Author's Note: So...retiring turned out to be harder than I thought.

xxxx

We turn to a simple bar, in a complicated City, in an even more complicated Solar System, in a simple universe.

Cayde-7 looked at the stranger curiously, nursing his whiskey all the while. "...so, you're looking for a story?"

"You could say that."

"Why do people always come to me for stories?...oh wait, I know why: I'm awesome. Please, hold your applause."

Naught but silence, and a quiet stare.

"...huh, not quite the reaction I was expecting. Usually, people kind of look at me with a sense of annoyance and exasperation when I do that. Helps break the ice, in my opinion."

"Fair enough."

"So, what are you interested in? Tales from the Dark Age? The City Age? Eliksni Confederation War? Ooh, how about the Second Cataclysm? THAT was a doozy..."

"Nah. I'm interested in the War of Unification."

"...really? That ended less than a year ago."

"Let's just say that I've been away for a while. Kinda like visiting your hometown, and everything's changed. Figured I'd get it straight from the horse's mouth."

"...you know, that's another phrase I need to look into...you got a name, stranger?"

"Eh, it's been so long that anyone who would care for my name's been dead. I'm just a simple drifter."

"...okay then, Drifter it is. What would you like to know?"

xxxx

It was one standard Earth year to the day after the wedding of Governor Zavala and Queen Mara Sov; in that time, the forces of Umun'arath and her Separatists had swarmed upon the Solar System, to reclaim the Fatherworld of the Cabal, and to lay waste to her enemies. The Evocate-General, ever fearful of the Exalted's legacy, of the machinations of Calus, had arrived to vanquish them all.

Weaklings, she had called them. False Cabal, to ally themselves with their enemies, to do anything less than subjugate the Earthlings, the Awoken, and the Eliksni.

Empress Caiatl found it quite fitting, how it all came to a head.

For aboard the Voracious, Umun'arath's personal flagship, the battle that decided the war came to a close.

Her armor was scarred, blackened from explosives and fire; her gravis was bent and nearly broken, its dual morning stars bearing many cracks. Regardless, she stood tall, and defiant.

Umun'arath no longer stood, all but drowning in her own blood. The Evocate-General glared daggers at Caital and her allies, even as her fleets fought furiously against the combined forces of the Fourfold Alliance...or rather, by this juncture, the Sixfold Alliance. "You...wretches..."

Veliniks, Kell of House Zeruel, snorted. "Where is your bluster now?"

"You're being broadcast throughout the system," remarked Petra Venj, gesturing towards a small flock of robotic Crows that were perched throughout the bridge. "Everyone can see that you've fallen."

Judging by the comm intel filtering through her helmet's HUD, Caiatl could see that Umun'arath's defeat was having its desired effect: the vessels that remained - of which there were many - were beginning to organize a retreat. So...this is what came of it all.

Umun'arath sneered, teeth stained with dark blood. Her micro artillery batteries, her missile launchers, her advanced shields, her nano-rocket blades, her burning blades...all of it used, and all of it rendered to nothing. "To think...that...you would lower...the Cabal...to such weakness..."

"...you know, I'm pretty sure that we're the ones still standing," remarked Cayde-7, looking around at the various corpses of the Cabal Separatists. "Unless Cabal have some weird rules of war that involve dying before you enemy does, in which case you trounced us."

A Psion Flayer named Cyronax, bearing the regal purple and golden colors of Calus's Loyalists, calmly commented, "Those are not part of the Cabal order of battle, Hunter Cayde."

A Light-empowered Minotaur with energy chainsaw hands calmly chirped, "THERE IS NO RECORD OF ANY APPROPRIATE TACTIC FOR CABAL THAT INVOLVES DYING, CAYDE-UNIT!"

"That's what I thought, but you never know!"

"...allied with a Loyalist...and our ancient enemy..." Umun'arath snarled, her gaze rife with wrath and fury and rage, impotent and weak. "What...have...you lowered yourself to...?"

Caiatl had heard Umun'arath's proclamations and propaganda for the entirety of the war. By this point, it had gotten tiring. "I've heard enough from you, Umun'arath." There had been a...strange character to the entire war, relative to the last one. It had been just as hectic, almost as chaotic, rife with devastation...and yet, there was an odd satisfaction to be had, even though there had been no conquest, no new territory claimed. True, there would be a great deal to be done with the Separatist worlds after this battle...but somehow, the sting of civil war and rebellion was muted. "You can justify your actions all you desire...it will never erase the fact that, when Emperor Ghaul fell in battle, it was your choice to flee...to run...to break your oaths." She stepped besides the Evocate-General's head, glaring with irritation and pity. "For one who professes to be a true Cabal...you had to know how this would end." She raised her armored boot. "Goodbye."

SMASH.

xxxx

The Drifter blinked. "Starting at the end is kind of weird, don't you think?"

"Hey, you gotta start off strong."

"You didn't even describe any of the good stuff."

Cayde-7 shrugged. "Figured you could look it up later, if you're that interested. My personal video file has like, at LEAST seventy million views on the solarnet."

"Heh. Someone's an attention whore."

"Pfft. As if I need to pay people to give me attention."

"If you say so...anyway, what's with the robots?"

"You mean the Vex?"

"So that's what they're called. Figured there'd be something more thematic. Like Cyclops, or somethin' like that."

"Those are actually a type of Vex. Big ones, with a giant eye that fires bolts of purple pain."

"...they all have one eye, though."

"Hey, I'm not the one who originally named them."

xxxx

/The Black Garden's Remnant, Old Nevada/

It was ten standard Earth months to the day after the matrimonial ceremonies of Zavala (Governor of Earth, Iron Lord, Awoken, Titan) and Mara Sov (Queen of the Reef, Awoken sovereign, ANOMALOUS ENTITY). In that time, the forces of Umun'arath (Primus of All Legions, Evocate-General of the Cabal, Warlord archetype) had invaded the Solar System (Earthling nomenclature, standardized universal coordinates [REDACTED FOR LENGTH]), to reclaim the Fatherworld (Cabal nomenclature, standardized universal coordinates not applicable due to inherent mobility of planetoid, revised Warship classification) of the Cabal, and to lay waste to her enemies. The Evocate-General, ever fearful of the Exalted's (ANOMALOUS ENTITY, see files on 'Evangelion' for all observational data) legacy, of the machinations of Calus (ANOMALOUS ENTITY, former Cabal Emperor, current head of the Loyalists), had arrived to destroy them all.

In that time, the Argus Perceptive had undergone a trial by fire, so to speak.

What had once been the North American Anomalous Zone (see files on Paradeion and subunit Sol Provocative for additional tactical information) had receded to a region fifty miles in diameter, centered at the facility once called NERV-America, where the Black Garden (ANOMALOUS ENTITY, see files on 'Darkness, Deep' for all observational data) had anchored itself. Even deprived of the Black Heart (ANOMALOUS ENTITY, see files on religious rites for all observational data), the Garden could not be revoked entirely. Fitting, then, that this would be where Panoptes and the rest of the Light-empowered Vex (societal classification still pending: Lex, Phos, Non-Genocidal Robots, [37,363 ADDITIONAL NAMES REDACTED FOR LENGTH]) had taken hold.

There were tactical and diplomatic considerations more than anything else; few people wanted to step foot into this place longer than necessary. Even empowered by the Light (ANOMALOUS ENTITY, see files on 'Traveler' for all observational data), the Guardians (ANOMALOUS ENTITY, see files on 'enemies, friends, frenemies(?)' for all observational data) tended to stay away as well. Probably because of the odd dimensional layering of the Garden; the Vex, because of how they perceived the world, were able to deal with it better than most.

Or it could be the fact that the Vex didn't have souls. Perhaps that had something to do with it.

"Tell me, Panoptes; how goes the operation on Io?"

The Infinite Mind turned towards Osiris (former Vanguard Commander, Human, Warlock, ANOMALOUS ENTITY, also our Uncle?), her massive eye narrowed. "OKAY, I G-G-GUESS. OUR CONVERSION OF THE MOON IS SUCCESSFULLY DISTRACTING THE DAWN BREAKERS." What had once been the site of the Second Clash of Giants (see files on 'Asuka versus Zeruel' for all observational data) and a well-worn arena for the Trials of the Emperor had been chosen by the Argus Perceptive for conversion, to increase their processing power and to provide additional computational geometry in a neutral region of spacetime. That it had attracted the attention of Umun'arath's forces - further splitting her attention - was an additional tactical bloom.

Osiris stared wryly at her. "You're stuttering again."

"S-SORRY." Her personality profile that had been implemented by Safegaurd (see files on 'BEST FRIEND FOREVER' for all observational data) informed her vocalizations. Apparently, a stutter made her seem less threatening to the denizens of Earth and the Reef. Observations regarding Eliksni and Cabal reactions to her particular demeanor were still pending. Little surprise, that Osiris seemed to see right through it. "I'VE FORWARDED THE MOST PROBABLE OUTCOMES TO YOUR GHOST FOR ANALYSIS."

"Thank you, dear!" chirped Sagira (former Human, see files on 'metaphysical machinery' for all observational data, also our Aunt?), who was lightly scanning a Minotaur that was cycling through Solar, Arc, and Void Light, testing for potential synchronization issues. "Hmm...I think we may need to deploy an additional contingent to Io to bolster the Vex units there. Make it seem more important, so that the Separatists think it too valuable to blow up." The Ghost briefly paused. "It's still weird, talking of Vex in friendly terms."

"We've had long enough to get used to it as far as the Argus Perceptive is concerned," remarked Osiris.

"Given how paranoid YOU used to be, you have no room to talk."

Panoptes passively observed their banter, even as she continued to weigh the variables and probabilities of the battles occurring throughout the Solar System. For some strange reason, there were a lot of people on Earth who liked data about Osiris and Sagira's interactions, even though there was no apparent tactical or strategic value for it.

xxxx

"...I wonder if they're edible."

Cayde-7 blinked. "...say what now?"

"That organic core. I've seen them in all of the bipeds."

"...why?"

"Hey, I've been through some strange shit. You get used to eating unusual stuff to survive out in deep space."

"..."

"Maybe if you fried it in a pan, with some pepper?"

"...that's weird. You're weird."

"Aw stop, you'll make me blush."

xxxx

/Oberon/

It was eight standard Earth months to the day after the glorious nuptials of Lord Zavala and Queen Mara Sov; in that time, the traitorous forces of Umun'arath and her weakling Separatists had descended upon the Solar System, to reclaim the Fatherworld of his people, and to lay waste to her enemies. The pitiful Evocate-General, ever frightened of the Exalted's legacy, of his masterful machinations, had arrived to eliminate them all.

A pox upon her, for her slavish devotion to Ghaulish ideas! Her death was written in the stars themselves, guaranteed to pass. The same, fortunately, could not be said for her soldiers, even if they had broken their oaths to his daughter, or to the true Emperor. How bountiful was his clemency!

It was why his Trials still occurred, even in the midst of war.

Uranus, during the course of the Second Cataclysm, had been heavily devoured by Grand Leviathans of the Cabal World Eaters legion, its gaseous atmosphere converted into usable resources. Two Earth decades after the Battle of Saturn, and the ice giant had been reduced to a third of its former size. Through intensive celestial engineering, gravity tethers kept the moons of Uranus - those which had not been destroyed during that cataclysmic war, of course - in their standard orbits. Two decades on, the ice giant's remnant had become site for a massive spaceport, serving a twofold purpose: a refit and refueling station for Cabal warships on patrol...and an observational platform for those who partook in the Trials of the Emperor upon the remaining Uranian moons. Even now, all these years later, the treasures and secrets of the Nine had yet to be plundered to completion.

Little wonder, that Umun'arath sent minions to find out just what was so precious about these 'Trials'.

And so it was, that a Trial had been so rudely interrupted by a Separatist raiding party from the Black Tide legion. Into the Macbeth crater they had descended, dismantling (or triggering) traps and lures, cataloging the aged terraforming that the Nine had once performed. At the end of the line, inside a great cavern that had been fashioned like a tomb, they fought a great golem of ice and rock that glowed with a strange aura, one that incinerated souls.

The Separatists fought with something akin to discipline, despite the bluster of their standard weaponry. As Legionnaires, Centurions, and Psions fought, there were flashes of...elegance.

How delightful!

Was it any surprise then, that he decided to make his presence known, once the golem was felled, and the treasure it had guarded was unveiled. In a flickering flash of chronospatial fog, he emerged in all his glory, flanked by his robotic puppets from the Baris Protective and gallant volunteers - Earthling, Reefborn, Eliksni, and Cabal - from the ranks of his Champions. The Separatists turned, and prepared to fire.

A Psion named Feltroc fired a rifle of strange make and model, slim and gray with an orange flow: a thin line of energy roared, smashing into the head of a Centurion in dark armor. Energy shields and thick plating and hardy flesh and bone were disintegrated, as the warrior's body dissolved into burning ash. So sudden it was, that it gave Calus the window to speak (not that he ever needed one). "Are you shocked? Has memory truly been lost of the advancements I tried to pioneer during my reign, to raise my Empire to greater heights? Alas, after centuries of rule by Ghaul and his brutish calculus, Umun'arath must seem comforting!" His mechanical shell - a mere icon, a shadow compared to his true glory - glowed with residual psionic power. "I cannot fault hands for doing what their master commands, but your hands could wield items of such grandeur! For strength is made all the greater if it is refined." That is what his dear daughter never seemed to understand, in spite of all that she had done and endured in trying to keep the Empire from falling apart: clinging to old ways would only help if they were truly superior to new ones. "Behold my Champions! Behold our ancestors' greatest adversary, obedient to my will! They do this because of the glories I have shown them, of the paths I have opened! So vast and wide is this universe, bloody and terrible; Umun'arath is not wrong, to pursue the strength needed to make the cosmos an orderly one...but where she goes astray is the method!" With a gesture, he mentally flexed his mind, showcasing images of beauty and might and majesty. "The method of Acrius, carried on through the ages, was predicated on a falsehood; I have charted the paths carved by greater powers, and divined the means to new ones. In the face of older powers, an iron fist is but a child's bludgeon; but one clad in gold and fine silk is both satisfying to the eye, and all the more dangerous for the fist it hides." After all, why threaten if your mere presence - unspoken and alluring - provided all the threat you needed? "My perfect judgment is upon you! Follow the traitorous Umun'arath, and I shall let one of my Champions make an example of you. But if you wish to join me, to rekindle your oaths to the true Emperor, to strive to become not just soldiers, but Champions...then merely offer the Nine's treasure to me, and I will consider my invitation accepted."

The debate amongst the Black Tide contingent took longer than he expected, but the outcome was never truly in doubt. After all, who could deny one as fabulous and majestic as he?

And so they presented him the treasure: a horned helm, sleek and burning with an unseen power. It seamlessly grew, as if wanting him to wear it; he did not do so, for why would he hide his perfect face? Still, the power it bore...it echoed, ringing a familiar tune, one that made him laugh. "How interesting!"

xxxx

"Heard about that particular event from a guy named Fenchurch. Probably the only Guardian with more stories than me."

"This Calus sounds like quite a character."

"No question. A complete asshole - just ask the Governor or the Queen - but at least he's not a total dick. I mean, some of the gear he offers IS pretty sweet."

"I see...who were these fellas you mentioned? These 'Nine'?"

"A bunch of jerks who all died."

"That so?"

"Totally so. Complete assholes, AND total dicks."

"...that's actually kind of impressive."

"I know, right?"

"Speaking of impressive...a lot of people are talking about the Queen in hushed tones, real quiet like."

"You mean Mara? She's a peach, she's great! Kinda scary, but great!"

"They talk about her like she's a god."

"Well, I've kinda met a guy who could qualify as a god. A midway between little-g and big-G kind of god. The Queen would still be a solid little-g."

"What brought that about? Seems like a recent development, if you catch my drift."

"See now there's a..." Cayde narrowed his eyes. "Oh, I see what you did there. NOT CLEVER."

The Drifter shrugged. "You're the one who gave me the nickname, pal."

xxxx

/Hygiea Station Four, the Reef/

It was six standard Earth months to the day after her wedding to Zavala had been so rudely interrupted; in that time, the fleets of Umun'arath and her Cabal Separatists had swarmed through the Solar System, to reclaim the Fatherworld of the Cabal Empire, and to annihilate all opposition. The Evocate-General, ever wary of Evangelion, of Calus's mere presence, had arrived to wreak havoc.

Mara Sov, quite frankly, felt the time was right to take additional measures. Hence why she was here, consulting with Wille. "Can it be done?"

Clovis-9 stared harshly at her; in the background, Ana Bray was crunching the numbers with their various technicians, conversing with RASPUTIN in flawless Russian. "It can. It also seems drastic, based on my understanding of your physiology."

"I've already discussed the matter in-depth with MAYA and Akagi-81," retorted the Queen. "Given the enhancements that enabled the MAGI to become Warminds, they will be able to shoulder the metaphysical burden. Enough for me to bind myself with more than one Harbinger."

"Binding yourself with those little bundles of paracausal curiosity was never an issue, it was the matter of surviving the side-effects."

"Which won't be an issue now."

From afar, Ana briefly yelled, "Only a forty percent chance of winding up in a coma!" A pause. "Wait, make that forty-five-point-two!"

"There is a massive fleet of Starblazers bearing down upon the Reef at this very moment, and Umun'arath's simultaneous assault upon Earth, Mars, Mercury, and the Cabal Fatherworld has split everyone's attention. The Royal Armada that remains is insufficient to rebuff these Separatists." A pity, that Calus's Champions were so slow to strike at the enemy from within; they would have been useful here. "It is a cost that I will bear without question."

The aged Exo grumbled to himself. "If Governor Zavala gets cross with us, I would rather not bear the brunt of his displeasure."

The Queen snorted at the thought of her husband - a thought she was still getting used to - getting huffy at the thought of her welfare being threatened. "Not thirty hours ago, he was part of a strike team that felled a capital ship trying to annihilate the City. He'll understand." For how little they had seen each other in person these past months, they did not complain in the slightest; they understood the price of leadership and command. "Do it."

"...very well. Ana, I want any available diagnostic instruments analyzing her during the process."

This was how the Queen found herself floating in space, clad in a vacuum-sealed envirosuit and bearing an odd little harness with various bits of SIVA tech built into it. Telemetry from the other Warminds was feeding into her HUD, even as her Techeuns prepared themselves for the ritual back on Sovereign. At long last, a single line showed in the bottom left corner of her helmet.

MAGI-Ω: MAYA - ARE YOU READY?

The Queen gazed upon her domain, at the far flashes of stellar warfare and banal conquest. "I am."

MAGI-Ω: MAYA - VERY WELL. ENDURE.

Those were the last words that the Queen was cognizant of - in the depths of her soul, she felt the Tech Witches summoning the Harbingers, channeling them amongst the arcane circuits of MAYA, broadcasting their spiritual frequency along the Warminds to dilute their potency, even as the Minds of the Harbinger burned with the viciousness of children, to make their mother proud - before she felt their presence. Intimate, and painful, as children often were. Yet their power was great, and the Warminds' reach was wide, and so she would use it.

For the briefest of moments-

nine dozen vessels, majority of YAMATO RED class

-she-

motes of light, flickering amidst certain ships, the knives of the Awoken that shined amidst brutish bludgeons

-saw-

an entire system, teeming with Light, but burning with blood and fire that was briefly brighter

-EVERYTHING-

a galaxy, rife with life and dark and chaos, even as something brilliant (and so far above her) ripped and roared in a pocket of nowhere beyond the Galactic Rim

-and without hesitation-

narrowing back down, to the enemy descending upon her people

-clenched her fist. My will be done.

For an instant, she was witnessed in multiple places at once, glowing with all the fury of a blue giant; lances of negative light and azure energy erupted from her palms, smiting over ninety-five percent of the Separatist fleet in the blink of an eye.

With crushing swiftness, she was back in her body, cold and small and weak, ignorant of how much time had elapsed; shadows were shouting all around her, as she was dragged back into the station for emergency treatment. Yet she could only nod, as blood ran down her nose, at the sight of Prince Uldren staring at her with a grim yet expectant expression: he knew the costs as well as she did.

He would execute her will with great vengeance.

This was all part of the plan.
For now, she would rest. Guide them, my brother.

xxxx

"She was in a coma for...oh, three months?"

"Hot damn."

"Hey, it blew open another theater in the war. And boy, was ol' Zavala PISSED~"

"Upset that his lady went and did that?"

"Not really; he knew why she did it. He just directed his anger at the Separatists. And lemme tell ya, since you're kind of a new guy: when Zavala gets angry, you do NOT want to get in his way."

"That a fact?"

"I have a video showing him using a Goliath tank like a baseball bat to prove it."

"Heh. I'll take your word for it."

"No seriously, it's REALLY freakin' cool."

xxxx

/The Gateway, Orbit of Mercury/

It was four standard Earth months to the day after the marriage of the Governor of Earth and the Queen of the Reef; in that time, the powers of Umun'arath and her many Separatists had invaded the Solar System, to reclaim the Fatherworld of the Cabal, and to subjugate all opposition. The Evocate-General, ever terrified of Evangelion, of Calus's potential schemes, had arrived to ruin them all.

Little wonder, that a sizable force were trying to retake the superweapon once known as the Almighty. Anything capable of destroying their local star would be an invaluable trump card; hence why the Eliksni did their utmost to defend it.

The barrage from the Separatist fleets had severely damaged the Ramielim and Ramielus that coated the former superweapon, inhibiting their defenses to the point that multiple boarding parties had made it. Phalanxes advanced diligently, shields at the ready as Legionnaires, Centurions, and Psions fired upon them from afar. Incendiors, Gladiators, and Colossi unfurled heavy weapons with great prejudice. Packs of War Beasts snarled and roared, stampeding en masse to clear the way for the Separatists.

The Zeruelim and Zeruelus stationed on the Gateway exhibited a sort of savage joy at the prospect of such visceral close quarters combat.

Such were the thoughts - and more - that went through the mind of Aksor, Kell of House Leliel, as he observed multiple battles from the primary security hub.

A troupe of Israfelus danced among a maniple of Legionnaires, striking with great dexterity and poise-

-the Zeruelim snarled in the face of the Gladiator, limbs parrying the burning severus, right as a Sachielim leapt from behind with an amethyst lance extended-

When opportunities were made present, minute clouds of Iruelim infected Cabal weaponry-

-Psions that had joined the House of Arael mentally sparred with Separatist Psions, bolstered by the Araelim and Araelus that glowed with telepathic fire-

Portals winked in and out around the invaders, as Lelielim provided various pathways for Ramielim to fire upon the enemy from afar-

Aksor hummed, intrinsically feeling the fury being unleashed upon their walls. Orange light flickered and flashed, as the Light of the Eliksni's Souls warred against those of the Separatists, what they so inelegantly called an Anima Murum (which, at the very least, had some poetic ring unlike the coldly scientific 'A.T. Field' that was used by the Earthlings and the Reefborn). It was almost unfair, how durable the souls of the Cabal were in general, within even the lowliest Legionnaire having a robust metaphysical defense.

It doesn't matter, thought the Lelielix, the black and white patterns on his body swirling; charged with Ether from the surrounding Servitors, he spaced whole groups of Separatists at once, depositing them into the vacuum outside. A shame that they were all prepped for zero-G combat, as jet packs fired the moment they regained their bearings. Fortunately, the solar flames of the Sun and the point defenses of the Ramielim - those that still remained, alas - took out their fair share. And yet the numbers were never-ending! It doesn't matter. Do not be afraid.

Tabris and Gaghiel were defending the Traveler at Venus. Zeruel had not been seen since he had left the star system. Their 'allies' were preoccupied with Separatist fleets elsewhere, even though he had received word that reinforcements would arrive as soon as possible.

How strange, to be in a position where the Eliksni were expected to rely on the aid of their former enemies. Even now, years after the Fourfold Accord, he was still uneasy standing at the side of those he had once decried as thieves. And now, there were reports of friendly Vex of all things beginning to take part in the war-?!

It doesn't matter. There was no point in worrying about things beyond his control; he had been tasked with defending the Gateway to Mercury, and he would hold it.

At that moment, a certain voice pinged the security hub over the comms. "This is Misato Katsuragi of the Saladin's Forge, coming in starside!"

Aksor blinked, the patterns on his body briefly twitching with surprise at the image coming through one of the exterior cameras. A Ketch, long ago stolen and painted in foreign colors, warped in and opened fire upon the Separatist vessels. Other vessels belonging to the Iron Lords warped in soon after-
"...your timing is welcome," admitted Aksor.

"Well don't thank us yet. We've got a lot of Seppies sitting between us and the Gateway. Got any guys from House Leliel available to warp some of us over?"

Aksor couldn't help but smirk. "I can do you one better." It took only two minutes of focus to properly form the bridge linking two points of spacetime...but it was two minutes well spent, as Guardians simultaneously warped onto the Gateway in the dozens.

He never thought that he would be grateful for their presence; Variks's words before departing for Venus were quite apropos. War makes for strange bedfellows indeed.

xxxx

"I'm definitely getting an uneasy vibe from you."

"Look, I've had over two decades now to get used to working alongside the Fallen...er, Eliksni. It still doesn't come easy."

"I bet. Do they ever look at you with a stink eye if you call em' Fallen?"

"...please don't tell anyone. It's a bad look for the Hunter Vanguard to go into sensitivity training for the second time in a month."

"The hell is 'sensitivity training'?"

"That's exactly what I said!"

"So, what exactly do we call ourselves?"

"I beg your pardon?" A brief pause. "...I don't like that saying. I have never begged for anything." Another pause, and a deep frown emerged. "Shut up Buck, you don't know what you're talking about."

"Who are you talking to?"

"My Ghost. A bit of a smartass. Kinda like me, except less smart and more ass."

"Heh, that so?"

"Anyhow, your question?"

"You've got the Cabal, you've got the Vex, the Loyalists, the Reefborn, the Eliksni...what about the people who call Earth their home?"

"Most people seem to default to Earthlings."

"Sounds kinda weak by comparison to the others. Why not Earthborn? Or if you wanna be classy, how bout' Terrans?"

"Eh, I'm more of a free spirit, who could call anywhere his home. Comes with the territory of being a Hunter."

"Most chatter I've heard indicates you're kind of married to the job."

"Under severe protest, mind you. If I could divorce the job, I would!"

"So why haven't you?"

"..."

xxxx

/The Tower of the Consensus, the Reborn City/

It was two standard Earth months to the day after he had married Mara Sov; in that time, the immense forces of Umun'arath and her hardy Separatists had stormed the Solar System, to reclaim the Fatherworld of the Cabal Empire, and to conquer her enemies. The Evocate-General, ever leery of Evangelion's power, of Calus's plans, had arrived to crush them all.

Governor Zavala knew that they would fight to their utmost. Hence why he, the Vanguard, and the Consensus were all gathered around a holographic monitor, watching the image of a crimson Evangelion locked in mortal combat.

Cayde-7 said what all of them were thinking. "Seriously, how many of those things does Umun'arath have?"

'Things' being the mechanical monstrosity that Unit-02 was fighting: an enhanced version of the Juggernauts that had been developed by the Ice Reapers. Whereas the Juggernauts had been cobbled together from Goliath tanks and Harvester gunships, these Behemoths were more seamless, formed from stellar frigates and destroyers and controlled by thousands of Psions in unison. The very geometry of spacetime around the two giants - with the Behemoth being over three times Unit-02's size - curdled with their combined metaphysical power, prompting all nearby belligerents to stay at least twenty thousand miles away in all directions.

It spoke volumes that there was a portion of space beyond Earth's Moon that was clear of all activity, save those two monstrosities. And yet, Asuka-3 and Unit-02 had the Light; Zavala had no doubt that she would triumph, much like she had against the last three.

"A sufficient number to tie up Asuka-3 for the duration of the war," cryptically murmured Lakshmi-2, representative of the Future War Cult. "Umun'arath did...not anticipate needing additional Behemoths, given the cost of construction involved with each one. She can barely produce one functioning unit in the time it takes for Asuka-3 to track down and destroy the previous one."

"But this deprives us of a valuable trump card," remarked Kaworu Nagisa, representative of Seele. The gray Awoken's red eyes shined with insight. "Unit-02 is a force multiplier in the hands of the Crimson Exo; with the Behemoths occupying her attention, she is unable to assist with the Separatists' superior numbers."

Suraya Hawthorne, representative of the Concordat, huffed. "It's not like it really makes a difference either way, then; so long as those Behemoths are kept away from our more conventional forces, I'll count that as a win." After all, a large chunk of Europe had been pulverized by one Behemoth upon its unveiling in the war, during a battle known only now as the Stomp; if Asuka-3 was all it took to deal with them, she wasn't going to complain.

Zavala knew that very well, given the Concordat's contacts amongst those who lived beyond the City's walls; even now, weeks after the Stomp, they were still identifying remains. Speaking of which. "Cayde; how is Shin Malphur?"

The Hunter Vanguard grimaced. "Currently on a one-man campaign against the Separatists." The Gunslinger was the lone survivor of Palamon, following its obliteration. The man who many considered the heir of Jaren Ward had...not taken it well. "The Red Legion actually has a contingent dedicated to following him around, because he inevitably softens up targets for them to attack."

"At least our allies are being proactive," remarked Ikora Rey, Warlock Vanguard. "If we are to see this war through, we cannot simply play defense like we've been doing."

"With the numbers we've been facing, it's kind of hard not to play defense," retorted Suraya.

Lord Shaxx, Titan Vanguard and Vanguard Commander, merely chortled. "A defensive strategy has served us well so far, but I believe we've weathered Umun'arath's first salvos well enough! I've got plenty of Strike operations lined up, and plenty of Guardians eager to sink their teeth into the ranks of the enemy!"

"...not literally, right?" asked Cayde.

"Indeed," murmured Zavala, watching the holographic monitor with keen interest. The feed, courtesy of one of Seele's stealth scouting vessels, showcased Unit-02 and the Behemoth trading punches that made the vacuum around them visibly wobble, as impossible as that seemed. "We've been bloodied by the Separatists, but we've managed to endure." Curse Calus, for his thoughtlessness in drawing Umun'arath towards them; alas, it could not be said that his Champions weren't pulling their weight, given the reports he'd received from the Jovians. "Now's the time to coordinate with the Eliksni, the Reef, and the Cabal; we're long past due for a proper counteroffensive." And perhaps it's time to slowly begin introducing the...Vex...into the fray. He would need to talk with Osiris in detail, to see how best to go about that.

Kaworu's lips curled into a small smile. "You seem...oddly cheerful, Governor, given the circumstances."

"It is not a matter of cheer." Even though the circumstances were dire, and the forces of Umun'arath outnumbered them immensely...this war lacked the aura of dread and hopelessness that had tinged so much of the Second Cataclysm. They faced great peril, and yet...he felt a strange confidence, one that was almost unlike him. Was it because Earth was not alone? "I simply have faith in our people...and in those we call allies." Even the alliance with the Reef, forged during the Eliksni Confederation War, did not elicit this same vigor; perhaps because those with the Reef could trace their origins to Earth as well. Truly, this was the first war where their people could look to the stars and see friendly faces looking back at them. "...in fact, I believe that by the end of this conflict, we will be able to look at our allies and call them brothers-in-arms. Or perhaps even...friends." Oh, if only Saladin could see him now. He already knew that Katsuragi would somehow get footage of this meeting and laugh herself silly at him becoming a 'softy'.

Not a few stared at him with odd looks. "...so this is what being married will do to a guy," muttered Cayde.

Shaxx simply laughed. "Well, we have fireteams for a reason, do we not? We're simply making the fireteams even bigger!"

"Well lad-dee-dah, hooray for friendship, but are the Cabal going to offer more than a token protection force for those who are in the furthest reaches of the Wilds?" demanded Suraya.

Zavala nodded. "As a matter of fact, we've recently received word from the Empress that she'll be able to free up additional forces to reinforce her garrisons on Earth." And the Earthlings, as a result. "She said something about how a few fireteams of unknown Guardians took the initiative to sabotage certain ships surrounding the Fatherworld, allowing the Cabal to break the Separatists' siege of their planet."

"Huh, I wonder who in the world those guys were. Sure would like to meet them," said Cayde-7, who was positively preening, because of course he had a hand in picking whoever those fireteams were.

And so the meeting of the Consensus continued.

xxxx

The Drifter chuckled, slightly sipping at his glass of liquor, something hard that made nose hairs burn. "You sure like to stretch things, my pal."

"What, me? I stretch nothing. I tell everything as it happened. Got the robotic brain to prove it!"

"Nah nah, not like that. You gave me the big hits, about big events, to whet the tongue. But the nitty-gritty between them, the brutal drudgery...that's where most of the action happens."

Cayde-7 shrugged. "The heat of battle's the same no matter what war you're in: bullet to the head, knife to the back, grenade to the face, etcetera...the interim is where the really interesting stuff happens."

"Guess that's where we have to agree to disagree." The enigmatic stranger looked around the bar, eyeing the mix of humans and Awoken and Exos and Psions and Cabal and various Eliksni. "Things got a lot weirder since I've left. War of Unification is putting it mildly."

"...how long ago did you leave, exactly?" The Hunter Vanguard eyed the Drifter curiously, noting the dusty coat in green and brown colors, the odd pauldrons with spikes and unidentifiable fur, and the downright fashionable bandana. The whole wardrobe was eclectic, but the guy made it work. Somehow. Probably had something to do with the belts, the bloody tinge to the red highlights, or the occasional knife he saw sticking out. "I can tell that you're a Guardian." Couldn't exactly hide the Light, even if his was a little...muted.

"Heh. Guardians weren't even the term when I left. We were still called Risen, killing each other because there weren't any aliens to take our focus. Dark Age was a hell of a time."

"It sure was." Which meant that this character was long-lived indeed. "What exactly prompted you to leave?"

"Heh. Asked that question more than once. Had a different answer dependin' on my mood. I suppose I looked at the Iron Lords and saw the future: duty, sacrifice, death, all that good stuff. But it wasn't for me, and I figured that eventually I'd be looked at as nothing better than the average Warlord."

"Only if you did Warlord stuff."

"The definition of a Warlord varied far and wide in those days...anyway, got myself a crew, kitbashed a ship together out of spare parts, and took off for the deep black. Been out in the Frontier for centuries, seeing all sorts of interesting things at the places where Light and Dark meet."

"...you actually made it beyond the Solar System?"

"Not that hard to imagine, is it?"

"No. Just unheard of." Probably because, in those days, a little tiny itsy-bitsy roadblock called the Nine kept extrasolar travel in check. "And where is your crew?"

The Drifter shrugged. "With everything we saw and killed out there, they got whittled down one by one. Bit off more than they could chew, forgot how to play it smart. That's why I'm still kickin'."

"Hmm." Cayde quietly upped his inner paranoia. "So, all those years out there, and you only pick now to come back? What changed?"

"A little hard to ignore the ripples that were left upon reality." The Drifter grinned, his well-groomed beard and mustache framing his devilish smile. "Evangelion was considered a big deal back in my day, even if it was only a myth at the time...and the Cabal? The Vex? They've got some wide reach in this little galaxy of ours, and they stuff they witnessed? It was never gonna stay a secret forever...especially all that craziness with Unit-01."

"...good to know." The paranoia upped even further. Might have to find out if the Cabal have any unpleasant enemies waiting in the wings. After all, it's not like they were the only alien empire out there, right? "So it was Evangelion that drew you back?"

The Drifter chuckled. "Among other things. Didn't expect to walk into all this though." He gestured at the various aliens around them. "Strikes me as odd, given the humanity I remember. Makes ya wonder if it'll last."

"I think it will." The mere fact that this bar hadn't experienced a gunfight was a friggin' miracle, as far as he was concerned. "You going to stick around?"

"...maybe, maybe not. Depends on if the gettin's good. Too much Light in one place, you can't see anything...too much Dark, still can't see anything. It's only at the twain where you can see all the good stuff."

Cayde frowned as the Drifter rose, dropping a strange green token - some kind of coin, or medal - alongside a bit of Glimmer, serving as his payment for the drink. "Just try not to step on too many toes. Consider it a helpful tip from yours truly."

"Hey, some toes are worth steppin' on if the dance is worth it." As the enigmatic man began to walk away, he briefly paused, glancing back over his shoulder. "Just out of curiosity, you wouldn't happen to have seen Unit-01 or its Pilot as of late, have you? I'd be real interested in meeting the man behind so many legends and rumors..."

"You'd have a hell of a lot more people in that line ahead of you. These days, if Ikari wants to see you, he'll find you first."

"Heh. Good to know." And so did the stranger drift away into the night.

xxxx

Elsewhere, atop a plateau underneath a moonlit sky, two lovers basked in mutual amor. Despite the isolation, and the quiet, and the relative chill of night, their inner Light kept them warm, and they kept each other even warmer.

It was strange, mused Eris Morn as she rubbed the hair of Shinji Ikari...or, more precisely, the hair of his Echo; such was the extent of his ability. Even so, for all his godly powers, he still approached this unitive action with the gentleness and meekness of an anxious teenager. But it had nothing to do with nervousness, for the two were married and bonded in every way that mattered; it was simply his personality and demeanor, that he tended to prefer a simple embrace over a night of sex.

Sometimes, however, nights like these were important, to remind him of the more visceral and carnal aspects of humanity. Eris liked to think of it as keeping him mindful of his origin, and not letting him become too removed from the mundane.

His face rested on her lap, blue eyes staring listlessly along the horizon. Finally, she asked, "Is the war still ongoing?"

"...it is," murmured Shinji. "This Echo...is more connected to time than the rest of me. I'm elsewhere, fighting for centuries in a mere blink...maybe." He sighed. "Sorry. It's hard to explain, when you're not there."

"Are you in danger?"

"No. But I'm not safe either...I don't know how long it will continue for."

Eris huffed, her pale skin appearing almost ghostly under the light of the moon and stars. "Then you will have to make do with the satisfaction that our own war ended in victory, more or less."

Shinji smiled. "I'm glad. And...I'm sorry I wasn't here to help."

"Don't. You are dealing with a greater threat." With a gentle motion, she tilted his chin, making him look into her eyes. "There was pain, and loss, and agony...but we endured, and survived, and have become something new." And hopefully, something better. Speaking of something 'better'...there was a certain topic that Eris wanted to bring up. "Are you aware of the news about Omar Agah and Sai Mota?"

"I'm aware that their marital status become public knowledge," wryly acknowledged Shinji's Echo. The tangible phantom paused, looking quietly up at her. "Are...you wanting what we have to become known?"

"No." They were both private people as it were, and Shinji was still rather deadset on carrying so many burdens on his own. "I assure you, I get needled often enough by the Iron Lady about your current welfare as it is." She took a brief bit of triumph in the embarrassed flush on his face before pressing on. "But I wasn't referring to that. Sai Mota gave birth earlier this year." During the midst of the One Year War against Umun'arath, which was a complicated turn of events as it stood; even more so, when it involved Guardians breaking a taboo that had been in place since before the City Age. "A young child, bearing the Light naturally."

"That's..." The deity's projection smiled. "...that's wonderful. It really is."

Eris understood why he was so pleased; it represented something new, such as the possibility that Guardians would not have to spend every waking moment they had on missions, or defending the City, or striking at their enemies. Perhaps, the birth of young Tarlowe Agah-Mota - named in honor of the fallen Titan, one that Omar and Sai had considered a dear comrade and friend - represented the dawn of an era where Guardians could simply live for their own sake, much like those they were charged with defending. If nothing else, it validated the sacrifices that Shinji had made, in his eyes. "Are you...interested, in that possibility?"

'O_O?!'

Not now, Rose.

The Echo of Ikari went silent, more quiet than the arid night around them. Slowly, he sat up, looking directly into her hazel eyes with an expression that was heavy with so many things. "...do you...know, what you're asking?"

"...if I were to be honest with myself, no." Intellectually, she could grasp the ramifications...but emotionally? Mentally? Spiritually? It would represent a life that she never thought would be possible, for one who had spent so many years skulking in dark shadows and seeking out the destruction of genocidal aliens. "But that's not the point." She raised a pale hand, lightly caressing his cheek. "All those years ago, when you made me promise to return from the Dreadnaught...to come back alive...I realized just how much the power of a bond could change things." For so long, she had fought and endured for the sake of the City and its people...but only in the abstract. Then she had made comrades, brothers and sisters in arms, people that she could count on in the field of battle. And then...a young man, who had only been a Guardian for less than half a year, had barged into her life, impossibly worming his way into her heart. Just as I, against all odds, managed to make my way into yours. "I know that our bond is sufficient for you; you would do whatever it took to make it back alive for my sake alone." This was all on top of the bonds he shared with others, such as Misato, and Asuka, and Cayde, and Variks, and so on...but Eris had never been one to take chances. "But I wish to provide you another bond. Another reason. Because in the face of the enemies you fight, there cannot be enough reasons for you to survive."

"...I..." Hah, she had actually dumbfounded him. Little wonder, given how much he had resigned himself to an existence of endless conflict. Just like myself, once upon a time. "...a child...they deserve to have a father who'll be there." And therein lied the rub, given his own difficulties with Gendo Ikari.

Eris simply pressed her forehead against his own, forcing him to stare directly into his eyes. "All the more reason for you to win. Besides...there will be plenty of aunts and uncles to defend them, so to speak." Truly, their hypothetical child would have the most heavily-armed babysitters in the known universe. "I know that you will find a way." She briefly let her soul unfurl, A.T. Field circulating lazily around their naked forms. "I have faith that you will."

Shinji's own A.T. Field emerged, his soul manifesting itself through the Echo; their metaphysical walls interacted and mingled, communicating pure feelings of trust and compassion and love. "...okay. I would be honored." How funny, how quickly the human mind could change trajectory; now that he no longer considered it an absolute impossibility, it was almost humorous how quickly Shinji was getting on-board with the idea. "I want this...I want this."

Eris nodded. "As do I."

'\(≧∇≦)/ '

Eris also tuned out the cheers of her Ghost, as she lowered her lips to claim Shinji's once again. And so they partook of each other again, and again, bodies meshing together as their souls communed intimately.

That night, they became acutely aware of the precise moment when a third soul - a new soul - made its presence known, like lightning in a bottle.

Eris Morn couldn't help but smile at the strange look that came across Shinji Ikari's face as he stared at her toned stomach: it was a heady mix of awe and wonder and devotion. Welcome, little one. She quietly traced her abdomen with her fingers. Your life is going to be an interesting one indeed.

Despite the uncertainty of the future, despite the growing pains of Earth's alliance with the Cabal and the Fallen, with Calus and the Vex, despite the fact that war would probably always be on their doorstep...for the first time in a long time, Eris truly believed that all was right with the world.

xxxx

The tiny jumpship - an ancient Odyssey-class, held together more by tape and luck than metal - slowly flew through warp. The myriad colors, the blur and the strangeness...it was so very nostalgic. It always reminded the Drifter of those early days, when the entire universe was open to him and his crew.

His crew had been long dead, save one...and it was somewhat difficult to count that one as a true crewmate.

'I'm hurt, my old friend.'

His Ghost couldn't really be counted as much of a friend either. So, that's your old stomping grounds.

'At least there was an air of true uncertainty. So many stories of days when the edge of the City was the limit of everything. So tedious.'

Miss it?

'Not particularly. The Light felt so...cheerful.'

The Drifter smirked. The Light was a strange little beast; for all that the Darkness served as mankind's boogeyman, the Light could be just as deadly. Hence why he and his Ghost had left for the deep black, to find something greater than the Light. And oh, the stuff he did find...

'So many stories, so many desires, so many worries about how the future will unfold...tinged with actual hope. Amusing.'

Can't exactly blame em'. We tend to be a little shortsighted.

'Even Guardians?'

Oh, especially Guardians. Immortality tended to make one a piss-poor planner; after all, why plan for tomorrow when you were going to see it no matter what? It was a cancerous mindset, because the future deserved enough respect to prepare for.

His Ghost chuckled. 'Good answer...Drifter.'

...you gonna keep calling me that?

'It's an inspired title. It fits you.'

Guess so, yeah? With the pull of a lever, his jumpship dropped out of warp; not into normal space, but into the Ascendant Plane. Floating amidst the shadowy realm, there was a null zone that repulsed Light: his beloved Derelict, hauling one of his greatest prizes. Those who saw it would have considered it a strange asteroid, rife with a blue aura that somehow seemed...wrong. Oh, if people only knew how wrong it was!

His dinky little jumpship docked with the Derelict, and the Drifter quietly descended into its depths, where the decor wouldn't have seemed out of place on a Hive warship, or a place that had been Taken. The whole place evoked an oozy, slimy atmosphere, one that most Guardians would have been repulsed by. Those who wouldn't...well, they would have been the interesting ones.

"Are you through with your little escapade?"

The Drifter looked up at the source of the voice: a man with long silver hair, appearing as a particularly well-built human in old, ornate armor that bore ancient stains. Only piercing red eyes and Eliksni symbols betrayed his inhuman nature. He stood in front of a tall cylinder that glowed with black energy, shining darkly. "Oh have a heart, Fikrul; it's not like you can look around. The Fallen would start asking questions."

The Tabrix huffed, lips curling into a sneer. "What has become of my people?"

"Well, they ain't exactly Fallen anymore. They seem to be doing well for themselves. Tryin' to move on, make nice with their old enemies." Cayde had not been the only person he'd gotten stories from. The more story-tellers you heard, the more you could tease out the truth in the telling of the tales. "The past ain't really their focus now, yeah?"

Those words made the alien snarl with disgust. "I see."

A somber voice came from the shadows, spoken aloud from a throaty whisper. "Did I not warn you? Your people's fate was not unexpected. But for the first time, there's been...a second chance? How strange, for that pattern to be broken..."

"To grovel before the Traveler, even though it abandoned us in our hour of need..." The prideful Tabrix snarled. "Unforgivable."

From elsewhere in the shadows, a delighted hiss crept forth. "Then it shall fall to you to show them their folly, will it not? To show them just how foolish they are, to place all their faith in the Light."

The Drifter stepped forward, staring at the cylinder with a knowing smirk. "I think you'll find plenty of opportunity to do your thing, Fikrul. Same for all of you." From all around, an intimidating chuckle sounded, rumbling their bones. "Opportunities are big, if you've got enough of an appetite. Or if you've got enough moxie." He flipped some green tokens between his fingers, each one bearing the symbol of a many-headed snake.

His Ghost felt satisfied. 'I wonder how much your gambit will be worth in the end, oh Drifter mine.'

Well, we'll just have to see, won't we? The Drifter calmly palmed his tokens, staring intently at the corpse within the cylinder. "Alright mavericks..." He held up his tokens, now bearing the images of different realms: Mercury, Venus, Earth, the Fatherworld, the Reef, and a Grand Leviathan. Staring back at those tokens - with lifeless eyes: cold, inert, and yet not - was the corpse of the Exo Stranger. "Let's be bad guys."

DESTINY
2

Acts of an Old Exodus

Coming Soon

xxxx

Author's Note: So...yeah. Forsaken stirred more narrative juices than I anticipated. I guess this would be the fanfiction equivalent of Michael Jordan un-retiring? Nah, I'm not that good.

AOE will be released on FFnet soon-ish.

See you soon, and please review!