What? Author's Notes? After thirteen months? Nope. Maybe later.
I will be answering any *questions* that were posted in reviews from the last chapter in edits to this one to be posted later in the week. At this point, I feel like addressing each individual comment from a year ago is rather redundant, so I'll let this one slip through the cracks.
I will continue to answer reviews in later chapters.
For an explanation of my absence, please read through the chapter and see the Author's Notes at the end.
– The Foxhole (Part 2) –
2200 Hours - July 19, 2553
"The Foxhole" - Tanzania, Africa
Landon was in and out of the armory in less than two minutes. He'd grabbed a new Shotgun, some rockets, grenades, and – as expected – the Jetpack armor augmentation, and called it good. Now the team of Spartans was standing before the new elevator that would take them into the lowest levels of the Foxhole, deciding on a plan.
"Okay, here's what we've got," Zeke said. "Demon says there are two additional sublevels beneath this one. The fourth was once used for chemical testing, mostly dealing with plasma-based weapons, but also testing the occasional biochemical agents."
"And the lowest one?" Landon asked.
"Central command," Zeke answered. "It was the hub for the spooks running this Hellhole. If there's a Brute in charge, he's in there."
"Are we still planning on finding out more of what's going on?" Blaine asked, turning to Sam. "I mean, now that we know most of this stuff was originally from Reach?"
Samuel nodded. "They took over this place for a reason. They've been kidnapping people from that town for a reason." He paused, shaking his head bitterly. "Better have been a good reason."
"So we go to the next sublevel and do a standard sweep?" Stephanie asked.
"It's small," Samuel answered. "The whole place is divided up into only two main segments: the entrance and the test site, which wraps around it and has three doors leading in, one on each wall of the lobby. We'll sweep the site. You'll be on elevator duty."
Stephanie didn't seem thrilled with the assignment, but she nodded. "Fine," she answered monotonously. Blaine couldn't help but grin.
For all her focus on saving lives, Stephanie was as eager for a challenge as the rest of them.
"Don't sound so excited," Samuel said. "It won't take long."
She scoffed. "If you were gonna put me on elevator duty too, couldn't you have done it when there was at least a chance that something would show up?"
Samuel shrugged. "Luck of the draw."
"Hey," Landon said randomly, "why didn't you ever end up on elevator duty?"
The leading Spartan laughed. "One benefit of being the boss," he said.
"Can we please get on with this?" Zeke asked, obviously annoyed. "Seriously, I'm dying here."
Samuel nodded and stepped inside the elevator. The others followed close behind, most of them inching into the cramped quarters and trying not to crush each other against the side walls. Blaine, however, was careful to step in next to Zeke and push the smaller Spartan as far into the corner as possible.
By accident, of course.
"Can we at least leave this Hellhole in pairs?" Ezekiel growled as the elevator began its descent. "Blaine, get the Hell away from me."
"Sorry," the biomechanical soldier answered with fake sincerity, "just no room in here." He pretended to shift his body away from the other Spartan, but ended up cramping them even more.
"I hate you."
"Children," Samuel said, cutting them off. The elevator suddenly stopped, and door slid open. Blaine was ready for a fight-
"Damn," he said, "empty."
The lobby to the sublevel was a blank slate. There were no chairs, no tables, no colors beyond the grey titanium walls. There were three steel doors, one on each of the side of the room and another in the middle of the wall opposite the elevator.
And that was all.
"Well, this just looks riveting." Zeke chimed in.
"Let's get this over with." Samuel said, stepping forward. "I'm ready to get outta here." With that, he started walking toward the far door. "Landon, you're with me. Zeke, take the left door. Blaine, take that one." He pointed to the door on the right side of the lobby.
Blaine nodded and turned to Stephanie. "Now, be careful," he said with a laugh. "You never know what you might find out here."
"Shut up," she answered.
The white-armored soldier simply laughed and turned away. At least he wasn't the only one wasting time guarding an elevator.
Stephanie sighed as the others left the room and the doors slid shut behind them. She stepped away from the elevator and rested her back against the wall, watching.
"What a waste," she whispered.
Why was she doing this? They had cleared all of the top floors. The only Brutes left alive would be the ones on the bottom level, and how many could there be? They'd killed thirty or more of the beasts.
As she contemplated the numbers, she heard something. It sounded like a low humming sound, coming from the wall-
"No way!" she snapped. "Seriously?"
It was the elevator. Something was coming up.
The Spartan knew that, if the Brutes saw her, one of them would certainly retreat to the bottom level to warn the others. She carefully stepped out of view and into the corner of the room, waiting.
A soft "ding" echoed around the room as the elevator stopped and the door began to slide open. As if on cue, the three other doors in the room locked shut with a resounding "CLICK".
She counted as four Brutes – two majors and two minors – stepped out of the cramped space and into the lobby, already armed and alert.
The third one out, a Minor, started to turn in her direction-
And she lunged at the group, Maulers already raised.
The Spartans had swept their respective sides of the lab that made up eighty-percent of the sublevel and met up in the middle where Samuel and Landon had started. There wasn't a single Brute on the floor.
But that wasn't the surprise.
Most of the chemical testing lab was separated into small rooms by translucent glass walls, creating dozens and dozens of individual chambers. Each of the chambers, that Landon could see, housed a single medical bed and several machines that wouldn't have been misplaced in a hospital. And in almost every chamber, in almost every bed, was the corpse of a human being, disfigured and – in some cases – difficult to identify as such.
"What the Hell is this shit?" Blaine asked with disdain, looking around slowly.
"Demon's trying to get records now," Zeke answered, his voice distant. "My God."
"Well," Landon said, "we know what the Brutes were kidnapping people for." He looked to Samuel, who had said nothing. "What are you thinking?"
Samuel's answer was short and barely hid the rage beneath the surface. "I'm thinking I know how the Brutes were testing their steroids." He paused. "And I'm not thrilled."
Landon felt the same way. It was horrific. What appeared to be a man in a nearby cell – because that's essentially what the glass cubicles were – had bones twice as large as they should have been jutting straight out of his legs and arms. His face was twisted and contorted in unnatural ways so that his eyes were barely even visible. There was blood all over the bed and floor.
And that was just one.
"Sam." Zeke said.
The leading Spartan didn't answer.
Zeke's voice was cold. "Brutes didn't do this."
Landon was confused. "What do you mean? Demon find something in the system?"
"Didn't have to," he answered. "Brutes aren't this clever. This is too thought-out, too contrived." He paused. "Too complicated."
Landon agreed, but was still puzzled. "So…what does it mean?"
"One of two things," he answered. "Either ONI was already doing this and they merely copied the process – after switching the specimens, of course – or-"
"Someone else is pulling the strings." Samuel finished, nodding. "Let's get Stephanie and get to the bottom."
"And kill every alien in this damn place," Blaine added, clenching his fist. "This is disgusting."
"Demon's got the details." Zeke said. "I'll pass 'em on after we get Steph."
Samuel nodded. "Gael's got them too. Let's go."
Landon turned to leave-
He knew the sound immediately. The door that he and Samuel had come through had just locked itself tight.
"Son of a bitch!" Blaine shouted, taking off to the right, toward the door he'd come through. Ezekiel did the same, heading to the left, and they both disappeared around the corners of the room.
Zeke was first. "Locked!"
Blaine's voice could be heard a second later. "Damn it!"
"Steph's got company." Samuel said. "We have to get over there!" He took the neuro-chip from his helmet and slid it into the electronic pad next to the door. "Zeke, get Demon and start hacking!"
"Already on it!"
Landon cursed under his breath. They just had to hope that Stephanie could deal with whatever the Brutes were throwing her way until one of the AIs could get the doors open.
Stephanie was only vaguely aware of the bodies that seemed to be piling up around her. The first four Brutes had been dispatched with relative ease, mostly because she was only a few feet away from them when the fight started and they were low-ranking beasts without the proper armament to stand a chance against a Spartan.
The next four to stream out of the elevator – and the four that followed them – were slightly better prepared. The second set of aliens had been exclusively Major-rank and up (including a single Captain armed with a Fuel Rod Cannon), and the final set had been nothing but SpecOps-level Brutes armed with low-grade cloaking tech and those damnable axes that she'd seen so many of lately.
Now, after fighting with them and dodging their attacks for almost four minutes, six Brutes were dead on the floor, including two of the Special Ops aliens. The other six were composed of three Majors, the Captain, and two more axe-armed beasts.
Stephanie was already in a corner – she'd had to be in order to take on both of the other blade-wielding monsters beforehand – and now the others were fanning out around her, preparing to take their shots all at once. The Fuel Rods were her biggest concern. After that, she worried about the three Majors and the Brute Plasma Rifles and Needler Rifles they were carrying. She couldn't really be bothered to care about the axes; hand-to-hand combat was something the female Spartan rarely feared.
The Brutes suddenly opened fire, and Stephanie did the only thing she could think to do: she threw down the Drop-Shield that she had obtained from the Armory and prayed that it was all it was cracked up to be.
With a humming noise that reminded her of the Bubble Shield, the device activated as it hit the floor and a giant blue dome expanded around her. It was all but completely transparent, and she could see as various projectiles flew into it-
The first Fuel Rod detonated against the shield, which flashed in response but did not falter. A dozen Needler rounds reflected off the shield's surface and the shots from the Plasma Rifles seemed to barely have any effect on the dome at all.
"This thing is awesome!"
Another blast impacted and the shield suddenly changed colors, turning a deep shade of red. Stephanie had seen enough shields of similar design in the past to know what that meant.
She raised her own Fuel Rod Cannon and ran out the left side of the dome, opening fire on the two closest Brutes: both of them Majors. All five shots in the weapon's magazine streamed out into the air before hitting their targets square in the chest-
A series of green explosions engulfed the beasts and Stephanie took the few seconds of cover they provided to strap the cannon to the back of her armor and bring her Maulers to bear.
"Steph!" It was Samuel. "Are you okay?"
She shook her head. "Little busy!" she answered, sprinting for the nearest Brute, who just happened to be one of the axe-wielding stealth-soldiers.
"Demon!" The alien caught her at the last available second and lashed out with one arm, narrowly missing the Spartan's head with it axe-
She pointed one of the Maulers at the beast's face and fired. The shot wasn't enough to break its shields, but it did cause the alien some obvious discomfort, as it began to back up several steps, putting one hand to its face where the shot had connected.
"Where you going?" she asked, firing again and draining the rest of the alien's shields before lifting the other Mauler high into the air and bringing it down on the Brute's skull. The blade connected and cleaved the front of the soldier's head-
The Brute dropped to the ground in a bloody heap. Stephanie attached the Maulers to her armor and grabbed the two axes off the floor. Then she squared off with the remaining three Brutes.
The Captain opened fire and more Fuel Rods streamed through the air-
She activated the Drop-Shield again and the dome expanded to defend her. The green plasma bursts detonated harmlessly against the shield.
"Gonna have to do better than that," she said.
The other two Brutes charged her at once, running into the dome and lashing out with a combination of Plasma Rifles and energy-coated axes. Stephanie ducked the first axe and sidestepped, evading both Brutes before attacking and burying an axe in the back of the other SpecOps Brute.
The Major panicked. It roared loudly and struck again, this time with less focus and more rage. The alien swung wide-
Stephanie punched it in the face with all the force she could muster, lifting the alien off its feet and sending it careening backwards. As it fell, she closed the distance between them and sunk the other axe she was carrying into its chest.
Then she turned to the Captain, who was brandishing the Fuel Rod Cannon like a club.
"Run out of ammo, did you?" She asked. When she got no answer, she smiled. "That really sucks for you."
She ran at the Brute, closing the distance and kicking it in the stomach before it could even think of striking her. It stumbled backwards, dropping the Fuel Rod Cannon and throwing its right arm out in a counter-strike-
She grabbed the limb at the wrist, twisted, and felt bones snap. The alien roared.
Stephanie bunched her right hand into a fist and buried it in the alien's abdomen. The Brute doubled-over, coughing and wheezing-
The Spartan wasted no time. She grabbed the Mauler from her armor and sunk the blade into the beast's back, right at the top of the spine. And as it roared and writhed under her attack, she forced the blade to turn downward, digging deeper into the monster while simultaneously pointing the really dangerous end of the Mauler right at the bloody gash-
BANG! BANG! BANG!
The Brute stopped roaring and fell forward, its mutilated back so loose and gory that it simply fell away from the previously-lodged Mauler.
Stephanie let out a long breath. "Well, that could've gone worse."
The doors around the room suddenly slid open, revealing a group of what appeared to be very anxious Spartans. Each one of them had their weapons drawn and each was mere inches from leaping into combat.
"What the Hell?" Blaine asked, looking around the room. "Seriously? Even you managed to find friends on elevator duty?" He turned to Samuel. "This is bullshit!"
The larger Spartan laughed. "You'll get over it." He paused. "You okay, Steph?"
She nodded. "I'm fine. But you're late."
"Sorry about that," he answered, shrugging and nodding to the doorway. "Doors were locked."
Stephanie only laughed. "I can take care of myself." She looked at Blaine. "You were right, by the way: it's a good thing I kept my guard up. Never know what you'll find in here."
A few minutes later, the adrenaline had worn off and the five Spartans were standing before the elevator, ready to hit the bottom level.
"So, what did you guys find in there, anyway?" Stephanie asked.
"You don't wanna know." Landon answered.
Stephanie scoffed. "What did you find?" Her tone was much more serious this time.
"We found out where they're testing their steroids." Zeke answered. "And what they were testing them on."
"What'd you find out?"
"Demon and Gael hacked the systems before we were locked in," Samuel said. He shook his head. "It's not good. For starters-"
"The Brutes didn't think this up themselves." Zeke added. "There's someone pulling the strings – a Prophet – and that's not the worst part. The worst part-" He paused, apparently only just realizing that he had interrupted Samuel. "Sorry, Sam."
"No," the leading Spartan answered, "go ahead. You talk faster."
"Changed my mind," Samuel said, cutting him off. "Just had to see how it feels to be you." He paused. "The Brutes didn't think this up, and neither did the Prophet. All this equipment was already here. ONI was doing tests like these, trying to improve on the steroids and injections we were given, long before the Covies caught wind of it."
"These are ONI's tests?" Blaine asked, only slightly surprised. "You've gotta be kidding me."
Samuel shook his head. "Wish I was."
"What else did you find out?" Stephanie asked.
"Gael found records of a ship's departure about a month ago. It was a Slipspace jump by a Covenant vessel. The ending coordinates weren't disclosed."
"Gravemind let a ship leave?"
Sam shook his head. "Don't think he knew it was here. Whichever Prophet is in charge is clever enough to keep this whole place under wraps and out of the Flood's line of sight."
"Okay," Landon chimed in, "so the ship made it out. The real question is: what does it mean? Why did they leave a month ago? And why did they leave some of their troops here?"
Samuel shrugged. "Let's go ask them." He turned to Zeke. "Demon got the details yet?"
Ezekiel nodded. "Bottom floor is the control room. Just a small lobby and one thick set of double-doors leading to command central."
"How do you wanna do this?" Blaine asked. "If we expect the Prophet to sing for us, we're gonna have to scare him into abandoning his cause."
"Could send Zeke in cloaked," Stephanie said. "Give us the element of surprise."
Ezekiel scoffed. "Fun as that would be, there's only one way we're getting through the door: we're gonna need some big-ass charges."
"There were C12 charges in the Armory." Blaine said. "Those should work."
"Okay," Samuel said. "So we have two options. We could try to make a stealth approach work – though it probably won't – or we could just hit them with as much firepower and fanfare as we can muster."
Blaine liked where this was going. "Sam, I never thought I'd hear you favoring the badass approach over the careful one."
The leading Spartan shrugged. "We're in a hurry. And you're right: we need the Prophet to fill in the pieces. If that means scaring him half to death, then all the better."
Blaine was grinning from ear to ear. "Oh, Hell yes! I'll get the bombs, then we can get this party started!"
"Just keep it reasonable," Sam said. "Go. We'll meet you at the bottom."
Zeke growled lowly. "This is ridiculous. What the Hell is taking him so long?" It had been fifteen minutes since the Spartans had descended to the bottom sublevel and proceeded to wait in the lobby for Blaine to return from the Armory. For some reason, the Spartan was taking his dear, sweet time-
The elevator door slid open and Blaine stepped out carrying at least forty small, square C12 charges in his arms. "What do you think?"
Samuel shook his head. "I think you and I have a different definition of 'reasonable'. That's what I think."
"You said to get as much fanfare as possible," Blaine retorted. "I only did as I was told. If you don't like it…well, you'll get over it." He paused. "You figured out what's on the other side yet?"
"Zeke's supposed to be working on it…"
"No," Ezekiel snapped, "Demon is working on it. And we'd have answers by now if-" He stopped.
Zeke started laughing. "Oh," he said, "you're gonna love this."
"What have we got?"
He walked over to the entrance to the control room. "Behind door number one, we have what appear to be two Hunters, four Brutes, and a Prophet."
Samuel was unconvinced. "What are they carrying?"
Zeke scoffed. "It's a joke. Got two Brute Majors, one with a Fuel Rod Cannon and one with a Brute Shot. One of them looks like another sorry excuse for a Special Ops soldier, and it's carrying axes. Last one is one giant freakin' Chieftain with a hammer."
"How big?" Blaine asked.
"He's the Sam of their group." Zeke answered.
Blaine didn't miss a beat. "Dibs."
"Bullshit," Zeke answered, "he's mine."
"You take the SpecOps." Samuel said, cutting the discussion short. "Stephanie can take the Major with the Fuel Rod Cannon. Landon can take the one with the Brute Shot."
"What about you?" Landon asked.
Samuel grinned. "For once, I get to relax and focus on the execution." He turned to Blaine. "Plant the charges."
The white-armored Spartan did as he was asked, placing the C12 charges around the frame of the giant set of steel double-doors. A minute later, he was standing back with the group, waiting on the green light.
"Blaine and Zeke on the outside edges," Samuel said. "Stephanie and Landon on either side of me. Questions?"
"Not a one, Goliath." Zeke answered. "Let's do this."
"This is priceless." Blaine said, holding the detonator in his hand.
The doors that served as the last barrier between the control room and the Demons outside suddenly flew inward in a sudden blast of twisted steel and the self-proclaimed Prophet of Diligence felt his blood run cold as smoke filled the entrance of the chamber. Before it could clear, he turned to the Chieftain at his side. "Kill the Demons! Kill them all!"
The Chieftain let out a menacing roar as the smoke died down and the Demons were revealed for the first time.
There were five of them, all standing in a line, side-by-side. The one in the center was larger than the rest and clad in brown armor. On either side stood a shorter Demon, one in light-blue armor, the other in red. And beside each of them was yet another of the armored humans, one in white and the other in black.
And they were just standing there, waiting in the doorway.
What are they doing? The Prophet asked himself. It didn't make any sense. The behavior was tactically ridiculous-
But extremely intimidating.
Suddenly, the line began to walk forward in unison, straight toward the Prophet. Even in the bowels of the long chamber, the distance between himself and the Demons felt uncomfortably small.
And it was getting smaller every second.
"What are you waiting for?" He shouted. "Kill them!"
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
The Brute Major at one side of the room launched a trio of Fuel Rods at the center of the group of Demons, which stopped abruptly-
The one with red armor stepped forward and threw something to the ground. A split-second later, the entire group was shielded by a large, transparent dome. The Fuel Rods connected with the shield, but detonated harmlessly.
And the group began walking again.
The Chieftain roared again and, as if in response, the two Demons on the ends of the line broke off, walking casually toward a Brute of their choosing. The white-armored one began marching toward the Chieftain, who had moved away from the Prophet and was brandishing its hammer.
The other Demon squared off with the axe-wielding beast on the other side of the room.
The Prophet's attention returned to the Chieftain as a giant Gravity Hammer crashed into the floor, barely missing the white-armored Demon. The Brute lifted the weapon again and brought it down-
Blaine grinned as he lunged forward and grabbed the Gravity Hammer just beneath the head of the weapon, holding it above his head with one hand. It took all the effort he could muster, but the intimidation factor was well worth it. The Chieftain was staring in disbelief as it pushed down with all the force it could summon, only to be denied by Blaine's left arm.
"What's the matter?" He asked. "You look confused."
The Brute roared loudly, baring its teeth and letting go of the hammer with one arm. As it reared back to strike the Spartan, Blaine tightened his grip on the handle, then threw his arm back as hard as he could, ripping the weapon from the Brute's grasp and tossing it behind him.
The alien responded by clenching its hand into a fist that looked strangely human in execution and lashed out-
Blaine caught the fist in his hand, holding it there, inches in front of his visor. The Brute couldn't see it, but he was grinning and almost laughing behind his helmet. The look on the alien's face was priceless.
Slowly – casually – Blaine moved his hand to the side, still holding the Brute's fist. His Spartan armor's power output was displayed in the corner of his visor, reading '167%' in bright red. Blaine knew that the suit could only hold the strain for a few more seconds before it would drop him down to safe levels, but he didn't care. He forced his arm to move while keeping a tight grip on the alien's hand and watched as the beast's face slowly became fully visible from behind the giant limb.
The Spartan lashed out with his free hand before the Brute could continue, smashing it into the alien's abdomen and causing it to double-over as it stepped backwards, recoiling from the blow. An uppercut followed immediately, lifting the alien slightly off the ground before sending it toppling over backwards, flat on its back.
Blaine walked up to the fallen soldier, standing mere inches from the creature's skull. He turned his body so that he was facing the Prophet, who was still watching him with a look of fear and disgust.
With a grin, Blaine lifted his left foot only a foot off the ground before sending it crashing down on the Brute's skull diagonally. It was almost a kick, more than a stomp, but it did the trick: a gory mess was all that remained of the Prophet's Chieftain.
It was over. The Prophet was certain of it. He had barely had time to blink before his finest guards were dispatched. In the time that he had spent watching the white-armored Demon fight – no, not fight – murder the Brute Chieftain, the Special Operations soldier had been slaughtered, seemingly without effort.
Not only that, but two of the other Demons had broken off from what the Prophet assumed was their leader, and they had already killed the other Brutes.
Now the last Demon, the giant in brown armor, was walking straight toward him. His pace was slow, almost methodical, as he stalked past two of his allies, ignoring them and the Brutes they had killed as he focused only on the Prophet.
Finally, Diligence regained his wits. "Destroy the Demon!" He got the attention of the Hunters standing at either side of him. "Annihilate him!"
Both creatures crouched into a braced stance as they charged their massive, shoulder-mounted cannons. Green plasma began to glow at the tips-
But the Demon did not falter. His strides remained unchanged.
The Hunters suddenly fired, burning green energy erupting from their cannons and soaring straight for the human.
Surprisingly, he didn't even attempt to get out of the way. Instead, the Demon took a knee, remaining right where he was, and appeared to brace himself with one fist that he pressed to the ground in front of him-
Both shots connected, surrounding the Demon in a green haze and casting twisted shadows of his allies on the walls around the room.
That scared Diligence. Even though the brown-armored human was surely dead, the other four were almost certainly capable of killing the two Hunters and dispatching him afterwards. There would be nothing he could do to stop them if they-
The Hunter to his left let out a piercing roar of agony as twin blades of plasma tore through its abdomen, all the way up into its neck. A second later, the black-armored Demon seemed to appear out of nowhere, standing behind the giant creature for only a second before casually pushing its still-standing corpse over.
"You pissed him off." The Demon said, looking at Diligence.
The Prophet understood human language well, and knew exactly what was said…but he didn't understand who the Demon was referring to. Before he could ask, the human cocked its head to the left, toward the door.
Diligence turned to see that the haze had cleared, and the brown-armored human was now standing – completely unharmed – and back on the move toward the throne.
The remaining Hunter took aim at the human again, but got no chance to fire as the white-armored Demon lunged forward from the side, grabbing the creature's limb and twisting hard enough to tear the Hunter off the ground. The human began to spin, eventually lifting the behemoth into the air before letting go and sending its body crashing into the nearby wall.
Then, in an instant, all five of the Demons were standing around him, looking down at his throne. And, for the first time since he had been left in charge of this outpost, the Prophet of Diligence was not so excited to take part in The Great Journey.
"Who are you?" Samuel asked, wasting no time.
"I?" The Prophet answered indignantly, though Stephanie could tell he was frightened. "I am the Prophet of Diligence, a ruler among the Coven-"
Sam cut him off. "What are you doing here?"
"I will tell you nothing, Demon."
"You'll talk to me," Samuel said, "or you'll talk to him." He motioned to Zeke, who had activated the sword in his right hand and was tilting it dangerously.
Before the Prophet could respond, Ezekiel had gotten scarily close to the alien, showing off the blade mere centimeters from the alien's face. "Tell him nothing." He commanded. "All the screams I've heard in my time, I've never heard the final, pleading cries of a Prophet before he dies." He paused. "This could be my last chance."
"Zeke, back up!" Samuel snapped with feigned anger. "Get back!" When he did so, Samuel moved forward. His next word was an order. "Talk."
The Prophet seemed uneasy, but a glance at Zeke, quickly followed by the sound of Blaine tapping his hammer on the ground, seemed to loosen his tongue.
"I suppose it matters not," he said, apparently trying to justify his confession. "We were sent here to study and alter the programs your people were already conducting in this station." He paused. "I was put in command of the mission to create a set of chemicals that would augment the strength, speed, and stamina of the Jiralhanae."
"And did you?"
The Prophet seemed proud to provide his answer. "We did. We have found a solution to the problem that you Demons have posed to us."
"Clearly," Blaine said sarcastically, glancing around the room.
"Fool." The Prophet muttered. "These were the rejects. Those who responded favorably to the chemicals were evacuated from this infested rock."
Samuel didn't miss a beat. "When?"
"In your time? About a month ago."
Stephanie didn't need clarification. None of them did. The Covenant had found their chemical compound and escaped with it.
"Where did the ship go, the one that left a month ago?"
"I do not know." The Prophet answered. "As you can see, I was left behind." He sighed. "If I had to guess, I would say that it went home. By now, the chemicals have been analyzed and the procedure enhanced."
"Meaning what?" Landon asked.
The Prophet gave a truly frightening smile. "Meaning that, by the time your kind sees our Covenant again, not even Demons like yourself will be able to stand against our forces."
If Samuel was disturbed by the news, he refused to show it. "One more question for you, Prophet," he said. "How did you hide this from Gravemind? Why aren't the Flood all over your doorstep?"
At this, the Prophet laughed loudly, all of his fear disappearing and being replaced by an air of condescension. "The ship entered and exited Slipspace in the span of two hours. But the rest of this base…you think we hid this from the Parasite?" He asked. "How could you be so foolish as to believe that? There is no hiding from this "Gravemind", as you call it."
Stephanie felt her breath catch in her chest. She knew what that meant.
"He knows you're here." Sam said, realizing the truth.
"And you as well, Demon."
"Zeke," Samuel said quietly, "go to the surface. Contact Joel. Tell him to the drop the bomb off here. We're out of time. Go! Now!"
Ezekiel said nothing, but took off on a sprint for the elevator.
"How long?" Samuel asked. "How long has he known?"
The Prophet took a moment to mull it over.
It was a moment too long.
"How long?" Sam shouted, grabbing the creature by its extended neck and ripping it from its throne. "How long has Gravemind known we were here?"
"Not…long…" The creature could barely breathe, so Samuel dropped it to the floor. "Only since…you were…in the armory. We…didn't know until then."
"Sam," Blaine said, "it's been almost half an hour since we were in the armory. The Flood are probably already on top of this place."
Zeke reached the top of the base in three minutes and twenty seconds – he timed himself down to the last step, knowing that it was going to make or break his next move. When he reached lobby of the first floor and couldn't smell the Flood, he took a chance and went outside-
There was nothing. No new smells. No new sights. Just a barren wasteland in the dead of night.
"Joel!" He all but shouted over the intercom. "Joel! Where are you?"
"-ank God! I've been trying to get a hold of you guys for half an hour! What the Hell happened down there?"
"Long story," Zeke growled. "The Flood, where are they?"
"All around you," Joel said. "They're comin' in from all over Africa. Luckily, the nearest towns that were still populated during the infection weren't anywhere nearby."
"How long do we have?"
"Well, I mean…they're taking the main roads, but-"
"How long, Joel?" Now Zeke was shouting.
"I'd give you ten minutes before the first wave hits this place."
"The small town you guys came from was hit not long ago. It was the closest populated area by far. The Flood are already on the move."
"Couple hundred at most," Joel answered. "After that, I'd give you eight to ten more minutes before the rest of them get here."
"How many more?"
Joel didn't answer immediately. "Uh," he started, stuttering over his words, "the rest of them? A lot. Like…thousands."
"Shit." Zeke cursed under his breath. "Those bastards would find us, even in the middle of the God-damned desert."
"What's the plan?" Joel asked.
Ezekiel sighed, deciding to follow Samuel's orders and praying they were the correct ones. "Bring me the bomb. I don't need the casing – just give me the NOVA warhead and stay nearby."
"You got it. Landing in thirty."
"He's back in the building." Samuel said, kicking the Prophet's corpse for good measure before looking at the other Spartans. "We've got about eight minutes."
"Before what?" Landon asked.
"Before the first wave of Flood get to the base," Sam answered. "Joel says that the village was hit a little while ago – hard – and a couple-hundred of Gravemind's finest are on their way."
"That's all?" Stephanie asked. "Why so few?"
"Well," he clarified, "that's the first wave. Apparently, after that one, we'll have about eight more minutes before the rest of them are on top of us."
"How many more?" Blaine asked.
Samuel shrugged. "Most of Africa?"
"Awesome," Landon muttered. "Fantastic."
"Quit your whining," Blaine snapped. "What's the plan, Sam?"
The brown-armored Spartan took a moment to answer, thinking it over. Finally, he exhaled hard and started speaking. "Blaine, go to the armory and get all the C12 charges you can find. I want them planted on every floor but this one. When we leave, I want to make sure the Flood can't get to the NOVA bomb."
"Can we help him?" Stephanie asked, motioning to herself and Landon.
"Blaine knows his bombs," Sam answered. "The rest of us are going to visit the armory, grab all the heavy weapons we can carry, and sprint for the surface. When we get there, we'll set up against the cliff face and prepare to face off with a few-hundred Flood forms."
"Sounds good," Landon said, "but what about the rest of them? We'll be hard-pressed to get out of here with all of Africa on our asses."
"That's the hard part," Samuel said calmly. "We not only have to kill the first two-hundred of them; we also have to do it in less than six minutes so that we have breathing room to get outta Dodge."
"Better get cracking then," Blaine said, leading the way to the elevator.
"They need to hurry up," Joel said entirely to himself. He was just waiting inside the Phantom, cloaked and floating less than a mile from the Foxhole. Through the front viewing glass, he could see hoards of undead on the horizon, rushing the facility in an ocean of moving corpses.
Their time was wearing thin and anxiety had already hit him. The first wave would be arriving in minutes. After that, if they survived, every undead monster on the continent was quickly closing the distance, and God only knew how many more were flying or driving to the Spartans' location.
"Come on Sam," he pleaded, "we gotta go."
Zeke met the others as he emerged from the elevator on the armory sublevel. Three of them were heading up to the surface; Blaine was on his way down.
"How long we got?" Landon asked as he, Stephanie, and Samuel piled into the elevator.
"Four minutes," Zeke answered, watching the timer in the upper-left corner of his HUD. He dragged the bomb toward the elevator that led to the deeper sublevels. "Get going. We'll meet you in a couple."
"See you at the top," Stephanie said, and the elevator slid shut.
Ezekiel loaded the bomb into the elevator as Blaine stepped inside, trying his best not to be crushed against the wall by the giant explosive.
"If you want," he said, "I can take the bomb to the lowest level. I can move it faster than you can." The statement didn't sound like a jab – it was an honest offer.
Ezekiel scoffed nonetheless. "I can move it just fine."
"Of course you can," Blaine said with a hint of mockery, "but if you take the C12 charges, we'll both get back to the surface faster. They're gonna need the firepower. Sam says we'll have about six minutes to clear the place of Flood forms."
Zeke scowled, thinking it over. Everson was right. It was just his pride that kept him from admitting it.
"Fine," he answered bitterly. "Give me the charges."
Blaine handed him fourteen small explosives and a detonator. "I already got the armory level. Just set a few extra in the labs and a couple on each of the top levels."
Ezekiel nodded as the elevator slid open and he stepped out.
"Catch you at the top."
Samuel set up the heavy machine gun with his back to the cliff, only a few feet away from the entrance to the Foxhole. He checked to make sure the ammunition was properly loaded, then checked to make sure his Shotguns were loaded and in working order.
"Think we got enough?" Landon asked, checking his Rocket Launcher before equipping himself with an old-model Flamethrower that strapped onto his back. Attached to the head of the weapon was a 40mm grenade launcher, loaded with half-a-dozen explosives.
"I'd say so," Sam answered, motioning to the weapon. "But with that thing, you're gonna be right in the middle of the fray, so I suggest having the Shotgun ready to go."
"Oh, trust me," he said, "I'm about ten seconds from seeing if I can strap that bad boy to the front of this thing."
"I think you've got enough firepower," Stephanie said, double-checking her Brute Maulers before strapping them to her thighs. She reached for the Missile Pod on the ground beside her that she had ripped from a mount in the armory. "And I think I need to start carrying one of these."
"Well," Samuel said, "we could probably arrange-"
It was Miedema.
"What is it, Joel?"
"Flood are closing fast. You guys ready?"
Samuel exhaled slowly. "Yeah," he said, wondering how soon Blaine and Zeke would join them, "we're ready."
"That's good, because in sixty seconds the first wave is going to be right on top of you."
Sam knew he wasn't exaggerating. He could already hear the monsters in the darkness ahead of them, even if he couldn't see them. The moon could barely show through the toxic atmosphere, and it gave the night a new level of obscurity that masked everything at more than a modest distance.
Still, it would help the Phantom stay hidden.
"Get ready!" Samuel shouted when he caught a glimpse of one of the Combat Forms in the distance. He stood behind the turret and watched patiently.
"Ready to go!" Landon shouted, strapping the Flamethrower to his armor and bringing his rockets to bear. "Say when."
Samuel waited until the horde was less than one-hundred yards away, when he knew that they couldn't disperse fast enough to dodge the oncoming blasts. He put the Spartan Laser on his shoulder and took aim in the center of the group. "On my mark!" he shouted. "Fire!"
Blaine had managed to catch up to Ezekiel on the first sublevel after planting the bomb behind the Prophet's commandeered throne. Now the two were leaving the elevator and sprinting for the entrance to the Foxhole.
The white-armored Spartan could hear gunfire and the screams of the undead before they even reached the front doors. War was waiting for them on the other side, and the super-soldier welcomed it.
"You ready?" He asked.
Ezekiel scoffed. "Hell yes." The two Energy Swords flashed to life.
The door slid open before the two Spartans even reached it, and Blaine got a glimpse of the raging battle that he'd been hearing already.
Samuel had ripped the turret off its mount and was standing a few feet in front of the door, firing non-stop into the oncoming mass of Flood-infested bodies. Stephanie was off to the right, the edge of her armor visible from inside the doorway. She had a Missile Pod and fired what Blaine assumed were the last two explosives before throwing it to the ground and grabbing the Fuel Rod Cannon from her back.
Where the Hell is Landon? He wondered. It took him a few seconds to see the blue-armored Spartan.
"Holy shit!" he said, disbelief evident in his voice. Landon Brooks was knee-deep in Flood biomass, spinning in circles with a Flamethrower and launching the occasional grenade into any larger undead forms.
"It's about time you got here!" Samuel shouted without turning around. The turret finally slowed its rate of fire before quitting altogether, and the giant Spartan immediately replaced it with a pair of Shotguns. "You get everything done?"
"Of course," Blaine answered, grabbing the Gravity Hammer. "Now…where should I go first?"
Before he could come to answer, Ezekiel sprinted by him, running straight for a Juggernaut that had just appeared from a group of Pure Forms. The Spartan's swords were no longer active, and Blaine was about to comment when the smaller soldier surprised him.
In one fluid motion, Ezekiel's cloaking activated while his armor attachment simultaneously created a hologram to continue running at the Juggernaut. It was flawless – anyone who couldn't see the marker above the cloaked Spartan would have never caught the ruse.
And that included Gravemind.
The Juggernaut reared back before sending one tentacle sweeping along the ground toward the hologram. It connected, but seemed surprised when the image just faded and its limb continued its motion with no resistance-
Ezekiel de-cloaked in midair and drop-kicked the Pure Form in its disgusting maw, sending it stumbling backwards before losing its balance and toppling over. Without a second's pause, the Spartan jumped down on the creature and used both Energy Swords to slice its face to ribbons.
"Damn," Blaine said, grinning. "I gotta give ya that one." He brought his hands up in front of his face and began slowly clapping.
Ezekiel laughed coldly over the channel. "Now let's see yours!"
"Alright, you pint-sized pain-in-the-ass, I'll show you how it's done." He turned to Samuel, holding out the Gravity Hammer. "Trade you for a Shotgun."
Sam sighed. "We're in a hurry." He said. "I don't suppose you could show off later?"
Blaine shook his head. "No. Didn't you see Zeke? I have to do it now."
Samuel threw him a Shotgun, then declined the Hammer. "Take it. Just go. In case you haven't noticed, we've got more of them left to kill than I can count, and only a few more minutes to do it in."
"On it, boss!" He turned around, pumped the Shotgun, and pointed at a Juggernaut that was in the back of the group of Flood. "You're mine, bitch!"
Ezekiel hadn't expected Blaine to respond to his showing off with anything less than his best, and he wasn't wrong. The white-armored Spartan put his Gravity Hammer on his back and racked the Shotgun before shoulder-checking his way into the mass of Flood in front of him. There had to be at least thirty of them, but it was Blaine-
He just didn't give a damn.
Blaine tore through the undead in front of him, shooting some and bashing the rest of their faces in with the butt of Samuel's Shotgun. He took repeated hits to the back and sides as he raced forward, but the Spartan completely ignored them, pushing closer to the Juggernaut in the back.
That instant, the Juggernaut disappeared from Ezekiel's vision, suddenly dissolving and dropping down into the mass of Flood forms below it. A few seconds later, Zeke could barely make out the heads and shoulders of three new Pure Forms – all of them Tanks.
"Watch yourself, Blaine," he said with a grin, "they're prepping for you."
"How's that?" he asked. "They on the run?"
Ezekiel grinned. "Not yet."
"They will be."
The Flood circled Blaine and closed in, a giant group of undead finally attacking him at once from all directions. If it had been another Spartan, Ezekiel might have worried about the result of the attack, but because it was Blaine-
Half-a-dozen grenades suddenly flew up into the air, already primed and lighting up the air above Blaine and the undead. Zeke barely caught a flash of blue light as the Spartan knelt down and folded his arms in front of his face.
The grenades fell and detonated either on the ground or on the undead that were surrounding him, shredding the infected bodies in an instant. When the smoke and plasma had cleared, a small wave of energy surged from Blaine's armor, and the Spartan stood up, unharmed.
"This shit is awesome!"
Zeke laughed lightly. "Armor-Lock?"
Blaine sprinted forward, ignoring a few Combat Forms and charging straight into the remaining three Pure Forms with the Shotgun raised.
The one in the middle lashed out, but Blaine simply ducked left before bringing the Shotgun up and putting a shot in the monster's face at point-blank. When that didn't do the job, he balled his free hand into a fist and sent it crashing into the same place.
The undead beast fell over, and Blaine turned his attention on the Pure Form to his right, turning the Shotgun and using the butt of the weapon to bludgeon the monster repeatedly in the face until it swung its gigantic arm his way-
He jumped back, dodging the attack. Before the Tank Form had even stopped its swing, Blaine sprinted and leapt at the creature, knocking it over and landing with his feet pressed firmly into its abdomen. As it struggled to move, the Spartan threw the Shotgun to the side and threw punch and punch into its maw until the monster's "head" was nothing more than a lot of undead paste.
Zeke watched as the last Pure Form moved forward and threw its arm into the air, preparing to bring it down on the white-armored Spartan. Blaine must have known too, because he put his head down and suit began to glow again-
The shot connected, but Blaine didn't budge. The Tank Form swung again, this time to the side. Blaine had braced himself, and the attack managed only to move him a couple of inches.
If the Pure Form was surprised by the failed assault, it didn't show it. The creature simply stepped forward until it was virtually on top of the white-armored Spartan and began swinging with both arms again and again until-
A pulse of energy erupted from the crouched Spartan as his shields overloaded from the Armor-Lock and knocked the Pure Form off-balance.
And Blaine was on it in a flash.
He grabbed the monster by the arm and spun it around, wrapping the limb behind its back before kicking the creature as hard as he could. With no knees to bend, the Flood fell forward and its rotting, deteriorating arm gave way. Blaine tore the limb from the creature's "shoulder" and, as it hit the ground, began swinging the arm like a bludgeon, hitting the monster again and again until it stopped moving entirely.
Then he turned around, still holding the Tank Form's arm in his hand as he searched for any remaining Flood. When he realized that there were no more, he looked at Ezekiel. "I have - literally - ripped a Flood's arm off and beat it to death with it. What more do you want?"
"How 'bout you get in the Phantom?" Samuel answered, and Zeke turned to see him motioning to the sky.
When he looked up, he saw the dim lights of the Phantom over the top of the cliff, slowly descending on the Spartans.
"Back to the island, then?" Blaine said.
Samuel nodded. "Back to the island."
Well, I bet you never expected to see this story update. To be honest, I wasn't really expecting it either as of late, but a handful of events over the last couple weeks gave me just the motivation I needed to see what I can get posted. It was ready to go up last night...but FanFiction was being particularly picky and wouldn't allow me the privilege of posting.
As a bit of a refresher: my life has changed drastically over the last year and - for the most part - that's the reason you saw nothing from me for over 12 months. I've graduated college, gotten married, and am currently searching for a job. For these reasons, my time is really limited and I don't have the same amount to dedicate to Zulu as I used to. That being said, I will continue to work on chapters as my time allows and I will finish this book, as I promised.
I sincerely apologize that I cannot give you a general time-frame or a schedule for the posting of new chapters. My schedule hasn't worked itself out yet, so I honestly don't know how long I'll need between posts. As I know, you will know.
I will also be utilizing the Zulu Company Twitter account that I started, as well as potentially doing a Facebook page for updates (if you think this is a good idea, please let me know - I'm up in the air about it, but it was suggested by a reader).
Thank you all for your continued support and I hope to hear from you.
P.S. - For the record, I did not lie (about what I had left to write - obviously I lied about how long it would take, lol). I had about 1,000 words to write on this chapter when I last updated a year ago. I just could not, for the life of me, make them come out coherently (for two weeks straight). After that, I got busy with a summer job and trying to get my Senior year of college sorted out, and it fell to the wayside.
Just goes to show: "A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than to the average person." lol