Ninth Age of Reclamation, Step of Silence \ Covenant Holy City"High Charity," Sanctum of the Hierarchs.

A hundred thousand probes darted and scanned with winking electronic eyes across the void of tangled nonspaces enveloping the Covenant inner empire. They gathered data and emerged into the cold vacuum, where they were recovered by the hundreds of supercarriers and cruisers in station-keeping positions around the massive, bulbous planetoid that dominated the heavens.

Not a single rock larger than a centimeter could enter this space without being identified, targeted, and vaporized. Authorization codes were updated hourly, and if any incoming vessel hesitated for a millisecond with the proper response, it, too, met unyielding destruction.

The High Charity drifted beneath this impervious network, illuminated by the glow from scores of warship engines.

Deep within, protected by legions of crack Covenant soldiers, the Sanctum of the Heirarchs was an island of calm. The walls, floor, and ceiling of the chamber were ornamented with mirrored shards made from the fused glass of countless worlds conquered by the Covenant Hegemony. They reflected the whispered thoughts of the one who sat in the center of this room—mirrored them back, so they might consider the glory of its domain, and learn from its wisdom... because there was no higher source of intellect, will, and truth alive in the galaxy.

In the middle of the chamber, hovering a meter off the floor upon its imperial dais, sat the Covenant High Prophet of Truth. Its body was barely discernible, covered as it was with a wide red cloak, and upon its head sat a glowing headpiece with sensor and respiratory apparatus that extended like insect antennae. Only its snout and dark eyes protruded... as did tiny claws from the sleeve of its gold underrobes.

The left claw twitched—the signal for the chamber's doors to open.

The doors groaned and split apart, and a crack of light appeared.

A single figure appeared silhouetted in the illumination. It bowed so deeply that its chest brushed against the floor.

"Rise," the Prophet of Truth whispered. The word was amplified by the chamber; it echoed and boomed forth as if a giant had spoken. "Come closer, Tartarus, and report."

A ripple of shock passed through the Imperial Elite Protectors. They had never seen such a creature allowed so close to the Holy Ones.

"Protectors," the Prophet commanded. "Leave us."

Together the three hundred honor guards straightened, bowed, and filed out of the great chamber. They said nothing, but the Prophet saw the confusion on their features. Good—such ignorance and puzzlement had its uses.

The Brute, Tartarus, strode across the great room. When he stood within three meters of the Prophet, he fell to one knee.

The creature was a magnificent specimen of viciousness. The Prophet marveled at its near-unthinking potential for mayhem; the rippling muscle under its dull gray skin could tear apart any opponent—even a mighty Hunter. It was the perfect instrument.

"Tell me what you found," the Prophet said, its voice now truly a whisper. Without looking up Tartarus reached for its belt and the attached orb.

The Prophet flicked its claw at the container. It floated free from Tartarus's grasp and hovered. The top unscrewed, and three glittering chips of sapphire-colored crystal shimmered, and threw light and shadow upon the chamber's mirrored surfaces.

The Prophet's dais bobbled in the suddenly uneven gravity— but it quickly compensated.

"This is all?" it asked.

"Eight squadrons combed the area surrounding the Eridanus Secundus asteroid field andTau Ceti," the Brute replied, bowing its head even lower. "Many were lost in the void. This is all there was to find."

"A pity."

The orb's lid screwed itself back on, and then the container gently drifted into the Prophet's grasp.

"It may yet be enough for our purposes... and one more relic from the Great Ones, as precious as they are, will soon make no difference to us." The Prophet tucked the container deep in the folds of its underrobe. "Make sure those pilots who survived are well rewarded. Then execute them all. Quickly. Quietly."

"I understand," Tartarus replied with a hint of anticipation thickening his voice. The Prophet inhaled deeply, released a rasping sigh, and then asked, "And what of the Unyielding Hierophantl"

"The reports are unclear, Your Grace," Tartarus replied. "The renegade flagship Ascendant Justice was involved, and destroyed. We are unsure what triggered the station's detonation. The recorded communications channels were flooded with system error reports prior to its destruction. The Engineers are saying this is imp—"

The Prophet held up one claw, indicating silence. Tartarus halted midsyllable.

"A regrettable turn of events," the Prophet said, "but in the end, only an insignificant setback. Have the ships that are battle-ready rendezvous with us at the site of the cataclysm."

"And what of the incompetent, High One? The one who lost

Ascendant Justice?"

"Bring him before the Council. Let his fate match the magnitude of his failure." Tartarus's face twisted with what passed for a grin among his species.

"Soon the Great Journey shall begin," the Prophet of Truth continued, and its claws curled into fists. "And let nothing in this universe impede our progress."