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Halo Fanon:Survival of the Fittest/Season 4

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Episode 20
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Written by Sonasaurus ▐▌ Written by Lordofmonsterisland ▐▌ Written by Actene

Pilot

Felix-116's eyes flew open abruptly, and he realized with a start that he was already standing on his feet.

It was an odd feeling. He was no stranger to being unconscious for whatever reason; that type of thing was unavoidable and sometimes customary when you served in the UNSC. But he was certain that he had never woken up on his feet before, with nothing holding him in place.

There was no feeling of a headache, or haziness to his thoughts, or whatever usually accompanied the state of waking up that would give a clue as to how he had been unconscious. In fact, he couldn't even remember what he was before here; all he knew was who he was and that something weird was happening. He pondered this for another moment before military training kicked in, and he stopped trying to figure everything out, deciding instead to look around and see what he could do in his current situation.

He seemed to be in a room, except that wasn't quite the right word for it. He was standing in a large rectangular prism with about a dozen others—Marines, aliens, even a Spartan or two—except there didn't seem to be any doors, or any way out at all. Is this ONI pulling some kind of stunt? The others looked mostly confused, with one or two watching each other warily. None of them were armed, but they were fully armoured. He noticed that two of the aliens were a Kig-Yar and a Jiralhanae, and tensed. He should at least incapacitate them before doing anything else, and maybe a couple of the shiftier-looking Sangheili that didn't look like they were friends of the UNSC.

Felix tried to take a step towards them, but realized that he couldn't move at all. He couldn't even struggle; apart from moving his eyes and breathing in and out, he couldn't so much as tilt his head. What is going on?

Then a voice spoke. It sounded like it belonged to an adolescent, not an ONI officer. "Hey, can you all hear me?"

Some of the others grunted a reply. Felix looked around, trying to see where the voice was coming from.

"I'll take that as a yes," the voice said. "Well, let's not forestall any longer. Welcome to the fourth season of Survival of the Fittest!"

"And the second that hasn't been cancelled," a second voice muttered. This one belonged to an older person, but this speaker wasn't any more visible than the first. "Yet."

There was laughing heard in the background.

"Yes, yes, you can blame Actene for that. But I happen to be more organized with that kind of stuff."

"Oh yeah, thanks," came a third voice, presumably belonging to the one called Actene. "I'm right here, you know."

"Of course I know. I picked you as one of the guest writers."

"Hey!" yelled one of the Marines. "Are you guys going to argue all day, or do we get to find out what the hell is going on?"

"LOMI, tell your Marine to shut up," said the first voice.

"Hey Brandon, shut up," said the fourth voice, LOMI.

But Brandon kept talking. "What do you mean 'his Marine'? I don't know anyone called LOMI."

"It doesn't matter," said the first voice impatiently. "And we're getting off topic here. You're all a part of Survival of the Fittest, and basically your goal is to kill each other."

Felix looked over the others in the room. There were some he certainly wouldn't object to killing, but a few of them were UNSC. Kill them? Why?

"Wait, wait wait, hold on," said a female Navy officer. "First of all, who are you guys?"

There was a pause. "That's irrelevant."

"Are you ONI?"

"No. It's not that simple."

"At least tell us why we have to kill each other."

"Well...this is going to sound bad. But it's for fun."

"Fun?" repeated Brandon. "How is that fun?"

The Jiralhanae snorted. "This would be fun if there were more of them to kill. As it is, I count only thirteen of us."

"Ah, yes," the voice said. "It's not just thirteen of you. There are going to be sixty-two of you in total."

The alien gave a huff of approval. "I'm in."

"So where are the others?" the Navy officer asked.

"Oh, they don't know. They'll be dropped into the map and have no idea what's going on."

"That is hardly fair," objected one of the Sangheili that Felix recognized as Autel 'Vadam.

"Well, I like to keep things surprising."

"So why do we get to know?" asked Brandon. "Not that I mind, of course."

"Because it wouldn't be interesting to sit back and watch you guys wandering around for ages until one of you figures out you have to kill everyone else, would it?"

"Or because you want your characters to have an advantage," said LOMI's voice.

"Bullshit," the first voice replied, sounding offended. "I'm being perfectly fair here."

"Then how come you put both Felix and Autel into the room? Admit it, you want your characters to win."

There it was again. Felix wondered what LOMI meant. He glanced at Autel, who returned his confused look at being referred to as someone else's "character". This is bizarre. Who could these guys be?

"Can we get on with it?" said another Marine. "I think you people are sick, but if we have to kill each other, I'd rather not listen to you teenagers argue over it first."

"Actually, I happen to be twenty-five," said the other unidentified voice, the older one. This statement was followed by a chorus of groans.

"Dude, there's no point being anal over details with fanon characters," said the first voice.

"You do realize that you're misusing the word—"

"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Okay, everyone, get ready. In about five seconds, you'll find yourselves in a gigantic map with sixty-one opponents. Consider every single one of them hostile, because when this is over, only one of you can be left standing. Good luck."

Felix's mind was whirling. He wanted to ask the voice how they got here, what he meant by "characters", and what the purpose to it all was. This could just be a dream. It can't be real. It just can't.

Then the floor disappeared beneath them, and he felt himself falling. Some invisible force gripped him, penetrating through layers of shielding and armour without resistance, and he felt himself beginning to black out once more.

Episode 1: Enter the Deathmatch

1

Justin-057 stalked through the forest, moving in almost complete silence despite the half-ton of armour on him and his own considerable weight. He kept his stance relaxed, looking almost like he was taking a casual stroll. Except the stroll happened to be in the middle of nowhere, and with no knowledge of how he got here.

It was weird, really. He had woken up in the middle of a forest clearing, instantaneously and on his feet, no less. Even his training in the SPARTAN-II program couldn't explain how he had managed that. It was like being drugged, except with the polar opposite of the side-effects.

He almost relaxed as he took in his surroundings. The forest seemed peaceful enough, reminding him of something between a childhood memory on his homeworld of Romulon, and a ten-day training exercise with the other SPARTAN-IIs on Reach. He felt out of place, wearing a full suit of MJOLNIR armour and in combat stance, but years of training had taught him to be careful in unfamiliar territory. There could be hostiles anywhere, and the fact that he wasn't armed meant he had to all the more cautious.

The Spartan made his way through the forest, his barely audible sounds of movement covered up by the rustling of the wind through trees, and the wildlife that chirped faintly around him.

2

Shinsu 'Refum peered down at the terrain stretched out before him. He had found a good spot, and although he was loath to admit it, it was thanks to luck or whatever guiding force that placed him here.

He didn't know how he got here, or what he was doing here, but knew instantly that he was put up to a challenge of survival, even if it was to no one in particular. But he wasn't unduly worried about that; he had won and lost many battles in the past, but if there was one thing he could do, it was to find his way to the top. No matter what disadvantages he had or what cost he had to pay, in the end, he always outwitted his enemies.

So when he found himself on a ledge on a mountainside, not too high off the ground and with a barely visible crevice that served as a proper shelter with fresh running water, he knew that he wasn't going anywhere. Although he had no scopes or binoculars, his sharp eyes were able to see far with the view given to him. As an added bonus, his armour blended perfectly with the colour of the stony ledge even without the use of his active camouflage, and the only way he would be spotted was if someone knew he was there.

He didn't know for certain if there were enemies around, but it was safer to assume there was. Although he was armed with only an Energy Sword and a few plasma grenades, that was really all he needed to take on an opponent. Once he spotted something below that looked like a threat, then he would engage his camouflage and eliminate it before it even knew it was dead. Feeling confident and more patient than he would have expected in a situation like this, he leaned back against a boulder, and waited.

3

Vinh-030 dashed through the dusty, uneven terrain, easily leaping over debris strewn on the ground and keeping her weapon aimed steadily in front of her. She knew she was making a bit of noise, but at the moment, silence wasn't her highest priority.

She had woken up from an odd state of unconsciousness, on her feet, fully armoured, holding a BR55 in her hand and carrying a quartet of fragmentation grenades and an M6 Laser Rifle on her back. She was in a vehicle graveyard, filled with broken UNSC ground and air vehicles.

She had searched briefly for working equipment and maybe a functional vehicle, but found nothing in the immediate area and decided to head for cover instead of waiting to be spotted by possible hostiles. She was currently heading into a narrow, grassy canyon, and decided that a vehicle wouldn't be of any use to her anyway. The canyon was only about forty feet high or so, and she intended on climbing to the top. Even if she somehow found a Hornet, it would be too conspicuous in the open space.

She glanced one last time at the junkyard before clearing it. Maybe if she was with a team, she would have searched harder for resources while the others kept the perimeter secured. Then they would all mount up on a Warthog and drive in the opposite direction of the canyon. As it was, she was on her own and had no idea where she was, so she decided to head for higher ground, search for possible allies, and hope there were no enemy snipers lurking in the area as she made her climb.

Although it was the best course of action, better than walking into the canyon below potential enemies, she couldn't help but feel a bit nervous. She wasn't in a great spot, even if she did make the climb as quickly as possible, she could be very easily killed if luck was against her. She didn't dare broadcast on any COM channels until she had a confirmed visual of friendlies. Although judging from the graveyard of UNSC vehicles, it was unlikely that any of them were in the area.

4

Stel 'Vadam kept to the cover of trees as he made his way around the massive lake. He knew he was very close to the body of water and could be spotted by enemies if they looked hard enough, but he decided it was worth the risk if it meant he had a mostly clear visual on the open area around him.

He looked down at his Needler to make sure every shard in the magazine was protruding from the top of the gun. If anything tried creeping up on him, they would suffer a very quick and painful death from the deadly weapon. And he also had a heavy Concussion Rifle on his back if he needed to flush someone a little more distant out of cover. It wasn't the best weapon for the job, but he knew how to make good use of what he had.

For a moment, he felt exhilarated, in contrast to the serenity around him. Survival of the Fittest, the voice had called it. It was almost like the old days in the Human-Covenant War, where he took on numerous humans, and killed as many of them as he could. Although he learned to accept the humans as allies after the war, he knew that the rules were different here. Here, everyone was an enemy.

He remembered how his nephew Autel had objected to the voice saying that they were the only ones who knew the objective, for now. Perhaps him and others like him would try and form alliances. A good idea, had it not been for the snag that they would eventually have to kill each other. Stel didn't want to trust his life to anyone else, not even his own family. Countless campaigns in a war against a species desperate to escape extinction taught him that even the noblest of individuals would do whatever it took to survive when they were threatened. He was not going to allow himself to be stabbed in the back by someone he placed a momentary trust in. If he found Autel or even someone like his friend Doug, he wouldn't hesitate to kill them, albeit with no sense of triumph in doing so.

5

Marco-025 moved down the hallway, trying to suppress his unease. He had been trained for something like this before, and he had even faced it more times than he would have liked, and made it out more or less in one piece. But this time everything was different.

He was one of the thirteen people in the black room, and had heard what the voice told them to do. Kill everyone else until you're the only one left. It didn't sound that different from some of the more extreme missions he had received. But hell, what was the point of it? He had no backup, no intel, and no one on the outside to communicate with. Even for a Spartan, this kind of scenario was enough to warrant panic.

Kill everyone else. He had killed human targets before; civilians, freebooters, even some unfortunate UNSC servicemen that had ended up on ONI's blacklist. And he was accustomed to being kept in the dark on those types of operations. But this just felt like something even he couldn't pass up questioning. It felt wrong.

It was for fun. That was what the voice had said. He didn't know whether or not to believe it. Here he was, inside some strange unoccupied human facility, his MA5B aimed at chest level and ready to light up the first thing that moved. The facility didn't even look abandoned; it was just completely empty. If he did spot another person, could he kill it? Even if it was an ally?

The door hissed open, dispelling the silence but making it feel more eerie. He swept his rifle around the new room he had arrived in, which was some sort of storage facility. It was completely lit, and crates were stacked in organized arrays all over the shelves. But it was, just like the last few rooms he had passed though, devoid of anyone except himself.

6

Richard Mack Jr. couldn't remember the last time he had regained consciousness outside an SOEIV. Then again, he couldn't the last time he was on a mission outside of Whiskey-04.

Mission wasn't really the right word for it, though. The word "mission" implied that you actually knew what you were supposed to do, not wake up standing perfectly upright in the middle of a deserted city and and clutching an MA5B. And that was precisely the situation Mack found himself in.

He could have spent more time dwelling on it, but he never was one to ask too many questions. It was clear that right now, he was cut off from the chain of command, in an unknown and possibly hostile location, and had with him only his ODST combat suit and other assorted equipment on him. So he decided to move through the city alone, sticking to cover and watching for signs of movement.

Everything in the city was broken, as he soon found out. Tall buildings were still standing, but looked quite worse for wear and had every single window blown out. Cars lay flipped over and trashed all over the street. A few electronics were still partially operational, although they were displaying unidentifiable images that were of no help whatsoever. It was almost like a war was fought here, except there were no bodies.

Has this place been hit by EMP or something? He recalled that a team of Helljumpers, led by an ONI officer, had been dropping in on New Mombasa during the Battle of Earth, when a Covenant carrier made an atmospheric Slipspace jump that devastated the entire city and scattered the entire team. They had somehow all survived and a couple of them made it into the city before they regrouped and pulled out the next morning. The story had been well-circulated among the 105th after the war.

Mack put the thoughts of the event out of his head, and refocused himself to watching for contacts. He didn't know where he was going, but he kept moving. He felt that if he wasn't doing something, then he might as well sit around and wait for someone or something to show up and kill him. He would keep moving until he found some way to make sense of this mess. He could always decide what to do from there when the time came.

Episode 2: Contact

1

Kane-099 made one more thorough sweep to make sure there was no one else lurking around before looking down the sights of his SRS99-S2 AM sniper rifle and taking aim at the targets in the distance. He had a clear line of fire to the thirty or so hostiles, and although they were inbound on his position, he knew he would be able to drop every one of the bastards before they made half the distance.

It was almost too easy. He had been perched in a sturdy tree at the edge of the forest he found himself in, watching for movement, when he saw a half dozen Jiralhanae squads running across the adjacent grassland, in plain open space. Kane had checked to make sure there was no vehicle support with them, and nothing lurking in his proximity inside the forest either. But the teams were heading in his direction, and whether they knew he was there or if it was just a coincidence, he knew he had to eliminate them.

His finger paused on the trigger. What if it was some kind of trick, meant to give away his position as soon as he start shooting? His sniper rifle was hardly a quiet weapon, and he didn't have a silencer on him. Sound travelled easily in the forest.

"Don't really have a choice," he muttered to himself, staring down the scope again. If he didn't kill those Jiralhanae, they would reach the forest, and with their excellent sense of smell, find him in minutes. And he happened to like his hiding place.

Besides, I've laid some insurance around the area. When he first woke up, he had found to his amazement that in addition to his rifle, sidearm, and combat knife, he had twenty-four fragmentation grenades on him. When he found a good place to watch for contacts, he strung them on a trip wire and laid them around a twenty-metre radius. No one was going to sneak up on him. It wasn't a foolproof protection, but right now, he decided to worry about the thirty Jiralhanae bearing down on him instead of the possibility of being heard by someone else who may or may not be in the forest.

Kane aimed at the head of a gold-armoured Captain Major, the one that looked like the leader of the whole rabble. It was too easy a target to miss. Taking a deep breath and holding it, the Spartan sharpshooter pulled the trigger.

The bullet flew through the air and took the target in the right eye almost instantaneously, dropping him like a stone. The aliens around him flinched in surprise, looking around to see where he was. He adjusted his aim, guessing that he could take out at least four more of them before they recovered.

2

Raphael Esquival-Cortez knew the peace was too good to last. He had been taking shelter in the hollow trunk of a large tree, taking a breather after the long run across the grassland and finding a hiding place with his weapons close to hand, when he saw a team of Kig-yar moving through the forest. One of them had walked so close to the tree that he could have grabbed its leg if he tried.

It then that he heard the sounds of a UNSC sniper rifle echoing through the forest. It was rather faint from where he was, but he guessed that the shooter was somewhere at the forest edge opposite to where he had been. It was possible that it was a potential ally, and while the ODST knew he should be careful, he decided to stick his neck out if it meant he didn't have to hide in a hole alone until his luck ran out.

Raphael eyed the M909 "Javelin" Sniper Rifle he propped against the inside of the tree. It was a powerful weapon, capable of tearing vehicles apart with just a few rounds, but it wasn't ideal for shooting Jackals in an enclosed forest. Besides, the thing made a lot of noise and he had a limited amount of ammunition for it. He stuck the long-barrelled rifle to his back and pulled his M12 SMG off his side, and without hesitation, leaped out from his cover and shot the nearest Jackal in the back.

Magenta blood sprayed from the alien's wound, and it was flung forward from the gunfire, and fell hard on its face. Most of the others were so far ahead that they didn't hear the quiet gunfire over the sound of them running, but a few turned around and hissed at him.

The ODST kept moving as he opened fire at a second alien, dropping it instantly. He took out a third by putting five bullets into its chest. A few plasma bolts splashed against his combat suit, but it held, mostly. He ignored the dull heat that partially penetrated the armour, and methodically shot down each alien, ducking behind a tree when he had to reload. He moved out of cover to find that there was one left, its shield held in front of its face and its Plasma Pistol glowing with overcharge.

Raphael shot it in the hand, causing the Kig-yar to flinch and shift its grip on its shield. He ducked as the discharged plasma bolt sizzled past his head, and before the alien could recover, he fired two bullets into its brain.

The ODST exhaled and counted the number of Jackals he had killed. Eight. Some of them had kept going, and were heading for his maybe-ally. He checked once to make sure there weren't any more hostiles behind him before he sprinted towards the sound of the sniper fire.

3

Jack-085 saw that one of them was still alive, and aimed his M6D at his victim's head, but paused and instead stepped over the body. He will die. Let him suffer.

Walking around the room that was strewn with the bodies of those he had killed, and checked to make sure they didn't carry anything of use to him. Of course they wouldn't. But what they're guarding might. His combat boots were splattered with crimson from the pools of blood he had been stepping in. Human blood.

It didn't bother him unduly that he had just slain an entire unit of militia. What they were doing here didn't matter either, just that they were here and they hadn't stood a chance against him when he arrived.

Jack had found himself earlier in the middle of a desert. This would have been worrying if he was still half the human he had once been, but he no longer thought of himself as anything of the sort. His reconstructed body had little need for water, and he was able to tirelessly cut across the sandy terrain for over a kilometre before he found the facility in less than an hour.

It was a human facility, laid in the middle of the desert for no apparent reason. And inside it was about fifty human militia, who had been struck by fear at the sight of him. Their reactions was nothing new, but he knew that they probably wouldn't be of any use to him unless they were out of his way. So he killed every one of them he saw until he found the armoury.

And here he was. The large metal door was locked and reinforced, but he merely replaced his pistol, punched two deep holes into it, and ripped it clean off its frame with his prosthetic hands. Carelessly tossing them aside, he stepped inside.

He was surprised that to find himself in what was not just an armoury, but a vehicle bay as well. There were ground vehicles and aircraft laid in the middle of the room, which was like a mini hangar bay, and weapons were lined up along the walls, categorized by type.

He walked over to the single Sabre starfighter, recognizing it by description instantly but amazed that there was one here. He could certainly deal a lot of damage with it. He opened its hatch and stowed his MA5K under the seat before walking to the wall of shotguns. He selected an M90 and as many shells he could carry, and also grabbed some flashbang grenades and an Antilon AP mine, putting the lot of it inside the Sabre as well.

Now to get out of here. Jack looked around. The vertical hangar door was on the end of a short runway, but there didn't seem to be a control panel anywhere. He could go back to the control room he had found earlier, but that would take time. Grabbing another mine, he planted it at the base of the door instead. He climbed into the Sabre and remote-detonated the explosive, flying out of the facility from the newly created hole before the smoke cleared.

4

Riker-012 watched the Covenant teams taking positions around the corner of the building, and knew they had him in a bad position. Still, he wasn't too concerned. Maybe he was pinned down for now, but he had fought them for long enough to know that when led by some thickheaded, overzealous Jiralhanae, they were notoriously bad at overlooking their advantages. And when that happened, certain alien bastards tended to get killed.

Still, he had to move fast. There were three Mgalekgolo pairs lurking somewhere in the area, and he knew that at least two of them were closing in behind him. He was a Spartan, yes, but he didn't have a death wish. It would be easier to take out a couple of Jiralhanae and their terrified subordinates than dance his way around Hunters and try and single-handedly kill four of them with some not-so-heavy weapons.

He looked up at the facility he was currently positioned outside of. It bore a remarkable resemblance to OUTPOST Base, an ONI research station he had once been assigned to defend. Or maybe it was just a base with the same model. It didn't matter. But when he had spotted it from a distance, he decided to check it out and see if there was any chance there were possible allies inside.

He had attempted to contact the base via COM, but received no response. Instead, he unwittingly caught the attention of Covenant forces in the area, which he hadn't spotted upon scoping the exterior of the base before moving in. It was almost like they appeared out of nowhere.

Since when did the Covenant get so good at intercepting radio transmissions? I was using one of the most secure channels too... It was possible that the Covenant owned the base, but there was no sign of a fight here at all. The Spartan decided to find a way inside and see what he could find. It was more comforting to be close to a UNSC facility than to wander around aimlessly, even if he hadn't spotted a single friendly yet.

Riker glanced back one more time to make sure the Hunters hadn't caught up to him. Satisfied, he pulled the pin on a frag and tossed it around the corner. It was followed by a thump and a squeal of pain. The following explosion sounded much closer than he expected.

Must have hit one of the little bastards in the face. Oh well. Instead of tossing another grenade, he raised his MA37 to chest level instead and turned the corner, running through the cloud of black smoke and spraying the nearest Jiralhanae with full-automatic gunfire.

The alien's shields went down in less than two seconds, and the Spartan crushed its skull by bringing his rifle hard onto the side of its head. Moving around the eliminated hostile, he opened fire on the second one before its dead companion even hit the ground. The rest of the Assault Rifle's magazine ended up in the Brute's stomach.

Riker ejected the spent mag from the chamber, and realized that his shields were low. Dropping the gun, he pulled out two M6H Pistols and took out a score of Grunts while still moving. Letting go of the empty sidearms as well, he grabbed a dead Jiralhanae's Spike Carbine.

There were only five Unggoy left, and his shields were back up now that the enemy fire had dwindled. He easily took out the diminutive enemies before discarding the alien weapons and picking up his MA37.

He was halfway through reloading the Assault Rifle when he heard the clanking of Mgalekgolo armour, not so far off. It sure sounded like there were at least four of them. Hurriedly sticking the magazine into his weapon, he scooped up his M6Hs and dashed for the security door.

It was locked, but to his surprise, the panel accepted his access code, the same one he used as Codename: CHRONO. So was he at OUTPOST after all? The Spartan hurried inside and locked the door again. He reloaded his pistols before proceeding further into the facility.

The hallway was dimly lit and there was no sound save for the dull whir of machinery in the nearby rooms. But it felt reassuring to be inside the UNSC facility, especially because its layout was one he was so familiar with.

5

Sigurd-D1010 guessed that somehow, for whatever reason, luck was working against him. Unless the Flood had learned not to turn a healthy terrain into a total hellhole since the last time he encountered them, the others that were here with him probably didn't have to put up with them right now.

Not that they were that hard to kill. The parasite had caught him by surprise, which was what annoyed him more at the moment. Here he was, in a nice lush jungle, looking completely harmless, and he was being attacked by combat forms mutated out of an unrecognizable species and more besides. He had been aware of the possibility of hostiles, but hadn't been expecting the Flood.

The M99 Stanchion Gauss Rifle magnetically adhered to his back was powerful against most enemies, but was of little more use than the SRS99 at killing Flood. Unless he destroyed the infection form with it, but it would be a waste of ammo since he could do that with his heavy-barrel BR55 anyway. So the Spartan simply backpedalled from the advancing hordes, pumped rounds into their chest cavities, and made sure none of them sneaked up behind him.

Another cluster of infection forms appeared, joining the already overflowing group of parasite and eagerly crawling towards him. Sigurd wished he had some fragmentation grenades to wipe them out while they were bunched together, but right now the only form of explosive he had was the Lotus anti-tank mine he carried, and he was saving that for a rainy day. So he just kept shooting them one by one, making his shots count and reloading as quickly as he could.

He looked over his shoulder momentarily to see what was behind him. He was approaching a cliff edge which dropped into a steep waterfall. He had just come this way a few minutes ago, and had been shimmying along the rock face because there was nowhere else to go. There was no way he could go back the same way and keep the Flood at bay.

"Fuck this," he said to no one in particular. He emptied the remainder of his magazine, and not bothering to reload, grabbed the Stanchion and took aim. Time to blow a hole or two in this formation and run like hell.

6

"Kill him!" roared one of the Sangheili.

The statement triggered a mass of them sprinting towards him. They were armed with metal rods, utility knives, and other makeshift weapons that were close at hand. But their charge was uncoordinated, and Ro'nin easily gunned them down with his Type-51 Plasma Repeater. One or two bolts in the head each were fatal to their unprotected heads, and if they tried to rush him, well, they would only make easier targets.

One particularly daring Sangheili threw a small knife at him, which he easily dodged and retaliated by shooting the offender in the face. His weapon was starting to overheat from the excessive firing, but he was careful for them not to notice.

Still, one thing gave the mercenary pause for thought. These Sangheili seemed different. Even though they were clearly not in service to the military, they fell far short from the average civilian of his kind, who would even have a fair amount of knowledge on combat and also make fearless, and quite reckless attacks.

These civilians seemed more cautious though. Despite their bravado, Ro'nin could tell that they weren't too eager about rushing them, even if doing so meant some of them would make it far enough to injure him. They were almost like humans.

He had no sense of superiority over humans as many other Sangheili did, but he knew that these civilians acted a lot like them. Although why they decided to attack him on sight, he didn't know.

Have I become that infamous? he thought with a touch of amusement. He did have a lot of questionable endeavours with his fellow mercenary, the Jiralhanae Kenpachus. But they were able to remain unidentified to their victims and even sometimes clients. Mostly.

I wonder where Kenpachus is now, he thought, casually killing another civilian with a well-placed plasma bolt. He certainly would enjoy this kind of fight. Whereas I just find myself wasting ammunition on these pathetic semi-warriors.

He felt a twinge of irritation. Kenpachus was usually around so often to the point where Ro'nin was unable to stand him at times, and it just so happened that irony decided to play its cruel joke on him by separating them when he actually wanted him here.

If he is in this strange land as well though, I know where he will most likely be, he thought. I don't know how big this...world is, but he certainly won't be in this dingy Sangheili village. I suppose I should try to find him, since I already grow bored of this slaughter.

His weapon finally overheated, and its hiss was like the raising of a floodgate. The last handful of civilians charged en masse, brandishing their weapons and shouting threats. Without the slightest touch of concern, the mercenary activated his Energy Sword. There are only a few of them left. This will not take long.

Episode 3: First Kill

1

Kane lowered his sniper rifle as the last Jiralhanae collapsed with a 14.5mm round in the middle of its forehead. It was still more than fifty metres away, and was the last in a long line of dead aliens scattered around the grassland.

The Spartan checked his magazine, saw that there was only one round left, and ejected it, replacing it with a full one. He had only three mags left, but he could still inflict a lot of damage with twelve rounds.

He paused as he heard running coming from inside the forest, coupled with the barely audible rattle of a submachine gun. He turned around and zoomed in with his sniper rifle again, and it wasn't too long before he spotted a Kig-yar dashing through the foliage, weapon raised and looking around frantically. It was soon joined by three more of its companions.

Kane set down his rifle and switched to his M6D instead, aiming at the lead alien but not firing. He didn't need to give away his position if it wasn't necessary, and with any luck these guys would run straight into—

The Kig-yar stumbled, tripping over what seemed like an invisible force. It didn't even have time to maintain its balance before it was consumed by two explosions from his frag grenades.

The other Jackals hissed in shock, staring at the mutilated remains of their companion and looking around to see who triggered the explosions. Two more Kig-yar joined them, looking more like they were running from something. They didn't last long though; an SMG flared from behind the foliage, cutting down both of them in seconds.

When the last three turned to the bushes and started firing, Kane decided to lend the newcomer a hand. He shot two of the Kig-yar in the back of the head with his Pistol, and finished the last one by shooting it twice in the back. Silence fell over the forest again, only to be broken by the rustling of leaves as an ODST emerged from the foliage.

The ODST hadn't spotted him yet, but kept walking in his direction, weapon still up and looking around.

Kane kept his weapon trained on the newcomer as he called out, "You might want to stop there, before you trip one of my wires and end up like that one over there."

The Marine stopped, looking at the bloody remnants of the first Kig-yar, then to him. He depolarized his visor. "Hey, don't point that at me, Spartan. I'll help you, alright?"

Kane grabbed his equipment and jumped down from the tree. "I suppose I need someone to watch my back, and I'd rather it's someone from the UNSC. Nice job with the Jackals. I'm Kane. SPARTAN-099."

"Raphael Cortez," the ODST said. "Gunnery Sergeant."

"I don't think ranks are important in here...wherever we are. It's all about survival."

"You said it. What was with the sniping? I could hear you halfway across the forest."

"Let me show you." He led Cortez to the clearing, and pointed to the thirty Jiralhanae corpses lying in the grassland. The Marine pulled his own rifle off his back and looked down the sight. Kane examined the weapon. It was a Sniper Rifle no doubt, and it looked similar to the M99 Stanchion. He could probably tear a Hunter in half with one shot if he fired that thing. He was glad of the extra firepower, but hoped that he would run out of ammo before they inevitably had to fight each other.

The ODST finished looking over the area and whistled, one eyebrow raised. "Damn. I'm glad we're on the same side, Spartan."

2

Gutak 'Cyandenee reloaded his MA5C in half the time it took for the enemies to try and reach his cover. He poked his head out of cover and opened fire, taking down the two Marines that tried to rush him.

He grimaced as the humans fell, crimson blood leaking from their wounds. Things were just not going well ever since he arrived in this strange world. He had spent hours wandering alone, trying to find out what this was all about. He had finally reached what looked like a UNSC outpost, only to have numerous teams of Marines attacking him on sight, regardless of his protests that he wasn't the enemy.

I have broken my vow, he thought sadly. But I have no choice. I do not know why these humans seek to kill me, but I will not allow them to. He ducked back just as a sniper round passed in front of his face. These humans had been pushing him back away from the outpost, but he was almost at the tall hills where he came from. Perhaps he could escape and find allies elsewhere. In the meantime, he would try to do as little harm as possible to these humans.

There was an explosion not far off, and broken chunks of wall sprayed him. He could hear the Marines' shouts as they continued advancing. There wasn't much time. He broke from cover, shot one of the Marines, and knocked the other two down as he ran a few metres towards the others and took a burst of machine gun fire before he ducked into an alleyway between two buildings on the opposite end of the outpost.

His shields were still recharging when three fragmentation grenades rolled into the alley. Gutak backed away as quickly as he could, but the force of the explosions knocked him to the ground. He scrambled to his feet, and making sure he wasn't injured, ran out the other side.

There were five more Marines here, and they fired at him, but he ducked back into cover behind a storage unit. He looked around but saw no snipers or turrets in the area. Good. It wouldn't be too hard to escape from here. I will have to kill these humans though, he thought, stowing his Assault Rifle away and pulling out his Energy Sword.


Felix-116 heard the gunfire from the hills. It was mostly the sound of MA5s, although there was occasionally the sound of snipers and turrets. Readying his BR60, he ran faster over the hills and towards the distant cluster of buildings. It's like someone took a chunk out of a city and stuck it in the middle of nowhere. This is weird.

He had been wandering the hills when he found what looked like Sangheili tracks. They had led him here, and he guessed that whoever was fighting humans in those buildings was probably one of the "contestants".

He soon arrived at the buildings, and spotted a pair of dead Marines lying in a pool of their own blood. They were riddled with bullets.

"Spartan! Come and give us a hand!" a nearby Marine shouted. "We've got one of the alien bastards on the run! He slipped into that alleyway!"

The game of survival begins, Felix thought. He had been unsure whether the Sangheili he was tracking was an ally or an enemy, but if these Marines were fighting it, then it was probably the latter. That would make it a lot easier for him to kill the alien.

He ran down the short alleyway, coming out the other end to see an armoured Sangheili standing over the corpses of five Marines. Snapping up his Battle Rifle, the Spartan opened fire.

The Sangheili flinched, but recovered fairly quickly and activated its Energy Sword. It lunged at him, but he was able to dodge it, retaliating by firing more bursts into it, taking its shields down bit by bit. It shifted its weight without losing momentum and unexpectedly leaped backwards, slashing at him again. The blades slashed him across the chest, taking his shields down to half and knocking him off his feet. And despite the intensity of the fight, a thought had time to cross his mind. Thank goodness for the Mark VII. The Mark VI wouldn't have stood a chance—

The attack had thrown the Sangheili off-balance, but it still managed to lash out with its other hand and knock the Battle Rifle out of his grip. Felix retaliated by tripping it, causing the alien to lose what was left of its balance and fall to the ground. In one smooth motion, the Spartan pulled the C70 Assault Shotgun off his back and fired three rapid shots into its head. The first discharge of shells instantly took down the Sangheili's shields, the second blowing its brains out all over the ground. Purple blood splattered the destroyed cement, and the alien lay still, its hand still clutching its Energy Sword.

Felix replaced the Shotgun on his back and retrieved his BR60. He checked the five Marines in case they were still alive, but there wasn't so much as a pulse from any of them. He shook his head as he made his way back to the others. There are sixty-two of us here. But these Marines don't seem like they're part of this. Are they real, or just created by those teenagers?

Hah. Teenagers. This whole thing is bizarre.

He returned to the other side of the alley, where there was what looked like a UNSC outpost. "The Elite's dead," he called to the Marines.

"Nice job, Spartan!" said the nearest one.

"Where's your commanding officer, Marine?" he asked.

The Marine looked confused. "Commanding officer? We don't have one."

Felix stopped. "Is your CO KIA?"

"No, Spartan. We...never had one."

And that doesn't strike you as odd? he wondered but didn't say out loud. Instead, he asked, "What are you all doing here?"

Again, the Marine faltered. "We're...we're guarding this facility, Spartan."

"Against?"

"Enemies."

This conversation was going nowhere. "What's your name, rank, and serial number?"

"Err..."

Felix sighed inwardly. "Don't worry about it, Marine. I'm leaving now, if you don't mind. Unless you boys want to come with me?"

"Sorry, Spartan," said the Marine. "We have to stay here and guard the outpost."

I figured as much, he thought, walking down the street away from the Marine unit. Although it would be nice to have some backup, he knew that he had to find another participant, someone who he recognized.

A sudden thought struck him. Who else is here? What if Jess was brought into this as well? Or Amber? Victor? How could we all make it out of this alive if only one of us will survive?

It doesn't matter. If they are here, I must find them. Gripping his Battle Rifle tighter, he broke into a run and was soon out of the isolated cluster of buildings.

3

Michael Robson knew from taking many ground missions that he was not alone in the forest. He could discern heavy but careful footfalls and guessed that it was a Sangheili. Checking to make sure that his M28A1 Assault Rifle was fully loaded and had its safety off, he kept walking with just enough noise, making a gradual change of direction that led to the arbitrary "east", where he had found a clearing to rest in earlier.

He had a plan to deal with the probably-hostile, but his heart was still pounding all the same. If the Sangheili decided to attack him before they reached the clearing, he could be a goner. Still, he kept his pace steady, deciding that it was better to avoid suspicion but knowing that the alien was gradually closing the distance between them.


Nico 'Killamee caught glimpses of the human he was tailing. He saw that it was encased in black body armour, and knew that it was one of the soldiers the humans liked to call "Helljumpers". Not exactly a worthy adversary, but certainly a threat.

He knew that he was making a bit of noise while following the Marine, and cursed the fact that for all his combat prowess, staying stealthy was never his strong suit. But if he was unable to stay completely quiet, it seemed the human was unable to hear it. He just continued walking at his normal pace.

'Killamee slowed down slightly just to be safe, and the Helljumper vanished from his sight, but his footsteps could still be heard. The Sangheili continued to follow, deciding to make his move as soon as they were clear of the forest.

Suddenly the footsteps stopped. He stopped walking as well, wondering if the human had detected him. He stood still, scarcely allowing himself to breathe. He listened hard for any more sounds ahead of him, but there were none even after he waited several long minutes. Slowly, carefully, he moved towards where he had last heard the Marine, this time making sure he didn't so much as disturb a leaf.

He stopped just short of a clearing. The human had to be around here somewhere. Was this some kind of trap? He was almost certain now that he had been deliberately led here, and knew better than to step into that clearing—

Something hard landed on him, knocking him over. 'Killamee hit his head against a tree as the thing rolled off him. He was dazed, but he could tell that it was the Helljumper, who was now grabbing at its weapon. The Sangheili's head was still spinning, but he knew he had to move fast. He picked up the nearest weapon that he had dropped, one of his Plasma Rifles, and fired a stream of shots at his adversary.

As his vision focused, he realized that he was firing too wide, and adjusted his aim to face the human, who was now rushing at him, its gun flaring as bullets sprayed him. 'Killamee managed to loose off two shots that failed to penetrate the Helljumper's armour before he was tackled to the ground again, his weakened shields flickering out from the impact.

He heard the click of the Marine's gun that meant he was pulling the trigger, but it was out of bullets. The Sangheili took aim again with his own weapon, but he felt two hands grabbing at it, pointing it at the sky and trying to pry the Plasma Rifle from his grip. It was surprisingly strong for a human.

His eyes still on the Helljumper, 'Killamee grabbed at another weapon on his waist. His fingers closed around his Energy Sword and he activated its twin blades. He twisted, preparing to deal the fatal blow.

The Marine punched him hard in the stomach, knocking the breath out of him and causing his swing to miss. It came down on the Plasma Rifle and sliced it clean in two. They both fell back, both clutching half the destroyed gun. The Sangheili regained his balance first, however, and discarding the useless rifle, he moved towards the human, who had fallen quite far back and was still trying to get up.

'Killamee felt the force of the explosion first that sent him flying through the air and landing in a heap next to the Helljumper. Then the pain kicked in, and he could feel the blood oozing out of the numerous wounds the explosion had opened in his back and the back of his arms and legs.

The human was on his feet now, and there was a Pistol in his hand. He pulled back the slide and pointed it at the Sangheili's head.

'Killamee heard a gunshot, then everything went black.


Robson placed his SM6D back into its holster as he stepped away from the Elite's body. His M28 was no longer where he had left it; the explosion must have either sent the gun flying or destroyed it completely. Still, it was worth it, considering that the alien hadn't even noticed when he dropped the grenade behind its feet and backpedalled as far as he could.

Still, the idea of walking around with just a pistol and some grenades didn't appeal to him. He took a Needle Rifle off the Sangheili's back and fired it experimentally a couple of times, amazed that the weapon still worked after being so close to an explosion. Taking a few ammunition cases off his now dead enemy, he walked away from the clearing, now alone.

4

"Nice hiding place you've got here."

Kayla-B261 jerked in surprise and instinctively reached for the M6D next to her. An armoured hand on her forearm stopped her. She looked up in surprise and saw that there was another Spartan looking down at her.

"Hey, relax," he said. "In the real world we'd be on the same side."

"In the real world," she muttered. "Too bad we're currently in the not-real world."

She peered out into the hallway from the crevice she was sitting inside. It was a long passage with only one exit on either end that led to other parts of this empty UNSC facility. She had picked this spot because it allowed her to detect anyone coming in from the other end, and also have herself braced to engage anyone who came in from the door next to her. If things got bad, she could run out the door rather than be pinned down on both sides.

"I was wondering how someone could have sneaked up on me like that," she said, letting go of the Pistol. "Should have known it was another Spartan."

"So let's stick with being Spartans and work together. I'm Basch. SPARTAN-138."

"Kayla. SPARTAN-B261."

"Well Kayla, do you have a plan?" he asked, sitting down next to her.

"Sure," she said. "Sit next to this door and shoot the first thing that comes through it."

Basch laughed. "I got you by surprise, didn't I? Is this how you usually do things, Kayla?"

"No," she said, a little defensively. "I'm a Headhunter."

"So what are you doing cooped up in here?"

"Because I have no idea what is going on. I may be a Headhunter, but I'm not going to stick my neck out if it gets me killed."

"I know what's going on. Do you want me to tell you?"

"Enlighten me."

"Well, I was with twelve others in this weird black room, except it has no doors or windows. And this voice tells us we have to kill each other—"

Kayla glared at him. "Are you screwing with me?"

"I wish," he said. "Anyway, we have to kill each other until there's only one left."

She stiffened. "You want to start on that now?"

"Hey, take it easy. How about we worry about that later and start with the ones we wouldn't usually have a problem with neutralizing."

"Such as?"

"Such as this tall robot guy lurking outside the facility. He looked like a tough son of a bitch, so I decided to go look for some heavy ordnance. I was on my way to the armoury when I found you. You can come with me if you want. Unless you'd rather stay here?"

Kayla thought about it for a moment. "Nah. I'm getting bored sitting in this hallway. Let's take this robot guy out."

5

Demolyn Syrico wondered what strange phenomenon had led him to this land. He knew that this was not the world he was accustomed to, and he hadn't yet decided whether or not he liked it here.

On one hand, it seemed that this place was free from the Necros threat that, as much as he hated to admit it, seemed unstoppable in the world where he had been putting every bit of effort to defeating. That in itself could mean that the beings here could be very well capable of living without the constant threat of extinction.

But on the other hand, there was something very eerie about the world. Although he had wandered far and observed a lot of things, he hadn't noticed any form of civilization. Yes, there were buildings in some places, and there were even people. But they all looked like soldiers, with no purpose other than to survive by their own means. He had seen them killing each other without check.

Is it possible that my brother Vevictus is here as well? he thought with a great dread. He would certainly revel in this world. And he would be as always a great threat to those he meets.

I must continue to travel the land. I will see if I can find out why the beings here know nothing except war. And I will be on the constant watch for Vevictus. If he is here, then it remains my duty to confront him.

6

Vevictus Syrico wondered whether Demolyn had been selected for the deathmatch. It would make everything more interesting, since he guessed that no one else would be a match for him. He allowed himself a grin of anticipation. When he had heard the voice tell them that they were to slaughter each other until there was only one survivor, he was immediately interested. These voices, whoever they really are...must share my vision of how things should be. This will certainly be amusing.

He had already found groups of beings and killed them easily. He doubted that they were participants, but it was satisfying nonetheless to exterminate them like animals.

If Demolyn would do if he really was here, he would no doubt protect these beings. Perhaps he would even try to stop the bloodshed and find a way to bring everyone out of this alive.

Well, dear brother. I really do hope you are here. When I meet you really doesn't matter. Everything around us might be different, but I still await the day when I will find you. And I'm sure you do as well.

I hope you are here because I would like to see you try to save them. Let me see you try and stop me from wiping every single one of them out.

You won't.

Episode 4: Nothing Personal

1

"There it is," Basch said.

"I see him," Kayla murmured. "You're right. That guy does look like a tough nut to crack."

"But let's crack him."

The two Spartans had exited through an exit on the opposite end of the facility of where the robot guy was. They had an array of heavy weapons with them; Rocket Launchers, Laser Rifles, Missile Pods, and a couple of machine gun turrets they had acquired from the armoury.

"Alright, lemme get that thing's attention," Basch said, grabbing a turret.

"Wait," Kayla said, suddenly thinking of something. "What if this thing can help us?"

The SPARTAN-II eyed the black metallic creature hovering on the other side of the facility. "I don't know what it is, and I don't want to take that chance. Besides, we'll have to end up fighting each other eventually, remember? Let's just get rid of some of the competition first." He stepped out of cover and opened fire.

The turret sprayed bullets into the air, scoring several hits on the cyborg. It didn't seem to do any damage at all, but it turned to face him, and began flying towards them at an impossibly fast speed.

"Help me out here," Basch grunted. Kayla snapped into action, holding a SPNKr over each shoulder. She alternated between the two weapons, firing four rockets at the incoming enemy in half the number of seconds.

The thing dodged three of the projectiles, although the fourth missile, which had been fired after a slight delay, managed to curve enough to blast it in the leg. The explosion seemed to have some effect, causing the black cyborg to stagger in the air. She noticed that its armour was now somewhat damaged.

"This thing should be easier to take down than I thought," she said.

"Don't bother reloading," Basch said, still firing at it. "Grab another weapon. What the fu—!" he leaped back suddenly as a long extended claw grabbed the turret right out of his hands and flung it sky-high. To his amazement, he saw that the claw had extended from the cyborg's "arm", from which a long thick cable snaked.

He ducked behind the facility wall as the second arm flew past, barely missing him. "Shit," he panted. "This thing is dangerous. Kayla, take that laser and the missile pod, and follow my lead. We'll keep moving, but be careful you don't fall off the cliff."

"Hey, I'm a Spartan, not an idiot," she said, but she did as he said and grabbed the missile turret after placing the laser rifle on her back. They broke from cover on the other side of the facility, firing missiles at the cyborg and moving along the cliff edge next to the building's rear exit. The launchers had a much faster rate of fire than the SPNKrs, and sixteen missiles were flying towards the cyborg in a matter of seconds.

It seemed to have caught on to their plan, however, because this time it easily moved around array of missiles, causing them to overshoot. And before either of them could react, one of its claws had Basch in its grip. The SPARTAN-II was hefted into the air as the arm retracted.

Kayla had the laser rifle out now, and was aiming it at the cyborg's cable, a thin red line appearing as the weapon charged up. The cable was flailing a bit, but it wouldn't be too difficult a shot for her.

The claw holding Basch suddenly flew towards her at lightning speed, smashing her off the ground before she could blink. Her weapon was knocked out of her hand, and she couldn't hold back a scream of horror as she realized she had fallen over the cliff and was plummeting into the abyss.

Basch saw her disappear over the edge and knew there was nothing he could do for her. He was trying to free himself when the cyborg's arm moved again, this time flying rapidly downward. He saw the ground coming up fast towards his face. Oh shi—


Strifalex Benvora released the dead Spartan and retracted his arm. He had seen this one sneaking into the strange building earlier, but decided to let it go until it came out, possibly with some of its friends.

The other human, the one that had fallen off the cliff, had damaged him. He didn't like that. The damage is not extensive, but all the same...I don't think I should underestimate them like that again.

Whether there were more of them inside the building or not, he decided it was time to leave. I see how it is now. I've been brought here because this is a challenge. A game of survival. If that's the case, then I look forward to it.

I don't intend on having these humans defeat me, he thought as he flew away from the facility. But I hope that at least some of them will prove to be a challenge.

2

Erin Coney checked the Spartan's body over with both technological and old-fashioned methods before accepting the fact that he was dead. She straightened up, wondering what kind of monster had the capability of hurling a supersoldier into the ground with such force. He landed so hard that he had created a three-feet crater in the ground. His armour was still mostly undamaged even from the impact, but the bloody remnants inside the suit had not been pretty.

She didn't recognize him, and wouldn't have even if what was left of his face wasn't pulverized. But she managed to identify him as Basch-138. Strange, she remembered keeping records on a SPARTAN-138, but his name certainly wasn't Basch. Nonetheless, she grimaced at the sight of the corpse. Another dead Spartan.

And why was he dead? She had observed others here—humans, Covenant, and God knows what else—but they seemed to be intent only on killing each other. She even saw some turn against their allies the moment their enemies were dead. It was like a fight for survival.

She felt a coldness seeping into her thoughts. How did I enter this world? Where am I, and why have things become so barbaric here? For a moment, she wondered if this had something to do with Parangosky; it seemed that everything had some sort of connection to her. But Coney dismissed the thought. Not even ONI would be capable of something like this.

Unless it was all a trick. Some kind of simulation, a test, for...what? What was her purpose here?

I don't know exactly, but I'm going to stick with what I'm best at. I'll try to link up with UNSC forces in the area, and I'll try to keep us all alive. And if I consider anything a threat, well, I haven't lost my touch in combat yet. With one hand on her M6D, she walked towards the door to the nearby UNSC facility. She doubted there was anyone inside, but at least there was bound to be resources that would prove to be useful there.

3

Sona 'Demal instantly recognized the person that was standing at the water's edge. Encouraged by the familiar face, he ran towards him. "Stel!"

Stel turned around slowly. "Do not take another step, Sona."

He faltered. "What?"

The other Sangheili activated the Energy dagger on his wrist and held it in front of him. "Draw your blade."

"Why?" Sona stared at him incredulously, but moved his hand to the hilt of his Energy sword nonetheless.

"This is a fight for survival. And if I am forced to kill my allies, I intend to at least do so honourably."

"Stel! We should be on the same side. We can work together..."

Stel's eyes glimmered. "And how will I know when you intend to turn against me? You could kill me when my guard is down."

"I would never do that. Never."

"Sorry, old friend. But I take no chance here. It is nothing personal." And without another word, he charged, dagger raised.

Sona reacted quickly, activating his sword and in one smooth motion, blocked the attack. Stel didn't let up, following his first attack with another, and another, using both blade and fist in his barrage.

Sona knew his opponent was older, but that didn't make him any less dangerous. Stel was still nimble enough to keep him on the defensive, and come dangerously close to striking fatal blows a couple of times. He focused on blocking the deadly dagger, although a couple of times he felt Stel's fist landing painful blows.

Sona ducked under a horizontal slash, and without losing momentum, kicked the other Sangheili hard in the chest and knocking him into the air. Stel landed on his feet, however, and raised his weapon again.

"You will have to try and kill me, if you intend to live," he said.

"I can't allow myself to do this."

There was pain in Stel's eyes, even though Sona could tell he was trying to appear indifferent. "Then you will die."

Sona braced himself as his former friend rushed at him, readying his Energy sword. He's right. I have to kill him to survive. The older Sangheili must be getting desperate, because his charge was far too reckless. It wouldn't be difficult at all to strike him down before he even managed to attempt another attack. Goodbye, Stel. Forgive me. The twin blades came down—

On empty air. At the last second, Stel had feinted, spinning to the side and grabbing Sona's right wrist with his left. Then he raised his right hand again, the Energy dagger flashing through the air.

Sona felt a sharp pain on the side of his neck, and fell sideways to the ground, blood spurting out of him. His sword hilt clattered onto the ground beside him, the plasma blades hissing as purple liquid splashed onto it. His vision was fading, and the noise around him slowly became a quiet, consistent ringing.

He heard Stel's voice from a great distance. "Goodbye, Sona. Forgive me."

4

The sniper rifle's sight danced across the Elite's skull as Bryce-073 tracked the lightly armed warrior's meandering path through the forest. This one didn't seem to be moving with any real purpose, as if he himself wasn't quite sure of where he was going.

Bryce had already stalked and killed several Elites identical to this one. None of them had spotted him in time to even put up a fight. Bryce attributed this mostly to his years of experience of fighting in woodland environments like these, but he had also noticed that the Elites only seemed mildly aware that there might be a threat like him to be on the lookout for.

With a quick sweep of the surrounding area to make sure this one didn't have any friends nearby, Bryce exhaled and pulled the trigger. A sharp crack split the air and the Elite slumped, its head hanging from its neck by a small sliver of skin.

Bryce frowned as he hunkered down inside the discreet nest of dirt and branches he had built for himself. The problem with this kind of fighting was that he had no clue about the rest of the battlefield. He had no map data or reconnaissance that would have made planning a bit easier, and while he was confident in his ability to hide himself he would eventually have to take on some real contestants.

With a sigh, he shifted himself and rose carefully from the nest, sweeping the area again with his rifle. There was no one in sight save for the scattered corpses of the Elites he'd already shot, but that didn't mean there wasn't any danger.

His eyes peeled for any signs of movement, Bryce advanced deeper into the woods.

5

"Alright," Aksel-113 said calmly. The burly Spartan had his battle rifle trained on the smaller supersoldier in front of him, but kept his finger off the trigger. "We can work this out."

"Sorry," the less imposing Spartan replied. The FOF tag flashing from his brown armor marked him as Isaac-B312. "You heard the rules. There's only one winner, and I'm not waiting around for you to shoot me in the back."

Isaac's words hung in the air, punctuated only by the trickling of the small creek at Aksel's back. The surrounding woods seemed to be listening in on their standoff. Aksel was keenly aware that it could be moments before another combatant came out of nowhere and started shooting.

"Ah, that's too bad," he said, eying the sniper rifle Isaac had pointed at his chest. "Because I don't plan on shooting anyone in the back today, or at least, not a fellow Spartan."

"I move faster on my own." Isaac's voice carried no emotion, but Aksel could practically feel the tension radiating from the SPARTAN-III. He was making up excuses, trying to justify what he was about to do. The whole thing made Aksel terribly sad. He didn't know what was worse: dying right here from a sniper bullet or dying slowly as he was forced to kill men and women that, in another time and place, he would have given his life for.

He let out a deep sight. "Alright," he murmured. "Have it your way."

Closing his eyes, he lowered his rifle. "Go ahead and shoot."

The next second stretched into an eternity, but the expected bullet never came. When, after five more seconds Aksel was still alive, he opened his eyes. Isaac had lowered his rifle and was staring at him, head cocked to the side in confusion.

"What are you doing?" the other Spartan demanded.

"I already told you, I'm not shooting another Spartan," Aksel explained patiently. "If that's what I have to do to win, then I quit."

Spartan emotional sigsn were enhanced by the armor they wore, and Aksel could see that Isaac was actually quivering. "This is a trick..." the younger Spartan said uncertainly.

Flicking the safety on, Aksel dropped the rifle and reached for his other gear. "No trick. If you want to shoot, hurry up and finish the job."

Isaac hesitated a moment longer, then sighed and slumped against a nearby tree. "This is ridiculous," he muttered.

"My point exactly." Aksel bent to retrieve his rifle. "Now, you may move faster on your own, but I like to go it slow. Mind moving at a snail's pace?"

"I thought you said you quit," Isaac said suspiciously.

"I said I wouldn't shoot Spartans," Aksel replied. "Any comrades at all, really. Not for someone's entertainment. But I've got no problem with watching someone else's back, and if that's all it takes to get you to back off you'll definitely need some protecting."

"Fine," Isaac said, defeated. "I don't suppose you know which way to go."

"Towards the shooting," Aksel replied. "Let's see if we can't save some soldiers."

6

"Please," Kenpachus rumbled. "Don't make me laugh."

He wrenched the tip of his sword out of the Sangheili's belly and kicked the dying warrior away. Two more darted down the small village's dirt road, their plasma rifles firing wildly.

Grinning with anticipation, the hulking Jiralhanae charged forward, leaving the corpses of a dozen other Sangheili lying behind him. He brought his blade up to waist height, slashing as he approached the two warriors; they fell in pieces on either side of the road.

Three more Sangheili, these garbed in dirty peasant robes, came at him from all sides, brandishing clubs and knives. It would be an insult to his sword if he dirtied its blade with scum like this. Kenpachus merely waited for their attack and, one after the other, simply snapped their necks with his open hand.

It had been like this for the past hour, nothing but a never-ending stream of hostile yet disgustingly incompetent Sangheili. Kenpachus had enjoyed the exercise at first, but now this was starting to get boring.

A stream of plasma fire struck his armor. Kenpachus turned in time to see another warrior charging towards him. With a shrug, he stepped forward and cut the warrior in half.

Boring this might be, but Kenpachus was alight with barely contained excitement. An entire world filled with nothing but worthy opponents? He could hardly believe his luck. Somewhere, somehow, he had died and been taken up to this glorious place, to fight on and on against whatever was thrown at him until he fell to another's superior skill or stood victorious atop a mound of bodies.

Either result worked for him.

Two more warriors emerged from the small huts around him, energy swords crackling in their hands. They moved together, coming at him with a maddening caution.

"Come," Kenpachus said, readying his blade. "I'll show you what fighting with swords is all about!"

Episode 5: Quid Pro Quo

1

Korgus paused and sniffed the air. He searched for the scent and honed in on the scent to make sure he didn't imagine it.

Yes, there it was again. It was faint, almost undetectable under the more subtle scent of metal that encased it, but he had no doubt that he had come in luck. This forest wasn't just devoid of something of interest to him after all. He knew what he had smelled, having become so familiar with it over his years of "experience".

Human.


Justin looked into the distance, very slightly to the right. Something was coming. He couldn't see it or hear it, but he could tell because the constant chirping of birds from that direction had dimmed. That usually meant there was something predatory heading this way. Whether or not it was sapient, it could be dangerous, and he was at the moment unarmed.

He looked around for somewhere to take up a position where he would have an advantage, but all that was around him were flimsy trees that wouldn't hold a Spartan and his suit of armour. I'll use what I have then, he thought, grabbing a large jagged rock off the ground.


Korgus had his Plasma Rifle held in front of him, watching for signs of the human. It wasn't moving very quickly, that was for sure. Perhaps it had set up camp somewhere in the forest. Trying to stay as quiet as he could, he continued to follow the scent, resisting the urge to rush. Patience. Soon it will be mine. It will be most satisfying to—

A sharp stone flew towards his face in a blur, striking him hard in the eye.


Justin didn't waste another second. As soon as the rock hit the Jiralhanae in the face, he dashed towards it, closing as much distance between them as possible before it recovered.

As the alien howled and pawed at its bloodied eye, it fired several shots from its Plasma Rifle. Most of the crimson bolts missed, but a few landed hits that merely took down a fraction of the Spartan's shields. He reached his enemy and gripped the weapon, careful to point the barrel away from himself. The forest echoed with the sound of the gun firing its rounds into the ground, burning away patches of grass between their feet.

The Jiralhanae was now grappling with him, momentarily ignoring its injury. It was much stronger than him, and was slowly causing the Plasma Rifle to slip out of Justin's grip. It opened its mouth and roared in his face.

The Spartan took one hand off the gun and forced his opponent's fingers down on its trigger, while pointing it upward. Bolt after bolt rapidly discharged into the sky. He watched the overheat metre slowly increase as he kept both their hands on the weapon. Just a little more...

The Plasma Rifle stopped firing as it shook and vented crimson steam. Reacting quickly, He pressed the barrel of the gun into the Jiralhanae's hand, who roared as the deadly vapours burned its unprotected palm. Instinctively it let go of the weapon, and in that split second, Justin snatched the alien's Mauler off its side and jammed the bayonet into its already wounded eye.

Its roar was abrupted cut off as the metal blade entered its brain, and it fell back onto the ground, still. Panting, Justin relieved the dead Brute of its Plasma Rifle, and yanked its Mauler out of its head, placing it on his armour's magnetic hip holder after a quick wipe. He decided to take its spiky grenades as well as its long, curved combat knife.

It's a start, the Spartan thought, resuming his leisurely pace, now with a weapon in his hands and just a hint of satisfaction.

2

The shotgun went off, blasting the Grunt's head apart and bowling over the Jackal behind it. Matt-075 knocked the dead aliens aside and planted his weapon square in the midriff of the blue-armored Elite who had been crossing the rocky stream with them. The split-jawed warrior didn't even have time to cry out before the next shotgun blast tore his abdomen apart.

Thumbing more shells into his weapon, Matt gritted his teeth and scanned the area. Five more Grunts were wading towards him through the stream, firing scattered plasma shots from their pistols as they came. Two Jackals, shields locked into a tight formation, covered a second Elite at the other end of the stream. The Elite glowered at Matt from behind the formation and raised its plasma rifle threateningly.

This wasn't good at all. What had started as a passing ambush of a trio of Grunts had turned into a full-scale battle. It seemed that every Covenant soldier in the area had come dashing through the woods to take him on.

Matt's shields took several hits and warning alarms flashed inside his helmet. He reached down for his grenades; he hadn't wanted to use them against small-fry like this, but there didn't seem to be much of a choice.

With a snarl, the Elite primed a plasma grenade and cocked its arm back to throw. Out of the corner of his eye, Matt saw two of the oncoming Grunts do the same.

A terrific clattering split the air. The Elite's shields flared and died as heavy rounds tore it to shreds. The active plasma grenade slipped from its limp fingers. The Jackals didn't have time to notice before it blasted them apart.

Matt spun to see the source of the gunfire. A slim Spartan in dark, uneven armor was crouched on a rock just above him, a large machine gun held up in a firing position. Adjusting her aim, she pumped a trio of bursts into the Grunts, sending their corpses floating down the stream.

"Look like you could use a hand," she commented, sweeping the area for more targets. "And don't give me any of this last-one-standing crap. You won't get anywhere out here without backup."

"I wasn't going to," Matt replied, lowering his shotgun. "Thanks for the assist."

"Don't mention it." The other Spartan looked around, clearly not satisfied that the coast was clear. "What's with the Helljumper getup?"

Matt tapped the ODST helmet integrated into his MJOLNIR armor. "I'm an honorary ODST," he said proudly. "SPARTAN-075. Matt."

The Spartan shrugged. "Never heard of anything like that, but there's plenty of crazy to go around out here. I'm Evie-D2541."

Matt blinked behind his helmet. "What was your tag again?"

"D2541. SPARTAN-III, Delta Company. What's the deal?"

"Never heard of anything like that, but there's plenty of crazy to go around here."

She cocked her head. "Smartass, huh? And I thought you IIs didn't have a sense of humor."

Evie brought the machine gun up again. "Anyway, we can swap stories later. Watch my back, we're heading out."

Matt readied his shotgun. "Heading out to where?"

She leapt off the rock and landed in the stream with a splash. "I don't know, whichever way gets us out of here. Just get your boots ready to kick some ass."

3

Brandon Smith fumed as he trudged over the rocky mesa, weapon raised even though he hadn't spotted anything bigger than a spider for the last few hours.

Normally these kinds of situations wouldn't have annoyed him. Sometimes he even enjoyed these long, solitary treks on missions. But that usually meant he had some sort of objective. But he didn't appreciate being zapped into the middle of nowhere, looking for someone to kill for the entertainment of...of a bunch of teenagers!

Who was that LOMI guy? Or that other kid, the one that sent us all here? If I ever get my hands on that one...

What annoyed him the most was that he just didn't understand how something like this could have happened. He was no prodigy or ONI spook, but in his long years of service in the Marine Corps and SPARTAN-IV program alike, he had never been in a situation where he was completely unable to figure out what he was supposed to do. Obviously, to kill the other participants was the "objective" given to him by the teenagers, but to hell with them. The only people that decided something for him was himself or a ranking officer. He wasn't going to kill so much as a fly for these kids' entertainment.

He took a few calming breaths to focus his thoughts. Right. I'll treat this as a mission for now and just try to stay alive. Maybe he didn't like the idea of killing without reason, but the others probably didn't think that. And he wasn't going to lay down his arms and let them beat him out of sheer stubbornness. I'll find some allies. And I'll try to find a way out of this. There has to be some way I can get into space, get out of here. He didn't entirely believe it, remembering how the unnamed adolescent had held them still and teleported them to this planet's surface, but he kept his mind on his objective.

Frustration forgotten, he moved for the landmark with a steely determination.

4

Coney did a thorough scan to make sure the lone human approaching was indeed alone. You never knew if he was laying some type of trap. She adjusted the main screen camera to focus on the human, who was now examining Basch's body.

Activating the facility's external loudspeakers, she spoke into the microphone. "Get in here, Marine. Double time."

The human looked up in surprise, and immediately raised his assault rifle, sweeping in the general direction where the sound came from.

She sighed. Her patience running short after spending hours alone operating an unidentified UNSC facility, she said sharply, "Enough with the theatrics, Marine. Get your ass into the facility." She pressed a button that opened the door closest to him. He stared at it for a moment before walking in, weapon raised. She locked the door behind him, grabbed her M6D off the nearby pedestal, and swiftly left the operations centre to meet him.

They met on opposite ends of a long hallway, and both of them paused. He didn't aim his gun at her, though. "Who are you?" he called.

"Erin Coney," she said. "You?"

"Roy Koel. You alone in here, Coney?"

"Unfortunately. Mind joining me?"

"I suppose not." Rifle pointed at the ground but still grasped firmly in both hands, Koel cautiously walked across the hallway towards her.

"So what are you doing here?" he asked as they made their way across the facility.

"Been keeping an eye out for UNSC forces. You're the first one I found."

"Lucky me. What about that Spartan?"

"Already dead when I got here. I'm guessing it took on something really powerful."

"So you decided to hide in here."

Coney bristled. "I'm not hiding, Marine. I can look after myself just fine. I'm actually trying to find a way off this planet, which in my opinion is smarter than going out there and joining the shooting contest."

"Okay. Any luck with that?"

"Well, I'm still here, aren't I?"

Koel gave a short humourless laugh as they stepped into the operations centre. "Looks like we're going to along fine, Coney."

5

Robson had reached the edge of the forest. He debated whether or not to break from the cover of trees and head out into the mountains. It would be a challenging climb, but at least he wouldn't have to stay on the alert all the time for enemies lurking in the trees.

Stay here. Your first priority is to survive. He had heard that voice inside his head many times throughout his career, and while it hadn't always told him to put his own safety first, he had learned to trust it well. He turned around and lacking a combat knife, pulled out his M6C/SOCOM, his quietest weapon. He aimed it at a nearby tree trunk to mark it, when he saw a blur in the air moving towards him.

He didn't even blink twice. He recognized a camouflaged enemy when he saw it, and opened fire with the gun in his hand, the silenced M6C. Immediately, the enemy's energy shield lit up from the gunshots, outlining the silhouette of a Sangheili and compromising its invisibility. Robson emptied his magazine into the alien, but the handgun's rounds failed to destroy its shields. Without thinking, he grabbed the first object on his hip—a flashbang grenade—and pulled the pin.

The explosive detonated, turning the forest into a field of white, and all he heard was a ringing sound. His vision began to recover immediately, but he couldn't spot his assailant. Deciding not to take his chances, Robson ran into the forest in a random direction, hoping the Sangheili's hearing was still impaired enough so he couldn't hear his footfalls.

He didn't know how long he ran, but he stopped after hearing no sign of pursuit. He knew it was still possible that the Elite was after him, but it wouldn't do for him to be making so much noise and alerting anyone else in this forest. The Marine reloaded his magnum and slipped it back into his waist holster before pulling out his Needle Rifle.

"You're sure in a hurry, Marine."

He looked up in surprise and saw a Spartan stepping into view from behind a thick tree. He was armed with a sniper rifle but kept it aimed at the ground.

"Someone after you?" the supersoldier asked casually, as if inquiring about the time of day.

"Yeah," Robson said. "Camouflaged Elite. Not sure if he's following me."

The Spartan flicked the safety off his rifle. "Really. Well, I think I'll teach him a lesson. I'm Bryce, by the way. SPARTAN-073."

"Michael Robson. And I was hoping to get out of this forest. It's getting tiring trying to stay alive in here."

"I like it just fine. If you stick with me, you won't have to worry about getting killed. Besides, I've already taken care of some of the bastards. If you kept running you would have found their bodies." He pulled a familiar-looking gun off his back. "By the way, Robson, is this yours?"

"That's my assault rifle," the Marine said in amazement as Bryce held the M28A1 out to him. He propped the Needle Rifle against a tree and accepted the weapon, looking it over.

"I found it tangled in some branches a while back. It was a bit busted up, but I fixed it."

Robson confirmed that the chamber was full, and hefted the gun, glad that he hadn't discarded his extra magazines. "Well, thanks."

"Don't mention it. Now how about we go find that Elite?"


Shinsu was irritated by how badly the potential fight had gone. My first opportunity to defeat an actual opponent, and it goes wrong because of my blunder. He had prided himself on his ability to move unnoticed while camouflaged, one of many skills he had honed in his training. When the human had somehow spotted him and pointed its pistol at him, he had been forced to rush it.

He had been shot a dozen times too, and although his energy shields held, the human had surprised him a second time with its incapacitating explosive that both blinded and deafened him long enough for it get away. I was too careless. That will not happen again. Cannot happen again, not in a world where survival is everything.

He was just getting ready to begin tracking the humans when he heard voices. They were far off, but he recognized them to be humans. Activating his camouflage, he carefully followed the sound.

He stood still when he spotted them. There were two humans. One was a Spartan, the other a black-armoured Marine. Neither was the one that had gotten away, as they were both armed with dissimilar long-barrelled rifles.

Shinsu silently readied his Energy sword. This time he would not fail. The humans were armed with sniper weapons, and would be at a disadvantage. Once he got close enough, he would be able to dispose of them before either of them could reach their sidearms.

6

They never saw it coming.

Raphael had just slipped behind Kane, hefting his Javelin to scan the woods around them. The imposing Spartan slowed to do the same, and in that instant a shimmer passed between them.

The ODST turned at the sound of a sudden hissing noise, like an angry predator, behind him. He cried out in alarm as a dark-armored Elite flashed into sight before him. One arm was wrapped around Kane's neck, restraining him as the other plunged an energy sword through his back.

Raphael tried to bring his own rifle to bear, but the Elite kicked him back with a jerk of its foot. He tumbled into a tree, the sniper rifle slipping from his grasp as he collapsed on the forest floor.

But Shinsu had underestimated the durability of his Spartan opponent. With a gurgling cry, Kane whirled and clamped an armored fist down on his attacker's sword arm. As the energy sword continued to burn a hole through his body, he lashed out at Shinsu with a series of lighting-fast punches that flared against the Elite's shields. Shinsu bore the attack without a sound, grappling with Kane only for a moment before drawing back, wrenching out of Kane's grasp and tearing the sword out his side.

Kane gasped in agony. He clamped one arm down on his injured side as blood seeped down his armor. His sniper rifle lay at his feet; there was no time to pick it up. Gritting his teeth against the pain, Kane reached down for his sidearm.

It wasn't there.

The Spartan's gaze shot back to Shinsu in time to see the Elite bring an M6 pistol--the one he had stolen from Kane's side during their brief melee--to bear. A heavy crack split the woods.

As Kane's corpse crashed to the ground, Shinsu heard a faint rustling from off to the side. He snapped his head around in time to see Raphael, Javelin in hand, struggling to take a bead on him.

Shinsu darted to the side just as the dazed ODST pulled the trigger. The Elite renegade jerked as his shields collapsed, torn away entirely in the wake of the tungsten slug. Kane's pistol was ripped from his grasp as the high velocity round clipped and shattered it.

Raphael swore and braced to fire again, but it was already too late. Shinsu's blade flashed once, and the ODST's arms--still gripping the heavy rifle--flew off into the bushes. Raphael screamed as blood gushed from his severed stumps, and then fell silent as Shinsu buried the sword in his helmeted head.

Shinsu deactivated his blade as his shields recharged. Two miscalculations this time, he realized. The Spartan had lasted longer than he'd anticipated and he'd forgotten to keep his companion in mind during the struggle. He would need to withdraw for now, find someplace away from the fray and get his mind in order. He couldn't afford any further mistakes.

His dark armor shimmered and disappeared as his active camouflage returned. In a moment the bloodied patch of forest was empty again, save for the corpses Shinsu had left in his wake.

Episode 6: Manual Override

1

Eirikur Quinn knew he shouldn't be hovering in the open air like this, but up here, the Covenant on the ground had no way of reaching him, and they made easy targets for him. Besides, he didn't think any of the other participants had jetpacks.

The aliens below him were armed with only close-range plasma weapons, and their energy bolts flew past him by a wide margin. In retaliation, the ODST fired shot after shot from his M392 Marksman's Rifle, dropping the Grunts without difficulty and reloading at ease.

The Jackals and Elites were proving a little trickier to take out with their energy shields, but he had salvaged a round dozen fragmentation grenades off some dead Marines earlier, and now he tossed them down at the enemies, marvelling at how far the explosives could fly from this altitude. He watched in satisfaction as groups of aliens disappeared in a flash and a spurt of blood seconds after every throw.

There were only about ten of them left, so the ODST descended from his height a bit, using another half magazine on the last of the Unggoy and one Kig-yar that was too slow to bring its shield up. He was switching over to his MA5C when he saw something out of the corner of his eye.

He looked up and spotted a speck in the sky, rapidly getting closer. He couldn't tell what it was from this distance, nor did he intend on finding out until he was safely out of sight. Quickly bringing himself down to the ground, he held his assault rifle ready, knowing that the remaining Covenant soldiers were still somewhere nearby.

He was not wrong. A trio of Kig-yar spotted him, but hadn't managed to loose more than a couple of shots before another well-placed grenade wiped them out. That left just the Elite, who was now dodging between trees and taking pot shots at him. Quinn stumbled back half a step as a blue plasma bolt caught him in the midsection, searing his armour. He fired back in sustained bursts, expertly leading his target as it dashed diagonally and closing the distance. He took down its shields just as the ammo counter on his rifle read zero.

The ODST reached for his DMR again, and two more plasma bolts hit him; one in the shoulder and one in the side. The first round burned through to skin, and he gasped in pain but fought to keep his aim steady and fired five shots at his opponent. The first two were unsteady and missed, but the other three entered the Sangheili's torso, killing the alien instantly.

Quinn checked his armour and saw that it was partially breached by the plasma bolts but was still otherwise perfectly functional. He reloaded both his weapons, wincing every time he moved his injured shoulder. He didn't usually carry a medical kit, but always had a canister of biofoam with him on missions. This time, however, he had nothing of the sort.

Damn. I need to get some medical supplies. But where am I going to find some?

His thoughts were interrupted as a Sabre fighter screamed over his position, the sound of its engines fading as it flew off just as quickly. A starfighter, in atmosphere? I guess nothing's too weird here. He walked off in the opposite direction of the Sabre, his gun gripped tightly with one shoulder tensed.

2

After what seemed like an eternity, Sigurd had escaped the Flood and put enough distance on foot so they couldn't catch up to him. He had left behind the falls and was now approaching what looked like an ancient village.

He couldn't deny that the effort of his escape shook him, Delta Company SPARTAN-III or not. He sorely wished that the rest of Hydra Team were here to watch his back. He couldn't take much more of this on his own.

Then two Medusa missiles landed three feet on either side of him, instantly vaporizing the supersoldier and lighting the ground around him on fire.


Jack grinned in malicious satisfaction as he watched the Spartan disappeared in the twin explosions before he angled his Sabre parallel to the ground again. That one had been making a long panicked sprint and had made himself too easy to detect. I wish that could have been you, Marco.

A screen beeped. He checked it and saw that there was another heat signature nearby, moving away from the village. Turning the Sabre around, the former Spartan readied the starfighter's weapons. This will be far too easy.


Ro'nin cursed when he saw the starfighter turn and start flying towards him. He knew he should have been more careful, but he had just managed to make it out of the Sangheili village and was putting some distance between it and himself in case the civilians were tempted to pursue him. But now it looked like he had bigger problems.

A deadly spray of bullets flashed by him, tearing holes in the tree cover he had just entered. He pressed himself flat against a thick trunk, and he checked himself over to see if there was anything he could use to retaliate. Nothing. All he had was his plasma repeater and his energy sword. Not so much as a grenade to throw at the starfighter. How was he going to—

The mercenary was thrown off his feet as something exploded ten feet away, his energy shields flaring and draining as the force tossed him through the air. This was no good, that ship obviously had sensors to know where he was even though he was in cover. The trees weren't even very close together, so his adversary might even be able to see him. Quickly picking himself up, he ran around the trees, knowing it was futile to give the starfighter pilot the slip but refusing to stand still and wait to be shot.

More bullets sprayed the ground behind him, a few hitting him and rapidly chipping away his shields. This is no good, he thought, more frustrated than scared. Whoever is controlling the ship will shoot me to bits before I even run out of breath.

He felt heat on his back, and was thrown forward again as two missiles impacted on the trees he had just run past, blowing them apart and starting a fire in the cluster of trees. His shields well and fully drained now, Ro'nin struggled to pick himself up and keep moving.

He paused. He couldn't believe what he was hearing, but it sounded like the starfighter had turned around. His suspicious nature getting the better of his relief, he looked around, wondering what had happened.

Then he heard a whistling sound above him. He looked up and saw a single small pod dropping through the air towards him. He just stared at it, wondering if it was some kind of deadly missile. If it was, it was already too late to run.

The pod landed five paces away, digging into the earth with a surprisingly quiet thud. It didn't dig very deep into the ground, or even sprayed dirt around, both of which were odd considering how fast it was falling.

He cautiously approached it. It was solid black and capsule-shaped, and there was a rectangular panel on the side. A single blue light blinked on top. Slowly, he reached out and touched it. Instantly, the panel flew off the pod, nearly whacking him in the stomach.

Inside was a human-made device and a white slip of paper. He took both, reading the paper first. There were two words, written in ink in his native language. "Look up."

Ro'nin complied, and realized that the starfighter was coming back now that the danger had apparently passed. The mercenary examined the device in his other hand more closely, and realized it was a detonator. Checking the inbound ship one more time to make sure it was far enough away, he pressed the single button.


Jack froze when he heard the Antilon mine stowed behind his seat beep. He frantically thumbed the emergency release, and was reaching for the eject button when the explosive detonated, consuming the Sabre in a fireball in the blink of an eye.


Ro'nin slumped back against the nearest tree, watching as the conflagration in the sky settled and bits of the starfighter's scraps rained down around him. He knew he was letting his guard down, but he didn't care very much at the moment. He looked skyward, wondering who had sent him the detonator.

"That was certainly entertaining."

He stiffened at the sound of the voice. A massive Jiralhanae face appeared over him, looking down at him with a grin.

"Kenpachus," he said. "What are you doing here?"

"The same thing you are," his partner said, easily helping him to his feet. "Searching for worthy opponents to kill."

"I guessed you would find this enjoyable," Ro'nin said. He paused. "You just happened to find me now?"

"No, I have been watching for a while. From a safe location, of course."

"And if I had been killed?"

Kenpachus shrugged. "Then your life would have been claimed by someone else, not me. Not that I intend on taking you on until the time comes, of course."

Ro'nin gave a scornful huff as he retrieved his plasma repeater. "Sometimes I really cannot stand you."

3

Matt kicked an Elite's corpse--his shotgun's latest victim--out of the way and nodded to Evie, who darted past him. Her machine gun swept the forest ahead of them, ready to cut down anything hostile that flashed into sight.

"Still no one but these Covies," Matt commented. "Where are the other contestants?"

"We're bound to run into them sooner or later," Evie replied, taking a moment to rest against a tree. "And the longer we take to find them, the less of them we'll have to deal with."

"What about other Spartans? Other humans?" Matt asked. "Shouldn't we be worried about them?"

"Worry about yourself right now," Evie advised. "We can cross that bridge when we come to it."

Matt frowned inside his helmet. He wasn't sure he liked being treated as a subordinate by a younger woman from a later generation of Spartans--a generation he hadn't even heard of. He had no idea where she came from, but there was a question burning a hole in his brain that he needed to get out now.

"Before we go any further," he said, slipping a shell into his shotgun. "I need to know one thing."

Evie looked up. "Yeah?"

"Did we win?" Matt asked. He felt crazy asking it, but this whole situation was crazy. "Was it all worth it?"

Evie studied him for a moment before nodding slowly. "Yeah, we won. Humanity survived. Is that all?"

Matt nodded, sighing with relief. Yes, that was all he needed to know. The details weren't important, but all the friends he'd lost could rest easy now. Their sacrifices hadn't been in vain.

"Good." Evie straightened and prepared to move on. "Is it just me, or is this place getting colder?"

Matt looked around. She was right: his armor's temperature settings were reading a much colder environment than they had been a few minutes ago and there seemed to be frost gathering on the trees around them.

"Great," Evie muttered. "As if this place wasn't crazy enough already."

"Let's keep moving," Matt suggested. "See if we can't get out of this forest."

Together, they moved away, the frozen ground crunching beneath their armored feet.

4

The Grunt's head trembled against the battle rifle's sights as Joshua-G024 dispassionately took aim and slid his finger over the trigger. Adrenaline was pumping through his veins, adrenaline from the dozen other Covenant he had left dead on the rocky beach behind him. This Grunt, idly making its way up towards a thicket of palm trees, was his latest target.

But not, he knew, the last.

Joshua pulled the trigger and the Grunt slumped like a puppet with its strings cut.

Scrambling up the side of the rock he'd been using for cover, Joshua scanned the area with his battle rifle. There was no one in sight save for the dead Covenant. He was alone on the beach, with only the sound of the gently crashing surf for company.

Still perched on the rock, he did a quick scan of the radio channels inside his helmet. Nothing but static, for now, but he would keep checking nonetheless. He wouldn't pass up the chance to link up with some friendly forces, but he would also need to be wary of traps set by the other contestants.

The Spartan-III shook his head as he climbed down from the rock. He could handle taking missions by himself, but this was different. There was no backup waiting for him, no mission objective to pursue here. There was only survival, kill or be killed, and that made Joshua tenser than a regular mission ever could.

He needed someone to watch his back. He needed Amy.

But there was no sign of his teammate, and Joshua couldn't waste any time looking for someone who might not even exist in this strange world. He'd been on the beach for hours and he hadn't seen anyone besides the simple minded Covenant patrols.

He looked up at the palm forest the last Grunt had been heading for. Right now, he had the advantage of having the ocean at his back. As long as the other contestants didn't have access to dropships or fighter craft, he wouldn't be easily attacked from that direction. But the only defensive positions the beach could offer were the rocks, and he couldn't dig in and defend them by himself.

To stay would be risky, but so would moving further inland. Moving would make him easier to ambush, but he would also have the chance to link up with fellow soldiers, possibly even more Spartans.

Josh frowned. He was tempted to simply dig a foxhole in the sand and wait things out, but he still had no idea as to how this world worked. For all he knew, the tide might rise and flood the entire area. If that happened, he'd be completely exposed as he swam for his life.

He straightened, his decision made. He would press on into the palm forest and try to find out more about this strange place. Marking the beach in his HUD's map, he jogged up past the dead Grunt and towards the palm trees, conscious that one false move out there could be his last.

5

The snow-covered ground crunched beneath Demolyn's feet, heavy on his ears in the thick silence. For several hours now, Demolyn had made his way up into the mountains, searching for some sign of civilization, to no avail. It had now been over an hour since he had seen any forms of life, and aside from his own breathing and footfalls, the snowy forests of the mountains were oddly silenced.

Did I die and not realize it? he wondered. If this is the afterlife, then it truly is a place for wandering souls. This land, while lush, is emptier than a sepulcher.

As if in tune to his thoughts, Demolyn suddenly caught a noise on the breeze, a low growl or bark. At first he dismissed it, thinking perhaps his mind was playing tricks on him in this solitude, but when the sound came again, Demolyn gripped his Auxiliary Rifle-I slightly tighter. Moving in the general direction that the increasing sounds were coming from, the Vanguard warrior stayed defensive, being careful to not walk into a potential ambush.

However, as he crawled over a rise, Demolyn found the source of the noises: a small camp of Jiralhanae, resting around a fire and feasting on some something that was roasting over the fire. Despite the possibility that these hunters had simply caught a creature wandering the woods, Demolyn knew that the speared meat was, more likely than not, once a sentient, perhaps a Human or Sangheili. Resisting his urge to upchuck, Demolyn began to withdraw, hoping to leave without the primates noticing.

However, chance was not on the Voren's side. The wind changed suddenly, and with it Demolyn's scent drifted right into the Jiralhanae's nostrils. Alarmed, they turned to face Demolyn, and with a roar, the Brutes grabbed their weapons and charged. Demolyn, for his part, reacted quickly: diving backwards, he opened fire with his rifle, firing semi-auto bursts into the two lead Jiralhanae, penetrating their armor in multiple places. They both crumpled to the ground, one on his knees in pain, the other dead from a head wound.

Lacking the needed time to reload, Demolyn pulled out his Personal Defense System-VI and his Specialist Melee Weapon-II, brandishing both weapons with the skill that came with years of serving in CivSec and the Vanguards. Firing at the remaining half dozen warriors with the VI-model pistol, Demolyn managed to wound a warrior and kill another before the hoard was upon him, hacking and slashing with their tools of war. Fleetingly, Demolyn noticed that the Jiralhanae's weapons seemed very crude, more so than normal for them, but the thought passed quickly in the heat of the battle.

Adrenaline rushed through his veins, Demolyn parried a blow with him VI pistol, then stepped back and swung with his vibro-blade, cutting deep through the brute's mid-riff. Dodging a new assailant's blow, he swung again, stunning the Jiralhanae long enough to shoot him through the skull through the chin. Brandishing his blade, Demolyn whirled through two opponents, literally disarming one and decapitating the other before shooting a third, one of the earlier casualties.

The last three Jiralhanae charged, the one with missing limbs rushing forward in a reckless, headlong death run. Sidestepping at the last moment, Demolyn stabbed this foe through the back, then shot at the other two, hitting one in the shoulder as the other rolled sideways. Holding back to read their attacks, Demolyn noticed the one still standing twitch, and the Voren fired two shots, emptying his magazine. Without thinking, Demolyn rushed at the Jiralhanae with his sword drawn, but even as he moved for the kill, he heard the other warrior draw a new weapon.

Demolyn glanced sideways, and attempted to dodge as a pair of throwing knives flew past his body, aimed for where his head had been. However, as he dodged, his first foe slammed an uppercut into Demolyn, sending him flying through the air. Demolyn tried to rise, but he found his whole body badly wounded, with his right arm feeling broken in multiple places. As the two Jiralhanae stalked towards him, Demolyn focused, trying to fight through the pain and raise himself up: succeeding to an extent, Demolyn struggled his way into a sitting position, and watched the approaching Brutes.

The Vanguard warrior tried to think of an escape, but his mind was numb, his vision somewhat blurry. May the Ancestors watch over me, he prayed. Both his weapons lay far out of reach at the edge of camp, leaving Demolyn without anything to defend himself. The light of the fire flickered off the Jiralhanae's blood-stained coats as they approaching, glistening in the dusky light.

A thought struck Demolyn, a crazy idea with no reason behind it besides the wish to survive. Watching his opponents, Demolyn fought to focus his mind so that he might judge their distance and speed. Deciding that he only had one shot, Demolyn forced himself to jumped backward, fighting through the pain that raged through his mind as he dashed for the campfire. Icy fire raged through his veins, but Demolyn ignored it and simply focused on outrunning his pursuers.

Then, just as his foes closed in, Demolyn ducked and cut short, causing them to overshoot him and fall to the far side of the fire. Reaching down into the fire, Demolyn grabbed a log from the fire: thicker than his arm, the Voren rushed forward and smashed the log against one Brute's head. Injured and disoriented, the Jiralhanae flailed, but Demolyn ducked and then struck again, smashing in his foe's skull. As one fell, the other closed in, and Demolyn spun around, kicking the Jiralhanae before repeating the bludgeoning on this second foe. With somewhat greater difficulty, and a slowing speed, Demolyn at last defeated this foe as well.

The body thudded to the ground, his blood oozing out into the snow with that of his comrades. Demolyn released his breath, and then dropped the log before he fell to his knees. Ancestors... protect me... he thought, his vision blurring. The pain and loss of blood from his arm was beginning to effect him, and though he tried to fight through it, Demolyn knew he would soon pass out. And then, with a sideways slump, Demolyn fell unconscious, and silence engulfed the mountains again.

6

Riker gripped his Assault Rifle slightly tighter as he descended cautiously into OUTPOST. He steps were slow, not for any lack of knowledge on where to go, but out of worry that this was some sort of trap. At first, Riker had felt somewhat calmed by the knowledge that he was now in OUTPOST Base, given he knew it's layout; but now, a new thought had struck him that worried him. How was OUTPOST still standing? When last he had been here, the base had been falling apart from the Covenant's orbital bombardment, and even given the years it had been since then, to recreate the entire base seemed odd.

Perhaps more than that, if this was OUTPOST, why did the surface not look like Coral? There were numerous questions now pushing into Riker's brain, but he pushed them aside and kept moving through the facility. He tried to open a COM again, knowing that the facility's command wing was near, and if he could get there, he could -

Riker froze as his motion tracker pinged. One red dot, 15 meters. Two. Five, closing distance. Riker back-pedaled, dove into another tunnel, but the group of hostiles were still approaching. Whatever they were, Riker figured they had found him just like the ones outside, and were following him one way or another now.

Losing time, Riker ducked into a room, and took cover. Now it was time to show what Spartans were made of.


Andrew-306 rolled to the side as more plasma bolts flew past him. He had pretty much no clue where he was, only that he had awoke in a UNSC base, standing on his feet, weapons at the ready, and a Covenant task force closing in on him from 20 meters away. Needless to say, the adrenaline rush had made sure he was ready to move immediately.

Andrew opened fire with his Battle Rifle, blowing through several Grunts heads as he rushed forward, brains spewing everywhere. Punching a Jackal that refused to move while trying to dent his shields with an underpowered Plasma Pistol; the Jackal flew backwards from the blow, bowling through several others as Andrew continued his march towards the oncoming group.

Ripping an energy shield from a dying Jackal's arm, Andrew activated it and threw it towards his opponents, cutting off a Jackal's head before embedding in a Grunt behind him. In that brief moment, Andrew armed a fragmentation grenade, throwing it into the group and blasting open a hole, allowing him to charge through a tumble into another room.


Sepia-G330 dropped another flashbang and finished plugging another canister into her NA4 Flamethrower. Emerging from her cover, she briefly sprayed the hallway before her, hearing the satisfying cries of anguish as her foes were consumed with the fire. Turning and fleeing further down the hall, Sepia was unsurprised when a contingent of Grunts tried to block her path. Pulling out a Combat Knife, she rushed through them, stabbing the first before somersaulting over him and landing kicks on the second and third.

With a flash, Sepia was down the hall, rounding a corner with her Grenade Launcher in hand. A small lance tried to attack from a side corridor as she dash forward, but she expertly launcher a single shell, ending their threat swiftly. The end of the hallway was in sight, and with a quick glance to note whether it was possible or not, Sepia smashed her way through.

Rolling as she fell, Sepia rose to a crouched stance facing her entrance. Noting the distance her pursuers, she unloaded another Grenade Launcher shell into the group, then turned to run.

Only to find herself surrounded by the bulk of the taskforce.


The vehicle hangar was large, and connected to several outside platforms arranged along the cliff-face. Aiming through his sniper rifle's scope, Riker surveyed the situation as the entire Covenant taskforce entered and prepared to search out and destroy the Spartan. Riker was preparing to detonate several of his C4 charges when things became more complicated.

From the side, one of the doors smashed open, revealing another Spartan crouched in the opposite direction of the taskforce. As she spun around, this Spartan and the taskforce became fully aware of each other, and Riker was forced into a split second decision: hide and deal with the Covenant later, or reveal himself by saving the newcomer.

The choice was obvious.

With expert aim honed by years of practice, Riker fired off four shots from his rifle, cracking through numerous skulls and bodies in a matter of seconds. Jumping from his perch in the ceiling support, Riker crashed down and landed on top of two Jackals, using their shields to form a landing pad before pushing off them and slamming into an Elite.

“Switch!” Riker yelled. The Spartan knew what to do. The sniper rifle and flamethrower traveled over several heads and returned to owners who immediately set them to work. Flamethrower in hand, Riker spat torrents upon the Elite, breaking his shield and burning him to death within a few short seconds. Sepia, meanwhile, covered him with the sniper rifle, including some well placed melees.

Making a dash and a signal, Riker charged into the group, blowing through them while returning the flamethrower. Pulling out his pistols, Riker threw one to Sepia while popping through several Grunt and Jackal skulls, while Sepia caught it mid-air, coming down on top of a Grunt and kick-bashing another so that it knocked back the surrounding crowd.

Spraying his Assault Rifle up the front of an Elite before stabbing it through the skull, Riker pushed forward through the thinning crowd, headed for the nearby Warthogs. For a moment, he was forced to pause as even more of a commotion arose from in front of them, but it soon revealed yet another Spartan.

The three Spartans charged together now, working as a unit through unspoken consent and commands. Dancing around foes, attacking in sequence, trading weapons on the fly: the Spartans knew how to work together as if they had all trained together and worked together for years. With the Warthogs near, Sepia dropped a flashbang behind the trio, allowing her to not only toss Andrew her grenade launcher to cover their front, but to use her flamethrower against their pursuers.

A lumbering roar accompanied by clinking turned the Spartans attention to their forward right, where two Hunters neared. Riker signaled for Sepia to move towards the Warthogs, which she did, while he and Andrew diverted to deal with the Hunter pair. Andrew moved in first, attacking with his Assault Rifle as a distraction while Riker somersaulted over the first Hunter and landed behind the second, knocking two Elites heads together and killing them before he unloaded his Magnums into the Hunters rear weak point.

With one falling to the ground, Riker and Andrew circled the second, and as it struck with its shield, they whirled behind it. However, enraged by its partner's death, this Hunter tried to fire its cannon at point blank range: dodging sideways, Andrew barely escaped the shot, which incinerated a half dozen Grunts behind him. However, rolling beneath the Hunter's shield, Andrew sprayed into the small gap on the Hunter's midriff, while Riker attacked the more obvious rear weak point.

The pair of Hunters both downed, the Covenant closed in, sending the duo back to the defensive. However, with the engine roaring, Sepia quickly charged through the Covenant and cut out an escape route: jumping onto the passing vehicle, Riker and Andrew took up their positions in the gunner and passenger seats, the former firing with the chaingun and the latter with Sepia's grenade launcher.

The Warthog barreled down the outer pathways of the base, moving quickly to escape pursuit. Thinking it safe, Sepia momentarily allowed herself to think about the situation. Looking at her compatriots, she stated, “Sepia-G330. You two?”

Riker almost answered, then signaled Sepia to watch the road. Sepia turned around quickly, noting that the corner they were taking ended in a massive gap in the bridge in almost a few dozen feet. Stomping the brake to the floor, the Warthog refused to pull to a stop, sending the group tumbling downward. The vehicle smashed once, twice, and then a third time off the cliff-faces before coming to a final, destructive stop at the bottom of the valley.

Riker picked himself up with some slight difficulty, then helped Sepia to her feet. Riker nodded towards Andrew, then looked to Sepia. “Let's move.”

Episode 7: It's a Trap!

1

"I'm picking up movement," said Coney.

"Trouble?" asked Koel.

"I wouldn't say that." She tapped a few buttons and moved a camera display to the main screen. "Skirmisher. Looks like it's alone."

She frowned. "It's carrying a lot of weapons for a Skirmisher. It doesn't look like it'll be able to run too fast." The alien was not only holding a Type-52 Focus Rifle in its claw-like hands, but there was also a Type-31 Needle Rifle on its back and a Type-25 Plasma Pistol strapped to its side. It was approaching the facility warily.

Koel grabbed his MA5K off a nearby table. "Right. I'll go deal with that thing."

"Shouldn't we just wait here?"

"It's going to try and find a way inside, and I don't fancy playing hide-and-go-seek with any aliens today. Besides, if that thing is alone, it's a good bet it's one of the 'contestants'."

"You have a point," said Coney, standing up. "I guess I'm coming with you then."

"Nah, you stay here and watch for anything suspicious. And if this is a trap, well...at least one of us will survive it."

Against her better instincts, the officer felt a sense of gratitude towards her companion. Koel was someone she hadn't met before today, and although they were both UNSC, trust was hard-earned in this world of survival. The fact that he was willing to risk his life for her own was touching, and for some reason, gave her the feeling that they had an unexplainable connection...

The Marine walked out of the operations centre, and the doors slid shut behind him.


Cor'R-Vus knew he was taking a risk in getting so close to this facility. There could be enemies, or worse, those who considered him an enemy. There weren't a lot of people who were aware of his defection from the Covenant, or his alliance with the human Lucius Clark and his ragtag group.

Still, he couldn't stay in the open like this. At the moment, he was a little overburdened with the weapons he was carrying, but he decided it was better to hold onto them since he didn't know how much ordnance he would come across in the future. He knew that if he became a target, however, that he wouldn't be able to run at the speeds he was normally capable of.

Cor'R-Vus froze. His sharp eyes caught a flash of something in a crater outside the facility, and it was the colour of armour used by human Spartans. He slowly approached the hole, and saw to his horror the body of his friend Basch-138 laid there, his helmet half-crushed and blood leaking out of rents in his armour. Who has done this to you?

Something moved in the corner of his eye. The Kig-Yar moved fast as a burst of bullets flew past the spot he was a moment ago. An ambush. This must be the one who killed Basch. Placing both his rifles on the ground, he took his Plasma Pistol in his hand and dashed towards the human, dodging to and fro to avoid his opponent's shots. He returned fire, landing two hits on its chest. The Marine didn't seem to notice, and continued firing.

Cor'R-Vus realized too late that he had been counting on the human to falter from his shots, and he clumsily dodged yet again, avoiding the worst of the gunfire but taking a single bullet in his pectoral. He hissed in pain, resisting the urge to clutch the wound. He continued firing, and was rewarded when he saw his shots burn through the less reinforced armour in the human's side.

But the sight of the Marine's pained expression and the red blood soaking its side gave the Kig-Yar no satisfaction. He had never liked killing humans, especially not when he served the Covenant. Why was everyone an enemy in this world?

The human recovered faster than he anticipated, and now it was dangerously close. It swiftly adjusted something on its weapon, and something discharged from the underside of the gun. Still injured though, its aim was unsteady, and the shot barely missed Cor'R-Vus. He realized that it was some type of attached shotgun, and quickly closed the distance between them, smashing down on the weapon hard just as it fired again.

Half the shells from the second shot went flying into the ground between their feet. But the other half cut deep ugly lines into the human's leg, and this time, it stumbled back with a cry of pain. The Kig-Yar raised his pistol and prepared to finished it when he saw it holding a grenade in its hand. The Marine intended to die and take him with it.

He lashed out with his unarmed hand, sending the explosive flying into the sky. A second later, he felt the human's shoulder slam into his chest, knocking him backwards. He tripped over something—his Focus Rifle—and fell in a heap on top of Basch's body.

Cor'R-Vus heard something ping as it landed next to him, and unfortunately he already knew what it was...

Boom.


Koel limped away from the smouldering corpse of the Kig-Yar and the already mutilated Spartan, wincing as he wiped rivulets of blood off his thigh. It kept flowing.

"Looks like you could have used my help after all."

He turned around and saw Coney behind him. She held out an arm to support him, and helped him hobble back into the facility.

"For a Skirmisher, that one seemed pretty tough," she said as they headed towards the medical room. "And you ain't that old, Marine."

"Hey, I killed it, didn't I," Koel grunted.

"You were lucky. And you'll need more than luck to survive this." She shifted slightly to open the door to the medical room, and placed him on the nearest bed. She rummaged through the medical supplies as he began taking off his damaged armour.

"By the way," Coney said as she started disinfecting the plasma burns in his side. "While you were playing with your Kig-Yar friend, I managed to establish contact with another Marine. She's on her way here right now. Her name is Jess Morley."

He gave a start, or perhaps he just flinched from the disinfectant dabbing on his burned skin. "Jess Morley?"

"I'm guessing you know her."

"Yeah. One of the Marines I used to serve with...in Project ORION."

Coney stopped dabbing his side. "Project ORION."

"Don't tell me you've heard of it? I shouldn't have told you, I guess, but ONI classifieds mean jack shit around here..."

She absently grabbed the electronic tweezers and carefully removed the shotgun pellets embedded in Koel's leg. After almost a minute, she said quietly, "Of course I know about it. I was once part of it."

So why, she thought. Have I never heard of you? Or this Jess Morley?

2

Matt-D761 had spent eight hours on the ice shelf now and still had no idea where he was. But he had weapons and supplies, and he could shoot better than anyone in the immediate area, so it suited him fine. He wasn't happy with his predicament. But it suited him fine.

Maybe I should cover up some of those bodies, he thought, sweeping the area again tirelessly. They really stand out in the snow. And so do the blood stains.

A particularly strong gust of wind blew at him, not shifting the Spartan even an inch, but covering his BR62 Battle Rifle's right side in snow. Without looking down, he carefully wiped it off. Then again, the weather's kicking up into a storm. The bodies should be covered pretty soon.

He wondered vaguely whether the rest of Manticore Team was here. He didn't feel too exposed at the moment; there was an overhanging ice ridge over him that covered him from above as well as to the other three directions. Everything that could get a shot at him from a distance was within his field of vision, and he usually spotted the enemy before it spotted him.

Matt paused. He took aim at a speck that appeared on the horizon. No, more than one. His battle rifle didn't have a scope attached, but his helmet had one integrated that could link up with his weapon. The rifle itself had a maximum range of eight hundred metres, although it became a lot less accurate if he had to shoot that far. He usually preferred letting them move within at least 1 klick before opening fire. There had been a lot of enemies he spotted that he simply allowed to pass.

He zoomed in and spotted two Spartans being attacked by what looked like humans—pirates, mercenaries, and assorted rogues. He checked their distance, and was satisfied to see they were about six hundred metres away. Aiming his Battle Rifle, the Spartan began firing in semi-automatic mode, the most accurate setting. He had to lead since his shots took a split second to reach their targets, but was satisfied to see some of the humans clutching their necks or their arms as if out of nowhere. Careful to aim away from the Spartans, Matt emptied his first magazine and reached for another.

An ominous cracking sound from above caused him to freeze. Looking up, he saw the ice above him start to break and fall towards him. Without wasting a moment, the Spartan grabbed his gear and sprinted for the opening.

There was a whoose followed by a whump, and he felt a shockwave push him back, his feet parting with the ground as he fell into the cave. He caught a glimpse of a Jiralhanae wielding a massive hammer before the ice blocks crashed down over the exit, leaving him trapped in the dark.


Hephaestus growled in frustration as he saw the demon disappear behind the now collapsed cave. He had been so careful to sneak up from behind the ridge and not be detected; he had set the trap perfectly, laying explosives at the top and waiting next to the exit. But his attack had failed to kill the human and instead left it inside a cave-in.

This would not do. He couldn't turn his back on his prey in a game of survival. He had to move aside the rubble and finish it.

I hope you are watching, teenagers, he thought, walking up to the broken chunks of ice. Because it's not over yet. This is about to get more entertaining.

3

"Fancy finding you here, Marine."

Brandon turned around to see a Spartan step into the tavern, armoured and all in yellow metal and holding an MA5B in his hands. All eyes were drawn to him, but none of the Sangheili in the room reacted otherwise.

"Well, what can I say?" Brandon replied. "I've been on my feet for a few hours and I like to kick back now and again." He shifted his hand back to his glass, using the movement to conceal the fact that his other hand was now gripping the silenced M6C at his side, just in case the Spartan wanted a fight. It was also possible for the score of Sangheili lounging around to break out into a brawl. Either way, he wouldn't be caught unawares.

"And you picked a hangout like this?" the Spartan asked, walking up to him and casually placing one arm on the counter. "How are the refreshments?"

"Surprisingly...not that different. I didn't know these squid-heads fancied old-fashioned beer." In fact, he had never known Sangheili to have these kinds of bars at all, and not ones that so closely resembled human ones. Either something's changed with them in whatever time I'm in, or one of those teenagers has a very bad imagination.

"So what's your name, Spartan?" Brandon asked, his eyes still on the newcomer.

The Spartan hesitated for a very brief moment. "Bailey. SPARTAN-132. And for your information, I'm a Lieutenant—"

The Marine snorted. "Spare me the crap, Spartan. I'm not going to play games with you. It's not about ranks here. Just how well you can survive." He moved his gaze to where he guessed Bailey's eyes were behind his visor. "So what will it be? Are we going to fight, or do you want to try working together?"

"You won't last long in a fight against me," the Spartan said, with a clear tone of condescension. "But I have no inclination to kill Marines. Unless you give me a reason to."

Gung-ho, are we? Just my luck. Brandon took a gulp of his beer. "Whatever you say, Lieutenant. Why don't you take a seat and get yourself a drink? I don't feel like going anytime soon."

Bailey was just about to respond when there was the sound of gunfire across the street. Both UNSC servicemen turned around and saw through the tavern's doors that a Sangheili and Jiralhanae were engaging in a fight against a squad of Marines. The pair were being cornered, but they were putting up a good fight. Several of the humans fell to gunfire before the two aliens entered a ruined homestead and held their ground inside.

"Those are some of our boys," Brandon said, downing the remainder of his drink in one go.

"They look like they could use some help," said Bailey, turning for the exit. "Are you coming, or are you just going to sit around in here all night?"

The Marine grabbed his BR55 from where it was propped up against the counter. He took his helmet off the nearby chair and sealed it over his head. "I could use a bit of excitement. I can always come back later if I feel like it."

4

"Well, this is another fine mess you've gotten us into."

Kenpachus chuckled as bullets whizzed through the battered fragments of the Sangheili homestead they were using for cover. "There certainly are a lot of them, aren't there?"

Ro'nin glowered at his partner before ducking out of cover and cutting loose with his plasma repeater. A UNSC marine who had been making a run for the hovel's open doorway dropped instantly, but the kill was met with a renewed hail of gunfire. Like all the mindless drones Ro'nin had encountered, these soldiers weren't the brightest of specimens but they were dangerous in large packs. And somehow, he'd managed to get cornered by these idiots.

He put plasma blasts through the heads of two more humans as they charged the house. There had to be over a dozen of them; it was only a matter of time before they circled the house and caught him and Kenpachus in a crossfire.

"Kenpachus," he growled. "How many of these idiots can you take?"

His partner considered this, running a coarse finger down the length of his sword. "Interesting," the Jiralhanae mused. "If their aim doesn't improve, I'd say... all of them."

Ro'nin believed him. Kenpachus never exaggerated his fighting ability. "Then get out there!" he demanded. "What are you waiting for?"

Kenpachus sighed and stretched his massive arms. "I was just trying to be fair and let you have some fun first," he commented.

And then he was a blur of motion, darting through the door and into the battleground outside. Ro'nin crept around his cover in time to see his partner slash through a whole squad of surprised marines before darting out of sight. The gunfire increased, but it couldn't drown out the yells of those unfortunate enough to find themselves within reach of Kenpachus's blade.

Staying low, Ro'nin moved to the doorframe and took aim. He dropped three more humans as they rushed to take aim at Kenpachus, who was busy slashing his way through a column of advancing soldiers. For once, Ro'nin was not gratified for being right. There were more than a dozen of the humans outside. He could see their forms darting in and out of the battered homesteads, taking a moment to open fire before retreating into cover.

Ro'nin kept up the fire, killing humans every time he let plasma fly, but there was no end to these soldiers. For every one he killed, three more seemed to materialize to take his place.

His plasma repeater coughed, sputtered, and finally ran dry. Cursing, Ro'nin darted out to the nearest dead human and snatched up the dead man's assault rifle. He was practiced in wielding the primitive human weapons, and he cut down the next soldier he saw with a throaty burst.

Further up the dirt road, Kenpachus stood amidst a heap of human corpses. His sword ran red with blood, and while it seemed a few lucky shots had slipped through his armor he didn't seem to have been slowed down at all.

Snarling more curses, Ro'nin sprinted through the crossfire to reach his partner's side. As his shields flared and whined, he fired the assault rifle until it clicked empty. Flinging a pair of scavenged fragmentation grenades into the nearest building, Ro'nin scooped up two pistols from Kenpachus's carnage.

As he stood at his laughing partner's back, Ro'nin spied two new humans emerge from the outskirts of the village. These, to his dismay, were different from the other humans. One was in the black armor of an elite ODST; the other one wore yellow-tinged Spartan armor.

"Kenpachus," he called out. "I hope you haven't had your fill yet, because these two are for you."

5

Tuka 'Refum slid past a row of bushes, one hand on his energy sword's hilt in case he needed to use it quickly. It hadn't been long since he'd caught a glimpse another Sangheili in dark armor headed this way. A careful loop around had revealed the corpses of two humans, a dark-armored soldier and a heavy Spartan. It hadn't taken Tuka long to decide who had killed them.

Now he was moving in what he thought was the direction that warrior had been headed. While Tuka wasn't the least bit confident he would find an ally in someone who could cut through two elite humans, this was the first he'd seen of anyone since he arrived here. Even if this warrior was as dangerous as he seemed Tuka really saw no other option but to trail after him.

Still ready to fight back against an ambush, the young Sangheili moved carefully forwards as the forest around him thinned. A mountain loomed in the distance, and Tuka knew that would be his destination. Even if the Sangheili he had seen wasn't there, he could still use it to get a stock of this mad world he had been taken to.

---

The cave was just large enough to include a small pool of water which, after a careful tasting, turned out to be fresh. Confident that there was only one entrance, Shinsu 'Refum settled down in the center of the cave and fixed his eyes on the opening.

He had discovered the small haven after returning to the mountain he had begun this contest on. His brief descent into the forest had revealed just how unprepared he was for hunting other contestants; his skills with the blade remained as sharp as ever, but it had been a long time since he had fought in this kind of environment. If those he faced were indeed the best fighters the galaxy had to offer, it might be best if he withdrew for now and let them fight it out amongst themselves. It was a strategy he had used on a grander scale in the past, letting the players weaken themselves before moving in for the kill.

The one problem here was that he could only go for so long before a lack of food dulled his senses. He would need to find a food source up on the mountain, and he was certain he wasn't the only one foraging out here. And if someone had tracked him from the forest, he would need to fight even sooner. But he was ready for that.

More than ready.

Seated on the dirty cave floor, Shinsu kept his eyes on the entrance even as he withdrew inside his head to meditate.

6

Dyne-G217 observed the other Spartan from his perch in the palm tree. He didn't recognize him, but identified him as "Joshua-G024". Strange, since he knew the names of every Gamma Company candidate off by heart, and didn't recall a Joshua among his family. Still, a Spartan was a Spartan, and they would make a good team even if they didn't know each other. As he watched Joshua come nearer and nearer to his position, he knew he should show himself soon.

Dyne suddenly became aware of a whistling noise from above him, and looked up to see a jet-black metal pod falling through the air. No, not falling. It was being propelled, and was flying rapidly towards Joshua. "Look out!" he called.

The other Spartan looked up and spotted him, but didn't manage to reply before the pod landed in front of him, digging into the dirt effortlessly and surprisingly, quite gently.

The capsule-like pod burst open, and out fell a large, dark grey cloak. Joshua picked it up, reading the note that came with it. "Live in the shadows; remember your training - my training."

He looked up to see the other Spartan jump down from his tree and walk up to him. "Looks pretty," he said. "What is it?"

"It's a camouflage cloak," Joshua said, stowing it in his armour compartment. "And who would you be?"

"SPARTAN-G217. Call me Dyne."

"You're from Gamma Company?"

"Yeah. I know what you're thinking. No, I don't know you either. But hey, we might as well play nice."

This guy is pretty talkative, Joshua thought as he continued walking into the cluster of palm trees. The cloak he received would have come in handy, had he not just met Dyne. Not that he minded. Two Spartans always were better than one.

"So how'd you receive that pod thing? I can think of a few things I could use."

"I have no idea."

"Where are we going?"

"Don't know that either."

"Well, okay. This whole thing is crazy, isn't it? All of us stuck in this weird place. We're both Gamma Company, but we don't know each other. It's like we came from different universes or something..."

"Stay focused, Spartan," Joshua said. He wanted to treat the situation like a mission, but he didn't particularly care how much Dyne liked to talk. Then again, he wouldn't care if his companion was sniped that very moment. I'd much rather he didn't, but if he did, I can't say I would lose much sleep over it.

"Yeah, sure. I'm focused. It might not look like it, but I'm on the alert. Hey, I notice you have the same gun as me, almost. Your rifle is the heavy barrel variant, but it still uses the same ammunition as mine. How much ammo do you have? I ran into a bit of trouble earlier, so I'm a bit short..."

Episode 8: Disadvantage

1

Benjamin Janson stopped again to check on his companion. He wished he had some medical supplies on him, and not just because it would allow them to reach the distant village faster. When you entered the service, everyone who served with you was a brother or sister. A part of you. A lifeline. When he found the ODST in the cluster of trees, the trooper was already injured. He learned that the younger serviceman's name was Eirikur Quinn, but decided to leave the details until they were somewhere safe.

At least the Marine's injury didn't seem to be getting any worse. Of course, being stubborn like every Helljumper, he had insisted on moving without help. Janson was impressed that they were moving without being too slow, but they were about to break from the trees and move across a wide clearing before reaching the village. If there were any enemies lurking around nearby, there would be no way they could make it without being attacked. Still, he wasn't about to desert his injured ally.

Quinn's eyes met his from behind the depolarized visor. "Goddammit, I told you not to slow down. I'm fine." There was no venom in the remark, but his voice was tense with pain.

Janson looked over his damaged body suit. The plasma's cauterizing effect was wearing off on the ODST's wounds, and blood was now leaking from the armour. "We'll take a break before we move across the clearing. Sit against that tree."

"I'm fine," Quinn repeated.

"Take a breather. That's an order, trooper."

The Marine laughed humorlessly. "Is that how it's going to be, Lieutenant? We already agreed not to form a chain of command."

Janson ignored him and helped prop him up against the thick tree. "Normally I'd put you somewhere out of sight, then run for the village for help. But right now I don't like the idea of leaving anyone behind even for a short while."

"Well, I wouldn't mind. I can take care of myself just fine—" The trooper suddenly stiffened and grabbed the closest weapon to hand, his marksman's rifle. Janson turned around and aimed in the same general direction.

"What is it?" he said quietly.

"Something's hiding behind those bushes."

Janson didn't ask if he was sure. He slowly reached for his belt.

"Hey, it could be a friendly," Quinn murmured.

"I know. But this is to be safe." In one swift movement, he grabbed a flashbang grenade off his side, flicked off the pin with his thumb, and hurled it at the bushes. He turned away and covered his eyes.

Janson waited for the muffled explosion before running towards the bushes, knocking into a bulky armoured figure. He realized that the person he had stunned was a Spartan, and aimed his gun away from the supersoldier and helped him to his feet. "Sorry about that, Spartan. Better safe than sorry around here."

The Spartan was shaking his head. "Ow. Should have gotten the armour upgrade to filter out flashbangs, but that's expensive as—" He suddenly looked up and his hand twitched towards his weapon. "Who are you?"

"Lieutenant Benjamin Janson, UNSC Army," he said, warily noting the Spartan's involuntary movement. "You?"

The Spartan hesitated, which the officer also did not miss. "Simon-G294...SPARTAN-III program, Gamma Company."

"Where are you going, Simon?"

"I don't know. Not going anywhere, just trying to stay alive."

"Aren't we all. There's an wounded ODST with me, and we're heading for that village on the other side of the clearing. Feel free to join us."

"I suppose I should," Simon said, walking with him to Quinn. The two of them helped the Helljumper to his feet and they headed away from the cluster of trees.

As they headed towards the village, alert for signs of enemies, Janson scrutinized their new ally. There was something not quite right about this Spartan. He could understand why he hadn't revealed himself to them immediately; he had seen others in this world fighting to the death when they were supposedly allies. But what kind of Spartan's first instinct was to reach for a weapon when speaking to another member of the UNSC? And why would he be concerned about spending money on armour upgrades?

Our situation's a little too precarious right now to ask questions. But I'll be keeping an eye on this one.


Simon managed to fight down his nervousness as they headed across the clearing. He had spent so long as an outcast of the UNSC that he had nearly attacked the soldier out of instinct. There's no way these guys would know who I am. And I need someone to watch my back. As long as no one from Gamma Company shows up, I should be fine.

As much as he hated to admit it, he wished Diana was with him. Annoying as she was, she knew how to keep him alive and help him out of tight spots. He knew from watching the others kill each other that he had ended up in the midst of a massive deathmatch. Not something he fancied getting involved in, but it looked like he was here whether he liked it or not. And sooner or later he would have to kill everyone he ran into, including Janson and the ODST.

He had no qualms about being an enemy to them; he had grown accustomed to fighting the UNSC, and it had become a part of him. No, what bothered him was how he was going to do it. Janson had already caught him by surprise once. He didn't want it to happen again.

2

Kyle Olsen ejected a spent magazine from his MA37 while backpedalling down the cave tunnel. The Covenant forces continued to advance while he reached for another magazine, but he forced himself to keep both hands steady. He could reach for the M6G at his side, but eight rounds was not going to be enough to take down these aliens. Besides, he was a fast reloader.

The fresh magazine slid cleanly into the rifle, and he switched the firing mode from burst to semi-automatic. Screw accuracy, they were too close for him to miss. And if he let them close in on him, he was a goner. The soldier fired full-burst into the group of Unggoy, who were eager as always to charge him only to be shot down.

Thirty-two rounds emptied much quicker than he would have liked, and he was still facing lots of enemies in an enclosed space. If he tried to run, he would be shot in the back before he took ten steps.

There! All three of the Elite bastards had finally lost patience and ran into the centre of the formation. Olsen slipped the assault rifle onto his back and reached for a frag grenade. He only had four, but he knew that if he didn't use them now, he would soon be dead.

The magnum was in his other hand, and he fired at the squid-heads to get their attention. Their shields sparkled from the gunshots, but they were unable to move clear of the cluster of Unggoy in the tight space. Perfect. The pin flew off the M9 and landed with a ping in the centre of the group. Olsen turned and ran, hearing an explosion echo behind him a second later, followed by the sound of rock blowing apart.

He turned for a second to see the damage. Thick smoke obscured the tunnel, and a couple of Unggoy had landed nearby in bloody heaps. He couldn't see if he had taken out all three Sangheili, but no one charged after him. The walls and ceiling had collapsed completely from the explosion, so maybe the ones that didn't die were blocked off.

He decided not to stick around to find out. He kept running down the tunnel, hoping he would come out into a more open area like an underground cave. Or better yet, reach the surface. After putting some distance from his possibly-alive enemies, he stopped to reload both weapons before continuing. If there were more hostiles ahead, he didn't intend on running into them unprepared.

3

Vinh knew she couldn't stick around forever, but she wasn't about to give up her advantage until it was no longer an advantage. She had twenty magazines of ammunition for her battle rifle, and she was fine with picking off the masses of Flood that had been dwelling on the other side of the canyon. They were unable to scale the walls from this side, and she was impervious to all but airborne enemies or snipers.

There were only a few of the parasite left, and she had only used six magazines. There were a few infection forms crawling around, but they weren't her biggest concern at the moment.

She aimed at a combat form's chest cavity and fired, killing it with the battle rifle's triple-burst. She switched targets and took down two, then three, then four. The Spartan swept the area below to make sure all the serious threats were eliminated. Now to get down there and destroy the bodies.

"Well done, Spartan," came a low voice behind her. She turned around to see a gold-armoured Sangheili standing ten feet away, a deactivated energy sword hilt in each hand.

Vinh kept her rifle trained on the alien. "Are you an ally or an enemy?"

"Normally I would be your ally," the alien replied. "But I am afraid that here, we are enemies."

"So that's how it's going to be. I could shoot you dead right now."

"I think not. I would strike you down before you got through my energy shields."

The Spartan adjusted her grip on her rifle. "Try me."

"We will fight. But it will be fair." The Sangheili tossed one of his energy swords at her. She caught it.

"I do wish we had met under different circumstances," it said. "But since we are meant to kill each other, let us make it good."

Vinh set down her rifle and activated the energy blade. "I'm game." Time to show this guy why they call me the Swordmaiden.

And she charged.


Jemsal 'Emvadson could tell immediately that this human was highly skilled with a blade, even for a Spartan. Her attacks were aggressive but not reckless, and she moved gracefully on the flat canyon plateau, driving him in whatever direction she pleased.

Still, he was able to block every one of her attacks, even though it was no easy task. He occasionally saw an opportunity to counter, but his attacks were hasty and easily deflected. The duel intensified as their attacks came more rapidly, their energy blades becoming blurs.

The Spartan's sword moved too close and sliced off a chunk of armour from Jemsal's shoulder; he had jumped back just in time to avoid it cutting off his arm. He blocked the second slash, locking blades with the human and twisting his wrist. The disarming movement would have worked, had the Spartan not smashed into him, sending both of them sprawling and the energy swords spinning away. He quickly regained his balance and ran to recover his weapon.

The Spartan appeared at his side, this time tripping him and making a grab for the swords. She took both of them in her hands and stabbed downward; he rolled away and brought his hand down hard on her wrist.

Surprisingly, she maintained her grip on her weapon, and in that single moment, she slashed him across the belly, this time penetrating armour and leaving a deep wound. Jemsal gasped but didn't falter; he grabbed her wrist and this time forced the energy sword out of her grip. He made a stabbing movement at her, but he was impaired by his wound and was easily blocked.

The Spartan's foot came up and kicked the energy sword out of his hand, sending it flying into the air. A split second later, the other twin blades were embedded into his middle and protruded out his back.

The Sangheili fell back on the ground, feeling his strength drain away. There was only a dull pain, for which he was glad. He knew he was finished.

The Spartan pulled the sword out of his body as the second one landed neatly in her palm. She deactivated them and placed them at her sides. "I'll be keeping these, if you don't mind. You won't need them anymore." She retrieved her battle rifle before climbing down the canyon wall and disappeared from his sight.

4

The human soldier jerked and spasmed as Ro'nin emptied the last of an assault rifle's magazine into his chest. The Sangheili mercenary had cast aside the empty weapon and snatched another up out of the dirt before the man had time to hit the ground.

The village around them rang with an endless clattering of gunfire. Humans were coming at Ro'nin and Kenpachus from all sides, firing wildly as they came. The Sangheili homesteads had been eviscerated by stray bullets; a few had been sent caving in by grenade explosions. Ro'nin and Kenpachus were in the middle of it all, making a desperate stand amidst the ruins of what had once been a small hut. The hovel had been blasted completely away in the lethal storm.

Bodies were everywhere. These humans came on with no regard for their own lives or the lives of their comrades. Every rifle Ro'nin scavenged off the fallen humans claimed the lives of half a dozen or more before he needed to look for another. Those few humans that made it through Ro'nin's gunfire met their end at the edge of Kenpachus's flashing blade. A mound of corpses was beginning to form around the Jiralhanae warrior's feet.

Through it all, Ro'nin's eyes flashed desperately to all sides as he hunted for the ODST and yellow-armored Spartan he had glimpsed earlier. They were the real targets, not these drones.

Kenpachus chuckled. The grip of battle was on him completely now, not even leaving him enough pride to care about the inferior caliber of those he was cutting down. Ro'nin could practically feel the unbridled joy radiating from his partner as they stood back to back amidst the storm of gunfire. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Kenpachus bleeding from several wounds, but none of them had slowed him down in the slightest.

There! A flash of darkness in the entrance of a homestead across the dirt road, and Ro'nin was already dropping down. Battle rifle bursts thudded over him as he yanked a human corpse over in front of him and fired the dead soldier's pistol over towards the homestead. He fired blindly until the weapon clicked empty, then threw it away and readied another assault rifle. He needed to end this fight, and quickly.

"Kenpachus!" he yelled. "The building across from us! Let's go!"

All he needed was his partner's roar of reply, and then he was up and darting across the road towards the homestead. His shields flared as bullets began to find their mark, but he didn't hesitate so much as an instant. He could feel Kenpachus at his side, hear his massive footsteps shake the ground beneath…

And then a flash of yellow collided with the swordsman and Kenpachus was falling, a mass of muscle and armor amidst the pummeling of the yellow Spartan. Ro'nin began to turn, but remembered the ODST and whirled back to his target.

It was too late.

A flash of searing, blinding light robbed Ro'nin of his sight, and even as his head cleared he could feel the jolt as his shields failed. He blinked desperately, firing his rifle at what he thought was the target, but then a mass of buckshot blasted him in the arm. The muscle and sinews were torn to pieces, dropping the injured arm down uselessly at his side. Ro'nin whirled to the side, dodging the second shotgun blast and activating the energy gauntlet on his good arm.

Brandon Smith pumped the shotgun and braced for another blast, but Ro'nin came in fast and slashed the weapon in two. The ODST jumped back, unslinging his battle rifle and firing point blank into his enemy's chest.

Ro'nin staggered back as purple blood seeped down the front of his armor. The pain was fading quickly and the corners of the world were slipping away.

He coughed up blood and whirled, sending his limp arm out before him like a club. The battle rifle was knocked from Brandon's hands and in the next instant Ro'nin had him pinned against the wall of the hut, the fingers of his good arm wrapped around his throat in a tight vise. Brandon chocked and gasped behind his helmet, beating desperately on the Sangheili's arm with both hands. A thin film of red slid over his vision. He couldn't see…

---

Behind them, Kenpachus and Bailey-132 dodged in and out. Kenpachus grinned like a demon and slashed the air with his sword. Bailey's assault rifle had been knocked away but his magnum was out, firing and punching holes in the warrior's armor and skin every time he saw an opening. The Spartan leapt over a low swing from the blade, landed, and darted in, priming a grenade as he did so. The explosive clattered against Kenpachus's chest as Bailey leapt back at the last second.

The explosion blasted Kenpachus back, smashing through the wall of a homestead. The roof trembled and collapsed in on him, burying him in beams and tiling. Bailey slid a new magazine into his magnum and strode towards the ruined homestead. He could hear Brandon struggling behind him, but that could wait until after he'd finished off this tough bastard.

Just when he reached the rubble and peered in, Kenpachus erupted out from under the wreckage. Bailey had no time to react; the sword flashed towards him like a bolt of lightning. The next thing he knew, he was on his knees, crying out as he reached for the stub of his left arm. The arm itself lay in the dirt a few feet away amidst the corpses of the dead Marines.

Kenpachus let out a burst of laughter. His armor was cracked and burned, blood oozing from cuts and slashes all over his body. One of his eyes was shut tight, the retina blasted to pieces by shrapnel. He stood there, surrounded by the dozens of corpses, and laughed until it seemed the remaining homesteads were trembling in his wake.

But Bailey was not done yet. Gritting his teeth against the agony, he reached over and seized his magnum with his remaining hand. As Kenpachus turned, blade up at the ready, Bailey staggered to his feet. The warrior came on, a tidal wave of blood and armor, his blade angling to take off the Spartan's head.

Bailey raised the magnum and fired once.

The sword missed his neck by centimeters. Kenpachus slowed, his feet growing heavy for the first time he could remember. He slumped to his knees, weighed down by his grievous wounds, but the smile never left his mangled face.

"Good… fight," he gasped through broken fangs. "Good fight."

The sword fell to the dirt, joined moments later by its master.

---

Ro'nin couldn't keep his fingers closed. The human was still struggling, but he couldn't force his body far enough to kill the tenacious ODST.

Damn, he realized numbly. This is it.

He relaxed his grip, letting Brandon fall gasping and choking to the ground. With a tight breath, Ro'nin went limp and slumped back. As he slid towards the ground, he saw the yellow Spartan standing over Kenpachus.

Funny. He'd always thought he would die before the swordsman.

"You bastard," he whispered, his mandibles parting in a weak smile. "I'll see you in hell."

---

Brandon's neck burned from where the Elite had nearly throttled him. He staggered past the dead alien and retrieved his battle rifle before sitting down heavily, gasping for breath.

He looked up slowly as Bailey approached. The Spartan had used fabric from the uniform of a dead Marine to stop up the bleeding from the stump of his left arm. Brandon couldn't deny the fortitude of the ornery Spartan. If it had been him, he'd have been too paralyzed by pain to do anything but bleed out.

"Don't worry," Bailey said, indicating the magnum on his hip. "I can still shoot."

Brandon looked morosely around the remnants of the village. None of the Marines they had come out to help were left alive. Their bodies littered the street and doorways as far as the eye could see. "We couldn't save them," he muttered grimly.

"But that's two of the competition down," Bailey noted. He was putting up a brave front, but Brandon could see that he was swaying. If he wasn't treated properly soon, he'd go into shock, Spartan or no.

Rubbing his neck, the ODST glanced up at the gray sky. It was starting to rain.

"I need a drink," he murmured.

5

Richard Mack Jr. continued to walk through the broken streets of the abandoned, war-torn city he had stumbled upon, wondering what exactly was going on in this world he had awoken on. He had traversed from one side of the city to the other in an hour's time, and until five minutes ago, he had seen nothing to suggest there was another living thing in the city, or the planet even.

But that changed five minutes prior. That was when Mack had started finding the bodies. At first it was just one corpse, its' right arm missing and a large gash across the chest and stomach. Shortly thereafter, he had found a trio, also mauled in vicious ways, and after that it became something of a trail, a path of dead Human soldiers and explosive craters or large bullet streaks.

Inside himself, a small part of Mack said he should turn around, head a different way and ignore whatever was obliterating entire squads of Marines. But he couldn't pull himself away: for the most part, Mack was hoping to find that he was following a vehicle that he could possibly commandeer; a smaller part, however, was curious as to what could cause such destruction.

Lost in his thoughts, Mack almost walked around a building corner straight into a small company of soldiers.

Back-pedaling, Mack gripped his Assault Rifle and peeked around the corner again. Thankfully, the soldiers had not noticed him, and instead were, for the most part, hiding in dug in positions, their faces turned at an angle away from Mack. Confused, Mack tried to get a view of what they were hiding from, but he could not without revealing himself. Deciding that he could move to a safe position that was in line with the soldier's sight-line, Mack prepared to dive to his new cover.

Then, all Hell broke lose.

Before he moved, the entire company of soldiers were blasted with a barrage of missiles, raining down from the sky in the direction they had been watching. Mack shielded his eyes momentarily from the blast, the explosion quickly obliterating a large portion of the soldiers and throwing the survivors in various directions. Then, with a heavy impact of its own, a massive, terrifying form crashed onto the ground.

Mack wasn't sure what to make of it, exactly, aside from it looking robotic. It was tall, over eight feet, and either covered in or made from a spiky, dark blue metal plating. This figure had apparently fired the rockets, as two packs on its back retracted and folded into a smaller position. Pulling out two blades from its' sides, the robot dashed forward with incredible speed, slashing through several soldiers before they could hit the ground. Slashing through three Marines with its left arm, the robot fired a grappling hook at a pair of fleeing soldiers, reeling them in through the air before crushing them under the figure's feet.

As the remaining soldiers recovered, they opened fire on the behemoth, only for it to project a huge energy shield to block the weapon fire. Several soldiers tried tenaciously to destroy the energy shield, opening fire with rocket launchers, but as the smoke cleared from their blasts, they saw the robot charging them. As the robot began to pick off the front, several broke file and ran, while a few others fired the remaining rockets, and watched as the attacking robot became static-filled and then vanished. The deception revealed, the true robot dropped from a nearby building, annihilating all but two of the soldiers.

Mack was filled with slight fear as he watched, and more so as the last two soldiers ran in his direction, trying to escape. Pulling back around the corner, Mack cringed as the robot smashed past the corner of his building, striking it accidentally and causing it to explode outward as he skewered and crushed the two soldiers.

Mack now tried to steady himself and think of a way to escape. He knew that he could never take the robot head on, but to run would be suicidal in its own right. So, carefully, Mack began to step away slowly, trying to escape inside the building without being noticed.

A slip on a small piece of rubble ensured failure to that plan.

With a snap, the robot looked at Mack, and swung his swords. Silently thankful for his Spartan-1.1 augmentations, Mack managed to dodge the attack and opened fire with his Assault Rifle, which pinged off the armor near harmlessly.

"Hmm... faster than the other fleshies, I see," said the robot, "I might have some fun with you."

The robot swung again, and Mack rolled out of the way, trying to escape and reach the dead soldiers ahead, hoping there might be a rocket launcher or two that he could use to try and battle this monstrous foe. Throwing his Fragmentation Grenades in the hopes of buying time, Mack was seemingly granted a temporary reprieve: however, his foe instead jumped over Mack's head and landed in front of him, grabbing him in a tight arm lock. Mack began stabbing his combat knife at the robot with his free arm, trying to break through the armor somewhere, but to no avail.

"You... bore me. And here I hoped for a greater challenge. I suppose I'll have to look elsewhere for a better specimen." With that, the robot crushed his arms together, crushing through muscle and bone, ripping his body in half. Dropping the remains, he walked on, seeking more 'specimens.'

6

"Josh, I've found something."

At the familiar sound of a UNSC vehicle's engine, Joshua looked up from the wreckage he had been searching. Dyne steered around a pile of wreckage in an M274 Mongoose ATV.

"This thing doesn't have any guns on it, obviously," Dyne said. "But it beats walking."

Although Joshua was vaguely annoyed by how quickly the other Spartan had become so chummy with him, he was glad that his teammate had found them transportation so quickly. After hours on foot, they had made it out of the tropical terrain and found a massive junkyard. It all looked UNSC-made, so they had spent the last ten minutes searching for usable equipment, preferably vehicles.

"Keep it somewhere we can find it again," he said. "We'll see if we can find more equipment."

Dyne looked over his shoulder at the canyons not so far off. "I don't like hanging around here, but if you say so." He shut off the Mongoose's engines and stepped off.

A Flood combat form leaped over a nearby pile of wreckage and knocked him to the ground.

Joshua didn't even blink. He snapped up his battle rifle and fired four bursts at the foe. The first three rounds reached their mark, taking down part of the parasite's shields, but it quickly leaped away, and the rest of the bullets barely missed his teammate.

Dyne was back on his feet. The combat form had taken his rifle, but he still had two M7 submachine guns, and was firing rapidly, chipping away at the enemy's shields where they hit. The Flood form dodged behind another pile of wreckage.

"Sangheili combat form," Joshua said, keeping his weapon ready. "Looks like it was very recently infected."

"This sucks," Dyne replied, closing in alongside him. "The last thing we need in this place is Flood."

"Focus, Spartan," Joshua said sternly. "There could be more of them around."

Both Spartans stiffened at the sound of a plasma grenade's whine. Before either of them could move, there was a blue explosion behind the wreckage, sending twisted pieces of metal flying in all directions. Joshua was knocked back by what looked like half a Pelican's wing; he regained his balance and moved into cover, his shields completely drained.

Dyne was engaging the Flood-Sangheili, who held a plasma repeater in one hand and its stolen battle rifle in the other. Bullets and plasma bolts flew between the two of them, and energy shields flared as they dashed around the junkyard.

Despite his instincts screaming at him to help his teammate, something made him pause. There was something not quite right about this combat form. Its movements weren't as agile or reckless as most of its kind, but they were a little too precise. It fought almost exactly like a Sangheili.

Then it hit him. The host was still alive when it was infected. And it still has control over its body. Their opponent had a superhuman strength, but also a methodical, working mind. That made it much more dangerous.

Joshua deployed his camouflage cloak and covered himself completely with it. Don't get yourself killed now, Dyne. I have a plan.


Jemsal 'Emvadson ignored the bullets that penetrated his reanimated body and continued advancing. The Spartan had managed to take down his shields, but he felt no pain at the wounds, only a curious, dull sensation that meant nothing to him.

Somewhere in the back of his infected mind, he knew this was different from his previous encounter with the other Spartan. There was none of the reason that he had in the sword duel; now he sought only to kill. He knew vaguely that he had become something animal, horrifying, but the thought was drowned out by the fact that the infection form in his chest cavity had taken away his pain, kept him alive, and given him a newfound strength.

The Spartan ran out of ammo for both its weapons, and in that moment, a guiding force caused Jemsal to leap forward at it, lashing out at his adversary. The human was once again knocked down. The Flood-Sangheili jerked as tentacles sprouted out of his forearms, and he prepared to stab them into the Spartan's chest, and tear it apart from the inside.

Jemsal felt something penetrate his back, right between between his shoulders. He gave a scream that sounded nothing like himself, not of pain, but a sudden terror that stemmed from the infection form and entered his mind. He felt an armoured hand close and withdraw rapidly, tearing something out of his body. He turned around to see the other Spartan pulling a cloak of invisibility off itself. It held the throbbing infection form in its hand.

"No!" he roared, although it came out as something between a shriek and a hiss. He could feel his strength slowly ebbing away, and lunged at the Spartan.

The human squeezed hard, crushing the deflated infection form in its powerful grip. Its other hand came up, and it was holding a short metal knife.

Jemsal felt the cold blade stab hard into his brain, and knew that he would not be able to escape death a second time. He fell to the ground, twitching feebly. His last sane thought was that he wished he didn't have to die as such a monster.


Joshua pulled his combat knife out of the Flood-Sangheili's forehead. He wiped Flood mucus off his other hand before helping his teammate to his feet.

"That camouflage cloak sure comes in handy," Dyne said, retrieving his battle rifle where the combat form had dropped it a few feet away. "Thanks."

Joshua nodded. "Start up the Mongoose. I'll destroy the body." As the other Spartan sprinted for the ATV, he turned the Flood-Sangheili onto its back. He primed a frag grenade and stuck it into the hole he had made between its shoulder blades and quickly moved a short distance away.

The grenade made a muffled boom and instantly blew the corpse apart. He turned away as bits of Flood flesh showered him.

Dyne pulled up next to him in the Mongoose. "Hop on. Where to?"

Joshua climbed onto the back. The small vehicle's seats sank slightly under the weight of two armoured Spartans, but it held. "Get us across the canyons. And watch out for Flood."

They were just short of the junkyard's edge when Dyne spoke again. "Since you changed your mind about looking for more equipment, I'm guessing you're looking for something now."

"Firstly, I'd rather not be here if there's Flood in the area."

"You and me both, Josh."

"And like I said, that Sangheili was very recently infected. That means someone killed it. Someone close by. Whether they were friendly or hostile, we're going after it."

Dyne made one last turn and they cleared the junkyard. "Sounds good to me," he said, pointing the Mongoose at the canyons and slamming his foot down on the pedal.

Episode 9: Standoff

1

Kathrin Grunwald ran across the slippery rocks, careful not to fall into the rapid currents whipping by next to her. She was approaching a small waterfall, which didn't look too friendly right now, but she knew it was the most ideal place to be at the moment.

Five minutes ago, it had suddenly began raining. No, not raining. It was a massive downpour. Her boots were soaked, and it was only thanks to her M19 Tactical Precipitation Deflection Device that she wasn't drenched. Still, the sooner she got out of this storm the better.

Grunwald knew her predicament, for she had been one of the individuals in that black room where the teenagers had told them they had to kill each other for sport. She wondered if one of them was playing a cruel joke with her. I don't think anyone else was armed with only an umbrella and a combat knife.

She was next to the waterfall now, and whatever parts of her were still dry was sprayed by mist emanating from the contents of the swollen river not far above pouring down. Its tremendous roar was enough to drown out even the heavy rainfall. But she had found what she was hoping to see; a small cave off to the side that led behind the waterfall.

Relieved to be out of the rain and any potential enemies lurking outside, Grunwald walked deeper into the cave, the sound of the waterfall fading away. She had no idea how long she was going to stay in here, but she decided that finding and killing the others was out of the question. She slumped down against the cave wall, wondering what she was going to do now. I'm a Navy officer, dammit. I command ships and outthink the enemy. I can't do that alone with no resources.

Grunwald jumped when a flashlight suddenly turned on to her left. She reached for the knife at her side but stopped when she saw a Spartan pointing a magnum at her. She stared the supersoldier down. Was this Spartan going to disregard their UNSC ties and kill her to survive? If it did, she would stand no chance.

But the Spartan lowered its gun. "Are you alright, ma'am?" The voice was female.

Grunwald relaxed, taking her hand off her blade. "Yeah. I was just getting out of the rain."

"It's not safe for you to be here alone, ma'am. I'll protect you. I'm SPARTAN-G094. Amy."

"Kathrin Grunwald. Nice to meet you." She paused. "You know that we're supposed to kill each other, right?"

"I figured that out after another Spartan opened fire on me," Amy said. "But I have no reason to abandon protocol. And even if I did, I would never harm someone from the UNSC."

"Glad to hear it. Mind passing me your sidearm, Spartan? All I have is a knife and this umbrella."

The Spartan handed her the M6C, then took her sniper rifle off her back. "So what's the plan, ma'am?"

Grunwald noted how Amy still obeyed the chain of command, even though they were trapped in a game of survival. "Once the rain settles, we'll make our way to the top of the waterfall. If we can rally more allies, we might find a way off this planet." Maybe then, things will make sense.

2

"I think we've lost him," said Robson.

"I haven't even seen this guy yet," said Bryce.

"Well, stay alert. He's a tough son of a bitch."

They moved through the forest silently, both with weapons up and fully ready.

About twenty minutes later, Bryce lowered his weapon. "We've combed the forest three times now. This Sangheili is either following us or hiding somewhere."

Robson was just thinking how odd it was for a Spartan to express open impatience when he heard a rumbling. ODST and Spartan turned in unison in time to see the twin fuel rods streaking towards them. They leaped to either side as the green blasts incinerated the trees behind them, but before they knew what was happening a dozen Grunts had burst out of the underbrush, plasma weapons blazing.

Robson took down the nearest with a burst from his rifle. A stream of fire from Bryce killed three more, but there were already six more Grunts to replace them.

Pressing himself flat to the ground, Robson fired again and again. He was relying on all his training and combat experience not to panic and lose focus, but it was like trying to hold a shattered vase together. No matter where he looked, more Covenant troops were streaming towards them. A plasma grenade tumbled into the grass next to him; only a quick roll saved him from being blown apart, and even then the blast lifted him up and hurled him against a nearby tree.

His rifle was no longer in his hands. This is it, he realized, reaching for his sidearm. Bryce was off to the side, backed up against a tree and crushing the nearest Grunt's skull with his rifle butt. At least the Spartan would go down swinging.

Just as a Jackal aimed a needler in Robson's direction, its head jerked and spasmed. The Grunts around it were suddenly collapsing amidst a hail of battle rifle shots soaring in from their flank.

A grenade tumbled through the air and landed in the midst of the confused Covenant. Robson instinctively covered his helmeted face as the blast shredded the alien ranks and sent the survivors scurrying and screeching for cover.

Robson staggered to his feet and plugged off a trio of shots at the fleeing Covenant. The craven aliens didn't get far; the battle rifle bursts didn't let up and Bryce had used the reprieve to reload his own rifle and join in the mopping up. Just as quickly as it had begun, the shooting stopped and the forest slipped back into eerie silence once again.

"Damn," Robson muttered, shaken by yet another close brush with death. "How'd we walk into that one?"

"Hell if I know," Bryce replied. "But at least something good came out of it."

Robson followed the Spartan's eyeless gaze to see another armored Spartan approaching over the dead bodies, battle rifle slung over their shoulder.

"Thanks for the save," Robson said, speaking for both of them. "We owe you one."

"Nice to see something familiar," Bryce added. "I've had enough aliens for one day."

"Felix-116," the new Spartan said by means of introduction. "You're the first friendlies I've run into all day."

"Well, I'd hate to ruin a trend," Bryce noted. "If you don't mind, we're sticking with you."

"Be my guest," Felix replied, tapping a new magazine into his battle rifle.

3

Matt-075's shotgun clicked empty, and there were still hordes of enemies closing in on them. He had kept count of his shots and knew he was out of shells, and quickly discarded the weapon. Without missing a beat, he grabbed his grenade launcher off his back and fired into the masses of hostiles.

The explosions threw snow around, caused a few screams, and sprayed the icy ground with crimson. It did little to halt the advance of the pirates and mercenaries that continued to rush them mindlessly.

A few feet away, Evie was hardly faring better. Her machine gun's devastating fire was tearing holes in the enemy lines, but they were hardly discouraged from advancing. "They sure are nice," he called to her. She didn't respond, but merely shot a few more of the rogue humans and regrouped with him.

"Think we should make a run for it?" he asked. She grunted a negative.

One of the mercenaries got a little too close. Matt took one hand off his launcher to grab his pistol and fired a single shot into the hostile's face. "Look, there's no point trying to get through all of them," he insisted. "They're clearly those ambient things. We're just wasting ammo here. And our shields are not going to hold for long." He fired his last grenade and threw the launcher. It hit a pirate hard in the face, dropping the enemy on the spot.

Holding his M6C in one hand, he shot at the nearest enemies, his prosthetic fingers fumbling for the incendiary grenades on his waist. He activated one and threw it at a group of mercenaries who were pouring down a continuous stream of gunfire on them. The explosive lit all three humans on fire, and they rolled on the ground screaming. The fire didn't last long, and was quickly extinguished in the snow.

He was reloading his sidearm when Evie was suddenly at his side. "You're right," she said. "Let's move. We can outrun them on the open ice."

The two Spartans quickly shot down a half dozen mercenaries that were obstructing their way. Matt tossed another incendiary, and she added a couple of frags to the fray to slow their enemies down. They dashed across the ice field with good speed while the few hostiles behind them were trying to keep up, some of them falling over on the slippery ground.

"Where are we going?" he asked.

"Let's just lose these guys and then decide." She pointed at a distant ridge. "We'll head over there, and if they're still on us, we'll pick some of them off and keep going."

"These guys are pretty persistent. They'll probably be after us as long as they know where we are."

She took her M8 SMG off her side and held it out to him. "Take this then. You look like you're running low on ammo."

Matt was reaching for the gun when a sniper round entered the back of his head. His still recharging shields instantly flickered out, and a hole ruptured in his helmet. Blood sprayed from the fatal wound and the Spartan collapsed instantly.

Evie didn't even have time to think; she kept running, now dashing across the ice and randomly changing directions. She was aware that there were still hostiles on her, and knew that she wouldn't be able to last long unless she changed her course of escape.

A second sniper round hit her on the leg, but her shields were fully recharged already. Besides, her armour held better than her companion's had. Poor bastard. There's nothing I can do for him. More of the deadly bullets were flying around her, some ricocheting off the ice and others penetrating. One of the rounds zipped past her face and flew so deep into the ground that water sprayed from the hole.

Wait a minute...this ground isn't solid ice. Thinking furiously, Evie placed her machine gun on her back and pulled out three frag grenades. She briefly calculated the distance she could cover to the number of seconds it took for them to detonate.

A sniper bullet hit her in the back, reducing her shields to a third. She staggered but stayed on her feet and breaking her concentration for a split second. Screw it. She pulled the pins on each grenade within half a second of each other, slowed down her pace, and threw them ten feet away, careful to keep their trajectories close together.

The grenades landed barely a centimetre away from each other and exploded in quick succession a moment before Evie was within their blast radius. She ignored the shards of ice that pelted her and dashed through the cloud of smoke. She noted with relief that she had blown a medium-sized hole in the ice and without hesitation, jumped into the cold, black water.

4

Autel 'Vadam used the rest of his Type-51 carbine's magazine to take out the last mercenary sniper. He reloaded his weapon and turned his attention to the rest of the enemies on the ice shelf.

They were relatively easy to pick off, being very poorly armoured against plasma-based weapons. His weapon's deadly rounds easily eliminated them one after the other. Although each shot left a green trail in the air, the ambient humans seemed to be momentarily distracted from trying to find the Spartans. He managed to kill a score of them before they began to notice and turned their attention to trying to find him.

Despite the tense situation, the Sangheili warrior allowed himself an ironic smile. His white armour, along with his own pale skin, proved to be a very useful camouflage in this snowy terrain. There were little more than fifteen of the humans left, and when his carbine finally ran out of ammunition, he switched over to his plasma rifle, which also proved to be very effective.

With only four mercenaries still alive, they finally spotted him and opened fire. But they made the mistake of closing in rather than take cover. Small calibre bullets deflected off his shields, and he retaliated by shooting each of them in the face, killing each mercenary with great precision.

A stillness fell over the area, silent save for the sound of Autel's plasma rifle cooling down. He walked away from the bodies, following the trail of the blood-stained ground towards the open ice.

A pity the Spartans hadn't held their ground, he thought. Had they waited a little longer, they would have won the battle. He supposed there was no way for them to know how many enemies they were facing. He had heard the commotion and come to see, and got a brief glimpse of two Spartans running for the ice shelf. Seconds later, there was the sound of sniper fire. Perhaps they were still alive.

As the Sangheili reached the open terrain, he knew immediately that this was not so. The Spartans' footsteps led to a distinctive grey armoured form, lying crumpled in the snow not far away. A small group of pirates were gathered around a hole in the ice not far from the corpse.

Autel fought the instinct to confront them. I am guessing the other one has gone down the hole. Whether he escaped or is dead, I can do nothing for him. And as much as I am unaccustomed to the thought, I must put my own survival first. I have only my blade, a few grenades, and a single gun with a limited battery. There is no room for retribution now. He carefully edged away from the ice shelf before the humans spotted him, heading in the other direction.

5

Battle rifle clenched in one hand, a grenade held lightly in the other, Maynard-X112 sidled carefully along the mountain path. His visored gaze was fixed on the small cave entrance just a few yards away, the entrance he had seen his Sangheili quarry disappear through less than an hour before.

He had been tracking this dark-armored warrior ever since he had spotted him leaving the site where two humans--one ODST and one Spartan--had been left in bleeding pieces. Moving from a distance, Maynard had trailed after their killer. He was determined to avenge their deaths; he could not let their killer run free even when he himself could have been doing the same thing.

But Maynard wouldn't kill for the entertainment of some omniscient dictators. No, he had a reason for this hunt, a reason to kill his target.

His fingers curled around the grenade. The cave entrance was close now, close enough for him to lob the grenade into. He wouldn't risk getting any closer. This Sangheili had already killed a Spartan and an ODST; Maynard was sure that a simple grenade would not be enough to finish him. But all the explosive needed to do was flush his quarry out onto the narrow mountain path, where Maynard's superior marksmanship would decide the battle.

Maynard braced his battle rifle against the mountainside, bracing himself as he pulled back his grenade arm. He steadied his breathing and thumbed the grenade's primer.

Before the grenade had even tumbled through the darkened opening, Maynard was already at the ready. Crouching low, he brought his rifle to bear and flicked off the safety.

He didn't have long to wait. A shimmer filled the air on the path before him a second before the grenade exploded. The entire side of the mountain rumbled in reply to the blast, throwing off Maynard's aim even as he identified the shimmer as a Sangheili shrouded by active camouflage.

The Sangheili moved fast, faster than Maynard had ever seen one of its kind move before. In the split second it took him to refocus his aim, the shimmer had already cleared half the gap between him. He fired two bursts into the center of mass, only to see the bullets impact on the mountainside behind the smoking cave entrance.

Maynard gritted his teeth. Was the warrior dodging his attacks?

Before he could fire again, the shimmer was on top of him. Unseen hands latched onto the rifle's scope. The Sangheili had refrained from drawing his sword to keep Maynard confused by the camouflage, but the Spartan knew the glowing blade would be brought into play in moments.

He twisted his head, barely dodging a blow aimed at his visor. His shields flared as the Sangheili flashed into view, and he twisted again to avoid a follow up slash from the attacking arm's now-active wrist gauntlet. Through it all, he kept his hands firmly on the rifle.

The Sangheili looked at him through narrowed eyes. Maynard glared back, only to find that his opponent's expression seemed remarkably calm. As if they weren't in a battle at all...

The reverie nearly cost Maynard his life. He wrenched himself away and leapt back just as a red-tinged energy sword flashed through the air he had just occupied. He brought the rifle back up and fired, only to watch in amazement as the Sangheili gracefully flattened himself against the mountain and kept coming, the rounds snapping millimeters past his head.

His rifle was nearly empty. Maynard backpedalled furiously, keenly aware that one misstep would send him plummeting towards the distant forest canopy below. In another moment, the Sangheili would be on top of him again.

Reaching down, Maynard primed two of his thermite grenades and slapped them against the mountainside. For good measure, he dropped a grenade down before his opponent as well. There was nowhere for the Sangheili to avoid the blast. Maynard moved away even further and got ready to finish off whatever was left.

But as the grenades detonated in a flash of fire and shrapnel, the Sangheili leapt forwards and off of the path. Seizing a jutting rock with his left hand, the Sangheili slashed at Maynard's legs with stunning agility as he dangled precariously over the mountainside. Maynard staggered back working his legs to furiously kick the warrior's handhold away.

If it hadn't been for Maynard's augmented eyesight, he would have missed what happened next all together. Releasing the tumbling rock, the warrior tossed his active sword into his left hand and caught hold of another ledge with his now free right hand. Maynard was stunned, but he still opened fire as the warrior scrambled to return to the path.

Without hesitating, the Sangheili angled his blade to deflect the last two bursts in Maynard's magazine. The Spartan dropped the empty weapon and drew his pistol but by then his foe was back on the path and darting towards him with a deadly slash.

The blade passed through the pistol's barrel as if it weren't there. Maynard gasped in pain as the useless pieces fell along with his right thumb and index finger.

Maynard lashed out and batted the next attack aside with his maimed hand. The warrior responded with a swift kick at his leg, knocking Maynard back against the cliff face.

Grabbing at the rocks with his bloody right hand, Maynard drew his combat knife. All the skills he had excelled at over all his years of training and combat flooded into him as he twisted and slashed, kicking and stabbing with enough ferocity to drive the Sangheili back a few paces.

They stood there, Spartan and Sangheili, the yellowed reptilian eyes meeting the implacable visor. Behind it, Maynard blinked hard to shut out the pain. With only his knife and one final grenade left, he was running out of options.

The Sangheili raised his sword, curving it up until it pointed at Maynard's neck. "I owe you some gratitude, Spartan," he said in a low, smooth voice. "Your attack seems to have finally woken me up."

Maynard's hand tightened against the rock face. "Don't patronize me," he growled back. "You've killed your last human."

If he didn't know any better, he'd have sworn the Sangheili looked amused. The energy sword was poised less than a meter from his face.

"A worthy goal," the Sangheili acknowledged with a tilt of his head. "Unfortunately for you, this is the end."

There was something quivering against Maynard's right hand, something besides the pain and blood. His hand--no, it was the cliff. The cliff itself was trembling, and now there was a dull pounding coming from above.

Maynard quickly put two and two together. His grenade blasts must have set off some sort of avalanche!

He allowed himself a small, painful smile. "Yes," he said to the Sangheili. "Yes it is."

The Sangheili's eyes flicked up: he knew what was happening as well. The yellow pupils widened by a fraction and in that instant Maynard lunged forwards, knocking them both off the ledge just as a cascade of enormous boulders pounded down around them.

Maynard didn't know how long they fell. He was aware of his armor's alarms blazing desperately as he was buffeted on all sides. He felt the knife torn from his hands, saw a flash as the dark-armored warrior slashed an incoming rock in two. Then his body struck a slope and he was rolling and tumbling, end over end in an endless slide.

There was a brain-shattering crunch as he struck something hard and rough, breaking his fall and leaving him prone on a bed of shattered boulders.

He had broken some ribs. He knew that much because it hurt to breath. Coughing and wincing in pain, he realized that he could sit upright. His armor had protected him from even greater harm, though his shields were down and didn't look like they'd be coming back up any time soon. His knife lay a few feet away.

Maynard looked over and saw the Sangheili also rising from the rubble. They had tumbled with the avalanche down onto a much wider ledge. And Maynard saw with a jolt that the Sangheili's energy blade had fallen not far from its master's hand.

Their gazes met for the last time, and they knew for certain that this truly was the end. Without another moment of hesitation, both fighters lunged for their respective weapons.

Maynard felt his hands close on the knife, springing upwards for a strike at the alien's unshielded neck...

A flash of light filled his eyes, and the pain vanished forever.

6

The Spartan's head bounced across the avalanche rubble. The body was not far behind.

Shinsu 'Refum deactivated his blade and leaned back, panting. His shields flashed and rose again; aside from some bruises, he had been insanely lucky not to have been injured by the fall.

After another moment of recovery, it occurred to Shinsu that he had just killed his third opponent. This last one had been a taxing fight, but it couldn't be the peak of what he faced out here. He wondered how the other fighters were doing, and how many were left to oppose him.

The sound of feet crunching on the gravel left by the avalanche quickly snapped him back into the present. He turned in time to see a young Sangheili warrior standing a short distance away. And to his surprise he realized that he knew this one.

"Tuka," he said, slowly rising. "Brother."

Tuka 'Refum's eyes were wide as he surveyed the carnage before him. "Brother," he said softly. "I didn't think I would find you out here."

"But you did." Shinsu calmly strapped his energy sword's handle back onto his hip. "And here we are."

Tuka looked at the dead Spartan. "How many have you killed?" he asked.

"Three," Shinsu told him. "And as for you?"

"None. I won't kill for others' amusement."

Shinsu clicked his mandibles. "I wouldn't expect you to. But would you kill to survive? To triumph?"

Tuka shook his head. "Not like this, brother."

"Then I have nothing more to say to you." Shinsu waved him away. "Now stand aside. Don't make me kill you as well."

Tuka's sword burst to life in his hands. "I cannot. It is my duty to stop you here brother, even if I couldn't stop you before."

Shinsu sighed. His body still ached from the fall, and even all that had happened he didn't want to kill his younger brother. It ran counter to everything he had fought for before this.

But this is a different time and a different place. Hesitation here would mean his own death in an instant.

His hand drifted down to his own blade. "If that is what you want, then come!" he barked, a rare surge of anger coursing through his veins. Anger at Tuka, anger at himself, anger at this twisted world...

Tuka charged. His blade howled through the air, but Shinsu simply twisted away. A flurry of blows cut the air around him to ribbons in a blinding pattern, but Shinsu's eyes caught each slash and he slipped through the entire barrage without catching so much as a glancing blow to his shields. Then, an opening flickered in Tuka's pattern and Shinsu struck. Tuka just barely dodged, the prongs of Shinsu's own blade passing his head close enough to tear down his shields.

With a surprised cry, Tuka leapt back and brought his blade into a defensive stance. Shinsu lowered his blade and appraised his younger brother coolly.

"Good enough, I suppose," he said. He had already cut himself off from all emotion. This duel would end only one way, and that was in his brother's death. He had already resigned himself to this fact. "For an amateur."

"Don't mock me!" Tuka struck out in anger, and it was over. Shinsu sidestepped the hasty blow and slashed his sword across his brother's chest. Tuka collapsed in a shower of purple blood, coughing as his lungs slowed and began to fail.

"In other circumstances, I would have let you live," Shinsu said, staring down at his gurgling brother. "But there can be only one victor in this battle."

Beneath him, Tuka was already dead.

Shinsu looked down at the corpse for some time until he realized he was an easy target for any sniper who might see him. Bending down, he peeled Tuka's blade out from his stiff fingers and clipped it to his hip along with his own sword. Then he folded his brother's arms over his bloody chest and turned away.

"Farewell, Tuka."

Episode 10: All Hands on Deck

1

"Hang in there, Spartan."

Brandon gritted his teeth in frustration as he stared down at the twitching form lying on the floor before him. Bailey had tried to stay on his feet, but the bleeding just got worse, and was now struggling to stay awake. The Marine half-dragged him back into the tavern, the only structure still standing after the fight they had barely survived.

Looking away from the supersoldier, who was lying in a small pool of his own blood, he glared at one of the nearby Sangheili in frustration. They had no medical supplies here, not so much as a dirty rag that might possibly save his companion's life. The ambient aliens had watched them momentarily when they first entered, but now returned to their leisurely tasks without showing the slightest bit of concern for the two humans. Even the bartender set himself to sitting back in a corner and pouring himself drinks.

Bailey's MJOLNIR suit lay under a nearby table. Brandon had carefully removed the armour from the near-unconscious Spartan, and resorted to stemming the wound with his own shirt. It wouldn't buy them much time. He's going to bleed out, dammit.

He looked through the tavern's doors to the wrecked houses outside. Was there something, anything among the ruins that could help them? I don't have time to rummage through it all. What am I supposed to do?

Something caught his eye. Two distant black specks were dropping through the sky towards the outskirts of the village. It wasn't that far.

Brandon grabbed his rifle and stood up. He had no idea what those things were, but he wasn't about to stay here watching Bailey bleed to death. He hoped that whatever it was, it would be of help to them.

"Hang in there, Spartan," he said again before running out of the tavern.


Janson looked around at the buildings left and right of the street he was walking down with Quinn and Simon. They had arrived in some sort of nineteenth-century village, looking almost identical to ancient human habitats save for the Sangheili that occupied it. Most of the aliens paid the trio no attention, and the few that did simply glanced at them before walking by without comment.

"What do you think?" he asked.

"I've been to better hangouts," said Quinn. "I've seen places like this before, in old twentieth-century western films."

Simon was staring at the Sangheili that were walking around. "It's weird how they're ignoring us. Last time I was here..."

"You were here before?" Janson asked sharply.

The Spartan gave a start. He tensed slightly, as if afraid he had said too much. "Not here, exactly. But this place does look familiar..."

"Can you think of anywhere we can get medical supplies?"

Simon hesitated. "I know one place, if this really is where I think we are. We're in the outskirts, so it shouldn't be far."

"Then take point. I'll help Quinn, you cover us."

"I'm fine," Quinn began.

"Stow it." The ODST had insisted on walking unassisted once they reached the village, but now he was starting to lag behind again. Janson put one arm over his shoulder and they followed Simon, who was leading them onto an adjacent street, weapon not quite pointed at the ground. Simon was still looking around as they headed down the street.

It didn't take long for them to reach a cul-de-sac of sorts. They stood in front a building that was short but looked rather sturdy. Its front door was open.

"Yes, this is definitely it," Simon said, sounding astounded.

"Definitely what, Spartan?" Janson asked.

"The Visag Keep. It looks empty, but...wait here, I'll go and look for supplies."

He didn't argue; he didn't really feel like going from room to room hefting Quinn, who was hardly a lightweight. He propped the Helljumper against the wall next to the main door as Simon ran into the keep, and sat down next to him to regain his breath.

"Hey, Lieutenant," Quinn said after a minute of silence.

"Yes?"

"Do you feel like there's something off about that Spartan?"

Janson was taken aback. Maybe field servicemen were more perceptive than he first would have thought. "Yes, actually. But right now we need him."

"He sure is taking his time. What if he's laying some sort of trap?"

The officer thought about this for a moment. Would Simon do that?

"Look at it this way. There's only two of us, we're sitting right in the open, and I've been pretty shot up. He says he's been here before. Who knows what kind of friends he has. If he lays an ambush, we won't stand a chance."

"He's still a Spartan," said Janson firmly. "Some of them might be odd, but there's no way they'd turn on other members of the UNSC."

Quinn pointed to the sky. "Then what do you suppose those are?"

He looked up and saw two jet-black pods flying down towards them. Their trajectories weren't aimed straight at them, but it would come very close.

"I think they're supply capsules," he said.

"They look more like missiles to me."

Janson found himself agreeing with him. The pods' top end were flared with what could only be rocket propellers. They could be simply keeping the pods from falling end-for-end through the sky. But he couldn't spot any aircraft that could have dropped the pods, so they could very well be missiles.

"They're aimed too close to the entrance," he said, although his voice rang with apprehension. "If the Spartan fired them at us, they would destroy the keep as well."

"Well, let's get inside just in case." Quinn slowly got to his feet, wincing at the movement. Janson helped him, and they started for the keep's entrance.

There were two simultaneous, muffled cracks behind them. The two humans turned around and were astonished to see the two pods dug into the stone ground behind them, without so much as a wisp of smoke from either of them. A second later, both capsules ejected their hatches, also simultaneously.

"Well that was fast." Janson carefully laid Quinn down again before walking over to the pods. He reached into the first one and took out its contents.

"What is it?" the ODST asked.

Janson examined the objects. "Signal flares. Could come in handy. There's also a note, addressed to you."

"Really? What's it say?"

"Distract, attract, or last-resort way to burn something. Be inventive."

"Well isn't that great. Exactly what I need in my condition."

The officer was reaching into the second pod. "I think you'll like this one better. It was sent to me, but I don't really think it matters." He briefly read the note. "Keep your ass alive. Watch your back."

"Charming," said Simon's voice.

Janson looked up to see the Spartan stepping out of the keep. "No luck?"

"Nothing. The entire place is empty. It's weird..."

"No time to ponder now. Help me with Quinn." He opened the health pack and started selecting medical supplies as Simon helped the ODST remove his armour.

"So I'm guessing you didn't send us these supplies."

"Nope. I heard the noise and decided to see what was going on. Whoever sent these to you, they must like you very much." Simon paused, then added as an afterthought. "I could use some...assets, myself."

They had just finished patching up Quinn when Janson heard footsteps behind them. He turned around to see another Marine running towards them. He stopped just short of where the pods had landed, and his eyes moved from them to the three humans huddled next to the keep's entrance.

He looked down to the open health pack laying by Simon's feet. "You have medical supplies," he said at last. "Bring them and come with me, quick. I'm with a Spartan and he's in critical condition."

Janson saw Simon hesitate, that same anxiety he had shown when they first encountered each other. He took note of it but decided there would be time to think on it later. Packing up the remaining supplies, he sealed the health pack shut and got to his feet. "Lead me to him, Marine."

2

The sun was coming up now over the horizon. Normally, the sunrise brought a sense of tranquility to Fira 'Demal's mind, but not today. In fact, he had been on edge ever since he found himself by the riverside where he now sat. He had spent the time exploring the nearby area and setting up a camouflaged shelter by a nook in the grassy plains where the river ran through.

His companion, Qur'a 'Morhek, appeared much more relaxed. "It is a new day," he said.

Fira snorted. "It certainly does not feel like it. We are still in the same predicament, it just happens to be daytime now instead of night."

'Morhek gave a slight smile. "Aren't you an optimist, friend."

"I was in my younger days. My mind is rarely at ease now when our enemies are close."

He certainly was a strange one, Fira thought. He had found the other Sangheili meditating by the riverside when he was walking the plains. It was as if 'Morhek had never known violence in his life before. Yet he could tell by his silver armour that he was an Ultra and was likely a formidable warrior.

Fira was cautious about making contact with another being at all; he had a few unpleasant encounters with some less-than-friendly humans, and ended up retreating more than he did kill the lot of them. It didn't take too long for him to figure out that he was in a world where survival meant everything. And although he had managed to stay alive very well yesterday, he was very much relieved to be in the company of a fellow Sangheili warrior.

'Morhek didn't reply, so Fira asked, "Do you think we should head out of the plains?"

"I see no reason to."

"We could be tracking our enemies. Find them before they find us."

"What difference is there between the two? Both will result in a fight. And we could be just as easily taken by surprise searching as we will be waiting here."

Fira thought about this for a moment. The older Sangheili did have a point. "But we have no purpose to just wait here," he insisted. "We could look for ways to escape, leave the pointless bloodshed behind."

"We could indeed," agreed 'Morhek. He didn't say anything more.

Fira sighed. "You don't believe there's a way off this planet, do you?"

'Morhek sat down and closed his eyes. "Fira, I have seen many strange things in my life, but nothing as surreal as this land we are stranded on. I know what you are thinking, this seems real enough. But there is too much happening that does not make sense. Yesterday I have observed many things about this land and its inhabitant, and I think I already know what is to become of us."

"So you are giving up?"

"That is one way to look at it. But I prefer to think of it as...making the best of what we have." 'Morhek stared into the depths of the crystal-clear water that gently flowed by them. "Sit down, friend. We can pass the time by exchanging stories. I am sure that someone like you has a lot to tell me about your life."

Normally, Fira would have insisted on moving, on doing anything. But something in his companion's words stirred a contentment in him that had nothing to do with resignation. Slowly, he sat in the grass next to 'Morhek. "We are given the same life, as long as we are Sangheili. We are not as...free as the humans."

"That is true, in a way. But as it is with our current fate, along with everyone here that shares the same fate, it is how you live with what you are given that is important. So tell me, how did you live your life?"

3

Something started beeping on one of the panels. Koel glanced at the screen affixed to his right and checked the readings. "Incoming aircraft detected. UNSC Albatross."

Coney adjusted the communications panels. "Could be your friend. Still, I think it's safer to wait until we're sure before—"

"Lieutenant Coney, this is Master Sergeant Morley. I've sighted the facility and I am on approach, do you copy?"

"Affirmative, Sergeant," Coney said. "We'll be outside as soon as you touch down. By the way, there's someone here who says he knows you."

Koel moved over to communications. "Hello, Sergeant. I didn't expect to find you in a place like this. It's Roy Koel, if you still remember me."

"Koel? It's been a while, I have to say. We have a bit of catching up to do."

"That we do. We'll talk later though, I'll meet you topside with the Lieutenant."

"Gotcha. I'm coming in for landing now."

When Coney terminated the connection, she said, "I guess we won't be coming back soon. Is there anything you want to bring with you?"

"Some food and supplies, maybe—"

"Don't worry about it, I've already packed up all that. We'll pick it up on our way out."

"Shouldn't we shut everything down?" he asked as they grabbed their weapons and started walking down the hall.

"I don't think I know how. Besides, if someone else comes along, they might need it."

They could hear the sound of the Albatross' engines as they exited through the side door. A female Marine was standing next to the open passenger bay, assault rifle in one hand.

Coney climbed into the cargo bay. "Thanks for the pick-up, Marine."

"My pleasure, ma'am." Jess stared at Koel as he entered the Albatross as well. "Must have been longer than I thought then, Roy."

"What can I say? War is long and hard. But you don't look that much older than when I last saw you, Jess."

"I guess I was one of the lucky ones then. Strap in, guys. There's a space station I spotted earlier, and that's exactly where we're going." The hatches closed, and Coney followed her into the cockpit. Koel buckled up in the nearest seat, staring after Jess.

It had been a long time since he saw her. She went MIA in 2496, a lifetime ago. That's probably why she hasn't aged that much.

Then another thought entered his mind. What kind of place is this, where the living and the dead exist in the same world? What happens when we die here?

4

Sepia turned back to look down the valley side she was scaling with the two other Spartans. The scenery was beautiful, no doubt about that. From what little she had seen of the planet, it would have made a great colony had it been inhabited for that purpose. Instead, all it became was another war-zone, possibly degraded into a much less appealing place in the years to come.

"Anyone following us?" Andrew asked. She shook her head.

Riker lowered his sniper rifle. "No one up ahead either. It's most likely safe to get out of this valley now, but stay alert all the same."

The Spartans started straight up the steep slope without another word. Sepia continued to look behind them for signs of movement, glancing at the now-distant OUTPOST Base in case the Covenant were following. If the aliens had access to aircraft, then they would be in trouble.

"That doesn't look good," said Andrew. The others turned to see where he was looking, and saw two rows of Covenant drop pods bearing down on them. There were hundreds of them, and they were eerily aligned perfectly and each pod was exactly the same distance from each other.

"Now that's weird," said Sepia, instinctively reaching for her weapon.

"They're going to land on either side of the valley," said Riker. "We have to make a run for the top."

"We won't make it before they touch down," said Andrew. "Should we head to the bottom?"

"We'd be picked off in seconds. Our best bet is to break through their formation before the full force of their numbers come down on us. Run, now!"

There was no time for further discussion. The Spartans sprinted up the valley, ignoring the pods that were speeding down towards them.

They actually managed to get past the line of pods before they landed. Andrew reached the top first. "Not good. It's all open terrain. Even if we start running now, we'll get shot in the back."

Riker assessed the situation in less than a second. "Take positions as close to the pods as you can when they land. Use them as cover. Close quarters combat only. We'll be shielded from the enemies on the far side of the valley for the time being."

Sepia looked down at the Flamethrower in her hands and shrugged. Andrew tossed her his battle rifle. "I'll want it back when we're done."

The pods landed simultaneously, even with the other line of pods. The three Spartans braced themselves next to the hatches, weapons ready.

Then the pods burst open, unleashing masses of Covenant into the valley.

5

Aksel and Isaac drudged slowly through the mountains, working their way towards the peaks in hopes of gaining a better view of the area surrounding them, as well as to gain a high-ground advantage. It had been a long trek, but the two Spartans were well up to the task, and despite sounds of conflict in the distance, the duo had yet to encounter any foes. However, as they climbed over a large ridge and into a high plateau of sorts, the sound of explosions grew loud and near.

Proceeding to cover with caution, Aksel nodded to Isaac, who pulled out his SSR-99 and scanned the area ahead of them. "What do you see?" asked Aksel.

"Nothing yet..." replied Isaac. "Sighted. A group of Jiralhanae hostiles engaging one target on the far end of the plateau. The Brutes are losing."

"What is their opponent? Human? Elite? Brute?"

"Unknown."

Aksel paused at this. This was a strange place, no doubt, but he had thought that at the least he would know what he was facing. It appeared he was sadly mistaken.

"Three hostiles remaining," stated Isaac, breaking Aksel's reverie.

"So quickly?"

Isaac nodded. "Two. Should we engage him? One target remaining."

Aksel weighed the options quickly. "No. We would be best to remain undetected at all costs."

Isaac watched through his scoped as the unknown hostile stabbed his blade through a Jiralhanae's chest and pinned it to the ground, then walked up to it, taunted it, and then ripped it's head from its' shoulders. "Zero targets remaining."

"Let's move"

At this moment, tragedy struck. With loud rumble, a pod thundered through the atmosphere like an SOIEV. The Spartans looked up at this incoming object, as did the nearby hostile, Vevictus Syrico. The pod hurtled downward, and the Spartans were quick to realize it was headed directly towards them. Diving out of the way, the pod landed with a dull thud, leaving the Spartans and Vevictus staring at it.

Vevictus, however, had caught sight of movement, and quickly began stalking directly towards them. Isaac noticed this, and waited a moment, hoping that Vevictus would change course, but when instead he increased speed, Isaac opened fire. Vevictus, however, was quick, and dove between the available tree cover, using the plant life and his enhanced speed to confound Isaac's ability to hit him.

"Aksel, see what was in that thing. Maybe there's something that will help us"

Aksel nodded, and dove to the pod. Grab at the blinking blue activation panel, the pod opened, revealing an extendable pole and a tightly folded flag within, the SPARTAN insignia emblazoned on it. "What the Hell?!" asked Aksel. Reaching for the only other item within the pod, a small piece of paper, he read what was written on it: "Climb high, and unite your people. Don't lose yourselves lads."

Before Aksel could think of what to make of any of this, Vevictus vaulted from his position and into the Spartans small group of boulders, stabbing at Isaac with his blade. Isaac dodged and pushed the blade back, while Aksel raised his Battle Rifle and opened fire on Vevictus, whose shields flared momentarily. Quickly, the Voren back-peddled, escaping Aksel's fire while simultaneously charging the Spartan; Aksel pulled out his tomahawk and threw it, the Voren barely dodging in his forward leap as the weapon whizzed directly past where his head was a split second before.

Reacting to this sudden failure, Aksel spun and reached for the flag pole as Isaac opened fire with his silenced SMGs: as bullets sprayed at Vevictus, Aksel spun in a swift, fluid movement, extending the pole as the flag unfolded in the rush of the air, and slammed the steel pole into the side of Vevictus' head. With a crack, the Voren flew sideways, where he skidded across the ground several feet before beginning to rise back to his feet: however, Aksel, pulling out his Grenade Launcher, fired its round and landed a direct hit.

As the smoke cleared, Aksel and Isaac both lowered their weapons as they viewed a small, charred crater, small pieces of armor scattered around it. Yet, this was their fatal mistake: from the side, Isaac was blind-sided as Vevictus slammed into him, his armor cracked and his body bloody, cybernetic wires flailing from his spasming right arm. With a feral snarl, Vevictus stabbed a piece of shrapnel through the Spartan's visor, dropping the body as blood spurted out of the large crack. Aksel roared his fury back and opened fire on the Voren, but Vevictus surprised him by throwing Aksel's own tomahawk back at him, pinning his hand to the pod. Stalking forward, Vevictus pulled out his two pistols and opened fire, empty both magazine into Aksel's arms and legs until he had fully closed the distance.

Aksel hung there, pinned by one arm to the pod, his legs and arms rendered useless from a dozen bullet wounds each, his shields completely gone. On his HUD, every warning light MJOLNIR used was lit bright red, while crimson blood oozed across his vision from head wounds. His world was fading quickly, and all he could think about was how he had been careless enough to get himself and Isaac killed.

Vevictus chortled to himself as he reached down and pulled the Spartan's cracked visor up so that he was staring the Spartan in the eyes. Reaching down, Vevictus pulled the half broken flag pole off the ground, the flag hanging off it, partially ripped; eying the pole a moment, Vevictus raised it, and with all his strength he swiftly stabbed it into Aksel's chest plate. Lights flashed all across Aksel's sight, but though the dent was significant, but it did not break.

Again, Vevictus struck him, and again the plate held, but now Aksel's resolve began to grow. He would not go down as some sort of stuck pig...

Strike

Some sort of toy for this sadistic monster...

Strike

He was a Spartan...

Strike

And Spartans...

Strike

Never...

Strike

Die...

STRIKE

"Aaaaaaaaargghhhhh!!" Aksel roared as, in one motion, he pulled the tomahawk from his forearm and jammed it deep into Vevictus' stomach, spewing blood and machinery fluid. However, though he grunted momentarily in pain, Vevictus grabbed Aksel's head in his left hand. Holding tightly to his foe, Vevictus stabbed one last time, forcing the pole to break straight through the MJOLNIR and out the back of Aksel's chest, before ripping it back out the front. The entire world fading quickly into the black, Aksel's last feelings and sights were of Vevictus pulling him into the air.

The Voren growled. "None strike me," he snarled, and with a final force, he snapped Aksel's neck. Tossing the body to the side, Vevictus stalked off as he clutched his wound, feeling the Necros machinery slowly start the long process of healing his wounds. It would take time, and the Spartans had been no easy foes, but he would survive. He had to. He needed to.

In the small rocky enclave, the two Spartans bodies lay side by side, both crumpled and fallen. The wind started to pick up as storm clouds blew in, and as it blew, the flag detached from its pole nearby, and fluttering, landed atop the two Spartans' bodies as the first drops fell from the heavens.

6

Stel had almost reached the edge of the forest when he spotted a small human facility standing in the open ground right next to the trees. He wondered if he was about to encounter more humans like he had earlier. They were native to this world though, unlike the beings unfortunate enough to be sent here.

Like Sona. He felt a quick spasm of guilt over what he had done, but forced himself to dispel it. He had no illusions that his own life was worth more than anyone else's, but rather believed that he had just as much a right to survive as all the others, and so resolved to fight just as hard as they did.

He stopped abruptly when he saw a Spartan outside the facility. The supersoldier had his back to him, and was busy opening a small jet-black capsule planted into the ground. He was clearly another contestant meant to be eliminated. Stel quickly checked his weapons and remembered that he was low on ammo for both his weapons. I could turn around and leave quietly. But what if the Spartan tails me without my knowledge?

The Sangheili silently readied his concussion rifle, making sure his other weapons could be drawn in the blink of an eye. He took aim at the Spartan's back and fired.


Marco took the EMP grenades out of the pod and stowed them carefully onto his armour slots, and as an afterthought, decided to take the note as well that read "You'll thank me later."

He was turning away from the pod when he saw something out of the corner of his eye. A Sangheili in gold armour was standing behind the cover of trees, taking aim at him. The Spartan dodged away just as the alien opened fire, and two explosive plasma bolts hit the pod but left no damage on it.

Marco snapped up his MA5B and returned fire, but the Sangheili also managed to avoid getting hit. 7.62mm rounds spat from the assault rifle, shredding bark off several trees as the Sangheili dashed back and forth, taking cover back in the forest. Marco reloaded his weapon and moved cautiously after his foe.

He was out of sight from the forest edge when a plasma grenade sailed through the air. The Spartan easily avoided the explosive and ran out of its blast radius when the Sangheili re-appeared from the side and tackled him to the ground.

Marco didn't even flinch. His assault rifle in one hand, he pulled the trigger and managed to empty eight rounds into the Sangheili's stomach. The alien's energy shields glowed but didn't fail, and with one foot, stamped down on his wrist, forcing his aim to the side. In his right hand was a needler, pointing right at the Spartan's face.

Marco wrenched the Sangheili's forearm to the side. Bright pink shards sprayed the dirt next to his face. Three seconds later, both guns clicked empty.

The Sangheili moved first, his left hand snatching the pistol from Marco's hip. The Spartan retaliated by kicking at his enemy's legs, tripping him. But the Sangheili rolled away, still holding the sidearm.

Marco knew he had no time to reload his assault rifle. They were a little too close for him to use frags. And there was no way in hell he was going to win with a combat knife against a fully-shielded hostile with a gun. He reached for his only remaining weapon, the EMP grenades.

The Spartan activated one of the explosives in his hand and charged the Sangheili. He ducked as bullets whizzed past his head, knocking the gun out of the alien's hand and dashing away in one single move.

The Sangheili turned around to see Marco catch his reclaimed weapon out of the air a moment before the EMP grenade detonated, engulfing everything in a flash of white.

Marco could tell by his own sluggish movements that the EMP had shorted out something in his armour, and was thankful that he was still able to move at all. He knew that the Sangheili was still alive, but didn't know if his armour was affected as well. But right now, he himself wasn't in the best position to re-engage the foe in combat, and decided to find somewhere to recuperate while the alien was still dazed.

Marco didn't know how long or far he ran, but didn't stop even though he could hear no one in pursuit. It was only when he sighted a mountain that he realized he had reached the other side of the forest.

Slumped against a nearby tree was the bloodied corpse of an ODST, his arms missing and two holes seared into his helmet. Lying in the nearby foliage was a long-barrelled rifle, obviously previously used by the Marine. Marco remembered that in his fight against the Sangheili, he had left his assault rifle behind. He picked up the sniper rifle and examined it.

Although he didn't recognize the exact model of the weapon, it bore an uncanny resemblance to the M99 Stanchion gauss rifle, one of the most deadly weapons in the UNSC arsenal. I'm just glad I found it first. I wouldn't like the idea of someone else aiming at me with this gun.

Marco looked down at the ODST and examined his wounds. It seemed the Helljumper had tangled with a Sangheili as well and lost. Whoever killed him could still be nearby. It could even had been the one he had just fought. The Spartan took the dead Marine's dog tags from around his neck and read the name. CORTEZ, RAPHAEL. GUNNERY SERGEANT.

Thank you, Gunnery Sergeant Cortez, Marco thought as he walked away, clutching his newfound weapon. You've just given me a fighting chance to win.

Episode 11: Divide and Conquer

1

Stel shook his head to clear his blurred sight, fumbling to reload his needler and listening for the sound of the Spartan coming back to finish him off. Instead, there was just silence, followed by a click as his gun refilled its magazine.

He looked around, blinking to making sure there wasn't permanent damage. He felt as if he had been caught by a human flashbang grenade, except his ears weren't ringing. There were no traces of the explosive on the ground.

The Spartan had left behind his assault rifle, and the black capsule, both of which were empty. Stel checked them anyway to be sure before setting off out of the forest, feeling none too optimistic. He was down to his last needler magazine, four shots left for the concussion rifle, two plasma grenades, and an energy dagger. He had to replenish his weapons, and soon.

He found the human facility again and entered carefully, needler raised. Perhaps there would be some supplies inside. At the moment, he would have no objections to putting his hands on some UNSC ordnance, as long as there were plenty of spare magazines as well.

An hour-long search resulted in nothing, however. There weren't any weapons, vehicles, supplies, or even people inside the whole facility. It was eerily silent, and Stel decided it was most likely that the entire building was completely deserted. Nonetheless, he was just as careful on his way out, in case he ran into someone, maybe the Spartan he fought with, should they enter.

There was no sign of the supersoldier when he reached the outside of the facility again. Stel looked to the forest and then the rocky flatlands adjacent to it, and decided to find some new territory. He was getting tired of lurking in the trees, and as long as he didn't stay out in the open, he would be able to cross it in no time.

Wishing he had more ammo for the twentieth time, he set out alone over the flatlands.

2

Matt-D761 crouched at the rear of the collapsed cave, watching the ice blocks shift with muffled cracks. He had barely moved for a half hour now, but kept his M78 rocket launcher aimed at where the ice was moving the most, ready to fire the moment the Jiralhanae ran in. The M78 might be a "light" launcher, but it still had enough firepower to stop the alien bastard before he closed half the distance between them.

A small opening formed in the wreckage. Matt could hear the Chieftain grunting as he attacked the blocks, followed by whumps of a gravity hammer slamming into ice, which easily shattered from the force. The Spartan adjusted his aim, ready to fire as soon as there was enough room. If he mis-timed his shot, his rocket would simply destroy whatever ice was left between him and the exit, which would leave him with an unloaded launcher pointing at a very pissed-off Jiralhanae.

There was a loud roar from the Chieftain, followed by a solid, resounding thud as broken pieces of ice, some as large as Matt's helmet, flew in all directions. Without so much as flinching, he fired the rocket at the alien.

The Jiralhanae suddenly vanished in a white flash, a split second before the rocket flew past him and impacted on a nearby outcropping, showering globules of melted ice and snow where it hit. The Spartan grabbed his M62 battle rifle and slowly moved towards the exit, wary for signs of where the hostile had gone.

Upon reaching the exit, Matt saw that there was a small hole in the ice where the Jiralhanae had been. It looked like it had been blown open, because there were shards of metal in the water below.

An armoured gauntlet reached up out of the water. "Give me a hand here, Manticore Three."

Matt gave a start. "Evie?"

"Who else would go through all this trouble to save your ass? Now hurry up and pull me out."

He complied, firmly grasping his team leader's hand and helping her climb onto the slippery ice. Evie casually wiped the water off her machine gun, still eyeing the hole in the water. "Picked up your FOF tag about twenty minutes ago. I thought there was someone who was keeping those pirates off our back, but I didn't think it'd be you."

"Anytime, Chief," said Matt. "Thanks for returning the favour."

"Oh, I don't think I've killed that one. The grenades I set under him were supposed to blow him sky-high, if I wasn't underwater. So when the ice cracked, he just sank straight down. I think he was still alive, but hopefully the water will finish him off."

The two Spartans headed out across the icy ground, both feeling somewhat reassured now that they had partially reassembled their team. Matt recalled something. "I saw another Spartan with you earlier."

"He's dead," said Evie. "A sniper got him while we were making a break for it." His name was Matt too. I won't let that happen to you though. "We're going back. We have to get off this open ground, the sooner the better. And I have some unfinished business to attend to." Besides, I'd like to see those guys try to outsnipe Matt. The pirates would be dead before they saw either of the Spartans coming.

3

Without turning his head, Fira kept his eyes on the flowing water before him and murmured to 'Morhek, "There is someone sneaking up on us from behind."

The Ultra showed no sign of consternation. "I know. I have been noticed it for a while now." His voice was completely free of tension.

Fira wondered how 'Morhek had managed to do so without even shifting his eyes, and how long he had known. "What if it is a sniper?"

"Then we would have been shot by now. It is a Sangheili that is watching us. But keep your weapon close to hand. We do not yet know his intent."

The two warriors sat side by side on the riverbank, both ready to pull up a gun and fire. "What else do you see about this Sangheili?" Fira asked.

"He is a Zealot. He is alone and has weapons capable of picking us off but has not done so."

"Then he has no intention of attacking us."

"That still remains to be seen. He appears anxious, and is possibly observing us to see if we would do him harm."

"I will not attack you if you don't provoke me," came a new voice.

Fira leaped to his feet, spinning around and pointing his needle rifle at a gold-armoured Sangheili standing behind them. In his hands was the same weapon, pointing at him.

'Morhek slowly stood up, completely unarmed. "You move very quickly, Zealot."

The newcomer stiffened, his gun still pointing at Fira. "You heard me approach."

"I did. But if you intended to kill us, I don't think you would have risked your life to approach us in this manner."

"I saw a possibility of having others to fight alongside. So I took the risk."

"A good thing you did then. What is your name?"

"Eyla 'Yabomee."

"I am Qur'a 'Morhek. Would you mind aiming your weapon away from my friend Fira?"

Fira and 'Yabomee lowered their needle rifles cautiously. "Why were you sitting here? What were you waiting for?"

"Nothing," said Fira. "A game of survival that has no purpose is a foolish one to participate in."

"Perhaps. But we should at least try. I'm simply passing through when I saw the two of you. Would you join me in continuing on?"

Fira expected 'Morhek to refuse, and tell 'Yabomee what he had said previously. Instead, the Ultra brushed a few blades of grass off his leg armour and took his plasma repeater in his hands. "I cannot speak for Fira, but I am willing to join you."

'Yabomee turned to look at Fira, who said, "Very well then, count me in."

The three Sangheili waded into the river, the current feeling strangely warm all the way down to the bottom. They climbed out the other side and marched off in a triangular formation, weapons ready and watching all sides carefully.

Fira noted how 'Morhek's relaxed demeanour vanished in a second and was replaced by a sharp focus. How easily he slips in and out of a state of mind of his choosing. I wish I could do the same. He himself had been on edge the whole time, and when 'Yabomee had crept up on them, he became only more so. What little peace he had found in the brief hours was gone, but he didn't mind at all. It was time to get back into the action, where he was in his element.

4

Olsen was good and cornered this time, and he knew it. He had been exploring the underground tunnels and caves for more than twenty-four hours and was beginning to feel annoyed that there didn't seem to be any way out through the ceiling of stone above him. He didn't even know how far underground he was. Can't hear anything from above me, that's for sure.

Olsen had learned that if you went on too long and didn't get hungry or thirsty, or didn't need to go to the bathroom, then it was a bad sign from your body. Still, he it was easy to ignore and as long as he didn't collapse from exhaustion, he would just keep looking for exits until he found a way out.

Having gone for quite a while with no sleep, he could do nothing but walk around to the point where his irritation gradually became boredom, and he wished that something different, anything different, would happen.

That was when he exited a tunnel and into yet another cavern to find an entire score of Covenant, armed to the teeth and staring at him in a rather unfriendly way.

Oh, the irony.

Olsen backed into the tunnel, of course, and started running as fast as he could with all his gear and equipment weighing him down. And after all that walking, he really wasn't in the mood to break into a sprint.

If there's a God up there and he's listening to my thoughts, I'll bet I'm his personal joke or something. He didn't know if his dry-humour-in-the-midst-of-a-bad-situation mood was attributed to his mostly uneventful time underground, but right now he didn't really have time to think about it. The Covenant bastards were closing the distance on him pretty fast. If only he had time to arm one of his satchel charges...

Plasma fire sprayed past him, a few shots landing on his back armour. Screw it. Guess I'll go down fighting. Turning around, he sprayed into the crowd of Covenant with his assault rifle, not even needing to aim. The smaller aliens took hits and started falling, but they only bought him a split second of respite as the Sangheili stepped over them. They were getting closer now, and their aim would be getting better too.

Time to go out in a blaze of glory. Olsen's magazine ran empty, and he unholstered his pistol. He kept firing with one hand as the other reached for one of the two satchel on his back. But for some reason, they were both missing. He could have sworn he had them a moment ago.

Wait a minute, why are some of those Covenant shooting in that direction? He saw a flash of a white-armoured figure darting away a heartbeat before his retinas were printed with the outlines of every Covenant soldier being engulfed in two almost simultaneous explosions. The Marine was thrown back from the force of the explosion and felt heat on his face as his pistol went flying out of his grip. He rolled into a nearby tunnel as he heard the sound of rock cracking apart and shattering onto the equally unyielding stone floor.

The roar of the explosion faded away, and he looked up to see a Spartan, the white-armoured one, standing over him and holding out one gauntlet. Olsen felt a little battered from the explosions, but he stood up, and picked up both his guns, which had miraculously ended up next to him.

"Hope you don't mind that I borrowed your satchels," the Spartan said. It was a male voice, and he sounded a little too...casual for his kind. "But if I waited any longer you'd have been cooked by those Covenant."

"It's fine," Olsen said, reloading his weapons even though he was still trying to regain his breath. Just in case any of the aliens were still alive. "Are you stuck down here too?"

"Yeah. I heard the commotion and decided to check it out. And it looks like me saving your ass has solved both our problems."

"What do you mean?"

"Come take a look."

The Spartan led him back to the cave, or rather, what was a cave. Now it was a massive hole with its stone ceiling blown apart by the satchels. There were huge chunks of broken stone, dirt, and grass scattered on the cave floor, so climbing out looked like it would be easy.

"Can't believe I didn't think of using the satchels earlier," muttered Olsen.

"Ah well, better late than never. Come on, let's get some fresh air."

"Right behind you. I'm Kyle Olsen, by the way."

"Doug. SPARTAN-103."

5

Things went to hell way too quickly.

Felix had just reached the end of the forest with Bryce and Robson, and they had barely stepped a toe out of the treeline when they were attacked by some blackish-red machine creature who seemed to detect them almost immediately. And now the three humans were fighting for their lives and cursing their terrible luck.

The thing, whatever it was, was not only difficult to kill but had some pretty nasty weapons. They took cover by retreating back into the forest, trying to avoid getting ripped apart by lasers and missiles.

After about ten minutes of exchanging fire with the robot thing and then changing positions to avoid getting killed, they finally seemed to be getting somewhere. Its armour was now peppered with bullets and it looked like it was getting frustrated. The forest was now a smouldering mess; trees collapsed, were blown apart, or were now on fire, which was bad.

"Felix! Bryce called over the COM.

"Yeah," Felix replied, dashing in an irregular pattern and avoiding the missiles that rained down around him. He whipped around a tree, emptied half a magazine into the machine's torso, and ran off again.

"Our Marine buddy's not looking so good," Bryce said. "Go help him out, will you?"

"On it. I'll keep this thing distracted, you try and take it down. Aim for some weak spots."

Robson was indeed flagging. He hadn't got far enough from one of the missile explosions earlier, and was currently a bit worse for wear. Bryce fired at the enemy, not really bothering to aim anywhere in particular. But it didn't seem to notice the bullets that added a few dents to its armour. It fired three missiles at Robson, whose breath was now coming up short. There was no way he was going to escape in time.

Felix brought up his rapid-fire shotgun and fired all twelve shots at the missiles. It took the entire dozen shells, but he was rewarded with a trio of explosions that blew the tops off the trees but left Robson unharmed. The machine thing was moving warily towards the smoke clouds left behind, momentarily forgetting the other Spartan flanking him.

Bryce reloaded his sniper rifle, took aim at a spot under its chin where it didn't look so properly armoured, and fired two shots in quick succession. Both 14.5mm rounds hit their mark, causing their enemy to jerk erratically. For a split second, he wondered if he had actually managed to land the fatal shot.

Then the robot spun to face him, and he knew that he had pissed it off. He fumbled to grab another magazine but already knew that the distance was too close.

The claw lashed out, grabbed his torso, and compressed his chest with every bit of strength in its metallic fingers. Bryce felt his heart pop and died almost instantly, which was merciful as his blood seeped throughout the inside of his lifeless body.


"Shit," swore Robson, spitting out a mouthful of blood as he raised his rifle, despite his exhaustion. "The bastard will be coming after us next."

Felix quickly slid a dozen new shells into his shotgun, trying not to look at Bryce's corpse and focus on the issue at hand. "Then let's get ready, Marine."

"It's pointless," Robson said. "Look, I'm not in the best shape right now after that explosion. I'm just dead weight to you right now. How about I keep this thing busy while you make a break for it?"

Felix shook his head. "Not going to happen."

"I'm dead already. At least you still have a chance. This is a deathmatch, Spartan, so sooner or later one of us will have to die. At least you won't have to be the one to kill me."

Felix hesitated, pondering Robson's words. It was true that these weren't normal circumstances. In any other case, he would be making sure his allies got out alive or die trying, but here, to leave someone behind was different. There would be no consequences because everyone was in it to survive. And Robson just put into words what he had been thinking all along.

Still doesn't feel right though. The Spartan pulled out a grenade, an SLE7 designed with both a fragmentation and a plasma grenade, and said, "I hear you. But I have a better idea."


Strifalex didn't stop to see the results of his latest kill. He was far too annoyed that the Spartan had caused so much damage on him before he died, and he just wanted deal with the other two before they became a problem for him.

Not bothering to take to the air again, he dashed across the ruined forest floor, ignoring the fire and smoke that was all around him. Maybe it would slow the humans down, but he would be absolutely unaffected. They were just beyond there...

A small object suddenly flew through the air towards his face. Surprised, Strifalex tried to bat it away, only to have it attach to his hand. Before he knew what to make of it, it exploded. Shocked, he stopped momentarily and realized that the explosive had torn open the armour on his right side and damaged his hand. He tried to ignore the damage, and saw both humans not far off, running off into the forest in different directions. He armed his lasers and prepared to shoot the armoured on in the back. They would not get away that easily...

And then the second charge exploded, catching Strifalex completely off-guard and throwing him flat on his face in an undignified heap. As if adding insult to injury, a nearby tree fell on him, pinning him down for the time being.

6

Despite his injuries and what little stamina he had left, Robson didn't stop running until he was absolutely certain that he wasn't being pursued. And he wasn't certain until he was completely clear of the forest after a full hour of running.

He stopped, and without warning, collapsed, his chest heaving as he gasped for breath. He was usually in good shape even among Marines, it was not a good idea to run an hour straight with a dozen injuries he had been ignoring. For the next while, he didn't know how long, he just lay there, trying to regain his breath. To hell with it if someone might spot him. He felt like shit right now.

When Robson was finally able to sit up, he thought back on what had happened. That thing, that machine, had killed a Spartan. Crushed a quarter-ton of chest armour and a muscular torso so easily. And where did Felix end up? Did he get away? Of course he would, I did...he's not stupid enough to go back to fight it, is he?

Robson didn't know if he would be able to regroup with Felix, but he decided it was time to get moving. Put a bit of distance between himself and what was left of the forest while he still had his life. Checking that his weapons were properly loaded, he looked around to see where he was. The forest wasn't far behind him, but he was hardly prepared for what he saw before him.

He was standing in a grassland that stretched out as far as he could see. The ground around him was almost flat save for a distant cluster of gigantic rocks piled together, one of them pointing diagonally up into the sky. There were some sort of animals gathered there; he guessed they were rather large but couldn't tell what they were from his position.

It sure was hot out too. The sun beat down over everything relentlessly, and there was no shade to be found. Robson spotted a water pond not far off at a clearing in the grass. He wasn't thirsty (which was odd), but perhaps he could go there and cool down, maybe clean some of his wounds too.

He stopped when he realized he was being surrounded by a rather unfriendly group of animals. These ones were smaller than the ones at the rock, and darker-furred too. He had seen them only once before in Kenya during the Battle of Earth. Hyenas.

There were easily a score of them. They weren't too close yet but steadily encircling him and would soon become a problem. Their teeth were bared and their intentions were clear.

This just isn't my day. But despite the close brush with death he had just escaped, Robson felt energized enough to take these rodents on. This was nothing compared to that machine thing. His M28 was up and he took aim at the nearest hyena. "Alright, come and get me."

As if understanding his words, the pack sprang into action, and every hyena moved to attack at once.

Episode 12: Animal Instinct

1

Matt-D761 moved silently through the snow-covered rocks and icicles of the cliff path, his armor patterns shifting slightly to match the variations of grey and white as he traversed the small ledges. Keeping a tight grip on his battle rifle, disguised by the same camouflage field as surrounded the armor, Matt updated the zoomed image around his teammate and CO, Evie-D2541.

After escaping the small ice cave that Matt had been driven into by the Jiralhanae chieftain, the pair had taken to the mountain paths in an attempt to stay out of sight. Per Evie’s suggestion, Matt had taken to the high ground to provide overwatch, while Evie continued on the lower paths, allowing both to cover each other in the event of another attack.

They had been travelling this way for some time now, Evie proceeding cautiously, but in a much less stealthy manner than Matt, fitting her own head-long, no-holds-bar style. Matt, for his part, had not said a word, contemplating events and generating strategies in the event of attack. That was his skill: analyzing the situation, attacking based on the information gathered and plans formulated. And he’d be damned if he failed that task now.

Matt suddenly noticed a change among the rocks surrounding Evie’s path. He changed his scope zoom, double-checked, re-analyzed, noted and theorized, all in a matter of a few seconds. His mind spinning through cycles like a computer, he arrived at the cause almost instantly.

“Evie, we’ve got cloakers.”

“I know,” she replied over the private channel. Earlier, both had ensured that external speakers were deactivated prior to the beginning of radio silence. “One’s been spotting ahead of me for about three minutes now. And it’s not alone. How many do you see?”

Matt examined the area around Evie, both cliff ledges and among the rocks on the ground, noting positions and considering possible roles involved. “I’m counting approximately sixteen, potentially four snipers. Take ‘em out?”

Evie stopped moving, nonchalantly looking behind her for a second, before facing forward again. “Ready?”

Matt cocked his rifle. “Ready.”

“Go!”

Evie wrenched her machine gun off her back in one swift movement and opened fire on a vaguely blurry patch to her right, causing purple-blue blood to splatter on the white snow from a rapidly reappearing Sangheili corpse. Even as the other warriors shouted war cries and opened fire, Evie opened fire on a second Sangheili that had charged her from behind, shoving the machine gun into his gut and opening a hole straight through before deftly spinning and stabbing another warrior with her wrist-mounted blade.

Matt, for his part, opened fire from his vantage point as soon as he was given the signal, and dropped one of the Sangheili snipers in a few seconds, bursting through its shielding and armor plating with relative ease. However, its’ cohort followed the shots back to their source, and signaled for his comrades to take up arms at the sniper. Matt fired several more shots off at the offender, wounding him, but as a plasma turret laid down fire and several grenades landed near him, Matt decided retreat was necessary.

Activating his camouflage fully, even though he knew it would not last very long, Matt jumped down from his overwatch position into the fray, landing on top of a Sangheili sniper’s shoulders, the sudden impact crushing him in a single, deft move. His partner frightened, he attempted to recover, but instead received a headbutt and neck-breaking in an instant before having his lifeless body thrown into two of Evie’s attackers, toppling them over as she jumped over them and cracked their skulls.

“Matt, grenade!” Evie yelled, to which her partner obliged. Grabbing the nearest Sangheili and cutting a deep gash into his shoulder and chest, Evie turned and caught the flashbang grenade before punching her fist into her opponents' wound, lodging the grenade into his chest. Fitfully he tried to pull the grenade out of his chest, but Evie tossed him back into his fellow soldiers, averting her eyes as the grenade detonated, blinding and befuddling her remaining foes. Opening fire with her machine gun once more, Evie began to destroy the remaining half dozen’s cover by blasting the rocks around her, while Matt opened fire on the last sniper once more.

As the sniper fell from a bullet through the eye socket, Matt charged forward, signaling Evie at the same time, who tossed her sub-machine guns to him. Jumping over a rock, Matt caught them and opened fire on one of their foes before spinning midair to drop-kick another. Evie charged forward as support, and ripping up the shields of the remaining trio while Matt lit them up with his sub-machine guns.

Kicking the last enemy in the head, Matt knocked it over the cliff for good measure, and then handed the sub-machine guns back to Evie as she walked up. Evie nodded in gratitude, then holstered her machine gun to her back plating.

“I suppose stealth is pretty much over with now,” said Matt.

“We’ll keep going as stealthily as we can,” replied Evie, “But if anyone was around, they’re sure to know that we’re nearby from all that noise. Let’s get out of her as fast as we can.”

With that, the two Spartans started jogging across the cliff path, headed further away from the ice plateaus and trying to distance themselves from the battle as quickly as possible.

2

The Elite never saw it coming.

Colin-142 erupted from the forest's leaf-coated floor and wrapped his armored hands around the squid-head's neck. With a quick jerk, he twisted it up and around before his victim could even start to react. Before the alien's corpse had even hit the floor, the SPARTAN-II pulled the carbine from his back and brought down the Elite's startled Grunt escort with a series of suppressed bursts.

After sweeping the area for any sign of additional Covenant--or any other hostiles--Colin set off at a brisk pace away from the bodies. The ambush had gone perfectly, but he could derive no satisfaction from it. The aliens he had just killed were simply the latest in a long trail of bodies he had left in his wake since this strange battle had begun. He had yet to encounter anything besides small squads of cannon fodder, which worried him immensely.

I need to get out of this forest. The longer I don't understand what's going on just gives someone else a better chance to get the drop on me.

Colin was used to moving and fighting on his own and he was confident that he could play tag with the Covenant forces throughout the forest for weeks if need be. But the dregs weren't his real enemy; those were out beyond the trees.

He adopted a steady zig-zag pattern as he pressed onwards. That would make it harder for anyone, Covenant or otherwise, to track his progress.

His HUD's temperature sensors detected a dramatic spike of cold less than a mile ahead of him. Colin frowned and took cover behind a tree as he surveyed the forest in front of him. The temperatures here had struck him as appropriate to fall, so why was there something so cold so nearby?

That was worth investigating at the very least. But as he checked his front again, he saw something moving in the trees not far away. He couldn't make out exactly what it was, but it was big and moving in his direction.

Breath catching in his mouth, Colin readied his carbine and eased his way back towards the leafy ground.

3

Hephaestus strode through the forest, not bothering to hide his presence. His last attempts at stealth had only slowed him down and given his prey time to escape; now he would bring his prey to him and weather whatever pathetic attacks they could throw at him.

The change from a snowy landscape to this quiet forest was odd, but at this point nothing surprised Hephaestus. He would not grant this world's pathetic overlords the satisfaction of befuddling him and instead he laughed at this strange development, mocking whatever simple mind had come up with it.

As he marched deeper into the forest, he scanned his surroundings with not only his eyes but his nose as well. Everything appeared calm on the surface, but Hephaestus's nostrils told him a different story. There was death here in this forest. The scent of blood on the air brought an even broader smile to Hephaestus's lips.

Breathing deeper, he carefully picked out the different scents within the blood trace. There was the all-too familiar smell of Unggoy blood, but beneath that was a fragrance that smelled even sweeter: blood from dead Sangheili.

This was indeed interesting. Hephaestus marched on, more confident than ever that he would find some entertainment in these woods. He would amuse himself by hunting whatever was in this forest, be it the Unngoy and Sangheili or the one that had already killed so many of them. He would slay all in his path, and when he had no one left to kill he would ascend to claim his victory.

And when that was finished, he would lay his hands on the worms who had dared subject him to such an indignity and make their screams ring in his ears for as long as he wished.

4

The small engine whined on the ATV as Dyne and Joshua’s Mongoose sped over the fairly barren terrain, rumbling across the plateau at high speed. Joshua continued to scan the area, searching for any signs of hostiles underneath the darkened sky, but still found the area eerily empty, almost unnervingly so.

Together the pair had already driven on for quite some time, down through the canyons that had let out of the junkyard and all through their network, but either they had missed their target – which was unlikely, given the duo’s vigilant watch – or the target had left their area. So they had continued on, and eventually exited onto a large plateau, from which they had seen a distant village, their current destination.

“How much longer till we reach it?” yelled Joshua.

“A few minutes, tops,” Dyne replied, “What’s the worry?”

“I don’t like being out in the open this long. It’s making me uneasy.”

Dyne continued his straight path toward the village, trying to make it seem like they were moving faster to placate his partner’s fears of being attacked somewhat. However, as they drew near to the village and the storm clouds began to release their payload in earnest, Dyne began to feel like the open might be preferred.

Joshua adjusted his weight as Dyne brought the Mongoose to a stop at the edge of the village, while the two began to proceed carefully through the deserted town, lightning crashing all around. Holding his Battle Rifle at the ready, Joshua proceeded in point down the alleyways, under cover of his camouflage cloak while Dyne followed from a safe distance, his rifle held in combat position with easy access to his sub-machine guns.

Through the streets they marched, not encountering a single living thing as the rain continued to pour down. But, as they moved back towards the center of the village, they began to notice damaged or even destroyed buildings, debris scattered throughout the streets. And then, they noticed something different: inside the nearby bar, lights glimmered, dark shapes moving about inside.

Joshua signaled for Dyne to stop, his form barely visible as a rain-spattered shimmer in the dim light. “What’s your opinion?” he asked his fellow Spartan.

“Investigate. Maybe they’re allies.”

“And if they’re hostile?” Joshua replied, looking Dyne in the visor. However, as he turned to look, he noticed a shadow flying down towards them, and pushed Dyne out of the way as an armored figure crashed into him, tossing Joshua’s cloak off of him and tossing both into the street.

Joshua faced off with this newcomer, and saw him to be another Spartan, a III no less. “Who are you?” Joshua asked him.

“Better question is who are you, sneaking around like that?” retorted the newcomer, brandishing his combat knife. He shifted his body weight in a subtle fashion that only another Spartan could pick up, as if he were going to attack, when the doors to bar flew open and two marines rushed out.

“What’s going on?” said the older of the two, his MA5K carbine raised and aimed at the Spartan. His companion, likewise, kept his DMR on Dyne, who had not escaped his notice in the shadows.

Dyne, for his part, stood up and raised his hand in peace gestures as he walked out of the shadows into the street. “Let’s just be civilized here,” he said, “We’re all UNSC, right? We can work this out together, alright? Right?”

Tension held in the air for several seconds as the rain thudded to the ground. Joshua and the other Spartan remained frozen in their places, while the marines kept their guns level. Then, with measured calm, the older marine lowered his rifle.

“Alright. Simon, cease the hostilities and get them in here. Do either of you have medical skills?”

“A little,” admitted Dyne, “It’s not my specialty, but I know some of the important procedures and –”

“Good,” replied the marine, “We’ve got a wounded marine and a Spartan without an arm in here. We’ve got the medical supplies to aid them, but someone with a little more skill would be appreciated. Come and see what you can do.”

Dyne proceeded into the bar, the younger marine right behind him. Joshua and Simon had remained in almost the exact same positions, ready to pounce, rain pouring off their armor as they continued to face-off.

“Simon!” yelled the marine. “I said stand down. That’s not a suggestion.”

Simon turned to look at the marine for a moment in hesitation, then reluctantly sheathed his knife and walked towards the bar, eyes on Joshua until he passed inside. As soon as the other Spartan and the marine disappeared, Joshua returned the grenade and knife he had been ready to use to his belt, then moved inside as well.

5

Not long after the Albatross flew off, Coney insisted that she could pilot the aircraft by herself. So Jess stepped out of the cockpit and into the cargo bay, where Koel was sitting strapped into a crash seat.

He certainly looked like he'd been through a lifetime of hell since she last saw him. Gone was the youthful agility to the way he walked, the slightly boyish tone he carried in his voice, and just about everything about him made him seem...worn-out. The only thing that hadn't changed about him was his eyes. The way they were always alert and ready. It seemed whatever he had gone through hadn't taken away his fight. That's good. We all need to be at our best to make it out of this alive.

Koel looked up, noticed her staring at him, and said, "You should take a seat, Jess."

She sealed the cockpit door and strapped in next to him. For a moment, neither of them said anything.

Finally, he decided to say something. Start off casually. "Do you have any idea where we are?"

She shook her head. "I've seen people killing each other. Couldn't figure out why. That's about it. I'm hoping we'll find a way out of this at the space station."

"I've killed a few of these guys already, how about you?"

"No. I haven't had to yet, but I've avoided confrontations since we have no idea what we're dealing with here. It's like we're in a whole different world, isn't it? Like nothing else exists..."

He nodded, and decided to just go out and say it. "I think we are."

She turned to look at him. "How is that possible?"

"I don't know. But look at you. I'm on the verge of retirement and you still look like the day we lost you." The next thing he said tumbled out before he could stop it, before he could doubt the theory nagging in the back of his mind. "Jess, it's because this is how old you were when you died all those years ago."

She shook her head. "No, that's not how it is, Roy."

"I know it might sound weird, but there's no other explanation for it. You went missing in 2496—"

"I can see what you're thinking," she said. "But really, I'm not dead. I resurfaced in 2556 thanks to Felix, he's alive too. And...he's a Spartan now..."

"What?"

"It's a long story."

"It's a long ride. We've got time."

A muffled explosion was heard on the other side of the hull. The Albatross shook, throwing both Marines back in their seats.

"Heads up!" shouted Coney from behind the cockpit door. "Enemy fighters firing on us!"

"Looks like our time has run out," Jess said grimly. The two Marines quickly unstrapped themselves and ran into the cockpit. Coney was adjusting a dozen things on the pilot controls, looking rather composed considering the situation they were in.

"How bad is it?" Jess asked, getting straight to business.

"This ship doesn't have guns," Coney said. "And we're still in-atmosphere. We'll never make it to the space station." A second explosion rocked the Albatross, causing both Marines to stumble and grab the nearby walls for support. The Naval officer didn't even flinch, but flipped a couple of levers and continued manoeuvring their damaged aircraft.

Koel looked out the front window and saw the Sabre fighters firing at them. "Did you tell them we were UNSC?"

"They weren't in the mood to talk."

"Think they'll let us go if we head back down to the surface?"

"I doubt it. I've been dropping our altitude but they won't back off. We might have to bail out." The third explosion sent Jess colliding into Koel, and they both smacked into the side of the cockpit. "That's a definite on the bail-out. We're going down."

"Shouldn't be a problem," Jess said, picking herself back up and trying to maintain her balance in the now rapidly plummeting ship. "There are parachutes in the back. A little outdated maybe, but better than burning up with this bird."

"Give me a sec," said Coney. "I'll activate the backup engines to level us out a bit. That should buy us a minute to jump out safely before those Sabres take out the backups." She pressed a few buttons and pulled a small black lever, causing the Albatross to lurch. Without wasting another second, she unstrapped herself from the pilot seat and headed to the cargo bay, where the Marines were putting on parachutes. These things look almost as unsafe as riding out the crash, she thought, but said nothing as she accepted a parachute from Koel.

"We'll regroup on the ground," she said, strapping it onto her back. "That's if the Sabres decide not to pick us off."

"Hold onto your rifles," Jess added, entering a code to trigger the explosive bolts on the Albatross' hatch.

"I'm getting too old for this," Koel sighed.

Everyone covered their ears as a dozen miniature explosions ripped the hatch away from the burning ship. A howling wind consumed the cargo bay, drowning out all sound. Jess jumped first, followed by Coney, and taking a deep breath, Koel leaped out, feeling the solid metal under his feet become open air.

He got a glimpse of the Sabres darting around above them. They circled the Albatross for a moment, as if confused, and without warning, turned and flew off.

6

They had followed the river to its end and arrived at a massive lake. It was a long trip but none of the three Sangheili were particularly exhausted.

"Still no signs of enemies," said 'Yabomee, sounding disappointed. He was clearly impatient to kill something.

Fira snorted in disapproval. "Value your life while you have it. If you go seeking trouble, you will find more than what you bargained for."

"Do you think me incapable?" 'Yabomee snapped back.

"No, just a tad foolish."

"This is a game of survival, 'Demal," the brutish Sangheili said, clearly unwilling to back down. "Be glad I am looking for other opponents and not dealing with you."

"If you think you would stand a chance against me."

"Cease this bickering," said 'Morhek calmly. "We will settle disputes if the need arises, but in the meantime we should focus on finding our enemies."

"That is what I was doing," 'Yabomee muttered, glaring at Fira.

But the latter's attention was drawn to something else. "Who is that?" He dashed forward, and the other two Sangheili saw it too. A corpse, belonging to one of their kind, lay still by the waterside.

"And you chastise me for foolishness," said 'Yabomee when he had caught up. "This could have very well been a trap. Not that I would mind, as I would gladly take on any enemies that appear to confront me."

Fira didn't seem to be listening. He was staring down at the dead Sangheili with sorrow. "Sona...my cousin..."

'Morhek crouched down next to him. "I am sorry for your loss, Fira. But we should not linger."

"He has been dead for a few days now," Fira murmured, staring at the dried blood on the side of Sona's neck. "His adversary would have moved on."

"Perhaps not," said 'Yabomee, now looking off to one side. "I see some who may be held responsible." There was a five-man team of Marines making their way along the side of the lake.

"'Yabomee, wait," 'Morhek began, but it was too late. The Zealot sprinted off, breaking through the cover of the trees and activating his Energy Sword. He cut down the first human, slashing through its chest armour with ease. Without slowing down, he decapitated a second and slit the throat of a third. Fira's head snapped up and he got up immediately, running towards the fight.

The two remaining Marines opened fire, and despite their slim chances of survival, they didn't retreat or try to run. 'Yabomee drove his Energy Sword straight through one of them, and moved to kill the last one when Fira leaped onto his back, pinning him flat on the ground and knocking the breath out of him.

"Stop this!" Fira shouted, holding down his wrists too.

"Get off!" 'Yabomee snarled, struggling to free himself. His eyes were still on the Marine, who showed no sign of confusion but took aim at the two Sangheili. A burst of automatic fire sprayed onto Fira's torso, chipping away at his shields and causing him to fall onto his back. Without a second to spare, 'Yabomee staggered upright and in a wild swing, cut the human clean in half vertically.

'Morhek approached the two Sangheili, who were glaring at each other angrily. "What in the name of the gods did you think you were doing?" demanded 'Yabomee.

"I could ask you the same!" roared Fira. "You are mad, attacking an allied species without provocation—"

"Allied species?" repeated the Zealot. "And you call me mad! These heretics are our sworn enemy, and you know that when you joined the Covenant! Did you not see the human fire at you?"

"Because you attacked them, you fool!"

"And how do you know they were allies? They were very close to where your cousin died—"

"He died from an Energy dagger! It was no human that killed him! Perhaps if you did not act so heedlessly—"

"That is enough," snapped 'Morhek, causing both Sangheili to fall silent. They had never heard him sound angry before. "There is a clear disagreement between the two of you, so if you wish to settle this in any way, do so now. But I want no part in this."

"Is that what you want?" 'Yabomee asked Fira, energy sword hilt in hand. "I would have no objections to that."

"Put that away, before you draw the blade and force me to kill you," Fira growled. "Let me make this clear, I want nothing more to do with you after what you've just done. I intend to find my cousin's killer before anything else, so I will part ways with you now. But if we meet again, then I will deal with you accordingly."

"Walk away with your life then," 'Yabomee sneered. "And hope that we do not meet again."

"I thank you for your company," Fira said to 'Morhek, ignoring the Zealot now. "It has been my honour to be in your presence these last few days. But I have a personal matter to attend to and I must see it through alone."

"I understand, Fira. Best of luck to you."

"And to you, Qur'a 'Morhek."

Whatever differing opinions 'Morhek and 'Yabomee had on Fira, they both watched in equal silence as he walked away from the lake and disappeared into the trees.

Episode 13: Benefactors and Backstabbers

1

Colin-142 laid prone within the debris, silent and unmoving in the hopes that the oncoming enemy would not notice him. The form continued to stomp forward, and soon, as the shapes of the beast began to flitter into the light between tree limbs, Colin made out the form of a truly giant Brute chieftain, armed with an equally large war hammer.

The Brute clearly cared nothing for stealth, as it moved forward at something just short of a jog, hammer smashing into fallen logs and small trees to blow them out of its way. As it came close to the tiny clearing, Colin silently cursed himself for not conserving his ammunition better: his DMR was running low, and he didn’t have much maneuvering room to take on such a well-armored Brute with his carbine and SMG.

There I go acting like a damn III, he thought, flippantly spouting his hatred at Spartan-III’s.

The footfalls thudded closer and closer, and Colin tensed up as the Brute came dangerously close to his position, stopping mere feet away. It let its hammer rest for a moment, growling lowly to itself as it surveyed the area.

For a tenuous second, Colin prepared to launch himself up at the Brute and make a lunge for his throat if things turned south.

However, the moment passed when the Brute suddenly seemed to catch wind of something and charged off in a different direction, roaring to himself as he smashed his way through the forest. For several more moments, Colin waited, then climbed out of his hiding spot and looked around carefully.

The forest looked clear enough. In all of his view there was nothing to be seen, save the breeze blowing through the trees and bushes. Nearby, a river babbled quietly as the lilies swayed in the wind, but otherwise all was silent for the moment. Far too silent.

It was a moment too late when Colin got the eerie feeling that there was someone watching him. As he spun to look, the gunshot cracked across the forest, flying at high speeds towards Colin, and barely missing his head only to punch through his MJOLNIR and embed in his left shoulder.

Colin silently cried in pain and dove for cover behind the trees as more bullets peppered the area. Fighting through the pain, knowing that if he slowed down for even a second he might lose his life, Colin readied his DMR and took aim, firing rapidly with unrivaled precision into the tree limbs that held the shadowed form of the man that had attacked him.

Noting in detached fashion that his foe was well-skilled to ambush him silently from the trees without his notice, Colin rolled back into cover as smaller caliber counter-fire flared off of his shielding. Taking aim again, Colin noticed that his enemy had disappeared, and with the precision bred from decades in ONI’s black operations groups, he readjusted his direction based on the rustling in the trees and quickly tossed a fragmentation grenade in the general vicinity of his foe.

To Colin’s surprise, his foe opened fire, successfully detonating the grenade in mid-air some feet away. Taking advantage of the smoke and fire, Colin charged his attacker’s position, trying to eliminate the range advantage, and vaulted into the tree his attacker was hiding in. However, as soon as Colin landed, he knew he was in trouble as he found his foe missing and a remote det-pack in his place.

The sudden explosion blew Colin back out of the tree, knocking him to the ground where he struggled for several seconds to recover. In those seconds, his attacker moved in close and aimed his pistol, some form of high-caliber magnum, directly at Colin for a final shot. Colin forced himself to roll, ignoring his pain and dodging the gunfire twice before spinning and sweeping his attacker off his feet, sending his gun flying.

However, his attacker, though older and grey-haired, was in top physical condition, and even as he hit the ground he rebounded, spring-boarding himself back up and launching at the now-standing Colin with a series of knife swings. Colin attempted to grab his own, but found no opening to do so, simply parrying his opponent’s blows and returning with his own punches that this soldier blocked with seeming ease.

How can a normal soldier keep at me toe-to-toe? Colin wondered detachedly. His mind continued to calculate his situation while simultaneously thinking this would have been a wonderful joke to tell if it wasn’t for the fact that he was in a life or death situation.

Parry, block, uppercut, parry, punch, parry, parry, strike, parry, punch, block, double strike, parry. So it went, dodging left and right, back and forth, as the two danced across the small clearing, Colin barely able to counter all of his foe’s assaults. Finally thinking of a way to take advantage of his opponent, Colin backed towards a tree, and with great skill he jumped into it and flipped over his opponent, tossing one of his flashbangs and arming his knife as he did.

The grenade went off, temporarily blinding both opponents, but Colin felt sure of himself and lounged towards his opponent, certain that with the aid of the disorienting grenade he could land a sure hit on his opponent. However, Colin had underestimated his foe’s battle prowess: his foe had anticipated the grenade, and had averted his eyes, somewhat lessening its affects as he ducked to the ground, dodging Colin’s assault as it sailed over his head.

The pain was raw, more deadly than anything he had felt in a long time. The jagged, cold steel’s specially-designed edge tore right through the MJOLNIR’s midriff, ripping Colin’s gut open like a Thanksgiving turkey. There was a beat as the blood fell out, seeping into the ground below.

Hardening his resolve, Colin reached for his attacker’s arm and caught it before it could escape him, then wrenched it hard, snapping the shoulder completely out of socket. He attacked with reckless abandon, knowing he was almost as good as dead, but determined to take out his attacker.

Colin’s foe, however, was not without his own calm resolve, and he fought on, despite his own pain and wounds, fighting off Colin’s knife-edged assaults with only his gauntlet and feet. Attacking with all manner of martial skill, he pushed Colin back, displaying skill that marveled the Spartan. Despite not having either of his guns, his knife or the use of his right arm, this soldier refused to give in.

And then, in a brief moment of weakness, the pain forced Colin to cringe, making him miss slightly – just enough for his foe to take advantage of it. Grabbing Colin by the arm, he quickly forced him to the ground and broke his right arm, then stole Colin’s knife and pinned his other arm to the ground. Kicking the Spartan repeatedly, the soldier knocked Colin’s helmet from his head and began punching the Spartan in the face, blooding him and knocking him almost senseless.

Satisfied that Colin was not going anywhere, the soldier walked back to where his pistol had fallen. Pausing, he steeled himself before forcibly reset his arm, growling loudly throughout; as soon as he finished, he reached down to check his gun and armed it once again.

From the corner of his eye, the man caught a blur of movement and spun, firing at the Spartan’s chest and throwing him back against the ground even as Colin’s combat knife flew past the soldier’s head, missing by a fraction of an inch and embedding itself in the tree next to him.

“Who?” Colin coughed, blood spurting out of his mouth and nose “Who… what… are you?”

The soldier walked back towards Colin, gun raised, and looked him in the eyes, as if preparing to speak.

BANG!

The light in Colin’s eyes died as his head fell back to the ground, blood oozing out of his temple.

BANG!

Turning and picking up his other gun, David Kahn strode away from the corpse. Not bad... he thought, For a kid.

2

Vinh stiffened at the sound of a flashbang going off not far off. She immediately entered full-alert mode, listening for any sounds of trouble headed her way while silently but swiftly making her way towards the sound of the fight. There were the dull but unmistakable sound of grunts and blunt metal striking something, which she guessed at was hand-to-hand combat.

She had almost reached them when she heard two gunshots echo through the forest, followed by silence. So one of them won. Not sure what she was up against yet and unwilling to take risks while she was alone in unfamiliar territory, she decided to climb one of the nearby colossal thick-limbed trees that didn't so much as crack under the weight of her armour. Climbing almost twenty feet off the ground, she readied her battle rifle and carefully inched out on a limb.

She was expecting it to at least droop a little from her weight, but the limb seemed more solid than she thought and held her firmly. She looked through her battle rifle and swept the area where the gunshots had come from.

It didn't take her long to see the Spartan lying dead on the ground. There were two bullet holes in his forehead, among a whole bunch of other injuries. He looked like he was around the same age as her. Could he possibly be a II as well? If so, then why didn't she recognize him?

Vinh turned her attention back to the matter at hand. She spotted a tall, muscular human walking away from the corpse, looking a little battered but still walking just fine. He didn't look like much more than one of the older, tougher Marines, and certainly not one who could take down a Spartan. Yet she couldn't pick up anyone else around on her thermal sensors.

Who is this guy? A rebel? A pirate? She shook her head, deciding to deal with this obvious threat first and ask questions later. The target was almost out of her line of fire. She took aim at the human's head through the thick foliage of leaves and pulled the trigger.

To her surprise, the bullets didn't hit their mark, or in fact seem to reach the strange human at all. Her adversary looked up at the sound of the gunfire and spotted her. Vinh squeezed off more shots, each to little effect. She noticed the canopy shaking from each discharge and realized that the leaves were actually thick enough to shred or even stop the bullets. What kind of freaky tree is this?

The human was out of sight now, and she would soon lose his trail unless she gave chase. She was making her way back up the limb and was shimmying down the trunk when she heard a trio of muffled explosions from somewhere below her, followed by loud distinctive cracks. The next thing she knew, the tree had tipped over and was plummeting to the ground.

Vinh tried to maintain her balance, but the tree was falling too quickly, and she felt herself slip off the trunk. She landed hard on the ground as the tree fell next to her, sending dust flying into the air and reverberating a roaring boom that echoed through the forest.

Her shields were completely drained and shrieked its alarm, but she was more concerned with regaining her breath. Right now all she could do was lie there gasping. Damn. If that human comes back, I'm done for...


Kahn ran as if he didn't just have a fight with a Spartan and took his fair share of hits. He had experienced pain like this before but had learned to put it aside. At the moment though, he wasn't particularly keen on having a second round with another Spartan.

It was lucky that he was alerted to the gunshots, really. He didn't even know there was someone taking aim at him from up in a tree, and if he hadn't lucked out, he'd be just like the Spartan he just killed, lying on the ground with a few bullets in his head. The grenades he planted below the tree should hold up his assailant for the time being, but if it didn't, he didn't intend to stick around and find out if he could win a second time.

My first two opponents in as many days, and I already feel as if my odds are growing shorter. I need to be more careful if I'm to make it out of this alive.

3

Autel wondered if there were any allies to be found. Not the other "participants" that he could form temporary alliances with and kill off later, but the ones that seemed to actually be a part of this place. At least they would have no such goal to be the last one to survive, and he would know whether he could trust them or kill them.

Things had gotten quiet ever since he left the area where those two Spartans had made a stand. He had no idea where he was going or how he was going to find the others, but he didn't want to stand around doing nothing either. He didn't even know what he would be up against.

I saw a few familiar warriors in that room, but there were numerous more that I had never encountered before. Some of them don't even appear to be a species I recognize. He recalled the strange machine-like beasts that conveyed no emotion and said nothing when the voices explained to them that they had to kill each other. If I have to face them, I know not how I am to kill them.

Autel decided to try and find backup first, and then possibly some other participants that could help him out. He recalled seeing the Spartan, Felix, in the room, and hoped that he could be recruited as a possible ally. 'If only I knew if my other friends were here also. I would feel much better about all of this if Fira or Stel were here.

He had left the snowy fields far behind despite the short amount of time he had travelled. It was strange, as if the weather could be drastically different in a small area, regardless of logic and science. What strange realm is this and how can it possibly exist?

There wasn't time to ponder these things now. He had to survive and later find out why those voices wanted them to kill each other. As Autel reached the top of a hill, he saw a vast, dark blue ocean just before the horizon. It was a long way off, and it looked as if it were the very edge of the land itself. What could be beyond that ocean? Can it be a way out of this place? To be honest, he didn't have much hope that it was possible to escape this deathmatch, but he had to try. And right now, reaching that ocean was the most likely way to do it.

4

Fira suddenly realized that he had gone several days without need for food or water. It seemed the only limits he had was how much energy he had, but that always seemed to come back after a bit of rest. Not that he had any complaints, since it seemed both were scarce in this place. But he couldn't shake the feeling that there was something very wrong about all of this.

So when his solitary journey brought him to a seemingly endless ocean a few days after he left 'Morhek and 'Yabomee, he decided to try drinking some of the water even if he wasn't thirsty.

It wasn't something he would have usually done, since the oceans on Sanghelios were rather salty and actually made one more thirsty, but he figured that if he couldn't become thirsty, it wouldn't be of any matter. But when he sampled the water, he found that not only was it devoid of salt, but it actually tasted completely clean. Still, it didn't do anything at all since he hadn't actually needed the water.

Fira continued on his way, keeping the ocean to his right. He had no idea what he was doing or how he was going to find Sona's killer. He didn't even know who killed him. But since the purpose of this situation was to survive, he decided he would do just that until someone came along and tried to change that. He would deal with them when that happened and wait for the next person to challenge him. If he managed to avenge his cousin in the process, well, that would be a bonus.

And if I die, what of it? I hardly feel a need to live in this bizarre, twisted world where everyone kills each other for no reason. But that didn't mean he was going to throw away his life if there was even a small chance that he could win this. He would keep fighting until he either came out on top or went down fighting.

Autel, Tuka, Warra, where are you? Have you been thrown into this madness just as I have? Are you out there, fighting just as I am? If we do meet, I will find a way out for all of us. I promise.

Fira realized that he was walking towards a large ship docked at the water's edge. It appeared to be made of wood and looked like something the ancient Sangheili used to explore their land in the old days before Forerunner technology was discovered. He had no idea what it was doing here, but perhaps it could get him away from this land. What lay beyond the ocean, he didn't know, but it had to be better than where he was now.

I have no idea how to operate the ship. But it is worth a try. Perhaps there is a way out after all.

He had just reached the gangplank and was about to board when someone stepped into view from the side of the ship. It was a gold-armoured Sangheili, holding a concussion rifle and staring down at him with a mixture of determination and regret. Fira realized who it was.

"Hello, Fira," said Stel 'Vadam, his voice heavy with resignation. "I was trying to make sail when I saw you heading this way. How did you find me?"

"I did not know you were here," Fira replied cautiously, wondering why Stel looked so tense. "May I board the ship?"

"If you fare better than Sona did. He made the mistake of underestimating me. You should hope you do not as well."

"You mean..." Fira's grip on his needle rifle tightened and despite his intentions to ally with his friends, his fingers were already on the trigger. "...you were the one who killed him?"

"I am," Stel said sombrely, but without a hint of shame. "So forgive me, but if you wish to take this ship..." he raised his weapon at pointed it straight at Fira. "...you'll have to defeat me first."

Fira didn't even hesitate. His gun snapped up in the blink of an eye, and plasma discharged from both weapons as the two Sangheili moved simultaneously.

5

Sepia opened fire with her borrowed battle rifle, downing another group of Unggoy while causing a Jackal lance to brace their shields, tightening the formation as they returned fire. Dodging, she rolled behind another pod and opened fire, distracting them long enough for Riker to toss a frag grenade into their midst and kill them all.

Andrew leapt towards Sepia, opening fire into an Elite’s back and ripping it wide open before turning and finishing the magazine off in another Elite’s chest. This second warrior was simply angered, but Andrew quickly hit it hard upside the head with the rifle, a dull thunk the only sound as it fell down dead, blood oozing out.

Riker fired his own assault rifle into two charging Elite swordsmen, then silently cursed himself as the ammunition depleted to zero, repeatedly clicks accompanying his trigger bursts. Dropping his weapon, he ducked beneath a blow, and then double-punched up into the Elite’s gut, throwing his foe into its companion’s blade. Taking advantage of the confusion, Riker whipped out his Magnums and opened fire, dropping the second Elite’s weak shields and sending several bullets piercing through its skull.

The trio of Spartans fell back a little further into the drop pods. “There’s too many of them!” yelled Sepia, “We’re not gonna last at this rate!”

“I’m thinking!” returned Riker as he stabbed his combat knife through a Jackal’s skull. “Andrew, any suggestions?”

“None at the moment,” replied Andrew. Several booms shook the air around them, and Andrew looked up to see larger pods dropping, as well as several Phantoms dropping in at high speeds. “Riker, we might have a problem.”

Riker looked up and noticed the incoming dropships, and an idea suddenly sprung into his mind. “This way!” he ordered, “Move, now!”

Riker dashed madly to the side, Andrew directly behind him, covering Sepia who had reverted to her flamethrower as she tried to burn down assaults from the side. “Why can’t they just line up nicely!?” she growled, a slightly psychotic edge to her voice.

Breaking to the edge of the area that the pods had dropped into, the trio arrived just seconds before the next wave arrived. “Cover me!” Riker yelled as he kicked several pods over and formed a small barricade. Taking aim with his sniper rifle, Riker surveyed the situation, and quickly located an appropriate target.

“Sepia, take aim at the Phantom I mark with your grenade launcher. Wait for my command.”

Riker continued to aim at the Phantom, searching for the perfect moment. Sepia held her aim, finger almost twitching under the tense wait. Andrew continued to fire on the incoming waves, going so far as to jump out of their barricades safety and begin meleeing several of the oncoming Elites.

With precision bred by years of training and war, Riker fired two shots into the Phantom, directly into the cockpit, piercing the walls and taking out both pilots. The dropship took a dive, spiraling downward with a lack of control that Riker promptly made worse with a shot to the port side anti-grav generator.

“Now, Sepia!” ordered Riker. Sepia fired her grenade launcher, the projectile shooting upward and impacting into the side, detonating a small EMP charge, just enough to disable the anti-gravity field under the Phantom.

Making a mad dash, Riker signaled and rushed out onto the open fields, leaving Sepia temporarily confused before she ran after him. Calling to Andrew, Sepia tossed a flashbang grenade into the rushing waves of Covenant forces, and then ran onto the plateau with Riker in front of her and Andrew behind.

It was not until they were a dozen yards out that Sepia realized the goal: the Phantom’s takedown had been no random choice, but rather it was planned to take control of its cargo.

A Spectre.

“Get in!” ordered Riker as he jumped into the driver’s seat. Andrew quickly took shotgun while Sepia hopped into the gunner’s position.

“Gun it!” she yelled, and no sooner had she spoke than Riker jammed down on the throttle, sending the trio rocketing across the empty plains with hundreds of Covenant and their war vehicles behind them.

6

The group of humans stood back and watched as Dyne worked in silent efficiency, his usual airiness replaced by intense concentration. He had his helmet and gauntlets off, ignoring the blood that dripped onto his bare hands.

Bailey looked like he was doing a bit better, although his face was still pale and he was breathing raggedly. But some of the focus had returned to his eyes, and for the first time he looked like he was going to make it after all. Dyne had somehow managed to stop the bleeding from what was left of his patient's arm and patched it up with a rather primitive-looking tourniquet. It seemed to be doing its job though.

Janson took his eyes off the two Spartans for a moment to look around at the Sangheili scattered around the bar. The aliens were casually sitting around, drinking and talking quietly. They didn't seem perturbed that there were a half dozen humans standing over a wounded Spartan and treating him on the floor. Something's not right about this place. The sooner we can leave, the better.

Dyne finished applying something on Bailey's arm and looked up at Brandon. "Don't you have any more medical supplies?"

"We just have the one kit," the Marine said shortly. "We didn't really have much of a say in it." After a slight pause, he added, "We're not going to lose him, are we?"

"He's fine, for now," Dyne said. "If he doesn't strain himself, at least. But I'll need more supplies to put him back into fighting shape. If he still wants to fight."

"I'm not done yet," growled Bailey through clenched teeth. "It'll take more than this to stop me."

"Right now, he's pretty much a liability," Dyne finished, ignoring him.

"Well, we're not leaving him," said Joshua. "If we can get a transport, then there's a chance—"

"Speak of the devil," said Quinn, looking out the doorway. "We've got a Spectre coming down the street. Three Spartans on board."

"They could be friendlies," Janson said.

"They could be in it for themselves," Quinn pointed out, readying his rifle.

"Well, let's find out," Brandon said, walking towards the exit casually.

"What are you doing?" asked Janson incredulously.

"You guys stay out of sight. If these Spartans try to take me, light 'em up." He strode out onto the street in plain sight, watching coolly as the Spectre approached.

"Marines," muttered Dyne, carefully shifting Bailey behind a large table. Everyone was silent as they heard the whine of the Spectre lowered as it slowed.

"Good to see you, Spartans," Brandon said. "You boys fancy stopping for a drink?"

"I'm a girl," corrected the one behind the turret.

"Oh, my bad. Hard to tell with your helmets on."

"Don't worry about it," said the driver. "What are you doing here, Marine?"

"Trying to find my way out of this place. Same as you, probably."

"We're not even sure what's going on," said the one riding shotgun. "We've got one more seat here. You want to hop on?"

"That's very generous of you, but I was actually just testing you guys." Brandon turned around and called, "Okay, come out, everyone!"

The Spartans on the Spectre watched as five other humans walked out from the bar, three of them also Spartans. Riker didn't react visibly, but he mentally prepared for the possibility of a fight. If this group was trouble, he, Andrew, and Sepia would be outnumbered.

"I was checking to make sure you Spartans weren't going to attack me and my buddies here," Brandon explained. "Some of the others around here don't care who they kill."

"Well, I'm glad you and your friends aren't among them," Riker replied.

"Were you guys planning on hanging around here all day?" asked Andrew.

"No, we're looking for a way off this planet," said Dyne. "But we don't have anything that can get us in the air."

"Actually, there is something," said Janson, stepping forward. "And if we're all working together, then I think it's safe for me to tell you. Let's all go back inside."

The large group of humans entered the bar, and Riker raised an unseen eyebrow when he spotted Bailey on the ground. "What happened to him?"

"He had a fight with a Jiralhanae," said Brandon.

"And won," said Bailey.

"If we're moving, he'll need to be protected," said Riker. "But that shouldn't be a problem, and you said you had a way off this planet?"

"Yes," said Janson. Everyone's eyes were on him as he explained, "This entire fiasco is a game. I don't know who arranged it, but the purpose is for us to kill each other until there's only one left. It sounds weird, I know," he said before anyone could say anything. "But let me finish. Before the game started, I was in a room with a few others, where we were told what we were supposed to do once the game started."

"I remember that," said Brandon. "A bunch of kids telling us about how we had to survive to win."

"Kids?" interrupted Dyne. Janson held up a hand.

"That's not important," the officer continued. "When they were finished explaining, we were all dropped down to the planet. I'm not sure how it works, but we were all knocked out during the way down, right?"

Brandon nodded. The others simply listened, still looking mystified but now intrigued as well.

"Before I blacked out, I saw that I was falling down towards a massive mountain. I clearly remember seeing a shuttle perched at the top of the mountain. If we're lucky, then no one else would have known about it. And if we reach the shuttle..."

"Then we get out of here," finished Andrew, nodding understandingly.

"Exactly," said Janson. "I don't know exactly where the mountain is, but I saw a whole bunch of them on the way here. I'm not sure if it's in those mountain ranges, but it's the best chance we've got."

The team looked around at each other. For the first time, there was something like hope entering their expressions that replaced the subtle, dull acceptance of fighting for life until being cut down by an unknown enemy. Everyone was thinking the exact same thing. We can make it out of this alive. All of us.

"So, how do we get there?" asked Joshua, breaking the silence. "All of us, I mean."

"We'll need more transport," replied Riker. "Sepia, Andrew, and I can go search for more vehicles. There has to be some in this village."

"You guys give me a hand with Bailey," Dyne said to Joshua, Brandon, and Quinn. "I'd rather not drag him across the floor." They gingerly lifted the injured Spartan off the ground and began to carry him over so they could prop him up against the wall. As Riker, Andrew, and Sepia ran back out of the bar, Janson noticed Simon slipping out the back door.

Ever since Janson had run into him, Simon had struck him as a little...off. He seemed like more of an outsider among the Spartans than the Marines did, and he hadn't said a word at all ever since Riker and the others showed up. Janson wouldn't have been one to judge, since the Spartans he had met during his career were all odd in their own way. But now he was sneaking off on his own, and the officer couldn't shake the feeling that he was up to something. And although he had never done anything of the sort before, he checked to make sure his M6C was on his hip and discreetly followed him.

Simon was quickly walking around the back of the bar and into an alleyway that would take him onto the street. Careful not to make any sound, Janson followed, resisting the urge to halt the Spartan. This could all be a mistake, Simon might know something he didn't, so he decided not to act just yet.

Janson changed his mind when he saw Simon approaching the Spectre and was about to climb into the driver's seat. The officer drew his sidearm and said, "Stop right there, Spartan."

Simon froze and turned around. He raised his hands, which was unusual since he was fully armoured and would be capable of taking a few shots from the M6C. Janson didn't know if he could actually take him down if it came to a fight. Still, he wasn't about to back down until he got some answers.

"What do you think you're doing, Simon?" he asked.

The Spartan paused, as if considering what to say. "Leaving."

"At least you're being honest," said Janson, keeping his weapon trained on him. "Why are you going off on your own?"

"Because that shuttle's my only way out of this place. But there's no way I'm going with a military team and getting my ass hauled into prison at the first UNSC colony we reach. Actually, scratch that, I'll be executed if they find me."

"Executed?" repeated Janson, momentarily caught off guard.

It was a mistake. Simon swiftly lowered his prosthetic left arm into an uppercut gesture and pointed his fist at the officer, who managed to squeeze off a single silenced round before a gunshot discharged from the Spartan's arm. Janson was dead before he hit the ground, a bullet embedded under his chin.

"Yeah, I'm a deserter," said Simon, turning and running for the Spectre. He leaped into the driver's seat and hurriedly started the engine. The vehicle lurched forward as the others, hearing the commotion, ran out the front door just in time to see the Spectre speeding down the street and out of sight.

Episode 14: Reunion

1

"Ready?" Doug asked, his armoured hands cupped and held straight out in front of him.

"Ready," said Olsen, putting his rifle on his back.

He made a running jump at the Spartan and one foot atop his gauntlets. Doug thrust his hands upward, propelling Olsen clear of the underground cavern. He landed on his feet in the soft grass above.

And then the Marine looked up to see that he was staring down an entire score of Flood. From the way they were gathered in one direction, it looked like they had been making their way over to the hole. Spotting him, they sprang into action.

"Shit!" yelled Olsen. He grabbed his MA37 off his back and opened fire at the horde. None of them were armed, for which he was thankful for, but he backpedalled to keep his distance, careful not to fall back into the hole. He was more concerned with those deadly tentacles, however.

The magazine emptied faster than he would have liked, and he hastily reloaded, careful to keep his hands steady. Running around the hole, he forced himself to aim rather than spray wildly this time. One combat form fell, and then another.

Olsen looked down momentarily and saw that a few of the Flood had jumped into the hole and attacked Doug, who had been climbing out. Dammit, looks like I'm on my own. He considered jumping back down, but decided against it. It would be hell trying to hold them back by shooting upwards out of a hole in the ground. And if he injured himself on the fall, it was over for him.

His rifle clicked empty again, and he reloaded his last magazine into the gun. He raised it again and took aim at the nearest combat form—

A wave of pain erupted along his back as he heard something between a popping sound and an explosion. The Marine was thrown forwards off his feet, assault rifle slipping out of his hands. As he landed on his face, he saw out of the corner of his eyes a dozen infection forms skittering towards him. He struggled to get to his feet.

The first infection form tried to latch onto his face, and he crushed it with his fist. Another crawled up his leg, but he shook it off and stamped hard on it. The rest of them continued to advance recklessly, but by then the M6G was already in Olsen's hand, and they popped in quick succession as 12.7mm rounds spat from the handgun.

Still, he was surrounded and he knew it. One of the combat forms had picked up his assault rifle, and the Marine's pistol had only two rounds left in it. He raised the weapon, aimed at the combat form. He fired once, twice, but the foe didn't fall. The MA37's muzzle flared—

Olsen felt sharp, stabbing pains in his stomach, one after another, and the impact of the bullets threw him onto the ground again, this time on his back. He ejected the empty magazine pistol and clumsily grabbed another one from his side. As he slipped it into the weapon, his fingers were slippery with his own blood.

A Spartan suddenly leaped in front of him, a combat knife in her hands. It wasn't Doug, that was for sure. The armour was different, and the way he moved was different too. The knife flashed, and a moment later the combat form fell. The assault rifle was now in the supersoldier's hands.

In an instant, the tables were turned. The Spartan single-handedly took out Flood after Flood without trouble, and it became even easier when Doug finally climbed out of the hole and gave her a hand. Olsen tried to help, shooting at any enemies he could see with his M6G. But he could tell from his ebbing strength that he wouldn't be of much use even if he did survive this.

An infection form suddenly crawled onto his side, and before he could do anything, began to force itself into the bullet holes in his abdomen. Olsen screamed as an overwhelming agony overwhelmed him. He wanted to pry the thing off him, but he couldn't do anything else but writhe and scream.

Doug was by his side in an instant, and he forcibly pulled the infection form off. He squeezed it hard, popping it. Olsen's blood sprayed him and onto the ground.

The other Spartan had gunned down the last of the Flood, and she was making her way over to them.


Amy already knew that it was too late for the Marine. If being shot seven times by an assault rifle wasn't enough to make him bleed out, then that infection form might have done enough damage to his insides. Not to mention the chemicals that's in his bloodstream now. Doug was staring down at the Marine silently.

She waved at a distant cluster of trees. "It's safe to come out, ma'am," she called. The other Spartan looked up to see Grunwald stepping out of cover, holding a pistol in one hand, and for some reason, an umbrella in the other. The officer spotted the Marine too. "He looks like he's in pretty bad shape," she said.

"He's got minutes," said Amy. "Unless our friend here has medical supplies."

Doug shook his head. "Isn't there anything we can do for him?"

"There is one thing," Amy replied. She pried the M6G from Olsen's bloody fingers. "We can put him out of his misery."

"You can't do that," exclaimed the other Spartan.

"He's already dead, Spartan." She pointed the pistol at the Marine's face.

Doug grabbed her arm and pushed it down. "Wait."

"No, do it," gasped Olsen. "This is fucking killing me."

Amy shoved Doug away and took aim again. "Sorry, Marine."

A single gunshot rang out, and then everything fell silent. She looked away, not wanting to see what she had just done. She holstered the pistol and held the MA37 in her hands. "You coming...?"

"Doug," he finished for her, sounding rather surly. "SPARTAN-103."

"I'm Amy-G094."

"Kathrin Grunwald. We should keep moving."

"Yes, ma'am," said Doug, glancing at Olsen for a moment before walking away from the site of the battle with the officer and the other Spartan.

This is one twisted game of survival.

2

Marco cursed when he saw the pod land with a silent thud. Here he was, making his way stealthily away from the forest and towards some mountains when he had just been compromised by this stupid thing landing in front of him. Now if there were any enemies nearby, they'd come running for sure.

This had better be good, he thought as he ripped the casing off the pod. It was a rectangular object that was glowing yellow. He recognized it as a hologram creator. Enclosed was a note. "Win, or go down swinging, Spartan."

Well that's rather demanding, but okay. Marco attached the equipment to his armour and quickly prepared to keep moving. It was better if he didn't stick around.

Without warning, something impacted in the middle of his back, taking down his shields almost completely and causing him to stumble forward. He knew immediately that he was under fire and didn't waste time looking around. He kept his weapon raised and swiftly dashed away, trying to figure out where the enemy came from.

His shields recharged quickly, and Marco moved out of cover, running towards the direction the shot had come from, but careful to keep weaving. He didn't see any additional bullets flying his way, but knew he wasn't out of danger. His opponent clearly knew better than to fire wildly in hopes of landing a hit on him. That would make it far harder for Marco to locate him.

A second bullet hit him in the middle of the chest, throwing him back on his heels. Knowing that any further hesitation would be fatal, Marco ducked behind a thick tree, tuning out from the beeping of his shields and listening for sounds of movement. There were none.

Whatever's being used to shoot me doesn't make a sound. It's not even a silencer because I would have heard it... Time for a change in strategy. Marco turned his attention to the equipment he had received from his mysterious benefactor. The first was one of two EMP grenades. He had a rough guess of what direction the shooter was positioned in even if there was no bullet trail. And he was pretty confident of his throwing abilities.

Marco activated the first EMP grenade and tossed it over the trees. He put away the Javelin, readied his assault rifle, and counted in his head.


Kahn had only two rounds left in the magazine, and there were a half dozen extras lying on the ground next to him, but two shots were enough. He didn't need to waste bullets if he didn't know if he could find more.

He knew his target was still behind the tree. And if he tried to run, he would be dead, Spartan or not. This time I'm aiming for the head.

He briefly wondered if it was a mistake to shoot the Spartan in the back. But his adversary had been hunched over when Kahn spotted him, and he knew that if the Spartan was smart, he would have cleared the area after taking whatever was in the pod. And with all the foliage and the Spartan's own abilities to dodge and weave, it was one of the few times he decided not to risk taking a shot and missing.

He peered through the holographic sight on his sniper rifle. He had specially modified it himself for tough jobs, and was glad he was armed properly in this situation. The sights were virtually linked to his armour, so he could adjust its settings with his helmet. It proved useful in the rare cases an enemy captured his weapons and were unable to use the sights. In addition, he had made sure it created no sound when it fired, making it more effective than any silencer. As an added bonus, there was no gas trail from his shots. He could literally drop targets without anyone nearby realizing there were shots fired.

That's if I actually have a target, he thought, shifting his grip on the rifle. I don't have anything that can blow up a tree or something.

Something suddenly landed landed next to him and bumped against his elbow. Kahn looked at it and realized it was a grenade—not a lethal one, but he wasn't exactly keen on figuring out what it did. But before he could get up from his prone position, it detonated.

The rifle in his hands emitted a crackling sound as the holographic sights sputtered out. Kahn swore when he realized most of the other equipment he was carrying were also shorted out. That was when he saw the Spartan move out of cover and run straight at him.

At least I can still fire, Kahn thought. It was too easy a shot, and he could make it even if the sights were momentarily gone. He raised the rifle and squeezed off a single shot.

The bullet simply passed through the Spartan's head, and he didn't waste ammo by firing another. A hologram, he realized, and then knew that he had made a mistake. When he fired the shot, he took his eyes away from the tree, and had no doubt the actual Spartan had broken free.

And then Marco was suddenly beside him, assault rifle pointed at him. Kahn rolled away as a hail of gunfire sprayed the ground where he was a moment ago, and kicked out hard at his opponent's legs.

Normally it wouldn't be smart to do anything of the sort at a supersoldier in full MJOLNIR armour, but Kahn's boots were reinforced and he wasn't exactly short on strength. Marco tripped but managed not to fall as he tried to adjust his aim. But it was all the time Kahn needed to get to his feet, with two modified SMGs in his hands. Unlike the UNSC's standard issue M7, these were loaded with coated bullets and were made to be armour-piercing. Kahn sprayed Marco with twin automatic fire, rapidly chipping away at his shields.

The Spartan's shields flickered and died just before guns were empty. He took two bullets in the side but didn't so much as flinch. He bound forward, a combat knife in one hand.

Instead of backing down, Kahn drew his own blade and darted forward to meet him. The two humans slashed and swiped at each other, their knives occasionally making contact. But mostly they were able to dodge the other's attacks. Kahn aimed for the vulnerable spots on Marco's neck and his stomach, while avoiding attacks to his face.

Kahn kept his movements careful, trying not to be forced onto the defensive. Marco was stronger than he was, and better protected, and he knew that if he was forced back, he could very well lose. There was no time to reload his weapons, so he had to make do with the knife for now. He shifted his head back as the Spartan's knife flew past his face, almost gouging his eyes out. He slashed back, and actually managed to drag the blade across his opponent's visor.

He failed to penetrate the visor, however, and he was slowed down momentarily by the force of the attack. Marco's other hand lashed out and punched him hard in the solar plexus, knocking him back. Kahn ignored the pain in his abdomen and took a few quick breaths before dodging away and taking a few seconds to recover.

Marco didn't let up, and Kahn knew there was no use in running. He lunged forward, and as expected, his opponent shifted to counter-attack. But the mercenary feinted, spinning to the side and moving around him. He stabbed hard at the Spartan's neck.

Marco's arm came up, and his knife blocked the attack just in time. The two blades were locked half an inch away from his throat. The Spartan's other hand went for his pistol, and in that moment of slight diversion, Kahn suddenly pulled away and ducked. Marco, who had been pushing hard against him, suddenly lurched forward, losing his balance. In a single swift movement, the mercenary stabbed his knife deep into his kneecap, between the armour joints.

Marco couldn't hold back a cry of pain, but his M6D was up. His knife was still pointed at Kahn, who was now unarmed. The mercenary moved fast, however. In one movement, he kicked the pistol out of the Spartan's grip, and without losing momentum, spun and grabbed the knife by the top of the hilt and wrenched it out of his grasp. He finished by kicking Marco hard in the chest, knocking him back a few more paces.

However, Kahn did the unexpected and swiftly backpedalled. He knew he couldn't take down the Spartan with just a combat knife. At worst he would wound him, and just end up getting punched again. He had to reach his weapons. The mercenary swept up one of his SMGs and dropped the knife to reload it, when he saw that Marco had pulled the knife from his knee and dashed off as well, no doubt to retrieve his guns too.

Kahn reloaded both his SMGs and picked up his sniper rifle, deciding to go for a fatal shot instead of spraying bullets. Marco's shields were probably fully charged now and would be able to close the distance before half the shots were fired. The handguns wouldn't be enough to take him down.

The mercenary didn't have time to reload his sniper rifle before he saw Marco reappear. They spotted each other at the same time, and Kahn knew he had to make the shot count.

The Spartan had one arm raised and was preparing to throw something—another EMP grenade. And Kahn had an idea that would give him a far better chance. He raised his sniper rifle, and aiming the best he could without sights, fired the last shot in the magazine.

The bullet hit the EMP grenade, causing it to detonate a split second after it left Marco's hand. His armour's shields failed immediately, and without waiting for the Spartan to recover, Kahn's SMGs snapped up and poured hell on his opponent.

The supersoldier jerked convulsively as a relentless spray of bullets riddled him. Some of the shots were stopped by the armour, but many of them penetrated, spraying blood everywhere. Kahn didn't stop firing until both of his SMGs were empty. But they had done their deadly job; Marco lay still on the ground, a hundred-twenty bullets embedded in his body.

The mercenary exhaled and reloaded all three of his weapons and walked away, alert as ever. He decided to get away from the forest, maybe make his way up those mountains in the distance for a visual advantage. Scratch two Spartans. Here's hoping I run into easier opponents.

3

Three entire lances of Sangheili special operations warriors charged down the hallway, straight towards the sound of gunfire and screams, moving to back up their brothers. Turning into a new hallway, they saw a Sangheili general fly through the air at the next intersection, toppling several of the warriors down to ground before the general and another Sangheili smashed into the wall.

The new cadre turned and opened fire in the direction of the attacker, only to miss as smoke filled the room, a vague form disappearing into a large hole in the wall. Several of the Sangheili moved down another corridor while another half dozen charged towards the breach, weapons raised to attack their foe at the first sighting. For a moment, the gap was peaceful, but as one of the Sangheili foolishly moved into the hole, he was suddenly screwed through the chest by two large, armored spines before being dragged up into the ceiling.

The Sangheili opened fire into the gap, trying to flush out their foe, but the sound of ripping, stomping and tearing above their heads proved their ineffectiveness. Regrouping, the Sangheili followed the sounds as best they could, until in one instant everything around them went pitch black.

One of the Sangheili heard a flurry of movement and quickly turned to spray gunfire, only for a dark form to tackle him, shredding the Sangheili’s armor and chest cavity to shreds in mere seconds. The other Sangheili alarmed, they began to fire and retreat tactically, but their shots continually missed, sparking off the walls and ceiling. The slight glow of the shots illuminated the halls for brief seconds, revealing the dark form darting about at high speeds, its talons ripping right through warrior after warrior, while others were screwed by the armored spikes.

As the sounds of torn metal and screaming Sangheili rang through the halls, the last survivors broke out of the darkened zone and into a long open hall, its lights shining bright. As they ran down the hall for safety, they looked back at one comrade that had stayed behind, only to see him be pinned to the wall as a large piece of metal wall plating hurtled into him at high speeds. Then, at blinding speeds all its own, their attacker burst out of the darkened halls and began lunging towards the survivors.

Its form was large, equal or larger than the Sangheili themselves, and all across it was armored hide, thick yet layered enough for swift, fluid movements. The beast’s talons were large and sharp on both its arms and legs, while a large tail whipped behind it, and from its back rose the two terror-inducing spines it had used to skewer so many warriors. Swiftly it dashed down the hallway, dodging the Sangheili’s bolts and jumping off the walls to obscure their shots, until at last the beast reached the remnant.

Within seconds, the first Sangheili was downed, a deep flash leaving his head hanging on by mere threads, while the second followed shortly, speared through the chest twice with legs torn off and thrown adjacent his corpse. The remainder fell swiftly in like manner, with disembodied limbs flying, blood and gore spattering the walls as heads were dismantled, hearts ripped out and vital organs bisected.

One more Sangheili crouched, arming its energy blade as it readied itself. With a lunge, it moved to spear the monster as it had speared his comrades, and with blind vengeance the Sangheili warrior succeeded. The monster, distracted with his final victim, did not know to move as the energy blade stabbed deep into his chest, dark blood spilling out his back as the Sangheili twisted the blade.

However, the monster merely grunted in minor pain, and with a twist he turned, breaking away from the Sangheili’s grip. With the blade still stuck in his chest, he sliced off this final foe’s head, and then turned to the blade in his chest. With greater pain, he grabbed the hilt and pulled it from his back, clutching his wound as it bled more, the healing affect slow to start from his lack of sustenance.

“I must find a way out of here,” the beast whispered to himself, walking into the next room. Noting a computer terminal, he moved towards it, and managed to discern the way to power it on, despite the primitive nature of it. With intelligence that belayed his monstrous appearance, he entered numerous commands, opening a schematic of his immediate area and changing the functionality of the room. On the sides, large pieces of the metal walls began to slide sideways, revealing a view to the outside.

And outside, the beast saw space. He viciously growled to himself, raging at his situation. “No one traps Nogard.”

Roaring, he turned and smashed through one of the walls, storming off towards the lower levels where he hoped to find a way to escape. But on the display, the schematic began to change, as a small beacon on the planet below activated.

4

Robson pumped two rounds into another hyena, dropping it on the spot and aiming for another. He knew he had to keep up the fire to keep the pack at bay, but he was also careful not to waste ammo. But his magazine soon ran empty and he had no time to reload. He pulled out his SM6D, thankful for the massive 24-round magazine the handgun had. The 12.7mm slugs were lethal enough to take down the hyenas with single shots, and they dropped one after another.

Still, there were more of the bastards coming after him. Hyena after hyena leaped out of the grass as if there was no end to them. The ODST knew he would be overwhelmed soon if he just kept shooting them. He would have to make a break for it.

Suddenly there was the sound of machinegun fire, and several hyenas fell as they were gunned down by a deadly hail of bullets. A moment later, a Warthog burst out of the grass, plowing through another few hyenas. Robson didn't know who the Marine behind the turret was, but the driver was a familiar face—

"Smoke, hop on!" shouted Amelia Dawson. A hyena tried to pounce on her, but she had her own SM6D drawn with one hand and shot it in the face. Robson made a dash for the vehicle, taking out two more before jumping into the passenger seat. Dawson spun the wheel and floored it.

Robson exhaled in relief and slumped back in his seat. "Thanks for the save, Wendy. How'd you know where to find me?"

"I didn't," she replied, driving for the cluster of rocks he had spotted earlier. "I just noticed the hyenas seemed to be attacking someone, so I decided to check it out."

"This place is bizarre," he said, reloading both his weapons. "I was just in a forest and now it's like I'm in the middle of Africa."

"The terrain is very odd. I found a unit of Marines here and I've been trying to locate friendly forces in the area. None of these guys know what the hell is going on or how we ended up here."

"I do," he said quietly, glancing at the Marine behind the turret, who was facing away from them and had the gun pointed in the direction of the hyenas. "But I'll explain later."

They reached the cluster of rocks, which was far larger than Robson would have thought. Dawson stopped the Warthog under a long slab that was slanted to the sky. The Marines disembarked and she led them around the side.

"Whoa!" Robson's M28 snapped up when he saw them. Lions, lying around all over the rocks.

"Take it easy," said Dawson, pushing his gun down. "These guys are friendly. And they keep the other animals away." She and the other Marine casually strode towards a den at the back of the rock, passing by several lions. A few of them turned to stare at them but then looked away. Hesitantly, Robson followed.

There were more lions inside the den, but they seemed just as disinterested in the humans as the ones outside. Dawson stopped next to an elevator, which looked very out of place in the den. She pressed a button and the doors slid open. After a short ride downward, the doors opened again to a massive room.

Robson was astounded by the sight of the number of Marines and other assorted personnel gathered in the room. He knew they were ambients, but all the same it was reassuring to be in the presence of so many fellow servicemen. And in contrast with the natural setting above it, the room was bustling with UNSC equipment and technology.

"Barracks are down that hall," said Dawson, pointing to one of the doors off to the side. "You sleepy?"

"No," Robson said, which wasn't a lie. Now that he had recovered his stamina, he felt completely refreshed.

She frowned. "Me neither. And I've been here for days. You said you knew what this was all about. Care to explain?"

They walked into one of the nearby hallways and he shut the door behind them. "Okay. You won't believe it, but this is what's going on..."

5

Felix wasn't sure if teaming up with a group of mercenaries was the best idea, but right now anything was better than wandering around on his own. And these guys seemed to want his protection more than he did theirs, so it was unlikely they would turn on him.

Still, he had difficulty trusting ambients in general, and the fact that he had met a group of shifty-looking mercenaries didn't make it any better. I'll have to give them the slip eventually...once I figure out what I'm supposed to do now.

At the moment, he decided to make do with what he had and move through the forest. He had no idea where Strifalex had gone, but decided he was ready to have a second round against the powerful creature now that he had backup. When he had told the mercenaries about it, they expressed their interest in stripping it of its technology if they managed to bring it down. And with the promise of the assets, their ambient side resurfaced, since they didn't seem worried about their own lives at all.

Felix didn't think that valuable technology would really do him much good in this situation, but he didn't argue. If they did find Strifalex again, there was a good chance a lot of these mercenaries would be killed. And that would solve the problem of what to do with his distasteful allies.

But he had to give them credit; for a ragtag team that received no military training, they were able to move quite stealthily. As he led them through the forest, he wondered for the first time just how skilled they would be in a fight. He didn't know much about how ambients worked in general, and for all he knew, they could be much deadlier than their real-life counterparts. He certainly hoped so; he wouldn't have much of an advantage over Strifalex if his allies were little more than cannon fodder.

"Spartan, look," grunted one of them, pointing upwards. Felix followed his gaze and saw through the trees that someone was slowly drifting down towards them on...a parachute. It was a strange sight, but not the strangest he had seen in this world, so he didn't stop to question it. Taking note that these mercenaries (or at least this one mercenary) were very perceptive, he motioned for the team to form a circle around where the newcomer was coming in to land. He waited in the middle, trying to make out details on the newcomer.

It was a Marine, as he could tell from the uniform. He looked closer at the face and realized that it was female. Looking closer at her battered features, he suddenly realized who it was.

"Jess!" he called, waving up at her. She looked down and gave a start.

"Felix?" Yes, it was definitely her. He watched as she adjusted her trajectory, curving around towards him. She neatly manoeuvred the massive parachute between the trees and landed next to him.

Felix helped untie her from the parachute as the mercenaries walked towards them, staring at her warily. When she was freed from the burden, he asked, "Where were you? How'd you end up...parachuting down here?"

"I was in an Albatross," she said, taking her MA7C off her back. "We were shot down and had to bail out."

"'We'?"

"Two others. An officer named Coney...and Roy Koel."

"Koel?" he repeated. "He's here too?"

"Yeah. They made it out, but we were separated."

"Which direction?"

She pointed.

"Alright," said Felix to the mercenaries. "Let's move out."

As the ambients wordlessly obeyed, he turned back to Jess and said quietly, "I didn't know you were here."

"I didn't know you were here either. But I'm glad I found you."

Felix didn't share this sentiment, however. Because now he realized what he had to do.

I'll make sure she's safe. And when she is...I'll make sure she makes it out of this.

She would never agree, if she knew what he was thinking. But he couldn't tell her, because he knew she would try to do it first. And what about the others? I can't kill Koel...

He shook his head and returned his attention to moving through the forest with Jess and the others. We'll settle things when the time comes. For now...we'll just stick together.

6

Riker, Andrew, and Sepia pulled up to the bar with an M12 Warthog, to find Brandon, Quinn, Dyne, and Joshua were standing around Janson's body. The three Spartans immediately disembarked. "What the hell happened?" Andrew asked.

"Simon," said Brandon grimly. "Took off in your Spectre. Janson tried to stop him."

"Shit," said Sepia, kneeling down to stare at the bullet hole under Janson's chin. "The backstabbing...why would he do that?"

"Guess self-preservation won out," said Joshua. "He's been gone a while now. Chances are he's heading for that ship Janson mentioned."

"We can't let him take it," said Andrew. "Who knows how many ways there are to get off this planet. And if he gets to escape out of everyone..."

"We'll stop him," said Dyne, his normally cheerful voice now dead serious. "I didn't know Simon, but he was a Gamma. I'm going to go after him."

"Then count me in too," added Quinn. "Janson saved my ass a couple of times down here. It's the least I can do for him."

"We'll go after him before he gets too far," said Joshua. "We'll find this ship and wait for you guys to catch up."

"Hold up," said Sepia. "How do we know you're not going to take the ship for yourselves?"

"Because we agreed to get out of this together—"

"You could be just saying that. We trusted the wrong person already, and now look what happened to Janson."

"I am nothing like Simon," Joshua snapped.

"Alright, that's enough," said Riker, speaking for the first time since they got back. "We agreed to work as a team, and that means we're going to trust each other. If we can't do that, we might as well kill each other right here. Is that what you all want?"

Everyone was silent.

"I thought so. Now, listen up, we don't have much time. Dyne, Joshua, and Quinn, you can take the Warthog and find Simon. I trust you'll secure the ship before anyone else reaches it. Everyone else, we're going to find more transport now that we've lost the Spectre. We'll rendezvous at the mountaintop and leave in the ship together. Understood?"

There was a chorus of ayes.

"Then get going, you three. Good luck."

Dyne climbed into the Warthog behind the driver's seat. Joshua sat shotgun, and Quinn mounted the turret. The vehicle sped off, and disappeared from sight as it turned around a corner.

Andrew watched it go. "Are you completely sure we can trust them?" he asked.

Riker sighed. "Not completely. But I'm willing to take that chance." He looked down at Janson. "Let's get him off the street. And then you and Sepia go find more transport. Brandon and I will watch Bailey."

Both Spartans were thinking the same thing as they hauled Janson's corpse into the bar. We've already been set back and the plan is falling apart. Dammit Simon, why did you do that?

Episode 15: Hunter-killers

1

"Keep it moving," Amy-G094 urged her companions. "We don't know what else is in these woods."

Doug-103 pulled up level with her. His augmented muscles and MJOLNIR armor could easily keep pace with the SPARTAN-III, but Grunwald was starting to lag behind. The constant fighting and moving was beginning to take their toll on the naval officer, who was now using her umbrella as a cane to help her move.

"Slow it the hell down," he growled at her over a private helmet channel. "She won't be able to keep up."

If anything, Amy simply quickened her pace. "We need to get out of these woods now. They're crawling with Covenant, and we can't just wait around for something worse to come pick us off."

"Fine," Doug said, but he was already beginning to doubt Amy's sincerity. She had been very quick to finish off Olsen. It had been the pragmatic thing to do, but she'd come to that conclusion much sooner than she should have. For all he knew, she could be intentionally wearing Grunwald out. This could all be part of some scheme to turn on them once she had the proper advantage. "But we need to slow down. Grunwald's not going to make it."

"I don't like this either," Amy retorted. "But she'll have to keep up."

"No one gets left behind," Doug reminded her. "No one."

They were ascending a steep hill, wading through a torrent of leaves as they struggled to reach the top. Once we get there, Doug promised himself. I'll make her stop there. Grunwald could tough it out until they got up top. Then he'd be able to figure out what to do with Amy.

He was about to give the S-III his ultimatum when he realized that Amy had finally come to a halt. Their pace had been so quick that they had never established a proper system of hand signals, so Doug had to follow her visor's gaze upwards to see why she had stopped. When he saw what it was, his hands tightened so hard around his battle rifle that they actually bend the metal.

An enormous Jiralhanae stood atop the crest of the hill, gravity hammer in hand. The sun glinted off his ornate battle armor, but Doug's visor eliminated the tint enough to see the wicked smile plastered across the alien's face. He eyed all three humans as if they were a meal rather than dangerous enemies.

"Grunwald," Doug said quietly. "Fall back. Let me handle this."

"With your armor, you'll be more effective at close range," Amy told him. "I can cover you from here."

The ploy was so obvious that Doug could scarcely believe she was even trying it. He was the one with the marksman's rifle, not her. She must really want him dead if she'd go for a transparent trick like that.

"Fuck that," he snarled, snapping his battle rifle up and opening fire.

From the top of the hill, Hephaestus bellowed a war cry and leapt down towards the Spartans. He cleared half the distance in a single bound, landing before either of the Spartans could land a hit. Doug and Amy's weapon's clattered away, sending rounds bouncing off his armor like small hailstones.

Hephaestus darted in between trees, moving from cover to cover as he circled around the two Spartans. Close as they were, he could probably rush in and finish them both with a single swing from his hammer. But this was his first real fight since he'd arrived here. He'd take his time and play with them a little.

He flung a spike grenade in between them, forcing them off in separate directions. The force of the blast ripped two of the closest trees in half; Amy had to roll even further down the hill to avoid being crushed under one's enormous trunk.

"Doug!" she yelled. "Fall back and flank him!"

But Doug wasn't even listening to her anymore. He vaulted over one of the fallen trees, keeping it between himself and Hephaestus as he peppered the chieftain with battle rifle rounds. Hephaestus casually brought his foot down on the tree, snapping it like a twig as he charged.

Doug's rifle clicked empty. He swore, throwing himself sideways and barely avoiding the hammer blow that felled another tree with the force of its impact. There was no time to reload. Instead, the Spartan dropped his first rifle and pulled the sniper rifle from his back.

The next time Hephaestus came at him, Doug sidestepped and swung it at the chieftain's head like a club. The weapon shattered on impact, but Hephaestus staggered under the unexpected blow.

Below him, Amy opened fire at his rear. Bullets slammed against his armor and Hephaestus bellowed as a few punched their way through into his back. Doug saw an opening and reached for his knife...

But that gives Amy a clean shot at me once the Brute goes down, he realized. Darting away from Hephaestus, he scooped his rifle off the ground and slid in a fresh magazine.

He looked back at Hephaestus in time to see that the chieftain had recovered. Snarling angrily at the pain in his back, the Brute ignored Amy and went after Doug once again. This time he led with the but of his hammer, aiming a solid blow at the Spartan's legs. Doug leapt over the handle and fired a trio of bursts point blank at Hephaestus's face.

But the chieftain's helmet shielded him from the wave of bullets. Whipping the live end of his hammer around, he clipped Doug's elbow just as the Spartan dropped past him.

Amy threw herself down as Doug came hurtling down the hill. His body tore through another tree-trunk and vanished into the leaves beside her. She barely had time to reload before Hephaestus came bounding down the hill after her.

Her barrage of bullets didn't even slow the oncoming beast. She emptied the magazine into him, then drew her pistol and aimed at the face.

But it was too late.

Hephaestus's free hand shot forward and crushed Amy's hand, pistol and all, within its vice-like grip. She stifled a scream and yanked out her knife with her remaining hand. Hephaestus simply released her shattered arm and seized the shoulder of the knife hand, dislocating it effortlessly.

Amy fell to her knees, both arms dangling uselessly at her sides. The Brute stood over her, hammer raised, with a triumphant smile upon his hideous lips.

The leaves beside them rustled, then exploded. Doug burst up from the ground, bloodied but not defeated. His knife was in his hand now, knees bent, ready to lunge...

Hephaestus batted him aside with the hammer. His eyes didn't leave Amy for a moment.

Doug's helmet embedded itself in a tree fifty yards away.

The chieftain reached down and wrapped his hand around Amy's helmet. She kicked and struggled, but it was useless. Hephaestus had her firmly in his grip.

Her visor was blinded by his leathery hand, but she heard a low chuckle fill the air.

"Do not fear, little demon," Hephaestus laughed. "You will not share his fate. No, I think I will take my time with you. I have waited so long... so let's make this last a good while, shall we?"


Grunwald had made it nearly a mile, all exhaustion forgotten, when Amy's screams began to ring throughout the forest. The officer turned helplessly in the direction of the hideous din, then squeezed her eyes shut and fled blindly back into the forest.

2

Justin-057 trotted carefully through the forest carefully, watching on all sides of himself for potential foes. He had dispatched a Jiralhanae earlier in the contest easily enough, but he was still wary, despite the fact he had since only spotted two groups of Covenant lances moving through the forest, which he dispatched and evaded at his leisure. It was an odd place, this forest, to seem so abnormally large and still be so very empty; it still bothered Justin somewhat that though he often heard birds, he had yet to actually see them, giving him an eerie feeling.

As the area opened up in front of him somewhat, Justin noticed an armored form in hiding near a tree’s root. Ducking into cover, Justin looked over the situation, realizing he was eyeing another Spartan – however, as he warily considered whether to approach them or not, he realized that the figure was not laying at the ready, but was sloppily sprawled, one of his arms thrown to the side.

Approaching the figure carefully and silently, Justin realized as he neared that this was no figure – it was a corpse. The MJOLNIR was riddled with bullet holes, particularly in the midriff, as if someone had emptied entire magazines into the Spartan. Checking the MJOLNIR, Justin noticed near the shoulder the small identification mark most Spartans made in their armor – M-025.

M-025? thought Justin, twenty-five didn’t survive augments, though.

Dismissing the oddity, Justin stood and looked around. The area was calm, and looked like it had been abandoned hours ago judging by the dried blood and gore on the ground. Looking around, he saw in the distance an area of the forest where several tree had fallen over as if another battle had occurred there. Judging the directions of the conflict and searching for some form of trail, Justin found the vaguest hints of one of the edge of the clearing, leading away from the site and towards the mountains in the distance.

Whoever did this, he needs to be taken out. With purpose, Justin strode off towards the mountains, watching his path carefully to follow this attacker.

3

The Spectre shot forward across the dunes. Simon had never been more grateful for his time spent living amongst the Sangheili; his fingers flashed across the alien dashboard, pushing the vehicle's glowing engines to their limits. He had to put as much distance between himself and the others as he could before they set off after him.

The mountain loomed up against the horizon, a forbidding dark slope that rose so high that its peak was shrouded in wisps of cloud. That was where he needed to get, and fast. Riker couldn't have been the only person to know about the shuttle. As far as Simon knew, everyone else in this twisted world could be racing for the mountain even now.

He flexed his prosthetic hand, feeling strangely sorry for killing Janson. But that was the point of all this, wasn't it? Kill or be killed until only one remained. And Simon hadn't survived as long as he had by being soft.

He tore up the latest hill, pushing up towards the top. From the looks of things, it would be a straight shot to the mountain from here.

The Spectre reached the hill's crest. Simon checked ahead to get his bearings, and what he saw made him slam the vehicle to a dead halt. His hands tightened on the throttle. "What the hell?"

Below him stretched a valley, the last obstacle between him and the mountain. But it was not empty. Less than a mile away sat a small town composed of blocky, mud-brick buildings. Even from here, Simon could see the scars of war inscribed on the town. Bullets and artillery rounds had ripped it apart some time ago.

He narrowed his eyes. I know this place. Just like with the Visag Keep, another part of his past had been dredged up to become a part of this world. Stomach tightening, he gunned the Specter and forced himself down into the valley.


Everything was just as he remembered it. Empty, stripped cars still lined the dusty main road, itself littered with rubble and spent shell casings. The only thing missing from the town where Simon had learned to hate the UNSC was the bodies, the corpses of men and women and children that had rotted under the sun.

He scanned the abandoned buildings, half expecting to see ambient copies of the rebels and child soldiers he had fought alongside watching him from the windows. But there was nothing. Still, he took a hand off the throttle and rested it against his pistol. Someone might be lying in wait for him all the same.

No sooner had he thought that then the nearest car exploded.

The Specter reeled and overturned. Simon was thrown down into the street, helmet ringing from the force of the blast.

He recovered at once, scrambling to his feet and whipping out the pistol. Years of unending combat had sharpened his reflexes even better than the Spartan program's augmentations. They saved him now as he darted to cover just as a hail of bullets tore through the ground he'd landed on.

One rifle, he counted. The faint, clattering report sounded like the AR-74s the rebels had used during Mamore's fighting. Then he realized that his cover was a car just like the one that had exploded.

He threw himself away moments before the car erupted as well. A bullet pinged off his chest armor as he moved. In that instant, he realized exactly what he was doing wrong. He wasn't a kid with no armor and a shitty rifle here; he had his SPI and an MA5 slung on his back.

Holstering the pistol, he ripped the MA5 out and fired wildly towards the source of the gunfire, blazing away until the magazine was dry. A silence fell over the town once again save for the ringing in his ears.

Reloading his rifle, he carefully approached the building he'd been shooting at. If his attacker had just fallen silent, he'd need to be wary of more ambushes.

He slipped through the shattered door, sweeping the room with his rifle as fast as he could in search of any sign of life.

There on the floor lay a small, huddled figure. A rifle lay a few feet away, an AR-74 just like Simon had predicted. He approached the body cautiously. Which contestant had he killed here?

Then the body twisted its head with a weak cough, and Simon knew.

His own face, a few years younger but still his own, looked up at him through dull grey eyes. Tears of pain cut tracks through the caked-on grime as the apparition's eyes narrowed with an emotion Simon knew all too well: pure, undiluted hatred.

The dying child let out another desperate cough, then leaned back and died.

Simon's rifle fell to his side. He didn't know how long he stood there, all thoughts of triumph and escape forgotten. He felt numb. His entire body had gone to sleep, leaving his eyes and mind awake to register the horror before him.

"You shouldn't have attacked," his mouth said. "You should've just let me pass. I wouldn't have hurt you." It was what he would have done, what he should have done. There was nothing to be gained from the ambush.

But he knew that in this time, in this place, he had not been concerned with survival. He had just wanted to kill anything and anyone connected with the UNSC. He had wanted to die.

Fists clenched, Simon turned away from his own corpse. He staggered out of the hut and back out into the street. The ruins of the cars and Specter still burned and smoked a few yards away, but there was a battered, dinged up Warthog that had not been there before.

A surge of fury shot through his body then, burning away the numbness and leaving the same hate that must have driven himself to rig those cars. He glared up furiously at the sky above. Someone had set this up. Someone had thought themselves clever for this opportunity to screw with his head. The same people who had taken them all and put them in this deathtrap for their own amusement.

There was so much he wanted to scream up then, to rail against the very heavens for everything that had happened to him, but he contented himself with a single, upraised finger. So someone had wanted him to come here, and now they wanted him to continue on towards the mountain. Fine.

The LRV's engine sputtered to life and he drove on down the road. He'd keep going, and nothing was going to stop him from getting away from all this. He'd live just to spite the puppetmasters who had worked all this out.

He sped onwards, heading towards the mountain and leaving the town--and the past--behind.

4

"We've got trouble, boss," said Sepia quietly.

Riker already saw them. Sangheili villagers, coming out of houses and alleyways, armed with blades of various sizes. The fact that they were moving to surround the three Spartans left him with no doubt as to their intentions.

Andrew activated his COM "Brandon, we've got trouble. Hostiles closing in on my position. We're surrounded."

"Roger. Bailey's back on his feet, he says he can stand and fight. we're on our way."

"Be careful," said Riker. "Don't do anything stupid." He cut the transmission and readied his weapon. "Well, let's not wait for them to overrun us, you two. Open fire!"

The three Spartans fired in unison, taking down a line of Sangheili. The aliens immediately snapped into action, breaking into a run and moving to cut down the team. Riker gunned them down one after another until his magazine was empty. He backpedalled, considered reloading, but changed his mind. "Grenades, on my mark."

Andrew and Sepia pulled out some frag grenades they had distributed earlier among their group. Riker pulled the pin on his, tossed it at a horde of Sangheili, and wasted no time to reload. "Mark!"

Two more grenades joined his, and they exploded within a second of each other, taking out a dozen enemies. "Okay, let's move!"

The trio of Spartans ran through the hole they had punched in the villagers' swarm, still shooting their way out. He felt metal strike his armour a few times, but his shields held. Sepia's flamethrower managed to clear a few more enemies before she ran out of ammo and fired the last of her grenades. Andrew tossed her his BR55 and they pressed further, moving constantly to prevent being hemmed in.

Bailey leaped over them from a nearby rooftop, his one arm holding one of the Sangheili swords. He attacked them mercilessly, striking them down and ignoring the hits he took. A moment later, Brandon appeared on the same rooftop, firing into the masses and occasionally throwing down grenades.

"Bailey, over here!" called Riker. The one-armed Spartan stabbed and hacked madly at any alien who came near him, making a path over to the others. Andrew and Sepia shot a few more villagers, helping him regroup with them.

"This is no good," Bailey panted, decapitating a Sangheili with a single slash. "Brandon and I spotted more of these bastards all over the village heading this way."

"We can't outrun them without transport," said Sepia grimly, now out of ammo for Andrew's battle rifle as well. She punched a Sangheili in his face and took his sabre, stabbing him through the chest with it a moment later.

"We need to get out of the village then," said Riker, kicking away another alien. Andrew shot it. "Are you sure you're okay to fight?"

"Are you kidding? Did you not see what I just did?"

"We need to help Brandon get down here then," said Riker, deciding it wasn't the best time to argue. "It'll only be a matter of time before they head up to the rooftop and corner him."

A hail of machinegun fire rained down around them, mowing down a score of Sangheili in the blink of an eye. The Spartans looked up to see a Pelican dropship bearing down on them, its chin-mounted turret blazing.

A voice came over the COM. "You guys need a ride?"

"If it's not too much trouble," said Sepia, gutting open a villager with her sabre.

"Get up to the roof where that Marine is. I'll pick you up there."

"Copy," said Riker. "Okay, change of plan, guys. You know what to do. Let's move."

The Spartans shifted their fire to focus in a single direction, onto the Sangheili standing between them and the rooftop. The Pelican did a few more passes, easily taking out more Sangheili, before hovering over the roof.


Kodiak-G114 turned around in his seat as Brandon climbed into the Pelican's passenger bay. "Do your friends a favour and keep the squid-heads off their back so they can get on."

Brandon grunted in acknowledgement, mounting up behind the Pelican's rear turret. He opened fire, the devastating gunfire tearing through alien after alien. The four Spartans climbed up onto the rooftop, Andrew and Sepia giving Bailey some help. A few Sangheili tried to follow but Brandon shot them down, with Riker chipping in with the last of his ammo.

As soon as the Spartans were on board, Kodiak lifted off, flying the Pelican up and away from the village. "Welcome aboard, everyone. Nice to see we're still all in one piece, mostly."

"Kodiak?" asked Sepia, stepping into the cockpit.

"Oh hey, Sepia. I didn't know you were here. Where were you guys going?"

"To those mountains there," she said, pointing out the window. "There's a shuttle there apparently, but we've got a ride into space now. Still, some of our friends have gone ahead and we should go pick them up."

"In that case, do you want to take the controls? I have no idea where we're going anyway. And I need to have a word with your team leader."

"Don't mind if I do."

As Sepia took the pilot's seat, Kodiak stepped into the passenger bay. "That was fun. Hope I didn't crash your party, guys."

"Not at all," said Riker, setting down his empty rifle. "Thanks for the save, Spartan."

"Don't mention it, sir. Sepia's a good friend of mine."

Andrew was staring down at the mass of Sangheili lined in the streets below them. They all stared up at the dropship in silence as they flew by. "Then she really owes you big-time. Look at all these villagers."

Kodiak nodded. "I was flying over the village when I saw them. I was wondering what was happening, so I followed the crowd. I wasn't sure where else to go after that, but Sepia says she's taking us to some mountains?"

"Yeah," said Brandon. "A few others from our group headed off earlier to go after someone. We should catch up and pick them up."

"Yeah, she said something of the sort. Who are you after?"

"Another Spartan," said Riker, his voice hardening. "After he found out about the shuttle, he killed one of our friends and took off in our vehicle. He wants to get to it himself."

"Well then, count me in if you're going to teach him a lesson," said Kodiak. "He sure won't see us coming like this."

The senior Spartan gave a humourless chuckle. "That he won't."

5

Dawson dashed into the barracks, looking rather flustered. "We've got trouble."

Robson had been dozing in bed but he sat up immediately. "What is it?"

"Our camera above the base picked up two Sangheili outside," she said, reaching under her bed and pulling out her M28A. He raised an eyebrow but quickly followed her outside. "They're gunning down our guards outside."

"You mean those lions?"

"Yes, those lions. And we're going to take out the Sangheili before they find our only Warthog."

"Wendy. You remember what I told you about why we're here, right?"

She didn't even slow. "Yeah. These could be some of those contestants you were talking about. All the more reason to protect our transport. Now come on."

He didn't argue, instead grabbing his weapons and watching as Dawson rallied a few Marines from the command centre and followed her outside. It was odd; he was the ranking NCO here, yet he was so unfamiliar with these new allies that he decided to leave her to get everyone moving. Two minutes and forty-three seconds later, half a score of them were packed into the elevator and they headed to the surface, weapons ready.


"This is hardly a good use of our time," remarked 'Yabomee as he peppered a lion with needles.

"These rocks make a good shelter," replied 'Morhek. Another lion lunged at him, and he shot plasma into it in the face three times, melting through its eye and into the brain. "Besides, I doubt we could outrun these creatures." He dodged another lion by moving under the rock's crevice—

And smacked right into something solid and hard. Blinking, he looked to see that there was a human Warthog parked under the rock, hidden so well in the dark he hadn't even seen it. He quickly shot down the persistent lion and climbed up the rock to where 'Yabomee was. "I have found transport. Come on, we should leave."

Both Sangheili were suddenly hit by a flurry of bullets, their shields lighting up from the gunfire. They turned to see ten Marines or so running out of the den at the back of the rocks.

"We are outmatched," said 'Morhek.

"Nonsense," growled 'Yabomee. "Humans will be more entertaining to kill than these beasts."

'Morhek was about to remind him that they would be unable to fend off both at once, when the zealot ignited his energy sword and charged. Suppressing a sigh, 'Morhek moved to help.

And then Strifalex burst out of the cloud cover, speeding down towards them and guns blazing. Marines and lions fell, and rock shards flew as the boulders shattered from the gunfire. The surviving humans ducked inside as the metallic creature flew lower.

'Morhek's shields were almost completely drained, and he decided not to waste time. Grabbing the back of 'Yabomee's neck firmly, he pulled him off the side of the rock and dragged him into the Warthog. The zealot snarled in protest but didn't jump out as the jeep lurched forward, speeding off into the grasslands. A few shots landed on their vehicle, but there was no significant damage, and before long the rock cluster became a speck on the horizon.

I pity those humans though, thought 'Morhek. Whatever that thing is, they will have no way to escape it...or survive.

6

They hadn't gone too far before they ran into trouble.

Felix made sure he was covering Jess at all times as hordes of Flood came out of nowhere and attacked the team of mercenaries. He targeted the infection forms primarily, leaving the others to gun down the larger, easier targets. He also kept an eye out for anyone who was in danger of infection. And being the only one on the team with energy shields, that meant he was constantly moving to and fro, trying to keep everyone alive.

Jess was doing fine. Her aim was far better than that of the mercenaries', and she figured out to aim at the combat forms' chest cavities, where they were infected. Still, she was protected by nothing but lightweight Marine armour, which made her vulnerable to infection. He didn't leave her side at all, even when there were some mercenaries that were in trouble. They lost a few of their team during the fight, but he was primarily concerned with her safety.

The battle was fierce but ended very quickly. Barely ten minutes into the first attack, the ground was littered with broken Flood limbs and green-white blood. One of the mercenaries kicked an inert combat form. "These things smell awful."

"Let's keep moving," said Felix. "It's going to be dark soon, and we should make camp."

"Can we get away from here first?" asked another one nervously.

"Yeah. I have no idea where those Flood came from, but there could be more nearby."

It was dark by the time the team settled for a camp on an open grassland. Felix decided it would be safe enough since they would be able to see any enemy coming from a long way off. There was of course the danger of being sniped by an enemy, but as long as they kept quiet, it was unlikely they would run into anyone during the night.

"Felix, I need to tell you something," said Jess quietly. A few mercenaries watched her but didn't say anything as he followed her away from the group.

"What is it, Jess?" he asked.

"Felix, we really shouldn't stay with these mercenaries," she said. "They're dangerous, who knows if they'll turn on us or not."

"Jess, right now we need all the backup we can get. You're the first Marine I've seen for a while, and...and I've already told you how things work here. These guys aren't even real."

"They're dangerous," she insisted. "They're in it for themselves. They're only with you because they need your protection."

"I know. Which is why they won't try anyth—" Felix suddenly looked to the right at a slight rustling sound elsewhere in the grass.

Jess had heard it too, and her hand was on her sidearm. He motioned for her to stay where she was, and he silently moved off into the darkness.


"That Marine is trouble," muttered one of the mercenaries.

"Tell me about it," said another. "The Spartan protects her more carefully than he does all of us put together."

"Yeah. We lost three of our boys today because he was so focused on her."

"She's gone to talk to him. I think she wants to take him and ditch us or something. I can tell she doesn't trust us."

"Well, we can't have that. We'd stand no chance against those things that attacked us today."

"So, what do we do about the Marine?"

The first mercenary grinned.

Episode 16: Close Calls

1

Vinh knew the Spartan had heard her move as soon as he stopped talking to the Marine. She hurriedly moved, but more carefully now and not giving away her position even as she crept through the tall grass without moving the blades.

For a moment, she was tempted to reveal herself and just hope that he was willing to work together. But then she reminded herself of her plan. I can't trust myself with anyone. I won't be able to tell if they'll turn on me. Besides, I already look suspicious, creeping up on them in the dead of the night like this.

She had encounted them hours ago, when a horde of Flood had broken out and were attacking them. She had helped the Spartan out, killing some of them so discreetly that even the grisly creatures hadn't noticed she was picking them off. She had considered even then teaming up with him when she saw how he protected his Marine companion above that of the others'. But she knew it would be trouble to work together with those mercenaries. They gave her a bad feeling.


Vinh finally got away from the grasslands and reached the forest again. There could be Flood in there, but she decided it was best for anyone else in this fight for survival to know of her presence. She had already found several of them dead as she travelled across the constantly changing terrains. Maybe it would be easier to decide on what to do once there were fewer participants still alive.

When she was certain the other Spartan wasn't still following her, she quickened her pace a bit, and after what seemed like hours, cleared the other side of the forest without further trouble. Although it was still pitch dark and there was no moon in the sky, her keen sense picked up a massive lake before her, its water lapping softly against the short cliff she stood on. It wasn't too far below, simply ten feet or so below the land.

Why am I sticking my neck out for others like this? she wondered. I'm not even planning on allying with any of them.

The same answer came to her as it always did. Because we're supposed to be on the same side. I'm helping them because it's what I would do in any other situation, and I keep myself out of their way because I don't know if they'd do the same. It sounded weird and even stiupid, but she felt a reassurance at playing the unseen benefactor. It reminded her of her sense of duty, which in turn would keep her sane in all this madness.

She heard the sound of almost silent running a moment before she felt herself being tackled over the edge by something heavy. An energy sword ignited next to her face, and she shifted to see that there were not one, but two Sangheili grabbing her. She punched the one holding the sword, causing his swing at her to miss.

And then they hit the water with a gigantic splash, and her vision distorted as she sank into the lake. She reached for her sidearm as she felt herself being rapidly pulled down, not knowing if she could use it underwater but deciding not to go down without a fight.

2

Felix wondered if he should have given up on finding whoever was in the grass so easily. But it was no good running around on a barethread trail when he could just as well lead an enemy to the camp. After a half hour of fruitless searching with no traces of anyone in the area, he turned around and headed back.

And then a scream rent the night air. He felt his nerves spike at the sound of that scream, because he knew who it was.

"Jess!" he shouted, against his better judgement. He broke into a run, not even bothering to be careful. He felt an uncustomary panic rise as he ran faster, trying to outpace his fear. This was exactly what he had been afraid of. Why hadn't he asked her to come with him? He had been careful to keep her protected at all times. He had thought she would be safe at the camp. She'd better be safe—she'd better be or else—I only left for a little while—

He burst into the camp to see Jess lying on the ground, glassy-eyed and blood trickling out of her throat. For a moment there, he just stood, frozen with shock, unable to comprehend what he was seeing. This couldn't be happening...it wasn't real... He was gripping his BR60 so tightly that he was bending the metal, but he didn't notice. The tension was the only thing holding him together, the only thing that kept him standing there, trying to force out the thoughts creeping into his mind, the image that was printed into his retinas...

"Damn, I told you to get rid of her quietly!"

The sound of the voice snapped Felix out of his reverie. His gaze turned away from Jess to see the mercenary team running off in separate directions. Some of them were holding weapons, and he realized that they had been gathered around her. The pieces clicked together, and then the knowledge came crashing down. Despite the turmoil raging inside him, his face became one of detached determination, and without making a sound, he raised his battle rifle and pulled back the slide.

The mercenaries scattered and ran, vigorously trying to escape the Spartan that was hot on their tails. As gunfire and cries of pain filled the air, the survivors moved even farther, some trying to hide.

It didn't do them any good. Each of them was hunted down swiftly and mercilessly. Some of them were shot in the back as they tried to run. Some were found in their hiding spots. Some tried to plead for their lives but were gunned down in the blink of an eye. Some tried to shoot back but were killed before they could fire.

He didn't even care how painful it was for them. He just wanted them all dead.

The sun was rising by the time every single one of them was killed. On his way back, he saw one that was still alive, trying to crawl away. A trio of bullets in the back of his head stopped that.

And then Felix reached the camp. He stopped in front of Jess' corpse, and just stared at her like when he first found her. As if he couldn't accept what he was seeing. How often he had nightmares about it, dreading the possibility that this would happen. It was a constant fear, since they were both in the service. It was always easier to be hurt by the loss of someone else than it was to be injured or killed himself. How much more vulnerable it made him to care for someone to the extent that he did for her. For all his armour and skills and willingness to sacrifice himself in the line of duty, he couldn't protect what mattered the most to him. Not completely.

And then he remembered what she had said mere hours ago. She had a bad feeling about the mercenaries, and tried to convince him to leave. Why didn't he listen? Why didn't he trust her, dammit?

Felix tore the helmet from his head and slammed it onto the ground. He collapsed to his knees before Jess, and let out a drawn-out scream of anguish and frustration. He wanted to force it all out of him until he couldn't feel anything of the sort.

He didn't want to feel anything anymore if it meant he'd have to remember this pain. And he had no doubt that the pain would be something he would never forget.

3

Felix remained still, head bowed, as he kneeled beside Jess’ corpse. He had screamed his rage to the heavens, and since then he had not moved so much as an inch. Without movement, with hardly anything to give away that he was still alive, Felix had remained there for… hours? Days? He knew that the sun had arisen at least once, but he wasn’t sure, and it did not matter to him. Nothing mattered now.

His battle rifle lay still on the ground beside him; his helmet, its visor now sporting a tiny crack, lay buried two inches into the dirt beside him. The wind stirred his hair, but he did not move, nor did it truly register in his mind. Nothing registered.

The death of the mercenaries replayed through his mind in violent fragments, screams and blood rampaging through his grey matter. He had murdered them, one by one, just like they had done to her. Inside, Felix still felt hollow, but grim satisfaction murmured from the edges of his thoughts that the mercenaries had received retribution.

But it did not matter. Jess was still dead. And as much as he tried to tell himself he needed to move on, to keep going, that a Spartan like him shouldn’t give up, Felix couldn’t move. He couldn’t go on.

He was alone. Completely, tragically, alone.

The brush nearby rustled, and at first Felix was content to ignore it, until his instincts told him better. The sound came again, softly, then followed by swift, near-silent movements in his direction. Still, Felix could not bring himself to move.

His training had other ideas.

Ducking and rolling to the side, Felix picked up his Battle Rifle and opened fire on his attacker, a large humanoid with a pointed, cat-like face and gray skin. The rifle’s bullets punctured his foe’s left shoulder, several wires sparking as fluid leaked out of the robotic arm’s pauldron and down into a gaping hole in the creature’s stomach. Felix was unsure what to make of this odd, cybernetic creature, so unlike anything he had seen before, dodging its blade once more as it swung to attack again.

However, as Felix looked, all thoughts about the creature’s oddity vanished as he saw what had become of Jess. The strike the beast had intended for Felix had instead cleaved past where he had been and directly into Jess, rending her corpse in two and badly mauling other pieces when the assailant had pulled his blade out of her.

The creature looked at Jess dead body. “Pathetic human” he rasped, “A shame. Perhaps she could have aided you, had she not been foolish enough to die. Not that any stand a chance against the might of Vevictus.” Then, as an added gesture of mockery, Vevictus decapitated Jess, before kicking her to the side, chortling as he did.

Rage vaporized all reason within Felix. There was little that meant more to him in life than Jess, and now to not only fail to save her, but to be denied of giving her a decent burial, and to watch her body be mutilated after death as well…

Felix snapped.

He was not sure what he was doing, knew in a small sliver of his mind that it was stupid, but his combat instincts and his maddened, sorrow-driven hatred took over. Felix dashed at his foe, stabbing his combat knife into this monster’s chest and ripping a slice into it before dodging his foe’s blade with a backflip. Kicking off of Vevictus, Felix kicked the cyborg’s arm back before it could bring its pistol to bear, the shot discharging in the opposite direction as Felix slammed his fist directly into Vevictus’ face.

Vevictus, while taken aback at the sudden brutality, was not one to give up without a fight. Roaring in his own battle rage, Vevictus spun and slammed his feet into Felix’s chest, knocking the Spartan to the ground as the Voren brought his blade to bear. Preparing to slam it down into his foe, the Spartan retaliated, knocking Vevictus’ legs out from under him as he sprung forward, twisting one violently as he did.

Vevictus, for his part, steeled himself against the pain and pulled out his other pistol, firing into the back of Felix’s armor. The shields flared and almost popped, before Felix rolled out of the way and kicked Vevictus off of him. Pulling out his shotgun, Felix began to pump bullets into the cyborg, but even as blood and fluids began pouring out of him, Vevictus flipped forward and ripped the shotgun out of Felix’s hands before stabbing him in the arm with a small dagger.

Felix toppled sideways from a blow to the head, and as the world spun around him, a tiny voice in his head seemed to whisper urgently to run. Within him, the tiny piece of reason that remained was still speaking, telling him that death was not the way out of this, that it wouldn’t solve anything, that he shouldn’t want to die… that Jess wouldn’t want him to die.

Determined, Felix forced himself up once more just as Vevictus prepared to slaughter him, reaching out and ripping at the alien’s arm, trying to tear it off of him long enough to serve as a distraction. Vevictus roared, picking the Spartan partially off the ground, just as Felix had planned – throwing his weight into the maneuver, Felix tossed Vevictus to the ground while jumping back, and, as he did, Felix stuck one of his SLE7 grenades onto Vevictus’ arm.

Felix ran. His guns holstered, his helmet plucked from the dirt as he escaped, Felix ran from the battle, ran as fast he could.

Vevictus stood, scrambling to pull the grenade from his arm, to no avail.

I’m sorry, Jess, he thought, the sight of her still lingering as he ran.

Roaring in pain, Vevictus pulled at his dislocated and partially severed arm, desperate to free himself as the timer ticked down.

A low rumble reached Felix’s ears, but he kept running. He had a goal now, a goal to escape this madness. Better yet, to end it. But he would need allies, and he knew just where to get them.

He needed to find Roy Koel. So, with the direction that Jess had told him in mind, he continued running.

Jess...

Far behind him, Vevictus stumbled away from the battle ground. His arm was missing, torn off at the shoulder, while his stomach and chest now both sported large wounds. Though it would take quite a bit of time, Vevictus knew that the wounds would heal, but the arm was irreplaceable under these conditions.

Seething with hatred, Vevictus stalked off into the distance, intent on trailing Felix, and making him pay.

4

Whatever that thing was that had just swooped in, Robson wasn’t sure, nor did he care: instead, he simply picked up a dead Marine’s rocket launcher and opened fire once again. The thing had swept in from the air right before they could kill the two Sangheili, and had proceeded to decimate a half dozen Marines before they could get into cover. Now, Robson was trying to figure out a way to stop the thing.

Robson dropped the empty rocket launcher and rolled behind another rock, pulling out his assault rifle and opening fire once more. He looked to Dawson, who was in the middle of reloading her carbine while bullets pelted their hiding spot.

“Got any ideas?” he asked her over the din of the fighting.

“Not a freakin’ one,” Dawson replied, causing Robson to worry. Amelia always had a plan.

A barrage of rockets exploded into the rocks, destroying their cover as Strifalex stalked forward. Returning fire, Robson noticed how ineffective their bullets were, save for a few place where enough fire had begun to rupture the armor; still, that many bullets was infeasible, and not even feasible in this situation. However, as more rockets exploded in the combat zone, a gigantic boulder fell from the rocky pillar above them, smashing into Strifalex’s shoulder and crushing the front of his right rocket pod.

Instantly, an idea came to Dawson. “Come on!” she yelled to Robson as Strifalex speared two Marines onto his large sword nearby. “We have to get him inside the base!” she said, running into the underground tunnel.

“Are you sure about this?” asked Robson, hesitant and watching their back as the mechanical giant smashed his way in behind them.

“This is the only way we’re going to finish him off,” she replied, “We don’t have enough firepower or ammunition to take him down. The only way we’re going to stop that thing is bury it.”

Before Robson could object, Strifalex broke into the main chamber, two chainguns opening fire on the handful of Marines the pair still had with them. “Go!” yelled Robson, “I’ll cover you!”

Dawson nodded, taking off running as soon as Robson opened fire on Strifalex again. There was precious little time, and Dawson knew this; however, she had faith in Robson, and continued ducking and rolling behind cover, hiding near the main support struts of the chamber as she placed the charges she had collected earlier.

Strifalex was no fool though, and he continued to track Dawson, firing at her cover and at last pinning her down once more. Robson, knowing that she hadn’t placed the last charge yet. Almost out of ammo and in need of some way to divert the robot’s attention. Seeing only one option, and knowing full well that it was an idiotic move, Robson jumped into a nearby forklift, and charged Strifalex, driving the forks directly into the robot’s midriff.

Strifalex, though immobile, was not amused. His fist punched straight into the forklift, crushing it on top of Robson’s legs even as he tried to escape.

“Michael!” cried Dawson as she heard him cry out in pain. This was just as fatal for her, however, as Strifalex turned and opened fire with his rocket pods, destroying her cover and throwing her far across the room where she smashed into the wall and then the floor.

Strifalex made a low growling noise, akin to a laugh perhaps, with the ceiling groaning in unison. He prepared to step towards Dawson to finish her off, but as he moved, Strifalex was suddenly ravaged from the side by Robson, who had managed to pick up a heavy machine gun from one of the dead marines. Strifalex, his shields down from the forklift impact, felt the machine gun tearing into his hide: frustrated at Robson’s refusal to die, he swiftly seized Robson and prepared to crush him.

Robson, however, had one last trick to play. Smiling, he tossed an M9 grenade directly into Strifalex’s left optic cavity.

The explosion devastated the circuitry, destroying the optic and a large portion of his face. In reflex, Strifalex clenched, crushing Robson as he screamed in excruciating pain before dropping to the ground, dead. But Strifalex’s suffering was not yet over.

Dawson, many of her bones broken, her skin cut and torn and blood oozing from her orifices, reached as far as she could to regain the detonator. Placing her thumb on the trigger, Dawson glared at Strifalex.

“Burn in Hell, you bastard.”

The button clicked, and the charges detonated. As they did, the ceiling, already weak without the central pillar, gave way completely, dropping hundreds if not a few thousand tons of dirt, rock, metal and concrete down on top of Strifalex. He tried his best to escape, to shield himself from the collapse, but with only have his sight and limited mobility, Strifalex had little chance of escape.

As the dust settled above ground several minutes later, the sunken crater stirred slightly. Pushing one of the rocks aside, Strifalex’s metallic hand burst back into the surface, soon followed by the rest of him. Although mostly intact, Strifalex was badly wounded: his midriff still sported its forklift wounds, his left arm was almost useless, and his rocket pods were destroyed. One of the worst scars, however, was his now cavernous face, his left optic and the surrounding region completely gone.

Growling to himself, Strifalex slowly moved on, his weak shields flaring. With his nanite repair system running at a minimum, he would have to be more careful should he encounter more foes.

5

Vinh already knew that she was sinking fast and decided not to waste time trying to get back to the surface. She found that she was able to breathe just fine thanks to her armour, and knew that if she struggled to paddle upward, she'd be making herself an easy target to her two new enemies.

And there they were, drifting closer and staring straight at her. Although their helmets were clearly not sealed, they didn't seem to have trouble breathing either; for a moment, she wondered if Sangheili could breathe underwater, before deciding it wasn't important. There was a fight to be had, and she had no intention of losing.

Then both of the aliens activated their energy swords, and Vinh knew this was no ordinary body of water. It was almost like they were meant to fight here. Without giving the bizarre phenomenon another thought, she drew the two energy swords she had acquired from the first Sangheili she defeated, and lunged at them.

It seemed the water was just as dense as it always was at their depth, and she felt its tug slowing her down. Nonetheless, she managed to swoop over to them and attack. Muffled crackling sounds were heard as their blades clashed. The Spartan moved to and fro as much as she could, taking advantage of the fact that they were in the massive body of water to attack from more angles than she would with her feet planted on the ground. She had trained like this before in zero-gee, and it was almost the same sensation, save for the dull weight of the water pressing down on her.

The two Sangheili seemed fairly adept as well, although she could tell that the silver-armoured one moved more easily than his companion. After exchanging several blows and a few close calls, Vinh decided to go for the weakest link and focus on the zealot.

As the three combatants sank lower into the water, she noticed vaguely how it didn't seem to be getting any darker, even though there was no light to be seen above them. The water was crystal clear, and although they were now at a depth where the water pressure would be crushing them, the Sangheili continued to attack her without any sign of discomfort. She suddenly had an idea, and shifted her stance to the defensive.

The Sangheili noticed this right away and quickly moved to push her back, but rather than allow them to force her deeper, she maintained her depth, treading water and warding off their blows while keeping them below her. She did this without too much trouble, despite the heavy armour weighing on her. She managed to keep her breath steady and was careful not to wear herself out.

The aliens didn't seem to catch onto this notion, however, and she noticed when their attacks began to flag as they fought to keep close to her and continue their barrage of attacks. Their efforts proved to be far more exhausting than hers, however, and when their attacks slowed noticeably, she took her chance.

Vinh lunged downward fast, ramming the silver-armoured Sangheili with her shoulder and sending him plummeting deeper into the seemingly endless water. She spun around and upward, and just as she anticipated, the zealot was caught off guard by her sudden ferocity. She slashed with all her might, fighting the weight of the water. Her tenacity was rewarded as sharp plasma found metal and flesh. The zealot let out a silent roar of agony as purple spurted into the transparent water. She pulled the energy sword out of his belly and moved for a finishing blow with her other blade.

But the zealot recovered faster than she anticipated, and she felt the barrel of a needle rifle pressed into her gut a moment before two dull lances of pain shot into her abdomen. Her energy shields held, but the force of the point-blank shots pulled her downward.

The gold-armoured Sangheili's mandibles spread in a malicious grin, despite his injuries, and he pulled out a plasma grenade and ignited it. Vinh knew that unless she regained control of her movements fast, she was a goner. Yet she kept sinking further and further, unable to fight the water that seemed so intent on dragging her down into oblivion.

She saw her adversary's arm move, and braced for the grenade to fly through the water and lodge to her armour. But instead, the grenade simply left the alien's hand and drifted almost serenely in front of him. Both of them just stared at it for a moment in surprise. Then panic entered the Sangheili's eyes, and he struggled to paddle away.

Vinh saw another flash of purple amidst the bright blue explosion that lit up the water. She stared only for a moment at the zealot's limp form drifting before her before she remembered the other alien. But he was nowhere in sight. Deciding to get out of this strange body of water rather than spend time looking for him, she finally started stroking upward, listening intently for the sound of her other opponent coming to meet her.


'Morhek knew 'Yabomee was doomed as soon as he deployed the grenade. He had tried to stop him, tried to shout out a warning he would not hear. But they were too far away, and he simply watched helplessly as the zealot was killed by his own explosive.

The Spartan had gotten away. She swam for the surface right after 'Yabomee's unlucky death, and 'Morhek had no reserves of energy to chase after her, let alone fight her. He was thankful that the water at least allowed him to breathe somehow, and he did not choose to question it.

This game of survival is almost at an end, he thought. I can feel it. Our numbers have grown extremely thin compared to everything that was happening when this all started.

Perhaps he would meet the Spartan again. Perhaps he would not. But 'Morhek decided that he would not give up so easily again now that he was on his own. There would be no one to watch his back, and with his odds of surviving growing shorter, he knew that it was no time to dawdle.

As soon as I regain my energy, I will make for the surface as well. And then I will fight any who wishes to challenge me. I will fight until I am victorious or my heartbeats are stopped by a foe.

Either way, I intend to make the best of my time here.

6

"Koel..."

Koel groaned and stirred at the sound of the voice, but felt so drained that he just wanted to close his eyes and go back to sleep...

"Koel!"

He felt a sudden pain on the left side of his face, and jerked awake with a yelp. Coney was standing over him, staring down at him impatiently.

"About time," she said. "This isn't really the best place to be lying around snoozing."

He sat up, rubbing his face. "Did you just slap me?" he muttered.

"Oh, suck it up, you baby," she retorted. "Come on, we've got to get moving. Who knows where Jess landed after we were shot down—"

Koel was suddenly fully awake, looking around frantically. "Hey, Jess isn't here!"

"No shit," Coney said. "I saw you coming in for a hard landing, but did you fall on your head or something?"

"I don't know," he said, shaking his head to clear his vision. "What day is it?"

She raised an eyebrow. "You've really been knocked hard. We're in this survival thing, remember?"

"Damn," he said as he stood up. "And here I was hoping it was just all a dream."

"Focus, Marine," she reminded him. "We have to keep moving, come on."

Unsteadily, Koel got to his feet, his head swimming. Coney passed him his MA5K, and he accepted the weapon, feeling a bit more sturdy as he pulled back the slide on the weapon. "Right. Where to?"

She shrugged. "Pick any direction and hope we get lucky, I guess."

He sighed and started walking. "We're really having a tough time getting out of this place, aren't we?"

"I've been thinking about that, actually," Coney said quietly as they moved, weapons ready. "Those fighters seemed a little too conveniently located for my liking. And remember how they pulled away as soon as we bailed out?"

"No," he admitted.

"They could have easily taken us all out, but they didn't. Don't you think that means something?"

"I think we should be glad we're alive."

She gave him an exasperated look. "Let's just keep going."

And then a blur of metal collided with her and sent her flying back.

Despite his rough landing, Koel immediately knew they were under attack, and spun around, MA5K raised. He immediately took aim at the black machine-like creature that held his ally, who was struggling to reach her weapon. It looked like a tough bastard, but it was already heavily damaged and looked like it had plenty of openings. Aiming for the centre of the mass, he aimed at its back and fired.

Strifalex grunted as he felt the bullets impact his battered armour, and he turned around, still holding Coney. Koel immediately ceased fire as she was held in front of him, and he raised one arm to fire at him. But the Navy officer had other plans; she had managed to free her M6D and brought it up to fire at him. The cyborg immediately smashed it out of her hand, feeling her bones break from the force of his blow. He followed up by punching her in the chest, shattering several ribs and knocking the wind out of her.

"I am not in the mood to be damaged further," he growled at her, as she doubled over, gasping for breath and coughing up blood.

"Koel," she gasped. "Run."

"Fuck no," Koel snapped, moving around and trying to find a good angle to fire. A helpless rage danced in his eyes as Strifalex continued to hold her in front of him, and he took advantage of the Marine's stubbornness to fire several missiles at him. Koel moved surprisingly fast, dodging from the missiles and actually running towards him. The Machina adjusted his aim, ready to shoot him down with his other weapons. This would be over in no time.

"Goddamn it, Marine," Coney snarled. She raised her other hand to her mouth, and when she pulled away, Strifalex realized that she was holding a grenade, and it was set to detonate. Before he could react, she twisted in his grasp, her face tense with pain from moving. As Koel rushed them, she kicked him hard in the chest, sending him flying into a tree and knocking him unconscious. And then she curled her fingers into a fist around the grenade. And then she punched Strifalex in the face at the same time the grenade exploded.

Strifalex felt agony erupt along his face again as explosive heat entered his already damaged helmet. He roared as he felt shrapnel enter his already blinded eye, and a dozen additional holes were rented open on his heavily damaged body. He tossed away the dead human's mangled body and clutched his face. It threatened to bring him to his knees and he fought it with every ounce of strength he had. And for the first time since arriving into this deathmatch, he became fearful of what would happen if Koel woke up to seek retribution for his ally. In the Machina's damaged state, he would be easily cut down. And so he turned and ran.


Koel groaned and opened his eyes blearily, regaining consciousness for the second time in the same day. This time, however, everything was silent.

Getting to his feet, he snatched up his rifle and swept the area for where Strifalex had gone. He quickly spotted Coney's bloodied and blackened form, and ran over to her even though he knew it was too late for her.

She was completely torn open. Almost half her body was missing, but the fearless look in her misted eyes was still present. He wondered at first if it was the Machina that had done this to her, but then he remembered how she had kicked him away. And a moment before that, he saw her clutching a grenade in her hand.

She detonated it at point-blank range. It must have ran away or something.

Koel felt an uncharacteristic anger as he stood up from Coney's body. No, this would not do. That freak wasn't going to get away after attacking them, getting her killed, and then having the nerve to turn tail and run. He quickly found a trail of blood and shards of metal leading in a single direction and followed it, breaking into a run. Coney must have done a hell lot of damage on it with that grenade. He would see to it that he finished the job. For her.

You're dead, you bastard. You hear me? I'm going to find you. And when I do, I'm going to make you suffer.

Episode 17: Cutting Edge

1

"I see him," said Joshua, pointing ahead at the speck that was not so distant now.

"You sure it's him?" grunted Dyne, pressing his foot even firmly down onto the pedal as if he could make the Warthog surpass its maximum speed.

Joshua looked through the scope of his battle rifle, aiming at the other jeep but not firing. "Confirmed."

"He looks like he's going to head up the mountain," Quinn said, swivelling the turret to point at Simon.

"Let's light him up," Dyne said.

"Get me in range first," said the Marine. "If I spray him, he'll just try to avoid us."

Joshua saw Simon's Warthog turning onto the path leading up the mountain, and squeezed off a volley of triple-burst rounds. Most of the shots just pinged off the vehicle, but he saw the traitor Spartan flinch as two of the bullets made contact with his armour. He hardly slowed down, however, and turned onto the path and around a bend, shielding him from further harm.

"I'm on him," Dyne said, easing his foot from the pedal and slowing down enough so he could turn onto the path without flipping the Warthog. Quinn gritted his teeth as the rock terrain became bumpy, holding on tight to the turret's handles and peering through the sights, ready to fire as soon as they got a target.

Dyne made a sharp turn that brought the Warthog uncomfortably close to the edge of the path, but managed to maintain most of his speed, sending the Warthog bolting after Simon, who was now in range. "Get him, Quinn!"

The Marine pressed his thumbs down onto the turret's trigger—and only heard a clicking sound. "Aw, you've got to be kidding me..."

"What's the problem?" Joshua asked, putting 9.5mm rounds into Simon's rear bumper, trying to get a clear shot on him.

"There's no ammo in this gun!"

"Are you fucking kidding me?" Dyne said, as Simon made another turn onto an even steeper path. He followed, nearly throwing Quinn off the back.

"I wish!"

"Guess we're doing it the hard way then," Dyne muttered, speeding up the slanted path as fast as he could. He made another turn and saw that Simon was caught up, his back wheel caught in a crevice protruding from a bend. They closed the distance rapidly. Josh climbed out of his seat and crouched precariously on the hood of the Warthog, his rifle slung over his back.

Simon managed to free his vehicle at the last second, lurching forward just before Dyne collided with him. However, Joshua jumped off the hood anyway, hands outstretched. For a moment, it looked as if he was going to miss and end up under Dyne's wheels, but then he grabbed onto the back rim of Simon's Warthog, his boots dug into the rear bumper as he fought to climb his way up.

Dyne managed to pull alongside Simon now, and he pulled out one of his SMGs with one hand while driving with the other. Quinn had his MA5 out and was bracing himself against the turret. Both of them fired at Simon, who was shooting back with a grubby-looking handgun. Most of his shots went wide, however, although Dyne had to avoid them while trying not to send his vehicle flying off the cliff. They were on the outside, and even the slightest mistake could be fatal.

Joshua managed to make his way to the front of Simon's Warthog, and smashed the handgun out of his grip with a single swipe. Simon turned, startled, and tried to ward him off with one hand. The two Gamma Spartans grappled on the vehicle, although Simon was clearly losing since he had to concentrate on driving. Dyne stayed alongside them, not wanting to ram into the other Warthog should he throw Joshua off by accident.

Joshua landed a hard blow on Simon's helmeted head, who jerked and swerved the Warthog, causing his opponent to lose his balance. It was all the time the renegade Spartan needed; he held a grenade in his hand and thumbed the activation, tossing it neatly into Dyne's Warthog.

"Shit!" Dyne yelled, frantically trying to sweep the grenade out. But in his surprise, he managed only to roll it under the seat. Time slowed down as he leaped up and grabbed at Quinn, trying to jump clear of the vehicle he knew was already doomed.

Dyne was thrown to the side as an explosion engulfed the Warthog. His hand was grabbing at empty air as he smacked right into the side of the mountain, watching as Quinn disappeared in a fireball. He could hear the Marine scream for a brief moment before it was cut off.

Dazed, Dyne looked up to see that Simon's Warthog had stopped. Its driver was standing on it, missing his helmet and grasping an activated Energy Sword with its blades impaled straight through Joshua's stiffened form. The dying Spartan's shuddering gasp could be heard even through his helmet.

Simon was staring into Joshua's visor, looking a bit surprised at what he had just done. But it didn't stop him from swiftly drawing out his blade and dealing the wounded Joshua a clean slash across the torso, sending him falling away from him and off the edge of the path.

Dyne snapped out of his reverie, shaking off his shock at seeing his two allies both dying in the blink of an eye. He grabbed at his BR55, trying to bring it up in time, and make a fatal shot before Simon managed to close the distance—

Ping.

A second grenade explosion erupted from the Warthog's tire, causing its engines to burst into flame as it flipped off the cliff edge as well. It didn't explode, but pulled Simon off the side of the mountain as well.

The renegade Spartan felt his Energy Sword leave his grip, but at the moment he was more concerned with the long drop before him. As he fell away from the Warthog, he dug his prosthetic arm hard into the rock face, not able to get a steady grip but slowing down enough that he managed to make a clumsy, painful fall onto the winding path below him without rolling off its edge as well. He gasped for breath as he lay on his back, hoping that Dyne wouldn't be checking to see if he was dead.

Simon got up even before he was fully recovered, knowing that it wasn't smart to stay in the same place for too long. And he still had somewhere to go. The ship. I have to get to the ship... He checked his remaining weapons and was about to get going when something caught his eye.

A control panel, built into the side of the mountain face. It looked like it was UNSC design too. You don't see that every day, he thought as he approached it. Then again, nothing about this place is normal.


Dyne looked up to see another Spartan sliding down the rock face towards him. The way she was moving suggested that she was a female. She wasn't holding any weapons, but he guessed that she was the one who had thrown the grenade. "Are you alright?" she asked.

"I'm...I'm fine..." he said, getting to his feet. He didn't raise his gun but stayed alert nonetheless.

"I saw what happened to your friends," she said. "Sorry. I would have done something sooner but I couldn't keep up with your vehicles."

"I...thanks for saving me."

"Don't mention it. What's your name?"

"Dyne. SPARTAN-G217."

The Spartan cocked her head. "Dyne, huh?"

He didn't miss the gesture. "Do you know me?"

"I can't say I do," she said, although there was something in her voice that he couldn't quite identify. "So, where are you going?"

"I was chasing Simon—the one you just killed. He was after something at the top of the mountain. I think it could be a ship."

"Really? Then why don't we go get it? Maybe we can get out of here."

"Sounds good." Dyne wasn't sure what it was, but something about her made him feel like he could trust her. Even if she hadn't just saved his life, he had never been this quick to put his trust in anyone before. As the two Spartans walked up the sloping path, he remembered something. "You haven't told me your name yet."

"Oh...right." She was silent for a moment, as if contemplating something. When she seemed to have made up her mind, she said, "I'm SPARTAN-030. But you can call me Vinh."

2

"Damn," Brandon muttered, peering over Riker's shoulder at the wreckage and corpses littering the mountainside. "Do you think they at least got him before the shit hit the fan?"

"No," Riker replied. He'd taken over the Pelican controls from Kodiak, who was now in the troop bay resting with Sepia. "The poor bastard in the Warthog was a Marine, and the Spartan body's in cleaner armor than Simon's was. I think we found what happened to the people who went after him."

"Shit," Brandon muttered, turning back to the troop bay. "This went to hell fast."

Riker could feel the truth in his words, even if he didn't want to admit it. For some reason, he'd held on to the hope that somehow they could band together with the others and fight to escape this place as one. But with Simon's escape, that plan had almost completely disintegrated. No one had taken his side, but the group had still splintered and now at least two more were dead. There was no sign of Simon or whichever other III hadn't died on the mountainside. Maybe they'd all been looking for an excuse to split up and only he'd failed to realize it.

There was a dull ache in the pit of Riker's stomach. There was no fear, just a brutal sense of finality. In his heart of hearts, the Spartan realized that everything would go exactly as this twisted world's masters wanted: there would be no group escape, no triumph over the rules that had been set in place here. There would only be a single winner; the rest would die.

He maneuvered the Pelican around to get another look at the mountainside. There was still one III unaccounted for; it wouldn't be right to just fly on to the ship without looking for them first.

"There."

Riker nearly jumped out of his armor. He hadn't even heard Sepia enter the cockpit. She jabbed her gauntlet at a crag just below the Pelican. It was hard to see at first, but when Riker looked again he saw a dull brown form moving against the rocks.

"It's that piece of shit Simon," Sepia snarled. "Use the missile pods and blow him into next week!"

"Let me get a better shot," Riker cautioned, turning the Pelican around and boosting to get some distance from the mountain. "I don't want to waste ammunition."

Brandon appeared in the door beside Sepia. "Why are we turning around?"

"It's Simon," Riker explained. "I'm going to pull off a run and hit him with the missile pods."

"Maybe we should just use the machine gun," Brandon suggested. "All four of us can take him. Right, Kodiak? Kodiak?"

He turned back to the troop bay only to find it completely empty. Kodiak was nowhere to be seen.


Simon threw himself flat as a burst of assault rifle fire tore into the rock face beside him. Scrambling into cover, he looked around wildly for the shooter. A single SPARTAN-III advanced towards his position, assault rifle at the ready.

Simon tried to steady his breathing as waves of panic threatened to overwhelm him yet again. He'd barely survived the fight with Joshua, and that had been before he'd been blasted off a cliff. Now half his body ached and he only had a few knives and pistols, one energy sword, and a single grenade left to fight with. There was no way he could take this guy one on one.

"Why didn't you hit me?" he demanded. The more he slowed this Spartan down, the longer he had to find a weakness that might get him out of this mess alive.

"That was a warning shot," the Spartan replied calmly. The voice sounded familiar; was that Kodiak, from Machete?

"Doesn't answer my question, moron."

"If I'd come with the others, they'd have torn you apart." Kodiak continued to advance. He must have seen how lightly armed Simon was, or maybe he was just confident that he could beat him at anything, just like in training. "I figured alone, we might be able to talk this out."

Maybe Kodiak didn't recognize him. If so, was this a trick? Some ploy to make him lower his guard?

"Bullshit," Simon replied, one hand slipping to his energy sword. Kodiak couldn't be expecting that. He'd let him get close, then cut the other Spartan in half. The thought of killing yet another Gamma tore at him, but he could see the dead eyes of the boy soldier glaring at him out of Kodiak's visor. He'd already died once in this insane place. It wouldn't happen again.

"You're making a mistake, Simon." So Kodiak had recognized him. What was this truce offer then? He was closer now, only a few feet from the rocks Simon was huddling behind. "The only way any of us are getting out of here is if we all work--"

The moment Kodiak's head came into view, Simon's energy sword sprang to life and swiped at his neck. But he'd underestimated Kodiak's reaction time. The Spartan sprang back, assault rifle swinging around. This time he wouldn't miss.

Simon jerked the energy sword down, the glowing blade covering his chest like a shield. The bullets clattered against the sword's energy field, driving Simon back against the rocks. He braced himself against the mountainside, then lunged forward again. All he needed was one good hit and the sword would slice through Kodiak's body like a knife through butter.

"We need to work together," Kodiak protested, easily dodging the blade and leaping to the side. "This fighting is stupid!"

"Yeah, 'cause working with a bunch of UNSC goons worked out so well for me!" Simon spat back. He searched desperately for another ledge, somewhere he could leap to escape Kodiak. If this fight lasted longer, he would lose. He couldn't risk his last grenade, not here, and he wouldn't let Kodiak haul him back just so the others could shoot him.

He made one last desperate cut with the sword. It was a mistake. Kodiak struck the prosthetic arm with the butt of his rifle, knocking Simon off-balance. In another moment, Kodiak was on him, pinning the arm to the cliff-face with one hand and bringing the rifle butt down with the other. Simon barely had time to extricate his metal fingers before the energy sword hilt was crushed under the force of the blow.

He twisted to the side, drawing a knife with his organic hand. Kodiak just shifted his weight and aimed a swift punch at Simon's gut. A sharp, hot pain seared up from the renegade's midriff. Simon glanced down, astonished, to see a bloody gauntlet knife poking out over Kodiak's knuckles.

Simon's knife clattered to the ground. He staggered backwards and fell on all fours, pushing himself away as Kodiak stood upright.

"I'm sorry," Kodiak said quietly. He clipped the assault rifle to his back; an execution with bullets would be a waste of ammunition.

"Save your apologies," Simon hissed back. The pain had dimmed a little, but the blood was still coming. If it wasn't treated soon, he'd bleed out. And with Kodiak here...

It was over.

Simon leaned closer to the ground, reaching up with his prosthetic to try and staunch the bleeding. Kodiak came closer, gauntlet knife at the ready.

"It shouldn't have been this way," Kodiak continued. There was sincere regret in his voice, an instinct for mercy that confused and terrified Simon at the same time. His fellow Spartan loomed over him, utterly inscrutable in both his armor and his pity.

"I said, save it," Simon spat. "Just make it clean. Make it quick."

"It's the least I can do." Kodiak leaned forward, almost gently, and brought his gauntlet back for the finishing blow. Simon sagged forwards, helmet tilting up as if he wanted to lean into the killing stab. It was only then that Kodiak saw the knife clenched between Simon's bloody, metallic fingers.

And it was too late.

The knife flashed up and slashed Kodiak's throat open from end to end. The dying Spartan's hands flashed up to his neck as blood gushed down the front of his armor. The gauntlet knife, still ejected and ready to kill, plunged into its owner's chin. Kodiak jerked once more, then toppled over and fell limp against the stones.

Simon pushed himself upright, staring down at Kodiak with a mixture of horror and disgust. That was the second Gamma Spartan he'd killed in less than an hour. He'd always told himself that he'd cut all ties with his former company, so why were Joshua and Kodiak now eating at his insides just as much as the version of himself that he'd killed back in the town?

Ignore it, just keep going. Don't let it get you. You have to get to that ship. You have to survive. No matter what.

Kodiak had armor and equipment on him. Simon would need all of it if he was going to survive another fight like that. Ignoring the wound in his side, he bent down and began to drag the blood-soaked corpse towards the tunnel entrance.


Riker could only watch as the distant Kodiak collapsed. His hand hovered over the firing stud, the weapon that might have saved the young Spartan's life if he'd only fired it sooner, if he'd found a way to help him fight...

Or maybe he'd hesitated on purpose. Maybe he'd given up on trying to help the others. Was it true? Had he left Kodiak to die on purpose? Riker's hands shook at the thought of it; he let go of the firing stud to keep from hitting it by accident. What am I doing?

With a snarl of anger, Sepia lunged forward. Before Riker could stop her, she rammed her thumbs down on both firing studs. The Pelican shook as a torrent of missiles streaked towards the mountain.

"What the hell--?" But the furious exchange they would have had was cut short by the explosions that rocked the cliff face. Rocks and boulders were blown loose and tumbled downwards, bringing the roof of the tunnel down with them. Riker caught one last glimpse of Simon, hauling Kodiak's body deeper into the mountain as the stony avalanche plummeted down around him. Then he vanished. All that was left to see was the pile of shattered gravel where the tunnel entrance had once been.

Silence fell over the mountainside.

3

The ship was burning.

Fira dashed from one end of the wooden vessel to the other just as Stel broke cover and pelted in the opposite direction. Streaks of light shot across the deck as both warriors opened fire at once, sending needles and concussion rounds hurtling towards her. Fira felt the heat of one concussion blast pass just by his head even as his faster needle rounds glanced off Stel’s shields. The deck creaked beneath his feet as he skidded to a stop and swiftly loaded the last of his needles into the rifle.

On the other side of the ship, his features thrown into a ghastly illumination by the flames, Stel cranked open his concussion rifle and began to reload. Fira didn’t know what this terrible contest had done to his comrade to drive him to this length, but in the end it didn’t, no, it couldn’t matter. Stel had killed Sona and now he was trying to kill him as well. Any hesitation or sympathy, even for an old friend like Stel, would be fatal.

The needles slid into place. Fira let out a war cry and opened fire as he charged across the burning deck. Needles cracked off Stel’s shields as he hurried to slide the concussion charge into place. His shields failed just as he brought the rifle to bear; one needle slipped under his arm and planted itself in his armor. Stel opened fire, sending Fira rolling to avoid the spread of explosive rounds. The needle detonated, ripping a hole in Stel’s armor and sending streaks of blood and mangled flesh dripping down the older Sangheili’s leg.

Stel’s face betrayed no pain, not even a hint of emotion. He had forced himself to kill the emotions inside himself in order to take the lives of his friends and comrades; what was a little pain compared to that?

The last of the concussion rounds flew true, catching Fira in the chest just as he was getting to his feet and throwing him against the railing. Only a hastily thrown hand managed to catch hold of the creaking railing and prevented him from going over the edge, but his rifle aim was thrown off. Stel didn’t give him a chance to regain his balance, charging forward with a cry of his own and drawing his energy sword.

Fira struggled against his own momentum, firing the needle rifle one handed as he pushed himself forward. The rounds hissed wildly around Stel, but none made impact. In the next moment the older Sangheili was on top of him. The sword cut downwards, hacking the railing to bits as Fira pushed himself away down the length of the rails. Bracing himself against the creaking bannister, he took a bead on Stel’s head.

Before he could take the shot, a blinding flash of blue winked into existence. Fira altered his aim just in time to shoot Stel’s plasma grenade out of the air. The grenade exploded, catching both Sangheili with a wave of heat and force. Fira tumbled across the deck, his rifle torn from his hands and a ringing filling his ears.

Fira pushed himself up to his knees. He saw Stel, reflected against the flames, approaching him unsteadily. The energy sword was raised for a killing blow.

Fira forced himself upright, his own sword flashing into existence just in time to clumsily knock Stel’s cut aside. The older warrior shifted his attack, cutting low at Fira’s abdomen, then back up at his neck. Fira was forced back, blocking and retreating in the face of Stel’s meticulous onslaught. All it would take was one misstep…

Fira took one last step back; his foot struck a weak point in the deck’s charred wood. The wood collapsed, sending him sprawling helplessly down onto the deck. The energy sword skidded from his hands, leaving him defenseless before Stel’s blade.

Stel did not hesitate. A fire coursed through Fira’s body as his comrade impaled him, the blade plunging through his abdomen and out the other side. He cried out, feeling his legs go numb and useless as the sword passed through his spine. His arms twitched, uselessly grasping for his own sword.

Stel withdrew the blade, kneeling before the crippled Fira. There was a glint of pity in his eyes, but even that was quickly extinguished as he angled the blade down towards Fira’s neck.

“Forgive me,” he said curtly. “This is how it must be.”

Fira glared up at him, made speechless by pain and rage. Stel shook his head, then slashed downwards.

The blow never made contact. It plunged into the deck beside Fira’s head as Stel reeled from a sudden pain in his gut. He glanced down to see that his victim had plunged a small metal blade into his side. A glance back into Fira’s eyes showed him a glimpse of ceaseless fire. He balked, feeling strength slipping out of his organic hand. “What…”

His prosthetic shot forward, wrapping its metal fingers around Fira’s neck and beginning to squeeze. Fira gasped but did not relent. He twisted the blade, driving it even deeper into Stel’s side. The fire was all around them now, casting pale shadows over the two warriors locked in a deadly embrace. Fira saw the determination in Stel’s eyes, determination that matched his own. But the light was fading; he couldn’t push the blade any deeper and now he was having trouble seeing his enemy’s face. It was the end; all he could do now was give his all even as he died.

Somewhere in the distance, an energy sword hummed to life. Fira choked and closed his eyes as the last breath left his body.

Then Stel let out a cry that was suddenly cut off. The prosthetic hand spasmed, releasing its hold on Fira’s neck. The crippled warrior gasped weakly for breath, at first seeing nothing but blurry flames and smoke. As his vision cleared he turned his head and saw Stel’s lying beside him on the deck. He’d been neatly decapitated; his head lay a few feet away.

Fira no longer had the energy to do anything but twist his neck. He looked up and saw a familiar figure standing before him, glowing energy sword hanging limply by his side.

“Autel,” he breathed, barely able to form the words. “It’s you.”

“Fira,” his friend replied quietly. “That was Stel. Why would he…”

“It’s the game,” Fira murmured. He could feel what little strength he had left slipping out of his body. “This damn game. It drove him to it. It will drive us all to it, before the end.”

Autel looked stricken. He knelt beside Fira, examining his wounds. “Let me help you.”

“Yes,” Fira said. “You can help me. Your blade. Finish me.”

“No,” Autel said quickly. “Never. Don’t be a fool, Fira.”

“You’re the fool,” Fira hissed back. “Look at me. I’ll never walk again. I’m finished. If you are truly my friend you will give me a warrior’s death.”

Autel cast another glance at Stel’s body and shook his head sadly. “I swear to you,” he said finally. “I will avenge you. I will reach the end of this twisted maze and understand the truth of this madness.”

“I know you will,” Fira agreed, letting himself go limp. This was the end. He was ready. “Now do it. Quickly.”

Autel nodded and locked eyes with his friend one last time. The blade flashed once, passing just below Fira’s mandibles. The last thing he ever saw was the grief and determination burning in his friend’s eyes.

It was enough.

4

Koel had been running for hours now, an uncharacteristic rage driving him. He had been following the trail of blood, fluids and metal for God knew how long, but still no luck in finding the creature that had attacked him.

He wasn’t sure what it was that kept him going at this point. Koel was not one to take the death of a comrade lightly, but his rage was unlike any he had ever known, not even when he had to watch his beloved Olivia be killed before his eyes. He knew that he had ran for hours without feeling tired, hardly noticing the changing temperatures and weather patterns as he ran through plains, hills and rock fields. Now, charging through the forest, guns running low on ammo from the handful of encounters Koel had experienced with the natives, the marine finally came to a rest in a battered clearing.

As he slowed down, Koel became aware that a battle had taken place within this clearing. Bullet holes riddled the ground and tree-trunks, with several scorch marks and broken boughs signaling mass chaos. Then, rounding one of the larger trees, Koel saw the loser of this battle.

Laying on the ground was the armored corpse of a Spartan. Holes riddled the armor, with scrape marks signaling all manner of locations where more bullets had attempted and failed to penetrate. The mask was broken and cracked, blood oozing out of one corner, while a few rent patches of armor spouted a few sparks quietly.

Kneeling beside the body, Koel pulled away the Spartan’s guns, dropping his own spent weapons and refilling what ammunition he could. As he lifted the Spartan’s body somewhat – Koel could only assume his I.D. by a badly scarred mark on his shoulder that appeared to state 025 – the marine found a large sniper rifle of unknown make. Examining the gun, Koel noticed dog tags tied to it, identifying its owner as Gunnery Sergeant Cortez, Raphael Esquival.

Thank you, Sgt. Cortez, Koel thought to himself, You and Spartan-025 rest in peace.

Koel continued to kneel in respect for the fallen warriors until he suddenly heard the underbrush directly behind him move aside as an unknown entity entered the clearing. With a violently and quick move, Koel spun and stabbed his combat knife towards the new combatant, aiming for its head.

Metal rang out as the Spartan blocked the knife with his gauntlet, gripping Koel by the shoulder and holding him in place. “Koel!” the Spartan yelled, “Koel, it’s me! It’s Felix!” Koel grimaced, trying to break free and move back to give himself room to fire his rifle.

“Koel, it’s me, Felix!” the Spartan yelled again as he ripped off his helmet, revealing the face of a comrade Koel thought he had lost long ago.

“Felix...” said Koel. The grimace stood for a moment longer, and then Koel seemed to melt. The emotional drain broke Koel, and with no warning, Koel collapsed into Felix’s arms.

“Woah there, pal,” said Felix as he lowered Koel into a sitting position. “Take it easy.”

“It’s good to see you, Felix,” said Koel. “It’s been a while.”

Felix looked at Koel a little longer. "You’re not looking so good. What happened?"

Koel took a few more deep breaths, chuckling humorlessly. "What hasn't happened? All kinds of mess and firefights. Caught up with Erin Coney, and Jess—Jess Morley, of all people—in this thing. We escaped on an Albatross, but we got attacked and had to jump for it; I lost track of her since. Then Erin—we tried our best to stick together and survive, but she... that thing..." Koel's voice trailed off, unable to continue.

Felix looked down with a heavy sigh. "I... I found Jess," he said, standing and walking a small piece away. "She was trying to get us back to you, meet up, make a plan. Then those damn mercenaries... they killed her... murdered her, in cold blood! I should've listened, should've paid attention when she said she didn't trust them. I'm such an idiot!"

Felix slammed a fist into one of the trees, shattering the outer layer of bark and denting the pulp. Koel walked over and put his hand on Felix's shoulder. "I'm...sorry, Felix...I know how much she meant to you..."

The two stood there for a moment, pausing in reciprocal reverie for their losses, until suddenly they both looked up. "You hear that?" Koel whispered.

"Yeah," replied Felix, "Sounds like... incoming!"

Simultaneously, the two rolled to the side and into cover as a pair of Plasma Grenades landed where they had stood. The tree shattered as the devices exploded, and amidst the raining tree bark and wood chips, the pair took aim at the oncoming lances of Covenant warriors.

Felix took cover and reloaded his Battle Rifle as Koel grabbed the Javelin he had retrieved from Sgt. Cortez' body. "You know how to use that thing?"

Koel pulled a bullet back into the chamber. Taking aim, he opened fire, punching through two fully shielded Elites as the gun kicked him hard in the shoulder. Koel cursed under his breath, and quickly reloaded; though he had been unready for the kick, he could not deny the gun's usefulness. Looking at Felix, he grinned smugly as he said, "I think I'll manage."

“Right then. Let’s get out of here. You’re not going to die on me too, alright?”

“Same goes for you,” Koel grunted.

5

"Are you sure it's up there?" Koel demanded, scanning the surrounding forest for more Elites. Beside him, Felix adjusted his helmet's camera feed and zoomed in to the upper branches of the massive oak they were standing next to.

"Yeah," he replied. "I can see it wedged up near the top."

It had been pure chance that he'd even have time to see the metal capsule plummet down from the sky during the earlier firefight. If he hadn't taken that one instance to look up, he'd have missed it entirely. Now, with the coast momentarily clear, he'd decided to risk venturing up into the tree to investigate. With so much danger and uncertainty in the air, every little thing they ran into could be an invaluable asset.

Koel looked doubtfully up at the branches. "Well, I'm not keen on getting up that high," he noted. "This baby doesn't look like she's built for climbing. And if those squid-heads or anyone else shows up while we're trying to get up there, we'll be sitting ducks."

"That's why you'll keep watch down here." Felix approached the tree, wrapping one arm around the trunk and beginning to work his legs up the side. His enhanced strength would help him up to the top, but the weight from his armor could very well bring down anything he tried to use to support himself. This was going to be a tough climb.

Koel knelt and braced himself against the trunk, Javelin rifle at the ready. He peered around the side of the oak, cursing the forest's lack of visibility. The scraping and cracking sounds from Felix's climb weren't helping his concentration. This little one-man watch would keep them alert for head-on attacks, but all it would take was one stealthy attacker and they'd be finished.

Bark cracked and fell away under Felix's grip as he eased himself up the tree. Normally an exertion like this would have been child's play, but with his handholds threatening to break away at any moment he was seriously reconsidering his decision to investigate the capsule.

Beneath him, Koel activated his radio. "How you doing up there?" the Marine asked.

"I'm a little... busy," Felix grunted. The capsule was only a few yards away now... but so were any thick branches he might have used to pull himself up with. "Need to concentrate."

"Yeah, well you'd best hurry up." Koel steadied his Javelin as a trio of blue-armored Elites emerged from the underbrush fifty yards away. "We're about to have company."

Koel didn't wait for the alien warriors to catch sight of him. His first shot ripped the leading Elite's head clean off; his second blew a hole in another's chest. The third shot clipped the last Elite's shoulder. The warrior staggered, shields flaring, but stayed up and let out a war cry. Koel adjusted his aim and dropped the warrior with a fourth shot.

It was only when seven more Elites melted out of the forest that he realized he might have been too hasty in opening fire.

Felix gritted his teeth as the Javelin's thundering shots were answered by the whine of plasma shots. Just our luck. If he didn't get that capsule fast, he was condemning Koel to a quick death back on the ground.

Shifting his weight, he propelled himself up into the branches above. For a single, blood-chilling moment his hands grasped nothing but air; then they were hugging the trunk again and the capsule was staring him right in the face.

The plasma fire intensified; there was no time to waste. Felix reached out towards the capsule, a smooth, featureless grey egg. When his fingers brushed the casing, a small seam appeared in the capsule. To his astonishment, it opened to reveal a padded interior. Nestled within the padding was a familiar looking device.

Felix suppressed a gasp. Sitting in the capsule was his own Forerunner energy staff.

The sounds of battle intensified beneath him. Felix heard Koel's rifle crack, the Marine cursing over the radio as the Elites converged on the base of the tree.

It's my fault he's alone down there. I won't let him die. I'm through with letting people die.

As Felix grasped the staff's handle, he caught a glimpse of a small piece of paper resting beside the weapon. His helmet cameras adjusted to compensate for the distance, giving him a clear view at what was written on the slim slip: I believe a little payback is in order. Give 'em hell.

Koel had managed to scramble up into the trees lowest branches, desperately clinging to them for cover while taking potshots at the oncoming Elites with his rifle. Plasma fire fried the air around him, burning holes in the trunk as the aliens tightened their aim.

But before one of the beams could find their mark, something hurtled down from the top of the tree and struck one of the Elites hard enough to punch through his shields and crack his skull. Koel and the six remaining warriors looked down a the dead Elite; a small capsule had been thrown down from the tree.

And then a fully armored Spartan dropped down in the center of the Elite formation with a tremendous crash. Amidst the flare of his shields, twin beams of energy sprang to life from one of his hands. The Elites began to turn inwards to face this new threat.

Felix sprang to life, moving with practiced, blinding speed as he cut down one warrior after another. Koel lowered himself to the ground, astonished, as the last warrior fell with a gurgling cry.

"Where the hell did that come from?" he demanded, pointing at the energy staff with a shaking hand.

"From whoever's running the show up there," Felix growled, still coming off the sheer adrenaline of his attack. "Now let's move out.

"I won't let anyone else get killed."

6

"Hey, see that over there?"

"What? Where?"

"Over there, look. What do you think that is?"

Matt focused his gaze in the direction that Evie was pointing. He quickly spotted the distant figure standing tall on the desert plateau. "Looks like some sort of statue. Actually, it looks like a Spartan."

Although the two Spartans had been walking for what seemed like forever, the statue didn't look like too long of a journey. Although neither of them knew what it was for or what it was supposed to do, they decided silently that reaching it was better than wandering around aimlessly and get attacked by yet another wave of enemies.

Frankly, Evie's patience was wearing thin. They had left the ice shelf days ago, wandered across an empty canyon, stumbled across an abandoned UNSC facility, and through a Sangheili village. They had fought their way through at least five waves of enemies, the most harrowing being the Sangheili villagers in their last encounter. And every now and then they came across bodies that Evie knew didn't belong to the inhabitants of this world. But not once did they encounter another being that was being forced to fight to the death here.

It's almost over, she realized, the words ringing ominously in her head. However many of us there were in the beginning, most of them are dead now. This was followed by an even darker thought. How long are we going to last? They were running out of ammo and supplies, though she didn't know why neither she or Matt became hungry or thirsty, or felt like their energy was flagging at all. Not even Spartans could go on as long as we have without feeling even a bit tired...is this all part of the game? She didn't know whether to be glad for it or disturbed.

Usually, Matt wouldn't have liked to make a walk like this in open ground without taking precautions to conceal himself. But he and Evie had been travelling for so long across various terrains that he stopped caring at this point. At least we can see in all directions. And our weapons aren't bad for range either. He glanced at Evie, wondering what she was thinking. Probably thinking of a way to get us both out of this alive, as usual. The situation wasn't exactly a hopeful one, but if there was anyone he would trust to figure out a plan, it was his team leader.

The two Spartans reached the statue, which was now casting its long shadow over them and shielding them from the desert sun. It looked like it was made of something mixed between stone and metal. And despite the harsh elements, there didn't seem to be a single chip or crack on the statue.

It was definitely a figure of a Spartan. It stood at almost twenty feet tall and wielded an enormous battle rifle in its hands. It was looking up and its stance gave it an air of fearlessness. No, invincibility.

"Look," Matt said, pointing at the rectangular base that the Spartan was standing on. Inscribed in the centre in ornate writing were the words SPARTAN-G023, FIRST VICTOR OF SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST.

"So that's how this works," Evie said quietly. "There's one victor out of all of us. The rest..." She looked up to look at Matt.

He returned her stare, both of them knowing what it meant. Only one of them could make it out alive. He tossed down his battle rifle, and pulled out a battered pistol he had taken off one of the dead contestants. He gripped it by the barrel and extended the grip to Evie. "Here. Do it."

"What the hell are you doing?" she demanded.

"You saved me. And you're the ranking Spartan here. You deserve to make it out of this more than I do."

She slapped the handgun to the ground angrily. "Don't you talk like that," she hissed.

He took a bent combat knife off his shoulder sheath, another weapon acquired from their bloody exploits. "If you don't do it, I will."

Evie grabbed his wrist, keeping the blade pointed away from his face. "Now you stop this," she snapped. "That's an order."

He stared at her for a long time in silence. Slowly, he relaxed his grip, letting the knife drop from his hand. "Yes, ma'am." He sighed. "So what do you suggest, Evie? You're going to let me walk out of this and leave you behind?"

"If necessary. I have a responsibility to your life. Even if I have to knock you out and then do it."

"If you do, I'll just follow suit as soon as I wake up."

The two Spartans stared each other down, both knowing that they wouldn't be able to stop the other from taking their own life. Evie let go of Matt's wrist, and threw her own weapons into the sand as well. "You know what? I'm done with this bullshit. No more killing, no more running, and no more trying to figure out how to escape this damn place. It's obvious that we're not going to be able to." She ripped off her helmet and flung it into the pile of weapons, then turned around and took ten paces away from Matt. She began keying something on her wrist.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"Sending a 'fuck you' to whoever put us here," she said. "I'm not going to kill you, Matt...I'm setting the fail-safe on my armour."

He nodded, as if this was the perfectly logical thing to do in the situation. "Me too."

She didn't object as he activated his own fail-safe. The two Spartans synchronized their timers to detonate at the same time, down to the microsecond. Matt took his own helmet off as Evie turned back to face him. "You know," he said, "none of this might be real. Maybe we'll wake up and find ourselves back where we're supposed to be."

She nodded, finding the notion feeling oddly comforting. "Then I'll see you on the far side, Manticore Three." The two Spartans locked eyes on each other as their timers beeped an erratic zero.

The twin simultaneous explosions sounded like one as they echoed across the vast, empty desert. A small firestorm erupted in the sand, obliterating the weapons that the Spartans had cast aside. Although the base of the statue was caught in the explosions, there was not so much as a scorch mark left on its surface. And minutes later, as the ashes settled and the desert wind swept sand over the remains that survived the explosions, it was almost as if the two Spartans had never been there at all.

Episode 18: Tying Up Loose Ends

1

The forest had fallen silent. Qur’a ‘Morhek was vigilant for the many ambushers that might hide within the trunks and fallen leaves, but even so he found the quiet oddly relaxing. It had been a long walk from the embankment where the water had deposited him, and since the battle that had claimed ‘Yabomee’s life he had encountered neither lone combatants nor the groups of dim-witted fighters that had been everywhere back when the combat had first begun.

Their absence didn’t bother him. He would find battle eventually, and when that happened he would give it his all. Until then, he was content simply to walk and enjoy the momentary calm while he could.

That calm would not last. Already, Qur’a could smell something on the air: the tangy iron scent of human blood. One of the aliens had died nearby, and from the way the smell grew stronger and stronger as he moved in its direction the kill had been neither clean nor quick.

The first he saw of the combat was the crushed remnants of a Spartan’s helmet buried in a tree. He passed by the ruined helmet, noticing the broken husks of destroyed trees further on. The battle here had been particularly violent, though Qur’a expected no less from any combat involving Spartans.

As the smell of human blood grew sharper, Qur’a let a hand fall down to his energy sword, the only weapon left to him after his stint in the water. There was a large figure hunched in a clearing, the source of the blood. Qur’a drew near and realized he was observing a massive Jiralhanae wearing the armor of a high-ranking chieftain. The armor was stained red with human blood, though that decoration was nothing compared to what adorned the clearing itself.

Shredded bits of armor and flesh littered the leaves around the Jiralhanae. Perhaps there had been one human, or maybe there had been more. It was impossible for Qur’a to tell. The Jiralhanae had torn the bodies to pieces, arranging the grisly trophies around him with a savage precision that Qur’a could almost admire. It couldn’t have been easy to coax such wicked artistry out of such a mangled, bloody mess.

The chieftain looked up as Qur’a approached. His gravity hammer rested on the ground beside him, its hilt resting up against his relaxed shoulder. A bloody human head had been wedged atop the weapon’s end. As Qur’a entered the clearing, he saw that it had once belonged to a human female. There wasn’t much left of the female’s features, but her mouth was twisted in an expression that Qur’a could only identify as intense agony.

The Jiralhanae grinned. “About time,” he rumbled. “Do you know how long I have been waiting, Sangheili?”

“From the looks of things, you have had diversions to occupy yourself with,” Qur’a said, indicating the human remains. “If you have just been waiting here for more prey to arrive, you can hardly complain about my timing.”

“There is no prey here worth the effort of hunting,” the Jiralhanae grunted. He rose to his feet and hefted the gravity hammer. “I am Hephaestus, Chieftain of the Blood Covenant. None can oppose me. Not the humans, not their demons, and certainly not you, Sangheili.”

Qur’a plucked the energy sword from his belt and flicked it to life. “A bold claim. Perhaps sitting here toying with corpses has made you overestimate your own abilities.”

Hephaestus plucked the head from the end of his hammer’s hilt and held it aloft in one massive paw. “Your mockery amuses me. This female brought me much satisfaction when I dealt with her. Let us see if you can match it, or even surpass it.”

Qur’a let his blade dip for just a moment. “I tire,” he began to say, then lunged across the clearing. Hephaestus leapt back as the blade’s prongs tore through the air, cutting at the space where the chieftain’s legs had been a second before. Qur’a landed in a splayed crouch, the energy sword raised in a fighting stance. “Of your insolence. Beasts such as yourself should not elevate themselves above their station.”

Hephaestus’s eyes narrowed. With a low growl, he closed his meaty hand into a fist and crushed the human head to a pulp. “Your pride will do you no good when you scream for me to end your suffering,” he said coldly. The hammer came up. “Prepare yourself for agony.”

“I am always prepared,” Qur’a replied evenly. “Such is the difference between me and one such as you.”

Hephaestus lunged, the hammer swinging down towards the crouching Sangheili. Qur’a leapt away, feeling the hammer’s impact ringing in his bones. He landed, scattering blood-stained leaves and fragments of dead humans in all directions. Hephaestus was already charging again, the hammer sweeping forwards. Qur’a darted behind a tree and the hammer tore through the trunk like a hand passing through water. The Sangheili warrior threw himself upwards, alighting on the falling trunk for an instant before springing down towards Hephaestus.

The chieftain sidestepped the descending energy sword and swung again. The hammer blasted apart the falling tree and kept coming, hurtling towards Qur’a’s head. The warrior twisted himself in midair, bringing his energy sword up to block the incoming attack.

The world roared in Qur’a’s ears. He found himself lying amongst the leaves, his shields down and his body ringing from the hammer’s impact. He forced himself to his knees, grasping the hilt of his sword with clumsy fingers. Hephaestus stood a few feet away, laughing at him. The chieftain’s voice echoed, as if coming from far away.

“All your talk and this pathetic display is what you have to show for it,” the Jiralhanae rumbled. “Even the smallest demon put up more of a fight than you. I will need to be careful to make sure you last me longer than she did.”

Qur’a forced himself to his feet. The quivering numbness in his body faded away as his sword sprang to life once more. Everything drifted away: the trees, the blood, the laughter. There was only him and Hephaestus, standing here amidst the leaves. Such beautiful leaves…

Hephaestus swaggered forward, his hammer trailing lazily by his side. The Jiralhanae flexed his free arm, sizing up Qur’a as if he were an item on sale in some market stall. Qur’a could feel the fear trembling at the edge of his mind, but he pushed it aside along with the pain and let his guard fall, drawing Hephaestus in just a little closer.

The hammer’s hilt swung in to knock him off his feet and suddenly Qur’a was moving again. The blade flashed across the ground and the force of its motion sent a cascade of leaves hurtling up into Hephaestus’s face. The chieftain snarled in surprise, suddenly blinded, and Qur’a darted behind him and slashed his blade across the back of Hephaestus’s legs. The Jiralhanae let out a cry and staggered, trying to turn and swat Qur’a with his hammer.

Qur’a darted around to Hephaestus’s unarmed side. His blade lashed out, licking the Jiralhanae’s shoulders. One arm slumped, its tendons severed. The second followed a second later.

Hephaestus rounded on Qur’a, eyes blazing with pain and fury. He charged towards the warrior, trying to trample him underfoot. Qur’a sidestepped the clumsy attack and cut off the chieftain’s left leg as he staggered past. Hephaestus fell to the leafy ground with a dull thump.

“Sangheili worm,” he hissed up at Qur’a. “Do your worst, you will get no pleasure from—“

Qur’a brought the blade down and decapitated him mid-sentence. “Beasts should not waste their breath with words no one wants to hear,” he commented to no one in particular.

A few minutes later, he was gone. Hephaestus’s corpse lay where it had fallen amidst the scattered remnants of his victims.

2

If the mountains had been blessedly devoid of Covenant troops when Vinh had ascended, the relative peace had been short-lived. The Spartan ducked out from behind a boulder and cut down a trio of Grunts with the plasma rifle she had pried out of a dead Elite's hands not a moment before. Atop the boulder, a prone Dyne picked off more of the advancing aliens with his battle rifle. Vinh tightened her fire, concentrating on a red-armored Elite. The warrior's shields flared and died. A moment later, a burst from Dyne put him down.

Vinh slipped back behind the boulder as plasma fire whipped about her position. There seemed to be Covenant all over the mountain, springing up as if from nowhere. Vinh was beyond questioning the mad rules she and everyone else had been forced to play by since this nightmare had started. There would be a time to puzzle over the details later. For now, she had to focus on keeping herself and Dyne alive.

My Dyne. My son. She had known that her child had somehow wound up within the Spartan program, but to find him out here amidst all the carnage had cut her deeper than all the deaths she'd witnessed here. Dyne was more than capable of taking care of himself—the fact that he had survived this long was proof enough of that—but now that Vinh had found him she refused to leave his side. There was an odd sense of fulfillment that came with fighting alongside her son, a certainty that she hadn't felt since this mess had begun. With Dyne, there was a purpose to her own continued survival. There was something bigger than herself to protect now.

"Here comes another wave of 'em," Dyne called down, reloading his rifle and dropping a squad of Jackal marksmen before they could get into position. "Go find someone else to bother, uglies!"

He doesn't know. The secret weighed heavily on Vinh even as she straightened and emptied the last of the plasma rifle's power reserves into the Covenant troops. There was no way she could tell him now, not amidst the carnage of battle, but the temptation to tell him what she really was, to become more than just a senior Spartan, was eroding her concentration. She fought to keep herself in check, raising a plasma pistol and downing another Elite's shields for Dyne. I will tell him. Later. When we are free of this. It was motivation enough to keep her fighting.

The Covenant faltered, caught between the mountain's rock face and the corpses of their fallen brethren. Vinh primed a plasma grenade and lobbed it in amongst them; the explosion sent half a dozen alien soldiers tumbling from the mountain side. "We have to move," she told Dyne. "All this fighting will attract more of them. Or worse."

Dyne nodded, finishing off the last few Grunts. They were both a step away from throwing rocks at their opponents. There was no way they were equipped to handle an assault from another Spartan or some hardened Elite warrior. "Where do we go?"

Vinh looked around at the barren mountain paths around them. "Up," she said with a shrug. "You said there was a ship up here, that there were others from your group who were headed for it. There's no point in going back down now."

Dyne rose to a crouch and looked towards the dead Covenant. "Well, let's grab some of these guys' gear first. Don't want to get caught with our pants—"

A blast of green light exploded beside the boulder and knocked him flat. Vinh whipped her head up in time to see a trio of Elites dropping down on them from above. Two landed just beside the boulder; the third, a red-armored Major wielding a fuel rod cannon, landed atop Dyne and slashed at his neck with an energy dagger. Dyne quickly blocked the cut and grappled with the warrior, struggling to force him down.

There was no time to worry about Dyne. He might have been Vinh's son, but he was also a Spartan. He could handle one Elite. Vinh rounded on the other two, casting her pistol aside and sweeping the closest warrior's feet out from under him with a swift kick. She dropped low, bringing an armored knee down into the prone warrior's chest while slamming half a dozen punches into the other Elite's side. The warriors howled as their shields failed and their armor buckled under her powerful blows.

Vinh wrapped an arm around the fallen Elite's neck and snapped his neck with a savage twist. Seizing up his plasma rifle, she pumped so many rounds into the remaining warrior that his torso practically vaporized under the barrage.

But the warriors were not alone. Plasma fire rained down on Vinh from above as Grunts and Jackals emerged from a path further up the mountain. Vinh was pinned in place, unable to find cover and unwilling to abandon Dyne. Her shields flared as she ducked down, grabbing two plasma grenades from the Elite she had just killed and lobbing them up towards the new enemies. The blasts scattered the soldiers in a cloud of shattered rocks and blue fire.

There was no time for relief. Two enormous forms pushed their way through the smoke, knocking Jackals off the cliff and crushing Grunts underfoot. A pair of Hunters raised their arm-mounted fuel rod cannons and trained them on Vinh. Beside them crowded more Grunts. A line of green lights winked on as the vicious little bastards overcharged their plasma pistols.

Vinh had nowhere to run. Even if they were full, her shields couldn't withstand the coming barrage. They were only half full now. She stared up at the enemy, her mind churning fruitlessly as the Hunters bellowed a challenge and fired. A wall of green hurtled towards her.

And then something dropped down in front of Vinh and blotted out the oncoming fire. Plasma hissed and splashed across the front of Dyne's armor as he planted himself in front of Vinh, arms splayed out as if he could simply stare the plasma into backing off. Vinh could only watch in horror as her son, her Dyne took the killing fire that had been meant for her. A cry split the air, a high animal scream that could have belonged to either one of the Spartans. Dyne staggered back, his armor boiling and melting from the heat. He jerked his right arm up; it held the Elite's fuel rod cannon. With a low moan, he swept the barrel across the ridge and thumbed the firing stud again and again and again.

The Grunts and Hunters vanished as the ridge was consumed by green explosions. Rocks tumbled down from the mountain, carrying the alien soldiers' remains down with them. Dyne staggered, the fuel rod cannon slipping from limp fingers. His knees buckled and he slumped weakly into Vinh's outstretched arms. The red-armored Elite lay atop the boulder, a knife jammed into its throat.

"Damn," Dyne whispered. The front of his armor was a scorched mess, its melted components fused with the charred and savaged flesh underneath. "That hurt... more than I... thought..."

Vinh was numb. There had been no time to think, no time for either of them. Her son had simply seen the danger and moved on instinct. He had shielded her with his own body, done the very thing she was supposed to have done for him. "Dyne..." she whispered, fighting down the heat that seared through her throat. "Dyne..."

"Don't worry 'bout me," Dyne murmured, patting her arm absently. No amount of biofoam could save him, not with the pounding he'd just taken. An unaugmented human would have dropped dead without even squeezing off a shot, but Dyne had still held on long enough to wipe out the entire Covenant force. "I've had worse than this. Way worse..."

"Dyne, I..." The words caught in Vinh's throat, but she forced them out anyway. "I should have protected you. I'm your mother. I should have kept you safe. I'm so sorry."

Dyne's helmet cocked. For a moment, one of his hands reached up, trembling, towards her visor. They stared at each other, faceless and separated by their helmets and the burning air between them. The hand fell back into the dirt.

"You? My mom?" Dyne shuddered and spasmed, racked by coughs. "Well what do you know..."

He coughed once more and fell silent forever. Vinh stayed with the body for a long time, head bowed with grief. She was oblivious to everything around her: the mountains, the corpses, the gentle whistling of the wind. After a long time, she lowered her son's body to the ground and folded his arms over his mangled chest. She turned away, glad for the armor that hid her pain from this senseless, pointless world. Running on automatic, she policed the Covenant bodies for weapons and grenades.

She would not go higher. She didn't want anything to do with the shuttle or the illusion of escape. From her vantage point, she could see a distant desert that stretched out beyond the mountains. Standing up among the sand was what looked like a tall statue made of stone or metal, much larger than any human being. She'd go there, or keep walking until her legs stopped working. Maybe the pain would stop then.

And if anyone tried to get in her way, she'd make sure they shared Dyne's fate.

3

"This is as far as you go."

David Kahn turned away from the foot of the mountain, a hand rested casually on his sniper rifle. A few yards away stood an armored Spartan, his plasma rifle trained on Kahn's head. With a sigh, Kahn rubbed the back of his neck and shook his head. "You've got me at a disadvantage, Mr...?"

"Drop your weapons. All of them." The Spartan punctuated the order with a shake of his plasma rifle. "You've killed Spartans and I'm here to avenge them."

David shrugged and made a show of carefully unslinging his sniper rifle and and bending to set it on the ground. "I've killed lots of people. Something tells me everyone here has."

"They may not mean anything to you," the Spartan said. There was a small "057" stenciled on the front of his MJOLNIR chest piece. "But they were my comrades. I tracked you here from where you killed them, and now you're going to pay."

"Is that why you're having me ditch my weapons?" Kahn asked casually, unclipping the first of his pistols and setting it beside the sniper rifle. He undid the clasps on one of his grenades and placed it on the growing weapons pile. "You'd shoot an unarmed man?"

The Spartan faltered, just a little. He didn't think this through at all, Kahn realized. Lucky for me. He'd lost his focus for a few minutes and let this Spartan sneak up on him. He deserved to be shot just for that; it was only dumb luck that he hadn't been stalked by someone with more willingness to pull the trigger.

"I..." the Spartan began, his helmet tilting as if he were glancing around.

"That's a shame." Kahn's hands moved with blinding speed. He flicked a second grenade up from his belt and sent it tumbling towards 057's face. The Spartan moved just as fast, swinging his free hand to knock the grenade away. It was his mistake. Kahn had fought Spartans like this before; he knew how they loved to give explosives back to the sender. The grenade detonated the moment 057 made contact, sending an electromagnetic pulse coursing through his armor's systems. Kahn whipped up his remaining pistol as he rose, firing high velocity rounds at the surprised Spartan.

057 recovered quickly. His plasma rifle had been rendered useless by the pulse grenade but he drew a wicked-looking curved knife and charged for Kahn anyway. He took two hits to the chest that didn't seem to slow him down at all; in an instant he was on top of Kahn, swinging the knife towards his throat.

Kahn ducked the first slash and kept dodging as 057 directed a flurry of stabs and cuts at him, aiming for the weak joints in his body armor. It was all he could do to keep ahead of the deadly blade. 057's helmet jerked up in surprise, though he didn't let up the assault in the slightest.

"How are you...?"

It was a split second decision. Kahn raised an arm and let the blade slash a bloody cut just above his elbow. Ignoring the pain, he jerked to the side and swiftly twisted the knife from 057's grasp. The Spartan sent a vicious kick into his midsection. The ODST battle armor buckled and all the breath left Kahn's body. His vision blurred, but he forced his pistol up and emptied the magazine into the Spartan's chest.

057 fell backwards. He brought a Spiker rifle up; one shot from the weapon would blast Kahn's head from his body. The assassin slashed upwards with the knife he had just taken, the blade still wet with his own blood. The curved blade cut deep into 057's wrist, catching on nigh-unbreakable bones but still managing to sever veins and tendons. 057's hand spasmed and he dropped the Spiker, falling to his knees with a surprised cry.

Kahn kicked the fallen Spiker away and leaped back. He quickly slipped a new magazine into his pistol and trained it on 057's head. The Spartan froze.

"You'd shoot an unarmed man?" the Spartan asked quietly, throwing Kahn's words back at him.

The pistol's report bounced off the mountain and Justin-057 fell into the dirt. Kahn stood over the Spartan and pumped two more rounds into his head, just to be sure.

It was a simple enough thing to bandage his arm and collect his gear, but the fight had cost him a pulse grenade and an entire pistol magazine. Kahn collected his gear and began to ascend the mountain with far more caution than he'd approached it. He kept the Spartan's knife and Spiker. Something told him he'd need all the firepower he could carry when he reached the top.

4

Qur'a 'Morhek knew he was being watched the moment he stepped out of the forest. His spine tingled as an unseen pair of eyes bored into him. He was no stranger to this feeling; he had been hunted before, and once again something wished to make him its prey.

He felt a slight disturbance course through the air at his right. The warrior leaped to the side and drew his energy sword just as something enormous slammed down atop the spot he had just been. Coming up in a combat stance, Qur'a looked up at one of the largest creatures he had ever seen, a robot monstrosity bristling with weapons that Qur'a, for all his years on the battlefield, had never seen before. The creature turned to face him, a blade in each hand.

"You were fast enough to dodge my attack," it said. A deadly looking cannon rose up above its head, the barrel lazily turning to aim at Qur'a. "Perhaps you will not be quite as boring as the others."

Without even shifting its stance, the machine hurtled forward. The blades came in from either side and it was all Qur'a could do to block the flurry of attacks. The bones in his arms trembled as the shock from each blow coursed through his body. He leaped aside to dodge another slash just as the cannon fired, blasting apart trees as it coursed towards the Sangheili. Qur'a's shields flared as he rolled out of the way.

For all his skill and experience, Qur'a was outmatched. This monster was faster and stronger and better armed; Qur'a was tired and had only the energy sword left at his disposal. He had lived his life accepting the fact that one day he would die. It appeared that day had come.

But that does not mean I will forsake this battle. A new surge of energy coursed through Qur'a's body. If he was to die here, then he would do his forefathers proud. As the machine came at him again, Qur'a darted back into the forest, putting the trees between himself and his hulking opponent. The machine did not so much as hesitate. It crashed through the barriers, scattering splintered tree-trunks in all directions as it barreled towards the lone Sangheili.

The blades shot towards him, but Qur'a did not make the mistake of parrying directly. He darted from tree to tree, using the trunks as natural shields. The machine fired its laser again; Qur'a ran in the opposite direction, closing the distance until he was close enough to lash out and land a single hit on the machine's abdomen. His blade scraped across the armor, leaving a minor cut. Not deep enough to wound—but now Qur'a knew he could cut this thing.

The machine spun to face him, the blades hurtling in from either side. Passing his energy sword to his left hand, Qur'a leaped just out of reach. Grasping at the branches hanging down from the nearest tree, he scrambled up the trunk as fast as he could climb. If he could drop down from above...

The tree shuddered and fell with a sickening lurch. The machine had simply hacked through the trunk with one of its blades. As the world spun around him, Qur'a braced his legs against the bark and propelled himself forward, hurtling down towards the machine's head.

A blade spun upwards, and Qur'a's world dissolved into pain. He saw one of his legs fly off into the forest; the second simply toppled away from its bleeding stump. Fighting through the agony, Qur'a reached out with his free hand and grasped the machine firmly by the shoulder. He brought his blade down on the machine's neck again and again, hacking at the armored casing. The metal buckled and hissed, worn down under the relentless attacks. The sword came up one last time and came soaring downwards.

It never reached its targets.

The machine had parried the blow at the last minute, reaching up and stopping the falling sword with the tip of its own blade. Qur'a struggled to push his way through, but his strength was leaving him. He was finished.

"A good effort," the machine noted. "But futile all the same."

"No," Qur'a replied as his body went limp. "I gave the battle all I had. My effort was not in vain."

"If that is how you wish to see things." The machine shrugged and forced Qur'a's legless body up into the air. The blades came in from either side, like scissors, and slashed Qur'a's torso into two.

Antulas Argenta turned away as the pieces struck the forest floor. He had had enough of fighting on the ground. Perhaps there would be a better challenge in the skies above. He rose up into the air and vanished up through the trees.

The top half of Qur'a's body had landed beside an enormous oak tree. The Sangheili's head lay against the trunk, his mandibles arranged in an expression of utter calm.

5

"There's that bastard," Koel growled. "He's not looking too good, is he?"

Felix was watching Strifalex moving towards the mountain with a slight limp. "Well, we're not going to let him run. Take the shot."

Koel didn't hesitate. He took aim with the Javelin and fired three rapid shots in succession, each of the deadly kinetic rounds tearing holes into the already damaged Machina. At the same time, Felix made a straight dash at the enemy, the hard light staff igniting in his hands as he charged.

Strifalex staggered from the force of the shots, caught unawares and flinching as the shockwaves of the rounds ripped him open with devastating power. He barely had time to recover and bring out his blade to deflect Felix's first swing. Unlike most weapons he usually found himself sparring against, he could tell that the hard light was damaging his weapon. He pulled away quickly, fumbling to activate his target-guided lasers. Only one of them was functioning, but it locked onto Felix nonetheless, and without hesitation, he fired.

The Spartan was ready, however. He brought up his staff, and actually used the weapon's blade to absorb the energy. Before Strifalex could make another attack, he was thrown back as another sniper round tore through his abdomen. He screamed as his armour gave way, and the blood that was drawn from the wound was quickly cauterized by the force of the round. Reeling with agony, he forced his working laser cannon to target Koel instead, who was taking cover behind a large boulder. It would not be enough to protect him.

But he was too slow. Koel fired a second round, destroying the cannon and causing shrapnel to stab into Strifalex. Angered, the Machina snapped out one of his claws to grab the human. But Felix moved quickly, severing the claw with a hard slash.

Now thoroughly annoyed, Strifalex brought out his blade again, stabbing at the Spartan with his remaining hand. But Felix blocked it easily, and rolled to move under him. There was a blur of light as the staff came up, cutting off the component attached to Strifalex's extended pelvis. Without slowing down, he slid between the Machina's legs and came up, slicing through his protruding component on his back.

Roaring in fury, Strifalex turned around, swinging his blade at Felix. The Spartan didn't manage to back away in time, and it caught him in the right forearm, bringing down most of his shields. The force of the blow actually caused the armour to fall away from his forearm and hand. As he grunted in pain and dropped the staff, Strifalex noticed that the limb was not of flesh and bone.

Felix scrambled to retrieve his weapon, but the Machina kicked it away. He brought up his blade, ready to finish the human quickly and deal with the other one before—

A kinetic round found its mark in his shoulder, shattering the joint and rendering Strifalex's arm useless. Felix's shields flickered and died from the shockwave, but he pounced on the enemy, knocking him to the ground and drawing his combat knife with his left hand.

Strifalex felt the metallic fingers close around his throat, and struggled to do something, even though he had no more functioning weapons at his disposal. Felix ripped and clawed at the armour around his neck, ripping it away piece by piece with a power no human fingers could possess. He kept the writhing Machina pinned down, moving with a feverish speed until he found flesh.

The knife plunged deep into Strifalex's throat, and Felix twisted, releasing a savageness that he could no longer keep pent up. He didn't stop until Strifalex became still.

Koel approached as Felix got up. He handed the Spartan his staff, staring down at the mangled and bloody Machina, now finally defeated. "Now what?" he asked quietly.

Felix looked at him, and then turned to look up at the colossal mountain standing before them.

"Now we go up there."

6

"Vevictus!"

Vevictus Syrico turned, just a few steps away from the Vorenus dropship that had brought him up to this human-looking space station. Across the hangar stood Demolyn, his brother. The younger Vorenus's armor and body had been battered by battle and the elements, but the Vanguard looked as determined as ever as he trained a pistol on Demolyn's head.

Vevictus's face parted in a sneer. "Demolyn. I wondered when you'd come back to irritate me."

"I followed you here," Demolyn said, keeping the pistol pointed at Vevictus. "And now I will fulfill my duty by killing you, traitor!"

"I have faced and killed human Spartans," Vevictus said coldly, keeping Demolyn talking. It wouldn't do if his brother actually smartened up and decided to get on with the shooting. "What chance do you think you have against me?"

Demolyn kept the gun level. "Enough of a chance to kill you."

Vevictus slipped a hand down towards his thigh. "Oh really?"

He leaped to the side just as Demolyn fired. Bringing his own sidearm to bear, he slipped around the side of his shuttle and returned fire from cover. The hangar filled with the sound of gunfire as each Vorenus cut loose. Vevictus growled with frustration. He had been so busy watching for any tricks Demolyn might try that he hadn't expected to find himself in a gun battle. At this rate, all he would do here was waste ammunition.

Moving around the shuttle, he slipped a new clip into his pistol and ducked around the other side, darting across the hangar floor as he moved to flank Demolyn's position. The younger Vangaurd was moving as well, shifting his position and bringing his weapon to bear. Both Vorenus raised their pistols and prepared to let loose a deadly salvo.

A sudden shudder brought their battle to a screeching halt. Demolyn and Vevictus hesitated. Something was making the station tremble, something large and close by.

With a screech of twisting metal, the hangar doors were ripped apart. A hulking, scaled creature strode through the mess of savaged metal and broken wires. It took in both Vorenus with hungry, eager eyes.

No words needed to be spoken. Without even looking each other in the eye, the two brothers turned their guns away from each other and opened fire on the newcomer. The scaled beast, Nogard, grinned at their challenge and charged, the pistol rounds bouncing off his scales. He was on top of the Vorenus in seconds, lashing out with his powerful claws.

Demolyn was pinned to the ground by one of Nogard's arms. The Vanguard fired bravely up at Nogard's face for a moment longer before the Precursor-enhanced beast closed its fist around his abdomen and crushed him to a pulp amidst his armor.

Vevictus didn't have time to take in the death of his brother and enemy. He backed away towards his shuttle, firing as he moved. Still shrugging off the shots as if they were nothing, Nogard dropped to all fours and swept Vevictus's legs out from under him with his tail. The Vorenus sprawled on the deck, reaching vainly for his pistol.

Nogard loomed over Vevictus, blood from Demolyn's corpse seeping down his arm. A clawed foot came up.

"Give me a real fight," the beast hissed, bringing the foot down on Vevictus's head.

Silence fell over the hangar. The battle had now truly entered its final hours.

Episode 19: Annihilation

1

Autel had been walking for some time. He trudged down a dusty road that seemed to be leading him into a wide expanse of desert. Behind lay the boat, Stel, and Fira. The pain of that encounter still burned deep in Autel's chest. It was all he could do to keep focused on the road ahead of him, dulling out the aching by remind himself of the promise he had made to Fira just before the end. He would unravel this twisted madness in the name of his friend and everyone else who had been sacrificed for it.

This desert he had found himself in was empty and barren. Autel wondered distantly if there were even any ambient opponents to be faced here, let alone actual competitors. He kept his guard up all the same. No matter what the cost, he had to keep moving. He would wander until he found the answers he was seeking.

There was something on the road ahead. Autel strained his eyes, making out the distant form of what seemed to be another Sangheili. He stopped short, unsure of whether to find cover or approach the figure. If indeed it was a Sangheili, it wasn't facing him at all. There was no sign of a rifle or any other firearm, but that didn't mean there was no danger. Autel kept moving forward. He held his carbine at the ready, not quite at his shoulder. In the very likely event this stranger was hostile, he would open fire without hesitation.

As he drew nearer, he saw that the figure was indeed a Sangheili. Clad in dull, pitted armor the warrior was sitting idly against a rock by the side of the road. When he turned his head, Autel recognized the armor as that of a special operations warrior, though the armor bore no insignia or other identifying markings. The warrior nodded as Autel approached. He had no firearms at all, only a pair of energy swords clipped to his belt.

Autel raised his carbine. "Are you alone?" he asked carefully.

The seated warrior raised his hands and indicated the barren expanse around them. "If this were some sort of trap, would I tell you?"

"I suppose not," Autel admitted. "Perhaps if I appealed to your honor as a fellow warrior...?"

"You would ask me to honorably endanger my theoretical comrades by prolonging an otherwise short engagement?" The warrior laughed, though to Autel's ears it sounded forced. "Were this some sort of ambush, my companions would have already opened fire. But as it stands, I am alone."

Autel didn't lower the carbine, though he relaxed his finger on the trigger. "You could have simply told me that in the first place."

"I apologize," the warrior replied, making no sign of reaching for either of his blades. "It has been some time since I encountered anyone besides those mindless drones. I have not spoken to anyone in..."

He trailed off and shook his head. "So hard to keep track of time here. Even with our armor's internal functions, the days just seem to blend together, don't they?"

Autel kept the carbine pointed at the warrior. "And what are your intentions?"

"Intentions?"

"You were just sitting here when I approached. Have you been waiting for an opponent to fight?"

The seated warrior let out another hollow laugh. "An opponent such as yourself? No, I have simply grown tired of all this. I see no point in wasting my energy going here and there in search of one pointless battle after another."

"So you've given up."

"Not given up. Merely saving my energy while others do the fighting in my stead."

"Perhaps we are the only two left alive," Autel posited."

The warrior shook his head. "I doubt it."

"Then how will you know when the time comes?"

"There will be some sign from above, I suppose. Or perhaps there won't. I don't know and I cannot say that I particularly care."

Autel stepped to the side of the road, backed up a few paces, and settled down a short distance from the warrior. He rested his carbine against his knees, keeping the barrel trained on the other Sangheili. The warrior watched him, his expression muted by his tapered helmet.

"Yes, stay out of blade range in case I grow violent," he observed. "And keep a weapon pointed at me at all times. You are a careful one."

Autel didn't waver. "I was just forced to kill two comrades. One of them was my best friend. You will excuse me if I am lacking in trust at the moment."

"No excusal necessary. I find your behavior commendable. I would find it even more commendable had you decided to simply open fire while your advantage in range would have prevented me from reaching you at all."

"For one who claims to be tired of all this killing, you are certainly candid about your lack of regard for personal honor."

The warrior was unperturbed. "Of all the peculiarities of our race, I find the most fascinating to be the dual standards we hold between strategy in war and behavior in single combat. We press our advantage in battle, hounding wounded enemies to extinction and bombarding their positions from orbit, yet when two warriors meet on the field of battle we act as if there are rules to be observed in the application of violence. Curious, isn't it?"

Autel inclined his head. "Indeed. To pretend there are rules to warfare is to glorify it as some sort of sport. Yet there is always room for restraint. I have not fallen so far that I would simply kill you because I saw you from afar."

"And yet we must kill each other until only one remains," the warrior noted. "Such a challenge calls for you to utilize every weapon at your disposal to ensure victory. Though I suppose I should thank you for not killing me on sight."

"You have certainly given this some thought. Surprising, given that you have decided that this conflict is pointless."

"You think otherwise? Back in our own galaxy, I am sure you had a reason for fighting. I certainly did. But here..." The warrior spread out his hands again. "This battle is like this desert: bleak and empty. We are not fighting for a higher cause or our own ideals. Simply violence for violence's sake. You say you killed your comrades. A ways back, I killed my own brother, the only other survivor of my bloodline, all in the name of victory conditions set before me like a child's arum cube."

"I see." Autel nodded slowly. "I once felt the same way. But when I stood over my friend as he begged me for a warrior's death, I promised him that I would find the truth behind this cruelty. Unlike you, I have a reason for fighting."

The other warrior regarded him for several moments. When he spoke, his voice was low, as if he were pondering something that had never occurred to him before. "The reason behind all this..."

He shook his head. "Tell me, did Fira 'Demal die well?"

Autel started, the pang from his friend's death burning within him once again. "How did you..."

"Your pale skin betrays you, White Knight of Sanghelios. Unless you are some other albino warrior bearing a resemblance to the Vadam heir, in which case my guess was incorrect and I apologize."

"No, you guessed correctly. Though I would expect nothing less from the Black Knight."

Shinsu 'Refum reached up and removed his helmet. "Well, I suppose we sit on equal ground now. What gave me away?"

"You behave as if we have never met, yet you knew enough about my history to know that Fira 'Demal was my closest friend. Fewer still would hesitate to offer their names upon first meeting. You are a sworn enemy of my clan and the government I serve, yet you have not made any attempt to harm me. I find this strange."

"As I said, you are the first intelligent conversation I have had in some time," Shinsu admitted. "And given that we must fight, I could hardly be unfriendly to one who may well be the last person I ever see. But do not give me too much credit. You caught me at a moment of weakness and now have me at a disadvantage. I was simply stalling for time, hoping that you would give me an opening."

Autel curled his finger around the trigger. "By all rights I should kill you here."

"And yet you stay your hand."

"You said it yourself. In our own galaxy, we are enemies. Here, we have nothing to fight for but our own survival. You may hate my bloodline, but I bear Refum no ill-will. You could join me in searching for my answer."

"I could," Shinsu admitted. "But then again, I would only kill you the moment you let your guard down to prevent you from doing the same to me. We would not make it a mile."

Autel hesitated, just for a moment. There was no real choice to be made; he had only one course of action to follow now.

"Get up and put your helmet back on," he said, standing up and indicating Shinsu's head with the carbine.

Shinsu gave him a strange look. "What are you doing?"

"We will fight, since that is how things must be. But we will do it as warriors."

Shinsu slowly got to his feet. "You would be wiser just to shoot me," he warned. "You are making a mistake."

"No," Autel replied grimly. "I am doing the right thing."

Shinsu shook his head, sliding the helmet back into place. "You are infuriating," he told Autel. "Your nobility makes you impossible to despise, yet after speaking with you here I cannot call you a fool either."

"I don't suppose that changes your opinion?"

"No."

"Then let us begin."

Autel squeezed the trigger, but Shinsu was already moving. He didn't even bother reaching for his swords; energy daggers sprang to life on each wrist as he darted forward. Autel backed away as fast as he could, plugging carbine rounds into Shinsu's shields. He couldn't move fast enough. Shinsu was on top of him in a moment, bringing a gauntlet down towards Autel's head.

Jerking his arms up, Autel used the carbine to shield his head from the oncoming dagger. The blade punched through the weapons barrel, diverted just enough that it slipped past Autel's face as it tore the carbine apart. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the second blade sweeping in to disembowel him. His hands fell down with the ruined carbine. His own energy daggers burst forward and he knocked Shinsu's attack away. The first dagger came in again and Autel blocked that as well. It had been a long time since Autel had fought a dagger battle, yet under Shinsu's relentless assault years of combat-hardened reflexes flooded into his body and he held his ground, blocking and counter-attacking each strike. He couldn't reach for his plasma rifle with his hands occupied like this, but that didn't mean there were no other options.

He parried an oncoming attack, responded with a vicious slash of his own, and when Shinsu brought a hand up to bat it aside he lashed out with his foot, catching the Cleansing Blade warrior right where his guard was down. Shinsu staggered back, shields flaring. Autel snatched up his plasma rifle from his hip and opened fire.

Shinsu twisted to avoid the oncoming barrage. His shields caught the first few blasts, giving him time to activate one of his energy swords—the blade was tinged red rather than the traditional blue. He twisted the blade downwards, turning the hilt into a makeshift shield that covered his exposed flank. The second blade ignited and Shinsu brought them inwards, one atop the other. His head and upper body now protected behind a thin wall of blue and red energy, Shinsu ran forward and closed the distance again.

Autel shifted to fire down at Shinsu's legs, but with one hand scrambling to reach for his own sword he only managed to score a glancing hit that failed to burn through the armor. The sword wall parted and Shinsu was again on him, cutting at his head with the red blade while the blue one slashed towards the arm holding the plasma rifle. Autel jumped backwards, but as he tried to fire at the exposed Shinsu his plasma rifle overheated. He didn't have time to back away further; the Black Knight surged towards him, the twin blades closing in on him like monstrous, humming teeth.

Autel fought with instinct now, abandoning every fancy technique ever taught to him by vaunted blademasters in acclaimed sword schools across Sanghelios. He descended to the basics, whipping his blade in all directions at once to keep the blades away from his flesh. His eyes blurred amidst the light from Shinsu's hissing blades. It was all he could do to stay alive amidst the vicious offensive.

The plasma rifle was ready to fire again. Shinsu's shields were up now, but if Autel could just drive him back, get some relief from his attacks...

The rifle fired, but Shinsu let the bolts splash across his shields. It was a simple matter to keep Autel's blade occupied with one hand while the other...

...the other swept in from the side and cut the plasma rifle in half.

It kept traveling, flashing towards Autel so fast that the Vadam heir could only leap backwards, stumbling over his own feet as he tried to escape the incoming blade. Shinsu let him go, readying his blades for another attack. Without his firearms, Autel was finished. Any advantage he had held was gone. Autel's blade against Shinsu's was a forgone conclusion. Yet why wasn't that calculated certainty beating within his hearts? One of the long-awaited objects of his vengeance stood before him, helpless against his peerless swordsmanship, so why was Shinsu afraid?

His blades dipped in an instant of doubt. Autel didn't miss it. He lunged forward, answering Shinsu's attack with an assault of his own. He beat his blade against the defending swords, his promise to Fira echoing over and over in his head. With every blow he saw his friend lying crippled before him and with ever strike he saw the flash of the blade that had ended Fira's life.

Shinsu fell away, beaten back under Autel's furious assault. He swept Tuka's blade in to cut at Autel's head, but his brother's corpse flashed before his eyes and slowed the blade's descent like an invisible chain. Autel simply stepped in and slashed the sword from Shinsu's hand, the hilt falling in two pieces to the ground. Shinsu kept retreating, blinking at the blood running from his fingers in shock because that wasn't supposed to happen...

Autel's mind was churning.Find the answer, find the answer, find the answer. He cut and slashed his determination into the air, buffeting Shinsu with blow after blow. Shinsu's intricately woven defense was no longer an impassible ocean for Autel's blade. Now it was just a hurdle to be surpassed and with every blow Fira's whisper I know you will let him vault over it. He slashed a cut in Shinsu's side, then one across his shoulder. The Black Knight cut loose with a desperate blow that nicked a gash in Autel's arm, but Autel hardly noticed it. His blade flashed an inch away from Shinsu's neck, then flicked upwards and hacked through his helmet.

Shinsu staggered back as his helmet fell in pieces from his head. Blood leaked from a shallow cut between his eyes, eyes that stared at Autel with a wild confusion that bordered on panic. He could feel the pain from his wounds eating away at his ability to fight on. With every cut he took, even with every blow he parried, he grew weaker and slower while Autel only seemed to grow stronger and more ferocious. It was as if all of his skill was already gone, as if it had bled out onto the ground with Tuka. He had been strong then, but now his will to fight was gone. There was an emptiness inside him. There was nothing worth this pain and exhaustion. Best to lower his blade and let Autel finish him here, leave him to rot in this meaningless desert.

Autel closed up his stance, panting. The blade came up again and for the first time he could remember Shinsu felt fear at the sight of a sword. He could not win against this Vadam. The Black Knight of Sanghelios could defeat him. Shinsu 'Refum could defeat him. But he was neither of those things, he realized now. Just emptiness and doubt.

"I will... find... the truth... here..." Autel hissed between breaths. He tensed to spring.

And it clicked within Shinsu's mind. The thought that had been whirling through his head all this time came to a starburst of clarity from Autel's words. The truth.

Here, all the plots and schemes he had cultivated back in his own time and place, the endless strategies, the weaknesses of his enemies, his own mastery of the blade, all of them faded into irrelevance amidst this pointless contest. There were no fleets to be coordinated, subordinates to be trained, or politics to manipulated here. Just the competition, the promise of survival and victory that drove Autel to kill his comrades, that had driven him to cut down his brother. He had dismissed it all as irrelevance and in doing so had doomed himself to conflict without meaning, while Autel...

...Autel had found a meaning anyway.

It was all clear to Shinsu now, a clarity that came with a burst of admiration that he could never in his wildest dreams have thought he could feel for any Vadam. The pain faded away and with it went the fear. He straightened his back, corrected his abominable posture, and prepared to meet Autel once again. To find the truth behind all this.

Autel came on, blade flashing, but this time it was the Black Knight who stepped out to meet him. They met in a swirl of blades, neither of them giving ground as they flashed together. Attack and parry, slash and dodge, they passed each other again and again, circling and darting through the dust. Shinsu's blade struck the ground and sent a shower of rocks and dust into Autel's face. The Vadam heir barely blinked, his eyes burning red with determined anger.

Not even the Black Knight could stand up to the White Knight's fury. Shinsu had found himself again, but even now his wounds were slowing him down. He could not win here. Not unless he...

He saw Autel's blade come in for a hasty stab, and it all became clear in an instant.

Autel had not expected his blow to make it through Shinsu's defenses. It had been part of a feint, a way to distract Shinsu long enough for him to bring his energy gauntlet into play, but the red blade did not reach it in time. Autel struck Shinsu in the side and ran him through.

His hands trembled on the blade, ready to slash in and strike the internal organs he knew he had missed, but a firm hand clamped down on his sword arm. He looked up in surprise and saw the cold fire blazing in Shinsu's eyes. And he knew.

The red blade flashed up and plunged into Autel's chest. It was impeccably aimed; the prongs tore through both of the warrior's hearts.

Autel's hands went numb. He activated the energy dagger and went for Shinsu's neck, but the Black Knight's free hand simply caught his wrist in mid-swing. He opened himself up... for my attack...

His legs could no longer hold him aloft. He sagged, held up only by Shinsu's grip on both of his hands. The world blurred and went dim. "I'm sorry, Fira," he whispered through limp mandibles. "I could not... could not... I tried..."

Someone was standing over him, lowering him gently onto the ground. A warrior in grey armor... was it Fira? Stel? His father?

"You have not failed, 'Vadam," said the Black Knight's voice in his ear. "You gave me your will, and I will see it done. The truth behind all of this. I will find it in your stead."

Autel's eyes glazed over and darkness crowded over his vision. "I know... you will..."

Shinsu sat beside the corpse for a long time. He treated his wounds as best he could, stripping parts from Autel's armor to use as makeshift bandages. It would not be enough, but it would hold him until he found something more suitable. The wounds on his arms and legs were manageable, but the stab to the gut hurt him every time he moved. He would endure for now, but something would have to be done about it and soon.

As he forced himself to his feet, he looked down at Autel once more. There were no words to be said. The Vadam had been his sworn enemy right up to the end. Nothing would change that. Yet it was thanks to his words that he now had something more than disdain for this place; he had a reason to fight, to kill, to triumph.

Perhaps there were carrion in this desert. Shinsu had not seen any and there was no time for any Sangheili-style ceremonies to lay the fallen warrior to rest. Instead, Shinsu simply dragged the corpse over to the rock where he himself had been resting before their fight had begun. Propping Autel up against it, he folded the dead warrior's arms over his bloodied chest. Appropriating Autel's energy sword, he began to limp away, casting one last look at his dead enemy over his shoulder. He imagined that the White Knight would remain like that, resting against the rock, for as long as this desert existed.

Then the Black Knight turned away and headed down the road. Towards the truth.

2

David Kahn was no engineer, but he was fairly certain the shuttle would fly... eventually.

The mercenary had ascended the mountain unmolested save for a few quickly dispatched Covenant patrols. During his climb, he'd heard the distant sounds of combat echoing around him, but after finding a narrow, winding trail and edging his way through a narrow canyon he had come upon the unexpected sight of a human-made civilian shuttle sitting amidst the rocks of an open clearing. From where he stood, Kahn could look out upon the strange world stretching out below the mountain. Plenty of people could have seen the shuttle from below, and he was certain that more combatants would be arriving soon to claim it as their own.

Of course, simply hijacking the shuttle and flying away was out of the question. Several core components from the ship's engines had been removed and scattered about the clearing. The sabotage was no accident. The pieces were arranged in even, symmetrical rows that could not have been anything but deliberate. The puzzle, a final challenge after days of wandering through this strange battlefield, irritated Kahn.

He looked down at the pieces, shook his head, and glanced up at the sky. "Don't suppose you hid a how-to manual around here?" he said to no one in particular.

Time was of the essence. Kahn had a comprehensive knowledge and experience with disassembling every variation of every sentient species in the known galaxy, but this level of engineering was beyond him. The ship was not going anywhere for him; with the stupid sense of humor this game's masters had displayed thus far, Kahn wouldn't be surprised if it was rigged to explode the second someone got it in the air. Of course, anyone who had viewed it from afar wouldn't be thinking that. They'd just be rushing here in the hopes of finding a way to get off this rock.

Kahn unslung his sniper rifle and looked about the clearing for a good hiding place with a clear view of the path and any other points of entry. He had been fortunate enough to be the first person to arrive here. As long as he found the right spot, he would turn this place into a shooting gallery death trap for everyone else who followed.

Just as he had decided on an elevated position a few meters above the shuttle itself, something shifted back near the trail.

Kahn spun, dropping to a crouch and bringing his sniper rifle to bear. He saw a jumbled mass of tangled armor push off from the rock face. Before he could figure out what exactly was coming at him, a pistol's muzzle began flashing.

The assassin dove for cover as pistol rounds punched through the air around him. The armor cluster advanced, the pistol flashing. Kahn opened fire, putting two rounds into the armor's center of mass. The cluster staggered for a moment, then kept on coming.

A pistol round struck Kahn in the chest, denting his armor and throwing off his aim. Letting the rifle fall to the ground, he drew a pistol and fired up into the armor. He could now make out a limp body clad in pitted power armor, and behind it...

The body was thrown forward. It toppled into Kahn, who knocked it aside just as a smaller figure in Semi-Powered Infiltration armor leaped away and fired at him with an assault rifle.

Simon-G294 had used Kodiak's body as a shield, covering his advance on Kahn and giving him time to get in close without getting his head blown off. Now he knelt and emptied the assault rifle into Kahn's position. He had patched up the worst of his wounds with medical supplies scavenged off of Kodiak, but even now his body ached with every move he made. This fight had to end quickly or he was done.

As the rifle clicked empty and Kahn began to raise his pistol to cut him down, Simon dropped the weapon and squeezed a small device clipped to his combat harness. Kahn heard the whine of something priming nearby. Glancing down, he realized that Kodiak's body had not merely been a shield.

It had been a bomb.

The mercenary threw himself away from the blast that tore Kodiak's body apart and blasted a crater in the very earth itself. His ears rang inside his helmet as he tumbled backwards, caught in the force of the blast. He fell end over end, skidding to a halt just beside the cliff edge. He pulled his dangling leg to safety and scrambled to his feet. His pistol had been knocked out of his hand, but he wasn't without weapons. The Mauler he had taken from Justin was clipped to his side; he drew it and looked through the clearing smoke.

Simon wasn't finished yet. Slamming a new clip into the assault rifle, he went prone and searched the blast wreckage for Kahn. His heart pounded, his injuries fading away under the weight of his fear and desperation. This was the true law of the jungle. Eat or be eaten. Kill or be killed. He refused to die here, not after enduring all this and coming this far.

A grenade tumbled out of the smoke. Simon swore and rolled to the side as fast as he could. The explosion peppered his armor with shrapnel and threw him a clear three feet. As he struggled to right himself, Kahn darted from the smoke like a dark armored fiend that bore down on the splayed Spartan-III like some enormous monster.

Simon scrambled up and brought the assault rifle up, but he was too slow. Kahn knocked the weapon away with one hand, kicking Simon in the chest with a swift kick that buckled the armor under its force and made Simon taste blood behind his helmet. The Mauler came down, aiming for a clear shot to the helmet that would shatter Simon's head like a grapefruit.

With a desperate cry, Simon brought his arm up and caught the hand with the Mauler just before it could level with his face. Kahn pressed down, driving the weapon further and further toward its target. Simon strained under the mercenary's force, scrambling at his combat harness with his prosthetic arm. Kahn saw what was happening and drew a knife with his free hand, barely parrying the blade that cut at his gut. With a burst of strength, he shoved the Mauler down and fired the brutal weapon three times. Simon jerked back and fell, his visor splintering under a spiderweb of cracks.

It hadn't been a direct hit. Simon came up with a pistol and got off two shots before Kahn clubbed it out of his hand with the Mauler. The prosthetic arm swung in, but Kahn deflected the knife again and kicked the Spartan back into the ground. Letting the empty Mauler fall to the ground, he turned quickly away from Simon and strode over to retrieve something a few feet away.

When Simon pushed himself to his feet, blood flowing through the cracks of his shattered helmet, Kahn stood before him. In his hands was the fully loaded assault rifle.

Simon went for his pistol, but Kahn had already opened fire. Bullets tore through the Spartan's armor and flesh as the mercenary emptied the clip into him. With a shivering cry, Simon fell limp amidst an already-expanding pool of blood.

Letting the assault rifle fall, Kahn turned away from the fallen Spartan and walked back to find his sniper rifle. The sounds of this battle would attract even more enemies than the ones already looking for this shuttle. He would need to be ready.

Something crashed into him from behind. Kahn felt a searing pain in his back as a knife was driven into his back. Simon hammered on the larger man's helmet, driving him to his knees. Blood seeped from dozens of holes in the Spartan's armor, yet somehow he kept fighting, drawing another knife and bringing it up to ram into Kahn's throat.

Kahn jerked to the side and threw the ravaged Simon to the ground. Simon kicked Kahn in the leg, knocking the mercenary off balance long enough for him to get to his feet and make another go at his throat.

There was no time for finesse. Kahn backhanded Simon across the face hard enough to obliterate what remained of his visor. The Spartan stumbled back, bits of visor cutting into his face, and Kahn rose again. With another savage blow, he caught Simon in the chest and threw him out over the edge of the cliff. He caught a glimpse of the young man's face: bleeding from cuts across his face, his eyes wide with a furious desperation.

Simon fell, but with an agonized snarl he reached out and grabbed hold of Kahn's chest piece. The mercenary threw himself instinctively backwards and dragged Simon back up to safety with him.

The Spartan landed atop the mercenary. Still snarling like an animal, he rammed punches down on Kahn's helmeted head with arms that by all rights should have given out and ceased to work. Kahn forced his arms up, reaching for Simon's throat in an effort to wring the traitor Spartan's neck. Simon fought back, wrapping his prosthetic fingers under Kahn's helmet and tearing it off. He brought the helmet down on Kahn's arms, knocking them away as he drew a knife with his spare hand and brought it up to deliver the fatal blow to the throat.

The knife hovered above Kahn's throat like an executioner's blade, yet as he looked down at the hardened killer's face the triumphant yell died in Simon's throat. There was something in that aged, battle scarred face, beneath the greyed hair and dull blue eyes. It was faint, nearly nonexistent, like the faded out marks of an artist's erased sketchings, yet Simon saw something in that face that repelled his knife as effectively as any forcefield.

The Spartan blinked and began to say something through bleeding lips: "Cass--?"

One moment of concentration lost, and it was over. Kahn seized his pistol and pumped the last three bullets in the magazine into Simon's chest. The traitor Spartan fell backwards, looking more bemused than pained.

Kahn pushed himself to his feet, reaching for a new magazine. Beneath him, Simon glanced wearily at the shuttle and the piles of disassembled components. His blood-soaked eyes widened as he shook his head in disbelief.

"It doesn't even work," he asked through a mouthful of blood. "Does it?"

"No." Kahn slid the magazine into the pistol and racked the slide.

With a final burst of strength, Simon crawled not towards Kahn or the shuttle but back towards the narrow path. Kahn watched him with mild interest, ready to shoot if he tried any last tricks. The Spartan was finished. Now he had to worry about whoever would come down that path next.

Simon collapsed in a heap of bloody armor by the path entrance. As the darkness closed in, he curled up and tried to steady his breathing. He fixed his gaze on Kahn's merciless face, still trying to fathom the faint resemblance that only he could see.

"It's just the strangest thing," he whispered.

The pain stopped forever.

3

"Careful," Felix cautioned Koel as they advanced down the path. "Those shots sounded like they came from this direction."

Koel nodded, glancing up the rock face. "Yeah, this is a trap just waiting to happen."

"Do you think you could get up the side here and cover me from above?" Felix asked, feeling for the light-staff on his belt.

"If you give me a boost up, I can climb up," Koel replied, shouldering his Gauss rifle. Felix offered him a hand as a stool and the Orion soldier scrambled up the rock face and vanished over head. Felix kept moving, edging down the path as he neared what looked to be a clearing. There was a body huddled near the entrance. Felix stopped short. Someone had died here, very recently. Koel had been absolutely right; this was a trap.

Koel's voice crackled in Felix's helmet. "Definitely signs of a fight around the shuttle. I can see the one body, but no one else."

"Keep looking," Felix said, advancing down the path. He held his deactivated staff at the ready "I'm moving in."

As he drew nearer, he recognized that the bloodied corpse was wearing SPI armor. He scanned the clearing, taking in the shuttle, the components, and the obvious signs of a recent battle. Shell casings, blood, and blast craters indicated that it had been a vicious fight, but apart from the SPI-clad corpse there was no sign of any of the combatants. Definitely a trap. So where's...

The corpse, loaded down with explosive charges, erupted in a wave of fire and shrapnel. Had Felix been just a moment faster, he would have been caught directly within the blast. Instead, he was thrown against the side of the mountain as the path crumbled away, leaving him stunned and without shields: a helpless target for whoever had rigged the explosions.

It was the vigilance of Koel that stopped him from dying right then and there. The Orion marksman was not deterred by the explosion; he saw a sliver of black up on the cliff face and fired his Gauss rifle. Kahn jerked his attention up as the mountain beside him was blasted apart by the powerful slug. He slid down towards the ground, shifting his rifle as he zeroed in on Koel's position. Both men sighted in on each other in that brief instant. One fired first.

Koel jerked upwards, feeling his legs go numb as the sniper round tore through his chest and out the back. Losing his balance, he fell tumbling down the cliff, rolling and crashing his way towards the edge of the mountain.

Felix had used the opportunity to throw himself to safety in the clearing. He heard Koel cry out and looked up, torn between the immediate danger of the enemy sniper and his companion's injury. Koel tumbled past, his chest drenched in blood.

"Felix," he gasped. "Catch."

The gauss rifle came up and flew from it's owner's hands. Felix reached out and snatched it from the air. Koel went limp as he tumbled over the cliff and then he was gone.

There was no time for grief. Felix saw the ODST-armored sniper taking a knee and aiming for him behind one of the shuttle's struts. He brought the gauss rifle up, but he was too slow. The bullet knocked the weapon out of his hands. Felix could only wait for the shot that would finish him off, but none came.

Kahn had finally run out of ammunition.

There was no time for hesitation. Felix charged, sprinting towards his enemy and activating the light staff. Kahn unslung the assault rifle he had scavenged off of Simon. Without shifting position he fired, peppering Felix's shields with the last of the rifle's ammunition. Felix didn't pause and instead closed the distance between them. The light staff flashed and clove the rifle in two. Kahn leaped aside as the staff swung again and slashed through the the strut. As the shuttle groaned and began to topple downwards both men dashed back out into the clearing, barely avoiding being crushed by the off-balance ship.

Felix was on top of Kahn at once. It was all the mercenary could do to avoid being dismembered by the light staff. He drew a knife and a pistol, simultaneously weaving, shooting, and looking for an opening to cut or stab. Felix pressed the advantage, driving Kahn back away from the ship step by step.

Kahn was slowing down. His injuries from the last fight were taking their toll, and every slash with the light staff brought Felix closer and closer to bringing him down. The mercenary heaved himself backwards, ripping into the Spartan's shields with pistol shots that threw his aim off-balance. Felix slashed forward and missed a cut at Kahn's neck, instead tearing through his opponents already damaged helmet. Kahn doubled over, as if struggling to rid himself of the ruined armor, and when Felix lunged forward he sprang up and knocked the light staff aside. In the moment Felix was open, Kahn fired the rest of his pistol's clip point-blank into Felix's helmet. The visor shattered and the HUD winked off.

The men came apart, breathing heavily as each stared the other down. Kahn shifted his grip on the knife as Felix dropped into a combat stance with the light staff.

"Hector," Felix said, gripping the staff tighter.

"Felix," his former comrade replied evenly.

"You're going to die here. For Koel and everyone else you've killed."

"Not if I kill you first. We're both killers, Felix, it's what we do."

There was nothing left to say. Felix slashed at Kahn with the staff just as the mercenary ducked back. He came up with another pistol and fired, this time breaking through the shield and punching holes in the side of Felix's armor. The pain barely registered as Felix lunged again, sweeping in with more attacks and attempting to drive Kahn off the cliff.

The mercenary saw his game and dodged to the side, still firing. Felix took two more hits as he stepped forward, bringing the back end of the staff sweeping up towards Kahn's chest. Kahn had to see the attack coming, but instead of dodging he contorted his face and lunged into the attack. The blade slashed up through his left arm and across his face, obliterating the left eye as well. Kahn screamed for the first time since the battle had begun but didn't stop his momentum. He careened into Felix, firing into his prosthetic arm with the pistol. Felix's grip weakened for just an instant, and in the next a kick from Kahn's boot sent him sprawling. A second kick knocked the energy staff from his grip and out over the edge.

Kahn staggered back. Blind in one eye and missing an arm, he fumbled to reload his pistol with the remaining hand. Felix rolled to the side and back towards the now-collapsed entrance. As Kahn spun towards him, he rose holding Koel's fallen gauss rifle.

The battle was over. One hit with the rifle and Kahn would be obliterated. Felix aimed upwards and fired.

To his amazement, Kahn sidestepped the shot. The round tore upwards and blasted apart a rock formation near the top of the mountain above. Both men stood still as the shot's echo faded away into silence. They could feel a tremor coursing under their feet; a moment later they heard the distant rumbling of oncoming rocks.

His face covered in blood, Kahn turned towards Felix and actually smiled. They both knew there was no chance of escape. In a few moments they would be crushed by the oncoming boulders. There were no words to be spoken. Felix rose and charged, bringing the empty-gauss rifle in like a bat. Kahn dodged the blow and came up to strike Felix with his shoulder, then kicked him again and knocked him to the ground. Felix rose and punched at his opponent. One hit would be enough to kill Kahn, yet the crippled mercenary still dodged every one. For a few seconds more they sparred; then a knife appeared in Kahn's hands and plunged into Felix's leg.

As the Spartan staggered, Kahn leaped back and scooped something from the ground. It was his fallen pistol.

There was no time to think. As Kahn braced himself against the rock face, Felix darted forward. The Spartan's fist came up, lining up a shot at Kahn's head. The pistol was cocked against the rocks, a final bullet left in the chamber.

Felix closed the distance in a second, bringing his fist in towards Kahn's skull. As the rumbling became a roar that drowned out everything else, Kahn whipped the pistol up and pressed the muzzle into Felix's throat.

The fist came down and the finger pulled the trigger.

Kahn felt something hard and terrible begin to connect with his forehead.

Felix felt a flash of heat from the barrel jammed into his neck.

And then the rocks came down, smashing the shuttle to pieces as they rained down on the clearing. They battered away at everything beneath them until the entire plateau had been completely buried, as if nothing had ever been there in the first place.

4

The Pelican had finally made it to the space station. Riker was relieved to see that there was a UNSC corvette docked on its bay. When they had taken off into space, he hadn't known what they would do once they were off the surface. No one really cared, so long as it meant that they could escape the planet and the horrendous experiences they'd had there. Maybe they would've tried to fly the Pelican as far into space as possible, if only to be somewhere else. But the corvette meant that they did have a way to get out of here after all.

Maybe everything isn't hopeless after all, the Spartan thought, glancing back at the others sitting in the cargo bay. Brandon was sitting at the very back, his rifle hanging limp in his fingers and his gaze directed at the solid metal hatch as if trying to decipher something from it. Bailey was slumped against the hull, getting some much-needed sleep. Sepia was sitting next to him and inspecting what was left of his arm, although her stiff posture made it clear that she was still thinking about Kodiak. Andrew, standing with his back against the hull, was as straight-backed and stoic as ever, although Riker could tell that the events of the last few days had taken a toll on even him.

Kodiak. I should have saved him. The image of the Gamma falling over dead at Simon's hands entered his mind again. Riker shook his head. No. No more regret. He had gotten the others out of the hell that lurked below them, and now it was time to move on. Later, if there was a later, there would be time for reflection. "Look sharp, everyone," he said over the team COM. "There's our ride out of here."

Bailey instantly jerked awake. Brandon and Sepia turned their heads, and Andrew walked into the cockpit, his gaze fixed on the corvette. "Finally, a stroke of luck," he murmured.

"Think there are hostiles in the station?" Brandon asked, not sounding particularly pleased about the idea.

"Possibly, but they're not getting between us and that ship," Riker said. "Get ready. If we have to shoot our way on board, then so be it."

No one protested. Beneath the general weariness that encompassed the entire team, there emerged a solid determination as everyone checked their weapons. They wouldn't be able to take much more of this, but it was enough for one final advance on whatever was waiting for them.

As Riker brought the Pelican around the station, he noticed that only one of the hangar bays was open, covered by an energy field obviously meant to keep oxygen inside. It was on the far side from where the corvette was. Still, he decided to take it, and brought it down for a landing on one of the pads. He quickly opened the hatch and disembarked with the others, taking point with his assault rifle ready.

Brandon was covering him on one flank with his shotgun, Sepia on the other with the Marine's battle rifle. Bailey stayed in the centre of the formation, holding his pistol one-handed. Andrew brought up the rear, his battle rifle sweeping the shadows and possible entrances where enemies would be lurking. Riker led the team through the facility, mentally remembering which way was the frigate. The layout of this space station was one he hadn't seen before, and he hoped that he was going the right way.

The entire station was dead silent, and there was not even the slightest sign of movement. It was both relieving and unnerving. The team passed through barracks, technical bays, even medical facilities. But none of them stopped, eager to get off the station and onto the corvette. Riker was hoping there would be an armoury as they were running low on ammunition, but there was no sign of one. And he decided not to waste time exploring the station to try and find one.

Finally, a pair of sliding doors parted to reveal an umbilical connecting to the corvette's boarding bay. And the doors were open. Brandon breathed a sigh of relief. "Alright. Let's get out of here already. Shouldn't be too hard to fly a ship this size, right—"

Everyone stiffened at the sound of heavy footfalls from behind them. It was distant, but coming nearer. Riker turned around, raising his assault rifle. "Andrew, get the others on board and start the corvette."

"You might need my help," Andrew began, but Riker cut him off.

"There could be hostiles on board, so you need to make sure the others are safe. Especially Bailey. Go!"

The others reluctantly stepped into the umbilical, with Brandon leading Bailey onto the ship in case there really were enemies lurking inside. Sepia stopped and tossed Riker two claymore mines. "They're Bailey's. You might need them."

He nodded, catching the explosives with one hand. "Get going. I'll be right with you guys." He didn't watch as the others disappeared into the corvette. The footfalls were coming nearer, although who they belonged to still remained to be seen. Riker quickly set one of the mines above the doorway and took position in front of the umbilical. Whatever was approaching was almost upon him.

And when the enemy turned the corner, Riker knew exactly who it was.

"Riker," the beast growled.

"Nogard," the Spartan replied calmly. For some reason, it hadn't surprised him in the slightest to see the Precursor Demon.

"Giving yourself up so your friends can escape?" Nogard mused. "Or perhaps...you intend to fend me off long enough so they can ready the ship, and you will leave with them? Valiant of you, either way, but futile—"

As he stepped into the boarding bay, Riker loosed a single shot at the claymore above Nogard's head. The explosion tore apart the doorway and sent a wave of heat rippling down the beast's back, knocking him to the floor with a roar. The Spartan closed in, intending to incapacitate his powerful opponent while he was disoriented.

A second, much larger explosion suddenly sounded from behind Riker, causing him to stagger as shockwaves rumbled through the station. He turned around and to his horror, saw that the corvette was now a flaming wreck, its hull ripped open and shuddering as more explosions ripped through it. What had happened? Was the ship just a trap, a way to lure them here so they would get killed?

And then Riker saw him. A purple-blue Machina, hovering outside the station, its guns still pointed at the corvette it had gutted with seemingly little effort. As a column of flame ignited in the umbilical, the Spartan knew he had to move fast. In a matter of seconds, there would be nothing but vacuum in the boarding bay.

To his surprise, an armoured figure leaped through the flames and landed on his feet in the bay. It was Andrew, his shields flickering and a silenced pistol clutched in his hand. Brandon's pistol, Riker realized, though there was no time to talk. He grabbed the other Spartan's hand and the two of them dashed out of the bay, and just in time too, for a second later, Nogard had gotten up and was lumbering after them. As the umbilical burned away, vacuum began to leak into the station, although the doors that would have sealed it off were too damaged to lock themselves.

"The others?" Riker shouted, as they sprinted down the hallways, even though he already knew the answer.

"They're gone!" Andrew yelled, with a bitter edge to his voice. "They took the worst of the blast, I barely managed to get out and grab a gun. What the hell do we do now?"

Riker resisted the urge to give in to frustration. Their last chance of escape was gone. There was only really one thing to do. "We're taking these two out! Get Antulas into the station!"

"Antulas?" Andrew repeated, momentarily distracted by Nogard, who was hot on their heels.

"The Machina! The bastard that just killed the others and wasted the corvette!"

"Right! Let's separate them! You keep the dinosaur busy, I'll get the cyborg!"

It was a risky plan, but Riker decided that to face Nogard alone was better than allowing Antulas to catch him and Andrew unawares while they were busy with the Precursor. The two Spartans reached a junction with arrows in the floor, one pointing ahead towards the weapons bay, and the other pointing right that led back to the hangar. Without needing to say a word, Riker turned sharply right, while Andrew kept running straight.

As expected, Nogard turned to chase after Riker. The Spartan didn't slow down, glad that his opponent didn't have any weapons to shoot him in the back with. He had a chance, one chance, that would allow him to take out the near-invincible creature. It was a long shot, but it was the only plan he had.


Andrew had found the station's weapon systems not long after breaking off from Riker. He immediately brought them online and aimed every turret at his disposal on Antulas.

"Let's see how you like it," he snarled, firing a brutal spray of missiles and large rounds at the Machina. He felt a satisfaction as the enemy squirmed to avoid the fire, although even he couldn't avoid taking all the hits. He managed to damage some of the station's weapons by returning fire, although his own arsenal was really no match against guns designed to take out capital ships. Within a matter of seconds, Antulas became heavily injured, and with no other choice, put himself on a collision course with the viewport.

"Shit," Andrew muttered, leaving the guns on automatic before snatching up his pistol and dashing for the exit. Antulas took a few more hits but a split second later smashed straight through into the station, shattering the reinforced glass and sending the shards flying into space as the weapons station decompressed. Andrew barely cleared the room with the Machina in pursuit before the doors sealed behind them.

Andrew could tell that he had disabled most if not all of Antulas' gun-type weapons, from the way the alien was trying to do nothing but pulverize him with his metallic fists. Still, the Spartan managed to keep a fair amount of distance from his enemy, though he observed his surroundings and was careful not to run himself into a corner.

As he made it through another door, he spotted set of grating-covered stairs that looked rather cramped underneath. Exactly what he was looking for. He ducked his head in the low ceiling and tried not to slow down as he ran through the confined space. The hum of the station's engines told him he was in the right place.

He could hear Antulas stomping above him. Andrew fumbled to pull something off his armour, although with a little trouble extending his arms due to his narrow surroundings. Okay. Gotta time this right. He keyed his COM, hoping Riker was doing alright and that he had made it to the hangar. "Riker, get out of here. Now!"

"Andrew, what are you—"

The rest of his words were cut off as Antulas smashed through the grating in the ceiling, landing with a thump in front of Andrew. He grabbed the Spartan's face with one powerful hand, whose helmet began to crumple under the force of the Machina's grip.

But Andrew had been expecting this. He whipped up his pistol and shot Antula in the hand, though it was just a diversion. In one deft move, he stuck one of Bailey's claymores onto his opponent's chest with his other hand. Immediately, the alien released him and tried to pry the explosive off.

Andrew dropped to the floor and ducked for cover. A heartbeat later, the claymore detonated, enough to severely damage Antulas but not kill him.

And then the station's engines placed around them exploded in a chain, engulfing them both in a fiery storm.


Riker had just entered the hangar bay and had almost made it to the Pelican when Nogard's tail lashed out, catching him in the legs and sending him flying forward. He slid across the floor, stopping just adjacent to the dropship's hatch.

The Spartan rolled over, firing his assault rifle full-automatic into Nogard's chest and stomach. Some of the bullets were stopped by the creature's tough hide, but a good number of them penetrated the weak area, causing the enemy to slow down, shrieking in pain.

The rifle clicked empty, and Riker was going for the pistols at his sides when Nogard recovered and dealt him a heavy blow across the face, sending him reeling away. He fell over but quickly got back to his feet, though minus his helmet there was a visible bloody gash running down his face. He emptied both magazines into his opponent who now stood between him and the Pelican. He backpedalled as he did so, remembering the Precursor's nearsightedness.

Riker had no spare magazines for any of his weapons, so he discarded the empty pistols and took off his back the only gun he had left: his sniper rifle. He had managed to put sufficient space between himself and Nogard, who was moving to close the distance again. But the Spartan was ready, and taking aim carefully, he fired a single shot.

The round flew straight and true, embedding deep into Nogard's right eye. The Precursor shrieked in pain, clawing at his own face as if it could remove the bullet from the blinded eye. Riker didn't hesitate, sprinting straight at his injured enemy, making as if he was going to slide under him.

Nogard could still see the approaching Spartan, and made a low swipe to impale him. But it was a feint; Riker leaped upward at the last moment, somersaulting over his opponent. But he had underestimated the Precursor's endurance for pain; a clawed fist caught him hard in the torso, smashing through his energy shields and breaking several ribs. The Spartan collided with the Pelican's cockpit door and landed on the cargo bay floor in a heap, struggling for breath.

And then he heard Andrew's voice on the COM. "Riker, get out of here. Now!"

"Andrew, what are you doing?" Riker gasped, getting to his feet as Nogard stomped over to the Pelican. "Where are you?"

And then the station started shaking, with a force that not even the corvette's destruction could've caused. That only meant one thing...

Riker forced the cockpit door open and was scrambling to start the Pelican when he felt Nogard's claws grab him around the midsection. He struggled to free himself to no avail, wincing as the claws stabbed through his armour and into his abdomen. Blood and his armour's hydrostatic fluids dripped onto the floor.

Fighting the pain, the Spartan whipped out one of his friends' flashbang grenades—who it belonged to, Bailey, Brandon, Sepia, he didn't know—and thrust it backwards into Nogard's face.

By sheer luck, the grenade jammed into the creature's already wounded eye. Riker braced himself as the explosive detonated, supposedly nonlethal but still enough to rip a hole on one side of Nogard's face. He felt the claws let him go and he crumpled onto the floor of the Pelican as his opponent stumbled around the inside of the cargo bay, reeling in agony.

And then he realized that the Pelican was keeling over. No, that wasn't it. The floor itself was tilting slowly but surely into a diagonal list. He figured out why as more explosions rocked the station.

The entire facility was falling into the planet's gravity well, and its hangar bay was starting to point towards the surface below. The energy field over the hangar exit flickered and died, and then all the lights in the bay went out.

Riker found that he couldn't stand up, and guessed that Nogard had broken his spine. Nonetheless, he crawled into the cockpit and frantically fired up the engines, straining to pull himself upright. His legs hung uselessly as he slumped over the controls, doing his best to steer the Pelican out of the falling space station. The dropship flew at a dangerously low angle as it cleared the hangar bay, its ceiling nearly clipping the tail—

And then they were out. Riker managed to bring the Pelican to a safe distance from the station, although it was taking every bit of strength he had not to collapse and crush the controls below him. Behind him, Nogard was struggling to get into the cockpit, his claws reaching for the Spartan.

"Go to hell," Riker snarled, flipping the Pelican at a sharp upward angle. Now in the planet's gravity well, Nogard's weight immediately pulled him away from the cockpit and tumbling out the back hatch. The Spartan wasn't sure if his enemy was screaming as he fell to his death, or if it was just the roar filling the air as a massive piece of debris fell past the Pelican. And then he realized what he was seeing.

The space station had been completely cut in half. From the looks of the flaming wreckage, its entire network of engines had been detonated in a chain explosion. That was why Andrew had told him to get out of there.

Andrew. There was no sign of Antulas, but where was Andrew? Riker sealed the hatch on the Pelican, and without wasting a second, he fumbled for his COM and set it to a broad range. "Andrew. Andrew, do you read me? I...I've cleared the station...do you need pickup? Andrew...come in."

There was no response. Riker tried setting his range wider and wider, though it didn't do him any good. "...come in...Andrew...respond..."

He felt a sudden wave of weakness overwhelm him, and he collapsed to the floor of the cockpit. Then he noticed that he was sitting in a pool of his own blood.

They're gone, he realized mutely. They're all dead. Not even Andrew had made it out, though it meant he had taken down Antulas with him. I sent them onto the corvette. I tried to save them and I only ended up dooming them.

The Pelican climbed its way out of the atmosphere once more, though this time it was carrying only a single Spartan, too grievously wounded to move. And as it disappeared into space, it took with it the Spartan whose life bled away so numbingly that he didn't feel a thing as death claimed him as well.

5

Everything had gone quiet.

Vinh knew something was different when she made her way down the mountain and into the desert, and found nothing but bodies. Bodies, everywhere, most of them belonging to the inhabitants of the planet. She had come across some that had been obviously stuck here the same way she was; a black-armoured cyborg creature, disfigured and cut apart; an ODST, his arms missing and twin holes punched into his helmet; a Jiralhanae, decapitated by what seemed to be an Energy Sword; a Spartan, lying dead with a bullet in his head. How long they had been lying here, she didn't know, but that wasn't what disturbed her.

No, what was the most unsettling to her was the fact that a great deal of the inhabitants didn't have a single injury on them. She had even checked them for more subtle signs of death; suffocation, poisoning, even lethal injections was something she wouldn't have ruled out, as strange as it may have been. But after numerous confirmations, it was clear that many of them had simply dropped dead.

How did this happen? What does this mean? Vinh trekked through the desert, having lost sight of the statue after descending from the mountain but still heading towards it determinedly. Who would have possibly done something so impossible, and yet so cleanly? She hadn't encountered any enemies on her way down, but she knew that there weren't this many of them around when she first reached the mountain. These inhabitants had died very, very recently.

Vinh continued her journey in silence until the statue came into view again. And she realized that it was a figure of a Spartan clad in MJOLNIR armour, standing around twenty feet tall. The base it was standing on, made of the same metal-stone hybrid, read SPARTAN-G023, FIRST VICTOR OF SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST.

And then it clicked. This whole thing, the terrain, the enemies, the other stranded beings trying to kill her...they were all fighting for their own survival. Whoever is the last one standing is the winner.

And she realized why the inhabitants were all found dead. This is almost over. There's no one left except me...

...and my opponent.

Vinh looked around, as if the person she was meant to fight was somewhere close by. But there wasn't any sign of life in any direction. She turned back to face the statue, as if trying to find some sort of clue in its impressive, flawless figure. She felt a stab of longing. I wish Dyne was here in my place. We were so close. He could have made it out of this alive...

All she had left was a plasma rifle at half-charge, a concussion rifle with a dozen rounds, and three plasma grenades. Not exactly an ideal arsenal for taking on whoever she was about to be pitted against, especially if they were skilled enough to last until the end of this twisted game. But did she even want to continue? Dyne was dead, and she doubted that she could bring him back even if she won. I could just call it quits. End all of this right now...

No, thought her iron-willed Spartan side. I have to see this through to the end. Find out who was responsible for all this. And then I'll make them pay. Not just for Dyne, but for everyone who died because of this...this...game. Vinh slammed a hard fist into the side of the statue, though it didn't leave the slightest dent on it.

But a bright blue energy suddenly engulfed Vinh, rendering her motionless. Before she could even cry out in surprise, it winked out, and she disappeared with it in the blink of an eye.

6

Shinsu approached the statue of SPARTAN-G023 and studied it intently. He didn't think much of the writing engraved below its feet, and he thought that the Spartan's posture was rather prideful. Where is this Spartan now, I wonder? Enjoying his victory drawn from the deaths of his enemies...and his comrades?

He couldn't quite place it, but something told him that it had finally come down to him and one other individual, waiting to fight for their victory. There was something in the air that gave him the feeling that the entire world had gone silent, with only him and his opponent awaiting the other somewhere. And this statue had some sort of connection to the coming final fight.

So everything is finally coming to an end, Shinsu thought. He didn't know who this last warrior he would have to kill would be, but undoubtedly it would be a strong opponent. All the better, he thought. For if I lose this next fight, I will at least know that the reward of survival will go to one who is worthy to have earned it.

He checked himself over one more time. Admittedly, he was not doing so well. His injuries would undoubtedly hinder him greatly no matter how his last fight would play out, and for the first time he hoped that he would be able to maintain some distance from his opponent and find some other way to kill them. I will need more than just trickery though, if they have been resourceful enough to have survived this far...

No. He couldn't risk playing around with his opponent. His energy sword was his only remaining weapon, and he knew how to utilize it well. He would have to be careful not to put himself into peril; many of his usual techniques would be useless with the extent of his injuries, but if there was one thing that Shinsu 'Refum excelled in, it was the art of improvisation in combat, particularly when it came to the use of blades.

So what am I to do now? he wondered, walking circles around the statue and examining it intently. Do I simply wait here for my opponent to arrive? How will I know when they will find me?

Shinsu paused as his foot caught on something in the sand. Slowly, he bent down and dug a hole in the ground, revealing what looked like a metal fragment, burned and twisted at the edges. As he picked it up, he saw a series of human numbers engraved on one side, barely visible beneath the burns, and realized that it was a piece of a helmet. A Spartan helmet, if he wasn't mistaken.

Interesting. Could this be where the first winner found his victory? Did he make the final kill, take the life of one of his Spartan brothers, in exchange for his own? Shinsu tossed down the helmet fragment, and sat down into a relaxed stance next to the statue. He began reflecting on the events that had occurred ever since he had arrived here.

I have killed many for my own survival, he thought. But not because I cling to life like a wretched fool. I always seek a greater purpose, no matter how unfamiliar this world or any other may be to me. He wondered how many of the others had known the reason they were here. How many had wandered this world, trying to escape or find the reasons they were brought here? Undoubtedly at least some of them would have the answers, but they were all dead now. Save for his soon-to-be opponent, of course, but he doubted they would be in the mood to talk.

So once again, it is up to me to uncover the truth, Shinsu thought, half-exasperatedly as he leaned back against the statue. Why is it that so few have the common sense to act wisely instead of clinging to their mundane—

He gave a start as a blue-white aura wrapped itself around him. His first instinct was to break free, for surely this had been some kind of trap. But to his perplexity, he found that he couldn't even move from his sitting posture.

And then everything faded away into a shroud of blackness, as if the very existence of the world had been sucked away by some unknown force. But Shinsu felt somehow as if he was moving at an incalculable speed, and he knew that this was not death.

I am to meet my opponent at last, he realized. Now the endgame begins.

Episode 20: Endgame

1

Vinh felt herself rematerialize in a rush of energy and light, and realized that she was standing on an onyx-black mountaintop. How high she was, she didn't know, but she could see quite far down the valley below her—as well as the lone figure standing at the peak of an equally high mountain on the other side of the valley. Her sharp eyesight told her that he was a Sangheili, and she could tell that he was observing her as well. She didn't doubt for a moment that this would be her opponent.

The Spartan's concussion rifle was still on her back, her plasma rifle at her hip, and all her plasma grenades were still with her. But none of her weapons would be able to reach the Sangheili, and since he hadn't moved from his position at all, she guessed that he had the same dilemma.

Vinh eyed the landscape set before her. Neither mountain was sloped so precariously that scaling down its length would be dangerous; there were huge jutting boulders set into the sides that would be helpful in steadying oneself even if the slope became too steep. At the bottom the valley levelled out and spanned along a relatively flat stretch of about five hundred feet; unlike the mountainsides, there was practically no cover in the valley.

Although it was clear that there was only one thing to do, Vinh wasn't particularly eager about making her way all the way down, and then back up to meet the Sangheili, unless of course, he would have the courtesy to meet her down there. She didn't favour the idea of going such a distance and expending what was left of her energy, especially if it meant her opponent would have the advantage of the higher ground. But he didn't look like he was about to make a single step, and she didn't exactly have the patience to be stubborn with him either. She was about to start heading down the mountainside when something in the sky caught her eye.

Two jet-black pods were hurtling down towards the mountains, one speeding towards her, the other towards the Sangheili. Vinh briefly considered that it was some sort of missile; it was aimed too perfectly at them not to be targeting them. But then she dismissed the notion as ridiculous, seeing as whoever was overseeing this deathmatch would not bring them both here only to kill them. So she waited.

She didn't even have to move a step as the pod landed three paces away from her with a clean thunk. It held solidly into the ground, and yet it didn't so much as leave a crack in the rocky ground. A hatch in the side of the pod flew off and rolled away, and she realized that it was a supply carrier.

Enclosed was two packs of adrenaline stimulants, along with a note. "You are Vinh, lover of Isaac, mother of Dyne, and teacher of Kodiak. Even if your blade fails you, your strength will not."

Vinh slowly removed the stim-packs from the pod, taking off her helmet and downing both doses. She had a feeling that once the fighting got started, she wouldn't have the chance to take separate shots. She felt a spike of energy course through her, and suddenly felt a resurgence of confidence along with it. Whoever her benefactor was, they knew who she was, what she was fighting for, and why she had to win. She was not alone.

On the other mountain peak, the Sangheili seemed to have received some type of booster as well and was busy administering it. Vinh was considering her options on engaging him in combat, when she saw two more pods flying in towards them. I'm going to need all the help I can get. Whatever it is, I'll be better off prepared. Seconds later, the pod landed next to the first, and its hatch detached loudly on impact.

Inside was an SRS99-AM sniper rifle, along with four extra magazines. The note read, "All the other squids with their split-head lips, you better run, better run, faster than my bullet..."

Vinh had no idea what the note was supposed to mean, and was trying to decipher some sort of hint in its words, when she remembered that the Sangheili had received a supply drop as well. She looked up and saw that there was now a beam rifle clutched in its hands. And the barrel was pointed straight at her. "Shit," the Spartan swore, snapping into action. She sprinted down the mountainside as a long purple lance of plasma flew through the air where her head was a split second ago. She didn't slow down as she dashed down the slope, using the boulders as cover. She brought up her sniper rifle and took aim as he moved for cover as well. The deathmatch was now in motion.


Shinsu knew immediately that the Spartan he was pitted against was no pushover. The two bullets that flew past him were so close that his shields had flickered slightly. He ducked behind a boulder, deciding to move from cover to cover before his opponent became too familiar with his natural shield. He leaped out and snapped off two rapid shots at the human, overheating the rifle but managing to land a solid hit on her stomach. But her shields held, and he quickly moved behind another protruding boulder as a bullet whistled past his face.

Whoever had sent him the beam rifle had put him at an advantage; the Spartan's sniper rifle was incapable of firing two shots in quick succession, and the overheating wasn't a problem considering his distance from his opponent. Still, it seemed Shinsu had a very cheeky benefactor. "Aim away from face." Really.

It had also become apparent that he had someone else rooting for him as well. The medical kit he had received had been exactly what he needed to rid himself of the disadvantageous injuries he sustained in his fight with Autel. Now he was running down the mountain without most of the trouble he had before arriving in the mountains.

Now almost a third of the way down, Shinsu became aware that there were yet another two supply pods coming down. Except this time while one of them was dropping in towards the Spartan, the other one wasn't coming towards him, but falling straight into the heart of the valley. Was it an error? Or a new challenge for him? Either way, he wasn't particularly bothered. His beam rifle still had plenty of power, and as far as he was concerned, it was the most effective weapon he could use to win this fight.

Shinsu moved out of cover again, firing three shots at his adversary. The Spartan avoided the first two beams by ducking the first, and leaping over the second; she took the third shot in the chest, but didn't even flinch as she returned fire, landing a hit on his shoulder. His energy shields dropped to half and he moved into cover, waiting for his rifle to cool down as the Spartan reached her drop pod, and retrieved a gun from it.

And then a bolt of energy blasted the boulder he was propped up against, shattering it into pieces. Caught unawares, Shinsu lost his balance and began falling down the mountainside.


"Make it count, Spartan."

That was the note that had come with Vinh's latest gift, a railgun along with a half dozen rounds. And it had certainly proven to be a worthwhile weapon, because now she had Shinsu right where she wanted him, which was rolling down the slope with no control of his trajectory. She propped her sniper rifle against a flat boulder and peered down the scope, aiming for the centre of the mass. It would take two, maybe three shots to kill him. Not that it was going to be a problem for her.

But Shinsu proved to be more nimble than she gave him credit for, because a heartbeat before she squeezed off the first shot, he grabbed onto a jutting rock and used it to halt his tumble and land with his feet on a ledge. The sniper bullet flew into the rock face, and was deflected by its unyielding solidity.

Vinh cursed and readjusted her aim, but Shinsu was faster. He knew he had no time to draw a bead on her, and instead ducked into a large tunnel adjacent to the ledge. He vanished into the darkness, and by the time the Spartan had her night vision activated, he had disappeared from her line of fire.

She stayed in cover in case he was hoping to pick her off from his shelter, but the supply pod that had landed in the valley caught her eye. If she had to close in on Shinsu by going to him, she could at least take whatever was in there first.


Inside the tunnel, Shinsu found another two supply pods waiting for him. Both were larger than the ones he had received before, and how they ended up in here he didn't know. But there was no time to ask questions right now. He approached the first pod, and attached to its outside read the note, "Join your voice with mine, and seek victory. I am your atonement. I am your salvation." The words were vaguely familiar, but he couldn't quite place it—

The pod exploded open, and out leaped a half dozen yellow-green blurs. Shinsu leaped back just as a Flood Tank form swung its massive gnarled arm at him. He fired the beam rifle, shooting it in the "mouth" as he backpedalled. The enemy staggered but did not fall, but it gave Shinsu enough time to draw his energy swords and cut it down with twin simultaneous strokes. Without pause, he slashed apart a Combat form that tried to flank him, and cleaved a second one in half.

A carrier form was lumbering towards Shinsu, and he leaped away just as it exploded, spewing infection forms everywhere. He wasn't unduly concerned until he noticed that the tunnel floor was littered with Marine and Sangheili corpses. And he knew that if he stayed here to fight, he would eventually get shot in the back by Vinh.

The other supply pod had opened at the same time as the one containing the Flood dispersal unit, and a Revenant had fallen out. Shinsu cut down two more Flood forms and used the opening in their lines to make a break for the vehicle. He climbed into the driver's seat and the Revenant lifted off the ground just as the corpses began twitching and reanimating. He knew better than to open fire; if he did, it was likely that the vehicle's mortars would just explode on the tunnel's low ceiling. Instead, he gunned the Revenant's speed boost, running over a couple of unlucky combat forms and sending the hovering vehicle accelerating out the exit.

Vinh was already almost at the bottom of the mountain, and was running towards the pod embedded at the centre of the valley. Shinsu cut his speed somewhat but kept the Revenant tearing down the mountain as quickly as he could without losing control or crashing into one of the boulders. This was a lot harder than it sounded, but he was no amateur on operating vehicles or using his reflexes.

His adversary, however, had no intentions of making his descent easy for him; one railgun bolt blasted apart the ground a little too close to him, another shattered a boulder into small shards of stone that peppered his energy shields. Had he been using a human vehicle with wheels, he would never have been able to avoid the deadly shots at all. But nonetheless, Shinsu found himself greatly slowed down by his efforts to predict his opponent's moves, and even to his own surprise, managed to dodge all four of the bolts fired at him.

They were now both on the valley floor, although Vinh was much closer to the supply pod than he was. He knew that firing at her would be futile; the Revenant's slow-moving mortars would be far too easy for her to dodge. Instead, he aimed the gun at the sky and fired a single shot.

Vinh's eyes tracked the trajectory of the mortar, and she already could tell that it wasn't aimed at her. She mentally calculated where it would land, and her eyes settled onto the drop pod.

So that's his game, she thought. She wasn't going to reach it in time, she knew that. But still, she ran faster towards it, counting in her head with her finger on the railgun's trigger.

As she guessed, the Revenant's mortar impacted right next to the drop pod, sending it along with its contents flying away. She was not to close to have taken damage from the explosion, but close enough to leap through the cloud of plasma. She reappeared on the other side, the railgun's trigger firmly clamped down.

The last shot in the weapon discharged, slamming into the left side of the Revenant. Shinsu felt his shields give out as a control panel next to him exploded. Blue sparks began flying in his face, but the vehicle was still operational. But he made the mistake of slowing down when it lurched, and with a thump, Vinh was crouched over him, one hand steadying herself on the hood of the Revenant, the other pointing a plasma rifle at his face.

Without hesitation, Shinsu leaped out of his seat, letting the still-moving vehicle carry her away. At his feet was the slightly smoking drop pod, lying on its side with its opening facing upward. Inside was a metallic device glowing a bright blue; he recognized it as an active camouflage device. The note, slightly charred around the corners, said, "It is an easy thing for one whose foot is on the outside of calamity to give advice and to rebuke the sufferer. —AESCHYLUS, Prometheus Bound"

Wise words, thought Shinsu, taking the camouflage device and attaching it to his armour. He disappeared into invisibility just as Vinh took control of the Revenant, spinning it around to see where he had gone. Knowing that he wasn't completely invisible, Shinsu ducked into the mountain's shadow, deciding to find a good vantage point where he could take out the Spartan with his beam rifle. Conveniently, the Revenant sped off in the opposite direction, no doubt trying to find him somewhere on the valley floor. Noiselessly, he slipped away.

Vinh knew what was inside the drop pod as soon as she realized that Shinsu was nowhere to be found. She steered the Revenant towards the opposite mountain, keeping her eyes peeled for the slight shimmer in the air that would give away his position. She kept moving in unpredictable patterns, well aware that her opponent could be aiming at her right now and trying to put a beam of plasma into her head.

As she rounded the mountain bend, she saw that there were two drop pods propped up against a tall boulder, one larger than the other. Warily, she disembarked from her stolen vehicle and approached the capsules, pressing a button on the larger one.

The hatch slid back, and out staggered a Navy officer with the silver oak leaves and three-stripe insignia of a Commander on her uniform. She blinked, looking rather confused. "What...? Where am I?"

Whatever Vinh had been expecting in the drop pod, it hadn't been another human. A note had fallen out along when the hatch opened, and she picked it up to read it. "Find attached 1x 'Kathrin Grunwald', standard issue combat advisor. Note to operator: advisor not to be used as human shield." She looked up at Grunwald, unsure of what to do. "Uh...ma'am...are you alright?"

"I'm fine," the officer said, frowning. "Except a minute ago I was wandering through a forest. I have no idea how I ended up in the pod, or..." her eyes caught the note, and she read it silently, mouthing the words. Then she looked rather indignant. "'1x Kathrin Grunwald'? What is this, who decided it was okay to objectify me and then decide to ship me wherever they please?"

"I don't know, ma'am," Vinh said, still rather perplexed. She decided to open the other pod, which contained a rocket launcher, and the note that read, "Here is a gift. Make use of it, when I failed to do so."

She shouldered the launcher, and looked from Grunwald to the Revenant. "Well, if you're here to help me, do you think you could drive this thing?"

"I'll figure it out," said the officer, sounding rather exasperated. "What are we doing exactly, Spartan?"

"There's an Elite I need to take out," Vinh replied, clambering into the Revenant's passenger seat. "If I kill him, I think we'll get to leave." She said we because she wasn't sure if Grunwald was a contestant. It didn't look like it, which meant that she wasn't obligated to kill her as well.

Grunwald sat herself behind the Revenant's controls, fiddling with a few of the alien-designed systems until it came to life and began hovering. "Looks a little busted up," she remarked.

"I had to forcibly seize the vehicle," said Vinh, propping up the rocket launcher so it was pointing over the hood.

"Right. This way, Spartan?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Alright. Hang on tight."


Shinsu had deactivated his camouflage after the Revenant disappeared behind the mountain. The device was useful, but it ran on limited power, and he decided it would be wise to conserve it in case he needed it later. He had just taken position among a cluster of rocks at the bottom of the mountain opposite to the one where Vinh had disappeared, when yet another drop pod landed close to him. At first, he was annoyed at the poor timing; if his opponent was watching, the supply drop might just have given away his position. But once he saw what was inside the pod, he decided it wouldn't matter either way.

"Bring honour to us all.", said the note that had come with the plasma launcher he had received. A deadly weapon that would surely come in handy now that the Spartan had his Revenant. He stepped out of cover, deciding that he would be able to make the best use of his weapon by moving rather than standing still.

As if on cue, Shinsu spotted a purple-red mass appear around the mountain bend, speeding towards him. Well, speeding towards the mountain behind him, since he didn't think they would see him just yet. He pointed the plasma launcher at the Revenant, as one plasma bolt after another charged inside the barrel of his weapon. It beeped, confirming that it was locked on target.

The first four shots that he loosed flew straight at the Revenant. But as expected, it swerved to avoid the explosive bolts at the last second, causing them to fly wide. But it was diverting enough to give Shinsu time to charge up more shots, and now he was much closer.

And then he realized that it wasn't Vinh behind the controls of the Revenant; it was another human, one that clearly wasn't a Spartan. Where did this one come from? But he didn't have time to question this, because his adversary was wielding a rocket launcher and had fired a missile at him.

Shinsu let the two plasma bolts he charged go; both managed to lock on, but again, the Revenant managed to dodge them. He didn't have time to take another shot, and instead leaped away as the rocket impacted on the ground near him, taking down half his shields in the blast.

He retaliated by firing another plasma bolt, which landed on the Revenant's gun carriage and blew it into pieces when it exploded. It wasn't likely that the second human would be able to maintain speed and fire mortars at him, but it never hurt to be sure. He was a smaller target than they were, certainly, but he also moved much more slowly, and if the mortar and rocket were used properly, he could be caught in a deadly blast.

The explosion of the mortar gun caused the Revenant to lurch, scraping its bottom across the ground momentarily before its antigravity propellers recovered. Vinh and Grunwald lurched forward, and the Spartan was the first to recover. She fired her second and final rocket at Shinsu, just as he charged up the last of the plasma launcher's battery to loose four bolts at the Revenant.

This time, Shinsu easily managed to avoid taking damage from the rocket's impact, moving swiftly away. But Vinh had been expecting this. She reached over, jamming the Revenant's accelerator to maximum as four orbs of glowing blue plasma attached themselves to the side of the hood. A split second later, she grabbed Grunwald and bailed out as it sped towards Shinsu.

The Sangheili realized what was happening and rolled away, and the plasma bolts detonated as the Revenant reached him, causing the vehicle to explode in a brilliant blue flash. His shields died completely as the blast sent him flying. He rolled across the ground and came to a halt next to a boulder, at the foot of the mountain.

Shinsu forced himself to get up and stumble behind the cover of the boulder as sniper rounds began flying through the air around him. He slumped against the rock, breathing heavily and taking out his beam rifle. His energy shields were refusing to recharge; it was most likely broken. Which meant that he had to be very careful not to take hits. His armour would not hold up against a sniper round, and even the slightest handicap at this point could be fatal.

A plasma grenade suddenly flew over the rocks and at his feet. Cursing, he was forced to leap out of cover as it exploded. But he wasn't going to let himself get taken out like this; as Vinh shifted her aim to him, he fired two rapid beams at her. One caught her in the side, taking out her shields, but she managed to dodge the other. Without allowing her to adjust her aim, Shinsu moved back into cover, waiting for his rifle to cool down. This time, he watched the sky carefully. He wasn't surprised to see two more plasma grenades follow the first, but this time he was ready. Shinsu aimed carefully, knowing that to miss might be fatal.

But the twin lances of plasma flew straight and true, shooting one grenade out of the air, and then another. Shinsu realized that his rifle was running low on battery, and decided to make the next shot count. He climbed up to the top of the boulder, aware of how vulnerable he was from this position. He centered his crosshairs on Vinh's helmeted head and fired.

His opponent, having spotted him a second before, moved with a speed that only a Spartan was capable of. She darted to the side, but by some fluke, the plasma beam flew through the barrel of her sniper rifle, cutting it in half and rendering it useless.

Shinsu realized that once again, he was down to his energy swords. And now Vinh obviously had no means to take him out from a distance either. Both adversaries were preparing to close in on the other when a rumbling filled the air. The ground and the air itself began to shake. Shinsu rested his fingers on his deactivated blades, wondering what was going on now, and what he was to do about it.

And then both mountains erupted, spraying molten lava into the air and sending it rushing it down the slopes.


"That's not good," Vinh said, tossing away her destroyed sniper rifle. "We're caught right in the middle and in a few minutes, this entire valley is going to be nothing but lava."

"You've got a chance," Grunwald said. "One chance." She pointed up the side of the mountain, to the tunnel where Shinsu had been hiding earlier.

Vinh eyed the slope. The tunnel was closer to the top of the mountain than it was the bottom, but she didn't have a lot of options, really. "Okay. Come on, Commander."

"You're never going to make it up there while dragging me along," Grunwald said pointedly. "Especially not with that Elite chasing you."

"Ma'am, you're telling me to leave you?" Vinh asked.

"Well, the way I see it, either you get out of this alive, or neither of us do," the officer replied. "And your chances are getting smaller, Spartan, the longer you're here talking to me."

Vinh knew she was right. She turned to leave, somewhat reluctantly. But then she thought of something. "Maybe you should get back to your pod," she said. "It might be enough to protect you from the lava."

Grunwald nodded. "It's worth a try. Now get going."

"You've been a great help, ma'am," the Spartan said before she broke into a run and made her way up the mountainside as fast as she could. It was very nerve-wracking, she had to admit. Racing for her only chance of survival against a flood of molten lava and she was actually heading straight towards it. And she had the disadvantage, because she was going up, while the lava was coming down.

She was aware that Shinsu was now not far behind, having also realized how he was going to avoid getting trapped into dying a horrible death. But there was no time to worry about him now; with any luck, maybe he wouldn't make it.

As Vinh ascended the mountain, she could swear that the lava was moving faster than she was. But a quick sweep told her that it was still nowhere close to the mouth of the tunnel, although it was only getting closer with each passing second. As difficult as it was, she forced herself not to rush, grabbing only the most solid handholds and knowing that a single slip could end everything for her.

She finally reached the ledge that led into the tunnel, and saw that there was still maybe another three or four minutes before the lava would reach it. Maybe Shinsu would make it after all. For some reason, the idea didn't really surprise her. She would have to kill the Sangheili herself, that much she was certain of—

A Flood combat form suddenly leaped out of the darkness, flying straight at her. Vinh reacted fast, backing off as a plasma rifle came up in her hand. She fired a full-automatic stream of energy into its chest, burning a hole straight through its mottled flesh and the infection form underneath. She kept the weapon raised, activated her night vision too.

There were dozens of Flood forms in this tunnel, and they were all looking at her. Why did I have to use up all my grenades? she thought angrily. But there was no time to rebuke herself further, for they leaped into action at once.

Vinh pulled her concussion rifle off her back and fired the gun one-handed, blasting apart the enemies in groups. The plasma rifle fired furiously, and even though her attention was split into two directions, she made sure that each hit would count. She aimed carefully for the chest cavity on combat forms, knowing that it was their weak points. She also targeted carriers the most, allowing their explosions to take out groups of combat forms. But to her bad luck, she found herself running out of ammo with three combat forms still left to spare. A moment later, a Tank form charged her.

Now armed with nothing but her bare fists, Vinh decided to take the direct offensive. She charged at it as well, ducking its horizontal swipe and jabbing her armoured fingers as hard as she could into its abdomen. Then, with a superhuman strength, she seized it around the middle, its seemingly weakest point, and actually ripped it in half.

The Tank form fell to the ground, flailing its arms but unable to get up without its legs. Vinh leaped over its body, kicking a charging combat form right in the chest cavity. She felt the infection form pop beneath her heel, and spun around, punching a second combat form in the same spot. She was rewarded with a second pop, and without losing momentum, she released the limp combat form and finished the third by grabbing its infection form's feelers and ripping them out with a nasty squishing sound. She tossed the deflated infection form to the ground and crushed it with her boot.

Vinh wiped the Flood matter off her gauntlets as silence settled over the tunnel. She peered at the exit and noticed that neither Shinsu or the lava had reached her yet. And then she remembered that her opponent had the ability to make himself invisible, and decided to keep moving. She turned and ran down the tunnel, hoping that she would come across some sort of weapon sooner or later.


Shinsu had made it into the tunnel seconds before a waterfall of lava splattered down on the ledge, melting it. It didn't seem to slow down at all as it continued to pour down the mountainside, and soon it would immerse the valley in a mass of glowing orange.

He had kept his energy swords close to hand as soon as he entered the tunnel, remembering the Flood that was waiting for him here. But a little ways in, he came across all the Flood corpses, and saw that there wasn't so much as an infection form left alive. The Spartan is a deadly opponent, he thought, stepping past the scattered, broken corpses. I must not underestimate it.

It suddenly occurred to him that Vinh could be waiting for him in the darkness right now, and he activated his energy swords, both to illuminate the dark passage and as a challenge to the Spartan if she was waiting to attack him. But there was no sign of her as he made his way through the passage.

The tunnel had multiple turns but it was situated more than halfway up the mountain, which meant that it couldn't be too long of a walk. Still, Shinsu was surprised at how quickly he had turned a bend to see light peering into the tunnel. It was a small hole; from the looks of it, the lava had already solidified into a thin layer of rock, which Vinh had punched her way through. He recalled that the Refum Keep was located not far from a volcanic mountain, and knew that even on planets of different mass from Sanghelios, lava did not cool that quickly by natural means. This world is not a natural place, remember, he reminded himself.

Now he had to be ready. Whether Vinh was waiting for him outside the exit or not, he knew that the time was almost upon them to settle the deathmatch. Shinsu deactivated his energy swords but kept them held in his hands. He activated his camouflage, and without hesitation, climbed through the hole.


Vinh waited at the top of the mountain, this time the one where Shinsu had stood when their fight began. This time, she was looking at a world that seemed to have been transformed into a mass of orange. It was strange; the lava on the mountainsides had completely cooled into a thin, fragile rock material, but the valley below them was still completely covered in lava. The meaning was all too clear for her; she would have to wait her for the last fight.

There were pools of lava all around the mountaintop as well; the Spartan couldn't help but find it strange that after such a recent eruption, it was possible to walk on solid ground at all this high up. But her mind quickly turned to a more urgent matter. She had no weapons left. And when she had leaped onto Shinsu's Revenant, she had seen the energy swords clasped to his sides. She needed a plan. Fast.

I wonder if Grunwald could have helped me, Vinh thought. She had peered down the other side of the mountain earlier, and spotted the drop pod wedged into a boulder with its hatch sealed. But there was no sign of movement. Was Grunwald alive, or lying dead inside the pod? Or had she failed to make it there in time to seal herself in? Whatever it was, Vinh couldn't go down there and check. Not until it was over, at least.

The Spartan was so lost in thought that she hadn't even noticed the drop pod until it landed next to her with a muffled boom. She jumped, instinctively thinking it was Shinsu, until she realized what she was looking at. The hatch fell open, and placed inside the pod were two energy sword hilts. As with all the other pods, there was a single note inside. "Here’s to you, Swordmaiden."

"Take it," said a rumbling voice from behind her. "And face me, so we can end this."

Vinh turned around, and the energy swords ignited in her hands. She saw Shinsu standing ten paces away from her, fading out of invisibility. His blades were ignited as well, and she noticed that the one he held in his right hand was blood red.

"You Sangheili are always about your honour, aren't you?" she said quietly, bringing up her new weapons. "Even when you could stab someone in the back, you decide to warn them you're there."

"I would have killed you with your back turned, certainly," Shinsu replied. "But I suppose I learned something in my last fight that brought me here. Something more important than honour."

"And what's that?"

"The truth. If I do not know if I was meant to defeat you, then I would not strike the killing blow until I'm certain that I am."

Vinh nodded. "Then let's find out."

Both Spartan and Sangheili snapped into action at the same time, their blades moving in a flurry of light. Vinh immediately took to the offensive, forcing Shinsu back with a relentless fervour that prevented him from attacking back. She drove him closer and closer towards a small pool of lava, which if he stepped in would incapacitate him long enough for her to kill him. But he saw this coming and instead leaped backwards, sailing over the pool and landing on the other side.

She kicked a spray of lava at him, draining a quarter of her energy shields but forcing him to dart back. Now with an opening, she jumped over the pool as well, making a hard stab at his face. He deflected it, and turned their swords off to the side to push her off balance. The red blade swooped low for an upward slash, which Vinh blocked with a horizontal parry. She held his right hand down, moving in with the left at his throat.

Shinsu released his right blade from hers, dropping to the ground at the same time. He made a slash at her legs as she lurched forward, draining her shields in one strike. Before he could inflict a fatal injury, however, she went with the movement, somersaulting through the air. His blade missed her chest and caught a glancing blow off her quadricep instead. She grunted in pain but still managed to land on her feet. There was blood oozing out of the cut, but obviously the armour had taken the worst of the blow.

Now ready to take the offensive, Shinsu lunged, both his blades weaving in and out of each other in a rapid, complex blur. Vinh backpedalled, deciding to avoid his assault rather than try and block them. She made a low slash at his legs, but the red energy sword came down, stopping her. She feinted with the other blade, making a second slash at his neck with her right hand. But as soon as he reacted to it, she disengaged her left from his sword and closed in, managing to make a slash on his right shoulder.

Shinsu's mandibles tightened, but he didn't even flinch. The two of them were now practically next to each other, and Vinh's arms were wrapped around his elbows, preventing him from angling his blades to killing her. She headbutted him hard in the face, and with his lack of energy shields, the force of the impact was enough to daze him somewhat. She released his arms and drew back her swords, before stabbing in at his torso.

But he moved quickly as well, and shifted to the side as both double-pronged blades cut through the air where he was a second ago. He brought his left blade down in an attack to sever her arms, but she withdrew as well and kicked him in the abdomen. He stumbled back and fell over, stunned. He didn't get up, and noticing this, Vinh closed in, her swords positioned to kill him.

Shinsu, however, had been waiting for this. As she lunged, he rolled away, getting up much more quickly than she had anticipated and rammed her hard with his uninjured shoulder. The Spartan went flying sideways, and she landed on her back, falling into a pool of lava with a splash'. He bound over and pinned her down, as her shields started to drain from the force of the heat.

Vinh struggled to get up against his relentless grip, although his hands were pressing down forcefully onto her wrists. Her shields began to beep shrilly as a warning that her shields were almost depleted. If they failed completely, she would start burning in a matter of seconds. In one swift move, she wrapped her left foot around Shinsu's right leg, and in a twisting motion, forced him to topple over onto his side. She leaped to her feet at the same time as him, their swords raised at the other once more.

Vinh realized that her shields had just failed as well. But there was no time to rethink her strategy as Shinsu closed in for yet another attack, and she decided not to be pushed back again. She moved forward to meet his assault head-on. The four blades clashed again in a crackle of energy, and she broke it off first, feinting again and slashing him down the right bicep. Purple blood hissed as it made contact with her sword, and the Sangheili's mandibles were clenched, valiantly fighting the pain. He flipped the red energy sword expertly in his fingers so they were facing the other way, and made a backwards stab.

This time, she wasn't quick enough to dodge it. She gasped as the tips of the blades pierced her armour and entered her stomach. She managed to barely deflect his other sword before pulling back, feeling a burning feeling in her wound. She forced herself not to slow down even as her stomach screamed out in protest at the movement, lunging in and retaliating. She met his right sword with hers, and pushed to the right and exposing his shoulder to her. She stabbed at him with her left hand, but his left blade appeared under his right, blocking her again. She broke away her left blade unexpectedly, making a diagonal cut across his right shin.

The Sangheili's foot came up, kicking the hilt out of her left hand. The energy sword flew into the sky, but Vinh didn't make the mistake of following its trajectory. Instead, she slashed at his left side with her right blade, and immediately his left sword blocked it. She glanced skyward for just one split second before she moved, forcing his right blade to his left with every bit of strength she had. Her blades moved between the blades on his red energy sword, and she twisted inward, forcing the three swords to lock together.

Vinh raised her left hand and reclaimed her other sword. Then in one smooth motion, she stabbed the twin blades deep into his torso.

Shinsu couldn't suppress a gasp of pain as he felt the hot plasma slide between the right side of his rib cage. He stared down in shock at the deadly prongs buried deep into his body. He clenched onto his energy swords with all his strength, even though his fingers threatened to fail. His mandibles were trembling, and still he fought to maintain his stance. Any movement now would just result in an eruption of pain for him. And as soon as Vinh drew her blades out, he would bleed to death in seconds. He had finally been defeated.

No.

Vinh saw Shinsu look up and lock his eyes with hers. The glint in those dark orbs showed her a will that seem to be stronger than his physical force itself. And for once, she couldn't react quickly enough.

It all happened in less than a second. The red blades deactivated, freeing the weapon from the locked blades. Shinsu used the hilt of the weapon to smash Vinh in the left hand, causing her to let go of the energy sword that was still embedded into his torso. The Spartan flinched, and at the same time his other sword turned, forcing the sword wielded in her right hand to point at the ground. Before she knew what had just happened, she realized that her adversary was now behind her.

The red blades sprang to life, and with an unforeseen power, Shinsu drove them right between her shoulder blades, breaking through armour and flesh, and with it, Vinh's windpipe and spine.

The Spartan collapsed to the ground as the blades retracted. She felt the other energy sword slip out of her fingers, and it lay in the ground beside her. She could feel the life ebbing out of her, and barely noticed that beside her, Shinsu had fallen onto his knees. What was going to happen now? Were they both going to die? Was there to be no victor out of all this bloodshed?

It doesn't matter now, she thought, as a strange sense of relief spread through her being. I've done my best. It's over now.

Her last thought was that she was going to see Dyne and Isaac again.

2

Shinsu didn't know how much longer he could endure the stabbing agony of the energy blades in his torso. But he knew that if he removed it, he would die with Vinh. And so he crouched there beside her, waiting for a sign that it was over.

And it came.

A cylindrical column of golden energy materialized on the ground before him. There was someone standing inside its circle, although he was just looking at its feet. Shinsu raised his head with great difficulty, staring up at the silhouette of the being that was materializing.

As the rings of light faded away, he saw that it was a human. A very young one too, from the looks of it. He was a black-haired male about three quarters of Shinsu's height, and was wearing very casual civilian attire that would offer no protection from combat at all. His gaze was fixed on Vinh's still form, before he finally turned to Shinsu. He reached a hand out towards the energy sword stabbing into the Sangheili.

Shinsu tried to stop him, but he couldn't even muster the strength to gasp out a negative, let alone make any physical movement. But as soon as the human's fingers closed around the hilt, the blades vanished and the pain went with it. "Get up," the young man said.

Slowly, Shinsu stood, and realized that his injuries were completely healed. No, not healed. It was as if they had never existed. The human held out the energy sword towards him, and he accepted it silently, waiting for an explanation.

The human looked up at him and broke into a smile. "Congratulations, Shinsu 'Refum. You are the new victor of Survival of the Fittest. You've made your creator very proud!"

"Creator?" Shinsu repeated, somewhat confused. "My forefathers?"

"Not quite," said the human. "You were actually created by a human like me. And thanks to you, he's the winner of this season. But that's a very long story, and I doubt you'll believe me if I go into detail anyway. So, I guess I'll get to the point."

"Then I presume you are the one who created this," Shinsu said, gesturing to the land around them. He looked down at Vinh's body.

"You would be right," the human agreed.

Shinsu's eyes snapped back up to him. "Then you must tell me the meaning behind all this killing. The truth."

"Sounds fair." The young man cleared his throat. "I am the creator of Survival of the Fittest. This season of it, at least. And hopefully, many following seasons to come. I go by many names, but you, Shinsu, may call me Sona."

"You're telling me, Sona, that there have been four rounds of these deathmatches. And in each round, all but one must be killed?"

"That's how it's supposed to be, yes. But unfortunately, the last two seasons were never completed. So really, that makes you the second victor of Survival of the Fittest."

"Enough. What is the point of all this death?"

"The point?" Sona asked smugly. "Simple. Entertainment. My entertainment, as well as that of my friends, who, by the way, have been watching this entire time."

Shinsu couldn't believe what he was hearing. Everything he had been through, everything the others had been through and died for, it had been for entertainment. He would have to do something about this human, but at the moment he was still grappling with the reality that at the same time seemed so surreal.

"Well, time's a-wasting, and I should end the season now," said Sona, checking over a rather primitive-looking time device on his wrist. "I'm going to be shutting down the arena soon. But first, I have to immortalize you so that future participants of my little game will remember you and all the other victors for all time."

"If you are going to build a statue of me, like you did the other victor, then I must say my contempt for you is boundless," Shinsu growled.

"Oh, no, Shinsu, I'm not going to build a statue of you," Sona said with a smirk. "I'll do one better. You are going to be the statue."

Shinsu blanched. "You cannot be serious—you mean—the statue of the Spartan—"

"Transformed," the young human affirmed, grinning. "Except that wasn't my work. It was by some orb. Good idea though, so I decided to carry it over. Ready?"

The energy sword activated in Shinsu's hand, and he leaped at Sona. Calmly, the human raised one hand, and in the blink of an eye, the Sangheili warrior was transformed into a huge metal-stone statue. Beneath him appeared a solid rectangular foundation, along with the engraved words SHINSU 'REFUM, VICTOR OF SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST, SEASON 4. Sona simply observed the statue, rotating it a few times so that Shinsu was facing the valley as he molded the foundation into the mountain peak.

Behind him, Kathrin Grunwald had climbed her way up to the top, and silently approached Sona. Without turning around, the younger human said, "Nice heroic pose, don't you think, Commander Grunwald? I have to hand it to him, Shinsu's a real natural."

Grunwald looked from the statue to Vinh, lying on the ground. And then she stood next to Sona. "So what is this? Are we done here?"

Satisfied with the way the statue looked, Sona patted her on the back. "We're done here. Sorry you had such a hard time this season. I promise to make it up to you next season."

"Make it up to me?" Grunwald asked, somewhat suspiciously. "What do you mean? Because there's no way in hell I'm being sent back here to fight squid-heads and villagers and Bravo Kilos all over again—"

"Oh, no, nothing like that," said Sona, grinning more widely than ever. "No, I have much better plans for season 5. I think you're really going to like my idea..."

Final stats

Most overall kills:

  1. Actene (17)
  2. Lordofmonsterisland (11)
  3. Another Poetic Spartan (9)

Most character kills:

  1. 6 kills:
    1. Shinsu 'Refum
    2. David Kahn
    3. Strifalex Benvora
  2. 5 kills:
    1. Antulas Argenta
  3. 4 kills:
    1. Simon-G294

Highest kill/death ratio:

  1. Actene (3.4)
  2. Another Poetic Spartan (2.25)
  3. Lordofmonsterisland (1.8)
  4. Morhek (1.3)
  5. Chakravartin (1)

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