Halo: Evolutions, Volume I

Page 42

AFTER TWOweeks roaming about this shattered place, just the memory of the water that once filled this lake was refreshing. But like everything else here, the memories carried pain.
The Shipmaster's steps slowed as he reached the end of the crumbling dock and he dropped his pack to the ground. The dock had once been painted a bright blue, perhaps the same color as the water it stood above, but now the little paint left flaked off at his step and beneath was only gray.
The same gray of the empty lake bed below, where a few scrub trees and grasses attempted a comeback where fish once swam. The same gray as everything on this forbidding, forgotten world.
It was a gray of decades-old ruin left untended and unhealed, and it would probably stay this way forever, as the planet had nothing more to offer, and its former masters had nothing left here to claim.
He had seen only two things break away from this gray in the weeks he had walked this desolation.
The first were the thin rays and glimpses of this world's sun, which would rarely show itself, offering no real heat when it managed to struggle through the thick haze hanging constantly in the sky. The other was a column of smoke he had sighted two days prior, far to the west. It was to this smoke he now drove himself, though he knew where that path would eventually lead.
To follow that ominous smoke sign he had to cross this dead hole of a lake and the dam at its far end. From the elevated vantage of the dock the Shipmaster took a reflexive look around the horizon, scanning for threats, before casting a quick glance into the sky in the vain hope of seeing his vessel in orbit far above the planet's surface. He slid his pack back over his armor, fastening it with a triple-click of buckles and a weight-centering shrug. As he turned back to find the shore and a way across the lake bed, he closed off the dry sound of his footsteps on the brittle grass and remembered the lake at his clan's keep back on Sanghelios.
Like this one, his lake was artificial, the river back home stopped by a lattice of delicate metal and shimmering energy. This hole had only a crude, crumbling wall. A simple concrete of rock and sand. Such a frangible substance to use for something as vital and enduring as a dam, he thought, but so much of what humans did was fleeting. His travels through this planet's remaining signs of habitation had shown him how little these people knew of permanence.
Not that it would have mattered here, even if they had.
Stark in the late afternoon light, the battered skeletons of boats littered the lakebed and reminded him of the days he spent on similar boats during his earliest training as a boy.
The Great Journey, the path to transcendence followed by all of the species that served the Covenant, started early for all male Sangheili. As soon as they could run and hold a weapon in their four-fingered hands, they were trained and evaluated for potential. Each young Sangheili was watched for strength and cunning and obedience to the teachings of the Covenant. They were tested extraordinarily, for their importance to the Great Journey was extraordinary.
The Sangheili were the chosen ones, directly responsible for realizing the will of the gods and commanding the military forces of the Covenant. They were the ones who enforced the words of the Prophets, the holy seers who translated and delivered the words of the Forerunners to all who walked the Path. This honor and obligation drove every Sangheili in all their decisions and aspirations, and the Prophets were always watching to make sure this remained so. It had been this way for thousands of years since the two species first formed the Covenant, and it would be this way until the Great Journey was completed . . . or so he once thought.
So, on smaller, intact boats similar to the rotten hulks he now skirted, the Shipmaster learned as a boy to move and to fight. Striking and leaping from vessel to vessel, the young warriors learned balance and timing and teamwork as well as ruthlessness, as not all of the denizens in the lake considered themselves prey. Those boys whose weakness allowed them to be pulled under by cold teeth served as a lesson to the rest that not all Sangheili were worthy. Those who survived the training water emerged hardened both by loss and the determination not to suffer a similar fate in later lessons.
Now here he was at the bottom of the lake, no monsters waiting to challenge his strength-just the crumbling boats, the stunted gray trees, and the occasional crunch of bone beneath the matted gray grass.
He first heard that hollow crunching at his step days ago, and he knew the sound had been human bone. In his first days, while walking through human towns now wearing away to dust, the
Shipmaster had stopped to loosen many such bones from tangles of tough grass or a covering layer of dust and dirt, spending much time wondering who these humans had been. Now it had been days since he'd stopped looking for the source of that sound.
Usually he'd found these bones alone, spread far from the rest of whatever body they came from by wind or war or animals, though he had not seen a single living creature or even tracks anywhere in his travels. As intended, the death in this place had been complete. He'd found full skeletons as well, flesh long since torn or worn away, usually inside the few structures with more than one wall remaining or even a bit of roof left waiting for the insistent pull of time and gravity to bring it crashing down.
He'd found bits of armor and weapons and human vehicles of war, and even a few remnants of
Covenant soldiers, usually cracked methane breathing tanks sitting amidst the bones of a squat Unggoy. Once he'd found a giant shield plate from a Mgalekgolo, a ―Hunter," as the humans called them, and he wondered how the humans had managed to take down one of those giant living battering rams. But Covenant remains were rare. This planet had not presented much of a defense when the Covenant arrived, and their losses had been light. He wondered for a moment whether the events that followed the invasion might have been different had the humans been prepared, expecting the assault, but he knew that it would not have mattered. It would not have mattered at all.
He no longer stopped to inspect broken bone, and he did not know whether to care. His path was set-head up and eventually over the dam and to wherever the smoke called him. There he hoped to find an answer, and that was enough for now.
When the Shipmaster reached the top of the rough staircase cut into the side of the dam, he saw a dry scratch of a riverbed leading down from the dam's base to the beginnings of another human settlement-at least to the few standing walls that remained twenty years after the humans were wiped clean from this place. As the riverbed moved farther from the dam it cut through miles of such ruins, small square outlines of stone and rusting metal hiding among those hard, short, gray trees. Scattered between these buildings and their dark square holes for windows was a jumble of fallen pillars that had once held lights or statues or whatever they had used to decorate this place.
Farther away from the dam, down toward where his path was leading him, nothing remained even remotely whole. Even the landscape itself appeared to have been worn down dramatically between where he stood and the slight rise that cut off his view of the road far below.
He knew what lay past that rise, and he wished that his path did not have to take him there. Waiting beyond it was a black mark that had been burnt into the surface of this planet as proof of the power of the Covenant. Twenty years ago, this black mark had signaled the doom of everything that once lived here.
The setting sun glinted briefly from a bit of the glassy surface of the mark, shimmering as if bouncing off water in the distance. The Shipmaster shielded his eyes from the low glittering rays and growled, moving his long head left and right to take in the length of that gigantic scar in the land ahead. There was no end to it visible from where he stood, and there was no option of going around.
His path would eventually draw him directly across that dark line, and it would lie there, patient, until he reached it. He knew many such lines had cut through the hills and mountains and shattered towns that had once stood on this planet the humans had called Kholo.
But this line had preceded all the others. It had initiated the immolation of Kholo. This line curved in a giant circle, many days' travel across, and at its center were the ruins of what had once been a large human city. This circle, and the millions who had once lived in that city, had been split by a crowning semicircle arc. The ends of this arc had thrust toward the planet's northern pole, and at the tips of that crown and at the center of the giant circle were three deep, deep holes, burnt into the ground with excruciating precision.
When taken in from orbit, this giant black mark would resolve into the Covenant's holy rune representing Faith. He knew that the successful completion of this rune had triggered the planetwide plasma bombardment that left every single thing on Kholo dead for daring to challenge the Path of the Covenant and the words of their Prophets.
He knew all of these things because it had been his hand that had put that mark there. He had killed this planet so that the Great Journey might come more quickly. That Journey had never come. And now he'd returned to this planet, the site of his greatest victory and now his greatest shame, to seek inspiration for what he and his people were to do with themselves now that everything they'd fought and lived for was as thoroughly destroyed as the forsaken land he stood on.
Rising from these thoughts he knew the sun's setting would make it difficult to push onward safely.
The Shipmaster found what looked like a small control structure farther down the dam and set his gear down in preparation for passing another night alone.
As the Shipmaster's eyes closed and he began rest-breathing, he listened again for any sounds of life around him. He heard none. Not even the wind stirred enough to scrape leaves across the dust, and as he dropped into sleep his mind spun from the silence of death on the planet's surface to the silence of space above twenty years prior, when his ship hung in orbit around this world.
THE MOMENT was almost upon him. It had been a mere three days since the Fleet of Righteous Vigilance had arrived, and already the ground forces had broken the bulk of the human defenses below. In all of his years fighting the humans, the Shipmaster had rarely seen a planet fall so quickly. The humans seldom lasted long against the power of the Covenant, but this time he fought back a sense of disappointment that they had not mounted more of an opposition.
The Shipmaster had claimed this world, after all, and the glory of its destruction would reflect directly on him. It had been his ship that found the human transport vessel and his interrogation that uncovered the location of this "Kholo," a blight of a colony world on the outer fringes of what the humans blasphemously considered their space.
Even after ten years of destroying the nests of these humans with little difficulty, the Covenant still kept finding more worlds and more colonies and more affronts to the gods, and they burned each of these out as quickly as they were found. They had still not located the human homeworld, though.
The humans somehow always managed to destroy the key navigational charts before being captured. The discipline this consistency took was admirable, which was surprising given the claims the Prophets made about this "selfish, ignorant rabble."
The Shipmaster had personally broken the lone survivor on that little ship and pulled the location of this planet from the ship's incomplete databanks, and per the commandments of the Prophets he took that data directly to the holy seat of the High Prophets so that they might tell them what the Great Journey, the path to transcendence that guided every aspect of life in the Covenant, would have them do.
And as he had hoped, the Prophets announced that the Great Journey demanded that this world and the sins of its inhabitants burn-completely.
The Covenant used smaller plasma bombardments frequently to easily destroy human cities and armies, but normally this was accomplished using their ships' automation to handle all of the intricate functions involved in focusing plasma through a magnetic envelope across miles of atmospheric interference while maintaining a perfectly stationary orbital firing position. In almost all cases plasma bombardments were used purely as weapons, tools to speed the destruction of the humans. But rarely, the High Council would order a world's absolute annihilation. This only happened in times of particular religious significance, as the effort involved in covering an entire planet's surface in such a powerful assault was enormous, requiring hundreds of ships and massive amounts of energy . . . massive even for the Covenant.
And so the fleet was summoned and death brought swiftly to the heretical stain of this world. As expected, resistance in the space around Kholo was brief and ineffectual, with only a few small military vessels sporting ineffective weaponry and poor tactics. These fell easily even to his earliest scouting ships. Since the High Council had granted the Shipmaster claim to this cleansing the fleet was under his command, and he followed the decreed invasion plan to the letter. Nothing about the destruction of Kholo would displease their gods. He had many reasons to be certain of that.
After two days of human slaughter in their cities and homes, he waited for the prescribed hour and looked over to the Prophet next to him, the Prophet of Conviction, who was there to witness the event on behalf of the High Council. That Council, which was made up of the heroes of his people and the three most holy High Prophets, had assigned the holy destruction of Kholo to him, but the Prophet of Conviction would be the one to declare whether his actions pleased the gods and advanced the Journey. Not a single warrior in the history of his clan had ever been offered such an opportunity, and if the Shipmaster was successful it would greatly elevate his status and the status of his kin within the Covenant. All was riding on his performance.
"It is time," the Prophet said. With a gesture to his Second to alert all ground forces that the Beginning had come, the Shipmaster knelt before the Prophet to start the ritual.
His crew watched as closely as they could while coordinating the evacuation of all troops on the surface of the planet. For a full hour the Prophet and the Shipmaster communed, exchanging vows and reciting the history of the Covenant. Passages from the Writ of Union were interwoven with a recounting of martial triumphs as the Prophet made the Shipmaster ready to assume his imminent, if brief, divinity.
When all the words had been spoken and the Beginning was completed, his Second quietly confirmed that the fleet was ready. At this, the Shipmaster turned to the Prophet and spoke his final line in the ceremony:
"Speak, my Prophet, and let the word destroy all those who stand in the way of the Great Journey."
And rising in his chair to better fill the dark purple robes puddled around his frail body, the Prophet's raspy voice replied.
"Faith. Destroy them with Faith."
And so he did. Stepping down to the helmstation, the Shipmaster switched control of the maneuvering fields away from the ship's spirit and with a touch to ignite the ventral plasma array he emptied everything he was into the flame that shot down to the planet. The sights and sounds around him disappeared as a lifetime of training and worship and anticipation poured into controlling the ship and the long, wavering stream of plasma branding the curves of the glyph of Faith around and through the great city of the humans below.
A million Covenant soldiers were all watching his work, waiting to see how he performed this sacred task. Thousands of his own people watched, their breath quickening and their bodies shaking with the pride of watching a Sangheili manifest the power of the Great Journey. And, most importantly, the Prophet was watching . . . and judging.
And then it was finished. The Shipmaster pulled his hands, trembling, away from the console and dropped to his knees as the rites required. He couldn't breathe as he waited there on the floor for the Prophet's judgment. Failure to perfectly execute the chosen glyph meant death, and if he had failed he wanted the life out of his body as quickly as possible.
And then he felt the touch of the Prophet's hand on his neck. Triumphant roars from the rest of the bridge crew shook the air and he finally looked up to the main screen to take in the still-glowing sigil his hands had carved into the planet below. Clouds of ash and fire continued to spread hundreds of miles outward from the arcs and precise points of the glyph of Faith as the once-molten paths began to cool.
He rose and turned to face the Prophet. The Shipmaster was now bound to this Prophet for the rest of his life and his service to the Covenant. He, his ship, and his crew would now represent the Prophet's interests and authority in this war, and the enormous honor of carrying a Prophet aboard his ship would guarantee him a great role in the crusade against the humans. The Shipmaster had never imagined the power his faith would bring him, and as the other ships in the fleet saw the great glyph finally cool completely they began the intricate weave of lines of bombardment that would render the rest of this world barren and forbidden for any member of the Covenant to touch for the rest of time.
THE SHIPMASTER awoke with a thin layer of ash and dust covering his body, the triumphant roar of his former crew still ringing in his ears. Some of that crew were still alive and in orbit above him right now, waiting for him to find an answer in this haunted land. But too many of that crew were dead now, victims of the Great Betrayal and the battles that followed. They had all died honorably, fighting to save their race in the aftermath of the lies that eventually brought him back to Kholo.
He looked down from the dam and in the weak morning light saw a clearer view of the wide road that ran straight down to the valley below and perhaps all the way to the scar itself. The road cut through what might have been some kind of settlement near this lake, and the buildings in the area nearby stood largely intact, minus the years of abandonment and decay. As his eyes scanned farther down the valley, the Shipmaster saw that these remnants of buildings grew more and more feeble, shrinking almost to nothing just before the land dipped down and out of his gaze. He had seen this before, near earlier bombardment lines he had skirted in his journey across this place. The explosive power of the plasma lines created a terrible wall of heat and wind and debris when they cut into the surface of the planet, and the rushing force of these walls had scraped everything on the surface clean near the focus of the blasts. Structures farther away had suffered less, but everything suffered.
That was the point of it. Suffering was the correct journey for the nonbelievers.
As he climbed down the other side of the dam he cut a path parallel to the empty riverbed, toward the road and the scar below. He could still see the column of smoke in the distance, seemingly blacker than it had been the day before. The smoke had been billowing for three days since he first saw it rising thinly on the horizon. Each day he was more afraid that it would disappear before he could find its source. It could not be natural, the fires of this world went out decades ago. This fire, and its creators, did not belong here, just as he did not belong here. But perhaps they could help him find the guidance he was seeking.
He passed rows and rows of shattered buildings as he moved down the road. Sharp, rusty fragments of vehicles poked out from tall grass and scrub trees all around him, but he saw less and less sign of their former owners. He tried to remember whether this part of the glyph he was walking toward was closer to the start or the end of his deeds those years back, but the details eluded him. He only knew that he was responsible for everything around him. He was responsible for so many things, all of them done with such an absolute certainty. All his life he had had no reason to question his path, and the focus this afforded had allowed him to achieve so much.
For thirteen years after bonding with the Prophet of Conviction, the Shipmaster had followed his holy orders. He and his ship had been above Reach when they finally found a real fight from the humans. It was his command that destroyed three of the massive orbital cannons that had annihilated so many other Covenant ships. The High Council believed that after Reach the humans would lose all will to fight, but the opposite was true. In the following months, desperation drove the humans and they proved to be the most dangerous foes the Covenant had ever faced. It was a glorious time to follow the Path.
But the discovery and immediate, agonizing loss of the Halos had shaken the Covenant's faith, and suddenly their clarity began to falter. For thousands of years the entire Covenant had operated with a single purpose born of absolutely certainty in the Great Journey. They were a folk ill-equipped for doubt.
The Shipmaster paused briefly to wonder where the fully intact roof lying directly across this road had come from, how far it had been carried from its building by the winds of the blast that day. He had put this roof here, and he had destroyed whatever building it came from closer down to the scar.
All of it. He had done all of this to follow a promise, and when that promise was exposed as an unforgivable lie, it made everything he had done in its prosecution a lie as well.
He walked among the ruins of the lie, knowing its guilt as it was he who had been deceived. He had come here again to find out what to do about that lie. If he had no real response, no path forward, no new promise . . .
He shook his head and continued toward the rising pillar of smoke across the scar. He would find his new promise, or he would not leave this place alive.
Hours passed and in its time the sun fell to the far horizon, once again making travel across the rubble problematic. He made for a strangely intact structure just at the edge of the long rise ahead.
The ruins here had all crumbled to the point of just rough outlines of stone among the weeds. Small bits of foundation stuck up like markers for the dead. Despite the growing darkness he could tell that this building had been some sort of shelter, as metal pipes and bars held the thick walls together, heavy metal plates buttressing every visible angle-a suitable refuge for the night's sleep.
He made a quick sweep of the surrounding area just to get it all fixed in his mind. He knew there was no threat here . . . this close to the scar; the land did not want life. He did not blame it.
He strode to the top of the nearby rise and saw his scar directly for the first time. Its edge cut a precise line just an hour's walk from where he stood, and while it was hard to tell in the last light of the day, the ground there looked dark and hard. He guessed the scar's width at two or three hours to cross, depending on footing and whether it was as smooth as it appeared. There was no way he would choose to spend a night on that black ground.
He turned back to his night's refuge and pried a metal door partially open to squeeze his bulky body inside.
His first step raised that familiar crunching sound, and when he engaged his heatlight he froze.
Dozens of full human skeletons piled one on another with scraps of clothing and bits of possessions hanging stilly from graying sticks of bones. More bone littered toward a doorway at the other side of this room, and he could tell he would find more remains lingering in the further darkness inside.
Men, women, and children must have gathered here in the last moments of their people, perhaps in hope that the shelter would save them. But it did not save them from anything. Nothing would have saved them that day.
The Shipmaster backed out quickly and did not stop to close the metal door in his haste to get away. He could not get far enough from that tomb in the night, but he found a low, partial wall nearby and set himself on the far side of it, facing away from the hidden bones of his victims.
The grim discovery took his mind back to that day, as he took a little of his almost-depleted food and water. With the wild frenzy of battle broken suddenly by the full retreat of Covenant forces, the humans must have thought themselves very lucky. Thought themselves saved, even. With all their satellites and orbital stations destroyed, they would have had no idea what was taking place in the skies above them-until his beam of plasma lanced down and the fires and the winds and the burning began. The people in that building might have gathered for safety or perhaps just because being together might be a better way to die. Any thoughts they had of escape were as much a false hope as the fervor that had brought that beam down amongst them.
Still, he could understand their need to come together in such a moment. He understood the desire that someone else might have an answer, might tell you what to do when facing the end of everything you know. He understood that desire all too well.
His mind thus burdened, the Shipmaster slept.
HE GOT word of the elevation of the Jiralhanae, the "Brutes," as the humans so appropriately called them, and of the betrayal of his people just after arriving at the destination of a long-range scouting mission. In the high-priority slipspace missive that found them some days after their ship reentered real space, he knew something was amiss when the admiral addressed him by his clan name and not his proper rank . As the images of the slaughter of the Sangheili leaders on the High Council flooded the bridge's main screen, everyone stopped to stare in disbelief, and when the admiral told the still-unfolding story of the lies of the Prophets about the gods and the Great Journey and of the bloody treachery of the Brutes, all stood stunned. Looking to the faces of his men, he knew he could not stay that way for long.
The Shipmaster ordered the helmsman to set an immediate course back to their homeworld and commanded his Second to gather every single crewmember in the main hangar. Word of what they had just heard would spread and the crew would have questions. The Shipmaster did not have answers to all of those questions, but he sped out of the bridge to find the one answer that mattered for now.
At the back of the ship lay the chambers of the Prophet. The Shipmaster had come straight there so news had not yet reached the two Sangheili Honor Guards outside his door and they hesitated, briefly, before responding to his order to stand away. A Prophet's guard is a sacred duty, and these two did not yet know that their function had ceased to exist some days prior when the great treachery had been committed. They both took their own lives soon afterward for the shame of protecting that creature in the intervening days. The Shipmaster did not judge them for this.
As he palmed the door control he saw a brief glimpse of a familiar green glow, and that glimpse saved his life. The Prophet, clearly having been notified that his kind's sins were now open and foully exposed, had a plasma pistol charged and ready to kill whoever would inevitably come for him. It was a cowardly and pointless act of defiance. The Shipmaster ducked under the hissing green blast and rolled into the room, rising with a sweeping blow to knock the frail deceiver from his floating throne before the pistol could cool enough for a second shot.
"Blasphemy!" the Prophet choked, now in a pile on the ground lit only by the light from the open doorway. "Filth! Who are you to strike a messenger of the gods? You will not survive this affront!"
"Your words are lies," the Shipmaster said, stepping forward to collect him from the floor. "And I am Sangheili, Shipmaster here. Those are the last words you will speak on my ship."
At this he struck the Prophet again, careful to stun and not kill him, so that he sagged to the floor and did not rise. He twisted a corner of the wretch's robe in his hand and began to drag the unconscious form toward the hangar and the waiting crew.
Some of the men had apparently not yet heard the cause of this gathering, as there were cries of disbelief when the Shipmaster entered behind them and pulled the body of the Prophet through the assembled group. Some of the men even moved to stop him but they were held back as he mounted a maintenance platform and dropped the Prophet on the ground. The Shipmaster turned on the viewscreens all around them and replayed the message he had just received on the bridge. Silence fell over the crew as some saw the horrors for the first time and some saw confirmation of the insanity they knew was settling in around them all. The men remained silent as the admiral described what had happened, but howls of anger rose as they witnessed the death of the High Council. At the sight of Brutes laying hands to their fellows and as the implication of the Covenant turning against them set in, those howls were replaced by a new silence more haunting than any sound the Shipmaster had ever heard before. All eyes turned to him, as he had known they would.
He was ready.
The Prophet awoke now, surrounded by angry Sangheili, and tried to stand on his atrophied legs.
It was pitiful how small he looked now, and the Shipmaster grabbed him by the neck as he tried to totter off the platform. When he twisted around to look at the Shipmaster, he saw something he had not expected, and his resolve crystallized . . . this Prophet, one of a group he had known all his life as the source of all the Covenant's power, was terrified.
This fear confirmed everything the Shipmaster had just seen on the screens and decided what he must do next. If this Prophet could be afraid then he could not truly know the will of the gods, for what could bring fear to someone with a direct connection to the divine? What's more, if he did not know the will of the gods then everything he had ever said and done was a lie-everything done for him was now a lie. The Prophet must die for that deceit, and the Shipmaster had to be the one to end him. His crew had to witness this to prevent them from thinking the thoughts they were thinking right now, and they would take from this death the start of a new purpose.
The Shipmaster tightened his fingers around the Prophet's ropy neck with one hand and used his other hand to hold the Prophet's face toward his. Tiny feet scratched without purchase on the metal floor as the Prophet hung in the air. The Shipmaster looked out to the shocked eyes of his troops and yelled, "Betrayal! Our people have been betrayed by the Prophets and their Jiralhanae puppets!
You have seen what they have done, how they have struck at our faith and our leaders . . . and you know what Sangheili must do in the face of such betrayal. Our war against these deceivers starts now!" At these words the Prophet began a high-pitched scream that was cut immediately short as the Shipmaster looked back into his eyes and began to squeeze.
His struggle grew more desperate and a sound began to build in the crew as they watched the unthinkable event on the platform with the images of Brutes destroying Sangheili ships and devouring their dead fellows on the screens behind and above. The Shipmaster let the moment stretch until he judged his men's new hatred was sufficient and then he closed his fist suddenly around the Prophet's neck and felt the bones under the skull give way. The Prophet's eyes locked on the Shipmaster's, just as they had done the day the two were bonded, and the contorting body grew suddenly slack. It was done.
The Prophet's dead eyes continued to look up at him as the Shipmaster opened his hands and the body fell to the ground. He raised his voice to join his crew's scream of rage and defiance and loss.
As the scream grew longer and louder he knew that he had succeeded in giving them a purpose . . . for now. Looking down at the tiny figure at his feet, the Shipmaster wondered how long that purpose would last, and he wondered where he would find his own purpose. He had just killed the only voice he thought could speak for them to the gods, and he did not know what those gods wanted of him now. The men rushed back to prepare for the voyage home and he followed to lash them with the hardness they expected. The Shipmaster knew he could only provide that hardness for so long.
Already he felt drained as the moment's rage left him, but there was no time for such thoughts. He was needed.
THOSE DEADeyes followed him into consciousness. The new light of dawn did little to rid him of the dread caused by his dreams. The Shipmaster looked again to the smoke. It was still rising. With a small sip of water he left the shelter of the crumbling wall, moving toward the glyph he knew he must cross. He glanced back at the human tomb, glad to leave it behind.
This relief died quickly as he came to the rise and caught full sight of the scar. Shortly past the rise was a sheer drop into the black land, and he nodded at the prudence of not attempting to proceed the night before.
Finding no easy path down into the scar, the Shipmaster found what looked to be a clear landing spot below and dropped down into the channel. The smooth walls were twice his height, and he worried about how long he would have to look for a path up when he reached the other side. He did not relish the thought of staying down in this place any longer than he absolutely must.
The bottom was truly as black as it had appeared from above. The plasma had melted several meters of rock and stone, and the molten remnants had leveled to an almost perfectly flat field between the boundaries of the direct blast.
But while the overall terrain was smooth, every step of this land was jagged and crystalline-sharp.
The cooling material must have fractured and cracked, creating a field of knives . . . no living creature would dare traverse this place. None except him.
As he stepped carefully to avoid the myriad cracks and vertiginous pits that cut across the ground around him, the Shipmaster's already dark thoughts turned to his fear for his people. After thousands of years of obedient service to the Covenant, what would they do now? Already the fight was leaving some of his people. Not even the death of all of the Brutes could replace what they had lost when the Covenant was broken. They would find no true purpose solely through battle, no matter how much vengeance demanded it. They needed something more.
For six years after the High Prophet of Truth, the father of all the Prophets' lies, died at the hands of the Arbiter, the Shipmaster had taken up the fight against everything that threatened his people.
But that was all he had done-respond to threats. Immediately after the death of Truth, the Prophets wished only to preserve their own skins and the Brutes welcomed the newfound opportunity to misuse the weapons, ships, and other tools that had been so rightly denied them since they became part of the Covenant. The Brutes' barbarity prevented them from understanding the gifts of the Forerunners, even though they had suddenly received those gifts in abundance and they used them to try to wipe out their former Sangheili masters.
The battles against the Prophets and their Brute puppets had been legendary in the wake of the breaking of the Covenant, but it was not long before the primitive nature of the Brutes pulled their fighting cohesion apart and split their new power among several internecine struggles. The Prophets, in the meantime, had largely disappeared. There had never been many of their wretched species, but their sudden disappearance was baffling and, to some, portentous. The Shipmaster paid no mind to the rumors that held that the Prophets had finally achieved the Great Journey and that the Sangheili were damned for daring to take up arms against them in the final days of the Covenant.
Some Sangheili commanders continued to fight the many scattered remnants of the former
Covenant wherever they could be found, but not all. After six long years of this scattered war, Sangheili power had begun to wane right along with their drive to fight. They had to defend themselves, and always did so heroically, but since the Prophets controlled all of the major learnings that transformed Forerunner gifts into tools of the Great Journey, the Sangheili now largely lacked the understanding to build new facilities and weapons themselves. The Sangheili steadily lost ships they could not easily repair, let alone replace. Their time seemed to be running out.
They once depended on spiritual justification for all of their actions, relying on the Prophets to lead them in spiritual matters. There had never been any need for Sangheili religious leaders-now no one among them had the knowledge or the ability to comprehend the will of their gods. For a people whose sole purpose had been enforcing their gods' will, this was terrifying.
He knew his gods were out there, but he had no idea what they wanted. He had no idea if they were angry, and if they were he had no idea how to remedy that offense. All of those questions had brought him here, and all of those needs would keep him here until he found the answers he needed, or died trying.
The Shipmaster had seen this coming from the moment he put down the Prophet of Conviction,
leading his men to war against their own religion. This planet was the last place he knew he had touched their gods, through that moment of ritual, and so he saw it now as his last possible hope to find answers that might lead him forward again.
He looked up, knowing his ship was in orbit, with orders to wait for his call, but he did not know what he would do if he did not find any answers. He only had food and water for a few more days.
There was nothing edible here and the little water he had found so far had been bitter and sharp in his mouth. If his sustenance ran out before he heard from his gods . . .
The steady sound of the rocks against his armor was his only distraction. He moved quickly across that black land, keeping his eyes on the nearing pillar of smoke. He was not far from its source now, although it was hard to tell how much farther he had to go from so deep in the cut of the scar.
Suddenly, he came across the surprise of a small stream. It flowed right down the length of the scar; he couldn't tell how far it wound, but it looked as if it had been running for some time. The water had the same sharp smell as all other water on this planet, probably caused by the vaporization of some mineral when the plasma lines etched their fire. It carried with it smaller rocks and dirt and sand. He stared at that tiny stream and for a moment forgot the fires he unleashed here. He wondered if this stream offered hope that this place might someday be returned to its former state.
The stream could become a river, wiping away this glyph, burying it beneath new soil and sand and water. He knew that forgiveness from this planet would take far longer than he had time to live, but perhaps someday his wrongs could be wiped clean. The thought was comforting. Stepping over the small stream, the Shipmaster looked up to the smoke once more, making sure he was on his proper path.
But the smoke was not there.
He scanned the entire horizon, hoping he had only become disoriented, but still he found no smoke.
How long had he stared at that stream, lost in self-indulgent thoughts of forgiveness? This was his punishment for such thoughts, and he cursed himself and his weakness.
He quickly found a spot on the far wall where he thought he could exit this place and return to more normal ground. He began to run, forgoing caution for the sake of speed, for any accident he might suffer would be a very much deserved death. There would be no easy release from the burden of what he'd done.
But that death did not come. In surprisingly short time he threw himself against the far side's rocky wall, found footholds he could not see, and propelled himself to the top. Coming over the lip of the wall he now heard sounds-battle sounds, both human and Covenant (what had once been Covenant, anyway).
He followed the sounds to another stout building that reminded him unpleasantly of the one he'd left so quickly the night before. This building had part of a crumbling second story and what looked like two strange gray tents next to it, along with some kind of machinery covered in levers and wheels. All of these extra objects appeared to be human, with their squarish lines and dull gray and black surfaces. Human tools were always as ugly as they were functional in design.
He dropped his pack and freed his small hunting curveblade, a weapon his people had used for as long as they could remember, and which carried the same lines as their signature plasma blades. He stayed low to the ground, moving with deadly confidence. More shots were fired from around the building and he rushed forward, now with a clear view of three Kig-Yar taking cover behind the metal supports of the building, firing at an unknown enemy beyond.
The Shipmaster did not know what the birdlike Kig-Yar, whom the humans called ―Jackals," were doing here, but he was certain it was not good. They were scavengers, pirates, and thieves, and they should not dare to come to a place like this. The sounds of the human weapons had now stopped, and he feared that the Jackals might have already taken their full toll on them.
HE CUTaround to the far side of the building where he had just seen one of the gangly creatures lurking behind the building's front wall. Its attention was focused on whatever was around the structure. Before it knew what was happening he had come up behind it, pinned it to the wall of the building and nearly severed its head with a slashing lunge of his curveblade. He lowered the twitching body to the ground without sound. The staccato firing continued from the Jackal's fellows on the other side of the structure. The Shipmaster collected the carbine, now covered in the Jackal's dark blood, from the ground where it had fallen and checked the remaining ammunition. Only one shot remained, but it was good to have a real weapon in his hands again. He did not have time to scavenge the corpse for a replacement magazine, as the two on the other side would likely soon call or regroup. He had to act now.
He took a quick look around the corner to see what human forces remained, but his glimpse gave him nothing more than a closer look at the tents and some kind of hole with heavy equipment at its edge. Going back around the building so as to not expose himself to the humans, the Shipmaster dared a final quick look around the back corner to determine where the remaining two Jackals stood.
When he heard them take their next shots he launched around the corner, firing his single round through the back of the nearer Jackal's plumed head. Bits of bone and meat and blood sprayed all over his fellow, who turned with a loud squawk and a weapon lowered in surprise. The Shipmaster's sprint had already carried him into melee range and with a kick from his armored foot to the Jackal's belly he heard its spine snap, and the wretch collapsed screaming.
The Kig-Yar's arms flailed in the mixture of dust and dirt and blood and its legs lay useless as the Shipmaster moved quickly to stand above his prey. A second kick to the prone Jackal's throat ended its struggles decisively.
Silence fell once again, broken only slightly by his combat-quick breath. He retrieved and hung a plasma pistol from his armor, picked up a carbine with more ammunition, and prepared to face the humans. Even though he had eliminated the Kig-Yar, the situation was now more complicated.
Humans, as he had learned in all his years fighting them, became surprisingly fierce when cornered, and from what he had seen so far he suspected that the Jackals had attacked the humans unaware.
More importantly, he remembered the stories told by the Arbiter that the humans shared some incomprehensible connection with the Forerunners. That humans were here at all, in this place where they suffered such a terrible loss, was enough to give the Shipmaster a spark of hope. Surely they must be here to serve some purpose for him.
Taking a deep breath, he snuck another look, low and fast, around his covering corner. Everything looked the same as it had, and he heard nothing. Anticipating closer-range combat, the Shipmaster slipped the carbine into its customary holding slot on his back and readied the plasma pistol in one hand and his gory blade in the other. After another deep breath he moved quickly to the rear of the nearest human tent and with his blade cut his way in, hoping to surprise any occupants and give him a second of surprise to decide whether to subdue or kill anything inside.
But the tent was empty, and a quick look around showed only papers and boxes and two small metal-framed beds. Through the loosely hanging door of the tent, however, he did see two human bodies on the ground outside, next to the boxy machinery he had spotted from afar. The Shipmaster could clearly see that the nearer of the two humans was motionless and had a number of large plasma burns on its legs and torso. He had seen enough dead humans to know that this one was beyond hope. The second, however, sitting with its back up against the machine, appeared to be intact and was holding a bulky pistol limply in its lap.
Throwing constant glances to the second tent and any possible additional attackers there, the Shipmaster came to within striking distance of the human and saw a large pool of its bright red blood gathering at the body's far side. He kicked the pistol off of the human's lap and, seeing no reaction, knelt down to determine if the thing was alive.
It was, barely. It continued to breathe but from the blood and lack of visible burns it looked like the human had been hit by a carbine round in its belly or side. He could not tell if the round had passed through or was still in there, baking the human's innards with radiation, but with the amount of blood on the ground the Shipmaster didn't think it particularly mattered. This man was as good as dead. Frustrated, the Shipmaster collected the pistol and moved on. The gun was primitive, but it was powerful and surprisingly accurate at a certain range. It might be useful in the days ahead.
Turning back to the second tent the Shipmaster confirmed that there were no more humans in the immediate area, but his eyes ranged constantly over the skies and horizon to watch for either human or Jackal reinforcements. All of these combatants had to have come from somewhere, and the lack of any ships in the area made it clear that they were brought here by someone or something else.
Two humans alone could not have transported or even operated all this equipment . . . there must be others nearby. He might not have much time to find out what they had been doing before those others came back. He wanted to be clear of this place when they did.
The second tent contained more of the boxes he had seen in the first, and the lids he threw open exposed what looked like food, energy cells, and some kind of filthy environmental suits with enclosed helmets and heavy metal gloves. They looked big enough to cover a human in their standard bulky combat armor, but he had noticed no armor on either of the human bodies outside, merely the drab uniforms he had seen before on some human civilians.
The machinery, when inspected more closely, was still a mystery to him. Thick bundles of cables led down and disappeared into the nearby hole, which looked as if it had been dug very recently.
The hole angled as if it were directed underneath the boxy building where he had killed the Jackals, and soot on the upper lip of this short tunnel appeared to answer for the source of the column of smoke he had been following the last four days. This finding dismayed the Shipmaster greatly.
As soon as he had seen the column of smoke calling to him from across the scar, he had pinned all his hope on it. The thought that the smoke had merely been the product of scavengers, which these humans now seemed to be, shook him greatly. But he could take some of the humans' food, and they had to have water. Perhaps they were there to extend his journey into the great city farther at the heart of his glyph. And there was the matter of finding out where both of these groups of interlopers had come from. His journey was not over yet.
Stepping back into the second tent to find the humans' water, the Shipmaster tossed the lids off more of their metal containers and cast aside small tools, clothing, and other human detritus until he found a heavy container at the bottom with many pouches of what looked like fresh water inside. As he lifted this container and turned to carry it out his eye caught one of the papers scattered around the floor of the tent. He froze. He threw the water container aside and dropped to grab the image on that paper, which was covered in strange human letters surrounding the image set in the middle of the page.
Among all of these incomprehensible human markings he knew exactly what that picture was, and as his widening eyes took it in he knew why he had been called here.
On that picture was a glyph, a sign of his people, and that glyph was the one that tied him to this planet twenty years ago and brought him back again today. That glyph was Faith, and the gods had sent the humans here to help him find it. Now looking at the other documents and pictures, he found a series of images that showed artifacts, clearly Forerunner-created, covered with the glyphs and signs the Covenant had translated and adopted for all of their works. And most importantly, in one picture he saw part of a rounded frame and smooth glass lens that looked exactly like the Forerunner Oracle they had kept in their former capital city High Charity before it was destroyed by the recklessness of the Prophet of Truth. But the pictures showed these relics surrounded by humans, being studied and even dismantled by them, and this sight brought back an anger he hadn't felt for many years.
Other pictures showed what he could see was the nearby building as it looked before being nearly destroyed. In its former state it had other, less sturdy, structures all around it, and these pictures, along with the beginnings of the tunnel outside, told him everything he needed to know.
Excited now, he rushed outside to the bleeding human and rolled him over roughly to lie flat on the ground next to the pool of blood, now almost black in its cooling color. A small rivulet drained into the nearby hole, and it did not look like much more was left to flow from the human. The
Shipmaster tore open the human's gray-green garb and saw the expected hole in the human's side where the carbine round had struck him. Rolling the human over to the other side he found a similar hole, more ragged at its edges where the flesh split outward as the round had passed through. He grunted with approval. The wound might not be fatal, as he had seen humans survive surprising wounds on the battlefield. He would do what he could to make sure this one survived, for the Shipmaster would have many questions for him in the days ahead. And the Shipmaster still remembered how to get a human to answer questions . . .
The Shipmaster reengaged his communications and sent a command message to his ship. He called for a medic, a security squad, the ship's chief engineer, and a patrol of the surrounding skies in case there were more of these humans or Kig-Yar nearby. He had his purpose now and with it the beginnings of a sense of direction.
He no longer needed any Prophets to tell him what the gods desired. It was time for him to find out for himself.

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