Of Citadels And Castles, Part 13: When Hell Freezes Over

By C. Mage



The Tin Star got to Noveria first. "Here we are. What should I know about the place? What can we do to get in?"

"A lot of corporations have offices here, and when you're at this side of the galaxy, they're not going to be beholden to the Council or Spectres," Saren said, walking in front of the viewscreen displaying the planet. "There's only one thing they'll take seriously. Money. Small companies are always looking for investors to help subsidize the labs here, especially considering how dangerous some of their experiments are."

"So instead of a Spectre's authority, they revere the almighty credit." Machias considered. "Fortunately, credits I have."

"I hope you have enough," Garrus said warningly.

"Wait. You said corporations have offices here. How do they get one? Is there an application process with the local government?"

Megani nodded. "That's the case with most civilized planets."

Machias smiled. "I have an idea. Instead of going to look for apples, let's go to the tree. Back in my day, we didn't have tech and machines to sell, but we still had commodities. And that meant speaking to one person, or a small group of people, who made their money getting through the bureaucracy's limitations. We need to find someone on Noveria who is in the business of doing that."

"What for?" Megani asked, intrigued.

"Because if that person can do that for Machias, they'll likely have done the same for Nihlus and Matriarch Benezia." Saren nodded. "Not too bad, for a human. I'll make the arrangements."

As Saren went to a console, Garren quietly remarked, "You do realize he's going to be stubborn like that, don't you?"

"Yeah, but I figure he wants the same things we do, so we'll work together. He doesn't like me, but he knows whose side he's on." Machias turned to Garrus. "I hear that you had people looking into making you a Spectre."

"Long story. Once we get off Noveria, we can trade stories. Until then, we're your bodyguards. Gotta keep up appearances, so you better get dressed for the part, leave your guns here."

"You tell me to get dressed, but go without my guns. Make up your mind."

The shuttle landed and Noverian security was waiting, and not with open arms. "Hands up! No weapons are allowed in the Noverian public domain. You'll have to surrender your weapons."

Machias looked at the for armed and armored officers. "I'm allowed personal protection, you know. And the gentlebeing to my left is a Council Spectre, so I think I'm allowed. Better check with your superiors."

"Wait here." The security officer pulled up her omnitool and started talking into it, looking up at Machias and the others skeptically. "I've got a group of strangers here, one of them is supposed to be a Spectre and the other one is going under the name Machias Castle…"

"Chief, stand down immediately…" A new voice heralded the presence of a human female dressed in a severe business suit, her hair pulled back. "I'm Gianna Parsini, and I'm here to invite you to our friendly little corporate community. Stand down, chief, Mister Castle is not only welcomed, but expected. So unless you'd like to be assigned to patrolling the perimeter on the night shift, I'd recommend lowering your weapons and letting our guests come in. And I'm sure their weapons will be permitted, since Mr. Castle does not seem to be in the habit of hiring incompetents."

Machias smiled. "Thank you. Oh yes, one more thing. There's an Alliance ship on the way called the Normandy. I would appreciate it if you would extend them the same courtesy," Machias added with a smile, reciting the script Megani gave him. "They're involved with my business arrangements."

"I shall see to that personally. If you'll follow me, please?" Gianna waved to the security station, signalling to them to not bother with the security sweeps. As they passed through the entryway, Machias was surprised at how...gray everything was. If it weren't for the fountains and slight plant arrangements in the courtyard, Machias would've made more things grow just to get more color. He also was finding it easier to adjust to the mana of this world. Noveria didn't have much life on it, but just enough to sustain a dedicated field of magical energy, but it felt colder to him than the he hadn't been the only magic-user on the planet, he doubt there'd be enough energy to sustain a basic ritual.

"Administrator Anoleis sent me to come meet you personally. He's quite interested in showing you all the benefits of bringing your business to Noveria."

"I imagine he is." Machias couldn't help feeling that he was going to need to clean his boots on his way out of the meeting. "Any advice on how to deal with him?"

"Corporate rules prohibit the release of privileged information, Mr. Castle," Parsini said politely.

"I'm just trying to get to the truth."

Parsini stopped, then said quickly, "Follow me." He guided the group underneath a waterfall, then turned to them. "I've heard about you. I hear you're an honest man and a wizard."

"Both true," Megani said with a hint of a smile.

"Listen...I think there's something seriously wrong with Administrator Anoleis. When he first started here, he was no more corrupt than anyone else here. But, starting six months ago, he became more aggressive. I didn't think too much of it, only that if he kept it up, he'd embezzle too much from the wrong people and I'd have to do something about it."

"Why do you need me, then?" Machias asked.

"Three weeks ago, I walked in on his at his office. I must have surprised him, because he looked up at me...and I swear I saw his eyes glowing. I know what I saw, and I'm fairly certain I'm not crazy."

Garrus turned to look at Machias. "You know why, don't you?" he asked, knowing it wasn't a question.

"I think I do...but it don't seem possible. I need to get a closer look at him. Be ready for anything, but do not use your guns unless I tell you to and not before. Understand?"

"Why?" Tali asked.

"Because if that is what I think it is...your guns aren't going to be much good against it."

"Any other advice?" Megani asked.

"Yep. Don't touch anything in the room Anoleis is in." He turned to Parsini. "Did he get any deliveries, something out of the norm for him?"

"Not really. He gets 'gifts' all the time. Bribes, basically."

"Did he get any 'gifts' with coins in them? Old coins?"

Parsini looked up in surprise. "A coin collection from an Alliance corporation."

Machias took a deep breath. "I need to get a closer look at him."

"And the downside?" Garrus asked.

"Whoever he, she or it is, they'll get a better look at me. This could turn real nasty, really quick." Machias sighed. "I've got a plan...but it's not going to be quiet, or friendly, or cheap. May not come through this unscathed. You're going to have to trust me."

Parsini looked at Machias steadily for a few moments, then nodded. "I hope you know what you're doing."

"Yeah, that makes two of us."

"Make that five of us," Tali added.

Garrus nodded in agreement. "Following your lead."

"Okay. Parsini, this is what I want you to do…"

The door opened and Parsini smiled as she gestured towards the office. "Administrator Anoleis will see you now."

Anoleis, a salarian in a very expensive suit, smiled as Machias and his group entered. "Welcome, Mr. Castle, it's good to finally meet you." He held out a hand for Machias to shake.

Machias kept his hands at his side. "Hello, Lamshiel."

Anoleis stopped, then took a little too long to recover. "Well, well...I thought this day would never come."

"Where's Anoleis?" Machias asked calmly.

"Oh, he's resting comfortably. Joining with a sapient being that isn't human is...disconcerting. But this one is serving my purposes well enough." He leaned back in the chair.

"I know you probably haven't changed in a while. You can do that, if you like."

Anoleis/Lamshiel stared at Machias. "You're being awfully gracious, considering I AM a Denarian. What's the catch?"

Machias sighed. "I'm the last wizard. Call it...professional courtesy."

The Salarian nodded, then began to shift, gaining a foot of height, an extra set of glowing green eyes and a somewhat deathly pallor, for a salarian. "AHHHH...YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW GOOD THAT FEELS...THINK OF WHAT A GOOD LONG STRETCH DOES FOR A HUMAN, AND MULTIPLY THAT BY A HUNDRED THOUSAND." Lamshiel looked around the room at the shocked faces, then rested on Machias' face, which hadn't changed a bit. "NOW, I'M GOING TO ASK FOR YOUR WANDS AND WEAPONS. IF YOU TRULY KNOW ME, CASTLE, THEN YOU KNOW WHAT I'M CAPABLE OF...AND YOU KNOW I'LL KILL AT LEAST THREE OF YOU BEFORE YOU CAN EVEN GET YOUR FIRST SPELL OUT."

"I didn't come here for a fight. I came here to get some information." He took out his managun and handed it to Lamshiel, grip-first.


"Can we get to the real reason I'm here?"


"I need to find out where Matriarch Benezia and Nihlus are. And I know you're going to tell me."


"Because there's nothing you like more than sowing chaos. It's in your nature. And what could be more enjoyable for you than to see powerful people go to the effort to do something big...only to be responsible for having it all torn down?"


"No. That's not some toy. That's my managun. You have no idea how it works, what it does, or how rare it is." Machias' face grew hard. "You can asked for something else, but not that."


"Mac, we can find it another way…" Garrus began, but Machias held up a hand to silence Garrus.

"Done. But I'm warning you, Denarian...you have no idea what you're playing with."


Machias nodded. "Tell me where they are, then."


Machias took out his pocketwatch and looked at it briefly, then put it away and shook his head. "No, thanks all the same."

"THINK I'LL TRY TO PUT SOMETHING INTO IT YOU WON'T LIKE?" Lamshiel ginned, the second set of eyes glowing even brighter. "LIKE IT OR NOT, WIZARD, TO GET TO YOUR SHIP, YOU'LL HAVE TO GO THROUGH ME."

"Not likely. Goodbye, Lamshiel." Machias turned and stopped as he saw green tendrils of energy sealing the door shut.


Machias turned around. His face bore a cold smile. "You know something, pardner? You're absolutely right."

Lamshiel stared at Machias, for a few moments, then all four eyes went wide as he suddenly opened his desk drawer to see Machias' managun wreathed in blue-tinged flames. He managed to get out a disbelieving "NO…!" before a massive wave of blue energy ripped outwards from the managun. Everyone saw a black, smoke-like shape expelled from Anoleis' body, an unearthly scream ripped away in mid-utterance. The green tendrils covering the door melted away and the wave of energy enveloped them all.

For one eternally brief moment, everyone touched by the wave felt at peace. Filled with hope, light, and everything that felt bad or wrong was simply gone. Then the old fears and weight started to come back, and everyone began to wake up from their waking dream.

And then...they were alone in the room with each other. They looked at each other, bewildered, as Machias walked behind the desk and bent down, picking up something with a gloved hand and putting it on the desktop.

"What was that...thing we saw…?" Tali asked, trying to center herself.

"That...was a demon. And not just any demon, a Denarian." He pointed to the object on the desk, a small, silver coin, the silver barely seen under a black tarnish. "Whatever you do, don't touch that with your bare hands."

"What is a Denarian?" Saren asked, still coming down from his high. "And what happened to it?"

"It's...okay, the 'what it is' part is going to take too long, so I'll save it for the trip to where we need to go. The 'what happened'...is painfully simple." Machias reached into the desk and pulled out his managun. It was blackened, twisted and half-melted. "Emphasis on the word, painful'."

"That looks…" Megani said, then the acrid smell hit her. "Mac, what in the Void?"

"Remember that prayer I made before we entered? I was essentially asking for divine help. I've only done that twice before, so I wasn't sure I'd get it. There's two types of divine energy out there. One of them is hellfire. It's the physical manifestation of the wrath of God, and demons like him use it a lot. Then there's the other type, the type known as soulfire. It's the direct opposite, the fire of creation itself. Hellfire is red, soulfire is blue."

Megani snapped her fingers. "The energy that surrounded your managun while you were praying. But wait...why did the gun explode?"

"It's an 'if all else fails' measure built into the guns to keep non-Marshals from finding out how they were made, preventing their use against the Marshals or other people." He picked up the coin and put it into his pouch, making sure to wrap it inside a leather strap first. "It gives out a massive pulse of magical energy of whatever it was made to use as ammo last. Look, I'll explain the rest later. We've got to move. Shepard's going to be here soon, but I don't think we can wait for him and his crew. Here's where we need to go." He held up the datapad and gave it to Saren. "You turn it on, I don't want to risk erasing it."

Saren nodded, looking over the map. "We'll need to go in over land, you'd have to be insane to try a drop from a ship in this weather. Do you have an all-terrain vehicle?"

Tali smiled. "Shotgun."

They weren't in the Mako long before Saren turned to Machias and said, "All right, Machias. The whole story. What happened?"

Machias nodded. "All right. The Denarians are spiritual beings of evil from Earth. Fallen angels. Now, I ain't gonna be preaching to no one, so if anything I tell you contradicts anything you believe, just remember: I'm only stating what I believe and what I've seen to be true. Fair enough? Good. Now...a long time ago, there was a man named Jesus Christ. He was good and holy and tried to preach to others, but some people didn't like what He had to say. So they tried to get someone in his group to betray him. They found someone, a guy named Judas, and paid him thirty silver coins. At the time, the coins were called, 'denarii'." Machias took a deep breath. "The act was so heinous, betraying a man that had never done any wrong, ever, that the very currency used in the act was cursed. Each one became the conduit of one of the original Fallen. They lie dormant until someone touches it with his bare hands, at which point they try to influence the person that touched it, turning them towards more and more immoral actions, until they pass a threshold."

"Then what happens?" Garrus asked.

"The Fallen takes over, and the original soul is at the whims of the evil being now controlling the host body."

"Sounds horrible." Megani shuddered.

"Yeah. There's been reports that the original soul spends its time being tortured while the Denarian is off wreaking havoc."

"What do these...Denarians want?" Tali asked, not entirely certain she wanted to hear the answer.

"Chaos. Suffering. Destruction. That's all they want. They hate humanity so much that all they want is to make things worse. I've heard rumors that not every Denarian is so bent, but you saw Lamshiel. That's as nice as they get."

"Rest assured, Mac, that I want to hear more about your beliefs later, but let's not get off track. You only had what, three of those managuns, and from what you told me, they're not easy to make. Can you fix the one that was destroyed?"

Machias sighed. "No. It's burned out completely. Spent."

"And you actually destroyed it just to defeat the Denarian?"

"No. I destroyed it to save a soul. There's a difference."

Saren scoffed. "You did that to save one soul?"

Machias turned to look at Saren and, for just a moment, Saren felt an overwhelming urge to tell Machias that he would take back the statement he made. "'ONE SOUL'? Let me explain something to you, Saren, and listen close, because I ain't gonna repeat myself. There is nothing in this entire galaxy, this entire universe, more valuable and more precious than a living soul! I would give everything I owned and reduce it to dust if, by doing so, one soul would be saved. So do me a favor, Saren. Don't ever speak so carelessly about something so important again, get me?"

"...clearly you have deeply-held beliefs, Machias," Saren said levelly. "I just hope that those beliefs don't get in the way of doing what needs to be done when the time comes."

Eager to break the tension, Megani said quickly, "We're coming to some rough areas ahead. Scanning...wait...something's moving ahead of us. It's a ship...no, more than one." She turned back to look at the others. "Geth dropships."

"Looks like this road trip just got more interesting." Garrus leaped to act, getting into the gunner seat for the Mako's turret. "I've got targets coming up on my scope. It's geth, all right, and they came with a lot of friends. Somebody doesn't want us to get to that lab."

Machias growled. "I can't do anything stuck in this tin can. Let me out of here."

"It's freezing outside, Mac!"

"I've got my coat on," he said insistently, unbuckling from his seat. "Open the hatch."

Megani knew better to dissuade Machias when he spoke with that tone of voice, popping the him. "What are you going to do?"

"Try to draw their fire." He grabbed his rifle and climbed out. "Stay on the move and head to the right. I'll move to the left."

"I'll come with you," Saren said, then noticed the looks. "What?"

"Careful, Saren. You keep that up, and people will start to think you're trying to be helpful." Machias smiled. "You up for this?"

"Just try and stop me."

Machias smiled and jumped out of the Mako and leaped to the ground, Saren right behind him. "I suppose you have a plan."

"Yep." Machias knelt down, eyes closed, whispering under his breath. After a few moments, he stood up again. "Let's ride."

Machias and Saren moved quickly across the frozen ground, the larger geth coming into view first. "I'm seeing three groups of troopers and two of the larger walker-types. They've been identified as 'armatures', but the geth have their own identification codes."

"I'm still trying to understand how they work. Each one is like a hive of bees, and the geth themselves are different types of hives."

"Complex machines. Well, let's see how well they handle hex bullets."

"Hex bullets?" Saren asked, watching Machias remove a ring from his finger.

"Magic and technology don't get along well. So I channel the natural energy in my body through my managun, and it can cause serious damage to mechanical constructs...including geth. But I haven't had the opportunity to test just how effective they are against the geth until now."

"You waited until NOW to test the weapon?"

"Calm yourself. I've fought geth before using other magic, Saren. Now, time to do some testing…"

Saren followed Machias as he ran towards the geth, wondering if he was following out of loyalty, or if he just wanted to watch with morbid curiosity what happened next.

"They just gave the signal." Megani took a deep breath. "You ready up there, Garrus?"

"I was ready when I woke up in the morning….three years ago."

"You better be." WE better be…. she thought to herself as she drove the Mako forward. "The armatures have noticed us by now...gonna try to shake them!"

"Geth in range….firing!" The Mako's main gun fired, Garrus holding the triggers down as he sent bolts of sizzling death towards the geth. Even with the Mako bouncing over the tundra at full speed, Garrus was taking out the smaller geth by using the main gun and the alternate rapid-fire of the smaller gun.

"Shields are taking a beating here…" Megani turned sharply. "Wherever we're going, they don't like visitors! Any sign of Saren or Mac?"

"I see them off to the left...they're laying down fire. Saren and Mac are dropping them left and right. Mac just went prone and he's...aiming at an armature."

"With what? I thought he couldn't use mass effect weapons, let alone anything heavy," Tali said, hanging on for dear life while the Mako whipped across the snowy plain.

"He's using...a rifle." Garrus blinked. "Is he insane?"

Machias concentrated, eyes closed. When he opened them, his eyes were white, glowing slightly.

He fired. A bolt of condensed white fire flew from the barrel and sped towards the armature, increasing speed as it flew. By the time it struck the armature, it was practically screaming in fury. The bolt didn't cause any physical damage, simply being absorbed through the shield and the armor. The armature took one more step...and then lights started going off all over its body, like explosions, but no apparent physical damage.

The armature swayed, then collapsed like a marionette with its strings cut. As it crashed, the other two armatures swiveled their heads towards the wreck of the third, then changed direction, walking towards Machias and Saren. "I don't know what happened, but those armatures don't seem to think the armored personnel carrier is the bigger threat anymore!" Garrus called down into the Mako's interior. "They've opened up their flanks! Head for the one to the rear!"

Megani turned the wheel according to Garrus' directions, aiming the Mako right for the largest group of geth, plowing through and over them. While Megani was doing her "monster truck" impression, Garrus fired away, whittling down the armature's defenses until its armor gave way. The last of the armatures fell, and Megani and Garrus got a much closer look at what happened to the armature. Machias' hit ignored the shields, hitting the armor directly, but the armor absorbed the energy like a sponge absorbing water. Then he could see a point of radiance as it hit the structure underneath the armor, and the glow spread throughout the armature's body. Garrus zoomed in using the guns' optics. "There's some sort of chain-reaction going on inside the armature. Whatever Mac hit the thing with, it's aggressive, consuming everything it touches." He moved down into the passenger compartment. "Whatever he shot at it, it's damned effective."

Megani considered. "Sounds like he managed to find a constructive use for that energy that his body generates."

"Energy?" Tali asked.

"It's something he called 'hex energy'. He has to restrain it using that ring on his finger. Without it, everything he touches that's more technologically advanced than a lever malfunctions. The more complex the technology, the more dramatic the response…" Megani stopped. "By the Goddess...he's a living anti-geth weapon."

Machias slung the rifle on his back. "Nice shootin', Saren."

"The way you took down the armitages was...impressive." Saren said reluctantly. "What type of weapon is that?"

"My Henry rifle...with a few added modifications." Saren didn't reply, but his face was full of questions. Machias didn't need to know a lot about turians to get that impression. "We'd better wave over the Mako. I ain't looking forward to walking all the way to that lab Anoleis talked about. And while we're waiting on them...you ain't half-bad a shot yourself. Don't think I didn't catch how you shot the other geth. Nary a shot wasted."

"As your people say, Castle, 'flattery will get you nowhere'. I suggest we get moving." He began to run towards the approaching Mako. Machias stood there for a few moments, then shook his head, running after him.

They arrived at the labs after running into, or over, a small army of geth. No armatures this time, just an abundance of troopers, like ants trying to overcome a lion. However, this "lion" came with Garrus in control of its "teeth", and Megani turned out to be a superb driver.

Even so, the geth wouldn't stop coming, and Megani worried that even Garrus' shooting wouldn't be enough to prevent the Mako's destruction...until it stopped being a matter of one Mako.

"Megani, we got incoming!"

"One geth dropship wasn't enough?"

"Wait….it's the Normandy! They just airdropped a Mako of their own!"

"Their pilot is either completely insane, or the best there is!" Tali said, looking out the eyeslits to verify with her eyes what her mind had trouble believing.

Megani opened up the comms. "Megani to second Mako. Is that you, Shepard?"

"In the flesh. We heard you could use a hand down here! Parsini says hello, by the way."

"Nice timing! We've got a little geth problem down here. Got any ammo on that Mako you're not partial to?"

"Actually, we hate having this stuff around. Let's ask the geth to see if they want some!"

The second Mako opened fire. and between the two of them attacking in tandem and laying down cover fire for each other, the geth were soon dispatched. "That's the last of them," Shepard said, looking around. "But if they were trying to stall us, they did their job. We've got to get to their lab before they do what they went there to do. And with the geth gone, they have to know we're coming."

Machias smiled grimly. "Good. Let's not disappoint 'em."

"Let's go." Megani smiled. "Time's a-wastin'."

Machias' smile became less predatory. "Indeed it is."

The entrance to the labs showed evidence of neglect, with the doors open and drifts of snow in the lobby of the building. "Somehow, I get the impression that professional standards may have dropped sharply," Garrus mused. "Where is everyone?"

Tali looked over at Machias to see him wiggling a finger in his ears. "Mac? What is it?"

"I dunno why, but I keep hearing this strange sort of...music. I can't describe it, but it sounds beautiful."

"Wonderful. The pressure is clearly getting to our resident magic human." Saren shook his head. "Do you need to rest?"

"Wait...the music just changed."

"Heads up!" Garrus brought up his rifle. "I don't believe this...RACHNI!" The others' guns came up fast, Machias simply standing there as he saw large, insectile creatures coming down the stairs. He snapped out of his daze when they started spitting globs of fluid at him, fluid that sizzled when it hit the floor and the walls behind him.

"Blazes!" He drew his managun, already missing its sibling, and fired at the rachni. He frowned as the bolts of spirit energy weren't stunning the rachni at all. He might as well have used harsh language, for all the good it did. He hated to do it, but he drew his Schofield, leaning around and firing at the heads, figuring they'd be a better weak spot. The gun wasn't a mass effect weapon, but it didn't need to be.

Machias fired, once, twice, three times, the gun loud even among the other weapons as Machias shot at what he guessed were the eyes of the rachni. Shooting them made the creatures lash out angrily, even at each other, making them easier targets for Shepard and the others.

When it was all over, Shepard turned to Machias. "Mac, you froze...why? That's not exactly what I expected from someone with your reputation."

"I looked at them...and I could hear them. I don't know, it was as if they were insane, or in agony. I tried to stun them, but my magic didn't affect them at all. It was like...like they didn't have souls. But they were still alive…" He shuddered. "It was one of the eeriest things I'd ever seen, and that's sayin' something."

"And the fact they looked like big bugs wasn't?" Ashley commented.

"Big bugs, I've seen. But from my personal experiences, we only see a small part of how things really are. There's a lot more to this." He shook his head. "We need to get moving."

"No argument there. Ash, status on the ab's systems."

Ashley checked out the console in the reception area. "Systems are down. Looks like comms have been shut off and the power's out. Shepard, this whole place is on lockdown. None of this makes any sense, the rachni are supposed to be extinct. What are they doing here and what does it have to do with Nihlus and the Matriarch?"

"I don't know...I'll ask them when we see them. Liara, can you get me a layout of the place?"

"On it, Shepard." Liara moved to an access panel and started to access it using her omnitool. As they worked, Shepard turned to Machias.

"Castle, anything?"

Machias took a deep breath. "I think I'm hearing the rachni. It's how they communicate, using some sort of sound magic. It's not something you hear, but...feel. Tell me about these rachni."

By the time they had explained the Rachni Wars and the ways the galaxy had changed as a result two thousand years ago, they'd managed to make their way towards the tram leading to the main labs. Since Machias was all but useless when it came to starting the reactor, repairing the comms and bringing the base's VI back online, different members of the group took turns relating the events of the Rachni Wars from their own races' perspectives. Machias was flabbergasted at the idea of an entire race uplifted to be an army, an insectile race driven to consume and conquer. and what happened to the krogan afterwards. "Lord a-MIGHTY...and I thought the War Between The States was bad! And the rachni was responsible…wait, you said they were extinct. Last I checked, that word meant there weren't any left."

"And until now, they weren't." Wrex looked absurdly pleased with himself. "Until now."

"You're enjoying yourself, aren't you?" Ashley asked.

"And you're NOT?" Wrex asked in disbelief. "How often does a chance like this come along?" He boarded the tram and waited for the others.

Shepard chuckled. "He looks like a kid who just found out Christmas is going to be happening once a month instead of once a year." He turned to look at Liara, seeing how uncomfortable she looked. "How are you doing, Liara?"

"Ask me again after we've spoken to my mother."

"You don't have to…"

Liara gave Shepard a look. "Yes. I do. For a freighter-load of reasons and questions."

Shepard nodded and the tram moved forward. As it traveled deeper into the complex, Megani touched Machias' shoulder. "What's happening with you?"

"I'm hearing it...the change. The closer we get to the labs, the clearer the two songs get."

"Two songs?" Megani considered. "Tell me about them."

"One of them is...unearthly. It's extraordinarily complex, but harmonic. It's like a hundred orchestras performing complimentary symphonies, all connecting and harmonizing. The other one is...like a hundred orchestras trying to make music by beating each other up with their instruments. It's cacophonic, insane. I can only guess at what they are by the number of voices for each song. The second song is louder, more of the rachni are singing it. The first…one, lone voice." He turned to Shepard. "I think I know what's happening."

"We're all ears, Mac," Shepard said.

"Somewhere in those labs has to be a queen of some kind. Someone in charge. Except these lab guys, the only reason they'd want more rachni would be to create more and figure out a way to control them, right?"

"Makes sense," Wrex said slowly.

"But there's this song I can sense...it's how the Queen communicates with the rachni. But the communication is constant, a stream of information. The other rachni were kept from talking to their mother, and I think it drove them insane. The queen's trying to regain control, but it's not working."

"Great. Insane bugs," Ashley groused.

"This may actually be good news. It means they're not organized. If they were, we'd be seriously outgunned, even with what we've got here." Shepard turned to Machias. "There's a reason why krogan was picked to fight the rachni."

"We really need to get to the labs more than ever, now." Saren reloaded his assault rifle.

"Agreed." Shepard turned to look ahead. "Here we are...end of the line.

"Did you have to phrase it that way?" Tali asked sourly.

The labs weren't easy to get to.

The two teams barely got off the tram before the rachni attacked, wasting no time. Machias and Shepard had to lay down a considerable barrage of cover fire to give the others a chance to spread out and return fire. It was very loud in that station for a long time.

When the noise died down, Shepard came out from behind cover. "I think we shot every rachni that was left in the lab. I count fourteen."

"Sixteen." Machias pointed to one side. "Two in the elevator. If they didn't know we were here before, they do now. Liara, we need to get to the labs, but we need to know what's in our way."

"The good news is that the place we need to get to is the most likely place we'll find Nihlus...and my mother...and the rachni queen."

"And what's the bad news?" Shepard asked, knowing he wasn't going to like the answer.

"To get through it, we need to go through this door to the elevator here...which happens to be on the other side of the rest of the rachni in the complex. And I'm still counting the number of them in that area. If they get loose…"

"Rachni Wars. The Sequel." Garrus shook his head. "Any ideas?"

"One." Liara indicated a section of the base with a high concentration of rachni. "This is one of the main reactors. If we set it to critical mass, it'll send out a massive neutron pulse that'll kill every living thing in the lower floors. The upper sections are shielded, so the main labs would be safe."

"I've got a bad feeling there's a 'however' in the immediate future," Shepard added.

"Yes. However, to get to it, we would need to get the code and wade through an army of rachni to get out before the neutron pulse kills us. And getting the code is the easy part."

"If you can get us the code, I can get us out in time." Everyone turned to Machias. "I can open us a portal to the Nevernever and get us clear. Since the physical world won't affect us and normal rules won't apply, we can escape without having to worry about the rachni stopping us."

"Wait...Mac, if you can open up a path that way, why couldn't you have just opened that path at the beginning of this whole mess?" Shepard demanded.

"Because that's my realm, not yours...the longer we stay in the Nevernever, the more likely all that fancy technology you carry around will stop working. We could've gotten to the top through the Nevernever, but there's a pretty good chance your guns and armor and omnitools would be about as useful as rocks when we came out. But if you want to take the chance, we could start now..."

"Never mind." Shepard sighed. "Knew that'd be too easy, somehow. But going through it to escape might damage our equipment anyways?"

"Anyone come up with a better alternative, now's the time," Machias recommended.

"Shepard, take my word for it. I've been to this Nevernever place, and it's disorienting at first, but it can get us where we need to go in a hurry." Megani considered. "Only thing to keep in mind, Mac, you said it yourself, the Neverneverscape tends to reflect the planet's features...so we might be going someplace even colder."

"I've been to the Winter Court." Machias chuckled. "This place is practically tropical by comparison. We'll be fine."

"We better hurry, then," Saren said quickly, "before they realize what we're doing and move against us. We need to be fast and quiet."

"Until we get loud again." Machias nodded. "Lead on."

Things, as Machias noted, did indeed get loud.

The group moved as quietly as they could until they got to the reactor room. Shepard addressed the VI controlling the reactor to bring up the command codes, expecting there to be safeguards protecting the reactor from doing what the group really needed it to be able to do.

What wasn't expected was a wall of ice barring the way.

Shepard looked at the block of ice that had found its way through the wall of the base and practically sheared most of the corridor between the reactor and the rest of the base in half. "This is going to be a problem. How are we for incendiaries?"

"Not a good idea. Incendiaries could damage the reactor. We need something precise, but not loud enough to attract attention. What we need is a flamethrower."

"I knew I forgot something," Ashley groused. "Ideas?"

"Let me try something.' Everyone turned to Machias.

"You going to use magical fire?" Tali asked.

"No. Give me some room." He smiled. "This might also solve our short-term rachni problem." He took some chalk and began to draw a set of three concentric circles on the floor. "I'm making this big enough for all of us to stand in."

"Ash, Megani, Garrus, cover the door." Shepard watched what Machias while doing, intrigued. "What are those symbols?"

"A little Sumerian…"

"Shepard...I think the rachni just realized we're here." Megani looked up from her omnitool. "We've got movement heading this way."

"ETA?" Shepard asked.

"Seven minutes...at least."

"Mac, whatever you're doing, do it faster!"

"Shepard, you want me to do this fast, or do this right?"


Machias started to trace in the ice wall using his finger, the ice immediately melting as he inscribed in the frozen block in their way.

"Five minutes...four….!" Megani's eyes were glued to the omnitool and the information it was giving her.

"Just a little bit more...God, guide my hand…"

"Fall back to the circle!" Shepard ordered.

"But we'll have no cover!" Ashley protested, but obeyed the order, keeping her gun aimed down the hallway. The chittering and scrabbling noises were audible now, the room filling up with the sound.

"Two minutes…!"

"Everyone in the circle, now!" Machias yelled, wring the last sigil in the ice, then moving to the circle and bending down, drawing one last ancient letter within it.

They could see them, now. Rachni, climbing over each other in their haste to get at the intruders. Then they saw something only one of them was able to believe. The wall of ice that separated them from the controls for the reactor had shifted places, and was now between both crews and the rachni. It had moved as if it had become insubstantial just long enough to be set in its new location.

The entire process took less than a second.

Machias smiled, stepping out of the circle. "Excellent. It's safe now, you can...what?"

"How…?" Shepard asked the question that was on everyone else's minds, including Megani and Tali's minds...and they'd seen him do magic before.

"I'll tell you later, when we're not on a planet where everything in a fifty mile radius isn't trying to kill us all. You get the reactor ready to go while I open up our escape route."

Shepard and Williams came out of the reactor room fast. "Mac! We've got a minute before this place blows! I hope you've got.." He stopped as he saw Machias standing next to a circle of energy hanging a few inches above the floor. Beyond it lay a landscape made of crystalline towers of ice populating flat plains of shimmering ice, so smooth and flat, it looked like glass. "What the…?!"

"Everybody in, ladies and gents. Better hurry, I want to make sure the door gets closed before we end up feeling the worst draft possible." Megani went in first, already knowing what to expect, followed by Tali and Garrus. The others moved in, Shepard making sure to be the last one in, and Machias drew his hand quickly across the portal. The circle shrunk to nothingness and was gone.

Once inside, everyone looked around in wonder. Even Saren was unable to take it in stride. The towers were skyscraper-high, but the rest of the landscape's surface was flat, save for a structure at the top of a wide tower. The sides were a sheer drop, and the structure looked like a simple dome a hundred feet wide.

"Welcome to the Nevernever, Noveria-flavored." Machias pointed up. "And that's where we need to go."

"How do we get up there?" Saren asked. "Unless you can whip up some climbing gear."

Machias turned to the glass-like ice in front of him, which began to form itself into wide rectangles of ice, ascending towards the mesa that supported the dome. When the platforms stopped, Machias turned to the others. "Actually...I thought I'd take the stairs. Shall we?"