Aelita touched a hand to her dirt-smeared reflection, making the water ripple and distort her appearance, making it look worse than it already was. She sighed as she cupped her hands with water from the stream and wet her face, trying to get the mud and grime off.
They had been traveling for four days already, and on the second their warthog had run out of fuel. They had carried only what was essential for the journey, but it was still too heavy to be carried the remaining distance to the downed Pelican. Jeremy had reassured them that there would be more than enough supplies in the Pelican to help get the four of them back in one piece, but that did nothing to help the fact that their food had run out the day after the warthog broke down.
Toughing it out was harder than expected, what with their forced march carrying armor and weapons across the touch terrain, and it had made the four weak, and susceptible to accidents, such as the one Aelita had just been involved with. While stopping for a break, she had taken her helmet off and immediately tripped over it, sending her sprawling down a muddy embankment, getting thoroughly dirty and cutting a shallow gash along the left side of her face. She wasn't alone, however, as the others were sharing discomfort. Ulrich had fallen off a wet ledge and fallen several feet into a pool of water; Jeremy had misplaced his comm equipment, and Yumi had had a bad fall-in with a rather territorial bat.
Despite the delays, exhaustion, and overall hunger, the incomplete squad was now camped a mere hundred feet from the downed Pelican; their original goal. Their disbelief had been evident when they had stormed the smoldering, abandoned ruins of the Covenant base, never knowing that one had been here the whole time, but their disbelief turned to grins of satisfaction as they had seen the piles of brute bodies around the base and the Pelican. A little later Ulrich had found the tracks of a pair of SPARTANs, presumably the surviving pilot and his escort, except for the scuff marks behind where the two had sat for a while betrayed the presence of a tail; Odd's tail. Yumi's later discovery of the surviving Brutes' tracks, hurrying away from their base in a disorganized shamble, gave the group a sense of purpose and bloodlust only found in revenge, anger, and a few species of housecats.
Standing up from where she had been pondering this while cleaning her armor, hair, and skin, Aelita grinned and shook her head to dry it, water streaming down in rivets like the unstoppable torrent of her love for Odd and the hatred for any who stand between them. They'd already been apart too long, she wouldn't tolerate anyone else postpone their reunion. She nodded to the others, who had been waiting for her, and grabbed her weapons. The disheartened had regained their purpose, the hungry sated with the food from the Covenant base, the SPARTANs returned to duty.
The search had become a hunt. For wherever the Brutes were, Odd and the downed pilot were sure to be fighting, and it wouldn't be fair to let them have all the fun.
Odd bolted upright as Jun shook him awake. The jaded sniper looked vaguely worried, as if a small inconvenience had suddenly sprung out of nowhere and given him a bad taste in the back of his mouth. The ever-present rifle was in one of his hands, and the other was holding Odd's mouth shut, to keep him from making any noise. His eyes flicked towards the entrance of their most-recent cave hideout, where Odd could hear scuffling noises and a rasping language that made even the most harsh-sounding Earthan language sound as sweet as honeyed mead.
The Brutes were here. Odd nodded to Jun, who removed his hand and shrank back into more favorable shadows, Odd not far behind.
"When did they get here?" Odd mouthed to Jun.
"Five minutes…Something about going to search cave," Jun replied, frowning.
"Any back exits in this one?"
"We looked, remember?"
"Well then I'm an idiot for letting us camp here."
Jun didn't disagree, but leveled his weapon and aimed it at the horde of Brutes massing at the entrance. Even without a scope, Odd caught sight of the chieftain who had been stationed at the Covenant base; they must have all followed them out here!
The duo had trekked deep into the night for the past 4 days, putting as much distance as they could between themselves and the Brute base, but the creatures' endurance, strength, and unwavering march had soon brought them closer and closer to their prey. And now here they were, face to face and the Brutes didn't even know it…yet. Odd and Jun had reached this cave late at night yesterday, and decided it was too late and too dangerous to venture any farther over the mountains that night, so they had stopped, camping (thankfully) around the first bend in the cave, so that any light, noise, or bodies would be at least partially hidden from pursuers. A disadvantage, though, was that the entrance was East-facing, and the sun was just beginning to appear over the hills and creep its way into the cave, blinding them with its brilliance.
Odd's tail flicked in annoyance, and Jun glanced up at the sudden movement.
"What?" he hissed.
Odd shook his head, indicating he thought there was no way out too. Jun's eyes seemed to dull, as if he had expected more from Odd, and he just said, "Tonight then," before he set his gaze back on their enemies, as if his eyes were the only things keeping them from discovering their position.
Odd turned around and crouched against the wall, not risking the unnecessary noise of having his armor clank against the smooth, weathered stone. His gaze fell on the wall opposite, and he unconsciously started tracing the lines that the shadows from the stalagmites made when the sun fell on them. Then he started, and looked again, tracing each carefully with his eyes twice, just to be sure.
The shadows were actually runes, letters of the alphabet even, but not his. These letters were too delicate, ornate, and beautiful. Yet for some reason, they clicked in his mind like a well-made key and his mind the intricate lock. Yet not until his eyes fell on an all-too familiar sign did he realize why he knew the glyphs. It was the sign of Xana, but then again it wasn't. Unlike the harsh, almost hatefully printed sign of Xana's upon his monsters, this one was delicate, like the rest of the script, and lovingly carved. It was the only one which was not wrought of shadow, but rather emitted its own brilliance. As soon as he understood that, he knew in his heart what the others read:
Enter the warrior, bringth with him five; leads a thousand, lives to see them die.
From three, chooseth one, the only firstborn son.
Thus the sacrifice of the adored leaveth the worlds restored.
Before Odd had time to ponder the meaning, a shot rang out, followed by the tell-tale clink of an empty shell. One of the Brutes had crossed the threshold, trying to get around his friend to do his business in the cave away from the others, and Jun had fired. The bullet had ripped through bone and armor without differentiation, and had also felled two behind him. Their ears ringing from the sound of the shot, amplified by the cave and honed into a fine point of sound, another five of the Brutes fell to the ground clutching their bleeding ears, damaged beyond repair.
Odd grabbed his weapons and fired a quick burst into a close-knit group of Brutes, leaving them bloody and battered, running towards Odd in frenzy, too wild to even fire their weapons. They just wanted to rip him limb from limb, in the manner of their ancestors which had given them so much pleasure in doing.
They were outdated. Jun took out one, sending him sprawling backwards, and a muffled squelching sound could be heard as the bullet buried itself deep inside the chest of another far outside the cave, sending him into convulsions. Jun repeated the process another two times before they got to Odd, lining up his shots with more targets outside the cave, and each time his prey fell before both the metal and the sound like the pins before a bowling ball.
But still the two remaining Brutes charged, blood dripping from their shredded ears and completely out of their minds while ignoring the words of caution from their elders behind them.
Odd grinned as the Brutes reached him, and he ran towards them at full speed, the sound of a blade slithering from its sheath the only thing in his mind as he pulled his combat knife out and cut the tendons of the first towering Brute, catching its head as it fell and burying his knife deep inside its eye, killing it. Then, swinging the Brutes own weapon, he buried the spiked barrel deep within the already injured Brute's stomach and fired, instantly obliterating any traces of life from it.
As Odd turned around to grin at Jun, his eyes widened in surprise as he felt something strike his leg; a poison dart that had somehow made it into the crease in his armor right on top of his thigh. Odd had a faint notion of someone shouting at him and a fuzzy gesture from Jun to make a dive back to safety until he felt air underneath him, and then rock and he collapsed, his hand resting unconsciously against the "Xana" sign embedded in the rock.
Meanwhile, on a certain world somewhere in the Digital Sea, an old man opened his eyes from where he sat, looking around at the two circles of warriors surrounding him, all in deep meditation. He slowly stood, walked over to a window and threw the cover off, revealing the room to be at the top of a huge castle, besieged on all sides by Sentinels, each bearing the crest of Xana. The only thing between them and overrunning the castle, it seemed, was a faint blue hue to the air around the fortress. He turned away and picked up his katana from where he had laid it during his meditation; the sheath was inscribed with the same flowing glyphs Odd had read in the cave on Reach.
Thirty long years have we succeeded in fending off Xana's forces, and now here I am, the person who condemned Xana to his fate, about to make a decision that no one will agree with…
Suppressing a wry smile, the man stepped back into the center of the Dathr Skrela, the nobler form of Xana's mark which was white instead of black, and banging the bottom of the katana's sheath against the floor, said in a loud voice;
"The Brave, the Strong, the Noble; the People. Together, these rally under the Warrior. He is upon us, and thus puts our fate into question! Rise now and prepare for war, Defenders of Reach!"