UNSC Frigate Death Before Dishonor
In orbit over Sanghelios
The briefing room was crowded, packed to the brim with both humans and Elites. The colors of the Sangheili ranks stood out against the olive green and drab grey of the Navy officers. Everyone stood around awkwardly, waiting for the briefing to begin. Castle, sitting at the far end, looked over the faces, tempted to puff on one of his cigars to help himself relax. Strange Sangheili and human engineers, mixed with familiar marines and Minors. T'hir was already in the room, leaning against a nearby wall, his crimson armor sticking out starkly against the grey of the wall. The ODST tossed him a questioning look, but the Major Domo just shrugged.
The doors hissed open again, and, upon seeing who it was, the crowed began to part. The firs tperson to step into the room was an aging human, graying hair standing out against his dark skin. Captain Thule looked around sharply at his crew. Ex-ODST, Carson Thule was as tough as they come. The command of the Death Before Dishonor, in his mind, was simply another step on the road to retirement. He was relaxed in his command, but, during the war, there were horror stories regarding his strict obedience to his own idea of regulations.
Behind him, clad in white armor, was Ultra D'mor Yuuta, the highest-ranking Sangheili on board. He surveyed the room from behind his white helmet. A few of the Sangheili stiffened as he entered, or tried to clean their armor. T'hir adjusted a shoulder plate, standing straight now. Castle knew better than to chuckle at this. D'mor's nicknames in the UNSC varied from "Captain Glass" to "Glass-hole", due to the fact he had glassed more worlds than any other Ultra on record.
The two proceeded to the head of the table, and the chatter died down. The Captain took a seat at the head while the Ultra stood behind him. It was obvious for everyone the respect the two had for each other. Before the Sangheili separated from the Covenant, Thule and D'mor had clashed more than once, from a Minor and Lieutenant on Reach to Ultra and Captain over Earth. After the Separation, the two had worked together consistently, helping to mend relations. Rumor had it each had some mean scars from the other.
Thule pressed a small button, and the Avatar of the ship's AI appeared. Yue took the form of a tall woman, with short hair and a long kimono, designed with flower petals. Her code shimmered as she appeared, casting a pale blue light over the faces of all present.
Thule nodded to Yue. "Take the floor, Yue. Tell 'em what you told us."
Yue bowed and turned to the assembled. From the center of the table came another hologram, this time a map of a system. A small blue light was blinking a few meters away from the last planet. "This," she spoke, feminine tones sounding far too real, "is Thermopylae-331, a star on the far fringes of the galaxy. The system is empty, for the most part, save for a planet with an indigenous population of mice." The blue light pinged, small rings coming from it like ripples on a pond, "And THIS is a UNSC beacon, seemingly dropped in the middle of nowhere. There isn't any UNSC activity in this sector, save for the patrol that picked up the beacon." The people were quiet as they listened intently, watching the screen change. A photo appeared in place of the system. It showed a UNSC beacon, a blue light glowing brightly. In the distance, among the stars, a faded, but identical, blue light burned against the black space.
Yue drew a small circle around the far-off light with a slender finger. "Upon moving to the location, the patrol found this-Another beacon, farther off. Presumably, there is a trail of these beacons leading into space." Castle leaned forward. The excitement was electric, tingling the short hairs on the back of his neck. "They picked one up," Yue continued, "And it's from the Forward Unto Dawn."
An excited murmur ran through the assembly. Human participants smiled widely as Sangheili looked from one another with mixed reactions. "This information," Yue began, the group silencing themselves, "Is highly classified. So far, those in this room are the only people aware of the origin of those beacons." Castle felt a shiver run down his spine, "And the only reason you know is because of a joint black-op Command has commissioned us for."
The room went deadly quiet. Thule coughed and stood. "UNSC Command has agreed with the Sangheili High Council that these beacons should be followed to wherever they lead. Any questions?"
There was silence. Then, a Sangheili raised his hand, the blue armor of a Minor reflecting the light. "Z'rac Gudaa, sir," He said nervously, yellow eye moving across the faces that were staring up at him. "Erm, on Sangheilios there is a small creature called a Ferrorat. It's similar to an Earth weasel." He coughed, nervously, before continuing. "The only way to…to catch one is to l-lead it into a cage with Talis berries."
A human mechanic in the back chuckled as the Minor rubbed his neck, abashed. "Greeeat," He guffawed, "Now we know how to deal with pest problems on alien worlds! Thanks, split-lip, you're a real genius!"
"No," Spoke T'hir, rubbing his chin with a hand and drawing all eyes to him, "The Minor almost articulated a point. This could very well be a trap. After all, we have no idea what happed to the rear of the Dawn following it's separation from the forward half."
Castle turned in his chair to address the Major Domo. "So, your sayin' that this is some new species or somethin' found the ass-end of the Dawn, and thought it might be a good idea to draw some unlucky sumbitch into a trap?"
"That's the idea," T'hir responded with a shrug.
Thule listened closely before responding. "I can see the logic in that, Major Domo," He said to T'hir before turning back to the group at large, "Anyone who doesn't want to go on this mission, Pelican leaves for the planet in an hour. No hard feelings, no catch"
No one moved. Castle looked behind him to see most of the Elite's looking toward T'hir, who stood his ground. The ODST gave the major domo a nod of thanks. Thule stood, and the assembled stood with him, "Alright, troops, we move out at 0900. Prepare the ship for departure, and finish loading up the supplies." He adjusted his cap and gave the assembled a steady glare. The fire of war burned in his eyes again, and, if one looked close enough, it burned in D'mor's too. "Let's get to work."
Somewhere along the Southern Pass, West of the Misty Mountains
The group made their way over hill and plain, their feet (Or hooves, in the case of Bill the Pony) pounding on the ground as they made their way west. From time to time, they'd stop and rest. The Hobbits would make their brunch, second breakfast, dinner, supper, or whatever meal they would eat. The Chief marveled at how their tiny bodies could consume so much food.
They reminded him of worms with that kind of appetite.
From time to time, Pippin or Merry would train with Boromir and Aragorn in swordsmanship. John would tend to his new crossbow, observing its mechanics and functions. It was rather like he had been given a Dark Age version of an assault rifle. He hadn't had a chance to utilize it yet, but, with mixed feelings of dread and excitement, John was sure he would soon.
At one point on their venture, the group came to a stop at a small plateau, outlined by boulders. Sam had made the group a small meal, and he and Frodo watched Pippin and Merry trained with Boromir. Aragorn sat on the sidelines, puffing away on a pipe and occasionally making comments on their stance or movements. John had finished eating already, and somehow avoided anyone seeing under his helmet. Now, he was sitting around a campfire with Gimli, Gandalf, and Legolas.
Quite a few times they had asked him to regale them with the tales of his past. Reclaimer or not, they still viewed him as a complete mystery. Today, he had reached a conclusion.
"Next thing I knew," He concluded, resting his back against the rocks as the three sat, listening intently, "I woke up at the foot of that watchtower. And," He said, shrugging, "That's that."
The dwarf chuckled as he puffed on his pipe. "Interesting story you have there, Master Chief," He said jovially. He had warmed up to John, mainly due to the story. It seemed the dwarves had a love for good tales, tall or not. That, and whatever plant was being smoked in that pipe.
The Elf nodded in agreement. "This Arbiter character," he said, smiling, "He must have been very brave, to lead his race out of the dark. And to do it, even when marked in shame," Legolas sighed, "What a true hero."
Gimli's eyes shifted to the Elf, "Hero? Hah! Johnson, now THERE'S a hero. Brash, bold, and had a fondness of leaf," He chuckled, "Your petty Arsebiter wouldn't stand a chance!"
"I can see why you'd think so, Dwarf," Legolas huffed, turning to glare at Gimli, "A love of smoking and barbaric tendencies are something you two have in common."
The Dwarf growled, taking his pipe from his mouth. The two looked like they were going to exchange blows. "Oh, and I suppose some overzealous alien murderer and backstabber strikes a common note with you, eh!" The Chief stiffened, ready to intervene if the two came to blows.
Luckily, Gandalf stepped up first. He chuckled as he gave each of them a good whack with the staff. The two gave him looks of indignation as the Chief relaxed.
Relaxation. That was something new to John. The only time he could ever remember relaxing was when he rested his head against the AI podium onboard the Dawn, thinking that the Devil had come to collect his due. But now, here he was, traveling with a group once more, and, somehow, he felt it was appropriate to take a moment to let his body decompress. Something told the SPARTAN that chances like this wouldn't come often.
"Y'know," Gimili said, breaking the silence, "if anyone were to ask my opinion, which I note they're not," The Dwarf spoke in mild offense, earning himself a glare from the Elf and the attention of the Chief, "I'd say we're taking the LONG way round." John paused. He had studied the maps of Middle Earth quite well during his time in Rivendell, and he knew that this land pass was the quickest way. When he voiced that fact, Gimli just chuckled.
"There are quicker ways, lad!" The Dwarf spoke jovially, puffing on his pipes, "We could pass through the Mines of Moria." He spoke of it like it was a sacred stop on pilgramage.
John paused. He had seen a city labeled Moria on the maps in Rivendell, but he had assumed the city was up in the mountains, not under it. "A city," he queried, "Under the mountains?"
Gimli chuckled, "That's where us Dwarves live, boy. Great stone halls, forges, mines-All can be found in the great Kingdom of Moria."
"And they're just supposed to let us in?" Again the Dwarf gave a merry chuckle. If he was supposed to be offended or not, John didn't know.
"It's ruled by my cousin Balin," Gimli said, his chest swelling with pride, "He'll give us a royal welcome! A feast the likes of which you've never known! Great kegs of malt and ale will be rolled out, all for us!" Again, John wasn't sure what to think. He'd never had alcohol in recent memory, and he was content with rations.
"No, Gimli," Gandalf suddenly spoke sternly, and John turned to face the Wizard. The old man's eyes burned, his face serious. "I would not take the road through Moria unless I had no other choice."
As Gandalf spoke, Legolas dashed to a raised rock at the end of the cliff. John followed his gaze, as did the rest of the group. A small, black thin line of something was moving through the sky.
"What is that?" Queried Sam.
Gimli huffed. "Nothing, just a wisp of cloud."
"It's moving fast," came Boromir's voice, "And against the wind."
Then, the sound of cawing reached Chief's ears. "Birds," He said, unsure why everyone was so tense.
Legolas was the first to sound the alarm. "Crebain from Dunland!"
"Hide!" Aragorn yelled, and the group scurried to take cover, extinguishing the fire and stamping out eh ashes, eyes on the oncoming flock of birds. The Chief slipped down into cover under an overhang, lying prone on the ground, and was soon joined by a pair of Hobbits. He didn't really care to look, but instead, his golden visor followed the birds in fascination as they overtook the campsite.
They were small, black birds, identical to crows, but they moved like a swarm of bats, wings flapping as they darted around, searching, peering, and looking for something. They chirped, cawed, and screamed as they each flew about the campsite.
Finally, the birds retreated off into the distance from where they'd come. Gandalf was the first to emerge. "Spies of Saruman," he growled, gripping his staff, "The pass south is being watched." The rest of the group followed his lead and stepped out of the cover. John's eyes never left the birds for a second until they had faded from view. Then, Gandalf spoke again. "We must take the Pass of Caradhras." The wizard turned to gaze up the mountain, at the snowy peak high above them. John followed his gaze and steadied himself.
This wouldn't be such an easy trip after all.