Disclaimer: I can't believe that this still has to be said, but Halo belongs to 343 Industries. Any attempts to sue the author will net you at most one of my doomsday devices (Go ahead and take, I have more!).

A/N: Been a while, hasn't it? Well, suffice it to say, there were great times of troubles. Won't bore you with the details, though I am making it up to my readers with the longest chapter yet. In any case, this chapter and the next are the ones that I've dreaded for a while now for several reasons. Any good story has all of its wayward threads converge at the climax. This chapter is that moment for me and I have a lot of wayward threads. Moreover, these chapters shows a larger than previous scale infantry action, specifically on the company and battalion level. Any decent writer knows that this can be difficult to pull off in a good manner.

I should note that I'm doing Major Antonio Silva's character fairly differently from canon (which has him as a counterargument for the concept of "survival of the fittest"). Here, he remains an asshole, but a competent asshole. Why, you might ask? It's because I simply can't see someone that thickheaded being a field commander without being fragged by his own troops. Of course, history does have examples of otherwise.

Also, thanks to those readers who contributed suggestions for the names of the Covenant legions. One additional suggestion regarding the Covenant armed mobs was also used. Trust me, you'll see it.

As always, the grandest of gratitude for Tikigod for beta-ing while putting up with my erratic writing schedules and Reichenfaust for being the type of military adviser that writers and field Commanders always want but few ever get.

"Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground through which it flows. The soldier works out his victory according to the nature of the foe that he is facing. Therefore, just as water holds no constant shape, in warfare there are no constant conditions." - Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

2029 Hours, November 11th, 2552 (Military Calendar) / 7th Marine Regimental Combat Team, Covenant Holy City High Charity, X-3279 System, Sector 357.

Woe be on any soldier who trusts intelligence estimates.

That's something Colonel Mendez had learned over the course of the war. It's not that the boys and girls at intel are incompetence or dishonest (though considering that those said agents are working for ONI, one could not completely discount that), but rather that there's simply no substitute for having on-the-ground recon to clear away the fog of war. That being said, to get the estimates for the number of prisoners so wrong, while not one of the greatest blunders of the war, would certainly be remembered as one of more embarrassing moments of the UNDF's history. Fortunately, the operational plans had allowed for such contingencies, even if it was being stretched to the breaking point. Looking at the holo-display on the bridge of one of the Spitfire corvettes while the first of the extraction corvettes readied itself to make for the grounds of the prison block, Mendez knew just how thin the margin for error was.

If they lost more than three ships... well, the old Colonel would rather not think about that.

The swish of the doors opening turned Mendez's attention as well as the rest of the command staff. Two men entered, each of them very differently attired. The first and most obvious one was Lt. Commander Spartan-104, his armor showing obvious signs of recent and furious combat. Oddly enough, the black armor had darkened scorch marks across the chest piece and helmet for which Mendez knew full well how they came about and made a note to talk to the Spartan about it later on.

The other person was Major Antonio Silva, his armor also sporting signs of combat from leading the clean up sweeps of the valley. An empty magazine here, a missing grenade there, though nothing that seemed to show a fight like that of Fred's armor. The Helljumper had a M-55 rifle on his back which gave Mendez a slight feeling of respect. As everyone in uniform knows, most officers, even ODSTs, don't regularly go into combat and therefore usually carry sidearms or PDRs. To carry a rifle sends a message to the ranks that Silva and others like him are the type who says not 'charge' but rather 'follow me'. And what a difference such a little thing could make.

"Gentlemen." Mendez began as the three soldiers exchanged salutes. They hid it well, but Mendez could tell that the two were somewhat confused as to why they had been summoned. All the details of the plan had been plotted out beforehand and any minor changes could have been disseminated over the com.

Silva was the first to speak while doing his best to avoid looking at Fred. "If I may ask, sir. Why are we here? And why just us?"

Mendez responded just as curtly. "Intel just uncovered another potential problem. All the other captains have already been briefed while you three were busy elsewhere."

The holo-display switched from a layout of the battlefield to a life sized hologram of an Elite. Its armor had the golden hue and black background of an officer with a characteristic plasma sword at its hand. The soldiers present didn't recognize any specific rank markings, not that those tend to be obvious to the human eye. Those in ISR as well as flag officers and field Commanders, however, knew exactly who this Elite was: Thel Vadamee, one of the very few Covenant Commanders dangerous enough to warrant investigation by ONI Section I.

"ISR has just confirmed who it is that's running the show on the Covie side. This lovely specimen of the split lips is called..."

"...Thel Vadamee, Commander of the Covenant Fleet of Particular Justice." Silva finished matter-of-fact. Seeing the look of surprise on the others, the major simply smiled. "What? Surprised that I know? I do actually do my homework before going into a fight. My outfit has tangled with his boys a couple times. That bastard is one tough customer."

With a slight grin, Mendez simply nodded. "Tough doesn't begin to describe it. Most of the Covie officer corps aren't worth their salt. They're as tough as they are inflexible and predictable. But this guy...This Elite, he just doesn't make any mistakes. He won't just come at us with everything that he has. We need to keep our eyes open."

Mendez turned to Silva. "He's going to come after our guns. This guy is smart enough to figure out that our batteries are going to decide this fight. I want you to assign extra guards for your gun crews. Take them from the other battalions if you have to, but keep those howitzers and mortars safe."

"Aye, Sir." The Major responded.

Mendez then turned to the other two as he changed the holo display to show a map of the city and the valley. "Now that we've got a better look at the terrain, we can update our plan."

As was previously known, the valley was surrounded by relatively clear terrains of grassland, groves, and small buildings and temples. A fairly large but almost unclimbable mountain served to make the valley approachable from only three directions, altogether forming a rough rectangle. Two bigger constructs, an aerial terminal and a temple, hovered off the southeast and southwest corners. Of course, both of those structures had been reduced to slagged rubble on Fred's orders by Spearhead team's previous bombardments to prevent the Prophet of Regret's escape. Moreover, secondary explosions from parked Covenant transports added to the still burning and probably radioactive debris strewn across their former warden and beyond, their fumes adding to the smoke that now choked High Charity's atmosphere.

The Colonel chuckled at the sight of Spearhead's handy work. "It looks like you ordered a little too much fire, Lieutenant Commander."

"I thought that they could help restrict the enemy's approach on the valley, sir." Fred replied.

"Well, it looks like your plan panned out. With the mountain blocking the west and the southern accesses restricted by the blast zones, we only really have to worry about the northern and eastern approaches. Unfortunately, that's also the biggest piece of frontage that we have to defend. I've already changed the deployment plan. 1st battalion will take the northeastern frontage. 2nd battalion will take care of the rest of the perimeter with their line being thinnest in the south where the Covenant's approach is most restricted. We'll have a couple squads next to the mountain just in case the Covies try to make their way through there.

The Colonel pointed to Fred and Silva. "Your two formations plus 1st armored platoon will form the reserve. That should be enough to seal any breach in the line."

Fred looked at his old teacher in confusion. "Sir? It's obvious that the main enemy thrust will be at the bend of the northern and eastern frontage. Shouldn't we be waiting there for them with everything we have?"

Mendez sighed as he shook his head. "No. The frontage is too big. There's no sense in showing our hand now. If this Vadamee is going to surprise us with something big, then I want to have a surprise of my own waiting for him."

Despite the rhetoric, they all knew that Mendez was mincing words. It's no great secret that, in a defensive operation, one saves their best soldiers not for the early phase of grinding attrition but instead for either the counterattack or the final desperate stand to save the battle. As good as a defensive position the valley was, it was still in the firing range of Covenant artillery. The frontage in the east was big enough that it will take most of a battalion on the main defensive line to cover the whole thing. And with the Covenant being led by this Vadamee, a Commander that at the very least be described as competent, the defenders in the east can expect a rather difficult fight to say the least. Knowing the terrain beforehand, Mendez had originally planned for each of his three infantry battalions to take one side of the valley, with the Helljumpers to take on this most treacherous part of the line; the RCT's armor and Spartans would have formed the mobile reserve. But now knowing that he faced a particularly dangerous foe and taking advantage of the new obstacle on the northern and southern approach, the Colonel had to make the difficult choice and hold back his best troops despite the danger to 1st battalion.

With a dismissive scoff, Silva answered with an almost casual swagger. "Fine by me. I prefer to be on the move anyway." The major finally looked towards Fred before turning back to Mendez. "Hope that these...kids...of yours can keep up."

Mendez wanted to roll his eyes.


Normally, the Colonel would have wrote this off as harmless pre-battle chest thumping. But then again, with Silva and his history with the Spartans...ODSTs may be the best of the best, barring Spartans, but arrogance is not a survival trait. The line between confidence and arrogance is littered with the mangled bodies of dead soldiers. Still, Silva, like all ODSTs, didn't get to where he was now without having at least some semblance of intelligence in his head. He and his soldiers had worked successfully with the Spartans earlier in the operation. Moreover, now was not the time to question the leadership of one of his battalions. The Colonel would have to trust Silva to be the good soldier that he had always been before the operation began.

"You have your orders, gentlemen. Dismissed."

2045 Hours, November 11th, 2552 (Military Calendar) / 2nd Battalion (ODST), 7th Marine Regimental Combat Team, Covenant Holy City High Charity, X-3279 System, Sector 357.

At the gentle crest of the valley that is the northeastern section Marine defensive line, Lieutenant Melissa McKay walked amongst the marines of 1st battalion as they made their positions ready for the Covenant assault. The situation was less than ideal, but one that all Marines had become quite accustomed to. By the very nature of the war, Marines were often called to quickly deploy planetside and take up positions without a decent amount of time to prepare them. The devildogs thus had to adapt by learning to work quickly, delegate more initiative and firepower into the lower echelons, and to rely more on inter-unit support and combined arms cooperation. That was why McKay was here: to scout the terrain and to learn what 1st battalion's plans and disposition were. Technically speaking, though, she was a platoon Commander and not on Major Silva's battalion headquarter staff; Captain Bhatia should have been doing this instead of her. However, everyone in the battalion knew that she was Silva's favorite set of eyes and ears. Moreover, Silva trusted her to be able to pick up another unit's plan of operation and run with it.

So here she was, strolling along the rising edge of the valley as she carefully noted the features of the terrain. That being said, the area was, for the most part, quite featureless. Aside from some minor elevations which effectively formed small hills, the crest of the valley was almost uniformly gentle rolling grassland (at least, she assumed it was grass). Such a terrain, however, cuts both ways in combat. Neither the attackers nor the defenders would have any natural hard cover, especially against artillery. Of course, the Marines weren't the ones who would be exposed to small arms fire while marching across the several kilometers of open field. Moreover, the Marines are busy making use of the next best thing aside from hard cover: concealment. All along the line, the Leathernecks had placed themselves at the top of the crest and on the reverse slope to avoid giving the Covenant a direct line of sight on their positions; AAA fire from the corvettes would take care of aerial observations. There was a downside to this, of course, in the form of reducing the depth of the defensive line by sacrificing the forward slope of the crest. The valley was now pretty crowded with regiment's artillery batteries and more than a dozen corvettes packed as tight as possible. There was also an armored platoon to worry about and the space that they'd need to maneuver. Even with the medical, communications, and HQ sections working from within the corvettes, there wasn't that much room to spare. Still, it is a necessary sacrifice since the forward slope was far too vulnerable to Covenant artillery compared to the top and the reverse slope. In effect, the Marines would have two main lines of resistance situated on the crest of the ridge and on the reverse slope.

All this focus on the larger scale was well deserved, but wasn't meant to be at the cost of the smaller details, which was why McKay was sent here to go over the preparations with a fine-toothed comb. After all, ODSTs were considered the best precisely because of their attention to detail. With enough experience, one could develop a sixth sense for details that others would miss, sometimes preventing catastrophic results. It was that sixth sense which had led her to this one particular elevation on the valley's crest. This hill, for the lack of a better term, was barely worthy of the name as it was only about fifteen meters or so higher than the rest of the crest. Still, any height shouldn't be passed up without a very good reason. To that end, she saw a number of Marines from Foxtrot Company, 1st battalion's heavy weapons company, setting up some of their crew served weapons. A couple of machine gun squads were setting up their M-42 machine guns with water jackets and tripods. Several more MG crews were preparing M-700 HMGs and Mk 49 50mm automatic grenade launchers. 81mm mortar crews were digging mortar pits a couple hundred meters back from the hill. A few Marine snipers could be heard firing some occasional shots which were answered with the rare streaks from Covenant particle beams. A gaggle of rocket gunners, fire directors, and riflemen rounded out the weapons company.

At first glance, the position was pretty good for a weapons company. The hill gave additional weapons range and direct line of sight for a large stretch of the defensive line in both directions. Any Covenant assault would be swamped with enfilading MG fire from the hill and accurate mortar fire from the fire directors with a good view, in addition to the open terrain beyond the hill seemingly making the position at least as tough as any other on the line.

So question remained: why did this spot seem so wrong?

The sky was sinking more and more into the fiery twilight with every moment, a tenebrae of smokey darkness and distant embers pouring out from the devastated urban sprawl accompanied by the claps of thunderous artillery, getting more difficult to see with each passing moment. Yet the Lieutenant saw it, the way the grass moved with every puff of wind. McKay had at first thought it was cloaked Elites creeping through the grass, though a quick thermographic overlay on her HUD dismissed that. The Lieutenant wanted to inspect the site herself, but it seemed ill-advised considering such an action would involve a potentially suicidal run out into no-man's land.

The fire directors near the top of the hill snapped to as McKay approach their Sergeant.

"Lieutenant Melissa McKay, 2nd Platoon of Alpha Company." The ODST greeted as she saluted.

"Sergeant Marcus Stacker, Ma'am. Foxtrot Company. Something we can do for ya?"

"Yeah there is. Send a few mortar rounds out seven hundred meters into the field. Scatter them around by one hundred meter intervals, if you don't mind."

The ODST saw Stacker's confusion before the words left his lips. "Ma'am? There ain't nothing out there to shoot at."

McKay could have simply forced the issue or ordered the mortar fire herself, but she knew better as etiquette should be followed when not in immediate combat. "Humor me, Sergeant. And I think there is, in fact, something out there."

Even at a distance, McKay could see mortar crews back a hundred meters shrugging in confusion as they received their orders from Stacker. Seconds later, three 81mm mortar rounds shot over the hill and struck the seemingly empty field, catching more than a few Marines in surprise. The Lieutenant watched every impact carefully as the shockwaves coursed over the landscape, momentarily flattening the vegetation to reveal its true nature.

It was exactly as she feared.

Stacker said exactly what was on her mind. "Ah, shit."

The Lieutenant immediately radioed her CO and found that Silva had been waiting for her on the comm channel. "What do you see out there, Mel?"

"Sir, we're gonna have a problem here. I'm on the highest point right at the center of the line where Foxtrot Company is setting up shop. It's a damn good fire position, but grass on the immediate terrain beyond the crest covered up some decent sized gullies and crevices. Anyone going through there could get some defilade on the approach to the ridge line."

"How bad is it?" Silva asked.

McKay sighed. This was one of the tough parts about her job, giving an opinion on the terrain that the entire battalion might rely on. "The depressions in the ground are pretty well-hidden from sight. I don't think that anyone on the other side knows about it. It's not exactly an invitation for the Covies to come this way, but I'd bet good money that they'll find it soon enough once they start pouring in."

After a couple moments of silence, the Major gave his orders. "Mel, I want you to take your platoon and stay close to Foxtrot Company. I get the feeling that you're gonna have to bail their asses out. In the mean time, get those MG jockies to move their guns."

That, of course, was another tough part about her job. She was once again being sent out as insurance for a potential shitstorm. Feet first into Hell? More like the first to step into the shit. "Understood, sir. I might need more than a platoon here, though. MGs and mortars aren't gonna cut it if the Covies concentrate here."

"I'll have Lieutenant Carrico's assault hogs assigned to you as soon as they're ready. Silva out."

McKay smiled at the thought. Assault warthogs were a series of modified warthogs that had their traditional 12.7mm M-41 LAAG replaced with heavy weapons and an autoloader. Mortar hogs mounted 81mm mortars while the Cannon hogs had a dual-mounted M-149 Magellan 105mm recoilless rifle turret. Using the same 105mm shells found in the Mk34 105mm howitzer, the shells were powerful enough to take out almost any target short of a Wraith or a Scarab; add in the powdered aluminum TBX rounds and it became dangerous to use the weapons at close range.

The main point that made McKay, and really any ODST, smile was simply having their old friends going with them into battle. Assault hogs and ODSTs had a long history together, forming the epitome of infantry/assault artillery cooperation. It took great skill to use these glass cannons effectively, which was mostly why the assault hogs were used primarily by ODSTs. Like any junior officer in the ODSTs, McKay had extensive experience in using them to quickly overwhelm any Covenant opposition with the potent combination of firepower and mobility.

The Lieutenant turned back to Sergeant Stacker. "Better start moving your guns, Sarge. I suggest placing them about fifty meters behind the second phase line. It looks just far enough to get some good plunging fire on most of the far slope of the hill."

Stacker quickly shouted to his gun crews to move their positions back. Needless to say, the gunners were not happy, though not just for the extra work now on their plates. No MG crew ever really liked to fall back on indirect plunging fire from a distance behind the main line. Not only could they no longer directly see their target directly (and have to rely on fire directors), but they would also have an increase in the risk for friendly fire.

McKay radioed her platoon, opening a channel to her platoon XO, Master Sergeant Lister.

"Change of plans, Lister. Bring up the whole platoon to the hill where Foxtrot Company is."

Her XO seemed confused by the order. "Ma'am, is it just us?"

"For now, at least." McKay responded. "Silva wants a platoon closer to the forward line and we're it. We'll get a squad of assault hogs to give us a hand."

2052 Hours, November 11th, 2552 (Military Calendar) / Blue Team, 1st Spartan Combat Group, Covenant Holy City High Charity, X-3279 System, Sector 357.

Amidst the endless rubble of the ruined buildings surrounding the prison complex, John could see the battle in contrast with the darkened sky and scorched earth, the combatants utterly ignorant of the team of Spartans weaving back and forth through the chaos. With him was Linda, also cloaked as she was perched upon a twisted metal beam looking through her helical rail rifle's Oracle-7 scope. Below them is what remained of what looked like an avenue of sorts, its approach blocked by piles of rubble half a dozen high and more than a few buildings that had collapsed onto their sides. Despite this, the wreckage strewn road was still more passable compared to most other approaches in the area. The other members of Blue and Noble teams were out and about, operating in pairs as he and Linda as they await their moment to reveal themselves. It was all too easy to miss the half dozen nigh invisible apparitions in a low visibility combat zone. How many times have the Spartans seen soldiers cut down by cloaked Elites hiding in a dimly lit atmosphere choked with ashes and dust. This time, though, the positions were reversed for it was Marine artillery fire falling upon Covenant ground. And it was so easy to spot their prey with their armors' full spectrum EM sensors. If it wasn't the heat of their plasma weapons or their own physical exertions then it was the high energy magnetic signatures of their weapons' constrictor systems.

It also helped that the hundreds of Covenant warriors were actively fighting against 1st Armor Platoon with the effect of preventing the Covenant from moving on the prison with anything less than a full-blooded assault. Several hundred meters of open ground surrounding the prison gave the two Nashorn MBTs and their Mantis walker escorts the decided advantage against the Covenant infantry while the rubble blocked any approach for Covenant vehicles. Moreover, the 7th Marines' gun batteries and the Spartans' presence, currently more as artillery spotters than anything else, made it nigh impossible for the Covenant to form up for an organized attack. The scorched sands and rocks on the open fields were already littered with hundreds of Covenant corpses, the remnants of dozens of platoons that had braved the Marine artillery barrage only to fall before the guns of 1st Armored Platoon and the Marines defending the evacuation. But, as the Commander noted over the past half hour, the uncoordinated masses seemed to have given way to some measure of organization. The alien horde had become more patient, keeping up the pressure on 1st Armored Platoon while slowly moving their warriors through the ruined streets and buildings on opposite flanks of the prison complex. Exploiting the rubble for cover and dispersing their numbers, the Covenant infantry might be able to knock out 1st Armored Platoon with massed indirect fire before swarming the prison. It was very casualty intensive (typical of Covenant ground operations), but it was a fundamentally sound attack plan.

John knew that he had to respond in kind and ordered the six sections of Blue and Noble teams to protect 1st Armored's flank. As they were already in place, the main question now was how to go about it. Linda beat him to the punch, however, as she placed several markers on John's HUD, tagging the couple dozen Elites that were clearly running the show. With Jackal wrist shields for added protection, the Elites' personal shields buzzed again and again as the 105mm shells exploded around them, scything down the grunts and jackals but rarely claiming the Covenant officers. The Commander then saw her enhanced image gesturing her hand to her ears, mimic an explosion before doing a 'pull-the-trigger' gesture. John nodded in understanding before both Spartans readied their weapons. It was a classic Spartan tactic, exploiting their augmentations to fullest though it did require some outside help. It wasn't exactly original but it was certainly effective.

"Cortana?" John spoke.

"Commander?" The AI replied.

"Have the artillery batteries cease fire. On my mark, resume fire and time the artillery salvo intervals to fourteen seconds. Inform the other sections as well."

Cortana's response took on an amused tone. "Oh, I think I know what you're planning to do. The other sections have acknowledged. Ready on your mark, Commander."

John turned the scope on his SCR on a trio of Elites roughly fifty meters away while Linda marked another group of Elites farther away for her helical rail rifle. The familiar sense of calm settled as the Spartans steadied their breathing, their fingers hovering over the triggers.


It took several seconds for the shells to arrive. It felt like an eternity as Spartan time kicked in, dragging on and on as they waited for the explosions. When it came, it felt like a roll of thunder, the flash giving way to a whisper that grew into a deafening roar. The explosion tore through the Covenant ranks below but again only weakened the personal shields of the Elites. As the aural crescendo washed over the battlefield, the Spartans struck. Even at 900 rpm, John felt as if he could almost dance to the staccato of the rifle's hammer slamming against the receiver, to the flash of Elite's personal shield before it flickered away on the third round before the fourth and fifth tore into their target and exploded. Before his victim even began to drop, John lets loose another burst of super 7s into another Elite. At the same time, John saw the three vapor trails striking out from beside him. Barely registering through the cacophony were the additional faint bursts of rifle fire from different spots all around the locale.

Time sped back to normal as John took stock of his efforts. In addition to the unrecognizable splatters of body parts from the artillery shells, five Elites had joined them lying on the ground. The grunts that survived the barrage visibly shook with fear before the surviving Elites quickly drummed them back into order. The order in the Covenant ranks didn't last for much longer, though, as another salvo slammed home. Through the cover of the explosions, the Spartans fired again.

It was almost comical the way that the Spartans' targets were now pointing right at the positions that the humans had been shooting at them from. John didn't need the translation software to know that the Elite in his scope was broadcasting the Spartans' position. One by one, the hundreds of Grunts, Jackals, and Elites below picked themselves up off the ground before turning their sights on the Spartans. It was inevitable that they would eventually mark their positions, but it no longer mattered. The Spartans eliminated all but a few of the Elites in the field this side of the prison. Seeing Linda swap her helical rail rifle for her SCR, John knew that it was time to move in for the kill.

"Cease fire! Cease fire! All sections move in. Shake the nest then bug out. Double back after to clean up. Cortana, time-on-target barrage on my mark."

As John swapped a fresh magazine into his rifle's receiver, he heard Cortana speak up. "Inbound hostile artillery fire."

The Commander's reply was short and to the point. "Doesn't matter."

As the storm of fuel rod bursts and plasma-yield shells flew into the air towards them, the twelve Spartans of Blue and Noble teams leaped out of the hiding spots and onto the rubble. Like a swarm of locusts, they all but flew right past the dazed Grunts and Jackals who found themselves next to the Spartans' hideouts. The collective roar of a dozen rifles and hundreds of super 7 rounds tearing their victims to shreds melded into one grand cacophony. But for the Spartans, they could make out every shot and rattle. More than that, they were actively directing this symphony of death. From the shards of rock and metal floating to the ground like snow to the jerks and spasms of every Covenant warrior that they shot, the twelve supersoldiers moved through a world crawling forward in time at a snail's pace. It was easy, even at 900 rpm, to put a short burst of super 7s into one target after another like dummies at a shooting range. They were already gone before the shellshocked Covenant warriors had realized what had happened, charging back into the open field towards the prison.

As the Commander watched the crystalline needles and plasma bolts shoot past his vision, John made his final move of this engagement.

"Cortana, mark!"

Before the Spartans had made their move, the Covenant soldiers were dug in and in cover behind the mounds of rubble, making all but very near artillery shots ineffective. But now as discombobulated and leaderless Grunts and Jackals instinctively shot at their retreating attackers, they were once again exposed to the Marines' howitzers. Within a handful of seconds, a dozen 105mm shells burst above the Covenant ranks with a shower of fire and steel and bone smashing shockwaves. It was then that the Spartans, still out on the exposed dirt between the urban sprawl and the prison compound, turned back towards the Covenant positions in the rubble. Smashing straight through the rubble and twisted metal, the supersoldiers tore into the few survivors.

And then it happened again, the fetid stench of rotting flesh jerking John's mind out of reality. This time, he could see them a little more clearly, the three ghostly figures before him coming in and out of focus. The light of armor shined onto what looked like three Elites. They seemed to have been...transformed, if that's the word for it. The overall forms of the alien bodies were there, but they were bent all out of shape in a grotesque manner. The necks hung backward like a gangrene limb waiting to fall off, the dead eyes still giving some hints of their horror filled moments. Stretching out from their collars were all manner of things that had no place there. Tiny razor tipped tentacles, or perhaps antennae, protruded from the skin like stalks, swaying in the wind with intent. From the base of those stalks, a network of veins stretched out to all corners of the body like an infection, pulsing with a malevolent and hungry purpose. And of course, there was the huge razor-lined tentacles emanating from the wrists, drenched in fluids that one would rather not know.

But as soon as the light lance came into his hand, they were gone, replaced with the two very normal looking Elite minors and the major that the Commander first saw. There was no time for any more analysis, though, as the three alien warriors immediate opened fire on John with plasma rifles and grenades. John quickly responded with his wrist shield, swatting the grenades back towards the last of the group in a spin as he lets loose a plasma bolt from his plasma pike. The series of plasma blasts quickly threw the Elite trio off balance as John lunged forward, knocking the closest Elite back with his wrist shield as drove the plasma pike into the second. But before either John or the last Elite could make another move, the Covenant warrior erupted in a shower of purple gore, its torso being ripped to pieces starting from the center of the torso to the left side collar. As John finished off the last Elite, he turned to see the source of the assistance.

It was Linda. A small trail of smoke floated off the muzzle of her 12.7mm SCR. But she was tense, gripping her rifle much tighter than she needed to. John could count on one hand how many times Linda had been spooked in all their years of ceaseless war, but it was more than fear in her stance. If John didn't know any better, it was as if she expected the Elite that she had just blown apart to suddenly get back up. The placements of the shots also caught 117's notice. Though the Elite had been blown apart by Linda's burst, the Commander couldn't help but think that she had been aiming for that...thing...lodged in the chest of that monstrous version of the Elite that he saw. The sniper slowly turned towards her captain, her feet twitching slightly as if she was taming her fight-or-flight instincts. Her shoulders trembled ever so slightly, the aftershocks of chills going down her spine. John knew that Linda wasn't just afraid. She was confused and embarrassed.

"Sir?" 058 asked, her tone saying more than anything else. "I...I don't...That thing..."

With that, John knew that she just seen the monsters that he had been seeing. With the relief in knowing that he wasn't alone, John reached for Linda's hand, still gripping her weapon. "It's okay. I saw it too."

Finally, 058's finger's loosened from her rifle's grip. Relief coursed through the two Spartans. They hadn't gone insane, despite the evidence to the contrary up to this point. At that moment, Cortana decided to chime in.

"Saw what? Is something wrong here, Commander?" The AI spoke, her voice split between concern and suspicion.

"No, it's nothing." John brushed off to the belief of no one.

The Commander could feel the AI's annoyance and disappointment over his recent reticence. Moreover, he could feel how Cortana felt...hurt, dare he say... by his seeming lack of trust in her.

"John, you know that you can tell me anything, right? I may be bound by protocol, but that doesn't mean that I have to put everything in my reports."

John took one more look around him. The area was quiet again, the last Covenant survivors having been wiped out by the other Spartans of Blue and Noble teams. Aside from Linda and Cortana, he was alone. Moreover, the mystery of those hallucinations were no longer limited to just himself. Linda was going through the same thing he was. Finally, John had learned his lesson from the incident with Spearhead team. He needed to try and deal with this issue before it turned from harmless to detrimental with potentially catastrophic results. And, of course, he shouldn't let his subordinates, even an AI, feel as if he didn't trust them.

"I've been seeing...something... for the last few hours. Almost like hallucinations but ...real."

The Commander felt Cortana's spike of curiosity at the situation along with her relief in his opening up to her. "What do you mean by real?"

"Everything I do when it hits...it feels like it's being overlaid on reality. Just like..."

"...back in the prison when you got tossed across the yard." Linda finished.

John turned back to Linda in shock. "You knew? Why didn't you say something?"

058's riposte struck fast and true as always. "Why didn't you?"

Of course, they all knew the answer to that question.

"So I guess that it was happening at same times as those spikes in brain activity that I've been detecting?" Cortana asked.

John nodded. "During the entire time that I was fighting off those Elites in the prison yard, I thought I was on some other world, fighting some sort of monsters obscured by blurry shadows."

"And that's why you acted so lost and confused at the end of that fight." Cortana concluded.

"Yes." 117 answered before continuing on. "When I finally snapped out of it, those Elites were all dead."

John turned to Linda before nodding towards the remains of the Elite that she had blown apart. 058 simply nodded in turn. The same phenomena had been happening to her.

"I thought I was losing my mind. The other times that I thought I saw those things, it was through my scope. But this time, that Elite...that monster was, right in front of me..."

"...and you knew to aim for that mass of tentacles on its chest?" John inquired, though they all already knew the answer to that. "The prison yard was the first time for me. How did you know?"

"It was how you moved, how it all fit together perfectly as if I've seen you do that all your life even though I know that you've never done anything like that before." Linda nodded before pointing at the weapon in John's hand. "Just like how it seems like that I know that you've used that thing for ages, except that I know that you've only just picked it up hours ago from that dead honor guard."

117 raised the deactivated plasma pike between them. "You mean the plasma..."

"...Light lance." Linda blurted out, as if to correct him. John could only nod though, somehow knowing that she was right. "But not just the lance. Your new wrist shield from the ACG."

"That weapon is Covenant manufactured but Forerunner in origin." Cortana spoke. "But the ACG is UNDF gear. This doesn't make any sense."

"Bias. It has to be Medicant Bias. That thing must have done something to us while we were talking to it." John finally admitted.

"No, that can't be it." Cortana countered. "Linda wasn't with us when we talked to Bias. If Bias did do something to you, she wouldn't have been affected. But I'm less concerned about the 'how' than I am about the 'why'. Why would anyone do this to you two?"

"And can you even be sure that it's just me and the Commander?" Linda added. "What about the others. They could have it too."

"Doesn't matter." The Commander declared, having reached the limit of how much he was willing to discuss the issue. "We can't do anything about it now and it doesn't seem to be hurting us so far. And it's not like they would believe us anyway if they haven't experience it themselves. We'll tell the others after the battle."

"You mean Halsey." Cortana added. "But I get it. Discussion about it ends here. Still, John, it means a lot to me that you're telling me about it."

That left John feeling somewhat odd. From the neural link, John felt just how much Cortana meant every word of that statement. Objectively speaking, Cortana was an AI, a highly advanced collection of data simulating sentience. Yet he could literally feel how the other occupant of his armor felt more and more often. And there was also his name, how she seemed to be using it more and more often over his rank or designation. John found himself not just satisfied but even happy with the value that Cortana placed on having his trust. He didn't have to discuss the situation with Cortana and could have simply ordered her to drop it. Yet he opened up to the AI just like he would have to Linda, Kelly, or any other member of his 'family'.

However, that was something to ponder at a later time, a feeling that Cortana shared, evidently.

"Alright, back to the task at hand." Cortana resumed as both 058 and 117 readied their weapons once more. "Commander, you should know that the Covenant have deployed a number of Scarab walkers onto the battlefield. Two of them are joining the attack on Spearhead team at the citadel with at least five more assembling not far behind them."

Relieved to be back in action, John considered his options. He knew that those lunatics of Spearhead team were planning to extract soon. Those two Scarabs wouldn't make a difference there, but the other five would be dangerous no matter where they were deployed. It would take an awful lot of artillery fire to take them out, more than the 7th Marines could spare considering the mass of Covenant infantry approaching the valley and prison compound.

Fortunately, the same said pack of psychotic Spartans were now free to be re-tasked.

"Reassign Spearhead team. Let them have some fun with those Scarabs."

"Alright, but you know that we'll lose those maniacs for a long while. And they'll be on their own without any support." Cortana mentioned.

John nodded. "I know, but it doesn't matter."

Cortana's tone suddenly became quite shifty. "Is that confidence or is that callousness? Because I can't tell when you're talking about those maniacs."

117 simply shrugged. The Commander knew he was, in effect, trading his most potent combat force for the Covenant's: Seven Scarabs for five deranged and bloodthirsty Spartans. Even if the Spearheads survived the mission, they'd have no plan for extraction and would be cut off from reinforcements. Yet John found himself quite comfortable with the decision, though not just because he thought the exchange favorable. Instead, he was convinced that he couldn't lose here. Now with a little more command experience under his belt, John knew that the best way to make use of those psychopaths in Mjolnir armor was to give them an environment where they could do the most damage and the least harm. Besides that, the Spearheads were resourceful in a number of unconventional ways (some that John would rather not think about). Therefore, John felt absolutely no guilt for essentially giving those idiots what they probably wanted the whole operation. Either the Spearheads would succeed and find a way back or they would at least take those Scarabs and countless more Covenant warriors with them in a blaze of glory.

Either outcome was fine with him.

2042 Hours, November 11th, 2552 (Military Calendar) / Spearhead Team, 1st Spartan Combat Group, Covenant Holy City High Charity, X-3279 System, Sector 357.

It is a phenomena that very few people experience and even fewer can appreciate: To stand knee deep in the bloody refuse of slaughter after a battle, the gnashing shards of blood soaked bone and the last wheezing whiffs of life greeting every step. Putrid flesh rent open mixed with ionized ozone and charred smoke to summon a scent hardly constrained by the burning wrecks of war machines. One could almost hear the awaiting carrion in the distance (at least, whichever form of carrion High Charity actually possessed), watching for the moment to reap the harvest of death. Most memorable of all, however, were those who remained, the survivors of both sides. Some were solemnly waiting for their broken bodies to finally expire with as much grace and dignity as they could muster. Some wept for their failure and dishonor, their forms prostrate over the last traces of their friends. Still others go mad with the realization of the utter catastrophe that had befallen them, their minds having been shattered.

But then again, there are those who were mad even before they had entered the battle, their minds unbreakable simply because they were never sane to begin with. And for them, the mood is not one of solemn stillness but merry accomplishment. And so, with her characteristic nonchalance in mind and a canteen in her hands, Nicole simply watched the unfolding scene mere meters away as the half dead Elite with missing legs desperately tried to crawl away from Rich, the latter taking his time to waltz over to his latest victim. The Covenant warrior almost managed to grasp the plasma sword before him only to have the Spearhead's arc blade machete come right down onto its hand.

Not pausing for his victim's screams, Rich planted his foot onto the alien's neck and spoke. "...and be sure to tell all your friends!"

As Spearhead-4 plunged his weapon into his victim's neck, though, Nicole could only sigh before calling out to Rich in a disappointed tone.

"Damn it, Rich. You killed him."

Despite the armor, Nicole could tell that Richard was looking back at her in equal parts confusion and annoyance. "Uh, Yeah?"

"So how's he going to tell all of his friends now?"

The Spearhead CO simply smirked as Rich tried to squirm his way out of his quandary. "...Well, uh... he could...their Great Journey thing and all plus the uh...ah shit."

Nicole chuckled as she replied. "Let's go Rich. We're done here. Go give the others a hand. I'll catch up in a minute."

And so, Rich sped off, leaving Nicole to make her journey back to the inner keep. With a stride that bordered on skipping about, Spearhead-1 was an island of casual calm in a maelstrom of gore and chaos despite the Covenant pushing deeper into the citadel on all sides. It was only a matter of time before Spearhead's defense of the citadel gave way. The team's ammunition had long been exhausted, both for the big 200mm helical rail howitzer and for the team's small arms. Moreover, the crystalline AA batteries at the top of the citadel keep were now smoldering slag. Without AAA cover, both the few remaining Mako-class attack drones and Steven's sniper den at the tower of the keep had met their end thanks to the swarms of airborne Banshees and insectoid Drones. Additionally, swaths of Covenant jumpjet troopers now poured over the walls even as the Covenant ground assault finally burst through the bitterly contested causeway gate. Hundreds of Covenant warriors winded their way between the walls into the courtyard for the entrance to the inner keep whilst Phantom and Spirit dropships landed more and more squads on the outer walls. Already, explosions bloomed all around her, courtesy of the alien warriors hot on her tail. Steven was now on the inner keep's walls, the Spearhead sniper still blazing away with his helical rail rifle whilst under a protective smoke screen to cover his teammate below. As Nicole walked past the now inactive 200mm gun that had devastated so much of the holy city, she heard the mechanical grind of metal and stone as two great metal beasts peered up over the walls, its top brimming with even more Covenant soldiers now disembarking for the courtyard. Dozens more Elites, Brutes, and Grunts armed with light plasma turrets, plasma swords, gravity hammers, and fuel rod cannons took sight of the two Laughing Demons before them, roaring as they charged forth from their Scarabs for their insolent foe.

And yet, none of this perturbed the Spearhead CO who didn't even bother to return fire as she popped a smoke grenade over her shoulder whilst strolling into the gates of the inner keep. The air itself was alive with anticipation, not only of the Covenant horde outside rushing in for the kill but the team itself. The curtains were set to fall, but not before the last act was completed.

"Let's get out of here, Steven." Nicole shouted upward past the shower of errant plasma bolts in the smokey air.

"Sure thing, Nikki." Steven answered before tossing down a remote detonator before jumping down to join his CO. The two Spearheads walked off with their rifles cradled in hand, but not before tapping a nearby terminal to activate the team's last defense against the Covenant horde outside. Meanwhile, the thousands of Covenant soldiers just outside the inner keep stopped in their tracks as the inner keep's defensive shield barrier raised over the walls and into the sky. Of course, this was little more than a speed bump as there was now nothing at all to stop the Covenant horde outside from unloading a storm of plasma bolts into the barrier even as the swarms of Phantom gunboats and Banshees strafed the shield incessantly.

Finally making their way to the inner courtyard, Nicole saw the rest of her team preparing their final exit from the stage that had served them so well. Having manned the big 200mm howitzer, Jonathan had been the least active member of Spearhead so far, though he had by far caused the most damage of any member of the entire expedition. Spearhead-3 was busy hammering demolition charges into the walls of the keep with a merry tune in every step.

"I am the very model of the modern demolitionist.

I set explosions in a series or in simultaneous sequences.

I use ordinance, be they nuclear or RDX,

with the tamper and a filler with organic catalysts.

Whether it's a starship or a fortress buried in the ground,

we'll crack it open at the factors of the speed of sound..."

Tapping Spearhead-3 on the shoulders, Nicole asked the obvious question. "How much longer, Jon?"

"This is the last explodium charge we need, Nikki. The main charge is set too."

Spearhead-1 produced the detonator that Steven had given her. "That I know.

Nicole knew, however, that the explodium charges were only the intro to the main event: a MAYHEM-class variable tactical nuclear warhead with a five hundred kiloton maximum yield. It was far more than enough to vaporize the fortress, though they intended to do a lot more than that. The sound of grinding wheels and crunching stone, however, took 458's attention to the center of the inner courtyard where Wa was moving Spearhead team's exfil vehicle into position. Or perhaps, dragging would be the better term as the Spartan Shock Trooper pulled the trolley-mounted modified Archer missile into firing position. Said rocket had its internal payload removed in exchange for a number of chain harnesses on its outer hull which Richard was busy fastening onto the hard points.

"Ready to go?" Nicole shouted upwards.

"Ready, Nikki! Let's get the fuck out of here!" Richard shouted back down as tossed the first chain harness downward. One by one, the five Spearheads attached the harnesses to their armor. All the while, the curtain of cold plasma shielding the inner keep put on veritable light show as the barriers were slowly but steadily being burned away by thousands of plasma weapons.

"Not just yet, Rich. First we gotta wait for the idiots outside to drop the shield for us. Besides..." Nicole said while she fiddled with her armor's computers. "...we need the time to make some adjustments to our flight plans."

Ninth Age of Reclamation, Step of Silence \ Covenant Holy City "High Charity", Legion of Righteous Fury.

Despite being above the fray for the moment, Zuka Zamamee knew that it was just a matter of time before things got worse. Already, the swaying deck of the Scarab walkers left Zamamee desperately trying to hold onto the contents of his stomach. But the worst was the company he had beside him. Leading a platoon on a Scarab walker wasn't something that the Sangheili Spec Ops officer had expected when he left the Fleet of Particular Justice as part of Fleetmaster Vadamee's security detail. The situation now reminded Zamamee of the battles against the humans that he had partaken in, though the positions were quite the reverse. Everyone on High Charity had, by this time, been slighted by the sight of the Laughing Demons infesting the Citadel of the Council of Masters and the destruction that these few humans had caused. Zamamee had seen anger and rage in his soldiers before, and had used it to make his men more effective. What he had seen before, however, paled in comparison to what he now saw on the Scarab's deck. A dozen Sangheilis paced impatiently around the open deck, their rage so great that they almost seemed ready to fight each other. Everyone on board was so high strung that even the presence of two Lekgolo pairs did not cause so much as a ripple.

Oh yes, Zamamee knew, this was a veritable bomb just waiting to go off if they didn't get to kill something soon, and considering that the crews of the other four Scarabs nearby and the hundreds of accompanying warriors on the ground with them were in a similar lot, he could have a full blown battle between his own soldiers on his hands.

Of course, this was better than the alternatives. The massive shields of the Scarab walkers had an annoying tendency to blur the view outside to those on board, but only a blind fool would miss the hellish warzone that the holy city had become. The darkened sky did little to hide the sea of rubble and twisted metal silhouetted by raging fires. Dust and radioactive ash still choked the very air they breathed as the Scarabs' shields flashed on and off from the humans' artillery impacts. At least those on the Scarabs had some distance between them and the carnage below. The Covenant warriors on foot, walking close to the walkers to gain shelter from artillery fire, saw the destruction up close and personal. Not to mention the bodies- so many charred husks and severed limbs lying about which only got worse as they got closer to the citadel, courtesy of those Laughing Demons. Who could have ever imagined that so few could slay so many in an open fight?

The most important point for Zamamee, however, was that the impromptu battlegroup that he was a part of weren't going for the Citadel. Fleetmaster (or rather Fieldmaster for today at least) Vadamee had slated two other Scarabs to support the Legion already besieging the fortress, leaving Zamamee's Scarab along with four others in reserve for the attack on the human-occupied Sacred Valley. Though this obviously meant that the warriors under Zamamee's command would miss out on the final attack to exterminate the Laughing Demons, that was perfectly fine for the Spec Ops commando. Even with the overwhelming numerical and material superiority that the besiegers held and the evident exhaustion of the defenders after such a prolonged battle, the Laughing Demons had proven that any clash with them would be near certain suicide even if the Covenant warriors were to triumph. And unlike most others in the Prophets' armies, Zamamee could appreciate the difference between glory and suicide.

At least they had a decent view of the battle at the Citadel, though. The towering walkers gave the Scarab contingents a real-time if distant look on final assault, leaving some of the soldiers on board to lean over the decks' edges with some fighting amongst themselves for a good spot. Even at this distance, they could hear the whines and discharges of thousands of plasma weapons. Moreover, Zamamee could see the Covenant attackers scaling and breaching the defenses. Swarms of dropships poured onto the walls opposed even as the causeway gates were thrown open to the warriors on the ground. Finally, the two Scarabs had walked right up to the walls, acting like siege towers for yet more Covenant soldiers on the ground to pour in. The shields of the inner keep was up but visibly weakening from the Covenant plasma barrage.

"Brothers, the Citadel!" One Sangheili said.

"Our warriors have finally cornered the Laughing Demons. The cleansing awaits!" Another spoke. Cheers on the Scarab's deck at the impending victory mixed with moans of disappointment of having been left out of the fight.

Zamamee couldn't shake the feeling that this was going a little too well.

It was at that moment when something odd happened. The moment the inner keep's shields gave way, a bright flare of light streaked upwards from the keep. A human missile, Zamamee knew from experience, as the rocket powered projectile curved its path as it approached the station's roof. But before the Spec Ops commando could even consider what the missile contained or why it was launched, a series of loud explosions turned everyone's attention back to the ground. Columns of fire, smoke, and dust shot into the air as the walls of the citadel crumbled or even exploded outwards. Even through the smoke, Zamamee saw that the walls of the outer defenses and the keep facing the causeway and the two Scarabs had been blown away.

For those who survived the explosions and shower of rubble, the ordeal was not over. The brilliant flash of light forced Zamamee to turn away and shield his eyes even as the sonic shockwave shook him to the bones. All those on the Scarab's deck instantly fell behind the rails to escape the blast.

One of the humans' nuclear devices had been left behind!

When roar of the explosion finally subsided, Zamamee finally dared to poke his head over the railings. Stunned silence punctured by the rolling echo greeted all before the sight. What surprised the Covenant commando was not the destruction of the citadel and the Covenant warriors assaulting it, but rather the pattern of the blast itself. There was an obvious cone of destruction emanating from where the keep had been towards the former location of the causeway. It was as if the blast had been focused by the rubble of the first series of detonations. The only recognizable remains of what had been the siege of the Citadel were two massive piles of slagged and twisted metal, the still smoldering corpses of the two Scarabs that had been perched on the outer wall.

"The Laughing Demons knew that their end had come. They must have blown themselves up to deny us our victory." Zamamee surmised.

"...and took out the entire Legion with them." Someone on the Scarab's deck shouted out. "Argh! Honorless scum! They could have at least gone out as warriors."

More frustrated chatter filled the air, though Zamamee could hardly care. The ancestors had clearly been looking out for him, the Sangheili commando concluded thankfully, for it could have just as easily been his Scarab that had been assigned to the siege. It could have easily been his charred bones crushed beneath the Citadel's radioactive rubble but for an Unngoy's methane tank, as his father oft said.

Zamamee's relieved musing came to an abrupt end, however, as several very loud thumps caught his attention. Right in the middle of the formation of Scarabs was a cloud of dust, probably from an impact of some sort. Something landed nearby, though what, he could not say. The dread in his gut should have been a warning, but the unmistakeable sound soon dispelled all doubt.


Explosions and screams of agony from below soon followed. As always, though, someone in the masses had to state the obvious. "The Laughing Demons are upon us!"

Zamamee snarled in annoyance as he raised his plasma rifle and plasma sword. "A most penetrating observation. Perhaps now you'll tell us that plasma is hot!"

Not bothering to listen for a response, Zamamee looked over the rails to see the scene below. The platoons of Covenant soldiers that had been taking shelter beneath the lead Scarab's dome-like shield had hardly any time to react before the black armored humans fell upon them. With blistering speed, they charged at the lead Scarab, zipping right underneath the shield dome to strike at the Scarab's infantry escorts. A shower of plasma bolts and the blurry translucence of the Scarab's shields obscured the exact nature of events inside, but the ever fading whines of plasma weapons along with the consistent cackle and wrap of human gunfire told Zamamee all he needed to hear. Self-preservation demanded the only sensible action to be had.

"Order all Scarabs to disperse. Surround that walker on all sides and fire on the Laughing Demons!" The commando ordered into his com.

"But what of the..." Someone on the line objected.

"They're already dead! Now, unless you want to join them in having your hides removed from your bones, turn the walkers around and fire all weapons!"

As explosions and mists of purple blood blossomed on the deck of the boarded Scarab, the other four walkers broke formation and circled the target. Just as the last sign of resistance came to an end, four massive beams of plasma tore into their target, instantly piercing the shield dome and melting through the Scarab's armor. The barrage continued until it breached the walker's reactor, releasing another great flash of light that burned the darkened skies of High Charity. Yet again, everyone both on board the Scarabs and on the ground dove for cover as the Scarab's shields gave way against the blast. As the ringing in his ears died down yet again, Zamamee looked over railings once more looking for the Laughing Demons.

The first thing he noticed down below was the deathly stillness. Whereas the Sangheili commando could see the infantry escorts of the other Scarabs rushing forward to sweep the area for the Laughing Demons, his escorts were quite noticeably inactive. To be more precise, the entire platoon of warriors below were all dead, their bodies ripped apart or burnt to carbonized bones wreathed in fire.

The second thing Zamamee noticed was a Sangheili scream from behind. The commando turned around just in time to see the owner of the scream going over the rails. Another Sangehili nearby that tried to reach over the rails to catch his comrade suddenly had his head taken off in a shower of blood, bone, and brain matter.

Then, finally, was the unholy chanting filling the air right as he heard

"Come, all of you Spartans who's batshit crazy.

Yo ho, blow the Grunt down.

It's time to go on a killing frenzy.

Yo ho, blow the Grunt down.

So give me a Scarab that's filled with Covies.

Yo ho, blow the Grunt down.

Let's send them along on their stupid Journey.

Yo ho, blow the Grunt down."

The Laughing Demons were below him! Zamamee now realized that he had made a monumental mistake by dispersing the Scarabs, leaving him all alone to take on the Great Defilers. Another deafening explosion rocked the deck, throwing everyone on board to the floor again. It was close this time, right on the Scarab's portside legs. But as Zamamee pulled himself up, the commando had to fight to stay upright before grabbing onto a light plasma turret for support. It wasn't just him as Lekgolo pair slid past him across the slanted deck and off to the ground down below. The deck itself was tilted and the reason was obvious. The explosion had torn the front leg clean off while the hind leg hung like a chewed limb held about by metallic sinew. This Scarab wouldn't be going anywhere, everyone now realized.

Heavy footsteps the likes of which only Lekgolo made turned all attention to the ground. In an almost comical scene, the last dozen or so Sanghelis and Unngoys dangling on the slanted deck above looked down onto the Laughing Demons themselves locked in combat with the Lekgolo pair that had fallen off before. One of the Lekgolo was on fire, its individual worms trying desperately to flee the doomed gesalt colony as one of the Laughing Demons gleefully torched the beast. The second bondmate could do nothing to help as the largest of the Laughing Demons threw the Lekgolo on its back before slamming a Gravity Hammer into its midsection.

So death it is, then. Zamamee turned the plasma turret onto the Laughing Demons and prepared to fire as did the surviving warriors. Yet the moments passed as the Scarab's survivors and the Demons looked at each other, the Covenant warriors confused on why the humans had not attacked. And then Zamamee saw why as he turned his head to the approaching mechanical roar behind him. Another Scarab had returned, it's main gun ready to fire. From the corner of his vision, Zamamee saw the Laughing Demons streaking past him toward their next target.

The last thing Zamamee ever saw was the great blaze of light propelling him onto the Great Journey.

Ninth Age of Reclamation, Step of Silence \ Covenant Holy City "High Charity," Ad Hoc Command Post.

"Imbeciles, the lot of them!" R'tas Vadamee snarled as the Fieldmaster Thel Vadamee watched the mushroom cloud float up from where the Citadel of the Council of Masters had been. An entire legion's worth of warriors and, more importantly, officers as well as two Scarab walkers had quite literally gone up in smoke before their very eyes. Already, the floating cinders and ashes swirled with the wind like so much snow.

"Hm. A pity, but one that hardly affects our plans." Thel grumbled passively as he looked on towards a shower of lights from another spot some distance from the smoldering crater. The echoing shockwave confirmed the loss of another Scarab. "That, however, does affect our plans. We shall have to change them accordingly. The walkers are lost; it is but a matter of time before the Laughing Demons finish them."

The Commander pounded his chest before he made his offer. "Then I shall lead a lance to make sure that the Laughing Demons go no further."

A hand shot to the Commander's shoulder. "No. We shall continue as planned. We might have lost the Scarabs, but the Humans have lost the Laughing Demons. Those abominations shall be too far away and too busy with the Scarabs to affect the other engagements. It is a fair trade unless we divert our forces."

R'tas stood down, though his voice betrayed no hint of relaxation. "We needed those walkers to mount the assault on the valley. Without the Scarabs' shields to protect them, our legions will be completely exposed on the march. They'll be annihilated before they even step foot on the slopes of the valley."

Thel suddenly took on an amused tone. "Indeed. That is why we must change our approach accordingly. If we cannot directly protect our warriors from human artillery fire, then we shall simply have to hinder it."

"Hinder the human artillery? How?"

Thel turned back to the holo-table showing the layout of the Holy City. The map updated itself, replacing the area around the citadel and it contained, including the hastily formed Legion of Pious Clarity and two Scarabs, with a great red blur with varying levels of radiation. R'tas looked back on Thel, his confused gaze mirroring those of half dozen Sangheili officers on the command staff as Thel conjured another hologram. It was something that all Spec Ops warriors were familiar with: an orbital communications unit. About the size of a Wraith, a single one of these units could facilitate the communications needs of an entire legion and it's support ships. As they were so evidently valuable to any campaign, they were mounted on repulsor lifts and shielded. The device was also capable of crippling enemy communication via EM jamming, a feature that had been used extensively during the war.

"You aim to prevent the humans from communicating?" R'tas concluded.

Thel nodded. "The humans' numbers are small. Their strength coming from their artillery and their ability to coordinate quickly and effectively. If we break that link, then all else shall follow."

R'tas was not one to object to his Commander, but he knew a flaw when he saw one. "With respect, Fleetmaster, I cannot see much good from such a course of action. The humans will quickly detect the source of the jamming and destroy the units with artillery fire. And considering how they've bypassed all of our defense, we must assume that they are monitoring our communications while having secured their own."

Far from looking challenged, Thel looked onto the Spec Ops Commander with satisfaction. "I know. That is why we shall simply negate their advantage rather than contest it. So let us bring the humans down to our level where numbers and fervor will carry the day. We'll maintain a full spectrum jamming signal with the orbital comm units and bounce it off of the station's walls and roof to hide their positions. The humans will find them eventually, but not before we cross the field into the valley. With luck, that should be all the time that we need."

"But if we do this, we'll lose all communication with our forces in the field." R'tas pointed out.

"Yes, but so will the humans. And unlike them, we do not have to maintain a high level of control over our forces. Considering the state of our forces, even the reconstituted legions will have difficulty maintaining any order beyond their immediate tactical zones. Therefore, we lose very little in this regard. Moreover, all of our warriors have to execute but one simple order: to break into the valley and slay the humans like vermin."

The Spec Ops Commander bowed with satisfaction before an Unngoy waddled into the command post to hand R'tas a datapad.

"What news have we?" Thel inquired.

"The last of the preparations are complete." R'tas answered before conjuring up the holograms for the four organized Covenant legions on the field surrounding the valley in a rough arc some distance away from the humans. "By your orders, I have assembled as many legions as I could from the masses: the Oracle's Wrath, Heathens' Bane, Pious Resolve, and Deathly Intent. We would have had another readied at the citadel..."

Thel grunted in annoyance. "Nevermind that. What can you tell me about those four legions?"

"As you have foreseen, we are still short on officers. Our legions and lances will not be as nimble as they could be. If we had more time, we could find more surviving officers and place them accordingly. However, I have concentrated into the Heathens' Bane many of best warriors and officers as well as most of vehicles and heavy weapons. They shall be hammer with which will deliver the final swing to smash the humans."

Thel inspected the holographic readouts for the legions, his eyes widening in shock and disappointment. "So few... are these all the vehicles we have?"

"Barely enough for one legion, Fleetmaster. I'm afraid that after the Unngoy Rebellion showed how vulnerable our vehicles were in the streets of the Holy City, the Council of Masters had rewritten High Charity's defense plans to be centered on infantry and artillery."

Thel scoffed at the idea. "In other words, it was a threat to simply glass whole districts instead of fighting for them house by house. Brutally efficient and effective, though completely useless for our purposes! So be it! We shall simply have to maintain a constant roll of battle pulses by alternating between the legions and the..."

Suddenly, Thel leaned in onto the holo-table to make sure that he read it correctly before turning back to R'tas.

"...Wappa Force?" Thel finally said, pointing towards the masses of armed mobs around the organized legions.

The Spec Ops Commander awkwardly nodded towards the Unngoy that had brought him the datapad. The said Unngoy started jumping excitedly back and forth between its legs, pumping its fists into the air. "Yep! Wappa Force! We brave and many be first to make it to valley. Can count on us. Ready to fight and die for Great Journey. WHOOOH!"

With a resigned sigh, the two Sangheilis turned back to the table as R'tas spoke. "Uh, yes. That's what the Unngoys decided to name them. At this point, we've divided them into groups of roughly thirty or forty Unngoys and Kigyars per unit with a uniformed warrior in charge of each. They are armed, but have neither armor nor shields. Still, they will be fine for their task to maintain pressure on the humans."

Wiping his hand over his face, Thel finally gave in. "Very well. 'Wappa Force' it is."

"WHHOOO YEEAAHH!" The Unngoy screamed as it started dancing again.

Ignoring the spike of irritation running down his spine, R'tas delivered the final part of his briefing. "Fortunately, we do have some good news. We have managed to scrounge together more artillery and air support than we had hoped for. We have two whole squadrons of Phantoms and another three squadrons of Banshees ready to go. In addition, the Yan'me hives have survived the bombardment for the most part. Finally, while the large fixed plasma batteries around the station have all been destroyed, the smaller fuel rod and plasma mortars have turned up in some decent quantities. However, the human artillery out-range them considerably and will likely destroy our guns with counter-battery fire as soon as we start firing."

Thel pondered on his subordinate's words before chuckling. "Well then, we should make the most of our guns with the opportunity that we have, starting with buying us some more time. Have two of the gun batteries and two Banshee wings deploy towards the prison block. At my command, they shall target the human transport there before we begin our general assault."

2107 Hours, November 11th, 2552 (Military Calendar) / Blue Team, 1st Spartan Combat Group, Covenant Holy City High Charity, X-3279 System, Sector 357.

As Blue Team raced back towards the prison compound to resupply, 117 found himself fighting off a sense of dread. It was an instinct that all experienced soldiers have, the sense of morbid anticipation as the countdown to something big draws to a close. All the hints were there: the news that the Covenant ground forces had Thel Vadamee in charge, the relative lack of Covenant response to the UNDF since the 7th RCT landed and to the evacuation itself, that no Covenant reinforcements were attempting to save their Scarabs from the Spearheads, and finally the lack of Covenant pressure on the prison compound itself at the moment. The latter, and Cortana's confirmation that Covenant thermal signatures were giving the prison a wide berth, left John feeling that the Covenant had pulled back from the prison in preparation for something big. It lent further urgency to finish the evacuation and regroup with the others in the valley. They had already seen one fully-loaded corvette off and were in the midst of loading the second. If they could quickly finish loading the second Corvette, then perhaps they would be able to finish the third and last transport before the Covenant could carry out whatever it was that they're planning.

The second Corvette was nearly full with most of the evacuees being on medical stretchers. The few that could walk were already buckled into their seats and passed out from relief and exhaustion. As the six Spartans once again stripped the Corvette's armory of ammo and ordinance, Cortana gave them yet another update.

"Commander, this boat is pretty much ready to go. The next corvette is already standing by to make its run."

"Good. ETA to lift off?" John asked as pushed the last 50mm grenade into his SCR's underslung launcher.

"Well...technically speaking, we can launch now. It's just that we have a slight problem outside."

Moving back outside, John saw said problem in the form of a recently liberated admiral. The medic and the two Marines guarding Cole were desperately trying to avoid getting dragged into the argument between the stubborn admiral and the leader of Noble Team. The slight twitches and stiff stance advertised to every Spartan nearby just how irritated Carter was.

"...but with all due respect, Sir, we have to get you...

"...you already have my answer, Spartan. Now stop wasting time and launch that ship." Cole shouted at Carter.

"Sir, we have our orders."

"..and I'm giving you new ones. I'm not leaving until the rest of the people get out first."

Carter looked over to John, hoping that his CO could resolve the matter. John resisted a sigh as he saw just how determined Cole was to stand his ground on the matter. This was one of those "snags" that could derail a mission. As harsh as it was to say, the other prisoners weren't nearly as important as Cole. Though it would be nice to get the others out, the admiral was the mission priority. If anything, Cole should have been on the first corvette out if not for the admiral's insistence, however admirable it may be. Part of John wanted to simply drag Cole into the corvette. After all, one could plausibly argue that Cole is medically unfit to make a sound judgment in his current physical state.

Cole narrowed his eyes as he stared into John's visor, mustering what strength he had to stand upright. "Launch. That. Ship. Commander. NOW! That is an order. We'll all get out together on the next one."

The air itself paused as the Spartans and Marines looked on, wondering if 117 would give way.

Finally, the Captain of the Spartans spoke. "Aye, Sir. Cortana, give the Corvette the green light to launch."

As the Corvette's thrusters flared, Blue Team once again made for the twisted urban rubble beyond the field. Looking overhead, John saw a formation of six F-99 Wombat drones swooping in to escort the transport. Turning back towards the ground, the six Spartans then examined the battlefield.

"I hope I did the right thing." John said as he surveyed the area.

"I do too. Only time will tell." Cortana responded before her tone switched from reassuring to worry. "But am I the only one that thinks that something is wrong here?"

It was just as before, strangely quiet despite the the regular sound of 105mm artillery impacts and the more distant boom of the 200m guns. The only Covenant here were the dead on the ground.

"The Covenant have retreated from the area." John finally said.

"No, the Covenant never retreats." Linda responded. "But they do regroup."

"But what are they waiting for?" The Commander continued.

"I'd say for that." Cortana said as a mass of red indicators filled John's HUD. "Multiple long range thermal contacts! All airborne!"

The Spartans' gaze turned up as they saw a shower of plasma filling the air. But there was something wrong with the Covenant artillery barrage. It was far too high to hit anywhere near the Spartans' AO. No, the barrage wasn't meant for them.

It was meant for the Corvette.

Still lifting off from the ground and only beginning to engage it's lateral thrusters, the transport made for an easy target. Dozens of large plasma bolts slammed into the ship, breaking through the shields and throwing out a shower of slagged armor and molten metal into the air. The Wombat drones retreated before the onslaught with two falling victims to the blasts.

The Corvette was still in the air, battered but still in one piece.

"Those were the smaller Covenant guns that we missed. The big ones the Spearheads have already taken care of." John concluded with relief as the distant sound of Marine counter-battery fire filled the air. "Cortana, can they still make it?"

"They have bigger problems to worry about now." The AI shouted as more hostile markers showed up on 117's HUD. "More contacts! Looks like Banshees coming in from all directions at low altitude. Their attack vector is straight for the Corvette!"

Suddenly, the magnitude of the situation dawned on John. This was the big surprise the Covenant was waiting for. The strike on the Corvette was clearly planned and thought out. The Covenant had made the most of its artillery by waiting until the Corvette was at its most vulnerable during lift off when it's power was diverted from the shields to its thrusters. Meanwhile, the Banshees must have flown in low to avoid detection while dispersing to nullify any long range anti-air fire should they be detected. And now that the Corvette was severely damaged and its defenses broken, they were here to finish the job.

The four remaining Wombat drones turned hard to engage the swarm of Banshees, but it was a futile effort. Most of the Banshees completely ignored the unmanned air crafts as they unleashed a torrent of plasma and fuel rod fire at the exposed transport. Within seconds, it was over. The burning hulk that had been the last hope for escape for the almost two hundred prisoners aboard now spun out of control towards the ground.

Right towards Blue Team.

"MOVE! NOW!" Cortana shouted.

Without a word, all six Spartans broke in a mad dash away from the impact zone. The ground shook as the wreck crashed into the ruined cityscape, hurling fire and metal into the air before John. Finally, a great roar of force and fire overtook the Commander, the brilliant shockwave burning away everything in sight.

A/N: It seems that I have a habit of literally throwing Commander-117 around like a rag doll. Oh well, all for a good cause. The next chapter is the big one, the final chapter that will wrap up the battle before we get to the epilogue. Here's a hint in the form of the Sun Tzu quote that will be used:

"Throw your soldiers into position once there is no escape, and they will prefer death to flight."