I will admit. There has been an unreasonable delay on this one. Part of it has been simply work consuming more and more of my life (the law being one of those jobs where you tell everyone "I am a workaholic, but not by choice") and a lot of other drama that has just made it difficult to find the time to finish reviewing. Side projects too, one of which I am going to be uploading alongside this one.
I'll be honest. This is a story that, I was convinced, starting out, would be one of those crazy things that I just did for a little while and would then forget about once my root-beer induced silliness with my friends had worn off and real life started to eat away at what free time I had. The entire premise, is, let's face it, more than a tad bit out there. A crossover between a military science fiction shooter and a high fantasy universe is not the sort of thing you expect to see, let alone be something that apparently passes for decent.
I started working on Finishing the Fight ten years ago. A lot has changed in my life since then. But this is one of the few stories that, while I can track the progress of my writing and see how it has improved, I may actually look back on and be proud of. It's not perfect. Not by any stretch of the imagination. And I still have the urge to go back and revise and fix up yet more of it. But it is a lot better than other stuff I have done.
And I couldn't have managed to get it done, or get it to the quality that it is at, without the help of some very dear friends. Atlan. Orsai. Athenae, Razor, Cpl_facehugger and all my other friends and associates over at Spacebattles and sooooo many others have given me advice and suggestions over the years that made this what it was. Thank you. All of you. Words cannot properly express my gratitude.
And to all of you as well. My readers. It is…it is humbling in a way, to know that something you created is something people are taking time out of their own busy lives to read over. To try to offer advice on. To know that there are people that…that spend time reading something that you made, and that they enjoy doing so. Especially when I have an update schedule that can charitably be described as "sporadic". That you people have the patience for me after all this time is…well…I'm grateful, to put it mildly. In the end, well… I'm just happy that so many people enjoyed it. It's…I hate to invoke an old cliché, but it's moving. Touching. Hopefully I am making something that vaguely resembles sense.
I've got a few other projects in the works, one of which, after more or less a year to the day of stalling, I'm finally going to upload just to get it off my chest.
But for now, this is the final chapter of Finishing the Fight. It's taken me a long time, far, far too long. But…I hope that this epilogue brings you all some enjoyment. There's always that fear of tripping at the final hurdle.
Thank you all so very much. From the very bottom of my heart. This is dedicated to all of you. For all the time, for all the support, for all the encouragement…thank you.
Epilogue- An End to All Things
William Gunter muttered under his breath as he made his way towards a secondary docking bay of the UNSCS Zulu. The ship was a bustle of activity, as they always were when exiting a Slip-Space jump. Military personnel swarmed through the corridors, reminding the man of ants in a nest that had been kicked by an impetuous child. The noise and activity seemed amplified by the two dozen other pairs of footwear tromping against the armored deck. All the secrecy didn't help. There was a quiet whirring noise from behind him, and he looked back over his shoulder to make certain that his camera drone was still functioning properly. The basketball-sized contraption seemed okay, though, moving through the air on its thrusters as he drew close to the primary elevator down to the docking bay. He doubled checked the small control data-pad on his wrist, which confirmed his observations. William wasn't a part of the military, he and seventeen of the twenty five person group were reporters. They were some of the few who had survived the war. Then again, less than one person in a hundred had survived the Second Battle for Earth, as it had come to be known, so there weren't very many people of any profession left.
He wondered if that was why the UNSC high command had chosen him to be part of this group. William frowned as he rounded a corner, following closely behind the Marine escort accompanying them, and saw the large elevator in front of him. Less than two days ago, he'd been approached by UNSC army soldiers, whisked off to an ONI building, and found himself in front of several high ranking members of military intelligence. They'd read him his background, the events that he'd covered before and since the battles on Earth, and then had informed him to pack his bags and equipment, that he was shipping out.
As the elevator reached its destination, the reporter found himself pondering the possibilities of what was going on. No one had told him or the others anything, not yet. What could be so important, the thought echoed through his brain once more. Where could they be going? All the colonies were supposedly destroyed, and they certainly hadn't headed for Luna or Mars. They'd gone through that strange portal where Mombasa used to be. While that had initially led him to believe that he and the others were going to be covering events regarding The Ark, as the installation on the other side of the portal was apparently known, they hadn't stopped there either. William frowned again as he stepped out into the docking bay. He hoped he'd get some answers soon.
William's suspicions were further aroused when he beheld only a pair of Pelicans in the bay. The docking area was relatively small, but it still could have held half a dozen of the dropships with ease. The contingent of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers standing around the two ships did little to ease the tension that he felt and the hairs on the back of his neck were standing on edge now. One of them waived the group over and he obeyed the command. The Helljumper had a Corporal's insignia on his shoulder with a nameplate that read "Simmons" imprinted underneath it, and he looked as though he was the ranking member of the fireteam.
Standard identification protocols followed and William found himself forced to hold back a sigh. DNA testing, retinal scans, why did they bother with stuff like this? The ODSTs built in neural nets had probably pinged him from the moment he'd walked in. Hell, it wouldn't have surprised him to know that they'd been following him and the rest of the reporters for most of the day long trip. Still, Williams thought, best not to irritate them. So he allowed them to go about their tests and the like without raising a fuss. Then they ushered him into the dropship.
Being first in, William found himself being moved up towards the front of the ship, right next to the cockpit.
"Best view on the ship," Simmons said from behind his polarized faceplate. "Figured you would appreciate that."
"Why?" William raised an eyebrow.
"Oh, I see. Still haven't told you what's going on yet." The ODST laughed. "Just make certain that all your little drones are recording. You'll want to have footage of this. Trust me."
The reporter rolled his eyes and frowned. Still, he tapped a few commands on his data pad. The floating robot chirped an affirmative and started to record. William double checked the PDA he was carrying and confirmed it was recording properly. Moments later his boots vibrated under his feet as the Pelican's engines rumbled to life and the door of the docking bay opened up. The ship dropped out, and William's eyes widened in surprise. There was a planet in front of his gaze. There was a split second where, from a distance, he could have almost mistaken it for Earth. A quick glance down at it indicated it couldn't possibly be the Human home world. The continents were all wrong for one thing and there wasn't a massive blackened scar where the heart of Central Africa would have been.
Was this what all the commotion and excitement was about then? They'd discovered a new planet to colonize? Something to lift the spirits of the downtrodden people back home?
"Beautiful view, isn't it?" He heard the pilot ask.
"Nice. But that doesn't explain the secrecy." One of the other reporters said from the back
"Not going to be a secret much longer. Command just wanted to get a few things in order before they started spamming the broadcast waves with the news," the ODST Corporal said, looking back over his shoulder. "But the real surprise is still waiting for you."
"What do you mean?"
"You'll see," there was a faint chuckle from within the helmet.
William frowned again as the planet quickly dominated—and then completely enveloped—the view through the armored windows of the cockpit. This was starting to become a running joke. Patience, patience, he reminded himself. A good reporter knew how to do that. So he put the irritation he felt aside and instead focused on the view before him.
Passing from high orbit down through the atmosphere took less than two minutes. The faint rumble of re-entry passed, and William kept his eyes peeled as he scarcely dared to blink. The dropship seemed to be heading towards a specific spot on the planet, high on the northern hemisphere. External sensors indicated the outside temperature was just above freezing, rather brisk, and a brown expanse of tundra lay stretched out before their eyes.
Mere moments passed before the dropship came along a massive gouge in the landscape. William blinked. He'd covered enough of the battles for Earth to recognize that kind of wound. It was the type of damage caused by a high speed, but still somewhat controlled, impact. The kind a ship would make when attempting an emergency landing with severe damage. No sooner had that thought registered than the pilot picked the Pelican up and slowed it down. The reporter's eyes widened in surprise as he saw the end of the impact tear. There was a ship there all right, a UNSC frigate. He squinted for a moment, trying to make out the ship's name.
His mouth went slack, his breath caught in his lungs, and his eyes blinked a couple more times as he read it. Impossible. This was impossible. It was a trick; it had to be. He looked over to Simmons, who simply nodded.
"Yep, it's the Dawn." He said with a nod. "I didn't believe it either when I first laid eyes on it. But here she is."
William was at a loss for words, barely registering the sudden change in atmosphere behind him as everything from shouts of disbelief to hushed whispers kicked up among the reporters. The Forward unto Dawn was already a legend among the survivors of Humanity. Everyone from the oldest, most senile elderly citizen to the smallest schoolchild knew of the small frigate that Commander Keyes and her crew had taken to the Ark. Most of that crew had returned home safely, but the Commander and two other members of her crew, had remained behind along with the Arbiter of the Sangheili people. The ship had never come back through the portal and, over the past eight months, theories of all kinds had circulated about what might have happened to those four. It seemed that at last they had their answer.
William shook himself out of his reverie, aware that they were headed in towards the downed frigate, and that a door was opening on the side to let them into a docking bay.
"Amazing," was all that he could say, shaking his head back and forth. "How did you find her?"
"Long story, Mr. Gunter," the ODST said. "Finding her ain't even the half of it though." the Pelican shuddered slightly as it landed. There was a faint hiss as the back door opened. "There's a lot more to the story than that."
William's eyes widened again as the implications hit him. How would they know the story? Unless…
"Follow me, and I'll lead you all to them." The Corporal said, gesturing once again. William nodded almost dumbly, and double-checked his camera drone. A part of his mind still refused to believe that this was happening. But the other half seemed to whisper that somehow the phrase "story of a lifetime" didn't even come close to what he was about to be a part of. Judging by the fact that he was nearly stampeded by his colleagues on the way out, he clearly wasn't the only one.
John was grateful that his helmet hid the frown on his face as he looked around the Dawn's primary briefing room. He was sitting on an elevated "stage" that had been put down just a few hours ago in preparation for the upcoming interview. He shifted slightly in the reinforced chair that had been specially designed to put up with his weight. His seat was the leftmost, with Commander Keyes next to him, and Sergeant Johnson to her right. Both of them were also wearing their combat attire, though their helmets were off. Lord Hood had felt that the combat gear would give an additional layer to the "war hero" image and, given that all three sets of equipment carried the scars of battle, would drive home the point a little more.
There were some more seats on the stage as well. They were use later on. The interview had been planned for two stages, one that was simply with the three of them, another where certain key players from Faerun would be interviewed. Most of the Faerunians didn't understand English, and so he, Keyes, and Johnson were going to have to act as translators when that time came. John wondered for a moment what the reporters that were huddled in front of them, scribbling on data pads, would think of that when the time came. He hadn't been told if they'd seen any of the natives yet. Might be interesting for both sides.
There were eighteen reporters in all, eighteen camera drones pointed at him and his friends. The muscles in his right cheek twitched slightly, and he felt his temple pulsing. Reporters were… an enigma to him. Contact with them had been extremely limited. Thinking back, John tried to remember the last time he'd actually been asked a question by one of them, and found that he couldn't. The closest thing that he could remember were the ones that had been present when he or another Spartan had been awarded some commendation or other. His throat felt dry suddenly, and there was an emotion in the back of his mind, not so much nervousness as a sense of anticipation, like he was about to be deployed onto a battlefield, or be debriefed by ONI. There was also the matter that this was apparently going to be a live interview. Anything could happen, he realized, and felt a spike of adrenaline at the notion.
"Umm, Master Chief, Sir?" one of them asked. It was a young woman, probably between the age of twenty or forty. He focused on her, saying nothing, waiting for her to continue. "Do you think, well," she paused awkwardly and the cyborg resisted the urge to sigh. He knew what she was likely asking. Instead he simply cocked his head to the side. "Do you think you could, you know," she tapped her stylus to the side of her head.
That was the fourth time that one of them had asked him that. Either they weren't paying attention to each other or simple silence wasn't getting the message across. Regardless, a flat out denial might not get things off to a good start, the Master Chief thought to himself.
John remained silent for a moment longer. "I'd rather not." He said at last.
He could hardly blame them for being curious. There weren't any publically available photographs or holograms about what he or any of his family looked like under their armor. To these civilians, clad in his armor and the emotionless visor hiding his face, he probably seemed as enigmatic and alien as any Covenant soldier.
"Chief's just a little camera shy, that's all," Johnson spoke up, chuckling softly as he leaned back in his chair, completely at ease with the whole situation. His eyes were twinkling, and he flashed the woman his most disarming smile.
The reporter laughed in a manner that seemed both parts nervous and humorous. In a way, John found himself slightly envious of his old friend at that moment. Johnson's natural charisma and way with other people put him right at home in this situation. The Spartan wondered if these interviews were going to become a regular thing in the future. If there was no way to avoid them, it might be prudent to get Johnson to train him for the task.
It did not take much longer for the reporters to finish with their meeting. John wondered if they were comparing questions, or trying to settle on an agenda. He perked up a bit as they turned around and faced him and the others.
"Admiral Keyes, we're going to start now, if that's okay with you and your colleagues?" one of the men asked.
"Of course." Keyes nodded.
Commands were entered into data pads and camera drones buzzed to life. The reporters spoke in quiet, clear tones to the robots, giving an opening and giving those who might have been watching on either the ships or back on Earth the general context of what was happening. The Master Chief could see a brief replay of some video footage, what looked like the approach of the drop ships that the reporters had arrived in. This went on for a few minutes, before at last, the turned around and faced the three "on stage" once more.
"Well," the man scratched the side of his head with his stylus, "I think the question on everyone's mind right now is the story of you and your crew. After The Shadow of Intent departed The Ark, what happened?"
Keyes paused for a split second, a tired smile on her face. Then she began to speak.
It was some time before the astonished reporters were finished grilling them on everything that had happened and on the nature of Torril. A look down at the internal clock on his HUD indicated to the Master Chief that the interview was already pushing three hours. He had no idea how much longer it would go on, and found himself distantly wondering what the reactions of everyone back in the Sol system would be towards this. The reporters' reactions varied from disbelief to facial expressions that John suspected translated into believing him and the others quite mad. It was likely that only the verification provided by the Dawn's internal cameras, and combat black-boxes, had kept them from being more vocal.
And all that they had discussed so far was the more mundane aspects, such as the myriad of races and species upon this planet, and the rudimentary nature of magic. They hadn't even gotten into the prospect of gods and demons yet. He wondered what their reaction would be towards that. He noticed that the questioning had stopped for the moment, and that the reporters were once again all huddled about, whispering to one another in tones so quite he almost wondered if they were all reading each other's lips. At last, though, they turned around, and all eyes were on him. John frowned and resisted the urge to fidget. So far, his answers had been short and to the point, the questions that had been directed at him the type that could be answered in one or two sentences. Keyes's and Johnson, being much more open and "camera friendly," had satisfied the bulk of the reporters' curiosity. The soldier's sixth sense in him told the Spartan that that was about to change.
"Before we forget ourselves, there are a number of questions that we've been wanting to direct towards you, Master Chief" one of the male reporters said, his press badge identifying him as a "William Gunter." There was a moment of pause, and John was suddenly aware that his lips and throat were quite dry. "This is really… really the first opportunity that we've had to conduct an interview with a Spartan, and the people back on Earth are curious about you…"
"Curious?" John cocked his head to the side. On the one hand, curiosity was usually a good thing. It led to a greater understanding of the universe, and knowledge, after all, was power. On the other, he couldn't help but feel something like a zoo exhibit at the moment.
"The people want to know more about the Spartans. They want to know more about the heroes of the war," Gunter clarified.
"I'm not a hero," John shook his head. "I'm just a soldier who's good at his job. The real heroes are people like Admiral Cole, Jacob Keyes, Corporal Locklear… The men, women, and the A.I.s of the UNSC that displayed courage and valor above and beyond their callings."
"Doesn't such a category include yourself and your fellow Spartans, Master Chief?" a woman asked.
The cyborg looked over towards her, and shook his head again. "No. We did what was expected of us. Nothing more. Nothing less." He frowned behind his helmet. He'd been hoping, however vainly, that this would follow much like a debriefing before a bunch of ONI spooks. Questions about his involvement in the battles. How successfully he'd completed his objectives, and a critiquing of the manner in which he'd completed them, while perhaps asking for his "expert," first hand opinion on new intelligence. He'd been expected to be grilled on the nature of the Drow, of Orcs, and the like. Weaknesses of the enemy, strengths, how to beat them, and the like. This was not at all going as he expected.
"I see," Gunter spoke up, scribbling something down on a data pad. "People are also curious about the Spartans as individuals. They want to know the men and women underneath the armor." John resisted the urge to chuckle in disbelief, and merely raised an eyebrow behind his helmet. Curiosity of that nature was not new to him. He remembered how Corporal Harland had reacted while waiting to be debriefed about the actions on Sigma Octanus. That curiosity was usually tempered with a bit of fear, however. Fear of the unknown, of an entity that was seemingly forever sheathed within shielded power armor, cold and implacable, of something that somehow seemed…inhuman.
"For example, where were you born?" Gunter spoke up again. The man was apparently serious. Stalling would get him nowhere. John's mind raced, estimating what he could say without giving too much away. Overt lies might be detected easily, even if they couldn't see his face and he wasn't hooked up to a bunch of biometric sensors to detect when he was lying. Best to stick as close to the absolute truth as possible. Besides, Eridanus-II had been glassed six years into the war, all records on it destroyed in a holocaust of Covenant plasma.
"I was born on the planet of Eridanus-II in 2511," he began, folding his hands together, mentally calming himself. He simply had to think of it like a debriefing. Perhaps a little more… personal… than one of those, but they were still somewhat similar. "I… lost my family at a young age, and signed up with the Navy as soon as I could, once I'd heard about the Covenant threat." He paused, noting reactions among the reporters. They seemed to be buying things so far. "My scores and performance records were high enough that I was soon approached by the Office of Naval Intelligence. In light of the Covenant threat they wanted to take me, and several other high performing service personnel, and create a new type of soldier to fight them."
"And how did you feel about that?" William asked, speaking up to be heard over the rapid scratching of styluses against data-pads.
"Honored. We were chosen because we were the best."
"Your combat records certainly seem to reflect that." There was a general murmur of assent among those present.
"Master Chief, another question, if you don't mind," a woman said, raising her hand. He looked over to her, recognizing her as the last one to ask him about removing his helmet, and gave a slight nod of his head. "Most of us are aware of your outstanding service record, but aside from that, what was it like to be a Spartan? What did you do when you weren't fighting?"
John paused for a moment. "There wasn't much to do aside from that. ONI was always rushing us from one combat zone to the next. Planets were always under attack. We were either engaged in operations, or being transported to those operations."
"So what did you and the others do when you received leave?"
The cyborg raised an eyebrow behind his helmet once again. Leave? The concept was alien to him. Leave was for other soldiers. It was a reward to those soldiers for good behavior, outstanding performance, or when they needed to be taken away from the killing and slaughter before their minds were destroyed by it. For a moment, he tried to picture himself wandering around a city street, assaulted by holograms and flashing lights, the noise of hundreds, thousands of other people, clad in nothing more than a simple civilian uniform. The image seemed blurry, almost grainy, and he had to fight to hold it, like a bad communications signal. He resisted the urge to shake his head to toss the thought from his mind. No, shore leave was not for him.
"We didn't receive leave. We spent our downtime in the bays and corridors of the ships transporting us to the next battle."
"So you didn't get time to relax or anything between fights?" the woman persisted.
"No, we relaxed, but we did it on the ship. We'd play cards, train, read books." Granted, most of those books had been operations or field manuals, but there had been others that were more recreational in nature. A ship usually had some electronic books, and he'd had fond memories of reading history and science, and he had to suppress a laugh at the memory of one time that Kurt and James had decided to act out the duel between Macbeth and MacDuff for the rest of them.
"Were there any other ways that you and the others… dealt with stress?" John cocked his head to the side for a moment, then caught her meaning.
"That would have been unprofessional." He shook his head.
"Well, the gossip chains will be disappointed," someone else said. Laughter from the reporters followed, and the Master Chief's face became a study in confusion. Reporters were certainly not like anything else that he'd experienced. It was a trial not to start to fidget uncomfortably. He hoped that this would be over soon. Maybe they could get on to the magical demonstrations before long?"
"So, out of all the hundreds of Spartans, out of all the decades you spent fighting, none of you ever got leave?" Gunter spoke back up.
"Thirty three." John responded.
"Excuse me?" the man raised an eyebrow and tilted his head.
"Throughout most of the war, there were only thirty three Spartans cleared for combat operations." It was a minor technical detail, something that Hood had said was going to be declassified. Maybe it could throw the reporters off this track of questioning. "We were often spread out, however, split up into five or six person teams."
He had the satisfaction of watching eighteen reporters and their ODST escorts stand in stunned silence. Halsey had often told him about how the media had latched onto him and the other Spartans. They had been a bright spot of hope in the war. With stories spreading like that, and with him or the others engaging the Covenant at every possible opportunity, it was easy to understand how the impression might form that there were hundreds of Spartan-IIs. Finally, after nearly ten seconds of silence, someone spoke.
"No fucking way…" it was one of the ODSTs, apparently forgetting for a moment that they were live.
John briefly wondered what might be going through the heads of the reporter, or of anyone who had been watching the broadcast. It occurred to him that there might be some members of the Neo-Covenant that were watching this. What would they think? He didn't have much more time to contemplate that, though, as Keyes hastily stood up out of her chair and took a few steps forward.
"Errm, right. At this time, we would also like to allow for questions to be directed towards some of the natives of Faerun. Several of them have agreed to answer questions and offer what insight they can to this unique planet." The Spartan understood what she was doing, and he was grateful.
He rose to his feet as a few people entered from behind, walking out onto the impromptu stage. He recognized Wulfgar and Lord Nasher, the former flanked by another pair of Barbarians, the latter by two members of the Nine. He recognized Casavir, and Neeshka was there as well, her tail twitching back and forth. She caught him looking at her, and stared downward for a moment. The cyborg gave a slight nod towards her, and then made his way over towards a table set up at the far end of the room. Keyes and Johnson, being much more people-oriented, would act as translators. He had something else to carry out.
Unknown to him, of all of the reporters, one had noticed the subtle nod the super-soldier had given to the native. Gunter didn't know what to make of it, but there was something going on between the Master Chief and the bashful girl with the horns and… tail? Oh, he'd definitively had to get her apart for an interview. An opportunity to get more insight on the enigmatic Spartan? That wasn't something that he was about to miss.
Over at the table the Master Chief went about his work. He picked up an ordinary looking UNSC supply rucksack. He reached inside and started by pulling out a few magazines of assault rifle ammunition. Up on the stage, Lord Nasher and Wulfgar were joined by others, Bruenor and other members of Clan Battlehammer, and Drizzt as well.
There was another moment of hushed whispering among the reporters, as Keyes introduced the natives. Silence followed. Finally, one of the reporters raised her hand, and directed a question towards Wulfgar.
The young Barbarian focused his blue eyes on the group of people in front of him. It occurred to him that this was the first time that he had seen noncombatants for the UNSC. Their civilians. Their attire was certainly different than what he was expecting. The little floating machines intrigued him as well. He'd seen them before, or at least, things similar to them, with the little "UAVs" that Keyes and the others had used. And he understood that everything that was being done and said here was being transmitted back to others on the UNSC's homeworld, in real-time no less.
The bulk of the early questions were directed towards him, or to Lord Nasher. Wulfgar supposed it was understandable. They were Humans, and here were other Humans, no doubt it would be easier to relate to. Finally, there came a question that he had been anticipating for some time.
"They want to know about your opinion of the UNSC, based off what you've seen so far."
Wulfgar nodded his head towards Keyes, and took a few moments to assemble his thoughts.
"It is difficult to say. For the most part, I have only known four members of your people. I have not had time to get to know the new arrivals." He thought back to when the Forward Unto Dawn had first descended, memories of the fireball, and the changes that it had brought, dancing in and out of his conscious mind. "I try not to judge whole organizations by single individuals, not until I get to know them better." He waited for Keyes to translate it back to the reporters, before he held up his hand, indicating that he wished to continue. "But from what I've seen so far, I am pleased to have known the Commander, Sergeant Johnson, and the Master Chief. They helped to save my people from enslavement, both at the hands of the Luskans, and the Drow. Without their help, we would be dead, or worse. Likewise, we owe much to the members of the Neo-Covenant, who came to our aid. They fought alongside us bravely, and many shed blood or gave their lives so that we could remain free."
When Keyes finished the last part of the translation, the room fell silent. He could have heard a needle drop at the far side of the room. Then, almost as one, the reporters started to ask questions. Their voices echoed back and forth throughout the briefing room, and off to the side, Wulfgar saw Drizzt wince as his sensitive hearing was assaulted by the din.
Once Keyes had finally managed to calm everything back down, the Barbarian continued.
"I know what they are responsible for doing," he said in a solemn voice. "I have watched… the memories, of Sergeant Johnson and the Master Chief. I know the bloodshed and death that they are responsible for." He paused for another breath, hoping he wasn't undermining things by being this candid. "But I cannot deny what I have seen and witnesses with my own eyes here. I watched Unggoy and Sangheili lay down their lives for my people, for the people of the Lord's Alliance, for the Elves and Dwarves. I watched them bleed and die to help defend us…"
It was then, surprisingly, that he heard a muffled cough, and looked over towards Neeshka. The Tiefling had raised her hand to be allowed to speak, though she looked as though she was ready to curl up and die of embarrassment.
Keyes finish translating what he'd said back to the reporters, and then nodded towards Neeshka.
"Wulfgar's correct," she said. "We've seen what they did as Covenant enforcers…" her face turned pale, and the Barbarian had no doubt that she was remembering the scenes of horror that had been displayed on…" she seemed to furrow her brow for a moment, as if struggling to remember the foreign name, "on Azure-12. Men, women, and children all lying in the street, slaughtered to the last. "It is difficult to reconcile the two different aspects of what we've seen. What we know they've done, with what we've seen them do time and again." She let Keyes translate her words, and took a deep breath. "They've committed acts of evil, no one can deny that… I saw carnage that I never would have believed possible. Death on a scale that our world has literally never seen. But… but I've also gotten to know them. After watching one of the battles, I actually fled the room. I just couldn't watch it any longer. I ran into Sub-Commander Gazap, the leader of the Unggoy here." She paused again, gathering her thoughts while Keyes again translated her words. "I demanded to know why they'd done it. I had to know what could compel them to slaughter like that. Then he and some of the others told me their stories. I listened to his story as the war consumed almost his entire family. I heard the agony in his voice as he told me about how, in the end, it had all been based on lies. And I, and others, have watched as they've sacrificed so much here to help protect us. Some have given their lives, and all have faced untold horrors, trying to redeem themselves to those they've wrong, and the God they sinned against."
The reporter asked another question, and Keyes quickly translated it. "They still believe in their gods after all of this?"
Before the Tiefling could answer, there was a flash of light, and one of Helm's Avatars marched towards the group, its eyes blazing inside of the helmet it wore.
Coupled with the hands-on demonstrations of magic and its capabilities, it seemed as though the interview had gone on for hours. John had to admit, there had been a grim amusement to observing the looks on the faces of the reporters when he'd pulled a thirty millimeter cannon out of the bag of holding. He wondered what the people back home would think of that. Would they be amazed and awed, or would they be skeptical? Would their thoughts mirror his own at first and wonder if it wasn't all just smoke and mirrors?
It seemed that only time would tell. Now, though, it was time for something else. Something equally necessary, but equally tedious in its own way. The Spartan advanced down a long hallway that led to the Dawn's mess hall, which had been specially converted over the past few hours. The doors opened, and gone were the tables and chairs, the food dispensers covered up by large banners that depicted Earth. The blue and green orb hung, suspended in the center, surrounded by a field of stars. In the middle of the room, a large carpet had been rolled out, which led up towards a podium at the far end. Lord Hood stood behind it, his white dress uniform adorned with the trappings of his office, career, and medals of service. The reporters were off on one side of the room, their camera drones covering every angle and approach from the room. High ranking Faerunian natives stood opposite of the reporters, as did another of Helm's Avatars.
Behind Hood himself, and at each door, were UNSC personnel. To John's immense surprise, Orna, N'Tho, and several Unggoy were also present, tucked into the corner nearest to the entrance they'd just come through. He recognized Gazap standing at their head. Behind them, the towering form of Lotar was also present. He raised his eyebrows as he advanced into the room. Odd that they would be invited to this, considering its nature. He looked back over towards the gathered civilians. Many stood as far away as possible, their faces pale as they huddled close to the UNSC soldiers that were on hand. He could hardly blame them, considering everything that had happened over the past few decades. Nonetheless, perhaps it was a good thing that they were here. A step in the right direction.
Side by side with Keyes and Johnson, he advanced towards the podium. On cue, they stopped and assumed a parade rest stance about five meters from it. Hood keyed his mic, and cleared his throat.
"The war has been costly to us all. This truth is as clear and undeniable as day turning into night. All of us have lost someone. Be it a father, mother, brother, child, or friend, we are united by our loss. But though we shall mourn the dead, we must not forget to live. Our petty differences have been shown to be simply that. Irrelevant." He paused for a moment and his gaze settled upon the three people standing in front of him. "We have been battered, and we have been bloodied, but we have survived. A brighter future awaits us all with our new allies and our newest discoveries. Possibilities that we never before imagined, even in our wildest dreams, are out there waiting for us to explore them. Those that shed their blood and gave their lives to protect Humanity did not do so in vain. Those who died on Harvest, Arcadia, Sigma Octanus, Reach, and every other world paid the ultimate price so that we as a species could survive. Their sacrifice has been vindicated. Among the many ways that we shall never forget them is this." Hood gestured behind him, and a UNSC Captain stepped forward, carrying an ornate, wooden case.
As the Captain approached Lord Hood, he opened the case, and John could see a trio of object that lay inside. Hood reached down and picked one up, cradling it as if it were a sacred artifact. Then he held it up for the cameras to see. John focused on the object. It was a medal, about the size of a normal person's palm. It was a burnished, gleaming silver in color, and appeared to resemble a stretched, six sided shield. Behind the shield, in an "X" shape, were the hilts and slightly curved tips of two crossed swords. The center of the medal was slightly different, resembling a miniature earth in all its color.
"This award, the Shield of Cole, has been forged from the remnants of the Malta, the first of our defenses to fall during the Battle of Earth. It is to be given to those who have demonstrated the most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valor or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy. To those who have gone above and beyond the call of their duty in their defense of Mankind and the cradle that it came from." Lord Hood paused once more, his eyes drifting over everyone as he gazed about the room. "The darkest times are the ones that give birth to the greatest heroes. Three of them stand amongst us this day, and it is my honor to present to them the first three of these awards. Rear Admiral Miranda Keyes…"
Keyes walked towards the Admiral, her hands at her sides as Lord Hood pinned the medal on.
"Sergeant Major Avery Johnson."
Johnson moved forward, and the Master Chief found a smile creeping onto his face as he watched his friends, his family members, receive their new commendations. The smile faltered slightly when Hood picked up the third medal.
"Master Chief Petty Officer, Spartan-117."
John moved forward as he knew he was supposed to. He'd been given awards for valor and bravery so many times he'd nearly lost track of them all. This was nothing new. As he stepped up, Lord Hood placed the magnetic back-strip of the medal to his armor.
The Admiral flicked his microphone off for a split second. "Would you like for me to take care of it for you, like the other ones?" Hood asked, his voice barely a whisper.
"Yes sir, I'd prefer that." John's voice was a whisper as well, and he gave a slight nod of his head, before he turned around and stood in line with his comrades. As one, they assumed parade rest once again, their new commendations gleaming on their chests.
Hood turned his mic back on, and turned back towards the podium. "We all owe these three our thanks and more. May their examples shine like a beacon to the rest of us."
There was a round of thunderous applause that seemed to go on for several minutes. John felt a headache building as he stood at rest. He frowned for a moment and turned down the audio sensors on his suit, bringing the noise down to a much more tolerable level as he waited for the clapping to end. Finally, it did, and he turned around in step with the others and marched over to take his place among the ranks of several UNSC servicemen.
The ceremony continued for a time after that. Hood continued to speak and in time moved onto more political matters, handing out other awards and the like to Faerunian natives that had distinguished themselves during the battles. These were alliance-building efforts, gestures of good faith and thanks, getting off on the right foot, as some would say. For a moment, images appeared in his mind, ideas and theories of what the future might look like, as the UNSC stood side by side with the Lord's Alliance and the Neo-Covenant. So many possibilities, so many different routes things could take. John's curiosity nearly overwhelmed his conscious thought, the rest of the ceremony being all but relegated to his sub-consciousness.
After a time, the ceremony came to its full end. As the crowds slowly started to disperse, the Master Chief walked over towards Orna and the others. The Ascetic saluted as he drew near, a gesture that the Spartan returned.
"Well done, Spartan," Orna fluttered his mandibles in the Sangheili equivalent of a smile. Then his face grew more somber. "I do not know what the future holds for me, but the Council knows the truth now. The Prophets lies are wholly shattered, and the true magnitude of our sins revealed." Orna's eyes drifted out over the crowd, and then he lowered his head. "It will be generations… I fear… if not longer… before we can be forgiven."
"Time will tell," John said, his hands at his side. "Perhaps it will take generations. Perhaps it will not." He shrugged. Then he looked the Ascetic straight in the eyes. "When we first arrived here, I told you that if you wanted to prove your apologies sincere, that you needed to help rebuild what you ripped apart. From what I've seen, you've done that."
"It is not nearly enough-" Orna began.
"But it is a start," the Spartan cut him off. "For all the wrongs you did, for all the… sins, you have redeemed yourself in my eyes." John stuck his hand out, holding it in front of the Elite. "I am honored to call you my friend."
Orna blinked once, twice, before he realized what the Spartan had said. Slowly, the Sangheili's four fingered hand slipped into the Human's five fingered one, and they shook. Judging from the rising murmurs and shouts that John could hear behind him, he had no doubt that at least one of the reporters had seen what he had just done, and had recorded it. For good or ill, let them, he thought to himself. Orna had been true to his word. He had put his life on the line to protect more than just Humanity. He had stuck his neck out to defend others, Dwarves, Elves, Halfings, and more, on this world. People he owed no debt to. People he did not know, and who did not know him. But he and his fellows had risked their lives nonetheless. Both the UNSC and the Neo-Covenant would be dependent upon each other in the future. And, while it might take generations to forgive, and perhaps longer to forget, the hatchet burying had to start somewhere.
Hundreds of miles away from the ceremony, within the bowels of Mithril Hall, Alicia of Luskan sat in her cell. Her legs were crossed, and she breathed in and out slowly, her mind adrift as she meditated to focus herself. Her powers remained well contained, the runic symbols of anti-magic etched into the floor and sides of her cell made certain of that. But there was something that was subtly reassuring about the whole routine. Nonetheless, there were murmurs within the back of her mind, as the young mage tried to think of what would happen to her next. The battle for Mithril Hall had been won, this she knew. Her captors had also occasionally spoken of a second battle, even larger, that stretched the length and breadth of Torril itself. A vast demonic horde that had only just been turned back.
Some even spoke of the death of Demogoron, a notion that made her scoff. The Prince of Demonkind was a fundamental power of the universe. The idea of his destruction was little more than an infantile flight of fancy.
None of that, however, addressed what was going to happen to her. There had been no torture during her stay, and the guards had provided her and the other prisoners captured during the various battles with food and other necessities. If it had not been for the fact that she was confined to an eight by eleven cell for what seemed like half an eternity, it might almost have been described as pleasant.
She heard footsteps suddenly, and she opened her eyes, looking down the corridor. Three people were approaching. Two of them wore the uniform of Neverwinter's Many Starred Cloaks. Mages. There was no doubt in her mind now that they were here for her in one way or another. Mages would not have been summoned for the mundane prisoners.
The one in the center, however, was where her eyes focused. It was a man, clad in a black uniform the likes of which she had never seen before. His hair was close cropped, his eyes brown, and his face overall very… average. He was a man that could blend into a crowd, utterly forgettable and unremarkable. The only thing that stood out on him was a small symbol over one shoulder of his outfit: a pyramid with a single, unblinking eye on it.
Alicia stood as the man stopped in front of her cell and clasped his hands behind his back. There was a pregnant silence, lasting nearly a minute, as she felt his eyes boring into her.
"What do you want?" she finally asked, crossing her arms over her chest, letting her hood slip down a bit to try and obscure her face. The man's gaze was powerful… unnerving.
"Alicia Salatore of Luskan, I presume?" he asked. She gave a curt nod in response. "I am here for you."
"Finally bringing me to answer for my 'crimes' against Neverwinter then?" She asked.
The man chuckled. "No, no. Allow me to explain. My name is Jonathan Lynch, and I represent the Office of Naval Intelligence, a branch of the United Nations Space Command."
"So you're one of the newcomers." Alicia kept her tone neutral. The newcomers with their thunder-weapons. The newcomers that had stopped a Drow army in its tracks, and who had, with a single siege engine and a handful of soldiers, broken the back of Luskan in a single night.
"Yes." Lynch gave a curt nod. "I'll be blunt, Alicia. It would not be uncommon for you to remain locked up for a very long time. You were, after all, sent to spy on Bruenor Battle-Hammer, and were a part of the Drow conspiracy to conquer the surface. That makes you an enemy of the Lord's Alliance, Clan Battle-Hammer, Clan Iron-Fist, and numerous other powerful organizations."
"I already know this. What's your point?" She growled.
"We at ONI have interceded on your behalf. The UNSC believes in second chances. And you have a gift, a powerful one." Lynch smiled again, and leaned forward slightly. "I have come to you with a proposition."
"You want me to work for you." It was not a question, and Alicia surprised herself with how resigned she sounded when she spoke. Trading one master for another, it seemed.
"In a sense. The UNSC is quite interested in your gift, and we wish to take advantage of any of our own people who might have arcane capabilities as well. You would be allowed to go free, provided that you would be willing to work alongside the Many Starred Cloaks and teach."
Alicia's eyes widened. That was not what she'd been expecting. Teaching new students in the Art? They would trust her with this? True, she would be supervised, and she had little doubt that the Cloaks would not tolerate… shenanigans, but it was a better deal that she would have dared hope for her future.
She smiled. "When do I begin?"
Wulfgar sighed as he leaned back against one of the smooth walls of the Dawn. The large plainsman's mind was gazing towards the future, and what it might mean for his people. With Revajik dead, they would need to select a new king. Many of the surviving Elk tribesmen were looking to him to take up the reins of power. He'd been king once, when he'd overthrown Harrogath in order to stop the tribe from siding with Akar Kessel and attacking the Ten Towns once again. He'd just as quickly turned things over to Revajik. The power of a King was not his place. He preferred life on the road, with the adventures that he, Bruenor, Drizzt, Regis, and Cattie-Brie had had. Necessity had forced him to the side of his people time and again, though.
So what would happen this time? Keyes had assured him that the deal they had brokered, carrying the horde of Dracos Icingdeath to the Ten Towns in exchange for vital food and supplies, would continue. The price would remain the same too, the Barbarian thought with a smile. That was one load off of his shoulders, as well as whoever it was that assumed the office of King of the Tribe of the Elk. But there were still many problems that remained in the future. Teaching new hunters, trying to compensate for the large numbers of warriors and hunters that had been lost during the battle of Ten Towns, and more recently at Mithril Hall and in the war against the hordes of Demogorgon. And then there was the larger issue of simply trying to figure out what would become of his people in this new, rapidly changing world.
Would they remain distinct, unique? Would their culture and way of life remain their own? Or would they be drawn in and assimilated by another society?
Even as that thought crossed his mind, he saw another member of his tribe walk by. They exchanged greetings as the other man continued on towards wherever he was going. But Wulfgar had noticed that he had been wearing, underneath the many furs, a finely woven tunic, dyed a deep green. Such a garment would have been beyond the skill of the tribal weavers, so it was likely he had purchased it either from a Ten Towns or Neverwinter merchant. Subtle, but there nonetheless. Would the tunic one day be joined by something else? A ring, or a pendant, purchased or simply kept from the dragon's vast horde? Would the lure of wealth and material riches, the "easy" life of the cities and towns one day lead his people away from the harsh tundra and icy winters of their ancestral homes?
And then there was the UNSC itself. While the future was still unclear, it was evident that some of the men and women of the tribe, the younger ones just coming into adulthood especially, had been taken in and awed by the technological marvels of the newcomers. The flying ships, the computers, the weapons, and everything else. How many would want to become part of that organization? Would their old tribal ways fade away before the newcomers? Would hunters choose to try and take up the rifle, rather than the bow and spear? Would they seek to find a way to trade their furs and hide armors for UNSC smart cloth and ballistic plating?
Would that even be allowed to happen? The UNSC might well seek to keep its technology under control, out of fear of destabilizing things. But would that even work, Wulfgar found himself thinking? The djinn was out of the bottle, so to speak, could the old ways and the status quo be maintained, or would they come tumbling down as people tried to emulate and copy the technological marvels?
He sighed once more. While the future was certainly not going to hold the enslavement or destruction of his people, the challenges that lay before them were certainly not over. A longing urge to return to the road with his old friends arose within his mind again. For the simple times when the only thing that they had to worry about was whether or not the Orcs following them would be stupid enough to attack.
He shook his head. As much as he'd love to return to those days, it was unlikely that they'd ever return. The events of the past months had driven wedges between him and his friends. Not of anger or distrust, but of a force even more potent: wedges of responsibility. Bruenor now had not just his clan, but also Mithril Hall to look after. Cattie-Brie would be unlikely to leave his side. Drizzt… would probably take up teaching the Drow children they'd saved. Anyway, he seemed to always be around Dove Falconhand these days. Even Regis was going to be busy, using his trade connections to help broker deals between the newcomers and other markets within the Lord's Alliance. And he himself… Perhaps it was time to accept that although he didn't like the prospect of being King again, it was something he was good at. Few were left who had the experience and the moral weight to be King to his people. They looked up to him. Looked to him for answers. Looked to him for guidance. Perhaps it was time he provided them.
He sighed once more and contemplated the challenges that awaited him and his people. Yes, they would be different. These would not be the challenges that Aegis-Fang could crush. He would have to adapt, his people would have to adapt, one way or another.
Wulfgar straightened up, and walked away from the wall he'd been leaning against. A good observer would have noticed a difference in his stride. For although invisible and immaterial, the cloak of leadership is always heavy.
Orna Fulsamee clasped his hands behind his back as he marched through the hallways of the Forward unto Dawn, his mandibles twitching and clacking behind his helmet. Like so many others this day, he pondered what the future held for him. Orders had yet to come from the Council, and it seemed that they were still trying to decide what to do. The discovery of Faerun, and the truth of everything behind the war, the lies of the Prophets, the revealed nature of the Forerunners, and everything else was a political nightmare. Some had announced that they would come and see for themselves, unable or unwilling to believe the tall tales of magic and Gods. Others had taken the optic recordings of the battle that he and others had had while upon this world more or less at face value, questioning, but ultimately accepting.
But so far, there had been no orders for him specifically. In the absence of such orders, typical Sangheili doctrine had been to either fortify one's position, or go out, find a threat, and eliminate it. Neither of those seemed applicable here. His mind drifted to what the Master Chief had told him earlier. The "Demon" had shaken his hand, called him a friend in front of cameras, UNSC military personnel, and Human civilians. Doubtless, some of that footage would make its way back to his people. What would they think of that? Would it be considered an honor or a curse? The valor and bravery with which the Spartan and the rest of his kind had fought had long been the subject of gossip and discussion among the soldiers of his people.
The young and foolish, eager to prove themselves, boasted of wanting to meet one of them in battle. To kill a Spartan in single combat would have been one of the highest honors a young Sangheili could have earned. Such proof of battle prowess might have even been enough to guarantee a promotion straight into the ranks of the venerated Sword-Bearers, or the Honor Guard of a San'Shayunn. Too few of them paused to question whether or not they were the first to make such boasts, and if there had been others that had gone before them. Too few contemplated the fates of the hundreds, of the thousands, that had charged forward when Spartans were encountered, and whose only epitaph was an entry in their family's battle-poems that had been abruptly cut short.
The older and wiser focused on how to try to out-maneuver and outsmart the cyborgs when they made their appearances, and how to deal with the morale of the Unggoy and other "lesser" soldiers. The latter was something that became increasingly necessary as rumors of Spartan prowess and nigh-invincibility spread through the ranks of the Covenant military despite the best efforts of the officers to quash them.
He shook his head suddenly as he remembered the Master Chief's comment from the interview. Thirty three! Only thirty three of them ever cleared for combat duty. What effect would such information have upon his people, or the other members of the Neo-Covenant? Would it be awe or shame? Awe over the knowledge that so few had made so much of a difference, or shame at themselves for not being able to deal with what should have been a trivial number of enemy combatants?
Orna suddenly placed a hand over the armor of his chest, tracing the scars that were hidden underneath it. With perfect detail, he traced over the Mark of Shame. Was it irony, or fate, that the reason he bore those scars was because of the Human that had just named him a friend? 117 had torn into the Covenant forces on that Halo like a cold, unfeeling machine, slaughtering hundreds of his best troops, before finally destroying the facility itself. The destruction of Installation 04 had led down the long, arduous path that had brought him to where he was this day. Death and destruction, damnation and redemption, hope… all tied up in a tale that would span many verses and measures when his time finally came.
His descendants would know the tale of the Last Arbiter, a fallen soldier who had risen from the ashes of defeat and humiliation to become so much more. He was, as Tarkimee had said upon swearing him into the ranks of the Ascetics, no longer a broken failure. How quickly fate could change in such a short time, Orna thought with a chuckle. Savior of the Council, Slayer of Tartarus, Redeemer and Destroyer. Those were some of the titles he'd heard bandied about. He couldn't stop a swelling of pride as he contemplated them, beginning to move on through the corridors, going wherever his feet took him. But his tasks were not yet done, that much was certain.
He was the Council's protector, their agent, their sword and shield. As he had once been the instruments of the Prophet's Will, so would he now serve his people.
Lost in his thoughts, Orna didn't realize where he was until he heard a deep rumble come from a nearby doorway. Looking inside, he saw Lotar sitting inside. The Lek'golo had both of its booted feet pressed against one another, the arm portions of its armor placed gently on top of its knees. Rhythmic expansion and contractions of the thousands of symbiotic creatures that made up the hive consciousness of the Hunter gave the impression of breathing, and Orna realized that they were meditating. It stopped a few seconds after he had stepped inside, and the living weapon gave a murmur of acknowledgement, before shifting where it sat.
"There is no need to rise, Lotar," Orna said as he held out a hand. "I didn't mean to disturb you."
"You have disturbed nothing, Ascetic Fulsamee," the creature shook its head. "We have been at this for some time, and were nearing the end of our contemplations…" they… it… for all his decades working with the creatures, Orna had never really gotten the hang of how to properly term the hive minds, seemed to sigh.
"Denos?" the Elite asked. He got a noise in return that seemed one part a moan, one part a croon.
"We miss our Bond Brother," Lotar said, the voice surprisingly soft. "The Wizard's attack had been meant for us… and now there is a hole…" it tapped an armored finger against the chest of its armor plating, roughly where a Sangheili's primary heart would have been.
Orna nodded. He was not sure quite how to respond in this situation. When it came to death, he'd been spared such suffering. His mind drifted for a moment. He'd seen Hunters whose Bond sibling had been killed. Those that survived the battle often seemed… lost. They would slump around, from task to task, performing as ordered, but they became less like soldiers, and more like machines. Their quarters would often have parts from the dead partner's armor, whatever scraps of it the survivor had been able to save.
He craned his neck around, and sure enough, on a shelf off to one side, was a mangled, blackened hunk of metal. Orna had to stare at it for several second to realize that it was the "helmet" that Denos had worn. All the optics were smashed and melted, and the normally oblong shape was twisted and pitted. Someone must have had the foresight to grab it during the retreat. Another image flashed within his mind, another Hunter, bent over a mangled scrap of a shield, the creatures within its armor sobbing.
He walked forward and placed a hand upon the Lek'golo's shoulder. "I do not know how I can help… this is not something that I am particularly skilled at, but let me know if I can help you."
"We appreciate your offer." Lotar rumbled, its helmet turning to look at the Sangheili's hand, and then up to Orna's own, concealed face. "That sentiment means more than you know, Ascetic."
Orna simply nodded again as he looked at the massive creature. Another reminder that while they'd scored great victories on this world, that they had not come without cost.
Sergeant Major Johnson chewed on the butt end of another Sweet Williams. The end was currently unlit, an attempt to make the increasingly empty stock he had at the moment last long enough for the next batch to arrive. At present, he stared out of an open docking bay on the side of the Dawn. Most of the activity and constant bustle had died down for a time, letting him enjoy the view of the sky above turning to black. There was a bite to the air, and he could already see frost starting to form outside the ship. Before long, the doors would be shut and the area closed off. For now, though, the view was magnificent. Something for him to lose himself in while preparing for the evening meal. The ceremonies of the day meant that it was likely to be lavish, with most of the heads of state, local and otherwise, joining Hood, Keyes, and the other high ranking officers. A meal that would be as much a discussion of politics as anything else.
He looked over at the other end of the bay, noticing Bruenor, Wulfgar, Drizzt, and a few of his other newfound friends and comrades standing near there. They seemed to have come for the view as well, and Johnson chuckled as he rose up off the supply crate that he'd been sitting on, moving over towards them with a wave.
"You finding everything okay, Your Majesty?" he asked, saluting as he addressed Bruenor.
The scarred, beardless Dwarf nodded his head, returning the salute with a Dwarven one. "Fair enough, Sergeant Major," he said, looking out towards the mountains to the south. Johnson realized that he was staring in the direction of the old stronghold that Clan Battle-Hammer resided in, near Ten Towns. "Going to be a lot of work to do in the coming weeks. Lot 'o picking up, and I suspect I'm going to have all of Mithril Hall washed out with Dwarven Holy Water before everything's said and done. No telling what the Drow have befouled that we haven't found out about yet."
Johnson chuckled for a second, remembering what he'd learned about the nature of Dwarven Holy "Water." "Well, the brewers will be happy about the increase in business, if nothing else."
"Aye, that they will," Bruenor laughed as well. Then he nodded towards the new medal upon the front of Johnson's dress uniform. "Congratulations, by the way."
"Indeed," Wulfgar said, nodding his head. "You've earned it, but I wonder why they didn't give something more useful."
"Well, it may not be the most practical of awards, but it has its uses," the Sergeant Major said as he reached down and lovingly caressed the picture of the Earth in the middle of the medal, his thumb tracing the outlines of the continents.
"Memories?" Neeshka asked, looking over at him.
"Among other things," Johnson said softly.
"I suspect that there will be a rise in the commission of statues soon as well," Drizzt remarked, leaning back against the wall.
"Silvery Moon's artisan and masonry guilds have already put in several requests and ideas," Dove Falconhand spoke up, moving closer to the Dark Elf. "They want to show their gratitude for everyone that helped in defeating both the Drow and Demogorgon's legions." She leaned close to the Ranger, and Johnson smiled. He'd seen enough of the renegade's actions, despite his reputation, to know that it was about time the Dark Elf got some credit for all he'd sacrificed.
"Wonder how much marble and bronze they'll be needed for a proper one," Bruenor mused, and then chuckled again. "The Master Chief and Wulfgar alone'll be enough to set a metal smith for life."
Everyone laughed, and Wulfgar responded to the good natured ribbing by attempting to pick Bruenor up and put him on his shoulders. This was something that the Dwarven King responded to with a flurry of curses, accompanied by renewed laughter from everyone. Johnson shook his head again, removing the cigar from his mouth before it threatened to choke him.
Finally once he had regained his composure, he sighed. "Well, I wouldn't bother too much with the Chief for those, to be honest."
He got a series of confused looks and stares. Johnson sighed again, reaching into a pocket of his dress uniform and withdrawing a lighter, flicking it open and igniting the end of the cigar. "I mean, he'll probably try his best to be polite about it, but frankly, you could build a twenty foot tall diamond studded, gold idol of him and he wouldn't care one way or the other."
"What do you mean?" Drizzt asked, his violet eyes gazing at the Sergeant Major intently.
Johnson took a few pulls at the cigar and thought about how best to phrase things, before exhaling the smoke that was in his lungs. "Long story short, Drizzt, somewhere on Earth, probably buried three klicks down, there's a large room. In this room, full from top to bottom, are enough piles of medals, unit citations, and other awards for 'courage under fire' to fill the quota for a half dozen UNSC divisions." He paused, taking another pull from the cigar. "They're every last Purple Heart, Legion of Honor, Silver Star, and Distinguished Service Cross, that every Spartan has earned since the war against the Covenant began. Simply put, if the Chief ever tried to put his 'proper' dress uniform back on, it would be loaded down with so many medals, ribbons, tags, and gold badges that it could double as a particularly shiny and noisy suit of plate armor."
"Really?" Neeshka seemed surprised.
"So why hasn't he made mention of them?" Bruenor asked.
"I asked him that myself one time. You know what I got as an answer?" He paused again, watching their faces, studying their reactions. "Chief told me that 'no soldier should be honored for simply doing his duty.'"
"Waging one man wars against Orcs, Drow, and the Prince of Demonkind himself is 'just his duty'?" It was Dove Falconhand that spoke this time, her face a study of confusion.
"In his opinion, yes." Johnson turned to face the sky, rapidly becoming a sheet of blackness settling over the world. "To a Spartan, there is no such thing as 'above and beyond the call of duty.' To the Chief, doing the impossible is his job, it's what he was made for. What he was trained for."
There was silence for several moments, as they contemplated the revelation that Johnson had given to them. There was more to it than simply that, Johnson thought inwardly. But those things, those… motivations, were for the Chief himself to share, not the Sergeant Major's.
They did not have long to contemplate things, as a door opened into the cargo bay. John and Miranda were walking towards them. Johnson noticed that the Chief had already removed his Shield of Cole, while Admiral Keyes's was still upon her chest. She waved as they drew near, stopping and saluting King Bruenor.
"Sorry to disturb the get together," she said, acknowledging Wulfgar, Dove, and Bruenor, "but there are some more things that Admiral Hood and the Lord's Alliance would like to discuss before the evening meal. They wanted us to come find you and notify you."
"Thank you, Admiral," Bruenor said with a bow. "Same place as last time, the briefing room?"
"That would be correct, Milord," Keyes gave a polite nod of her head.
"Then we'd best be off," He looked over to Wulfgar and the two started towards the door that the Master Chief and Keyes had come through. "Come on you two, before the rumors start to spread!" he finished with a laugh. Drizzt and Dove quickly jogged off to join him, blushing furiously.
Silence reigned for a few more minutes, as the remaining four just stared at the sky for a few moments. The Master Chief finally noticed that Neeshka was staring at him, and turned to face her. "Is something wrong?"
"No, no," The Tiefling said, shaking her head quickly. "Johnson was just talking about your, service record," she ran a hand through her hair.
"Just explaining why you don't let anyone know you've got more medals than Audie Murphy." Johnson took another pull at his Sweet Williams. "They were a little curious."
"Rewards and medals should be reserved for those who actually go beyond the call of their duty." John said, nodding towards the Sergeant and Admiral.
"Funny that you should mention rewards," A voice resounded throughout all their heads at that moment. It was Helm. Moments later, an Avatar appeared a few feet behind them. "Because I have my own reward for you all, and you especially," it gestured towards the Master Chief.
"I don't need anything, Sir," he shook his head. Helm simply laughed.
"I can see into your heart and soul, Spartan. I know that there is one thing that you truly do desire. I owe you that much, after all that you have done." The Avatar crossed its arms. "Brace yourselves, this will only be brief."
There was the sensation of being pulled, a teleportation spell, Johnson realized. Then they were gone.
The Master Chief stared around at the vast landscape before him. They were on another Plane, they had to be. Grasslands dotted by hills and dales extended in one direction, while off to the east, a vast, frozen waste stood side by side with a sprawling desert. There were volcanic wastes, icy tundras, vast mountains and other landscapes that were even more exotic, ones he couldn't find the words to describe, filled with alien geometries and geographical features he was fairly certain were impossible.
John looked back over his shoulder, arching an eyebrow behind the visor of his helmet as he stared at Helm, the Avatar replaced by the Deity's true form. What was this supposed to be? An obstacle course? A place to train? If so, what? And how did it relate to what Helm had intended to give him?
Johnson, Miranda, and Neeshka all seemed equally confused, milling about around the Watcher, looking at the impossible landscapes from the massive, central plateau they were standing on. Helm chuckled softly and nodded towards the Spartan, before gesturing to the side of his helmet. The Spartan understood the gesture, and turned on his long-range communications gear. There was a burst of static and white noise, followed rapidly by various amounts of garbled communications, words he couldn't quite make out. There was a lot of jamming in the air, apparently. A few seconds later, though, he was able to latch on to a signal. This one was stronger than the rest, clearer. He could make out a voice, barking orders and answering confused queries.
"Negative, all targets are gone, all spectrums clear," the voice was deep like his own, somewhat familiar. John's eyes narrowed and then it clicked. The voice he'd heard in the battle with Demogorgon, the one that he'd heard when Corellon had found him… "All groups reporting the same thing. I think our exercise just got canceled. Hold five while I find out what's going on."
That voice, the voice that was so familiar, he knew he'd heard it before. But where? Who? The Master Chief furrowed his brow, the answer lurking in his mind, the waves of conscious remembrance lapping just out of reach.
"Confirm visual on arrivals," the voice crackled over his radio again. "The big guy's here, and you won't believe what else." The Spartan heard laughter. "I have visual confirmation on Blue Lead. I repeat, visual confirmation on Blue Leader."
The comm. channels came alive with chatter, so many voices all echoing at once that the Spartan couldn't make them out over the jamming. A moment later, though, it no longer mattered. There was the sharp crack of a teleportation spell, and he jumped backwards instinctively as something appeared in front of him.
Standing ten paces away from him, Neeshka's eyes bulged and her jaw dropped open. The thing had just appeared out of nowhere, but it wasn't the teleportation that caused her reaction. She had seen enough of those spells in her short life to have become accustomed to them. Rather, it was what had done the teleporting. A massive giant, clad in Mjolnir armor, stood mere feet away from the Master Chief. John was the largest Human that the Tiefling had ever seen in her life, towering over even the Barbarians of the Spine of the World… but this new arrival was even larger, standing more than a head taller than the Master Chief.
Her eyes never left John. He was normally so enigmatic, so difficult to read. Now he stood almost limp, as if a stiff breeze would blow him over. Neeshka thought she saw his hands tremble slightly as he took a hesitating, half-step towards the giant.
"Sam?" his voice was so quiet, so different, that for a moment, the Tiefling believed that her mind had played a trick on her.
"The one and only," the new Spartan nodded his head, and spread his arms out a bit. "Good to see you again, Blue Leader."
The Master Chief's right arm rose, and this time Neeshka was certain it was trembling as he placed two fingers against his own visor, and made a gentle stroke across it. Soon she would come to understand that the gesture was a Spartan greeting, a way of letting their brothers and sisters know they were smiling behind their helmets. The other Spartan, Sam, returned it, and then blurred forward. There was a loud 'clack' of armor plates slamming against each other, and she realized that the larger man had pulled John into a fierce embrace.
"Good to see you again, brother… good to see you again," Sam said.
More cracks filled the air, and Neeshka twisted and looked around. More were coming in from all sides, scores of Spartans… hundreds of them. She noticed that they were arranged into military formations, blocks of soldiers standing at attention. Most of them seemed small by "Spartan" standards, but the soldier at the head of every formation was around the same size as John.
John pulled back a bit, and he too stared around at the rows upon rows of soldiers clad in telltale green armor. Sam chuckled a bit and stepped back, looking over his shoulder towards the nearest group, one that lacked a "commander."
"Spartans! Present, arms!"
His command was followed by the sound and sight of hundreds of soldiers snapping to attention in perfect harmony.
John blinked behind his helmet. Once, twice, three times. For one of the few times in his life, he was convinced that he had to be dreaming. But no… he knew his family, he knew Sam, and looking around, he could see the others. Anton. Grace. Li. James. Malcolm… His throat felt oddly tight and dry, his chest constricted, his appendages trembling as a combination of disbelief, wonder, and adrenaline surged through his body. The commander of every "group" of Spartans was one of his brothers or sisters, lost during the war. It seemed impossible… too good to be true… and yet here it was.
All eyes fell on Helm, and the God nodded.
"As I promised you, your heart's desire. The one reward that would truly matter to you."
The Master Chief tried to speak, but to his surprise, found that he couldn't. His throat felt strange, as if there was a large lump in it that refused to move. Helm merely chuckled and nodded his head, and then he gestured to the gathered soldiers.
"Take all the time you need."
Sam barked another order, and the assembled soldiers assumed a parade rest. Slowly, the Spartan-II's started to move forward, gathering around the Master Chief and the others. John found it almost surreal, watching comrades long dead form up around him. One by one, they marked their visors, others shook his hand, clapped him on the back, hugged him. Protocol was forgotten, numbers were forgotten, ranks cast to the wayside. There were only names.
John didn't know how long he spent like that, but he was finally shaken out of it by noticing the last two Spartans. He blinked and stared.
"Will?" He felt a chill run down his spine for a quick moment. Will had been part of Blue Group. If he was here then that meant…
"Yeah… I got blindsided by a pissed off Elite and some Hunters," the man shrugged as he spoke. "The others are safe, though. Don't worry. We even found a lost little sheep… for a while at any rate," he stuck his thumb over his shoulder to the other remaining Spartan.
"Kurt," the Chief stepped towards the other man.
"Good to see you again, John." Kurt said, slapping him on the shoulder. "I see your luck hasn't run out just yet." He laughed softly, and rubbed the 'chin' of his helmet. "Though granted, you really seem to be pushing it lately."
John found himself laughing despite himself. His voice was slowly returning to normal as he adjusted to the situation. "It'll run out one of these days. Just a matter of time." Then the cyborg cocked his head to the side, and looked over to Will. "What do you mean, 'found a lost sheep.'"
"It's complicated," Kurt spoke up. He gestured around him. "You're probably wondering where all these troopers are coming from, right?" John nodded. "Well, let's just say that Slip-Space drive rupture was as much an accident as it was fatal to my health." Kurt looked around, his eyes settling on Johnson and Keyes. "Hell, suppose it doesn't matter much now." He took a deep breath. "The rupture was an ONI operation, meant to make it look like I had died."
"You ever hear about an ONI officer named Colonel Ackerson?"
The hairs on the back of the Master Chief's neck bristled. Ackerson, the ONI officer who had used every method in his disposal to rig the Mark V training exercise into a death trap. John could recall with perfect clarity every last detail, from the minefields to the airstrike, a sudden memory of the Scorpion anti-tank missile shooting past his head, missing it by scant centimeters. "I know him." It was a struggle to keep the growl out of his voice.
Kurt picked up on the hostility in an instant, and nodded his head. "Yeah, I heard about that." There was a few seconds of pause between the two of them. "Well, he'd decided that Doctor Halsey was on to something, and he decided to 'improve' what she had started. To create Spartans at a faster rate." He gestured over towards the nearest block of soldiers. "They were the result. Spartan-III's."
"How come we were never told about this?" The Master Chief frowned behind his helmet. Being virtually raised in a black op, he understood 'need to know' on an intimate level. However, it seemed strange, illogical, almost, that they would never be told about a "successful" mass production of Spartans. The fact that it never went public either, to give Humanity a much needed morale booster, also struck him as odd. His eyes started to narrow as the gears in his mind turned. Pieces were starting to fall into place, and he wasn't certain that he liked the picture that was forming.
"I don't think Hood even knew what was going on, not the full story at least. No one else did besides myself and CPO Mendez." John's head jerked back over towards Kurt as those words left his mouth. Mendez? Was that what he'd been up to all this time? At the same time, another chill worked its way down his spine. The idea of Admiral Hood, the de-facto commander of the UNSC throughout most of the war, not knowing about a project this important?
There was a soft crackle of a private, short range comm. channel opening, and Kurt's voice was suddenly in his ear. "There were a lot of orphans left by the early Covenant assaults. Kids that were… like us… called to serve."
"I see..." He didn't say anything beyond that. Words were not necessary at this moment. At the same time, he tried to digest this revelation. It had been a war of extermination, and desperate times meant desperate measures. But there was a part of his mind that still felt unnerved by all of this. The sheer number of 'Spartan-III's standing here meant that their missions had to have had a high attrition rate. There were hundreds of them, at least a thousand, John thought to himself. Halsey had told him, shortly before Reach had fallen, that the war had been going badly, that they had months, maybe a year at most. But he'd never realized that it had been bad enough to warrant the use of hundreds of children as virtual suicide soldiers.
The Master Chief thrust that thought to the back of his mind. He would deal with it later. For now, he needed to take the time to enjoy this miracle.
"I can see that I've got a lot of catching up to do." He turned towards Johnson, Keyes, and Neeshka, "In the meantime, I think it's time that I introduce you to some new members of our family." He motioned for them to come over, and slowly the three of them did.
Neeshka chewed on her lip a bit as she stood in the presence of these armored behemoths. It felt strange, alien almost, to come to grips with what she was seeing. She'd watched the Spartans before, in the recorded video feeds that the Master Chief and Johnson had shown them, but to watch them on a recording, like a bit of history come to life, was one thing. To see them in person, to have them towering over her and moving with their strange, inhuman grace, was quite another. There was also a voice of doubt in the back of her head, a little bit of nervousness that she couldn't shake. For the moment, John was back amongst his old family, his brothers and sisters in arms. What did that mean for her? How would they react to her?
She couldn't shake the thought from her mind as she distantly heard him introduce Johnson and Keyes to the Spartans. John had entrusted her with his name, had offered her a family, but as she compared herself to the others, she couldn't help but wonder why. She hadn't fought for decades on end against a foe so massive and dangerous that it boggled the mind, like Johnson had. She hadn't stared down an entity that threatened to end all life in a galaxy, like Cortana. She hadn't led daring assaults and showed near infinite courage and cunning like Keyes. And she certainly had nothing that could compare her to the power that these super-soldiers that now surrounded them possessed.
So why? What had made him entrust her like he had?
"And this is Neeshka," she felt a hand settle on her shoulder, shaking her out of her musings. She looked up to see John standing next to her, his visor meeting her gaze.
"So this is our newest little sister?" she heard Sam say as he walked over towards her. Even with all their helmets on, it was easy to spot him, given his size. To her surprise, he stuck out his hand and gripped hers firmly, but not painfully.
One by one, they gathered around her, asking her questions about her past, her adventures with Kale, the quest to stop the King of Shadows, the things she'd done since then with the Chief and the others, the battle for Mithril Hall...
It felt as though she had spent hours relating her journeys and tales with these strange soldiers, and she'd distantly noted that the so-called 'Spartan-III's' had also drawn in close around her, hundreds of armored warriors listening to her tales. Neeshka couldn't help but draw a comparison between what she was going through right now and the interview that John and the others had sat through earlier. But as time passed, she noticed something. She was beginning to speak with less stammering, words came much more fluidly to her, and the myriad of golden visors that met her gaze wherever she looked had stopped becoming intimidating.
There was something else as well, one that shocked her: when the Spartans spoke, either to comment or to ask another question of her, there was a tone to their voice, a subtle note in it. She recognized respect. They were impressed with her deeds.
Standing not far away, Keyes and Johnson watched the proceedings with curiosity. Finally, Keyes spoke up, speaking in a quiet voice. "They really have taken her in." There was a slight note of disbelief in her voice. "If I couldn't see it with my own eyes I wouldn't believe it."
"Yeah, they have." Johnson answered. "Ordinary people doing extraordinary things, Spartans just love that stuff. Don't think anything of doing that themselves, but they were made for it. She wasn't. And she threw herself into the thick of things when most sane people would have thrown their weapons down and ran like hell."
Keyes mulled the thought over in her head, remembering when the Chief had entrusted her with his name, shortly after learning of her role in stopping Installation 05 from activating, and everything leading up to it. The ultimate respect and acceptance, she understood. From their perspective it became all too simple. Humans were supposed to have limits, physical and mental. For someone to exceed those, rise up against all odds, that was what earned a Spartan's respect. In her case, surviving interrogations by Tartarus, volunteering time and again for missions where the expected chances of survival failed to exceed single digits, facing the Flood and Covenant alike. And doing it without the benefit of cybernetic enhancements, shielded power armor, and anything else to make her 'beyond human.' It made sense now.
She quietly contemplated that as Neeshka continued to tell the assembled Spartans her stories.
Some time had passed and Neeshka had finally reached the end of her tales. When that had happened, the soldiers had reformed ranks and presented themselves for John to observe. He went down the rows, meticulously asking names, skills, operational data, and other things that the Tiefling didn't even understand. As she watched the Master Chief continue to "inspect" the other Spartans, Neeshka found herself shaking her head. It was so strange, in a way. The idea of there being so many of what John was. The new empire that Helm was intending to build would certainly have an impressive vanguard. She felt a moment of pity for anything that might warrant their attention.
Speaking of Helm, she took notice of the God of Guardians. He was still hanging back towards the far end of the central area. His hidden gaze was focused on the gathered Spartans, but he moved no closer. It was as if the Watcher felt his further intrusion might disrupt things. Neeshka frowned for a moment, and then turned and walked over towards him. She still had questions for the deity. It took her maybe a minute or two to cross the distance. As she reached him she looked up into his visor for a few seconds and pondered how best to phrase the myriad of questions she had for the God.
"Speak your mind, Neeshka," he said, slowly turning his gaze towards her.
"You could just read it," she crossed her arms over her chest.
"Perhaps, but I trust you to be truthful and candid," he laughed softly.
"Yeah, our relationship warrants that much, at least," the Tiefling frowned. Memories flashed before her eyes of her youth, before she'd run off. The bulk of it consisted of a Helmite priest yelling at her for getting into some place she wasn't supposed to be, breaking something she had no right to be near, or violating some other rule of the monastery.
"I know that my followers and you have not always seen eye to eye." The God crossed his arms over his chest. Neeshka merely shrugged in response.
"I want to know what's happening with my other friends. I want to know about Kale." She paused for a moment. "And I want to know what you're planning on doing about the whole situation with the Covenant Loyalists."
"Kale is safe, do not worry. It may be some months yet, but he and all the others will return safely. Of that, you have my promise." He paused for a moment after that, and his hidden gaze stared at the Tiefling. "As for the Covenant Loyalists, I'm surprised that is what's on your mind. It is rather beyond the scope of Torril."
"I've heard Keyes and Orna discussing it. I overheard Hood as well when he was talking about it with the Master Chief." Neeshka crossed her arms as well, her tail lashing back and forth in agitation. "I know they're still out there, and I know what they're capable of. I also know that the UNSC is too weak to hold them back if they attack Earth again in force." Her gaze narrowed, letting the rest of her thoughts go unsaid.
Nonetheless, Helm understood what she was implying. He nodded his head.
"I failed my people twice. I shall not do so a third time. I will deal with the Covenant myself." He relaxed his stance, and let his shoulders slump. "I hope, with Truth, Mercy, and Regret dead, and most of the rest of the Covenant hierarchy in disarray, that they will be more inclined to question their traditions and the mandates of the Prophets." There was a pause. "My people and I shed our blood to save their species from assimilation by the Flood. Any chance that they might be saved from what they've become…"
Helm again grew silent, saying nothing as the seconds passed.
Finally, Neeshka spoke again. "And if the Covenant reject your offer of mercy?" She raised an eyebrow.
"Then the phrase 'the wrath of God' will take on an entirely new meaning for them." Helm's voice was neutral, devoid of anything that might betray his feelings.
The Tiefling felt an icy chill work its way through her. It was not a boast, or even a threat. The Watcher was stating a fact, nothing more. She was reminded for a moment of one of the reasons why Helm was considered an ally, rather than a member, of the Pantheon of the deities of light.
"And after that?" she finally ventured.
"The rebuilding must begin in earnest." Helm turned around to face her again. "I've spread the seeds of Mankind across dozens of worlds. The various paths that they and the allies they've discovered have explored, technological and magical alike, will begin to blend together. It will be what I hope to be the start of something that will span galaxies, an empire powerful enough to challenge whatever forces of darkness are found in the Planes of the multiverse…"
There was a moment of silence as Neeshka contemplated the God's words. She tapped her chin, her tail twitching as she tried to imagine it, finding it difficult to do so. "Very ambitious. You sure you're up to the challenge of leading something like that?"
Helm chuckled softly. "I doubt I will lead it in the end. I will attempt to guide it in the early days and years, to offer my advice and wisdom, to be involved as I can to speed things along, but ultimately, I will step aside."
The Tiefling arched an eyebrow, staring at him mutely.
"Is it really so difficult to understand?" The Watcher's voice was soft, almost paternal. "Children are raised by their parents, but ultimately must stand on their own. I will guide as best I can, unite and aide to the best of my abilities, but ultimately, I will have to step aside and let them grow on their own. If I do not, the fall of my dream is inevitable."
"I'm still not following you." Neeshka shook her head.
"If I live to see my dream come to fruition I will be very surprised indeed." Helm said, turning around, his wings fluttering softly. He could sense the disbelief from the woman behind him, and did not need to face her to see the twitch at the side of her mouth, or the incredulous glance she was throwing at his back. "Has the Time of Troubles taught you nothing?"
"But you're the Watcher, your clairvoyance-"
"Is better than most, but still not perfect, Neeshka." He shook his cowled head. "My death is a matter of when, not if. Someday, I will miss something. I will overlook a detail, make a miscalculation, or simply find myself in a situation where my continued survival will be the greater of two evils. On that day, at that time, my children and their allies must be strong enough to withstand my death. If they are not, if they are still dependent on me, and my demise causes the collapse of the budding empire, then my failures will truly be complete."
The God remained silent for a time and Neeshka simply stared at him. She suddenly became aware of the fact that she was not alone, and whirled around instinctively. The shock of being so out of touch with her surroundings that she missed something as obvious as someone coming over brought fell curses to her mind. She relaxed a moment later, as she realized that it was simply Miranda. The newly promoted Admiral stood at ease, her face difficult for the Tiefling to read. She seemed contemplative, pondering, almost. Finally, she spoke.
"You sound rather resigned."
Helm nodded his head, his back remaining to them. "Death comes for us all, in the end. In time, it will claim me. It will claim Torm and Tyr, Bane and Grumsh, even Ao and Torril itself will not be immune." He looked back over his shoulder. "I doubt I will quietly submit when my time comes, I am a soldier after all. I am simply wise enough to know that my time will come eventually, and what awaits me afterwards."
"You know what awaits a God after their death?" Neeshka sounded incredulous.
"No," Helm floated around to face them again, his wings drifting to and fro lazily. "But I do not fear it, as others do. Because I know that it cannot be worse than my current fate."
The two mortals exchanged glances out of the corner of their eyes, and then looked back towards him. Helm laughed, and this time his voice was bitter, almost poisonous. Within the depths of his mind, the Watcher looked at them. Of course they did not understand. How could they?
Neeshka and Keyes watched as his shoulders slumped and he bowed his head. There was something different about it this time, something that made it look as though an impossibly large weight had suddenly crashed down upon his back. Miranda was reminded for a moment of the myth of Atlas, doomed to forever carry the Earth on his shoulders as penance for his crimes against the Greek deities. She could not see Helm's face, but she imagined a look of embittered resignation as she remembered the appearance he'd held while still mortal.
"Do you remember, Admiral, the words that Mendicant had for me, when I'd asked him if he desired redemption?" Helm cocked his cowled head to the side just slightly.
"He said that he believed redemption was beyond him," Keyes crossed her arms over her chest.
"Beyond either of us." Helm said, holding up a finger, his voice that of a teacher patiently correcting a schoolchild.
"You're saying that you're damned?" Neeshka asked, her face scrunched up in confusion.
Helm nodded his head, and then looked back over towards the assembled Spartans. "I am ancient, Neeshka. I lived for six thousand years as a mortal, and nearly twenty times as long as a God. I have searched and scoured the Planes of the multiverse… seeking them…" His voice grew faraway, and within his mind, images began to dance, memories of times long gone. "I have witnessed amazing things in my travels. I have seen realms of islands, hanging in a void, waterfalls pouring from unseen sources, tumbling over the edge and down into the infinite abyss below. I have seen Planes that were giant bazaars, where crystals of pure arcane power were traded like bits of copper. I have borne witness to the birth of Galaxies and the creation of entirely new Planes of existence. I have battled against evil beings whose very appearance would drive a man mad… and stumbled across entities of power so beyond my own, entities… forces… so infinitely my greater that they were no more aware of my existence than you are of the insects that dwell within Castle Never."
Helm grew silent once more, before looking down at his gauntleted hands, the fingers spread wide, as if desperately trying to clutch at something, but failing.
"But… I have never found a trace of my people's souls. Not even a rumor, in all my journeys." The hidden gaze of the Watcher turned to the two women, boring into them.
"You think something's blocking you? Stopping you from finding them?" Keyes asked. She got a nod in response.
"Yes. There are certainly forces within the multiverse with the power to deny me such a thing. And it is appropriate when you think about it." He crossed his arms again, staring down at the ground. "Your history, Admiral, had an author by the name of Dante. Are you familiar with his works?"
"Vaguely." She shrugged. "We spent some time on his writings in history when I was a girl. That was a long time ago, though."
"His descriptions of the circles of Hell described each of the so-called deadly sins. The damned each suffered punishments that were steeped in irony and poetic justice." He paused. "What caused my fall?"
"You went to save your wife," Miranda said.
"Exactly. I took my fleet and abandoned my post. With a single act of wanton selfishness, I left a flank open, and brought the Forerunner civilization tumbling down into ruin. I could not bear the thought of my own wife dying, stranded, unable to escape the activation of the Halo Arrays. I did not spare a thought for everyone that I would be abandoning. As swift as the Council was to correct my actions, already, there were shield worlds whose defenses had been overwhelmed… the species stored there assimilated. What was to be their shield against the coming purge instead became their tomb." Another pause, which went on for several seconds.
"So… what you were trying to save…"
"Is lost to me, along with so much more." The God's shoulders slumped once more. "Entire species, countless trillions and more, were lost because of my single, selfish act. Whatever awaits me after my death… I doubt it is worse than this… and if it is…it will be nothing more than what I deserve." He clenched a fist, arcane power crackling around it. "And so I will rebuild what I destroyed. I will attempt to make things right, no matter the cost to myself."
Neeshka's tail twitched back and forth, her chin cradled in her palm as she thought about what Helm had revealed. There was so much about his nature that had begun to make sense. Why he battled and schemed like he did, why he was so ruthless when it came to his enemies… but there was one thing that puzzled her still.
"Why are you allowed to do this?" she asked suddenly, looking up from her musings. "You've kept your plans hidden from the other Gods and Goddesses, but surely Ao would have noticed what you've been up to."
Another chuckle met her query, this one almost sounding warm. "Ahhh, you've stumbled across one of the problems I would have encountered. The Overfather does hate people making a mess of His domains. As do His superiors. He has been aware of my plans for some time now, millennia, in fact."
"And yet He uses you as His enforcer?"
"Indeed. I knew I could not hide my ultimate goals from Ao forever, so I approached Him with a bargain." Helm nodded his head. "I will not give the details, but suffice to say, I would be allowed to go about my plans, and even bend the rules in some respects. In return, Ao required an Oath… a geas of great potency."
"You swore to serve Him," Neeshka exclaimed as she snapped her fingers, everything starting to fall into place. Why Helm had been spared during the Time of Troubles, why he and he alone had retained his divinity, and even acted as the guard that barred the way back to the realms of the other deities. All of it made sense now.
"There are limits, but suffice to say, Ao now has a powerful agent of His will that is all but literally at His beck and call. An element of stability that He can rely upon, no matter how chaotic and turbulent Torril becomes." Helm let his hands fall to his side.
There were several moments of silence, and the two women exchanged glances once more. What did one say in a situation like this? How did one react to this manner of revelation? Should they remain silent, or attempt to console the God of Guardians? How did one even console such a being? Was there anything that could be said that would not sound petty and trite to a being that was so powerful and yet so damned?
Helm sense their thoughts, and a hidden smile formed on his face. He did not need pity, but they meant no harm by their thoughts. Far from it in fact. Only a fool would rebuff them for such thoughts and emotions. His eyes drifted back over to the Spartans and Sergeant Johnson. They were watching Sam demonstrate some of the new skills he and the others had been honing. Right now, the large Spartan was holding a partially disassembled assault rifle in midair, taking apart the components with his mind. Training would resume soon enough, and when the time had come, when John had at last shed his mortal shell, he would take command of this budding vanguard.
"You should see to your friends," he let a bit of warmth drift into his voice, and placed a hand on both of their shoulders. "Do not worry for me, look to your friends, and your own futures." Both of the women nodded, and turned, heading back towards the gathering.
They were silent for a time, each pondering what they had learned. Neeshka's tail lashed back and forth as she digested the new information. A deity that could bend the rules was a sobering thought in a way. What rules could be bent? What were still sacrosanct? What were the limits of Ao's geas, what could Helm be compelled to do, and what not? And, she thought to herself, what did it mean for Helm to be denied to his people? What manner of beings—that might still be interested enough in the affairs of the material planes of reality to take notice of his "sin"—were so powerful as to deny a God as mighty as Helm? To cut him off so wholly and completely from wherever the souls of the Forerunners had gone that not even a trace could be found?
"Guess I'm not the only one who found that unsettling," Keyes spoke up. Neeshka glanced over towards the Admiral, noticing that Keyes's eyes were on her.
"Which part? The part about him being able to bend rules, or the fact that something took it upon itself to punish him… like that?" Neeshka asked. "That's something not even Ao could do."
"I was more thinking about beings so far beyond him that he's an insect by comparrison. Not a pleasant thing to contemplate for long." Then she shrugged. "But yeah… I'd imagine that getting cut off from your people's afterlife is an unsettling thing to dwell on, too. I don't really care to think about what it means to draw the ire of a being powerful enough to do that to a deity." She let her thoughts trail off for a moment. What if such beings took an interest in what was left of the UNSC? What would it mean for them to draw the attention, good, ill, or indifferent, of an entity of such potency that it was likely there literally were not words to describe it?
The rest of their trip back over to the Spartans was in silence. Silence was soon replaced by laughter and joy, but neither were able to fully remove themselves from the sobering contemplation that Helm's words had triggered.
Mephasm clasped his hands behind his back as he looked over his granddaughter one more time. The great Pit Fiend was in his more humanoid form at the moment, and in the back of his mind, he wondered what the other Devils might think if they saw him here, worrying over a Tiefling like a clucking mother hen. Then he cast the thought aside, uncaring. The physical scars had been healed, he knew, but try as she might, there were signs that there had been psychological damage brought on by the time she'd spent in the "care" of the Dark Elves.
"I told you, gramps, I'm fine," she said as he walked around where she was sitting, her crimson eyes locked onto his golden ones. "You trying to make up for lost time, or something?"
"Perhaps," he said, wincing slightly. The Tiefling's face softened in response.
"Look, I know you're still new at this, but you're about to swing from one extreme to the other, and that won't help anyone." She placed a hand gently on his. This had been going on for about five minutes. Originally, she, Casavir, and Khelgar had been sitting in one of the barrack sections of the Dawn, currently reserved for Lord Nasher's entourage, discussing what the future might hold for them. She'd also taken the time to relay Helm's assurances that Kale and the others were fine, and might be returning in the near future.
She'd scarcely finished when Mephasm had entered, and with a surprising show of politeness, requested a moment alone with his granddaughter. She couldn't help but smirk. She was still a little confused about what to make of it all, but her relationship with the arch-Devil had changed. The moment that he'd stormed into House Baenre's torture chambers, looking ready to tear the whole compound apart for what had been done to her… she closed her eyes for a second as the memories replayed. The first time that she ever well and truly felt as though she was his granddaughter, rather than simply an object of his curiosity.
Neeshka nodded her head a bit, returning to reality. To her shock, she realized that Mephasm was fretting so much because he was going to be returning to Baator after this. He'd likely put off his duties for almost too long over the past couple of weeks, and would quickly need to return to whatever paper-work and damnation related activities his office called on him to perform. That wasn't what surprised her, though. What surprised the Tiefling was the realization that she was actually going to miss him.
She finally stood up, and tried to ignore the fact that she was going to have to go to sleep soon, which meant a good chance that… unpleasant… memories would come visit her. Time to focus on the here and the now, what she could affect and control. She also realized that the Pit Fiend had been droning on when she'd drifted off for a second.
"I mean, I'm not sure what else-" She grabbed both of his wrists, forcing him to stop his pacing and look at her.
"You've done what you can," she said, allowing a smile to come to her face. "This isn't a problem you know how to deal with." He opened his mouth to protest, but she cut him off. "Be honest, gramps. You're a Devil. You usually hand out these problems, you don't solve them."
Mephasm's mouth snapped shut. She'd cut right to the heart of his problems.
"I'm touched, though. Believe me, I am." She probed his eyes with her own. "I'm going to fight this, and I'm going to beat this. They can't hurt me anymore, and no matter how long it takes to make this" she tapped the side of her skull, "realize that, I'm going to do it. They hurt me, but I'm not going to let them have the last laugh in this."
Mephasm paused looking down, blinking. He nodded his head, and inwardly, pride blossomed again. A spirit that strong, a will that powerful… she was his granddaughter alright. He pulled her in close and hugged her. "I know… I know… Please, though, be safe."
"I will, you be safe too, okay? No running off to beat up Balors or Arch-Demons, okay?" She laughed a bit, and he nodded, a tightness forming in his chest. He pulled back, and reached into his robes.
"I may not be able to help you with your… difficulties," he said, as he pulled out a simple pewter medallion, a gray disk adorned with red runes. "But I can give you this. If you need to talk, if you're in trouble. If you need me for anything… this will let me know. Don't be afraid to use it."
Neeshka gently took the amulet, and looked at it for a few seconds, before placing it around her head. It settled into place just above the unblinking eye of her Neverwinter Nine tunic. "I will," she said, nodding her head and pulling Mephasm into another embrace. "I love you." She whispered.
"I love you too," He patted her on the back, holding her for what felt like an eternity, but was at the same time, all too brief. Then he pulled away and with a final smile, teleported back to his home.
He arrived in a dark room, his eyes easily adjusting to the dim light as he shifted back into his true form, stretching his wings and tail. Those who set eyes upon this place (who were not shaking in stark terror at the thought of what awaited them) were usually surprised by the layout. A chair, a desk, some guard-Devils, and a hefty supply of parchment and quills. Few mortals bothered to understand the difference between a Devil and a Demon. There was more to being a Pit Fiend than simply damning people and torturing them. The small mountain of paperwork sitting on his desk was testament to that fact. Mephasm cracked his knuckles and sat down, grabbing a quill and attacking the pile with lightning speed.
He'd been at this for a few minutes when he noticed the black orb sitting on the desk. A feral grin came to his face and his grip on the pen tightened just slightly. His reconciliation with Neeshka had put him in such a good mood that he'd nearly forgotten about the gem that Vendes Baenre was imprisoned within. His eyes darted back and forth between the obsidian sphere and the paperwork, before he returned to his job. Business before pleasure, after all. Vendes's appointment with his… skills… had waited for five days, and could wait a little longer. But as he started on another form, he remembered his granddaughter's words and the feral grin grew even darker, if that was possible.
No. Vendes Baenre would most certainly not be having the last laugh in this matter.
Back on the Prime Material Plane, another Baenre contemplated her own future. Triel lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling, her crimson eyes looking as though they could bore a hole through it. Sleep eluded Triel Baenre, "Matron Mother of House Baenre," despite her bet efforts to seek it out. Over the past five days, scattered survivors had trickled into the compound at Ched Nassad. Nonetheless, it amounted to less than three hundred individuals, all told. More than ninety percent of House Baenre was literally no more.
Worse, compared to some of the other Houses, the survival of even that many could be seen as nothing short of miraculous. Most Houses had been wiped out wholesale, annihilated before the might of the off-worlders' strange artifacts. More than three hundred thousand Drow, from cities all over the Underdark, gone in a flash. Many Dark Elves had responded with despair and rage, and it was all the Matrons of Ched Nassad could do to maintain something that passed for order in the wake of the destruction.
The former First Matron of Menzoberranzan had not taken this situation lying down. Triel refused to let this be, as some rumors whispered "the downfall of the Drow." She had not come into power just to watch her entire civilization fall down around her ears. The Matron's crimson eyes narrowed and her face twisted into a scowl. Their glory could not, would not, be allowed to end like this. That she swore.
She had already begun the process of dragging Baenre back from the brink, and soon, the rest of her people would follow. There were many Houses in Ched Nassad that had owed her late-mother favors, from arcane artifacts that had been gifted, to blessings of Lolth, to their enemies being quite surprised when a group of elite Baenre soldiers stormed their compounds and wiped them out to the last child. She'd been quick to call those in, and to call on the enormous material wealth stored here and elsewhere, to begin recruiting mercenaries, mundane and magical alike. House Baenre might have been battered, but it was still alive. Time would be necessary to nurse its wounds, but, Triel thought as she narrowed her gaze, whatever did not destroy her House would only make it stronger in the end. She still had the favor of Lolth, this she knew, though her Goddess had been quiet of late, as if the Spider Queen herself was uncertain of what course of action would be necessary.
Triel hoped that Lolth would reach a decision soon, but the Matron was going to be doing other things in the meanwhile. The Spider Queen had once said that she'd admired Triel's initiative, and it was time to prove Lolth's admiration true. Once House Baenre had been reorganized, raids would be put together. They would have to be cautious, but there were plenty of Kobolds, Goblins, and even Deep Gnomes around these parts. She would be quick to demonstrate to them that while injured, the Drow were still at the top of the food chain in the Underdark.
But there was another thought that drifted in the back of her mind, another one that she could not dismiss, no matter how hard she tried. And that was Gromph. Why had he saved her, instead of himself? What bizarre motivation could have compelled the centuries old arch-wizard to throw away his life for her? What had been going through his head as he'd gazed at her, lying there on the floor, broken and unable to defend herself, let alone escape? Under normal circumstances, a male would have been expected to happily give his life for a female, especially a Matron. But Gromph was no ordinary male, and in her helpless state, there was nothing that Triel could have done to have compelled him to save her at his own expense.
So why? Why?
For another hour, Triel thought about it, and for another hour, the answer eluded her.
And well. There it is. After so many years, Finishing the Fight is well, finished. I'm not really sure what else to say, other than to thank you all once again. I know I'm repeating myself pretty often by this point but, I really am not sure what else to say.
Thank you all so very much for everything. It means the world. Please be safe in your lives and travels, and I cannot wait until next time, folks.
Wishing you all the best, this is Red Mage 04/Aratech signing off for now.