up at Tuka with an unreadable expression. "I know that you've been planning this ever since you were old enough to hold a practice blade. Even though you never said anything, I could see it in your eyes as plain as the light of the sun. But tell me this: is avenging your mother worth the effort?"

Tuka blinked. He certainly hadn't expected this response. "I... but... Yes, of course it is!"

"Really? You want to avenge someone you can barely remember, find and kill someone who might not even be alive? It's clear to me that you aren't suffering now because of your loss, so why do you want to set down everything and do this?"

"I've gone through the records of the Chieftains killed during the war," Tuka said stubbornly. "Mallunus wasn't on them then, and I know he's still alive today. Besides, this isn't about vengeance for me, it's about justice."

Roni sighed. "You're still young Tuka. Young and impatient. Leave things like justice to the institutions we put in place to deliver it. If you truly want to become an instrument of justice, join the military and let everything I've taught you guide you through its ranks. Work to achieve a position of power and then you will be worthy to dispense justice."

"Perhaps I may do that," Tuka protested. He had never argued like this with his mentor before, but this was urgent. He felt as if a great weight were pressing down on his chest. Every moment he stood here bartering for Roni's approval was another he could have used in hunting Mallunus. "But I can't do anything with my life before I do this! I can still remember how that monster cut my mother down in front of me; this is something I need to do."

The Kaidon just sighed and looked away. Tuka wondered if he needed to get down on his knees.

"Why do you need my blessing?" Roni asked finally. "You've kept the name of Refum; I have no authority over you now that you're training is complete."

For some reason those words stung Tuka more than he could imagine. "Kaidon, please. You have given me everything I could ever need. You saved me when I was a child. You raised me as if I were your own kin. You gave me a home and a clan to live with. I want nothing more than to be accepted into the Visag bloodline. But before I can do that, I need to avenge my kin."

Roni let out a tired chuckle. "In that case, you should start by killing the one who killed your father. Thel 'Vadam lives as a leader for our people, does he not?"

Tuka drew back. "He did what he did out of duty to the Covenant he served. Mallunus killed my mother in cold blood. It isn't the same."

"Hmmm," said Roni thougthfully. "Have you really forgiven him because of that? Or is it because he is one of our kind and Mallunus is a Jiralhanae? Or perhaps because you never knew your father?"

"I don't understand."

"My point, Tuka, is that you can't apply justice to one thing and deny it to another. Don't treat it as something that can be meted out in one place and not another. If Mallunus, who killed your mother, must die then so too must Thel 'Vadam, who killed your father. Since you have no desire to kill 'Vadam, then you can only call what you ask for vengeance."

But there was one thing that Tuka hadn't told Roni yet. "Finding Mallunus isn't my only desire, Kaidon. I also want to find the one who departed from us and bring him back to you."

He realized that he had chosen his words poorly the moment he said them. Shortly after the end of the war, Roni's own son had departed the keep and vanished after committing some unspeakable crime. Tuka knew that whatever had been done was unforgivable, but no one ever spoke of anything more than that. But Roni seemed to understand.

"You mean Simon?" he asked, and shook his head. "No, I know that I won't see him again. I wish it were otherwise, but he's lost to me. It will take more than my teachings to guide him back to the light."

"What do you mean?"

"Wherever he is, Simon lives in the darkness. I could see it in him from the moment I laid eyes on him. Benta did as well." Roni looked intently at Tuka. "You do know he was a Spartan, don't you?"

Spartans. The Demon warriors who had fought on equal terms with Sangheili warriors and struck terror into the hearts of the Covenant's finest legions. Tuka nodded. "He told Ventu and I, yes."

Roni sighed. "Great enemies during the war, and great allies now as we battle the Fallen. But that one... he was born in darkness and trained in darkness. I saw traces of light in him, and hoped that they would overcome the darkness, but he left before I could realize that dream. I only understood the true nature of the darkness inside him after he had gone and it was too late for me to help him. And I fear that, if left unchecked, he may become a herald of darkness."

Tuka shook his head. "Forgive me, Kaidon, but I still don't understand."

The Kaidon laughed softly. "Ah, I'm just an elder who spends too much time reading ancient scriptures."

"Simon wants the same thing I want. He's told me about his own troubles, and he wants the same vengeance I do."

Roni's laughter ceased and his eyes flashed. "If you are to emerge unscathed from the path you are about to walk," he said sharply. "You must never fool yourself into believing that. You want one chieftain dead, nothing more. But in the depths of his heart... he lusts after a vengeance that is unobtainable, and if he's left alone for too long, it will swallow him up."

He shook his head. "Go find him. He will help you get your revenge, and you in turn must guide him the way I could not. You have my blessing, and I will provide you with the tools you will need to begin your journey. But always bear in mind the things I have taught you. Let the gods and your ancestors guide your feet and you will be victorious."

Tuka bowed low in gratitude. "Thank you, Kaidon. I will bring honor to this clan and to your training."

Roni nodded, but he looked a little sad. "Remember your obligation to me. Tell Simon that he doesn't have to live as an exile consumed by hate. Tell him that there will always be a place in this keep for him. And tell him that his name has been entered into the Visag family roll. From this day forward, no matter what he chooses to call himself, the Visag clan will know him as Simon 'Visag."

Tuka was stunned at the sudden pronouncement. Such a thing--the acceptance of a human into a Sangheili clan--was unknown, at least as far as he knew. But he kept his composure and bowed again. "I will tell him."

"Remember," Roni said, turning back to look at the Sword of Harka once again. "Once you have slain Mallunus, let your blade rest. No matter how good vengeance may feel, do not heap any more blood upon your hands than necessary. Otherwise..."

He shook his head and motioned for Tuka to leave the chapel. "In my time, I have seen far mightier Sangheili than you fall to the temptation of bloodlust. You are the finest swordsman I have ever trained, and it has been my honor to raise you in this keep. I have lost so many family and pupils to the galaxy's unceasing conflict that I can't afford to lose any more. And whether you like it or not, your name as also been added to the family roll. Keep the name of 'Refum, if you desire, but within the walls of this keep you will be known as Tuka 'Visag."

Tuka found that he couldn't speak. He merely bowed as low as he possibly could as he stumbled through the chapel's door and into the cold darkness of the stone hallway.

Chapter Three: The Hospital

Several hundred light years from where Tuka was preparing for his journey, the human that Roni 'Visag feared might become a "herald of darkness" was picking his nose.

Leaning back in a folding chair, Simon dug a finger deeper into his nostril and glared at the tight confines of the prefabricated shack he was in. The entire room, meant to serve as a makeshift rec room, was drenched with the stench of sweat, beer, and tobacco. He'd figured a few days spent dealing with it would make it more tolerable, but so far it smelled as disgusting as ever.

Apart from himself, three other people were in the room. Two men and one woman, all wearing filthy undershirts that exposed muscles the size of Simon's head, were on the other side playing a game of pool. They were engrossed in their game and didn't pay any heed to the scrawny young man as he rolled up a wad of dried snot and flicked it in their direction.

Flexing the metal fingers of his artificial left arm, Simon scratched his mop of black hair with his organic arm and listened to the steady pounding of artillery fire that pulsed throughout the room. He'd at least grown accustomed to that constant noise, as well as the rumble of engines and the drone of energy vehicles.

So this is where I end up, he thought idly, watching as one of the men hit a poor shot and released a string of curse words. From the keep of a Sangheili noble to some turf war in the middle of nowhere that no one gives a shit about.

He sighed and cracked his neck. Maybe he should get back to his ship. Sure, he'd have to listen to Diana's unceasing barrage of insults and sarcasm, but at least he wouldn't have to resist the urge to gag every time he took a breath...

The door to the room burst open and a man wearing a frayed military uniform and some combat armor poked his head in. "They blew the damn bridge! We've got a whole column of Grunts and Elites pinned down on the other side, we gotta move! We aren't paying you to sit on your asses, so move it!"

The pool players grabbed their rifles and darted out as Simon slipped his helmet over his head and retrieved his own weapon. He dashed out after them, fingering the two small energy sword handles strapped to his armor's chestpiece. Yes, he'd definitely gone a few places down the galactic dogpile , but at least this was a living...


It Tuka less than a day after arriving on the colony world Cordial Harmony to realize just how little thought he'd actually put into his grand plan.

As far as supplies and assets, he was more than prepared. The Visag bloodline had been spared much of the cost--in both funds and warriors--that the ravaging war with the Fallen had imposed upon many other keeps, and Roni had been happy to provide Tuka with both a small, Slipspace capable personal transport and a substantial credit account in an Interspecies Union bank, which he had assured the young traveler would be acceptable to most "civilized" humans and Sangheili. Tuka had protested such generosity, but Roni had insisted.

"You will need plenty of money if you plan on succeeding in this venture," he had assured Tuka. "I'm sad to say that you'll find that concepts such as honor and justice hold very little gravity in the places you will need to look. Even Sangheili in those places care only about the amounts of money you can give them."

So he had a new, state of the art personal ship and access to more money than he'd ever imagined, and absolutely no idea of how to go about finding Simon or Mallunus.

He's spent so much time wondering about how he'd go about killing the chieftain that he'd never really stopped to consider just how he'd track him down. As far as the Sangheili military's official records went, there had been a chieftain named Mallunus serving the Covenant at the time of the Great Schism and that he'd participated in several battles following the initial betrayal at High Charity, but other than that... nothing. No mention of him or his pack in accounts of Covenant guerilla actions, no records of any of his activity amongst the Jiralhanae worlds, no mention of him in the listings of various pirate kings and mercenary leaders. It was as if he didn't exist.

But at the moment, Tuka's principle worry was finding Simon, which was proving just as difficult. The best lead he had was that yes, the fleet in orbit above Sangheilios had detected a small human craft enter the atmosphere on the day the shuttle had arrived at the Visag keep and departed with Simon. It had been provided the correct codes that were provided to any commercial vessel headed to Sangheilios, so they had let it come and go without any trouble. The one thing they had done was check its course when it had entered Slipspace and calculated that it had been heading for this sector.

Even without this knowledge, Cordial Harmony was the first place Tuka would have checked. While technically in Sangheili territory and resided under a Sangheili government, it was regarded as the most developed interspecies colony in the galaxy. There were just as many human residents as there were Sangheili ones in addition to hearty amounts of Unggoy, Kig-Yar, and even Lekgolo colonists as well.

From the stories Simon had told Tuka, the young Sangheili could assume that his friend would not head for any human-governed colonies, which left Cordial Harmony as the most appealing destination for a human with only a passing grasp of Sangheili languages.

Unfortunately, this was as far as Tuka's guesswork was going to take him. He couldn't exactly enlist the human government's aid in finding one their renegade operatives and he couldn't run a search on Simon's image either for the exact same reason. Tuka carried a hologram of his face just in case he needed to have anyone identify him, but that wouldn't be useful unless he actually found someone who knew about him. Running a search on the name wouldn't help either. Tuka had been told that "Simon" was a fairly common name among humans and the fact that the only family name his friend had ever provided was a meaningless string of human letters and numbers wasn't much of a help. He couldn't search under "Simon 'Visag" because as far as he knew, Simon had never considered himself to be a true member of the Visag keep.

So here he was in Cordial Harmony's largest city, Obliterated Solitude. Just about every species on the planet had managed to divide the sprawling city into species-specific districts, which had certainly done plenty to reduce racial violence but hadn't seemed to do much to improve the quality of the districts themselves. Tuka found himself appalled at the filth and squalor that he was presented with at every street and building block. He had to keep fighting the urge to gag at ever new stench that presented itself to him.

He was beginning to wonder if he should have gotten out of the keep a bit more when he was younger.

At first, upon entering the district Tuka had been disappointed by the decidedly small population of humans residing there. All it really reminded him of was one of the poorer villages or towns on Sanghelios, albeit with a few dozen humans here and there. Most of these humans were dressed in Sangheili style robes of the kind that Roni had commissioned for Simon when he'd begun training at the Visag keep. Tuka had thought the robes looked awkward enough on one human, but a district full of them was something else entirely. He'd heard that the humans on Cordial Harmony were disruptive and mean-spirited, but silly robes aside these humans seemed quite decent, albeit poor. They walked through the trash-strewn streets, strolled into the Sangheili-style buildings, nodded and smiled at each other and non-humans alike, and could even be heard exchanging greetings in Sangheili languages.

Tuka was quite charmed. Clearly this planet's poor reputation was largely undeserved...

And then he realized that this wasn't the real human district. No, the real human district was actually beneath his feet. And it more than lived up to its infamy.

Back when the city had first been built, its Sangheili colonizers had built a massive network of tunnels underneath its streets to aid in waste disposal, maintenance, and even transportation. But these tunnels weren't needed anymore, and when the plethora of human colonists had migrated to the planet in the years following the Great War, most of them had wound up settling down there.

Tuka was now picking his way through this makeshift town, his dark traveling cloak wrapped tightly around his body. The only light in these tunnels came from a series of lights that had been installed on the roof high above Tuka's head. He could see that they were powered by a wide range of technology, from human generators to Sangheili emergency lighting and even some Lekgolo worms attached to the bulbs. More lights had been strung up along the walls and on the hundreds of prefabricated buildings the humans had installed to live and work in.

Trash was strewn across almost every spot on the ground, and a good amount of that was moist. Tuka was thoroughly regretting his decision to walk bare-footed for this trip; every step he took was met with a repulsive squishing noise and that horrible cold feeling of wetness spreading across the bottoms of his feet. Now he really had to choke down a gag-reflex every time he drew a breath.

Until today, Simon had been the only human he'd ever seen outside of holograms. The humans up on the surface had been tolerable, most likely due to their familiar clothing styles and the presence of the Sangheili they'd mingled with, but now they were everywhere, with their varying skin tones, hair colors, and those odd, bumpy features on their faces. Not to mention those odd horizontal mouths of theirs. Even after all the time he had spent with Simon, Tuka still had to fight back revulsion when he looked at them.

Remember, they think that I'm the ugly one, Tuka reminded himself, doing his best to be patient with both himself and the odd-looking aliens. He thought of one of Roni's many teachings about physical appearances: Go beneath the surface and seek out the true nature of someone through their words and deeds.

Unfortunately, it didn't seem like there was much beneath the surface to find appealing about the tunnel-district's denizens. These humans did not seem quite as grateful for the use of the planet as their surface-dwelling kin had been. They shot glares at Tuka as he walked through the center of the large tunnel--which seemed to have been collectively agreed upon as the street--and he found this universal hostility to be extremely disconcerting. He saw a few Sangheili amidst the throngs of tightly-packed humans, but these all looked as hostile as the humans did.

And it seemed that every other person down here was armed.

Everywhere Tuka looked, he recognized human weaponry from his military study. The humans carried pistols, rifles, those strange Jiralhanae-esque "shotguns", and even the odd plasma weapon. It was as if there was no government on the surface to regulate these sorts of things.

Now Tuka was understanding why Cordial Harmony was the laughingstock of Sangheili space. He felt dizzy trying to take it al in, which certainly wasn't helping him get any closer to finding Simon. Tuka was wondering if he should just pull out the hologram of his friend's face and wave it around. At least then someone might be urged into saying something to the crazy, picture waving Sangheili.

Tuka sighed. It would probably be for the best if he headed back to a Sangheili district for now. By the local time on his chronometer, it was already early evening and he'd been warned by the port authorities when he landed not to be caught wandering the city by himself at night. That, they had said, was how one got murdered for the very clothes on their back, and from what he'd seen so far Tuka believed every word.

This planet needs the Kaidon's piety, he thought to himself. A little meditation and prayer would sort most of the inhabitants out quickly enough.

He was just about to give up and head back to the surface when he noticed a slightly smaller tunnel branching out from the main one and heading off in a different direction. It was still crowded, but there were far less people heading into it than out of it. Perhaps he would find something useful down a less beaten path.

Tuka turned into it and followed it, passing more flimsy buildings and open-air vending stalls along the way. Most of these stalls were selling food or weapons of some kind, the only two things that this district did not seem to be lacking in. He used one hand to keep his cloak up while the other stayed on the hilt of his deactivated energy sword, which hung at his waist. It was his only weapon and most prized possession; he wasn't going to let some thieving vagrant steal it.

The crowds and buildings continued to thin out until only a handful of shops and people remained. A calm, reasonable voice in Tuka's head told him that he wasn't going to find anything useful down here, but he pressed on regardless. At least this was better than heading back, though he wasn't entirely sure what he expected to find. Maybe he'd bump into Simon, sitting out in front of one of these shacks.

Tuka laughed quietly to himself for his optimism. If the gods did choose to smile on his search, then they wouldn't do so in such an abrupt manner. Besides, Roni had taught him that to ask such miracles of them was prideful and unworthy of a humble, devout Sangheili. Nevertheless, Tuka thought up a quick prayer to the gods in case any were listening.

Anything, he asked silently. Give me a lead, a sign, something to tell me I'm looking in the right places...

The tunnel widened and ended. Tuka suddenly found himself standing within a large semi-circle of buildings, and he realized that the constant roar of the crowd that echoed throughout the tunnels behind him had died down to a low murmur. This area was also cleaner, as if some effort had been made to clear away the trash and refuse that littered the rest of the tunnel district, for which Tuka was eternally grateful.

Most of the buildings in the semi-circle were smaller residential ones, with small groups of humans loitering around outside them. As with the rest of the tunnels, most of these people were armed.

The biggest building was at the furthest end of the semi-circle and looked as if several regular prefabricated buildings had been stacked on top and beside each other and then welded together. A large glowing symbol hung over its battered metal front, one that depicted a pair of intersecting red lines. Tuka gazed at the symbol, cocking his head with confusion. He was sure he'd seen that image before in his human studies, some sort of religious icon or talisman, but he couldn't quite place what it meant. Perhaps this was the district's religious center.

Then he noticed that a small crowd had formed just outside of the large building. He made out a few humans, but was surprised to see that there were just as many Sangheili standing before them. And to make everything even more puzzling, these Sangheili were wearing armor.

This was worth investigating. Tuka meandered over towards the group, but as he did so he noticed that many of the humans around it were heading quickly in the opposite direction. People around the semi-circle were retreating into buildings or even leaving for the main tunnel. What were they afraid of?

As Tuka neared, he saw that the group of Sangheili were facing a somewhat larger cluster of humans. A few of these were armed, but just as many were not; all of them wore plain clothes with no armor at all. One Sangheili stood with the humans, unarmored like they were. He carried a human rifle, but from his posture Tuka could tell that he was very nervous.

One of the armored Sangheili stepped forward and shoved a human, pushing him to the ground. As a ray of light from the overhead generators threw the Sangheili into better perspective, Tuka stopped in his tracks. He knew exactly who these Sangheili were.

Fallen. The army of separatists who had opposed the Sangheili's alliance with the humans, currently locked in a brutal war with the regular Sangheili military. These warriors were all willing set aside their honor to accomplish their goals; several years ago they had even gone so far as to abduct Sangheili newborns and tried to blame the humans for their crimes.

What were these Fallen doing here, in a place swarming with humans? There were so many armed humans around here that they could easily overwhelm the Fallen with sheer numbers; why weren't they doing so now?

Tuka stood where he was, frozen with fear. This wasn't his concern, he told himself sharply. Whatever was going on wouldn't help him find Simon, especially not if he got drawn in and killed.

He was close enough now to see and hear the group clearly now. All of the Fallen warriors wore plain white (albeit dirty) armor; all except for one, who had a violet trim to his own. This one didn't seem to have any visible weapon, but the others all carried plasma repeaters and looked as if they knew how to use them.

"You're out of time," the violet-trimmed one spat at the human he'd just pushed down. He was speaking in a human language, and the translator Tuka was wearing in his ear cavity picked it up and deciphered it clearly. "We gave you one of your weeks to pack this building up and leave this place. I don't see any progress."

"Please," the man on the ground gasped. He had short red hair and a small, craggy face. "This hospital... we only use it to treat people down here. It's not a threat!"

The Fallen leader snarled angrily. "This disgusting building is the only thing that's keeping this wretched hive afloat. As far as we're concerned, you bloodletting vermin are polluting this sector more than all the filth your kind coat it with combined!"

Another human, a female, stepped forward and helped the fallen man up. As she faced the Fallen leader, Tuka saw that she was young, younger than most of the other humans in the area. Light brown hair fell down past her slim shoulders and her body lacked much visible muscle. The expression on her face, if Tuka's human studies had taught him anything, was a polite one, but even from this distance he could see a determination in her eyes that belied her unassuming body frame.

"We hardly get any Sangheili patients," she told the leader calmly. "This hospital isn't hurting anyone."

The leader examined her for a moment, as if actually considering her words. Then, with a huff of disgust, he struck her with a backhand across the face that drove her several steps backwards and left a visible welt on her pale cheek but failed to knock her down.

"Speak when you are spoken to, human breeder," the Fallen leader sneered. He turned back to the man the female had helped to his feet. "Your kind gives its breeders far too much liberty. It is but one of the traits that makes you so pathetic."

Something about the female's courage and the way the Fallen leader had dismissed it stirred up something inside Tuka's clenched stomach. He could understand why the Fallen had set aside some honor, but such casual violence against creatures who weren't even armed went against everything Roni had ever taught Tuka about the concept. Tuka placed one trembling foot forward, then the other. His disloyal eyes automatically counted the number of Fallen in the group: ten.

It would be just him and a handful of lightly armed civilians against ten armed, armored, and no doubt experienced Sangheili warriors. This wasn't gallantry on his part. This was suicide.

Nevertheless, Tuka forced himself to continue moving toward the dispute. He was beginning to realize just how sheltered a life he'd led. He'd never faced any real danger before aside from the pain brought on by a training blade's strike. How could he have ever thought he could head out into the galaxy to kill a Jiralhanae chieftain? He wasn't even able to face his own kind.

All of Tuka's self-confidence was gone; he felt like a worm in the face of the rest of the galaxy. But still, he walked on and kept walking until he reached the group. Some of the humans turned towards him, alerting the Fallen group to his presence. Moments later, all eyes were on the young, cloaked Sangheili who seemed to have stumbled into the Fallen's intimidation session.

"What do you want, child?" the Fallen leader asked contemptuously. "Either join our cause or return to the rest of our race's blind acceptance of these vermin."

It took all of Tuka's courage and more to reply. "Perhaps, ah, brother," he said in a quavering voice. "You should take, ah, you're righteous cause elsewhere. Aren't there, ah, far more worthy targets for your warriors', ah, prowess?"

The leader snarled angrily. "Don't meddle in affairs you don't understand," he barked. "These humans defile this Sangheili planet with their foul profession, and yet our kind stand back and do nothing! We are the only ones who see past their pathetic facade, and we will punish them for their impudence!"

Tuka gulped. "Perhaps, ah, a more peaceful solution can be found. We must remember our, ah, honor--"

"Honor?" the leader bellowed, causing Tuka and several of the humans to flinch. "What honor is there, when these vermin are allowed to establish vile pits such as this disgusting sewer on the very planets our ancestors used to bring glory to Sanghelios? What honor is there, when even the most respected keeps whore themselves out to the humans and the unnatural monstrosities they call Spartans? What honor is there when our kind abandon their own families to fight alongside the humans for pay?"

He motioned to one of his warriors. "Show this young fool how we deal with traitors who prostitute themselves to vermin."

The warrior nodded, then brought his plasma repeater up and shot the Sangheili standing with the humans twice in the head. Before anyone could react, the Sangheili's corpse slumped to the ground, his rifle clattering away on the hard floor.

The red-haired human gasped, "Qulo!"

Another one of the humans leapt forward and withdrew a small weapon from his coat. "Bastards!" he snarled, training it on the Fallen.

"No!" the young female yelled. "Don't!"

But it was too late. Another warrior gunned the offending human down in the blink of an eye.

The Fallen leader unclipped an energy sword hilt from his hip and activated it. "Shoot their leader," he instructed calmly. "If anyone around here tries to resist, kill them as well."

Everything seemed to slow down as Tuka watched the warrior who had killed the Sangheili raise his repeater again. Instinct took over then, and Tuka's body acted almost before his mind knew what was happening. He cast off the traveling cloak, seized his own sword, activated it, stepped in, and swung the blade in a deadly blue arc.

The blade struck the warrior at the waist, overloading his shields and burying itself in his body. Tuka wrenched his arm upwards, just like he'd been trained, and he would never forget the slight resistance he felt as he did so, the small effort it took for him to take a life. His sword sliced through the warrior as though it were cutting through a training dummy back at the Visag keep and exited out beside the Fallen's neck.

Purple blood gushed out from the dying warrior, splattering the other Fallen, the humans, and Tuka himself. Without so much as a whimper of pain, the warrior tumbled to the ground and lay still in a widening pool of his own blood.

Everyone stared down at the dead warrior in shocked silence. Tuka felt his blade arm trembling as he worked his mandibles silently, searching fruitlessly for something to say.

I... I just killed someone.

The Fallen leader's eyes looked like they were about to explode with fury. "Traitor!" he bellowed. "Kill them all!"

And then everything started to happen very quickly.

The other humans either drew their own weapons or tried to flee, and out of the corner of his eye Tuka saw that several other armed humans from different parts of the semi-circle were rushing towards them, drawing some of the Fallen's attention away from him. Gunfire--from human weapons, not plasma--clattered through the air, and several Fallen's shields flared. They responded in kind, but Tuka was too busy to see the results of the shooting. The sword-wielding Fallen leader was lunging toward him, blade upraised.

He took a deep breath and suddenly, in spite of everything, wasn't afraid anymore. He wasn't even in some strange tunnels surrounded by separatists and aliens. He was back in the Visag keep's practice courts, beginning a sparring match with another trainee. And he knew exactly what to do in a sparring match like this...

He flicked his blade up and intercepted the Fallen's as it raced towards his neck. As the leader blinked in surprise, Tuka sidestepped and lashed out with an elaborate pattern of blade strokes that put his opponent on the defensive and drove him back into his own men.

Most of the humans Tuka had been defending had fled under the cover of the fighting, but the young female seized up the dead Qulo's rifle and emptied its projectiles into the nearest Fallen's shields. She depleted the rifle's magazine just as the warrior's shields collapsed but without a second's hesitation she discarded the weapon and lunged forward, drawing a razor-thin knife from her pocket as she did so. With a slash that was almost impossible to see, she opened an artery in the warriors neck and sent him toppling to the ground as he choked on his own blood.

A distant part of Tuka was impressed. This human had clearly fought with weapons before and was also well-versed in Sangheili anatomy.

Then the Fallen leader was attacking him again and Tuka couldn't afford to think about anything besides defending against the furious separatist's blows. He had caught the leader off-guard the first time, and from his attacks Tuka could tell that Roni's training had given him the advantage in form and speed. But this warrior had far more power and was using it to drive him back, step by step.

Tuka parried another blow and swung into another offensive pattern that managed to at least halt his opponent's advance. There was yelling all around them, but Tuka was so engrossed in his duel that he couldn't even tell what the other Fallen and the humans were doing. Right now, all that mattered was how he handled his opponent right here.

He launched into yet another pattern, this one meant to throw the opponent off-guard and lull them into making a careless mistake. The Fallen leader parried desperately, clearly outmaneuvered by his smaller, faster opponent. Tuka could see the dawning fear in the leader's eyes. He was going to win this fight, and they both knew it.

And then another Fallen warrior took the opportunity to shoot Tuka in the gut.

Fire seared up Tuka's chest and he gasped in agony. This was a pain unlike one he'd ever felt before, and it brought him to his knees. He went against a lifetime of training and dropped his sword to the floor, where it deactivated and lay useless before the leader's feet. Tuka tried to move, tried to pick up his sword, but the agony was too great. He was paralyzed by pain...

The Fallen leader sneered with contempt and brought his sword up for the kill. In spite of his pain, Tuka glared up at his opponent. If he was going to die here, without even getting close to doing what he'd set out to do, then the least he could do was remain defiant to the end.

The blade began to come down, and Tuka sent up a silent prayer to the gods, thanking them for the life they had given him.

And then the blade wasn't there anymore, and neither was the arm holding it. Both Tuka and the Fallen leader gazed, stunned, at the bleeding stump that had once been the latter's right arm. Before the leader could even register the pain, another Sangheili wearing the grey armor of a military Ultra lunged in and knocked the disabled leader aside. Then, leaping forward, he stepped into the middle of the Fallen formation and lashed out with his energy sword as they turned to track him. Three of the warriors went down in an instant, and two more followed swiftly after.

There were only two Fallen left, and these turned tail and fled. But before they made three paces they were cut down by plasma fire from two other Sangheili warriors who seemed to be with the Ultra who had just saved. One of them, a red-armored Major Domo, stepped forward and nodded to the Ultra, who stood amidst the corpses of the Fallen he had just killed.

Tuka realized that his vision was getting blurry and that the pain in his chest was receding. Was he dying anyway?

"It is as you predicted, Fira," the Major said, indicating the dead Fallen. "There was a group operating in this sector."

The Ultra nodded. "I left their leader alive, Warra. Collect him and see to it that these humans don't take revenge on him. I want him alive for interrogation."

He turned away from the Major, Warra, and stepped over to where Tuka lay gasping for breath. Even as his vision continued to fade, Tuka could see surprise and recognition in the Ultra's eyes.

"You, brave young one," the Ultra said, bending over and placing a hand on Tuka's shoulder. "What is your name?"

Tuka took a deep, painful breath before answering. "Tuka," he gasped. "Tuka 'Refum."

And then the pain from the wound surged up again and all he saw was blackness.

Chapter Four: Fira

Tuka's dream began as it always had for as long as he could remember.

He was a small, helpless child again, swathed in small robes and crouching on the floor of a dark room. The air was filled with smoke and he could barely see his surroundings. The scent of blood was thick in the air, and far through the smoke he could see the huddled outlines of corpses.

The only thing not obscured by the smoke was a female Sangheili standing close by. Her back was to him, but Tuka, as always, knew exactly who she was.

"Mother!" he called out, and his mother turned and smiled at him, raising a hand as if to silence him.

A small part of Tuka was quivering with fear. He knew how this went, how it always went. The hulking chieftain Mallunus would stride out of the smoke, cut his mother down without stopping, and then move on to crush Tuka himself with a massive gravity hammer. There was nothing he could do to stop it and there was no point in trying.

But this time was... different.

Instead of turning back to face the oncoming Mallunus, who hadn't even begun to materialize yet, Tuka's mother seemed to freeze in place, her hand still outstretched as though she were a statue.

Tuka, still crouching on the floor, blinked in confusion.

There was movement beside him, and then a human child strode out of the smoke and stood next to Tuka. His clothing was ragged, even by human standards, and filth seemed to be clinging to every spot of him. His dark, unkempt hair seemed to blend in with the smoke that was all around. Looking down, Tuka realized that there was a grey metal human pistol in the child's hand.

The child look down at Tuka, his expression stoic and unfeeling. Looking into the child's cold, grey eyes, Tuka saw both conviction and utter mercilessness.

The human child pointed at Tuka's mother with the hand that wasn't holding the gun, and Tuka saw that his arm was raw and bleeding. He followed the child's pointing finger back to his mother, and saw another human, this one taller than the child, step out from the mist. He was wearing some kind of human armor, but there was a glowing energy sword in his left hand.

His prosthetic left hand.

Tuka's mother lowered her arm and looked at the human newcomer.

Before Tuka even had time to cry out, the new human sprang into motion and slashed the energy sword across his mother's chest. Drenched in purple blood, Tuka's mother fell to the dark floor and didn't move.

"You and I," said the human child, his voice completely calm. "Are after the same thing."

Tuka looked back at the child in time to see the pistol come up and train itself squarely at his head. He stared down its barrel as the child continued speaking.

"Can't you hear it, Tuka? That beast of vengeance, curled up inside of you, always whispering to you: Kill. Kill the enemies of your friends. Make sure they suffer the way we suffered."

Tuka shook his head. It was strange, the things that were said and done in dreams, but all of this looked so real and clear. "No. I don't want to cause suffering. All I want is justice."

The human child shook his head slowly. "If you keep lying to yourself then you'll never get your revenge. But then again, I guess you can't here it. You and I really are different breeds, aren't we?"

"I don't understand," Tuka gasped. "Who are you?"

The child didn't answer, but his eyes shifted over to where Tuka's mother and her killer lay. Tuka followed his gaze just as the energy sword-wielding human stepped into the light.

Tuka stiffened with shock. There, standing in the spreading blood from his mother's corpse, stood Simon. The corner of his friend's mouth was turned up in a small, heartless smile.

"What-?" Tuka turned back to the child just in time to see the gun flash.


Tuka sat bolt upright only to be met with a sudden pain in his abdomen. Grabbing at his side, he realized that he was lying in a human-style bed that seemed to have been extended to accommodate his larger body. A large bandage and some sort of cold, humming device were wrapped around the painful area on his body.

As he sat there, blinking in surprise, everything started to come back to him. Cordial Harmony, the human district, the hospital... the fight.

Tuka squeezed his eyes shut and wrapped his arms around his knees. He could still feel his blade forcing its way up through the Fallen warrior's body, could see the purple blood flowing and his fellow Sangheili dying. He had killed him, and regardless of whatever lay on the other side of death for that warrior, there was no bringing him back to this life.

He hadn't expected killing to come easily to him. He actually hadn't expected or hoped to kill anyone besides Mallunus. And yet here he was, nowhere near to finding either the chieftain or Simon, and he had already killed one of his own kind and helped aliens kill more.

They chose their path, he tried to remind himself. They preyed on the weak and were punished for it. But that didn't stop him from seeing the hacked, blood-stained corpse of the warrior he had killed.

Was that what he had spent his whole life working towards? All those years of training he had struggled through to master the blade, and the end result was just a corpse on the ground?

"Ah," said a voice, jarring him out of his fugue. "I see that you're awake."

Tuka turned to see the grey-armored Ultra who had saved his life standing in the corner of the room. His blue and red-clad Major Domo comrade stood beside him.

The Ultra nodded at Tuka. He had taken his helmet off, revealing a head of dark grey skin and a pair of black eyes that seemed to be taking in everything at once. "For a while, we thought that the humans' treatment might not have been enough. But you're far stronger than you look."

Tuka jumped off the bed and did his best to stand upright in spite of the pain it caused to his chest. It would be shameful for him to sit in the presence of an Ultra, especially since his wound was hardly serious enough to merit much attention...

He realized too late that he wasn't wearing a robe; his body was uncovered and his bandages and the healing device were exposed for all to see. He hurriedly knelt and did his best to conceal the shameful features. It was disgraceful for a warrior to have his blood spilled outside of combat, which meant doctors like the ones he had just saved were some of the lowest members of Sangheili society.

"My apologies, Ultra," he blurted out. "Had I known you were here... I assure you, these things were put on without my consent...!"

The Ultra raised a hand and Tuka immediately fell silent. But there was a mild amusement in the older Sangheili's eyes rather than the disdain that should have been there, a fact that made him slightly less nervous.

"Don't worry," the Ultra assured him. "I've been here ever since that fight ended; I saw everything the humans did to you. They only treated the burns you sustained from that plasma shot. Nothing more, nothing less. I can assure you that none of your blood was spilled dishonorably."

Tuka bowed his head in thanks but didn't rise, unsure of what a civilian like himself was supposed to do in a military officer's presence.

"You should know that the humans were quite insistent that you be treated here," the Ultra went on. "They carried you in here the moment the battle outside had ended. I wanted to have you transported to a facility on the surface, but they seemed convinced that you wouldn't last long enough to be helped. I believe they felt indebted to you for saving them."

Kneeling even lower, Tuka murmured, "I did only what seemed right to me at the time. I merely carried out my duty."

"Hmmm," said the Ultra slowly. "Your duty, eh? Defending humans against your own kind?"

Tuka blinked, surprised. Might the Ultra actually be displeased with how he'd acted? If that was the case, then perhaps the best course of action was to make up another reason for attacking the Fallen. But Roni had always taught him that in cases like this, once he had started down one path it was best not to turn around and take another midway through. He would have to defend the first reason he'd given.

"Yes," he said slowly. "Those warriors cast aside their honor when they preyed on those weaker than them. I was always taught that it is the duty of a swordsman to help those in need, so I tried to solve matters peacefully. But the Fallen would have none of it."

He thought again of the warrior he'd killed and repressed a shudder. "So we fought."

There was a terrible moment where the Ultra remained silent and Tuka feared that his answer had displeased the grey-armored officer. But then the Ultra took a few steps back and motioned for him to get up.

"You did well, young swordsman," he told Tuka, whose nausea and apprehension were suddenly replaced by an overwhelming sense of pride. One of the military's elite officers had just called a lowly traveler like himself a swordsman! He raised his head to face the Ultra and began to rise to his feet.

"The Fallen didn't cast aside their honor back there," the Ultra continued. "They all forfeited it long ago in order to pursue their own vile goals. As far as I'm concerned, anyone who defends anyone from them is as brave and honorable a warrior as any."

He paused and gave an amused chuckle. "But next time, you might wish to wear something more protective." He motioned at the corner of the room, and Tuka saw that his traveling cloak and robes had been draped over a chair. There was a tell-tale scorched hole in the robes from where the repeater bolt had struck him.

Tuka lowered his head again. "My own fault, Ultra. I lost sight of the full battle and made myself a target. It won't happen again."

The Ultra snorted. "It was a shame; you would have won your little duel if that other coward hadn't shot you. But I can tell that you haven't exactly been trained for battles like that. It was all over your stance and moves; your work with that blade was some of the best I've seen in a long time, but you acted as if you and your opponent were the only ones around you. You're no soldier. You've been trained as a duelist, haven't you?"

Tuka nodded respectfully. "I've spent over half my life training in the art of the blade. But I see now that I'll need to know more than just that in order to last out in the galaxy."

The Ultra clicked his mandibles. "It's a good start, far better than most get. And I'm glad that there are still those of us who maintain our way of the sword."

The Major Domo, who'd stood silently in the corner all this time, stepped forward now and saluted the Ultra with a fist across his chest. "You said you had things to discuss with this one, sir. I'll go and assist Ruso with the prisoner."

The Ultra nodded. "Very good, Warra. Remember, I want him to live, but don't be too gentle with him. Get as much information from him as you can now, before we return to the surface and the special divisions insist they take charge of him."

With another salute, the Major turned and strode over to a door on the far side of the room. Tuka had been so preoccupied with his own worries and the conversation with the Ultra that he hadn't heard the faint snarls and yells that were slipping through the cracks around the door (one of the many aspects of human architecture that he had never been able to understand). He realized that "the prisoner" must be the Fallen leader that the Ultra had saved him from. As for what was happening to him... Tuka decided it was best to just ignore the yelling and squelch his own curiosity.

The troubling sounds of the Fallen's interrogation rose as the Major opened the door and passed through it, then faded back down as he closed the door behind him, leaving Tuka alone with the Ultra, who seemed to notice the discomfort on his face.

"Distasteful, I know," the officer admitted. "But these separatist vermin have cells all over this tainted world. We've been hunting for prisoners for many cycles now, and this is our first success. Hopefully we'll be able to use the prisoner to weed out a few more of the traitors in this area."

He shook his head. "So many had high hopes for this planet. I can't say I'm fond of all humans, but I welcome anything that will heal the wounds brought between us by the war. But instead of helping us understand each other, this world has just given the scum of the universe another place to lay their heads."

Tuka blinked. "Other than the Fallen?"

The Ultra snorted with disgust. "Clearly haven't been in this sector for too long, young one. This entire planet is overrun with some human criminal organization. 'The Syndicate', I think it's called. The human government can't keep it in check, and neither can we. Wherever there's corruption and greed, you can be sure that that group isn't far from it. Between them and our vermin brothers..." he trailed off into a low growl.

"You seem to hate the Fallen," Tuka put in, not knowing much else to say.

The Ultra grimaced. "Any Sangheili who steals children from his own kind deserves no fate besides death."

Tuka's eyes widened. "I always thought that those stories were just rumors."

"They were no rumors," the Ultra told him. "I should know; I saw many of the kidnapped children with my own eyes."

"You must have seen a great deal of fighting against the Fallen," Tuka said admiringly. The officer merely clicked his mandibles and seemed to look off into the distance for a moment, as if recalling something.

"But I forget myself," he said after a moment of this pondering. "My name is Fira 'Demal of the Sangheili army. As you said, I've seen many battles, though at the moment I've been posted to this nauseating planet. My superiors seem to think that I can help them root out the Fallen cells here."

He sighed and shook his head. "But I shouldn't be talking like this in front of you. In fact, I'd prefer to discuss the reason you're here. What did you say your name was?"

Tuka could vaguely remember telling someone his name right before passing out during the battle, but he couldn't recall which family name he had used. With an adoptee like himself, things like this were a constant headache for him. He'd insisted that he couldn't join the Visag keep until Mallunus was dead, but this Ultra--Fira 'Demal--had praised his swordsmanship. Perhaps using that name might win Roni's keep a bit more prestige. "Tuka 'Visag," he answered after a moment's pause.

Fira frowned. "That wasn't what you told me earlier. Perhaps you were delirious the first time, but I distinctly recall you calling yourself 'Tuka 'Refum.' Am I wrong?"

Tuka gulped. He didn't want to make this officer angry, especially after all the concern and praise Fira had given him, so he rushed to explain the misunderstanding. "Of course not, sir," he said quickly. "My family name is Refum, but I was raised and trained in the keep of Roni 'Visag."

Fira chuckled. "Roni 'Visag, you said? Haven't heard of that old blademaster in quite some time. I was worried his keep had been caught up in all the fighting back on the homeworld."

"No," Tuka assured him. "The gods have spared us from any damage from the war."

Fira's expression grew more serious. "But you are indeed from the Refum line? I thought they were all killed during the Great Schism."

"They were," Tuka agreed. "But Blademaster 'Visag saved me during the fighting on High Charity and raised me in his keep when I was very young."

"Hmm," Fira murmured, cocking his head and examining Tuka. "I knew your father back when we were part of the Covenant. You are Sesa 'Refum's son, are you not?"

Tuka inclined his head. "I remember my mother talking a lot about someone called "Sesa" before the Schism, and Blademaster 'Visag had tests run to be sure."

"Your father was a brave warrior," Fira told him. "You should be proud to carry on his name."

Tuka nodded in agreement, but apart of him drifted back to Roni's hypothetical suggestion that he kill Thel 'Vadam, his father's killer, to completely avenge his family. But that was completely different than with Mallunus, Tuka assured himself. Thel 'Vadam had redeemed himself of his crimes by leading the Sangheili people to victory during the Great Schism. Mallunus, he was quite sure, had done nothing of the kind to atone for his own sins.

"I have heard great things about my father," he admitted slowly. "And I am honored to have been sired by him. But I was raised by Roni 'Visag. It would be despicable of me not to consider him my true father."

Fira regarded him for a moment, then nodded approvingly. "A wise choice. But I must say, you resemble your father a great deal. I'm sure you also share his determination and willpower."

"I hope so," said Tuka fervently. "If battles like this are what I have to look forward to out here, then I'll need a great deal of faith and perseverance if I'm to accomplish my goals."

Leaning back against one of the hospital's cheap metal walls, Fira regarded Tuka appraisingly. "Which brings us to what a young swordsman like you is doing in a wretched hole like this."

Tuka nodded. He hadn't felt right about telling the port authorities about his quest, but this officer made him feel secure. Even though they'd just met, Tuka already felt as if he could entrust everything, including his own life, to Fira. Perhaps that was what true leaders were made of.

"I'm hunting a Jiralhanae chieftain named Mallunus," he told Fira. "Back on High Charity, during the Great Schism, I watched him cut my mother down in front of me. I know that he hasn't faced justice yet, so I intend to deliver it to him."

For several moments, Fira stared at Tuka without saying a word. This went on for so long that Tuka began to worry. Was this disbelief? Was the Ultra so flabbergasted that a youth like him would pursue something so impossible that he couldn't find the words to express his disproval?

Then Fira tilted his head back and let out a shout of laughter. "Ha! Delivering justice to a Jiralhanae chieftain?"

Feeling ashamed, Tuka lowered his head. "Forgive me for my presumption..."

"No!" Fira cut in as he continued to laugh. "I've been stationed here for ten whole cycles, and in all this time that's the first half-reasonable thing anyone's said to me!"

The Ultra's laugh died down, and he looked back at Tuka with a more serious gaze. "And have you located this chieftain yet? How do you plan to go about killing him?"

Tuka looked away again. Fira had just picked on and unraveled the same flaws in his grand plan that he himself had been worrying about just before the fight. Now he was so ashamed that it was all he could do to take his own quest seriously anymore. "I don't know," he said slowly, his words heavy with reluctance. "I don't know about either of those things. It all seemed so clear when I was setting out, but now... now that I've begun, I don't even know where to begin."

Fira cocked his head. "And this Demon?" From the tone in his voice, Tuka could tell that the soldiers his friend had once been part of were not the Ultra's favorite topic. But Fira had still risked his life to save humans just now. Tuka could trust him with information about Simon.

"I'm looking for him first," he admitted. "I assumed he'd be amongst his own kind, and this seemed to be the best place to start."

"Why not contact the human authorities?" There was still an edge of revulsion in Fira's voice, as if the very thought of Spartans made him ill. "I'm sure they could set up some sort of meeting, though I doubt you'd have an easy time of it."

Tuka hesitated. Was it really safe to tell an army officer that he was looking for a traitor to the human government? Fira might feel obliged to bring Simon in himself, and with his apparent distaste for Spartans it might be best not to give him more reasons to do so.

"This one is no longer in the human military," he said carefully. "Retired, as it were."

"I see," said Fira dubiously. "So you plan to find both this Demon and the chieftain that killed your mother--on your own, I might add--and you haven't a single lead or clue to there whereabouts?"

"The Demon's name is Simon," Tuka said, feeling more secure now. "I can't remember the numbers that came after it."

"Hmm," Fira murmured. He closed his eyes, as if working something out in his head, before opening again and smiling broadly. "Well, we haven't much time to waste then, do we?"

Tuka blinked. "We, sir?"

"Of course, we. I find it only proper to accompany such a promising warrior such as yourself on such a journey. After all, it would be a shame to see you die without accomplishing any of your goals."

"But--but--" Tuka stuttered, flabbergasted at the Ultra's proposal. "I'm unworthy to draw you away from your post here!"

"No, you're not worthy to keep me stuck on this miserable planet one cycle longer than I already have. Warra can take over for me with our hunt for the Fallen cells here; he's more than capable of handling an operation like this. I, on the other hand, insist on going with you."

"Can... can you do that?"

Fira clicked his mandibles impatiently. "Warra will explain to my superiors that a more important task came up. If I'm desperately needed to fight against our disgraceful brethren, I'll head back to my station at once. Do you have a ship?"

The last question took a moment to register as Tuka struggled to come to terms with this sudden development. "Of course," he said after a moment. "It isn't armed, but it's new and fast enough."

Fira stood away from the wall and nodded to Tuka. "That should do. While you recuperate here, I'll go make the arrangements for my departure. Perhaps I can find some leads where you could not. The names were Simon and Mallunus, correct?"

Tuka nodded silently.

"I'll see what my intelligence brethren can dig up." Fira turned swiftly on his heel and headed for the far door. The shouts of the the captured Fallen warrior had fallen silent; the interrogation was either finished or had been moved to a different location. "Take care to heal well, Tuka 'Refum. I'll leave a means to contact me with the humans here."

And with that, the Ultra had vanished through the door, leaving Tuka alone with his churning thoughts.

Chapter Five: Cassandra

Tuka returned to the human bed, though he did not pull the covers over his body. Instead, he pulled his long legs up and hugged them close to his chest.

He wasn't sure whether to be happy or perturbed by Fira's abrupt decision to accompany him. On the one hand, an experienced warrior like Fira would not only be able to guide him better through the galaxy but might also have access to more intelligence sources than Tuka had been able to use while searching for Mallunus. On the other hand, this was his quest. Was it right for him to allow an outsider to join him just because it would make things easier?

And although he still couldn't understand why, he was somewhat bothered by Fira's respect for his father. It made him uncomfortable to be lumped in and associated with a parent he had never known. Perhaps that was the real reason he planned to cast aside the 'Refum name entirely once he'd killed Mallunus. He could handle living in the shadow of a famous blademaster like Roni. But a historical icon like Sesa? After his conversation with Fira, he was quite sure that he didn't want that.

And when one got right down to it, his father had been a visionary thinker, the first tremblings of the wave that had freed the Sangheili from the Covenant's dominance, but he hadn't been there when his wife had needed him most. Tuka had never been particularly bitter about this--he hadn't ever seen the point to it--but he certainly didn't want someone like that painting everyone's perception of him.

Before he could mull over the issue any further, there was a tapping sound at the door Fira had just left through. Tuka cocked his head and frowned, wondering if some machine or other was broken or alerting him of something. Then he remembered that he was in a human building where human customs were observed. The tapping was someone requesting permission to enter.

"Come in," he called in the best human dialect he could muster. The effort hurt his chest, and he rubbed it ruefully while looking about the room for some sort of translating device. Finding none, he rested his legs on the bed and leaned back against the wall, not looking forward to speaking with his newest visitor at all. He knew enough human speech to get by without a translator, but right now he didn't feel in any condition to converse in it.

The door opened and a human female entered; from her brown hair and the welt that still marked her cheek, Tuka could tell that it was the same one who'd confronted the Fallen leader outside the hospital. She was wearing regular human clothes and carried a small bundle under her arms, but what really caught Tuka's eye was the small human pistol strapped to her side.

This human looked younger than most of the humans Tuka had seen and from her slender frame he would have assumed she was even weaker than the rest of her species. But he had seen her stand up to a fully armed Sangheili warrior and kill another with just a human rifle and a knife. In spite of her unassuming appearance, she had clearly had some sort of combat training in the past. Perhaps she worked with the irregular militia groups that seemed to dominate the human sector.

The human female held the bundle out for him to see. "We gathered your things together when we carried you in here. It didn't look like anything was damaged, so here you are."

Tuka inclined his head, hesitating to respond as he fumbled to find the right words to express himself. But the female pointed to one of her ears: a silvery translation unit was clipped there.

Relieved, Tuka cocked his head. "Thank you. Aside from my robes, they're all I have."

"We're the ones who should be thanking you," the human said, but while her face contorted into one of those strange human smiles, her eyes seemed to be looking through Tuka, as if she were thinking of something else. "If it weren't for you, we'd have lost even more people before that officer and his warriors had shown up."

Rolling his legs forward and onto the floor, Tuka reached for the bundle. "I just did as I've been taught," he replied, wanting to give the human a good impression of Sangheili culture. While political ties between their two races were strong, Tuka knew that plenty of humans still blamed his people for the destruction the Great War had brought them.

The human nodded and offered the bundle to Tuka. He could see his energy sword amongst the small pile of possessions, and to his immense relief it didn't seem scratched at all. It even gleamed a little; perhaps one of the humans had given it a polishing before handing it back. A minor breach in sword etiquette to be sure, but since a human had undoubtedly done it Tuka knew it was a well intentioned gesture. But just as the bundle passed into his hands, the human female made a small gesture and tugged one item loose from the collection: his hologram, the one encoded with Simon's face.

Tuka blinked and held out his hand for the hologram. He needed it if he was going to have any chance at all of tracking his vanished friend down.

"Please," he said, trying to sound both polite and forceful at the same time. But the human shook her head.

"Don't take this the wrong way," she said as she flicked the projector on. Simon's glowering features filled the air above it, slowly turning around and around. "But I need to know what you're doing with this on you."

"I don't understand," said Tuka slowly, his eyes fixed on the holographic face hovering in the human's palm. "Have I done something wrong?"

"Why do you have this person's holo?" The human's voice remained calm, but it now possessed that iron firmness it had taken on when she had been talking to the Fallen leader. She made no move for her gun, but Tuka couldn't help but feel wary all the same.

"Why," he said slowly, still staring at the hologram. "Does it matter?"

"Why do you have his holo?" the human repeated stubbornly.

Finally, the pieces in Tuka's mind fell into place. Truly, the gods were smiling on his quest after all!

This female had to know Simon if she'd recognized him so easily. That meant that she'd have some clues as to where he was, or at least a better chance of guessing at it then he did.

First he'd been sent Fira, and now he'd been presented with this gift as well. Tuka's apprehension vanished as he tore his gaze from the hologram and stared his visitor square in the eye.

"I'm tracking him," he told her. "Since you know him, then do you know where he is?"

The female blinked several times, her mouth contorting into an expression that Tuka couldn't place. She glanced upwards for a moment, then looked back at him.

"In a better place, I hope," she said quietly. "But knowing Simon, he probably went in the other direction. He's dead. I watched him die three years ago."

Tuka frowned, puzzled. "You can't have."

Now it was the human's turn to frown, and Tuka detected a trace of anger in her voice when she spoke again. "How can't I have? I saw the Brutes shoot him!"

"I last saw him a little more than one of your years ago. He was alive and well, I promise you."

The human blinked several more times before the ramifications of what Tuka was saying struck home. "He's... he's alive?"

"I hope so." Tuka indicated the hologram. "My foster father brought him back to our keep after a raid on a Jiralhanae slaver camp. He trained in swordsmanship with my class for a time until a human ship arrived and took him away."

The human stepped back looking stunned. She shook her head. "I don't believe it," she murmured, her voice so soft that Tuka had to strain in order to here it. "I thought he was dead..."

Then she seemed to snap back into reality. Looking up sharply, she asked: "What was the ship like? Who was on it?"

Tuka clicked his mandibles and thought back to the day Simon had left the keep. "It was battered," he said. "I remember we half expected it to just fall apart when it came in to land. We didn't know what was going on, but Simon recognized it and went to it. I never saw anyone come out of it, but someone spoke to him from inside it."

The human's eyes narrowed. "Diana."

"Who?"

"The last person he should have gone off with. Did he say anything to you before he left?"

"He came back to collect his things and say good-bye to us all. We tried to convince him to stay, but he wouldn't listen."

A faint smile creased the human's face. "That sounds like him all right. And you haven't seen him since?"

Tuka shook his head, his hopes punctured by her confusion. If she had thought Simon to be dead for all this time, then she clearly hadn't heard from him since then. But perhaps there was something she knew about him that might help Tuka track him down faster.

"How do you know him?" he asked.

The human shifted slightly. "We kind of, uh, grew up together."

If Tuka remembered the stories Simon had told him back at the Visag keep, then he had grown up in training with other Spartans like him. Was this human one as well? But that was impossible. There was no way a Spartan would end up working for some battered medical center in the slums of a Sangheili colony. Besides, this human was young, too young to have fought alongside Simon in the Great War. Simon had attributed his own youth to an extended stay in suspended animation, but this human couldn't have undergone the same fate, could she?

There were plenty of holes that needed to be filled in, but at the moment Tuka was still, in spite of the lack of current information, elated to find a human who actually knew his friend. If she wanted to keep her own story to herself, then she had every right to do. Right now, all he wanted from her was a way to find Simon.

"Are you sure you don't have any idea where he'd go?" he asked. "At this point, any information, even if it's just guessing, would be welcome."

But the human was frowning again. "Why do you want to find him anyway?" she said cautiously.

"My master from our keep wants him to return there," said Tuka, deciding that honesty would be both the honorable and practical thing to do in this situation. "He wants more time to bring Simon back into the light, or at least that's how he put it."

The human looked away. "Simon never was much for the whole honor and nobility thing. But if you really want to find him, I might be able to help get you going in the right direction."

Tuka's heart leaped. "You can?" he asked eagerly. "How?"

She still wasn't looking at him. "That ship that picked him up? I've got data on it, and I know some... people who'll know how to get a hold of it."

Tuka was too elated to push for details. Now he had two allies helping him in his search! Perhaps getting shot in that fight was more of a blessing than he'd first thought.

He was quickly reminded of the wound's drawbacks when he attempted to rise and was greeted with a shooting pain in his chest. Grasping at the device strapped to the wound, he fell back with a small yelp.

The human was at his side in an instant, checking at the device and motioning for him to lie back down. "I treated the worst of the burn," she informed him. "But you'll need a few more hours of rest before you'll be ready to move again."

Tuka vowed silently that he would not be laid up that long. He knew that Sangheili warriors in the field sustained much worse than he had and kept fighting. It was imperative that he not seem weak, especially not now that Fira had decided to join him.

"I'm impressed that you know how to treat my kind," he told the human as she rose and turned to leave.

"We get more than our share of Sangheili patients in here," the human explained. "You warriors might not approve of us, but the rest of your species doesn't seem to."

"One last thing," Tuka called. "What's your name?"

The human paused at the door. "Cassandra," she said before stepping out and closing the door.

Tuka blinked. A name without a family title attached to it, just like Simon's was. Could this human--Cassandra--really be a Spartan as well?

But in the end, it didn't matter. So long as she and Fira could help him track down Simon and Mallunus, she could keep all the secrets she wanted.

Chapter Six: The Departure

"You were right," Fira told Tuka. "Apart from an old record from before the Schism, there's nothing in the records about Mallunus. It seems like he was just a rank and file chieftain, which means that he could just as likely have died during the war as escaped."

"If he were dead, I'd know it," Tuka replied. "The gods have guided me well in this quest so far. I'm sure they will reward my diligence with even more success as I advance."

"Hmph." Fira looked away. "I wish I shared your faith."

The two were standing on one of the many hovering landing platforms that dotted the skyline of Obliterated Solitude's most advanced district, which housed the majority of the city's Sangheili population. Transports of all sizes flew past them as they followed the flight patterns established by Obliterated Solitude's traffic control force. Tuka could see all kinds of civilian craft as well as a few patrolling Phantoms and Banshees. There were also some human-made craft of various sizes, though most of these were generally found around the non-Sangheili districts and ports rather than amongst the mainstream traffic.

Tuka's personal vessel was parked on the other end of the platform, held securely in place by a series of gravity beams. Generally these platforms were reserved for Sangheili government officials and those rich enough to afford them, but Fira had had Tuka's craft moved here shortly after he had departed the human hospital. Clearly the officer had some influence over the local port authorities.

"Let's hope this human contact of yours is reliable," Fira rumbled as the two Sangheili watched Obliterated Solitude's traffic continue to glide by.

Tuka hoped that Cassandra would pull through for them. She had seemed more than sincere back at the hospital and had been confident that she could at least track down the ship that Simon had left Sanghelios in. How she intended to do that, Tuka still didn't know. He had left the hospital shortly after his discussion with her, his wound healed and his mind determined to get back on the hunt. He'd received a message from her several cycles ago telling him that she'd gotten the information they needed.

Fira--who had somehow located Tuka the moment he had left the human district--continued to be wary of Cassandra's credibility, and Tuka couldn't blame him. He hadn't been interested at all back in the hospital about how the human went about getting her information, but now he was curious to know how she'd managed to gather the promised data so quickly. But still, anything she could have dug up was better than the nothing Tuka had had before he'd run into her. At the very least he'd be able to learn more about Simon--and Cassandra's history with him--from her once she arrived.

"I trust her," he replied after another moment spent watching the traffic. "Besides, she had no reason to deceive me."

Fira clicked his mandibles. "I envy your confidence. However, you'll learn soon enough that most humans are not the best creatures to place your trust in. They don't share our reverence for honor and aren't above lying and cheating in order to get ahead."

"They can't really be all that bad," Tuka replied, a little surprised at Fira's misgivings.

"Oh, they're excellent allies," Fira said quickly. "They have helped us greatly in our recoveries from the Schism and the war against the Fallen. This Interspecies Union we have formed has been entirely beneficial for our people. But places like this tend to attract the worst of all species. You have yet to see just how low humans can sink when their backs are against the wall. It is what made them such formidable foes, in spite of their weak bodies. But you should never let your guard down with them, no matter how harmless they may seem."

Tuka frowned, thinking about how Simon had often been punished for breaking sparring rules in order to win matches. If he was anything to go by, then Fira certainly had a point about humans. Nevertheless, that didn't mean that Cassandra was going to betray him. After all, what was there for her to betray him to?

He was still considering his benefactor's words when a small public transportation hovercraft detached itself from the flow of traffic and drifted over to land on the platform.

Both Tuka and Fira turned to face the transport as the doors to its passenger compartment slid open and revealed the slight human form of Cassandra. It was only as she got out of the vehicle and pressed her palm against a small scanner to pay the pilot that he realized that she was wearing what must have past for light combat armor amongst humans. Her arms and legs were covered only by regular, if somewhat shabby, human clothes, but a flexible chest piece was strapped onto her body and she carried a large bag with her.

"Time to see if this lead of yours bears any fruit," Fira said, starting towards Cassandra as the hovercraft departed. Tuka hurried after the officer, both eager to hear what news the young human doctor had and ready to act as a mediator in case Fira's distrust of humans began to rise to the surface. He didn't want to see sparks fly between two people he was very grateful to.

Cassandra didn't wait for them to reach her and instead walked forward, meeting them in the center of the platform. She nodded to Tuka, then looked uncertainly at Fira.

"He's with me," Tuka assured. "Allow me to introduce Fira 'Demal. He led the warriors who saved us all back at your hospital."

Cassandra nodded and, spreading her hands out before her, bowed in a Sangheili gesture of gratitude and respect. As she did so, the bag that she had slung over her shoulder slipped over and tumbled to the platform with a clatter, nearly pulling her down with it. She recovered swiftly, but Tuka saw a red glow cross her face as she turned back to face him and Fira. He'd seen it enough times on Simon during training to know that it was some strange human reaction to embarrassment.

But regardless of the slip-up, Fira seemed impressed by her attempt at Sangheili communication. His tone was casual as he asked: "You are Tuka's contact?"

She nodded again, her embarrassment clearly forgotten. "Uh, yes sir. That's me."

"And what do you have to report?"

Perhaps it was only Tuka's imagination playing tricks on him, but he could have sworn that the young human seemed to stand a bit straighter when she heard Fira's commanding tone.

"I don't know where Simon is," she said, sounding slightly apologetic. "But I do know the registration number on the ship he was using and I managed to track it to its last known location."

Now they were getting somewhere! Tuka stepped forward eagerly. "Excellent! Do you think we'll find him there?"

Cassandra frowned. "I don't think he owns it anymore, to be honest. I was told that whoever owns the ship now goes by 'Mordred'."

"Mordred?" Tuka asked, curious at a name that sounded neither human nor Sangheili.

"It's from an old story," said Cassandra. "I think it's a code name or something. Anyway, this Mordred person is some sort of mercenary. He's out on some planet called Gamma-13, out on the fringes of colonized space."

"Hmm," said Fira. "I've heard rumors about some planet like that, something about a small war going on there. Nothing major enough to warrant intervention from the I.U., but still something worth looking into."

He paused and looked Cassandra over, as if something was just occurring to him. "If you don't mind my asking, where did you come by this information."

Cassandra's brown eyes shot downwards for a moment, then moved back up to gaze back into Fira's. "I have some contacts back in my own district that know things."

"Criminal contacts perhaps?"

Now she didn't seem so eager to meet Fira's eyes. "Maybe. It doesn't really matter to you does it?"

Tuka decided that now was the time to step in before things got out of hand. "So we can go to this place and question this Mordred, see what he knows about Simon."

Fira nodded slowly, but it was several seconds before he tore his gaze from Cassandra and faced Tuka again. "It's as good a lead as we'll get here," he admitted. "Besides, this is your path."

The officer's mandibles split into a smile. "I'm just here for the ride."

Tuka took another look at Cassandra's light armor and the clattering bag. "Are you going somewhere as well?" he asked. "I didn't know work at a hospital required such gear. Are you going to hunt the Fallen to avenge your comrades they killed at the hospital?"

It was a motivation he'd expect from a Sangheili rather than a human, but he remembered Simon's vague talks about avenging people and getting revenge and wondered if humans valued that sort of thing as well.

But Cassandra shook her head. She hesitated momentarily, her eyes shifting from Tuka to Fira. Then she gripped her bag more tightly and looked Tuka square in the eye.

"I'm... I'm coming with you," she announced. There was uncertainty in her voice, but it was layered with hardened determination.

"This will be hard enough without a civilian to look after as well," Fira said gravely, but Cassandra just shook her head.

"I can fight a lot better than most humans," she said. "And I'm even better at patching people up. You wont find a better field medic, even if they're Sangheili like you."

She had a point. Even with more progressive ways of thinking percolating into Sangheili society, most warriors and even many civilians still shunned the doctor's profession.

"Besides," the human continued, her brown eyes not leaving Tuka's. "I spent the past three years thinking that Simon was dead. Now you're telling me he's alive. I can't just let you go off after him without me."

Tuka hesitated. It would be beyond helpful to have someone else who knew Simon along for the search, but he didn't want to disrespect Fira's far superior experience and authority. He owed a huge debt to the veteran officer for his help with this quest and it would be beyond shameful for him to undermine Fira's will.

But Fira was considering the thin, pale human with a newfound interest. "Another person interested in this Demon?" he murmured, almost as if he were talking to himself.

The move was almost imperceptible, but Tuka could have sworn that Cassandra flinched at the word "Demon".

Fira turned back to her. "I saw you fight back at the hospital. So did Tuka. If you come with us, can you guarantee you won't be a burden?"

She nodded once.

"Then you've gained another ally, Tuka," said Fira. "Let's hope your good fortunes continue."

He looked over at the ship Roni had given Tuka for the journey. It was a small civilian transport capable of Slipspace travel, a new model fresh from the docks. Even without any weapons, it was still sleek and agile, and Tuka could see that Fira was impressed.

"Your master spared no expense," the officer noted. "And I'd been under the impression that the Visag line was impoverished."

Fira turned back to Tuka. "I would be honored to pilot it to our destination."

Tuka bowed. "The honor would be mine."

Behind them, Cassandra closed her eyes and took a deep breath. A part of her was no longer on a landing platform in Obliterated Solitude. Instead, it was light years away, back on an icy rock of a world...

Chapter Seven: Cassandra's Tale

"Understanding your comrades is far more critical than understanding your foes. In battle your foes will always surprise you, and as warriors you must be ready to adapt and fight on without delay. But there will be no time at all to improvise if you allow yourself to be surprised by an ally. You must trust your comrades as though they were your blood-kin."
―From the teachings of Roni 'Visag


Although he would never admit it, Tuka was secretly glad that Fira wanted to pilot his ship.

The flight from Sanghelios to Cordial Harmony had been bad enough; Tuka had spent the whole trip gripped in the fear that. any number of things might go wrong, and even with the craft's civilian-style, user-friendly controls he had mostly been forced to rely on its autopilot the entire way. Having only ever flown simulations and one stripped-down, recreational Banshee, he didn't consider himself to be anything close to a pilot by any stretch of the means.

Now, with a far more experienced pilot at the helm, Tuka felt far safer flying into a war zone than he had when he was landing in a peaceful city. Fira, however, had not shared his sense of security.

"And you're absolutely sure they won't shoot us down the moment we enter the atmosphere?" he had demanded of Cassandra prior to liftoff. "This craft may be maneuverable, but it has no shields. All it would take is one good hit to kill us all."

"Don't worry," Cassandra had replied. "I've got the landing codes we need to land in one of the outposts. They'll think we're more freelancers coming to sign on and let us through."

"And how did you get these codes?" Fira had said, his eyes narrowing.

But Cassandra had evaded the question, just as she had dodged answering the question of how she had gotten the information on this "Mordred" character. Fira seemed content to let the matter be for now--he hadn't questioned her any further after that--and Tuka was still far too thankful that his two allies had helped him truly get his quest underway to be suspicious of Cassandra's information.

He and Cassandra were now seated in his craft's small living area while Fira continued to man the ship's cockpit as it traveled through slipspace. Tuka had offered Cassandra the use of the single sleeping bunk while he had slid himself onto the smooth floor and begun to go over his energy sword for dirt or scratches. She had given him an odd look then, and kept shooting him glances from where she sat on the cot. She had opened the large bag she carried, and Tuka had caught a glimpse of what looked like human weapons within, but the thing she had taken from it was just a smaller bag. Its contents had turned out to be human medical supplies: small knives, vials, and bandages.

Had she been a Sangheili doctor, Cassandra would most certainly have gone over the tools of her trade privately rather than risk offending any warriors by displaying them openly. But humans did not seem to have ever shared any of the stigma that turned Sangheili away from the medical profession, and as Fira had managed to tell Tuka several times now, things were changing.

Back in the Visag keep, Tuka had never seen much of the hardliner approach to doctors that warriors like the Fallen displayed. Roni had encouraged the pupils at his swordsmanship academy to treat their wounds themselves and to use the pain to reflect upon the risks of taking up arms, but were a trainee or a member of the keep seriously injured, he wouldn't hesitate to call in a nearby doctor without any of the usual attempts at hiding the occurrence. Still, it was odd to watch Cassandra's casual focus as she examined her medical equipment. Just like when she had gathered her resolve back on the landing platform or when she had stood firm before the Fallen leader, it seemed as if the polite, obliging young female that she normally seemed to be had vanished and been replaced by a proud, confident warrior.

Tuka knew the comparison would appall a traditionalist Sangheili, but she almost looked as if she were inspecting a blade of her own. Perhaps she held her job as a healer as highly as Roni had taught Tuka to hold his skills with the blade.

They both kept at their respective tasks for some time, but Tuka knew that something would have to give: Cassandra's curiosity or his own. And he found that he experienced a small, somewhat childish, thrill of success when the curiosity that proved stronger turned out to be Cassandra's.

"You knew Simon for long?" she asked, her fingers still sifting through the medical supplies.

Tuka thought about it for a moment. "He trained with us for about two of your years," he said finally. "No one liked having him in the class, but Master Roni insisted. He latched onto a friend of mine, and then he became my friend as well."

He ducked his head. "It was a shame to see him leave."

Cassandra gave him a frown and made a motion with her shoulders that Tuka had learned was a human analogue for the Sangheili mandible click. "He never did like things like training and discipline. I'm surprised he worked under your master at all."

Tuka clicked his mandibles. "I always supposed he felt grateful for being rescued from the Jiralhanae. And it wasn't like he had many other places to go. You humans still aren't safe in most Sangheili space, not with the Fallen active and the Covenant still fighting on. But I do think that Simon was looking for something in my master's teachings."

"Did he find it?" Cassandra asked. "Before he left, that is."

"I don't know.."

Cassandra was quite for several moments before responding. "You know he's a traitor, right?"

"Yes." Simon had apparently divulged much of his past to Roni before he'd begun training, and he'd talked about it with Tuka and Ventu on several occasions. "I suppose that's why I didn't start by looking for him in human territory. But I don't aim to drag him to face human judgement. I just want to convince him to come back to the Visag Keep."

"It's not going to happen," said Cassandra with a certainty that caught Tuka off guard. "If he decided to leave once, he won't be keen on coming back. That's just the way he is. Even if he's realized that he had it better there than anywhere else, he'll just keep going in the direction he's headed."

"Perhaps he's changed," Tuka countered, not willing to let his plans for fulfilling his promise to Roni be shattered by Cassandra's doubts. "Perhaps you don't know him as well as you think you do."

A faint smile creased Cassandra's odd human lips. "Oh, I know him all right. Probably a whole lot better than whatever mask he put on to train with you in that keep of yours"

Her voice remained conversational, but there was an edge to her words that bothered Tuka more than they should have.

"Oh really?" he countered. "Then enlighten me."

"Simon," said Cassandra. "Is without a doubt the most stubborn, good for nothing bastard I have ever met. He doesn't give a damn about any kind of cause or principles or honor; the only thing that matters to him is how he can work everything out to his own advantage. I'm sure he put on the whole grateful alien act for your master, said he appreciated all the things you all gave him, but I'll bet anything that the only thing he got that mattered to him was learning how to use those swords of yours. Why do you think all it took for him to leave was a familiar ship stopping by? He'd gotten all he could from that training and he knew it. He was probably scared one of you would sell him out to the UNSC and he was probably getting tired of being all submissive and obedient. So he ditched you all the second he got the chance. Simon does what's best for Simon. As far as he's concerned, pretty much everyone else can go jump in one big lake."

From her tone, so firm and certain, Tuka could tell she'd been mulling this over for some time, perhaps even as far back as when he'd first told her about Simon in the hospital. But he just couldn't believe a word of it, couldn't believe that the friend he'd sparred and ate and trained with had just been a mask thrown up by the self-serving creature that Cassandra was describing.


“Maybe he was like that when you knew him,” Tuka said slowly. “But I knew a different person. And I know for a fact that he wasn’t just putting on some act.”

Cassandra offered him another distant smile. “I hope you’re right,” she said. “But the Simon I knew wasn’t big on changing how he did things.”

“If that’s the case,” Tuka snapped. He was angry, angry at Cassandra for challenging his friendship, and angry at himself for allowing the words to get to him. “ Then why are you so keen on finding him? Why’d you even help me if he’s such a terrible person?”

She cocked her head. “Because he’s my friend,” she replied, as if she was surprised that Tuka needed to ask. “Because I care about him.”

“Then I don’t understand why--”

“Look, I know what he’s been through, alright? We spent a month stranded together on some miserable frozen rock. There was a lot of time to... talk about things.”

“I knew him for close to two of your years,” Tuka countered. “How can just one of your months possibly make you know him better?”

Her pale skin colored--another human feature that Tuka had never understood--and she looked down at her medical equipment. “I knew him... before then,” she muttered. “Like I said, we kind of grew up together.”

“In training?” Tuka guessed shrewdly. “Training to be Spartans?”

Cassandra didn’t respond for several long moments. Then, without looking back up, she nodded. “How obvious was I?” she muttered, almost as if she were talking to herself.

Tuka clicked his mandibles. "Simon told me a lot about the program. He said that most of his friends from the human insurgency were dead, so there was really only one other possibility." He kept his tone conciliatory, but couldn't help feeling more than a little proud of himself for piecing it together.

He voiced a concern he'd been pondering ever since he'd decided that his new companion was one of the human warriors. "But Simon never mentioned anything about having any companions, especially not one as close as you."

Although the young Sangheili couldn't be certain, he could have sworn that another one of those odd human flushes crept into Cassandra's pale complexion.

"It's complicated," she said finally. "And you're probably better off asking him those kinds of things. When we find him, that is."

"Yes." Tuka nodded in agreement. The mere mentioning of his first goal set his mind back firmly on his quest. He'd find Simon and show Cassandra that she was mistaken about him. Then he'd convince Simon to help him and they'd track down Mallunus and finally get justice for his mother's murder.

And after that?

As far as Tuka was concerned, there was no after that while Mallunus was still alive. He'd only stop to think about that once he'd closed this chapter of his life, the one that had been going on since he'd watched his mother butchered in front of him.

Fira 'Demal leaned back in the ship's pilot seat. The Slipspace jump to the world where this "Mordred" character would take a while longer, and as much as he liked the young Tuka's enthusiasm and was beyond grateful for the excuse to leave Cordial Harmony, he still needed a little space to collect his thoughts on this whole venture.

It had been a spur of the moment decision to help Tuka, a decision born of his disgust for Cordial Harmony in general and his curiosity about what such a skilled youth would make of himself. But now that they were on there way, Fira had run into some pressing doubts that hadn't really concerned him before they'd taken off.

This renegade Spartan they were chasing... how did Tuka know him and, more importantly, why did he want them dead? Fira himself held no love for the human "Demons"--they had butchered dozens of his family during the Great War--but it still seemed odd that someone as young as Tuka would include one of them on the list of people he wanted revenge on. Much as Fira hated to admit it, Thel 'Vadam would have been the name he expected to find Tuka hating, but the son of Sesa 'Refum seemed to have been raised either in ignorance of the details surrounding his father's death or by someone with a level enough head to tell him while keeping him rational about things.

And who was this Cassandra person anyway? How did she know their quarry and how had she acquired the information on this "Mordred" mercenary's whereabouts? The whole thing reeked of something criminal to Fira, who had spent enough time on Cordial Harmony to know that just because a human--or Sangheili, for that matter--wasn't covered in scars and tattoos didn't mean that they weren't working on the far side of the law. That foul human-based organization, the Syndicate, had its corrupting fingers everywhere, even on Sangheili planets that weren't home to thousands of humans.

He sighed. The future after the Covenant had collapsed had been supposed to be a bright one, so why was all this filth springing to the fore now? The Fallen, the remaining Covenant forces, criminals, mercenaries; all of them seemed to be eating away at the foundations of galactic civilization.

Perhaps that was why he had taken a shine to Tuka. The youth reminded Fira of all the warrior qualities and idealism he had been raised to believe in even before the Great Schism. A bit naive, perhaps, if his trust for this Cassandra human was any indication, but that would be shed in time. Hopefully his other good qualities wouldn't go with it.

Fira closed his eyes and folded his hands over his chest. For now he'd play along with whatever Cassandra led them to. It was Tuka's journey after all and the youth had never asked Fira to come along. But he would never be able to trust humans, and if what he'd heard of the location they were headed for was any indication, his view of them would not be improved by the time this was over.

In the meantime, he'd just have to trust that Tuka's master, Roni 'Visag, had trained him as well as the old blademaster's reputation dictated.

Chapter Eight: Brush War

"The situation on Gamma-13 is proceeding acceptably for now. Obviously it would be best for neither of the parties involved in the conflict there to gain dominance over the prospective future population, but as it stands it is considered preferable under our current security contingencies for the mercenaries and criminals to have the run of the place rather than the rebels. Until military assets can be allocated to provide a favorable alternative for the colonists, we will have to be content with sitting back and hoping that the mercenary coalition continues to succeed, though not overwhelmingly so."
―UNSC Office of Naval Intelligence report regarding fighting on prospective colony world Gamma-13


A funny thing about the galaxy's species once the Great War was over: none of them seemed to fully grasp the concept of strength through solidarity.

True, they all had their central governments and most of them, particularly Sangheili and humans, liked to say that they were all united in reconstructing the galaxy. But there had always been naysayers and rebels before, during, and after the war, and they were by no means in short supply now. The Sangheili had the Fallen alongside a rising number of individuals and keeps who felt it would be better to apply their skills to mercenary or criminal work rather than remain within the confines of traditional Sangheili society. The humans, for their part, had dozens of rebel factions that squabbled and cooperated with each other at an equal rate as they sought to establish their independence from the United Earth Government. Humanity contributed even more individuals to the mercenary and criminal worlds than the Sangheili did, and along with these freebooters came an even greater contribution: the Syndicate. Before the war, there had been no real centralized, interplanetary criminal groups. Now, like a massive, malevolent octopus the Syndicate had stretched its tentacles of influence into the governments and societies of every political and racial system in the civilized galaxy, and it showed no signs of weakening its hold anytime soon.

And in such a large galaxy, rife with planets, too sundered by conflict for the official governments to control all of its innumerable systems and a thriving criminal underworld to take advantage of the opportunities such a situation created, small habitable planets like Gamma-13 became war zones.

Like most conflicts, the situation itself started out quietly enough. A small group of human miners had approached a small group of Kig-Yar pirates with a deal: if the pirates provided security for their operations on Gamma-13 then they in turn would allow them safe haven and equal share in a planet that was, for all intents and purposes, completely off the Interspecies Union's radar. The pirates, seduced by the mountain of moneymaking opportunities such an arrangement would create, had agreed and the small coalition had set up shop on Gamma-13. Within days the miners had found valuable ores and everything seemed to be preceding according to plan...

...were it not for the fact that the planet already had groups that had claimed it as their own. A band of human Insurrectionists were trying to do the same thing the pirates and miners were doing, and the outside intrusion was not welcome.

At first the groups had done their best to avoid each other, and a wary but stable philosophy of "live and let live" was adopted by both sides. But they'd both kept expanding their mining operations, gradually discovering that over half the planet was covered in valuable ores and minerals. Soon they were shooting at each other over mining sites and then they were shooting at each other's existing mining sites. And then the Kig-Yar had decided to put an end to the whole thing once and for all by bombing the Insurrectionist base camps.

It had sent the human rebels into an uproar. They immediately sent out a call for all like-minded Insurrectionist groups to converge on the planet, promising them a share in its riches in return for aid. As ships full of eager rebel troops descended on Gamma-13 the miners and Kig-Yar turned to their own equivalent of an intergalactic community and began hiring any and all mercenary groups they could afford.

Within the month, both sides were dug in and ready to go to any lengths to claim the planet. The towns that the Insurrectionists and miners had put up suddenly became command centers and battlegrounds. Soon, the original sides were lost in the sea of factions they had called in to preserve themselves. Now the battle was about the fate of the planet itself: would this government-free gem of a world become an Insurrectionist bastion or a multi-species hub of criminal and mercenary operations?

With the war locked in a bitter stalemate, the mercenaries made use of any freelance guns-for-hire that made their way to Gamma-13 eager to make some quick credits. Speed was of the essence if they wanted to win before the Interspecies Union got involved, and that meant that anyone who showed up was an acceptable soldier. These were hard creatures, beings who were used to paving the road to their own survival with the corpses of those who had less willing to do so. They were certainly not the kind of crowd an inexperienced young Sangheili swordsman, a proud officer of the Sangheili army, and a certain medically-inclined ex-Spartan would be able to meld with easily. But this was exactly what Tuka, Fira, and Cassandra would need to do in order to find the mercenary named Mordred, the one who would give them a new clue towards finding the renegade Simon-G294.

And they were not the only ones seeking employment that day...

Chapter Nine: The Hired Help

"It's not that we're ungrateful for the help, but I gotta say I'm surprised you came to us," commented Colin Patterson, chief recruiter for the Insurrectionist forces on Gamma-13, reaching into a chilled portable cooler and withdrawing an icy bottle. "Beer?"

"No thanks," replied the man he was addressing. "I don't drink with jobs. It's bad business."

Patterson shrugged and popped the bottle's cap himself. "Suit yourself."

After taking a swig, he indicated a large map that had been taped to the wall of the battered pre-fab building he used for an office. "You said you wanted sniper work?"

"Yeah," replied the other man, idly scratching at his head of close-cut hair that was somewhere in the process of aging from black to gray. "Somewhere with lots of targets, preferably."

"Alright," Patterson replied. "Well, you can just take your pick, really. We've got a few towns and mining centers out there being overrun by the mercs if you really want to do some good."

"I'm not in this to help you win," said the graying man casually. He indicated the room's third occupant, who was off by herself crouching by the door. "She needs practice with urban combat. That's why my fee is so low."

"Uh... yes, I see," said Patterson, shooting a nervous glance at the girl leaning against the door. She couldn't have been older than fifteen, possibly even younger, but she wore a flak-jacket over a combat jumpsuit that encased her thin frame and somehow managed to look completely at home in the getup. Rather than paying attention to the two men's conversation, she was idly playing with a combat knife as if it were a simple toy, passing and even tossing the weapon between her hands with a look of cheerful fascination on her face.

Patterson licked his lips and rubbed the back of his neck before looking back over at the graying man. "Uh, this wouldn't have anything to do with that little project everyone says Venter's been working on these days, would it?"

The other man shrugged his powerfully built shoulders. "Couldn't tell you if I wanted to," he replied as he turned towards the door. "Just get us a ride to the nearest war zone and we'll be good to go."

He stopped by the girl and plucked the knife from between her fingers with a single, lighting-fast grab. The blade didn't do so much as nick either of them.

"Alright, Nimue, break's over," he told her, pushing the office's door open. "Time to get back to work."

The girl--Nimue--pushed the bangs of her dark hair back and rose to go without a word.

Patterson watched the two of them go and took another swig of beer. Yes, it was probably better that he didn't ask so many questions. Better for the cause and better for him personally as well.

Besides, when David Kahn came to you and offered to work for less than even the going freelance rate, it was best to be as accommodating for him as possible.

He felt almost sorry for the mercenaries who were about to come under Kahn's gun. Even the aliens.

The human behind one of the dozens of desks that lined the recruitment center rubbed his face.

"So," he said, sizing up Fira. "You're more freelancers?"

From where he stood behind the larger Sangheili, Tuka found himself noticing all the subtle body signs Fira was sending out that the recruiter could never have picked up on. The way his back kept stiffening and unstiffening, the small twitching motions he made with his fingers, the occasional spasms in the neck that sent his head tilting this way and that...

All of them told Tuka that the Ultra was fighting the urge to reach across the desk and send the recruiter flying across the cramped room.

They had agreed that, as the older and larger Sangheili, Fira would do the talking when it came to signing on with Gamma-13's mercenary forces. But neither of them had anticipated the callous, almost flippant reception they were receiving. It was particularly jarring for a ranking officer like Fira, who was used to receiving at least some modicum of respect on the battlefield. The fact that they were hiring themselves on as mercenaries, metaphorically selling their swords, even added to the humiliation even though it was all just the easiest way for them to find "Mordred" and find out what he knew about Simon.

"Yes," Fira was saying. "How much..."

He paused and snapped his head to either side with a quick jerk of his neck. Tuka could tell that he was having to literally force the words out through his mandibles.

"The going rate for freelancers is a hundred credits a week, plus a fifty credit bonus for every confirmed kill," recited the recruiter in a bored tone. He'd obviously been asked the question countless times in the past and wasn't willing to wait while Fira worked up the nerve to discuss the issue. "You don't like it, go find a paymaster and take it up with them." "Very well," Fira grated. "Just tell us where to go now."

The recruiter frowned. "You and you," he said, indicating Fira and Tuka. "Can head into the rest of the camp and report to any officer who'll take you on. But she stays here." He pointed a dirt-encrusted fingernail at Cassandra.

She blinked. "What? Why me?"

"Just 'cause we ain't picky about who we sign on doesn't mean we're taking kids as well," the recruiter told her in a tone that Tuka decided was the human form of condescension. "Do your parents know where you've smuggled yourself off to, sweetie."

"I'm seventeen," she retorted, adjusting the shoulder strap on her traveling bag. "I've been trained to handle this sort of work."

The recruiter rolled his eyes. "Yeah, right. Been watching a lot of 'vids, played some hologames, so of course you know your stuff."

Cassandra seemed at a loss for words, and Tuka knew exactly why. Since Fira was either just as puzzled or had simply decided to let the whole thing play out, he decided to step in.

"I've seen her fight," Tuka told the recruiter. "She killed a full-grown Sangheili warrior by herself and she was even better at healing me." He tapped the spot under his traveling garments where he'd been shot back on Cordial Harmony."

The recruiter blinked at him for a moment. Clearly this man's brain was not used to processing several thoughts at once. Finally he shook his head and entered something into the datapad on his desk.

"Crazy galaxy these days," he muttered. "Gets crazier by the minute as far as I've concerned."

He glanced back up at Cassandra. "Is he right?" he demanded, all concerns about her age apparently gone. "You've got med experience?"

She nodded.

"Alright, then get the hell out of here and take a right. Report to Lieutenant Vince at the med center."

Cassandra hesitated. "Where's that?"

"Just look for all the dead people, sweetie," the recruiter said with a sigh. "The two of you, go find yourselves an officer. Next!"

"That was easier than I'd feared," Fira remarked as they exited the recruiting station. He kept rubbing his armored wrists as though trying to wipe some non-existent stench from them. "Now all we need to do is find this Mordred..."

He stopped talking then and stopped walking as well, quickly followed by Tuka and Cassandra. They had left the makeshift spaceport's facilities and had entered the mercenary camp in its entirety.

Ugly, boxy prefabricated shelters were spread out as far as the eye could see, hiding much of Gamma-13's dull brown ground from view. It was as if someone had taken the undercity from Cordial Harmony and transported it above ground, though in this version everyone had guns.

Tuka had never seen anything like it. Almost every race imaginable seemed to be present here, from Sangheili to humans to Kig-Yar. There were small gaggles of Unggoy scampering here and there, while Yanme'e fluttered around from shelter to shelter with no discernible purpose in mind. There was even the occasional pair of armored Lekgolo, usually resting silently within their hulking frames. Weapons of all shapes and sizes were being toted around by their equally varied owners.

Beside him, Cassandra sighed. "I thought I was finished with all this."

"It doesn't look all that different from where I found you," replied Tuka absently, still drinking in the whole bewildering scene.

"Oh, it's different," she muttered. "It's definitely different."

Fira turned back to them as a small human military vehicle tore through the muddy ground past them, its whining engine almost drowning out the sound of his voice. "Report to the medical facilities like you were told," he said to Cassandra, passing her a small purple communicator. "See if you can find anyone who knows where Mordred is."

She nodded and melted into the crowd without a word.

Tuka looked up at his companion. "And us?"

Fira clicked his mandibles. "We ask around as well. There's no other way around it, so let's get moving. I'm feeling filthier with ever moment I spend here."

"After this," Fira was grumbling some time later as he and Tuka exited one of the dozens of multi-species cantinas that had been set up throughout the mercenary base camp. "I'm volunteering for an extended deployment within the fleet. Or the army. Just somewhere where I can be with honorable warriors, not these sell-sword trash."

The two of them had now thrown the nameMordred around in countless bars and other gathering places with next to no success. They'd found a pair of human mercenaries who'd claimed it sounded familiar, then vanished into the crowd once Tuka had prompted them with a few credits, and a Kig-Yar sniper who said he thought he'd heard the name mentioned once in passing. Everyone else they'd asked had just responded with mute, contemptuous stares that had done nothing to improve Fira's mood.

For his part, Tuka couldn't help but feel responsible for the older Sangheili's rising ire. "I owe you a great debt," he told Fira s they plodded on down the base camp's filthy streets. "I know how bothersome this is for you."

Fira savagely clicked his mandibles while watching a group of humans and Kig-Yar taking bets on a street fight between a pair of Unggoy. "You never asked for my help," he replied. "I came of my own accord, as did that human Cassandra. You aren't responsible for either of us. But take heed of this place and the scum that dwell here, particularly the Sangheili ones. By selling their swords and their honor for a fee they have doomed themselves to a long, slow death that will end only when they fall to the perils of their wretched profession. And then they will be nothing more than worthless, nameless corpses in the dirt."

They passed on in silence for some time. Tuka found himself glad at the boots and light body armor he'd worn under his robes ever since they'd landed: they kept the accumulated muck and dirt off of his skin. He hadn't realized it back on Cordial Harmony, but he was beginning to wish that he'd spent more time hiking and camping in the wilderness of Sanghelios. Right now he couldn't help but yearn for his home at the Visag Keep, with its warm rooms and clean gardens. A far cry from the filthy cesspits he'd been finding himself in recently. Only the thought of his search for Simon and the hunt for Mallunus kept him from even considering giving up and going back.

He looked around at the base camp, with its cheap living quarters and the multitude of races that inhabited them. "It seems odd that so many species can live side by side after the destruction of the war and the Schism," he commented thoughtfully.

"Greed transcends old feuds and grievances," said Fira darkly. "These scum don't care about the past or the concerns of their brethren. They'll cooperate as long as they can turn a profit from doing so, but they'll turn on each other the moment it seems that that will yield a greater bounty."

"Heh," rasped a voice behind them. "Hear that, Ro? This guy think's he's got us all pretty well figured, doesn't he?"

Both Sangheili whirled to face one of the largest Jiralhanae either of them had ever seen. He was encased from head to shaggy toe in battered, filthy armor that looked as if he'd assembled it from over a hundred different suits. His scarred, bulging forearms could be seen through the brutal tapestry of plates and buckles and his tree trunk-like legs looked as if they could crush Tuka as if he were merely an annoying insect.

Tuka took an involuntary step back and nearly tripped over his traveling robe as he craned his neck to look up at the monster before him. He'd seen a few Jiralhanae around the base camp, but never up close and personal like this. He hadn't seen any of them up close ever since that fateful day on High Charity when Mallunus had murdered his mother.

Anger at the memory clouded his mind for a moment, and he reached for his energy sword's hilt while scanning the Jiralhanae for weapons. Curiously, he saw nothing save for a few grenades affixed near the beast's waist and a hilt of some kind that jutted up from his armored back.

The Jiralhanae saw Tuka's reaction and grinned, his eyes radiating with a savage, feral intensity from under his helmet. But there was no hate in those eyes; instead, Tuka saw only a fire of fierce joy and anticipation dancing in their dark pupils.

"Go ahead," the Jiralahane chuckled. "You'll be making my day... if you put up a good fight before I kill you."

"Tuka," Fira warned, and Tuka's hand froze a hair's breath away from his blade. If he drew it on this creature, he couldn't put it away without attempting to draw blood or risk fatal dishonor. And one look at the hulking figure before him told Tuka that this Jiralhanae wouldn't need any weapons to kill him if he attacked. He'd rip him limb from limb before Fira could even begin to step in to help.

The Jiralhanae made no move to either come at them or back off. Instead, he just stood his ground as Tuka and Fira held their own, both sides waiting to see what the other would do.

An amused chuckle broke the silence, but it didn't come from the Jiralhanae. An armored Sangheili stepped out from behind the Jiralhanae and inclined his head in a mocking salute to Tuka.

"Smart kid," he commented, shaking his head as if he were a human. "It's not wise to get Kenpachus all excited like that."

This warrior wore what might once have been considered the armor of a Sangheili Ultra like Fira but was now just as much a battered and mismatched tapestry of plates as the Jiralhanae's armor. Like the Jiralhanae, he was an impressive specimen, standing at least a head taller than Tuka, and even with his battered armor covering his body it was clear from the way he stood that he was even more powerful than the average Sangheili warrior. But unlike his companion, he was bristling with weapons. The hilts of two energy swords were strapped to his waist along with a human-style pistol and several plasma grenades. A brown, human-made pouch was slung over his armor and seemed to contain even more grenades and there was a large plasma repeater clipped onto his back. Tuka found him just as intimidating, if not more so, as the huge Jiralhanae. He'd never seen anyone carrying so many weapons at once.

Fira was less impressed. "What business do you two have with us?" he demanded, voice dripping with contempt.

The scorn seemed to amuse both of the warriors and they both exchanged their respective species' version of a grin.

"No business," the Sangheili replied after he'd turned back to them. "We were just interested when we heard that a pair of Sangheili were wandering around the camp asking questions about Mordred. It's obvious that you aren't mercenaries like us and we'd like to know who you two really are."

"What's it to you?" Fira shot back. "We have our reasons for being here and I'm sure you have your own. We don't need to answer to you."

The Jiralhanae snorted. "Ah, give it up," he growled, shifting his weight from one enormous leg to the other. "They aren't interested in cooperating or fighting. This is getting boring already."

But the Sangheili mercenary wasn't about to give up so easily. "Ah, they'll wear down in a second," he said, inclining his head at Fira. "A name'd be a good start," he commented. "I'll kick things off: I'm Ro'nin, and my friend here is Kenpachus."

Kenpachus. The name seemed to resonate somewhere within Tuka, as if he'd heard it before, but the only Jiralhanae names he had ever bothered with were those of Mallunus and the more famous chieftains that he'd been taught in his history lessons. In the meantime, Fira was already busy dealing with another detail.

"Your name," he informed the other Sangheili coldly. "It's not Sangheili. What clan do you belong to?"

The Sangheili mercenary, Ro'nin, snorted as if this were a ridiculous question. "Don't have one, don't need one," he retorted. "My fool of a father taught me that ages ago when he exiled me from our keep."

Fira practically recoiled with disgust. "An exile," he whispered, and Tuka felt a twinge of revulsion as well. Only the most heinous, most dishonorable crimes could incite a keep's Kaidon to cast an individual from his clan and keep. The more traditional capital offenses such as treason or disobedience carried punishments that at least offered some chance of an honorable death, but an exile was doomed to live with the shame of his abominable sin until someone decided to put him out of his misery.

It was as if the admission of his guilt served to warp the way Ro'nin looked to Tuka. Suddenly he wasn't just another dirty mercenary and was instead a kind of dangerous, prowling beast. The casual, almost lazy, intelligence that could be seen in his eyes now looked devious and cunning and the casual stance he was now standing in was just a ruse to lull them both into complacency before he unleashed his arsenal on them. Tuka found compelled to look away from Ro'nin, as if he was seeing something unclean or shameful. Fira continued to stare at the mercenary, but his mandibles were parted in an expression of utter disgust.

Strangely, their revulsion seemed to amuse Ro'nin, as if he'd long ago gotten used to such reactions and now drew a measure of satisfaction from them. "I know, I know," he said casually, as if he were discussing a mildly interesting rumor. "Can't trust an exile, unclean, dishonored and all that." He waved his hand dismissively.

"He gets it all the time," Kenpachus put in. "You split-faces can get so... prissy."

Ro'nin laughed. "I know, can't we?"

Fira turned to leave and Tuka eagerly followed suite. "If you'll excuse us," the older Sangheili told the two mercenaries coldly. "We have things to be doing around here."

Ro'nin clicked his mandibles. "Suit yourselves," he told them. "It's a shame though, seeing as we were going to help you two out with your little Mordred problem."

Tuka spun around so quickly that he nearly bowled Fira over. "Wait!" he yelped as the mercenaries began to walk away. "You said Mordred? You know Mordred?"

Ro'nin stopped walking and looked back over his shoulder, his mandibles parted in a smirk. "We've had the misfortune of crossing paths, yes. Can't say I understand why anyone would be looking for that pathetic runt, but then again I also can't understand why a pair of honor-bound snobs such as yourselves wound up in a dung-heap like this. Lots of mysteries in this universe, wouldn't you say?"

Kenpachus had also turned to go, revealing that the hilt on his back was attached to one of the largest swords Tuka had ever seen. It reminded him of the Sword of Harka back in the Visag keep, except this one was a single blade rather than the two-pronged Sangheili style. "The only mystery I'm interested in," the Jiralhanae grunted. "Is why we aren't already heading up to that mining town. That's where the fighting is."

"Right, right," Ro'nin agreed, beginning to walk again. "Wouldn't want you to miss out on any of the fun."

"Wait!" Tuka found himself pleading as his first and possibly only hope of finding Mordred began slipping away. "What do you want in exchange for taking us to him?"

Ro'nin stopped again. Kenpachus let out an impatient huff but nevertheless stood alongside his partner in the filthy street.

"We've got all we really need right here," the Sangheili mercenary admitted, spreading his arms to indicate the mercenary base camp in all its squalid glory. "Cash to earn, battles to fight, and no government to get all sanctimonious with us. Now while it's beyond me why two dandies like you want to meet a dung-licker like Mordred--"

"Cowardly little weasel," Kenpachus broke in. "No fun in a fight."

"--I'll admit that I'd like to see what this is all about for myself," Ro'nin finished with a glare at his partner. "So we'll take you to him free of charge."

"How kind of you," said Fira coldly. "Though I'm certain you'll think of some way to profit from doing this."

"Such mistrust," said Ro'nin, feigning offense. "Breaks my hearts to see it in you, especially when we're willing to do you such a charitable favor."

"Generous of you," Kenpachus pointed out with a nasty grin. "Especially after how they've been talking to us."

"I'm just a walking fountain of sympathy and altruism, aren't I?" noted Ro'nin, clearly enjoying seeing how far he could bait Fira.

"Contact Cassandra," Fira told Tuka, clearly not in the mood for civilities. "Have her use our beacons to find us before we head out to wherever they think Mordred is."

"Ah, so there's a human involved too." Ro'nin shook his head. "This is getting more interesting by the second."

"Just tell her to hurry up," growled Kenpachus. "I've waited around here long enough as it is."

Chapter Ten: David Kahn and Mordred

Tuka had never much liked flying in a planet's atmosphere, and the design of the human-style troop transport--called a "Pelican" for reasons Tuka couldn't fathom--that Ro'nin had acquired for them was not improving his outlook. With its cramped troop bay that opened up into thin air without any kind of mechanisms to hold the occupants in, the low-flying transport did not seem to have been designed in the least for passenger safety.

Tuka had chosen a seat as far away from the edge as possible, but his mind couldn't help but conjure up any number of scenarios that ended with him tumbling out of the Pelican to his doom. The design of the Pelican's seats did not help to assuage his worries: they had been shaped to accommodate a regular-sized human and Tuka, despite his youth and smaller size, could not seem to fit himself completely in the space and had to keep shifting around. Fira and Ro'nin had not encountered this problem; both of the warriors had opted to stand, holding onto handles that had been laid into the roof of the troop bay. They seemed to have reached some sort of mutual consensus of loathing that neither would allow themselves to be one-upped by the other. For his own part, Kenpachus had crammed his hulking frame into no less than three spaces, looking perfectly comfortable as he ran a brick-like sharpening stone down the edge of his massive blade. Cassandra sat across from Tuka, cradling her rifle and medical bag in her lap. Her hands were still stained with dried blood from a multitude of species, as were her face and hair. Whatever she'd been working with at the medical center must have been truly stomach turning, but it hadn't seemed to phase her in the slightest.

Fira turned his head towards Tuka. "I understand that we'll be flying into a combat zone!" he yelled over the roar of the wind and the Pelican's engines. "Don't panic when the shooting starts! You and the human should just stay close to me and keep out of the fighting until we find this Mordred person!"

"If he's even there when you arrive," Ro'nin scoffed, his voice just barely loud enough to be heard. "I know this fellow: young, for a human, but certainly one of the most deceitful, cunning little bastards you'll ever meet. With his track record, he could easily have run off to somewhere safer by now."

Fira shot a glare at the mercenary. "We will find him," he retorted. "And then we will get off this miserable planet and hopefully be able to forget we ever met."

Ro'nin clicked his mandibles as the wind quieted somewhat. "Never did get your names," he said after a moment. "Seems only fair that you should give them to us, seeing as we're helping you and all."

Fira glared at the Sangheili outcast, but Tuka couldn't help but admit that Ro'nin had something of a point. "My name is Tuka 'Refum," he told Ro'nin. "I was trained and raised in the Visag Keep."

At Tuka's words, Fira shot a warning glance at him. But Ro'nin seemed more startled than smug at the information he'd been given. "Refum," he muttered, his voice barely audible. "Visag. Now there's a pair of interesting names. Funny to be hearing them together like that."

"What is it?" Tuka asked, surprised by the mercenary's reaction. "Do they mean anything to you?"

"Not really," replied Ro'nin, but Tuka could practically feel the lie as it passed the other Sangheili's mandibles. What was he hiding?

"My name is Fira 'Demal," Fira said grudgingly after several moments, but Ro'nin did not seem at all interested in that bit of news. Instead, he cocked his head and looked at Tuka thoughtfully.

"You're a son of Sesa 'Refum?" he asked.

"Yes," said Tuka. "He was my father, though I never knew him."

"Ever know of a Sangheili called Shinsu?" Ro'nin asked after another pause.

Tuka blinked, confused. "I've never heard that name before," he said. "Who is he?"

But Ro'nin just shook his head. "No one important. Just a warrior I knew once. Don't know why I even brought him up."

"Stop avoiding the question," Fira growled, clearly eager for a chance to snap at Ro'nin.

But before the conversation could descend into a full-fledged argument, the dropship's intercom crackled. "We're approaching the LZ," the human pilot announced over it. "Once we stop moving, get your asses off this ship. I've got three more flights today and I don't want to spend any more time getting shot at than I have to."

"Here we go," Ro'nin said, sounding pleased. "Try not to get your head taken off by a sniper before you find Mordred."

Kenpachus grunted happily. "Let's hurry this up and get to the fighting!" he said enthusiastically.

Tuka could now hear the sounds of human and Sangheili weapons being discharged in the distance. He found himself stiffening as the sounds drew nearer. This would be a hundred times worse than that skirmish on Cordial Harmony. True, he now had body armor to protect him, but it was still light fare, nothing like the full-scale combat harnesses that Fira and Ro'nin wore. One false move, one turn of bad luck, and he would be finished.

He was still struggling to bring his nerves under control when he was surprised by the sound of Cassandra's voice in his ear. She had linked an ear-communicator mounted on her own head to the ones that Fira had given him along with the light combat skin he wore under his cloak.

"Just focus on the goal and stay with Fira," she said. Her advice and calm demeanor was strange, almost disconcerting, coming from such a small, young human, but then again, she was a Spartan. She had to know what she was talking about. Perhaps she'd been trained to sooth nerves as well as injuries, because Tuka did feel somewhat better and nodded gratefully to her.

"My advice to you if you want to find Mordred is to stick to the rear," Ro'nin said as he prepared to exit the descending dropship. "Try to find a place that isn't taking too much fire. Unless he's feeling extra confident, he won't be anywhere where real fighting's going on."

"More Wraith's opening up," said Nimue, looking up from where she lay on the floor of what had once been a regular building rather than a bombed out wreck. "We're relocating now."

David Kahn nodded approvingly. "To where?" he asked, though it was clear that he was the teacher in this situation. Nimue was merely the student completing yet another test in her lethal education.

The girl blinked, licked her lips, and closed her eyes for a moment. "The two story building two blocks down from here," she said, her eyes snapping open again. "The enemy's been hitting that area hard for two hours. They'll be coming straight down the street there, and there's plenty of ways to move if they start targeting us."

"Good girl," Kahn said approvingly. "Now get moving to that building. I'll cover you."

He hefted his sniper rifle and scanned the street while Nimue sprinted out from cover, her own rifle clutched tightly to her chest. Though she was of slight frame, she still managed to carry the weapon without allowing herself to be encumbered by it. Kahn allowed himself a small amount of satisfaction at how well her training was coming along. Every day she proved to him that she was even better than the assassin he was being paid to raise her as... which was why he challenged her all the more with his tests and field exercises. He took risks with her because it was the only way she would know how to survive when the day finally came for him to hand her over to the Insurrectionists who had hired him to raise her in the first place.

A Wraith mortar detonated near the building, causing it to shake violently. Noting that Nimue was already halfway to their target building and not drawing any fire, Kahn clipped his rifle to the back of his dark, ODST-style armor and drew a high-calibre handgun from a holster on his thigh. Time to get back to the task at hand.

As he ran down the street, he barely noticed the Pelican lift off from the opposite side of the embattled town and soar away towards the horizon, its passengers safely delivered.

Somewhere else on the battlefield, another mercenary was feeling the tremors caused by the Wraith blasts. "Damn," he grunted, raising his head from where it was resting against the wall of an abandoned basement. "Sounds like they're getting things back up to speed up there."

"Well, we both know what that means," said a youthful female voice that seemed to come from the light armor the mercenary was wearing.

"Know we don't," the mercenary shot back. "What the hell does it mean?"

"It means nap time's over, dumbass!" the female voice snapped impatiently. "Or do you want a stray blast to get in here and fry us?"

"Yeah, yeah," the mercenary grumbled irritably. "I'm moving."

He got to his feet, stretching as he did so, and picked up his battered assault rifle from the floor. Scratching his tangled mop of black hair, he cricked his neck and stooped again to retrieve his helmet from where he'd set it on a pile of bricks.

The mercenary called Mordred lifted the helmet up with his right hand and lowered it onto his head while deactivating the small motion sensor system he'd set up on the floor with his left hand.

His prosthetic left hand.

Tuka closed his eyes for a moment and fought to drown out the constant pounding of the Wraith emplacements that seemed determined to reduce what had clearly once been a civilian town to rubble. He, Fira, and Cassandra were currently taking cover within a small, portable shelter erected by the mercenary forces during what must have been a day-long struggle to capture the area. Humans, Sangheili, and Kig-Yar were everywhere, emptying their weapons into the nearby buildings while dodging the fire that darted back out at them. The human rebels were apparently firmly dug in, and the dozens of corpses that littered the streets in front of the mercenaries' main offensive front served as a grim reminder of that fact.

"How are we supposed to find Mordred in this mess?" he asked Fira as the Wraiths began unleashing their latest salvo.

The warrior poked his head out from the shelter and looked around. "No idea," he admitted, darting back in before a rebel sniper could notice him. "We'll just have to rely on the luck that's gotten us this far."

"So what do we do?" Cassandra asked, clearly unimpressed by Fira's answer. "Help the mercenaries capture this whole town?"

"That could take days," Fira muttered as a rebel mortar strike shook the ground around them. There was a large explosion, followed by the screams of wounded mercenaries. Tuka looked out of their shelter to see the smoldering wreckage of one of the Wraiths.

"It looked like the mercenaries are strong here," Tuka commented as the crossfire picked up again. He had to keep talking, focusing on Fira and Cassanrda, in order to keep his mind off of the carnage around him. Any moment his concentration might slip and he'd be forced into a gibbering, useless state of sheer terror. "They should overrun the rebels soon, right?"

Fira snorted. "These mercenaries' idea of strategy is to waste as many soldiers as possible in these foolish frontal assaults," he told Tuka. "The rebels may be outnumbered, but from the looks of things they know how to defend their positions with what they have."

Before they could discuss the situation further, a dark-armored Sangheili mercenary appeared in the door of the shelter. "Move it!" he snarled at them. "All of you, on your feet! They're trying to fall back, so now's our chance to charge them!"

Tuka hesitated for a moment, and the mercenary stuck the business end of a plasma rifle in his face. "I said move it!" the warrior barked. "You are not being paid to hide from the enemy!"

As more troops appeared behind the mercenary, there was nothing the three could do but scramble out of the shelter and fall in with the dozens of other mercenaries who were suddenly moving all around them. As if to prove Fira's point, they were massing for a charge on the wrecked buildings the rebels had just recently been firing from. If Tuka hadn't been so terrified, he might have payed more attention to the human figures who were stumbling out of the buildings and drawing fire from the gathering mercenaries. All around him were the multitude of species he had seen back in the camp, but this time they were pressing in on him and filling his nostrils with the scents of fear and excitement. There was no time to consider just how suicidal the mercenary tactics were, because several Sangheili were already moving forward and the press of the crowd was dragging Tuka along with it. By now he had completely lost sight of Fira and Cassandra; he was on his own amidst the charging mass.

Fira snarled angrily as he scanned the charging mercenaries for any sign of his companions. Finding none, he sprinted down the street, doing his best not to run with the rest of the pack. To the mercenaries' credit, they had certainly torn this town apart before launching their head-on assault, but this tactic was still incredibly foolish by the terms of contemporary warfare. But perhaps that was the intent: the more mercenaries who died here meant that less would be around asking for pay once the fighting ended. It was a concept that disgusted Fira just as much as the mercenaries themselves, but he couldn't deny the logic it hid within insane tactics like this.

One massive figure had pulled ahead of the rest of the charge: that Jiralhanae savage, Kenpachus. Roaring with excitement, he overtook a pair of fleeing rebels and, with a single blow from his massive sword, cut them both in half. More of the humans turned to oppose him, but their gunfire clattered off his bulky armor and he tore through them with as much ease as he had the first.

A cheer went up from the other mercenaries, particularly the Jiralhanae and Sangheili. They too rushed forward, eager to lay into their exposed enemies. Soon the massed charge had dispersed into a somewhat more intelligent scattered formation of troops, though they would still be easy pickings once the rebels managed to regroup and concentrate their fire.

As he paused to look again for Tuka and Cassandra, Fira noticed that a second wave of mercenaries was now advancing up the street. These troops--a mixture of humans and Sangheili--seemed to wear similar uniforms to each other and moved in cohesive units rather than a disorganized mob. Some Sangheili lead what looked like lances of Unggoy, while others moved in groups to occupy buildings and fire on the rebels.

Now things made a little more sense to Fira's veteran sensibilities. The frontrunners would be the freelancers that the organized mercenary groups couldn't rely on to operate regularly. These troops were thrown against the enemy defenses first while the trained soldiers moved in behind them to take advantage of the chaos their initial charge wreaked on enemy positions.

So these sell-swords aren't complete fools, he admitted to himself. But for now, he'd be forced to stick with the attacking freelancers. Tuka was out here somewhere, and while the young warrior had plenty of courage, he didn't yet have a place in a battlefield like this. Fira would need to find him in order to keep him safe; it would be a shame if Tuka came this far only to be shot down in the street like one of the honorless mercenaries around him.

And as much as Fira was wary of humans, he wasn't eager to see the human girl, Cassandra, die either. Whatever vengeance she wanted against the Demon they hunted, Fira was prepared to allow her. It was only fair, really, seeing how much she had helped them this far.

Fira sprang up again and rejoined the freelancers. One Sangheili, the warrior who had threatened Tuka earlier, had rallied several more Sangheili to his lead and Fira fell in with them. They sprinted down the rubble-filled streets, firing wildly at any rebels who exposed themselves for too long. As he ran, Fira desperately scanned the streets for either of his companions. Still, no luck.

They were just rounding a corner and charging towards a small two-story prefab building when it happened. There was a sudden popping noise and then the Snagheili were falling, their shields torn away and their armor blown through as if it weren't even there. Fira dove for cover just as the lead warrior's head exploded.

"Sniper!" another mercenary yelled. Fira looked up at the prefab building. Though he didn't see any flashes coming from its dark windows, that didn't mean the rebels weren't using it as a nest to pick off the freelancers.

He readied his plasma rifle and gathered himself up for a sprint. If he could just take that building, he'd be able to get some communications through to Tuka and Cassandra. All he needed to do now was to make it to the building without being blown apart by the sniper inside it...

"Good shot," David Kahn noted as Nimue's first salvo sent the mercenaries scattering. He'd given her plenty of experience firing on multiple targets before, but he hadn't expected her to do this well in a combat zone.

She didn't make the mistake of acknowledging the compliment and instead ejected her spent magazine and loaded a second into her compact sniper rifle. Kahn leaned out with his own and gunned down a pair of Jackal snipers who were trying to get a position to fire on them from.

"Two minutes," said Nimue, planning out their actions like he'd instructed her to. "Then we relocate."

"Right." Sometimes Kahn regretted having a pupil who only seemed to speak in military terms, but at times like this he was proud of how she'd turned out. Suppressing a self-satisfied smile, he leaned back into the building and watched his student work.

Tuka slid into an open doorway, quickly scanning the battered interior for enemies as he did so. He'd already discarded the plasma rifle Fira had scrounged up for him before the fighting started, and was now deeply regretting his poor judgement. Now all he had to defend himself with was his blade, a small plasma pistol, and the light combat skin that clung to his body under the remnants of his traveling cloak. The sounds of combat were all around him as the mercenaries clashed with the human rebels throughout the shell-shocked town. Tuka couldn't see why such an innocuous place could be considered important enough to spend so much effort on, but perhaps those in control of the opposing forces had a better grasp on the situation than he did. Right then, he was only concerned with finding Fira and Cassandra before a stray explosion put his lifelong quest to an abrupt end.

How are we supposed to find a single mercenary in all this chaos? Tuka wondered, flinching as a Wraith mortar impacted across the street and shook his protective building to its very foundations. Crawling across the room, he slid towards another door that seemed to lead into an alley. He wasn't sure where that might take him, but it seemed best to keep moving rather than wait for some rebels to come across him. As he crawled, he prayed that Fira and Cassandra were all right out in the battle that raged around him.

Fira sprinted through what seemed like a hail of gunfire that poured in from all sides. Some of the projectiles struck him, but his shields took the brunt of the damage and turned them away. The other mercenaries around him weren't as lucky; the bullets tore through their substandard armor and cut them down in droves. The street Fira left behind him was filled with the corpses of the initial wave he and his companions had come in with.

He braced himself on the wall, scanning the surrounding buildings with his plasma rifle. Though he saw a few rebels as they fired from the windows, none seemed to be targeting him so he held his fire. He had no quarrel with these humans, even if they did seem predisposed to hating his species.

But whoever was in the building he was about to storm wouldn't be so lucky. It was unfortunate, but in the end battles were battles and their end would be no different if Fira merely stood by and let the mercenaries do the work instead. Readying his rifle in one hand and a plasma grenade in the other, Fira ducked low and darted through the building's door.

The next thing he knew, he was lying flat on his back with his shields nearly depleted and a cloud of smoke all around him. Snarling in confusion, he grabbed for his plasma rifle and stumbled to his feet. As his vision cleared, he saw that the doorway he had just come through had been reduced to a charred, smoking sculpture of rent and torn metal. Someone had planted an explosive trip-sensor there and he'd walked straight into it. Without his shields and armor, he'd have been torn to pieces.

Cursing, he scanned the room around him and, finding it empty, sprinted for some nearby stairs as fast as his aching body would allow, keeping his eyes open for more traps as he moved. Whoever was in this building now knew that someone was coming in after them and would be preparing to defend themselves from his assault. He'd need to move even faster now that his element of surprise was lost.

Tuka saw the whole thing from the alley. Fira dashed through the open door, which was subsequently consumed by a large blast. When his companion did not re-emerge, Tuka's fear of the surrounding battle vanished and he was suddenly dashing across the corpse-riddled street towards the shattered doorway. No matter what the risk, he needed to do anything he could to help his benefactor survive whatever injuries he must have sustained from the booby trap he'd triggered.

Fira saw an odd scratch on the door before him and emptied a dozen shots from his plasma rifle into its frame. Sure enough, the searing heat from his weapon triggered yet another explosive that obliterated the door and punched a gaping hole in the walls on either side. Without waiting for the smoke to clear, Fira strode into the room, his plasma rifle held at the ready. But what awaited him surprised him so much that even his veteran instincts wavered and he held off from firing.

A well-built human male clad in the dark armor of the famous human "ODSTs" was on the other side of the room while a female human child wearing a small combat vest and carrying a compact-looking rifle moved to unwire yet another explosive trap from a door that seemed to be leading out to the back of the building. The sight of the odd sniper team caused Fira a moment's pause, which in turn allowed the adolescent human to bring her rifle up to bear.

"Forget it!" the male barked. "Relocate! Point Beta, now!"

The girl stood as the armored man seized his own rifle up from the floor and snapped it up to aim at Fira. But by now Fira was moving, darting off to the side and cutting loose with his plasma rifle, though doing his best not to hit the girl as he did so. To his amazement, the man dropped to his knees and rolled, dodging all of his shots. Coming back up, he opened fire and Fira could feel the hum of the bullets through his shields and armor as they whizzed by him. He sent another spread of plasma shots arcing towards his foe, but this human moved faster than Fira would have ever thought possible. Throwing himself flat, the man fired again as the shots soared over his head, singing the tips of his short hair. One of his shots connected with Fira, cutting his shield strength nearly in half with a single hit.

At that moment, the plasma rifle overheated. With a grunt of frustration, Fira discarded it and lunged for his opponent, drawing his energy sword with expert precision as he did so. The human fired what must have been the last two shots in his magazine; both missed and he discarded the rifle. Fira brought the blade down in an attempt to hack straight through his body armor, but the man managed to dodge that as well and drew a large handgun from his leg faster than Fira's eyes could track. A pair of powerful shots tore the rest of his shields away, leaving them both on equal footing as far as protection went.

Fira sidestepped a third shot and slashed again with his blade, but the human dodged away and took aim again. Closing the distance before his opponent could get another shot off, Fira lashed out with his left arm and struck the human's weapon with all his might, tearing it from the man's wrist and sending it flying across the room. But before he could even begin to capitalize on the advantage on the advantage, his opponent simply drew another, smaller weapon and sent a shot into Fira's left shoulder. Ignoring the sudden, stabbing pain, Fira stabbed at the human with his energy sword and cut the newest weapon cleanly in half.

Discarding the pieces of his ruined weapon just as quickly as he'd drawn it, the human dodged a second stab from Fira and actually moved closer, lashing out with his fists as he did so. Fira felt their impact on his armor and grimaced in pain as the blows' heavy impacts worsened the wound in his shoulder. Still forcing the pain away, he kicked out and knocked the human back several steps. With nothing left between him and victory, Fira lunged forward once more.

But this time the human drew a metal combat knife from his armor and met Fira's attack with a stab of his own. Fira easily sidestepped, bringing his sword up to hack the knife in two with the same ease that he'd destroyed the handgun. But without even losing momentum, the human stepped in as a second knife appeared in his other hand. Fira realized too late: the first knife had merely been a feint!

There was no time to avoid the lightning-fast blow. The human buried the knife hilt-deep in a small opening near Fira's waist, then twisted and slashed it out along his right side. Fira's control broke and he gasped in pain as his entire right flank exploded with agony. His energy sword dropped to the floor and deactivated as he clutched at the wound, purple blood oozing past his fingers and onto the dirty floor.

I shouldn't... I shouldn't be losing, he thought desperately as the human brought the knife back for a final, fatal stab to his neck. How could this human move so fast with such strength behind his blows? Was it possible that he'd undergone the same kinds of bodily augmentations that the UNSC's Spartans had received?

The knife came forward, but Fira brought his hand up to intercept it. The blade passed through his palm and punched through the other side of his hand, but Fira brought his long fingers down on the knife--along with the hand wielding it--and twisted sideways, sending the human crashing into the windowsill. Before the man could recover from the sudden impact, Fira hauled him forward and activated his energy gauntlet to finish things off. The human jerked at the last minute and the blade narrowly missed his neck and cut open his shoulder instead. Releasing the knife, he stumbled away from Fira and raised his uninjured arm to continue fighting.

Without even bothering to remove the knife from his palm, Fira brought himself in and slashed again with the energy gauntlet. The human came in with his own series of unarmed attacks, and for a moment they were locked together in a torrent of strikes and counter-strikes that tore their respective wounds open even more but did not decrease in speed or intensity. The pain was shooting throughout Fira's body, but his years of training and experience on the battlefield allowed him to ignore it and keep matching the human's ever attack with one of his own.

After what seemed like an eternity, they stumbled apart, each one momentarily overwhelmed by the intensity of the exchange and their gaping injuries. The human had gained a deep slash on his side as well as several cuts along the unarmored portions of his arms from Fira's energy gauntlet, but he seemed no less ready than Fira was to simply give up and let his opponent cut him down. Both of their armors were covered in purple and red blood; some from their own wounds and some from those of the other.

Fira forced his arms up and activated both of their energy gauntlets simultaneously. He'd need to end this fast now, and this time he wouldn't make the mistake of underestimating his foe. The human saw the motion and fought to do the same, though he seemed out of weapons or tricks to bring into the fight.

"Before you die," Fira grated. "Give me your name." It would be dishonorable to cut down such a formidable opponent without at least knowing their identity.

But the human merely wiped a trace of blood that had leaked from a cut on his forehead and into his eyes, saying nothing.

"Fira!" cried a voice from behind. Fira was experienced enough not to turn his back on his opponent even for a moment, but he started at Tuka's voice. The youth had managed to make it all the way here by himself, which was rather impressive, but Fira's wounds prevented him from dwelling more on his arrival. Readying his energy gauntlets, he attacked with a practiced pattern of well timed strikes that the human was only barely able to avoid.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something moving past him and towards Tuka, but before he could make out what it was the human kicked him in his injured side and knocked him back into a world of pain.

Tuka was so surprised at the human girl who appeared so suddenly in the midst of the brutal combat that he barely reacted when she brought a rifle to bear and opened fire on him. He flinched away as a series of fist-sized holes appeared in the remnants of the shattered door. The girl visibly gritted her teeth and tightened her aim. Tuka was frozen in place now, knowing that no matter what he did, he would die the moment she pulled her weapon's trigger. His hand twitched and he felt a tightness in his chest as he found that he could hardly breath. Had he really waited all those years, trained so hard, come all this way, just for this? Had Fira and Cassandra risked their lives to get him here just so he could die like any of the other rebels and mercenaries on this miserable battlefield?

"No," he whispered weakly. It was too soon...

And then there was a tremendous explosion and the entire building collapsed in an avalanche of metal girders and torn walls.

David Kahn clawed his way out of the building's wreckage with one hand while desperately trying to staunch the blood flowing from his wounded side with the other. His body was in more pain than it had been in in quite some time, and while he could more than handle the aching and the shooting pains from his wounds he couldn't help but be unnerved by the entire encounter. If that Wraith mortar hadn't hit just then, that Elite might have been able to finish him off back there. Kahn did not like to dwell on his own mortality, and the brush with it that he'd just had disturbed him far more than the gunfire and chaos of a battlefield ever could have done.

Behind him, Nimue had also scrambled out of the ruins. Though her face was scratched, her dark hair matted and askew, and her clothing covered in soot and dust, she had managed to make it out relatively unscathed and had even managed to keep a hold on her rifle in the process. Kahn considered punishing, or at least blacking her eye, for not retreating when he'd told her to, but at the moment he didn't feel quite up to meting out the usual blows that entailed disobedience. Besides, her reappearance had prevented that second Elite from joining in the fight and hitting her for coming to his defense just didn't sit well with Kahn.

Instead, he staggered away from the wreckage and looked back at the street. The enemy mercenaries had almost completely gained control of the street in front of where their building had been standing, and while Kahn could have blended in with them he doubted that Nimue's presence would pass without suspicion. He beckoned to her with the hand that wasn't clamped over his oozing side.

"Come on," he growled through clenched teeth. "Point Beta. Let's move."

She started to fall in obediently as she always did, but stopped in mid-step and looked him over. Her brown eyes, the most expressive parts of her somber face, widened.

"You're hurt," she said, tinges of concern and even fear creeping into her voice. Needless compassion like that was another thing that Kahn would normally have hit her for, but he realized that she'd probably never seen him in such a condition. Having to watch the person she'd looked to for guidance and praise for over half her life while he tried to keep from bleeding to death was probably the most shocking thing she'd seen on this battlefield.

He turned away and started limping down a nearby alley. "I'm... fine," he panted. "Now... get moving."

Nimue watched her mentor stagger away for a moment longer, then shouldered her rifle and followed loyally after him, hardly even acknowledging the bruises and aches in her own body as she rushed to catch up.

Tuka crawled out from under a chunk of roofing, at once thanking the gods for saving him and praying to them that Fira had also managed to make it out alive. The roofing that had fallen on him had actually protected him from most of the building's destruction and he only had a few bruises and extra tears in his traveling cloak to show for the collapse. The sounds of shooting were dying out now, but Tuka was still wary of hidden enemies. Unfortunately, his plasma pistol had been torn from his hand when the Wraith mortar had hit, so now all he had in the way of weapons was his own energy sword. Coughing soot from his lungs, Tuka got to his knees and cast his gaze about the area around the building in the hopes of catching sight of Fira. But his companion was nowhere to be found.

Tuka was just getting to his feet and gathering up his panicked breathing to call out for help searching the wreckage when he heard a scrambling noise off to the side. He whirled in time to see the silhouette of a small but armored human clamber over the remnants of a blown-out wall. Tuka cautiously reached for his sword hilt as the figure caught sight of him and slowly raised an assault rifle. Tuka readied himself to spring, his hand tight on his sword.

But just then he caught sight of the figure's left arm. Rather than being covered by the dark-colored armor that sheathed the rest of this human's body, it was completely bare for obvious reasons: instead of organic flesh and blood, it was a robotic prosthetic. A prosthetic that, while human in shape, certainly had a good deal of Sangheili materials built into it.

And the armor the human was wearing... Tuka had seen it before. He'd seen it back on Sanghelios when a human had put it on and left the Visag keep in a battered shuttle. That human had also had a prosthetic arm, one that the Visag machinists had forged to replace the one lost in the Jiralhanae slave camp where Roni had found him...

Tuka's breath caught in his throat as he struggled to make sense of what he was seeing. "Simon?" he whispered, hardly believing his eyes. "Is that really you?"

The human--Simon--didn't lower the gun, and for a moment Tuka feared that he might open fire anyway. But then the weapon's barrel went down and Simon's helmeted head cocked to one side.

"Tuka?" he said in a voice that, while certainly his, didn't seem right coming from the armored figure standing atop the low wall. "What are you doing here?"

And that was when a man in dirty body armor leapt up from where he'd been hiding and emptied a rifle clip into Simon's chest.

Chapter Eleven: Reunion

By the time she managed to drag a battered Fira out of the building's wreckage, Cassandra's forearms were bleeding from several cuts inflicted by the jagged metal pieces. Ignoring the mild pain, she pushed away more debris until she found his white-armored shoulder poking out from underneath a rusted girder. Around her, dozens of mercenaries were busy taking stock of the buildings they'd captured from the rebels and treating their own wounded. She considered asking for help, but decided against it. What was one more dead Sangheili to the mercenary troops anyway?

In spite of her silence, several of the soldiers stopped what they were doing and watched anyway as the thin young woman pushed aside large chunks of wreckage with relative ease. But even with her Spartan augmentations, Cassandra realized as she tried unsuccessfully to haul Fira's body onto the street that some of pieces holding him down would be much harder to remove. She had just looked around and seized a broken rifle to use as a lever when a pair of massive grey hands reached down and yanked the pieces aside as if they were made of cardboard.

Cassandra looked up to see the massive frame of an armored Jiralhanae looking down at her: Ro'nin's companion, Kenpachus. The warrior's armor was covered in dried human blood and the blade strapped to his back was equally gory. But the mercenary just grunted and stalked off, leaving her to pull Fira out onto the street.

His wounds were, thankfully, mostly superficial. Cassandra set her weapons aside and readied her medical kit while mentally prioritizing Fira's wounds. The first to deal with would be the gash to his side...

Ignoring the world around her, she raised the tools of her trade and got to work.

Tuka watched in silent horror as blood leaked out of the holes that had been punched in Simon's chest plate. The ex-Spartan's knees buckled, and he toppled without a word.

Tuka followed the body as it fell, stunned by his friend's abrupt reappearance and even swifter death. Was this what he had come so far to see? Had he left Sanghelios, promising Roni 'Visag that he'd bring Simon back to the keep, just to see him die now, right in front of him?

The body tumbled towards the dusty ground... and vanished.

Tuka blinked, now completely certain that he was dreaming. The rebel who'd open fire shared his alarm, taking a step back and looking furiously about himself. He backed up against a nearby wall, aiming his rifle in all directions in search of the person that he was certain he'd just killed.

There was a muffled hum, and then the twin prongs of an energy sword tore through the wall and up into the man's chest. With a gargling cry, the rebel pitched forward and lay still.

Tuka unsteadily got to his feet as Simon once again reappeared, this time from around the wall the rebel had been standing by. His rifle was strapped to his back and in his prosthetic hand he held one of the human-sized energy swords that Roni had ordered constructed for him.

"But," Tuka whispered, looking back at the spot where he thought he'd seen Simon die. "You were just..."

A small orb shot away from the spot where the dying Simon had disappeared and floated into the gauntleted palm of Simon's free hand. Tuka recognized it as a Sangheili-made holo-drone generally used for communications and training exercises. Somehow, Simon had managed to simulate himself and project his voice through that little orb. But that would have been impossible without a complex computer network delegating commands to the orb. How had he managed to get such a complex order through?

"Hologram," said Simon, voicing what Tuka had already realized. "I've been playing tag with that guy for almost an hour and I needed a diversion."

The two of them stood there, the human and the Sangheili, silently facing each other amidst the carnage and destruction. Finally, they spoke in unison, their languages flowing together into the same sentence: "What are you doing here?"

Knowing that Simon was stubborn enough to wait for an answer before giving one, Tuka continued. "I came here to find you." His words flowed quickly, stumbling over themselves as he hastily uttered them. He was still almost numb from Simon's sudden appearance here, on the battlefield where he thought he'd only be finding the next clue to uncovering his location. "I'm bringing you back to the keep with me."

Simon cocked his helmeted head, and Tuka hated that he couldn't read any expression behind that tinted visor.

"Oh," the ex-Spartan said, his voice as unreadable as his masked face. "That's it?"

"Well," Tuka said, puzzled by his nonchalance. "I'm hunting down Mallunus as well. I've found people to help me bring him to justice, but I promised Master Roni that I'd find you first."

"Ah. I knew there'd be another reason."

"And you?" Tuka asked, now slightly annoyed as well as stunned. "Why are you here, of all places?"

Simon moved his shoulders up and down, the human equivalent of a shrug. "I'm being paid for it, aren't I? Don't know how things are back on Sanghelios, but the pickings are pretty slim these days for freelancers like me. I need to get cash somehow, you know."

"You... you're a mercenary?" Tuka's mind flickered back to Roni's grave predictions about Simon's future.

"Well, I'm not one of these rebels. I hate Innies. But yeah, that's what I've been doing since I left the keep. Just me by myself, really." He looked around, probably making sure that they weren't being targeted, and crouched down. Tuka followed suit, not eager to be gunned down by more snipers.

Simon turned his visor back to Tuka. "Gets pretty lonely sometimes. Nice to see you again."

Tuka nearly breathed a sigh of relief at the belated acknowledgment of their friendship. For a moment, it had seemed like Simon barely remembered him.

"Excuse me," snapped a new voice. This one was also human, but female, and seemed to actually be emanating from Simon himself. "Did I hear that right? 'By myself'? After all we've been through and all I've done for you, you've still just been by yourself this whole time? Talk about ingratitude! If it weren't for me, you wouldn't even be around to have this little reunion party with your buddy in the middle of a war zone, dumbass!"

By this point, Tuka was getting fairly tired of confusing new developments.

Simon sighed, flexing his prosthetic arm. "My A.I.," he explained wearily, tapping what looked like a small data slot on the prosthetic's shoulder. "Diana."

"Your partner," the voice--Diana's--corrected haughtily. "I don't belong to anyone, especially not you, dumbass."

"She seems quite... animated," Tuka observed.

"Don't remind-- get down!" Simon hurled himself flat and Tuka followed suit seconds before a Wraith mortar sailed overhead and incinerated a nearby building.

"We've gotta move back!" Simon yelled, scrambling to his feet and beckoning to Tuka. "We're too far forward to talk like this!"

Without another word, he disappeared into the rubble. Tuka hesitated for a moment before another Wraith detonation made up his mind for him. Still limping from the building's collapse, the young Sangheili stumbled past the wreckage and made his way onto the street in front of it, which was now crawling with victorious mercenaries as they pressed further into the collapsing town. In spite of the ex-Spartan's lead, Tuka caught up with Simon at the edge of the road, where the human was standing stock still.

"What is it?" Tuka asked, moving forward. "Is something wrong?"

"Tuka!" someone called. "You're still alive!"

He saw Cassandra waving him over. She'd propped an unconscious Fira up against a broken wall, and Tuka felt a wave of relief that they were both still alive. Then he realized that they were the people that Simon was staring at through his faceless visor.

Cassandra must have seen them together, and her look changed from one of puzzlement to one of shock. Amidst the carnage and bloodshed, the two Spartans faced each other without a word.


Chapter Twelve: The Ship Master

From a distance, Famul was merely a vaguely attractive jewel floating amidst the stars. The trackless deserts that covered most of its surface were interrupted here and there by patches of green and blue: the sites of terraformed forests and grasslands along with the artificial lakes and oceans that nourished them. These colors joined together in an uneven spherical tapestry that drew the eye for only a moment before becoming as commonplace as all of the oxygen-less companions that traveled alongside it in its endless journey around their sun. Merely another planet amongst the billions of others that filled the galaxy.

But when you drew closer and your ship's sensors became useful, the picture became much more interesting. What had once been nondescript specks against the light of the planet were now spacecraft, transports and warships that drifted together in a parade of different sizes and origins. The largest of these were battered, Covenant-made cruisers and even a single carrier that dwarfed all of the others, but the rest ranged from smaller corvette and transport class Covenant ships to blocky, ugly human vessels to strange hybrids of both. This ragtag fleet drifted around the planet and its two moons, both of which were dotted with weapons emplacements and pressurized living domes.

And when you moved through the upper atmosphere and the ships that orbited within it, you found even more activity on the surface. Fishing vessels and hovercraft trawled the lakes and oceans while the plains and forests were covered by pre-fabricated living spaces, defensive positions, and marketplaces that teemed with all the species the galaxy had to offer. A similar panoply of small craft filled the skies with their patrols and flight patterns, which stretched from the upper atmosphere to paths that nearly brought them crashing into the ground.

There was all that, on this one planet.

And then, of course, there were the slave pits.

The vast majority of them were just that: pits. Holes in the ground with walls supporting walkways and guard towers that overlooked the unending misery that played itself out below. Those unfortunate enough to find themselves as the captives in those pits were just as varied in race as the denizens of the marketplaces, though these were mostly half-starved, bleeding, and naked. Those not slated for work duty or being prepared for an exhibition in the market did their best to find what shelter they could and avoid the hungry gazes of the armed Jiralhanae guards who stalked amongst them, Spikers at the ready to carve savage marks of punishment into those who drew their ire.

These monuments to squalid misery dotted the outskirts of the terraformed lands, outnumbering the settlements by almost two to one and forming barriers between the lush plains and the unending deserts.

This, then, was the planet Famul.

Far removed from the sights of the surface, back out to the point where Famul merely caught and released the eye, a silvery flash winked into existence against the twinkling backdrop of space. Faster than the eye could see, the flash expanded until it had formed a hole, one that led to a formless tunnel somewhere in the dimension known as Slipspace. That tunnel rapidly disgorged a single vessel, then vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

The craft that had emerged from the Slipspace rupture carried on towards Famul. Its curved, almost seamless form tore through the nothingness of space while from its handful of small hangars a squadron of Seraph and Banshee space fighters issued forth to form a defensive escort on all sides.

With its fighter escort now fully deployed, the Covenant-made corvette's engines flared and propelled it onwards towards Famul. With its purple-hued hull, it could have passed for any other light ships that had once made up the Covenant's massive navy--save for the strips of red coloring that had been spread across each of its sides and down its top.

Located at the corvette's prow, the command bridge was a hub of quiet activity. A handful of white and purple-clad Sangheili were scattered about the spacious room, all manning holographic terminals that linked them to the various functions that operated the vessel. A pair of white armored guards maintained a silent vigil over the bridge's single entrance, while three more were dispersed across all sides of the rounded control room. Apart from an occasional murmured exchange of information between bridge operators and the constant hums and whirs of its control panels, the room was completely silent.

A single presence dominated the room's center. Standing erect with both arms across his chest, a wiry Sangheili observed a large holographic display of Famul and its moons. Unlike the other warriors throughout the room, the white coloring that dominated most of his own armor had faded into an almost gray hue, and the orange finish that denoted him as a Ship Master within the Fallen separatist movement was barely visible at all. A strip of dark cloth had been clipped around his armor's neck-piece and fell to cover his right side all the way down to the waist. His yellow pupils narrowed as they scanned the hologram's analysis of Famul's ships and defenses.

One warrior strode from where he had been peering over the shoulder of a subordinate and approached the central hologram. This tall and powerfully-built Sangheili wore his white and blue armor with pride; every inch of its surface had been cleaned and polished until not a single scrape or smudge of grime could have possibly clung to it. He brought a muscular arm up to his chest in a salute.

"Ship Master," he announced, his fist still clenched over his uppermost heart. "All hands have reported in. No problems in the transition from Slipspace."

The Ship Master's gaze didn't waver from its study of the hologram. "And communications?"

The Fallen Ultra nodded, still not abandoning his salute. "They were established moments after we transitioned. The ones on the other side directed us to move the Renewing Fire into orbit around Famul's largest moon. Chieftain Mallunus will be awaiting your arrival aboard his flagship from there."

With a nod, the Ship Master turned away from the hologram and belatedly returned the salute. The Ultra allowed his arm to drop to his side.

"The ship is already on route to the moon," the Ultra reported, moving up to stand beside his commander. "I had the coordinates set once we broke off communications with the... communications officer." He spat out the title as if he were gagging on it.

"Very good," the Ship Master told him. His voice was calm, almost entirely devoid of emotion. "Send this report back to Chancellor 'Cazal: 'We have reached Famul and are about to make contact with Chieftain Mallunus. No complications to report.'"

"Understood, Ship Master." The Ultra moved as if to go carry out the order, then paused and moved back to the Ship Master's side.

"But please, before we go any further with this, tell me why we must come here and treat these savages as if they're our equals? Why must we ask them for aid?"

The Ship Master casually clicked his mandibles. "The Jiralhanae are formidable warriors, Umbra," he reminded his subordinate. "And Chieftain Mallunus has managed to scrape together an impressive fleet out here. He controls this entire system and his ships keep it safe from the Union's encroachment. If anyone can give our ships a safe haven, he can."

Umbra twisted his neck to one side in grudging acceptance. "But still, how are those apes any better than humans? This goes against everything the Fallen stand for."

"Desperate times, Umbra," the Ship Master noted with a trace of amusement. "Sometimes they call for desperate measures. A treaty with Mallunus here means resources and support for the Fallen." He abruptly left the bridge's center, striding towards the exit while gesturing for Umbra to follow him. The guards at the door saluted as they passed through the door. Umbra returned their salutes; the Ship Master merely inclined his head.

When they were alone in the passageway, the Ship Master continued. "As far as I'm concerned, all these old prejudices will merely hold us back from our goals. If we need the help of the Jiralhanae to achieve them, then I'll deal with as many of those creatures as I need to."

Umbra shook his head. "How can you say that when it was the Jiralhanae who slaughtered your clan?"

The Ship Master clicked his mandibles again. "They killed them, true. But others sent them into hiding. Others put them in harm's way. Those are the ones responsible for their deaths."

"I see." Umbra sighed. "I will go along with this then. For your sake, if not mine."

"Thank you. But continue complaining and raising objections. Not everyone on this ship shares my views on this matter."

They rounded a corner and the Ship Master stopped with Umbra coming up short behind him.

"Pula should be here shortly," the Ship Master murmured, half to Umbra and half to himself.

"So you're sending her out, then?"

The Ship Master nodded. "I have business of my own on Famul."

Umbra sighed again. "So not much longer, then."

"We won't be relying on the Fallen for too much longer, yes. They've rotted away and destroyed everything we fought for back on Sanghelios, Umbra. We can either stay and decay with them or we can use them as much as we can for now to further our own goals. At the moment, I prefer the latter option."

The Ship Master looked past Umbra and down the darkened hallway. "Ah, Pula. Thank you for joining us."

Umbra cast a startled glance behind him, but saw nothing. It was only when he heard the faint shimmering noise of a deactivating active camouflage cloak that he thought to look down by his feet. There knelt a thin young Sangheili wearing only a light shield-skin and bearing combat armor only over her torso, hands, and joints. If Umbra didn't know better, he'd have sworn she'd waited to reveal herself in that position just to embarrass him.

"Master," Pula said, her voice as quiet as a breath of air. "You summoned me."

"You understand the situation?" the Ship Master asked, and Pula nodded in silence response. "We approach Famul now. I'll be departing soon for Chieftain Mallunus's flagship, but there will also be several shuttles departing this ship for the surface to resupply. You'll be aboard one of them."

He pulled a small data chip from his belt and handed it down to her. "This contains everything I've already briefed you on, as well as some additional points of interest. If everything goes according to plan, you'll have almost thirty cycles to work in."

Pula accepted the chip and bowed her head even lower. "Understood, Master."

The Ship Master turned away. "Don't let yourself be detected. If you run into trouble down on the surface, you are not to be affiliated with the Fallen in any way."

"And if I can't avoid that, Master?"

Her mentor clicked his mandibles. "Don't kill anyone essential to the plan. Everything else is up to you."

"I understand, Master. I won't fail."

"Then get to it."

Pula bowed again, rose to her feet, and shimmered out of view once again. Umbra didn't even here her as she departed.

"You certainly put a great deal of confidence in that female," Umbra noted once he was somewhat certain that Pula was out of earshot. "If the Chancellor found out..."

The Ship Master shook his head. "Another example of prejudices limiting our potential, Umbra. Besides, the Chancellor finding out that my best agent is a female would be far less dangerous than him finding out exactly what I'll have her doing down there."

"I see your point," Umbra grumbled. "But we once fought to preserve the traditions of the Sangheili. That's why we've served the Fallen all this time, to preserve our people's way of life. But now you seem to delight at subverting those traditions at every turn."

The Ship Master turned back towards the bridge. "The idea that we can move forward in this twisted galaxy without evolving is foolish notion. It is one that I abandoned a long time ago, and it is one the Fallen have made the mistake of clinging to. It's the reason they're losing this war, if you haven't noticed already."

Umbra didn't follow his commander, but instead called after him: "You say you want to save the Sangheili, but you also say you want revenge on our government for what was done to your clan during the Schism and to your friends on Sanghelios. Which do you want more?"

The Ship Master didn't even break stride. "That's an easy one, Umbra. The ones I want vengeance on are the very disease that eats away at our people. Once they are removed, I won't be needed and you traditionalists can try restoring us to what we were."

He turned back and gave Umbra a cold smile. "But until then, I'll do whatever it takes to bring this rotten galaxy down around me."

Shinsu 'Refum, Black Knight of the Fallen and so-called final heir of the hero Sesa 'Refumee, vanished down the darkened hallway, leaving Umbra alone with his thoughts.

Chapter Thirteen: Two Spartans, One Sangheili... And Diana

Tuka did not like Diana.

Although he was not entirely sure as to exactly when he came to that conclusion, he did know that it had happened sometime between their hasty evacuation of the combat zone and the long dropship ride over to a small residential base that had been filled with awkward silence save for when Diana came up with a new pearl of wisdom to share with the cramped troop bay. While he had tried falling back on all the self-correcting meditations that he had learned over the course of his training, Tuka couldn't help but clench his mandibles together whenever the construct's voice emanated from the speakers that seemed to have been built into Simon's armor.

Even though most of his attention had been diverted by the still-unconcious Fira, who had been laid out on the floor of the troop bay while Cassandra continued to tend to his wounds, Tuka found it impossible to ignore the construct's opinions on nearly everything present in the troop bay, from Tuka's "rice paper" combat skin to snide comments on Fira's injuries. Not only was the incessant flow of insults testing Tuka's normally abundant patience to the extreme, it also seemed to be affecting Cassandra as well. From where she crouched next to Fira, the medic's shoulders would flinch every time Diana started a new sentence. And Tuka was afraid that this added distraction could prove dangerous for Fira as long as he was under Cassandra's care.

Ever since Tuka and Simon had found her stabilizing Fira, she'd been said next to nothing to anyone. Even requests for help came through simple hand gestures, and though she kept her attention on her patient Tuka could see her eyes darting over and over again towards Simon, who had been equally silent save for an occasional "Shut up, Diana" whenever his A.I. carried on for too long without rest.

Tuka was beginning to realize that he really didn't have any idea about what had passed between these two when they'd last parted. Cassandra had already said that she'd spent the past three years thinking that Simon was dead, so even with his own revelation that her friend was alive, she must not have been prepared for his sudden appearance. Whoever Mordred was, his help hadn't been necessary after all.

Kenpachus leaned his massive frame against a blown out prefab shelter and ran a finger down his massive blade while his irate partner paced irritably in front of him.

"How could you just let them leave?" Ro'nin demanded angrily, gesturing at the dropship-filled landing field. "You were supposed to delay them until I got back!"

"Didn't feel like it," the Jiralhanae warrior rumbled calmly. "None of 'em looked worth fighting anyway."

"You didn't have to fight them!" Ro'nin snapped in exasperation. "We had them right where I wanted them and then you just let them fly off!"

Kenpachus shrugged. "I don't see what the big deal is. Why are you so interested in them?"

"The older warrior has a bounty on his head, you idiot! That damn honor-snob's on a whole list of officers the Fallen want dead!"

"The older one?"

"That uptight snob! The one the building fell on top of! It would have been the easiest credits we ever had and you didn't lift a finger to stop it!"

"Maybe you should have told me about this earlier then."

Ro'nin glared at his partner for several moments, then allowed himself to relax a little. "You have a point there, I guess. Well, at least he's hurt now. And those idiots went off with Mordred. That runt will sell them out in a heartbeat once I offer him a cut of the bounty."

"If we're going after that one, then we're waiting around a while," Kenpachus said firmly. "I'm not attacking him while he's wounded like this, and neither are you."

For a moment, Ro'nin simply couldn't find the words to express his exasperation. "No," he muttered darkly. "Don't tell me you're..."

Kenpachus grinned. "Yeah, I am. That bastard took on David Kahn by himself and walked away. We saw it from that window. He's going to recover soon, and then you're gonna let me fight him. Once I've killed him in a fair fight, then you get the money."

Ro'nin shook his head. "You realize this is an 800,000 credit bounty you're giving up."

"Not giving up, just waiting on."

"Fine, have it your way." Ro'nin stalked away. "I seem to recall making a lot more money before I hooked up with you."

Behind him, Kenpachus's grin widened. "But isn't my way so much more interesting?"

"So," Simon grunted, slipping out of the shuttle's cockpit and into what appeared to be its common area. "Make yourselves at home. Don't trip over any of the crap."

Cassandra looked around the room. "It hasn't changed much in three years."

"Yeah." Simon swept a hand over a couch that had been bolted to the meta plated wall, sending dozens of bullet casings scattering across the floor. "It's still a shithole."

And as Tuka surveyed the common room, a small part of his mind agreed wholeheartedly with Simon's assessment. Yes, it noted. This is a shithole.

It was as if someone had taken the underground human sector of Cordial Harmony and condensed it into a single room. Having grown up amidst the meticulously cared-for gardens and well-furnished buildings of the Visag keep, Tuka was already inclined to feel that most of the materials that humans used for their buildings and ships looked dirty no matter how well maintained they were, and when, as was the case now, next to no effort had been made to maintain them, the effect was downright skin-crawling.

Clumps of dust and grime seemed to coat every surface, be it the uncomfortable-looking couch and chairs that were bolted to the wall, the wall itself, or the shuttle floor. Not that there was much of the floor exposed for filth to gather on. Most of it was coated by the dozens of weapons and other bits of gear that had been left lying across its expanse. Tuka had to step carefully to avoid treading on them, their composite parts, or the various types of ammunition that were strewn amongst them.

"Are you sure this is safe?" Tuka asked, pointing to two grenades that had just been left beside a plasma rifle. "Shouldn't all this be secured somewhere?"

Simon shrugged and tossed his helmet down onto the bench. It fell with a clang but remained upright, its cracked visor staring blankly up at the three of them as if someone's head was still in it. "I'll get around to it the next time I take off. None of the guns are loaded anyway, so just kick 'em out of the way if you need to."

"And the grenades?" Tuka wondered, doing his best not to touch the explosives as he walked by them. "Kick them too?"

"Yeah, you might not want to do that." Simon began unstrapping the myriad of pouches and holsters that adorned his armor. "Guess I should deal with those, come to think of it."

"Where'd all these come from?" Cassandra asked quietly, inspecting a human-made handgun. "I got rid of most of the Insurrectionist gear after you... left."

"Lots of this stuff lying around places like these," Simon replied, laying his accessories in a disorderly pile next to the helmet. "I just pick them up as I go along. I'll probably sell most of this stuff next time I hit a port, but till then it's good to have spares handy."

Tuka felt a small chill. "You mean you took these from fallen warriors?" he asked.

"Yeah, mostly. Why?"

To take the weapons and gear of warriors from the battlefield when there was no immediate need was dishonorable and was strictly forbidden by generations of Sangheili warrior creeds. Tuka and Simon had both learned that back at the Visag keep; they'd been in the same room when Roni had given the class. Perhaps humans felt differently on the matter, but Tuka would have hoped that Simon would have taken more of the master's teachings to heart.

Either unaware or uninterested in Tuka's consternation, Simon finished disarming himself by unclipping the two energy swords from his chest and dropping them down onto the waiting pile. Tuka actually found himself flinching at the callous treatment of what were supposed to be a warrior's most prized possessions.

"Fira's stable," Cassandra told Tuka, her voice still quiet. "I've sedated him, but he should be awake soon."

She turned to Simon. "I put him in the living quarters. I don't remember you doing much sleeping there before."

Simon shrugged. "Yeah, I hardly ever use that place. Might be some extra gear stashed away in there, but I haven't cleared it out in a while."

He sighed, running a hand through his shaggy hair and over the bandage that hid a brutal scar on his forehead as he sat down on the couch beside his gear. "Now let's get to the real issue: what are you two doing all the way out here?"

Cassandra moved to sit on one of the metal chairs, nudging a human assault rifle out of the way as she did so. Tuka followed her lead, squeezing himself uncomfortably into another chair.

"I thought you were dead," Cassandra said. "Those Brutes shot you back on Hekate right after you told us to take off."

Simon snorted, but a shadow seemed to pass over his already shadowed eyes. "A few hours later I was wishing they had killed me. I wound up in one of their slave camps, lasted a few weeks before some Sangheili warriors raided it and brought me out."

"That's what Tuka told me," Cassandra continued. "You lived in their keep for a while, right?"

"A while, yeah." Simon's voice was unreadable now, and Tuka wished he could glean more details about the ex-pupil's feelings from his face. "And now I'm out here. Getting by, keeping out of the UNSC's way, getting shot at all the time. Not much different from before, really. I tried looking for you the first few months, but that got shot down pretty fast. Diana said you were okay, though."

"That was nice of her," Cassandra muttered. "I was wondering if she'd told you I was dead out of spite."

"Oh, I don't report fantasies, Doc," came Diana's now-hated voice. "I'm afraid breaking the news about you dying to the dumbass here has always just been a pleasant little simulation I like running from time to time."

"Diana," Simon muttered, rubbing his neck wearily. "Did you cross-check all the systems?"

"Only three hundred and seven times," the disembodied voice shot back. "You don't have to worry about this junk heap falling apart until the next time we take off."

Simon sighed. "My own little corner of hell," he said to no one in particular.

"You mean our little corner of hell."

"Whatever."

Cassandra shifted in her seat. "It's good to see you again," she said in a voice that Tuka couldn't read. Though it was only for a moment, he thought he saw the shadows leave Simon's eyes briefly, but then he blinked and they were there again.

"It was good fortune we found you back there," Tuka put in. "We were looking for someone called Mordred to help us find you until you showed up."

Simon's eye flickered. "Guess your information was spot on, then."

Tuka blinked. "What do you mean?"

With a sigh, Cassandra leaned forward and rested her head in her hands. "Isn't it obvious, Tuka?" she asked. "Simon is Mordred."

"Yeah, nice deduction, Sherlock," Diana put in. "Who else would come up with such a dumb name?"

"But you were the one who suggested it!" Simon snapped irritably. "You said it would be a good cover!"

"I was joking, dumbass." It seemed that not even the bonds of partnership could protect someone from Diana's abuse. "I didn't think you'd actually take me seriously."

"I'll bet," Simon muttered angrily, before turning back to Cassandra. "How'd you guess?"

She shrugged, but the way her body was slumped made Tuka wonder if she'd been hoping her deduction hadn't been true. "The mercenaries who took us after you talked about Mordred a bit. The stuff they said about him wasn't too kind, and they just kind of reminded me of you. I guessed it when you showed up in the same place we were supposed to be after Mordred."

He jerked his head. "I needed something to operate under, and certain people told me to pick something distinctive." He shot a dirty look at one of the many cameras that Tuka noticed were bolted onto the shuttle's ceilings.

Simon looked back at Tuka. "So, you're going after Mallunus, huh?"

"Yes," Tuka replied, delighted to finally focus on the reasons he'd undertaken this journey. "I've graduated from Master Roni's swordsmanship school and I have blessing to hunt him down."

"You never said anything about this," Cassandra noted.

"I was more interested in finding Simon first," Tuka explained, though he felt guilty for not letting her in on the other reason for his quest sooner. "I never thought you'd want to help me with that as well."

"If Simon's going with you, then so am I," she said with another one of those determined sparks that seemed to strengthen her entire figure and make her look far more like a young Spartan.

Simon leaned back against the couch and flopped a hand down on the top of his helmet. "Well, who says I'm going?"

Tuka snapped back to his friend, shocked. "What?"

Simon looked away, but Diana was more than willing to respond over the intercom system. "You're taking on the Chieftain Mallunus, here, moron. We're not really interested in taking on suicide missions, and if you'd ever really known the dumbass here you'd have figured that out by now."

"Cassandra," Simon said abruptly. "Your patient, that bigger Sangheili. He probably needs to be checked on."

He stood and motioned towards a door that led into the shuttle's rear. "Tuka, we need to talk."

The rear of the ship turned out to be a storage bay for three cylindrical tubes with thick transparent casings and rows of buttons and monitor screens.

"Human stasis pods," Tuka marveled, momentarily distracted from the matter at hand. He reached out and touched one of the casings. "I've never seen these kinds before."

"Old models." Simon leaned against one and rapped his fist against it dismissively. "I'd get a lot of money for these things, but no one's buying these days."

He sighed. "Why did you come after me, Tuka? And above all else, why'd you have to drag Cassandra into this mess as well?"

"You never mentioned her back at the keep," Tuka protested. "Fate brought her to me before I even came close to finding you, and she was determined to come with me."

"And now what? We all go after Mallunus so that you can get that revenge you were always obsessed about?"

"Well, yes..."

"Do you know where he is? Do you know how many troops he has? Do you even know how you're going to kill him?"

Tuka was beginning to grow angry again. Clearly Diana's ability to do that had rubbed off on Simon since he'd been gone. But then again, it could be a good omen that Simon was being so frank with him. Perhaps he hadn't grown so distant after all.

And though Tuka hated to admit it, Simon had a point.

"Well.... no," he admitted, his ire flooding out of him with the statement. "I just assumed that things would come together once I found you. You did say that we'd help each other get our revenge." He added the last bit with a hint of reproach in his voice.

Simon sighed again and rubbed the back of his neck. "You seriously don't know anything about Mallunus?"

"It's not as if I didn't try. There's next to nothing on him in any of the government files or reports I looked at before I left Sanghelios."

"I hate to break this to you, but the Sangheili really suck at keeping tabs on people like him." Simon straightened and looked up into Tuka's face. "Mallunus runs one of the biggest slaving operations in the galaxy."

Tuka blinked. "What?"

"Yep. He's based on some rim world called Famul and he controls pretty much the largest Brute force outside of the Covenant. What he doesn't make off of slaving he gets from just about any other shady deals you could think of. Weapon selling, drug smuggling, ship stealing, you name it. And he's not just working with Brutes here. He's helped tons of rebel groups get their hands on military tech and he controls the largest pirating fleet aside from the Syndicate."

Simon paused and narrowed his eyes. "Are you sure you didn't find anything on him?"

Tuka was aghast. "No, nothing."

Simon closed his eyes. "Roni found me in one of Mallunus's slave pits. I was only there for a week, and I still remember a lot of things..."

He shook his head. "The point is, you'd need an army to take out Mallunus. You'd need a fleet just to deal with his planetary defenses, and then hundreds of guys to get you in if you wanted to kill him personally. All you've got now is yourself, Cassandra, some warrior who just got himself beaten half to death, and Diana and myself if and only if we decide to tag along."

Simon looked away, and for a moment his expression softened and he looked more like the lonely pupil that Tuka had befriended back at the Visag Keep rather than the callous mercenary he had just met. "I know how much this means to you Tuka, but you should let it go. You don't have a chance in hell."

It took several moments for Simon's words to register with Tuka. He looked away from the ex-Spartan and scanned the cryo room, as if the answer to his sudden problems lay somewhere in the corner. Finally, he took a step back and shook his head, fighting to keep from trembling.

"How can you say that?" he demanded, finally letting his irritation with Simon leak into his voice. "How? You once told me how much you wanted justice for yourself, for all the things that were done to you. You said that it was your reason for living. How can you just tell me to abandon my whole reason for training, for coming out here..." His voice trailed off as frustration got the better of him.

"Tuka," Simon said quietly in a voice that Tuka couldn't remember him ever using. "Did I ever getting around to telling you who I want revenge on?"

Tuka cocked his head. "Of course. The rebels who used you and betrayed you and..."

"Yeah, I want Venter dead. But there are others. Quite a few of them, actually. And you know what they all have in common?"

"No, I..."

"They're all UNSC."

For a moment, Tuka couldn't find the words to respond to that. His mandibles opened and closed as he searched for something to say, but all that came out was: "Who?"

A shadow crossed over Simon's face as a savage smile replaced his soft expression and an almost wicked gleam appeared in his eyes. "Some guys called Mendez and Ambrose for starters. The ones who turned us all into killers and stole any chance for a peaceful life we might have had. And there was someone named Ackerson who was behind it all. I know that much anyway. I want him dead too. While I'm at it, let's throw in everyone who ever authorized or worked on the Spartan program. That puts me after the heads of... oh, maybe the entire ONI high command."

Tuka didn't know what to say. Someone--a friend, no less--was standing in front of him and spouting off what amounted to a declaration of war against his people's greatest ally. Why hadn't this come out sooner? Had this really been inside of Simon all this time and they'd just never discussed it?

"And why stop there?" Simon continued, his face lapsing into a look bordering on serenity. "I watched the UNSC's troops butcher my friends on Mamore, remember? They slaughtered everyone who didn't want to be part of their little political system anymore, and the kids who took me in after my own squad left me to die got caught up in all that. I saw the bodies, or what was left of them. So why don't I just pull down that entire system and help blow it to hell just like they did to Mamore? That brings me to a few hundred thousand people's blood on my hands and I can call it even. Justice for Simon, right?"

And then the shadow was gone and he just looked tired again. "Doesn't sound reasonable, does it?"

Tuka breathed again. "So that's how you..." he murmured, a part of him finally coming to grips with what Simon was talking about.

"It's impossible, unreasonable, and insane." Simon turned and headed for the door. "But I still have to live with it. I still want it. I'm not telling you to let go, Tuka. You just need to accept that the things we want aren't possible."

Back in the ship's cockpit, Diana's schoolgirl avatar looked away from a video feed from the cryo bay and smirked at the cockpit's other occupant. "I told you, didn't I? I've always told you, Doc, and you never listen: You can't save this dumbass."

Standing above the holo-tank, a white-faced Cassandra refused to look at the smug AI. "That doesn't prove anything," she whispered. "And you make it sound like you want him to keep suffering like this."

Diana shrugged. "Keeps things interesting," she remarked. "It's a bit like watching a roller coaster, really. You never know when he'll be normal and when something will set him off."

Cassandra looked down at Simon's frozen image. "He shouldn't have gone away with you," she said coldly. "He was getting better before you got your claws back in him."

The schoolgirl hologram raised her hands in a mocking shrug. "Hey, it's not like I force him to do this stuff. He's the one who chooses to keep doing it."

"I'm going to save him," replied Cassandra resolutely. "I'm not letting him get away again. Not this time."

"Well good luck with that, Doc," Diana sneered. "But you're going to find that our little dumbass is a lot more stubborn about this stuff than you give him credit for."

After leaving the cryo bay, Simon stopped briefly in the living quarters to retrieve his helmet. The small paging device on his gauntlet had been flashing, meaning that someone needed to talked to him. Slipping the helmet on, he activated its heads up display and answered the call.

A familiar voice crackled over the speaker, practically hissing with irritation. "Mordred! Do you know how long I've been trying to contact you?"

"Oh, it's you," Simon replied, recognizing the voice immediately. "What do you want, Ro'nin?"

The Sangheili mercenary hissed impatiently. "Those three who were looking for you. They're on your ship, right?"

"Now how would you know about that?" Simon asked the question casually, but alarm bells were already going off inside his head. When someone like Ro'nin kept tabs on you then it was best to keep your guard up at all times.

"Kenpachus and I were the ones who were guiding them to you."

"So it's you two I have to thank for my unwanted house guests."

"We could deal with one of them for you if you want."

Simon frowned. "What's going on here?"

"The older Sangheili with them has a price on his head, 800,000 dead or alive. If you let us in after him, we'll give you a ten percent cut."

Simon began heading for the living quarters, the place Cassandra had stabilized the "older Sangheili" in question. "Tempting. That's what, 80,000 just to let you guys into my shuttle?"

"You won't find easier credits anywhere else."

Inside his helmet, Simon allowed himself a small smile. "Sounds nice. Too bad the other two are buddies of mine, so this time I'm going to have to tell you to go to hell."

There was a pause before Ro'nin snarled, "What?"

"You heard me. We'll do business some other time, okay?"

"This is more credits than you make on any one of your pathetic jobs!" Ro'nin barked over the com. "How are you growing a spine now of all--"

Simon terminated the call and stepped into the living quarters. As the door slid open, he shook his head and muttered, "This honor crap is terrible for business, Tuka. This had better not get me killed."

"So you're going along with this?" demanded Diana over his helmet feed. "You'll help him take on Mallunus?"

Removing his helmet, Simon headed towards the bunks. Though he would never admit it to Diana, Tuka and Cassandra's joint reappearance had awakened things within him that he'd long since thought he'd abandoned, namely all those concepts about honor and loyalty that had been so alien to him, in more ways than one, back at the Visag keep. But again, he wasn't even about to start uttering words like "honor" around Diana.

"I still owe that guy a little payback of my own," he said, unwrapping the bandage from around his forehead to reveal the jagged scar left by a Brute Chieftain's energy sword back when he'd still been a Spartan. "Besides, if we take Tuka to Famul we'll have a shot at one of the richest planets outside the IU. There's a jackpot there just waiting to happen if we play our cards right."

Diana snickered over the intercom. "I bet you're just doing this so you can get laid with Cassandra."

"Go to hell," Simon retorted, but there was no hostility in it. He rounded on a bunk that had been fitted with medical equipment; it was time to see if he could get some information out of this older Sangheili who was worth so much.

But he stopped short in his tracks. The bunk was completely empty save for a few bandages stained by purple blood.

"Looks like you'll be going there a bit sooner than I will," said Diana cheerfully. "I'd look behind you if you want to live, dumbass."

Simon heard a sharp intake of breath behind him and sensed a shift in the air as someone behind him tensed for an attack. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a wall of grey and white hurtling towards him and he whirled to face his attacker.

"Oh shit," was the first thing to come out of his mouth before an angry Sangheili barreled into him and pinned him square against the quarters' back wall.

"Demon!" Fira 'Demal snarled. "Die!"

Chapter Fourteen: The Knight and The Beast

"Hey, boss, check this out!"

Redmond Venter looked up from the sidearm he was cleaning. "What is it?"

The man in charge of monitoring ship traffic around Famul gestured towards his display of monitors. "We've got that big Brute flagship maneuvering out of orbit!"

With a snort, Redmond returned to his cleaning. "And this interests me how?"

"Well, it looks like it's got to do with that corvette that dropped in system a few minutes ago. Looks like a shuttle's going from the corvette to the carrier."

"Mallunus's social schedule isn't my problem," retorted Redmond, inspecting a piece of the gun testily. "Far as I'm concerned, nothing that goes on around this place is my problem unless shit starts blowing up."

"If those markings on the corvette are any clue, I'd say it's with those Fallen guys," the ship monitor carried on, undeterred by his commander's lack of interest. "Wonder what they're doing around here?"

"The same thing we all are," Venter shot back. "Making a profit. But since the Syndicate's spent the past few weeks ignoring us than that's not true because we're not making any profit at all out here."

"There's more to life than profit, sir," the monitor replied, momentarily waxing philosophical.

"Yeah, sure," muttered Venter irritably. "In case you hadn't noticed, we make our living by fighting now. If the Syndicate isn't going to give us some targets than I may as well go back to picking the targets for us instead."

The monitor decided to end the conversation before his boss got out of hand. "I'll see if our contact has anything new tomorrow, sir."

"Whatever." Venter threw down the gun piece in disgust. "Damn, I miss the old days. While you're at it, see if Mallunus has any jobs to throw out. Right now I'm so bored I couldn't care less who we wind up working for."

"Will do."

So this is how the Humanity Liberation Front ends up, Venter thought irritably. On some second-rate freighter waiting to eat out of some alien's hand. Sometimes he regretted finishing off the Insurrectionist movement's leadership, but then again they'd been half a step from putting him down themselves. At least now he was the only one giving himself orders."

"And where the hell is Peter?" he demanded aloud. "I haven't seen that little punk in days."

"Um, well he went down to the surface, sir. Said he wanted to poke around a bit."

Venter let out another snort. "I wonder how many people that kid's killed down there already," he muttered. It was a good thing that people got killed all the time on Famul, or he might actually be worried about his bloodthirsty protege.

The Insurrectionist closed his eyes and sighed. Yeah, he'd been missing the old days a lot more usual lately. It was a lucky thing that things got far more interesting shortly after that, or there might have been no telling what he'd have wound up doing to entertain himself.

"Approaching Chieftain's Pride now," the pilot's voice rang through the passenger bay. "We are cleared for a landing in the main hangar."

From where he stood next to Shinsu, Umbra snorted. "Chieftain's Pride," he muttered scornfully. "No deeper meaning, no reflection at all, just how proud he is of his little fleet."

Shinsu said nothing, but this response was so common that Umbra knew not to take it as an implied rebuke. His leader was simply not interested in joining in on his derision, but that didn't mean he couldn't vent a little on his own. "It's no wonder these animals are being driven from the civilized galaxy," he went on. "They care for nothing except their own petty lusts and accomplishments."

"And yet our ultimate target is the civilized galaxy," Shinsu replied, which caught Umbra off guard. "I see no shame in being shunned by that well of corruption."

"But even so," Umbra protested. "To throw our lot in with the likes of these vermin..."

"Their punishment will come in due time," Shinsu murmured. "But they all have their roles to play first."

The ten other warriors in the bay, all wearing the colors of Fallen special forces, didn't respond, but they all nodded their silent approval. Of the crew manning the Renewing Fire, only a rough third were loyal to the Fallen movement. The rest took their cues from Shinsu and served the Fallen only because he commanded it. They were all veterans, survivors from the Sons of the Preserving Blade or former Fallen devotees who had fallen in with Shinsu back on Sanghelios. They had been hardened by the fires of war, fires that had extinguished the flame of devotion to the Sangheili culture that had first driven them to take up arms against their own people. They had watched as the Sangheili government's twisted alliances with the rest of the galaxy choked the life out of their friends and families and how that twistedness had begun to corrupt even the culture and movement they fought to defend. And they had all emerged bearing an unending hatred for the galaxy that had spawned such corruption and filth.

These were the warriors of Shinsu 'Refum, Sangheili who didn't need propaganda or messianic promises to follow their leader. They fought and died for Shinsu because every last one of them believed in the cause he represented. Even reluctant adherents like Umbra would give their lives at Shinsu's word in a heartbeat if he were to ask it of them.

In time, the remaining crew of the Renewing Fire would come around to their way of thinking or they would die.

Umbra clicked his mandibles and folded his arms. "If you say so," he muttered. "I'm having the pilot keep our weapon systems warm all the same."

The shuttle they rode in had once been a humble Phantom dropship, but by now all that remained of the original Phantom was the troop bay itself. Everything around it had been stripped away and enlarged until the shuttle was three times the size of its dropship progenitor and mounted enough plasma cannons and missiles to rival that of any assault gunboat. There were two more of them aboard the Renewing Fire, and just one could lay waste to entire brigades of enemy forces. From what Umbra had heard, Shinsu had gotten the idea for them after watching a similar human vessel rip apart a crowd of Sangheili back on Sanghelios.

"Entering the Chieftain's Pride's hangar now," the pilot reported. "Be ready; there's a lot of Jiralhanae out there."

"Of course," Umbra muttered. "Wouldn't want Mallunus to miss his little show of force, would we?"

He stepped to the front of the troop bay and the ten special operations warriors quickly followed suit. Shinsu eyed the display appraisingly.

"Shows of force, you say?"

Umbra gestured at the as yet unopened bay door as the shuttle shuddered and passed through the hangar's shields. "He needs hundreds of warriors to make his point. We need only ten of ours."

Shinsu adjusted the strip of cloth that hung about his armor and moved into his own position. "What's Pula's status?" he asked.

"She boarded the first supply ship that reached the Fire," Umbra replied. "It will take her down to the surface shortly. She'll be doing all the real work while we keep Mallunus occupied up here."

The shuttle ground to a halt, and every warrior in the bay straightened expectantly.

"Opening bay door now," the pilot reported.

As the door slid open, Umbra saw that Mallunus had indeed taken the opportunity to make a show of force. The hangar seemed to have been cleared of the vessels it would regularly service, and in their place stood rank upon rank of Jiralhanae warriors. While their armor and weapons lacked any uniformity to speak of, they stood at motionless attention on either side of the shuttle. Umbra remained unimpressed, and took a step down the shuttle's ramp. As he did so, he noted the Kig-Yar and Unggoy that lined the hangar's upper walkways. There were even a few pairs of Lekgolo frames here and there amidst the bystanders.

The Sangheili escorts marched down to the bottom of the ramp and reached the greeting party that waited below. Coming to a halt, Umbra gazed upon Chieftain Mallunus for the first time.

Even with all his practiced contempt, Umbra couldn't help but be impressed. The chieftain towered a full four heads over him, clad from head to toe in ornate body armor that scarcely contained his enormous frame. Two small eyes peered down at the Fallen delegation from behind a helmet that made the chieftain seem even taller than he already was. Had Umbra not been escorting his commander, he might have taken a few steps back. Instead, he merely stepped aside and allowed Shinsu to approach their enormous host.

"Chieftain Mallunus," Shinsu said, inclining his head respectfully. "Chancellor Urei 'Cazal sends his regards."

"Interesting words, coming from the Fallen," Mallunus rumbled. "But I accept them nonetheless. And for him to send Shinsu 'Refum, the Black Knight of Sanghelios, is an honor in and of itself."

"It's rare for someone not of the Fallen to have heard of me," Shinsu said with an easy grace that Umbra envied. His leader was quite good at hiding his true feelings under the veil of a skilled diplomat. "I am little more than a mouthpiece for Chancellor 'Cazal."

Mallunus snorted. "I highly doubt that. The tales of your exploits from the battles on Sanghelios are most enjoyable."

Umbra clenched his mandibles tightly at the thought of a savage such as this entertaining himself with the struggles of far more worthy warriors. But if Shinsu felt the same way, he didn't show it. Instead he inclined his head once more.

"The Chancellor sends his assurances that his only enemies are those who have made themselves enemies of the Sangheili people. He holds you and your achievements in the highest regard."

Mallunus indicated the assembled warriors. "A gesture I fully appreciate," he declared. "What you see before you is the greatest force of Jiralhanae assembled outside of those deluded fools within the Covenant."

"And it is exactly that fact that has led us to your doorstep," Shinsu replied smoothly. "Of all those not taken in by the Interspecies Union's web of corruption, you are the strongest."

"And the strong naturally attract other strong ones to them, eh?" Mallunus boomed. "I trust that our dealings together will be quite profitable. But that is a discussion for later. For now, I have quarters prepared for you and your entourage. I trust you'll find them accommodating enough until we can begin our negotiations?"

"We look forward to enjoying your hospitality." Shinsu motioned to Umbra, who quickly signaled the other warriors to fall into line behind them.

"He's far too trusting," Umbra gloated the moment they had swept their new quarters for listening devices. "All we need to do is stroke that ego of his enough and he'll be eating from our hands!"

Shinsu leaned against the wall, barely acknowledging the lavish suite that Mallunus had prepared for them. Instead of listening to Umbra, he was examining Pula's first report from Famul's surface. "It seems that there are other persons of note here as well," he said, almost speaking to himself. "Apparently our visit coincides with that of a high ranking member of the Syndicate."

"That human group?" Umbra groaned. "Don't tell me we'll be dealing with them next."

"Mallunus will be more than happy to arrange a meeting with us, so long as he stands to profit from it in some way," Shinsu continued. "Their support for our cause will be welcome."

"For whose cause, ours or the Fallen?" Umbra demanded.

"Ours, of course," Shinsu muttered, still reading the report. "The spies we have within human space aren't nearly efficient enough. A partnership with the Syndicate will change all that immediately."

He looked closely at the report. "And one more..." he murmured before turning to Umbra.

"Contact the Cleansing Fire and have it set up communications with an organization called the Humanity Liberation Front. They should be somewhere in orbit right now."

Umbra saluted, but didn't hide his consternation. "They sound like just another human separatist movement. Why contact them?"

"Their leader, a warrior named Venter, interests me. I'd like to meet him personally."

Chapter Fifteen: A Failure to Communicate

Simon's enhanced reflexes saved him by milliseconds. He twisted his head sideways just far enough so that the energy gauntlet that Fira had clumsily attached to his right arm buried itself in the wall rather than his forehead. He could smell the stench of his hair burning from the heat of the blade.

"For my clan," Fira hissed. His mind was still hazy from his injuries and the painkillers Cassandra had injected in him, but he was quite sure of one thing: the Demon before him must have taken him prisoner. For all he knew, this unnatural warrior had killed Tuka and Cassandra long the way. "For my people. Die, Demon!"

He was about to stab again with the gauntlet when he felt the press of something cold against his bare chest. Looking down, he saw the Demon's fist pressing against his dark skin.

"Cool knife," Simon wheezed, still dazed by the sudden attack. "Got one of my own."

Fira blinked. "You lie."

"Spend a lot of time around... you guys..." Simon's voice was faltering from Fira's left forearm, which was pressed tightly against his throat. "Picked up a few... tricks."

Fira might have been dazed and angry, but he wasn't suicidal. "You'll die before you can do me real harm, Demon," he spat, his woozy mind trying to come up with a way to kill his opponent without winding up dead himself.

"Wanna bet?" Simon gasped, his head twisting about furiously to get space between his neck and Fira's arm. "I'm not ready to die just yet, pal, but I promised myself something a long time ago."

"Promised what?" Fira's arm tensed. If he could shoot forward fast enough, he could slit the Demon's throat before he could activate his own gauntlet. If indeed he even had one...

It was a risk, he decided, that he was willing to take.

To his surprise, a faint smile crossed Simon's strained features. "Guy who takes me out... goes to hell with me," he panted, and Fira felt the Spartan's fist tighten against his belly.

The time for talking was over. "Let's test that theory," Fira snarled, and his gauntlet blade shot forward.

"Fira!" cried a desperate voice from behind him and Fira instinctively flinched. The blade went wide again, marking a new slash in the wall beside the first.

Fira looked over his shoulder to see that Tuka and Cassandra had both burst into the room. Tuka was unarmed, but Cassandra had pulled out her sidearm. She held the weapon loosely at the ready, looking torn between aiming it at him or setting it down.

"Tuka?" Fira asked, his hazy state beginning to get the better of him.

"Fira, let go," Tuka said, looking strangely desperate. "Simon, please don't kill him."

Surprised, Fira looked back at his human captive. With a start, he realized that while he'd been so focused on the right arm--the one with the supposed gauntlet blade--that he'd forgotten to check the left as well. The dull grey prosthetic was raised up to his neck, and in its battered fingers sat the smallest human sidearm that Fira had ever seen.

That was why the Demon had kept on talking, Fira realized as he began to feel dizzy. He'd been buying time while he inched the gun into position.

A whole host of questions flooded into his mind then, and rather than deal with them the exhausted Fira simply released the human and fell over backwards, unconcious before he even hit the floor.

Simon crouched over the motionless Fira, massaging his throat and gasping for air. Tuka ran over to check Fira's vitals while Cassandra remained in the door, her sidearm dangling limply at her side.

"Nice guy you brought aboard," Simon wheezed, struggling to his feet. "Any other psychos with you guys that I should know about?"

"He's just confused," Tuka explained hurriedly. "He never saw you before he was injured. He probably woke up and drew the wrong conclusions when he saw you."

"Seemed more than that to me," Simon muttered. "He was going on about his clan and his people, not you two."

"I'll talk to him," Tuka assured him. "I'll find out what the problem is."

Cassandra moved in. "Get him back onto the cot," she told Tuka. "I'll need to check him again to see if he opened any of his wounds."

Simon stepped aside to give Tuka space. "And to think I was just about to start helping you," he muttered, returning his miniature pistol to the small compartment on his leg armor.

Tuka's gaze whipped up. "You were?" he asked incredulously. "But you just said..."

"It might be more possible than I figured," Simon said with a noncommittal shrug. "I'm not doing anything besides consider it right now. Getting jumped in my own ship really threw me for a loop."

"I apologize for my companion's actions," Tuka said quickly. He didn't feel quite right taking responsibility for a senior warrior, but he wasn't about to let Simon's tentative offer to help slip away.

Simon snorted. "You're not the one who should be apologizing," he said, glaring up at one of several cameras mounted in the living quarters. "Diana! Why the hell didn't you warn me about that guy sooner?"

The construct's voice snickered over the speaker. "I wanted to see how things would go, dumbass," she said playfully. "I didn't think you'd go down that easy, and I was right. And it was fun watching you deal with him, so everything's good on my end."

"You're not the one with a sore throat and an aching back," Simon muttered. Tuka was puzzled that he didn't put up more of a fight, and even more puzzled to learn that Diana was willing to put her partner's life in danger like that.

"She let you walk into his ambush?" he asked incredulously. "For her own amusement?"

"Yeah, she does that sometimes," Simon grumbled. "You get used to it after a while."

He looked over at Cassandra, who was now checking up on Fira. "I'm guessing you're still coming along for the ride too?" he asked wearily.

"As long as you're going, I'm staying with Tuka."

"The place Mallunus runs," Simon warned. "You're not going to like it."

"I help run a medical clinic in an underground slum," she retorted. "I can handle hellholes."

"If you say so." Simon turned back to Tuka. "Once she finishes up with your psycho friend, stay with him until he wakes up. If we're using my ship for this then I want to know he's not going to try slitting my throat while I'm asleep."

"Alright," Tuka agreed. He had learned enough about Simon's way of looking at things now to know to ignore his insulting prediction of Fira's means of attacking. "But I have a shuttle as well. We came here on it."

Simon snorted. "Fly it over here tomorrow, but I've taken this ship to Famul a few times before. It's known there, which means they'll be less likely to blow it to pieces when we come in range of the defenses."

He turned back to Cassandra. "There's something I want to show you," he told her, then shot another glare at the camera. "Alone."

"Doe she seriously try to get you killed on a regular basis?" Cassandra demanded, descending a ladder into the shuttle's weapons locker, which was hidden under the common room's floorboards."

"If this is about Diana, just drop it," Simon said from below her. "It's never too serious."

"You could have died back there," she shot back, reaching the bottom of the ladder. "I'm telling you, she's not stable. She's a smart A.I. and it's been years since she should have gone completely rampant."

"She did some modifications while we were in cryo," Simon said, rummaging around in some crates. "She stabilized herself and avoided rampancy altogether."

"And how do you know for sure?"

"Look, she's saved my life more times than I can count," Simon said wearily. "Without her, I'd be royally screwed out doing the jobs I take on. Not many mercs have even a dumb A.I. to work with."

"And how many of those times was she saving her own skin as well?" Cassandra asked, folding her arms resolutely.

"She doesn't have skin--"

"Come on, Simon. How many?"

He sighed. "Just about all of them," he admitted wearily. "Look, I know you don't like her, but she's the only friend I've got out here. Just give it a rest, will you?"

"She's a bad influence on you," Cassandra persisted. "Whose idea was it to go mercenary?"

"What are you, my mother?" Simon demanded. "And it was my idea to go merc. We needed the cash, and this is all I know how to do."

"We could always use extra security at the clinic," she told him hopefully. "The Fallen are getting more nasty every week back on the colony we're set up on."

"Damn, you're stubborn," Simon grunted, turning back to the crates.

"Well, I learned from the best," she retorted.

"Here we go," he muttered, pulling a final crate out of the pile. Cassandra let him change the subject, knowing it was pointless to keep going right there.

"What do you want to show me?" she asked, walking over to peer into the crate.

"You left a little something when you gave Diana the shuttle back," Simon replied, pulling a battered helmet out of the crate. "Look familiar?"

Within the crate lay the stacked pieces of what could only be Cassandra's old SPI armor. She immediately recognized her chest plate, which bore the insignias of both Team Kopis and Team Jian, the two squads she had belonged to back in Gamma Company. When she'd left the shuttle, she'd hoped to leave her past behind as well, so she'd neglected to take the armor with her.

"I've cannibalized most of it," Simon admitted. "So don't expect its old performance, but it'll hold up better than that flak jacket you're dragging around."

"Doesn't look incomplete to me," Cassandra murmured, taking her helmet and running her fingers down its dented surface.

"Well, half of my armor is basically scavenged from your original," Simon told her. "But I got replacement parts in case I ever needed a second suit."

Cassandra frowned. "Replacement parts?" she asked. "From where?"

Simon shrugged. "I let some machinist firm take a look at the design, asked 'em to replicate a few components. Within the month they were mass-producing SPI knock-offs for the black market and giving me discounts on all the pieces. I've got tons of spare parts lying around now."

"You gave the SPI armor to criminals?" Cassandra asked, thunderstruck.

"Don't worry, the camo systems didn't work on mine when I brought it in and they sure as hell aren't in the knockoff design." Simon rapped a fist against his own chest-plate, which he was still wearing. "It's basically a different model of ODST-style gear with a slightly better HUD. The Innies aren't going to be getting an edge on their ops from it, and the only thing the criminals are really getting is the proceeds from the sales."

It was just like Simon, Cassandra noted, examining her old helmet, for Simon to hand you a gift in one hand and a dose of amorality in the other. You never really knew exactly what was going on in that head of his, to be sure.

"Well, thanks, I guess," she said.

"Yeah, don't mention it." He flopped down onto another crate and pulled a knife out from within it. "This is the only place Diana can't listen in on, so feel free to drop down here if you really can't stand her."

Cassandra looked at him curiously. "Is that what you do?" she asked.

Simon scraped the knife's blade against his prosthetic arm. "Nah, I handle what she throws at me. She's not as bad as you think she is."

Cassandra found her own crate to sit on, resting her helmet in her lap. "You mean handling when she tries to get you killed?"

"That doesn't happen all that often," Simon protested. "And how the hell is it that we don't see each other for three years and then we wind up arguing about Diana?"

"You've got a point there." Cassandra sighed. "To be honest, you haven't changed all that much."

"Yeah, well neither have you."

"How'd you lose your arm?"

He frowned. "When I was in the Brute slave pits. I pissed some chieftain off one time too many, so he just ripped it off. That was right before Tuka's clan leader rescued me and brought me back to their keep."

"Oh."

"I'm not looking for a pity party," Simon muttered, leaning back against the bulkhead. "I can do that fine without your help."

Cassandra looked at him, bracing herself for the question she was about to ask and the answer she might receive. "Do you really want Mendez and Ambrose dead?" she asked quietly.

Even in the dark of the weapons locker, she could see his eyes narrowed. "You heard that?"

"Diana was very happy to screen your talk with Tuka for me."

"She would be." He paused. "This is embarrassing."

"No, it's frightening. You were talking about destroying the entire UNSC back there."

"I was just trying to get Tuka to figure out how crazy his whole quest really is. You haven't known him long enough yet, but the guy's as naive as they come."

"It really didn't sound like that to me," Cassandra said. "The last time we talked about this, you said that you didn't want revenge on anyone."

"Sure, I said that," Simon sat up. "I still try to tell myself that. But the dreams just keep coming. I can't forget all the things that happened back then, and I can't just wish away all that pain either. It's always there, no matter how hard you or I or anyone else tries to knock it out of me."

"That's the real reason, right? Why you couldn't stay with Tuka? Why you can't come back with me?"

He looked away. "Yeah, I guess so. As much as I tell everyone else how much of a coward I am, all I really know how to do is fight. Anything else, and I become restless and the memories really go at it with me. This way I can at least stay focused without wanting to go on some suicide revenge mission."

Cassandra looked back up at the ladder. "I really want to help you," she said quietly. "Ever since Hekate, I've wanted to help you."

He sighed, but didn't look back at her. "You should save yourself some time and quit while you're ahead. I'm too far gone for that now. You still have a chance at getting out of all this."

"Don't say that."

"It's the truth. Out of all of us kid soldiers from Gamma, you're the only one who can get a halfway decent life out of this mess."

She sighed. "I'm not giving up on you just yet."

He got up. "Suit yourself."

He was halfway up the ladder before he stopped and looked back down. "Don't get yourself killed once things get messy, OK?" he said, his voice bearing a note of uncharacteristic concern.

"I'll be fine," she assured him.

"Yeah, sure," he muttered. "But I'm glad you're out here."

And without waiting for a response, he had vanished back up into the common room.

"Words cannot express how sorry I am."

Fira looked up from inspecting Cassandra's work on his injuries. "If you keep saying that," he said wearily. "Then I actually will start being angry with you."

"I didn't give you enough information on why I was looking for Simon," Tuka continued, regardless. "I hardly talked to you at all about that part of my quest. And you could have killed him. Or he could have killed you. Or both."

"Or Cassandra could have shot me," Fira noted. "It's just a hunch, but I'm guessing that she's a former Spartan as well?"

Tuka lowered his head. "How'd you guess?"

"Like I said, just a hunch. When did you find out?"

"She told me after we found Simon." Normally Tuka wouldn't have even considered lying about something like that to a senior warrior, but with Simon's tentative agreement to help still fresh on his mind he wasn't about to jeopardize his quest over a small detail like that. As the most experienced fighter on the ship, Fira's support remained critical, particularly with Simon's new information on Mallunus.

"Hm." Fira seemed more intrigued than angry, all things considered. "Two of them running around. I wonder what this means...?"

He shook his head. "And you say the male one, Simon, came from your keep?"

Tuka clicked his mandibles apologetically. "Master Roni brought him back from a raid on a Jiralhanae slave camp. He never said why he wanted to train him, but he put him in with the rest of us trainees and treated him as if were another Sangheili."

Fira's eyes narrowed and he said nothing, so Tuka hazarded a question. "It was foolish of me not to realize this before, but why do you hate Spartans?"

"The same reason you hate Mallunus," said Fira, his eyes flashing with old anger. "Most of my clan was killed by them. With no disrespect to your kaidon's decision, but they're unnatural creations, not true warriors."

He looked back down at his treated injuries. "And now I owe my life to one," he muttered. "This galaxy gets stranger every day."

Tuka looked closely at his benefactor. "So what now?" he asked carefully.

Fira clicked his mandibles brusquely. "If what you've told me about Mallunus is true, than I should at least journey to this Famul place to gather information on his faction. It's a testament to how furious this war with the Fallen has been that we haven't even heard about something this large."

He began inspecting the gauntlet he had used to attack Simon. "Besides, I'm not letting someone as promising as yourself just go off with a ex-Spartan mercenary into the hive of scum that this Mallunus has created. Wherever this path ends, I'm going to see it through."

Chapter Sixteen: Mordred the Weasel

Kenpachus had seated his massive frame on an even larger ammunition crate and was staring out unhappily from a prefab roof to the hangar where Mordred's shuttle was docked. "I thought you said you'd let me fight him," he complained to his partner, who was standing beside him.

"Oh, give it a rest," Ro'nin replied, looking down at the street below. "You'll get your precious duel with that honor-snob in due time. This is just going to help me figure out how hard it will be to arrange that."

The street he was looking at was gradually filling up with a small crowd of mercenaries. Roughly half were Sangheili, but some of the more influential ones had brought Unggoy and Jackal flunkeys with them as well.

"These freelancers are just going to go in and see what kind of defense they throw up," Ro'nin explained, keeping his voice low so that his potential contractors couldn't hear him. "I want to see how serious Mordred is about protecting them."

"And if their defense isn't adequate?" asked Kenpachus, still unconvinced.

"This is Mordred we're dealing with here," assured Ro'nin. "He may not be the best fighter out there, but when it comes to saving his own hide then he's the best in the business. These idiots aren't going to be able to even put a dent in that coward's ship."

"How's this going to help you look at their strength?" Kenpachus demanded. "That slime will just run away the moment he sees this group coming for him."

"He'll have to prep his engines first," said Ro'nin, feeling quite pleased with himself. "That young fool's always a step away from being creditless. That ship's systems are worse than what the humans had before the war. And while he's busy with that, we'll see how the others defend their ship."

"That Fira had better not wind up dead from this," Kenpachus warned.

"I wouldn't worry if I were you." Ro'nin gestured at the assembled mercenaries. "I'm not expecting all that much from this bunch."

He stepped to the edge of the roof and waved his plasma repeater in the air for attention. "Now listen up!" he bellowed, secretly hoping that Mordred didn't have any friends in the area to hear him. Not that he expected the little weasel to actually have anything close to a friend in the galaxy.

"Your target is in the main hangar complex! Bay 4 is where you'll find a shuttle belonging to the human called Mordred! I want you to board it and bring an adult Sangheili to me, alive!"

One of a pair of two burly Sangheili, the foremost members of the group, shook his head. "Don't you have a better description than that?" he demanded.

"There's only two Sangheili, and one's barely a warrior at all," Ro'nin told him. He wasn't eager to start throwing Fira's name around, in case any of these fools had heard of the Fallen bounty as well. "The one I want is wounded, and I want him alive. He dies and no one gets paid. Understand?"

"What about Mordred?" a Kig-Yar demanded. "Who else do we need to worry about?"

"Mordred, that younger Sangheili, and some human female. I really don't care what you do to them, just bring the injured Sangheili to me without injuring him any more."

The Sangheili who had spoken up frowned. "What's so important about this one?" he asked suspiciously.

"I've got some personal business with him," Ro'nin said, lying through his mandibles. "I owe him a little payback and I don't really feel up to going in after him myself tonight."

"Well, good," the Sangheili replied. "My brother and I have some personal business with Mordred and that wretched partner of his."

"Shouldn't have cheated us out of all those credits," the mercenary's partner, who was evidently his brother, agreed. "Shouldn't have broken his contract with us and left us to deal with the Syndicate's Expeditionaries all by ourselves."

"Do whatever you like with him," Ro'nin told them. It would be a shame to lose as potentially valuable an asset like Mordred could be, but the little runt really shouldn't have turned his initial deal down."Like I said, I really don't care what happens to the others."

He raised his voice again. "A hundred credits for every one of you!" he called out. "And five thousand to the one who brings me that Sangheili!"

The crowd cheered, and Ro'nin turned away to suppress a smirk. These idiots really had no idea how little that money would mean to him once they'd brought him Fira.

"I'll be going along," he told Kenpachus. "Watch from a distance, maybe get in a little sniping practice while I'm at it. Coming?"

"Guess I don't have much of a choice," Kenpachus grumbled. "I still don't like this."

"You don't like anything," said Ro'nin cheerfully. "Like I said, you'll get that duel that you're obsessing over all of a sudden. Just leave it to me."

"So," said Diana, her schoolgirl face smirking as Simon threw himself down into the cockpit's pilot chair. "What did you and Doc have to talk about that you didn't want me hearing?"

"If I didn't want you listening in then, what makes you think I'm going to tell you about it now?" Simon asked irritably, rubbing the bruise that had formed on his neck where Fira had hit him.

"Because if you don't I'll keep bringing up embarrassing things about you whenever she's around," she said, her voice infuriatingly smug. "And I'll also keep asking you about it till you tell me."

"You are such a little kid sometimes, you know that?"

She snorted and did a small twirl on the holopad. "Well next to me you're about as smart as a two year old, so I guess it takes one to know one, eh dumbass?"

"If it makes you happy, we spent a good half of the conversation talking about you," her partner grumbled. "Because that's all I really have to talk about with Cassandra. You're the only thing that's ever on my mind."

"Oh, you shouldn't have," she sneered, waving a hand at him in false embarrassment. "Tell me the truth, dumbass, did you really spend all that time talking about little old me?"

"I'm sure you're reading my voice patterns right now, so you know if I'm lying or not."

"But you're so good at lying, dumbass. You're just about the only person I can't read like a book. It's why you're so fun to be around."

Simon tugged a pistol from its hiding place under the control panel and began inspecting it angrily. "She doesn't like you and you don't like her. End of discussion. And I don't appreciate you sharing my private conversations with other people."

"Oh, she brought that up? I just think you're so fun when you go all psych and I wanted to share the fun with someone."

"Well find someone else to share it with. Like I told her, I was just trying to prove a point with Tuka back there. I'm not really planning on blowing away the UNSC and dancing in the ashes."

"But you can dream, right?"

"Oh, shut up." He shoved the pistol back into its hiding spot. "Between this and that stunt you pulled with that nut Tuka brought along, I'm pretty inclined to agree with Cassandra about you right now."

"Oh, but you know you'd be dead without me," she said, her smugness deepening. "Not to mention lonely."

"I'd find someone else," he muttered, but the threat was hollow and they both knew it.

"Who, like Doc? She's still going on that whole business about 'saving you' or something, by the way."

"I'm aware."

"It must be so frustrating to have a girl throwing herself at you like that and not being able to do anything about it," she said in mock sympathy. "You must be the only mercenary out here who's still a virgin. So sad."

"What the hell does an A.I. know about something like that?" Simon snapped. The day's events had been steadily diminishing his usually abundant patience for Diana's antics.

"More than you do, apparently," she laughed, blowing a kiss with her holographic hand. "Like I said, you're probably doing this whole Mallunus suicide mission to impress her."

"You make her sound like she's as gullible as Tuka," Simon said, smiling as a thought came to him. "Come to think of it, she's the only one who's ever pulled one over on you, isn't she?"

Diana's good humor vanished instantly. "Meatbags don't 'pull things over' on me," she said coldly, tossing her scarf over her shoulder and flashing a shade of green. "She just behaved in a way I wasn't expecting her to."

"Sounds the same to me," Simon replied, beginning to enjoy himself.

"All she did was yank out my data chip!" Diana protested. "There was no brains involved there at all, just that meatbag body of hers!"

"And you apparently spent the next few months at the bottom of a cargo crate." Now it was Simon's turn to smirk. "I wish I'd been there to see that."

"Yeah, well I never did figure out what the hell she was up to those few months," said Diana grumpily. "She could have been anywhere on this scrap pile for all I know, seeing as she wiped its logs clean before giving it back."

"Somehow, I really don't care what she was doing," said Simon, and he meant it. "But you two are playing nice for now--"

He stopped mid-sentence as an alarm began to sound on the control panel. Frantically, he dove forward and searched for its source.

"The bay security system we set up!" Diana's body flashed dark red, all traces of levity gone. "Multiple contacts assembling outside the door!"

"What the hell?" Simon shot to his feet and dashed towards the common room. "Get the ship ready for launch now!"

Tuka darted out of the living quarters and into the common room, nearly colliding with Cassandra as she emerged from the weapon locker. He blinked at the new set of armor she was wearing, which looked to be of the same design as Simon's. "Where-" he began just as Simon sprinted in from the cockpit.

"Get ready!" he yelled, running over to the shuttle's ramp and punching in the code to lower it. "We've got a whole mess of people trying to get into this bay!"

"How do you know they're enemies?" asked Tuka, puzzled.

"People do not drop by this shuttle on social calls!" Simon yelped, seizing his helmet from where he'd left it on the couch and beginning to re-strap his equipment onto his armor. "Now grab a weapon and get ready to start shooting!"

"A weapon?" Tuka asked, still catching up with the situation.

"They're all over the place!" Simon was practically howling. "Just kill anything out there that isn't one of us!"

He vanished down into the weapons locker as Cassandra, who had donned her helmet, grabbed one of the submachine guns up from the floor and dashed to the open ramp. After another moment's hesitation, Tuka looked around wildly and found a battered plasma repeater leaning against one of the chairs. Praying that it worked correctly and that his minimal experience with ranged weapons didn't get him killed, he lunged forward to join Cassandra in a firing position.

The intruders that had sent Simon into such a panic had already entered the bay and were all darting towards the open ramp in a single disorganized crowd. Tuka had time to pick out at least ten Sangheili along with an assorted dozen Unggoy and Kig-Yar before they spotted him and opened fire. He ducked back inside as poorly aimed plasma and needle shots splashed and bounced off of the shuttle's hull.

Both he and Cassandra opened fire. They didn't even need to aim at first, merely shooting in the general direction of the oncoming mob and letting the attackers' own disorganization do the rest. Tuka saw a reedy Kig-Yar take one of his plasma shots in the eye and collapse without a sound. That's two I've killed now, he realized and wondered if this would ever get any easier.

Cassandra was faceless inside her armor as she mowed down a pair of Unggoy, and Tuka wondered if she was experiencing the same doubts he was. But that was ridiculous. She was a Spartan, and according to Simon they'd been trained to do just this since they were extremely young. Surely she was used to fighting like this, particularly when her opponents weren't even her own species.

The attackers scattered then, still firing off their wild shots that struck the ramp and the hull without coming close to either the human or the Sangheili defending it. The rapid response seemed to have caught them off guard, but though they were still completely uncoordinated they were also now far more difficult to hit. Another one of Tuka's shots struck an Unggoy in the arm, and the diminutive creature howled as it was trampled by its companions. The attackers seemed to give no heed to each other's problems, each one focused solely on themselves and their own efforts to bring down the ramp's protectors.

A noise behind him caused Tuka to turn in time to see Simon clambering back up out of the weapons locker. He'd slung an assault rifle over his back and was struggling to pull up a human-made sniper rifle that was almost as tall as he was. Stumbling towards the ramp, he threw himself down flat and began making adjustments to the rifle.

"Which way?" he demanded. With his helmet on he was even more unreadable than usual, but Tuka could hear the fear and anxiety in his voice.

"To the left!" Cassandra called back, emptying the rest of her clip into a Sangheili's shields and ducking back in to reload. Simon adjusted his aim to match her instructions.

"You're too far in!" Tuka yelled at him. "How will you hit anything?"

"They can't hit me, either," was all the explanation Simon cared to give.

A moment later, a full-grown Sangheili warrior appeared out of nowhere and charged up the ramp. Tuka heard the boom of Simon's rifle and instinctively ducked, but the round missed its target completely. Simon cursed, then fired twice more in rapid succession. The first of these clipped the warrior and only damaged his shields, but the second punched a gaping hole in the attacker's body and sent it tumbling back down the ramp.

"How we doing, Diana?" Tuka heard Simon yell, but whatever the A.I.'s response was it was hidden inside his helmet communicators.

"Shit!" Simon yelled in reaction to Diana's unknown reply. "They're trying to get underneath the ship!"

"They won't be able to hit us then," said Tuka. "How long till we take off?"

Simon moaned in frustration. "They're not just going to wait under there!" he yelled. "They're going to try to damage my ship from below, or they'll get together and just rush us!"

"Does the ship have defenses--?"

"No!" Simon practically wailed. "Do you know how expensive those are to--"

The telltale sound of a plasma grenade detonating cut him off mid-rant. Releasing an impressive torrent of swear words in both human and Sangheili, Simon abandoned the sniper rifle and moved up to join Cassandra at the ramp's end.

"Perhaps you can distract them with those holo-drones," Tuka suggested, pointing to where three of the orbs were clipped to his armor.

"I need Diana to coordinate them if I want anything close to a convincing holo," Simon growled, readying his assault rifle. "And she's busy launching the ship."

"Then we'll have to go out there and rush them," said Cassandra. "We can throw grenades to disorient them and then use the ramp as cover."

"We'll have about ten seconds before they wise up and flank us," Simon warned, looking down the ramp. "Besides, since when did you turn into such a commando?"

"Working at a med clinic turned out to be a lot more violent then I thought."

"Huh." Simon leaned back towards the common area and used the business end of his assault rifle to pull a small box towards them. When he opened it, Tuka saw it was full of small human grenades.

"Light explosives and flash-bang only," Simon warned. "I'm not blowing a hole in my own ship."

Cassandra seized up a few, as did Simon, but Tuka hesitated. He'd barely operated plasma grenades before, let alone human ones, and he didn't know where to even start when it came to using them. Simon saw his uncertainty and shook his head.

"Just watch our backs and don't let them get behind us," he told him. "Cassandra, ready?"

"On your mark," she replied, slotting a new clip into her submachine gun."

"Let's go!"

The two Spartans darted down to the hangar floor on either side of the ramp, hurling one grenade after the other in under the shuttle where it seemed the attackers had been regrouping. Tuka heard a series of loud thumps followed by loud howls as he darted down after them and scanned the rest of the hangar for movement. It took all his training and concentration not to look back at the humans as their own weapon fire mixed with a series of scattered plasma and needle shots that followed and tore all around the ramp.

There was a sudden bellow: "MORDRED!" A torrent of heavy blue plasma beams tore through the air around Simon's side of the ramp, forcing him back into cover.

"My brother and I will tear you to pieces!" the voice howled over the sounds of the firefight. "You will pay for your treachery, worm!"

"Aw, shit," Simon muttered, slotting a new clip into his rifle. "Those guys."

"Who?" asked Cassandra as she fell back to reload as well.

"The 'Tened brothers. Just a couple of morons who think I scammed them a couple months back."

"And did you?"

"Not as badly as they say I did," said Simon unapologetically as the plasma rounds continued to shoot around the ramp. "It was only a few thousand credits."

"I don't think they care how much you stole from them," Cassandra shot back, firing blindly around the ramp's side. "That guy's got one of those mobile plasma turrets and he doesn't sound too happy with you."

"He's gotta overheat that thing sometime," Simon muttered, crouching on the ramp without bothering to return fire. "Looks like we cleaned out most of the little guys back here at least. Just the tough ones left now."

As if to qualify his statement, a pair of the "tough ones" darted out from behind the ramp on Simon's side. The two Sangheili warriors leveled their weapons as both Simon and Tuka spun to target them. Their combined plasma and projectile fire cut the first down in seconds while the other leapt to the side and fired wildly with his plasma rifle. A pair of his bolts caught Tuka in the chest and his shield flared, cut in half by the attack.

Simon swore as his weapon ran dry and tugged out one of the pistols strapped to his armor. "Back aboard," he yelled. "Fall back!"

Tuka and Cassandra scrambled to obey. Tuka stumbled and dropped his plasma repeater halfway up the ramp but didn't bother to retrieve it. Behind them, the warrior tried to bash Simon's head in with his plasma rifle. The ex-Spartan stepped back to avoid it and tripped over his own legs, falling backwards onto the ramp. Desperately, he drew one of his energy swords from off his chest and slashed off both of his opponent's legs. The crippled Sangheili howled and fell, giving Simon the opening he needed to get back onto his feet. He was halfway up when he stumbled at the exact spot that Tuka had tripped over. With a startled cry, he fell to his knees and flung his prosthetic left arm up to balance himself.

It was an accident that probably saved his life.

From out of nowhere the thin beam of a beam rifle shot forward and neatly skewered the prosthetic. Simon yelped as he saw the neat hole that had been drilled in the replacement arm and began firing wildly at the hangar's open roof with the pistol in his right hand. "Sniper! Cover, cover, cover!"

Tuka whirled, finding himself square in the middle of the ramp's opening with no weapon to speak of aside from his own energy sword. As Simon scrambled up the ramp, one of the largest Sangheili he had ever seen bounded around the side of the ramp and drew his own energy sword. "Mordred! Die, you miserable vermin!"

From his position on the rooftop, Ro'nin growled irritably as one of those idiot 'Tened brothers blocked the shot he'd been about to finish Mordred off with. Trying to get a better angle with his beam rifle, he watched as that younger Sangheili who'd been with Fira leapt down and began slashing away at the 'Tened swordsman with impressive finesse. Ro'nin refocused his rifle's sights in time to see Mordred crawl past the two dueling Sangheili and back into the shuttle. Moments later, the younger Sangheili feinted and opened a hole in the 'Tened brother's defense, which he immediately exploited and ran the larger warrior through.

"Impressive," Ro'nin muttered. But it didn't matter in the long run. He focused his sights on the young warrior's lightly armored chest and smiled humorlessly.

"And then there were three."

But just then, a memory stirred from a few hours before when they'd all been traveling to that battleground on the dropship together. My name is Tuka 'Refum. I was trained and raised at the Visag keep.

Ever know of a Sangheili called Shinsu?

I've never heard that name before...

With a sigh, Ro'nin lowered the beam rifle. A moment later, the younger warrior, Tuka 'Refum, vanished inside and the ramp shut. The shuttle shook like an awakening beast before raising itself into the air and shooting out of the hangar. Several of the surviving mercenaries weren't fast enough getting clear of the ship and were fried by the backdraft from the engines. Then the shuttle was gone entirely, leaving a hangar filled with corpses in its wake.

"See?" he asked Kenpachus, who was seated beside him on the roof. "You had nothing to worry about."

"But now they're gone," the Jiralhanae pointed out. "Hunting them down isn't going to be any fun at all."

Below them, a howl sounded throughout the hangar as the surviving 'Tened brother cast aside his plasma turret and raced over to kneel beside his brother's hacked corpse. The warrior's head was bowed in grief as Ro'nin raised his beam rifle one last time.

"A favor for you, Mordred," he murmured, sliding his finger over the firing stud. "And probably a favor to you as well, 'Tened."

The beam cut through the 'Tened's head and sent him slumping forwards over his brother. Ro'nin scanned the hangar for any other survivors and saw none. His last shot seemed to have been a slight favor for both his credit account and his reputation amongst freelancers as well.

"So how do you plan on finding them?" demanded Kenpachus, who was not so easily deterred.

"Simple," replied Ro'nin. "Mordred just took off without paying off his landing fees. He'll have to stop off at one of the orbital stations the mercenary companies have set up around here if he doesn't want a bounty on his own head. Plenty of the officials up there owe us some favors, and no one up there likes Mordred very much. All I need to do is make a few calls and we'll know exactly where he's headed.

Kenpachus snorted. "If you say so."

"I know so." Ro'nin slung his beam rifle over his shoulder and headed off the roof. "So come on before they can prove me wrong."

Chapter Seventeen: Stirring the Hornet's Nest

Redmond Venter nodded approvingly at Shinsu's quarters. "Mallunus really set you up nice here, didn't he?"

Sitting across from the human rebel, Shinsu inclined his head. "The chieftain was most generous to allow us to conduct our business on his flagship." He was speaking in a human dialect that was very nearly accentless.

Venter laughed and took a swig from one of the dozens of intoxicants that Mallunus had provided. Shinsu and his Sangheili entourage had quietly refrained from touching the stuff, but Venter had been more than happy to not only enjoy the exotic beverages during the meeting but also to volunteer to take the remaining bottles back for the enjoyment of his crew. "Well, old Mallunus is just one bleeding heart of generosity here, now isn't he? That's why my crew's here, and that's why everyone else is too. He's always happy to do you a favor long as you can do some for him in return."

Standing on the far side of the lavish room, Umbra was fighting to keep his misgivings about all this out of the way. After years of serving faithfully under Shinsu, he'd gotten used to not finding out about his commander's plans until the last moment. That was just how Shinsu worked, keeping all the thoughts and ideas to himself until he was ready to start implementing them. But as far as Umbra was concerned, what had started out as a simple diplomacy run for their temporary Fallen superiors was splintering into a game of political and strategic maneuvering around Famul that only Shinsu seemed to know the rules to or the objective of.

Weren't we just here to negotiate with Mallunus for the Fallen? Wasn't Pula supposed to be the only one working on these side jobs? Umbra had already decided that he was going to discuss things with Shinsu the moment this human had left their residential suite. No matter how loyal he was to his commander, he couldn't just stand by and watch these dealings go on without at least knowing something about what was going on.

"I gotta say though," Venter was saying between gulps of liquor. "What the hell does a Fallen hotshot like you want to talk to me for, anyway? The way I figure it, everyone just minds their own business and keeps things tight with their own species. It's complicated enough like that without having to figure things out with people who's brains aren't even built like ours. No offense."

"You can't truly operate out here and believe that as well," replied Shinsu. "The planet we orbit now is a living testament to how little species has come to matter in these times. Less than two decades after your kind was fighting for its survival against nearly every species in the known galaxy, we find places like this that literally team with integrated business relationships."

Venter chuckled. "Yeah, well to us, ah, business-minded people there's no point in ruffling each other's feathers over some crap that went down that long ago, right?"

"Indeed."

Finishing his drink, Venter tossed the bottle into a far corner of the room and seized another one up from the table. "So anyway, unless inviting strangers over for drinks is some kind of weird cultural thing for you squid-heads, I'm guessing there's something you want to talk to me about?"

Had the human not been Shinsu's guest, Umbra would have killed him in an instant for using such a demeaning term for the Sangheili. But Shinsu didn't so much as blink.

"Of course," he said, casually smoothing a crease in his robes. "I've heard things about you, Venter. Is it true that you once fought with the human government?"

With a snort, Venter opened his new bottle. "Lots of those 'human governments' out there, you know. I'm guessing you're talking about those UNSC assholes, in which case, yeah, I fought them for a while."

"But you no longer do that? I heard a rumor that you worked for the Syndicate now."

"My boys take some jobs from those guys from time to time. Just to pay the bills, y'know?"

Shinsu leaned forward. "So you still plan on continuing your fight against the UNSC."

Leaning back in his chair, Venter laughed. "Yeah, I wish. This whole Interspecies Union thing really put an end to all that. Terrible for the whole freedom fighter business. I mean, look at you guys."

"And what do you mean by that?"

"You're Fallen, right? The whole point of your little cause is that you hate us inferior humans messing around in your business. And yet here we are, enjoying each other's company."

Shinsu nodded. "Well noted. The entire premise of our mission here violates the fundamental ideals of the Fallen, though I feel that it's safe to say that this particular group will not be around for much longer."

Umbra was watching Venter carefully, and he noticed that though the human's posture remained slack and casual, his eyes were now narrowed and alert. Clearly Venter enjoyed playing the careless rebel, but there was something more behind those eyes of his. A strange hunger...

"You don't care about the Fallen, then?" asked Venter. "From what I've heard about you, you're a pretty big hotshot with them. The 'Black Knight of Sanghelios', right? We've heard about you, even over UNSC channels. You've done your share of damage to them as well."

"My goals have changed since then," said Shinsu evenly. "Though I might ask the same of you. Rumor has it that the Humanity Liberation Front was wiped out by an internal struggle... one that you triggered."

Venter shrugged. "We had a few conflicts of interest," he admitted. "More of, well, a budget dispute, you could call it. Once I was in charge, I tried being something I wasn't and then that was it for the Front, more or less."

"So you no longer care about your cause?"

"Like I said, this whole IU business really messed that up. I just have a feeling in my gut that there won't be much of a place for rebels in the near future and I just want to make sure I end up someplace where I can fight."

Shinsu's mandibles parted in a small, rare smile. "In that case, I have a proposition that should interest you a great deal."

The battered Pelican dropship rose out of the Chieftain's Pride's expanded service hangar and dropped from the flagship and into the unending torrent of minor traffic that spread out above Famul's atmosphere. Inside the troop bay, Venter quickly opened a secure channel to his ship's radio operator.

"What is it boss?" asked the startled officer.

"Get everyone to ready stations." Venter's voice trembled with barely contained excitement. "I want the ship ready to move out in five hours."

"What's going on?"

"We've got a job," Venter said. "To hell with all this sitting around. You heard from Peter yet?"

"Still no word. I think he's dropped off the grid again."

Venter waved a dismissive hand. "We'll get by without him for this op. Just get everyone ready for a combat op."

He paused, and looked down at a list of coordinates that Shinsu had given him. "A long combat op."

Back in Mallunus's guest quarters, Shinsu remained seated, staring intently at a small hologram of Famul. "So it begins," he murmured.

Umbra could stand it no longer. "Forgive me lord, but this is going too far!" he protested. "That human is about to destroy this entire operation!"

"I beg to differ," replied Shinsu calmly. "He is about to make this operation a resounding success."

"But you've ordered him to strike Famul's orbital defenses!" Umbra was practically yelling now. This was the closest he'd ever come to directly opposing his commander--any commander, for that matter--but he wasn't sure if he could stand any more of what seemed to him to be a colossal lapse in judgement, if not sanity.

"Precisely. He will wreak a good deal of havoc on those targets and, more importantly, he will live to tell the tale."

"Our mandate here is to negotiate with Mallunus, not start a rebellion on his planet!"

"Interesting. Weren't you the one who was opposed to the whole thing a short while ago?"

Umbra sputtered, trying to form the right words. "When the Chancellor hears of this, he will take your head! You're forgetting that not every warrior back on the Fire is loyal to you!"

Shinsu's voice hadn't lost its calm, sensible air. "The Chancellor is a fool who thinks that the Fallen, compromised as they are, can survive in this galaxy. He proved that when he approved this mission."

"But we still need them!" Umbra felt as if an invisible hand were clenched around his neck, slowly choking the life out of him as he stood by, helpless. "Where else will we get new recruits, supplies, safe harbors..."

"What you fail to understand, Umbra," Shinsu interrupted coldly. "Is that our war is no longer about the Sangheili. It is places like this that will provide us with those things you speak of. This wretched underworld that the galaxy has cultivated will suit our purposes quite nicely."

Umbra blinked. "You can't mean that."

"I mean every word. I thought I'd made this plain to you before, but allow me to repeat myself: the Sanghelios we once thought we knew is dead. Perhaps it never even existed. We cannot save our people, nor the galaxy, without a reformation that is embraced by all. That is what this operation is about. We will conquer this underworld and in doing so we will gain the means to topple every government and organization that has corrupted the universe. The Fallen no longer matter. The Sangheili no longer matter. If you still fail to grasp this, then it will be best for you to leave my company immediately."

For several moments, Umbra could only stare at Shinsu, his mandibles as slack as his arms, which hung limply by his side. Finally he straightened and gave Shinsu a stiff salute.

"You are my commander," he said quietly. "It is my duty to follow you anywhere and to die by your side if necessary. I have committed myself to your service, and now I place my full trust in you."

Shinsu nodded and turned back to the hologram. "That is very reassuring," he said quietly.

Chapter Eighteen: The Plan

"So," said Simon, taking bites out of what Tuka assumed to be a human ration bar in between words. "This is Famul."

He had assembled a small holoprojector against one of the common room walls, displaying several different images of a planet surrounded by several moons. The title "Suicide Mission Briefing" had been thrown up at the top of the display--presumably by Diana--and circles and descriptions had been added to the images, indicating ship patrol routes and defense stations.

"And where did you get this information?" asked Fira coldly. He was seated on the opposite side of the room, his body still bearing the bandages from his injuries. Ever since the incident in the shuttle's living quarters, he and Simon had treated each other as if they bore some disgusting disease that could be transmitted through eye contact alone. It was only meetings like this that even managed to keep them in the same room, though that didn't stop them from sniping at each other in every other sentence.

"We did a supply run there about two months back," Simon replied, picking chewed bits of ration bar out of his teeth and wiping them on his pants. He'd long since removed his armor, replacing it with a grubby set of human working clothes that was several sizes too large for him. "The prices there are a hell of a lot cheaper than the ones in UNSC or Sangheili space, and some of us just don't have servants to do all this dirty work for us, you know?"

Fira bristled but didn't rise to the bait.

"Anyway," said Simon as he dug into one of his large pockets for another ration bar. "As you can see, this place is just as cannoned up as any legit military shipyard out there. What you don't have on the orbital and lunar defense stations, you get with Mallunus's own private pirate fleet, not to mention any freelance ships he can recruit from all the traffic he gets out here. It's not just Brutes you have to look out for; we screw this one up and we're up to our asses in all kinds of rebels, mercs, and any other criminals who happen to be vacationing down there."

"Then it's a good thing we aren't just going to go rushing in," said Cassandra. She had, Tuka believed, strategically positioned herself at a point that was vaguely between Simon and Fira, as if to provide a buffer should the two decide to abandon their barbed comments entirely and simply try to rip each other's throats out. "Right?"

Simon shrugged. "Shouldn't be too much of a problem if we play this right."

Tuka leaned forward. "You don't sound very concerned about this. Do you think it will be easy?"

Another shrug. "Like I said, it will be if we play this right."

"And how do you plan on 'playing' this, then?" rumbled Fira.

Simon reached up and maneuvered one of images within the hologram, bringing a large Covenant-made carrier into focus. "The Chieftain's Pride. It's Mallunus's flagship and the cornerstone for his whole pirate fleet. If he's anywhere, he'll be there."

"And the plan?" asked Fira impatiently.

"Simple." A rare smile slid over Simon's face "We talk our way on board and get access to its computer network. Then Diana uploads herself, takes control of the mainframe, and vents the atmosphere out of the entire ship. We're home free, Tuka gets his revenge, and I've got a new carrier with who knows how much in weapons and cargo we can sell. I can't believe no one's thought of it before now, to be honest."

"No one else has me helping them out," pointed out Diana over the coms, so excited by the role she was going to play that she left out the usual jabs at her partner.

The common room was silent for several moments as the others contemplated the plan. Cassandra shot glances at Tuka and Fira; both Sangheili had lowered their heads and were saying nothing. She let out an uncomfortable cough. "Um, Simon, I don't think everyone's going to go for this..."

"I thought," said Fira, his voice dangerously low. "That you studied under the great Roni 'Visag for a time."

Simon dug a finger into his ear and twisted. "Yeah, what about it?"

"I happen to know that the Visag keep's Kaidon takes the education of his pupils very seriously. From the stories I hear, he feels the study of honor is as critical as that of swordplay. Am I wrong?"

"Oh, hold on," Simon snapped, tugging his finger out of his head and standing a little straighter. "I see where this is going, pal, and I don't like it."

"Since when do you care if people think you're dishonorable?" Cassandra asked with a wry smile.

"This isn't about honor, this is about not dying!" Simon was pacing now, shooting glares at Fira with each pass. "My plan is the best way to make sure we don't have to take on an army of Brutes or a fleet of pirate warships with just this shuttle and ourselves! Besides, AI infiltration and sabotage isn't just my idea, it's a textbook strategy!"

"It's disgraceful," Fira retorted. "Even when used against Jiralhanae!"

"Come on," Simon groaned, turning to appeal to Tuka. "Roni never taught us to get killed over honor, right?"

Tuka looked away. "I'm not sure," he muttered, raising his hands. "It seems logical, but it could also taint my victory over Mallunus."

"Taint your..." Simon trailed off, speechless.

"I guess we should have seen this coming," Diana trilled over the intercom. "We are working with honor-freaks, after all."

Simon opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by a fit of coughing. The storm of sudden hacking was strong enough to double him over as he covered his mouth with one hand and reached out to keep his balance with the other.

"Are you all right?" Cassandra asked, getting up and making for him.

"I'm fine," Simon wheezed, waving her away. "Just... need a minute."

He turned and stumbled towards the cockpit, still coughing. "Come up with a new plan then. Get us all killed."

He vanished through the door, but his last words echoed behind him amidst the still-subsiding coughs. "See if I care."

Cassandra looked after Simon. "Maybe I should go talk to him. It's weird that he'd get upset over a little argument like that."

"Ah, let him be," Diana said. "He's not sulking or anything, he's just taking care of some business he's been putting off. Believe me, that dumbass runs away from fights, not arguments."

"If you say so," Cassandra muttered, though she did not sound convinced.

"The best course of action is to pose as mercenaries again," Fira said, invigorated by Simon's departure. "Much as I hate it, we can use that guise to gather information on Mallunus's activities before we strike."

"Simon is right though," Tuka said worriedly. "Mallunus will be surrounded by countless ships and bodyguards."

"That's why we'll gather information first," Cassandra said, returning to the conversation at hand. "It's the first step in an operation like this. First we gather intel, then we prepare the battlefield, and then we go for the objective."

Both Sangheili stared at her and she frowned back at them. "What? It's how we were trained."

"It just sounds odd," Tuka admitted. "You don't behave much like what I'd expect from the Spartans we heard so much about during our history lesson."

She shrugged. "Neither does Simon, I'll bet. We weren't exactly the best candidates in the program."

Fira narrowed his eyes. "Then what were you?"

Cassandra looked away. "The worst," she admitted after a moment. "I think Simon scored a little higher in combat than I did, but the others never counted me with him because I outscored everyone in combat medicine. We always thought he was worthless."

Tuka clicked his mandibles. "Well, he never was able to beat me in sparring back at the keep, but he won fairly often against the other trainees even after they stopped underestimating him."

"He was... different when we saw him again after Mamore," Cassandra said quietly. "The Insurrectionists did something to him, gave him something that the UNSC couldn't. He used to fight as if all he cared about was surviving. Now he's actually doing it to kill the enemy."

Fira snorted. "Enough talk about him," he grumbled. "Let's make some plans for Famul."

Still coughing, Simon staggered into the cockpit and threw himself down into the pilot's chair. He stretched out a trembling hand and opened a small compartment built into the dashboard, revealing a small stash of plastic bottles which he immediately lunged for. His unsteady grasping only succeeded in knocking several of the bottles to the floor. Half-blind from the pain and exertion from the coughing, he fumbled around his feet for several moments before finally grabbing one of the bottles. WIth a desperate gasp he tore off its cap and emptied its contents--several white pills--into his mouth. Struggling not to cough them out, he bit down and chewed, wincing even more at their foul taste.

For several minutes his body continued to tremble from the effort of suppressing the coughs, but then the trembling faded and then vanished entirely. Gasping for air, he leaned back in the chair and squeezed his eyes closed.

The intercom crackled rudely beside him and he opened his eyes in time to see Diana's avatar appear on the holotank beside him. Her arms were folded and she was shaking her blonde head disapprovingly.

"You dumbass," she muttered coldly. "You forgot to take them, didn't you?"

"Shut up," he snarled back, in no mood for her games. "It's only been two days! I should have had at least another few hours before I needed another dose!"

"And the attack was more violent this time as well," Diana noted, almost talking to herself as she looked off into space. "This isn't good."

"You're telling me," Simon spat. A gob of blood flew from his mouth and splashed against the display. He angrily wiped his mouth to discover that even more had leaked out during the coughing fit, trailing down either sides of his chin like grisly drool.

"It's spreading faster," he whispered, and now tinges of fear began creeping into his voice. "The medicine should have stopped its progress, but it's only slowed."

"We need more cash if we're just going to keep getting these drugs from the Syndicate." Diana had completely given up mocking her partner now; they were both deadly serious. "A hell of a lot more than we get from these dead-end jobs."

"We'll loot a shitload of credits from Mallunus's stores after we've helped Tuka kill him," Simon muttered, closing his eyes again. "It's the only way."

"And if we can't get those credits out of this?"

"We have to."

"But if we don't?"

Simon gritted his teeth. "Then I'll think of something. But I am not going to die like that. Never."

Chapter Nineteen: Rabid Strikes

Emergency klaxons howled throughout Outer Mining Station Fifteen, sending its Jiralhanae, Kig-Yar, and Unggoy crew scampering to their stations. The Jiralhanae command crew dashed into the station's interior sensors center, hurriedly activating their monitors to find out what the sudden threat was. But by the time they pinpointed a single, large freighter within their portion of Famul's asteroid cluster, it was too late. Their distress call was quickly intercepted while new, faster moving contacts broke away from the freighter and made a beeline for the station even as the crew were scrambling their contingent of Banshee interceptors. A barrage of concentrated autocannon fire from the enemy contacts tore the fast-moving fliers apart as they rushed out of the station's launch bay.

The command crew could only watch as the enemy strike fighters proceeded to swiftly eliminated their station's handful of point defense and communications batteries. With these down, the crew were blind and deaf, trapped within their command center. As the impacts of further explosions rang throughout the station, the crew readied their spikers and plasma weapons. The Jiralhanae in the room did their best to disguise their growing fear, but the Kig-Yar and Unggoy technicians chattered desperately amongst themselves. Someone was attacking Famul. But nobody attacked Famul, not unless they wanted to face the wrath of Chieftain Mallunus.

Of course, nobody had just crippled one of the chieftain's precious ore mining facilities. Whoever the attackers were, they were either incredibly dangerous or incredibly stupid. Either option did not offer much hope to the crew of Outer Mining Station Fifteen.

Their end came with the sort of brutal abruptness that the Jiralhanae warriors themselves had often visited on unfortunate slaves or the livestock that provided their better meals. One moment the crew had their weapons aimed at the command center's door and the next that same door had been blown open by a tremendous explosion and concentrated gunfire poured through its open threshold. Those of the crew who weren't immediately cut down fired blindly into the smoke filled doorway, but a sudden volley of grenades tumbled into the room and detonated, putting an end to the last of the crew's resistance.

For several moments, an eerie silence hung over the ruined command center, with the only sounds coming from the wounded defenders or the sparking computer terminals that had been torn apart by the grenade blasts and stray assault rounds. Then a platoon of humans sidled into the room. These soldiers wore a panoply of battered body armor that varied from military grade to the kind of body protection that civilians bought at cheap surplus stores and the weaponry they carried was equally patchy. But they moved with the casual confidence of experienced fighters who were no strangers to this sort of assault.

One of the soldiers indicated the handful of Kig-Yar and Unggoy who had survived the assault by throwing down their weapons and fleeing to the far corners of the room where they stood, trembling, with their hands raised in surrender.

"What do we do with those?" he asked a short, stocky attacker who stood at the center of the human formation. "We could get a decent price for them on some slave market out-system."

"You know our orders," said the stocky man impatiently. "No witnesses."

The first soldier shrugged and joined two of his comrades in drawing their sidearms. With lethal efficiency, they put bullets through the surrendering aliens' skulls.

The stocky man turned away from the carnage and raised a radio speaker to his mouth. "Venter, this is Estrada. This station's secure. No survivors on their end and just a few walking wounded for us, just like the last two. This is almost too easy."

Out in the vacuum beyond the station, Venter banked around a series of asteroids in his Longsword interceptor, a heavily upgraded and modified relic from before the Great War had ended. "Things'll get more interesting once Mallunus gets wise to us wiping out his mining stations. This field'll be crawling with his goons then."

He pulled his fighter into a sharp turn and angled it back at the freighter that served as their mother ship--the last vestige of the once-extensive Humanity Liberation Front insurrectionist network. A quick signal over his communications had the rest of the HLF fighters do the same.

"For now, let's jump the hell out of here and send a report to that Shinsu guy before we hit the next one."

Venter deactivated his radio and set his craft on an automatic landing pattern towards the freighter. As he passed through the floating debris of the station's fighter complement, a savage grin slid over his hardened face. Yes, things were going to get very interesting from here on out.

Umbra entered the residence suite's living quarters as the private messenger from the Renewing Fire departed. Within, he found that Shinsu had moved all the luxurious furniture off to the sides of the room--a relatively easy feat, considering that over half were decadent hover models reminiscent of the thrones used by the prophets of the old Covenant. Inside the cleared space, the Renewing Fire's commander had stripped off the robes covering his torso and was going through a series of sword patterns with his energy blade.

Umbra had seen his commander's sword work many times before, but he never failed to be rendered momentarily speechless by the speed and grace with which Shinsu handled his blade. The patterns flowed seamlessly in a blur of dark skin and blue energy that seemed to blend together until they were no longer a blade and its wielder but a single, unbroken force of unrelenting speed and power. Shinsu was going through a classic basic pattern, one that Umbra had performed himself countless times in the past, but at the speeds with which he was going, Umbra could barely register the moves.

He stood there for what seemed like an eternity, lost in the mastery he was seeing displayed before him. Umbra was not usually a patron of the arts in any form, but like most seasoned Sangheili warriors, he couldn't help but be moved by true artistry with a weapon such as the energy sword.

Shinsu finished the pattern, breaking the spell by failing to perform the grandiose flourish that most blademasters would have ended such an impressive display with. Instead, he merely deactivated his blade as it cut through the air in the pattern's last upward slash and let the hand holding the dormant hilt fall to his side. He remained in the center of the room, a study in perfect, unconcerned calm. He wasn't even breathing deeply.

"What is it, Umbra?" Shinsu asked, his tone no different than if his lieutenant had found him sitting peacefully on one of the room's floating couches. "Something to report?"

"We just received a message from the Fire," Umbra told him. "An organic messenger, as you ordered. The human Venter and his followers have eliminated the crews of three mining stations out in the sector's outer quadrants. They have sustained negligible damage and have yet to be detected."

Shinsu nodded. "Excellent. I trust that he'll live up to his reputation and continue his operations out there. Any word about our other contact?"

"Pula reports that she has made contact with one of his agents on Famul's surface. He says that his end of the bargain is already in place, so long as we uphold ours."

"He won't be disappointed," said Shinsu quietly. "The pieces are already falling into place."

Umbra saluted and turned to leave.

"One last thing, Umbra," Shinsu called after him. "I believe that it's time to ensure that the crew of the Fire is limited to those loyal to our cause rather than the Fallen."

Umbra turned to stare at his commander, who returned his gaze impassively. "So the time has come? We're breaking with the Fallen?"

"Not quite yet." Shinsu reactivated his blade and assumed the stance of another sword pattern. "But once events are truly underway here, we won't need their protection any longer."

With another salute, Umbra strode from the chambers with the sounds of the swishing energy blade behind him.

Chapter Twenty: The Human Swordsman

Tuka's energy sword sliced through the air in a streak of electric blue, only to be intercepted by Simon's own blade centimeters before the human's face.

"Too slow, Tuka," Fira noted from outside the makeshift sparring ring that they'd converted the shuttle's common room into. "You should avoid overhead attacks like that; they're too easy to predict and leave you open to counter attacks."

Tuka disengaged, keeping Simon's body in focus as he anticipated the next move. It had been a long time since he'd sparred with Simon, but he could still remember how the ex-Spartan handled a blade. Unlike the Sangheili trainees, who had mostly favored straight forward attacks and maneuvers, Simon was always in motion within the ring. He dodged and weaved around his opponents in patternless, unpredictable motions that used his smaller size to distract and confuse Sangheili opponents. Roni had once told the class that such constant motion served only to weaken a duelist if the match dragged on, but Simon seemed possessed with a stamina that was impressive even by Sangheili standards. Tuka had once gone for nearly an hour in the ring with Simon and, unable to keep up with his motions, hadn't landed a single blow on him.

Simon lunged in now, and Tuka moved fast to block nearly a dozen slashes that Simon managed to keep up even as he wove around Tuka's fixed position. That was where Simon's technique fell apart: he didn't strike with any real consistency, relying instead on a multitude of poorly aimed strikes that sought to simply sneak through his opponents' defenses through attrition rather than accuracy. And while such a tactic might work on a less experienced duelist, someone with any real blade training could anticipate his strikes from the way he gathered himself up right before he attacked, as if he needed to make absolutely sure that he wasn't falling for a trap or feint. And with that in mind, Tuka knew that all he had to do was weather Simon's attacks and wait to wear him down in order to win.

Two series of assaults later, Tuka could see Simon's movements weakening, slowing. With another opponent, Tuka would have let his guard drop to lure him in, but Simon had always been perceptive of those sorts of tricks--he handed out plenty of his own when he wasn't dodging or throwing in a barrage of attacks. Instead, Tuka waited for his opponent to attack once more before carefully sidestepping and slipping his blade through to strike Simon in the abdomen.

Tuned down to its lowest setting, the blade merely sent a momentary shock coursing through Simon's body that left him doubled over, gasping for breath. He rubbed his battered jumpsuit ruefully.

"I'd forgotten how much that stings," he panted

"Your form is good," said Fira, rising to approach the ring. "You have excellent control of footwork and your blade goes exactly where you want it to. But you need to put more determination in your strikes. Even in a practice duel, you hesitate before going in for an attack.."

Tuka thought about the Fallen warrior he'd killed back on Cordial Harmony and the Sangheili mercenary he had struck down on the ramp of this very shuttle. He hadn't liked the feeling of his blade cutting through another creature, and he was sure those memories were now slowing him down in the practice ring. But Fira was right. If they were going to challenge the odds and take down Mallunus at the heart of his own fleet, then he'd need to be much more determined and focused.

The ones I fight are scum, he told himself firmly. The galaxy is better off without them. But he still wasn't sure if he'd be ready the next time he needed to take a life.

"Thank you," he said, deciding not to voice his concerns to Fira, at least not right now. "I'll remember that the next time--"

Simon's bare, sweaty foot came out of nowhere, striking Tuka square in the gut and bringing him to his knees. Tuka crumpled, his breath forced from his body, and was powerless to stop a second strike from Simon's elbow from knocking him flat on his back. Simon was suddenly standing over Tuka, energy sword pointed at his throat.

The common room was silent. Startled and still gasping for breath, Tuka tilted his head to see both Fira and Cassandra--who had been off in a corner inspecting the armor that Simon had given her--looking on in shock.

"I never could beat you, Tuka." Simon was still recovering from the duel and the blade's shock. Perspiration continued to pour down his face, though most of the sweat from his forehead was absorbed by his bandage, and his voice kept wavering from exhaustion. He wiped his face with his right hand; the prosthetic arm was holding the blade. "But I'm not the one you're going to be fighting."

"What's you're point, human?" growled Fira in a tone that he seemed to have been developing over the past two days to use specifically when dealing with Simon.

"My point," said Simon, his blade not wavering from Tuka's throat. "Is that Mallunus isn't going to be smaller than him, he'll be a lot bigger. And he won't just agree to a friendly little duel to settle things with some punk who shows up looking for revenge seventeen years after the fact. And since we've nixed the whole 'gas the ship' plan, he'll be behind a few thousand angry guards that we'll need to cut through first."

"I don't... understand," Tuka panted, crawling to the edge of the ring and trying--and failing--to get to his feet.

"You're still thinking like you're in a sparring ring." Simon deactivated his energy sword and patted the spot where Tuka had hit him. A scorch mark had formed on the jumpsuit's fabric. "A low shot like that wouldn't have come close to killing a Brute. It probably wouldn't have brought down an augmented human like me. You should have laid into me while I was all shaken up from that shock, not assumed the match was over because I started talking to you."

He turned and left the ring. "You'll have to be sneaky to take down Mallunus, Tuka, because he sure as hell won't hesitate to kick you while you're down. And if we're going to even get close enough to try taking him on, you'll have to start thinking like a dirty coward like me. Otherwise..." he shrugged. "You won't get close."

"I don't know if I can do that," Tuka moaned, rising to his feet and gripping a nearby couch for support. Like a Sangheili, Simon's lanky arms belied his actual strength. "Everything Master Roni taught us..."

"Was for living a peaceful life where you only went and fought people if you absolutely had to," Simon told him. "Everything we're doing here goes against what he taught us. But think about this, Tuka: this bastard killed your mother right before your eyes. If you want to look him in the eye when you put him down, fine. But you should be less interested in giving him a good fight and more in giving what he's got coming to him."

"That didn't merit attacking him when his guard was down," Fira growled at Simon as he unzipped his jumpsuit and pulled a towel off another of the couches. "You could have put him out of commission for--"

"Can it, asshole," Simon drawled, performing a human gesture that Tuka gathered was considered highly offensive. "Just 'cause Tuka and I go back doesn't mean I have to listen to you bitch about how I try to keep him alive."

"That's the spirit, dumbass," coached Diana from the intercom. "Show him some backbone!"

"Simon," said Cassandra quietly. "Your back."

"Huh... oh."

Simon wasn't wearing the bandages that usually covered his torso like a second skin, and the scars that covered his body were visible with the jumpsuit unzipped to the waist. But Cassandra wasn't reacting to the ones on the front of his chest, which he'd once told Tuka he'd gotten during his training as a Spartan. No, she had noticed the ones on his back, which were far deeper and extensive. To the trained eye, they appeared to form some kind of crude runic symbols.

Simon turned so that Cassandra wouldn't be looking at them. "I could get it fixed, but the operation's too expensive."

"What happened?"

"Brutes," was his simple answer. "When I was down in their slave pits I kept trying to escape, and they didn't like that at all. I think it's supposed to mean 'disobedient' or some shit like that."

Tuka remembered that when Roni had first brought Simon to the keep, he'd kept him in intensive medical care for some time before admitting him into the training sessions. Of all Simon's past experiences, his time in the Jiralhanae pits was something he'd talked least about during their time together.

"Is that why Master Roni wanted to train you?" he asked abruptly. "Because you'd kept trying to escape?"

Simon shook his head, sending bits of sweat flying all over the common room. "What happened down there between us is between him and me. But Roni pulled me out of that hellhole, and that's something I'll never be able to repay."

Covering his back with the towel, he headed for the cockpit. "I'll be back out in a bit."

Tuka followed him into the corridor that connected the cockpit to the rest of the ship. "If you owe Master Roni so much, why won't you come back to the keep?" He felt a tad proud of himself for seeing an opening and taking it, just as he would during a duel.

Simon turned and looked up into his eyes. There was something in those grey eyes of his that Tuka couldn't read, but that had always been the case with him and Simon.

"Don't take this the wrong way," Simon said quietly. "But that's none of your business. All you need to know is that I'm doing the next best thing for him."

He headed off into the cockpit, but not before throwing one last comment out over his shoulder.

"I'm keeping you alive."

"Damn," Simon groaned as he stepped into the cockpit. "That Fira guy is so fucking annoying."

"And now you know how I feel." Diana materialized on the holotank. "Having to deal with you all the time. I'm glad that guy showed up just so you could see how hard my life is."

"Shut up." Simon slid into the pilot's chair, mopping his face with the towel. "How we doing on time?"

"I'd say about twelve hours till we come out of Slipspace. I've already contacted the authorities at Famul's main spaceport, so we'll be able to land there without any trouble."

Simon leaned back and frowned at the cockpit's windows, which were covered by blast shielding to protect the pilot from the blinding light of Slipspace. "And then we can figure out how the hell we're going to get this crazy job done."

Diana fingered a lock of holographic hair. "Yeah, about that... are we still really going through with this?"

"Yeah." With a sigh, Simon ran a hand through his damp hair. "We've come too far to turn around now."

"Do you really think that, dumbass?" Diana teased, leaning her glowing frame against an invisible wall. "Or do you just want an excuse to spend more time with Doc?"

"Shove it," Simon grunted. "I'm still trying to work on how we'll turn a profit from this mess."

"Well, since Captain Honor says I can't just suffocate that chieftain than we can't exactly steal that flagship of his anymore, can we? Maybe we can do the suffocating after your friend does his whole revenge thing."

"Let's just focus on getting to that 'revenge thing' before we worry about anything else." Simon put his bare feet up on the dashboard. "We'll have to do some poking around on Famul, that's for damn sure."

"Well, since none of our schemes has ever gone wrong before, I'm sure this whole thing will turn out alright in the end."

"We always seem to make it out okay."

Diana laughed. "Hopefully we'll make it out okay with a pile of credits to show for it. Besides, it's not just us you'll be worrying about this time."

Simon eyed his partner warily. "What are you talking about?"

Another laugh. "You may not be fond of Captain Honor, but I'm sure you're not eager to see Doc and Hamlet buy it, right?"

Simon didn't respond this time, but simply frowned straight ahead at the window panels and didn't speak or more for several minutes.

Chapter Twenty-One: Forward Into Battle

"Ten hours, meatbags," Diana announced over the intercom. "Then we hit Famul, so I suggest you get some sleep, curl up and cry, or whatever else you organics do before you go charging into certain death. Don't say I didn't warn you, because I just did."

Fira leaned back against the bunk he'd staked out as his own within the shuttle's sleeping quarters. "I don't know which one I despise more," he muttered, running his thin fingers down the length of his combat harness. "That Spartan or his construct."

"Are you certain you still want to go through with this?" Tuka asked from his own bunk across the aisle, eager to turn the subject away from Simon. His chest still ached from where his friend had kicked him, but he couldn't help but admit that there had been a fine point behind that lesson. "It isn't too late for you to turn away from this now."

Fira snorted. "I still need to justify abandoning my post on Cordial Harmony, don't I? If this Mallunus is as powerful as these underworld scum have been saying he is, than helping bring him down will be reason enough to satisfy my superiors. Besides, I'm not letting someone as promising as you head into this with just humans for support."

"I'm flattered you feel that way," said Tuka, and he meant it. "It means a great deal to me that I've found strangers who are willing to aid me in this."

"If you're talking about that other Spartan, don't be fooled," Fira warned. "She has her own motives in this as well, namely keeping an eye on the other one. It's obvious she wants to keep him close."

"Do you think there's something between them?" Tuka asked, voicing the question that had been racing around his mind ever since he'd seen Simon and Cassandra together for the first time. "Besides the bond of comrades, I mean."

"I don't concern myself with the the emotions of humans," said Fira with a dismissive wave of his hand. "But if my experience with our own people is worth anything, than yes, I do think there's more to their bond than just that of the warrior. But you shouldn't concern yourself with such things. Keep your mind on your own goals for now."

Tuka looked away from the older Sangheili, hoping that the doubt gnawing on his heart wasn't showing. Ever since the sparring match with Simon, he'd been running over the goals Fira was referring to in his head, and he couldn't deny that Simon had been right on several counts. He was nowhere near having anything close to a plan for taking down Mallunus, and even with their plans to scout for weaknesses once they reached Famul, he wasn't confident that they'd be able to formulate one. Dozens of assassins must have tried and failed at this very task, and now he, a trainee duelist with no real military training, was trying to do it with a band of allies that could barely function together. Had he spent half his life planning for a revenge that would merely peter out miserably before he could even come close to achieving his goal?

As if he could read Tuka's thoughts, Fira crossed over to the trainee's bunk and laid a hand on his shoulder. "The warrior does not fear defeat or failure," he said reassuringly, reciting an old proverb. "He knows that even in death, he may bring honor upon himself and his clan. No matter what lies ahead for us, Tuka 'Refum, I know that you will do both your father and your master proud."

Without waiting for the astonished Tuka to reply, Fira headed out of the room. "Get some rest," he advised before vanishing through the door. "There's no telling when we will be able to sleep once our search on Famul begins."

Simon slid the last of several dozen bullets into an MA-assault rifle's clip and tossed it onto an untidy pile of other magazines. A trio of the assault rifles those bullets were meant to arm lay on the work bench beside the pile; he'd already checked and cleaned those. He reached for a crate of pistols and set it on the bench. The crate tipped and wobbled as it descended on the greasy surface, and he frowned. Raising his left arm, he ran his organic right hand down its metal casing and tweaked a few tiny knobs that helped him keep the prosthetic calibrated in the field.

"Damn robot parts..." he grumbled, but stopped as he heard someone descending the ladder into the shuttle's weapons bay. He knew who it was without even having to turn around.

"Cassandra," he said evenly, all trace of annoyance gone from his voice.

"I knew you wouldn't be asleep," she said. From the dull thud she made coming off the ladder, he realized that she was wearing her old armor. "You always did get jumpy before missions."

"I wasn't the only one."

"There's nothing wrong with it."

Simon turned to face her and saw that she was indeed wearing the armor he'd given her. His cannibalizations had left her with nothing but gauntlets for arm protection, leaving her thin forearms exposed, but aside from a few missing scraps here and there, the rest of the armor was intact. As an added touch, she seemed to have found some paint amongst his supplies; a pair of red crosses were still drying on her shoulder guards, and a third had been added over her heart.

"Still thinking of yourself as a medic?" he asked, turning back to the work bench. "You shouldn't. Not out here anyway."

"It's what I am," she replied, stepping up beside him. He resisted the urge to shuffle away; something inside him was telling him that she was a little too close for comfort. It brought back memories that he'd been trying to avoid since she'd come aboard the shuttle.

"You can be whatever you want," he said curtly. "Doesn't mean you need to announce it to the universe."

She just shrugged and lifted her helmet up. "When you're like us, you have to. Otherwise you just turn into the mask." She tapped the helmet's expressionless visor.

"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that." Simon pulled a pistol out of the crate and began disassembling it. "The two of us are as far from being typical Spartans as you can get. You don't need custom armor jobs to show that off."

"I guess we always were," Cassandra sighed. "Even from the beginning when we were back in Gamma."

"When we hit Famul, stick with Tuka," said Simon, still pulling the pistol apart. "I'm serious about keeping him alive, and I don't trust that Fira guy to keep him out of trouble down there."

"He helped save my clinic," she assured him. "I owe him, so don't worry about me not protecting him."

"Well, remember what I said before too. Don't get yourself killed, alright? I've lost enough people already."

"Yeah," she said, a strange tightness entering her voice. "I've lost plenty of friends too."

Simon winced. Bad call. "Yeah, I haven't forgotten," he muttered. "I'll never forget."

She mercifully didn't dwell on the subject, the fact that he was the one responsible for most of her losses. Instead she just picked out another sidearm from the crate and strapped it to her hip. "Where will you be sleeping?"

"The cockpit, or the floor down here. Depends on when I get tired."

"Right. I'd forgotten that you like to sleep on the floor."

It was a throwback to his earliest memories of homelessness, a habit that he'd kept up through training, his Spartan deployments, the savage fighting on Mamore, and even his time in the Visag keep. "Yeah. Old habits and all that."

Satisfied that the pistol was in working order, he reassembled it and laid it on the bench beside the rifles. "Take whatever you want out of here," he told her, heading back for the ladder. "I've got too much crap down here anyway, and I sure as hell haven't been able to sell it all."

"Thanks," she said, glancing around at the stacked firearms and ammunition. "I don't think I'll need more than a rifle and a sidearm though. My aim's gotten a bit better since training."

"Glad to hear it. I still can't hit the broad side of a barn most days, and Diana doesn't let me forget it."

Cassandra looked back at him. "I saw you sparring with Tuka. You're pretty good with those energy sword things."

Simon scrambled up the ladder. "Well, I had a good teacher. Besides, I have to be good at something, don't I?"

"Yeah," Cassandra murmured as his footsteps faded. "I just wish you could look at things besides fighting to try being good at."

Fira was waiting for Simon as he emerged back into the common room.

"So you're familiar with this Famul place," he said by way of greeting.

"Yeah," said Simon warily. "I already told you that. What's the deal?"

"You may say you have Tuka's best interests at heart," said Fira slowly. "But I know you're kind. If you didn't think you could profit from all this, you'd have never agreed to come along on this."

"That's none of your business," Simon informed him coldly. "What I do for Tuka is between him and me, not you."

"That may well be," said Fira softly. "But once we're down on Famul, if I so much as sense the slightest ill-intentions from you, it's finished. No more Mordred, Simon, or whatever else you go by. You will die by my blade."

"Whatever," Simon snorted, flashing a sneer Fira's way as he pushed forward towards the cockpit. "You don't have to worry about that, pal. You won't sense a thing from me, I promise."

"Somehow the word of scum like you does not reassure me."

"You don't have to be reassured, Captain Honor," Simon mocked as he stepped into the cockpit. "Like I said, if I decide to stab you in the back, you won't sense a thing."

The door closed, sealing the mercenary off from the Sangheili officer, who stood alone in the common room for several minutes, his head bowed in thought.

Chieftain Mallunus was not in a good mood.

"I want at least ten warships patrolling the mining sector," he barked at his command crew on the bridge of the Chieftain's Pride. "Tell their ship masters that I'll pay a fortune to the one that brings me the heads of the ones responsible for these attacks!"

The crew scrambled to obey, none of them eager to experience the chieftain's legendary wrath. Mallunus's eyes narrowed. "And also let them know that if any more mining stations fall, I will personally execute the ship master of the vessel closest to the attacked station who fails to stop these brigands!"

The massive chieftain fell back into his hovering command throne, its anti-gravity generators struggling to support his weight. "And contact Ambassador 'Refum. Tell him I'll need to push our negotiations back a few days."

"You don't think he's responsible for this, do you?" a Kig-Yar aide asked nervously.

"Fool," Mallunus snorted derisively. "I've monitored all communications he's made to his ship, as well as everyone who's come through this ship to speak to him. The only one of them who left the system since then was Venter and his HLF, but I've already confirmed with the Syndicate that he arrived out-system without issue. Besides, 'Refum wouldn't be foolish enough to anger me while a guest on my own ship. No, this is the work of some outside party. Some third-rate pirate or mercenary group trying to make a name for themselves out here."

"Ah," said the aide nervously. "Speaking of the Syndicate..."

"What is it now?" Mallunus growled angrily.

"Well... a corvette registered under the name of, ah, Jade Princess is requesting that Shinsu 'Refum be sent to it for a meeting with... well, perhaps you'd better look yourself, sir."

Mallunus snatched the offered datapad, but his fury quickly cooled as he read its contents. Few things in the galaxy could spur him to quickly accommodate lesser beings' requests, but now he tossed the pad away and nodded. "Do it. Get 'Refum over to that ship as soon as possible, and let the Jade Princess know that I will personally arrange any further meetings it may require."

The aide bowed and scurried away, leaving Mallunus to glower at the rest of the crew. Even one as powerful as Mallunus did not keep the Syndicate waiting when it came calling.

The room was an even bigger monument to needless luxury than the living suite on the Chieftain's Pride, but Shinsu wasn't about to let his disdain show as he casually swept his gaze over the rest of the corvette's main conference room. There wasn't a scrap of bare metal in sight; every surface was covered in carpeting or opulent wall hangings that showcased crystal light fixtures or rare works of art that seemed to have been drawn from every developed culture in the known galaxy. Instead of a regular meeting table, the center of the room was lined with sofas that made Mallunus's accommodations look drab by comparison. Every square inch of the room practically screamed of the billions of credits that must have gone into furnishing it.

But once the grandeur of the room had had time to sink in, Shinsu began to notice all the subtleties to it that Mallunus's suite had lacked. He could see nearly a dozen potential hidden doors around the room as well as several works of art--the less impressive ones--that could be rigged with any number of lethal traps should a meeting turn violent. He was sure there were outlets to pour all manners of toxic fumes in through the carpets and drapes, as well as easily accessible masks to protect those who weren't in need of a gassing.

And then, there were the guards.

A dozen of them, each wearing the distinctive armor of the elite human Orbital Drop Shock Troopers lined the room's perimeter, cradling assault weapons with the clear air of professionals who knew how to use them with lethal precision in close quarters like this. With security like that, it would take a full-scale assault for the room's hidden defenses to ever be remotely necessary.

Yes, the Syndicate knew how to protect its leaders, particularly this one.

His gaze was drawn to the head of the luxurious seats. There, nestled in the confines of a massive armchair, was the person who had summoned him for this meeting. Behind that chair stood a single guard. This one wasn't wearing the ODST armor of the others and managed to look even shorter and thinner than the rest of the security detail through his--or her--own armor, but Shinsu wasn't fooled. The armor enough was a dead giveaway.

This guard wore a dark suit of battered armor that Shinsu had only ever seen in battered holograms salvaged from the remnants of Covenant legions that had faced utter annihilation at the hands of the ones who had worn that armor. He knew in an instant that this armor was the true version and not one of the knockoffs that were passed around the black market by the thousands these days. This was true Semi Powered Infiltration armor.

The armor of a Spartan.

The SPI-wearing bodyguard wasn't holding any sort of rifle, but there were pistols and knives visible all over his dark frame. Regardless of whether the guard really was a Spartan or not, Shinsu knew that he or she would be beyond lethal with all of those weapons. The Syndicate would have picked no other to guard this particular individual.

"Shinsu 'Refum," the figure in the chair said with warmth that sounded genuine. "The Black Knight of Sanghelios. I've heard a great deal about you."

Shinsu bowed his head and, at the motion of one of the guards, approached the chair. "I am humbled that you would even know of me, much less wish to speak with me."

"Your requests for an audience with the Syndicate didn't fall on deaf ears. As you can see, your recent activities are of great interest to us."

Shinsu allowed himself a small, mandible parting smile. "Then shall we get down to the real business here?"

The human seated in the chair gave him a smile of her own. She was barely more than a child, with black hair that streamed down her back and spilled onto the simple yet elegant--by human standards--dress she was wearing. "Yes," said Helen Powell, the second most powerful figure in the Syndicate's criminal empire. "We have a lot to talk about."


Chapter Twenty-Two: Approach

Aboard the bridge of the Chieftain's Pride, Mallunus surveyed the wall of holograms that sprang up around his elevated command platform. Massive hands clenched behind his back, he strode from one bank of data to the other, surveying each one with cold, impassive eyes. Clad in full armor and sporting his battle-scarred gravity hammer on his back for good measure, he was truly an intimidating sight, particularly to the multi-species command crew hard at work throughout the bridge stations below him.

"Has any data come in from the ships I dispatched to the mining sector?" he demanded, glaring down at the communications officer.

"No, not yet Chieftain," the Kig-Yar officer stammered. "They report no contact with any hostile forces. No ships other than our own have entered that area since the attacks."

With a dismissive snort, Mallunus turned back to his data. These attacks could not have come at a worse time. With the daughter of the most powerful criminal in the galaxy now conducting business in orbit around his planet, he needed to present the best impression possible, one of a secure planet that could serve as a staging grounds for all manner of criminal enterprises while remaining a safe place for all to do business. With the Syndicate serving as the middleman for nearly all of Famul's dealings within Interspecies Union space, the support of the Powells was not just beneficial--it was critical. And maintaining order on Famul was like keeping a fire going on top of a few dozen crates of high explosives and keeping the whole thing from going up in flames.

And Mallunus hated it.

He missed the old days back after the Covenant had dissolved, when he didn't own a planet and needed only a few ships crewed by a loyal, bloodthirsty pack eager to raid the humans and their Sangheili allies. Back then, he hadn't needed to curry favor with presumptuous human cubs or tolerate the glib words of Sangheili nationalists like the Fallen. All that had been required of him was a firm grasp of tactics and a willingness to lead his pack into battle after battle without any sign of fear. That had kept him young and alive.

But he had steadily gained more and more until finally he had almost been forced into settling Famul and cultivating the small empire he now dominated. And though the consequences of that achievement were draining him on a daily basis, he couldn't back away from the power he now wielded. Not without living the rest of his life swathed in regret. He had tasted wine from a cup that few of his kind ever lived to drink from, and once he had taken his first sip there had been no going back.

Were this a real battle he'd be assembling his ships now, barking orders to eager warriors and preparing to defend what was his in a savage battle of life and death against an enemy determined to utterly destroy him. But the enemy he faced now wished only to humiliate him, to make him look weak before his pack and those who depended on him to defend Famul from the long arm of the Interspecies Union. This enemy didn't need to kill him in order to win; they just needed to evade his grasp and his own followers would do the rest.

"Keep this entire system on high alert," he growled. "Get in contact with every shipyard in the sector and make sure that only scheduled arrivals are allowed in, and then only after a thorough background check."

"Shinsu 'Refum has returned to the ship," the communications officer reported. "He and his aide are within the quarters you set aside for them."

Mallunus waved a calloused hand. "I'll begin negotiations with them once I attend to this matter." If he was going to pull a profitable arrangement out of this, he would need to hold the strongest position possible. The Fallen might be weakened, but they weren't so far gone that they'd allow a weak chieftain to make demands of them.

"The Jade Princess has entered orbit around the planet," the communications officer continued. "It signals that it wishes to conduct business for several days here."

"Fine. But order the fleet to keep an eye on them." He wouldn't put it past the Syndicate to have arranged all this just so it could replace him with some younger, more malleable successor.

Of course, he wasn't sure what he could do if he did discover a Syndicate plot other than to simply survive it. If he started a war with that organization, it would starve him of resources of business, begin an unending string of assassination attempts, and if he continued to hold out it would use the political influence it had garnered through corrupt politicians in the IU to send waves of human and Sangheili warships descending on Famul like an avenging swarm. One way or another, he would be eliminated.

All this churned within Mallunus's head, but he kept his face impassive. Appearances had always been important for a chieftain, even before he had taken over Famul, and he couldn't let his crew see how worried he really was.

Where was the mighty chieftain now, he wondered distantly. That warrior who had once crushed his enemies with such impunity seemed lost, replaced instead by some aging bumbler who was merely a small cub in a massive galaxy.

Somehow, Mallunus felt a cold twinge inside him that he couldn't quite place, as if an invisible noose was slowly being tightened around his neck.

"Well, here we go," Diana noted, smoothing the folds of her transparent skirt. "One pirate world coming up in ten. Don't say I didn't warn you when they disembowel you meatbags and strangle you with your own intestines."

She swept an arched, holographic glance across the four "meatbags" gathered in the shuttle's cockpit. Simon was at the controls in the only seat, while Cassandra and Tuka had strategically positioned themselves between him and Fira. All four were decked out in full combat gear, which Simon had assured them was the dress norm on Famul's surface. Cassandra had both her armor and medical bag with her, along with a pistol and assault carbine strapped to her waist and back. Fira wore the dark, insignia-less combat suit he'd worn on Gamma-13 while Tuka had the same, light traveling skin he'd had since his journey began.

"We'll have to find something better for you," Simon had said earlier. "Something that doesn't collapse after one punch."

"I have better mobility in this," Tuka had protested.

"Believe me," Simon had replied. "When you're up against an angry chieftain and his hordes of followers, you'll want more than just mobility."

Now Tuka stroked the hilt of his energy sword anxiously, staring at the cockpit's blast shields as the shuttle shuddered and lurched its way out of Slipspace. Once they were on Famul, there truly was no turning back. He would either kill Mallunus or die trying.

Or, as a filthy, treacherous part of his mind noted, he could kill Mallunus and still die trying to escape. He wasn't sure which would be worse: to die at the hands of such a powerful chieftain after spending his entire life preparing for their encounter, or overcoming his mother's killer only to be brought down by some warrior's lucky shot with a spiker rifle.

The shuttle gave one last, bracing lurch that sent them all jerking forwards.

"And we're in," Diana noted, twiddling her fingers. "Resetting all nonessential systems and contacting orbital defense ships. Nice knowing you all."

She paused and tapped her chin. "Well, I wouldn't say it was nice spending the last days of my existence with you idiot meatbags, but I can't say it wasn't entertaining."

"Can it," Simon muttered as the blast shields began to rise. "Can't say that spending the past two years with you was a bed of roses either."

Tuka looked past the bickering partners, staring at the brown and green planet that floated before him in the viewport. He'd seen plenty of it in Simon's holograms, but to see it in person was something else entirely. It was big and growing bigger as the shuttle hurried towards it, but Tuka's attention was drawn to the hundreds of specks that floated around it. Famul was surrounded by ships and orbital stations, and as they drew even closer he could see that they were from all manner of the galaxy's civilizations. There were the battered Covenant warships of course, but there were also human vessels mixed into the teaming throng of trafficking space craft as well as Kig-Yar privateers and Lekgolo bond-ships. Several asteroids had been dragged into orbit around the planet and, from the looks of things, converted into orbital stations that were hives of moving ships unto themselves.

"It's incredible," he breathed. Never had he imagined that a lawless pirate world could be so vibrant, so full of life.

"Yeah, look at the cool spaceships," Simon muttered irritably. "Believe me, you guys'll have had enough real soon."

A light flashed on the cockpit's dashboard.

"Heads up," Diana called, pointing a glowing finger at the viewport. "We've got company."

"Just a security patrol," Simon explained, running a laconic system check on the dashboard. "Don't worry, they do it for everybody who comes in here. They know this ship, so this'll be quick."

"Hey, dumbass," Diana asked. "The last time we were here, didn't they send a couple Seraphs in to check us out?"

"Yeah," said Simon, still engrossed with the dashboard. "So?"

"So, this time they didn't send Seraphs."

"And? What's the deal?"

"This time they sent a corvette."

"What?" Simon jerked his head up and all four organics stared up at the viewport as the bulbous nose of a Covenant-made corvette swam into view directly in front of them. Tuka could see swarms of fighters darting around its hull and its forward plasma batteries looked both operational and ready to fire at any time.

"Well, this is new," Simon muttered. "Diana, warm up the Slipspace drive."

"And do what with it, blow up the ship?" she demanded. "It's pretty simple, you idiot, that hunk of junk you call a Slipspace drive can only fire once every four hours. I told you to upgrade the damn thing after that Aphrodite Nebula job, but as usual you didn't listen and now we're all gonna die, so you can't say I didn't try."

The corvette drew nearer, and its plasma turrets swiveled to aim in their direction.

Simon bristled, finding strange things to get angry at as the warship approached. "As if we could have afforded--"

The comms station crackled, putting an end to their bickering. They were being hailed.

"Attention, shuttle 34572-74," a rasping voice growled over the speaker. "This is Violent Usurpation. State your business on Famul."

Tuka felt his hand unclench from his energy sword and looked down, surprised. He hadn't realized how tightly his body had stiffened when the corvette had been bearing down on them. Cassandra wiped her brow and even Fira looked relieved.

"I'm just a merc looking for some job ops down there," Simon said into the speaker. "Got some passengers, too. Two squid-heads, one other human like me."

There was a pause on the other end, and Fira glowered at the back of Simon's head. "Squid-heads?" he asked coldly, perceptive of the insult even when it came in a human language.

"It's a Brute on the other end," Simon hissed back. "Saying stuff like that will butter him up. Do you really want to die over a stupid name?"

Before Fira could come up with a retort, the speaker crackled again.

"Our scans confirm your story," the Brute pirate said, almost sounding disappointed. "What about cargo?"

"Just a shitload of small arms," Simon said impatiently, his eyes darting up to look at the corvette's plasma weapons. "I don't plan on selling any of it down there."

Another interminable pause. Tuka fought to keep from clenching up again. Finally, the Brute's voice returned. "Proceed to the docking bay you are scheduled for on the surface," it rasped. "Do not deviate from the standard course or you will be fired upon."

The corvette banked; it was heading off, leaving the shuttle drifting in its wake.

Simon leaned back in his seat. "Shit," he muttered. "They usually couldn't care less what the hell I'm doing here. What's going on?"

"It doesn't matter," Fira snapped. "They let us through, so head for the surface before they get suspicious."

"Yeah, yeah," Simon grumbled. "I'm warning you guys now, though, this place doesn't get any better."

The shuttle rumbled to life as he guided it towards the planet. "If you thought Gamma-13 was bad, you won't be able to breathe on this world."

Chapter Twenty-Three: A Pirate World

It had been a stable world, Famul, one amongst millions of life-supporting planets throughout the galaxy. A breathable atmosphere, a small but vibrant population of non-sentient organisms, and a stable global ecosystem had blessed it with several million years of peaceful, unsettled savagery. It had floated amongst the stars, untouched by the wars and troubles that shook the galaxy beyond its distant sun, a veritable Eden sleeping amidst an ocean of fire and destruction. But the brief, troubled peace that followed the Human-Covenant War was to prove the sleeping planet's undoing.

Mallunus had been a young chieftain when he and his miniature fleet had discovered Famul, full of wildness and bloodlust and the vaunting ambition that made any warlord believe that the galaxy could be theirs if they simply drowned it in enough blood. He had taken one look at this planet, overflowing with life and potential, and claimed it as his own. The first of his conquering warriors had descended to plant their chieftain's flag on the surface and claim everything there as his and his alone. They had established the first base camps and the conquest of Famul began.

At first, Mallunus and the Jiralhanae who followed him wished to keep their private world a secret, a place that they could retreat to and strike from at their choosing. But such a secret gnawed at his mind, haunting him with the possibility of discovery until he could bear it no more and turned to a method of protection he remembered hearing of from the bloody lips of a dying human prisoner during interrogation.

That method was something the humans called "The Cole Protocol."

Armed with the procedures that had kept Earth safe for over two decades of unending war, Mallunus and his pirates resumed their raids until the space lanes were littered with the burning husks of their victims and the navies of the Interspecies Union were filled with the rumors of their exploits. It was all a red-blooded Jiralhanae chieftain could have asked for.

But the galaxy could not be held at bay forever.

Forces were on the move, forces that had no toleration for the independance-minded dregs who had crawled out of the rubble of the Great War. The Interspecies Union, with its combined military forces of humans, Sangheili, and their allies, stamped out the new generation of criminals and mercenaries wherever they were found. The Syndicate, beginning to truly flex its muscles as the galaxy's leader in organized crime, demanded the underworld to bend its knee or face extermination. Those unwilling to toe the line of intergalactic law or submit to the Syndicate were left adrift, desperate for life outside of the civilized galaxy.

And Famul would prove to be their salvation.

Mallunus now commanded a fleet that rivaled even the mighty battlegroups of the Interspecies Union. Whenever he encountered a rival chieftain, he slew him and seized the loyalty of the dead warrior's pack. Power was flooding to him, but with that power came the knowledge that he would not last long if he continued to fling himself in the face of the Interspecies Union. His dreams of conquest were not to be.

And so Mallunus did the unthinkable, humbled himself before the galaxy, and withdrew to the one place he held firmly in his grasp. He had turned Famul into a bastion of Jiralhanae power, complete with civilian settlements, a small shipyard, and orbital defenses. He now assumed full control of his planet and flung open its doors to the mob of independents--the scum of all species--who flocked to the system to conduct their dark business.

Famul held attractions for everyone the underworld had to offer: hard men like David Kahn, rebels like Redmond Venter, gleeful savages like Kenpachus, bitter creatures like Ro'nin, lost outcasts like Mordred. They all found their way into Mallunus's domain to find business or purpose, and the ill-gotten money poured through Famul in the billions.

Mallunus now had the power over the teeming throngs that came through his planet. He held the reigns of a pirate fleet with warships numbering in the hundreds and a pack of warriors numbering in the millions. His words could end the lives of hundreds in an instant. He had everything a power-hungry chieftain could want.

But the vultures were circling. Mallunus had fended off assassination attempts from without and within, had put down surface rebellions until Famul's forests and deserts ran with the blood of all species. And he was beginning to lose his edge.

Famul was a world of blood, money, and suffering. From the thousands murdered in the streets of its shanty towns every day to the millions of slaves who passed through its auction booths on their way to an eternity of servitude, the strong consumed the weak and each other in equal numbers. It was a powder keg of savage violence, containing the potential for enormous destruction if directed by the right person.

Mallunus was not that person.

But another warrior had laid his eyes on the prize that was Famul and was now moving to seize it for his own. Fresh from the killing fields of Sanghelios, from the loss of friends, home, and everything he had once believed, Shinsu 'Refum had set the gears in motion for what was to become the foundation of his own lofty plans. He had plotted his ascendency with the care of a grand master strategist, and now the pieces were falling into place with his deceptive arrival on Mallunus's own flagship.

Famul was ripe for change.

But now, four new pieces that neither Shinsu, Mallunus, nor any of their pawns could have predicted had arrived on Famul. And they were ready to turn the wretched hive on its head.

If they weren't killed by it first.

Chapter Twenty-Four: Five Versus the World

The chieftain bellowed, the shock of its roar slapping against Tuka like a gale-force wind. A hammer came up out of the darkness, an ornate killing machine that rose impossibly high before slamming down and crushing his world to dust...

He was surrounded now, encircled by a wall of human shapes garbed in shadowy armor. They all raised energy swords in a salute while a single mocking laugh echoed all around him. He spun frantically about, desperately searching for where the first attack would come...

And now he stumbled backwards as a taller Sangheili in dark armor slid out of the darkness to stand over him. It looked down on him and shook its head, a whisper sliding from under its helmet like a gust of wind. Though Tuka couldn't hear what it said, anger coursed through his veins and he drew his blade, charging at the distorted warrior with a cry of challenge...

Tuka's eyes snapped open and he darted upright, only to smack his head painfully on the low ceiling. He clenched a yell behind his mandibles and rubbed his aching skull, blinking slowly as he remembered where he was. The shuttle's common area was as cluttered as ever, the piles of weapons looking slightly sinister through his blurry eyes. He slid out from under the blanket he'd scavenged from the shuttle's survival gear and crawled away from the alcove he'd taken shelter in--and hurt himself on.

Across the room, Cassandra was sitting up against a wall, still wearing the armor Simon had given her. Her helmet was still on, but from the way her head was tilted off to one side Tuka could tell she was still asleep. Her medical bag rested on her outstretched legs and some of its contents--needles and canisters mostly--had spilled out onto the floor.

Climbing unsteadily to his feet, he saw that the door to the shuttle's medical bay was slightly ajar. Fira might have been back on his feet, but Cassandra had insisted he sleep on the more comfortable medical beds for at least one more day. After their tense arrival and landing, Fira had been too tired to argue even with a young human.

The door to the cockpit was also open, and as Tuka approached it he heard voices. But as he moved through the door, they fell silent. Moving up, he found Simon slumped in the pilot's chair, his armor strapped on only from the waist down. The rest of the suit lay in pieces around him, and he seemed to be performing some calibrations on his prosthetic arm.

He looked up as Tuka drew near.

"You the only one awake?" he asked, gesturing at a video display that showed security footage from the rest of the ship. "Guess Cassandra's gotten a bit shaky on that military discipline they drilled into us."

"Fira's injuries are probably forcing him to rest longer," Tuka said quickly, not wanting the same assumption to be made of his companion. An Ultra like Fira would be horrified to have it implied that they weren't keeping up with their discipline.

"Whatever." Simon looked back down at his arm. "I'm just glad he hasn't gotten all honorable on us about Cassandra treating him. We need him back in the game now if we have any shot at taking out Mallunus."

"Right," said Tuka, leaning forward eagerly. "Do you have a plan yet?"

"Me?" Simon laughed. "I'm just a mercenary, remember? You're getting the special Visag keep graduate's discount right now, but I'm still just hired muscle. Besides, won't your revenge be all that sweeter if you're the one who plans things out?"

Tuka sighed in disappointment. "I'm no good at plans," he admitted. "If I was, I'd have found out more about Mallunus and this place before I even left the keep."

"Well, you made it this far." Simon tightened a small knob on his arm, flexing it approvingly. "Gotta count for something."

He leaned back into the pilot's chair. "Thing about plans is that they always fall apart right where you need 'em to start working the most."

Diana's hologram flickered to live on the display. "Yeah, his plans always get screwed. That's why he couldn't go without me."

"Yeah, because you're plans always work out," Simon retorted before turning back to Tuka. "You're problem is that you're way too honest, Tuka."

"I've told lies before," Tuka protested, not quite sure why he felt he needed to justify himself in that regard to Simon. "Like the time we stole all that food back at the keep."

"And whose idea was that?" Simon asked.

"Well... yours."

"That's my point. You can lie to people, though to be honest, even a human like me can tell you're terrible at it. You aren't devious enough to really trick somebody big time. I can't see you stabbing anyone in the back."

"That would be dishonorable," Tuka protested. "It goes against everything Master 'Visag taught us as warriors."

Simon shrugged, lifting a pistol off of the control panel in front of him and examining it. "Well, sometimes it's your honor or your life," he said casually. "You Sangheili are always the last ones to learn that out here, and it usually costs you. Big time."

"I would never value my life over my honor," Tuka said automatically, his body stiffening as if at attention before some invisible officer.

"Hate to tell you this, but that's what they all say." Simon tapped the pistol's barrel against his chest, which was covered only by a sleeveless white top. Tuka could see his bandages through the loose fabric. "At first."

Tuka looked passed his friend and at Famul's gray morning sky. He hadn't seen much of the planet yet, just the sprawling shantytown they'd landed in, and so far he couldn't see much difference between it and Gamma-14. "Is it always like this out here?"

"Oh yeah," Simon said. "You can't trust anyone on the frontier."

"It must be lonely," Tuka murmured. It seemed awful to him, for someone to simply be adrift amidst an ocean of greed and savagery and betrayal. No keep, no comrades, no family to return to. And yet Simon chose this over returning to the Visag keep. What wasn't Tuka seeing here?

"Oh, I keep him plenty of company," Diana pitched in. "Don't you worry about that."

"So," Tuka said after an awkward pause. "We were discussing plans?"

"Let's cut right to the chase," Simon told Fira. "You aren't going to like this plan."

Sitting on an upended crate, the Sangheili officer gave him a level glance. "That doesn't surprise me."

Simon shrugged. "Hell, I don't like this plan. But right now, it's all I can come up with, especially since the whole game's changed completely down here."

Tuka looked up from the pile of his gear; Simon had given him several small weapons and utilities from the shuttle's stores. "What do you mean?"

"Some lunatics are hitting Mallunus's operations out near the edge of the system," Simon explained. "Word on the street is that they've taken out ten of his mining platforms and the pirates can't do a thing about it. If Mallunus had tight security before, it'll be damn near airtight now that he's trying to consolidate power."

Fira nodded. "He can't lose face like this when he's running a planet full of Jiralhanae."

"Yep." Simon plucked at the shoulder straps of his dirty undershirt. "And these guys aren't too particular about who they follow. Long as they've got someone who'll give them targets and keep the money coming in, they'd turn on Mallunus for anyone."

"No honor amongst thieves, as you humans say."

Diana appeared beside Simon and flashed Fira a grin. "You better hope there is. We're with the thieves, after all."

Fira clicked his mandibles. "So tell us about this plan that I won't like."

"Well, it's simple enough and it makes me some money, so all I need is for Tuka to agree to do something crazy and dangerous. And if he's anything like he was at the Visag keep, that won't be tough at all."

"What is it?" Tuka asked. "What do you want me to do?"

"Well, you're not going to like this either," Simon told him. "But we're going to take a trip to the local slave market, and we need someone to sell."

Tuka blinked. "What?"

Simon raised his palms. "Okay, before either of you start tossing around honor and disgrace, you should know that this is about getting Tuka as close to Mallunus as possible."

Tuka hesitated.

"So," Fira said with deceptive calm. "You want him to go to the same creatures who used your back to sharpen their blades and become their slave?"

Simon flinched at the mention of his back, but didn't stop. "Look, they only did that to me because I kept trying to escape. Tuka won't do a thing like that until he's actually on the Chieftain's Pride."

"Oh? And what's to stop them from cutting him to pieces then?"

"Simple. We get Mallunus to hire us on as extra security. I hear he's been pulling mercs off the streets since these attacks started. Won't be too hard to get aboard the Pride once we're attached to one of his ships."

"And the reason you need Tuka aboard the Pride to begin with..."

Simon sighed. "They aren't going to hire us if we have an obvious amateur like him with us. No offense, Tuka, but I've got a little bit of a reputation out here and your friend'll fit the ex-military merc type to a T. Besides, if he's gonna take out Mallunus he'll need to know the lay of the ship first."

Tuka gulped. He'd always told himself that he'd go to any lengths to kill Mallunus, but this went beyond any lengths. To submit himself as a slave to creatures who'd needed very little reason to maim a human like Simon, who had a deep-seated hatred for him and all his kind...

"Alright." Simon didn't seem to notice Tuka's discomfort in the slightest, or if he did he was ignoring it in favor of Fira's more evident scorn. "You come up with a good way to get us on board without getting killed. Or we could go back to having Diana vent the ship. That works for me."

Fira gave Simon a look of contempt. Tuka felt his gut tightening. This was it, he realized. Here was the moment when his entire quest could succeed or fail based on his actions. No matter how much he disagreed with and feared it, Simon's plan was the best option they had. If they went with another one, a more dangerous one, then they would all be at risk. This way, only he would walk in fire on the way to his revenge.

"I'll do it," he announced as Fira took a breath to reply. "We will use Simon's plan."

Simon sighed and got to his feet. "Smart choice. Don't sweat it, I've got some tricks up my sleeve to keep them from cutting you up."

Tuka just closed his eyes. This was it. He'd made his decision, and now all he could do was throw himself into the plan and trust that his fate would bring him to Mallunus unharmed.

It seems I do quite a lot of that. Always relying on others to do the thinking, to take the risks. But this time, I will bear my burden alone. Just as it should have been from the beginning.

"Well," said Diana over the intercom. "Now that you meatbags have a plan all sorted out, things can finally get interesting. And we've got a strapping young squid-head for sale now, Simon. Make sure you squeeze every last credit you can get out of the dealers at the auction."

"Right," Simon said, idly waving his prosthetic hand at one of the security cameras. "Don't sweat it, Diana, I plan on getting as much money out of this gig as I possibly can."

"Ugh," she replied, her voice dripping with disdain. "Please remember that I don't sweat. Don't go projecting your meatbag habits on me, dumbass."

"Ah, whatever." Simon turned to the others. "Tuka, once you get back I'll give you a cut of whatever I can get for you."

Tuka looked away, not wanting to reject Simon entirely but also not wanting to annoy Fira either. "I won't need it," he said. His voice was tight, tighter than he'd expected. The reality of what was about to happen was sinking in.

"Suit yourself." Simon waved at Fira. "Hey, aren't you supposed to be helping him prepare for all this? A younger warrior's about to go into battle, don't you have things to do with him beforehand?"

"Indeed." Fira rose to his feet and beckoned to Tuka. "It seems you trained under a blademaster after all, human. Tuka, come with me. The cryo-bay will suit our purposes nicely."

As Tuka and Fira made their way over to the cryo-bay, Cassandra, who'd been silent the whole time, finally lifted her head. "Five of us against a whole planet full of pirates and criminals," she noted quietly. "And we're about to send one of us alone into the heart of all the trash."

Simon just passed a hand through his hair. "Yeah. Things are going to get interesting now."

She glanced over at him and managed a faint smile. "By interesting, you mean scary, right?"

"Yep. Screaming, running, shooting, brushing with death. That kind of interesting."

"Just like old times then, huh?"

Simon sighed and rubbed his gaunt face. "Yeah. Just like old times."

Chapter Twenty-Five: The Syndicate

"Once again, I'd like to thank you for your help in arranging all of this."

Shinsu felt the young human female's eyes boring into his skull, but he didn't turn to acknowledge her. Instead, he kept his gaze fixed on the image of Famul spreading out below him through the viewport on the Jade Princess's observation deck. The contrasting green tinge of the planet's terraformed forests with the brown hues of its natural deserts reminded him of the ancient, abstractionist tapestries he'd studied as a child. It was a rare art form, the ability to derive meaning from stark differences, one that was mostly lost to Sangheili of the post-Covenant era.

Behind him, Helen Powell laughed. "You mean you want to thank the Syndicate. I'm just its agent in all of this."

It fascinated Shinsu that someone barely old enough to be considered an adult by her species could wield such power on such a galactic scale. Sangheili children were judged based on their capacity to fight, if they were male, and govern the daily affairs of the keep, if they were female. Those outside the elite keep system were expected to perform whatever task their lords within the keeps required. It was a solid system, one that had been maintained peacefully even as the Covenant's warriors waged their bloody crusade against the humans.

But I armed the serfs when I wasn't much older than this human, Shinsu noted, still staring down at Famul. I helped shatter millennia of tradition to try to save us from the humans, and in doing so made us more like them.

How strange it was, that he'd gone from fighting a brutal guerilla war on his own species' sacred homeworld in order to keep the humans away to striking backroom deals with human criminals to help further his plans to topple the Sangheili government.

How the wheel turns, doesn't it? And one day, it will turn again.

"Regardless," he said aloud. "You have been most generous in this whole affair, and I thank you for it."

Helen moved to stand beside him, and Shinsu noted out of the corner of his eye the satisfied smile the human female always seemed to be wearing.

"Mallunus has always been wary of us," she explained calmly. "With him gone, we'll be able to control the trade around this planet entirely."

She glanced at him, and Shinsu immediately saw the cold calculations running behind that vaguely innocent smile. "As we agreed, of course."

"Of course," Shinsu said with a nod. "My agents will take possession of the surface colonies, the orbital assets, and the resources Mallunus's fleet currently possessed. Once the planet is secure, my forces will ensure that every group currently trading with this system must go through the Syndicate."

"And we in turn will make sure that you receive sixty percent of all revenue finds its way into your pockets." Helen curled a strand of dark hair around a pale, slender finger. "You're about to become a very rich warlord, Shinsu 'Refum."

"So I am."

One day, once I've settled accounts back on Sanghelios, I'll come for you as well, Helen Powell. You, your Syndicate, this planet, and all the filth they've polluted this galaxy with, will burn along with the scum who let your poison take hold.

Shinsu realized that he didn't hate Helen, not like he hated the Vadams and the government they had built. She was just a byproduct of the systems that had corrupted the galaxy since the Great War, another vermin who thought herself far bigger than she actually was. No, he didn't hate her at all. He just regretted that such intelligence had been wasted on the criminal elements he was determined to bring down.

Fortune's wheel spins for all of us; it certainly has for me, time and time again. I submit to you and your Syndicate now, but a day will come when I help dismantle everything you've built piece by piece.

In spite of what its name implied, the Syndicate had been thrust from the ashes of the post-war galaxy by the will of a single man.

Thomas Powell had begun his career as just another local crime boss, one more high-end trafficker who'd managed to slip under his local government's radar. But the war had cost him much: his mistress and firstborn son, through his wife's jealousy, and his second child, a daughter, to the perils of rival criminals. And he'd gazed upon the ashes the Covenant had made of the UNSC's empire and seen opportunity in the chaos the war would leave behind it.

And so, mere weeks after the war's end, Powell had gathered up what remained of his criminal fortune and launched an all-out campaign to seize control of the new criminal underworld springing up in the wake of all the destruction. He'd moved quickly and ruthlessly against all potential rivals, cutting them to pieces and absorbing those pieces into his own rising organization. The war had left him with plenty of tools, and he'd used them all. Pirates, rebels, mercenaries, and even up and coming politicians had aided him in his rise to power. Within five years, Powell had achieved his dream of building a many-headed criminal empire that spanned all of human space and beyond; the Interspecies Union had been a useful tool in expanding the newly dubbed "Syndicate"'s operations to other, non-human, systems.

Now, the Syndicate had a hand in everything that happened on the far side of the Interspecies Union's laws. Weapon smuggling, drug trafficking, illegal mercenary contracting, and all manner of other illicit activities all wound their way back to the Syndicate in the end. Entire colonial governments resided within its deep pockets, and what remained of the insurrection owed its existence to the Syndicate's support.

And now it had set its sights on Famul.

Even now, as Shinsu 'Refum and the heir to the massive empire sealed their alliance, Syndicate agents were already coordinating with Shinsu's own operatives as they pulled all the pieces into place for a full-scale takeover of the last pirate stronghold outside its control. As Mallunus scaled up his patrols and waited for the attack to come, he failed to see the forces already assembled on the planet beneath him.

The attack would come quickly, and everything would go as Shinsu had planned.

The only thing he hadn't planned for was a certain slave transaction taking place in a small port on the target planet's surface.

Chapter Twenty-Six: The Slave Market

Tuka closed his eyes and tried his best to ignore the pit of misery he'd volunteered to be marched into.

"This," he muttered softly as the deluge of shouts from guards and cries from their victims washed over him. "Is disgusting."

"Better get used to it," Simon replied beside him. "You're up next on the auction block, pal."

"Meditate on your ancestors," Fira, standing behind them, advised. "On your mission. It will keep you alive."

Simon snorted and pushed Tuka forward. "Just keep your head down and don't draw attention to yourself. You're supposed to be broken down already, remember? Selling that's the only way this will work."

Tuka obediently ducked his head, only to struck from behind. He fell flat on his back in a puddle of what he hoped was just mud and saw that Simon had hit him with his rifle butt.

"Move him over to the holding pens," Simon ordered loudly, faceless under his helmet. "I'll deal with the transaction."

"You have experience doing this sort of thing?" Fira demanded disgustedly, hauling Tuka roughly to his feet. The older Sangheili was clad in a battered amalgam of several different suits of armor that Simon had apparently scavenged off several dozen battlefields.

"Of course," came the cold reply. "I used to be merchandise myself, remember?"

"How confident are you in this plan?" Fira demanded upon finding Mordred finishing a conversation with one of the dozens of Kig-Yar that appeared to be the black core of the slave market. "He has no training for this sort of endeavor."

Mordred just shrugged, more interested in the credit chit he'd just received than Fira's questions. "He's tougher than he looks," he replied casually. Even though Fira had always found human expressions hard to interpret, but he found the faceless helmets of the Spartans even more disconcerting.

"If you have indeed spent time as a slave, then you know how savage the Jiralhanae are," Fira continued. "And their hatred of our kind exceeds even their enmity towards you humans."

"First off, I was thrown into a mine where scrawny humans like me weren't exactly hard to come by." Mordred slipped the credit chit into one of the pouches strapped to his armor. "With the recommendations I just made and the strings Diana just pulled in their computer system, he'll be heading into orbit on the next shuttle off-planet. The guards will be a little more gentle with the merchandise, at first."

"These apes have lousy security," Diana commented over the audio link in Fira's own helmet. "A baby could have hacked that network."

"And second?" Fira asked, ignoring the AI.

"Second, this was the best plan we could come up with that didn't involve getting our asses shot off by a bunch of pissed off pirate ships."

"Wonderful," Fira muttered. "So now we wait for Tuka to plan the rest by himself?"

"Yeah, pretty much." Mordred opened a channel to Cassandra. The second human was waiting at the edge of the market, added security in case the plan had gone awry. "Cassandra, job's done. We're heading out."

"Copy that. Is Tuka alright?"

"Well, he's locked up in a slave pen right now, so I wouldn't exactly go with alright, but at least he's not dead."

"I see."

Simon shot a glance over at the slave pens. "We're heading back now. The sooner I'm out of this shithole, the sooner I can forget it all over again."

He turned to Fira. "Let's get the hell out of here. Don't worry about Tuka. He'll be fine.

But Cassandra wasn't alone when they reached the spot where they'd left her. Fira dropped his hand down to his holstered needler when he saw the three armored Jiralhanae arranged in a semi-circle around her. He saw Simon lay his prosthetic hand on the but of his own pistol and together they cautiously approached the guards.

"Gentlemen," Simon said, raising his organic arm in a placating manner. "What's the problem here?"

As the lead Jiralhanae turned on them, Fira saw that Cassandra had her rifle trained on the hulking guards. Her medical bag was on the ground, and near that was a small, huddled human body garbed in what could graciously be called rags.

"Stay out of this, human," the leader snarled. "This is none of your concern."

"Well, seeing as she happens to be a member of my crew, it is my concern," Simon replied, stopping a few feet from the Jiralhanae. He had to crane his neck to look the leader in the eye. "If it's slaves you're after, she's not for sale."

"Your crew member attacked us!"

"Huh," Simon said, tapping a glove against his helmet. "Doesn't really sound like her."

Fira had insisted upon being included in all private communications channels, so he heard everything that transpired within his human companions' helmets.

"You attacked them?" Simon demanded, more surprised than angry. "Have you lost it?"

"Back me up, Simon." Fira was surprised by the iron will behind Cassandra's voice. The young human hadn't struck him as the type to pick fights like this. "I'm not letting them hurt her!"

Simon and Fira both glanced at the figure huddled at Cassandra's feet. Yes, Fira could now see that it was a young human female, small and bedraggled and evidently the prize that Cassandra and the Jiralhanae were at odds over.

Simon's shoulders slumped. "Seriously?" he complained over the radio.

The Jiralhanae leader stepped forward. "If this one is your subordinate, then you will call her off," he ordered, cutting an imposing figure as he towered over Simon. "And you will pay us a fine for the inconvenience she has caused us."

Without waiting for Simon to reply, he motioned to the two others. "Collect the slave."

The guards stepped towards the fallen girl, but hesitated when Cassandra didn't lower her rifle. The leader glared at Simon. "Did you not hear me the first time, human?"

Simon just sighed. "Yeah, I heard you. So how's this: you guys back off and my associate here won't have to cut you all into little pieces with his energy sword."

The leader blinked. "What?"

"Did you not here me the first time, Jiralhanae?" Simon said casually. "Do you want to die or what?"

The Jiralhanae shook his head slowly, but Fira noticed that he was being careful to size him up as well. "If you lay a finger on us, this whole market will be down on your heads."

"And you'll still be dead," Simon pointed out. "Still want to fight?"

"You're stealing Famul property, wretch!"

With another regretful sigh, Simon reached into a pouch and retrieved a credit chip--the payment he'd just received for Tuka. "Take it and get moving," he said, tossing it to the leader. "This is a waste of both our time."

The Jiralhanae examined the chip carefully, then shook his head in disgust. "Go on, fool. Take that useless thing if you must, but don't expect to get even a sub-standard price for her."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Simon said wearily. "Don't you have slaves to beat or something?"

The three guards headed off, one of them grumbling about a missed fight. Almost immediately, Simon managed to shrink about three sizes within his armor.

"Damn it, Cassandra, don't ever do that to me again," he snapped, whatever angry expression he might have been wearing lost under his helmet.

Cassandra's response was equally muted. "I didn't have a choice," she insisted. "They were going to kill her."

"That happens all the time out here," Simon retorted. "If we went around buying every slave about to be butchered out here we'd be broke in an hour."

"That's no reason not to help where we can."

"And that's not a good enough reason for me to have to talk down some pumped up Brute asshole! And don't get me started on the money..."

"You can lecture me later." Cassandra bent down to help the newly purchased slave to her feet. "Right now, we need to get back to the ship. She needed treatment for some of these wounds yesterday."

Fira and Simon could now see the extent of the young human's injuries. Sores and bruises were dotted across her arms and legs, one of which looked as if it had been broken and badly healed. Her flaxen hair was coming out in patches in several places.

"Can't argue with Doc here," Diana observed. "Better hop to it, dumbass."

Simon groaned. "I'm surrounded by idiots."

He rounded on Fira. "Carry her," he ordered, gesturing at the slave. "We need to move fast."

Fira bristled at being ordered about by Simon of all people, but decided that this was not the time to start an argument. He scooped the slave up into his arms as Cassandra retrieved her medical bag.

"Somehow, I see this all coming back to bite me in the ass," Simon muttered.

"If it hasn't already," came Diana's instant reply.

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Discovery

"The report is in, commander. The rest of our force will arrive shortly."

Shinsu folded his arms and leaned against the wall of their quarters on board the Chieftain's Pride. "When they arrive, transfer them onto the Flame immediately."

Umbra nodded. "Of course. Everything will be ready when the time comes to turn on Mallunus."

The trouble the human Venter had stirred up was working exactly as they had planned. Not only was Mallunus losing face every day he failed to capture the culprits behind the asteroid attacks, but his attempts to do so had made it easy to convince him that his negotiations with the Fallen ambassador could be postponed indefinitely.

"Have you made the necessary preparations aboard the Flame?"

"Yes. And our... alien compatriots report that they are moving to secure the planet and orbital stations as soon as Mallunus's successor has been installed. If all goes well, very little blood will be shed on the planet itself."

Shinsu just nodded, not looking at his second in command.

"Pula is making her way back to the Flame," Umbra added. "She is infiltrating a slave transport from the surface that should bring her directly to this ship."

"Very good," Shinsu said after a long pause. "In that case, I will signal our Jiralhanae allies personally."

In spite of his misgivings about this entire scheme, Umbra couldn't help but admire how calm his commander seemed as months of planning slid neatly into place. It was times like these that he remembered why he had abandoned the Fallen in favor of Shinsu in the first place.

It is warriors like him who will win this war. Everything he does brings us closer to our goal. Every move brings our people that much closer to revolution. And we have accomplished so much of this through dealings with aliens.

Yes, warriors like Shinsu would be the ones to lead the Sangheili into the future. Umbra was sure of it.

The only problem was that Shinsu always seemed to be the only one with any idea of what that future held.

Tuka ducked his head and slid a hand down his trembling leg.

Simon had been right: he had gotten used to the horrors that passed by his eyes on a moment by moment basis. The constant stench had dulled in his nostrils shortly after the slave ship had taken off, and he could even look the other way when the Jiralhanae guards hauled some poor Unggoy out from its collared brethren and tore its mask off, leaving it to suffocate on the corroded floor.

Surprisingly, the guards left most of the Sangheili slaves be. Perhaps they were too valuable for their strength or endurance.

Or perhaps they merely had more inventive tortures for their hated enemies up in orbit.

Crammed in the holding cell of what might at one point have been the renovated slave ship's brig, Tuka cast a glance at his fellow Sangheili captives. Either garbed in rags or completely naked, they all were in no mood to talk to each other, even when the guards weren't strutting by the pen. Sharing the cell with over a dozen other Sangheili, Tuka was pushed up against the laser barrier that had them all trapped like animals waiting to be slaughtered.

Tuka couldn't fathomed the cowed, stoic acceptance with which most of his fellow prisoners were meeting their fate. Even under the moderate tutelage of Roni 'Visag, Tuka had always been taught that to become a slave was the most horrific fate any Sangheili could endure. To be stripped of all freedoms and honor, to become a possession completely in the power of another being, went against everything a warrior believed in. He, at least, had slipped in voluntarily in his efforts to avenge his clan, but what excuse did these others have?

As a warrior, Tuka should have been disgusted with those around them, but right now he could only muster up pity.

A guard meandered by again, and Tuka was jolted back into remembering his task. The Jiralhanae hadn't done more than a cursory check for weapons before throwing him in the cell, which meant they hadn't noticed a small, fresh cut in his leg. A cut Cassandra had made with her medical scalpel just before they'd taken him to the slave marked. A cut that Simon had slipped a small capsule into before Cassandra had sewn it back up.

His leg ached, but Tuka ignored the pain and thought only of his goal. He just needed to wait for the right moment.

From her vantage point in the corner of the room, Pula weighed her options carefully.

The enhanced active camouflage offered by the cloak draped over her armor had allowed her to slip aboard this ship unnoticed. She had chosen the slave quarters because should anything go wrong, she could engineer a slave breakout to cover her disappearance.

Of course, whether or not they deserved even the chance at freedom was debatable.

From the time when Master Shinsu had strode into her life so many years ago, emerging from the smoke and death of her old life to take her into the new, he had taught her that there were very few things truly contemptible in the galaxy. Treachery, manipulation, and even cowardice all had their place in the corrupt way of things that they sought to destroy. All of this was acceptable, though all would be swept away in the fires of renewal.

No, the only thing Shinsu 'Refum truly despised was weakness.

Weakness was not the frailty of the physical body. Master Shinsu had taught Pula that every time he had forced her through sword drills even male Sangheili found challenging, refusing to let her stop until she had completed them perfectly. No, weakness came from the mind. It was the willingness to submit to indignity, to bow one's head meekly before fate and let the winds blow one where they may. Not to take up arms against ill-fate was to become less than even the lowliest Unggoy.

Those with such a weakness, Shinsu had taught her, were hardly worth the effort of killing.

It was, in short, exactly what every one of these slaves was demonstrating.

Pula had sat amidst the ruins of her entire world, her parents' corpses smoking beside her. She had been just as pathetic as these slaves until the moment her master had stepped from the smoke and given her strength to journey on. If she, a mere child at the time, could be pulled out of the depths of despair, why couldn't these slaves?

She had seen more than enough of their kind as she flitted from one end of Famul to the other, delivering Shinsu's ultimatums to the chieftains and pirate lords whom he would help topple Mallunus. Shinsu had taught her to remain distant and unbiased when dealing with other species, but even so she found the Jiralhanae more repugnant than any other race, including the Kig-Yar. The way they killed and dominated others with no thought towards anything other than their own primal instincts disgusted her on a personal level. They truly were beasts who had learned to talk.

But they would be the key to Shinsu's ascension, and for that she could tolerate as many of them as necessary.

One of the five guards posted throughout the holding area sidled past her; Pula quickly checked to make sure her armor and robes were powering her active camouflage system. The armor would have been enough for basic active camouflage, but the cloak was what perfected it, disguising even the distinctive blurring left by the stealth system. It had been that system, coupled with her own propensity for slipping into places unnoticed, that had allowed her to act as Shinsu's ambassador across Famul's surface.

Now that she had looked down on the slaves in their wretchedness, Pula felt urged to slip over and get a closer look at them. Perhaps there were some amongst them who actually might try to save themselves from disgrace, given half a chance...

...Which was exactly why she shouldn't approach them. If she saw even one who looked desperate to fight against the guards, she might not be able to restrain herself from stepping in and being revealed. Shinsu's plans could not afford strange Sangheili agents appearing on Mallunus's ships, not when so much effort had been made to make the chieftain look outwards rather than inwards.

But even as her better sense fought against it, Pula edged across the room, staying close to the wall and away from the guards. Just one look. That was all she would allow herself, and then she would leave the slaves to their misery.

She dodged past yet another guard just as he passed by the cell’s barrier. Ducking low, Pula made sure no other Jiralhanae were moving towards her and eyed the slaves within the cell.

Almost immediately, she decided she did not need to worry about being urged to free any of them. Most of their heads were ducked low, as if they were trying to lose themselves in a world of their own. Those whose faces she could see looked utterly resigned, not angry or desperate like Pula or any of her comrades would have been in their position. Pula felt her stomach turn as she realized that, naked and broken as they were, most of the slaves seemed completely identical.

The final curse of slavery, she realized with disgust, turning to check on the guards across the room. They have lost everything, even their souls.

It had been a mistake to indulge herself here. All she had accomplished was to remind herself why the Sangheili so desperately needed the reformation her master planned to bring about.

We once strove to be masters of the galaxy. Now a few kaidons cooperate with aliens, scrabbling like vermin for their empty promises of peace.

Once her master’s goals were accomplished, Pula swore to herself that she would use every resource at her disposal to crush barbaric machines like the one that made Famul so lucrative for the Jiralhanae pirates. As things were now, she would barely be able to tolerate the cooperative savages who would aid them once Mallunus was dead.

But just as she began to creep back to her hiding place, a flicker of motion caught her eye and made her turn back. One of the slaves, pushed up against the energy barrier by the sheer volume of captives crammed within the cell, was rubbing his bare leg. It didn’t seem to be amounting to anything more than nervous energy, but he was doing it with a vigor that didn’t match the air of defeat that hung over the overcrowded cell. Pula inched back for one last look, and what she saw stunned her.

The anxious slave was Shinsu ‘Refum.

Pula suppressed a gasp, but realized her foolishness immediately. Her master was an adult Sangheili, while this slave could still be considered a youth, perhaps even younger than Pula. Besides, Shinsu’s body bore the scars marked on him by years of battle and the brutal treatment of government interrogators, while this naked youth was unblemished save for a few mild cuts and bruises here or there.

Nevertheless, the resemblance was unmistakable.

Pula shot another glance at the guards. They were all near the cell block's door, obviously not at all concerned with their docile crop of slaves. She turned back to the strange prisoner, who was still rubbing his leg.

What she was about to do was reckless and impulsive, something that could ruin everything in one fell swoop. But she had to know.

And in this one instance, she had a feeling Master Shinsu would forgive her.

Leaning forward until her mandibles were mere inches from the slave's bowed head, separated from him only by the energy field, she hissed, "Your name. What is your name?"

The slave froze, clearly spooked out of his mind. But luckily, he did not shout out. None of the others seemed to notice, too involved in their own misery to catch the sudden voice.

"Tell me your name," Pula insisted. The slave stared up at where her face was, unable to see her through the active camouflage.

"My name," the slave stuttered, answering a demand from someone he could not see. "My name is Tuka 'Refum."

So it was no accident. Her master had been wrong: he was not the last of the 'Refums. What she had just discovered could change everything.

And in that instant Pula knew exactly what she needed to do.

She would not be leaving this ship by herself.

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Unwelcome Guest

Simon was pacing up and down the shuttle's common room. The only piece of his armor he'd removed was his helmet, which lay in a corner next to a pile of assault rifles. His armored boots pounded against the bleak metal floor as he spun and began a new circuit around the room.

"He hasn't signed in yet," he muttered. Fira couldn't tell if he was talking to anyone in particular or just venting his thoughts. "He should have signed in by now. Something's gone wrong. We need to find out what's gone wrong."

Unfortunately for him, it really didn't matter who he was talking to. The consequence was the same.

"Of course he hasn't signed in, dumbass," Diana snapped over the intercom. "It's been two hours since they loaded him and all the other meatbags onto a ship. You told him not to activate that thing until he got on the Pride."

"I know what I said," Simon snapped back. "How long does it take to get some slaves up into orbit anyway?"

"Long enough. Just sit down and take it easy, you idiot. We'll know when he activates the beacon."

"Or when a few dozen dropships come down on us." Simon kept moving, scooping up an assault rifle and checking its sights. "I'm not relaxing until this thing's done."

"You know what your problem is?" Diana commented as he discarded the rifle and bent to get another one. "You're just wound up way to tight. You never relax about anything."

"And seeing as that's what's kept me alive all my life, I could give a shit about fixing it."

"Oh, please. Half the time you screw up is because you get too tense about everything. Lighten up for once."

Simon just shook his head, strands of black hair tumbling over his head. "I just dumped all the money we made off that sale to buy some half-dead slave that wasn't worth the table scraps they were feeding her. Don't expect me to get all sunny all of a sudden."

"Well, Doc's still working her over. You meatbags sure have tough bodies, I'll give you that." Diana sounded more curious than mocking, though with human constructs it was hard to tell. "I didn't even think she'd make it back to the ship."

"Don't even get me started on her," Simon muttered darkly. "You know how tight the budget is around here."

"Uh, I've been telling you that for the past three months," Diana retorted. "I know junk and clutter are all part of your natural environment, but you might consider selling all this crap you're always picking up."

"Yeah, yeah." Simon finally stopped pacing and lowered himself wearily onto one of the metal couches. "After this job, we clean house."

"So you still consider this one of your 'jobs'," Fira noted, leaning against the door to the cockpit. He was beginning to wonder if he would ever understand this strange, unpleasant human. "I thought you were doing this for Tuka."

"Of course I'm doing this for Tuka." Simon didn't even bother to look at Fira. "He's the client, isn't he? I'm just giving him a discount, for old time's sake."

"Ah. And how much do you plan on making him pay you?"

Simon shrugged. "I'll figure something out. The one sure thing in all of this is that I'll be making money somehow."

Fira shook his head in disbelief. "Do the depths of your greed know any bounds at all?"

"If by 'greed' you mean 'survival', then none. In case you haven't noticed, money runs just about everything out here on the margins. Those high-minded ideals you idiots back on the civilized planets fight for are just hot air where must of us mercs are concerned."

"Oh, I have noticed. These past few days have made me wonder if vermin like you aren't even more dangerous than the Fallen."

Simon let out a dry laugh. "You're so predictable, you know that? Typical Sangheili arrogance, always looking down on everyone who doesn't fall in line."

"Hate to break up this constructive species debate, but it looks like Doc's finished with our new friend," Diana cut in.

"Great," Simon replied, standing up. "Now we can see what this little fiasco was all about."

"Be gentle with her," Cassandra advised. "She's still wiped out by all she's been through."

The ex-slave was propped up on the same cot Fira had been treated on. Bandages and gel packs concealed the worst of her injuries. Her flaxen hair had been pulled back to reveal a forehead that was marred by small cuts and bruises.

"Can she walk?" Simon asked. "Because if there isn't any more you can do, I want her off my ship."

"She's probably been through weeks of hell." Cassandra folded her arms across her chest, as if daring Simon to try evicting the girl by force. "She stays here."

Simon sighed. The odd thing about him, Fira had noticed, was that he never seemed willing to actively oppose Cassandra. Everyone else--Fira himself, Diana, and even Tuka--were subject to his barbs, but his veneer of icy callousness wavered when confronted by her defiance.

"We're about to rescue Tuka from a carrier filled with angry Brutes," Simon reminded her. "I wouldn't exactly call this place a restful environment."

"She'll be safer here than anywhere on this planet. It's the only way she's going to have a chance at surviving."

"Whatever." Simon pushed past Fira and headed back for the common room. "Just don't use up any more of my medical supplies than you already have."

Fira watched him go. "Such an inconsistent one," he noted. "Every time I think I can predict his actions, he does something unpredictable."

Cassandra just sighed. "He's always been like that," she said, turning back to her patient. "It takes some getting used to."

"Try living with him around the clock," Diana put in. "Let me tell you, sister, it's not pretty."

Fira indicated the sleeping human. "What will you do about her? It won't be wise to keep her with ups, not if you want her to stay alive."

"Cutting her loose in the middle of Famul isn't any better," Cassandra argued stubbornly. "Right now, this is probably the safest place she could be."

"For now," Diana agreed. "That'll be a different story once we come knocking on Mallunus's door though."

Fira sighed. At the end of the day, problems like this didn't concern him. He was here to make sure Tuka survived; this was a matter best left to the humans. "I'll take no part in this either way," he announced. "Discuss it with Mordred and do as you see fit."

He headed back out to the common room, where he found Simon frowning over a disassembled assault rifle.

Chapter Twenty-Nine: An Exchange of Hats

"Your cooperation in all of this has been most welcome," Shinsu told the holographic image of Helen Powell. "Rest assured that once they are in power, Famul's new masters will be much more willing to cooperate with the Syndicate's interests."

The young human smiled up at him. "You are a credit to your race, Shinsu 'Refum." Unlike before, when they had met on her ship, she spoke in a nearly flawless Sangheili dialect, an impressive feat for any being without mandibles. "We look forward to future dealings with you."

"As do I," he assured her. "There will be many opportunities for them in the future."

"Our agents report that the targets you specified are ready to be eliminated. As we agreed, the attack will begin at your signal."

"Once again, I thank you." Shinsu gave a small bow.

The Syndicate agent smiled again and then flickered into nothingness.

Umbra stepped forward from the corner of the room. He and Shinsu were both clad in the combat harnesses worn by special operations warriors; Umbra's was pale red while Shinsu's was jet black.

"Pula just reported in. She snuck in on the latest shipment of slaves from the surface."

Shinsu nodded, draping a short, tattered cloak over his armor. Behind him, his lieutenant hesitated before speaking again.

"There was one odd thing about her transmission," he admitted. "She said that she wouldn't be alone. Did you order her to bring back one of the chieftains with her?"

"No," Shinsu said calmly. "I did not."

"Then who will be with her?"

"If Pula believes that this person is important enough to bring with her, then I am quite interested to see who it is," Shinsu replied. "Have you transmitted my orders to the Flame?"

"Yes. All the specified crew are being assembled now."

"Then we leave for it now. Before the attacks begin elsewhere, we will return here to deal with Mallunus."

He brushed past Umbra and strolled from the room. The time for waiting was over. Now the pieces would fall into place and control of Famul would slip from Chieftain Mallunus's broad paws and into the thin palm of Shinsu 'Refum.

"Stay behind me," the strange Sangheili ordered Tuka. "Move when I move."

Tuka was still having a hard time coming to terms with all that was happening. First this odd female had appeared out of nowhere in the prison block, and now she had slipped him away from the rest of the slaves as they were marched off the ship and dragged him through endless corridors and passageways within what had to be Mallunus's flagship. He hadn't bothered to argue with her at any step of the way. She hadn't left him any room to as she'd hurried him away from the hangar and through the ship's inner workings.

He clenched his palm tightly around the activated beacon ship. His unexpected benefactor had bandaged the self-inflicted wound to his leg that had worked it out into the open, but he had decided not to tell her where it had come from. Right now the others would be racing through Famul's atmosphere, making fast progress towards the Chieftain's Pride. From there, he wasn't sure what Simon had planned, but right now it didn't really matter. His job was to find and kill Mallunus, just as he had set out to do from the beginning.

The only problem would be finding weapons and armor.

If this female didn't turn on him first.

The main hangar on the Cleansing Flame was packed with warriors, all of them in the varied colors of the Fallen movement. They milled about, casually conversing with each other though clearly confused about why they had been ordered away from their posts to report here.

Umbra watched it all from the shadows, his hearts pounding with anticipation. For all his doubts and fears, he knew that here he was about to see the beginning of a new revolution. A new age was about to begin here, one that would sweep aside the diseased remnants of the old Covenant and herald an era of Sangheili dominance.

Shinsu 'Refum, I have entrusted everything to you. You will lead us on the path to glory.

He saw movement up on one of the hangar's upper platforms. The dark armored Shinsu 'Refum, flanked by two similarly clad warriors, strode into sight and gazed down upon the assembled warriors.

Umbra opened a communications channel in his helmet. "Be ready when I give the signal."

Most of the warriors had noticed Shinsu now and were looking up at him, puzzled by his strange armor.

Shinsu raised a hand, and the room fell silent.

"Warriors of the Fallen," he began. "You have spent many years fighting against the corrupt vermin who have dishonored our people in the face of our lost Covenant. Many of you here have been fighting even longer than I have, and I can assure you that you have done it with bravery that is befitting of only the best warriors our species has to offer."

There were rumbles of approval throughout the crowd, but Shinsu gestured for quiet once again.

"Yes, we have all fought valiantly in our struggle. We have all lost comrades, friends, even family, to this cause. We all dream of the day when our enemies are punished for the many disgraces they have heaped upon the Sangheili."

He shook his head, and Umbra braced himself. He knew all too well what was coming next.

"And so, it is with heavy hearts that I, the Black Knight of Sanghelios, declare that I am departing the Fallen movement entirely."

Another rumble, this one of surprise, shot through the crowd. Shinsu blazed on, gaining momentum by the second.

"The end has come, warriors. The Fallen have lost sight of the true cause, so caught up in their obsession with the past that they cannot see a true future for the Sangheili. Their leadership is stagnant and corrupt, and even as they wage this war against the Interspecies Union I can foresee that it is only a matter of time before they collapse. My fight will continue, but their fight--your fight--is coming to an end."

Still standing in the shadows, apart from the stunned crowd, Umbra smiled. Yes, this was it. The beginning of a new chapter of Sangheili history, even if most of their race didn't realize it. The wouldn't realize it, not until many years from now when all was said and done.

"From this day forward," Shinsu continued. "I will forge a path for the Sangheili that brings us not to isolation, but to utter dominance over the rest of the galaxy. I will cleanse this galaxy of all the filth that has accumulated since the end of the Schism. It will not be an easy task, and I am willing to stoop to unspeakable depths to accomplish that goal. But unlike the Fallen, I will not cloak my actions in bright robes and call them honorable. Those who stand with me must be willing to do the same."

This is the end of your fight, warriors. The Cleansing Flame no longer sails at the Fallen's command. You may either stand with me and escape the lie you have been wasting your lives on, or you can die here for your decadent masters. The choice is yours."

A furious silence descended over the hangar bay as Shinsu finished. He was usually not one for long, grand speeches like that, but Umbra had to admit he could be quite a mesmerizing speaker when he wanted to.

But even the most arresting of speeches could only hold the audience for so long. He could see hatred and loathing burning in the eyes of the assembled warriors. They don't understand, Umbra thought, opening his communications link with a small sigh. They have no idea how right he is.

"Now," he ordered aloud. "Take your positions."

He felt a slight twinge of regret as doors throughout the hangar flew open and dozens of new warriors stormed out. Like Shinsu and Umbra, they had discarded their Fallen armor in favor of an amalgam of dark, face-concealing special operations combat harnesses. Each warrior carried a plasma repeater and was armed to the teeth with additional plasma rifles, grenades, and energy swords strapped to their armor.

They fanned out, surrounding the startled Fallen in a loose semi-circle. Even more appeared on the platforms around Shinsu, their weapons trained on the gathered warriors below.

Umbra remained in the shadows. He was not needed here; there was no need to step into the firestorm about to erupt before him.

One Fallen in the colors of a major stepped forward and bellowed up at Shinsu. "Traitor!" he roared as those around him repeated his snarl of defiance.

Shinsu merely gave the major a polite nod and turned to leave. He paused beside one of the new warriors and said, almost as an afterthought, "Fire."

The Fallen never had a chance. Sheets of plasma cascaded into their assembled ranks, felling several dozen before they even had a chance to power on their energy shields. Those quick enough to do so merely staggered into each other, weighed down by the bodies of their dead brethren and the sheer enormity of the plasma concentrated on them. Umbra saw several catch fire from the heat being poured into their fast-dwindling gathering. Their cries were lost amidst the heavy whine of the plasma repeaters.

Then, as quickly as it had began, the plasma fire stopped. Most of the repeaters had overheated, but it didn't matter. The Fallen warriors--over a hundred of them--were nothing but smoking corpses on the hangar floor. A few wounded groaned feebly from beneath the bodies of their comrades, but a handful of carbine shots from the upper platforms quickly silenced them. The sickly-sweet smell of burning flesh rose in the air amongst the smoke and steam from the overheating plasma weapons.

Umbra felt another pang of regret as he looked upon the slaughtered Fallen, but it was a very mild one. This was only the beginning, not only of Shinsu's rebellion against the Fallen but of their new crusade to cleanse the Sangheili race and reshape the galaxy.

The new warriors--battle-hardened fighters assembled over the years for their loyalty to Shinsu and their unwavering belief in his cause--stepped forward to remove the bodies. These would be a new breed of Sangheili warriors, ones who would not let old notions of outdated chivalry hamper their ability to destroy their enemies.

Umbra stepped from the shadows and onto the hangar floor. Purple blood shined on the violet floor, and he carefully avoided getting any on his armored feet. Heads turned to face him as he headed for the nearest door.

"Hurry up and clear this mess up," he ordered. "Report to your battle stations and prepare to assault your targets."

Shinsu would give the signal soon, and Umbra planned to be at his side for every moment of this takeover. He could only anticipate the day when their erstwhile Jiralhanae and Syndicate allies met the same fate as the Fallen he was leaving on the deck behind him.

"Who are you?" Tuka demanded, hastily adjusting the loose robes he'd stolen from a passing work table. He couldn't tell if they were for a Sangheili or a small Jiralhanae, and they stank terribly, but at least he wasn't naked anymore.

"Just follow me," the female shot back, vanishing around another corner. Tuka nearly tripped over himself trying to follow her. He sincerely hoped the signal capsule had worked, though he was already seeing flaws in Simon's plan. Which hangar was he supposed to meet the others in? How would they get into the hangar in the first place without alerting the entire crew? How would he even know when they arrived?

He found the female crouched behind a small canister, watching as a patrol of Jiralhanae ran past. "Stay low," she ordered as he crawled over to her.

Tuka wondered what was going on. The only guards they'd seen so far had all looked extremely agitated. There had to be something he wasn't seeing here, something incredibly important.

"How can I trust you?" he hissed. "You won't event tell me your name."

"I saved you," came the curt reply. "Isn't that enough?"

And then the alarms began to blaze throughout the ship.

Mallunus stepped over the body of his former communications officer, glaring at anyone else stupid enough to be slow in giving him reports.

"Where else are the attacks happening?" he demanded. "Give me some answers!"

The other members of his pack scrambled to obey as alerts continued to pour through from locations all across Famul. In some sectors, his own ships had begun firing on each other and launching boarding parties to attack space stations in the planet's orbit. Local chieftains were reporting uprisings from mercenary bands and even their own packs. His entire empire was coming apart at the seams in a matter of minutes.

He was just about to kill another bridge officer when the newly promoted communications officer flagged him down.

"Chieftain!" he barked, either braver or even stupider than his predecessor. "Incoming transmission. A shuttle is requesting permission to land in the main hangar!"

Mallunus's eyes narrowed. "Shoot them down."

"Chieftain, they are demanding to speak with you personally."

Something about such suicidal bravado peaked Mallunus's interest, even in this time of crisis. "Patch it into my personal communicator."

He raised the device to his lips. "This is High Chieftain Mallunus. I hope you have a good reason for disturbing me right now."

"Oh, don't worry," said the silky voice of a human female. "It's a good reason. In fact, we're here to save your life."

"What?" Mallunus demanded. This whole thing was almost laughable.

"There's an assassin on board your ship," the voice continued. "He's a pro at slipping past all sorts of defenses. But we can take him down. For a price..."

Chapter Thirty: Soldiers of Fortune

Simon slid a clip into his assault rifle, locking it in place with a nervous tap.

"Alright, meatbags, this is it," Diana crooned over the intercom. "That transmitter is up and running and I have full access to their systems."

Fira paused from across the room, where he was busy re-donning his pale Ultra armor. There was no longer any need for subtlety here; they would be going in weapons blazing. "What about failsafes? Countermeasures?"

"Zip," she replied smugly. "These idiots don't even know I'm in the system. You know, I could still vent parts of the ship..."

"What's the plan?" Cassandra asked quickly before the A.I. and Fira could get into another ethical argument. "We can track Tuka, right?"

"Yeah." Simon tapped his helmet. "As long as he keeps that tracker on him, we can find him."

He slipped a handful of small orbs into the pouches around his waist. Aside from his rifle, he sported his two miniature energy swords, a pistol, and plenty of small pouches on various parts of his armor. His mechanical arm looked even more skeletal beside the additional armaments.

"We'll support him while he kills this Mallunus asshole, then we get the hell out of here as fast as possible."

Fira nodded and slipped his own helmet on. It felt good to be back in his own armor and not the filthy scavenged rubbish he'd been wearing before. He strapped a plasma repeater--retrieved from the shuttle's scattered arsenal--to his back and made sure the needle rifle he'd acquired was in working order.

"I'll lock down the hangar we land in," Diana reported. "I can navigate for you idiots once you're inside and monitor just about everything else that goes on in the carrier."

"Good to know." Simon leaned against the wall. "Cassandra, stay with the ship. We'll need some insurance in case they break through to the ship."

The medic started. Though faceless under her helmet, she had clearly not expected to be relegated to guard duty. "But--"

"No arguments," Simon cut her off. "Not this time."

Fira eyed them both. The shuttle's rumbling seemed to drown out everything else as Cassandra struggled with her former comrade's orders. Finally, her shoulders slumped.

"Fine. You know this stuff better than I do."

"If you meatbags are done bickering, we've got about five minutes till we land," Diana called in. "I suggest you all find a corner to cry in or whatever it is you do before things get violent."

"Dear God, shut up," Simon muttered, bracing himself against the wall.

Fira raised his needle rifle and edged towards the landing ramp. He emptied his mind of any doubts or fears. If Diana was wrong and she wasn't able to keep the carrier from firing on them, they'd be dead before they even knew something was wrong.

That was comforting... to an extent.

Tuka pressed himself against the wall. He could hear the sound of plasma and spiker rifles down the hallway; something was definitely wrong on this carrier.

His escort was a few feet away. She still wouldn't tell him who she was or where she was taking him, and he was getting impatient. There wasn't any call to do something rash, especially not now when he was so close to his goal, but he wouldn't be able to take much more of this endless creeping around.

"The fighting will be around the control room," the female said finally. "That is where Mallunus is. As long as we stay in the corridors far from that area, we should be able to avoid confrontation."

Tuka edged closer to her. Normally he would be almost paralyzed by fear, but right now all he felt was an insatiable purpose. He needed to get to Mallunus. He needed to get to him quickly.

"How far is the control room from here?" he asked, fighting to keep his voice calm.

The female wasn't even looking at him. "Just down this corridor here," she noted. "But it will be long--"

Her hand shot to her side as Tuka's arm flashed out and seized one of the energy sword handles at her side. But her fingers snapped on air; Tuka was already dashing away down the corridor, putting every ounce of energy he had into getting as far from her as possible.

There would be no more waiting. He would make his way to the control center and confront the monster who had killed his family.

And for once, he wouldn't let anything stand in his way.

Pula cursed herself as her companion vanished down the corridor. She had let her guard down, not expecting someone so pliable to actually steal one of her weapons. She considered going after him, but she had already received three transmissions from Umbra demanding that she rendezvous with Master Refum's contingent as they advanced on the control room by a different route.

Master Refum's second in command could worm his way under her skin like no other, but instructions were instructions. If this Tuka 'Refum was so anxious to get to the control room, she would meet him again soon enough, if he survived long enough to get there.

If he didn't, Pula really couldn't see that there would have been any reason for him to meet her master in the first place.

The shuttle rumbled as it set down, and all three of its occupants took up positions at the top of the boarding ramp.

"Only three guards by the door," Diana reported. "Move quick; those idiots look like we just gave them heart attacks."

The ramp slid open, and Fira sprinted ahead. His feet rang against the metal hangar floor and he swept his needle rifle up. He put one round through the exposed throat of one Jiralhanae, then overloaded a second's armor with a trio of well-placed shots. The guard jerked and stuttered as Fira, aided by a burst from Cassandra, finished him off.

The third guard, a Kig-Yar, collapsed under a hail of bullets from Simon's assault rifle.

"Inefficient, as usual," Diana sighed as he edged down the ramp. "Sometimes a burst is better than half a clip, dumbass."

"Whatever." Simon turned to Cassandra. "Stay at the ramp and watch that door. I'm moving ahead to find an input terminal."

Fira paused as he advanced on the door. "A terminal for what?"

Simon tapped his arm. "For Diana. I've got her with me."

"Oh, thank God..." Cassandra muttered, the most acid comment Fira had heard from her since she'd stumbled into his life back on Cordial Harmony.

"Don't get too thankful, sister, I'll still be giving you updates," Diana told her. "Now, Mordred here is going to earn his keep around here by getting me to the nearest console."

"Do you have a lock on Tuka yet?" Simon demanded impatiently.

"Yeah, he's on the move. Going pretty fast by the looks of things."

"Can we intercept him?"

"We'll cut him off, just like we planned," Diana reported, giving Fira a start.

"That was part of the plan?" he asked, but Simon was already running. He had sprinted halfway to the door before Fira could even begin to follow him, and then he slid through the open portal and vanished.

Fira didn't even wait for Cassandra's go ahead. He dashed after Simon and made it through the door in time to see the human disappear through another door.

"Wait for me, you fool!" he snarled into his transmitter. All he got in reply was a burst of static--Simon was talking to someone else.

"What... hell... you two... assholes..."

"What was that?" Fira demanded. "Repeat!"

A final burst from Simon: "Fira, if you want to live, get the hell back to the ship!"

"What are you talking about?"

He passed through the next door and nearly tripped over his feet. The hallway was gone, replaced with a wide catwalk that passed over what appeared to be a large storage room. He could see crates scattered about below him, but no sign of any guards. Simon had vanished completely.

But Fira was not alone.

At the center of the bridge loomed a massive figure, as large as any Huragok weapons platform. Clad in scuffed battered armor, its enormous arms folded across its chest, stood the biggest Jiralhanae warrior Fira had ever seen.

No, that wasn't right. He had seen one this big before. And the huge metal sword on its back...

Kenpachus, the mercenary Jiralhanae, grinned at him.

"So we meet again, Fira 'Demal."

Fira never saw it coming. Just as he raised his needle rifle, something fast and hot struck him in the back. His shields dropped immediately; he had been hit by an overcharged plasma blast. Someone hit his legs from behind and he collapsed, stunned, to the hard floor. He struggled to roll over, but strong arms pinned him where he lay.

Twisting his neck to look above him, Fira saw the Jiralhanae's partner. Ro'nin glowered down at him.

"About damn time we caught up to you," he growled. Still keeping Fira down, he kicked the fallen needle rifle off the bridge before tearing the plasma repeater from his back with one powerful stroke. With that appropriated, he methodically relieved Fira of the rest of his weapons, snatching away his plasma grenades last.

Fira glared up at the sell-sword with loathing. If he was going to die here, he would not die begging to trash like this. "You left me my energy blade, scum. Aren't you going to take that too before you butcher me?"

"Believe me, I'd like nothing better than to slit your throat right here," Ro'nin said with equal contempt. "But there are some prices even I have to pay."

He stood up and backed away. "Have your fun," he called over to his partner. "But make it fast. I want his head and the credits that go with it."

Kenpachus's smile only widened. He reached up and pulled the blade off his back, bringing it to rest on his shoulder. "You'll get your money, Ro'nin. But if this one's anything like I've been hoping he is, it won't be over quickly."

Fira staggered to his feet, drawing his energy sword as his shields recharged. "You want to fight me?" he demanded. This whole scenario was ridiculous. He needed to get to Tuka as fast as possible, and now these two mercenaries were barring his path.

"I want a duel, yes," Kenpachus replied. "And I will have one. You and me. No guns, no grenades, just our blades."

Fira shook his head. "You are insane."

And Kenpachus actually laughed. "Sanity?" he chuckled. "What use would I ever have for something as useless as that?"

Tuka passed through yet another door and paused to catch his breath. He had dashed through several hallways filled with fighting Jiralhanae. The entire ship had suddenly turned into a massive firefight; he had come close to being caught in the crossfire more times than he liked.

He was starting to wonder if the female warrior had been lying to him. Had he taken a wrong turn? Impossible; he hadn't taken any turns at all. How much further was there to go?

His hearts were racing, and not just from the running. His goal--Mallunus, the butcher of his clan--was so close, and yet every step he took seemed to take him further from that target.

He was just about to double back and take his chances with the fighting when he heard footsteps in the shadowy hallway before him. He activated his energy sword, ready for a fight, but lowered it when a familiar armored figure emerged from the darkness.

"Simon," he said, relieved. "I was beginning to think you couldn't track me."

"Oh, it was easy enough," Simon remarked. "Good thing you kept that transmitter on you."

Tuka nodded. "A good thing you came along. I thought I knew where the control center was, but now I think I'm lost."

"Don't worry, we've got a good idea where it is."

"Good." Tuka peered into the shadows behind Simon. "Where are Fira and Cassandra?"

But Simon merely shook his head again. "They won't be joining us."

Tuka's hearts skipped a beat and he froze in dread. "Why? Did something happen?"

"No, but there's been a change of plans."

Something was wrong with Simon's tone. It sounded wistful, almost regretful. Tuka blinked in confusion as his friend's legs widened into what looked like a stance.

"What do you mean, a change of plans?"

And then Simon brought his assault rifle up and trained it on Tuka. "Sorry buddy, but I'm always too short on funds..."

And he opened fire.

Chapter Thirty-One: Darkness of the Fringe

Tuka's instincts saved him. He dove to the side as Simon's bullets roared past him.

"What are you doing?" he cried, unable to comprehend what was going on.

"Oh, come on," Simon said in a tone Tuka remembered all too well from back at the Visag keep. It was the tone Simon used when he decided everyone else wasn't living up to his intellectual expectations. "Even you should be able to figure something this obvious."

He swiveled the assault rifle and fired again, aiming low. Tuka leapt out of the way again, bringing his sword back up to bear. "Are you insane?"

"Not really. Mallunus just happens to have quite a bit of cash and I just happen to need some of it."

This time Tuka had no choice but to fully register what Simon was doing. "You... you're with him?"

"Yep," Simon replied without hesitation. "Now just come quietly and don't make this hard on me. Please."

"But why? Why would you do that?"

The human Tuka had thought of as his friend shrugged. "Because I'm a mercenary. It's what I do."

Tuka blinked.

All his skill, all his determination, all of the fire that had pushed him to embark on this quest, to dash off into the unknown with nothing but a robe and an energy sword, flooded out of him. A curtain had been lifted from his eyes, one that he had willfully held in place throughout everything he had experienced since leaving the Visag keep. The slums of Cordial Harmony, the blood-soaked mercenary battlefield, the horrors of Famul and its wicked inhabitants--he had seen them all, and yet learned nothing of how the galaxy worked beyond the tranquility of Sangheilos.

And most of all, he had ignored Simon.

Everyone had tried to warn him. Cassandra, Fira, Diana, and even Simon himself had told him exactly what kind of person the ragged human youth was. Time upon time he had been confronted with the truth, and time and time again he had ignored it.

He had been worse than deluded. He had been a fool.

His shoulders slumped and he lowered his energy sword.

"Oh good." Simon took a step forward. "I was beginning to think I'd have to fight you."

And then Tuka lunged forward and slashed his sword through Simon's neck.

Fira staggered backwards, barely keeping his blade up as Kenpachus struck again and again and again. Every blow sent shockwaves through his arms, and he knew that just one of such hits would tear through his shields in an instant.

"Solid defense," Kenpachus said, still sporting that wild grin. "Very few of your kind can stand against my blade directly."

In answer, Fira ducked and slashed at Kenpachus's trunk like legs. The Jiralhanae merely sidestepped and struck a downwards blow. Fira rolled away and scrambled to his feet, bringing his blade back up to defend.

"Come on," Kenpachus chided. "You must be better than this. Don't disappoint me, not after all this time."

Fira dove in, sending a whirlwind of blows cascading towards the Jiralhanae's midriff. Kenpachus backstopped, blocking each strike with startling agility. He conducted his massive metal blade as if it were an energy sword in the hands of a Sangheili master, sweeping it in and up and around to knock Fira's attacks away.

Fira disengaged, leaping away to land back in the center of the bridge. His mind was racing. This was a foe unlike any he'd ever encountered: immensely strong, swift, and skilled in the art of swordplay. Not a single one of his attacks had slipped through, and Kenpachus looked as if it would take dozens of wounds to fell him.

I will have to be swift, Fira realized. This foe would outlast him in a war of stamina, and every attack he allowed Kenpachus to make was a chance that it would slip through and deliver a mortal blow.

Go for the throat. The belly. The heart. Just kill him now and be done with it.

He came on again, this time dodging and ducking past Kenpachus's blows rather than blocking them outright. He kept his blade back, poised to strike, waiting for the right opening. The first chance he had might be his last.

"Good, good!" Kenpachus bellowed. "Now you're getting into it. Now this is getting fun!"

Fira didn't even dignify his foe's ramblings with a reply. He saw that pitted metal blade swing up, and there lay his chance.

Every muscle in his body sprang forward. He slipped under Kenpachus's raised guard and buried his blade in Kenpachus's abdomen. Ready for an instinctive, brutal response he tore his sword out and ducked away.

Kenpachus towered above him, silent and motionless as a stone monument. Blood flowed from the hole in his abdomen, leaking over his armor and dripping into a gory pool at his feet. The Jiralhanae warrior's blade dipped and hung limply at his side.

Fira shot a disgusted look over his shoulder at Ro'nin, who remained standing by the door. "Well?" he demanded. "This little game is finished, and it cost your partner dearly. Are you satisfied?"

Ro'nin merely folded his arms and snorted. "Believe me, if it weren't for the bounty on your head I wouldn't give you the time of day, you arrogant fool."

The mercenary's mandibles parted in a cold, predatory smile. "And you're jumping to conclusions about Kenpachus. He'll never lose to the likes of you."

Fira blinked. "What?"

He turned back to Kenpachus just as a rumble passed through the warrior's body. It spread up from the blood-soaked abdomen and rushed up the hulking Jiralhanae's body until it sprang from his mouth as a roar of laughter that echoed around the room, a dull, grating cry of amusement.

Fira looked on in amazement as the battered, wounded Kenpachus stood in a pool of his own blood and bellowed with great shouts of shoulder-heaving laughter. The Sangheili officer stepped away as the laughter subsided and Kenpachus fixed his wide, gleeful eyes on him.

"Now we're talking!" Kenpachus roared, and Fira could hear the insane, perverse joy even in the foreign Jiralhanae voice. "This is wonderful! We're having some fun now, aren't we?"

Fira raised his sword in a defensive stance, still too amazed to speak. In spite of the abdomen wound, Kenpachus was still moving as if he were completely unharmed. The Jiralhanae whipped his sword into an attack posture.

"You think this fight is over?" he demanded gleefully, indicating his wound. "How can it be over when I just got this nice hole in my gut? Now we're a bit more evenly matched!"

He raised his blade. "Now, where were we?"

Tuka blinked as Simon rubbed his neck--the neck his blade had just passed through a moment before.

"Wow," Simon said after a moment. "You were really playing for keeps there, weren't you? All this time and you finally get pissed off, huh?"

His armored form flickered, and then vanished completely. Tuka's eyes widened as a small, glowing hologram ball shot away into the darkness.

"Good thing I'm not that dumb," Simon said from behind Tuka.

The young Sangheili whirled, looking on in astonishment as Simon appeared out of another patch of shadow. "You--"

"Holograms," Simon confirmed. "I never could beat you, Tuka, or at least, not in one of those chummy, refereed matches we'd have back at the keep."

"So that's all Master Visag's teachings were to you then," Tuka said, rage making his voice low and dull. "Nothing more than sparring matches."

Simon shrugged. "Hey, I owe the old guy for all he did, don't get me wrong, but that doesn't mean I don't have other worries. This little business is going to solve quite a few of my debt problems."

With a snarl, Tuka lunged again. This time Simon dodged, slipping easily around Tuka and drawing his own energy sword. Tuka spun and launched a pattern of attacks, all aiming to bring his former friend down. Simon stepped back, dodging all of them with an agility Tuka had never expected from him.

"Come on, Tuka," Simon taunted. "Make me work at this. Just a little is fine."

"You bastard!" Tuka howled. There was a pain in his gut, one that he had never felt before, not even when his mother had died. So this was what betrayal felt like. It was as if one of his hearts had stopped beating. "Don't mock me!"

He hurtled forward and speared Simon through the chest... only to feel nothing as another hologram dissipated, it's generator humming away into the darkness.

Three more of Simon emerged now. Two drew their energy swords and charged while the third hung back, immobile.

Tuka saw through the cheap trick immediately. The third was a hologram, while the real Simon was mixed in with the first two. He charged forward, slashing at both of the advancing Simons as he passed. But his blade didn't touch anything. They were both holograms.

The third Simon stepped back to avoid Tuka's blow, but the second cut through... nothing. All three had been holograms, just cheap, transparent fakes.

Something darted out of the shadows Tuka had just stepped into, and then his entire body went numb. His energy sword slid out of nerveless fingers and he fell, unable to move anything. All he could do was look up weakly as the real Simon deactivated the low-powered energy sword and brought a hand up to his helmet.

"I got him," he said to someone. "The assassin's down. Get a security team over here; I'll need an escort to get him through this shitstorm in one piece. And make sure that cash gets wired to my accounts pronto."

Tuka slumped, not even trying to move any more. It was over. He had been so close, only to be thwarted by the very person he had thought would help him achieve his revenge. There was no point in struggling against this cruel fate anymore.

It was over.


Chapter Thirty-Two: The Demon Jiralhanae

Kenpachus came on like an avalanche, overwhelming and utterly unstoppable. Each blow Fira blocked rang with a lifetime spent in utter dedication to the sword, each grunt and roar the echoes of battle after battle, an unending stream of battles just like this one, a stream that this monster had waded into with the same savage lust for blood that he brought to this fight.

Fira no longer searched for the opening to bring the fight to a swift, bloody close. His legs and arms cried out for respite as he dodged and wove and blocked, unable to rest between his foe's unceasing attacks. Whenever he saw even the slightest gap, he sprang in, scoring hit after bloody hit on Kenpachus's iron-hard forearms. The Jiralhanae's armor was wet with red blood from the gaping wound in his gut and countless marks on his arms, but none of these wounds had slowed him down in the slightest. If anything, he now struck with an even more intense ferocity, his dark eyes glowing with sheer, unmitigated enjoyment.

This creature lived for battle. He thrived on the pain, the weariness, the killing. Every blow Fira landed only heightened the intensity of his experience. The greater the pain, the better he harnessed it, drawing it within himself before releasing it into another blow a dozen times stronger than the last.

"Yes!" he roared as Fira staggered back, readying himself for another assault. "Yes, yes, yes! This is exactly what I wanted from you!"

"Why?" Fira panted. "Why do you hunt me?"

Kenpachus smiled through bloodied teeth. "Any warrior who can fight David Kahn on equal terms is worth testing my blade on! I've been after you since I saw you fight him back on that dustball of a battlefield!"

Fira blinked. David Kahn?

It must be that human, the one who had proved so tenacious and deadly back on Gamma-13. Somehow Kenpachus had observed that fight and set his twisted, empty heart on having it out with Fira just like this.

It was pointless. It was absurd. It was disgusting.

"So this is why you fight?" he demanded. "Merely for enjoyment? For the thrill of pain and death?"

Kenpachus merely laughed and raised his blade. "You ask a Jiralhanae why he fights? Don't be ridiculous!"

He laid on again, driving Fira even further back. Fira leapt over a swing of the metal blade, his body howling in protest, landing unsteadily on the other side. He barely brought his blade up in time to block Kenpachus's riposte; the energy sword flashed and sparked and then he was tumbling backwards against the catwalk. He turned his fall into a roll and came up on his feet to face his opponent again.

"How typical," he spat. "I shouldn't have expected anything more from your kind."

Kenpachus brought his sword up, but did not attack. His eyes were fixed on Fira, like a feral hunter on its prey. "But of course! I am Jiralhanae! The fight, the struggle, the thrill of victory and defeat, they are all as much a part of me as my own flesh and blood!"

Fira braced himself, locking his body into place. Anything less and he would collapse from exhaustion and the sheer weight of Kenpachus's impacts. "You vermin have always been a blight on this galaxy. I have known this since I was but a fledgeling warrior. From that day to this, you savages have done nothing but wreak death and destruction upon my people."

The glow of battle faded from Kenpachus's scarred face, replaced by a curious expression that Fira could not read. His body relaxed, unwinding. He lowered his blade slightly and cocked his head.

"Far be it for one such as me me," he said, his voice still tinged with excitement but also painted with something far more ponderous and brooding. "To debate my kind's shortcomings with one as informed and educated as you. But you talk of savagery as if it rested only within my people. I am only a savage, stupid Jiralhanae, but I was taught that you Sangheili led us in the war against the humans, directed us as we butchered billions of them, not in noble combat, but from ships high above planet surfaces."

He began to pace restlessly, carrying himself back and forth on the catwalk. "My people were but warring savages until your Covenant lifted us up and gave us all a new cause to fight for. Whose devotion surpassed ours in the quest for the Great Journey? We fought more fiercely for your war than we had for any of our own, yet when that lie no longer suited you and your power was threatened, you proclaimed its falsehood for all to hear. You razed our worlds, starved our colonies, beat us back until we had nothing left but fighting to give us direction and purpose."

He shook his head. "You call us savages, but when my father did not wish to see his only cub sent to fight before I was full grown, it was not our fellow Jiralhanae who tortured him and strung up his corpse for our whole village to see. The local Sangheili governor took care of that."

Fira was stunned. He had not expected such a long, subdued speech from a creature like Kenpachus. And yet here they were, and now he could see another light in the warrior's eyes. It was the same purpose, the same fire he had seen in the eyes of himself and his fellow warriors as they marched into battle, united by their duty and shared creed.

"I had nothing left," Kenpachus murmured. "So I gave myself something worth living for. Something worth fighting for. The name 'Kenpachus' means nothing to you; your kind suppressed our old gods centuries ago. But to the ancients, the name Kenpachus was the name of our greatest god, our most bloodthirsty demon."

The light of battle was returning to the beast's eyes, and Fira readied for the renewed attack.

"Kenpachus bathes in the blood of the countless he has slain with his own hands," the warrior continued, drawing his sword up for battle once again. "He craves the fires of battle, and I took on his name, offered him my body. He lives in me. I am Kenpachus. I rip, I kill, I fight. I am warrior, I am hunter, I am death incarnate!"

And he charged, becoming an enormous mass of bloody muscle and armor.

Fira staggered backward. His body was still desperately staving off Kenpachus's blade, but his mind had been knocked from its fleshy shell by the sheer weight of the Jiralhanae's attack. It moved past the fight of the present and saw the fight of a few moments later. And those future moments made his mind certain that this was the end.

He saw his blade swing in for another stab, but it came in as slow as if he were in the depths of one of the great lakes back on Sanghelios. He heard his foe's howl of triumph. That blood-stained metal blade came up and passed under his guard. He saw--but did not feel--the sword rip through shield and armor and flesh. A cloud of purple descended over his eyes.

A strong hand wrapped around his arm, ripping him off the ground and raising him up high. Blood flowed down his legs and dripped off his feet. He tried to struggle, to cut at the hand with his sword, but there was no time. The hand released him and he fell, only to be intercepted by the edge of an armored knee.

The pain came rushing back now, a thought-murdering cascade of agony that left him limp, unable to even writhe or cry out.

The barriers he had built up, the walls of duty and honor he had so proudly maintained, the things that had kept him a true warrior of Sanghelios throughout all the years of pain and hardship, collapsed. He could no longer think of dying well, of bringing honor to his clan, of not disgracing himself through cowardice. He wanted to scream, to beg for mercy, to die... anything to escape this torment.

Something hard and distant seized him, and suddenly he was flying, soaring through empty space. He arced downwards and plummeted into an empty pit of blissful nothingness.

The darkness closed around him.

Ro'nin frowned down into the dim room below the catwalk. He hadn't seen where that arrogant bastard had landed.

Over in the middle of the catwalk, Kenpachus leaned heavily on his sword. His wounds were catching up to him now; for all his incredible resilience and otherwordly strength, he would need treatment soon.

"A good fight," he panted. "I haven't felt this alive for a long time."

"Keep it up and you won't be feeling alive at all," Ro'nin told him. "Now go finish him off. Do whatever you want with the body, just save his head for identification."

"Very well." Kenpachus straightened. Ro'nin had no idea how his partner could be so casual after taking a gut full of plasma, but he trusted that Kenpachus knew his limits. "You fulfilled your promise to me. I'll make sure you get the bounty. All of it."

Ro'nin clicked his mandibles. Since they pooled credits for just about everything, Kenpachus's burst of generosity didn't mean all that much. Nevertheless, it was decent of his partner to at least try to repay him for all the stress this job had put him under.

He turned and headed for the door that had delivered Fira into their hands. Time to finish up this job with a little payback.

"Where are you going?" Kenpachus asked.

"Mordred," Ro'nin replied. "That worm might be on Mallunus's payroll now, but he needs to learn to stop crossing me. I'm going to round up some warriors and occupy that shuttle of his. He'll part with some cash in order to get it back."

"And if he doesn't?"

"Then I know some people who will part with cash to get their hands on him."

Ro'nin strode through the door, not waiting for Kenpachus's reply. When it came to killing prideful fools like Fira 'Demal, he would defer to the Jiralhanae's bloody tastes every time. Turning a profit, now that was his area of expertise.

Chapter Thirty-Three: The Deep Breath

They advanced.

Umbra strode confidently beside Shinsu as the moved down the Chieftain's Pride's hallway. Ensconced within a loose phalanx of warriors, the moved with a steady sense of purpose. Most of the crew still loyal to Mallunus were tied down in hangar bays, armories, and weapons batteries, under siege from their former comrades. Shinsu's plan for Famul had been laid months ago, long before the Cleaning Fire slipped in-system. For all Mallunus's pride and ambition, a few promises from Shinus had been all it took to turn his own chieftains against him.

A pair of Jiralhanae staggered into view and were immediately dropped by a burst of precise plasma shots. Umbra nodded approvingly, hefting his beam rifle. Dominating wretched pirates was just a training exercise for the real battles ahead. He could not wait to see Shinsu's followers face off against fellow Sangheili.

He smiled grimly as they strode past the corpses. Worms.

Yes, that was what his uncle had called him. Worm, sly, disgraceful, unworthy of any name. You will live and die with less honor than even the meanest Unggoy. Those were the last words his uncle had ever said to him.

How wrong you were, uncle, Umbra thought triumphantly. I will aid in the rebirth of our entire race. What good is your honor next to that distinction?

"Commander," called one of the warriors defending their rear. "Pula approaches."

Shinsu nodded but did not look back. Umbra turned in time to see the young warrior dart up the way they had come. She slipped past the rear guard and stepped in front of him without so much as a nod in passing. He rankled at the female's lack of propriety, but knew better than to lecture her in front of her master.

"Forgive me," she said, falling into step beside Shinsu. "I came as quickly as I could."

Shinsu inclined his head. "And what took you?" he asked in his usual, unreadably mild tone.

"I... encountered someone," she admitted. "Another Sangheili. One of the slaves from the ship I came aboard on."

"And why did this one delay you?"

"I freed him, tried to bring him to you, but he ran off when I told him where Mallunus would be. I think he is trying to kill the chieftain himself."

"I don't see how this concerns either of us, Pula."

She ducked her head. "Normally, I would never have bothered with him. But this one bore resemblance to you, and his name..."

Shinsu inclined his head, expressionless behind his special operations helmet. "What of it?"

"He gave his name as Tuka 'Refum, master."

Shinsu didn't break stride or even slow down, but his head angled downwards and he turned away from Pula. Umbra frowned, confused by the exchange.

"Refum?" he asked. "But you are the last of the Refums, commander. None of your clan survived the Schism."

"I am aware of my family history, Umbra," Shinsu said curtly. He turned back to Pula. "Tuka 'Refum, you say?"

"Yes, master."

Shinsu faced the front again, but his pace quickened and the rest of the formation had to speed up to maintain their positions. "Perhaps this slave is of interest to me after all. If he survives this, make sure he is brought to me, Pula."

The guards were huge. Tuka hung helplessly between the burly Jiralhanae, his arms pinned on either side. The shock of the energy burst was wearing off, and he could feel life returning to his muscles, but it didn’t matter. Even if he did shake free of his captors, there would still be three armoured Jiralhanae between him and escape.

And Simon.

He walked casually beside the lead Jiralhanae, his helmet tucked under one arm while the other fiddled with a small communicator. If Tuka did escape, he swore to himself that he would take down his treacherous friend before the guards killed him. At least then he would be honouring Fira for his warnings and Master ‘Visag by eliminating such a stain on the Visag keep’s history.

But even with all his rage, all the savage fury pent up inside him, Tuka wasn’t sure he could do it. After everything, when he looked at Simon he still saw the strange, bemused alien fumbling through sword drills and getting him into trouble by stealing fruit.

It was ridiculous. His chance at vengeance had been stolen from him, and here he was, unsure if he could bring the thief to justice. Perhaps he had never been worthy to avenge his family at all.

He closed his eyes and steeled himself for whatever was ahead. He might be a failure, but at least he could do his family and his master the honor of dying well.

Simon was talking, but not to the guard. “Not good enough,” he was saying into the communicator. “I want my fee now. I got you your assassin and I’ve got better things to do then watch you torture him.”

A pause. Mallunus was probably on the other end, but Tuka couldn’t summon the energy to care anymore. Simon brought the device closer to his mouth.

“Look, you’re in the middle of an uprising, pal. Just get the money to my accounts and I’ll help your crew take down the rebels—for a standard fee.”

Another pause. They passed through a small antechamber piled high with dead Jiralhanae and Kig-Yar. The fighting here must have been intense, Tuka thought distantly. He would never have made it through by himself.

“Now we’re talking,” Simon said. “One second, let me verify it. Diana, how we doing?”

A pause. Tuka could only see the back of Simon’s head, but the jerk of his head told him that the AI hadn’t given him a satisfactory response. Nevertheless, he nodded and said, perfectly calm, “Sounds good. I’m signing off now. Nice doing business with you.”

He lowered the communicator and slipped it into a pouch on his armour. “I hate dealing with clients,” he said to no one in particular. The lead guard grunted his agreement.

Then Simon seized one of his energy swords and slashed the guard’s abdomen open.

The two holding Tuka yelped in surprise as their captain toppled. They released Tuka and went for their Spikers, but it was already too late. Simon stepped over the dead leader and stabbed one in the chest. His prosthetic hand brought a pistol up and emptied half a clip into the last one’s face.

Tuka blinked, his ears ringing, as they collapsed. Splashes of Jiralhanae blood were wet on his shoulders

Simon holstered the pistol and deactivated the energy sword. “Diana, seal the doors.”

Portals behind and in front slid shut, hissing softly as they were locked electronically. Simon knelt down and slung the pack off his back, clicking straps open and uncovering it.

“What,” Tuka managed. “What are you doing?”

“What’s it look like?” Simon demanded. He kicked one of the dead guards’ arms out of his way and pulled a thick, tightly wrapped bundle out of the pack. “Now stop gawking and get ready to move.”

Tuka didn’t budge. “But you were with them… why did you…?”

Simon made an impatient noise in the back of his throat. “Tuka, you have got to be the thickest person I have ever met. Why the hell do you think I didn’t let you in on that part of the plan?”

Everything seemed strange, almost comical now. Standing in the blood of the dead guards, Tuka looked incredulously down at Simon. “The plan?”

“You’d never have made it to the control room from the slave ship, even if all hell wasn’t breaking loose up here. Mallunus would know if I brought you on with the shuttle, so you couldn’t come with us. This way, you’re close to the control room and we didn’t have to fight our way through dozens of angry Brutes to get there.”

“So… it was an act?” Tuka felt dizzy, though whether it was relief or sheer confusion he couldn’t tell.

“No shit,” Simon snapped. “You’re a terrible actor, Tuka. I couldn’t hide our fight from Mallunus, not without him getting suspicious, so I needed to trick you as well. Sorry if I hurt your feelings or something.”

“Hurt my feelings? I could have killed you back there!”

Simon just shrugged. “I think I established before we even arrived that you can’t beat me outside a sparring ring. You’d better up your game, because Mallunus is less than two doors away.”

Tuka remained where he was, still incredulous as Simon thrust the bundle at him. He took it wordlessly, realizing that it was the light armour he’d worn back when he and Simon had first stumbled into each other. The skin-tight weave would give him some mild shielding, but everything else would be up to sheer skill.

Simon passed him his energy sword. Tuka hefted the familiar handle; it felt warm and familiar, a lifeline to grasp amidst all this confusion.

"So, this is it," he murmured. It finally dawned on him that he had been preparing for this day his whole life, ever since Mallunus had butchered his family. Every day of training, every time he had exhausted himself with endless sword drills, everything that had happened in the last week, they had all brought him to this point.

"Yeah, crazy isn't it?" Simon straightened, slipping the satchel back over his shoulder and unslinging his assault rifle. "Now get going. We're running on borrowed time as it is."

"Right." Tuka knelt to slip on the combat suit. He was unbelievably glad that Simon's betrayal had all been a bluff; he had been right to stand up for his friend with Fira. "Will you back me up with your rifle or with your own blades?"

Simon sighed. "Neither."

"What?" Tuka asked. "What do you mean?"

"Look, Tuka, I need to get back to the ship. Diana's been giving me updates and things are going to shit at warp speed."

"But I can't take him alone..."

Simon shouldered his assault rifle. "Tuka, it's time for you to get a grip. This is your fight, not mine. Cassandra's pinned down at the shuttle and I need to get over there and help her out."

Tuka didn't know what to say. He was faltering on a precipice between conviction and utter panic. "What about Fira?"

His friend's voice lowered. "Tuka, don't."

"What? What's wrong?"

Simon just shook his head. Tuka couldn't read the expression behind his helmet, but there was something strange in Simon's voice. It wasn't like before when Simon had pretended to betray him. This was different.

"Tuka, Fira's probably dead."

No. That wasn't possible. Fira 'Demal couldn't be dead. Simon was lying, some trick to get him to focus...

Simon must have read the disbelief in his eyes. "Diana can't see the body on any of the cams, so once Cassandra's safe I'll go look for him. But it doesn't look good."

"But... he had no reason to come here," Tuka whispered. "He left his post because I interested him."

"And if you don't pull it together, he'll look pretty damn stupid, won't he?" Simon insisted urgently. "Go on. Kill Mallunus or his keep's gonna think he was just some chump who got himself killed on another idiot's stupid revenge quest."

Tuka's grip tightened on his energy sword. "Fira was not a fool, and my quest is not foolish."

"That's the spirit." Simon turned to go as the door behind them slid open. He turned back at the last moment, remembering something.

"Right," he said. "One last thing."

He tossed Tuka a small transceiver. "Diana's still in the system, so you'll still have some backup in there."

Tuka nodded. "Thank you," he murmured. "For everything."

"Don't thank me," Simon muttered, slipping back into the shadows. "This is just a job, remember?"

"I'll see you again, won't I?" Tuka called out desperately.

"No shit," came the reply. "Someone has to get your ass off this ship, right?"

Chapter Thirty-Four: Bloody Handed Mallunus

"Are you ready?" Diana was remarkably civil for once. Tuka did not know much about how constructs worked, but perhaps spreading herself out over so many systems had tempered her attitude.

"As ready as I will ever be." Tuka gripped his blade handle and took a deep breath. I am calm. I am at peace. I am a Sangheili warrior, just like Master 'Visag. Like Fira. Like my father. There is no outcome but victory.

"You've got ten Brutes in there plus this Mallunus guy," Diana reported. "He's big. Real big."

"I have only my blade," Tuka noted. "How will you help me?"

"I've got the lights," she told him. "How well can you see in the dark?"

Tuka steadied his breathing. "Sangheili eyes adapt to the dark faster than those of the Jiralhanae. If I am quick, I can take the rest down before I face Mallunus."

"I'm guessing you'll want the lights on for that?"

"Yes."

"Why doesn't that surprise me?" Diana sounded mildly amused. "Sure you don't want me to just vent the bridge and call it a day?"

"Yes." Tuka closed his eyes. "I have waited too long for this to be finished by any hand but mine."

"Well, it's your funeral," Diana remarked. "I'm unsealing the doors in five."

Tuka braced himself, keeping his energy sword deactivated. He would need to observe the room fast, mark down Jiralhanae locations before Diana darkened the room. It wasn't the most honorable path, but he was one Sangheili with a single blade and weak armor against eleven armed pirates. He would need to kill the ten quickly before turning on Mallunus.

And then the doors were open and he had darted into the room.

He took it all in at once: the Jiralhanae at their posts, struggling to monitor the situation on the ship. An enormous chieftain in ornate armor stood at their center, his lips parted in a snarl as he barked some command. All eyes in the room swiveled to face the intruder.

And then everything--the overhead lights, the screens, even the glowing door panels--went dark.

Tuka lunged forward, his mind's eye recreating the scene he'd had not a moment before. He strained out the surprised shouts from the angry bridge crew as his feet pounded down the path he'd planned for himself in that one instant. A dark shape surged up in front of him; Tuka closed his eyes and activated his energy sword, slashing forwards and feeling his plasma hack through something thick.

A howl split the air and he leapt away, deactivating his energy sword before opening his eyes. His eyes were already adjusting, and he saw two more dim figures converging on the writhing shadow of the Jiralhanae he'd just cut down. There was no time to close his eyes this time; he leapt forward and activated his sword. The light burnt away what accustomization his eyes had made to the darkness but it didn't matter. He had already mapped out the deaths of both pirates just as he would plan out any other sword drill back in the Visag keep. His blade bit into the first warrior's sternum, then came up to slash the second's head clean off his shoulders.

Tuka darted away again, silencing his blade once more, but this time his foot got caught in the feet of his first victim and he tripped. Blind and confused, he felt his blade slip from his fingers and skid away.

Heavy footsteps pounded towards him. He felt one foot land mere inches from his head, but then a control panel hissed and sparked as it overloaded, showering the warrior with scorching hot electricity. Diana was still looking out for him.

In the light and shadows cast by the ruined panel, Tuka saw his blade lying a few feet away. He scrambled towards it on all fours as an enormous voice bellowed: "Emergency lights, you idiots! Use your generators!"

Several dim blue rods winked on, and Tuka realized with horror that he hadn't counted on the Jiralhanae having their own personal light sources.

"I'm going to blow every console in the room," Diana hissed in his ear. "Take out as many as you can before..."

Her voice trailed off, and Tuka cursed his lack of a communicator. What was wrong?"

The construct's voice came rushing back a moment later. "Scratch that. Grab your sword and get to cover; things are about to get crazy in there!"

Tuka seized his blade and searched the darkness for somewhere to hide. Before he could move again, a door at the far end of the room shuddered and collapsed inwards before the force of a tremendous explosion.

Everything happened very quickly after that. Dark figures bounded into the room, and in the dim light from the hallway behind them Tuka could see that they were armored Sangheili warriors. Unhindered by the darkness, they opened fire with tight, controlled bursts of plasma fire, dropping the remaining Jiralhanae without mercy. Only the huge figure of Mallunus remained standing amidst the corpses of his bridge crew.

"I'm putting the lights back on," Diana advised him. "These guys definitely aren't Mallunus's friends, so try to talk your way out of this."

The room flooded with dim overhead lights, and Tuka saw his saviors more clearly. They wore the armor he had seen elite special operations warriors wear in holograms during his military studies, but they were colored dark, almost black, rather than the light grey or maroon colors sported by standard special operations. They fanned out in a semi-circle, plasma rifles and repeaters trained on Mallunus, as three more figures stepped through the door. The shortest, slightest figure Tuka recognized immediately as his female savior from the slave ship. The other two figures wore the same armor as their compatriots; the shorter of the two carried a long-ranged beam rifle while the central figure bore no visible weapons save for the energy sword on his hip. A short, tattered war cloak hung from his left shoulder, an ancient Sangheili symbol for a clan leader.

Tuka scrambled to his feet. For some reason, he felt a need to be dignified in this new arrival's presence. There was an aura of casual power about him, the kind Tuka had always thought he might associate with his father, had he known him better, or with some great figure like Arbiter Thel 'Vadam. He stared intently at the warrior who tilted his head and eyed him from behind his helmet.

"Interesting," he said in a low, relaxed voice. He sounded almost amused. "Is this the slave you told me about, Pula?"

"Yes, master," the female warrior, Pula, replied instantly. "He is the one who claims to be Tuka 'Refum."

Tuka blinked. Claims? But the exchange was cut short.

"What is the meaning of this, ambassador?" Mallunus demanded. "Was this the Fallen's plan all along? To come to my world, under the banner of truce, and incite revolt amongst my own pack?"

Tuka stiffened, suddenly on guard. These warriors were with the Fallen?

The lead warrior simply chuckled. "Not exactly. As of an hour ago, neither I nor my subordinates are affiliated with the Fallen. But you are correct in one thing: this revolt has been my plan since I came here. I've been preparing it for months, and thanks to your arrogance and stupidity it has played out perfectly."

Mallunus tugged the gravity hammer from his back. "Bastard," he snarled. "You will suffer for this!"

The warrior didn't so much as flinch. "Hardly. You aren't even worth the time it would take me to kill you."

He raised a hand, and Tuka realized he needed to step in.

"Wait," he yelped, aware that he was drawing the attention of a dozen armed, apparently ex-Fallen, warriors. "Don't kill him!"

A ripple of surprise coursed through the warriors, but the leader stayed where he was. "What is this chieftain's life to you, slave?"

"Nothing," Tuka replied, clenching his fingers around the hilt of his energy sword. "He is worth less than nothing to me. All I want is the chance to kill him myself."

"And why would that be?"

"I am Tuka 'Refum," Tuka insisted, glaring hatefully at Mallunus. "This animal slaughtered my entire clan during the sack of High Charity during the Schism. Only I survived, and I have dedicated my life to killing him."

The room was silent for several moments. There was no movement from the leader save for a slight dip in his helmet. He seemed to be pondering something, but Tuka couldn't fathom what it could be. When the leader raised his head again, he addressed Mallunus.

"Well, chieftain," he said in that same unconcerned tone. "Is this true."

"I killed many of your kind on High Charity," Mallunus growled. "What, were you expecting me to keep count?"

It was the most disappointing thing Tuka had ever heard. Over all the years of waiting, of honing his skills and anticipating his revenge, he had always assumed that Mallunus had, for his own unfathomable reasons, targeted the Refum clan specifically. To hear that it had all meant nothing to this monster, that it had all been little more than a part of a senseless mass murder...

The blade hummed to life in his hands. "You die here, murderer!" he snarled. "I won't wait another minute to avenge my clan!"

The chieftain snorted contemptuously. "You insignificant whelp. I have more pressing business to attend to."

But the leader raised a hand. "Blades, stand down," he ordered. "Let the slave have his duel."

"I am not a slave!" Tuka bellowed. He could feel the blood coursing through his veins, the blood of his father, his mother, his uncle, his ancestors. "My name is Tuka 'Refum, and this beast's head is mine!"

He rushed Mallunus, sweeping his sword in front of him as he came on. The Jiralhanae loomed over him, an enormous mound of armor and flesh. The gravity hammer came down, but Tuka was no longer there when it struck the floor. He had dodged away and was coming in with a precise slash at the leg tendons that Mallunus just barely avoided.

The years of drills and training were alive in him now, directing his blade towards every opening, turning his body away from each swing of the chieftain's hammer. He was caught up in a savage dance, twisting and leaping and turning around Mallunus, aiming for the kill with each slash of his blade. His body had joined with the sword, becoming one instrument as Master Visag had always taught.

He could hear Mallunus snarling and swearing, but from a distance, as if he were separated from the Chieftain by an ocean. He was lost in his own battle trance, seeing his own moves impact before he had even completed the previous strike, noting where Mallunus would swing his hammer before the Jiralhanae's muscles could even begin to tense. This was battle as he had never experienced it and it felt... wonderful.

His blade struck home, drawing blood from Mallunus's abdomen. Another strike, and blood coursed down the Chieftain's arm. Yet a third, and he had slashed a tendon, sending Mallunus down on one knee.

Victory coursed through his veins. It was as if he had fought this battle a dozen times before, memorizing every move, every strike, every swing of the blade. Mallunus brought the hammer up for a desperate strike, but Tuka clove it in two with onefell swoop. The weapon fell in halves at his feet.

With a snarl, Mallunus tensed, drawing himself up for an unarmed charge. Tuka pulled his blade away and leapt back just as his foe staggered to his feet and thundered towards him.

His arm shot out, extending the blade before him like a spear. Mallunus's bulk collided with him, sending them both skidding across the room in a tangle of hair and blood and broken armor.

There was no breath left in Tuka. He saw his mother, his uncle, all the rest of his clan, flashing before his eyes as he pulled himself out from under the chieftain and raised his sword to do battle once more.

But there was no attack forthcoming.

Mallunus, chieftain of the Jiralhanae pirate fleets and ruler of Famul, lay dead at his feet.

It was over.

Chapter Thirty-Five: The End of a Shuttle

Fira awoke to a world of pain.

His first thoughts were a chorus of silent, incomprehensible moans as his body communicated its discomfort to his brain. He didn't move; even the slightest twitch sent volts of agony rocketing through his muscles. He lay where he was for several minutes, unable to even twist his head and take stock of his surroundings.

The next things to shoot through his head were a dozen worries about Tuka and a strange, stoic curiosity about how the youth was doing. He remembered that Simon had never been clear about the plan for once they'd gotten on the ship...

Simon... The name sent even more sparks through Tuka's thoughts. Human. Vermin. Liar. Mercenary.

Mercenary... That was also important, though he wasn't quite sure why. He tried to raise his arm and the pain blasted away his thoughts again. When his sense returned, he remembered how he'd gotten here, on this cold, dark floor.

Kenpachus. I was fighting Kenpachus.

He remembered the enormous Jiralhanae, the intensity of their fight. There had been that hit he had taken across the chest... yes, he was covered in his own blood. He had been thrown off that catwalk...

Careful not to move his neck, he flicked his eyes from left to right. There were crates on either side of him; from where he lay, he couldn't see anything else.

Damn... He was lucky to be alive, let alone conscious. After all he'd just been through, he should have bled to death in blissful ignorance on the deck before him.

That other mercenary, Ro'nin, had wanted the bounty on his head. Fira's head hurt as he pondered this. Kenpachus might have ended the fight, but that other vermin wouldn't leave without proof of the kill. That meant he had to force himself up, and fast.

He forced the pain aside and pushed himself up onto his knees. The plates on his left arm were loose, folding up and getting in his way. He knocked them off, wincing as they exposed patches of his forearm that had been scraped raw by Kenpachus's vicious grip.

This was pathetic. He would never tolerate such weakness from a half-trained recruit, let alone himself. A wave of disgust blasted away the pain and he staggered to his feet, gritting his mandibles furiously. A dull gasp of pain slipped from his throat.

In an instant, the crates in front of him were torn aside and there, dripping with blood and still smiling was Kenpachus. The Jiralhanae had his sword in one hand; the other was busy stopping up the whole in his abdomen.

"Well," the Jiralhanae panted. "Ro'nin was wrong about you. Still able to stand... I will remember this fight, my friend."

"We are not friends," Fira grated. "And you will not live to remember me, savage."

Kenpachus's grin only broadened. "Ready to kill me without a weapon? I like your spirit."

"I am not unarmed." Fira's hand dropped down to a thick lump on his leg armor. With just the right amount of pressure it slid open, and he raised its contents up in an attack stance.

It was a curved metal blade, a knife he had fashioned in his youth by the banks of the river that ran by his keep. His first kill had been made with it, a wild predator that he had stalked and slain by himself. He had not forgotten it even after all this time; its blade was still razor sharp.

Kenpachus's eyes widened with anticipation. "And here I thought your kind only coddled yourselves with fancy toys. It's been too long since I pitted my sword against a real blade."

Fira steadied himself. There was no pain in his limbs, he reminded himself. His bloodline coursed through his veins, giving him the strength to fight on. He would not dishonor it by falling to this barbarian.

With a roar, Kenpachus swung his blade, as fast as he'd ever been even with his myriad of wounds. Fira ducked under the blow and charged in, slashing with his knife. His foe leapt back, and their blades met with the dull clang of clashing metal. The knife rang in Fira's hands, but it did not so much as crack under Kenpachus's strength.

They came at each other again, slashing and weaving, blocking and dodging. Neither allowed their injuries to slow their movements. They were locked together, a whirlwind of attacks and counterattacks that tore across the chamber's floor, scattering boxes and crates in their wake.

Fira's mind was gone, all thoughts replaced by a simple awareness of the battle before him. His body did not matter; it was only the tool he used to direct his attacks toward his foe.

And then they staggered apart, the weight of their injuries finally beginning to take their toll. It was all Fira could do to keep a hold of his blade. Across from him, Kenpachus paced like a wounded animal, his blade scraping against the floor.

Their eyes met, each fighter daring the other to admit defeat. Neither gave in, but they found something in each other's gaze. No matter what the outcome, this next exchange would be their last.

Kenpachus raised his blade up to his waist; Fira aimed his knife at the Jiralhanae's throat.

They braced themselves, locking their legs to charge.

And then the air around Fira filled with scorching metal spikes.

Two more Jiralhanae darted towards him from the other side of the room, firing their spiker rifles wildly as they tried to aim around Kenpachus. With a snarl of disgust, the massive Jiralhanae whirled to face them.

The guards never knew their peril. Kenpachus cut them both down with a single blow, turning back around to face Fira's attack.

But it wasn't coming.

The door at the far end of the chamber slid open as the battered Sangheili limped through, his knife held limply at his side. Kenpachus's eyes narrowed, and he knew his foe's intent instantly. This wasn't cowardice; the Sangheili was headed in the direction of the bridge. He was off to help the young runt.

The Jiralhanae lowered his blade, smiling at the Sangheili's retreating back. Things were better this way anyhow. Right now he needed to find somewhere to treat his own wounds before they got the better of him.

"We'll meet again, Fira 'Demal," he called after his foe. "Be certain of it."

Ro'nin would be livid, Kenpachus realized as the doors slid shut. But then again, he was always like that.

Ro'nin scowled at the remaining Kig-Yar under his command. He'd managed to scrape up a dozen of the spindly pirates on his way down to this shuttle bay; there wasn't much a Kig-Yar wouldn't do for the promise of any fraction of potential loot.

Unfortunately, his attack force had looked much more impressive than it had actually turned out.

Seven Kig-Yar corpses were scattered across the hangar floor, victims of their first attempt to board Mordred's shuttle. Ro'nin had been so eager to snatch that little vermin's ship out from under him that he had forgotten about the other human. A wave of scattered bullets had dropped over half the Kig-Yar and sent the rest scrambling for cover.

Their leader, a blue-finned female, glared up at him. "You said this would be an easy job!" she hissed. "You said no one was left on that ship!"

Ro'nin resisted the urge to shoot her out of sheer irritation. If he killed her, he probably wouldn't be able to rally her followers for a second run on the shuttle.

"So I was wrong," he admitted, peering over a crate at the shuttle. Its ramp was down, but he couldn't see any further inside it. "Besides, if you give up now you'll have lost half your crew for nothing."

"Damn you," the female spat, tightening her grip on the needle rifle she was holding. But she held her ground and so did her remaining crew.

This shuttle was getting to be a major annoyance as far as Ro'nin was concerned. This was twice in the same week he'd had to con a bunch of idiots into helping him attack it, and once again those same idiots weren't of any help in the slightest. He had hoped to have control of the shuttle by the time Mordred got back, but now it was looking like he'd have to ambush him before moving in on the prize.

Where is Kenpachus when I need him? It had been a mistake to send him after that Demal bastard's head. With all the time he'd wasted getting these useless Kig-Yar to follow him, he might as well have just retrieved the bounty's head himself and gone up against Mordred with some real muscle.

Listen to me, Ro'nin thought disgustedly. 'Go up against Mordred?' That runt is hardly worth all this trouble.

This whole trip was turning into a colossal waste of time. If the 800,000 credits Fira 'Demal's head would net him wasn't waiting for Ro'nin at the end of this ride, he would have bailed hours ago. Getting caught up in Mallunus's little civil war had not been the plan when he'd gotten himself hired onto the Chieftain's Pride. He might as well ride away from it in style--or whatever poise could be gained from piloting Mordred's rusty scrap-pile.

"Listen," he growled to the Kig-Yar female. "I'll put down some cover fire and keep that human busy. Take your crew and flank that ramp."

She fixed him with another withering glare. "You think I'm stupid, Sangheili? We go out and get shot while you hang back? Not a chance."

He could shoot her, he could argue with her, or he could just get on with it and do the dirty work himself.

"Fine," he snapped. "You provide cover fire while I flank the ramp. Happy?"

She shrugged. "Works for me."

"I'll bet it does." Ro'nin readied the plasma rifle he'd taken from Fira. Time to end this nonsense.

"Open fire," he snarled at the Kig-Yar. "Do it now!"

There was a moment's unorganized hesitation, then they rose up and let loose with their assortment of second-rate weapons. Needles and plasma bolts filled the air as Ro'nin sprinted away from cover. He felt a smattering of bullets strike his shields, but they were abruptly cut off. The cover fire was working.

He dashed across the hangar floor and reached the side of the ramp. No gunfire roared out to greet him; the human female Fira and his young companion had been traveling with must have been pushed back by the Kig-Yar's attack.

He could always toss in a grenade, but that wasn't guaranteed to work and would alert the female he was coming. He'd have to be more subtle this time.

With a sigh, he reached down and thumbed on his armor's active camouflage settings. He'd integrated the system into armor that wasn't built for it, which meant it cost a hell of a lot to operate in the field. At least he had a payoff coming.

He slipped carefully onto the ramp, ready to dive back the moment the female caught wind of his presence. Still no firing. He hoped the Kig-Yar didn't get antsy and hit him as he advanced.

A few more steps and he was inside the shuttle. Ducking his head to avoid the low ceiling, he moved forward and nearly tripped over where the armored female was crouched, slipping a new clip into her rifle.

Ro'nin snapped the plasma repeater up, but his surprise had somehow alerted the female to his presence. She leapt up and simply ran straight into him, throwing them both off balance. The repeater slipped from Ro'nin's grasp as he fumbled with the small human, shoving her back with a sharp kick.

He saw the flash of a sidearm in her hand and he lashed out unarmed, grabbing her arm and slamming her against the bulkhead. She thrashed, kicking at his chest as his active camouflage faded. Snarling, he rammed his fist into her gut. He couldn't see her expression behind her helmet, but the blow must have knocked all the wind out of her lungs; she doubled over, the pistol slipping from her fingers. Unfortunately, her armor sent a sharp pain through Ro'nin's knuckles.

He grabbed her by the throat and hurled her down the ramp. She hit it with a dull thud, rolling down to lie limply at the ramp's base. Her rifle slid after her, but she didn't seem in any condition to move for it.

Ro'nin retrieved the plasma repeater. He was furious that some diminutive human could have caused him so much trouble and then have the audacity to be so weak when he finally caught her. Normally he wasn't one for close combat, but just this once he'd make an exception.

Activating his energy gauntlet, he stalked down the ramp towards his fallen prey.

Simon readied his assault rifle.

"Give me something, Diana," he demanded, glaring at the door between him and the shuttle bay. "What's happening in there?"

She took a moment to respond, and Simon wondered if she hadn't been completely truthful about not encountering any security measures. "Come on, this isn't the time!"

"Just calm down, dumbass," she snapped back. "We've got five Jackals in there, not to mention our mutual friend Ro'nin."

"Great. What about Cassandra?"

"She's in trouble," Diana admitted. "Doc did her best, but Ro'nin's moving in. I'd get moving if I were you."

"Yeah." Simon raised the assault rifle. "Got a feed on those Jackals?"

"Right in front of the door. Standby..."

A small screen opened in his HUD. Five Jackals, armed to the teeth, were crouched behind a makeshift barricade just below the ramp leading down from his location. They were all staring straight ahead, presumably towards the shuttle. Ro'nin was nowhere to be seen.

"Son of a bitch," he snarled. "I'm going in."

"Off you go then," Diana replied. "Try not to miss."

The door slid open and he stepped into the hangar. The Jackals didn't even notice his arrival, their gaze still fixed on the shuttle. He darted down the ramp, stopping halfway to spray the Jackals with assault rifle fire. He emptied half a clip into the startled pirates, sending their twitching corpses slumping in a grisly pile.

"Nice shooting, tex," Diana commented. "If I didn't know better I'd say you'd hit them from behind at close range while they were all bunched up."

Simon didn't even wait for her to finish her quip. He was already moving, darting over the barricade and dashing towards the shuttle. He'd seen enough humans torn apart by ravenous Jackals that the deaths of the pirates he left behind him didn't send even a twinge of guilt up his spine.

He was halfway to the shuttle when he saw something that made his blood run cold. A small, huddled figure was lying at the base of the ship's ramp. Clad in her cannibalized SPI armor, Cassandra wasn't moving as a Sangheili in battered grey armor marched purposefully down the ramp after her.

"Shit!" he spat, raising his assault rifle.

I'm not gonna lose her too!

Ro'nin brought his arm up over the dazed female. The cold, rational logic that governed most of his actions wanted to settle for a straight shooting, but it wasn't often he had the chance to finish off an opponent at close range like this. An outcast he might be, but part of him was still Sangheili and that part still yearned to make the occasional kill with a blade. At times like this, he couldn't help but indulge himself, if only just a little.

A human weapon clattered over on the other side of the hangar, but in the heat of the moment he decided it must be an overzealous Kig-Yar taking potshots at the shuttle.

The female was moving now, reaching feebly for her sidearm. Ro'nin's gauntlet blade flickered as he angled it towards her neck and brought it down.

And then a hail of bullets smacked into his shields and bowled him over.

Snarling, Ro'nin rolled off to the side. Scrambling behind the shuttle's ramp, he readied his repeater and stole a glance out in time to see Mordred, prosthetic arm and all, dive behind a small fuel crate.

"You always show up at the wrong time, Mordred," Ro'nin spat. Frustration welled up inside him, at himself for not being quick about the female and at Mordred for having the nerve to exist. "That's one thing consistent about you, at least."

The human's response was another burst of gunfire. Ro'nin whipped back around for a shot of his own just as Mordred darted away from the crate and vanished between a refueling station's consoles.

"I'm really getting tired of you trying to steal my ship," Mordred's voice was amplified through his helmet. "It's starting to really piss me off."

Ro'nin sent a stream of plasma splashing against the side of the refueling station. "Then stop interfering with my livelihood then," he retorted. "You're always sticking those metal fingers of yours where they don't belong."

"That's rich coming from the guy who came all the way out here to take out one of my crew."

"If you'd just handed that damn fool over when you had the chance we could have settled this peacefully," Ro'nin pointed out, spraying the station again. The metal was already beginning to melt under his barrage. "Since when did you grow a conscience?"

Bullets smacked against the ramp and Ro'nin ducked back. When he peered out again, he saw two figures dart out from behind the refueling station, each heading in opposite directions. He sighed and sent another burst at the station.

"You think your old hologram trick will work on me?" he demanded coldly. "You need new material, Mordred."

"Ah, go to hell."

They traded fire, the plasma and bullets mingling together in a staccato stream of lethal projectiles. Ro'nin gritted his teeth in frustration. He had been so busy waiting for all of Mordred's old tricks that he hadn't expected to find himself in a gun battle. This was wasting charge in his repeater; he might as well have been firing into the air.

He would need to change tactics, and fast. His active camouflage was ready to activate, but he still needed an opening. Shaking his head, he readied a grenade.

It was only then that he realized he'd completely forgotten about the female.

Something armored and human-shaped appeared from the other side of the ramp. Ro'nin spun and put a burst through its chest only to see the bolts passed through unimpeded--a hologram!

And then something struck him hard on the back of the head and he fell, senseless, to the deck.

Simon ejected his assault rifle's spent magazine and reloaded as he clambered out from behind the smoking station and dashed over to the shuttle. Cassandra was standing, panting, over an unconscious Ro'nin. Her own rifle was hanging limp in her hands, which was unsurprising given how hard she'd hit the Sangheili with it.

"I got the rest of the Jackals," he said. It sucked as a greeting, but it was all he could come up with right now. "Nice job on this asshole."

"The holograms," she said unsteadily. "They really come in handy, don't they?"

"Oh, don't you dare let him take credit for those," Diana protested over the radio. "He needs me to generate the images. All he does is toss the holo balls out there."

Simon glanced at Ro'nin's limp form. He really should just shoot him now, he realized. But then again, that would probably piss off Kenpachus, the last person he needed after him right now. I've got enough enemies as it is.

He was still shaken at how close Ro'nin had come to taking out Cassandra. He hoped that wasn't showing in his voice or body language; the less Cassandra thought he cared, the better. She wasn't cut out for this sort of life.

His vitals must have been spiking, because Diana's voice chimed in over his internal comm system. "You could always go back to wherever she's settled down," she noted, unusually sympathetic. "Face it, this mercenary stuff isn't getting you anywhere."

"Yeah," Simon muttered. After all that had happened, he should feel elated, but all he could really feel right now was dejection. Diana had a point. He was seventeen years old, damn it. He and Cassandra should have been worrying about jobs and grades right now, not standing in some alien ship helping another alien avenge his family. Usually, thinking about that pissed him off, but right now it just depressed him. "Never really thought of myself as a family guy, though."

"How's Tuka?" Cassandra asked. "Have you heard from Fira?"

"Tuka's fine, for now," Diana reported. "He just put a sword in Mallunus's gut. Big guy went down faster than I thought he would."

"Great." It was a win. Tuka had gotten his revenge, and he couldn't have done it without Simon. This should all feel great, but instead it was just another development. I need to snap out of this.

It had really come from nowhere, this wave of depression, and it made him angry. "And what about Fira?" he demanded. "Any updates?"

"Bit of an upset," Diana noted, as if commenting on a sporting event. "He's still alive. Managed to get away from Kenpachus and everything. He's moving towards the bridge now."

"Why the bridge?" Simon demanded. "Get them both back here so we can get out while we still can!"

"Well, about that..."

Diana was cut short by a snarl from the ground near Cassandra's feet. Ro'nin lurched to his feet, bowling the Spartan to one side and raising a grenade. In the next instant, Simon had his rifle trained on the Sangheili.

"Give it up, asshole," he warned. "Just back off and call it quits."

"Oh, I will," Ro'nin promised. "But there's one last thing to do before then."

Cassandra was on her feet again, rifle in hand. They had Ro'nin completely outflanked.

And then he spun and hurled the grenade up into the shuttle.

There was a moment of stunned silence as both Spartans registered exactly what their opponent had just done. Meanwhile, the grenade tumbled up and bounced several times, landing next to a small vent. Unfortunately, years without maintenance had left the shuttle's superstructure a mess of rusted metal and exposed cables. And even more unfortunately, all it took to get a critical reaction out of the ship's overworked, outdated slipspace drive was the explosion of a small grenade.

The shuttle exploded like an artillery shell.

Chapter Thirty-Six: Brothers

Tuka stared down at Mallunus's corpse. The energy sword that had killed the chieftain still hummed radiantly in his hands. He couldn't bring himself to turn it off, not after what had just happened. It would have jolted him back into the moment and right now he just wanted to be alone in his head.

Mother, uncle, he's gone. I finally killed him. You are free now. I am free now.

He kept his gaze transfixed on the dead Jiralhanae. He wanted that image burned into his mind forever, pasted over the scene of his mother's broken corpse.

It's finally over.

Yes, there was freedom rising in his breast, but there was also a strange blend of emotions, a mixture of triumph and regret. He had come through so much, had put everything on the line for this chance, and now it was over. He was free, but what was he to do now? He had spent his whole life striving for this, and now it was over.

There was triumph within him, but it left a hollow, empty space in his chest.

Tuka slowly became aware of a slow, deliberate tapping sound over on the other side of the bridge. He raised his head, forcing his eyes away from Mallunus, and saw that the leader of the Fallen warriors, the one with a war cloak slung over his shoulder, was steadily rapping his fingers against his breastplate--a traditional show of casual respect. A few of the other warriors, following his lead, were doing the same.

"Well," the helmeted leader said in that alluringly calm voice. "An entertaining display. You fight well for one so young."

Tuka hesitated as he faced the Fallen. He didn't raise his blade but he didn't turn it off either. "It is all I have dreamt of since he butchered my family."

The leader inclined his head. "An admirable pursuit," he noted. "I congratulate you on your success."

"Master," the female began, but the leader cut her off with a raised finger.

Tuka looked at the leader cautiously. A feeling of apprehension was dawning in him, chasing out the confusion and leaving him wary of anything this warrior might say or do. And yet he still wanted to know exactly what was going on behind that narrowed, faceless helmet.

"So a young Sangheili travels to a place like Famul and gets himself sold as a slave after devoting his life to the study of the blade," the leader mused, almost as if he were the only person in the room. "All to avenge himself on the Jiralhanae who killed his family. It would make a wonderful children's legend."

The helmet shifted downwards. From where Tuka stood, it was almost as if it were narrowing, growing keener before his eyes.

"And that Sangheili's name," the leader continued, his voice softening considerable. "Is Tuka 'Refum."

Tuka couldn't take it any more. "What do you want with me?" he demanded fiercely. His blade came up to point at the assembled warriors. "I am no friend to the Fallen, nor will I ever be. Say what you have to say, but don't talk about me as if I'm not here!"

The leader raised a cautioning palm. "You have nothing to worry about. As I told the late Chieftain Mallunus, my subordinates and I are no longer affiliated with the Fallen. As for my interest, well, you are too modest. Anyone in my position would be interested in you after all you seem to have done. But there is something else..."

He reached up and removed his helmet, revealing a mature, angular face with eyes that seemed to bore into Tuka, effortlessly slipping past his defenses and reading everything about him. With lightly colored grey skin he was handsome in a sharp, aggressive way, and yet everything about the way he carried himself exuded calm self-confidence. His short mandibles were curved in a smile.

Tuka stared. He knew these features. He had never seen this warrior before in his life, and yet he was strikingly familiar because Tuka looked at features just like his every time he looked in a mirror.

"Is there any reason I shouldn't be interested when I learn that I am not the last survivor of Clan 'Refum after all?"

Fira staggered onwards, leaving a sluggish trail of purple blood in his wake. The pain was slipping away from him again, leaving him with an unimaginable weariness. It would be so easy just to slide down a wall for a moment, close his eyes, take a little rest...

No! he urged himself sharply. No stops. No breaks. Tuka needs me.

He limped forwards, a door obligingly sliding open as he passed through. He felt as if someone was talking to him, a female voice that sent shivers of annoyance up his spine. He ignored it and stumbled forwards. The bridge had to be this way. He was sure of it.

And Tuka needed him.

Tuka blinked.

"What?" his mouth demanded, but his mind wasn't directing it. The only thing he could think of was the reality that someone was standing before him, claiming to belong to his bloodline. The fact that it was this collected Fallen (or ex-Fallen, if that truly was the case) who was saying it only made it all the more insane.

The leader clicked his mandibles. "Whether you believe it or not, it's the truth. My name is Shinsu 'Refum. Your elder brother, as it were."

Shinsu. The name sparked dim memories within Tuka, of a distant figure, one who was always aloof and distant from his own upbringing. Yes, there had been a brother, and his name had been Shinsu. But he had been sent off to Sanghelios before their father's heresy. The report had been that he had killed himself in shame when news of Sesa's rebellion had reached the homeworld.

"My brother is dead," he said unsteadily. "He took his own life when my father rebelled against the Covenant."

The warrior who called himself Shinsu clicked his mandibles again. "A necessary cover. There were zealots who would have killed me in the name of honor. When I was told my whole clan had perished on High Charity, I saw no reason to proclaim my survival from the rooftops."

Tuka stared at him, aghast. All this time, my brother was alive...?

"It's funny," Shinsu commented, indicating Mallunus's body. "I wasn't lying when I told him I had spent months planning to topple him, and yet I never realized he was responsible for the slaughter of our clan. The galaxy truly works in mysterious ways."

Tuka glanced at the warriors around his brother. They were all resting at ease, but the weapons cradled in their arms looked ready to snap up and open fire at a moment's notice.

"Who are these with you?" he asked. "If they are not Fallen, then who are they?"

"They are called the Cleansing Blade," Shinsu said. "I am their leader. You will be hearing much about us not long from now."

Tuka shook his head in disbelief. How could he approach this warrior, a brother from another time? It was impossible.

"If revenge on Mallunus was not your goal in being here," he said slowly. "What is?"

"Simple enough," Shinsu replied. "We are going to kill Thel 'Vadam and obliterate his bloodline along the government he and his toadies have created back on Sanghelios."

Tuka's blade wavered. "What? But you said--"

"That I wasn't with the Fallen? I broke with them because they, for all the power they seem to possess now, are on the way out. My goals have always been different from theirs, even if they were too blind to see it."

"Then why? Why are you doing this?"

Shinsu's eyes narrowed. "In case you've forgotten, Thel 'Vadam killed our father. He was the chief servant of the ones who betrayed us, and yet now he enjoys his exalted position merely for reacting to that betrayal."

"He was deceived, brother," Tuka protested. "We all were!"

Shinsu merely laughed, a low, self-assured chuckle. "Perhaps he was. But I have been fighting him and his deluded government for too long to turn aside now. The Vadams have many more lives to answer for than just our father now."

Tuka shook his head in disbelief. "I don't understand."

"Of course you don't. You are still just a child, Tuka. You've focused all your rage against the obvious cause of your suffering. You haven't seen the chaos Thel is bringing on our people. You're still pure, but you have to decide whether to stand with or against your own clan." Shinsu clicked his mandibles. "You might as well make that choice now."

It was as if he was trapped under a mountain of water. Tuka could barely move; the air was pressing down about him. Too much was happening, and it was all too fast. He looked helplessly at his brother, but Shinsu's eyes were cold and unwavering.

Something in Tuka's head slipped; he could no longer control his legs and they collapsed underneath him. As he fell, he felt his mandibles part to say something, but it was lost amidst the rushing waves within his mind.

Fira's hearing was beginning to return, along with a dull, aching pain that seeped across his entire body. He staggered towards the large doors before him, kicking aside a dead Jiralhanae as he advanced. His childhood knife was at his side, the only weapon that remained to him.

"Yeah, he's through there," Diana was saying overhead. He didn't pay her much heed as he reached out for the automatic doors as he were blind. "You might want to be careful though. The situation in there is a bit..."

The door slid open before she could complete the sentence and Fira froze, taking it all in.

The bridge, a wide, flat chamber, was filled with dead Jiralhanae, chief of which was a hulking corpse in ornate armor. A gravity hammer lay by this largest body, along with what had to be a young Sangheili on his knees.

Fira's hearts leaped and he staggered forward. "Tuka!"

It was only then that he saw the loose ring of dark-armored Sangheili warriors dispersed about the room. One figure in particular, the only one with his helmet off, was striding towards Tuka's hunched form. A short, archaic war cloak hung loosely from one shoulder.

Fira blinked, forcing himself to keep moving as a dozen plasma weapons leapt up to aim at him. But the warriors held their fire; the unhelmeted one, their obvious leader, raised a hand imperiously.

And then Fira realized Tuka was speaking.

The youth's words flooded out like water from a shattered damn. They sounded unsteady and uncontrolled, as if he'd been drugged, and for a moment Fira wondered if there was some nerve agent in the air that was doing this to him. The leader of the strange warriors stopped a few feet away from Tuka; Fira did the same on the opposite side.

"Those who fell will fall further into ruin," Tuka was intoning weakly. "Their cause is over, and only a few will remain to raise their banner anew. But you, brother, you will carry on. The fate of billions rests on your shoulders, dark knight, and they will live and die by your will. You tread the path of blood, and many others will follow you along that road. You think you near the end, but vengeance is just the start of your journey. In the end, your blade will outshine many others and cut a path through the stars towards the ancients. And then you will... you will..."

And Tuka keeled over and retched, sending a stream of bile splashing against the blood-stained floor. He reeled, panting weakly, as both Fira and the other Sangheili looked on in shock.

Fira was the first to recover. He had no idea what he had just seen, but right now, it didn't matter. Tuka had clearly killed Mallunus, and right now all they needed to do was get off this ship. He stepped forward, but the Sangheili commander raised a warning hand.

"Not so fast, Fira 'Demal," he said with a voice that practically demanded it be obeyed. "Of all the people to take possession of my brother, you are my least favorite candidate."

Fira hesitated. His brother?

Tuka moaned weakly at their feet. "What... what just...?"

"The gift of prophecy runs deep in the Refum line," the leader said. He sounded astonished. "I had thought it lost, but then again, I thought you lost as well."

"That's nonsense," Fira growled. The words scraped over his throat; pain had made it hard to talk. "I knew the only seer this generation has ever known, and she was not of Refum."

"Then you know little of my bloodline," the leader said contemptuously. "The one you speak of was not of the Vadam line she was bartered off to, but merely another prize Thel 'Vadam took from my clan."

"You think I care about that?" Fira demanded. "I don't know who you are--"

"But you do." The contempt was still in the leader's voice, but there was amusement in his tone as well. "We have crossed blades before, you and I."

"Fira..." Tuka croaked. "His name is Shinsu 'Refum. He is my..."

"I have never seen you before in my life," Fira protested. "And that name means nothing to me."

"How quickly you forget," the leader, this Shinsu 'Refum, said. "After all, it was you that kept me from killing that Vadam spawn back in Nisa Valley."

Fira blanched as memories, awful memories of bloodstained snow and the corpses of comrades, flashed behind his eyes. Nisa Valley... "The Black Knight!" he spat furiously. "You're the Black Knight of Sanghelios!"

Shinsu's mandibles parted slightly in a cold smile. "At your service."

"Fira," Tuka gasped again, trying to get to his feet. "What are you talking about?"

"This is a rebel leader from the home world," Fira explained. The reality of the situation was dawning on him, and it was not good. "He is the last survivor from a militia group that aided the Fallen. I thought he was rotting away in a prison cell, but clearly I was mistaken."

"I can't imagine rumors of my escape were well circulated," Shinsu said calmly. He hadn't even reached for the energy sword on his hip. "I'm sure it was quite embarrassing for your intelligence division when a half-dead prisoner managed to fight his way out of a secure facility."

"Tuka, we have to leave," Fira gasped. The pain was beginning to overwhelm him again. They wouldn't stand a chance against all these warriors.

"But he's my brother," Tuka protested. "I can't just..."

"Make your choice, Tuka," Shinsu said. "Stand with me, or return to our false government. In the meantime, I have comrades to avenge."

He raised his hand and Fira whipped his blade up. It would do him no good against the plasma blasts that were about to cut him to pieces, but he could still die well.

And then Tuka lunged forwards. His energy sword flashed into existence as he leapt at his brother, aiming low for a non-lethal attack.

Shinsu neatly sidestepped, catching his brother's arm as he staggered past. With a casual twist, he sent Tuka sprawling to the floor.

"An admirable gesture, I suppose," Shinsu noted with a twinge of regret. "But if you are going to attack me, don't insult me by not aiming to kill."

He lifted Tuka up by the arm and, with a swift gesture, activated his wrist gauntlet. Fira cried out in alarm, but Shinsu merely made a small cut in Tuka's forearm. The blood dripped down onto the rebel's gauntlet.

"If you will not join me today, a blood sample will suffice for now," he commented, tossing Tuka back towards Fira. "Go on. He clearly helped you avenge our mother, so I'll forestall my own vengeance for now."

Tuka scrambled to his feet, gazing imploringly at his brother. "But why," he pleaded. "Why must things be this way?"

Shinsu clicked his mandibles and finally reached for his sword. The blade hummed to life, its traditional blue tinged with the hints of a rarer crimson color. He held it before him, examining it as if for the first time.

"Swords are for killing," he murmured. "Warriors are for fighting. And avengers like me, well, how should I put it? Anyway you say it, there are things that exist for one purpose; those like me are like that."

He chuckled softly, as if he and Tuka were the only ones in the room. "After all, now there is only one path I can take. And to be honest, I don't care how many comrades or anyone else fall along the way."

Fira glanced at the other warriors in disbelief, but if anything they seemed to be nodding their approval. How loyal to this warrior were they?

"The one who gave me hope when hope was gone," Shinsu continued, with a rising edge to his voice. "The one who taught me how to use this sword, who gave me the code I lived by. My master, Shoma 'Yeshen, died by my blade when the world ordered him to kill me. Thel 'Vadam's world took my master, along with everything I held dear. It continues to do the same to all who do not see the same path it has set our people on."

He shook his head. His eyes were narrowed, and for an instant there was a glimmer of pure, undiluted fury burning just beneath their icy surface. "In that case, I have no choice but to fight Thel 'Vadam's world. I will completely destroy the world that takes away so much to fulfill its goals."

"You are insane," Fira muttered, but that just illicited another cold laugh from Shinsu.

"My mind is completely ordered," he said. "Believe me, there is no disorder or chaos in it. The path my Cleansing Blade takes is clear before me. Famul is just the beginning."

"Brother," Tuka whispered. "Brother, this world has taken much from us. I've seen all the suffering that has come about because of how this galaxy turned out. But I also have friends in this world, people I care about. Right now, all I see in you is a desperate beast who only knows how to indulge in destruction. If you want to destroy this world, go ahead. But I won't stand by and let you crush the people in it. There has to be a better way!"

But Shinsu merely clicked his mandibles. "Thank you for your opinion," he said calmly. "Now take your friend and go, before I lose patience and decide to kill him after all."

Tuka backed away, silently offering his arm to support Fira. "Farewell then, brother," he murmured sadly.

"This is not the end, Tuka," Shinsu replied, deactivating his sword and returning it to his hip. "We will meet again."

Tuka and Fira backed slowly away, out the bridge door and into the brightly lit corridor. The last they saw of Shinsu, he was putting his helmet on again, his handsome features vanishing behind the featureless mask.

Chapter Thirty-Seven: To Change a Friend

Simon staggered to his feet, desperately slapping at the smoke and flames around him. Everywhere he turned, twisted hunks of burning metal formed a nightmarish ocean on the hangar floor. His armor was protecting him from the worst of the heat, but even so he was still sweating inside his helmet. To make matters worse, the fingers and joints on his prosthetic arm weren't responding properly; he'd never expected that heat would damage their effectiveness.

"Damn it," he coughed. "Damn it!"

He looked around, searching amidst the wreckage of his home for any sign of life. There was none; only the fire and smoke moved in the rubble around him.

"Shit," he whispered. His hands shook as he stared at the burning wreckage. No. Please. Not again...

With a burst of energy, he darted forward and began pulling metal sheets off of the nearest pile. "Cassandra? Cassandra? Where are you? Cassandra!"

His organic hand flashed with pain as white-hot metal seared through the rubber on his palm, but he didn't stop. A burnt and fused assault rifle--a remnant of his untidy armory--flew over his shoulder as he knocked down another heap, running from one piece of wreckage to the other.

His helmet felt tight and constricting, so he pulled it off. The heat scorched his face and the fringes of his hair hissed in the flames, but he kept moving, ripping away at every piece of rubble.

"Cassandra!" His voice was practically a shriek. "Answer me, dammit!"

"I'm here, Simon."

He spun in time to see her scramble over a scorched girder. Her armor sported cuts and burns and the exposed portions of her body--magnified by his liberal use of the suit for spare parts--featured cuts and scratches underneath the body glove, but she was in one piece. She cleared the girder and stopped in front of him, bent over and out of breath.

Every fiber of Simon's being screamed out in relief, and his arms jerked forwards as if to take hold of her. But he stopped himself just in time, lowering his hands and stepping back awkwardly.

"Don't scare me like that," he muttered, suddenly embarrassed by the whole thing. "Sound off if you hear me calling."

"You do the same," she panted, but he barely heard her as he looked back and the next shock set in.

"My ship," he muttered numbly. "My ship."

Cassandra shook her head. "I'm sorry, Simon."

"How will I... I needed that. I won't... my jobs..." he trailed off, at an utter loss for words. "Everything I owned..."

A inventory flashed through his mind as he stood aghast at the wreckage of his livelihood. Weapons, spare armor bits, maintenance kits, his medicine... he'd kept it all on that ship.

And to make matters worse, this wasn't even the first home he'd lost, just one more in an endless line of loss after loss.

With a bitter shake of his head, he sat down heavily amidst the cooling debris. After a moment, Cassandra approached and offered him his discarded helmet, which he took without a word.

"Simon..." she began, but he cut her off with a wave of his hand.

"It was just a ship," he lied. "I'll just have to, I dunno, score big on the next job."

Neither of them said anything for several minutes as they continued to watch the wreckage burn around them. Simon hadn't been the only one with an attachment to that crappy little shuttle. Cassandra had spent a fair amount of time on it was well. They'd been together on it, had gone through so much on it, and now...

"I guess it's too much to hope that there's a Ro'nin barbecue cooking around here somewhere?" he muttered glumly.

Cassandra shook her head. "I saw him get clear. He was heading for one of the exits."

"Figures. And I'll probably wind up working with him again in a couple months."

"That's how things work out here, isn't it?"

"Yep."

Another minute of silence. Finally, Cassandra spoke up. "We need to find Tuka and Fira. Diana can get us too them."

"I guess we do," Simon sighed. "But I'm down to my energy swords and holo-drones. What do you have?"

"I left my medical bag over at the edge of the wreck. It has a pistol and a grenade with it."

Simon cast one last, despondent look over the wrecked shuttle. He felt as if this should be the end of another chapter in his life, but it didn't seem that way at all. If anything, it was just another setback amidst the mess that was his mercenary career. And to think I thought I could turn a profit off of this stupid job.

"Simon," Cassandra urged gently. "We need to go."

"Yeah," he muttered, tugging his helmet back on. "I know."

Tuka was almost glad for Fira's injuries. They gave him something other than his brother to think about.

"Come on," he murmured, doing his best to help his heavier companion down the hallway. "We're almost there."

"What about Mordred?" Fira coughed. "Or Simon or whatever his name is. He ran off when we came in."

"He helped me get to Mallunus," Tuka assured him, deciding it was best to avoid the details of how that help had manifested itself. "He'll be waiting for us at the shuttle."

"Yeah, about that," Diana said in his ear. "We've run into a little snag."

"I have a feeling I won't like your answer, but what do you mean?" Fira grunted.

"Well, the short version is that the shuttle got blown up."

Both Sangheili stopped dead. Tuka's blood ran cold. "What do you mean?" he yelped.

"Simon met up with an old friend of ours," Diana explained. "The reunion wasn't the most pleasant party I've ever seen."

"Is he all right?" Tuka demanded. "What about Cassandra?"

"Oh, the dumbass pulled through." Diana sounded almost bored. "He always does. I've got him and Doc headed towards you right now."

"And how, pray tell, will you get us off this ship?" Fira growled.

"I'm working on it," Diana said coldly. "I'm working on it."

Umbra frowned over at Shinsu. The rest of their warriors were busy preparing to evacuate the bridge, but their commander was simply standing in the center of things. He hadn't said a word since his brother had left, and while silence from him wasn't all that uncommon it was starting to seem unpleasantly odd.

"Commander," he began. "Should I send a team to capture your brother?"

Shinsu took a moment to respond, but when he did his voice carried the same note of effortless authority it always did and Umbra breathed an internal sigh of relief.

"No, let him go. If he won't come to us out of his own free will, there is nothing to be gained by holding him hostage."

"And those things he said? Does he truly have the gift of prophecy?"

Shinsu offered Umbra his hand, which was covered with his brother's blood. "Take the sample. I will have it analyzed later, when we have access to data about other seers."

Umbra nodded and prepared a small syringe from a pouch on his armor. "If we could harness such an ability," he mused, drawing the blood into the container. "The benefits to our cause would be astronomical."

"Perhaps." Yes, that was Shinsu all over again. Always a dozens steps ahead, and never letting on just how much he could predict until he felt the time was right. It was part of what made him such an inspiring leader, particularly when he always turned out to be right about such things.

Another warrior approached. "Commander, we are receiving reports from the Jiralhanae rebels. They have secured most of the ship, and several packs have picked up the trail of what they are told is a member of the Sangheili army. They want to know if you have anything to do with him."

Umbra waited, his body tensing as the collapse of the whole operation flashed before his eyes. But Shinsu didn't so much as hesitate.

"Tell them he is of no concern to me," he told the warrior. "But let them know that there is a younger Sangheili with him. He's to be left alive."

He paused, but only for a moment. "If possible."

The faint roars of Jiralhanae were growing in Tuka's ears as he and Fira rounded another corner. He did his best to quicken his pace without relinquishing his hold on Fira's shoulder.

"It seems," Fira panted. "That they take offense at your treatment of their chieftain."

Tuka gulped. The few hours he had spent in Jiralhanae captivity had been enough to last a lifetime. He had no desire to repeat the experience.

"Heads up," Diana reported. "One doctor and one dumbass moving in."

The door in front of them opened to reveal Simon and Cassandra. Clad in their armor, they both looked the worse for wear. Scorch marks and cuts dotted their armor's exterior, and Simon's array of pouches and holsters were battered and askew. Cassandra had only a pistol and her medical bag, and Simon had one of his energy swords out.

"Simon!" Tuka yelled. "I did it. I killed Mallunus." He decided it was best to leave the part about his brother out for now.

"That's great," Simon said, though he sounded distracted. "Feel any better?"

"I... I'm not sure," Tuka admitted. "I don't know yet."

It was only then that he remembered what had just happened to Simon, and he felt ashamed for not mentioning it first. "Your shuttle... I'm sorry."

"Forget it," Simon muttered. "I can hold a pity party for myself after we get off this ship without dying."

"He's got lots of experience with those," Diana said to no one in particular.

"I don't suppose you have a plan for getting us out of here," Fira growled, leaning against the wall.

"I'm working on it," she snapped back. "For now, everyone just haul ass back to that hangar."

"Wait a minute," Simon protested. "You mean you had us come all the way out here just to turn around now?"

"Just do as I say, dumbass," Diana ordered. "I'm making this up as I go along here."

As one battered, exhausted group they began to jog in the direction Simon and Cassandra had come from. In minutes it was clear that Fira, for all his valiant efforts, was slowing them down. With the Jiralhanae roaring growing louder, Simon bent down and helped Tuka support the limping warrior.

"I can handle myself," Fira growled, attempting to shake the human off.

"Just deal with it, asshole," Simon shot back. "I'm not in a good mood right now, so don't piss me off here."

Fira grumbled but didn't try to dislodge Simon again.

Minutes later, they had reached the hangar. Tuka blanched at the ruins of the shuttle, but true to Simon's wishes he didn't say anything else about it. Stumbling over the corpses of some Kig-Yar, they stopped amidst the smoldering ruins.

"Alright, Diana," Simon snapped. "What now?"

"Just sit tight, dumbass," she replied. "I'm working on it."

"Well, work harder."

"I'll do that. In the meantime, I suggest you four take cover and try not to die."

Simon started to say something, but stopped as doors around the hangar began to fly open. A stream of Jiralhanae, Kig-Yar, and Unggoy poured forth, dozens of them, filling out to surround the ruins of the shuttle.

"Oh shit," Simon muttered.

They froze as even more pirates emerged from the doors. There had to be at least fifty of them total, and there were bound to be more just behind them. The lead Jiralhanae bellowed, waving a panoply of weapons as they closed on the wreckage. Several of them just had knives and other bladed instruments.

Tuka breathed out slowly. If this was the end, he would die in a way that made his family proud. "Perhaps I will be seeing my mother sooner than I thought," he commented aloud.

"Fuck that," Simon snapped back. "I did not come this far just to die like this!"

"Then get ready," Fira snarled. "Pass me one of your blades."

Simon jerked in surprise, but pulled his second energy sword off his chest and tossed it to Fira. The warrior caught it, activating the shortened blade in one hand while waving his curved knife in the other.

"Fira," Cassandra warned as she ducked behind a metal plate. "Don't overdo it."

"I will be fine," Fira growled. "We will draw them into the wreckage and finish them at close range."

"Until they smarten up and start using grenades," Simon warned.

"Well, you're quite good at dodging, aren't you?" Fira asked. "We hold for as long as it takes!"

"You are such an asshole," Simon muttered, but he activated his own blade and stepped beside Tuka.

"It's been a while since we practiced fighting in tandem," Tuka commented. "I don't mean to insult you, but I hope you've gotten better at it."

"You're a laugh a minute, Tuka," Simon muttered. "Reminds me why I hung out with you back at the keep."

And then the first two Jiralhanae leapt into the wreckage. In the next moment, Tuka and Simon had leapt forward together. Their blades flashed, hacking through the pirates' armor and felling them in an instant. The rest of the mob was right behind them.

"Attack!" one of the Jiralhanae bellowed. "Take their heads!"

Time ceased to matter. There was only Tuka, his friends, and the blade in his hands as enemy after enemy flashed before his eyes. He was aware of leaping, kicking and slashing at every new foe that presented itself, ducking and weaving amidst the ruins as spikes and plasma fire filled the air around him. He blocked one pirate's swing and slashed the beast's throat as Simon darted in from behind him to cut down the Jiralhane just behind him. They darted around each other, keeping the other's back covered as they cut and slashed and dodged.

A wave of pure energy was coursing through Tuka's veins, a feeling of sheer power that he hadn't felt even as he fought Mallunus. Back on the bridge, it had just been himself and his foe. Now, there were three others around him, three who had done everything to get him here and were now counting on his skill with a blade to get them out. This was what it meant to wield a blade. To fight alongside comrades, to do whatever it took to get them all out alive.

This was what it meant to be a warrior.

His body moved for him, coordinating his arms and legs as he ducked past another pirate's blazing Spiker and rolled up under the Jiralhanae's belly to slash through his chest on the other side. Two more Jiralhanae were waiting for him, and he cut them down in a flurry of blows.

Two of Simon darted past him, both slashing wildly with their blades. The Jiralhanae they attacked bellowed and fired into them, only to see them flash and dissolve as the real Simon stepped from behind a charred crate to stab them from behind. A trio of Kig-Yar scrambled to take aim at him, but they collapsed amidst a flurry of pistol shots from Cassandra.

Fira moved in then, cutting an Unggoy's throat with his knife while stabbing his way through a squad of Jiralhanae with his borrowed sword. But he was only as fast as his injuries allowed him to be, and he stumbled right into the path of another oncoming pirate.

A plasma grenade soared over the pirate, missing his head by several feet. The Jiralhanae turned as another grenade missed him and then, with a yell of frustration, Simon darted forward and stabbed him in the gut. The pirate went down flailing as the battered young mercenary activated another plasma grenade and flung it wildly into the pirates surging towards the debris battlefield. A fuel rod cannon's hum alerted him, and he spun in time to see a Lekgolo platform in blood-stained armor aim at him and charge its arm cannon.

Fira spun and, with a single slash of his energy blade, cut through the worms forming the armored platform's knees. With a low moan, the Lekgolo crashed to the floor just as Fira cut through the exposed portion of worms that made up its face.

Neither fighter paused to acknowledge the other's help. They just chose to stop hating each other for a moment as they darted on to the next opponent.

"Simon!" Tuka yelled, slashing down a Kig-Yar. Three more surrounded him, brandishing energy cutlasses.

"Huh?" Simon yelled back as he darted for cover amidst a hail of plasma fire.

"Some things just don't work out the way you want them to, do they?" Tuka called, cutting down the pirates one after the other.

"Tell me about it!" Simon yelled back, tossing another badly-aimed grenade over his cover.

"Forget revenge! I can't even change a friend!"

An Unggoy leapt onto the pile Simon was using for cover and he lunged forward to impale it with his sword.

"You've got friends, Tuka?" he panted. "Since when?"

"Now you're trying to make me mad, aren't you?" Tuka demanded. The chaos around him was making him almost giddy.

Fira stumbled past, clearly at his limit. Cassandra followed quickly from behind, covering him with her pistol. For all their advantage within the shuttle debris and their enemy's complete lack of coordination, they were being overwhelmed. The pirates scrambled over the bodies of their dead, steadily driving the four of them back towards the epicenter of the wreckage.

Tuka ran after Fira and Cassandra, slashing his way through any pirate unfortunate enough to get in his way. He was aware of Simon, or several of him, bringing up the rear and drawing the pirates' fire into the illusive holograms.

They arrived at the center, all four of them back to back, as the furious pirates closed in. Tuka took a breath, and decided that to die with comrades like these wouldn't be such a bad thing.

"Simon," he panted. "Don't change. It'll take too much to kill you, and I'd rather not do it."

"Tuka," his friend shot back. "If you ever go off the deep end, I'll be first in line to put you out of it."

"Good to hear."

Half a dozen pirates stepped into view, their weapons raised. Tuka braced himself for a final charge...

And then a massive shape crashed through the energy shield separating the hangar from the vacuum of space. All eyes in the hangar turned up to see a Phantom dropship hovering serenely over the battlefield.

Tuka closed his eyes and readied himself for the end.

And the Phantom opened fire.

Beams of heavy plasma fire rained down onto the assembled pirates, blasting dozens apart and sending the rest scrambling for cover. Tuka blinked in surprise as he watched them all scramble over each other in their efforts to get out of the dropship's range.

"If you wanna live, I suggest you get moving," Diana crowed in their ears. "This train's about to leave the station."

"You heard her," Simon yelled. "Let's get the hell out of here!"

He darted under the Phantom and was quickly sucked into the dropship's belly by its gravity beam. Tuka and Cassandra each took hold of Fira and guided him towards the beam as Simon appeared on one of the Phantom's door guns and sent an added stream of plasma streaking over the scattered pirate ranks.

The gravity beam seized hold of Fira and Cassandra, pulling them into the Phantom, but Tuka hesitated right outside the beam. Something, perhaps an overflow of battle fever, was telling him to head back to the bridge, to confront his brother now instead of waiting for fate to draw them together again. Shinsu's words whispered in his ear, This is not the end, and he believed them.

He lingered for a moment longer before Simon's voice snapped him back to reality. "Tuka, get the fuck up here!"

He jerked and flung himself into the gravity beam. It caught him mid-leap, seizing him like an invisible hand and hauling him into the belly of the Phantom. He collapsed on the dropship's floor as it shuddered, its bay doors slamming shut as Diana pushed the craft to its limits and flung it out into space.

The four of them slumped on the floor, all the energy they had been fighting so wildly with mere moments before completely drained out of them.

"A good fight," Fira murmured as his injuries began to drag him back into unconsciousness. "You did well, Tuka. And you as well, doctor..."

His eyes slid shut and his breathing steadied. Beside him, Simon shook his head. "Yeah, I didn't do shit. What an asshole." But the insult didn't hold even half as much of the usual venom.

"Hey Simon," Cassandra panted, already fumbling in her bag for whatever she would need to tend to Fira. "Since when can you fight like that?"

"I dunno," he replied weakly. "Maybe I'm just better at CQB than I let on."

Tuka shook his head as he tried--and failed--to pull himself upright. "I can't thank you enough. Both of you."

Simon shrugged. "Yeah, well I guess you just owe me now 'cause I'm betting that thanks is all the payment I'm gonna squeeze out of this one." He reached over and snatched his energy sword back from the unconscious Fira.

Tuka blinked, then smiled. Leaning back against the dropship's wall, he decided that now was as good a time as any to get some rest.

He was pretty sure he had earned it, after all this.

Epilogue

"Once again, I cannot thank you enough for the Syndicate's assistance in this matter," Shinsu told Helen Powell with a short bow. "We could not have achieved such overwhelming success in this operation without you."

She responded with one of her elegantly crafted smiles. "It was your planning that made this possible, Commander. Don't sell yourself too short."

"You are too kind," Shinsu said, parting his mandibles in a smile of his own. When he had mapped out this particular conversation, he had assumed such sickening displays of false friendship on both his and Helen's parts would have turned his stomach, but once again he found it all merely a part of his overall plan and nothing more.

The young human's holographic form nodded politely. "We trust the Syndicate will have an ample role in Famul's reorganization?"

"Of course," Shinsu agreed. "You will have access to all pirate and mercenary contracts coming through the planet as well as portions of all transactions made in this system."

"And full operating rights?"

"I never planned to allow you anything less," Shinsu assured her. "The Jiralhanae chieftains have control of the planet and the settlements on it. That will keep them busy squabbling with each other, and in the meantime they owe both of us a debt for cutting away Mallunus's hold on their territory."

Helen nodded. "And the shipyards? The mining stations?"

"The Cleansing Flame has already taken possession of them." His warriors had been quick and efficient following the massacre on the Cleansing Fire. They had seized their targets with minimal amount of bloodshed, and not a single warrior had been lost throughout it all. Shinsu could only hope that future operations would go as smoothly, though he knew full well there were plenty of sacrifices still to be made. "We will cooperate with the chieftains below to ensure that they continue to produce warships for our own use as well as whatever use paying customers such as yourself need them for."

"It's a relief to know that we will be dealing with you rather than Mallunus for future transactions," Helen said pleasantly. "It's always better to trade with a friendly partner rather than a paranoid tyrant."

"So it is."

Helen gave him another smile. "The Syndicate looks forward to dealing with you in the future, Shinsu 'Refum. You've proved yourself to be quite the reliable business partner."

"The anticipation is mine," Shinsu agreed with another bow as he terminated the link.

He took a few steps back and allowed himself to sink back into a small chair in his cramped shipmaster's quarters aboard the Cleansing Fire. He was glad to be off the spacious carrier and back in his own haunts, where everything was secure and familiar. It was good to have time like this, with just himself and the shadows he carried with him.

So he was not the last Refum after all. A few years ago, this revelation would have rocked him to his core. Now it was just another factor to a game that already had countless pieces in play. At the end of the day it really didn't matter if his brother fell in line with his goals or not. Tuka would follow his own path--Shinsu found himself strangely proud of this--and if it forced them to cross blades, so be it.

Shinsu leaned back. No, his brother was of little importance in the long run. For now, he had plenty more to be worried about. He might have let Fira 'Demal go in a gesture of goodwill for Tuka, but now his enemy would have some grasp of his plans. They know I am targeting the Vadams now. This could be a problem.

The intelligence division would be embarrassed, for sure, and after all he had suffered as their captive Shinsu couldn't help but derive a small amount of satisfaction from that. The government would know the Black Knight was alive and free now, and if his reputation remained intact they wouldn't take this lying down. He would need to be prepared for that.

The Fallen wouldn't take his betrayal lightly either, though Shinsu was less worried about them. Those shortsighted fools were too tied up in their own little war to bother stamping him out now. There would certainly be a bounty for Shinsu 'Refum on the market now, but there weren't many mercenaries fool enough to come after him, not with the resources he commanded now.

His communicator chimed. It might be Pula, already restless without any mission to hold her attention, or Umbra with some new details about their next step. Right now, Shinsu was content to let them wait.

Famul was but the first move in a very long game, and he was ready to play it out to the end.

He smiled, remembering his words to Tuka. This is only the beginning.

And so it was.

"I've made the calls." Simon was resting his back against the Phantom's sealed bay door. "Once we're in the clear, some smugglers will be picking this crate up. They'll be taking the ship as payment for dropping us off where we need to go."

"And where's that?" Cassandra asked. She was busy making sure that Fira's wounds remained external rather than internal.

"Well, from what I hear you need to get back to Cordial Harmony. I bet your clinic's going nuts without you to hold down the fort."

She shook her head. "They can manage without me, as long as the Fallen have stopped harassing them. What about you?"

"There's a shithole out on the frontier called New Delhi. It's as good a place as any to get some work after this fiasco."

"Oh." Cassandra looked back down at her patient. "I guess there's no point in getting you to come back with me."

This was it, the question Simon had been dreading. He folded his arms--they still ached from the melee back on the Chieftain's Pride--and closed his eyes. "Yeah, there really isn't."

She was quiet for several minutes punctuated only by the drone of the Phantom and Tuka's quiet breathing as he slept over in the corner. For once, Diana was quiet, though Simon would have almost appreciated a little intervention right now.

When Cassandra spoke again, she sounded perfectly calm, aside from an almost undetectable quaver in her voice. But Simon knew her too well to miss it.

"What's stopping you?"

"I've tried settling down," he said carefully, leaning back and closing his eyes. "Never works out for me. There's plenty of people who wouldn't mind seeing me dead, and I don't think hanging out in an underground med clinic is the best way to keep them off my back."

"Why do they want you dead?"

Simon opened his eyes and did his best to look incredulous. "Because I screw people over for a living. It's how I get by."

How I've always gotten by, he added silently. And every time I get close to people, they wind up dead. I'm not letting that happen to you, or Tuka, or anyone else ever again.

Cassandra returned to Fira and didn't broach the subject again. Simon closed his eyes once more and shut out the nagging feelings of doubt that always ate away at him whenever things like this happened. He might be out of a shuttle, but that was just one less expense for maintenance and fuel, right?

"We'll bounce back," he muttered. "That's one thing were good at, anyway."

"You got that right, dumbass," Diana replied through the com bud in his ear. "I hear New Delhi is nice this time of year. Lots of freelance work to be had, if the 'net isn't feeding me a bunch of crap. Just don't forget the ammo this time."

"Yeah." He'd need to splurge on a new crop of weapons once they got their feet back on the ground. Everything would have to be built back up from scratch. "Ammo would be good."

"So this is goodbye?" Tuka asked.

Simon paused, already halfway through the Phantom's open side door. From the looks of things, they were docked in a small human-made transport ship.

"Yeah," he replied. "This is where I get off. Cassandra headed out about an hour ago, but she said to tell you good-bye. Something about you knowing where to find her."

"Yes." Tuka wished he could have been awake for Cassandra's departure. If he hadn't met her, he'd never have run into Simon and his whole quest would have been for nothing. But she was right: he knew exactly where she'd be. "And what about you?"

"I won't be as easy to track down," Simon admitted. "And I'd like to jet before Fira wakes up and starts getting tempted to arrest me."

"He wouldn't do that," Tuka protested. "Not after all we've done."

Simon just laughed. "I didn't make it this long out here by taking chances like that."

Tuka sighed, realizing just how pointless it would be to convince his friend otherwise. "Well, this is the end, isn't it?"

"Hell no," Simon shot back. "You still owe me a shitload of favors for this, remember? You get an extension on that payment for old time's sake, but we're definitely meeting up again."

He stepped out of the Phantom. "They already made a few short jumps while you were out of it. We're inside Sangheili space now, and we installed some beacons on the Phantom. A patrol should pick you up in a couple hours."

Tuka nodded. "Until next time then."

"Count on it." The door slid shut and blocked Simon from sight.

The streets of the underground district on Cordial Harmony were as filthy and crime-infested as they'd ever been. Cassandra was grateful for the added protection of her stripped-down SPI armor as she made her way down the dusty road towards the clinic.

She'd at least squeezed a handful of safehouse locations and middlemen transactors out of Simon before she'd left, though he'd insisted that he hardly ever used them. Still, if she ever needed a job taken out from the Mordred team, she could just make the right calls with the local contracting brokers.

Simon's refusal to come back hadn't surprised her; he'd always been stubborn like that. For now, she could just rest assured that he at least had some sort of grasp on how his life was going. There were worse paths than mercenary work he could have taken. But it couldn't go on forever. One day she would have no choice but to save him, and that day he'd have to let go of whatever was holding him back and accept her help.

Until then, she had patients to tend to.

"Well, well," Diana noted as Simon sank down onto the charred, torn surface of his new couch. "Your own private corner of hell."

"Tell me about it," he replied. The apartment was a dumb already, and he hadn't even settled in yet. It was the price he paid for a discreet location and a low rent. "This place smells like ass."

"Starting to wish you'd taken Doc up on her offer?"

Simon's lip curled. "Let's not talk about that, okay?"

"Fine. She's your girlfriend."

"She's not... oh, what the hell." He glanced around at the apartment's peeling walls. "Well, it's better than the street."

"Good philosophy to live by." Diana was operating from a small cluster of computers in the corner of the room. Her stint inside the Chieftain's Pride's operating systems seemed to have given her room to stretch herself out, and she was markedly more pleasant than usual. "No matter how bad things get, they could always get worse."

Simon lifted a pair of credits between his prosthetic thumb and forefinger. Right now, scraps like these were all he had to go on; he'd need to make the most of them in the weeks ahead. But as for now...

"I'm going out," he announced, swinging himself off the couch. "Time to see if getting drunk out of my mind is all it's cracked up to be."

He'd move on and on, as he'd always done. As long as he survived, life went on.

"It seems you've had an interesting week, Fira."

Fira looked balefully up at his best friend through a mask of bandages. "That's one way to put it," he said, refusing to admit that it hurt to talk. "Lots of good fights out there in the darker parts of the galaxy."

Autel 'Vadam, clad in a simple dark robe that clashed with his pale skin, leaned against the barracks' simply carved wall. "I admit, I was worried when the news came that you had left your post on Cordial Harmony. You could at least have communicated with me."

"Not where I was going, I couldn't," Fira laughed. "Believe me, I've seen the true face of this galaxy's underbelly and it isn't a pleasant sight."

"So I gather," Autel told him drily. "Of course, finding you and some youth floating around in a Phantom was a bit of a surprise. We've had strange adventures in the past, but for you this one lengthens the race."

"Not 'some youth,'" Fira corrected, pulling himself up straighter. He couldn't be seen slouching around with all these injuries, not an officer like him. "Tuka's a warrior now."

"And the last survivor of Refum as well," Autel mused. "If he's even half the warrior we knew his father as, he'll go far in the ranks without a doubt."

"Not the last," Fira said gravely. "If you've read my report, the other...?"

"Yes." Autel closed his eyes. "This isn't good. And he is the Black Knight. We saw what he was capable of back when we destroyed his militia. And you're sure he'll target my family?"

"He struck me as a bit deranged," Fira admitted. "But if there was one goal of his that I'm certain of, it was his desire to exterminate the Vadam line."

"As if my family hasn't dealt with enough already," Autel said softly. "Will he target Cyla? My children?"

"Worry about your father, for now," Fira advised. "There seemed enough honor left in him that he would focus on his father's killer and other military goals."

Autel nodded. "I was sent out here to investigate what the Fallen were doing negotiating with the pirates on Famul, and instead you discover an entirely new threat. Will the bloodshed ever cease?"

"Not in our lifetime." Fira never harbored any false hopes that he would live to see a lasting peace settle on the galaxy. He wasn't even sure he could live in such a world. "We must do all we can to see that our children may have that good fortune."

"I will be looking for this Shinsu 'Refum now," Autel said. "I will need to face him before he can bring harm on either my bloodline or our government."

"And there's still the Fallen out there as well." Fira laughed in spite of himself. "But we also have the Black Knight's brother at our side as well now. Give him time and he'll be a superb warrior. He took down Mallunus by himself, you know. And..."

He trailed off. He would wait to to tell Autel about the flash of prophecy he had seen in Tuka for later. Autel's mother had been the only seer he had ever known, and Shinsu had claimed her as a Refum. How could he begin to explain that to his friend, who had cradled his mother in his arms as she died? No, it was best to wait until he could find the right words.

"I will watch his career with great interest," Autel assured him. "And you as well, since you've already requested he be assigned to your command. But what of the others who helped you? They were humans, I hear?"

"Mercenaries," Fira said quickly. "Skilled mercenaries we picked up on our travels."

He gave his friend a look; they would discuss this matter later, in a more private setting. He didn't give a damn where that damnable Simon ended up, but he owed his life to Cassandra and didn't want to risk getting her dragged into the spotlight. He had to wonder how the humans could live with themselves, taking their own and creating creatures like Simon. It was just another reason to be proud of his own race. At least they didn't have to rely on drugged-up children in battle.

Thankfully, Autel understood his look and didn't push the subject. "So," he said with a smile. "Tell me again about this Jiralhanae swordsman who did all this to you."

It was quiet on the observation deck, and Tuka was glad of it. He realized that he'd need months, perhaps even years, to decide whether his quest had been worth it all. The years he'd spent thirsting after revenge didn't seem quite as fruitful as he had remembered them. The things he had taken away from the Visag keep hadn't been the skills he'd used to kill Mallunus, but the friends and the will that had kept him alive this past week.

In the end, he had killed Mallunus, but he'd failed the most important test and walked away from his brother without doing more to reason with him. Simon was still out there, taking jobs that would probably get him killed, and here he was getting ready to don the armor of a true warrior and surrender the freedom that could have allowed him to help his friend more.

Fira understands, though, he reminded himself. He was there. I'll be fighting for him now, and he'll know how to direct me.

So some good had come out of all this after all, and he needed to focus on that more than ever. He had a future now, and that meant his clan had a future as well. And with Shinsu out amongst the stars waging a war of hate and revenge, he would need to strive to ensure that the Refum name was remembered well in the annals and battle poems.

He was still mulling over everything that had passed between him and Shinsu. There was one part of the conversation that bothered him, a spot where he had clearly blacked out just before Fira had arrived. He had thrown up, he remembered that much but nothing else. And why had Shinsu wanted a sample of his blood? The cut on his wrist burned even as he thought of it.

Swords are for killing, Shinsu's voice whispered in his mind. Warriors are for fighting. And avengers like me, well how should I put it? Anyway you say it, there are things that exist for one purpose; those like me are like that. After all, now there is only one path I can take. And to be honest, I don't care how many comrades or anyone else fall along the way.

"I'm like you in that way, I suppose," Tuka murmured. "There's only one path for me as well."

But he wasn't an avenger. Not anymore. He had crossed that bridge and had become something new instead. What that was, he wasn't sure of himself. Perhaps he never would be. But that was a good thing. He would choose where this path of his took him. And if that path brought him against his brother, so be it.

But for now, he could just close his eyes and sleep without fear of nightmares.


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