• Published 25th Aug 2018
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Sol Dilemma - Andromidus



They all say we have a destiny among the stars. Sometimes, some destinies are just more literal than others.

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Chapter 5 - "Ghosts from Our Past"

Sol Dilemma - Chapter 5

“Ghosts from our Past”

Celestia smiled as she trotted down the hall.

Her sun shone brighter than ever today. The birds sang their approval as they moved from treetop to treetop. The breeze wasn’t too strong or too weak, hitting the sweet spot that many ponies enjoyed—including herself. Not a single cloud carrying heavy rain hung in the sky.

It was one of those rare days where it was simply perfect.

These were in fact, hard to come by. Surprising in a land where weather was controlled, that most didn't get to witness things like these. Usually, an event that threatened their country often ruined it. So when Celestia woke up feeling twenty years younger, she had all the guards on standby.

She had come to associate something perfect as too good to be true. Something was always going wrong somewhere. Her sister had done the same, so the entire castle had an atmosphere of caution hanging around for the morning. Not exactly the best thing for staff to wake up to, but it was necessary lest they get caught unprepared. They had been lucky in the regards that previous attacks on Canterlot were relatively casualty-free, but, Celestia didn’t want to test her chances.

Her relief and surprise were inconceivable when the guards received word from the emergency network—something she set up recently due to the frequency of disasters they faced—that nothing actually happened. Lulu, on the other hoof, was actually upset, having gone and armored herself up. She had complained she never got a chance to use any of her gear outside of ceremonies (which she terrified half the populace in her nightmare moon-esque panoply). So when she had an opportunity that didn’t end up resolved faster than she could put it on or didn’t somehow bar access to it, she gladly leapt.

She wished she had a recording crystal when her little sister had shown up for breakfast. Donning a full set of armor, combined with a pouting face as she ate standing up completely destroyed her sides.

Her worsening expression only bumped it up to near comical levels.

The diarch noted to expect a prank in the coming days.

Strangely enough, Dilemma had been absent for the morning meal. Celestia had chalked it up to being exhausted from the constant training, but she hadn’t been working her too hard, now was she?

Perhaps she was still on the mindset for teaching Twilight. Sunset… Sunset was well in her expectations for a normal filly. Her fellow princess blew those out of the water. She tapped a hoof on her chin. She did teach her a certain way for over twenty-two years… it was likely those habits from those times were bleeding over.

She spotted a maid dusting off a couple of decorations. Celestia approached. “Good morning… Crystal Clear, was it?”

The pony nodded and bowed. “Correct as ever, your highness. Did you happen to need something?”

“No, no. Well, do you know anything about Dilemma’s status at the moment? She hadn’t shown up for breakfast.”

“I wouldn’t know, but Impeccable should. We just passed by each other not too long ago,” Crystal informed her, polishing the vase off to the side.

The alicorn smiled and thanked her for her time. She should really get the schedule of which staff was assigned to the parts of the castle.

She was giddy. She couldn’t possibly… integrate herself into Dilemma’s life… like she could with Sunset’s… but she could try. Perhaps interact with her long enough, but take a different approach as to not appear as an untouchable pony standing above the rest. She failed with Twilight… but she had a second chance here. A doting aunt could always work.

A darker part of her mind said she could always attempt at overriding the position Guard Cascade— N-No! Don’t think like that. Such, such horrible thoughts. Just focus on waking her up. Think about this at a better time.

Down the hall was another maid, pushing a cart-full of towels and laundry. She hummed a song as she paused in front of a door, picking up the basket left by it and placing the clothes on her train. She caught a glimpse of the approaching diarch. “Hello, princess! May I help you?”

“You’re Impeccable Sheen, correct?”

“Yes. Is there something specific you want from me?”

Celestia gave a soft grin. “In a sense. You’re the maid who looks after Dilemma.”

“Mhm. She’s a lovely filly.”

“Had she woken up today? I missed her at breakfast.”

Impeccable shook her head. “No. I dropped by to deliver her food not too long ago. Her bedroom door was locked again so I just left it on her balcony table.”

Celestia raised a brow. “Her door was locked again? She keeps it locked?”

“Only when she goes to sleep. Otherwise, it’s open for me to go in and clean it up—she keeps it very clean, by the way, much better than Princess Sparkle,” Impeccable noted. “I believe she’s still sleeping if you wanted you to check on her.”

“Maybe I will.”

She gave her goodbye and began trotting to the tower. It was an invasion of privacy, but Celestia had a right to be worried. She couldn’t… she couldn’t take the chance that perhaps something had gone wrong. That the filly was doing something behind her back.

The diarch couldn’t handle a repeat of Sunset.

That memory, in particular, caused her to pick up the pace. She passed by a set of guards who immediately joined her. She wanted to wave them off, assure them and herself that an escort was unneeded…

She would push that back. She hoped that maybe this would just be a false alarm and Dilemma just preferred to sleep with her doors shut. She began preparing the master unlock spell.

Practically flying up the steps, she landed on the balcony outside the door. She released the magic on the door, returned with a click of the lock. “Stay out here,” she whispered to the guards.

She gripped the door with her magic and slowly pushed it open. She peered inside, gasping as she witnessed the state the room was in. Books and papers were scattered all over the floor, tables had been shoved out of place, and the bed was a mess.

In the middle of it all lay a whimpering foal, tossing and turning. Her voice jumped from high pitch squeals to low murmurs, all the while sharing dialogue with a mysterious stranger.

She’s having a nightmare. She glanced around the room again. A deep, terrible one, enough that her magic is acting up in her sleep.

“Please, please, don't! Haven, you can't do this…” she choked out. “Nononono! Haven! HAVEN!”

Celestia’s ears flattened against her skull at the sound of the pained cry. Her student’s face was screwed in one of agony. It was the face of somepony who lost something dear to them. She was tempted to wake her up… but… Lulu told her something about deep nightmares. You can't wake them up without the proper magicks.

It was best to consult the expert. She leaned her head out of the door. “No pony comes in or out without my authorization.”

“Ma’am, yes ma’am.”

She closed it, and with a flash of light, teleported to her sister’s chambers. The magically darkened room was nothing special, but she was always a little unnerved by it. But to say that directly to Luna? Oh, she would never let me live it down. The fireplace crackled as it provided the only ambiance for the entirety of the section. The solar diarch found her counterpart sitting in front of it.

“Lulu, you're brooding again.”

“I do not brood!” she defended. “I… I am simply admiring the craftsmareship of this… this wall! It’s a beautiful wall. Yes.” Her armor clinked as she shuffled closer to “inspect” the wall.

Celestia coughed into her hoof. “Sister, this is serious, I need your help. I believe Dilemma is stuck in a deep nightmare.”

It seemed as if all sound was sucked out of the air. Even the fire sounded like it devolved into a pile of embers. Luna was immediately on her hooves and in her face. “Deep nightmare!? Those still exist!? Take me to her, now.” She straightened up. “I shall not let any of my subjects suffer from those… monstrosities!”

A clap of thunder later, and the two found themselves standing outside of the room. The solar alicorn lightly bowed her head to the guards, which they acknowledged with a salute.

“Open the gates, guards! I shall step first into the fray!” Luna dramatically bellowed, nearing the levels of the royal voice she had used so long ago.

The pair pushed it open, and her sister calmly trotted inside. Celestia chuckled and shook her head. She managed to catch a brief glimpse of a terrified look from the guard on her left. Impossible for the normal pony to spot… but when one has been alive longer than most modern civilizations, you tend to notice a few things.

The entrance clicked shut behind her. Luna was already standing above Dilemma, horn ablaze. Her fetlock was wrapped around the filly’s, preparing for a contact dream spell. A circle appeared around her target and blasted itself with light. Her sister’s body became stiff and her eyes fluttered to a close.

Regal as ever, Celestia watched from afar. Minutes later, Luna stumbled back, eyes wide. “So you've been under my snout this whole time. I can't believe it.”

“Lulu, what do you mean?”

“I mean what I mean. The dreamer, it’s your student! The dream imprint is identical!” She threw her forelegs in the air. “And I finally figured out why I couldn't access the dreams. They're memories disguised as dreams. Or, might I say memory fragments. I should've seen it sooner. I just simply assumed their mental fortitude was beyond comprehension…” The dark alicorn paced the room. “

“My student… is the dreamer?” she glanced at the filly squirming in her bed. “Has she been lying to everypony this entire time?”

“I… do not know. It is never safe to assume around these kinds of things. Same reason we do not try criminals based on dream evidence.”

“We can stabilize the memory fragments and try to enter, right?”

“I am very uncertain. Memories do not scrape my realm. Perhaps, since she is in a state of slumber and they take the form of dreams, it could be done. I have never encountered something such as this on a magnitude of this scale. There is a high likelihood of failure and the consequences are untold.” She sighed and rolled her shoulders. “...but it can be done. Just give me a while to set up the wards and cantrips.”

Celestia meekly nodded, mind reeling.

Was she glad that her newest student hadn't turned down the same path Sunset had? Certainly. How did she feel about her student being the dreamer Luna talked so much about? She didn't know.

She comforted herself by repeating that it must be a misunderstanding. That the life the filly had lived wasn’t one of subterfuge. That this entire time, she wasn’t fooling everypony with carefully masquerading lies and tricks. That she was truly well and through, a pony who simply had a powerful connection to the sun. She reasoned with the evidence… she had no control over her abilities… could be a simple ploy… she was recovered as a newborn from a crash… changelings pull the same tricks… She couldn’t have already failed…

Forgotten memories of an orange filly with a mane of fire, playing in her room.

Failure.

Days where they would sit together and read fairy tales.

Failure.

Pride soaring whenever she overcame difficult spells.

Failure.

Berating her for wrongs and praising her for her rights.

Failure.

Nights spent mulling over problems together.

Failure.

Aspirations of motherhood…

“—‘Tia! ‘TIA!” Luna called out. “Are you okay!? You wouldn’t respond! I only left you for a couple of minutes… what happened?”

“Nothing, nothing. I'm okay… just… just start the spell.”

“...‘Tia, if you want to talk about something, I’m here—”

“We can start the spell,” Celestia said.

“Sister. Anything you need to talk about, I'm here for you.”

“We can start the spell,” she insisted.

The younger sister gave her a stare that indicated she wanted to say something… but chose not to. “...stay close.” Luna guided her to the side of the rune. “Don't wander off, no matter how authentic everything looks. You can trap yourself in it and we won’t be able to back out until it finishes completely.”

Emotionlessly, Celestia replied. “I am no foal, sister. I know better… and I have no intention of leaving prematurely.”

The lunar diarch breathed quietly. “Very well. Hold on tight, sister. I have the smallest inkling of how this could go.”

The matrix expanded and burst into a spray of stars, glazing them in a bubble of the night. It held before it collapsed on the both of them, stars swirling all the while.

Valia swatted the snoring Guardian on the head. “Wake up, idiot. We’re going to be late.”

“Huh? Whazzit?”

We’re going to be late.” She exhaled loudly and grabbed his head. She jerked it to face a clock. “If you don’t wake up, we’re going to miss the general meeting. Maybe… I should just leave you here, Haven already left.”

“Gimme… gimme, fivvvee minutes—”

Valia rolled her eyes and summoned a handcannon. She locked it in place on her partner’s head and pulled the trigger. Amber immediately woke up, startled by the loud noise. She noticed the irritated look Valia had been giving off and the body on the bed turning into wisps of light. Seconds later, Caz was lying face-first on the floor, energy still wreathing off his form. “Well. I’ve got a killer headache now, so, thanks.”

The warlock bent on her knees to level her face with the hunter. “Wake up normally like the rest of us and I won’t have to wake you up via bullet,” she chastised. With a wave of her hand, the door opened and she walked out.

A minute passed, and Caz peeked his head from the room and noticed her… already at the end of the hall. Caz sprinted up to catch with his teammate. “H-Hey! Slowdown! Seriously, how do you walk so fast for a warlock!?” he cried, still fixing his armor into place and wrapping the cloth on his neck.

Valia sent him a glance as they left the dormitories and entered the courtyard of the Tower. The auditoriums were located on the eastern side, past the libraries. Guardians moved around the place, performing normal everyday antics. Killing each other, playing dumb games, testing their parkour skills over the ledge, and trading guns.

A lot of options became available once immortality was thrown on the table.

Although, some things remained unexplained, like the spontaneous dancing that occurred at random times. It baffled researchers and Guardians alike. Those questioned about it explained that they just wanted to dance for no reason. She spotted some Guardians clapping and rooting for a dance-off.

She had gone through it a couple of times. She didn't think much of it, however.

Past the grand archives and in the interior corridors were the entrances they had been searching for. She pushed it open and unceremoniously made her way inside. She spotted a certain exo waving to them from a bench. She excused her way past the many standing around, eventually sitting next to her other teammate.

“So Lev hasn’t started yet?”

“Nope. He’ll probably be up in a little while, you guys haven’t missed anything.” Haven smirked and punched Caz in the shoulder. “I’m surprised you managed to get this sloth to actually leave his bed.”

“She shot in me in the head!”

“Ah. Classic.” The titan smirked. “I’d think you would get the message not to irk Valia by now, ya’ runt.”

The hunter blew a raspberry. “Meathead.”

“I’m a robot, you dunce,” he quipped. “Try again.”

“Well, maybe—”

Haven noticed the hush that was slowly falling on the crowd and spied the man standing by the podium. He tapped on his friend’s shoulder, directed a finger at the soon-to-be-speaker, and pulled him down to sit. “Let’s finish this later.”

Once everything was relatively quiet, the man chose to speak.

“Glad you could all make it!” a voice shouted. “We’re about to do something that has never been done before. Never in the history of the Guardians have we tried something so… bold. In fact, we’ve got Shaxx trembling from sheer anticipation!”

The crowd cheered, laughing.

Lev motioned for them to shush. “Zavala has been kind enough to give me the reins for the operation. So, settle down.” He gestured to his ghost, who activated the inert holographic map. “You’ve heard the stories. The Citadel, the survivors have called it. The nesting grounds for one of the most major Hive networks in the known solar system. Feared for being completely impenetrable. Feared for the scores of Hive laying above and beneath.”

He paused. “We’re going to storm it.”

“I understand if any of you want to back out. This is serious business, and many have been lost leading up to this point. I’m sure we’ll even face casualties out there. So, if you want out of the juicy stuff, feel free to walk.” Heads turned to see if any were willing. Silence continued to hold the amassed group of Guardians before it roared in approval. The man standing on the podium waited for their cheers to die off.

“It’s not going to be easy. Oh, hell no. But it’ll be worth it. If… no, when we succeed, we’ve had avenged our fallen. We’ve shown that humanity doesn’t take kindly to being kicked onto its shins.”

“We’ve shown the damned Hive what we’re made of.” Several titans banged their chests and threw their balled fists into the air. He pointed to the screen as it changed.

“We’ll be running strikes along Magmaridge, The Sidewinder, and the Ocean Observatory. We want to draw as much attention as possible for our six volunteer fireteams to infiltrate the Citadel.”

“The coordinators on the field will give you the rundown, but I’ll give you all an idea of what you’re committing yourselves to.” The Guardian paced along the platform. “Magmaridge strike teams, your goal is to cause all-out war with the nearby Cabal forces and draw the attention of nearby Hive. Then, force them to fight each other. Sidewinder strike teams will have the most allocated forces. We want the Hive to believe that’s where we’ll be staging our faux siege. Hold out as long as you can. We’ll begin airdropping fortifications and ammunition. Ocean Observatory strike teams, you are to hit the external defenses marked on quadrants nine to forty-five. Proceed once done, but be prepared to evacuate at a moment’s notice.”

“Our goal is to cause as much damage as possible and force the Hive to spread their forces thin. It’ll make it easier for our infiltrators to do their jobs.” Lev nodded to the groups in question. “The Vanguard has already shipped the VEs to your rooms. The activation codes will be sent to you via Ghost once you’re ready to deploy.”

“The north will have fireteams PBJ,” he moved his face closer, “Our… Our name should be cool, and Predator move in from the charges planted by Cayde’s hunters. The south will have Helljumpers, Swansong, and Dawn proceed from an atmospheric jump. Specific details will be assigned on-site.”

“I’ve sent the locations for your teams to meet up at. But for now? Get some naptime in. We won’t be resting for a long while after today.”

“It’s getting harder to control…”

“Do we have the eradicators primed?” Valia asked, inputting information on the tablet.

Data shifted in the air to mimic a nod. “They’re currently stored aboard the Dilemma’s vaults. We just need to enter the final sequence, give the command… and boom they go.”

The warlock hesitated, then halted entirely. She lowered the device. “So this really is it. We’re about to make history.” She hooked the tablet onto her robe chain and secured it. “I made sure to read up on the info we have on the Citadel. It's… not much.”

“Oh?”

“All we really had was this small block of text on the possible leadership that may or may not be outdated. It mentioned something about three wizards. It read more like a fairy tale than an actual combat report.”

Data blinked. “That's all?”

“Sadly,” she murmured, as the remaining four of their party appeared over the horizon. “Looks like we should prepare the ship for launch.”

“On it.”

The world around them blurred into digital sparks, as they transmatted from the floor of the hangar and into the cockpit of the Sol Dilemma. She sat in the pilot chair and pressed the palm of her hand onto the screen. It scanned the print. Several monitors that lay dormant flickered alive, filling the space with a holographic glow.

“Engines are warming up smoothly, all flight systems running nominal performance, no errors, no leakage among any of the lines, communication arrays are good to go, core running peak efficiency…”

“Main engines ready. Secondary engines ready.”

Valia hovered over the comms switch. “Do we have clearance from the ATC?”

“Skies are clear, fireteam is onboard, we’re good to go.”

The ship rumbled as it began to rise. Engines roaring as it began lifting tonnes of reinforced steel and computer equipment.

Unlike most Guardian jumpships, the Sol Dilemma was in actuality a repurposed deep reconnaissance research vessel. In comparison to its smaller brethren, the craft was a behemoth in size, large enough that it could support two small strike fighters on the tips of its wings. It was meant to house a crew of ten different men, their research tools, and years of supplies, after all.

Originally, it had been found floating amongst the mounds of space debris in Earth’s orbit. Without coming in for a close inspection, many would simply pass it off as part of the junk. The warlock had come across it during one of her expeditions, damaged, but usable.

She brought it to their resident expert. Amanda had been like a kid in a candy land when Valia dragged the thing into her workshop. After a couple months of retrofitting, the thing had come out as a symphony of iron, bristling with guns. It packed enough firepower and combat systems to make any titan cry out in joy.

However, that also meant the ship was absolutely horrible at tight maneuvering and close-quartered combat. So for most of the time, it had been relegated for missions that involved extended operations in further regions of their solar system. Places where regular transports lacked the fuel reserves to make the return trips.

Which were very rare occurrences. So much to the shipwright’s dismay, it spent months on end collecting dust.

The only reason why they were using it today was because of Haven, who suggested they deploy the dummy AI and have it work as a mobile fortress. Mostly to help keep the skies clear of enemy fighters. The idea sounded plausible.

So while they jumped from the back of the ship through the loading bay, it would be floating around providing air support for the forces below.

The Vanguard gave it the green signal, and here they were.

Valia reclined in her seat as they made a steady ascent into the atmosphere. It would be half an hour before the Dilemma was above the drop zone. She had already done all the background work she could… her gear had been prepped the previous night… perhaps they could go over the attack plans.

Lev did say it was to be given on-site, but it seems the Vanguard changed that. She grabbed the tablet hanging off her robe and brought it up. It had been emailed to them in the early morning. She missed it and would've never realized it if Caz hadn't notified her. Valia found the file and opened it up.

The plan detailed their insertion point, the path to the objective, and the location they were to activate the eradicators at.

It also noted that they were on a timer. It would only be so long until the Hive realized that the real threat was moving in their own base. If they took too long, they would be overwhelmed and all their hard work would bear nothing.

The map included in the dossier highlighted a specific path for the group to take. It was the fastest calculated route according to the drones, and they would meet the least amount of resistance.

If time not being on their side wasn’t pressure enough, a great portion of the operation depended on their success.

Void Eradicators were a special type of weapon.

Outlawed by the Vanguard because of their sheer destructive capability; they were meant to be a throwback to the nukes of old. A single explosive designed to destroy miles of land in a blink of an eye. The only difference? Nuclear bombs irradiated the earth for years to come. Eradicators encased an area in a perpetual state of nothing for the same duration.

Valia saw firsthand the damage they could do. Known as VE spheres, they looked exactly like static nova bombs… scaled up to three million. It had already been deteriorating, receding and revealing the initial blast crater. Sediment layers had been carved out for the entire world to see.

The Citadel was a structure that extended beneath the surface, corridors and rooms that stretched for miles. For the mission to be called a success, the entire area must be covered by the blast.

Fireteam Dawn was heading to the deepest part of the Citadel. The heart of the entire network to plant both of the eradicators. One would be enough to finish the job, but it was smart to always carry a spare in the case of technological problems. If both of them happened to go off without a hitch? No skin off the Vanguard’s backs. Extra big detonation and one less VE in circulation.

There was a loud “CHUNK” and hiss as the Dilemma moved into a VTOL state. The continuous roar of the engines dulled itself.

Valia perked up. “We’re here.”

“I’ll activate the AI, you can go ahead to the loading bay.”

The warlock nodded and got off her chair. She calmly walked through the corridors, arriving in the room where her two teammates waited.

“So tell me again why we’re going into the spooky necromancer tower rather than bombing this thing to kingdom come?”

“We’ve tried. Why do you think we’re being sent in?” Haven held a hand to his forehead and groaned. “You asked the same thing yesterday.”

“I did?” His face soured. “I don’t remember that.”

“The reason why we aren’t bombing the Citadel is that of the extensive external shielding network they have established.” She tightened the strap on her glove. “Besides, even if we get past that, they just vaporize anything we’ve tried dropping on them.” She hit the button to open the ramp. “However, this only tells me you want to back out. Scared, Jo’arren?”

“N-No!”

Haven barked a laugh. “Then man up, Glowstick! Guardians show no fear!” he said, jogging to the edge. “Well, at least I don’t!” And he jumped off.

“Hmph. Typical titan. He forgot that I haven’t even grabbed the eradicators yet,” Valia scoffed and laid a hand on a glowing panel. A terminal spun around from the wall and a transmat conduit appeared from behind it. She brought up the storage unit and selected the boxes for the respective bombs. Two plexiglass cubes each half her height landed to her right. “Caz, if you will?”

The hunter jogged over and let Amber hover out. She scanned the stack and digitized the VEs for storage. “That’s it right, we aren’t forgetting anything?”

She nodded to her remaining teammate. “We may go,” she said. Walking to the edge of the ramp, she snapped her fingers for her helmet to materialize. The warlock took a deep breath… and jumped. For just a moment, a brief second, the world had lost all sound. It was just her and the clouds, grayed and fluffy, encompassing the sky. She was in a state of weightlessness. Free of pressure.

Then gravity kicked back in, and it all ended. Valia tucked her arms in and sped up, shooting through the air. From high up, she could vividly make out the battles being waged below.

Dawnblades tossed their sun-forged swords at rows of enemy forces, Strikers wrestled with ogres, Nightstalkers tethered countless Hive together for their comrades to mow down…

She could see Red Legion Harvesters and Threshers duking it out with Hive ground forces and their Tomb ships. Goliaths rumbled across the earth, retaliating against the supposed aggression. She smiled as she saw glimpses of fireteams snaking through the undergrowth and provoking each side, prolonging their fight.

The beauty of teamwork shown as bright as any beacon.

“AI is set. Sol Dilemma is ready to begin its assault,” Data announced in her head. “Passing halfway mark. You should prepare to slow down.”

The ground was coming up fast. All she had to do was time her jump correctly to cancel out the fall. Well, it wouldn't matter if she broke her legs and died from the impact. However, immortal as she may be, that didn't mean it hurt any less to die.

She exhaled and let the light lift her. Shielding herself from the whiplash, she gently hovered to where Haven was waiting. He spun a Hive knight sword around.

“What took you guys so long? I had to stomp the welcoming party all by myself!” he jeered.

“You forgot why we were coming here in the first place. To infiltrate and plant bombs. You jumped without letting me grab them out of storage.”

Haven froze and dropped the sword. “Oh, uh, yeah. Whoops.”

“Whoops does not even begin to cover it.”

Three bursts of air and their hunter joined them.

“Team’s all here. Let’s not waste any more time.”

They walked to a wall slathered with red paint and a small stitch where a suggested shaped charge would go.

“Watch for traps, the Hive may not be crazy about them like the Fallen but they still like to be sneaky with them,” Valia warned.

“Keep your eyes peeled for explodey boys. I got my ass blasted into last week because one of them snuck up on me,” Haven noted. “Which you totally should have caught, Glowstick.”

Valia paused. “Explodey… boys? Do you mean cursed Thralls?”

“Yeah. Some of the titans I meet with call them that. I think it's a much more fitting name if you ask me.” He waved his hand to the side. “It's quite accurate. Since they explode…”

“Just… I don't… just knock the wall down,” she interrupted.

He chuckled and pulled his fist back, solar light wrapping around his arm. “Aye, aye, Captain.”

The wall exploded in a shower of sparks as the team rushed inside. The unfortunate patrol that happened to be in their way was immediately gunned down. “We need to head south, quick! Take the largest tunnel and wind our way down!”

Boots thumped against the chitinous floor of the Hive base, the footfalls mostly muted by the organic material. Fireteam Dawn proceeded in a line formation, with their titan leading the charge and their hunter holding the rear. Weapons were raised and barrels flicked to any sign of possible movement. Ambushes from foes lying in wait was a tactic the Hive loved to employ.

“Have you seen anything yet?” Caz whispered. “Paranoia is going to get to me.”

Valia shook her head. “The hostile radar isn’t picking anything up. As far as this thing is concerned, we’re alone. Haven, see anything?”

“Besides the ugly interior decorating and all the creepy worm things in the walls?” He snorted. “No. Emptier than Zavala’s bar.”

“He has a bar?” Caz asked. “Since when?”

The titan smirked under his helmet. “My point has been proven.”

Proceeding further into the depths, a low hanging fog began to roll in. The dim, green light of the interior facilitated that infamous eerie feeling associated with the Hive had settled in. It was a good indicator they were leaving the safety of the surface. Lights, please.

Data appeared and activated his scanner to act as a makeshift light source.

The other two ghosts flashed into existence shortly after, both activating their respective scanners.

The jagged edges once invisible became apparent, flaring to life in exaggerated shadows. It was as if they had willingly stepped into the mouth of a great beast, with hundreds of razor-sharp teeth ready to slice them if they made the slightest wrong movement. Which in itself was not wrong, they had willingly entered into the Citadel, after all.

The relative lack of uniformity on the hastily constructed ground showed how much of the place had been tunneled straight from the earth. It also showed how recently erected the path they were taking was. Specks of dirt and gravel were dragged under their feet as they proceeded as a group. It certainly took off the edge of things, however, the entire atmosphere would most likely change once they entered the older tunnels.

They turned a corner and ducked into the low-lying hole. Constricted by the tight space, they were forced to get on their knees and crawl through. Caz had to shimmy backward as he followed along, scooching on the ground. He bumped into Valia, impossible for him to have seen Haven stop.

“Hey, uh, what’s the holdup?” he questioned. “I’m starting to regret going in like this and my legs are cramping.”

“Exit is blocked!” Haven announced.

Valia peered over his shoulder pauldron. “I think you mean to say: there is no exit. You led us into a dead-end. Caz, get ready to back up.”

“No, I can read a map, Val.” He gestured with an open hand. “I was going the right way the entire time. I think the Hive must’ve recently sealed this entrance.” He grinned and cracked his knuckles. “So I’mma do what I do best.”

“Haven—”

“I’m gonna make my own door.”

The warlock screeched, hands snapping up to stop him. “Haven, we’re in an enclosed space! REMEMBER WHAT—” She reacted far too late, however, as a pseudo hammer of Sol collided with the obtrusion. The fiery eruption that occurred roared back into the group, scorching the titan and ripping up Valia’s armor. It also sent Haven flying back, knocking into his group as if they were bowling pins. I am going to grill his ass about this later! Not now. We’re wasting time.

She heaved the two males off of her body, pressing them into the wall. “Ow, hey, watch the cloak! I ironed it this morning!”

Valia gave pause. “Why? Just ask Amber to fix it while it’s digitized… gah. The countdown started already, we need to continue moving.” She looped her head out of the newly formed hole. “Caz, ensnarement runes, two o’clock.”

He responded with a burst from his submachine gun, rendering the trap useless until it was manually reset.

Suddenly, the ground beneath them burst and multiple thralls crawled out. It looked like if someone kicked an ant hill filled with the things. They hissed and clicked, scrambling for the party of Guardians. One had managed to close the gap, lunging at the group with its claws drawn.

The thrall met a gauntleted fist. It was sent flying back into its compatriots with a caved skull. A round of shots made short work of the small ambush.

They continued unobstructed and would continue to do so until they reached the first landmark. It seemed the decoy attacks were working.

The floor transitioned from rough, uneven ground, to a plated, diamond pattern. Unnatural looking columns spiraled high into the ceiling. Two summoning circles lay by an inert gate, which arced all the way to the cavernous roof. Their first landmark had been reached. It also signaled the last chance to turn back. Once they went through, they had to commit to the very end. Not like any of us plan to back out anytime soon. We were given a mission, and we’ll see it completed.

They were standing in front of the locked entrance to the southern relay, the first step in bypassing most of the walls and security systems laid by the Hive. The scouts also said the place was supposed to be a wasp’s nest.

Haven looked up from his sights. “How much time has elapsed?”

“Four minutes since the breach.”

“What’s our estimated time to failure?”

“Hive response time is often two minutes… adding the distractions…” Valia stopped and quickly calculated the amount in her head. “We should take no longer than half an hour. Any longer is pushing it. I don’t want us getting caught in the blast. Data, could you set a group timer with interval pings for every five?”

“24:59,” the ghost said, having spoken it aloud and displaying it on the HUD.

“Good. We can begin the summoning ritual. Fireteam Swansong should be along any moment.” She stepped onto the plate and flinched from the glare the symbols gave off. “Forgot how bright these can be in the dark.” They spun intricate lines around themselves, green mist pouring out of the magical engraving.

“—epeat, This is Swansong-One coming in. How copy?” a voiced asked, cutting through the silence.

“This is Valia Nore from Fireteam Dawn. You’re coming out choppy, but we can hear you.”

“Ever since we entered, the Citadel’s been messing with our comms. I don’t think the material here is very frequency-friendly,” they sighed. Gunshots cracked in the background. “We apologize for our… absence. We encountered some resistance back at our entry point. We’ll be there shortly.”

The air crackled and the smell of ozone became overpowering. The sound of a vortex whipping their surroundings filled the expanse. A massive Hive knight stepped out from the portal, black chitin gleaming. Each stride it made shook the earth, countless pounds of armor lumbering their way. Behind it, the knight dragged a vicious looking serrated greatsword, which scraped and tore up the floor as it moved.

“Well, he's pretty big,” Caz said, breaking the shock of the situation.

“No shit. It's the gatekeeper. The scouts said we needed to kill this guy in order to enter the actual relay,” Haven replied, loading the rocket tube onto his launcher. The purple lights lining the chassis whirred to life. “Power weapons, everyone. Let's tear ‘em a new one!”

The bigger they are, the harder they fall. This will be fun. "Let me handle this one," she said to her team. Valia unsheathed her blade and Caz brought out his sniper rifle just in case. The warlock twisted her blade in her grip and charged. The gatekeeper roared and swung its weapon, crashing it into the floor, hitting nothing but the ground, as she danced out of the way. It groaned in frustration as it attempted to dislodge the sword from its place in the ground. Valia took this chance to clamber onto the blade and bridged the distance by running on the giant’s arm.

She jumped and with surgical precision, drove the blade straight into the glowing green slit of keeper’s helmet. She snapped the hilt back to activate the storm edge.

In a deep octave, it screamed and recoiled back, scrambling to evict the lightning rod in its eye. A clawed hand arced its way to the face where Valia hung onto. She pivoted the blade and threw an uppercut. It cleaved through the unprotected flesh beneath, searing the skin to match the exoskeleton above it. She slapped a solar grenade into the wound and jumped off.

The warlock placed it back into its scabbard, charge used up in her last strike. Clean kill. She sprinted back to the safety of her party.

The gatekeeper stumbled back, scratching at its face ever so desperately to remove the intrusion. It screeched as its hands were blasted back by a rocket. "Nuh-uh ugly. That shit's stayin' in there." The smaller bombs hiding in the payload buffeted it back into a wall, causing dust to fall from the ceiling.

A round of fire announced the arrival of the other Guardian party.

The solar magic finally collapsed the shell containing the spell and everyone watched as fireworks sparked from the inside of its head. The knight collapsed to its knees, fires dying out. The layer protecting the face had melted off and revealed a bulbous, pulsating organ with thick orange veins running along the surface. It was obvious to see where Valia had plunged her sword into, evidenced by the long hemorrhage.

“I commend you on your swordsmanship skills, Valia Nore. Breathtaking movements,” a thick accent commented from behind her. “It is unfortunate that your opponent was so… unpleasant to look at.”

She turned around to see a hunter with a snow-white cowl. The curved portion of his visor looked like a beak.

“I apologize. I am Crane,” he gestured with an open palm to two other similarly armored Guardians, a warlock and another hunter. “The one with the frills is Swan. The other is Ibis. Although Ibis refuses to use a sword like the rest of us. He is ruining our theme.”

“Bah. I stuck a bayonet on my shotty. I think that's good enough. Besides, the enemy has never disagr—”

“19:59.”

The gatekeeper slammed their arms into the ground. The semi-intact mouth—partially melted on one end—opened up to the best of its ability and roared. Gas poured onto the floor and made its way to the summoning plates. All runes activated almost instantly and the portal that had frozen during its “death” reactivated.

Caz reacted by emptying the entire sniper magazine into the knight. The literal railgun launched thick rods that bored into the exposed organ as if it was nothing more than pillow fluff. They came out the other end rammed into the adjacent wall, slick with alien blood.

Valia grasped the shroud of her rifle. “Pleasantries can be conducted later.” The first acolyte made their way through the open gate, chittering. “For now, it looks like the hornets aren’t too happy about us kicking their nest.”

Crane chuckled and pulled out a stout shortsword. “Guardians think alike as always. Nothing beats the rush of battle.” He leveled his sword with the amassing army. “Let us begin.”

Swan stepped up. “Please, let me start this off. I’ve been aching to do this ever since we stepped in this hell-hole.” A swirling ball of void energy appeared in her palm. “I’ll give you necrotic worms a taste of what’s to come!”

She hurled the nova bomb at the approaching force, who all began breaking formation to run away. The initial blast tore out a large chunk of where they once stood. The resulting seeker bombs birthed from that explosion moved to finish the job. As the dust began to settle, the Guardians wasted no time as they sliced through their foes.

“We can ignore them! Just get through the gate!” Ibis yelled, smashing the butt of his shotgun into an acolyte.

Haven cleared a path as he smashed them aside, pummeling Hive left and right. “Here goes nothing, see you on the other end, Glowstick!” he shouted, waltzing into the portal.

They followed in his wake of chaos, shooting anything that dared come close. As they closed on the objective, the group collectively hesitated. It wasn’t new for a Guardian to run headfirst into a Hive constructed portal, but those usually never had anything good on the other end.

But they had another waiting on the other side and a clock slowly ticking down.

“Enough. Let’s do this!”

They jumped into the unknown, weapons drawn.

Arriving, they were ready for the worst.

Haven was simply just standing there, quietly fixing a part of his gun. “So, uh, yeah. There’s nothing here. The relay just so happens to be down the hall, I checked.” He hiked a finger at the end of the hallway that produced an oppressive glow.

Crane huffed. “We must hurry then. Our friends on the surface are counting on us.”

Their silent footfalls were the only sound as they walked towards the objective. Trigger fingers lay ready in the slightest case something was off. As they emerged into it, they could see the entire space for themselves. Multiple balconies spun along the walls, encompassing a pedestal squatting in the middle. Pillars with the middle directly chopped out, shriekers acting as living replacements. Clumps of iridescent orbs hanging from the ceiling pulsate with energy.

But the most interesting thing about the place, perhaps, would be all the black-clothed acolytes sitting in the balconies, all clicking and hissing in their language. Hundreds upon hundreds of them sat in rows. It looks like a lecture hall. They all faced a wizard adorned with a tattered blood-red robe.

In its palm, it held an amorphous dagger that could pass for a sword if a Guardian wielded it. The handle itself was jagged and thorny, almost uncomfortable looking to hold. The blade was heavily serrated on one end. Void light wrapped around in wisps, covering the blade in an ethereal fire.

The alien conversation slowly began dying off as heads turned to face the intruding party. Hostile hissing began to echo around the chamber. An oppressive air slowly began to fill the room. It was an all too familiar sensation of choking… smothered by an evil that plagued their galaxy. They had entered an area teeming with the darkness.

Death here had an aura of permeance.

“I guess this is when the fun really begins, huh, Glowstick?”

“14:59.”

A flash of light appeared next to Valia, Data, who promptly scanned the wizard. His shell expanded and closed as he analyzed the information and compared it with his libraries. He turned to the pseudo-raid party. “Yir Lakûm, Advent of the Three. Wanted by the Vanguard. Alive is preferable.”

Caz snorted. “Alive? There are dozens of Hive here if you haven’t noticed, Data! If we aren’t the ones that don’t come back alive I wouldn’t be surprised!”

“Then let me surprise you, fellow hunter,” Crane whispered as he brought out his blade once more. “We will succeed. There is no other option we can take. They stand between us and our objective.”

The first thralls began touching the earth as they clambered down from the walls. Four large doors spread out evenly among the walls opened up to let the acolytes flood out. It was a veritable army against a small squad of six.

Yir Lakûm simply hovered above her pedestal, creepily smiling as she stroked the weapon in her grip. Without warning and with an ear curdling screech, Yir kinked her arm up and threw the arm holding the blade skyward. A reverberating hum filled the room as a crescent slash shot through the air.

It collided with Caz and sent him careening back where they started from.

“Hey you wrinkly bitch, only I’m allowed to bully Glowstick!” Haven loosed a rocket, aiming for one of the arches. It exploded in the air and dislodged the apparatus, missing and falling behind Yir. It did, however, manage to crush one of the four doors and many Hive. “Fuck it. That works too. You’re next!”

And with those words uttered, both sides charged.

“I’m losing grip…”

“T-T-F?”

“Six minutes. We need to keep going. We took too long dealing with the Hive in the relay. Left here,” she mumbled, nearly breaking into a sprint. “Caz. Amber’s connection is telling me you aren’t looking too good. What’s wrong with your shields?”

“N-Nothing.” That’s a whole bunch of lies and I know it. “I think Yir fired a funny spell at me. I’m a little frosty feeling, but I should be okay. Don’t worry about me though. We have a mission to accomplish.”

“Caz, if you aren’t feeling okay, we can slow down. Your health is vital to the success of the mission.”

“I’m fine. I’m fine. We need to get this done fast,” he insisted.

“If you say so,” Valia replied, unconvinced. “However, I won’t hesitate to stop us if you suddenly keel over. Keep that in mind, Jo’arren.”

“Oooh. she’s breaking out the last name…!” Haven teased. “Yeah, same here, Glowstick. Can’t rib you if you die on us.”

“Listen, guys, I’m fine. No need to pester me about it.”

The warlock scoffed. “We’re just looking out for you. You’re practically family to us, Jo’arren.”

Fireteam Dawn arrived at the last step, the chute they would need to take. They climbed methodically down the slope, careful not to accidentally slip down. Accidentally announcing their position… asdiaetusaf wuiisadkl nmbvdlfiow uytxczasfoi slak lksadiowioe lkasdn…

“...planting, cover…”

“Do you have the screws…?”

“...here…”

… asdqwoiernvcbhj. Asoieqaou sadjkwq logyu sda asdlo, abnvbo pooawr ptyuwe ncbxiu. Qweiuyuq xcvmh asdpo uitu lasd asld qweoioeqw ghaoi asdlvzc nmbmher alwlk…

“Movement…!”

“...watch it!”

“...in place!”

“Stand back…”

“...out. Go…!”

“NO!”

“Celestia, get closer! The entire thing is destabilizing! I’m not sure if I can hold it together any longer!” Luna whimpered. “I can try to get to the end, but I… I can’t guarantee that!”

“hAvEN! I SwEaR YOu ACTivaTE tHAt TRANsmAT BeACon and i’Ll GuT yOU!”

VaLIA hearD the beep AS thE COMMAnD weNT thROugh.
“iF oNe OF uS hAS To GeT aWAY frOM ALL of THiS, I PRefer it’d tO BE YoU!” He hiSSED oUT. “THeSE WoUNDs ArE FAtal, VAliA. I CaN fEeL IT. SeRapH cAN feEl it. yOU CAN feel IT.”

“I CaN SAve YoU, yOU sTUpiD rOBOt! HAnG oN aND lET me recaliBRATE the BEAcON!” she scrEAMed. “dROP thE DAMN barrIER! leT ME OUT!”

“sOmEONE needs to STAY beHINd and re-ArM tHE bOMbs. I’m already DYING. i Won’T MaKe iT bACk aliVE.”

“HaVEN! ThE ThREE wITChES arE STILL thERe! It’S SUIcide!”

“wE’ll FAil And aLL oUR haRD WOrk would BE fOR nothING. Caz would’ve died for nothing,” hE muMBLed, deLIriUM staRtiNG to SetTLE iN. “and LiKE I saID, DYing AlreADy. jUSt Let A TItAN have HIS last FIght.”

sHe WatchED from BehIND the SCReen of LIght as HE shAMbLED to THE firST boMB. hE PusHED oUT tHE AcTIvATIon panel and started punching out THE lasT sEQueNce. The warlock could only continue to observe in horror as he moved around to the last one. Seraph had been ahead of him, requiring the confirmation from the Guardian. He slammed his fist on the switch and watched both of them light up with unstable void energy.

“VOID ERADICATOR MINOR SYNC SUCCESSFUL. HARD SYNC WITH: VE 1-6 and 9-12 SUCCESSFUL,” the voice droned out. “ONE MINUTE REMAINING TO DETONATION, PLEASE EVACUATE TO SAFE DISTANCE.”

Haven popped his helmet off and laid it to his side. He slumped against the bomb and slid down to his ass. He grunted at the sudden feeling of hitting the ground.

She could clearly see from behind him the angered faces of the three witches, closing in on her last teammate. They were dazed and moving slowly, but each inch looked so agonizing. She banged her solar-charged fist on the barrier. Each action was futile, however, failing to even leave a dent.

Haven let out the goofiest grin his metal face could manage. He gave a sloppy salute. “It was a pleasure working alongside you, Valia, even if you were a stick-in-the-mud.”

Seraph nodded. “It was an eventful seven years of partnership. Data, Valia, please do not fret over this. We knew what we were signing up for when we took this mission.” The ghost formed a smile with his shell. “We have done many things together and I say I do not regret a single moment. I shall see you both where the light goes when we perish.”

“I’m not a wordsmith like Seraph here, but I agree,” he coughed, fluid spilling out. “WAIT! I totally forgot, please, Valia, burn my computer when you get back.”

Seraph chirped. “No need to worry. I installed malware on it that would destroy everything if we didn’t come back in time to disable it.”

“Oh. Well.” He smiled. “I’ll see you on the other side, eh, Val? I’ll say hi to Glowstick for ya’.” He stuck out his hand with a thumbs-up. Content with his goodbye, the titan let his head fall slack against the casing of the bomb. The whirring of his cooling fans and processors slowly powering down. He was going into a hibernation cycle.

The air around her began turning to small pixels, the particles whipping around her at breakneck speeds. The transmat unit had locked onto their ship and was preparing to leave.

“pLEasE, PleAse, dOn't! HaVEn, yOu cAn't do tHis… I… we already lost Jo’arren!” SHE chokED OUt. “Don’t do this Haven! NoNOnONo! Haven! HAVEN!”

Everything became white.

I gasped awake with an incredibly painful headache. Everything around me was so blurry and I felt so dizzy. I wanted to throw up and didn’t want to at the same time. I groaned and rubbed my eyes.

As everything came back into focus, I could see that my room had been completely trashed in my sleep. I seriously wish this would stop happening. Looks like I have to start cleaning again before the maid gets here. I threw the covers off and hobbled off the bed. I winced and clutched my head in pain as the headache pulsed. I sighed. I can't get anything done with this annoying headache stopping me every now and then. Time to find where the thing got tossed in my sleep.

I wonder where I threw that bottle of medicine to? I grinned as I spotted the white capsule tucked by a heap of books. Stretching my limbs, I eagerly trotted up to it and grasped it in my hoof. I blinked as I realized something was off. My room shouldn’t be this dark... I craned my neck up, even though it hurt to do so, to see what didn’t appear right.

I gasped and stumbled back as my eyes came into contact with my mentor’s. They were filled with hurt, confusion, and sorrow. There was probably a whole ‘nother slew of emotions hidden beneath that, but that’s what I could immediately tell off the top of my head. I slammed my chin—ouch—to the ground as fast as I could manage. “P-Princess! W-What are you doing here? I… I apologize for the mess, I… I usually have this cleaned up a-as soon as I wake up!”

“I came here out of concern, Dilemma,” she said, betrayal tinging her voice. “Please do not confirm them.”

Huh? “W-What do you mean, Princess?”

I heard another set of hooves behind me. “You could tell us what you’ve been hiding this entire time.”

“H-Hiding?” What are they talking about?

The lunar diarch snorted in anger. “Your dreams, or should I say memories!? Stop playing games! The façade is up, Sol Dilemma…! Or should I more rightly say, Valia Nore?”

Author's Note:

Terribly sorry that I was late on this one.

Also, hah! Some of you thought the ghost would be introduced in this chapter! Nah, it's just fragments of the nightmare/memory that have been plaguing Valia ever since she lost her friends.