Chapter 1 "Into the Maw"

Tunnel e216 had been dark for a long time. The ancient crags of the mine were without light or sound, long since had they been left barren of useful ore, meaning that these shafts had been abandoned years past, the power cut and all useful equipment removed in favor of more profitable sections. Nothing ever came through this tunnel, not even vermin for there was no food here to sustain them. For years unspoken it had laid desolate and abandoned, with only the slowly settling dust to change the appearance of the rough stone floor. But now the dust swirled as the slight wind of a passing form disturbed it for the first time in years. Something was moving through tunnel e216 for the first time since it had been closed down. Four figures were walking down the hall, moving with a cautious step. If you saw them from a great distance you might have mistaken them for men. They were shaped right, had arms and legs and heads in the right places, but upon a closer inspection they were far more than any mortal man.

Each of them was at least seven feet tall, their helmeted heads nearly scraping the roof of the tunnel in its lower points. They were clad in magnificent armor painted black as midnight that blended seamlessly into the dark tunnel. They must each have weighed a solid ton at least, but moved across the dusty floor with nary a sound to mark their passage. As silently as they came, they turned the corner and vanished down another passage, the dust slowly settling back down to the floor of the tunnel, as though the giants had never been there at all. Once again, the stillness was unbroken in tunnel e216

Gaius crept through the tunnel at the head of his team, his helmet's senses rendering the pitch black tunnel as clear as day to his eyes. His bolter was trained down the tunnel ahead of him to mitigate any threat that might have presented itself, but he was not terribly concerned at the prospect of attack here. He had reason to be confident any threats before them had been dealt with. Gaius was an Ultramarine, a son of Macragge, one of the greatest warriors mankind had to offer. He had served dutifully for a great many years, earning the rank of sergeant within his chapter. He had led his fellow Ultramarines into combat for years, until it was recommended to him that he join the ranks of the Deathwatch.

Deathwatch was an organization of Marines, called from the myriad chapters of the Adeptus Astartes, attached to the Ordo Xenos wing of the Holy Imperial Inquisition. Here, Marines like Gaius served as the military force backing up the Inquisitors as they rooted out the dangers posed by the alien wherever it could be found. When subtlety and guile failed the Inquisitors of the Ordo Xenos, they would sometimes call upon the Marines of the Deathwatch to help resolve their problem with a precise application of force. It was one such mission that brought Gaius and his team to this world today.

Melkor VI was by no measure anything other than average. It supported a reasonable population of some four billion Imperial Citizens, had access to moderately advanced technology, and paid its tithes on time. In the past seven hundred years there had been no major problems with the world, only the standard issues of petty bickering between the various power blocs on the surface, nothing that had ever warranted the attention of the wider Imperium. Until, that was, that Inquisitor Tyburn Graves of the Ordo Xenos received a worrying message from one of his agents on the planet. The locals in a deep mine shaft had discovered something, seemingly an artifact of xeno origin. Local attempts to retrieve the object had failed, the miners were armed and had resisted the proper authorities. With no other forces in the area to commit, Gaius and his team had been assigned to the mission. The Ultramarine's orders were to retrieve the device for examination. The lives of the miners were a secondary concern.

"So what are we expecting to find down here?" One of the Marines behind Gaius asked. It was Ulrich, a younger marine seconded to Deathwatch from the Space Wolves chapter. He was the team's close combat expert, eschewing the bolter in favor of a bolt pistol and a pair of power axes traditional to his chapter. As was common in the Marine's chapter, his power armor was adorned in furs and talismans made of bone and claw, giving him a savage appearance. Gaius had come to trust the young Astartes as a competent warrior, but he did have certain reservations about his tactical ability. So long as he kept the Wolf pointed at the right target, there shouldn't be any major problems.

"Our intelligence did seem a little vague," Came another voice, "Though it is likely we face nothing more serious than a number of normal men with little more than half broken rifles." That would be Xavier, the Salamander of the squad. Xavier was also the team's technical expert, being a Techmarine, one schooled in the art of maintaining advanced technology, and tutored by the great minds of Mars to understand the mystery of the machine. As with many of those in his order, Xavier had received technological augmentations, several mechanical limbs and robotic tentacles were folded neatly against his back. Gaius trusted him implicitly, the Salamander was trustworthy and open, though his sentimentality could sometimes present issues.

"Hah, if that's all I don't see why they even needed us here." Spoke the final member of the procession. Mendoza was a member of the Imperial Fists, a chapter known for its ability in building and tearing down fortifications. As a Devastator marine, Mendoza carried a massive heavy bolter, fed from a great ammo pack on his back. He supplied the team with suppressive and covering fire, providing the most long range firepower the team had to offer. He was stable and competent, though he had certain issues with trigger discipline Gaius had found, he was very fond of his big gun.

"Evidently because local forces were insufficient to deal with the situation." Xavier said in his deep, calm voice. "We would not have been sent if the situation was not dire enough merit our presence. An attack into the warrens of the enemy like this could cost many good men their lives, sending us means that the situation can be resolved without needless loss of life."

Gaius could hear Mendoza rolling his eyes. "I take your meaning brother, but this still seems excessive. Surely one Astartes would be fit enough for this rabble, it would give them a sporting chance if nothing else."

"I'm going to assume you're talking about me." Ulrich said. "I know I'm fully capable of taking this whole mine apart by myself. Oh, you meant yourself? My apologies brother, I misunderstood you."

Mendoza grunted over the vox. "If you think you could clear out this warren with those hatchets of yours, think again boy. Why don't you trade them in for a real man's weapon?" He hefted his massive bolter impressively.

Ulrich glanced over at Xavier. "How much do you want to bet he ends this mission screaming for us to come rescue him?"

"That only happened but once!" Mendoza protested. "And in my defense the hive tower was completely covered with Tyrranids, and I was out of ammunition."

Ulrich laughed, twirling one of his power axes. "Ammunition, how quaint."

"Be silent brothers, both of you." Gaius growled over the vox, "We're almost to the rendezvous point." The team dropped silent, falling back into their disciplined advance further into the tunnels.

Gaius checked his location against the map on his dataslate. It appeared that they were in the correct location, this was where they were supposed to meet up. The tunnel ahead of him was dark and empty, nothing stirred there. "Alright people, it seems we're early to our meeting. Sit tight and wait, he'll be along shortly." Gaius said, leveling his weapon down the corridor and peering into the darkness stretching ahead of his helmet's ability to illuminate for him.

"He's late? That's not like him." Mendoza said, aiming his heavy bolter to cover the tunnel behind the group.

"Indeed, it is not." Xavier agreed, hand resting idly on his own bolter.

Gaius turned to look at his team. "I'm sure he just took his time accomplishing his task, no sense in rushing these things. We haven't been discovered so time is not much of a factor at the moment, just sit tight and we'll move on when it's time." He turned back to look down the corridor. After a moment, Gaius felt a strange unease. He peered into the darkness of the tunnel, trying to figure out what his subconscious had latched onto that his mind had not. After a moment, he saw the tiny glint of a pair of eyes shining in the dark. Beneath his helmet, the Ultramarine let out a nervous breath. "Kartal, must you always do this?" The eyes moved slightly as the Raven Guard tilted his head in curiosity or amusement, Gaius couldn't say. "Report then, what did you see?"

Kartal stalked forward to the rest of the group. "I have scouted the perimeter set up by the miners. There are a number of guard posts set up to defend the central chamber of the mine, they have a settlement there. I was not able to see much before I had to abandon my position, but I believe that is where they are keeping the artifact."

Gaius nodded. "Very well, we shall move in to retrieve it now. Come brothers, let us move. From this point on we're moving into hostile territory, remain vigilant."

Ulrich drew his axes, admiring the edge. "As if I'm ever not."

True to the Raven's word, there was a guard post further up the tunnel. The corridor widened out into a larger chamber, some old mining gear laying unused along the walls. At the far side of the chamber a crude barricade had been constructed, a few men milling around behind it. As suspected they were poorly equipped, miner's protective gear in place of proper armor, old battered weapons held in inexperienced hands. It was hardly something that could be thought to offer serious resistance to a squad of Astartes. Gaius frowned behind his helmet, something seemed off about this while situation. "Hostiles before us, clear the post and move onto the main target, keep it quiet, no need to raise undue alarm." Gaius slung his rifle over his back, drawing his bolt pistol. He exchanged the magazine for subsonic bolts without the rocket motor, clipping a sound suppressor onto the weapon.

"Never let me have any fun." Mendoza complained, hefting his heavy gun.

"Cheer up, be plenty of cause to get loud later on if we're lucky." Ulrich said, readying his axes.

Gaius nodded to Kartal who slinked off, fading into the shadows. Gaius gave him a few seconds to get into a good position, then gave the signal. The Deathwatch team flowed out of the dark corridor, seeming to appear directly in front of the surprised defenders. One of them ran to the barricade, pulling out a heavy stubber, but before he could muscle the weapon into position Kartal seemed to leap from a shadow and crushed him under his armored weight. Gaius raised his pistol and put a bolt through one man raising his rifle. The bolts had a much lower velocity than normal shots, and did not explode, but against unarmored humans they couldn't be anything less than lethal. His pistol coughed twice more as another pair of miners was ripped clean through. Ulrich leaped high over the barricade, slashing down through one of the guards, twisting and turning through a group of guards as he took them apart at the seams. For Astartes, this was hardly anything more than target practice.

As quickly as it began, the skirmish was over. Of the guards defending their post nothing but torn corpses remained. Gaius stood over the bloody bodies, returning his pistol to his hip. Yes, something about this seemed worrying. "Kartal, did you see any evidence of the miners being able to offer more serious opposition than this?"

The Raven considered. "Not that I could see sir, they seem to have little in the way of heavy arms or armor, only small arms. Even then they don't seem to be very skilled in using them."

Gaius' frown deepened. He crouched next to one of the corpses, pushing it over with a gauntlet to examine the dead man. A brief search turned up nothing out of the ordinary. An old battered lasgun, some spare power packs, a few simple tools. Everything that one would expect to find on a rebel like this, absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. That was what worried Gaius.

"What is on your mind?" Xavier asked, walking over.

"These miners were supposedly able to resist local force's attempts to breach these tunnels. They were so successful in repelling them that Inquisitor Graves thought the situation merited our involvement. And yet they put up such a paltry defense against us now? Tell me, would you think these miners would be able to fend off an attack from the local PDF?"

Xavier considered the dead men in the chamber. "It does seem unlikely they would be able to put up such stiff resistance to trained soldiers, based on what we just saw."

"Perhaps all their more skilled fighters were killed off in the earlier fighting?" Ulrich suggested, cleaning off his bloodied gauntlets. "And the locals were too afraid to venture in again in case they ran into stiff opposition as they did before?"

Gaius shook his head. "No, that does not explain the poor state of their equipment. Had they simply suffered losses they would have then retrieved the equipment from their fallen fellows. It seems to me that this is the best they are equipped with. I do not think we will find our answers in the cave, but it is something that worries me. Come now, let's move on. This guard post will not go unmissed for long." The team nodded and readied themselves again, moving swiftly down the yawning tunnel towards their objective.

There were no further guard posts along their path, it seems that in their foolishness the rebels had thought a single post would be enough. Then again, they had seen the last attack off relatively easily, so perhaps it was their confidence that drove them to it. Regardless, the path ahead was clear. The team emerged from the tunnel a little while later, stepping out onto a wide rock ledge overlooking a deep cavern. From the schematics Gaius had been given before departing for the mission, it would appear that this was the central cavern. It was a natural formation initially, widened by the mining operation until the vast gulf was left, large enough to house a decent sized settlement. Here the majority of the miners resided on a semi-permanent basis, erecting a town in the center of the cavern to use as a base for their mining operation. Now, it was the center of operations for their little rebellion. Gaius crept up to the lip of the ledge and looked down at the town below, set aglow with yellow artificial light. His helmet zoomed in, giving him a closer look. There were numerous armed miners walking about in the town below, not on alert but seemingly prepared for the chance of attack. Gaius continued to scan the town, his eyes finally settling on the town square in the center. There, behind a man seemingly sermonizing from a pulpit, rested what could only be the artifact they had been sent to retrieve.

It was a curious thing. It appeared to be a monolith, a tall column of grey metal gleaming in the dull light. It was comprised of flat smooth surfaces and sharp angles, and seemed to be giving off some kind of glow. Gaius had been serving in the Deathwatch for years, both his training and experience allowed him to identify numerous kinds of xenotech, but this strange object was unlike anything he had seen before. It was another unknown in a mission that was already filled with too many variables for the Ultramarines liking. He scanned the town again. "We are vastly outnumbered here, and our enemy is guarding that which they seem to value most highly. I am open to suggestions on how to avoid fighting the entire town in direct combat."

Xavier peered over the lip of the rock, examining the town. "Do you see those tall structures, there and there?"

Gaius looked where the Techmarine pointed. There were tall, vaguely cylindrical objects jutting up from the cavern floor, various mechanics bits moving and whirring. "Yes, what of them?"

"If I am not mistaken, those are geothermal power units. They harness the heat coming up through the rock to generate power for the settlement. They operate by heating water into steam, and relying on the…"

"Spare us the technobabble Xavier, how does it help us?" Ulrich cut in.

Xavier gave the Wolf a sideways glance before continuing. "They operate by converting water into steam, which they use to spin generator turbines. This steam is kept at high pressure. Very high pressure."

Ulrich tilted his head, his smile almost visible through his helmet. "Forgive me, your technobabble is entirely welcome."

Gaius nodded. "So, we breach these devices, and the explosion can serve as a distraction as we move on the target? That sounds like a solid plan. Kartal, I need you to plant explosives on those towers, we will detonate once we are in position to move on the objective." The Raven nodded, checking over his demolition charges. "In the meantime the rest of us can get into position, we shall wait on the edge of town until Kartal gives word that the distraction is ready." The Marines nodded, before slipping down the wall of the cavern to drop quietly to the floor. They moved over to the edge of the settlement, stealing as close as they dared, before Gaius signaled the Raven Guard to break off, the Marine rushing into the shadows of the alleys leading deeper into the settlement. After that, there was little to do but wait, periodically checking in over the vox to ensure that Kartal was still on course for his mission. Not surprisingly, the stealthy Marine encountered no serious problems along his route, and half an hour later he sent back word that he had completed his assignment, and was in position to assist with the attack on the town square.

"Let us move." Gaius said over the vox, moving out of his cover position and running into the town.

They stayed out of sight for as long as they could, moving through poorly watched alleys and darting across streets. But as they moved further and further into the town the population became thicker, guards were walking about more frequently. Soon it became impossible to pass without being seen. The next street had multiple guards on it, there was no way they could pass without being noticed. "Alright, Kartal stand ready on the detonator, it's about time to cause some havoc." Gaius voxed. The Raven returned a simple affirmative. Gaius brought up his bolter, sighting in from the shadows on the nearest target. "Now." A half second later, all hell broke loose in the underground down. A pair of sharp cracks were heard, the familiar detonation of the det packs going off. Accompanying them were the loud hissing shrieks of venting steam, followed by a deafening roar as the geothermal towers consumed themselves in a pair of great explosions. The sound covered the screaming roar of the bolter firing, the distracted miners not noticing one of their number had been slain until the second guard erupted in a fountain of gore as an explosive bolt turned his chest inside out.

Gaius leaned out from behind the wall, firing into the group of miners. A flying mass of armor and furs rushed beside him, Ulrich charging headlong into the hostile group, pistol barking and axe slashing. It was over in a moment, and they were charging down the street towards the center of town. Those who took up arms were slain, those who ran were ignored, thankfully the distraction seemed to be working, no massive wave of attackers came to challenge their progress, only the few that still stood on the street before them. Secondary fires seemed to have started, the town was slowly being consumed in flame, all the better then, it would take them some time to put the fires out. Hopefully they would be long gone by then. Their armored footfalls were like thunder upon the rock beneath them, carrying them far faster than any mortal man could hope to move. A moment later they burst out into the town square. The guards here had not left, they had stood fast to defend their prized artifact. Gaius had to admire their determination, if nothing else. The preacher seen before was still here, running about in the crowd frantically directing the troops around him. A moment later one of the guards fell down missing his head, somewhere in the shadows a Raven Guard lined up his next shot.

Mendoza braced his heavy bolter and ripped into the panicked crowd, a rapid deluge of high explosive ordinance tearing into the guards before they could bring their weapons to bear, chopping them into bits of flying meat. Ulrich was dancing his usual number, twirling and twisting amidst the enemy, axes flashing as he carved enemies apart. The Marines were not having it all their own way however, after the moment's shock wore off their enemy rushed to counterattack. Throwing themselves into what cover they could find, they opened fire with rifle and lasgun, bullets and lasbolts pinging off of the ceramite armor of the Deathwatch Marines. Xavier was moving around the outside of the fight, firing into the throng with his bolter, as Kartal lined up shot after shot, thinning the ranks of anyone who seemed to bring order to the chaotic horde. These miners might have been able to repulse the attack of the local law enforcement, but against the finest of the Adeptus Astartes they were hardly any real threat. Though their armor would likely need to be repainted after this fight, no serious repairs were in order. After a scant minute of frantic combat, the last of the defenders fell, the rest either having fled, or laying still on the floor. Gaius reloaded his bolter, and turned to face the artifact, which still let off the eerie glow he had seen before.

"This, could be problematic." Xavier said, walking over to stand beside Gaius. The Ultramarine nodded, the obelisk before them had to be at least fifteen feet tall. It would not be easy to move such an artifact. They could carry it, though it would likely be difficult and leave them open to attack. It seemed there was little other choice however, as there was no time to go searching for a vehicle, it was likely that the survivors of the attack had gone to find help, and Gaius did not wish to fight the entire settlement over their most valued object.

"What is it Xavier?" Gaius mused, walking closer to the object. Xavier activated several auspex devices, scanning the object that rested on the ground in front of them.

"Unknown." He concluded after a few moments. "It is emitting some form of radiant energy, nothing dangerous I assure you. It has an integral power source which seems to produce this energy. The device is of unknown function, I see no evidence of instrumentation or access ports, nor is there any form of language or script visible on the external casing." The Techmarine walked slowly around the outside of the obelisk. "There is one other curious observation I can make. The object does not seem to in any way be connected to its surroundings, there are no cables or links to anything else, and the only emission from the obelisk is the radiated energy I mentioned. However, judging by my readings the amount of energy generated within the device is greater than the energy being released."

"Which means?" Gaius asked, hoping to find the kernel of truth within the Salamander's traditionally long winded explanation.

"Which means, that the device is releasing or storing that energy somehow. I initially assumed it was storing the energy, but I see no indication of that. There is no thermal discrepancy that would indicate a capacitor of some kind being charged. Since I can conclude that the energy is not being stored, to by knowledge, that leaves only the possibility that the energy is being transmitted, but since there is no physical connection like a cable or something similar, and the energy levels are lower than the energy being emitted, so it must be being sent somewhere."

"Where Xavier?" Gaius asked. The Techmarine seemed to shift a little, struggling for words.

"He doesn't like to say the words." Ulrich cut in. Xavier spared him a glance, looking back to Gaius.

"I do not know, only that the energy is being sent, elsewhere."

Gaius looked at the obelisk, sitting innocently on the rock in the middle of the square. "What are you?" He breathed. He shook his head a moment later, walking towards the device. "Whatever this thing is, I'm sure the Inquisitor will be able to discover more about it. Come brothers, help me move this." Gaius reached out and placed a hand on the obelisk. Suddenly, he felt a warmth pushing through his gauntlet, a spike of heat. He withdrew his hand sharply, to see a reddish orange pulse of light travel out from where his hand touched the strange metal, racing all the way around the obelisk. "Energy emissions spiking!" Xavier said, grabbing his weapon, the other Marines doing the same. The obelisk glowed brighter and lifted off from the floor, hovering in the air a few feet over the stone. The metal moved, the obelisk seeming to unfold as small wedges of metal began to circle about it, spinning and twisting.

"Do we shoot it?" Mendoza queried, readying his weapon. Gaius did not know how to respond. They had been tasked with retrieving this device, damaging it would be frowned upon. He had never encountered, or even heard of, a device like this, for all he knew this was all a part of its normal functioning. He held out a hand to calm the Fist, who kept his weapon trained. The obelisk seemed to stabilize in the air, no longer rising. Gaius began to wonder if the object had stopped whatever it was doing, when suddenly a flash of blue light erupted in front of him. It seemed at first to be a ball of blue white light, but in a split second something erupted out of it, glowing red with a face of fury, the creature from out of the light leaped towards Gaius. "Daemons!" He shouted, opening fire as the thing closed to melee in a heartbeat.

Gaius snapped his bolter up, firing at the creature as it rushed in. The bolts connected and exploded, making the creature stagger, but it did little to slow it. It lashed out with a glowing red blade on its arm, far too close for the Marine's comfort. Gaius batted at the weapon with his bolter, surprised at the strength of the blow as it sent his weapon off to one side. He brought the bolter back up, slamming the butt of the weapon into the face of the daemon assaulting him. The creature staggered back, giving Gaius time to line up a shot. He pulled the trigger, but the bolt sailed through empty air, the monster vanishing in the same pulse of blue light that it appeared from. "What was that?" Mendoza demanded, scanning the area with his weapon.

"No idea, look out more of them!" Gaius shouted as more of the glowing red creatures emerged from pinpoints of light.

They were all very similar, he noted now that he got a good look at them. They were hunched over, their heads sticking out the front of their bodies. They were bone white with glowing red highlights, and appeared to be encased in armor of some form. One of them raised an arm before Gaius could line up a shot, sending golden streaks of light across the square to impact his pauldron, pushing his shoulder back a little. "They have rifles!" He shouted, ducking into cover before firing a burst against the creature that had shot him. The bolt took it full in the chest, exploding but seeming to do little to no damage, the creature screaming at him and vanishing in another blaze of light. "Bolters are ineffective!" He said, switching to another target and pumping bolts into it.

Across the square he saw the staccato flashes of Mendoza firing his heavy bolter. The massive bolts were slamming into one of the strange creatures, driving it back. A moment later there was a strange flash of light before chunks of armor were carved out of the monster, before it screamed a death cry and seemed to melt into golden dust. "You're not using enough gun!" Mendoza shouted, switching to another target. Suddenly another of the creatures appeared right next to the Fist, jamming the muzzle of its weapon into his chest and firing, the blast sending him stumbling to the side, the place where the shot hit a molten crater.

"Mendoza!" Gaius shouted, firing a prolonged burst into the creature, which succumbed after a few seconds firing, dying in that same cloud of golden ash. Something flew over his head, he looked up to see a little flying object, a central core with two rings suspended next to it. He watched as it shot a pulse of blue light at a pile of ash, a moment later the dead daemon rising up again from the ashes. "They don't stay dead!" He shouted, firing at the reborn monster. "Kill the flyers, the resurrect the large ones!"

"That's not all they do!" Kartal said, "They create some form of shield around the larger creatures, I cannot breach it." Gaius sneered, firing into another of the creatures as it vanished. He looked down to see some kind of beam of red light falling upon his chest. Reacting on instinct he dived sideways onto the rock, just in time. A beam of crimson-gold light lanced through the space he had just occupied, carving out a chest-sized hole in the floor next to him. He half rose and fired a suppressive volley, running over to where Mendoza was in cover. "Brother, are you injured?" He asked, looking at the cooled impact wound on Mendoza's armor.

"Only my pride." The Astartes responded, firing another burst into the enemy ranks.

"Sergeant, I am aware this is not the best time…" Xavier said, in the tone of voice Gaius disliked most of all.

"What is it brother?" Gaius asked, ducking behind cover as another hail of deadly light fell on his hiding place.

"I fear that our distraction is getting out of hand. If my readings are correct then the explosions have triggered a chain reaction within the geothermal vents this settlement is built upon. With nowhere to go the pressure is slowly building in the rock beneath us, when it reaches a high enough level it will breach, explosively. I highly advise against being here when that happens."

Gaius considered, looking out at the glowing enemies flitting across the rooftops. Whenever one of them became injured they would dash behind cover to regenerate, which they did with alarming speed before attacking again. There was nothing else for it, Gaius gave the order that felt like ash in his mouth. "Fall back! Fighting retreat!" The other marines looked to him in surprise. "The ground beneath us will soon vent its energy, the entire settlement will be consumed and us with it. We cannot be here when that happens, fall back. Cover each other with bolter fire and get out of here!" The marines were shocked and angered at the order, but they obeyed it, dashing from cover to cover as they fired to keep the enemy pinned down. Another large shot vaporized part of a wall, barely missing Kartal as he dodged into an alley. After a few moments of running, the attacks subsided. Gaius glanced over his shoulder to see the strange creatures clustered around the obelisk. It seemed they valued protecting it more than pursing the Astartes. All the better, perhaps the explosion would be enough to kill them permanently. The squad fled the town, racing as fast as their armored legs could carry them.

"How long until the explosion?" Mendoza asked.

"According to my estimates it should have happened already!" Xavier said, speeding up if that was possible.

They cleared the edge of the settlement and started running up the ramp leading to the tunnels they came in through. Suddenly, a great hand reached out and slapped the marines across the back, sending them toppling over and slamming into the ground. A deafening shockwave rushed over them, dust and rocks flying through the air. Gaius looked back, seeing a massive cloud of dust and rock rising where the center of the town had been, every building was flattened. The marines rose and dusted themselves off, looking into the ruin that a moment ago had been a settlement. Gaius sneered as out of the dust cloud rose the obelisk, it's gleaming sides unmarred by the destruction. A moment later it flashed and winked out of existence, vanishing in a blink of light.

Ulrich dusted off the pelts that adorned his armor, checking to make sure his gear was intact. "What now sergeant?" He asked.

Gaius looked at the ruin one more time, before turning to the tunnels and walking in. "Now we get out of these damned tunnels and tell the Inquisitor what we saw. Then we find that accursed thing, wherever it has gone." Within his sealed helmet the Ultramarine swore a silent vow. He would find that artifact, and uncover the truth behind it. He did not know how long it would take, but Astartes had long memories, and did not soon forget failures like this. Someday, he would discover the truth, he swore it.

Meanwhile, a universe away…

Captain Conrad Warrick sat in the troop bay of the Pelican dropship as it skimmed over the sea towards their destination. The bay was full of soldiers, strapped into their seats and cradling their weapons. They were all armored head to toe in magnificent armor, Mjolnir Gen II to be exact. Each had customized their gear to fit their preferred combat role, and to show a little personal taste. Warrick himself wore a custom suit, an EOD helmet sitting atop a Hazop chest piece, Scout patterned shoulder guards and heavy over plated leg guards leaving little of the undersuit exposed to incoming fire. He rested the DMR in his hands against his seat, leaning in. He fiddled with the datapad he was holding, manipulating the hologram being projected into the troop bay. "Alright Spartans listen up, here's the plan. Our job is to infiltrate the Covenant facility on the coastline and destroy the shielding pylon they've set up to cover their base in this area. Orbital strike packages aren't available to take it out, so they need us to go in with the ground pounders and drop the shields so the flyboys can move in to mop up the Covies on the ground. If we don't get that shield down, the Covenant will have a solid base from which to launch attacks on civilian populations nearby. We've got Army and Marine forces committed to the fight, but make no mistake we're the tip of the spear on this operation. Rasher, I want you with me pushing up the center, work your black magic and get the Covies to back off a little. Nova, I want you on the best vantage point possible with your rifle, start picking off targets of opportunity as you see them. Shadow, you're on stealth as normal, move through enemy formations and get us some forward recon. Whiskey, you're general combat with Rasher and me. Got that?"

"Hooah." The Spartans coursed.

Warrick nodded, readying his weapon "Hooah, prepare to drop, ETA on the target zone is three minutes, we're going to hit Covie air assets inside of one, sit tight and let the flyboys do their jobs."

The Spartans braced themselves in the troop bay. None of them liked being stuck in air combat or in space, they were out of their element. Being a passenger meant being at the mercy of anothers abilities to keep you alive, your fate was out of your control. For a Spartan, who was used to defying death by their own skill and ability, it was almost unbearable to have to put all their faith in the skills of another. Warrick leaned back in his seat and keyed his radio into their Air Force's frequency, listening to their comm chatter as they raced ahead of the lumbering transports to engage enemy fighters high over the target zone, the UNSC pilots trying to keep their voices calm as they mixed it up with Banshees and Seraphs. The two sides were seemingly equally matched in terms of fighters, the Broadsword along with drone fighters were able to hold their own against the Covenant aircraft. The Pelican twisted and turned as it wove through the spiraling dogfight, bringing the team close to its objective. Warrick could hear the external guns firing intermittently as the discouraged any attackers from trying to pounce on the slower transport craft. Finally, after a short eternity of waiting, the ramp opened and the red light suffusing the troop bay turned green. "Hit it Spartans!" Warrick shouted, running out the back of the dropship, his team close behind. They fell thirty feet to the ground, landing with puffs of dust and crushed rock, knees bending to easily absorb the impact.

Warrick scanned the area, noting some movement in the distance but nothing close enough to immediately menace the Spartans. "Right, Nova get up high and start doing your thing." The Scout-armored Spartan nodded, running for an elevated ridge and igniting his jetpack to climb to a good sniper perch. "Shadow, get moving forward and get us forward recon." The Spartan nodded, moving forward in his Wetwork armor, activating active camouflage whenever he moved across an open area. That left Rasher and Whiskey with Warrick. Whiskey was a competent general combatant with an eye for heavy weapons, and was also the tech specialist. He wore Gungnir armor, purpose built for heavy weapons duty. Rasher was the team's close combat expert. He wore a suit of War Master armor, the skull like visor enhanced further with a stylized skull carved into the visor. Rasher was very good at his job, though he worried Warrick at times. Rasher preferred to fight close in, and fought as brutally as possible, the Spartan went out of his way to inflict terror upon the enemy wherever he could, it was not what a Spartan usually did. There were other Spartans like Rasher, called themselves 'Totenkopf', meaning 'Death's Head'. From what he knew the movement started with a Spartan III who loved to fight at point blank, its members carved their visors into skulls and sought to sow terror in the enemy ranks. Rasher was a very good fighter, but his obsession with fighting brutal over fighting efficiently made Warrick worry he would do something stupid someday. "You two with me." He said simply, moving forward as Rasher readied his shotgun, Whiskey preparing his SAW.

They moved up, dashing between cover, trying to keep as much solid rock between them and any possible hostiles as they could, avoiding running across open terrain wherever possible. It couldn't last forever of course, and soon he heard the calm, even voice of Shadow coming across the comm. "Guard post, thirty meters to your front. Three Elites overseeing eleven Grunts and five Jackals, one Jackal is a sniper. Be advised, they also have a heavy plasma turret on the high ground." Warrick grimaced behind his visor, he hated snipers. "Nova, you're on the sniper, take him out before he can cause me any grief." Nova sent a simple green light confirmation, already moving into position on the enemy rifleman. Warrick pulled up the video feed from Shadow's helmet, seeing what the other Spartan saw. He marked the position of the plasma turret, "Whiskey, get your big stick out and eliminate that turret, then switch to dealing with the infantry. Rasher, you go for the officers, take out the leadership and get the little ones to scatter." The two Spartans nodded, Whiskey readying his laser while Rasher just flexed his shoulders in anticipation of the fight ahead. "Right, execute on T minus five, four, three…" Warrick let the visors finish the count down, when the timer hit zero, all hell broke loose.

The first thing heard was the crack of the sniper rifle as it decapitated the enemy sniper. A half second later Whiskey spun around the corner and squeezed the trigger on the laser, the red lance of energy melting through the armor on the turret, causing its power source to explode in a blue-white fireball. Warrick leaned out of cover and opened fire with his DMR, the first shot going through the skull of an unfortunate Grunt before he switched targets. Rasher was gone in a flash, charging straight up the slope towards the guard post, shotgun out in front of him. Warrick shook his head and followed after the overzealous Spartan, no sense in leaving him out on his own. Behind him the roaring report of the SAW opened up, tearing into another unfortunate Grunt and making a Jackal stagger as the rounds slammed into his shield. Shadow opened fire as well, carefully threading shots from his DMR into the throng below him. Warrick snapped up his rifle to shoot the exposed wrist of a Jackal, making it stagger to expose its head, which he took off a moment later. Suddenly he was hit with a staggering blow, his shields dropping almost to flatline, had to be an overcharged plasma burst. He dived for cover and activated his regen field, the greenish light expanding to encompass him as it started his shields climbing back to full strength. He peered out of cover to see the Jackal with the plasma pistol leaning over the lip of the rock outcrop he had hidden under, before a gauntleted hand grabbed it by the throat and pulled it back out of sight. It seemed Rasher had reached his destination, if the panicked screams were anything to go by.

Warrick leaned over, giving his suit a moment to recharge before activating his VISR, the active scanner punching through the rock to highlight the various figures moving on the platform above. As he thought, Rasher was in amongst the Covies now, working his shotgun and serrated knife while howling like a banshee. Whatever oddities he subscribed to, the man knew how to fight in close quarters, he gave Rasher that. Warrick came barreling out of his hiding spot, bringing is plasma pistol to bear, sinking an overcharged shot into the nearest elite, who promptly took a headshot form Shadow. Rasher readied his rifle again, firing from the hip with the aid of his helmet link, running around the outside of the fight a he sank shots into Grunts and Jackals, another Elite being cut in half by Rasher's shotgun. It was all over in less than a minute, the standard length of an engagement like this. "Team, report status, anyone hurt?" A chorus of negatives came over the comm. Warrick nodded, "Right, keep it moving, same pattern as before, we need to get to that target. Soon, it's only a matter of time before Covie reinforcement gets here and this battle gets a lot harder than it has to be."

The advanced further up the battleground, towards the spire which loomed high overhead, the sounds of battle filtering over the terrain towards them. Warrick could hear the sound of UNSC firearms alongside the whine of Covenant plasma weapons. The base of the spire was in a bowl in the rock below them, Warrick's team having a high vantage point over the carnage. Warrick looked out over the battle unfolding below them. UNSC Marines and Army were engaged with Covenant forces near the base of the spire, though they seemed to be making little headway. Warrick heard the shriek of a banshee flying overhead, and pointed from Whiskey to it, the Spartan drawing his laser and taking aim. "This is Captain Warrick to Army and Marine elements, sitrep?" He asked, his question punctuated by the banshee exploding.

"Well, a bit better now Captain." The woman on the other end of the comm said, "We've pinned down here, unable to advance. Enemy keeps bringing in more troops to engage us. We've gotten this far but the Covies have the high ground and heavy weapons, we can't advance without incurring heavy casualties." Warrick nodded, agreeing with the Marine's assessment. "Nova, start taking the pressure off, hit their weapon crews and marksmen. Shadow, Whiskey, get down there and assist those troopers, try to get them moving forward again. Rasher, you and me are going for the spire itself. Everyone good?"

"Hooah!" came the reply, Warrick nodding. "Move out!" He cried, launching over the incline and sliding down the rock slope.

Whiskey and Shadow broke off to run to the aid of the troopers, another laser burst making a ruin out of a speeding Ghost. Warrick fired his pistol again, downing the shields of an unfortunate elite before putting a round through his helmet, switching targets to injure a Grunt. He didn't bother to finish the alien off, charging straight towards the grav lifts at the bottom of the spire. The Covies were so focused on suppressing the troopers they hadn't been ready for such a fast attack from the side, the Spartans blowing past the few defenders they had there, quickly making it to the grav lifts leading to the second level. The two Spartans leaped into the shining lifts, quickly carried up to the second floor, a blast from Rasher's shotgun reducing an unfortunate Jackal to a stain on the wall. "Come on, we need to open the path upward!" Warrick said, rushing out of the room they had dropped into, turning the corner to enter the room with the lifts leading further up into the spire. They were locked out behind an energy shield, Warrick ran over to the control panel. "Cover me." He ordered, Rasher nodding as he slipped into cover at the door, shotgun ready. Warrick plugged a chip into the panel, downloading a virus into the system. All they had to do was defend the panel until the virus opened up the shields, then they could enter the spire and finish the enemy off.

The shotgun barked again, blasting another Elite trying to enter the room. Warrick rushed over to help hold the doorway. The Covenant knew they were in here now, they were throwing more units in to attack them as the word that Spartans were in the spire spread. They only had to hold out a few more seconds though, the door was almost open. Warrick leaned out of cover to put some more shots into the enemy outside, ducking back to avoid the blast from a plasma grenade. A moment later his helmet chimed, the way was open. "Up the lift!" He ordered, breaking off from cover to head to the shimmering light. He was halfway to the grav lift when he heard the snap-hiss of a plasma sword igniting behind him. He turned in a fraction of a second, rifle up as he saw the swordsman rush towards him, he pushed out with his rifle, only to have it neatly bisected by the energy sword. Rasher turned to try and engage, but his aim was spoiled when he barely dodged out of the way of the arcing sword. "Go!" Warrick shouted, pushing the other Spartan bodily into the grav lift, turning to face the Elite.

"Foolish." The alien growled, readying his sword again.

"It is foolish." Warrick agreed, igniting his own plasma blade, a three foot blade of blue white plasma extending from his right forearm. "You should know you're outmatched."

The Elite scoffed, and they launched towards each other.

Their blades flashed as they rebounded off each other, Warring parrying the blow the Elite had thrown at him, countering with a stab of his own. The elite sent his thrust sideways with an expert parry, striking out with his empty hand, pushing Warrick back. The Spartan maintained his footing, bringing his sword up in time to block a sideways slash from the Elite. They broke apart after a moment, each pacing around the outside of the room, their blades in ready positions, waiting for the other to make a move. "You fight well with a blade human." The Elite growled after a moment.

Warrick shrugged slightly, "I practice a lot." He said, jumping in for another jab, feinting with a high jab before slashing low. The Elite saw his ploy and countered, swatting Warrick's blade sideways and turning the motion into a spinning kick, nearly taking Warrick in the head. Warrick ducked low to avoid the flying hoof, lunging forward to close with the Elite, his blade on course with the aliens chest. Unfortunately, the Elite had longer legs than Warrick had arms, and planted a hoof in his armored chest. The blow stopped his advance, but the alien had underestimated the sheer force in a charging Spartan, it looked like he hurt his foot. He stepped back on his injured limb, cursing in his native tongue. Warrick pounced on him, bringing his blade in close, but the elite parried again, grabbing ahold of his arm and spinning the Spartan, using his own momentum to carry him past the Elite to slam him into the wall. The alien readied his blade, about to plunge it in for the kill, but Warrick kicked him hard in the side, knocking the wind out of the alien and making him pause his attack.

Warrick pushed off from the wall, grappling with the elite, sending the armored alien tumbling to the floor. The alien grabbed his arm, sending his plasma blade sinking into the melting floor beside his head. It was the wrong angle to use the wrist mounted sword, so he deactivated it, shunting the energy into his shields. He wriggled a hand out of the Elite's grasp, drawing his fighting knife, plunging it down towards the Elite's throat. The alien grabbed ahold of his wrists, fighting for all his worth against the superhuman strength of the Spartan. It seemed to be a losing fight, but the Elite countered by twisting sideways and letting up the pressure, sending Warrick surging forward as the alien pivoted, neatly flipping Warrick onto his back, reversing the grip on the knife and pushing it down towards the Spartan's chest, using his weight to offset the Spartan's strength. They grunted and groaned as the knife wavered back and forth, each of them at a stalemate as they struggled to move the knife. Then a loud explosion split the air. Warrick looked sideways to see debris falling down from the sky, the top of the spire had been blown off. He looked back up to the Elite on top of him. "That would be the sound of us winning." He said. The Elite seemed to listen to something on his helmet radio, letting out an annoyed breath. "Damn." He said in his deep voice, "This was going so well."

"Until you lost." Warrick said, pushing the Elite off of him. The alien rolled sideways and lay on his back on the floor, groaning as he felt himself. "I think I picked up a few bruises." He grunted, sitting up to feel his sore hoof. "Forgot how heavy you are in that armor."

Warrick slowly rose to his feet, massaging his shoulder, sore from blocking so many blows. "I almost forgot you were so fast with that sword, it's been a while." The Spartan and Elite walked out of the room, looking up to see the holographic sky deactivate, replaced with the gunmetal gray of the combat deck's ceiling.

"You have gotten better with the sword." The Elite said, nodding.

"You've been a good teacher." Warrick replied. Around them the various combatants were picking themselves up, shouldering their weapons and walking off the simulated battlefield. A loud voice cut over the room, which was slowly deactivating and returning to the simple flat metal plane it usually was. "Exercise concluded, UNSC victory." Said the cheerful voice over the PA, "All combatants report to debriefing, and then the bar."

Warrick smiled. "Sounds like a plan."

The two of them fell in with the other combatants, shuffling out of the Wotan's combat deck. This was the seventh day of combat trials, everyone was starting to get a little tired from the constant war games. But this was what they were here for, elements from every branch of the UNSC, as well as their nonhuman allies had gathered to take part in force on force training exercises, taking advantage of the advanced combat deck the Wotan used to simulate any of a great number of potential combat environments. The various humans and aliens walked through the corridors of the ship, massaging bruises and aches, or chatting with their fellow combatants. Warrick walked alongside his friend, Runa Tarikom, Sangheili Spec Ops operative and swordsman. They had met at a similar exercise two years ago, and had made a point to find each other whenever their units came into contact. Runa had taken the opportunity to help Warrick fine tune his skills with his plasma blade, something the Spartan was grateful for. The two of them, along with some Army troopers who seemed a little wary of the super soldier and alien, filed into one of the debriefing rooms, sitting down around the holo emitter. A moment later, a little figure popped up atop the platform.

It was a human male, looked to be in his early twenties, standing about a foot tall. He was dressed in full black plate armor, a black cape thrown across his shoulders and a bastard sword at his hip. He smiled up at the assembled combatants. "Nice fighting out there, all of you." The small figure said, waving to the personnel sitting around his plinth, "You did the UNSC proud out there, and all due honor to our visitor from Sangheilos, that was some very fine work you did as well." Runa bowed his head respectfully. "Captain Warrick, my compliments on some fine swordsmanship!" The little knight said, clapping his hand on the sword he wore, "That was exciting to see." Warrick nodded, "Thank you Fockewulf." He said, indulging the AI's fondness for chatter. "Right then, now that the formalities are out of the way, let's get down to the nitty-gritty." Fockewulf said, leaning against a section of what appeared to be a tavern bar that appeared beside him. He produced a drinking horn from within his cape, pouring himself a measure of holographic mead. "You will note the Marines were advancing steadily until they ran into 'Covenant' armored groups. They managed to defeat this, however they suffered undue losses, this could have been mitigated if…"

After an hour of going over the preceding battle in excruciating detail, examining the various units on either side from multiple angles, Fockewulf declared their debriefing over and done with, allowing the personnel to file out and go about their business. Runa and Warrick walked out into the corridor, the Spartan turning to the Elite. "I believe you owe me a drink, that was the agreed upon wager." The Sangheili shifted in place. "You did not best me in combat. That fight was a draw." He said.

Warrick shrugged. "We still won, that's what's important, even if I didn't beat you specifically." Runa shook his head but didn't protest, walking towards the bar. Such a thing might have seemed out of place on a warship, but the Wotan was no ordinary vessel. An advanced prototype, the Wotan was the first ship of its class. Meant to serve as a deep range base of operation for a large fighting force, Wotan was the most massive ship ever constructed by human hands, measuring roughly twenty kilometers from prow to stern. Shaped like a smooth wedge narrowing from its wide engines down to the massive bow gun on its nose, the Wotan incorporated numerous technological advances made by the UNSC following the war with the Covenant, and their plundering a few Forerunner treasure troves. It was intended to serve as a flying military outpost, with a production base and resource harvesting ability to equip and maintain its massive onboard fighting force. This was all in addition to the devastating shipboard armament the Wotan carried, enough to turn the tables on a small fleet of conventional Covenant ships. Given its mission, the Wotan incorporated a number of creature comforts, centered around an open air gallery nestled in the heart of the ship. That was where Runa and Warrick were headed now, only stopping to allow Warrick to remove his half-ton armor in favor of a simple uniform.

The transport tubes ferried them quickly through the bowels of the ship, dropping them off a few minutes later in the entertainment sector. The design specifications had allowed for this entertainment area to be more open than the rest of the ship, the area immediately after the transport tube opening up into what looked like two large building fronts, connected with sky bridges. Shops, restaurants, a couple bars and even a theater were built into the structure, serving all kinds of tastes. Beyond that, the street opened up into a park, real trees and grass swaying in the artificial wind beneath a simulated sunny sky. It seemed over the top, but when the crew were expected to stay aboard for months or even years in the event of a behind enemy lines operation, they needed something to keep them from going stir crazy, and you'd be surprised what watching the clouds roll by could do, even if the clouds were holographic.

The pair walked into Warrick's favorite bar, styled like an old English tavern. They bellied up to the bar and ordered their drinks. The bartender didn't look surprised to see Runa there, he had grown used to seeing the pair stop by when there was a joint force operation in progress. The two drank their beers in silence for a moment, before Warrick broke the silence. "Do you think this will ever come to anything?" He asked.

"What do you mean?" Runa asked.

"The endless training, preparation drills, cross force exercises. Your people have done a pretty good job finishing off the Brutes, the Storm Covenant have been losing ground ever since they lost so many of their forces at Requiem, it seems the galaxy is getting to be a safer place. Do you think all of this will ever come to anything, that this will all be needed?"

Runa considered. "It is my belief, that the greatest thing a warrior can hope for is that he is never needed. Should the day come that my service is required, I shall go to battle gladly. If my life fades into old age and I need never draw my sword in anger, I will consider that a blessing. In the meantime, I shall simply prepare as best I can for whatever lies ahead, for who can saw what the future holds?"

Warrick shrugged. "Now that would be something, a career without war. I'll drink to that."

"You'll drink to anything." Teased the alien.

"Shut up!"

The training operation continued for another three days, the two forces finally parting to go nurse their wounds in peace. Runa Tarikom thinking hard on what he had said to his friend in the bar. A career without war would be a fine thing to look back on. But he felt in his bones that fate had other things in store. He wondered if he was right when his next orders came in. Their ships were to investigate a supposed Forerunner ruin on the edge of Sangheili space, and attempt to recover anything useful from the ruins. Intelligence suspected that Covenant loyalists may have moved to secure the site ahead of them. So much for a career without war, he mused, as the ships launched into slipspace.

In another time and place…

Inquisitor Tyburn Graves looked over the dataslate in his hands, reviewing the report from the Deathwatch marines he had sent to retrieve the artifact. "And that was when the entire town exploded?" He asked looking up at the Ultramarine standing in his office. Even without his armor, Gaius was an intimidating figure, though the Inquisitor had known the Ultramarine for too long to be afraid of him, or his brothers. Whatever their quirks they were loyal to the Imperium, and by extension him. They were also quite effective, with a record for success that, until now, had made him confident in their ability to handle a wide array of problems. But now that record had been tarnished with the squads first unmitigated failure in recent memory.

"Yes sir, the geothermal pressure caused the destruction of the settlement." Gaius said in clipped tones.

Graves looked down to the slate, reviewing the after action report. "These 'daemons' you describe, tell me more about them." He said, looking back to the Marine.

"My report is complete Inquisitor, everything I observed about their capabilities is in there."

Graves shook his head, "I want it from you first hand, what were they like?"

The Ultramarine considered for a moment. "They seemed at once alive, and not alive. Their exterior form was of armor, no flesh was visible. Their every line seemed hard and artificial, like a machine. But the way they moved was very natural and organic. They moved like a living thing would, their reactions were natural, not artificial. They seemed to become angry when injured, screaming at us as we fought. I have never heard of anything like them before."

"Nor I." Graves said, "And that likely carries as much weight. That their weapons were enough to damage Astartes armor is concerning enough." He looked at the pict of Mendoza's damaged chest piece, "And they have an unknown agenda. I do not like unknowns Marine, I detest unknowns."

"As do I sir." Gaius agreed, remaining at attention.

Graves shook his head, looking at some of the pictures captured by the Marine's helmets. The design of these creatures was unlike anything he had seen or heard of before. Of course the Imperium was vast, the universe even more so. These creatures could be a new force, or a very old one, there was little way to know for certain. He had put out inquiries to some of the allies in his Ordo, and hoped to hear back from them before all too long.

"Let me see if I have summed this up." Graves said, leaning back in his chair. "We have a potential new player on the scene, as if we did not have enemies enough. The artifact is gone, vanished under its own power to Emperor knows where, it is guarded by powerful combatants whose full capabilities are yet unknown, and we have absolutely no idea where it has gone?"

The Marine considered. "Yes, that seems a full account of the situation."

Inquisitor Graves shook his head. "I was hoping I had overstated something." He said, "We've got our work cut out for us Gaius, again."

"I am with you until the end." The Ultra assured him. And of that Tyburn had no doubts.

"Very well, we set course for the Inquisitorial archives on Eridon, perhaps they have some knowledge of our mystery creatures."

Gaius nodded curtly, and left the room. Tyburn Graves leaned back in his chair and poured himself a glass of Amasec, sipping the alcohol as he considered the day's events. The mystery surrounding the artifact was a shocking one, possible evidence of a new threat on the galactic scene. One with alarmingly powerful weapons and strange abilities. The capacity to teleport with that much accuracy was worrying in and of itself, for the kind of technical capacity it implied meant the strangers were likely advanced in other areas as well. Whatever the case, Graves would dedicate himself to getting to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the obelisk, and this new race. Or perhaps, an old race. A chill raced down his spine as he took another bracing shot of Amasec, it was not a thought he contemplated comfortably.

Aboard a Kig-Yar Corvette, in another place…

Seth Zakrin walked down the hall of the Corvette, the soft purple light illuminating the walls and floor. The other Kig-Yar walked past him, going about their own duties. Most of these around him were naval personnel, not a ground pounder like him. Seth stood a good head above the other Kig-Yar, 'Jackals' as the humans had named them. It was a virtue of his genetics. He was bigger and stronger than the others, a sleek head with black plumage atop a well-muscled body. He was a genetic subset of his race, 'Skirmishers' the humans called them, the Kig-Yar name meant something similar. Seth wasn't aboard he Kig-Yar Confederacy Corvette for his health, he fully expected to see combat on this cruise, and that was fine by him. Combat usually meant good things for those who survived, promotion, medals, loot. All things which were favorable to possess come mating season. Life had been hard, but good for Seth Zakrin so far. He had proven himself in various skirmishes with Covenant loyalists over the past few years, rising to the rank of junior officer. He had been assigned to the Corvette 'Righteous Indignation' two months back, and was now in command of the small compliment of ground troops aboard. Seth wasn't one to get overly attached to his postings, but he had to admit he had come to like it here, for a few reasons.

One was the pay, naval crews in general were paid more than groundside garrisons, the other was the prestige. There had always been a certain glory to the brave crews of small fast ships in Kig-Yar culture, the human term 'swashbuckler' described it aptly. Something about it harkened back to the old days of the pirate princes, before the Covenant had come and subjugated them. Out here, in a small fast ship on the edge of known space, Seth was living out the dream of most every young Kig-Yar. Again, this was something the ladies found hard to resist, it certainly made shore leave far more entertaining. Unfortunately, Seth did not have the luxury of enjoying such memories, he was far more preoccupied with the prospect of the mission ahead of him. They were being deployed alongside a Sangheili detachment to secure a cache of Forerunner artifacts. While a mission like this often meant great plunder and glory, the agents undercover inside the Storm Covenant had sent back information indicating that the enemy was present in large numbers, and were going to put up a hard fight. The loyalist Covenant always fought bitterly over their 'holy' artifacts, any scrap of Forerunner tech drove them mad. Seth tried to keep from worrying, they were hardly going in alone, they had a number of allies going into the fight, he wouldn't be doing anything exceptionally dangerous. All he had to do was keep his head down, and stay alive, then be in position to enjoy the fruits of victory. And he was abs

tely confident they would win. It was the credo of a corvette crew, confidence at all times. If he doubted himself now, wherever would he end up?

Seth walked along the corridor, checking on a few members of his ground team, doing what he could to reassure them before the mission. Their ETA to the target was about five hours, but it was never too early to start getting the good words in. "Just keep your sight lines clear and let the Sangheili take the hits, their shields can deal with the punishment a lot more than your poor hides can." The Kig-Yar he was talking to laughed, gesturing to his shield gauntlet.

"This little thing can take hits too, you should get one."

Seth shrugged, "My armor serves me well, a big shield like that would only slow me down, don't need a shield if you're moving so fast they can't aim after you. But go ahead, trust your little shield, I'm sure you'll be fine!" He said, a little laugh in his voice. The other man shook his head, chuckling too as Seth walked off. He continued his rounds for a while after that, getting something to eat while he was walking around. Battle on an empty stomach was not a prospect he wanted to experience again. At two hours to the operation zone, he went to the armory to get his weapons. He removed his shipboard clothes and pulled on his armor. There wasn't much in the way of standardization in the Kig-Yar military, whatever worked was good enough, they didn't see the point in making sure everyone had the same gear. Seth's gear was a mix of old Covenant equipment and human produced gear he'd bought over the years.

Following the formation of the Confederacy, the Kig-Yar people realized that they had little in the way of major industry. It was something the Sangheili were familiar with as well, but they at least had a few armories on their homeworld to help keep them supplied, the Kig-Yar had no such luxury. As such, they had been forced to purchase their weapons and gear from whoever was selling. Surprisingly, a big source of armaments came from human weapons corporations. They had spent so many years during the war producing the arms to fight the Covenant, and now that the war was over needed someone to sell their gear to. The Kig-Yar Confederacy, newly formed allies, proved a fertile market for their products. As such, Seth's armor was covered in human made tactical webbing and soft pouches.

His primary weapon was a battle rifle, its stock and grip modified to more comfortably fit a Kig-Yar hand. He had used this rifle for a few months now, growing quite fond of the human weapon. He slipped a few magazines of ammunition into his pouches, securing them in place as he set the rifle down. Next he drew his sidearm, another purchase from the humans. This was an M6C handgun, not quite the punch of the bigger magnums, but its integrated sound suppressor rendered it very quiet, and he preferred the lower recoil when working in close. He took a few magazines for that as well, strapping the handgun into his hip holster. After that he added the curved fighting knife customary to Kig-Yar fighters from the days before the Covenant, thankfully his forebears had preserved the ancestral design even during their subjugation. Seth wasn't a very sentimental man, but he admitted to a certain pride in carrying the ancient blade of his people, once again in the hands of a free Kig-Yar. A couple looted spike grenades were all that was left, slotted into a small bandolier he had sewn himself, and he was prepared, at least as much as he ever was, for the combat to come. After that he took to walking the halls again, the sight of an armed and armored soldier setting the reality of the battle to come in the minds of his fellow crewmen. He tried to calm their nerves and pass the time as best he could, but in the end the time was upon them, the final hours before they exited slipspace dwindling to nothing before their eyes. Finally, it was time, the briefing from the shipmaster coming over the intercom scant minutes before their transition back to realspace.

"Attention crew, here is the battle plan. Sangheili ships have already engaged the Loyalist ships orbiting the target planet and are making some headway. We shall be avoiding the battle as much as possible, though we may be called upon to provide fighter defense. All ground units are to report to the dropship bays, you shall be deploying to the planet's surface following a near-atmosphere slipspace jump. You are to be among the first units on the ground after our reversion to realspace, alongside Sangheili Rangers and SpecOps. You shall aid in eliminating enemy anti air forces in the target zone, so that a mass landing of general infantry can take place. Best of luck to you all, may your spoils be bountiful."

Seth nodded to the traditional good luck phrase, double timing it to the dropship bay. Being a rather small ship, the Righteous Indignation had only two Spirit dropships, just enough to convey the ground compliment to the target area. Strapping himself into a chair and locking his rifle into the slot beside him, Seth pulled up a map of the combat zone in front of him, examining it carefully. They were setting down outside the area covered by antiaircraft batteries, then walking in to eliminate a few carefully chosen targets to open up an air corridor for the rest of the dropships to run through. Of course it would have been easier to simply bombard the site from orbit, but of course the Sangheili didn't want to risk damaging the artifacts they were all so eager to capture. Well, they wouldn't be capturing all of them, if Seth had anything to say about it. He reviewed the positions where the Sangheili were dropping off their units as well, before stowing the pad, and holding on. A moment later he felt the familiar jolt of realspace transition, as the Righteous Indignation plunged headlong into another battle, dragging Seth along for the ride.

Three seconds after they reverted to realspace the forcefield snapped open, the Spirit dropships racing out into the void of space, angling down to their landing zone. This was the part of the mission Seth always hated the most. On the ground, no matter how bad things got, he at least had the comfort that his life was in his own hands. Out here in the black he had nothing but these thin walls to protect him, all his experience and skill was useless here, he was completely at the mercy of the pilot, and whatever allies were helping him to get to the ground alive. He closed his eyes and took deep breaths, refusing to appear panicked in front of his men. However he felt, these people were depending on him to some degree, he couldn't go to pieces here. Bad morale out of the gate would be a terrible thing for the mission, and put himself and the others at greater risk than was needed. Soon he felt the buffeting of atmospheric entry as the sturdy little dropship forced itself through the planet's atmosphere, pushing down into the thicker air to keep as far from the space battle as possible. Listening to the chatter from the pilots, it was clear the dropships were flying low to the ground in an attempt to avoid enemy sensors, a tactic which seemed to be working. The eternity of waiting finally ended, the dropships settling down at the landing zone, grav lifts activating. Seth dropped down, the beam of light carrying him gently down to the ground.

He brought his rifle up, looking at the forested landscape around him. This was good, he liked trees, they gave good vantage points. He checked his tactical map, directing his troops. "Okay, the target is that way, we need to keep up a good pace. Shields off, don't want the light giving us away, activate them at the first sign of trouble. Skirmishers into the trees with me, everyone else move along the path we clear. Come on, no time to wait around! We don't want the Sangheili looting those ruins before we get there, right?" A chorus of negatives came back, making Seth grin. He took a running start and jumped up into the boughs of a tree, landing with the easy confidence of a practiced expert. Not all the skirmishers were so graceful, but they followed along well enough. He leaped from tree to tree, moving forward high above the ground, stopping after every other jump to scan the forest below him, eyes alert for any sign of an enemy patrol. He waited, nestled in the crook of a tree branch, sweeping the forest floor with his scope. Then, he heard the sound of a snapping branch in the distance, and twisted around to look after the noise. He saw movement, a group of figures coming into view. It was a patrol alright, an Elite shepherding a number of Grunts. By the ramshackle armor the Elite wore, and the emblem emblazoned on his chest, Seth knew this to be one of the fanatics still loyal to the Prophet's lies. Seth grinned savagely, and sighted in on his prey.

He clicked the weapon onto single shot, drawing a bead on the Grunt, keying his mic. "Enemy patrol, one Elite, six Grunts. Move to encircle them, I want that officer down fast, one-two punch, you know the drill. Below him he heard the Jackals moving through the underbrush, setting up the L shaped ambush they had drilled to perfection, two lines of Kig-Yar waiting in ambush to cut down the advancing enemy in a deadly crossfire. The unaware patrol drew closer to the waiting ambush, each step they took making Seth's nerves stretch further. He held his rifle steady through long experience, breathing steadily to manage his nerves. His scope rested steadily on the head of the highest ranking Grunt, just waiting for the patrol to move into position. Then, the Elite paused, raising his head and sniffing the air, a low growl starting in his throat. "Now!" Seth hissed through his mic, squeezing the trigger of the rifle, sending the Grunt topping backwards with a hole through its breather mask. The Elite howled a challenge, wasting precious seconds with a barbaric display as fanatics like him often did. He cut a dramatic martial figure there, waving his rifle to the sky, bellowing a war cry. He was also polite enough to present a nice target profile to the Jackal in the underbrush who promptly sunk a big glob of plasma into his armor, frying his shields. The Elite barely had time to look down in surprise before shot from a carbine took him through the skull.

Seth rolled his eyes, fanatics like this were so easy to fight, it was practically child's play. The grunts fell in instants, outnumbered and without a leader those who survived the first few seconds did not survive much longer. The patrol never had a chance, they had been cut down by a well-executed ambush. Seth might have felt sorry for them, had he not detested the notion of a fair fight. He dropped easily from his tree perch, walking over to the dead Elite on the forest floor. His subordinates were already picking over the dead Grunts, but Seth had first dibs on the Elite. It was traditional that the Jackal commander was the first to loot the enemy commander, no matter who killed him, though it was also traditional to reward the one who struck the fatal blow. Seth looked over to the two person team who felled the Elite, making a mental note to pay them a bounty if they survived the mission.

Seth's hands roamed over the dead Elite with practiced ease, relieving the corpse of its credit chit and sidearm, as well as the energy sword the dead leader never had a chance to draw, that was a good find. Elites would never buy such a thing, only swordsmen were allowed to carry one and they got their for free when they completed training, but human collectors went nuts about them, not that he could blame them. After that he pried off the shielding module from the armor, though sadly this one was too low ranked to have been issued with anything advanced like a stealth module. A few plasma grenades and an old plasma rifle were all that was left, which promptly disappeared into Seth's backpack, the grenades added to his bandolier. He also found a little datapad, which he held up. Seth walked away from the corpse, the other Jackals waiting on the sidelines moving in to pry anything else they could find from the body.

Seth activated the pad, giving it a quick look over. Sadly there was nothing so important as secret documents or even a map, not even a journal to shed some light on his activities here. Seth scowled, something sensitive like that would have paid well, but he took what he could get. The only apparent information on the pad was a set of image files. He pulled one up curiously, then stopped as a face looked up at him from the pad's screen. It took him a moment to recognize it, but when he did he felt a little chill. A much younger version of the dead elite smiled back up at him, dressed in brand new armor, surrounded by other such Elites, they had just graduated from warrior training. Possessed of a morbid curiosity he paged through the other images, seeing the Elite holding his energy sword proudly over his head, he must have just gotten it. The next image in the chain showed a female Sangheili, about the same age as the male in the pictures. He felt a knot in his throat when he saw them embracing. He flicked to the next one, then rapidly flicked past a few more which all featured the same female, her garments ranging from little to none. From there the pictures turned darker, the warrior in dented and scratched armor, falling in with the Storm Covenant, a simple picture of the forest here, then nothing. Seth shook his head, shutting the device down.

He walked back into the clearing, looking at his drakes pulling bits of armor off the dead Elite, he cleared his throat for attention, some turned. "Alright listen up, we're moving out, we've wasted enough time here. I'll be damned if the entire operation is waiting on us, we'll never live it down, now move it!" He shouted, sending the Kig-Yar scurrying off along the path. When Seth was sure they were out of sight, he leaned down and placed the datapad on the Elite's chest. "Sorry you were on the wrong side." He whispered, "For what it's worth, I hope you find her again." He stood back up, taking a last glance at the corpses littering the clearing, before leaping up into the trees and racing after his unit.

He caught up with them fast enough, leaping from branch to branch as he overtook them, rejoining the front guard as they moved further towards their objective. The forest was clear after that, evidently the guards were all occupied elsewhere. It seemed the Sangheili rangers had attacked with their customary subtlety, drop pods slamming straight into the enemy position and howling Elites with jetpacks making a mess of things. It was likely that a lot of the guards had run off to engage the obvious threat there. That was all well and good, less for his Jackals to deal with. He raised his rifle and scanned the perimeter of the compound ahead of them. A ramshackle air defense array had been constructed, the top weapons off of AA Wraiths sitting on crude mounts, power cables running across the ground. A few Elites and Grunts, as well as a handful of hostile Jackals milled about the compound, the Elites relieving their nerves by ordering their subordinates about and making dramatic proclamations to each other. Seth grimaced, this was not going to be an easy fight, the enemy was well entrenched, a few Grunts manning plasma cannons and marksmen on overwatch.

He keys his mic and started doling out orders, marking targets for the riflemen in his group, prioritizing enemy snipers and heavy weapons operators, the Elites being less of a threat at this range. His Jackals would move up in a loose formation across the open ground, sticking just close enough to get some shield overlap, his skirmishers would go straight over the wall to engage where their speed was their best advantage. A few of the more skilled marksmen were left here, perched in treetops with battle rifles and DMRs to provide long range fire support. All in all, this was probably the best setup they could hope for going into a fight like this. "Remember, keep quiet for as long as you can, we don't want to sound the alarm before we have to, let the Skirmishers get in as close as we can before the fight begins, we'll keep them busy so you Jackals can move into the compound and get into position. Marksmen, just make sure you keep their snipers occupied, I don't much fancy a hole in the head today." A few of the riflemen chuckled, though Seth knew they understood and took his order seriously. He activates his shields, the sleek curves covering his arms and some of his body. There was little point in subtlety with what was coming, and he suspected he would need all the protection he could get. Seth dropped to the ground and took off running, the rest of the Skirmishers rushing along just behind him, forming a wedge to maximize shield coverage over the entire unit. The nearest Grunt was looking up at the sky, trying to catch a glimpse of the aerial battle taking place high above, looking down just in time to see Seth flying over the wall at him, his finger tightening on the trigger of his magnum. Then he saw no more.

Seth hit the top of the tower guard post hard, standing high atop the wall as he holstered his magnum. One of the Grunts down in the square below turned towards him, curious at the sudden movement. The small creature shrieked in alarm as one of Seth's fellows drilled a carbine shot through his head. Seth finished swapping weapons, his battle rifle out and barking. He drilled three round bursts into the closest elite, squeezing the trigger three times before dropping down from the wall and darting across the ground. He heard the staccato crack of DMR shots as his marksmen went to work, and the war cries of the Elites as they marshaled their troops to deal with the sudden attack. They reacted well, Seth had to admit, snapping their weapons to bear and pouring plasma fire into his Skirmishers. A few stray shots slammed into his shields, the sturdy unit holding up but turning a warning red. He silently cursed for his Jackals to move faster as he dodged and jinked in the frantic brawl that had broken out. Seth drilled a burst into the chest of a Grunt, making the smaller alien clutch the wound and scream, but before he could finish the Grunt off an Elite took aim towards him and Seth was gone again, a blur of blue shields and black feathers in the whirling melee.

He heard the anguished squawk of one of his drakes falling, but there was no time to figure out who had been hit, they just had to keep the Elites busy until, there! He saw the familiar outline of a shield wall as his Jackals came into the fight at last, advancing in a steady formation, keeping each other covered with their shields as they started taking shots at whoever wasn't a Skirmisher. "Out of the fight!" Seth shouted, "Take the high ground and finish them off!" The Skirmishers leaped clear of the battle, scrambling to get out of the line of fire of the Jackals below who started firing full volleys of plasma and needles. Seth and his Skirmishers opened fire from above, catching the survivors in a brutal cross fire, they didn't last long. They put up a valiant fight, the last elite firing madly as his shields flared and died, screaming a battle cry to his gods as he was torn apart by bullets and plasma bolts. Soon only the echoes of gunfire were left, swiftly fading into the background noise of the battle far away. "Alright, decommission those weapons!" Seth ordered, his Jackals stowing their shields and running over to the anti-air arrays.

They scrambled over the weapons, emptying the magazines of the big guns, loading high caliber fuel rods into their backpacks, before setting to work destroying the guns. A few minutes later the weapons were left a shouldering ruin, and the outpost was picked clean in the way only a detachment of Kig-Yar could, everything that wasn't nailed down and small enough to carry had been looted, most anything of monetary value vanishing into pouches and packs so fast it was like they had never been there. Seth himself came away somewhat richer, credit chits and sidearms tucked into his pack or stuffed into his belt. He looked over to his Jackals, counting the dead. It seemed three of their number had not made it through the encounter. He shook his head, this was the other part he hated, the time after when the adrenaline died and you had to grieve. "You all fought well." He said, hoping to console his troops, "You did me proud, and we've come away better for it, nicely done everyone. As for those who have fallen, their families will know the reward they earned, it is all we can do for them now." When the battle was over and the loot tallied, a portion would be set aside and delivered to the next of kin for the dead soldiers, it was the Kig-Yar way of honoring their dead. Seth sat down upon an empty ammo crate, looking up at the sky. "It's on you now, make it count."

Elsewhere, in the same forest…

Runa Tarikom cursed into his comm. "The Jackals took their target down first?"

"Actually the Rangers took their target down first, the Jackals just finished theirs though." Said their handler back in the fleet.

Runa shook his head, he was not used to being beaten to the punch, especially not by Jackals. But they were almost to their target, so the attack force would not have to wait for long. Runa looked out over the complex before them, the crude anti-aircraft weapons pointed skyward. Crude, but they could be deadly effective if given half a chance, something Runa was not about to afford them. His fellow SpecOps Elites stole forward across the open ground, nothing but phantasms with their cloaking gear engaged. Even when invisible, they kept out of the sight lines of the guards, it was instinct that was hard to shake, but it did help. Even with their cloaks engaged, it was possible that they could be seen, the cloaks were not perfect and sometimes a haze was visible depending on the light or how fast you were moving. So the long years of stealth training and experience that made Runa so good at his job were hardly wasted here. Runa crept over to one of the gun batteries, placing demolition charges on the power supplies and ammo cases. It really was a bad idea to place the guns so close together, one big explosion would take them out, not that Runa was complaining of course. He was good at his job, but the incompetence of the enemy was always a welcome advantage to take into battle. Runa made sure his team was in position, before priming the detonator.

The explosion was most satisfactory, the plasma coils powering the emplacements detonating magnificently, the fuel rods sitting in the firing tubes brewing up as well. The cascading explosion consumed anyone unlucky enough to be standing near the emplacement in a ball of blue and green fire, and sent everyone else in the camp panicking, turning in their places to stare at the inferno that a moment ago had been the weapon they were responsible for. Of course this was a terrible, and in many cases fatal, mistake. Runa swung his sword in a lazy arc, neatly decapitating the nearest Elite, as he looked around the compound to get a sense of the progress the others were making. All around the destroyed guns enemies were being picked off, assaulted and killed by seemingly invisible forces as cloaked Elites stabbed their victims with plasma blades. The officers were the first to go, wiped out before they could even do anything, after that only the Grunts and Jackals were left. They started to notice what was going on, a Grunt screaming as it noticed the Jackal next to him fall to the ground, missing his head. Runa flicked his sword through the Grunts chest, silencing the cry. Some of the panicked survivors tried to shoot, tried to fight back, but they were shooting wildly, fear had taken them. They hit nothing, and were swiftly silenced by the invisible killers stalking the compound. Within a few moments the 'battle' was done, the enemy lay dead at their feet, their target destroyed.

"Operative Tarikom here, the objective has been neutralized, you are clear to proceed, we will move up and support the advance." He received an affirmative from command, and set off running through the forest, long loping strides carrying him closer to the central facility the enemy was so desperately protecting. A few minutes into his journey, he heard the familiar whine of engines overhead, looking up to see a flight of Spirit dropships hurtling past, ferrying the assault troops forward to the Forerunner site ahead. Tarikom grinned, it would be pure chaos by the time he got there, the perfect situation for him to ply his trade. He cloaked himself and moved fast across an open field, looking ahead to see the majestic spire of Forerunner architecture rising up from the forest floor, surrounded by the Spirits like little buzzing insects, the sky alight with the glowing beams of weapons fire. The heavy guns on the Spirits were doing their jobs, keeping the enemy suppressed as shock troops descended the grav lifts to storm the compound.

Tarikom jogged through the now undefended gate, nothing but a shimmering shadow as he moved into the fighting. Storm Covenant battled Sangheili warriors, Grunts on each side took potshots at each other, Jackals from Runa's fleet advanced in shield walls as they sent volleys of needles into enemy Elites. It was quite the spectacle. Runa charged in, activating his sword just long enough to cut a Jackal in half before moving on. He idly tossed a grenade up onto a sniper's perch, hearing the Jackals squawk in alarm before being blasted apart as he broke the neck of a Grunt manning a plasma cannon. He walked out around the edge of the fighting, observing his fellow warriors storming the enemy's emplacements, when his comm activated.

"Operative Tarikom, how is the fight?" Runa recognized the voice, it was Field Marshall 'Sarom, commander of the ground forces of the task force. It was he who gave Tarikom his orders for this operation.

"Not much of one I fear." Runa said as he casually sliced through the spine of a Storm Elite unlucky enough to be within arm's reach.

"Then perhaps I can remedy that." 'Sarom growled, "I have a new mission for your team. You are to proceed to these coordinates within the Forerunner structure. We believe that the enemy leader has fled there, into the heart of the structure. It is possible that he intends to make off with important artifacts, or activate something within the structure. Either way, get in and stop him, permanently if you have to. Taking him alive would be preferable so that we may question him, but if he must die, so be it."

"I hear and obey." Runa said. His squad had been listening in on the conversation, so he did not need to repeat himself. They had been performing operations like this for a long time, no special instruction was needed. Their cloak charge nearing zero, they rushed out of the center of the fighting, skulking through shadows while their armor's capacitors recharged, before dispatching the nervous guards outside the spire, and heading inside.

Runa moved more cautiously now, this was not his preferred environment. A SpecOps Elite was practically untouchable in open country, or during frantic combat. Then they were nearly impossible to spot. But in the close quarters of the tunnel their stealth units were much less effective. There was only one way they could advance, and an enemy looking straight down the tunnel at them was likely to pick up the distortions of light passing through the stealth fields. They still had an edge, but it was greatly mitigated here. Thankfully there didn't seem to be that many hostiles in the tunnels, they were likely all committed to the battle outside, but that hardly meant they were alone in here. True enough, Runa caught a blip on the edge of his motion tracker. He slowed down, examining it. It was barely there, a tiny flicker of motion on the edge of the sensor's range, probably around the next turn in the corridor. Runa crept slowly up to the corner, peering around to get a look. It was a guard post alright, fairly standard setup for the Remnant forces. A Grunt sat behind his plasma cannon, Elite pacing nervously behind a hastily erected barricade. Every time one of the defenders moved it set off little ripples on his motion tracker, sloppy.

Runa whispered commands to his subordinates, standard clearing action, nothing fancy. The half dozen Elites confirmed his orders, readying themselves for the attack. Tarikom clipped his sword to his side, drawing the carbine on his back. He leaned around the corner again, aiming for the head of the Grunt gunner. His team started to move into the corridor, moving as quietly as they could, though there was bound to be some noise from the hard floor. The Elite noticed the movement first, a hallway full of motion blur wasn't hard to miss, even if you didn't know exactly what you were looking at. He started to cry alarm, when his gunner suddenly dropped dead. Tarikom switched to the Elite, opening fire as the enemy dived for cover. The shots pinged off the Elite's shields, the warrior leaning out from cover to open fire with his Storm Rifle, stitching plasma fire across one of the advancing SpecOps troopers, his cloak failing under the punishment. Rune growled, a SpecOps Elite without his cloak was in a bad spot, their armor wasn't as protective as most other gear. Thankfully his people responded fast, arcing a grenade around the corner to suppress the enemy, then rushing up to finish him off with a burst of plasma from their own rifle. Rune jogged over to the injured Sangheili, traces of blue blood issuing from the craters in his armor. "Brother, how bad is the injury?"

"It looks worse than it is commander." Grunted the Elite, standing tall, though wincing when he moved. "I am ready to continue the fight.

Runa shook his head, "No, tend to your wounds, we can finish the enemy alone, you have done your part this day."

The operative looked like he wanted to protest, but his sense of honor stayed his words. "As you command, so shall it be." He walked over to sit down on an ammo crate and began to poke at his wounds, wincing as he examined the half-melted craters on his armor.

Runa clipped a fresh magazine into his carbine and continued deeper into the structure, keeping one eye glued to his motion detector as they delved deeper into the ruin. Of course, as with most Forerunner structures, the word 'ruin' hardly described it. The spire was as pristine as the day its makers had left it, every surface shining as though it had just been polished and the age old machinery still in perfect working order. It was as though the Forerunner had just stepped out for the afternoon and were sure to return any moment now. Runa was not a religious Sangheili, but he had to admit to feeling a little awed by the spectacle of ancient power. The team progressed further into the facility, finding no further opposition in their path, something that Runa found increasingly unnerving. As always he was on alert for enemies suddenly leaping form the corners, but there was nothing to be seen. It was one of the more unpleasant sensations he had felt on a mission, the distinct feeling there should be enemies where none exist. Phantoms aside, they met no one on their path into the great machine. A few minutes later Runa felt they were growing very near to their goal, the shape of the machines about them changing, and the corridor widening out into a larger chamber. Tarikom noticed sensor ghosts on the edge of the scanner's range, something was moving out there, likely the target he had been sent after. He activated his cloak and stole into the great chamber in the heart of the machine, his fellows following his lead.

Runa moved as quietly as he could over the hard metal floor, creeping up to one of the strange Forerunner machines which littered the chamber, and peering around it. He saw movement on the far side off the chamber, a figure disappearing behind another of the strange objects which jutted up from the floor. Runa told his Elites to fan out, there was no sense in walking straight into an ambush if one was in the making, he would close with the leader himself with his troops watching his back. Tarikom let his cloak recharge before walking forward, climbing the incline up to where he had seen the figure, and rounding the corner. The walkway ahead of him stretched out and became a bridge, suspended over the rest of the room, rising up to a platform in the exact center of the large chamber. Runa saw the figure again, getting a better look at him. It had to be the enemy leader, his armor too elaborate to denote any lesser rank. He raised his carbine and aimed in, but the figure walked out of sight before he could get a good shot. Just as well, the enemy's shields were likely too strong for the carbine to be effective at this range. He exchanged the firearm for his sword, swiftly climbing the ramp towards the platform.

When he reached it, he saw that atop the platform was some kind of control panel, Forerunner glyphs twisting and merging in the air above the panel. Runa read none of the Forerunner script, that was a skill beyond his ability, though he imagined that the human scientists aboard the Wotan would love to spend a few months staring at them. Perhaps they would get the chance after they secured this place. Runa stepped around the panel to see the figure he was pursuing, raising his hands up from the surface, evidently having just done something to it. He held his hands aloft, offering prayer to the machine before him, before sniffing the air.

"So you come to silence me, to strangle the truth I bring." He said, his voice deep and calm.

Runa deactivated his cloak, his sword flashing into life in his hand. "Only if I have to, I imagine those in the fleet would love to hear your truth, and question you on it in great detail."

"I suspect they do, not that it will do the heretics any good." The other Elite growled, his eyes returning to the device before them. "What I have set into motion here, cannot be undone."

Runa felt unease in his hearts, but none of it showed on his face. "Speak then bastard, tell me what you have done here."

The enemy glanced at him, huffing out a little laugh. "I may as well, it is as much for you as it is for me. This place, this blessed place, is where the Forerunners perfected their ultimate power. It was here, at the closing of the last age, that they transcended unto godhood." He ran a loving hand over the device before him, "This temple is a gateway, a road leading up to the heavens themselves, it is the first lighthouse upon the path to perfection. Rejoice my brother, for the Great Journey begins."

Runa tightened the grip on his sword. "The Journey is a lie, it always has been. If you still cling to the falsehoods of the Prophets then you are more fool than I thought!"

The enemy spared him an annoyed glance. "Such words are often spoken by the ignorant in the face of divine providence. I have read the scripture inscribed in this place, searched long and hard for it, this is the correct place, and the correct time. Here the gateway to the next world can be opened. Correction, will open, shortly. The Great Journey is upon us, and the faithful will be rewarded, even you are welcome in out glorious company, if you find it within your hearts to follow us upon the path."

Runa snorted, "The only path you are set on is being dragged back to the brig, after that I suspect your path becomes very short. I tire of your words, come along now. Or shall I cut off your limbs and carry you?"

The other Elite gave him an infuriatingly pious glare. "Very well brother, your fate is sealed, I had hoped that… Ah, it begins."

Runa took one step, when he heard the hum, rising low through the chamber and causing the platform to vibrate. He snapped up his sword, force of habit, and scanned the room, looking for the source of the sound. After a moment, he realized that the source was the room itself, the entire structure was shifting and changing, rearranging itself in ways Runa could scarcely comprehend. "What have you done!" he shouted, putting his sword to the Elite's throat. The other did not attack, simply sank down onto his knees, his hands raised in salutation.

"I have opened the path to salvation, the Great Journey has begun." He then began to recite the Writ of Union, "On the blood of our fathers, on the blood of our sons…" Runa grimaced and neatly cut his head off, kicking the corpse off the platform.

"Spill your own damned blood." He spat after the corpse, before running down off the platform, shouting to his men to escape the rapidly brightening room.

Runa raced through the corridors, which were now humming with that one pure note. He nearly grabbed the wounded soldier in the tunnel and carried him along he was so high on adrenaline, racing along through the corridor to reach the exit. "Fieldmaster, this is operative Tarikom, something is happening in the Forerunner structure, the enemy leader did something before we got here, activated some device! Hello, Fieldmaster! Damn!" Whatever was going on he couldn't contact the fleet, his comm was awash with static, he could hear nothing. He double timed it, whatever was going on he didn't think being inside the facility when it happened was a good idea, he could feel static electricity crackling over his skin, making it crawl like he was covered in insects. Finally he escaped the confines of the tower, looking around at the darkened landscape. The battle outside was well and truly finished, of the enemy only the dead remained. His fellow Elites seemed to be having the same problems with their communications that Runa was, many of them were smacking their helmets angrily or looking to the sky. One Major ran over to him, a worried look on his face.

"Sir, what is going on here? We have lost all contact with the fleet!"

Runa shrugged, angry he had no good answer for the Major. "I am unsure warrior, the enemy had done something with the tower, it is activating somehow. Whatever it is doing I advise we clear the area at all possible speed, gather your men and get them into the woods!" The Major nodded sharply, bellowing orders in a voice like thunder, as the troops quickly turned around and started running into the woods. They needed little encouragement to get away from a giant Forerunner tower that was making ominous noises and, lighting up? Runa glanced over his shoulder to look at the tower, seeing a blue glow racing up the sides, bright lines of energy arcing across its surface. Vines and vegetation flash ignited and dropped away as the ancient machine roared into life again, after so many eons of sitting silent. Suddenly, the energy discharged, a bright blue beam firing up into the heavens. From around the forest a multitude of other beams joined in, smaller ones arcing up to meet their larger brother high in space over the planet. Runa craned his neck back, trying to follow them, squinting into the night sky to find the point where the met. At first, there was but a pinprick of light, the meeting point of the beams. But then, as the beams continued to feed the spot it slowly grew. Before his eyes the tiny star blossomed outward like some great shining flower in the night sky, its outer edges glowing bright against the black of space. The vortex yawned open, directly before the Sangheili fleet in orbit. "Oh shit." Runa breathed. Suddenly, his comm came alight with panicked cries as the voices of his brothers finally came through.

"Yes, yes hello? This is operative Tarikom on the ground, who is this? What! I don't care about that, my people down here need extraction! Listen to me, I am here with most of the ground forces near the primary tower, yes that one, we need immediate extraction! I don't care if you have to dangle a rope down from the ship, get us out of here! Thank you, I knew you would see things my way." Runa deactivated his comm, cursing whoever put that idiot in charge of flight coordination. For how dramatic the beam itself was, it didn't seem to be causing any damage to them on the ground. Apart from annoying static on their communications channels it didn't seem to have any real effect on them. Not that he suspected it was the same up in orbit, the yawning portal to, somewhere hovering overhead seemed to indicate otherwise. But that was an issue he could deal with once his Elites were safely aboard the fleet, or at least let other people deal with. True to his assurances, a group of Spirit dropships came humming down a few minutes later, taking aboard his men. He stepped off of the grav lift and walked across the troop bay to the cockpit, leaning through the doors. "We are aboard pilot, get us to the fleet."

"Not yet sir, we have more pickups down there." The pilot said, turning the craft about and racing over the canopy.

Runa looked over his shoulder at the nearly full troop bay. "The ship is almost full pilot, how many are we taking?"

"Everyone who needs a lift." The pilot said simply, his eyes on his controls.

Runa shrugged, he supposed the pilot had to know what he was doing, otherwise he wouldn't have this job. There were few places to sit in the gunship, and those seats that were there were occupied by the wounded. So he simply stood, holding onto the rails across the ceiling as they glided smoothly over the treetops, finally coming to a stop above a wrecked enemy outpost. The hatches snapped open, grav lifts activating, and a few seconds later Jackals started pouring into the ship, leaping sideways to clear the way for their brethren. Runa frowned, they were small creatures but there were so damned many of them! He wondered if they would all fit. The last one up was one of the rarer breeds, a Skirmisher decked out in human weapons and armor, squawking at his fellows in their native tongue. After ensuring that his people were aboard the Skirmisher called up to the cockpit. "That's everyone, now go!" The pilot looked annoyed at being given orders by a Kig-Yar, and one from the Confederacy at that, but he knew his job so he did it. Runa looked at the shorter creature, noting with some distaste the pouches and backpack bulging with loot. "Do you lead this… detachment?" He asked, as politely as he could manage.

"Yes, these are my troops. Thanks for the ride, our ship was forced to abandon its position when the battle moved towards it and was unable to send relief. My name is Seth, by the way, Seth Zakrin." The Skirmisher waved his hand a little, before returning it to the grip of his rifle. Runa nodded. "We are always glad to render assistance to our allies, I am pleased we were able to fit you and your belongings aboard." He glanced slightly at a few of the Jackals in the back of the bay, who had sat down in a little circle on the floor and were rummaging through their packs, comparing loot. Seth shrugged, "Thankfully I convinced them to not try and bring the plasma coils, I thought you would find that annoying." Runa did. He grimaced, looking at the looters standing in the bay. He made a mental not to keep a firm grip on his gear until they were out of this dropship. Thankfully they seemed to be going up now, racing up through the atmosphere towards the waiting fleet in orbit. What was less reassuring was the increasing turbulence as they increased in altitude. Turbulence was nothing new to him of course, but usually the turbulence stopped when you got out of the atmosphere, but now it was increasing as they rose from the atmosphere. Runa walked up to the cockpit, leaning through the doors. "What's going on? It's getting a bit rough."

"I am aware of that." The pilot said, checking his controls again. "There's something pulling on us up here, I think it's that, thing, the beams created." Runa looked out the window, seeing the great rupture in space pulsating over the planet, the great rip twisting and pulsing. "I think it's pulling on the other ships as well!" The cruisers seemed to be wobbling in space, the vessels igniting their engines as they attempted to push away from the rift. "That thing is generating a gravity well, we're being pulled towards it, I'll try to get us to that cruiser!" The pilot said, grunting as he fought with his controls. The pilot seemed to be skilled enough, arcing them towards the docking bay of a nearby cruiser. The constantly changing pull of the rift didn't make it easy, it yanked at the craft and pulled it off course a few times, the pilot having to fight his craft all the way in. They shot through the shields on the bay, just barely managing to stop ahead of the wall, settling gently down onto the floor. The pilot sank back onto his chair, letting out a relieved breath. "We made it sir." Runa felt a tremor run through the decks below him. "I hope so." He said, exiting the dropship.

He walked quickly across the docking bay, going to speak with the officer in charge of the bay. "Brother, what befalls the fleet?"

The other Elite turned to look at him, listening to something nervously on his radio before speaking. "Something most grave I fear, our ships are being pulled towards the anomaly created over the planet, thus far I do not think we have been able to break free."

"Could we be… pulled through it?" Runa asked, not wanting to contemplate that too much.

"Possibly, if we are unable to break its hold on us. We are maneuvering to push against it with our main engines. Please excuse me, I have my duties to attend to!" The Elite ran off, coordinating with the other smaller ships trying to find refuge on the larger vessels. Runa looked out through the docking bay shield at the yawning vortex of energy that had formed over the planet. Nestled within the heart of the roiling energy was a pure black sphere into which all light seemed to be absorbed. A shiver ran up his spine, and he hoped the engines would hold. The ship rotated around to point its engines at the rift and engaged them, reverberations running through the deck plates. Runa Tarikom felt ice clutch at his hearts, as he realized they weren't moving.

Meanwhile, aboard the Wotan…

Captain Warren Roberts stood, as he was wont to do, before the great holoprojector which dominated the Wotan's bridge. He was an older man, his neatly trimmed beard starting to go gray, as was the hair beneath his uniform cap. He carried his age well though, forcing himself to keep in good shape and maintain his youthful energy. Of course the gene mods helped with that, despite his cosmetic appearance he felt ten years younger than he had any right to. Physically at least, sometimes this job made him feel very old indeed. He stood over the projector, watching the other ships moving in the system, the planets slowly revolving around their star. His hands clasped behind his back, Roberts looked as though he was studying the display in great detail. Actually he was considering the current deployment of his ship, though it was good to keep up an appearance of constant vigilance for the men. Roberts did not like how his ship had been treated lately. Patrolling the inner planets, running relief supplies out to colonies and most recently parking in orbit for two weeks to run ground combat wargames for every species with a military. Roberts was glad that his ship was being helpful, but he yearned for a little more than this. His ship, the pride of humanity, was being used as a propaganda piece, making big flashy tours through safe space for the benefit of newscasts. When a human population center was told the Wotan was flying through their system morale soared, everyone got proud and patriotic about what a great achievement the UNSC had accomplished, what a feat of engineering, what a display of skill! He felt like a visiting dignitary who was forever trapped in a reception parade, driving past the crowds of cheering citizens, politely waving and smiling, never actually doing anything. And when they reached the end the car simply turned around and the whole parade started over again. He wondered if the Wotan and its crew would ever see any real action, or if they were forever condemned to this purgatory of polite appearances.

Not that he wanted another war, far from it. Roberts was a firm believer in the notion that the greatest sword was one which was never drawn in anger. But a sword should be kept ready and waiting, not waved about in the air so gawking crowds can marvel at its sheen. Wotan was a warship, the greatest ever to fly under a human banner, perhaps the greatest to fly since the Forerunners had gone the way of the Dodo. It deserved more than this, it should be out on the rim of civilized space guarding against Brute war bands or Storm Covenant terrorists, not puttering around settled space doing goodwill tours. When he had come aboard this ship for the first time, Captain Roberts had sworn that he would do great things with this ship. He cared not if his own name was forgotten by history, but if he had anything to say about it 'Wotan' would be one that would echo in the minds of naval historians for a century. Thus far, he had not gotten the chance to make good on that oath. He let out a heavy sigh, turning away from the display and walking to his chair. "How go the games?" He asked his XO.

Lieutenant Pressley turned in his chair, checking a readout at his workstation. "Well enough, the Army and the Marines are duking it out right now, full on force on force battle in the combat deck.

"Who's winning?" Roberts asked.

"The Spartans." Pressley replied.

"They're not fighting." Roberts replied.

"Exactly, the Devil Dogs and the ground pounders are ripping each other apart, it's a bloodbath down there."

Roberts shook his head, resisting the urge to call up the video feed just to have something to watch. It would be unprofessional looking, and he could always watch a recording later. "Fockewulf." He said, the AI's avatar materializing on the tiny plinth at his chair.

"Yes sir?" He asked, standing at attention with his hand on his sword hilt.

"Any major events I should be aware of?" Roberts knew the AI wouldn't have anything to tell him, if he did Fockewulf would have already said something. He asked because it gave him something to do, and truth be told the eccentric AI was usually entertaining to talk to.

"Nothing major sir, only your usual rowdiness when you get multiple branches of the armed forces together in a confined space. There's been a significant prank war between every different faction on the ship, yesterday the Air Force jocks ambushed some Marines with water balloons filled with bright pink dye, and the Army replaced a large number of Navy technical manuals with Hunter poetry collections."

"How was the poetry?" Roberts asked, feeling a little cheered by the holographic swordsman.

"Too much rumination on soil for my liking Captain, though they do a fine job with battle imagery. Not all their senses translate properly though, it's hard to connect to a vivid description of the vibration of a tank thirty feet away. Other than that sir there is little going on, it seems we have a nice long schedule of sitting here doing nothing."

"It must be torture for you." Roberts observed. He was bored out of his skull and the AI could think a thousand times faster than he could.

Fockewulf shrugged. "I'm taking the opportunity to catch up on some reading, the Sangheili have an interesting literary tradition. We don't often have Sangheili ships lingering nearby or their people aboard so I swapped book files with a few of them. Fairly interesting reading I must say. Also, I've resorted to making amusing shapes in the clouds on the combat deck. I think this is a new low for me. I've almost been desperate enough to…" Roberts heard a fluttering sound, a moment later a raven landed on Fockewulf's shoulder. He leaned over, the blackbird whispering in his ear. When he looked back his expression was deadly serious. "Sir, there's a problem. I just received a communication from the Sangheili fleet that departed here yesterday, they've run into trouble on their mission and are calling for help." Roberts sat up in his chair, it was not often the proud aliens called for help, especially from humans. "They were tasked with taking a Forerunner structure taken by the Storm Covenant, and they've run into a serious complication. The site is active, and is creating some form of anomaly above the planet. This anomaly is creating severe gravimetric disturbances and seems to be pulling the Sangheili ships into it. They are trapped in the gravity well and are beginning to take damage, they want our help to get their people out.

Roberts rubbed his brow, considering the situation. "What's our ETA at maximum speed?"

"Two hours sir if we gun it." The AI replied.

"How long do the Sangheili have?"

The AI considered, "I'd say about two and a half to three hours before their engines start to go, they can't take the continual strain of pushing against that gravity well, they're redlining as it is."

"What can we do to help?" Roberts asked, he needed a plan of action.

"Not sure sir, destroying the emitters on the ground creating the disturbance might shut it, or it might make it worse I really can't say. Also, our engines are more powerful than the Sangheili's we could move through the gravity well and get out, though that's a risk."

"And we don't have time to offload the troops currently aboard, by the time they were halfway off the Elites would be dead already."

"That sums it up nicely sir." Fockewulf said, "Your orders?"

Roberts closed his eyes, considering for three heartbeats. "Fockewulf, set intercept course with the Sangheili detachment, we're going in!"

"Aye sir!" The AI shouted, wheeling about to look at the main display. The ship was far too big for him to feel the movement, but he watched as the engines flared into life and they started to push off from the planet, shrugging off the gravitational pull like a wet coat. "Ground control is protesting sir." Fockewulf said, grinning.

"Answer them in kind." Roberts replied, "Inform the crew and passengers of the situation, but let the Marines and Army finish their exercise, no use trying to come between them now." The AI nodded, his voice instantly sounding throughout the ship, bringing them up to speed on the situation. Captain Roberts interlaced his fingers together in front of him, his elbows resting on the arms of his chair. The swirling maw of slipspace opened up before them and the ship disappeared into it, racing to the aid of a onetime enemy. Roberts wondered if this was just a mission of mercy, or if fate had larger plans in store. One way or another, he would make sure the name 'Wotan' would be remembered for this.

In a darker universe…

Gaius did not like disappointing Inquisitor Graves. Part of it was the Inquisitor himself. In a world of self-serving cowards and backstabbing rogues Tyburn Graves was a man who tried to live up to the legends told about his order. He was a noble man, a strong man, a man of honor. Regardless of his rank, Tyburn Graves was a man Gaius would have been willing to follow to the Eye of Terror if it would help the Imperium, the man would have made a fine Ultramarine had he been born within the realm of Ultramar. So half of his sentiment was due to wishing to fully perform his duties to so noble a man. The other half, was his own pride. Gaius was not accustomed to failure. He had been in losing battles, no warrior who survived as many fight as he did could claim to never know defeat. But defeat was often due to many more factors than Gaius' skill alone. Perhaps an ally had faltered, or the enemy was more strong than expected. Perhaps the enemy was in a better position, or the weather was not favorable or your backup was late. Simple fate, random chance carried more battles than Gaius would like to admit. But this affair with the artifact was not simply defeat, it was failure. A personal failure on Gaius' part. He authorized the plan which led to the destruction of the town and loss of the artifact. He was unable to lead his squad to victory against the wretched xeno spawn which had appeared to combat him. He had not been enough of a Marine to win the day in the name of the Emperor. For the first time in his long career, the fault of defeat, and the burden of retribution fell entirely upon Gaius' shoulders. It was not a burden he wished to bear for long, so he committed all his ability towards uncovering the truth behind the mysterious obelisk.

Right now, that effort had him sitting in the ship's library, power-reading through a stack of illuminated manuscripts. "Tell me brother, how exactly does this help? I do not doubt your abilities, but is this not a task for Inquisitors?" Gaius looked up from his reading, Ulrich sitting across the table, a goblet of mead in his hand.

"As my armor is tended to and I have already practiced the rights of combat today, I have nothing more to occupy my time, so I am assisting the Inquisitor in researching the artifact." He said, flipping the page on the ancient text he was reading. Ulrich leaned in, peering at the aged parchment.

"And what exactly is that?" He asked.

Gaius frowned, "It is a description of various minor xeno races and their technologies, I am hoping to find a correlation between anything in this book and the appearance of the artifact and the creatures which defended it."

Ulrich nodded, "Because if you find something that looks similar then you can get an idea who built the object?"

Gaius nodded. "Indeed, then we can get some idea of who made it, when it might have been made, and where. Even if we do not know the object's function, knowing the identity of the race who made it would be a great boon in any attempt to understand it."

Ulrich nodded again, looking down at the illuminated drawings on the page. "Any luck so far?"

Gaius closed the book, adding it to the depressingly large pile of volumes that had proven useless. "No, unfortunately not. I have never heard of, nor seen, nor read or, nor encountered any reference to anything like the object we saw, or the beings which were summoned to defend it. The weapons, appearance and abilities of those monsters was something completely and totally outside my experience, or that of any Astartes I have ever spoken with. Which, in and of itself, is an important piece of information."

"Because it implies this is the work of someone we have never encountered before?" Ulrich reasoned.

"Precisely!" Gaius said, pulling over another tome and opening it, "If that is the case, then it is either a new race making their first inroads into Imperial territory, or the relic of an old race, traces of which we have not encountered previously. Given that the artifact was unearthed in a mine deep below the planet's surface, I suspect the second possibility is more likely. In all likelihood this was a relic left buried here by some race which visited this world in ages past, of whom little or no other traces remain."

Ulrich was following along, "Which raises the issue that their warriors were able to rise again to defend the object even after all this time. It concerns me that such a fighting force had lain dormant for so long, we hardly need another group of Necrons running about the galaxy making a mess of things."

Gaius shook his head, leafing through the book, still finding nothing. "Hardly, which is why we need to identify whether the race behind this object is a major threat, or whether the incident earlier is simply the echoes of a race long dead. In either case, I intend to find the answers."

Ulrich looked over to his pile of books, sighing before sitting down and grabbing a volume, flipping through it with a look of intense disinterest, though Gaius knew he was actually paying attention. As informal as the Wolf might be, he was a Space Marine under all those furs and totems, and that meant a certain discipline and duty that few outside their chapters could comprehend, much less find within themselves. They had scarcely gotten through half of their respective books before the voice of their ship's captain sounded over the intercom. "Attention, senior staff to the bridge, this is an emergency!" Ulrich looked to Gaius, putting the book aside. "Not that this isn't interesting, but we should go!" Gaius nodded sharply, rising from his bench and making for the bridge with all due haste.

They emerged onto the bridge of the Holy Reckoning a few minutes later, seeing that Inquisitor Graves was already there. Gaius heard the thump of Marine footfalls behind him, hearing Mendoza's voice as he came into the room. "What is the alarm about?" He asked. Gaius did not answer him, he was too busy staring at what, beyond all doubt, had caused the alarm. It was as though a great blue-white flower had opened in space, the petals twisting and spinning around a core of solid black. Pulsing lines of energy ran out of the center, sending little vapor trails out into space. Inquisitor Graves was standing by the front window of the bridge, his hands clasped behind his back as he gazed at the strange emission forming over the planet. "Auspex, what can you tell me?" He asked, without turning. The operator poured over his workstation, examining the parchment feeding out of the scanner device, "Very little my lord. The… disturbance is emitting a steady flow of radiation, nothing that is dangerous inside the ship, and appears to have stopped growing in size. The large flare you are seeing is a side effect, the actual event is the black central, well, object is not the right word. If these readings are accurate, that event in the center has no mass, it is not a physical object of any form."

Graves stroked his beard, considering. "Then what exactly is it, and more importantly what is causing it?"

"Unknown milord, the effect is emitting astounding levels of energy, though it does not seem to be absorbing any from the surrounding environment. I would say that it was being generated by something within the anomaly itself, but as I said there is no mass within the center of the disturbance."

"So there is nothing there?" Gaius asked, curiosity getting the better of him.

The auspex operator bowed low as he walked past. "Not entirely nothing milord. While there is no mass that I can detect within the sphere, I am getting something, radio waves that appear too ordered to be artificial."

"Communication?" Graves asked, walking swiftly over to the auspex station to observe the printout himself.

"Possibly milord, but it is so garbled I cannot discern anything from it. I would not want to theorize as to the exact nature of this anomaly milord."

"That is where I come in!" said a somewhat tinny voice behind Gaius. A figure in long red robes stepped through the doorway onto the bridge, the cogwheel sign of the Adeptus Mechanicus prominent on his chest. It was Magos Edriton, one of Grave's retinue and his technical consultant. "No need to brief me, I was listening in over the vox as I hurried here. The nature of the anomaly seems to indicate that it is receiving energy from an outside source, through unknown means. Cross referencing this with the account of Techmarine Xavier on the artifact from the planet, I conclude they operate on similar principles, transmitting energy through, well, some medium I am unaware of at this time. Given that some form of radio communication is coming through that anomaly, I would conclude that it is some form of portal, being generated here by transmitting energy from another place, or even perhaps another time, though I would scarcely want to theorize that wildly."

Graves frowned. "You're saying someone could come through that thing?"

Edriton nodded, "A great many someones, considering the size of that portal." Then he seemed to realize the weight of what he had just said. "Oh my, that's quite frightening actually."

Graves did not bother to respond, turning to face the vox console. "Contact the System Defense Force, tell them to get every armed ship they can within range of that disturbance, it is likely this system is under threat of invasion by an unknown force. And move us in as well, arm for combat." The bridge launched into a flurry of activity, crewmen and officers moving to carry out the Inquisitor's orders. Guns were loaded, torpedo tubes armed, the ships engines fired up and started pushing the vessel towards the disturbance in space. The 'Reckoning was a fine ship, measuring some two kilometers in length. It was hardly the most powerful ship the Inquisitor had access to, but he preferred something more subtle than a battleship for conducting most of his business. Though small, the 'Reckoning had an able weapons compliment, and a fine crew. It had always served them well. They accelerated towards the disturbance, everything seeming to go well at first, then Gaius saw their bow slipping away from the anomaly ahead of them. The ship corrected course towards the black heart, but it swung in the other direction this time. "I cannot hold course!" The helmsman cried, "That anomaly is pushing us back, some form of inverse gravity well, I can't push through it."

Inquisitor Graves stroked his beard again, thin

g. "Then we sit and wait." He concluded. "for our guests to arrive."

Aboard a Sangheili cruiser…

Seth nervously tapped his talons on the side of his rifle. He was sitting in the landing bay of the cruiser the Elite's dropship had brought him to, wondering just how bad the situation was. Of course the Elites had been 'handling' the situation hours ago, and the situation was unchanged now. Whatever Forerunner meddling had created this rip in space had them stuck fast like insects in sap, unable to move but unable to stop struggling lest they drown. Seth tapped his taloned toes on the deck plating, listening to the noise of the engines. The Elites around him didn't seem so concerned, but they didn't have the upbringing Seth had. These Elites were simply guests on ships, Seth had lived on ships for most of his life, they were his home, and he knew the sounds a healthy engine made, and the ones a dying engine made. Right now, the engine of this cruiser was singing its death song, struggling beyond its limits to try and keep the ship from tumbling down into the gravity well of the anomaly behind them. Seth continued tapping his claws, wishing he had some music to listen to, or something to pass the time. Whether he would live or not was out of his hands right now, he just wished he didn't have to sit around waiting for something to happen.

After a few minutes more he saw the SpecOps Elite from earlier walked over, sitting down on a crate a few feet from Seth. "Sticking close to the dropships too?" Seth asked, eying the Elite. Sangheili tended to look down on Kig-Yar, thought they were nothing but worthless scavengers. Seth always took offense at that, he was far from worthless.

"I may be needed." The Elite said, holding himself high.

"You don't need to keep up appearances for me Sangheili, I'm not exactly feeling very confident right now myself. Trusting my life to these navy types, never sat well with me."

The Elite shifted in place. "I am somewhat uneasy. We have been hanging here far too long, something should happen, either for good or ill I care not, but this waiting is intolerable."

"I know, I know! I can't stand just sitting here and waiting, no news or action, just sitting and polishing my rifle." Seth shook his head, trying to not think about the hole in space opening up behind him.

The Elite was about to say something, when a voice cut over the intercom. "Attention all hands, this is the shipmaster, prepare to offload crew, the UNSC has sent a ship to aid us. The engines are about to fail, get to the dropship bays as quickly as you are able."

Seth looked over at Runa, Runa looked at Seth. Then they both scrambled to their feet and began running for the Spirits, hollering for their men to follow. One way or another, it looked like the waiting was over.

The other soldiers in the hangar piled into the Spirit, the flight crew having waited in the ship for this opportunity to come. "Hold on back there, we are allowing the human ship to move in close, then we will move over to them."

Seth packed himself into a corner, looking out the open side doors of the Spirit and through the shield of the bay. He was grateful that the UNSC had sent a ship to aid them, but he wondered how well they would fare. If ships made by the Covenant were unable to contend with the disturbance, what hope would a human ship have? Then again, the humans had made impressive inroads recently, so perhaps there was a chance. He watched the bay, waiting in horrified anticipation for something to happen, then he saw the flare of a massive set of engines move past the bay, frighteningly close. After that a great mass of gunmetal gray plating moved past the bay, eclipsing the cruiser with its mass. After that he saw no more, the side doors slamming shut and the Spirit lifting off. The pilot pointed the sturdy little craft towards the human ship and slammed the throttle forward, racing out of the bay. Seth could see nothing, only felt the shock and turbulence as the gravimetric disturbance pulled at their ship, yanking them off course. But it seemed that only lasted a moment, once they were within the shields of the human ship they were protected from the emissions, darting into the open bay where the doors flew open again.

"Everyone out!" The pilot cried, "I have to get back for another load!"

Seth leaped clear over the heads of the Sangheili as they exited the troop bay, landing with a skitter on the decking. He looked around in awe at the huge landing bay, seeing the human gunships lifting off to race over to the Sangheili ship, Spirits dropping off their loads before turning around. The other Kig-Yar walked over to him, looking to him for leadership. Seth held his head tall, the Skirmisher leading them across the bay to where a group of humans had assembled near the doors out of the bay. "Seth Zakrin of the Kig-Yar Confederacy." He introduced himself in passable English, "Thanks for the ride."

The human nodded. "Our pleasure Mr. Zakrin, welcome aboard the UNSC Wotan. Please come with me, I'll show you people to a waiting room while we bring in more rescues."

Seth nodded, following the human out the door and eventually to a lounge of some form. He sat down on one of the chairs, thankfully about the right size for him, placing his pack and rifle next to him. Again, one way or another, his life was in the hands of someone else. He only hoped they were up to the task.

On the bridge of the Wotan, Captain Roberts stood before the holotable, hands clasped behind his back. "First load is aboard Captain, continuing the evacuation." Fockewulf said, standing on the main display table.

"Thank you, carry on." Roberts said, looking at the display. Thankfully the disaster was not as bad as he had thought, some of the Sangheili ships had managed to escape the anomaly's effects, burning out their engines to push their way out of the gravity well. But a few ships, the largest of which was this cruiser, were firmly stick in the center of the area of effect. The Wotan was right in the middle of them now, ferrying as many individuals over from the stricken ships as possible, fighting against time to save as many as they could. The Pelicans and Spirits flying between the ships were loaded to the gunnels with personnel, standing room only as they ferried troops to the Wotan. Roberts smacked a hand into his palm, nervous despite his attempts to keep calm. He had purposefully flown his ship into harm's way, on a mission of mercy. Standing here now, Roberts couldn't think that this was the wrong choice. He only needed to ask himself what he would want another to do in his place, if it were his ship trapped in that gravity well, and his crew facing almost certain death. Though he suspected that there were some in the fleet, or lurking in ONI, who would gladly have his career for rushing to the aid of aliens. In his opinion those people were not fit to shine the boots of his ensigns, though it was hardly advisable to say such things where anyone could hear you.

He stood there, before the display, watching the little blips that were the dropships running between the Wotan and the smaller ships around it, each one bringing at least a dozen aliens aboard where they were slightly safer. "Fockewulf, estimated time to completion?"

Not long sir, the sheer number of dropships in the air mean that we're moving people pretty fast, though the issue isn't how long we can stay here, it's how long until… oh damnit." The AI cursed, as Roberts watched, horrified as one of the holographic ships flashed, its engines disintegrating as the stricken ship tumbled end over end, the gravity well tearing it apart as it fell. The chunks of burning ship slammed into the petals extending around the portal, where they were ripped apart and sucked through. Fockewulf bowed his head, his eyes closed. "Nobody made it out of that captain, no one could."

Roberts cursed, they were running out of time.

"Captain, evacuation complete on one of the ships, it's on autopilot now, but its engines should be going up soon." A moment after he had finished his statement, one of the smaller ships detonated, the back third of the ship shearing off as its reactor brewed up. Again the corpse of the warship tilted over and tumbled into the roiling maw of the disturbance. Anything that touched the wake of the petals was obliterated, anything that fell through the black sphere in the center simply vanished. A few minutes later another ship was left empty, falling back towards the gravity well, a few dozen more souls saved from destruction. That only left the cruiser beside them.

"How long until we finish with that cruiser?" Roberts demanded, his palms sweating where they were clasped behind his back.

"Not sure sir, we're not entirely certain how many are still aboard. We don't have much longer though, that cruiser's engines are about ready to go, I wouldn't be surprised if, wait… Sir, it's going now!"

"Get the ships out of there!" Roberts shouted.

"Already done!" Fockewulf assured him, looking at the holographic cruiser. The engines flared, and engulfed themselves in fire, the chain of explosions running up the ship, gutting it from the inside. Fockewulf hung his head. "Not all our ships made it out sir, I'm sorry."

Roberts nodded, there would be time to grieve when the ship was out of danger. "Can we get out now?"

Fockewulf looked at the display, "Captain the cruiser is going to hit us!"

Captain Roberts looked at the display, seeing the corpse of the cruiser wallowing sideways, its bow moments from cleaving into the Wotan's side like a sword. "Divert power to shields, move us over!" As soon as the words left his mouth Fockewulf threw the power across the ship, diverting power from the engines to the shields, thrust vectoring to slide the great ship sideways, blunting the blow. But what a blow it was. The Cruiser slammed into the side of the Wotan, rocking the warship in place, the cruiser fragmenting on the shields before tumbling back down into the yawning abyss.

"Now get us out of here!" Roberts ordered, steadying himself against the holo table.

"Sir, I cannot." Fockewulf said, gravely.

"Explain, now." The captain said tersely.

"I had to divert energy from the engines to strengthen the shields to survive that hit, and we lost momentum in that impact as well. We've fallen down the gravity well and are under increased gravimetric stress. Our engines are not powerful enough to get us out of the pull. I'm sorry captain, we're stuck here."
Captain Roberts felt ice in his belly, as he looked at the hologram of the anomaly below them. "There is no way to escape?" He asked, just in case the AI made a mistake, not that that usually happened.

"No sir, at the present strength of the well, our engines will explode long before we have the strength to pull us out. I have us holding station for the moment, but it's only a matter of time before what happened to the Sangheili happens to us."

"Only this time there isn't someone with more powerful engines to pull us out." Roberts said, rubbing his brow to keep his cold sweat from running into his eyes. "There's no way out." He looked down at the yawning black sphere nestled at the center of the disturbance, which the wreckage just passed through. "Fockewulf, bring us about."

The AI took three full seconds to respond, staring into space blankly before he looked to the captain. "Sir, can you confirm that? I thought you said you wanted to turn around, but there must be a glitch in the bridge's audio receptors."

"You heard me damnit, bring us about! Full 180." Roberts ordered, sitting down on his chair and strapping in.

"Care to explain sir, for the crews sake, not me." Fockewulf said, looking as nervous as an AI can be.

"If you're at sea and you see a big wave coming you turn into it." Roberts explained, "Same principle here. All the debris passing through the center sphere of that anomaly as simply vanished, anything touching those shockwaves has been destroyed. We can't survive here, we can't get out, we can't go through those energy curtains, so we have only one course left. Into that anomaly, right through the eye of the storm."

"Sir, based on my analysis, that anomaly is some form of slipspace portal, not unlike the one leading from Earth to the Ark, but the energy being expended here is exponentially greater, I have absolutely no idea where it leads or if we can even get back."

"I'm counting on that being a portal. As to where it leads anywhere but here is looking pretty good right now, so take us in!"

Fockewulf nodded, then again with more confidence. "Aye sir, right into the eye of the storm!" He reached out, the wheel of an imaginary ship springing into his hands, as holographic storm winds blew about him. "All hands brace yourselves!" He shouted, his voice echoing from every speaker on the ship, "We are going in!"

The vast ship turned, the gravimetric shear pulling at it lengthwise, making the whole ship shudder and shake. Once they were turned around however it smoothed out, the gravity well pulling the ship straight down, the engines working with the flow, rather than fighting against it. They raced down, the petals of flowing energy filling the viewscreen, soon engulfed by the black sphere, they were racing down into it, were they already inside? No, they weren't but then suddenly the bow on the video screen vanished, a millisecond later the rest of the ship vanished with it.

They hung there in limbo for who knows how long. It seemed like a second, but it also felt like a thousand years, there was no way to be sure. Then suddenly they were out, spat out of the anomaly with as much force as they had been pulled into it. Roberts sucked in a deep breath, the recycled ship's air never tasting so sweet. Then he heard the sound of a sword leaving its scabbard. "Captain!" Fockewulf shouted, "We've got trouble!"

Not that far away…

Inquisitor Graves looked out the front viewport of his ship, examining the yawning anomaly in space before him, as though the naked eye could tell him more than every auspex on the ship. He continued watching as the minutes ticked by, the scrambled radio transmissions from the other side of the portal being played over the speakers at his request. He felt that he could hear some pattern to it, perhaps a word just on the edge of audibility over all the white noise, but like a memory you just couldn't grasp it remained tantalizingly out of reach. Then he heard the auspex operator speak up. "Sir, something is coming through the disturbance!"

"Identify!" He ordered, looking at the hololith on the bridge, a somewhat jumpy holo image of the anomaly displayed there. True enough there was some bits of matter flying out of the anomaly.

"It appears to be debris sir, nothing intact, no life or power as far as I can see."

The operator appeared to be correct, there were no parts there large enough to be a ship, and it did not appear to be weaponry of some form. He had to wonder what exactly was going on across the portal, that would cause wreckage to be floating through. This continued for several minutes, the volume of wreckage being flung out of the anomaly increasing. It was being accelerated by the inverted gravity well of the anomaly, flinging the debris towards the planet below where it would burn up and be destroyed. It was a great shame, but he could not afford to move the only armed ship close enough to intervene out of position to collect the salvage, with any luck some would fall into a semi-stable orbit so he could retrieve it later. Suddenly though his heart leaped into his throat, though externally he showed no sign of emotion, as something that was decidedly not wreckage came tearing through the portal. It was a ship, a long, thick ship. Its wide engines slowly tapering down along lines of sloped armor to a stubby prow. "Analyze that ship!" He cried, running to the auspex operator who worked frantically to comply. The Magos ran over just as fast, the two of them leaning over the rushing operators shoulders as they stared at his screens and printouts.

"Sirs! The ship is approximately twenty kilometers in length, nothing that I recognize as weaponry from this range, and is moving under power, at this time there is nothing else I can say sirs!"

Graves stood from the terrified operator, shouting to the captain. "Pursuit course now, tell the SDF to get on it as well, get us over there and acquire a weapons lock!"

"Yes milord!" The captain acknowledged, shouting orders over the ship's vox. The sleep Imperial ship turned about and flared its engines, launching after the intruder.

Within the Wotan…

Fockewulf ran a systems check the nanosecond they emerged from the portal. Satisfied he was in working order, he turned his attention to the rest of the ship, assessing the damage they had incurred in the transition. Thankfully it seemed the portal itself had caused no damage, although light to moderate repairs would be needed across several sections of the ship. Satisfied then that the Wotan was in as good a condition as it had any right to be, he turned his electronic gaze outwards to the area of space they were currently in. To his surprise they were in a star system. This seemed to disprove the notion that the exit point was random, as the chance of randomly picking a point in a stellar system was astronomically small. Not only that, but they were near a planet as well, a fairly sizable planet at that, one that could support life.

Correction, one that did support life.

Fockewulf activated every active and passive sensor on the ship, directing them towards the planet in question, listening to the wash of radio transmissions humming about the system. Despite the distance from the planet the signals were coming through loud and clear, and he immediately began recording several hundred frequencies, running a full analysis on the information. A good number of the channels seemed to be nothing but raw data, computers talking to each other. However the vast majority of the frequencies were filled with organics speaking to each other in an unknown language. Curious, while the language was unknown, the voices seemed very familiar. He ran an auditory analysis on the words being spoken, comparing them to a few hundred files on record. Curious, very curious, the language was unknown but the voices seemed human, very much human in fact. Either they were somehow hearing humans speaking here, using an unknown language in an unknown system, who knows how far from the UNSC, or a sapient alien race had evolved with a voice box identical to that of a modern human. Fockewulf ran off a few cycles to calculate which was more improbable, but wrote it off as a useless gesture.

On top of that, a few of the transmissions seemed to be entirely in binary, though the information was totally foreign to him. He could understand the binary well enough, but whatever was being translated into binary was unknown to him. Well, that was one more point in favor of these somehow being humans. Interesting as the planet was, he turned his attention to the other ships in the system. There were a few ships a long distance away, slowly hurtling towards them. It seemed that they were moving to intercept the anomaly. A perfectly reasonable course of action considering that a massive energy vortex had opened over their planet. More interesting, and concerning, was the larger ship orbiting the planet, very close to them. It measured approximately two kilometers in length, though he could not scan the interior of the ship very reliably. It seemed that it was very heavily armored, he would need a lot more time to crack that particular nut. However there was plenty he could tell from the outside of the ship. For one, it was covered in what seemed to be purely decorative iconography, even statuary. Fockewulf could hardly believe it, the sheer insanity of spending the resources to lift a statue of that size into orbit was an obscenity to a being that prized efficiency as much as he did. Other than the hideous décor, the ship had a few other things that made him pause. It was absolutely bristling with guns, and what seemed to be torpedo tubes on the prow. The sheer number of barrels sticking out of the ship bordered on the absurd, it looked of all things like it could serve a decent broadside action. And from what he could tell, those weapons were loaded for bear, and aimed directly at where the Wotan had just emerged from. He considered the situation, judging the smaller ship to at the very least be a threat to the Wotan, and the people aboard her. Fockewulf hardly wanted to start a war here, but he did not like having guns pointed at him, or his people. So he decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and decided to take a martial stance with the captain.

"Captain!" He said loudly, in case the captain was dazed and needed something to focus his attention, drawing his sword for good measure, "We've got trouble!"

Roberts looked at the AI avatar on the holo table. "Report, how's the ship?"

"As good as it was a second ago sir, but we have other problems."

"Don't leave me waiting." Roberts said, catching his breath.

"Long story short, there's alien life in this system, unknown race and there is a warship of an unknown configuration sitting with its guns pointed at that portal, correction, it is now on a pursuit course."

"Are their weapons online?" Roberts asked, pulling up a view of the frigate following them, taking a moment to marvel at the absurd external appearance.

"As far as I can tell sir, yes. They are accelerating from a dead stop, I don't think they can catch us in a straight sprint, though I wouldn't like to hazard a guess at the range of those weapons."

Roberts nodded, considering for a few moments, this was a first contact situation with someone who looked a little jumpy on the trigger. Their warships were much smaller than the Wotan, so he was in a position of comfortable superiority. Then again, one should never underestimate ones enemy, and they were alone here, who knows how far from support. Just as he thought that, the portal behind them collapsed in on itself and winked out of existence, as though it had never been. He didn't want to be the man behind a first contact gone bad, he decided to leave the system for the moment. They could come back later and explain things when the locals were calmed down a bit and ready to talk, then they could get their bearings.

"Fockewulf, the native seem restless. Plot us a slipspace jump out to the fringe of the system, but leave a comm buoy here, I want you analyzing any communications traffic bouncing around, start working on a translation protocol. I assume they speak, right?"

"Yes sir, they speak very well, I just can't understand them." Fockewulf confirmed. "Jump plotted sir, executing now." The Wotan was quickly enveloped in the slipspace portal, vanishing into the other dimension, dropping out an instant later on the edge of the system, a tiny stealth radio buoy orbiting the planet, listening in on communications.

Aboard the Reckoning…

Gaius watched as the strange ship corrected its course to avoid the planet, snapping away from their ship as they moved to pursue. He was not entirely sure what the Inquisitor intended to do against a ship that was ten times their size with an unknown loadout, but it was not his place to order the man about on his own ship. However, he did not think it would be until much later they caught up with the ship, it was moving very fast out of the anomaly and was accelerating as it went, while the Reckoning was accelerating from a station keeping orbit. However, with the SDF boats moving in from other angles, he was confident they could catch up to the ship eventually. Suddenly, the anomaly folded in upon itself and vanished, winking out with an anticlimactic fizzle. Gaius grit his teeth, now all answers to this mystery lay with the strange ship before them. Then, as easily as he might open a door, the ship slipped through a glowing blue gateway and vanished. Silence reigned on the bridge.

"Did they just…" Mendoza started.

"Perform a warp jump…" Xavier continued.

"Inside a gravity well?" the Magos finished, his voice equal parts outrage and envy.

"Yes." Inquisitor Graves said, his knuckles white where he was gripping the hololith. "Yes they did."

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