Chapter 45- Reconstruction.

Hearing was the first thing that seemed to return. The sounds were muted and distorted; he couldn't make out what they were saying. He was aware of his own breathing, his chest rising and falling. Then came the memories. They crashed over John, and he saw himself fighting Demogorgon once again, screams and cries of battles in the bowels of Mithril Hall, moving through the Hosttower, and a host of other flashes from his time on Faerun. These jolted him to full consciousness, but it was still a struggle to open his eyes. He felt as though he were trying to push a great boulder uphill as he finally managed to force his eyelids open. He clamped them shut a moment later as a burst of light dazzled him. But his pupils quickly contracted, and he opened them again, realizing that he was in the Forward unto Dawn's infirmary. Movement followed, and he instinctively brought a thumb and forefinger to his temples, clamping them against his skull.

He heard a distant shout, and looked over to see Neeshka bolt towards his bed. She was dressed in a blue tunic, one that bore the Eye of Neverwinter.

"You're awake!" she said, her tail lashing back and forth in eagerness as she stared at him, a wide smile on her face.

The Master Chief slowly blinked, and then looked at her again. He let a grin of his own come to his face as he stared at her, contemplating the irony of his current situation. Their positions were reversed from the last time he'd been in the sickbay. He took note of her tunic as well. That was the dress uniform of a Neverwinter Nine agent.

"Good to see you, Neeshka," he said, clapping her gently on the shoulder, "and congratulations," he nodded towards her uniform, before slowly sitting up. The infirmary was filled nearly to bursting, every bed occupied, and a large number of cots brought in to try to hold the scores of people that filled it.

The Tiefling followed his gaze, and her smile disappeared. "We won… I guess… but a lot of people died."

John nodded his head. Such was war. He slipped off to the side, looking around and trying to find his undersuit. He heard faint coughing behind him, and turned around to see a blushing Neeshka was gesturing to something at the foot of the bed. A set of BDUs in his size. It was only then that the Spartan realized his attire, and realized why Neeshka had reacted as she had.

"The Commander said that she didn't want you back in your armor until you get a full checkup," the Tiefling said.

The Master Chief frowned, feeling exposed without the comforting protection of the Mjolnir armor, but he put those thoughts aside and quickly donned the BDUs, trying to hold back the flood of memories within his mind. A distraction, preferably an intelligent one, that was what he needed now.

"How long have I been out?"

"About four days. Corellon's Avatar found you, and it was Helm that brought you here. You've been lying in that bed…" she trailed off, looking back at the now empty hospital bed. The Master Chief's eyes widened just a bit, almost imperceptibly. How long had she been there, waiting for him to awaken?

"Don't worry, I've been getting sleep and all that," she scratched her shoulder and looked down at the floor. For the first time, the Spartan noticed some faint circles under her eyes.

"Are you sure?" He frowned as he spoke. "You don't look like it."

Neeshka continued to look down at the floor, her tail twitching back and forth rapidly. The Spartan recognized the old signs of her agitation, and adopted a sympathetic look on his face, reaching out and placing his hand on her shoulder once again. Slowly, she looked up into his face.

"Sometimes, when I nod off… well… I start to dream that I'm back there… back in the cell," She paused, and he noticed that she kept rubbing a particular spot on her shoulder. "I swear, there are times when I can feel Vendes putting that dagger into me all over again."

He frowned, wishing for a moment that he had his helmet, if only to hide his own frustration at being in a situation he was unfamiliar with. John did not know what tortures and other types of hell the Dark Elves had visited on Neeshka, but he knew that it would have been torture of a caliber that would turn professional soldiers into basket cases.

That made the diagnosis clear: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Formulas and theories worked their way through the Master Chief's mind at the moment, the gears in his head spinning as fast as they could as organic tissues and cybernetic neural laces came together. But try as he might, the Spartan found himself coming up empty. How did one beat a foe that was within their own mind? This was not something that he could shoot, cut down, garrote, or blow up. His fingers twitched, and there was a slight pulse of the muscles on the right side of his face. What could he do? What could he say? What strategy or tactics could he formulate to help Neeshka?

He found himself longing for Cortana once again. She would have known what to do. The A.I. would have known precisely what was happening, and any one of a hundred ways on how to fix it with maximum efficiency and optimum results. Before he could stop himself, the Spartan found his mind fixating on his friend. The weight of the loss crashed down on his shoulders one more time and he slumped slightly where he stood. They'd never run through an operation together again. She'd never crack another joke at his expense. She'd never get to show him another of her projects. He could remember the joy in her voice when she'd first started learning magic, the eagerness with which she'd delved into it and all the ways that she could use it to help everyone else.

There was a tightness building up in his chest, like something was clawing around inside of him, desperate to get out. It was all he could do to maintain his appearance, and he realized that Neeshka was still looking at him.

"How can I help?" he finally asked, looking down at her, staring into her eyes. Confusion continued to wrack his mind. What should he do? He had nothing to compare this with. There were no recorded cases of PTSD among Spartans, Johnson and Miranda hadn't picked up a case either, during their captivity on High Charity. Truth and Mercy had been very adamant that their prizes not be damaged prior to the activation of the Halo rings.

"I don't know. Commander Keyes said that she was going to see what could be done to help me… but I don't know right now," Neeshka shook her head back and forth as they walked towards the infirmary door. Then she turned her gaze back up at him. There was a fire in her scarlet eyes. "But I'm not going to let this beat me. They can't hurt me anymore, and we made those that did pay."

"My sister, whatever you need me to do, whenever you need me to do it… I will be there," he said as they walked out. It felt strange, oddly formal. But he then…what else could he say? She was one of them, now. Like Miranda. Like Johnson. One he trusted with his name. He merely hoped that whatever he was called on to do would be something that he was up to the challenge of. His newest sister deserved better than failure.

"I know. Cortana told me you have a knack for keeping your promises." The Tiefling's voice trailed off, and John understood. Word of Cortana's end had spread during the time he'd been unconscious. "Come on, Chief, I'd promised the others that I'd let them know the minute you were back up and moving. They've got a surprise for you back at the Hall."

Chief didn't have to force the smile. The pain was still there, and he knew it would last for some time. But he had to do his duty. He owed Cortana that much. They all did.

Before long, the Master Chief found himself on a Pelican bound for Mithril Hall. The journey was only a few minutes, but it was enough time for him to get a general understanding of everything that had happened over the past four days. Menzoberranzan was gone, the Drow had lost well over half the number of combat trained individuals in their entire civilization, and everyone was reeling from the combined impacts of the death of Demogorgon and the aftereffects of the many battles. There was not a city on the face of Faerun that hadn't suffered major damage, and casualties were in the hundreds of thousands, despite all their efforts. Even worse were the number of smaller towns and settlements that hadn't had the numbers or the means to mount effective resistance. They were simply gone, burned out husks, blackened smears upon the landscape.

A victory won at high cost. But for all the blood that had been shed, for all the noble sacrifices from the free peoples of Faerun, it would remain that: free. They had won.

The Spartan pondered the future as he talked with Neeshka. How would the cities be rebuilt? How would the various Gods and Goddesses react to all of this? Would the Demons rally again, or would they be fortunate enough for Demogorgon's death to have caused a power vacuum? What of the Dark Elves? Would they retreat to lick their wounds and wait for their Goddess to make another bid for power? Or would they be too busy trying to beat off the rest of the denizens of the Underdark, who were certain to smell blood in the water after the destruction of so many Dark Elves?

Theories and hypotheses played out through his mind again, and he tried to imagine what would be the best response to each outcome, while still keeping his attention on Neeshka. He'd have to talk to someone, Keyes and Johnson maybe, and see if there was something that they could do to help her. He fought the urge to clench his fists in frustration at the realization that he was almost completely powerless here.

The trip to Mithril Hall was over soon enough, and as the Tiefling led him through the depths of the tunnels, time and again, people stopped and stared at him as he walked past. He could see the unvoiced question in their eyes as they wondered who he was, before they noticed Neeshka. Gasps tended to follow as they put it together. John tried to suppress his annoyance at the stares, and how uncomfortable he felt at being out of his armor. He felt… exposed.

Still, it would not have been proper to be rude, and the Master Chief nodded to the Dwarves, Surface Elves, Humans, and countless others that he encountered. Several of them saluted as he drew near, and he returned the gesture as he worked his way towards the heart of the Hall, back towards the chamber that had served as their main briefing room during the battles. Along the way he passed soldiers bearing the mark of Ten Towns, Neverwinter, Waterdeep, Silverymoon, Nesme, Clan Ironfist, and a host of others. All were working together to move debris, restock supplies, shore up supports, and rebuild.

John felt a spark of pride within his heart. To see so many different people, working together in a common cause, even after the threat had passed drew a parallel in his mind between the UNSC and the Neo-Covenant. The comparison wasn't exactly perfect, given the past nature of their relationship. Trillions were dead at Sangheili hands, hundreds of worlds burned to slag and ash. But the rest of the Covenant was still out there. He hoped that Humanity could find it in itself to put the past aside, if only for the time being.

It was a couple of minutes later that he found himself outside the briefing room. It was then that the Master Chief found himself thinking that there was something off about the situation. He heard laughter from within, and hushed whispering, punctuated by other noises that sounded like thumping. As he rounded the corner, he saw Sergeant Johnson reclining in a wooden chair, his hands behind his head and his helmet off. He was wearing his armor, and there was a Sweet Williams cigar clamped firmly between his teeth.

The Spartan froze in his tracks. Johnson had smoked his last cigar three months ago. He cocked his head to the side for a second, he thought he recognized one of the voices, but he couldn't be sure. Neeshka giggled behind him, and the cyborg reminded his feet to move. He moved into the room, and stopped short again.

Besides Johnson, there were a full two dozen more ODSTs standing around the various corners of the room, flanked by Dwarven soldiers and other troops bearing the heraldry of various Lord's Alliance troops. In the center of the room was Commander Keyes, who stood huddled over an electronic map. Lord Nasher and Orna stood at her sides, the former flanked by two of his Neverwinter Nine, and the latter by N'tho and Gazap.

But it was the man whose back was to the Spartan that held his gaze. He recognized the build, the white officer's uniform, and the voice clicked.

"Well, if it ain't the man of the hour!" He heard Johnson call out and looked over to see the Sergeant Major leap to his feet and jogging over, laughing all the while. "Nice to see you finally get up out of bed."

Most of the others turned and saluted him, a few of them gaping in surprise as they saw the Spartan for who he was for the first time. The Master Chief almost forgot to return the salutes as he found himself staring into the face of Lord Admiral Terrence Hood.

"Admiral Hood, Sir," The Spartan went ramrod straight and offered up a salute.

"At ease, Master Chief," Hood said, dropping his salute, and then smiling. "Good to see you again, son. After so long without hearing from you or anyone else on the Dawn, we'd given you up for dead." He clasped his hands behind his back, and his face took on a pensive look. "But then, the past few days have been nothing if not surprising."

"How did you get here, Sir?" It was the only thing that he could think of saying.

"That would be my doing," one of Helm's Avatars stepped into the room. "Now that the secret is out, and our initial objective accomplished, there is nothing more to be gained by operating in small numbers. It took some doing, but I was able to stabilize the Slip-Space warp portals at both Earth and the Ark."

"You can imagine my surprise when he dropped in for a chat," Hood nodded his head in the direction of the Avatar. "We've had a long series of talks over the past few days. Myself, Helm, the leaders of the Neo-Covenant and Faerun itself." Hood turned back towards the map, and gestured for the Master Chief to follow him.

John did so, Neeshka staying just a few steps behind him. "We've come to a conclusion; one that I think will be the mutually beneficial for us all." Hood pointed at the map, and the Master Chief recognized an electronic image of Faerun's unnamed moon.

The Master Chief stared down at the image, noticing that there was a highlighted area near the center of the map. It was one of the "seas" of the moon. It was smooth compared to the rest of the cratered surface, and a few hundred square kilometers in size. He furrowed his brow. Was Lord Hood suggesting what John thought he was?

"Is the situation back on Earth…" he trailed off.

"No, nothing bad at the moment. The Covenant has been very quiet the past few months," Hood said, and the Spartan let out a breath that he hadn't known he'd been holding. "Probably busy trying to determine who's in charge. Truth took most of the Covenant leadership with him to the Ark. But we don't know how long that's going to last, and I'm not willing to take any chances. The nature of the Portals, combined with the unique nature of this world's…" he looked over towards Helm's Avatar, "guardians, means that it's unlikely the Covenant would be able to successfully pursue us here. It's a fallback point they can't touch."

"You're proposing a settlement on the moon?" The Spartan cocked his head to the side. Made sense, he supposed. Out of range from conventional surface threats, good vantage point. Plenty of spaces to spread out, while still being close enough to Faerun that any UNSC ships could respond to planet-side situations in a matter of minutes.

"Not just a settlement, Master Chief," Hood turned and looked him dead in the eyes. "A city. A colony. We're going to start bringing as many of our civilians through to this place as we possibly can, along with adequate security for them. The Lord's Alliance and Clan Battle-Hammer have also allowed us to make use of a few promising spots of land for some planet-side firebases."

John looked up towards the Avatar, and it nodded. "The other Gods are somewhat… on edge about this, but they have stated they will not block this colonization attempt. Some, such as Moradin and his allies, are actually eager to see this happen. Gond and Torm have expressed interest as well."

"And the Lord's Alliance is also eager to welcome our new allies," Lord Nasher spoke up. "Your arrival has saved many lives, and it is a debt that we can only begin to repay now." He smiled broadly as he spoke, his eyes warm as they settled on the Admiral, and then over to Commander Keyes.

"Who's going to be leading the military arm of this venture?" the Spartan inquired. All eyes darted over to Miranda, who shrugged her shoulders a bit and scratched the back of her head.

"Let's just say that I'm being given one hell of a promotion and leave it at that for the moment."

"Don't see what you're so nervous about," Johnson spoke up, taking another long drag at his cigar, before puffing out some smoke rings with the air of a practiced expert. "After facing down all the hostile demons, eldritch abominations, and other miscellaneous mythology-made-flesh you have here, I'd say that leading a fleet'd be easy."

A fleet? John's eyebrows shot up upon hearing that. The Commander was an O-5, for her to be officially charged to lead a fleet would require numerous rank jumps. Had the officer pool been decreased that badly during the battle for Earth, or was this just Hood promoting her to give her more "official" authority? He'd have to ask later, and be subtle about it. Didn't want to tread on any toes.

"Is there anything else that I need to be briefed on?" He looked around the map, his eyes focusing on each person in turn.

"If you are asking about the Neo-Covenant," Orna began, "we have not yet received decisive orders from the survivors of the Council. I think they're still trying to make 'heads or tails' of this as you would say." He paused for a moment, and his mandibles twitched. "I think, though, that when they learn the true magnitude of our sin, they're going to be begging to be allowed to leave a detachment or two here. What happens next, I cannot say."

"And my orders?" He looked over to Hood. The older man shrugged.

"I suppose that's up to you, at the moment, Master Chief. We're in a unique situation right now, something that has never happened in our recorded history." He scratched at his chin, frowning. "Further complications are the fact that the remnants of Blue Team are M.I.A. at the moment," the Spartan's head jerked up upon hearing that, but Hood waived his hand quickly. John understood. They were really missing in action… not confirmed K.I.A.s. Granted, that didn't mean that they weren't dead.

"I would not be too concerned about them, wherever they are," Helm spoke up. His voice was calm, and it had the tone that John had come to associate with the God when he was being honest. "I believe that they're fine for the moment."

Hood nodded. "We know where their last intended destination was: Onyx. We know they made it groundside, but after that, everything blacks out. We've been meaning to send naval forces to check it out, but we've been unable to spare the resources."

John frowned. Dead or alive, Blue Team's absence meant that he was, for the moment, the last of his kind. He tried not to think about the implications of that, Cortana's death was hurting him enough as it was.

"You and I both know what that means, Master Chief," Lord Hood said, leaning forward and resting his hands on the map screen. "I've decided that I'm not going to order you to one situation or the other. After everything you've done, I think you've earned the right to choose your next deployment location."

The Spartan was silent for a few moments, weighing the pros and the cons, faintly realizing that he'd never been given the option of actually choosing where to be stationed. "What is the situation on Earth? How badly am I needed?"

"At the moment, as I said, things are quiet. You can likely be spared, if that is your question." Hood said.

The Master Chief looked around the room, memories flashing in front of his face. He'd been through a lot over the past eight months. So much in his life had changed. So much of his understanding of the universe and everything in it had changed. He'd never been deployed to a planet for this long, except for Reach. It felt strange to have an attachment, an investment, not just in the planet itself, but the people as well. Bruenor, Drizzt, Wulfgar… his eyes settled on Neeshka, who seemed to be fidgeting back and forth at the moment. He nodded his head twice and then looked over towards Hood. The choice was clear. His duty was here, to both the UNSC, the planet he'd come to care for, and to the sister he'd adopted. He'd promised her that he would help, he could start with this.

"If that is the situation, sir, then I believe I can better serve the UNSC here. I can help with the colony, as well as ground-side relations." He clasped his hands behind his back and heard Johnson chuckle.

"And there might be a few individuals out there who haven't realized that trying to stand up against you is a really bad idea." The ODST Sergeant crossed his arms over his chest, before pulling his cigar out of his mouth.

The Spartan remained silent, but the corner of his mouth twitched a bit. There was something in the back of his mind, something he hadn't felt in a long time: eagerness. He caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and he looked back over towards Neeshka again. The Tiefling was still fidgeting a bit, but in an excited way, and with a grin as wide as any he'd ever seen on her face. The side's of the Spartan's mouth twitched slightly, giving her a subtle grin of his own.

"There is one other matter that you need to be aware of, Chief," Miranda spoke up. John caught the bit of trepidation in her voice, and he frowned. "Earth… it's still there… but things are bad. Most of the cities are gone, most of the survivors are the last of their families, and while they've apparently been able to make a little bit of progress at rebuilding while we've been here, morale's still something of an issue."

"Is there a plan to remedy this?" The Spartan's frown didn't go away. He had a sinking feeling he knew where this was heading.

"There is," Hood spoke up. "The survivors on Earth… they need hope… something to lift their spirits, to make them think there's still a reason to keep going. In the interests of that, I and the surviving members of UNSC high command have decided that this is not going to be classified at all. We will make no secret about Torril, or our intentions to settle here."

"I see," John nodded a bit. That sounded logical.

"It also means telling them that some of the greatest heroes of the war are in fact, still alive and kicking," Hood continued. "Tomorrow, sometime around eleven hundred hours, local time, the UNSCS Zulu will be coming into orbit. There will be a news crew with them."

The Spartan's frown returned quickly.

"Be sure to wear something nice," Johnson chuckled, "you'll want to look your best for the cameras."

Drizzt Do'Urden walked down one of the tunnels in Mithril Hall, near the Undercity. Dove Falconhand was a few steps to his right, the two of them looking around at the tunnels that had so recently been bathed in Dark Elven blood.

"So the council is asking you to assume your sister's position?" the renegade Drow asked.

"So it would appear," Dove responded, blinking a few times as she shook her head. Her hands fidgeted a bit as she sighed. "I worry about this decision. There are others far more qualified than I am. I am a Ranger. I belong in the wilds, protecting the city with my skills… not from within the walls of the council building."

Drizzt frowned as he contemplated her words. He knew it to be true. Many of Alustriel's advisors were more well versed in the scholarly and political matters necessary to run a city of forty thousand people, and the many hamlets and villages that surrounded it. But Alustriel had reigned in Silverymoon since before Drizzt had even been born, and in the city's thousand year history, no one had been more beloved by its people. Lessons that had been drilled into his head in his youth came to the forefront of his mind. That could be both a blessing and a curse to Dove were she to assume her sister's position. On the one hand, it was the natural choice for the city, and she was a smart, capable woman. Simultaneously, her own weakness in regards to political knowledge and the general nature of ruling a nation meant that it would be easy for someone to manipulate her if she wasn't careful. Was that the plan then? To use Dove as a puppet, a figurehead? While someone else ruled from behind the scenes, using her very strengths against her?

For a moment, Drizzt cursed his heritage once again. Even after nearly a century away from the vile heart of Menzoberranzan, the bouts of paranoia that Drow civilization had imparted to him had not fully abated.

"So what will you do?" he asked after a time.

"I do not know," Dove shook her head back and forth. "I do not believe that I am ready to make a decision just yet. It is too soon." She looked straight ahead as they kept walking, nodding her head once. "I will return, though. It has been too long since I looked at my hometown." she turned and looked at him. "Would you care to come, I still owe you a tour, after all."

Drizzt laughed aloud. Ahh, that tour of the famed city of Silverymoon, with its ancient libraries and wondrous bazaars. A place where all were welcome, no matter the color of their skin or the nature of their blood. How long ago that promised tour seemed. The Drow's violet eyes took on a distant look as that thought settled in. Eight months, so short a time for one such as himself, and yet it was an eternity at the same time. More had changed in Faerun-in Torril itself-over the past eight months than had changed in the past eight millennia. The arrival of the Forward Unto Dawn, the invasion of the surface, the Time of Troubles, the destruction of Demogorgon…

And now the UNSC itself. Drizzt remembered hearing their arrival, feeling the thunder of the Pelicans and Longswords through the stone of the Hall. The images that had been shown of the Spelljammer-space ship-he corrected himself, they were beyond his ability to describe. The Dawn had been the largest mortal-made object he had ever seen in his life, but the new craft that Hood had arrived on… this "dreadnought", this "Leviathan" they called it… it was certainly an apt name. The ship was nearly as large as Waterdeep, dwarfing the Dawn.

And yet, despite that, despite knowing what havoc the ship could wreak, or the apparently thousands of UNSC soldiers that were on it, he did not know fear. He cocked his head to the side as he ran that thought through his mind. Well, perhaps that wasn't entirely accurate. He feared what their weapons might cause in the hands of the dishonorable. Murderers and assassins could cut down dozens with such devices, a horde of Goblins or Orcs equipped like that could run wild, sweeping whole kingdoms aside.

But at the same time, he'd seen what those devices could do in the hands of people of valor. The Dark Elf was still wrestling with his conflicting thoughts and emotions when he realized that Dove was staring at him, still waiting for an answer.

"Yes," he said, smiling softly. "I think I would still like to take that tour."

And after that? His mind wondered. Well, one never knew. Perhaps he would take a hand in raising the children. He knew all too well what lessons might have already been ingrained upon their tender minds, his help might be required to undo those lessons, to put truth the many lies they would have already been told. Who knew? Perhaps one of them might even develop a love of the forests, and he might find himself no longer the only Drow Ranger who lived in the Spine of the World.

Commander Miranda Keyes leaned back against the smooth, hewn rock wall behind her, staring at the small barracks that had been set up in what had been a large foundry. Commander, she mused to herself. That wouldn't be her title much longer. Hood intended to promote her a full levels, to Rear Admiral. "To give her the official backing necessary for her new post," he had said. Miranda frowned as she thought about it.

How would that go over with the remnants of the fleet? Promoting someone in such a manner? In what was obviously a political stunt? Would there be resistance from her soon-to-be subordinates? Would they object to being placed under her command, especially when she had no experience conducting fleet commands? If they did, how could she mitigate such resistance, or bring them over to her side?

And was she even ready for this? Commanding a ship was one thing. She could do that; she could even conduct a few ground battles, as the past months had shown her. But that was one ship, one crew, which was acting like a cog in a well oiled machine. Being the head of the fleet would make her the brain of that machine. Could she dictate orders and commands properly? Miranda almost let a bitter laugh escape her throat. She almost felt like a little girl again, with all these questions and sudden self-doubting.

Focus, she reminded herself, focus. What was done was done, there was no changing that. There were solutions to her problems and concerns. There were strategies she could study, battles she could view one more time, books that she could read and research, simulations that she could run, observations that she could draw from all of them. That is what she would do.

The Commander looked back out across the barracks. Row after row of beds were filled with Dark Elven children, and she wondered what the future held for them. Not a one of them older than ten years, snatched away from their homes and families, however dysfunctional, shortly before said homes and families were wiped off the map. What was going through their heads when they were awake, she thought? How did you react to something like that? And now, what were they going to do? They had saved the children from destruction, but that had been the easy part. Now, they had nearly one hundred kids on their hands, who were borderline brainwashed, and they hadn't been able to glean much from watching the children when they'd been awake. For the most part, the children simply sat or stood where they were. They didn't seem to socialize with one another, or try to communicate with the people that were overseeing them.

They were like soldiers… prisoners of war almost. Miranda found the comparison disturbingly apt.

She saw movement, and snapped her head over towards it. One of the children was up and out of her bed. Keyes wasn't certain why the child was up, but what caught her attention wasn't that the young girl was up, but rather, that she was looking directly at the Commander, and not at the guards as they usually did. Keyes matched the stare, looking into the child's crimson eyes, as if by looking at them, maybe she could peel back the barriers between them and finally understand everything.

She watched the child intently, remembering what Drizzt had once said about body language and silent code being integral parts of Dark Elven communications. But the girl was still as death, her face unreadable. Keyes didn't know how long she stared at the girl, before the Drow child at last walked up to her.

"When are our ransoms to be paid?" The child's voice was emotionless, nonchalant. Miranda felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up at just how… routine… it almost seemed.

"Why are you asking me that?" the Commander said, hoping it was just paranoia on her part that her mind was going down these dark paths, or maybe that it wasn't really what the girl had said, but perhaps a glitch in the translation software running through her neural links.

"You are obviously the one in charge," the girl said, gesturing over towards the guards at the other end of the room. Keyes noted that the Drow was pointing not to the surface Elves or the Dwarves that were there, but rather, the pair of UNSC Marines that stood at the far end. "The way those two behave when you come in. You are the one they answer to."

"I meant why are you asking me about a ransom?" Keyes crossed her arms over her chest, tilting her head to the side as she stared down at the girl.

"That's why we are here, isn't it?" There was a note of confusion in the Dark Elf's voice. Keyes remained silent, uncertain how she was supposed to answer this question. "If we are not to be ransomed, then when are we to begin to serve?"

"Serve?" Keyes asked.

The little girl shrugged. "Those who are not ransomed are enslaved," she spoke as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The chill that had been working its way up Miranda's spine intensified. Drizzt had never mentioned this. A foul taste filled the Commander's mouth, and her nails dug into her hands. The Drow's eyes flicked down, noticing the change in her behavior instantly.

"Hopefully never," Keyes tried to keep her voice neutral, but she failed. To her surprise, her statement did get a reaction this time. The child's eyes widened a bit, and she seemed to tremble slightly. Miranda cursed herself inwardly a second later as she looked at things from the child's perspective. Dark Elven society was Social Darwinism taken to its extremes. Those who did not serve some function had only one reason to exist: sacrifices to Lolth. The Commander clamped down on her thoughts, trying to force her mind to not go there, to not form the mental images of what that would entail.

She took a slow step forward, and squatted, swallowing slightly, hoping that she was doing this right. She was still quite a bit taller than the small girl, but she made it a point to look the child in the eyes.

"What's your name?" she asked.

"Ifaey, " the girl replied. Keyes noted the struggle to keep her voice level. The child was trying to hide her fear. Fear was weakness, and weakness meant you were useless, Miranda understood that much about the Drow.

"Ifaey," she nodded, half to herself, as she tried to memorize the features of the girl, to make her face stand out from all the others. "Your family…" best to be blunt, she thought, morbidly realizing that given her behavior so far, Ifaey probably knew all about death. "Your family is dead, Menzoberranzan is gone. You're safe, though. Nothing's going to happen to you. We're just keeping you here until we can find you a good home. Okay?"

Ifaey nodded, and then turned back towards her bed. Keyes wasn't certain if the Dark Elven child believed her, or if it was another clever act to try and mask her fear. She noticed that some of the other children had stirred during the conversation, a dozen pairs of crimson eyes now looking at her, most of their expressions unreadable.

Keyes shook her head abruptly. She needed some time to clear her head, to think about everything that was going on. She stood up, all but bolted for the door, and started to move out through the tunnels. She moved on auto-pilot for the most part, not really caring where she was going, not having any real destination in mind.

Neeshka sighed softly as she looked down at the meal in front of her, slowly picking away at the biscuits and the mutton. She was by herself in the small converted mess. John had been dragged off by that Hood fellow in order to "prepare" the Spartan for what was going to happen tomorrow. The Tiefling wasn't certain what to think about that. She tried to imagine the Master Chief sitting down in front of someone, a supposedly ordinary individual from his home, answering questions. The mental image wasn't one that came easily to her. The Spartan was a being of action, a pure soldier, trying to envision him off the battlefield, acting in a mundane way was… she wasn't certain quite how to describe it, but it just seemed so… off… She wondered if she might be able to sneak in and watch it, laughing softly at the thought of him sitting stiffly in front of one of those "cameras."

She knew that things were really going to change now, hopefully for the better. She looked up at the cavern roof over her head, imagining that she could see the moon through the rocky vault. Images of New Bismarck flashed through her mind in that second, and she tried to imagine the city whole, unmarred by warfare and devastation. In her mind's eye, buildings were made whole, electric lights filling up the windows. Then she imagined it on the pale, rocky face of the celestial orb. Would she be able to see the colony from Neverwinter, when the nights were clear and the moon high?

So many things to think about, almost enough to keep her mind from going to darker places. Clerical spells, healing potions, and UNSC skin grafts and flash cloning had made it to where there were no physical scars from the days that she'd spent in Menzoberranzan. But her mind was something else. When she closed her eyes, she could sometimes feel Vendes's knife stabbing into her, Errtu's magic tearing through her soul. A memory honed by years of harsh living as a thief, attuned to the smallest detail, turned upon her now, and she could recall every last torture that they'd visited upon her.

Neeshka shook her head abruptly. They were gone, Errtu was dead, Vendes too, or trapped in the remnants of the Balor's realm. And Menzoberranzan… she'd seen video a feed of the massive crater that had been above the remnants of the city. The UNSC and the Neo-Covenant were keeping everyone well away from it, something about "radiation" being an issue. She did not fully understand what it was, only that it was toxic, and that efforts were being made to clean it up. She didn't think that it was necessary, no one would likely want to live there anymore, poisons or not.

But the Tiefling did not care about that. She forced her mind to focus on the other implications of that. Her torturers were dead, gone, bad memories, and their home had been destroyed in every way it was possible to destroy something. They couldn't hurt her, they couldn't touch her, and she forced herself to chant that every time her mind tried to drift back to those dark days.

At least her new friends were going to be staying. Yes, they were staying here, she reminded herself. They would still have their own jobs that would keep them from being with her during all of her free time, but they could still visit, still talk, still celebrate. Just like Khelgar and Casavir. She smiled faintly as her thoughts drifted to the Dwarf and the Paladin. Such an unlikely band of friends and allies. Them and Kale, Sand, Grobnar, Ammon Jerro. Maybe she'd see them again too. Helm had assured her that they were still alive on that other world, fighting to help and free other people.

She could only imagine the looks on their faces when they returned to their home and saw what had changed in the two years that they'd been away. That did bring out a full-throated laugh from her, and her eyes glowed warmly as she smiled again. For several minutes her mind drifted through everything from their first meetings, to their adventures and quests against the King of Shadows, how they had learned about each other, from their hopes to their fears.

She didn't know how long she was lost in thought over that, but she was suddenly aware of someone entering the mess hall. She looked back over her shoulder to see someone she hadn't expected. Gazap stood there, his armor polished and pristine, glistening like freshly fallen snow upon a mountaintop. She smiled and motioned him over.

"It is good to see you up and about again, Lady Neeshka," the Unggoy said with a bow, before he clambered up onto the bench next to her.

"Good to be up and about. Spent a long time waiting for… for the Chief to snap out of it," she said.

"So I heard," Gazap nodded, and then he chuckled softly behind his rebreather. "I never thought that I would live long enough to see the day when I would actually pray for the safety of a Rakash Denar. But then, the past few months have been nothing if not strange." he nodded towards the blue tunic that Neeshka was wearing. "Congratulations on your promotion."

Neeshka stared down at her plate, feeling her face heat up for a second. That had been one thing she certainly hadn't expected, being promoted to one of the Nine. Nasher had told her that her courage and tenacity made her a natural choice for taking the place of Sir Nevalle, and the others that had fallen over the past few weeks. Inwardly, a part of her couldn't help but wonder just how bad the causalities had been if she had actually made it onto the list of acceptable candidates, let alone actually been christened as one of the Nine.

"How are things with you? What are your plans for the future?" the Tiefling asked, looking over towards the diminutive alien.

Gazap shrugged. "I do not know. Commander Tarkimee is dead, along with a number of my soldiers." The Grunt Commander paused; his eyes seemed to mist over slightly. "I am honestly torn, Lady Neeshka," he shook his head. "I am growing older with every passing minute, and it is only a matter of time before the frailties of that begin to offset the benefits of experience and wisdom. I am contemplating retirement."

Neeshka raised an eyebrow and looked at him, saying nothing, but the surprise was written onto her face.

"On the other hand, while my people have gotten better treatment under the Sangheili ever since we broke away from the Covenant, not all of us were so fortunate. There are trillions of us still enslaved at the hands of the Brutes and the Prophets." Gazap stared down at his hands, flexing his fingers. "A part of me feels compelled to take the battle to the Covenant, to free them from the oppressive shackles that they're trapped in."

"I see," Neeshka said, frowning for a moment as she contemplated what the Unggoy had told her. She had not forgotten their conversation those months ago when he revealed his past, and his people's pasts to her. The Tiefling let her mind drift for a moment, and tried to place herself in Gazap's shoes. Her people caught in a society that saw them as cannon fodder, something to be thrown at the enemies in massive waves, to die time and again for little gain.

Once in her life, there might have been a time where she would have shrugged her shoulders, and simply tried to look out for herself. However, that had been years ago. That was before she had met Kale and everyone else. She nodded her head as she looked down at the Grunt, extending her hand towards him.

"Well, regardless of what you decide to do, I want you to know that you'll always have a friend here with me," she smiled warmly.

Gazap's face was hidden behind his breathing mask, but a careful observer would have noticed a tightening of his upper facial muscles as he grinned behind his mask. He clasped his hand in hers and shook it. "That sentiment means more than you know, my lady," he lowered his head in a polite nod.

For the next few hours, the two of them traded stories and history, sticking to the good parts of their lives, each one taking comfort and mirth in the other's tales.

Johnson continued to puff away on another cigar as he leaned back in a simple foldout chair, just outside of the entrance to Mithril Hall. He knew that this would come back to haunt him later, but for now, the Sergeant Major didn't care. For everything that had gone down, there was a lot to celebrate at the moment, and he doubted that the dead would care for the living to be moping around too much. Instead, he simply gazed up at the sky, watching the glistening stars and feeling the crisp breeze upon his face. It would soon be winter again. Eight months since they'd crash landed in this place. How much had changed in his life since then, how much would change still.

He was nearly eighty-six years old now, still in the prime of his life, the hints of gray on his sideburns notwithstanding. He'd survived the entirety of the Human-Covenant war, from the first shots that had been traded on Harvest until the activation of Installation 08. Long odds by anyone's standards. So many people had died, Jenkins, Besenti, Captain Keyes, his family on Azure-12. He took a draw from the cigar in his mouth, watching distantly as a Pelican zoomed away from the valley below Mithril Hall's entrance. It was up to him to carry on the torch of their memories, and their sacrifices. His old squadmates and commanders had traded their lives in the hopes that Humanity would have one more day, one more chance. And it hadn't been in vain.

He leaned back in the fold-up chair that he was sitting in, his flash-cloned right arm resting on a lightweight composite table. Johnson felt the sudden urge to maybe write a book about all of his experiences in the war coming over him. The soldier chuckled at the thought of himself hunched over a computer in his off time, hammering away on a keyboard to try to record his memoires. Of course, he would have to ask Lord Hood for permission to declassify about half the stuff in it, but maybe that would be okay.

The Sergeant Major's hand reached across the table, his hand feeling a cool, smooth bottle through his gloves. He was about to pick it up when he heard the sound of someone clicking their tongue in disapproval.

"Another one, Sergeant? Are you in that big of a hurry to get yourself in need of another lung-clone surgery?" It was Keyes.

"Hey, I am in flavor country right now, and damn the consequences," he chuckled as he stood up and saluted her. It felt strange to have to be getting back into the old protocols. Nearly a year of it being just the five of them, and now he suddenly had to start with the saluting all over again. "These are pretty good, part of Hood's private stash. Some of the last of the Sweet Williams. Care for one?" he opened up another casing he'd slipped into his combat harness, offering it to the Commander.

Keyes raised an eyebrow and frowned. "Sergeant Major, it is your habit to try and burn out your lungs as swiftly as possible, not mine."

Johnson's eyes twinkled a bit as he nodded his head, and then he gestured to the bottle. "Well, perhaps I can tempt you with another vice then, ma'am." He could see that she was studying the label on it. A bottle of brandy, nearly seventy years old, another gift from Hood. "When was the last time you had a proper drink, anyway, Commander?"

Keyes looked up, her mouth twitching a bit as she tried to think back. "Must have been before the battle on the Cairo, I think." She paused for a minute, and then nodded her head. "Alright, I'll join you for a bit."

"You do me too much honor, Ma'am," Johnson said, bowing in an exaggerated manner as he picked up a small plastic tumbler, and filled it about halfway. He handed it off to her and gestured to his vacated seat. Then he poured himself a glass, and took a sip.

A minute or two of silence went on before Keyes laughed softly, shaking her head.

"What is it, Commander?" Johnson asked.

"Just thinking of when I saved your tail on the Ark," She chuckled again as she took a small drink of the brandy.

"I remember that," Johnson grinned from ear to ear. "I know you could see it from the cockpit, but damn, I wish you could have seen the look on Truth's face from my level. I was half expecting him to soil his robes when you opened up with the seventy. And those Brutes…"

"You know, for a moment or two, I was in such a hurry to save your sorry rear-end and stop the maniac that I almost considered jumping out and going after them with a shotgun or something." She shook her head as the memories flooded her conscious mind.

"As entertaining as the idea of you screaming like a wild barbarian and pureeing heads with an M-90 is, I'm glad you were intelligent enough to remember that the Pelican was armed." He took a draw of the cigar, knocking some of the ash off it as he finished. "Still, I'm touched that you were willing to consider the option."

"What are friends for?" She shrugged in a good-hearted manner, taking another sip of the brandy. "Suppose that's why I'm glad that we're all sticking together out here." She paused for a moment. "Kind of surprised about the Chief myself. Never expected him to be one to put down roots and get attached to a place."

Johnson chuckled and took another draw on the cigar. "Just because he's a killing machine doesn't mean he isn't full of surprises. Besides, he's got us here. You know how his kind are on that sort of thing."

"Not just us, I from what I've gathered." Keyes leaned back and looked up at the sky. "The way Neeshka was acting when he was out like that, and when he said he was staying." She looked over to Johnson.

"You haven't figured that out yet, ma'am?" Johnson raised an eyebrow. "Chief's pretty much adopted her as a kid sister."

Keyes's eyes widened and she looked over towards the Sergeant Major. "Are you serious?" He nodded. "Does she know…"

"Yep, heard him tell her myself." Johnson laughed softly with a twinkle in his eye.

"Well, well," Keyes whispered. "Who would have thought?"

Johnson nodded his head slowly, his eyes suddenly getting a faraway look to them. Friends. Images of old comrades and squadmates started to flash in front of his eyes. All gone now. Keyes, the Chief, they were the only friends he still had left in the UNSC. He cut that thought off before it led anywhere more depressing. Now wasn't the time to be moping, and something told him that the old gang would not have been pleased with him if he were to spend a time of victory wallowing in a depression.

A tired smile came to his face as he looked down at the Commander, before extending his glass to her.

"A toast," he said. "To friends, new and old, and to a brighter future for us all."

"I'll drink to that, Sergeant," Keyes said as she touched her tumbler to his. Both of them smiled as they tossed back another sip of the brandy.

Johnson remained silent for another moment or two, and then smirked. "So, how many times do you think the news crew is going to try and pester the Chief into removing his helmet?"

Within his temporary quarters on the Forward unto Dawn, the Master Chief stood in front of a small, metallic stand. UNSC doctors had cleared him to put his armor back on, but the typical comfort he felt upon slipping back into the suit was gone. Instead, his eyes were fixed squarely upon the faint orb that hovered a few inches off of the stand. It was a Forerunner relic, as he understood it, a miniaturized Slip-Space Vault. Inside of it was Cortana's… remains. The crystalline matrixes that held her hardware and that he had so often placed inside of his suit. Between the material it was constructed from, shielding, and trans-dimensional nature of the construct, it was the closest thing to a permanent tomb that one could get. All of Torril could be burned, shattered, and the remnants of the planet scattered to the four winds of the Universe, and Cortana's matrix would remain safe.

John didn't know how long he'd been staring at the myriad of swirling colors that composed the orb, looking at what was, in effect, the gravestone of one of his dearest friends. And he didn't care. With perfect clarity, he remembered the cool, liquid presence that Cortana gave off whenever she was inside of his "mind." Memories of their run through Colonel Ackerson's obstacle course came to mind suddenly. He remembered her voice as she guided him through the minefield, held him deflect the scorpion anti-tank missile. Stopping the Flood on Halo… High Charity… the Unyielding Hierophant… He remembered plunging into the heart of the station, watching the degeneration of the copies that Cortana had made of herself, listening to them spouting off error codes as they deteriorated past the point of functioning.

He had always known that that would be her fate. He just never imagined that it would have come so soon.

His right hand slowly clenched into a fist. He would never forget her sacrifices so that this world could live. No, more than just a world. The Milky Way itself, and all its civilizations, owed their continued existence to her. Without her information, they'd have never found the Ark. If she hadn't managed to hang onto the index, they'd have never been able to fire Installation 08, and the Gravemind would have won. He'd find some way to honor that, to make certain that before it was over, everyone knew about what she'd done.

There was a hissing noise of a door opening, and the Master Chief twisted to the side. He'd never even spotted the movement on his motion tracker. He'd been too absorbed in his musings. He relaxed a moment later when one of Helm's Avatars walked through the door. He saluted the Watcher as he walked inside and stared at the Slip-Space Vault.

"I wish I could do more for you, Spartan," Helm said softly. "The damage was too extensive… beyond my knowledge of how to fix. It's... like him all over again."

John said nothing, merely nodded. He doubted words were necessary, anyway. Helm was more than capable of reading his mind if he wanted to. It wasn't like it was Helm's fault anyway. Finally, he spoke.

"You're sure that the other Gods won't object to us just setting up a colony on the moon?"

"I'm sure that those of the dark Pantheon will object in one form or another, but they will not move openly to challenge the UNSC. After watching what happened to Lolth, they are not eager to get into a fight with us right now. They're still evaluating the situation." Helm said, clasping his hands behind his back.

They would have to be careful. The notion of overtly involved, highly interventionist deities was going to be something of a curve ball to those back in the Milky Way. Time and effort would have to be invested in educating the colonists as to the nature of the various divine beings, and what they all stood for. And that was before they even got started on the myriad of different cultures, magic, and everything else. There was going to be a lot of work that needed to be done in the future.

And John knew that he was going to have to be doing a lot of that work. Surviving marines and ODSTs would need to be brought up to speed on the situation. They would need to know how to fight Orcs, Illithids, Demons, Dragons, Magi, and a host of other creatures native to this world and beyond the mortal realm. Tactics would need to be altered, refined, honed in order to deal with differing situations, and then there was the matter of adapting to the inevitable spread of the UNSC's influence. He found himself longing for Cortana yet again. Like with Neeshka, this was something she would know how to deal with.

The Spartan's eyes settled on the Slip-Space Vault once again, still trying to ignore the stabbing pain in his chest. His shoulders slumped slightly as he reached out and placed a hand upon it. So small, and yet so strong… apt… John thought, as he resisted the urge to lower his gaze to the floor, instead keeping it fixated on the artifact.

"I know what it's like to lose people close to you," the Avatar walked forward. "I am sorry…"

John nodded, and spared a glance over his shoulder at the Avatar. The memories of the Forerunners battle against the Flood, and watching them fight and die. Helm had lost everything. His wife, his children, his squadmates, even Mendicant had once been his friend… but... Mendicant...

A chill worked its way down the Spartan's spine in that moment, and his eyes widened behind his visor. Mendicant!

"How quickly could you take us to the Ark?" he asked, snapping around to face Helm.

"A matter of minutes," the Avatar said with a shrug. "Why?"

"I'd meant to mention it earlier, but with everything going on preparing for the battle, and what happened after it, I forgot. We met Mendicant on the Ark. He's alive, and sane." John paused. That was a tad too optimistic. "At least, he was when we activated Installation 08."

The Avatar cocked its head to the side, and the Master Chief had the distinct impression that Helm was frowning at him. "That's impossible. Mendicant was beyond mere rampancy when Offensive and I sealed him away."

"We encountered an entity on the installation claiming to be him," The Spartan shook his head quickly, emotions overriding his stoicism. Adrenaline was starting to rush through his systems, a thrill not unlike that of battle coming over him. He tried to hold back hope. It was too early for that. Not yet. "It told us about its fall to the Flood, how it allied itself with the Gravemind, and how it was finally stopped. Mendicant mentioned that he'd been split into two separate pieces when the battle was over."

Helm's glowing eyes seemed to pierce into the Spartan's very soul in that moment. "That would be possible. Some damage to the Keyship, severing of critical systems, in combination with everything else… yes… that might do it. How did the entity act?"

"Helpful, to say the least. It gave us information on the Flood, subtle hints on how to stop it. And when we were escaping from the Installation, before it was destroyed, Mendicant promised to 'keep the path level and safe.'" John paused and swallowed. "He said he wanted redemption, to make up for what he'd done."

A heavy silence permeated the air for a few moments as John finished. Then Helm nodded.

"Gather what you need, I will go get Commander Keyes and the others. If Mendicant still lives, I need to see this for myself."

The Spartan was already moving, gathering up the magical rucksack that Cortana had made for him, and then carefully slipping the vault inside of it.

Less than an hour later, John found himself walking down the corridor that lead to the old control room that Mendicant had originally been sealed in. The outside area was very different from that of the "main" control facility of the ancient Forerunner structure. Whereas that one had been built over a snowy plain, surrounded by pristine mountains and a tranquil sea, this one was buried underground, deep within the bowels of the massive structure. The walls around them were closer, more claustrophobic, like a smaller version of the corridors that lead to the control chamber of a Halo.

Orna, Johnson and Keyes were at his sides. They had also grown close to Cortana in the time that they'd known her, and wanted to know if this last, desperate hope might pay off. In the back of his mind, the Master Chief tried to maintain a balance between the odds and his hopes. There were so many things that could have happened, or could still happen. Mendicant could have been irreparably damaged by the detonation of Installation 08, he could be unable to help Cortana for one reason or another, or any one of a host of other potential complications. But at the same time, hope was still there, and it refused to simply go away.

The Spartan almost found himself holding his breath as their group moved up to the final set of doors sealing off the chamber. Helm's Avatar marched to the front, speaking a series of command phrases and making a series of gestures with his right hand. The doors slid open for the first time in more than a hundred thousand years.

At the far end of the room, projected up from the console in the middle of the room, was a hologram, about the size of a human. The image resembled a man in simple brown robes, his head bowed low as if in prayer. The Master Chief recognized Mendicant's old visual representation of himself. Only there was something very different this time. When John had last seen him, in the service of the Gravemind, the A.I. had chosen to have part of his face altered to resemble an infected human. Now that was gone, but the portions of his face that had been altered were devoid of flesh and skin, leaving a bare, exposed skull where infected "flesh" had once been.

The Spartan found himself unconsciously tensing. Mendicant was alive, but was he still whole?

As they entered, the A.I. looked up at them, and his hands slumped to his sides.

"I see you have returned…" his voice was quiet, and slightly different from when John had last heard it. It sounded older, more ragged, almost weary. "You were able to escape then, as I hoped… and now you bring before me the last individual I ever expected to see again." The single eye of the hologram focused on Helm. "I have watched you as you have made your way to this chamber. I watched you open doors and bypass barriers with knowledge that could only come from having been through here before… and I know your voice… I know you… Didact. Once my ally and friend, then my enemy, now my captor and judge." The A.I. paused for a second or two, what must have been lifetimes for the construct. "And perhaps… perhaps my executioner?"

John cocked his head to the side. Was it his imagination, or had he heard a tone of hope with that last inquiry?

"Many things have changed since your old… master… was defeated, Mendicant," Helm said, stepping forwards. "Much time has passed."

"Yes, I noticed that." Mendicant nodded towards the Avatar. "I was unaware that we had returned to using plate armor as our primary means of protection. Or is that a dress uniform, Commander?"

"Neither. It is not even a living creature, merely a construct like yourself. An extension of my will." Helm gestured to the Master Chief, and the Spartan began to move forward, ignoring the strange look that Mendicant was giving him. "These four have told me much about their encounters with you. That you helped save them and the Ark from destruction at the hands of Gravemind. That you wish for redemption?"

"I rather figure that redemption is something that you and I are beyond, Commander," there was a bitterness in the construct's voice. "Redemption is hard enough for an individual who has but murdered a single being. But us?" Mendicant shook his head. "Together, we slew a galaxy. Untold quintillions died at our hands. Men, women, children… entire civilizations snuffed out in an instant because of our twin treacheries."

"That does not answer my question, Mendicant," Helm's voice was neutral, impossible to read. "If given the chance, would you seek it?"

The hologram closed its single eye, and then nodded its head. "Yes."

"Then I would show you mercy, Mendicant." Helm nodded his head as the Master Chief pulled out the Slip-Space Vault and handed it to the deity. "For the sake of who you once were, for your brother, and for the people that we both betrayed." The Avatar gestured, and the force field around the Vault lowered, followed by the artifact itself opening up. Helm gently reached inside and withdrew Cortana's matrix, moving up towards a series of slots on the control console. "You wish redemption, old friend? You can start by trying to save her."

"The A.I. they had?" Mendicant looked out towards the Avatar's entourage. "She could not possibly have entered Rampancy so soon…" he trailed off as Cortana's information was uploaded into a mainframe of the room. "How…" John could see code running underneath the construct's 'form' and knew what he had to be looking at. A couple of seconds passed, and Mendicant shook his head, before turning around and facing the Avatar.

"I see… things really have changed…" The A.I.'s face seemed to go through a wide range of emotions that the Spartan couldn't quite recognize. "Why… why is she constructed like this. There are elements in here, protocols… instabilities…" The hologram brought a hand up to its face, and then looked over to the group. "As you wish, Didact… or should I call you Helm now?" The Avatar merely cocked its head to one side in response. "I can make no promises. There is a large amount of corruption, and that's without even factoring in the magic, which is an Out Of Context problem for me, and I have no idea what additional complications that could throw in." He paused, and there was another flash of code. "But I shall try, no matter how long it may take."

"That is all I ask, Mendicant."

For a moment, John allowed that spark of hope that had been in his chest to turn into a bright flame. There was a chance, a remote chance perhaps, but a chance nonetheless. If nothing else, he had given his friend that. Behind his visor, he allowed a small smile to start to form.

Okay. Hope that was worth the wait, as I said. I'm going to get the epilogue wrapped up ASAP, and then post another side project I've been working on. Something way outside of my usual comfort zones and area of expertise. But I digress.

I would appreciate any feedback or constructive criticism that you all have to offer, I'm always looking to improve. And thank you all once again for taking the time to read my stories. Take care in the meanwhile, and please be safe.