Chapter Forty-Seven: The Battle of Nine Navies Pt. I


Thessia, Parnitha System

Capitol Government District

The engagement turned into chaotic brawl almost immediately.

The one Banshee that was ahead of the others teleported a few meters in front of one of the Mgalekgolo - directly into a savage strike from the armored hulk's shield. Studying the creature's movement as it had come towards it, the Mgalekgolo had predicted where the Banshee would revert to realspace and delivered a tremendous backhand directly into the husk's center mass before it could react. The starship-grade metal propelled at enormous such kinetic force smashed the deformed Asari back several meters and liquified its internals, thick liquid pulp and vicious black bodily fluids bursting out of its ears, eyes, and mouth.

The Arbiter was immensely grateful that he had decided to bring the two Mgalekgolo pairs down to the surface. Their sheer mass, violent intensity, and infamous durability would be invaluable in these next few minutes.

Thel's Special Operations Sangheili tensed in their formation around their Arbiter. Plasma swords had been drawn and were being grasped tightly in defensive guards, some Sanghieli brandishing two, others only one, some with a plasma pistol or rifle in their free hand.

On the cusp of the rest of the Banshees closing in around them, Arbiter Thel 'Vadum raised one of his energy swords high into the air. "For the Mantle!"

The rest of his team answered his warcry, turning their helmet speakers to maximum, filling the courtyard with their roars. "FOR THE MANTLE!"

"For Thessia!" Thel heard Levas add for herself, blue-black biotic energy oscillating around the Asari in the form-fitting navy dress.

The Sangheili charged at the approaching Banshees, each understanding the importance of the initiative of action.

Seen from afar, one could have likened the scene to a dance. A deadly, superheated plasma filled dance, but a performance that would have left you rooted to the spot.

Blades of silver-white sliced and slashed through the air like birds of prey diving down towards their victims. Limbs were severed, chests were pierced, and thick black blood was spilt as the Arbiter's soldiers found their first targets.

Every Sangheili on the Arbiter's team was a certified Blademaster, an honor only given to those who showed true reverence to the studies of the sword. The Arbiter had administered the brutal training sessions himself, and each of his men had scars on their skin from the contact of his blades during their sparring sessions.

Given how tall, muscular, and weighed down with armor and gear they were, the Special Operations Sangheili moved with such precision, speed, and grace of motion that one would have needed to slow down time to truly see the ways they maneuvered their bodies and blades.

Finding himself naturally at the front of the formation when they charged the approaching Banshees, the Arbiter came face to face with a pair of mutated Reaper Asari. He ducked under a powerful horizontal sweep and flicked the blade in his left hand, taking off the arm of the Banshee at the elbow. Before it could open its mouth to scream again he thrust the pointed tips of his right-handed blade deep into the distended stomach of the abomination all the way to the hilt. With a series of flexes from powerful muscles Thel brought the sword up through Banshee's body, vivisecting it up the middle and splitting it into a 'Y'.

As the re-dead husk fell away, in his peripherals Thel saw a strike from the second Banshee coming quickly for his shoulder and he deftly hopped back to dodge. The razor-sharp talons from the Asari husk brushed the edges of his energy shields, with even just a glancing blow bringing them down by thirty percent.

As he slid backwards on his feet the Arbiter saw the second Banshee following up the first attack with a drill thrust of pointed talons towards his chest. He twisted sideways so the strike hit nothing but air, then stepped in towards the Banshee and flashed his twin blades in a crossing sweep. The husk slid apart at the full-width body cuts at its hip and just below its armpits, a final scream trying and failing to claw its way out of its open mouth.

The Banshees — powerful biotic creature as they were — could not hope to match the speed of the Sangheili swordsmen in close combat. The first twenty-three that warped into proximity found themselves turned into many neatly cut and cauterized pieces of arms, legs, and heads, or smashed into unrecognizable chunks of flesh and bone by the Mgalekgolo's heavy shields.

Quickly realizing that they would have to adjust their strategy, the remaining Banshees halted their melee assault and biotically jumped almost forty meters back from the tight formation of the Arbiter's troops, surrounding them in a wide circle.

Thel saw the creature that had once been Councilor Tevos, distinguishable from the shreds of the crimson red dress that still clung to her cracked, grey skin. She raised an arm in the Sangheili's direction, palm facing towards them, and at once all the remaining Banshees started swirling with biotic power.

The Special Operations group didn't wait to see what they would do next. The four Mgalekgolo, having positioned themselves on the outer edges of the Arbiter's formation to try and cover the group with their hulking masses, brought to bear their primary offensive weapons - their arm-mounted fuel rod assault cannons.

The cannons whined as they began to charge. "Small arms!" the Arbiter called, and his men snapped off their swords, returning the hilts to their hips and drawing their plasma repeaters, rifles, and carbines.

Like the bellowings of some gigantic, primordial beasts, the Mgalekgolo fired their cannons as they reached the zenith of their charge. Four streams of molten-green incendiary gel shot forwards towards the Banshees at the same time as they sent biotic balls of warping energy back at the Arbiter's team.

Among the heaviest infantry weapons in the Covenant arsenal, the Mglekgolo assault cannon projectiles impacted their targets with devastating effect. The irradiated beams splashed against the Banshee's biotic barriers and melted through them and the bodies behind them with ease, leaving unrecognizable slags of bubbling ash in their wakes. In a way, it was nearly identical a scene as to when ship-launched plasma torpedoes struck Reaper capital ships, just on a much smaller scale.

"Focus fire by fours!" the Arbiter barked. A practiced maneuver, the SpecOps Sangheili split into groups of four and started hosing down individual Banshees with superheated plasma and piercing carbine rounds. The projectiles chipped away at the powerful barriers erected by the Asari husks at a rapid pace, sending four more Banshees to their demise as globs of plasma fire stitched up and down their lanky forms.

Though lacking a firearm or any kind of offensive gear, Operative Levas was by no means inactive in the fight. When she saw the biotic projectiles launched by the Banshees towards her teammates she raised both arms into the air and projected a half-spherical barrier of her own, enveloping the SpecOps team in a field of protective blue.

As the Arbiter loaded a fresh cartridge into his smoking Carbine, he saw the strain on Levas' face as her barrier was inundated with impacts from the Banshee's biotic projectiles. Against such a disparity in numbers, Levas could only hold her barrier for the first half of the incoming Banshee balls before she was forced to dissipate it. The four Mgalekgolo tried to bat a few away with their shields, only to find the biotic energy sticking to their defensive metal and starting to eat away at the nanoalimate plating. Despite having tracking properties, the projectiles were too slow to catch the nimble Sangheili as they rolled, spun, and dodged out of the way of the remaining balls.

The shadows moved around them and a deafening roar filled the entirety of the courtyard, causing the Arbiter's external audio receptors to shut off for his protection. He took a brief glance up as he saw the Shadow of Intent, which had been staged above them, started to move in the sky as its massive engines flared with power.

The power of the five kilometer long Assault Carrier's acceleration sent vibrations through the ground akin to an earthquake, and the Arbiter's team braced themselves as the tidal waves of wind and pressure emanating from the three Raphyus-pattern repulsor engines buffeted the surroundings. Dust, dirt, grass, and decorative plant matter stripped from bushes and trees whipped around them and filled the air, striking against shields, armor, and barriers and obscuring the battlefield in a haze.

The Shadow of Intent tilted upwards as she accelerated, pushing through the layers of Thessia's late-afternoon atmosphere as she made for orbit, undoubtedly to assist the Asari fleets dealing with any Reapers in space.

Having been so focused on obtaining the Key, and now dealing with the assault of the Banshee husks, the Arbiter still wasn't aware of just how widespread the Reaper attack on the planet was. Was the assault localized to the capitol district with a few dozen Reapers? Or was it planet-wide attack consisting of hundreds of capital ships, like over Systems Alliance Earth? At the moment, he didn't have time to wonder.

"Break and engage at will!" the Arbiter called.

At once the formation broke apart as individual Sangheili rushed forwards towards individual targets, spraying fire as they aggressively advanced. A few SpecOps warriors went stealth, only reappearing after the tips of their energy swords burst out from the front of Banshee's chests once they got behind them. The Mgalekgolo stood up to their full height and made themselves as large a target as they could, drawing attention away from the Sangheili as they worked over the remaining Reapers.

Thel had his sights set on one Banshee in particular - Tevos. As he rushed towards her, emptying carbine rounds into her center mass as he did so, he noticed Levas was right beside him.

Unaffected by the small arms fire, what had been Tevos waved both her hands in their direction and send a barrage of biotic projectiles their way. These ones moved faster than the ones from the other Banshees, and the Arbiter dove forwards and rolled to evade them. Levas punched the air, sending biotic throws right into some of Tevos' attacks which dissipated them on contact in miniature explosions. The others she deftly dodged with quick biotic slides to the right and left.

Having closed the distance, the Arbiter returned his carbine to his back and snapped his two sword hilts off of his hips, the blades coming to life with crackling energy. He lunged forwards with intent to deliver a pointed strike, but didn't find his target as Tevos teleported back just out of range.

The Banshee in the scraps of the crimson dress swiped her long talons at him with alarming speed, using the long reach of her grotesquely lanky arms to her advantage. Twin blows struck Thel's chestplate and sent him reeling back, breaking his shields and sounding alarms in his ears.

The Arbiter was not the only foe that Tevos had to worry about. Levas countered the Banshee's strikes with two Warps of her own, the roiling biotic energy sticking to Tevos' biotic barriers and eating away at them with rapid intensity.

Recovering quickly, the Arbiter dashed to his right to try and attack the Banshee from the flank while Levas continued to draw its attention from the front. With the energy from the Warp still active Levas tried to detonate the universal primer with more throws, but what had been Tevos put up a hand and projected an additional directional barrier to stop it.

This gave Thel an opening, and the Sangheili sprung forth on coiled legs. His right energy sword hissed as it's superheated plasma sliced through the Banshee's biotic barrier and cut deep into its hip. Screeching as she noticed the injury, Tevos teleported back and then forwards again, hoping to catch the Arbiter off guard with another strike from her arms.

Thel was ready this time as Tevos brought her right hand forwards in a piercing drill attack - right into the turned flat face of his left energy sword. The Banshee's arm disintegrated up to her elbow as she tried to punch through the ancestral blade's superheated plasma containment field. Screeching as she realized the extent of her wound, she swung her intact arm in a vicious sweep towards the Arbiter.

Not chancing taking the blow with his shields still down Thel sprang backwards, feeling the rush of air displaced by the Banshee's swing. Tevos opened her maw and abrasively screeched once again, raising her arms up skywards. A massive amount of biotic power began swirling around her in a cyclone of oscillating blue positive and negative mass effect fields, distorting the very air around her.

The Arbiter retreated further back to where Levas was standing, breathing heavily from the exertion of the fight. Her navy dress had torn down the seam, exposing the smoothness of her upper leg and thigh as the frayed hem swirled around her in the winds brought from the departure of the Shadow of Intent.

Thel caught Levas' eyes, and wordlessly they came up with an idea. With as much force as he could muster the Arbiter twisted his body and launched both of his energy swords straight towards Tevos more than two dozen meters away. Levas reached out with her biotics and found the hilts of the blades, with a grunt propelling them to an even more deadly velocity.

Like a pair of energy lances fired from the bow of a CAS-class Assault Carrier, the two energy blades pierced through the biotic energy raised by Tevos and buried themselves deep in her chest. Still having a hold of the hilts with her biotics, Levas lashed her arms apart, causing the magnetically contained superheated plasma to rip open Tevos' chest in a spurting fountain of freshly rotted bone and blue-black internal fluids.

As the former Councilor of the Asari Republics dissolved into sparking ash, Levas fell to her knees and let out a pained series of sobs - the only time that the Arbiter had ever witnessed a crack in the Commando's steel persona. He imagined violently killing the huskified form of your sister on your home planet while it was being assaulted by Reapers could do that to a person.

Thel looked around, noting the sounds of immediate battle had dissipated. He saw no more Banshee's looming tall upon thin, lengthened legs, and his visor counted all his Sangheili and Mgalekgolo as still standing. "Officers, report!"

"Two wounded, both minor. Superficial slashes," 'Taham said.

'Sraom spoke quickly after him with some amount of urgency. "'Gretze needs an evac."

Thel singled out the specified Sangheili and clenched his jaws when he saw Operative 'Gretze standing somewhat listlessly against the shoulders of two other Sangheili from his Lance. Thel saw that Gretze's left arm had been torn off at the shoulder - presumably by a swipe from the sharp talons of a Banshee - and he was holding the severed appendage in his right hand as he braced himself against the chest of another Operative.

The Arbiter saw 'Sraom, Gretze's Lance Leader, go to his side, viewing the purple blood streaming from the hole where his arm used to be. In a quick, surgical motion 'Sraom activated his energy sword and pressed the flat part of the blade against the wound, cauterizing it with a sickening hiss to stop the bleeding. If Gretze made any exclamation of pain, he did so in the privacy of his own helmet.

Thel grimaced. He looked around at the late afternoon sky of Thessia, colored a brilliant red and orange with the smoke and fires started by Reaper magnetohydrodynamic rounds and Sangheili ionized plasma. He could hear weapons fire, Asari screaming and shouting, and Reaper ground troops roaring carried on the winds. Movement from 9 o' clock caught his eye, two jet-black Phantom dropships coming in fast.

The Arbiter looked down to Levas and offered her a hand. She took it, hoisting herself up from the ground. Any sign of sadness was gone, replaced by a look of solemn resolve.

As the Phantoms started to flare to a landing on the battle-scarred courtyard, Thel quickly walked over to the pile of ash that had been Tevos to retrieve his swords. He fished the two hilts out of the wispy black powder that had been the Asari Councilor, he remarked on how different the afternoon's events had gone.

Originally he was going to try and intimidate Councilor Tevos into just giving him the Key, with the gargantuan form of the Shadow of Intent looming over them threateningly, then leaving the system and travelling to Rannoch right afterwards. The arrival of the Reapers changed that and demonstrated that key aspect of any military operation - that no plan survives contact with the enemy.

He turned back and saw his SpecOps troops and the Mgalekgolo loading into the Phantom dropships, while Operatives Vaya, Jani, and D'avi hopped out and ran towards Levas.

D'avi took Levas by the shoulder when she reached her. "Erissa, the school!"

Levas' eyes shot open wide with alarm. "Oh fuck."

"Explain," the Arbiter ordered, having made his way over to the group of Asari.

"Matriarch Felaya's K-12 boarding school, ten blocks away. D'avi and I used to go there. Twelve hundred students," Levas said. "Children, Thel."

The Arbiter knew that there were any number of places on and off planet he could go next to continue the fight. He had a quick flash of memory from many years ago — looking out on the training fields of 'Vadam Keep on Sanghelios, watching the young Sanghieli of his house training and playing together in the swaying grass under the setting reds of the planet's star. That seemed so long ago now, a time before the Great War with the Humans, before the Great Schism, before the Reapers… a different lifetime.

On a planet consumed by fire and battle and death, saving children seemed as noble a cause as any.

"Take us there," the Arbiter said, running for the Phantoms.

Thessia, Parnitha System

Flag Bridge of the Destiny Ascension

"For whom the bell tolls… it tolls for thee."

Admiral Teysa Lidanya muttered the lines from the John Donne poem quietly, a whisper that carried barely beyond her own ears.

On the large tactical and strategic displays on the walls of the Ascension's Flag Bridge, she saw the damnation of Thessia unfolding before her very eyes.

The Reapers had come without warning and in overwhelming numbers. Two hundred of them had come through the Mass Relay in close formation and annihilated the entirety of the Asari Republic's Fourth Fleet before they could even turn to fire their mass accelerators. Two Dreadnoughts, twenty Cruisers, and sixty-five Frigates lost with all hands. Ten thousand sailors vaporized or left to die floating in cold vacuum.

That was just the beginning.

Leaving thirty of their number to guard the Relay, the rest of the Reaper ships had accelerated for the surface. Admiral Lidanya had done the only thing she could do - she ordered a planet-wide evacuation of Thessia and sent in the fleets above the planet to intercept the Reapers and delay them for as long as possible.

Lidayna wasn't a fool. She had been in the navy for over four hundred years. She knew exactly what the Asari Navy was capable of - and what it wasn't. She knew that she was sending these ships and their crews to their violent, near-certain deaths at the hands of a vastly technologically superior enemy.

Since pulling out of the galactic sphere of cooperation formed by the other Citadel races with the United Nations Space Command, the Republic Navies had concentrated themselves around guarding core Republic worlds. As the crowned jewel of Asari civilization, Thessia warranted the largest protective force: Four hundred and fifty ships spread across five fleets.

Having the range advantage with their mass accelerators, the Asari ships rippled fire into the ranks of the advancing Reapers with depressing results. The torrent of slugs from the spinal-mounted cannons seemed to just bounce off the Reaper's kinetic barriers, while disruptor torpedoes were blotted out of existence by powerful point defense lasers or intercepted by autonomous Oculus fighter drones.

The Reapers cut down a third of the Asari ships with their first their volley. They continued unabated on their path, blasting through the explosive residue and cracked hulls of Republic vessels as if they were brushing off irritating insects on their shoulders, splitting into smaller groups before angling towards different parts of Thessia's surface.

Only through intense focus fire were the Asari ships able to make a mark on the Reaper vessels as they pierced through their defensive formation, managing to bring down the kinetic barriers of a few Destroyers and one Sovereign-class Capital ships. Five Destroyers fell silent and dark as mass accelerator slug pierced through strained armor and perforated critical internal components.

Having been the focus of the fire from two separate Asari fleets, through sheer attrition the Sovereign-class Reaper's barriers fell and the Destiny Ascension took aim. As the largest Dreadnought among the Citadel races, Admiral Lidanya's flagship also possessed the largest and most powerful spinal-mounted mass accelerator in existence.

Well, at least until the UNCS Infinity came along. She had seen the intelligence vids, and what those weapons could do.

Even still, the pride of the Asari Republics shuddered as its main weapon pounded into the Reaper's front. Firing once every two seconds, the first three shots that punched against the Reaper's disintegrated on impact, but weakened it to the point where the fourth pierced right through. It was a hell of a shot, penetrating all the way to the drive core and causing the ship to detonate in a miniature sun of black and red.

The Reaper had destroyed three Republic Cruisers in the time before it had died, and had lanced the stern section of the Destiny Ascension with a shot from its main magnetohydrodynamic cannon that vaporized several decks and the crew that were contained within them.

This was the situation Lidanya stood in now, hearing the alarms blaring throughout the flag bridge, officers and crew urgently shouting orders and updated back and forth, watching the Reapers fall onto her home planet.

It was only some consolation that the Reapers didn't feel the need to destroy the entirety of the Asari fleets - yet. It seemed that they were more concerned with getting planet-side and disgorging untold numbers of ground forces to try and overwhelm and assimilate the Asari defenders.

Lidanya knew that Levas was down there, and she prayed to Athame that her love would make it through and onto one of the hundreds of evacuation vessels streaming off of Thessia's surface, doing their damndest to steer clear of Reapers as they fled towards the bulk of the remaining Asari fleets.

As it turned out, Athame wasn't the one she should have been praying for.

Lidanya saw the spikes of radiation above the Central Government District, and keyed one of the Ascension's sensor suites to the area.

Through a high-resolution camera she saw the massive Sangheili Super-Dreadnought slide out of its FTL portal and ram right into the bow of a Sovereign-class Reaper, sending it tumbling down to the ground below before knifing into the center of the downed monstrosity with a beam of pure white.

Gutted, in a single shot. What had taken dozens upon dozens of Asari ships to even just barely do, this five kilometer behemoth did with a quick flash of its main weapons systems.

The ship and its four escorting Dreadnoughts that jumped in besides it then sped over the Capitol district, unleashing lines of molten lava from their port and stern sides while from their bows shone with yet more of those cleansing silver lances.

Reapers started falling. They were not prepared for the surprise and intensity of the conveniently timed Sangheili assault to interrupt their planned planetary harvest.

After felling thirty Reapers within their initial area and disgorging hundreds of dropships and small crafts, the five Sangheili vessels regrouped and started accelerating to break atmosphere.

Lidanya was amazed. Even the mere presence of the Sangheili warships sent the Reapers reeling. Across the planet, the smaller groups of ships which had set down to evoke terror and death across Thessia's landmasses lifted up and burned for atmosphere as well, attempting to join back together to present a stronger front to face the Sangheili. The Reapers guarding the Mass Relay also fled their posts, performing an in-system FTL jump to rendezvous with their comrades.

It was a tactical miracle. They now had a clear exit corridor. Lidanya immediately ordered all Asari transport ships carrying evacuees to make for the Relay at maximum speed while the escape window was open. Streams of hundreds of vessels lit up their drives as they scrambled to get out-system. The Republic fleets reformed in a loose cylinder leading to the Relay, the fleeing civilians and severely damaged military ships running inside of the protective formation.

Seeing the threat transfer from the ground into space, the Sangheili ships formed a wedge formation around the Super-Dreadnought and positioned themselves directly between the regrouping Reapers and the Asari ships streaming from planet to Relay.

It was clear that the Reapers had the numbers advantage over the Sangheili. Almost one hundred and sixty of them maneuvered into a loose formation against the five sleek, bulbous vessels of Thessia's saviors. It was clear that a major orbital battle was about to occur, and there was no way that Lidanya was going to sit on the sidelines.

She was about to order the bulk of her remaining vessels to fall in behind the Sangheili ships when something happened which would haunt her dreams for the rest of her thousand-year lifespan.

A shadow flashed through the Mass Relay. It wasn't fleeing Asari ships leaving the system, it wasn't allied reinforcements coming to their aid.

It was an eldritch abomination.

Almost forty Reapers — Capital ships and Destroyers — smashed together in a bulbous, unnatural sphere. Pulsating grey-green flesh stretched across nearly all surfaces, fusing the Reapers into their positions. Some dim red eyes from the sentient AI warships and metal leg appendages were the only things that jutted out from between the tightly binding 'skin' wrapping around the grotesque formation. Dozens of long and short tentacles of gangrenous tissue flailed about wildly, some of them almost one kilometer in length. It exuded an aura of sickly green dust from belching pores dotted throughout its 'body', although Lidanya didn't know if she could even quantify the thing in that way. She didn't even know where it began and where it ended — only that she was totally, instinctively repulsed by it.

As crewmembers and officers around her on the Flag bridge fell silent with their own observations of the new arrival into the system, Lidanya saw the Sangheili ships react immediately. Disregarding the Reaper armada assembling a few hundred thousand kilometers to their front, they fired their maneuvering thrusters and flipped one-hundred and eighty degrees bow to stern.

Lidanya saw the buildup of light and energy along their bows and several streaks of piercing light shot across the darkness towards this new horror filling the screens of the Destiny Ascension's wall displays.

They beams passed through nothing but vacuum. At the instant the Sangheili ships had fired the conglomeration of Reapers and flesh performed an FTL jump that put it just above Thessia's exosphere.

The mass of writhing flesh and contaminated Reapers exploded. It burst apart into thousands upon thousands of individual pieces, like a ship that had been struck by a round to its drivecore and subsequently detonated. A torrential wave of debris started to fall down upon Thessia, catching flame from the friction of passing through the layers of the planet's atmosphere. Released at such a high altitude pieces from the horror branched out all over the planet, covering the skies of the continental landmasses with showers of fire.

The Reapers that had been forming to face-off against the Sangheili ran. They jumped to the Relay and fled the system as fast as their drives would allow them, not even bothering to fire upon the Asari vessels crowding the Relay trying to do the same.

The pit of anxiety and dread that had already formed at the bottom of Lidanya's stomach grew exponentially in size. What could make the Reapers tuck tail and run in such a way?

She soon found out. A tightbeam communique from the Shadow of Intent was flashed her way, marked for the commanding officer. She opened it on her personal data pad. It was headed with two words…


Reports, images, videos — she read and watched through them with exponentially growing horror. The Parasite, all consuming, sentient, powerful, hungry.

No. Something like this couldn't exist.

No. Something like this couldn't be here, on her home planet.

Face drained of all color, she ordered her bridge crew to tap into video feeds from the ground and put them on the main display screens.

The tears fell freely as she watched her planet and people become flesh.

Matriarch Felaya's K-12 Boarding School

Outskirts of the Capitol Government District

The Arbiter watched as the meteors fell down onto the planet from the sky above. Bright oranges and reds, followed by thumping crashes as they burrowed into buildings, roads, and grounds.

"Were it so easy…" he muttered.

He knew that the Parasite was here. He could smell it in the air. Shipmaster 'Goruum had sent him the imagery and reports from the Shadow of Intent. Even the Reapers were not immune from the Floods corruption, it would seem. He had looked upon the mangled abomination of a 'ship' that had arrived in-system: Reapers forged together in the stink and pus of the Parasite's embrace.

They had made it to the school several minutes ago. Matriarch Felaya's K-12 Preparatory Academy was set back a ways from the hub of the rest of the government district. Atop a natural cliff on the edge of a small lake, the tall buildings of the boarding school bordered a central plaza that looked down on the decline of a large access road that sloped down to the denser parts of the cityscape.

The school had already been under sustained assault by Reaper ground troops by the time the Arbiter's Lances had arrived. Some of the school's buildings were sporting smoking holes left by the crashes of orbit-launched insertion pods, which also dotted the rooftops above and the large central plaza at ground level.

About a platoon of Asari infantry and a few dozen of the faculty and older students had rallied around Matriarch Felaya in conducting the defense of the ground, forming a defensive line in front of the entrance to the Great Hall of the school and the auditorium underneath it where the students were being safeguarded.

The better part of five hundred Reaper infantry - Husks, Cannibals, Marauders, and a few Ravagers, were slowly advancing across the camplus plaza towards the Asari position when the Arbiter's two Phantoms had arrived on scene. Ravagers pounded at the sides of the buildings and at the makeshift barricades the Asari had biotically lifted into place with their long range cannons. Human Husks provided biological cover and distraction for meaty Cannibals to rush forwards and take ground, both directed by the more tactically capable Marauders.

It looked like a tough fight. While thoroughly outnumbered, the Asari defenders were holding their own. Protective biotic barriers flared up to catch incoming fire from the Reaper infantry, the Asari projecting them cycling out with others of their number when their strength started to wane. Singularities and Stasis Fields were being thrown into the approach avenues, sweeping Husks and Cannibals off of their feet and freezing Marauders in their place. Warps and Throws followed immediately afterwards, detonating the mass effect energy in swirling maelstroms of purple-blue - rending flesh and bone into dust and ash.

The Arbiter wasted no time throwing his forces into the fray. On approach the dropship's heavy plasma auto-cannons raked across the Reaper lines, blasting units apart and showering the ground with globes of molten glass. Unggoy door gunners added their own long, accurate bursts from their side-mounted plasma turrets. Capable and veteran troops chosen by the Arbiter himself to serve on his flight crews, these Unggoy were extremely competent with their weapon systems, recognizing the several Ravagers shelling the Asari defenders as priority targets. Lines of sapphire blue death lanced into their tops and sides, bursting their liquid-filled body sacs and vaporizing the smaller Swarmers gestating inside.

The two jet-black Phantoms flared behind the Reaper forces, activating their gravity lifts from twenty meters up.

The Arbiter and his Special Operations Sangheili jumped down the buzzing purple gravity cylinder, not waiting to touch down on the ground before spraying the backs of targets with plasma and carbine fire.

Once boots were on the ground the elite Sangheili split off in twos and threes, assigning fields of fire and advancing. The back lines of the Reapers started crumbling, and that was even before the Mgalekgolo and Levas' Asari joined the fray, cutting swathes through the enemy with fuel rod streams and flashes of biotics.

With their Marauder leadership falling first, and now flanked on two sides, the Reaper infantry assault stalled, withered, and died. With the help of air support given by the two Phantoms above, the Arbiter's troops and the Asari defenders quickly mopped up the rest of the opposition.

Matriarch Felaya had strode across the battlefield flanked by a squad of Asari, with one flustered combat medic trying to apply medi-gel to a bullet wound to her lower waist. The crimson blood stained her professional grey tunic as it escaped from her skin, but the school's headmistress didn't seem bothered by the injury in the slightest.

Introductions had been brief, thanks were given for the assistance, and updates on the evacuation of the school were provided. About half of the twelve-hundred students had already been evacuated to Asari ships in orbit, but five hundred of the older pupils and almost sixty of the faculty still remained.

The two had stood side-by-side watching as the Parasite's sheddings rocketed into the planet, leaving streaks of fire and green pestilence in its wake through the air.

Thel looked over to her, hardly having to crane his neck down. Felaya was among the tallest Asari he had ever seen, standing at at least six and a half feet. "The planet is lost."

The headmistress looked back into his eyes, through the clear part of his visor. "I had come to that conclusion when the Reapers showed up."

"This is different. With the Reapers, we could fight," Thel said. He was simultaneously reading reports being sent from the Shadow of Intent in orbit above, which showed the true scale of the Parasite's dispersion throughout the planet. "With the Flood as widespread as they are now… all we can do is run."

"I am not sure I understand," Felaya said. Dust and sweat tracks mired her sharp cheekbones and chin, but her striking emerald eyes shone bright with intelligence and experience cultivated over hundreds of years of life. "What is 'The Flood'? What makes it so dangerous?"

The Arbiter reached to remove his helmet. His nostrils were assaulted by the smells of combat and death - ionized air, scorched carbon, melted flesh, burning ash… and something revoltingly familiar. Something rotten. "There is no time for a lengthy explanation. Meld with me, and you will find the answers to your questions."

Felaya looked with a small amount of apprehension towards the Levas and her commandos, dressed in the same jet-black armor that Thel and his Sangheili were. Levas had put on her armor set in the Phantom in the ride over. Levas gave her an assuring nod.

The Matriarch let out a heavy sigh, moreso directed at the general circumstances Thessia now found herself in than at the thought of performing a typically highly private experience with a complete alien stranger.

"Embrace eternity," she said, eyes turning black as the connection between the two was formed.

The Arbiter didn't hold back. As he accepted Matriarch Felaya into his mind and him into hers, he let forth the entirety of his knowledge, experience, and emotion surrounding the great hunger of the Parasite.

Felaya broke the connection after only a few seconds, stumbling back a few steps into the arms of the combat medic who had just finished applying the medigel to her hip. Her rose-tinted complexion had turned the same shade of ashen-grey as her tunic.

"You understand now," the Arbiter stated.

The Matriarch nodded, hands shuddering. "My students," she said, "My students. We have to get them away from... this."

Thel has already ordered all of his forces to evacuate at best speed and return to their ships with the first sighting of the Flood's horrible starship passing through the Relay. "Do you have transport?"

"We did, but they got shot down on their latest return trip."

The Arbiter thought for just a moment. His two SpecOps Phantoms were circling above, he could easily have them touch back down, load up his troops, and have them leave the Asari school and it's remaining residents to their grisly fate.

Would Levas and the other Asari commandos ever forgive him for that decision? Probably not. Did he need their forgiveness? He didn't believe that he would.

The Arbiter of the Sangheili people however, chosen seeker and steward of Her Keys, was not one to run from fights — even against the Parasite.

"We will get them off-planet," Thel said. "Get the remaining students to the roofs, I will divert transports to this location."

Felaya just turned and hurried back towards the campus buildings, her Asari entourage following in her wake.

Thel immediately got to work, opening comms channels and directing retreating Sangheili forces to his location. Including his own, there were twelve Phantom and six Spirit dropships that hadn't already made their way into the upper layers of the atmosphere of Thessia's on their way to orbit. Upon their Arbiter's orders, they and their troops doubled back to reinforce the boarding school's defenses.

The Arbiter did some quick math in his head. Each Phantom could probably fit thirty tightly packed Asari, and each Spirit could carry twenty in their individual troop creshes. So, they would need at least three separate cycles of going to-and-fro in order for all Asari and Sangheili to escape. That was a lot of time, time that Thel didn't know if they would get.

The reinforcements started streaming in within minutes. Dropships began dropping off ten-strong lances of Sangheili, files of two dozen Unggoy lead by a Minor and Major Sangheili, six pairs of Mgalekgolo, and a platoon of four Wraith Assault Gun Carriages.

He set to organizing his forces into defensive positions throughout the school's campus. Sharpshooter Sangheili pairs and Unggoy heavy weapons teams - plasma turret and small calibre plasma mortars - took to the rooftops of the multi-story dormitory and classroom buildings for dominant views over the grounds. The Wraiths stationed themselves just in front of the entrance to the Great Hall, which gave their directed energy mortars exemplary arcs of fire.

Thel arranged his infantry into three lines, each staggered about fifty meters apart. In the foremost line were the Sangheili-led Unggoy files, who would be able to put out the largest volume of small-arms fire per individual unit.

Behind them were the Mgalekgolo pairs, Matriarch Felaya's Asari defenders, and the Arbiter's personal guard. The rear line consisted of several Sangheili-only lances, with orders to serve as rapid response units to any part of the front two lines which needed support.

The Arbiter craned his neck to look behind him towards the tops of the school buildings, watching as young Asari students were urgently ushered into awaiting transports by Sanghieli and Unggoy crew chiefs and Asari faculty.

He knew that his ships in orbit would take some time to get closer to the planet's surface, and that it would take time for the transports to make it to the ships, deposit their Asari passengers, and make it back down to their position.

Time, damn the Ancestors, time. As the screams of terror, agony, and corruption from the city pierced through the air towards those at the school, Thel knew that time was a resource that was quickly running out for them.

Thel motioned for his SpecOps soldiers to stay put, then strode up towards the first line on long, powerful legs.

Sanghieli, Asari, and Unggoy took their eyes off of last-minute weapons and gear checks, making way for and affixing their gaze towards the tall, proud being. The Arbiter found a Reaper orbital insertion pod that was buried halfway into the ground, hopping up on it deftly to raise himself up a few meters off of the ground.

He peered down the winding paved roadway that gently sloped down from the school grounds to the cityscape below. The four lane road was nearly four kilometers long by his estimation, bordered by guard rails to protect against sudden falls down the more sheer cliff drop-offs on either side.

Thel kept gazing upon the cityscape. Even from this distance he could see the scars of battle stricken throughout the land. Buildings blazed with steady fires and belched dark smoke, clouding the rapidly occurring sunset. Air traffic was minimal. He saw a transport or aircar lift off and make for orbit, but their fates had already been sealed. Seraph and Banshee fighters from his fleet would shoot them down without hesitation to negate the risk of the infection spreading.

The most striking thing was the noise — the shrill screams and base roars that carried all the way to the school on the air. It was not unfamiliar to Thel, all things that he had heard before… on the Halos, on the Ark, on High Charity, and on the Ark. The siren song of the Parasite.

The last licks of light from the Parnithan sun flickered over them at the same time that the screaming from the cityscape came to a sudden end. Thel also knew what that meant — that the Flood had eliminated or assimilated all resistance.

His visor compensated for the low-light environment, amplifying the illumination from the fires dotting the city below. He brought his carbine up to his eyes, the magnification of his weapon sight combining with the zoom of his visor, and looked down upon the beginning of the road that lead to the school grounds.

He saw them there, gathering. The distorted and corrupted bodies of Reaper infantry and Asari civilians, fleshy tentacles having burst out of limbs and chests flaying ambiently. The longer he watched, the more their number grew in size. There was no question in his mind that the Parasite knew they were there at the school. More food, waiting to be consumed.

Thel opened up a comms line to the Wraith platoon and his mortar teams. "Start shelling the roadway."

Affirmatives were returned, and he snapped the line off. His goal was not to destroy the roads as to make them impassable - his artillery was not powerful enough to do that - but he was well aware of what plasma mortars did to surfaces after they impacted. From behind he heard the thumps of as his forces fired, and he looked up to watch the blue and red balls of crackling energy float lazily through the dark sky. At the zenith of their arcs the rounds seemed to hang in the air… before crashing down on the roadway below with surprising force and velocity. The rounds blew apart swathes of the high-tech magnetically charged metal surfaces, turning the surface from recognizable roadway into red-hot glass — glass, which was very slippery.

The front ranks of the Parasite began to run forwards, as if the plasma mortars were their signal to advance. He didn't even bother trying to estimate their numbers. Hundreds. Thousands. Too many.

Thel 'Vadam turned back to face the assembled defenders - Sanghieli, Unggoy, Mgalekgolo, and Asari. The Wraiths and smaller calibre plasma mortars fired again, illuminating them all in a traveling wash of sapphire and crimson. Over the whine of the travelling plasma orbs he could hear the guttural roars and screams of the Flood beginning their terrible crescendo as they set forth up the road towards the school.

"WARRIORS!" The Arbiter called down to his forces, voice booming throughout the grounds and off the sides of the buildings. He could see the last of the Phantoms and Spirits lifting off from the rooftoops, carrying with them hundreds of Asari schoolchildren up to the safety of his fleet.

"The time of battle is upon us! Steel your spirits! Invoke the resolve of your Ancestors! Trust in your commanders and in your instincts!" The crash of the second round of plasma mortars hitting the roadway was overshadowed by the next volley firing. Again, faces, armor, and bodies were lit in the settled darkness of the night by the miniature suns. "The Parasite comes calling for one thing - to feed. Tell me, are we going to indulge them? Are we going to let them feast upon us like a pack of rabid Jiralhanae at the dining table?"

The indignant shouts and negative cries from his soldiers that filled the grounds were his answer. The Asari weren't really in the loop, but they picked up on the building energy all the same, adding their own voices and yells to the mixture.

"NO!" Thel continued. "We will be the ones feasting back on the Shadow of Intent, recounting the glory of the night when a brave few held back the rushing waters of the Flood so that the innocence of the youth could be spared! This is not the time for children, no, this is where hard men and women - warriors! - will show their true mettle in the face of terror itself!"

The Arbiter leapt off the Reaper drop pod he had been standing on, striding back towards his lines. "Embrace your fear, savor it! Taste it on your tongue, it means you are alive! It means you can fight! The Parasite does not know fear, the Parasite does not know courage, or honor, or sacrifice! It does not know what it is like to stand shoulder to shoulder with your comrades-in-arms on the field of war!"

He passed through the first line, finding his place in the second amongst the shadows of his SpecOps Sangheili. "Stand fast, stand together, mind your weapons, and hold the line!"

Matriarch Felaya, who had her Asari also in the second line, found him quickly.

"A rousing speech," she said, to which Thel grunted. "What are our chances, truly?"

"If those dropships don't come back quickly, less than stellar," he said. "If our weapons run dry and we have to go hand-to-hand…" Thel handed Felaya a plasma grenade from his belt, showing her the activation switch on the top. "Save this one for yourself."

"Your biotics will be the key to determining whether any of us see another sunrise," The Arbiter said. The roar of the Flood had grown even more in strength, and the ground started to shake slightly under their feet, not just from the constant barrage of plasma mortars. They were getting close. "Crowd control will be crucial. Singularities, stasis fields, biotic pulls, the like. Directional barriers as well, the kind we can fire out of but the Parasite can't penetrate."

Felaya nodded in understanding. "We will try our best, but know that our energy reserves are a limited resource, and half of these Asari are students who volunteered to be here - not soldiers."

"The best you can do is all I can ask of. By Her grace we will see if what we can muster is enough," Thel said. He turned his attention to the roadway. The slope was gentle enough that he had a clear view of it even in the second line, peering over the tops of the methane tanks of the Unggoy.

The entirety of the roadway two kilometers back was now covered with the writhing mass of the Flood. Thel's idea to glass the road was proving fruitful, as hundreds of forms tumbled off of the sides to be dashed upon the jagged rocks of the cliffs several dozens meters below. There had to be at least ten thousand of them, probably even more. The Arbiter had just over five hundred of his own forces at his command.

A pair of armored clangs grabbed his attention for a moment. He looked to his left, where a pair of Mgalekgolo we're taking their shield arms and hitting them against their thick chestplates in rhythm every second. The other ten Mgalekgolo joined in quickly, the sounds of starship-grade metal thumping against armor filling the grounds.

It was a classic battle tradition, spanning back thousands of years, even across species. Something about joining with your comrades to create a feeling of unity through sound and physical feeling. It didn't take long before the rest of the defenders had joined in. Sangheili, Unggoy, and Asari thumping their forearms against their chests.

He clicked his local comms to transmit to all of his commanding officers. "Fire at will as soon as targets come in range. Fall back in an orderly fashion by line when called. Stick to your fields of fire, and request help if your section is at risk of being overwhelmed.".

Another series of affirmatives met his orders. Immediately, whipcracks from his sharpshooters pierced the air as the snipers started picking away at targets.

The Wraiths and infantry plasma mortars had never ceased their barrage, but now the rushing tides of the Flood were within range. Thel watched as balls of plasma tore into the horde, blasting apart mutated flesh and broken bones.

The plasma turrets set up on the rooftops started belching streams of fire next, stitching into the front ranks of the advancing Flood. The Mgalekgolo paused their rhythmic chest beatings to slam their shields down into the grass, crouching low and resting their cannon arms on the lids of their protective barriers. They tilted them upwards, and all along the second line twelve fuel rod assault guns began to charge.

Six streams of irradiated molten green shot forth from three Mgalekgolo pairs, arcing over the first line with ease. They were using their cannons in an indirect fire mode, adding to the plasma mortars from the Wraiths and infantry artillery teams that continued to light up the night sky. The beams slammed into combat forms with devastating effect, flash-vaporizing those hit directly and boiling away the flesh of those nearby. Six more shots from the Mgalekgolo's cannons came right after the impacts of the first six, with the pairs performing a volley fire so as to keep up a constant barrage.

The intensity of the fire from the Arbiter's heavy weapons was enough to stall the Parasite's advance temporarily, as rank after rank was melted away by plasma mortars, fuel rod streams, and raking plasma turret fire. There were just too many. For each combat form annihilated, three more took its place. While no longer an all-out sprint, the Parasite's pace had become a steady, inevitable advance.

The wall of flesh passed into small-arms range shortly thereafter. Sangheili Majors and Minors commanding their Unggoy files yelled the commands to fire. Hundreds of individual streams of blue and green plasma, as well as rivers of pink needler fire, lashed out from the first line towards targets downrange. Again, the increased volume of fire had a similar effect to the impact of the first shots from the Mgalekgolo. The Flood's advance faltered only briefly, but the pressure and force from the thousands upon thousands of bodies pushing forwards meant that infected forms just kept coming, step after step, meter after meter.

Under the leadership of their Sangheili officers the Unggoy files were doing admirably when it came to controlling the heat levels of their plasma pistols, but even in well-measured bursts the weapons were beginning to hiss and steam from the pressure of their needed performance. The Arbiter saw this and knew it was time to pull them back.

"Line one, grenades!" he barked into the comms. "Fall back!"

If there was one particular thing that nearly all Unggoy excelled at, it was throwing things. Known for being deadly with even a simple rock, the Arbiter watched with no small amount of wonder as almost two hundred Unggoy hurled two plasma grenades each with astonishing velocity and accuracy more than a hundred meters. Sticking to any part of exposed skin they contacted, the hundreds of plasma grenade explosions rippled through the Parasites as the first line turned and sprinted back towards the second.

"Third line, advance to reinforce!" Thel called next. Given the numbers and intensity of the Flood's assault, he knew that he would need the added firepower from the Sangheili Lances in the rear.

The Mgalekgolo fired all at once, using the tremendous stopping power of their arm cannons in coincidence with the grenade blasts to give the first line time to fall back. Unggoy and Sangheili officers streamed through the gaps, which were immediately filled by Sanghieli that had rushed in from behind.

Unable to see over the towering Sangheili and Mgalekgolo due to their short stature, the Majors and Minors commanding the Unggoy filed directed them quickly to pre-placed gravity lifts besides the school buildings further back. Ascending to the rooftops, the Unggoy joined their plasma turret and mortar weapons teams in using the elevation to rain down fire on the Flood ranks from above.

From the smoke and fire of the grenade explosions, a new rush of combat forms surged forth, tripping over themselves and the fallen bodies of their fellow abominations just to try and get at the remaining defenders. They were met a bulwark of plasma fire from of Sangheili as they poured molten cyan globules from plasma rifles and repeaters, some dual-wielded.

Matriarch Felaya's Asari and Levas and her Commandos entered the fray at this moment. Dozens of blue biotic orbs arced over the tall Mgalekgolo and Sangheili pouring fire down in front, impacting either just in front of or just behind the fresh tides of the incoming Flood. Swirling Singularities and powerful Pull fields yanked combat forms off of their feet, while Stasis Fields froze them in place, making them easy targets for the accurate Sangheili. Biotic detonators such as Throws and Warps followed after the primers, rendering the mass effect fields unstable to the point where they violently burst apart.

A series of heavy mortars from the Wraith platoon decimated the front ranks of the Parasite, but when the plasma flames from the explosions shimmered away, a fresh horror was revealed to the Arbiter.

Two dozen Reaper Brutes would have been bad enough. Hulking beasts of rage and thick armored plate, as large as a Mgalekgolo and as fast as a sprinting Sangheili when charging in a straight line. Shock troops, line-breakers in every sense of the word.

Now though, these already intimidating creatures had been taken over by the filth of the Parasite. The wholes of the Brutes were covered head-to-toe by sickly dead grey tissue, with only a few sections of the original blackened armor able to be seen through gaps underneath. Splaying tentacles and pus-leaking sores dotted their bodies, and the smoldering coals of their red eyes shone even brighter in the darkness.

As one they brought forwards their enormous flesh-covered claws to protect their bodies, then started rushing towards the defender's lines.

"Bring them down!" the Arbiter yelled into the general comms, "Bring them down!"

Every available bit of outgoing fire was focused on the approaching Flood Brutes — plasma fire from turrets and small arms, biotic Warps and Throws, Mgalekgolo fuel rod cannon streams, even direct-fire heavy mortars from the Wraith platoon.

Fourteen of the horrors met their final doom as hey were blasted apart by direct hits from Wraith shots, melted away by combined streams from arm-mounted fuel rod cannons, subject to multiple biotic detonations at the hands of the Asari, or withered down by sheer attrition from small arms. Still, that left ten relatively untouched infected Brutes getting ever closer to their lines.

"Barriers!" Matriarch Felaya called out to her Asari. She took the lead in extending her arms and projecting a tall, wide biotic barrier of shimmering blue directly in front of the Arbiter's troops. Levas and her commandos, as well as the Asari soldiers and students, all either added their own barriers to cover the entirety of the line or contributing their energy to their sisters.

Now just thirty meters away, the surviving Flood Brutes sped into charge speed. Thel's Mgalekgolo shifted forwards just so their tough shields were peeking outside of the Asari's biotic barriers, and dug in their massive feet into the dirt to brace themselves as best as they could.

With the attention drawn towards the Brutes, the mainline combat forms were able to make a surge of progress forwards. Though Unggoy from atop the school building rooftops let loose with the rest of their plasma grenades, without the combined fire from the entirety of the defenders the waves of corrupted beings grew to a fleshy crescendo.

The Flood Brutes slammed into the shields of the Mgalekgolo with incredible force. Though able to absorb the initial shock of the charge so as to ease the strain on the Asari holding the barriers, the Mgalekgolo were pushed back behind the protective biotics from the sheer weight of their opponents. Meeting a solid wall of resistance, the Flood Brutes began slamming on the biotic barriers with their tentacle-laden heavy claws. Seconds later they were joined by the first of dozens upon dozens of combat forms, all ramming into and pounding on the barriers with all of their unholy might.

The Arbiter reached for another magazine for his Carbine, but came away empty-handed. As he slung his rifle to the magplates on his back and snapped up the Energy Pistol on his hip, he knew that the situation was dire. He could see the strain on the Asari's faces as they tried to keep the barriers up between the tides of the Flood, entire bodies swirling with sapphire energy. Sangheili were firing as fast as they could between the gaps of the Mgalekogolo while the heavily armored bulwarks were firing their fuel rod cannons at point-blank range into the hordes just on the other side of the barrier fields.

The straw that broke their backs came as a surprise to all of them. A wave of biotic projectiles - from the Flood side of the barrier - impacted all along the Asari defensive fields. Wherever they touched, the biotic shields cracked and shattered, and suddenly the entirety of the line was put face-to-face with the Parasite.

Thel instantly knew what had happened, and that it would mean the end for them all. The Flood didn't just take over your body, but your memories and experiences as well. It fed on your knowledge, the skills you have learned throughout your life, and it found ways to use them to its advantage. The Parasite had learned how to use the biotic abilities of its new Asari hosts, and now, there was nothing standing in their way of the last remaining bit of food in the area.

The Flood washed over the Mgalekgolo and dozens of Sangheili that had been manning the front of the defense like a tsunami, vanishing them beneath the darkness.

Thel dropped his Energy Pistol and grasped his sword hilts, igniting the blades with a loud snap-hiss. The rest of his SpecOps Sangheili, as well as those mainline troops that had staged further back from the front, followed his example. They charged forwards, the electric whites of their plasma blades illuminating their final, defiant charge into the maw of death itself.

As the Arbiter made ready to strike through a group of combat forms rushing towards him, he noticed a pair of peculiar sensation - a rush of wind at his back, and another enormous shadow setting over them.

Daylight briefly returned as their silver salvation rained down upon them. The ventral energy projector from the Shadow of Intent fired, even at low intensity still more than powerful enough to vaporize the entirety of the roadway leading up to the school and every Flood form caught atop it. Illumination lights from the ship lit up, bathing the entire area in stark white light. Meticulously aimed pulse-lasers started blasting down at the edges of the battle, working slowly inward while Phantom and Spirit dropships added their own plasma cannon fire to the fray as they flared for landing upon the rooftops.

Rejuvenated by the appearance of their escape route, the Arbiter's forces redoubled their fight, engaging the remainder of the combat forms with the tenacious ferocity that could only be found in cornered, wild animals. Plasma melted flesh. Energy swords sliced through bones. Giant metal shields crushed bodies to sludge. Biotic explosions rendered forms asunder. Their number already cut in half by just those few long seconds of total exposure to the Parasite's assault, the surviving defenders found themselves coalesced into a concentrated ball close to the entrance of the boarding school's Great Hall.

Like crossing into the eye of a raging storm, a moment's reprieve set upon them. The Arbiter knew that this was their chance to escape. The Shadow of Intent extended down a gravity lift directly in front of the Great Hall, and he bellowed at his remaining forces to make for it with all possible haste. Combat forms were sliced apart by retreating Sangheili, and Asari used biotics shockwaves to rid surviving Mgalekgolo of Flood units that had latched on, grasping for the vulnerable worm colonies underneath their armor. The remaining students and the Unggoy files on the rooftops packed into waiting dropships, whose autocannon plasma fire had never ceased. The Wraith platoon crews abandoned their vehicles, engaging with Plasma Rifles and Pistols while they ran for the shimmering purple cylinder that would deliver them from their grisly fate waiting below.

The Arbiter only allowed himself to truly breath when he was sprawled out on the deck of the Shadow of Intent's main hangar bay, feeling the warship beneath him shudder as powerful engines propelled it to orbit.

It took an entire day to turn Thessia into glass.

The Shadow of Intent and its four escorting CCS-Class Battlecruisers had spent hours performing their solemn, grisly work, blasting away with their ventral energy projectors.

The Asari ships in orbit had jumped outsystem before they had began, not wanting to witness the brutal necessity of the Sangheili's action. Admiral Lidanya had told him that they would gather what forces they could, and attempt to finally join with the rest of the Citadel races in defending their galaxy as a whole.

They had started above the largest concentrations of civilizations, Thessia's sprawling cities, towns, and spaceports. The unrelenting heat vaporized any building it touched, save for a few traces of scaffolding or foundations. Forests and grasslands were burned away, and rivers, seas, and oceans boiled until there was no more liquid to be found. A permanent layer of black ash and flaming oxygen started to replace the planet's dissolving atmosphere.

After witnessing it so many times, the Arbiter had become mostly numb to the final death throes of a planet. This time however, it felt different, more personal, more raw. He had already glassed one planet in fear of the Parasite in this galaxy - the ice planet of Noveria - but Thessia was an enormous capital world, home to billions. How many Asari managed to escape their doom during the evacuation for the Reapers, before the Flood had shown up. A few thousand, likely ten at the maximum? For the rest left behind, being melted away by the criss-crossing directed energy beams was still far preferable to being an eternal, unwilling agent to the Flood.

He had stood alone in one of the Intent's observation decks for the entirety of the glassing - unmoving, but not unthinking. Was this an isolated event? Or was the Flood ravaging throughout the entire galaxy with reckless hunger and abandon? Where were they coming from? It was obvious that the Reapers had had an unfortunate run in with the Parasite and came out the loser. Mostly, he just wished for a clearer answer as to just how the Keys he was tasked to gather by Her would combat the Flood. Would they unlock some otherwordly powerful weapons system? A network of ancient containment devices?

The Arbiter didn't know the answers, he suspected that he was not meant to. Yet as he looked at the smoldering, molten orb of Thessia beneath him, he couldn't help but feel that these questions needed to be addressed sooner rather than later, while there was still a galaxy left to save.

The aches and stiffness in his neck, joints, and muscles bothered him nought as he strode for the command bridge to order their next move.

The Fifth Key. Rannoch.