AN: upcoming is chapter 28, also known as "when-is-the-smut-going-to-start".

We're getting there. I'm building to an important character moment with the Chief before I can finally set into motion what the Gravemi - I mean past me has set into motion all these chapters ago.

By now I've managed to survive a bout with the Floo - I mean Covid and I should be back to writing things.


"Number 3: not every human legend, myth and story is true, but many of them are. Research is ongoing and the experts are constantly debating the finer details. That being said, concepts such as elemental orders and pillars of creation are often anthropomorphised for a good reason and it is generally considered unwise to question why."

"Number 4 and directly continuing from Number 3: the Council has accepted the existence of not one Mother of Apocalypse, but five Mothers of Apocalypses as described in various pieces of scripture, literature and animated stories. As of the time of this writing, there could be as many as ninety-three different abominations still on the loose in this galaxy. We are glad that the majority of these Daughters of Apocalypse are after romance, not mayhem. We think."

- Padok Wiks, "What not to do in the Reality of Humanity"



Planetside TALIOS headquarters

Miia had expected some kind of barracks. Luxurious yes, but basic. Something that vaguely resembled a military installation to instill discipline.

Oh, it was the size of an average military installation alright. Their territory was at least several hundred meters by more several hundred meters. And they had things like an obstacle course, supply warehouses and rows of vehicles and aircraft. A tall steel fence surrounded the entire perimeter, dotted with tiny black orbs containing really tiny cameras.

With that being said, the TALIOS headquarters was an enormous mansion visible even from all the way over at the front entrance. It didn't look remotely like central quarters or a main administrative complex either.

"Chateau de TALIOS," Miia muttered when she realized that. "It's a luxury residence."

"Or a really big layer of cardboard," William supplied.

"Come on. Put your mean face on."

Together, the two marines made their way towards the estate's entrance. Miia liked to think her game face was one of cold confidence and focus. Beautiful and yet all business. And rest was all internal.

Will was different. He went for a distant look that left his eyes focused on nothing and everything at the same time.

His game face looked a lot like his everyday face.

It left Miia a little unnerved. Sergeant William Derek had a lot of black ink covering his service record. Whatever he'd done or been through had left him permanently damaged in a way that wasn't directly visible to everyone. UEG space had a billion more cases like him, but most of those weren't highly trained professional killers.

Still, if she trusted the man at her back with a high-powered anti-material rifle, she'd trust him by her side.

The Lieutenant stopped in front of the gate. She was about to bonk it a couple of times when the gate buzzed and began to open of its own accord.

They stepped through, wary and sharp. A security checkpoint waited for them up ahead, likely to be armed with several angry contractors.

"Aren't you scared of running to another big, scary Liminal?" Miia quipped, scanning her surroundings with her pit vision just in case.

"Joke's on you. I only get hard when I'm scared."

Miia glanced at him, somewhat disturbed. "You're serious?"

"Nothing like popping a fear-boner when the Drill Sergeants are screaming at your face."

The Lamia blinked a few times, then decided that had to be crap. "You're so full of it."

"Hey, you started it."

Generally speaking, the PMC's that sprang up during the war had a relation of mutual respect and professionalism with the UNSC. This TALIOS was supposed to be one of the more legitimate ones, but first looks mattered a hell of a lot in this business.

Tires whispered on pavement. A car came rolling around a patch of trees and flowers, its headlights sharp and bright. It swept down the drive to the gate, past the security checkpoint and came to a halt a meter or five, six in front of them.

"Easy," Miia said. "We're just here for conversation."

"I don't like conversation."

She shot him an annoyed look. "Then let me do the talking."

The driver door opened and a man got out. He was a little shorter than average, heavily muscled, with a sharp haircut and a fancy smoking. Or tuxedo. Miia never knew which was which. A pair of sunglasses concealed his eyes. Especially odd, since it wasn't exactly bright outside.

Something about the man struck Miia as odd. Whatever he was, he wasn't human.

"You with the Spectre?" He asked.

"Yeah," Miia said


The Lamia held up her omni-tool, moving slowly and carefully. No need to trigger any itchy fingers. She pressed a series of commands and projected her military identification.

"You're armed," the man said.

"Astute," William replied

Miia shot him a sharp look. "Yes, we are."

"To the teeth."

The man just stared at them for a moment. "I'm not supposed to let you in bearing arms."

"I get that," Miia replied, very politely. "But we've been through this. Spectre business means we have to remain armed. We don't mean you any harm. You have my word we only wish to speak with your boss. I'm going to assume that's why you bothered to drive up here. She knows who we are."

The man didn't respond.

"If we wanted to cause you harm, there isn't much you could do to stop the Master Chief," Miia continued, offering the man an oh so innocent smile. "We'll be quick."

"I'll have to call this in," the guard protested.

"Sure, we'll wait."

The two of them hung back as mister sunglasses communicated with his boss. His conversation existed of a couple "uh-huh's" and "yes ma'am's" before he turned back towards his two guests. "Alright you two, follow me. No sudden movements, no funny business."

After that, it was a brisk and somewhat angry march towards the headquarters. The man brought them all the way to its front doors, then pressed a button on its panel.

A woman's voice crackled through the speaker. "Go ahead."

"It's Jim, authorization code 33542. I have two guests for Lady Lilith."

"A-ah. Of course. I'll send people to escort - "

"Not necessary. Apparently, Lilith was expecting them. Just open the doors."

"Of course!"

The doors opened and the TALIOS member silently escorted Will and Miia through the premises.

Luxury mansion or not, this place was still built like the interior of a military installation. Miia saw cavernous rooms designed like a combination of gyms and dojos, where TALIOS' members fought, trained and planned together. She saw a massive armory hidden behind thick bulletproof glass with rows and tows of high-tech mass accelerators and omni-tools. She saw enormous cages filled with UNSC rifles, shotguns, snipers and anti-tank weapons. One section was dedicated to krogan and batarian weapons; vicious, bladed devices. Another section of the armory was completely walled off, although Miia had the sneaking suspicion that TALIOS kept Covenant tech there.

Not a single human or alien in sight though. Every now and then the two marines made their way past security guards, but all of them were Liminals.


Miia and Derek stopped in front of the open door of a large office. Despite what Miia expected, she recognized a certain measure of military organization. Neatly stacked piles of paper and pens, several well-kept vitrines containing weapons and other pieces of equipment and a large locker packed with high-grade gear.

And the office was clean. Clean as in, ready for a Drill Sergeant inspection clean. In fact, the entire office looked like it could easily pass such an inspection. Miia was willing to bet that the weapons displayed in their glass vitrines were all perfectly clean and oiled as well.

Miia raised her hand to knock on the door when a velvet-soft woman's voice rang out.

"Please, do come in."

Miia frowned, glancing at the sniper standing by her side. He gave her a sideways look. Looked like he'd noticed as well.

Well, they had gotten this far. "No sense waiting around," Miia quietly said, before calmly entering the office.

The left side of the office led to a balcony of some sort, one mostly seen in those old-fashioned romantic dramas for women to stand on and glance dramatically up into the sky.

Except this one looked over a military compound filled to the brim with loyal, dedicated Military Contractors, all of them Liminal.

The mistress of TALIOS stopped forth from that balcony.

And Miia froze, completely and utterly.

There were sculptures out there of warrior goddesses, lovingly crafted over the course of literal decades by the best artisans in the galaxy, who could not come close to the woman now standing in front of her. She would have been tall without the Old-Earth Victorian heeled boots. Her hair, a sensual shade of pink, gently caressed her face and flowed down to her shapely hips. A pair of large demonic horns curved from around the back of her head to her front like a crown, at least several fingers thick and pure white.

Her crimson eyes gleamed with a variety of red hues. The large, beige sweater she wore should have been out of place, but it only served to accentuate her curves and her long, smooth legs.

The woman smiled. Her skin was a pale white perfection, unmarred and inviting. Her dark lips gave her a look of eagerness, of indulgence and wicked sensuality.

A fierce, sensuous hunger flared to life within Miia's core. Her attention to detail fractured, her discipline melted. Whoever this woman was, she wanted her. She wanted her in a sense she couldn't even begin to describe. Her self-control evaporated and images swarmed over her – imagines of satisfying the maddening fire she had lit within her loins, which she would never have dared conjure on her own

Derek swallowed. She didn't see it – couldn't even take her eyes off the woman if she wanted to. She only knew because she heard it, and even then, it sounded dull and vague.

"Welcome to my quarters," the woman said. Her voice smoldered with only the vaguest hint of desire, but it made the edge of Miia's tail curl. "I knew I should have expected this visit eventually. What took you two so long?"

Miia couldn't drag her thoughts together. She had nothing coherent left – just instinct. Pure, tribal instinct, honed by bloodline that was a thousand years old.

The woman's mouth curled up into a satisfied little smile. She walked towards her desk slowly, one leg crossing the other at a deliberate pace, subtly shifting her hips with each sensual step she took.

"Good afternoon," Will said with a small, vulnerable voice. He inched closer towards Miia. "This is – "

"Oh, please allow me. You are Lieutenant Miia Lucifinae. And that would make you…" the Liminal woman placed the tip of her finger to her rich lips and cocked her head to one side innocently. "Corporal Chipps Dubbo? But you do not look like him at all."

"You have files on us then?" Derek continued.

The woman laughed. Her voice made the very air resonate, and it sent a surge of raw lust through Miia's body. She shivered and gasped, struggling to gather her thoughts and throw up a barrier to shield her mind.

"Of course we do. You serve the Master Chief, the most powerful, potent man in existence."

"Then you know our mission," Derek continued. "But I don't think I've caught your name, ma'am."

"So polite!" Something else gleamed in the woman's eyes, something that Miia couldn't recognize. "I think I like you already, boy. Please, call me Lilith, and sit down?"

"I'd prefer to stay standing, ma'am."

Though her mind was addled and lazy, Miia did not miss the sudden flash of power gleaming in the woman's eyes. She didn't see a reason to remain standing, and so she settled down in one of the chairs.

"Sit, please."

Next to her, she heard Will sit down as well.

"Now then," Lilith continued, her voice pleasant and gentle. "What do you want?"

It took Derek a few long moments before he managed to give an answer. "We are looking for a way into Peak 15."

"Oh?" Lilith replied, her crimson eyes sparkling in the light of her office. "And why is that?"

Miia struggled to cut through that thick haze of lust on her mind. Lamia's had always been weak to such mind-addling techniques, but she was a Marine Lieutenant damnit!

"I don't think you're cleared to know," Will replied. He swallowed again. "Don't think I'm cleared to now that either."

"Sweetie, if I want to, I can make you tell me. I can make you beg to tell me." Lilith smiled, oh so sweetly, and Miia shuddered. "I have dominion over more realms than you can imagine, child of Man. Though she be Beast, I can compel the Lamia to spill all her secrets. You came into my realm, expecting…what? To receive without giving?"

Miia started to realize that this had been a horrible idea. She managed to crane her neck to the left, gauging Will's reaction.

He face was pale. Fear was evident in his eyes. He'd realized their miscalculation too.

"Oh, but this is exciting!" Lilith said, clasping her hands together. "You are scared!"

"Terrified," Will conceded with a nod of his head.

Lilith bowed towards him a bit, which did very interesting things to her cleavage. "Why?"

"Extreme social anxiety."

Lilith blinked. "Eh?"

Will took several deep breaths. "You see, you remind me of a teacher I once had back in school. She wanted me to do a report on a book I hadn't read. When I got in front of the class, suddenly I was in my underwear." He raised his hands in defeat. "Bad times for everyone."

Lilith stared at the sniper for several long moments. Her crimson eyes narrowed with suspicion. "Soul Sickness. War has driven you mad," she said with a hint of disgust. "Do not think yourself beyond my grasp; I can make the Beast do my bidding. I can force you and claim you as my own." She ran her eyes across the young Sergeant. Her tongue flickered against her lower lip. "Your body is begging me for it."

"You could," Will replied in a small, quivering voice. "But…then we'd have to throw down."

"I would dominate you."

"I'd fight to the death."

Lilith scoffed. "That would be futile."

"It would be messy; I'd take my six liters of blood and throw them all over your things. Your carpet, your ceiling and your classy sweater – it would be a nightmare to clean."

Lilith leant back in her chair. The pressure on Miia's body lifted, if only somewhat, and she could start fighting the feverish rush of her body. Slowly, the maddening lust started to make way for something else.

Proper fear, namely.

"I keep no spare clothes in my office," Lilith sighed. "And I hold no love for those who control Peak 15. Ask your questions, then be gone."

"Can you get us inside?" Miia asked, reigning in the outrage and dread she felt for this ancient being.

"Probably," Lilith replied.

"But you won't?"

Lilith raised a slender eyebrow. "You have too many limbs to gain entrance to Peak 15, Beast. They could not use you."

Alright. That wasn't terrifying at all.

"What are they doing there?" Will asked.

"Many things," Lilith replied.

"Like what?"

"Like gaining access to the other realm."

Miia and Will exchanged a look. "The other realm?" She asked.

Lilith took a deep breath. Her burning eyes darted upwards, to the ceiling, and she sighed. "Oh dear. It seems John's hunt for Desolas is not going according to plan/"

A chill ran down Miia's spine. She tensed up, fear and irrational anger bubbling within her stomach. "How do you know his name?" She demanded.

The old Succubus merely smiled.

"Let's stay on-target here," Derek quietly said. "This other realm?"

"If you wish me to be your teacher, child of Man, ought you not to strip down to your underwear?" Lilith said with a lazy smile. "One particular part of you has been begging for that this entire exchange."

Miia kept her gaze fixed straight ahead. She did not have the time or discipline to be sidetracked by that.

"That thing's always begging for something," the sniper offhandedly replied. "What would Desolas want with his access?"

"Gain access to the supernatural powers residing there, of course," Lilith replied like she were explaining something to a five-year-old. "After all, their offspring made it to your homeworld millennia ago. You are a living example of that, Beast."

"Will you quit calling me that," Miia hissed. "I have a name."

"And names equal power," Lilith calmly replied. "Which I would love to exert if you but give me a reason…"

The hairs on the back of her neck suddenly started trying to crawl up into her scalp. "Uh…right. Got it. Please continue."

"It is my professional opinion that you are approaching this too narrow-minded, too rigid," Lilith continued, gesturing with one hand as she did. "Peak 15 symbolizes but one concept of his business in the other realm. Force."

"Force…he's amassing an army?" Miia asked, incredulous. "At a science lab?"

"Spare me your incredulity," Lilith replied with an air of disgust. "Your people do not even remember from whence you came."

"We need clearance access to get into that place," Derek said. "And it's obvious that they're sheltering a known war criminal. What's the worst thing can could happen if our AI were to just…you know…hack us that security clearance?"

Lilith smiled, but her eyes gleamed with predatory intent, sending more spikes of ice-cold fear through Miia's gut. "That would be…inadvisable."

Well. Crap. "Let me get this straight," Miia started. "Desolas is looking for access into another realm, and he's building himself an army to…what, force entrance?"

"Tsk," Lilith said, shaking her head with disappointment. "Must you bring weaponry to force entrance into a pond? Do you needs bring force to take to the sky?"

That was just great. More philosophical nonsense that could mean a hundred different things. Why was it that the more powerful people got, the less sense they made? "Fine. So how do we stop him?"

Again. Lilith glanced up at the ceiling. "Some matters are inevitable."

"In that case," Derek said, shoving his chair away from the desk and getting to his feet, "We're going to start doing things and stuff. Thank you very much for your time, ma'am – "

"Ah ah ah, not so fast," Lilith said. "I have more than obeyed the soul of the law of hospitality. In return, you shall bear a message to John. You will tell him that he had better start understanding his foe. If he does not comprehend the nature of this fight, he will certainly fail."

Miia and Will shared an uneasy look.

"Sure," the Lamia replied. "We'll give him that message. Is there…anything else?"

Lilith stood up from her desk again, her hips and…other parts…swaying mesmerizingly as she stretched her arms above her head. "Hmmm…no. The Way has opened. Nations are deciding upon their allegiance. We shall meet on the battlefield soon enough."

With that last ominous message, the ancient Succubus turned her back to the two marines and strolled back to the balcony.

Will and Miia got the hell out of dodge.

"That was easily the scariest thing I've been through this month," Miia sighed as soon as they had left the penthouse behind them. "I know Succubi are bad news, but I never suspected…" She shook her head, eager to get those thoughts out of her mind. "And it was a giant waste of time too! She didn't give us anything concrete!"

Will grunted noncommittedly.

"And she dared to threaten Darling, and call him by his name to boot!" Miia continued, fuming at the very thought of that red-eyed monster. "After that whole 'names have power' thing, too! Just who does she think she is!"

"Pretty sure she told us that already."

Miia barely heard him over her own grinding teeth. "We should have Cortana play back the audio of our conversation with the others, see if they can't find a hidden angle…" Something then occurred to her, and she turned to look at the sniper. "Say, Will?"


"I know there's b biological differences between us, but…how come she didn't hit you with that mind whammy?"

Derek stayed silent for a few moments. "She did…kinda."


"…I dunno. Maybe our minds are too different. Maybe she couldn't 'whammy' both of us."

Curious, Miia looked at the young sergeant.

He dropped his eyes and averted her gaze.



"This city is not as it seems, Spartan," Saren muttered as he walked by the Master Chief's side. "There is an AI in the system. It is formidable. It also did not inform the local security forces of your firefight with the assassin."

"It could be a dumb AI, sticking to its duties," the Chief replied.

"Perhaps. Perhaps not. I pursued three leads for Peak 15 and none of them worked out. These are people who speak openly about genetic manipulation, biological experiments and the stock market. Their hesitance to speak about Peak 15 speaks volumes."

"Maybe they just don't know?" Kyuri suggested.

Saren shot her a unpleasant look. "Yet my brother's people move freely through the city? Move large amount of raw resources and credits through its systems? No Vampire, the rich and the powerful know."

"Desolas has been declared a war criminal. He's on the run. These people would be eager to sell him out," the Master Chief said. He and Saren took a right on an intersection, continuing at a brisk pace. Kyuri had to take two steps for each one the Chief took and she struggled to keep up.

Saren was probably part cyborg, since he didn't' seen the least bit winded. "Everything adds up. The people here are afraid."

"Because the government can't protect them?" Kyuri asked. She started to feel sorely tempted to just take to the sky and give her legs some rest, but she didn't want to miss the conversation.

"Chances are it couldn't – or wouldn't – either way," Saren retorted. "Your UEG is greatly weakened, your UNSC needs to rebuild and your ONI cannot be trusted with the wellbeing of the individual."

"Don't let them hear that," the Chief said dryly.

"My point exactly."

Kyuri followed the two of them towards a large, fancy skyscraper with holographic billboards attached at various levels. What looked like another skycar parking lot had been bolted on to one side, which saw plenty of use. "But…you have a plan?" She asked.

"Always," the Master Chief replied with perfect calmness and confidence. He stopped once the skyscraper came within view. "This is the place."

"The Administrator's office," Saren hissed. "You will never get him to talk."

"Seems you haven't assessed our own capabilities," the Chief replied, before boldly stepping towards the building's entrance.

A pair of armed salarians stood on guard duty. They looked like soldiers, but their helmets made their heads look huge and bulbous. It would have been a hilarious sight even without the Chief being there to compare them to.

The salarians eyed them warily as they passed through the door into the atrium.

"Who is this Administrator?" Kyuri asked, carefully looking around just in case the enemy had queued another assassin.

"The former head of Black Lily and the Administrator of Ys," Saren offhandedly explained. "He lives atop his ivory tower and represents Noveria to the rest of the galaxy. He has no reason to speak to any of us. You are wasting our time here, Spartan."

"Kyuri?" The Chief said as he approached one of the elevators. "Do you recall our first interaction?"

Kyuri felt her ears grow hot with shame. "The v-very first?"

"The very first."

That would have been that chapel, when the Hunger had reigned over her body and mind. "Y-Yes?"

"Can you replicate that?"

The Vampire stared at him, mortified. Replicate that? Why would she ever want to? Why would he ever want to? There was no point to –

It hit her a second later what the Chief really meant. As a pureblooded Vampire, she had access to abilities unrivalled by the other races – abilities the Hunger had made full use of back in that chapel.

Including her hypnotic suggestion.

"I…" Kyuri stammered. Using her hypnotic suggestion like that robbed the victim of their mental faculties and rendered them completely pliable to her…well, her suggestions. It took away their free will and left them completely helpless. It wasn't permanent, but it was still an invasion of someone's mind.

Someone's own being.

It might have been a simple thing compared to some of the other racial abilities out there, but her people had conquered and ruined entire nations with it. The evil orchestrated from Falaknuma far, far outweighed the good.

"Can you?" The Master Chief asked, his gravelly voice sounding patient and gentle.

"…sure," Kyuri replied, struggling to keep her voice as calm as his. "If it can help you."

Saren stared at her with unveiled suspicion. "I feel like I must remind you that aggression against the Administrator is a bad idea, Spartan. What are you plotting?"

"The Administrator will speak to us," the Spartan replied. The elevator doors opened and he gestured at Kyuri, who quickly stepped inside. "Of his own volition,"

Saren's beady eyes narrowed, but he stayed silent.

The elevator took them to the thirtieth floor, which was yet another large atrium. The floor was the color of polished silver, the walls were lined with golden candlesticks and a massive painting hung behind the receptionist's desk. It depicted a man with short, white hair and a short, white beard, perhaps half an inch long. His hair looked immaculate, with nary a hair out of place. He wore an expensive-looking suit the color of slate which made for an impressive picture, but something about his expression bothered Kyuri. He looked too stern and cold for her tastes.

"Excuse me sir!" The receptionist called. She looked human enough. Humans could have bright yellow eyes, couldn't they? "Do you have an appointment?"

The Master Chief and Saren strode past her desk with a level of audacity Kyuri hadn't thought possible. As he passed her desk, Saren thrust out his omni-tool and chin towards the receptionist, and barked, "Official Spectre business, human. We will not take long."

The Chief opened the door and Kyuri quickly darted behind Saren, then underneath the Master Chief's outstretched arm, adrenaline racing through her veins. She caught a brief glimpse of Saren staying behind to stall the receptionist before the Chief closed the door behind them.

Good. She was going to need some privacy for this.

"Who are you?" The Administrator demanded, sitting with his back against a large window much like the President of Black Lily Foundations had. He was the spitting image of his portrait, but somehow he looked even less formidable. "How did you get in here?"

Kyuri did not waste a single heartbeat. The Hunger roared for blood in the back of her mind, and she lunged for the older man with eager satisfaction. She covered the nine or so meters that separated her from her prey with a single beat of her soundless wings, and the locomotive power of the Nightfall ensured she hit with enough impact to knock the wind out of him.

She had her claws around the man's chin before he even realized what had happened, and she drew her clawed feet against his chest to keep him pinned against the floor, nice and placid. Suddenly, her throat was itchy and parched. Suddenly, her body trembled with need and desire. His life's blood pulsed though his jugular vein – or was it the carotid one? She was never sure.

Then she locked eyes with him.

It happened almost automatically. She drew in power and projected it against the man's will, then his mind. He resisted. The Hunger pushed on, and broke his resistance almost instantly. She saw his eyes widen in sudden alarm and realization, but far too late. His body sagged and relaxed, his slate eyes became dull and willing.


"We don't have much time," the Master Chief said. His voice was distant and vague, like it came from underwater. "Ask him how we get inside Peak 15."

Kyuri did not tear her gaze from the man underneath her claws. If she did that, her concentration would slip, and she would lose herself. "Tell me…how do we…get into Peak 15?"

"You need a pass with the right security clearance," the Administrator replied. His voice sounded vague, as if came to her from underwater.

"Do you have one?"

His eyes transfixed on hers, the man said, "Yes."


His mouth worked, as if something inside of him tried fighting her. "In my desk…right side…second drawer…"

Kyuri's breath quickened. "Chief?" She whispered.

The Master Chief knelt down next to her. "What happens inside Peak 15?"

As he asked that, the Administrator visibly strained against answering. The muscles in his neck clenched, and beads of sweat formed on his forehead. "Re…search," he stammered. Again, his will struggled against hers and again, Kyuri wrestled it down, binding it to her own. Her wings started to tremble. "Cybernetic research…biological…research…experiments…of…the soul…"

His words lost their meaning to her. Slowly, Kyuri felt her breathing slip. Her tongue flicked against her razor-sharp canines. The urge to bite down burned within her. It was unbearable and glorious. She couldn't hold on.

"What are Promestein and Desolas after in Peak 15?" The Master Chief continued.

The Administrator gasped. "Humans…" he stammered out.

Kyuri felt a moan of pain escape past her lips. She was at her limit. She couldn't…she...


Someone wrapped his arms around her waist and tugged her away from her prey a split-second after she lunged for his throat. Kyuri gasped in surprise – and needy frustration. She struggled to spin around in their embrace and whirl on them instead. They couldn't take what was hers, they couldn't deny her - !


Her claws slipped against something intangible and otherworldly. She found no grip. Instead of burning her energy there, she writhed like a cat and nearly slipped free from the arms holding on to her. She caught a glimpse of someone's neck – protected by a matte black armor, but that hadn't stopped her before.

Instead of slicing right through the thin layer of protection, her fangs slipped off that same shimmery barrier.

Her prey renewed their grip on her body. An annoyed snarl bubbled within her throat and she struggled to break free again –

The voice repeated. "Kyuri, it's me!"

The Vampire slowed down. She blinked. Confusion set in, followed by vague realization something was wrong.

Her Hunger snapped and tore at the walls of her mind, frustrated at being reigned in so suddenly. She had to. Something was very wrong.

Kyuri closed her eyes, turning her mind to something rational, something to overturn her raging emotions. Calculations always worked. Her mother had taught her that counting prime numbers was a good way to still terror and rage.


The Master Chief held her close against his chest. The embrace was not comfortable, but neither was it painful.


She took measured breaths. The trembling got better.

"…what we needed," the Chief said to something Kyuri couldn't see. "Need to leave."

"There is no time Spartan. We must depart now!"

Thirty-seven…forty…three? No, one went first. Then three.

Through her tattered focus, Kyuri realized she still had someone bound to her will.

Oh my god. The Hunger was right there, teetering at the edge of her mind.

"Sleep," Kyuri hoarsely whispered, and the victim went limp. Only then did she rip herself free from the connection.

And the man slumped to the ground.

"We have to go," the Master Chief told her.

She buried her face against his chest. She didn't want to look at him. Couldn't meet his eyes. "I'm sorry," she muttered.

His gauntlet caressed the top of her head. "You got us what we needed," he calmly replied. "You did well. Let's go."

He released her. Saren waited for them at the other side of the office. His expression was one of cold annoyance.

"Did you get it?" He demanded.

"Positive," the Chief replied. "Surrendered it himself. Untraceable."



"Impressive," the turian muttered. He cast Kyuri another glance – she quickly averted her eyes – and said, "And very, very dangerous."

"Not now."

Nobody pursued them. Nobody sounded the alarm. The elevator didn't stop on any of the floors. It delivered them straight to the bottom floor. Nobody confronted them about what had just happened.

It was a textbook Vampire operation. Exactly how her people had managed to spread their power so far throughout the galaxy.

Kyuri felt sick.

"Very impressive," Saren once again once they had put some distance between themselves and the Administrators building. "It was almost as if you had experience with matters such as these."

"I don't," Kyuri softly replied.

Saren took a couple of steps towards her. "Subversion of officials…"


"Government figures?"

"I haven't – "

"Although the attempt was clumsy, proper cyberwarfare measures would effectively erase all evidence of your existence," the turian growled. "And AI's are widespread through all of the UEG's territory."

Kyuri withered underneath his glare. She wanted to deny what he said – scorn his words and tell him off, but she muster a single word.

"Does it work on aliens too?" He pressed on. "Would they remember? Well?"

"That's enough," the Master Chief said. "You once blew up civilians as collateral to get your target. Don't start pointing fingers yet."

Saren scoffed. "My target is galactic peace and stability, Spartan. Does the notion of total hypnotization not disturb you? That your President could be compromised by a Vampire agent?"

"A madman searching for ancient alien technology disturbs me more," the Chief pointedly replied. "One disaster at a time."

"Fine," Saren snapped. "Do not think to be over, Vampire. Make no mistake."

With that, the turian skulked off again, and Kyuri was finally able to breathe again.

"Are you alright?" The Chief asked.

Kyuri shakily nodded. "I…I hate doing that. It is so hard for me to control myself…even harder when I'm…I…"

"You did good," the Chief said again. "Let's meet up with the others."


It shocked her how accepting he was of what she had just done. She had robbed a man of his mental faculties, his free will and his ability to act and choose for himself. Saren was deeply unpleasant about it, but he was ultimately right.

Didn't the Chief see that?


Gabriel Durham's penthouse was a classic window into the narcissistic mind of a successful crime lord. Extravagant and inviting in a location where it really ought not to be. Its presence was like a big invitation to the less fortunate people around; come to us and we can make you rich.

Come on in, said the spider to the fly.

"This the place?" Draco asked. She gave the whole penthouse a critical look, likely searching for entry points, good firing positions and a secure exit. "Don't see any guards."

"According to Cortana, yes," Rachnera replied. She walked over towards the gate and buzzed it. The intercom remained silent.

"I know you're home," she muttered to herself, buzzing the gate again. She glanced around, searching for any indication that the gate was being watched.

There. A tiny little camera attached to one of the branches, aimed her way. She pointedly stared at the black little eye, raising an eyebrow as she did.

A couple of seconds later, a voice growled through the intercom. "What?"

"A Spectre has questions for Durham," she answered. "We represent his interests."

Whoever was on the other side audibly snorted. "You got the wrong house."

"Oh please," Rachnera replied, putting as much scorn and disdain in her words as she could. "Said Spectre is Spartan-117, the Master Chief. He would rather not waste his time and ammunition laying waste to this compound and plundering its databases with his AI support, so he contacted us instead."

That must have gotten the crook's attention. The intercom remained silent for a few moments as the other side debated whether she was bluffing or not.

Obviously they had heard of the big guy's arrival on Noveria; Rachnera hadn't even counted to ten before the gate opened up.

"See?" Rachnera told Draco. "No reason for this to get bloody."

"No reason yet," the Dragon replied with a roll of her eyes. "Durham's scum."

"Maybe. He's also old and successful, so he must have done something right."

Draco eyed her suspiciously. "Do you approve of that?"

Shrugging, Rachnera replied, "Don't confuse approval with a healthy respect. The guy's a gangster. He has killed and hurt innocent people purely for the sake of personal gains. Nobody should approve of that. But he's also smart, dangerous and resourceful. You and I both know what happens when you underestimate someone like that."

Surprisingly enough, Draco actually gave her words some thought. "Yeah," she said quietly. "I know. I know life isn't fair. Bad people get away with their shit. Good people die. But we lost so many good people…while shit-stains like him just get richer and more powerful off of the misery of others…it drives me mad."

Her sudden candor gave Rachnera pause. Draco came from Mindoir. Everybody knew what had happened on Mindoir, even though Draco never talked about it.

The Arachne closed her eyes for a moment. Acting all big and strong when you really weren't was a big thing in the military. She despised dishonesty like that, but what else could those people do? "Life isn't fair, no," she gently replied. "Templars burned down my home, my friends and my family when I was…barely a teen. The UNSC was nowhere to be seen. That's why I joined the Black Fang to begin with."

Not a day passed that she didn't think about little Alan Miller, the war orphan who had saved her life. Even the Fang's vast intelligence network hadn't managed to find him. No body, nothing. He had literally disappeared that day.

Survived a Covenant glassing only to fall victim to monsters of his own species. Where was the justice in that?

"The unfairness of it all drove me to do questionable things in turn," Rachnera continued. "All the while, I honestly thought I was doing good. I honestly thought I was fighting for the right cause."

"What about now?" Draco asked.

Rachnera eyed her. "What?"

"Do you think you're doing good now?"

"…I honestly don't know," Rachnera admitted. "I don't know this Desolas guy, only that he's supposed to be a war criminal. Don't know his motivations or his goal."

Draco nodded. They continued in silence. Then, the Dragon suddenly asked, "Don't you ever think about revenge?"

"Often," Rachnera replied without a moment's hesitation. "If the UNSC wouldn't take down a terrorist organization, someone else had to."

"…which Templars were they?"

"Excuse me?" Rachnera replied, frowning.

"I saw a documentary once. Read some things. Then talked to Anderson about it. The Templars are a militant, religious organization. The guys that are human supremacists and want to kill all Liminals are the Red Templars. They're branded as a terrorist group."

"Red Templars?" Rachnera repeated, dumbstruck. It sounded vaguely familiar, but nobody in the Fang ever spoke about the Templars like they weren't a simple, religious hate group. "Are there others?"

Draco nodded. "White Templars were created the same day the Reds announced themselves. They are…pro human, as in, anti-war."

"You're kidding me," Rachnera deadpanned. "Pacifist Templars?"

At that, Draco vehemently shook her head. "Anti-war means, to them, using violence to curb violence. They've been fighting the Reds, the Fang, the Covenant, the batarians – anyone who's out to hurt humanity is their enemy. Stopping the Reds is their biggest mission. Where they appear, the Whites follow suit."

Templars fighting Templars…Rachnera couldn't make sense of that, no matter how much she tried. "Do you mean like the Covenant? A civil war for ideals?"

Draco pulled her shoulder up in a shrug. "Anderson said the Whites were founded specifically to counter the Reds. You said you joined the Fang after Templars burned down your home…so it must have been the Reds."

"Red Templars…" Rachnera muttered to herself. David Anderson was one of those military officials even the higher-ups in the Fang respected. She had no reason to suspect his word.

"Building's coming up," Draco said. "You ready?"

Rachnera nodded, setting this new revelation out of her mind for the moment. She'd find the answers she needed after getting Durham to spill the beans. "Ready."

The Dragon pulled her fist back and banged hard on the heavy oak door.

Not even a second later, someone roughly jerked the door open and aimed a shotgun their way.

"Stop right there," the dark-skinned Centaur barked. The guy was big. Rachnera had never even seen such a large specimen before. He had to bow his head under the doorframe to even see where he was aiming. "Spectre business huh? What kinda business?" He demanded, his heavy brown furrowing as he jabbed the barrel of his shotgun at them.

"The kind that sees us getting into Peak 15," Rachnera calmly replied. "Relax big guy. We're not after your boss today."

His dark eyes darted back and forth between her and Draco, filled with suspicion. One could see the gears spinning in his head. "You armed?"

"Of course we are," Rachnera replied with a sigh.

The Centaur scowled. "You try to reach for your piece in here and I'll put you down."

"Like to see you try," Draco quietly replied.

The Heavyweight growled – literally growled at her. Rachnera had to admit, it was unsettling to hear.

"Let's stay polite, both of you," she said, making sure her voice was all business. "I am certain mister Durham does not need any violence in his estate."

The Centaur shot her a wary look, then cautiously stepped aside, his hoofs clattering loudly on the stone tiles of the floor.

"Inside," he growled.

Rachnera gave him a polite nod, then followed him as he led them to Durham's office. They tried not to show themselves, but Durham's people weren't being subtle about it either. They were all over his safehouse. Some of them would be muscle – enforcers not afraid to get their claws filthy for their boss. Others didn't strike Rachnera as the types to get physical. They were smaller, frailer people, old geezers and young women.

Money launderers? Financial experts with 'pleasant company'? She wasn't sure she wanted to know.

The angry Centaur led them to an office at the top floor, hidden behind a pair of beautifully crafted wooden doors. The sheer amount of paintings that decorated the hall could have financed a small country.

"No funny business," the Heavyweight growled, before knocking a few times on the door. He waited a few seconds, then a male's voice on the other side of the doors went, "Yeah yeah. Come in."

After offering them another scathing, threatening glare, the Centaur carefully pushed the door open, allowing the two women entrance.

Durham's office was big. Twenty feet wide. Fifty feet long. More paintings that looked like they'd been plundered from ancient temples hung at intervals along the walls. A large, mahogany table stood somewhere in the back of the office, with a mountain of paperwork on the left side and a large stash of what looked credit chits on the other. A shotgun hung on a wooden mount behind the man.

And, if Rachnera was not mistaken, a similar high-powered weapon would be mounted below the desk, to blast a perfectly round hole through its frame – and that of any pest buggering him – if he pulled the trigger.

"The Spectre's representatives," Gabriel Dirham said with a deep, croaking voice. The man looked old. These days, humans could live to two-hundred and still live comfortably. Durham looked like he hadn't weathered those two centuries well; old and wrinkly, he might break apart if someone slapped his back a little too hard. What little remained of his hair was white and combed back across his scalp, glued in place with copious amounts of hair gel. His nose was crooked and stood at just the wrong angle, as if it had been broken and set the wrong way.

But his eyes were sharp and wary. They would have to be a fool to underestimate this man.

"Mister Durham," Rachnera politely replied. "A pleasure to meet you."

"Spare me the pleasantries," Durham replied dismissively. "I know damn well what would have happened had I refused." He shoved his chair away from his desk and threw his legs atop his desk. "So who are you?"

Straight to the point. Durham was scum, but Rachnera could appreciate that. "My name is Ra – "

"No, not that," the gangster snapped. "What am I dealing with here? What makes you two representatives of the single most dangerous man alive?"

Draco took up a position behind Rachnera, somewhere to her right. The Centaur posted up somewhere to her left.

"So you do know what you're dealing with," she said, brushing a strand of pale hair behind her eye. "She – " she jabbed a thumb towards Draco – " – is the Butcher of Torfan. You probably wouldn't know me, but I used to work as an assassin for the Black Fang. Suffice to say, we're simply here for a polite conversation. No need for anything…unpleasant."

Behind her, the Centaur cracked his knuckles and Rachnera could have sworn the ground shook for a moment. Draco didn't do or say anything, but knowing her, she had already thought of five ways to violently dismember and or disembowel the Heavyweight.

"Unpleasant, eh?" Durham said. "What the hell. It's not often that I get such company, especially not on Noveria. What do you want?"

"We're looking for a way into Peak 15. That ring any bells?"/

"Peak 15," the crime lord muttered. "You must have a death wish."

"How come?" Rachnera asked.

"Nobody talks about that place," Durham said, before a coughing fit seized him and he seized up. He hacked and wheezed for a few moments, then stammered out, "It ain't healthy."

"Uh-huh," Rachnera said, not particularly impressed. "Why not?"

"The people who run that place…they're bad news," the old man continued. "The uh…the Spectre you work for, we don't mess with him. Bad for business, bad for our future. We stay away from the UNSC and pack up and leave when your Office comes looking, right?"

The Arachne simply nodded. "Uh-huh?"

"These people, they don't care about politics. Don't fear your Office or the Council," Durham continued grimly. "Did you get a close look at this city? Did you notice anything?"

"We did," Rachnera replied. "This colony is very elite. Everything is top of the class, bleeding edge. Your crew seems to be the exception; everything else is all upper class."

Durham uttered a deep throaty chuckle. "Wrong. Noveria's got a lower class alright. Workers, merc bands, especially patients and war victims all come here to fortune and healing."

"War victims?" Rachnera asked.

Durham grimaced and poured himself a stiff glass of brown liquid. "Poor bastards coming straight from the front lines. Folks missing their limbs, or with massive, ugly burn scars – people that don't get the support they need from the UEG. They come here in droves, hundreds of 'em."

Rachnera leant down on the table, staring the man in his eyes. "I didn't see any of them."

The man downed his glass in one go. "Don't you wonder why that is?"

She frowned, then cast a quick look over her shoulder towards Draco. "You're saying Peak 15 is involved?"

Durham placed his elbows on the table and glowered at her. "Seen it happen with my own eyes. Many of my people have. The Administrator turns a blind eye to it. So does the Board. Folks who balk, get disappeared. You had a run-in with one of their assassins already, and how many hours have you been on Noveria?"

Rachnera absentmindedly tapped the table with her claws, processing what she had just heard. This important UNSC figurehead had been spotted with Desolas, talking about bringing back an ancient species of killer-machines. The same person had then been spotted on Noveria, heading to Peak 15 with an entourage of asari commandoes.

Even she could see that it all added up. "Aren't you scared you'll be next? After all, you're spilling their secrets to a Council Spectre."

"We ain't doing nothing but explaining the climate to the newcomers," Durham replied as he spread his arms. "Ain't that right?"

"Sure is, boss," the Centaur grumbled in response.

Rachnera wondered why Durham hadn't packed up and left if that were the case. Well, that didn't concern her. "That's not good enough. We need to get in there."

"You got a death wish, that's n-not my p-problem," Durham said. He stiffed as another coughing fit racked his body, and it took him a minute to get himself back together again. "Fuck me. What makes you think I'll risk my head getting you killed?"

"Consider this; the Master Chief fights his way through Peak 15 and puts an end to whatever is going on in there," Rachnera calmly replied. "That's gotta be good for your business, right?"

"Maybe," Durham warily said. "Or he gets himself killed trying. Let me ask you something in return missy. You say you represent 117?"

"Yeah?" Rachnera replied, deciding the humor the old man.

"Said you had a history with the Black Fang as well?"

"I did."

The corners of his mouth rose in a cruel smile. "We all know the stories about the Spartans. The supersoldiers are "recruited from all corners of UNSC governed space, each of them "a highly decorated veteran with literal decades of combat experience"," Durham began, sarcastically making air quotes with his fingers as he did. "Humanity's greatest heroes. Ever wonder why, then, they were created before we encountered the Covenant?"

Rachnera cocked an eyebrow. "I'm sorry?"

"Yeah," Durham grinned. "Not many people know this. The Spartans weren't always the knights in shining armor, girlie. You said you represent him? Think yourself on his team? Hah! Think again."

"I don't really care what you think about this," Rachnera replied, trying to sound confident and indifferent. "Unless, of course, you have spent the last weeks fighting with your own Spectre? Fought side by side, then?"

"'Course not," Durham spat. "But I'm old, kid. I've seen and heard a lot of things. I remember life before the War. I know things the public doesn't – that's the entire reason you came to me – and what I know about the SPARTAN-II Project would make your hackles rise."

The old man was doing an excellent job raising the hairs in Rachnera's neck already. "Yeah? Like what?"

Durham gave her another unpleasant grin. "You can make a Spartan a Spectre, but you can't unmake them a Spartan! After this is over, missy, he'll put a bullet in the back of your head and feel nothing the next day. That's what they were always meant for, you know? To root out unwelcome elements like the Insurrection, the Black Fang, anything that might contest the UNSC's power. They might be heroes now, but they started off as glorified assassins!"

Cold fear sent tingles down Rachnera's limbs and she struggled to keep that from showing. She wouldn't allow this bastard the pleasure. "And what reason do I have to believe you? I've heard half a dozen different origin stories for the Spartans, each one more stupid than the one before."

"Don't have to ask me a thing," Durham said. "Just ask him. Chances are, you won't even get an answer to the simplest question. Betcha a million credits you don't even know his name."

"Right now I want an answer to my simple question," Rachmera hissed. "Can you get us inside Peak 15?"

Something akin to glee glimmered within the old gangster's eyes. He had won and he knew it. "…we got an old garage pass. Hasn't been used since 15 got privatized. Not much use to us now."

"That will get us inside?" Draco asked.

"It might," Durham replied. "Might not. But if you're smart, both you girls cut your losses and run. Just a matter of time before the Spartan gets you killed…indirectly or not. Heard TALIOS is hiring. If not…we are."

Rachnera swallowed a nervous lump in her throat. She didn't often get nervous, but the way Durham just described the Master Chief…it fit perfectly with how she had experienced him. Loath as she was to admit it, the geezer had a point. The man she knew and the man the UNSC's propaganda wanted her to know were two completely different people.

Maybe she was crazy, thinking someone like her could have a future with someone like him. She'd been on the team for the better part of six weeks now. She had a good grasp on his personality and his motivations, but nothing about his past.

She didn't even know his name.

"Leave him? For you?" Draco said. She scoffed, and it was the most scornful and disdainful noise Rachnera had ever heard out of her. "Never."

Well. There it was, wasn't it? Rachnera didn't know the Chief's past, no, but she did know his personality. Or the closest thing that man had to a personality. The past be damned. "With the things the Master Chief sacrificed for us – all of us - you might want to rethink your sources if you think he'll just turn his back on anyone," she replied.

Durham's expression twisted into something ugly. "You'll find out. Take it then," he spat. "Won't do you any good in there."

Rachnera took the little plastic card he offered her and put it safely away in one of her pouches. "Only one way to find out."


Pax System


Y's City Port Garage

Putting together the intel his squad had gathered painted an ugly picture of Desolas' activities in Peak 15. Whatever the General was doing there would result in tremendous resistance. It was time to activate one of their contingency plans.

"Sierra-117 to Echo-419, over."

"Echo-419 to Sierra-117, I hear you, over."

"We have access to the city's port garage, coordinates following. Prep supply cache Delta-5 and drop it, along with the Пума, at the garage. Full combat load."

"Delta-5 huh? Expecting an army of krogan?"

"That would be the best-case scenario," the Master Chief replied.

"Sounds nasty. Roger that. With the boys helping out, I'll make it down there in ten mikes."

"Good. Sierra-117 out."

"We're ready Chief!" Miia said from the left side of the garage door.

Unfortunately, even with all the information they had learned, the plan couldn't be changed. They still had to gain entrance to Peak 15 before the HVTs bolted. Waiting for reinforcements wasn't an option. Neither was listening to the vague warnings of a Queen-level Succubus, for that matter.

Cortana had tried to ping the citywide AI network several times now, searching for a weakness to exploit without getting found out, but to no avail. It was very likely that doctor Promestein had acquired a Smart AI of her own to thwart any attempt at a cyber-intrusion.

That meant they had no eyes or ears in the garage. The Chief wasn't eager to walk his squad into an ambush, especially not knowing that the geth were a threat. They'd have to be sharp.

"Open her up," the Chief said, positioning himself at the center of the door to attract the immediate enemy fire. His suit's shields were extremely effective against the enemy's mass accelerator rifles. If anything, the failed assassination attempt had proven that yet again.

Miia nodded at Draco, who hit the door control.

Almost instantly, the Chief's motion sensors pulsed a warning – movement directly on the other side of the door.

He snapped his rifle up, thumbed the safety off and watched as the doors slid open.

The garage was swarming with geth troopers.

John sighed and immediately opened fire. A burst of fire caught the flashlight-like head of a rocket trooper and blew half its head off. White fluid sprayed the heavy-duty box behind it even as the other geth activated their kinetic barriers and spun to engage him.

Draco dropped to one knee and opened fire. Rachnera stood and fired over the Dragon's head. On the left side. Miia and Derek performed the exact same motion on the left side of the door, creating an overlapping field of fire that forced the geth into cover.

The Master Chief rushed into the room, firing short controlled bursts as he acquired the most dangerous targets first. The larger the geth platform was, the more runtimes it carried, and the better it performed. Those had to go first.

Saren bounded in behind him, garbed in his tactical cloak. He fired off several Overload programs from his omni-tool to disable a cluster of troopers on the right flank, then put down a rocket trooper that whirled from behind the chassis of a dismantled Mako.

Draco and Miia pushed into the room as well, fanning out to take the flanks. The synthetics proved no match for the steady stream of 7.62mm armor-piercing rounds and laser-accurate tech attacks. Before soon, the last geth trooper slumped and fell into a pool of its own liquid.

"Consolidate on me," the Chief ordered. "Sound off."

"Where the hell did those things come from?" Miia demanded. "Didn't those idiots scan the crates the asari brought in?" She looked around, then quickly added, "No casualties."

"Money talks," Rachnera calmly said. "Promestein likely paid in advance. You threatened them with violence."

"It's a breach of security protocol nonetheless," the Chief said, scanning the room for any hidden geth stalkers. "This might just be the welcome party."

"You could pack a lot of geth in those crates Chief. The enemy might have a severe advantage in numbers," Cortana pointed out. "Foehammer got through by the way. Security access verified. Our Пума is standing by right outside."

"And that's how you smuggle an army into a private facility," Derek commented as he stepped over the body of a geth juggernaut. "This is why you cavity search people."

"Chief? Get me to one of those bodies?" Cortana said.

The Spartan marched towards the mangled remains of a geth stalker and knelt down next to it.

Saren grunted with severe disapproval. "Geth fry their memory core upon termination. These bodies are useless."

"Scanning…interesting. This body shows no sign of having self-destructed its memory core. It has no runtimes, either. All software intact. The body is just…empty."

Saren clicked his mandibles thoughtfully. "The memory core?"

"Undamaged, but completely wiped."

"That makes no sense," Saren growled. "Geth are software. They can transfer to another body if there is one available, but they always fry their memory core if they do so! This makes no sense!"

"I've gotten everything I could from its systems, Chief," Cortana then said. "There's not much left…the geth are software, yes, but not like the way we know it. They're essentially networked individual runtimes working together."

"So what happened to the runtimes in this one?" The Chief asked.

Cortana was silent for a full two seconds. "I don't know," she admitted, words which were almost a taboo for any AI to utter. "Closest thing to a guess I've got is that something removed them before this engagement."

"If that were true, that would mean these bodies weren't controlled by geth at all," Saren said, his voice contemplative.

"Yeah? What have we been fighting against then?" Miia asked.

A heavy silence followed.

With nothing else to say, the Chief ordered his squad into the Пума.

Even the ever-modular Пума Infantry Fighting Vehicle had its limits. Five hundred years of military innovation simply couldn't erase the sheer mass and bulk of the larger Liminal species. Derek and Kyuri could flatten themselves against the driver's hatch, but Rachnera and Miia took up nearly all the space available to them.

"I never did understand the logic behind this," Saren growled as one of Rachnera's folded legs pressed him tightly against Derek. "For every one of your Arachne or Lamia soldiers you could three humans and all of their equipment!"

"Hear that?" Miia said, and everybody was silent for a moment. "That's the sound of every extranet forum and military staff gatherings exploding over an argument that's been settled four centuries ago."

The Master Chief tried to keep tabs on the discussion going on inside of the Пума's troop section, but between the heavy blizzard, the narrow mountain path and the many, many geth troopers between him and Peak 15, that was easier said than done.

And two of those three risks couldn't be taken away by the 70mm autocannon. He had to tread carefully. Thankfully, he had an excellent copilot in Cortana.

"Everything we've learned checks out. Desolas and Promestein are trying to increase their manpower through the experiments they're holding on Noveria," Cortana explained. "Are you going to get that one?"

The Spartan swirled the heavy IFV to the left, running over a trio of Rocket Troopers that had been trying to acquire a target. What little remained of their crushed bodies would soon be buried in the blizzard.

"Nice. That Durham was right; there are dozens upon dozens of missing person cases in Noveria, but every single one of them is covered up. Even the wealthy relatives and interested parties can't get through the enormous bureaucracy involved in it all. In the end, less than five percent of these cases are ever resolved."

"So the missing people are taken by Peak 15," the Spartan replied. Hostile automated turrets opened fire from a kilometer away. Mass accelerator fire slammed uselessly against the IFV's shields and he swerved to avoid the unguided missiles fired their way.

"Correct. Because everything is all covered up, it's very possible Promestein gets a steady stream of volunteers as well."

"Why can't the UNSC or ONI stop that?" The Chief asked, anger bubbling somewhere within his chest. To think of wounded and crippled servicemen- and women being lured into a trap only to be repurposed by an alien warlord…the thought made him sick.

"Governments aren't perfect, John," Cortana said with a sigh. "The UNSC and ONI are overextended and overtaxed. They've got billions of people to take care of. If a few hundred go missing…with how tattered our systems are, even with extensive AI support…they fall between the gaps."

"But Desolas has the krogan and the geth on his side. What's the point in abducting our people?"

"Unclear. It's obvious the Forerunners are involved. Maybe he's looking for people to activate the Conduit?"

"Reclaimers…" John whispered. His thoughts went back to Ereshkigal. If Desolas wanted to bring back a deity that had somehow survived the galaxy-wide annihilation of all pantheons, he required Forerunner artefacts. It wasn't a large leap in logic that he'd need humans to activate those.

"Exactly. Oh, got another one."

A quick burst of the Пума's autocannon turned a cluster of geth troopers to mush.

The Chief swerved to avoid another incoming missile. The detonation was close, buffeting the vehicle with shrapnel. "What Lilith said…she thinks Desolas is amassing force to enter a different realm."

As he expected, Cortana's reply was…less than caustic. "Sure. Right. The wanted terrorist warlord is looking into magic. John, hasn't it occurred to you that she might have been lying to you?"

Perhaps. But he didn't think so. From what Will and Miia had described to him, Lilith was old. Very old. Possibly ancient. Entities like those were cut from a different cloth and took hospitality and honesty very seriously. The UNSC's files said that human territory was still a haven for creatures who had been alive when mythology was still passed on by clay slates. Even ONI tended to treat such individual with great reverence…and even greater caution.

"I don't think so," the Spartan calmly replied. "The government managed to keep the existence of the entire spectrum of Mamono until the twenty-first century. What are the odds they've kept other things hidden?"

"Now you're thinking in conspiracies," Cortana sourly replied.

"Just keeping our options open."

There wasn't time to discuss anything else. They had arrived at their destination and the scans showed several hostiles inside. They'd locked down the garage door and probably covered the smaller personnel entrance too.

The Chief didn't want to wait a second longer than he needed to. "The garage is in range," he said. "Get ready."

"What do you mean 'in range'?" Miia said, alarmed. "Can't we just go inside with this tub?"

"Negative. Garage is under lockdown. We'll have to go in on foot."

"In this weather?" Draco said not a second later. "That's gonna be a short fight."

"Should just be a few seconds through the blizzard," the Chief replied. "Draco and I will take point. Kyuri amd Derek in the rear. Move out."

With the Master Chief at the front, the squad pushed their way through the blizzard and towards the garage door. Cortana easily undid the lock and the Chief opened it.

As expected, the garage was occupied. Geth troopers stood on overwatch duty at the outer ring of the first level while a group of five krogan had the ground floor on lockdown. Oddly enough, they had directed the majority of their firepower on the heavy vehicle door, with only two krogan keeping tabs on the side door.

It was an odd mistake, but one that the Chief fully capitalized on. As the door slid open the two alien warriors turned to bring their guns to bear.

With Cortana further enhancing the blistering pace at which the MJOLNIR enhanced his reaction time, the pair of krogan might as well have been moving underwater. The Master Chief lashed out with his left leg and caught the closest krogan in the fork of his legs. His armor plating shattered inwards.

Before the alien warrior could even process the pain, the Spartan turned to face the second threat and unloaded with the M90 shotgun Foehammer had delivered during her supply run.

The 8 Gauge shotgun shell used to be an illegal munition before the Covenant and for a good reason. While the krogan warriors were well-armored and highly resistant to small arms mass accelerator fire, late-war UNSC anti-personnel munitions were an entirely different matter.

His semi-automatic shotgun boomed three times in rapid succession. Half a second later, the Chief's boot descended upon the shredded remains of the krogan's upper body. As the second krogan began howling in high-pitched howling agony, the Chief took its head and most of its hump off with another two shotgun blasts.

The geth reacted with the ingrained reflexes of machines and instantly shifted their field of fire to account for the largest threat in the room. At that point, Draco and Miia quickly lunged inside as well, spraying the balcony with suppressive fire as they moved to cover.

Two of the krogan bellowed a challenge and charged towards the Spartan, not even bothering to fire their weapons. The third one, clad in what had to be a hundred pounds of sealed combat armor, kept his distance and settled for precision shotgun blasts instead.

The Master Chief shot the legs out from underneath the krogan furthest away. Then, as the second krogan uttered a victorious, barking laugh at the apex of its charge, the Master Chief did the last thing the alien would have expected. He stepped in close, ducked low when he krogan swung his shotgun like a club and then delivered a crushing uppercut.

His blow snapped the krogan's head back violently enough to snap his neck. As the warrior started flailing backwards, the Chief kicked its leg out from underneath its body and stomped on its skull for good measure.

"Spartan!" The remaining krogan bellowed. "You will face – "

The Chief never got to figure out what he was supposed to say, as the krogan's head suddenly exploded like an overripe melon. A shockwave sent ripples through his neck, shoulders and the remains of his hump and one of his arms came off.

Behind him, Rachnera had kept the garage door open wide enough for Derek to peek through with his sniper. The armor system that could shrug off a precise shot from the SRS anti-material rifle had yet to be invented.

A second later, he whirled out of the way and Rachnera took aim with an SMG, putting down the wounded krogan just as he began shoving his way back to his feet.

Draco and Miia had taken care of most of the geth troopers. Saren came out of nowhere, vaulting over a stack of crates that nearly came to the ceiling and landing in-between the last two geth remaining. He knocked one of them to the ground with a stroke of his rifle, stabbed the other trooper with his omni-tool and implanted an overload program, then jammed the barrel of his rifle against the fallen geth to bypass its kinetic barriers and pulled the trigger.

"All hostiles neutralized," Cortana said as a burst of static exploded from within the last geth.

"We're clear," John called out. "Rachnera, Kyuri, police these bodies. Saren, Derek, cover the next hallway."

"Pulling up the schematics now…" Cortana said. "Huh. That's odd."


"I haven't gotten into Peak 15's systems yet – that AI's resistance is growing stronger the closer we get – but it looks like the schematics are heavily outdated."

"Meaning?" John asked. He watched as Kyuri poked one of the fallen geth. She deliberately kept her back to the ruined bodies at the ground floor, and he honestly couldn't blame her.

"Meaning I won't be able to walk you through the complex," Cortana replied with an edge of annoyance. "This particular piece of real estate is about twenty square kilometers of power stations, laboratories, hydroponic farms and other facilities hewn into a frozen mountain. And that's just the part available to me. Who knows how many more secret facilities have been added through the years? Anything could be out there."

"So what do you suggest? Find a new map?"

"It beats following the colored stripes, doesn't it?"

"All right," the krogan are dead," Rachnera said. "I have to say, I've never seen someone demolish a krogan quite so…thoroughly."

"I know," Draco said, flashing the Arachne a little grin that showed a bit too many teeth to be innocent. "Bloody. Violent. Gets a girl all hot and bothered."

"Wow. Not to kink-shame you, but that's messed up," Rachnera shot back.

"Girls, stow the bedroom talk," Miia interfered. "We've got a creepy lab to explore."

The Master Chief wasn't entirely sure what just happened. He made a mental note to ask Cortana about that later. "Atmosphere warmer up ahead. Let's keep moving."

There weren't any more hostiles up ahead. Plenty of discarded equipment however. Munition boxes, medical supplies and boxes of weapon parts strewn across the place.

As the team made their way deeper into the facility, Cortana automatically added their progress to her maps, revising and updating them as they moved.

Within a minute, they hit the first obstacle. A set of heavy steel doors, looking sturdy enough to hold out against explosions.

Not exactly a standard security measure in a lab.

"Cortana, can you open this?" The Chief asked as he signaled his team to halt.

"Not from in here. You'll have to find a way to get me into the system. I'm…"

Her voice trailed off.



"…are you alright?"

A moment of hesitation. "I can't do much good if I'm here with you."

"I'm not risking exposing you to another AI," he replied.

"Chief, I can handle that," Cortana snapped. "It's what I was made for, remember?"

There was no denying that. However, after everything she'd been through, he would rather play it safe here. "We'll see if we can pull the plug on that other AI first. No use taking unnecessary risks."

He approached the set of doors, then started prying them open, keeping them ajar wide enough to let the others through –

- the high-pitched whine of an alarm pierced through the silence and a pair of automated turrets unfolded themselves from the ceiling. In an instant, the slender weapon emplacements zeroed in on the Chief.

The Spartan tensed up, adrenaline coursing through his veins as he braced for immediate evasive action –

A series of mechanical clicks rippled through the turrets, but nothing happened.

The Chief exhaled slowly. "Empty," he said. "Come on."

"Empty?" Saren said as he entered the hallway, his rifle held at the ready. "Why would the security team not restock their systems?"

John thought about that for a moment. He had to agree with Saren; it didn't make any sense. Moreover, these turrets were mounted on ball swivels. They covered the approach angle from the garage as well as that of the facility beyond. "These turrets can fire in the opposite direction as well."

"So they're meant to keep us out…" Kyuri started.

"And keep others in," Miia finished grimly. "The question being…"

"What do they want to keep in?" Rachnera said. She nervously rubbed her arm and asked, "Hey, so is this just me or does this entire thing feel like one big trap?"

"I have to agree, we have no idea on the enemy's numbers or capabilities," Miia said with an uneasy voice. "Maybe we should contact Shepard's team, ask them to help us?"

"That'll take too long," the Chief replied. "If we leave now, they'll shore up their defenses. We'll never get through again. Keep moving."

The Chief silently led his team deeper into the facility. Most of the initial rooms they encountered were offices and sleeping quarters. Tight quarters such as those would have been difficult to clear out in urban fighting, especially with the heavy resistance Desolas would have built up by now.

Cortana kept updating the map with their progress, but it was far too slow. There were too many corridors to explore, too many rooms to clear out. Doctor Promestein could loop around them and head back to the exit and they would never know.

"This is taking too long," John said when they encountered yet another T-intersection. He signaled his team to halt. "We're splitting up. Miia, take Derek and Rachnera and go left. Kyuri, Draco and Saren, you're with me."

"Roger," Miia replied. "Uhm…what are our ROE's if we encounter hostiles?"

"Capture HVT's alive," the Chief replied. "We need either Desolas or Promestein to talk."

"Okay, wilco."

On the next intersection, Miia took the sniper and the Arachne and went left. The Chief, together with Draco, Saren and Kyuri, headed right.

A minute or two later, Draco smelled the carnage before anyone else did. "Blood ahead. Arterial, opened bowels…someone got ripped apart in there."

Kyuri made a whimpering sound.

They worked their way towards another atrium of sorts, with a reception desk in the middle that made up the front of an open room. There, the Chief came across the shredded remains of several different bodies. The most identifiable one of them was a volus whose suit had been violently torn open. The little alien had all but fallen apart afterwards.

Other bodies lay in pools of commingled blood. A pair of humans, their arms and heads separated from their bodies. An asari, split open from her chin to her pelvis with most of her insides pulled out. The remains of three geth troopers missing their heads.

The Master Chief knelt just beyond the perimeter, made sure there were no surprised waiting for him, then peered at the bodies.

"Kyuri, cover our six. I want all your senses down the hallway we just came from," the Spartan ordered. These people hadn't been shot, they'd been mauled to death. It looked like they had run afoul of a pack of Brutes or Jackals, but the bodies didn't show any signs of predation.

Saren observed the bodies with professional detachment. He activated his omni-tool and started scanning. "This is a mess," he growled. "No sign of blast, no explosive residue. Do you have any idea what happened here?"

The Chief wordlessly shook his head. "We should keep moving."

"Then what about Cortana? She can infiltrate this system, plunder their databases – "

"No," John sharply retorted, unable to keep his frustration out of his voice. "I'm not risking her."

Saren glared at him. "Spartan. The AI is an asset. If you do not use her, you risk the entire mission."

"Noted," the Chief growled back. "Draco, take the lead. We're moving."

"Chief…" Cortana quietly said as the rest of the group fell in line. "Why are you so concerned? It's not like we haven't done this a hundred times before."

That was the crux of the problem. They hadn't done something like this before. The things that kept happening around Desolas, the entities that associated themselves with this mission – everything about it was wrong.

John wasn't sure he could describe this to Cortana. Not without telling her about the things he had seen. Things that, of course, she might not believe.

He didn't want to lose her too. "Call it a gut feeling," the Chief tried. "This whole situation is off. I don't trust it."

"Far be it for me to ignore a gut feeling, I can't do much good for you when I'm just inside your suit. Think about how vulnerable your team is without my support."

The Master Chief took a deep breath, trying to wrestle down his mounting frustration and anger. This was just another facet of war; people died. None of their lives meant more than stopping Desolas from finding the Conduit.

So why did this bother him so much? "We're not risking it," he sharply said, hoping Cortana would notice the finality on his voice. "We're not risking anyone here."

"Fine, but this isn't over," Cortana fired back. "After we're done here, you and I are going to have a long talk."

The Chief uttered a weary sigh. If they all got out of this place in one piece, he'd do anything Cortana wanted him to.

Draco cautiously led the group deeper into the facility, with Saren moving right behind her. For more than fifteen minutes they never encountered anything. No geth, no radio transmissions, nothing. The Spartan kept seeing signatures on his motion sensor, but they were far away, hundreds of meters deeper into the complex. The sensitive audio-filtering software of his MJOLNIR picked up the dim humming of the overhead lights, the hardware running inside of the still-operable computers and even the nervous breathing and movements of his team…

…as well as distant footsteps.

They weren't alone in here.

"Chief, are you there?" Miia's voice suddenly came through the TEAMCOM, startling Kyuri and causing Draco to nearly jump out of her scales.

"Go ahead Miia," the Chief replied, signaling his team to hunker down for the moment.

"We've reached the tram to the Advanced Biological Research Labs. Apparently, it's the most classified section of Peak 15…and it's unlocked."

Which suggested someone was luring them into a trap. "Did you encounter anyone alive out there?"

"Uhm, no. Only chewed up bodies…mangled geth…a couple of butchered krogan. Two suicides, which leads me to think some people saw this coming. Not your handiwork, we assumed."

"That's a negative. Keep your eyes open. We'll make our way to the Research Labs as well."

"Yes sir. Oh, one more thing? The workers here detached several computers from the main network. We've recovered some of the files on them…it's not a pretty picture. A lot of it is classified…but I've seen the word "SPARTAN" pop up a few times."

The Master Chief stopped in his tracks. Several different possibilities came to his mind and none of them were pleasant. "Save those files for later. For now, hold your position. We'll cross into the Research Labs at the same time."

Miia sounded very uncomfortable on the other end of the TEAMCOM. "Uhm…yes sir. Will do."

The Chief gestured at Draco and Saren to pick up the pace. The sooner they were out of this mess the better,


AN: don't forget to leave a review if you liked this chapter! They always work wonders at getting me motivated to start writing the next chapter.

Until then, I'll see you at the next update. Be good people!