AN: Holy crap, I want to shoot my neck through a noose.

Long time no see! Sorry for the long wait, but college had been a particular pain in the ass for the past few months, and I hadn't been able to go around writing as much as I used to pre-college days. Also I got gym membership, so that gives all the more motivation to stop being a total lazy ass now haha. However, I digress. As you can tell, this chapter is noticeably shorter than the previous ones. Don't fret. This is just a portion of the main chapter I'm working on currently, a sort of "preview" to show that I have no intention of abandoning this story (as the last time I updated was damn September, nearly a year ago). Anyway, I hope you enjoy, and much thanks to all who had the time and patience to stop by and read the story. It really warms my heart and soul.

Feedback, reviews, etc, will be greatly appreciated. For those wondering about the cover art, it was made by ZenNiibi2. Go check her out on DeviantArt!

Edit (As of the 12th of December 2020): It's been two years, but I've finally come around to put in some work into this story. As you can tell if you've read this chapter previously, it has been modified extensively. Now it is more of a proper chapter than a "preview" I had erroneously claimed before. I hope it is to all of your liking :)


Exitus Acta Probat

Chapter 4: An Act of Grace

Location: 'Wakefield' Village

Date: [March 28, 2559] [10:15 UNSC Standard Military Time]


The trap was almost ready to be sprung.

Placing the C-12 charge against the stone wall, Jerome reached into his rucksack and retrieved two objects from the side pouches: a pair of remote detonators. He inspected them with the care of a surgeon before jamming the devices' back prods into the malleable mass of the explosive. Pressing a few buttons, the Spartan waited as the detonators armed themselves with quaint 'beeps', the devices linking the detonation code via a COM signal to his neural implant, as well as a backup one to Alice's.

If complications get in his way somehow, then she will take the reins.

Stealing a final glance at his work, Jerome stood up calmly and blew out a faint sigh. That was the last of the charges. The rest were placed in strategic locations all around the perimeter, in the likely areas where the hostiles might rear their ugly heads.

It was a dicey gamble, especially given the amount of C-12 dedicated to the cause. Just a tiny portion of the explosive could obliterate a five story building in mere seconds. The full five Red Team had scattered as ad hoc area-denial bombs were more than enough to blast a large hole through the side of a Marathon-class heavy cruiser. As overkill as it seemed, however, the Spartans were not taking any chances.

Their concerning odds had persuaded them as much, after all.

As he swung the now empty rucksack onto his back, Jerome connected a COM channel to his distant teammate, "Alice, status."

"Just finished up on my end." The calm voice of Alice answered back instantly, "What now?"

Jerome hummed briefly, "Head back and assist the ODSTs with the locals."

Pausing for a moment, the Spartan redirected his gaze towards the looming distance of the town beyond.

"Don't wait on me. There's something I need to do." He added in.

A wink of green light on his HUD indicated Alice's acknowledgement as she promptly closed the channel, leaving behind a click of faint static. Left to his devices, Jerome pressed his lips together and let his eyes drift up to the roof of the building right next to him. The structure itself was about three stories tall, barely dwarfing the other buildings surrounding it.

Good, that should suit his needs just fine.

Using the massive space behind him, the Spartan began to step back a few paces. He eventually stopped just as he positioned himself into a distinct imitation of a runner's stance. Then without a moment's pause, Jerome took off into a nimble sprint. His augmented muscles and the performance-enhancing circuitry within his MJOLNIR armor did most of the work, but in the time it would have taken a person to even blink, the Spartan already reached the proverbial finish line.

Halting just an arm's length away from the wall, Jerome pushed off his dominant leg to leap high into the air. As he sailed upward, the Spartan shifted ever so slightly, allowing his left foot to gain solid purchase on the edge of an open window sill. The weathered stone began to strain and crack from the weight of his armor, but the Spartan had already taken the initiative. With a mere thought, he proceeded to activate one of the MJOLNIR's few but very fruitful features: a rear-integrated thruster pack.

This useful component had served him well during his previous battles with the Covenant. From avoiding plasma fire, crossing difficult terrain, and stomping the heads of the aliens unfortunate enough to be in his path, the thrusters certainly provided an unorthodox but nonetheless welcome means of carrying out certain tasks.

In this case, however, the thruster pack will serve his needs in a much more...elementary capacity.

Jerome pushed himself off the window sill, shattering the weakened stone underneath his foot in the process. As the Spartan soared upward once more, the thrusters flickered for just a split moment before roaring to life with bursts of hot flames. Forming a pair of small fiery wings, the thrusters worked overtime to propel him at a distance higher than before, augmenting his initial leap with efficiency and grace that would put even Olympian jumpers to shame. With the extra boost provided, the Spartan had more than enough leverage to reach his target.

Jerome let out a faint grunt as his right hand shot out in front of him. With a grip comparable to that of a hungry python, he grasped onto the edge of the rooftop, his lower body briefly making contact with the building before swinging back with uncontrolled momentum. Fortunately for the Spartan, whatever made up the material of his purchase wasn't quite as brittle as the window sill down below, supporting his weight and allowing him to dangle over three stories of height like a small child hanging off of monkey bars.

Grabbing onto the ledge with his other hand and pulling himself up with a brief burst of strength, it didn't take long for Jerome to gain what he had so restlessly desired: an effective vantage point. From his place upon the rooftop, he began to quickly but clearly make out every inch of the surrounding village...including the pillars of smoke ominously inching closer and closer towards his direction. The Spartan frowned slightly and zoomed his HUD onto the smoggy anomalies, hoping to get a better view of what he was up against. Eventually, Jerome got his view alright.

What he saw painted a rather unpleasant picture.

Bulldozing through the settlement like locusts in a garden, the hostile army approached as one, and seemed to set it upon themselves to cause as much mayhem and destruction as possible. Sounds of intense battle and devastation reached his ears, while screams of pain and suffering seemed ever so prominent throughout the afflicted areas.

The feminine ones, especially, stood out the most for the Spartan.

Jerome narrowed his eyes, trailing his gaze onto the monsters with hawk-like attention. To say the least, the details provided by Major Vaughan were accurate to a tee. Filling up the bulk of the force were the 'Orcs', beasts that appeared to be an amalgamation of muscle, fat, tusks, and a lot of ugly. Complementing them were a similar number of smaller creatures, such as the 'Imps' and 'Goblins'.

A smorgasbord of other monsters made up the rest, some of which even surprising the Spartan due to their vaguely familiar nature. Minotaurs, ogres, hellhounds, etcetera. Creatures that belonged in ancient Earth mythology were somehow very real and alive, causing all sorts of unwanted trouble right in front of his face. At this point, Jerome didn't know whether to feel amused or concerned by the incredulous situation.

The Spartan shook his head, promptly steeling his focus as he started to calculate the amount of time it would take for the hostile army to eventually reach the estate. The process didn't take long, a total of two seconds in real time. Judging from their slow, methodical, but somewhat constant pace, it wouldn't be much longer until the monsters made due their arrival.

Around twenty minutes by his rough estimation, a time he promptly synchronized to his HUD's chronometer. Jerome let out a low hum. More than enough time for his allies back at the estate to properly prepare.

For what was to come, at least.

Jerome prepared to move again, peering at the hostile army one last time when he heard something that tensed his body still like a statue. Screaming...feminine. The loud volume indicated it was close to his position. From his HUD's motion tracker, the Spartan noticed a score of contacts nearby as he moved towards the disturbance with a quick but silent gait. It took no more than a moment's notice for Jerome to acquire his point of interest.

And what he discovered gave him pause.

Deep in an alleyway below, a woman was struggling in vain to fend off a large group of green, child-like creatures. Goblins, the Spartan recalled, appearing no less grotesque and inhuman than the Orcs he had flattened with his Warthog beforehand. The little monstrosities let out a chorus of cackles, their spindly hands holding down the screaming woman as they tore apart her clothing and proceeded to fondle her bare body with undisguised eagerness. For the Goblins, it seemed as if they were having the appetizer before the main course, the time of their lives.

The terror and hopelessness coming from their sobbing victim said otherwise, however.

A frown graced Jerome's features. His hands, which had relaxed by his sides moments prior, tightened into fists at the horrifying sight before him. It appeared that there were a few stragglers still wandering about, some even meeting a hapless fate such as the woman down in the alleyway.

How unfortunate.

Jerome loosened his fists. If the creatures were just as single minded as they appeared, then the atrocity below him was just one of the many currently taking place throughout the settlement. It was a bitter pill to swallow, even for the Spartan, but it was one that only served to reinforce his desire to quickly end all of this mayhem before it got out of hand.

Before more people become victim to the chaos.

Jerome felt his body relax, his breathing remaining as serene as ever. Nobody will be left behind, he promised — to these people or to himself, he didn't know. His golden visor zeroed onto the woman down below, who by this point had accepted her fate with whimpers and tightly shut eyes.

Nobody.

So without pause or prompt, Jerome proceeded to calmly plunge straight off the rooftop.

To say the least, the journey was almost instantaneous. The MJOLNIR's weight, coupled with gravity, subjected his entire body to the principle known by modern man as Newton's second law of motion. The Spartan braced himself as a prick of weightlessness tickled him, air resistance whipping against his armor like winds from a powerful hurricane. With mere moments to spare, Jerome held in his breath just before his feet made contact with the ground.

'Boom!'

Upon impact, the floor held no resistance as it shattered into a small crater underneath his feet, sending pieces of dirt and trash flying in every direction. A gust of wind surged from the impact point, scaring off a couple of rodents and even a stray cat sneakily attempting to make a meal out of them. Their startled cries began to die into the distance, including the windy disturbance that frightened them off in the first place.

As for the Spartan's quarry...

The goblins, who had prepared to delve deeper into their debauchery, were now focusing on the disruption in a mix of shock and agitation. However, their anger quickly gave way to dumfounded silence as they took notice of an odd shape inside the growing dust cloud. The hazy visibility made it difficult for them to properly ascertain the disturbance, but whatever stood in front of them, the goblins were quick to note how massive it was.

And durable too, if it could survive a fall like that without letting out any indication of pain.

With the goblins' attention now diverted, their would-be victim had the chance to scoot away from her would-be assailants. Distancing herself safely, the woman used the opportunity to safely observe the surprising turn of events. Her teary gaze darted between the goblins and the dust cloud apprehensively. Her mind, while jumbled with trauma and fear, was secretly just as curious as those of her captors. A choking silence swept the alleyway, no one daring to let out a sound as the unknown shape stood up and turned to their direction.

That was when everything became a sudden blur.

A flicker of motion flew from the cloud, then one of the goblins suddenly lurched back. The creature was dead before its body even hit the ground. Embedded into its forehead was a combat knife, the blade leaking blood over the goblin's lifeless eyes. Stunned by their comrade's sudden demise, the goblins momentarily turned their eyes away from the cloud. A fatal mistake. In their shock, they failed to notice the unknown shape in the dust disappearing mysteriously.

Nor did they acknowledge the large shadow right over their heads until it was too late.

The next goblin to fall let out a brief scream as it was simply crushed to death, destroyed by the Spartan's immense weight. Alarmed by the sound, the remaining goblins shifted to face the threat, but their foe was more than ready for them.

As if by the flick of a switch, Jerome felt his world change within an instant. Potent chemicals provided by his body's augmentations began to flow through him, synthetic and natural adrenaline increasing his reaction time to a near incomprehensible degree. His muscles coiled like a hungry snake while his heightened senses became more powerful. The pupils of his eyes dilated as time seemed to slow and quicken at the same time.

The tell tale signs of Spartan Time.

With the opportunity afforded to him, along with information provided by his HUD, Jerome swiftly ascertained his enemies' strength. Two of the goblins were already down. Twenty two were left. All wielded crude weaponry, which posed little threat to his MJOLNIR armor. They also donned virtually no protection themselves, every one exposing their soft green flesh for the Spartan to see. The corners of his mouth twitched into a small smile.

Such a lack of insight will be their downfall.

Jerome didn't hesitate as he rushed forward in a burst of speed, recovering the combat knife from his first kill in the process. The Spartan made short work of four nearby goblins by slicing their throats with quick, precise strikes. The creatures fell to the floor as corpses, not from suffocation, but as a result of their spines being completely severed from front to back.

With not even a glance at his latest kills, Jerome spun the combat knife into a reverse grip and proceeded to tear into those closest to him. The Spartan was a whirlwind of death, a combination of grace and precision that left no goblin standing. One such victim died immediately after finding the combat knife plunged into its right eye. Another perished quickly once it was relieved of its frontal lobes. An unfortunate goblin found its groin an initial target of the blade until Jerome slashed upwards, nearly splitting the creature into two neat halves.

By the time their bodies dropped to the ground, the Spartan had already moved on.

Jerome eyed a trio of goblins, lowering his center of gravity as he came upon them like a ghost. An armored boot shot out, and a goblin found itself suddenly mid-air when its legs were swept from underneath it. The creature almost yelped in surprise before the Spartan brought the combat knife down onto its head, piercing bone and brain matter as if they were butter.

Pulling his weapon out of the corpse, Jerome didn't waste a moment to swipe the bloodied blade across the eyes of another goblin. The creature reeled back, completely blinded, but its fleeting panic was put to rest as the Spartan then nestled the combat knife underneath its jaw, severing the brain from the rest of its body with a single stroke. The goblin went slack, as did its breathing.

Jerome set his sights on the last of the trio, and he leapt at the creature before it could even see him. The Spartan pushed lightly off his feet, sailing over the goblin's head as a green blur, and adjusted himself mid-flight so he would land gracefully behind his stupefied target. Caught unawares by the maneuver, the goblin had no time to fathom Jerome's speed when a sudden feeling of coldness overtook its thoughts. The creature twitched once, then collapsed to the floor in a lifeless heap. The culprit simply stood over it with a cool gaze, the combat knife bloodied further as he yanked it out of the back of his victim's skull.

Within a span of five seconds, ten more bodies laid strewn around his feet.

Jerome stopped for a moment to sheathe the combat knife, noting how the remaining goblins had finally brought their full attention to bear. Beady eyes widened like saucers at both the Spartan and his lifeless prey, and a chorus of gasps exemplified their growing horror. But before they could fully comprehend the situation, however, Jerome had blurred into motion once more.

He wasn't allowing them another chance to react, after all.

Lunging at the nearest goblin, the Spartan proceeded to slam a knee against the nose of his target. The creature's entire face capitulated instantly as flesh and bone gave way to MJOLNIR armor plating, reeling back from the blow's sheer momentum. Its body flew back and collided with a rusty water pump, slumping to the floor dead. Without looking back, Jerome shifted ever so slightly to deliver a kick that sent another goblin careening behind him like a rocket fired from a SPNKR. The goblin didn't receive even a moment to register the pain of its shattered ribs before being sent into a nearby wall violently, both itself and the stone foundations completely obliterated.

A heartbeat later, the Spartan blurred right in front of four more goblins. Snatching two by the side of their heads, Jerome brought them eye level with his faceplate and gave their horrified features a quick appraisal. The expressions didn't change even when the Spartan then smashed their heads together, effortlessly cracking their skulls open like eggs against the side of a pan.

Dropping the limp corpses, his arms shot out to seize the other two goblins by their throats. Beady eyes bulged out of their sockets as gloved hands wrapped around the creatures' windpipes, constricting them with inhuman strength. From within the Spartan's visor, a distorted reflection of themselves greeted their darkening visions. A brief moment to take in their own petrified faces was all Jerome afforded them.

Then a quick snap of their necks ended their breathing for good.

Jerome didn't slow his pace as he tossed the bodies in his hands, catching them by the ankles. Armed with newfound weapons, he swung one of the remains against a nearby goblin. The creature in question died with a sickening crunch, blissfully ignorant of the fact it had been killed by its own comrade. Its body sailed to the ground, mangled and lifeless, and the Spartan didn't hesitate to repeat the same process on the next goblin. With another swing, both his victim and impromptu weapons went flying into the air, becoming bloody murals when they splattered unceremoniously on a nearby wall.

Eight down. Four more to go.

Without pause, Jerome brought his fists to bear. His eyes locked onto the surviving goblins coldly, their slack-jawed expressions frozen in time. A single heartbeat was all it took for the Spartan to pounce on his target, and lash out a powerful punch straight at its face.

The creature simply ceased to exist as the blow struck it with the force of a MAC round, its body and decapitated head toppling back like sacks of potatoes. Within the same moment, another goblin fell victim when Jerome sidestepped towards its direction, delivering a viper-like backhand across its cheek. Not only did a portion of its face just disappear from view, the fact that its head was facing the wrong way ensured the creature an unavoidable but quick end.

The goblin fell lifelessly to the floor just as another one of its comrades found itself skyrocketing into the air, punted by the Spartan within the blink of an eye. The attack was fast, too fast for the creature to react or even let out a scream before it crashed into a second story window. The goblin went out of sight, but the sounds of broken glass, furniture, and bones spoke indicatively of its grisly fate. The one responsible for its demise simply relaxed his outstretched foot, halting in place for only a moment.

Just one left now.

Soundlessly, Jerome turned his attention to the last remaining goblin alive. Standing a few feet away, the creature in question was shaking in its worn leather boots. With itself the surviving member of its group, at least for now, the goblin had the opportunity to take everything in — and the sheer fear it radiated was palpable. Sweat broke out in droves as the pupils of its eyes dilated to pinpricks, darting to and fro between its dead comrades and their executioner. The creature's breathing hastened as well, growing to a rapid rhythm. The dagger in its hands visibly wavered like it had been jolted by a mighty earthquake.

The goblin was all nerves now. Pure terror had taken hold of its mind and body, petrifying it still. At this point, anything down to even the squeaks of mice could set the creature off, something Jerome decided to capitalize on. With no one — alive or dead — expecting it, a single word escaped his helmet's speakers, piercing the silence of the alleyway.

"Boo!"

The reaction was immediate. Within milliseconds, a shrill scream erupted from the goblin as the terror that it held within itself suddenly exploded outward. The frightened creature turned on the balls of its heels, preparing to run in a frenzied attempt to escape the alleyway. Fight or flight instincts had made the goblin fast, and certainly fast enough for it to even succeed had its adversary been a normal human. How unfortunate that such an ideal situation would never occur.

Because despite the speed granted by its adrenaline-filled body, the goblin could not ever hope to outrun a Spartan.

A flickering object raced through the air, and the goblin suddenly tumbled face first to the floor before even taking a single step. The creature let out a cry of alarm as it attempted to lift itself off the ground, looking back to see what had incapacitated it. Upon ascertaining the cause, the goblin went pale with horror. Lodged into the back of its leg was a combat knife, the same one that butchered many of its fellows just moments ago. It was a deep wound, and no doubt a crippling one too.

Filled with raw desperation, the creature began to reach back, straining to pull the knife out. Its spindly fingers almost brushed the handle, but the effort was ultimately for naught when the goblin was pushed back down without warning. An unbearable weight pressed itself against its head, eliciting a gurgle of pain, and the goblin's wild eyes could only gaze up to what was possibly the most terrifying sight in its entire lifetime.

The bulky figure of its tormentor, standing over it like a silent predator.

The Spartan watched as the goblin struggled from underneath his boot, clawing frantically at titanium plating to no avail. With the threat virtually diminished, Jerome felt the effects of Spartan Time beginning to recede, but he was not done yet. Soundlessly, the Spartan appraised his flailing prey one last time. From its anatomy to current display of survival instincts, every tidbit on his newfound enemies was noted and stored into the back of his mind for further use. A heartbeat passed before Jerome let out an approved huff, satisfied by what he had gathered.

Then he proceeded to press his foot down a little harder.

What bellowed from the goblin below could be only described as animalistic. The stress from the growing pressure was immense, more than it could mentally handle. Wailing like a banshee, the creature's teary eyes nearly popped out of their sockets while its vision began to be consumed by darkness. The goblin felt as if its head was about to explode.

A moment later, it did.

Jerome gave one final push, and the goblin's head surrendered to the strain. Squish! A sickening squelch echoed through the alleyway as bone and brain matter were grounded into fine paste, crumpling like a watermelon underneath a hydraulic press. The remains of its head idly flowed along the bloody pool leaking from the Spartan's boot, and the goblin's body twitched erratically for a moment before falling motionless, silent and lifeless.

Stillness then reigned the alleyway, arriving as quickly as the goblins' demises.

Without a word, Jerome raised his foot. He regarded the mess as if he had accidentally stepped on a pile of dog shit, and simply flung the remains off his boot with a quick shake. Retrieving his combat knife from the fresh corpse, the Spartan flashed a quick gaze at the rest of his handiwork.

It was a graveyard.

Bodies littered the alleyway in droves, a horror show not unlike a slaughterhouse. Many of the corpses were marked with telltale knife wounds, others brutalized to the point where limbs twisted at awkward angles. A number were simply unrecognizable smears on the floor and walls, and Jerome's helmet filters worked overtime to keep the stench of piss and feces from reaching his nose.

All were dead, and not one was able to lay even a bony finger on his MJOLNIR armor.

As he cleaned his blade with a few curt shakes, the Spartan grew curious and gave a glance at his HUD's chronometer. Twelve seconds. From the moment he started his assault to the present, twelve seconds had passed with two dozen goblins at his feet. Jerome let out a satisfied huff.

Not bad, not bad at all. The Spartan felt a bit rusty — as would anyone who spent almost thirty years in cryo-sleep — but considering what he worked with, he was more than content with the results. In a more preferable scenario, his MA5B would have done the job for him — and just as easily. None of the creatures were bulletproof, after all.

But then again, neither was his rescuee.

Such reason was why he had abstained from using the assault rifle in the first place. The risk of collateral damage was too great, and the Spartan would rather not spend another moment dwelling on that thought anymore than he needed to. Jerome gave his combat knife a final shake before sliding it back into its scabbard, then craned his neck to look behind him.

Speaking of whom...

Against the far wall, the woman sat alone in a silent, quivering ball. Streaks of blood painted her being, all not her own. Her clothes were shredded to pieces, her hair unkept and wild. If it was from her exposed skin or the commotion, the Spartan didn't know, but he could easily tell she was frightened to the bone. The frequent sniffles and whimpers indicated as much.

A brief pang hit his heart at the sorry sight, but Jerome shook his head and squashed it down just as quickly. There was no time for sentimentality. The woman's safety was the priority, nothing else mattered.

Someone else can do the sympathizing for him later.

Without a word, Jerome made his way to the woman. She seemed to hear him perfectly despite her traumatized state, as her body flinched in near rhythm to each of the Spartan's heavy footsteps. Yet she chose to do nothing but continue hiding in her little shell, even when the Spartan stood mere inches away from her moments later.

"Ma'am?"

A few heartbeats past before shaky sobs greeted him, "P-please...leave me be."

The Spartan frowned, and lowered himself to the woman's level, "I'm not going to hurt you." He said gently.

The woman didn't respond any further, and his close proximity provoked her to tuck her legs up even more tightly against her chest. Jerome resisted the urge to let out a sigh. He didn't have time for any more stubbornness.

"The creatures are dead. You're safe now." Jerome insisted, forcing his voice to be non-threatening as humanly possible.

That was enough to draw out a reaction out of her. Shifting with obvious reluctance, the woman eventually brought her head up to meet Jerome's gaze. Her movements revealed tear-stained features, and the Spartan took the opportunity to take in every detail of her appearance.

At first glance, she looked human enough. Chocolate skin, black hair, and a body only genetics of the superior degree could provide. Exotic violet eyes stared back with nervous energy, nearly matching in shade to the tattered remains of her clothes. Had he been anything but a Spartan, he would have been floored by the sheer beauty in front of him.

However, that was about as far as conventional features were concerned. A closer look at the woman and Jerome felt himself tensing up once he noticed something about the woman that stuck out like a sore thumb. Two of them, to be exact.

'Her ears...'

They were long and pointy, surpassing any human ear in length. Tucked behind her curly hair, the fact they were twitching on their own accord more than confirmed their already peculiar nature. It was almost like they had a mind of their own. Then as quickly as he could physically react, a sudden realization came over him.

She wasn't human.

The Spartan shifted, almost jerking at the revelation. A friendly non-human. A honest-to-god non-human who wasn't actively trying to kill him. It was quite the jarring contrast from the hostile creatures of this world, much less the Covenant a time ago.

Jerome narrowed his eyes.

Not only was he intrigued by the discovery, he was momentarily stunned by it as well. For the first time since he was a child, Jerome was caught in a rare moment of indecision. His stern features hardened further as he let out a wisp of air through his lips.

What the hell should he do?

However, it seemed that he will get the opportunity to ponder about it later when a series of wails snapped him out of his thoughts. The Spartan blinked, and noticed the woman had spontaneously erupted into a sobbing mess. Jerome watched in pure bewilderment as she pounded her heels against the floor in a frantic attempt to scoot away from him, despite already squishing against the wall behind her. Her utter fear was unmistakable, tears trailing down her cheeks and quivering lips.

For a moment, Jerome was confused. She was afraid of him? But why? He hadn't done anything to provoke...

Then Jerome noticed her eyes.

Every now and then, they were directed towards something past him, so the Spartan followed her gaze until he ascertained the cause of the woman's distress: the dead goblins. Jerome remained silent at first, still confused by her reaction. But when she flinched, closing her eyes as the Spartan turned to face her again, his mind quickly put two and two together, and he couldn't help but whisper out a quiet curse.

Of course. The brutal display behind him must have been terrifying enough for the woman, but what really set off the powder keg was his sudden shift of movement, a rare slip up on his part. She must have mistaken his earlier realization for hostility, and assumed the worst by reacting like she did. She probably thought he was going to finish her off, as he had done with the goblins moments prior. No wonder she seemed so frightened.

Jerome frowned. This was not how the Spartan wanted it to go. Nothing was being accomplished right now, and already precious time was being wasted. Every second spent twiddling his thumbs and entertaining the woman's behavior meant more ground the hostile army would be able to cover before they reached the estate — and less time for him to assist Alice with the defenses.

That was unacceptable. Jerome would hate to keep Alice waiting on his account.

Maintaining his frown, the Spartan regarded the woman with a firm gaze, "Ma'am."

"Go away!" She screamed, continuing to push herself against the wall futilely.

Jerome paused for a moment. Despite himself, a part of him entertained the thought of simply snatching the woman onto his shoulder, saving himself the trouble of reasoning with her. He disregarded the thought immediately, noting her uncooperative state would make that option unappealing. He wasn't just going to leave her here either. Jerome hummed, considering his choices when an idea came into mind. A considerable amount of hesitation creeped into his thoughts, a justifiable feeling in other circumstances, but the Spartan nonetheless pushed the doubt away as quickly and effortlessly as he would any other mission.

After all, he was planning to do something that would be rather...unorthodox for a Spartan.

"I'm not going to hurt you." Jerome said, raising a hand towards her calmly.

The woman responded by instinctively lashing out at him. Her attack failed to make it even halfway before an armored hand shot out from the side, ensnaring her wrist with a cobra-like grip. Within the blink of an eye, the woman was now completely at the Spartan's mercy.

"Let me go!" She wailed at him, pounding on his gauntlet to no avail, "Let me go! Let me go..."

Struggling against his steel grip for a while, the woman fought until she eventually lost the energy to resist any further. She slumped against the wall lazily, her body lax and unmoving. Despite her listless state, hot tears continued to flow down her face.

"P-please...leave me be." She sobbed, gazing at his golden visor fearfully.

When the Spartan didn't respond at first, the woman let out a few shaky weeps and hiccups before looking down at her feet. She closed her eyes shut, trembling as she did so, but nonetheless waited in silence for the inevitable. If she was going to meet her end, she might as well face it with the sliver of dignity left within her. However, whatever was supposed to come next, whatever horrible fate she had expected to fall upon her in that very moment...never came.

Instead, something quite different took place.

"Ma'am." Her ears picked up the Spartan's stern voice, "Look at me."

A part of the woman wanted to say no, to use whatever little spirit she had to defy her captor one last time. On the other hand, the more sensible part of her yelled otherwise, to do nothing rash as to not give any more incentive for the mysterious giant to bring harm upon her. It was an internal tug-of-war that seemed to last for a while before the mental conflict gave way to just simple, growing curiosity.

Well...it wasn't like she had much of a choice anyway.

Hit with a brief burst of courage, she opened her eyes and tilted her head up to meet the Spartan's gaze. At that moment, she had fully expected to see the same faceless mirror again. The very one that displayed her distorted reflection, the same one which had brought terror and death upon her previous captors.

What actually greeted her back, however, was quite the pleasant surprise.

Instead of the usual golden surface, there was nothing but a clear, translucent glass — and beyond that was the upper half of a face. A human face, the woman realized to her shock. Despite her tear-filled vision, she could still make out some of the Spartan's exposed features, from the unhealthy pale complexion to the numerous scars marring his youthful skin. Everything was within plain sight for her to take in completely.

Including his eyes. By the Goddess, she had never seen such silver eyes before.

They were cool, calculating, temperate. Not only did they radiate stern intelligence, they also seemed to pierce right through her body as well as her soul. Although their cold nature was in line with what the woman had expected for someone so intimidating, there was something else too.

Alongside the frigid essence was a certain...gentleness, so subtle and imperceptible she just barely noticed it. It was quite a strange contrast, for sure, but one that somehow complemented the mysterious giant so well. Add to the fact it was all directed at her — and her alone — the woman began to experience sudden feelings of warmth and security she hadn't felt in such a long, long time.

Yes, she felt warm. She felt safe. The woman didn't know why, but she wanted to trust the Spartan, trust him with her life. It just felt...right, to say the least.

So caught up in her mesmerized state, she didn't realize her trembling had stopped nor did she notice her lack of tears. She didn't even realize the grip on her wrist had lessened considerably as well.

"See, I'm human. I'm not like those creatures." Suddenly her attention was snapped back to the present by Jerome's voice, "I can get you to safety. Please, trust me."

The woman bit her lip at the offer. Just moments ago, she had been assaulted, nearly violated by a group of goblins. She had almost suffered a horrible fate that most women would prefer death over, but it seemed the Goddess took kindly upon her struggle by sending a stranger in equally bizarre armor to her rescue. It sounded almost too good to be true, and the lingering doubt showed through her features.

"You..will?" She asked timidly.

The Spartan nodded, his eyes regarding her patiently, "Only if you allow me."

At that moment, the woman felt a weight lift from her shoulders. She had made her choice, "Okay."

Jerome released her wrist. The woman relaxed slowly as the tension disappeared from her body, the adrenaline slipping away. Her cautiousness, although not gone completely, was suppressed to the point where she managed to flash the Spartan a small but genuine smile.

"Grace."

Her savior looked at her in silence, tilting his head slightly. Even without words, the confusion was evident.

"That is my name." She clarified, "Grace Campbell."

Jerome let out a faint hum, satisfied by her answer, "Okay, Miss Campbell." He said while his visor changed back to its original, polarized state, "Get ready."

Grace felt a tug of disappointment by the fact she couldn't see his face anymore, but it was soon overtaken by confusion as she attempted to figure out what the Spartan had meant.

"'Get ready?' Get ready for what..."

Grace didn't get a chance to ponder further when she felt a tingly sensation along her back, and the woman found herself suddenly lifted off the ground with such speed, she couldn't even react. Letting out a brief yelp, she flew in the air before landing gently in the arms of the Spartan, who began to carry her bridal style. Grace recovered quickly and looked up to glare at Jerome, but her displeasure was short-lived upon meeting his neutral, faceless stare.

It wasn't hard to know why, considering the position she was in.

Checking to make sure the blushing woman was secured in his arms, the Spartan proceeded to scan his surroundings with one mechanical sweep of his helmet. Every crook and cranny was noted down to the tiniest detail, even his latest kills in the alleyway, while his attention shifted to the motion tracker every now and then.

Detecting nothing out of the ordinary, Jerome allowed himself to relax. He let out a quiet sigh. It took quite a bit of time, longer than he would have liked personally, but the Spartan felt satisfied enough knowing that he had just knocked down two birds with one stone — and with plenty of time to spare, according to his HUD's chronometer.

Now it was time for him to rejoin the fight.

Jerome humored himself with a moment of tranquil silence before casting his gaze towards the direction of the estate. A feeling of determination washed over him, and the Spartan wasted no more time dillydallying by shifting into a runner's stance again once more. A staunch expression hid behind his visor.

Tucked in his arms, on the other hand, Grace felt a strange change in the air. She looked up at Jerome again, one of her brows raised nervously, but curiously. Absolutely oblivious to what was about to happen next.

"H-Hey...what are you doing—"

As if a switch had been flipped, the Spartan suddenly took off in a blur of motion. A trail of dust was left rising in his wake, blanketing the air with a cloud of dirty soil...and Grace's terrified screams. Fortunately for the two, there was nary a living soul in the area to witness their departure.

Except for one.

A stray cat watched the retreating pair from a window sill high above, meowing as it played with the corpse of a rodent with its paws. Its green eyes began to glow with curiosity alongside a strange, hidden intelligence. The feline had much to take in.

After all, it had interesting news to report to its mistress.