Chapter 1

Madness…madness has many names. There are humans who have taken to calling it dementia. There are humans who call it insanity. There are even tales, told of a woman possessed by evil spirits, turning her into a maleficent creature driven by madness.

People who are mad tend to be…unpredictable, chaotic and sometimes violent. Their emotions are out of control and their grip of reality spirals uncontrollably into a deep, dark pit that can be called "madness".

Madness…has many names.

I feel it surrounding me. They call him…Oath-Breaker, Wretched One, Galbatorix. His madness exudes paranoia, fear of treachery.

A king cannot afford to be mad. I know this. The others in his possession know this. He has others protecting us, keeping us from our fate.

He keeps the others separate from me. Of me, he senses something different. Something that triggers his madness, and frightens him.

He has Shades guarding me. Female ones, with more cunning and magical prowess than males. One of them he does not trust.

Madness…has many names.

~0~

ERROR: SYSTEMS FAILING. SHAW-FUJIKAWA DRIVE OFFLINE. HULL BREACH IN SECTORS SEVEN, TWO AND THREE.

ERROR: SYSTEMS FAILING-

On December 25, 2552, the war with the genocidal alien Collective known as the Covenant had effectively been declared won. A series of severely needed and desperate actions had been taken by mankind to reach this so-called "victory", amongst which was the SPARTAN-II project, which turned the tide of the war. Less known to public was the SPARTAN-III project, which bought mankind several time. Even less known that these Projects was the second attempt at the-SPARTAN-II project, SS-II, started after 2535, using a combination of war-orphans and {DATA EXPUNGED}.

These Spartans Operators were to be used by Section Seven of ONI, for completing black and special operations, including but surely not limited to: wetwork, assassinations, sabotage and clearing ops. were to be considered assets to ONI only, being trained and developed by Colonel Ackerson, Admiral Parangosky and a severely limited selection of other personnel.

Sometime after the Fall of Reach, the UNSC Destroyer Platernus was ambushed by Covenant ships. In a desperate attempt to escape the Covenant and continue on their high-imperative mission, the Captain ordered an Underpowered Slipspace jump, accidentally sending the ship towards a new and random trajectory, but also killing every single living thing on board except for Spartan-011.

All contact with 2-Sierra-011 was lost.

On April 3th, 2553, mankind regained contact with 2-Sierra-011, who had been missing for months by that time. They encountered him on a Forerunner Testing world, ruled by two AI's in control of a last-effort project to prepare mankind for a possible return of the Flood. This 'Energy Conversion Project' spanned multiple, seemingly random planets across the galaxy. Thinking that mankind had come to reclaim what was supposed to be rightfully theirs, the Forerunner AI designated "Laughing Under the Coexisting Years" assumed control over several Forerunner Automatons, opening new slipspace portals to scatter the assorted Battlegroup Lima across these worlds.

This event was known was the Scattering. All contact with Battlegroup Lima was lost as per April 3th, 2553.

~0~

"Murtagh?" Eragon asked, fumbling with a piece of meat. He felt nervous, but he didn't fully understand why. It didn't feel like the tension caused by their rapidly-approaching raid on Gil'ead.

"What?" Murtagh replied, sounding annoyed.

"Do you ever think…about what is out there?" He carefully asked, not feeling like he knew how to place his thoughts.

"…out there?"

"In the sky. The stars…do you think we might not be alone?"

"Nay…" Murtagh answered with an annoyed tone, lazily throwing a bone into the bonfire they had made. "Why should I? We are going to face the Shade tomorrow morning, I would like to sleep well tonight."

Eragon understood that. Freeing the woman from the Shade would be near impossible to do…even with Saphira's help. They would have to somehow infiltrate the city, get to the prison, avoid the Shade on the entrance and then free the woman from her cell. And then they would still have to get out of there without running into the entire army stationed there. And if that all worked out somehow, they would still have to face the Shade on their way out.

Murtagh frowned, perhaps giving Eragon's question more thought. "Why do you ask?"

"I…I have been thinking about it lately. I don't know how to put it…" He fell silent for a few minutes, chewing on the meat that had once belonged to an animal, before he had caught and killed it. "Saphira thinks about it, sometimes. I feel it in her mind. She sees something alluring in the stars."

'Don't be silly little one,' Saphira's voice bounded across their mental link. 'Focus on the trouble at hand, not on things that hold no importance for our future.'

"But…" He replied, still unable to convey his feelings in a proper way. Ever since Brom had died, his mind had feel filling itself with doubts and questions. Brooding wasn't the best way to deal with sorrow, but at least it provided him with fresh insight on how to deal with new situations…or so he liked to think. "Nobody has ever gone beyond the skies. Nobody knows what is out there, not even you. Do dragons not soar higher than the sky?"

Saphira snorted. 'A dragon would be wiser than to fly higher than is possible. We would go too close to the sun and burn ourselves.'

Eragon nodded, understanding his friend's point. Things had just not been the same lately; with Murtagh accompanying him and his own strange visions he had periodically…he just wanted something solid to hold on to. Something that he could use to make things normal again. If it was a useless question about the world, then so be it.

"What would be beyond the stars?" Murtagh told him. "Nothing for us, that is what. Our problems lie just ahead. You shouldn't pay too much mind to the things you don't understand."

Eragon shook his head, not wanting to believe that there couldn't be something more than just their own world. "People won't ever discover new things by thinking that way.'

Murtagh grunted and wiped his hands off on his trousers. "Whatever. I am going to sleep now, you would be wise to do the same, you know? Thinking too hard is stressful before a fight."

"Murtagh is right,' stated Saphira. 'Go to sleep now, little one.'

"I was just asking," He muttered and began preparing the place where he was going to sleep. Of course Murtagh and Saphira were right; there couldn't possibly be anything out there…right?

~0~

UNSC Destroyer When Duty Ends

Unknown planet

"This is the Captain speaking, all hands on deck and brace for impact!"

The Captain in command of the UNSC Destroyer When Duty Ends braced himself against the railing, narrowly avoiding falling to the floor again.

Their ride had been everything but pleasant. It was a fair assumption that the end of said ride would be even less than pleasant. From the moment they had arrived at a world with so many life-signs, he had known that something was wrong. In fact, the entire operation to recover a missing Two-Sierra was just wrong –and not in the usual ONI wrong. The Spartan had been missing for more than four months –the chances of him being still sane after that were less than slim.

But they had exited Slipspace nonetheless, to safe him from his isolation and possibly investigate the source of the signal that had allowed the UNSC to find him

And the very second they had appeared in-atmosphere to orient themselves and get a bead on the signal, these…drones…had appeared alongside the dorsal side of the When Duty Ends, illuminated themselves with a bright blue light, consuming the front, aft and dorsal in an overwhelming glare and…the rest was a bit fuzzy. Even the bridge had been lit too brightly for anyone to see what was going on.

And then his navigational officer had told him that the Destroyer had entered Slipspace once again, even though their engines were still recharging.

Which was impossible.

Yet the data checked out. The most recent fights in the war especially those at the climax of the conflict, had proven that Slipspace was even stranger than they thought. The aliens that the Covenant worshipped, called Forerunners, had been capable of feats like astro-engineering and repopulating entire planets. They had built the Halos and the Ark and they had been capable of purging the entire galaxy of life –not that anyone outside of ONI would find out about that.

It would be easy for those aliens to force ships into the eleven non-visible space called Slipspace. But why?

"Sir, our radar disk has been destroyed! Our shielding was breached near the aft section by an unknown impact and we have multiple hull-breaches!"

"Seal those blast doors! Evacuate all personnel to the front of the ship and prepare for a possible combat-landing!"

Their destroyer was seriously understaffed. They had a crew of fifteen men and women in the bridge and about a hundred marines and ODST's standing at the ready. A skeleton crew. Just before they had made the final jump to 011's coordinates, they had transferred some personnel to the Wayfarer. That maneuver had left the sister Destroyer with plenty of hands aiding in a possible defense against boarding parties, but it had left them with a severe lack of able-handed men and women. .

The ship suddenly lurched backwards, sending some personnel tumbling into their consoles and screens. One unlucky individual was thrown halfway across the bridge when he couldn't grab something in time.

Stars and the black vacuum of space exploded into view, together with a planet covered in green, brown and blue.

"Status report!" The captain cried out.

"Sir, the systems are dead. Whatever that Slipspace jump did to us, it fragged the networking!"

"What do we still have?" He asked, pinching the bridge of his nose in frustration.

"We still got access to our thruster-system, manual opening of hangar bays and the Public Announcement systems, sir! If we want to, we can drift closer to the planet and enter in a synchronous orbit."

"Whatever good that does us…" he sighed.

"Sir, our communications are dead. Our radar disk was blown clean off during the transition –we won't be able to call for help until it's repaired.

Wren cursed under his breath and quickly tried to think of something else to do. In times of emergency, the crew looked at their commanding officer for guidance and orders. And since he was in charge of the entire battlegroup Lima –or what was left of it- he couldn't just sit down and do nothing.

They could just sit tight until they had repaired the communication disk; it would only take a few days at the most.

"Sir! Our short-range scanner came to life again."

The Captain cocked his eyebrows at that. "And?"

"We are reading hundreds of thousands of life-signs down there. Scanner says most of them are human sir. But this planet doesn't match with any of the known colonies."

"Perhaps it was declared destroyed by the Covenant?" He opted.

"Could be sir," replied one of his navigational officers.

If there were humans down there, he could get some help. Perhaps even find a way to contact the UNSC to give them a ride? He had no idea why those drones had sent them there, or if the rest of Battlegroup Lima was still intact. Perhaps they were here by accident as per safety measure to get them away from the first planet.

Perhaps they were here for a reason; Forerunners didn't do things half-assed. Whichever it was, it would probably be a good idea to send a scout party down there. The problem was that he didn't want to risk his crew on something as dangerous as exploring a planet that wasn't in the system.

The UNSC had a tight list of its colonies, to effectively deal with threats and possible invasions. Many colonies were destroyed by the Covenant. If they had a planet down there that didn't match with any of the known colonized worlds…and said planet was habited by human life…they might possibly have a problem.

Because an entry could be wiped by Insurrectionists to hide the planets where they had major operations. The Spartan Operators had been extremely effective in eradicating all rebel presence over the years and during the war, but there could still be a world out there that belonged to the Innies.

And they wouldn't like a UNSC ship flying down to meet them.

On the other hand, Wren had no desire to spark another war. And on the contrary to a certain individual on board, he didn't want to waste one more human life for senseless conflict. Enough had died at the hands of the Covenants…and enough had died at the hands of ONI.

No, he would not start a conflict with the rebel forces possibly down there, but neither would he risk valuable personnel.

"This is what we are going to do." He activated the PA system, broadcasting his voice throughout the ship. "This is your Captain speaking. Our systems are fried; communications are severed. We are effectively drifting in space. But there is a habitable planet down there, possibly inhabited by human life. It doesn't match any known colonies, but we don't know if that list is even accurate anymore. I will lead a recon operation on its surface."

He paused and quickly thought of a few people that he would want in the Pelican dropship with him. "The following personnel is to report to Hangar Bay One immediately."

And as he went through a list of seven marines, he decided that it would be better for everyone of he had the Spartan with him.

"And Two-Sierra zero-zero-seven."

A few of his officers tried to hide their surprise at his decision, but he pretended to not see them. The Spartan had a…less than ideal combat record for this operation. But then again, there wasn't a single Spartan Operator out there that was ideal for something as this. ONI's pets only served to kill and destroy –as Spartans should, really.

But he agreed with Mental Health Specialist Jennifer Sunfield, who had spent years working with them. They were unstable, dangerous and even untrustworthy.

It didn't help that they were messed up in the head, really. The oldest one was currently twenty-one…and the youngest one was eighteen. The Spartan currently on board of the When Duty Ends was nineteen.

But as the commanding officer, the decision was up to Wren. And his word was final.

"Sir, is this a good idea?" His navigational officer asked.

"No, probably not. But I will be damned if I let any good UNSC personnel die for some needless conflict. If those people are our enemy and they insist in staying like that, I want to be the first to find out."

It was a sentimental decision really. He didn't feel like blindly putting his life on the table for people that could be considered expendable by ONI. But that was exactly the point. He had spent so many years working for that Office of Naval Intelligence that he was tired of sacrificing people for the so-called "greater good". It was time for him to put his ass on the line first.

"Sir?" One of the officers asked him.

"Yes?"

"Even if we can get communications to work again…the ship is still dead. Whatever that slipspace jump did to us, it completely annihilated our ability to travel. It might be weeks before the UNSC finds us."

"I know that," Wren replied with a grim expression on his face. "All the more reason to make nice with whatever is down there."

~0~

Hangar Bay One

Captain Wren had called him to the Hangar Bay to prep for a recon operation, investigating a possible UNSC colony to see if they couldn't get help.

Spartan-007 didn't like that idea though. A UNSC Captain working for ONI, being the first one to possibly walk into a trap? With only seven marines supporting him? Unthinkable. They would only be wasting time down there.

He marched towards the Pelican that had been readied for the descent. With a total of eight humans and one Spartan sitting in the ship, it would be cramped. As such, he wanted to enter last. That way he could exit the ship sooner than the other personnel and neutralize any and all hostiles that would target the Captain upon touchdown. Their mission to rescue Math-011 had been compromised, but that wasn't a reason for the Captain to put himself in the line of fire.

He ignored the nervous stares of the seven marines that were gathered in the Hangar Bay and started to inspect the armaments of the Pelican. They might run into aerial-hostiles; they needed enough munition to counter them. Aside from the usual supplies of MA5C Assault Rifle munition, there were also quite a few clips for the M6D Magnum series stored in the compartments.

Of course this dropship would be armed for war; it was his own transport. Usually when he was assigned to a ship, it was because he needed a ride to the next objective. A Pelican would be specially rigged for atmospheric insertions, withstanding the high temperatures and possible AA fire for long enough so that he might get to the ground and commence his operation.

But this wouldn't be a combat-drop, according to the Captain. This would be a recon mission.

It didn't change anything. When things went hot, he wanted to be prepared.

While he grabbed a few weapons to keep at his person, the surface elevator opened and several crewmembers stepped out. One of them was the Captain.

He snapped his feels together and saluted, straightening his back. "Officer on deck!" He called and the seven marines who were present all snapped to attention.

"Ladies and gentlemen, at ease." The Captain spoke. He wore the standard black ONI officer outfit, with the four bars and single star that identified him as the senior officer in charge of the ship. "We have no idea what is down there. Could be a ruined civilization, could be a rebel base. What we do know is that they can provide us with the help we need. I tasked several engineers and naval officers with repairing the communication array; they will stay aboard the ship. Even if one of the groups fail, we will still be able to repair our disk."

"Sir, permission to speak?" One of the marines, a Corporal, asked.

"Permission granted."

"Sir, what the hell happened back there? Did we get forced back into Slipspace without having to recharge our engines?"

"Keep sharp marine!" One of the larger marines –the current Staff Sergeant- barked at the unfortunate soldier. "And use your brain this time! Noticed the sudden de-acceleration of the ship? The smooth ride we are enjoying at the moment? This ship just jumped out of Slipspace! How did we get there in the first place?"

"But Sarge," The marine complained, "I don't know how we got to Slipspace, we just jumped!"

"Why you-" The Sergeant growled, but the Captain spoke up again and everyone simply shut up he did.

"You encountered those drones at the Ark before," Wren stated, "Those Forerunner robots are capable of doing lots of things. I think one of them turned itself into a portal, or a Slipspace drive. It pulled us in and sent us here. It is our job to find out why. Sergeant?" The Captain asked, mentioning to the prepared dropship.

"Aye sir! You heard the man, get to it! MOVE OUT MARINES! You got a purpose today so act like it!"

The Spartan frowned. He understood that a briefing was important, but he wanted to be on the move already. The interplay between "rookie and Drill Sergeant" was unnecessary; they were all veterans.

While the rest of the group got on board the Pelican, the Captain took a moment and mentioned for the Spartan to follow him a few meters away from the dropship.

"We got no idea what we are dealing with here Spartan, but if it turns out we can operate on a diplomatic level, I need you to lay low for a while. If we face hostility of any kind, I need you to separate from us and do what you do best."

"Sir," He confirmed the request. Doing what he did best usually meant infiltrating, sabotaging and assassinating the enemy command structure.

"Make no mistakes, I don't want you anywhere near civilian centers or diplomatic events. I know of your record, son. Keep it clean."

The Spartan nodded. "Yes sir."

"Good," Wren said and marched towards the open hatch of the dropship.

The Spartan waited for a few seconds before following him. He already knew that he couldn't stick close to the group of marines and their CO, but that was not a problem. He disliked working in groups. The only soldiers he could effectively work together with, were other Operators.

"Alright marines, listen up!" The Staff Sergeant bellowed. "We are going to descend down the planet, search for more intelligent life than you lot and employ them to help us. If any of you are scared of atmospheric descents, this is your lucky day to man up!"

"Ooh-rah!" Some of the marines yelled in return, but most of them kept silent. When he entered the dropship and allowed for the hatch to be closed behind them, the few conversations that were taking place died away rather quickly.

He understood perfectly what his appearance did to the soldiers in his vicinity, even though these soldiers were specifically chosen by ONI to work with classified projects and operations. They knew that he wasn't a true SPARTAN-II, but that didn't diminish their obvious awe of him. It was a reaction that came naturally with all soldiers, battle-hardened ODST's or simple rookies. He wore MJOLNIR MK VI armour, with a dark black-gray tint. Operators chose their own permutations, but he preferred the default helmet. It served him the best.

"Captain?" The Staff Sergeant asked. "Permission to speak?"

"Granted," Wren told him.

"When are we going to get back to our missions?"

The Captain seemed thoughtful for a few seconds and the Sparta knew why. Even though the war with the Covenant was over, the troubles of the UNSC had not ended. ONI had still been sending them from one location to another to partake in a series of crucial missions; ending rebel threats, destroying Covenant-Loyalist parties and rogue Elite fractions. This was just the latest mission in the series, even though it had ended in what was most likely a defeat. Their disappearance wasn't quite as crippling as Math-011's disappearance had been back in 2552, but it was a blow to humanity nonetheless.

The sooner they had fixed their problem the better.

The Spartan remained near the sealed hatch of the ship, with his back turned to the other crew. Their descent down the atmosphere of the planet didn't go off without a hitch; pelicans never inserted without getting a bit uncomfortable for the people inside. He didn't notice any of the less-than-ideal circumstances, but the marines behind him had grown silent.

Good. They wouldn't disturb him then. They descent didn't take very long, as the Pelican dropships had been upgraded a lot since the last few months. After a few minutes of silence, the vibrating of the internal structure ceased and was replaced by a heavier, more noticeable trembling.

They continued to descent towards the surface for another two minutes before the turbulence ceased.

"India three-sixteen," The pilot then told them, breaking the silence. "We are nearing the surface right now. I spotted something that might be interesting."

"Go ahead India, what do you got?" The Staff Sergeant said.

"We got a city down there. A big one. With stone walls and the like."

"Copy India, what else?"

"The city has a large slab of stone hanging over it, natural barrier I guess. Looks like a fancy city, but very…medieval."

Medieval age…the time of knights and dragons in the year 500 of Earth history. Interesting choice for modeling buildings on.

"Come again, Three-sixteen, medieval?" The Sergeant asked, sounding surprised.

"Copy that Sarge. I can't spot it very well, want me to take the bird lower?"

"Copy that India Three-sixteen, take it closer. We'll see if we can't land there and communicate with these people," Captain Wren told them.

The Spartan frowned, taking notice of the strain in the Captain's voice. "Sir, permission to open the hatch?" He asked, already moving his hand to the lever.

"Denied. We can't risk scaring these people. Take us down India."

He removed his hand from the lever and prepared himself for potential AA fire. The pilot had said that the city looked medieval, including walls. But if this was an UNSC settlement, the Pelican would be visible from the sky. They would have been hailed by transmissions…or they would have picked up other radio traffic. There should be signs that this city was UNSC-controlled, even if it was just filled with civilians. And yet…medieval? Perhaps these people had survived a disaster that had forced them to start all over?

But if that was the case, they should have been recognized by the population. Rebel or not; every single living human knew of the UNSC and their fight against the Covenant. What could have happened here?

"This is it people, prepare for a landing. We are going to initiate contact with these civilians," Captain Wren told his crew.

Normally, Navy CO's let their Sergeants or other officers speak for them. But Wren was a different case; he was an experienced officer that had been seeing action for at least twenty years, having joined the navy at age twenty. He was forty-three now and had refused two promotions, stating that he wanted to stick to fighting the Covenant at the front lines while transporting the Spartan Operators to their objectives.

He wasn't a spook though; Wren had showed that he could be soft at several occasions. Too soft, in fact.

Not that the Two-Sierra-007 cared for that. All he cared about, was that his CO got the job done.

Suddenly, their ship lurched sharply to the right and the marines were nearly shaken out of their seats.

"Hostile fire!" The pilot cried out and an alarm began to blare in the interior.

"What are they using?" The captain replied and gestured at him, telling him that he had to pop the hatch. Opening the heavily armoured door while in midair and under enemy fire wasn't the smartest thing to do, but he understood the Captain's reasons.

"No explosive ordnance, we don't have a lock-on." India Three-Sixteen told them while the Spartan opened the door.

Now that he had a good view of the city, he immediately spotted the source of their trouble. There were about a dozen people with black cloaks spread out across the rooftops, approximately fifty meters below them. They appeared to be making gestures with their hands and every time they made such a synchronized movement, a red spherical projectile appeared from thin air and surged towards the Pelican, slower than bullets or plasma but with enough velocity that the ship couldn't dodge all of them.

"Sir, unknown hostiles below!" He snapped and took aim with his assault rifle when there was enough space for him to fire.

"Spartan, get out, engage and buy us time!" Wren ordered him.

"Sir?" The Staff Sergeant asked with a surprised tone.

"What?" Several marines muttered and one of them tried to ask the Captain what he was thinking. But another impact rocketed the dropship and the pilot cried something about being unable to target the hostiles.

"Sir!" The Spartan verified the order and took notice of a large tower underneath the slab of stone, guarded perfectly against attacks from above. They had flown the Pelican dropship to the edge of that platform, but the sustained enemy fire seemed to grow more intense with every meter they got closer to the tower. "Move us closer to the tower."

"You heard the Spartan, move it!" The Sergeant bellowed, but the pilot didn't even reply to then. Years of experience had taught these soldiers when to act immediately and when to act immediately without being ordered so.

Once he had been brought close enough and concluded that the ship couldn't safely approach the tower closer, the Spartan jumped.

On that moment, he didn't think about the possible armies stationed in the large city. He didn't think about the implications of cloaked men pulling fire out of thin air or possible consequences of those projectiles for the Pelican and Three-sixteen. The only thing that was on the super-soldier's mind was landing, breaching and killing.

He felt a hot feeling spread throughout his abdomen as the adrenaline flowed freely through his blood. Time seemed to slow and speed up simultaneously and he focused on the small building next to the tower, where he was going to land.

Except he wasn't attempting to land. He wasn't trying to get anywhere. He was going to land at his target. It was a fact. A given

While he aimed for the oddly built structure, he over-pressured the hydraulic gel-layer in his MJOLNIR armour and forced his limbs closer to his body, increasing his speed and reducing drag. Twenty meters and closing. He took notice of several red-clad men and women moving around between the rapidly growing buildings, but by the time they would arrive at his target he would have already breached it and moved up to the tower.

He placed his chin against his chestplate and prepared himself for the impact. The adrenaline that was raging through his body had given him enough time to analyze the situation, take actions and think of a plan. He knew what he was going to do and what it would mean to the command structure of his enemy.

His body crashed into the stone structure, smashing through the walls before they could stop him. He felt a series of rapid impacts jar his bones and teeth and his shielding dropped to ten percent when his suit impacted on the series of stones and other items with considerable speed.

He had made those jumps before, but almost never with the intent of using his own body as a bunker-buster to breach a stone structure.

Helia-009 had invented that particular technique.

The Spartan ignored the white flash that had appeared in front of his vision and staved off the shock of the impact, exploding into movement the very second he could. It was comparable to the so-called "golden hour" of the ODST's , where the very first hour after landing behind enemy lines was the most important.

And while he had been denied more than forty percent of his Augmentation-details, he had read the reports that weren't classified for him. His body was more than strong enough to survive such an impact without killing him and while wielding his MJOLNIR, he wouldn't even be incapacitated. Perhaps a few bruises and minor tissue-damage, but that would be it.

He had blown a Spartan-sized hole in the stone wall and crashed through the wooden floor, smashing the planks into a collection of splinters and nails. It had taken him only a few seconds to breach the bunker-like building and in the one second that he had to clear his mind and focus his thoughts, he had already jumped out of the hole and kicked down the heavy wooden door that blocked his way.

The entrance led to a dark tunnel, completely devoid of light and probably littered with traps. Even through the hormone-induced state of combat, the soldier realized that he needed to tread carefully. With his enhanced eyes, he was capable of seeing most, if not all of the items that were scattered on the floor.

As such, he quickly determined that there wasn't anything there to impede his progress. Curious, why didn't the enemy use this long hallway to stop potential intruders? Where they incompetent? Lax?

He sprinted across the hallway, crossing the twenty-meter long structure in only a few seconds. He used his momentum and weight to smash through the thick wooden door, slamming into it with his right shoulder so that he might roll through the opening and get to his feet in one smooth movement.

He crashed through the door, fell to the floor and reached out and grabbed his assault rifle. Approximately half a second had passed between him touching the door and getting upright.

His vision now processed colours differently, with shades like red and yellow turning brighter and more prominent than normal. All details and objects were sharper and clearer than ever and as he aimed down his sights at the nearest humanoid being, he took notice of the bright red hair and cloak that his target was wearing.

She held a long, barbed sword in one hand and an oddly shaped dagger in the other.

The hostile was human. Tall, redheaded and obviously hostile. He pulled the trigger as soon as he had lined up with her head and placed one leg in front of him to brace himself against the wooden floor, having been carried a bit too far by his sprint.

While he pulled the trigger, something exploded into view and he spun around as fast as he could, repositioning his assault rifle while doing so. There was an additional hostile there, but his motion tracker didn't identify them as friendly or hostile.

The motion he had seen from the corner of his eye was a thrown dagger with an unusual long point, flying in a perfectly straight line towards his head.

Despite the fact that he could withstand that attack without as much as a scratch, it was his instinct as a Spartan to dodge it. Throwing knives were generally better to be avoided, as he had learned when he was younger.

He side-stepped and sighted in on the head of the second hostile. Surprisingly, she too was a redheaded woman. Her hair reached to her waist and her ears seemed malformed, elongated beyond what was human.

The mere act of laying eyes on her made him feel odd. Uncertain of himself.

He ignored the feeling and squeezed the trigger, but didn't get time to pour down more fire as something moved near his right position again.

The Spartan moved to his flank and avoided a sword that cleaved through the air in a downward arc, neatly slicing through the air he had been occupying a split-second before.

He lashed out and punched the elbow as he passed the first woman, breaking it with ease and sending a jagged spike of bone out of her skin.

The woman laughed and he kicked her against her side, probably breaking all the ribs on her left flank and sending her tumbling through the room.

He moved backwards and attempted to shoot the second female –the one with the long hair- but she somehow managed to perform the same side-step as he had done and actually dodged the bullet. Then she closed in on him with more speed than a charging Elite could muster and slashed at him with another sword, which he barely managed to dodge.

These humans were odd. It wasn't just their physical prowess, which was off the charts already, but they gave off some seriously bad vibes, like they could influence his thoughts by merely being present.

He ignored the rising sense of unease and throw a few quick punches to the first female, two of which she dodged with a sharp, jerking movement and last of which she simply deflected, pushing him to the side.

That shook him. He had never ever encountered a combatant before who could actually dodge his attacks…even Elites weren't fast enough to dodge that one punch that broke their neck or spine. What was going on with these two? Were they drugged? Enhanced?

He suppressed the memory that came when he reached that hypothesis and focused on dispatching his foe. But the first hostile –shorter hair, dispatched via broken arm and shattered chest- suddenly joined the fray again, lashing out at him with both her sword and her knife in quick succession.

How? How was that possible? He had killed her, he had completely destroyed her chest cavity via that kick –she should be dead or dying. What had these people done to these females?

The recently-healed one suddenly scowled as the Spartan backed up, bumped into something solid. He heard a soft 'crack', which he quickly identified as a piece of wood being shattered.

He rolled to the side to dodge a synchronized swipe with the blades and threw a quick look at the object he had backed into. It hadn't been visible before, that was for sure. It was a white chest, chained up and emanating a strange humming. It was almost like it contained something…alive…

It was important to these messed up females, so it was important to him. They cared for it, which automatically meant that he wanted it.

He pushed the leading hostile back, smashing her chest with the butt of his rifle and then lashing out with a roundhouse kick, sending her tumbling across the room.

Time continued along in its slow, strange properties and he moved to engage the one with the shorter hair. He exchanged blows with her for a few seconds before he managed to gain a more favorable position. Then, he wrapped one arm around her throat and pulled her down, jerking his arm back and breaking her neck in multiple places. Her body was thin, but in no way was it weak.

The woman gasped in surprise when her body slammed to the ground. There, she continued to writhe and crawl before her body simply…disappeared. It exploded in a cloud of black smoke, her disembodied voice screaming for at least two seconds before the smoke faded away.

The Spartan stared at the spot on the floor where she had been lying, shocked.

What was that? Was he seeing things now? Was he hallucinating? probably some sort of…new chemical weapon. Inducing hallucinations.

He shot the lock securing the chest and it opened. Then, he avoided a strike from the other female and noticed how she had become faster. Her strikes were strong and powerful, more like a Spartan than anything else. Her irises were a deep colour of red and she bore a sadistic smile.

The Operator jumped backwards, not wanting to risk exposing himself further to these nonconventional attacks.

"Scared, are we?" The remaining female spoke, jabbing her sword at his helmet. He countered by shooting her in her kneecaps and elbows, making sure that she would at least stay incapacitated for long.

He missed; his bullets hit the ground and walls behind her. The Spartan immediately turned around and kicked the chest open. Inside of it was a large, black gem, easily larger than his gauntlet.

Was this what these biologically-altered women were guarding? A gem? Well, whatever it was, it was going with him.

He grabbed the gem and placed it in one the pouches where he normally stored C-12 explosives and other large objects. It fit, but only barely.

It would have to do. He had outstayed his welcome, and every second spent fighting was a second this city could gather more forces.

The Spartan turned towards the exit and started to run, quickly reaching a speed of at least thirty miles per hour. The woman didn't move to stop him, which was a puzzling, but welcome change of events.

He dashed through the hallway, jumped over the rubble that was left when he had first impacted on the building and then grabbed a hold of the rooftop in front of him, swinging himself on top of it. There were hundreds of people screaming for his blood, with at least a hundred men in red medieval chainmail and garbing closing in from both directions. He could stay engage them, but that would cost him valuable time and munition. If he encountered those messed-up beings again he would need all the bullets he had.

Falling back was the best option.

He sprinted across the rooftops, dodging the attacks of soldiers and war machines like catapults. On several occasions his shields flared as if to repel some unseen assailant, but he never saw who or what had struck him. He didn't think too much about those things; his gaze was focused on the large, heavy gates ahead, which were rapidly closing.

If those gates closed before he got out, he would waste even more time trying to circumvent them. Even though the constant jumping over rooftops, dodging the attacks of primitive machines of war and thoughts about the monsters he had just faced were slowing him down, he still managed to outsprint everyone that came after him.

On several occasions a group of soldiers attempted to block his way, but he barreled through them without slowing down. A swing of his arm here and a quick punch there made short work of their formations and by the time he had actually come close to the gates, a minute or two later, he had killed at least two dozen men simply by running past them and deflecting them.

He caught motion on his motion tracker, but he gave it no thought.

"Close them now!" A man on top of the giant walls screamed, but he was just too fast. He reached the two gates just as they were about to shut and wrenched his hands in-between them. Arrows and bolts of crossbows smashed into the stone walls and gates.

The Spartan hauled and grunted softly as he tore the two gates open again Those things had to be at least twenty-five meters tall. Whoever had built this had quite some time and supplies at his hands.

He managed to wrench one half of the gate open and quickly vaulted past it, escaping the strange and enormous city with the valuable item he had procured from those two enemies.

Behind him, the gates shut completely.

The Spartan stayed on the move, moving one leg in front of another and concentrating on his breathing as he dashed over the landscape like a grey shadow. Only when he had put a considerable distance between him and the city did he turn back, looking onto the fortress as he tried to make sense of what he had seen and done there.

Then, the Spartan noticed something. Just barely visible without the zooming function of his HUD, standing on top of the wall.

It was the woman he had fought in that building. She was standing on top of one of the pillars, holding onto the stone blocks as she stared at him. Her long, red hair drifting on the wind as she continued to keep him in her eyes.

And he stared back at her. Even with at least two-hundred meters of distance between him and her, she seemed to know perfectly where his eyes were.

And she was smiling.

She was going after him. He was sure of that.

He would be ready for that. With the odd gem secured in his pouch and his assault rifle back in his hands, he started to move in a direction that he soon determined to be the south-east. He had spotted some mountain ridges there and that was most likely where the dropship containing Captain Wren and the marines had gone.