Of Citadels And Castles, Part 17: Red court Redux

By C. Mage

Machias and the others found Diana's home easily enough, but the place she lived in was barely enough to fit half of Machais' companions inside. Finally, Machias simply said, "Okay, we've got some detective work to do, and we can't do it if we're falling over each other. Tali, Miranda, Kelly, watch the outside. Harry, bedroom, Jenny, living area." He took a breath and turned to Diana. "I'm really sorry about all this, I got here as soon as I could after hearing from you. Please, sit down."

Diana nodded, clasping her hands in front of her. Machias placed a hand on hers and she tried to speak, but just broke down and started to sob uncontrollably. Machias embraced her gently, letting her cry on his shoulder, venting her fears and pain as she mourned her daughter.

Jenny, for her part, was checking out the living space. She searched the area, using a scrying crystal from Machias' collection of tools. Harry was going through the room, sporting one of Machias' suppression rings as he physically looked at her belongings.

"Tell me about Nef," Machias said, sitting down with Diana.

Diana pulled back slightly, still holding on to Machias as she said, "She was such a sweet, wonderful girl...but everything changed when she met...HER. The asari." Her face twisted in hatred. "MORINTH. After Nef met her, Nef began to change. She'd stay out all night at that club, Afterlife. Sometimes, she wouldn't come home for days, and I wouldn't recognize her. She was strung out on something...and she was obsessed with that asari BITCH...she was already dead for days by the time I found out what had happened." She looked up at Machias desperately. "No one on Omega cares! Not one of them gives a damn about my Nef! None of them!" She clutched at Machias, sobbing anew.

"I care, Diana...and we'll get to the bottom of this. You have my Word."

As they left the dwelling, Machias turned to Harry and Jenny. "What have we got?"

"Well, she was right about Nef not being home much. Reading a lot of hostility, but there's something to it, a kind of influence over her. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say she was dosed with something to make her more agreeable to the suspect. Also, she was young and vulnerable and idealistic. Came with being an artistic type, I guess. You know, Mac, everything about this smells like a Red Court hunt. The murderer was a predator, make no mistake."

"The asari. 'Morinth'. How about you, Harry?"

"Found plenty. Nef was an artist, a sculptress, and a damn good one. She had offers from galleries to show her work. If she hadn't been murdered, she would've been able to get out of this place. Also, her diary revealed that she was unsure about the relationship. More importantly, her diary revealed more about Morinth's interests: a TV show, 'Vaenia', a group, 'Edge 10' and a sculptor, 'Forta'." Harry considered. "Predators like her would probably learn about their prey, making it sound like the predator wants to hear about the other person instead of talk about herself. Morinth would likely then customize her own story to make herself seem like someone with a lot in common with her prey. She gets the target to feel safe around her...and then Morinth kills her."

"Damned diabolical, Mac." Jenny shook her head. "The more I hear about her, the more I want to use her head to store used bullets."

"Let's be smart about this. We can't take a run at her using her own methods, she'd see it coming a mile off. And we don't have weeks to build up the kind of trust that would enable us to get her alone. And a fight out in public is out of the question. Too many innocents where she'd usually hang out."

"You sure we're talking about the same place?" Harry asked, a slight smile on his face.

Jenny smiled. "I got the perfect idea. Morinth is probably feeling pretty good about getting away with murder, again, so she's going to be relaxed and looking for her next quarry. Only we don't send in prey to lure her out." She turned to Machias. "We send in another predator. Someone she can't resist gloating to, and someone she would see as a challenge to try and take out herself, show that she's a bigger predator."

"So, who do we…?" Machias stopped as he saw everyone looking directly at him.

"Well, you have to admit, you are the most likely candidate," Tali said.

"And if your reputation has preceded you, that would make you seem more appealing," Miranda added.

"All right, all right. The question is, we need to know more about our target, what she looks for…"

"I believe I can help you with that."

They turned to see another asasri walking towards them, dressed in a red and blue bodysuit. "I was wondering when you were going to show yourself. You've been shadowing us since we got to Omega," Machias drawled. Jenny looked equally neutral, but the others were surprised to see her.

"You knew, and still you let me follow you. You are either foolish, or fearless."

"We're MARSHALS," Jenny said with a smile. "So, what can we do for you?"

"I heard of your plans, and I wish to assist you in bringing Morinth to justice." She bowed. "My name is Samara."

"And what's your interest in this?" Harry asked, not even bothering to hide the suspicion in his voice.

"I have been hunting her for four hundred years, but she has always eluded me. She may see me coming, but not you." Samara studied Machias. "You are exactly the sort of person to lure her out, even against her better judgment."

"Let's take this conversation somewhere else, shall we?" Jenny suggested.

Harry nodded. "Found a good flophouse we could use."

"And how were you able to find something like that?" Machias asked.

"You may be good with a lot of things, Mac, but so am I...and one of those skills is urban survival. This is my kind of range, and I know where to find friends in low places." He bowed and gestured. "Right this way, lades and gentlemen."

"So...explain to me who you are," Samara said.

Jenny spoke up first. "The name's Jenny Howell, and these peole are, Harry, Miranda, Tali, and…" She took a breath, thinking, wait for it…. "...Machias Castle. We're…"

Samara held up a hand. "Wait." She turned to look at Machias. "You're Machias Castle?"

"You've heard of me?" Machias asked, having a feeling he already knew the answer.

"You have a reputation for three traits, Castle: having mysterious abilities, your sense of justice, and an uncanny ability to make the unbelieveable happen. You have defied every attempt to be completely understood, and your decisions have not gone unnoticed." He expression was neutral, but her tone held a hint of admiration. "It is not often that one finds a human with such a fierce dedication to law and order for its own sake, without alliance with a law enforcement organization."

Machias smiled a little. "You know quite a bit more about me than the usual citizen."

"Whenever someone takes the law into their own hands, a justicar will always take notice. But when you do so, it is to the benefit of others, not yourself." She leans back. "I wish to know if you truly are one worthy of the Code."

"Hate to interrupt the local chapter of the Castle Appreciation Society," Jenny said with a chuckle, "but let's talk about the reason why we're here. Morinth. What is it about Mac that you think would appeal to her?"

"You are gifted in combat, and you wield mysterious power. You have the vital spark that will attract her and draw her in. But be warned. Morinth speaks to you on many levels. Her body tells yours that she'll bring unimaginable ecstacy. Her scent evokes emotions long hidden." Machias found Samara's clinical tone while describing Morinth a little unsettling. "Her eyes promise you things you were always scared to ask of in another. Her voice whispers to you long after she is done speaking."

"I thought Ardat-Yakshis were the result of a genetic defect, but she sounds like a more-animalistic asari." Harry crossed his arms over his chest.

"So, how and where would I get her attention?" Machias asked.

"Her favorite hunting grounds are always places that allow her to indulge her baser instincts. On Omega, the best place is the Afterlife Club's VIP section. You must go there alone, and unarmed."

Harry nodded. "That's where she met Nef. The culprit returns to the scene of the crime," he added mysteriously.

"Couldn't resist, could you?" Jenny asked.

"So how do I get in? I don't think they'll send me an invitation," Machias added.

"Got that covered, partner, just use the bouncer's name as a password. That's how Nef got in, and that's how we're getting in, too. Somebody has to watch your back," Jenny added, lookiing insulted at the very idea that Machias might go in alone.

"So you're just going in there and face a monster, on your own, just like that?" Kelly asked, more curious than surprised.

Jenny chuckled. "It's a day that ends in 'y', isn't it? Let's do this."

"So I go in and start some trouble? That's not in my nature, you know," Machias said as he walked towards the entrance to the Afterlife Club.

"From what I've seen so far, Mac, trouble seems to have no trouble finding you," Harry grinned.

Jenny chuckled. "You're learning, Dresden. So, we go in separately, move to where our backs are against walls and make sure to follow if Mac goes anywhere."

"I'll stay outside," Samara said. "Get her to invite you to her apartment."

"Otherwise known as her feeding ground," Jenny said grimly, all traces of levity gone.

"I will follow you, and when she believes she has the upper hand...I will spring the trap. Be careful, Castle. Morinth is not someone to underestimate."

Machias nodded. He reached down, seeming to draw his hat from midair and putting it on his head, then patted his left breast. "Neither am I."

"And Castle?" Samara looked into Machias' eyes. "Thank you. I do not share this burden easily...and you are the only soul I can imagine sharing it with."

Machias walked into the club, assaulted by the sounds and music around him. This definitely isn't the High Noon Saloon, he thought to himself and went to the bar, closing his eyes and muttering under his breath. When he opened his eyes, the music was little more than a dull throb in the background, but everything else was as clear as a bell.

"Don't be like that. I got creds, we'll go back to my place….I got simple tastes." Machias' attention was drawn to a turian who was talking with one of the asari dancers, who was clearly not wanting the turian's attention.

"Back off, asshole! I'm a dancer, not a hooker."

The turian leaned forward, grabbing the asari's arm, making her wince. "You got a mouth on you...I'll enjoy watching you use it…!"

"Excuse me," Machias said in a calm, even voice, but that voice got both the turian and the asari's attention, "but it seems to me that the lady isn't interested in your company, so go look somewhere else."

"What the hell?" The turian let the dancer go, facing Machias directly. "I'm just looking for a good time...and this isn't your business, human. Leave before you get hurt."

"Leave her alone. I have to tell you again, I won't be so nice."

The turian moved forward, moving his fists up. He was a trained combatant, an expert at close-quarters combat. Even with a few drinks in him, he was still one of the more dangerous members of the Blue Suns. He waded in with a series of punches and a right hook that had never failed to cause serious damage.

Until now.

He moved in and jabbed with his left, then felt as if he was hit by a group of charging krogan as Machias ducked under the turian's fist, pounding the turian with a left, right, left, right that drove the wind out of his lungs. The turian tried to back up to get some breathing room, but Machias didn't give him the chance, putting his back into a punch that sent the turian flying.

Machias rubbed his knuckles, glad that he'd researched the anatomy of different alien races, figuring out the best places to hit and shoot. He turned to the dancer. "Are you all right, miss?"

"Yeah…" She cleared her throat, then added, "Uh, yeah, thanks for that. Security was asleep." Machias smiled and tipped his hat, then headed for the bar.

Over in a far corner, Harry and Jenny were enjoying the scene, Harry more so than Jenny. "This place makes the cantina scene from A New Hope look like the waiting room at a doctor's office. And I think the music is growing on me."

"Stay focused." Jenny looked over at the bar where Machias was talking with the bartender. The bartender accepted some credits and called out, "WE LOVE YOU HERE AT AFTERLIFE, SO THE NEXT ROUND IS ON THE HOUSE!" That received a few cheers from the patrons, and the bartender turned to thank Machias for boosting the spirits around the club, so to speak, but Machias was gone.

"Lookit that, he just got 'Batmanned'." Harry grinned.

"'Batmanned'?" Jenny gave Harry one of her patented, "EXPLAIN yourself," looks.

"I'll tell you later," Harry chuckled, then stopped. "I think we've found our girl. Your ten o'clock."

Jenny nodded, and Harry was glad to see that Jenny didn't just turn to look in that direction. But her eyes moved to put the target of her interest in her peripheral vision. Black, form-fitting outfit, trying to stay out of sight, her eyes moving around the room, but focusing on Machias often enough for Jenny to know that her interest wasn't casual. "You can use the Sight, right? What does she look like?"

Harry adopted a bored expression as he looked around, letting his eyes move over her and anyone else around her. After doing his "sweep", Harry whispered to Jenny. "Checked out her aura. Blacker than an Outsider's heart. She's got an aura like a Red Court, all right." He hid the anger on his face, but not in his voice. "Haven't seen an aura that dark in a long time, and it's not long enough. Mac's in real trouble, here."

"Mac can handle himself," Jenny said reassuringly.

"I hope so….because he's walking up on a group of krogan right now…"

Machias was starting to feel more comfortable. No matter the era, a saloon is still a saloon, and the same dynamics applied even with alien races. He faced down a pair of krogan and helped an undercover investigative reporter escape after her cover was blown by a gang leader.

He was actually starting to enjoy himself when he heard a soft, sultry voice to his right. "I've been watching you...you're the most interesting person I've seen tonight. I've got a booth over in the shadows. Why don't you come sit with me?"

Machias nodded. "I've got a few moments."

Harry smiled. "And we have contact. Leggy asari, ten o'clock."

Jenny took a deep breath. "Here we go."

"Some nights, I come in here and there's no one interesting to talk to...but sometimes, there's one person. Tonight, it's you. Why is that?"

Machias leaned back slightly. "Easy. I ain't civilized. Too many people around here carry guns and wear armor, but they're reliant on technology. It's a crutch. I'm a hunter, go after big game, but I don't use mass effect weapons or fancy scanners. I use my wits and simple weapons, knives, spears, sometimes traps and bare hands. It depends on the hunt."

"Really...and why do you hunt that way?"

"Because it's pure. The hunt isn't just about getting food. It's putting yourself on equal footing with your prey, testing your physical and mental limitations, surpassing them." Machias looked at her. "Have you ever tried hunting?"

Morinth smiled. "Once or twice. Although I understand the appeal, I've never hunted like that...perhaps I should. It's like the music here...it awakens something in me, dark and primitive. Do you like it?"

"It reminds me of the native drums of the Apaches on Earth...but I've been learning more about other styles. There's this one band I've heard about, 'Expel 10'. What have you heard about them?"

Morinth purred, "They get into my head and tear it to pieces. They're in concert soon...maybe we can go together. The music here...you can lose yourself in it. There are ways to enhance that, you know."

"Like using Hallex?"

Morinth nodded. "It slithers through my soul...seems we're more alike than I hoped we would be."

"What about art?" Machias asked, as if it was an afterthought.

"It speaks to the darkest places in me. What about you?"

"I've been finding all sorts of art fascinating. I recently discovered the work of an elcor artist, Forta. Not sure exactly what to think of it, but it certainly speaks to me."

"His work is sublime...you must do a great deal of traveling to explore such interests."

"I have my own ship, and I've traveled a great deal, even though I've been alone the entire time. It's hard to find people who not only have power through physical strength, but strength of will."

"Do you find the places you explore change you?"

Machias chuckled deep in his chest. "More like the other way around."

"Impressive...I find myself traveling to dark, dangerous places, myself. Maybe I should let you show me your trophies."

"Trophies are for people who want to brag. I'd rather take you on a hunt with me. When your life is in danger, that's when you understand who you truly are."

"Really...and what would you do to show your strength?"

"Join me on a hunt and find out."

Morinth laughed. "Oh, now you're just toying with me…" She looked him over. "Do you want to get out of here? My apartment is nearby, and I want you alone," she said, a little breathless.

"Lead the way."

"And he set the hook." Jenny nodded. "Give a fifteen count, then we get Samara and go after her."

"Isn't losing sight of her going to be a problem?" Harry asked.

"Don't worry. Finding her again will be easier than finding my boots by the edge of the bed in the morning."

"Gotta say….I did miss this. The real world may have had its problems and its bad times, but it feels good doing something that matters again." Harry turned to Jenny. "Thanks again."

"Now stop, or I'll start getting misty-eyed. Let's move."

Machias brought over a pair of wine glasses, filled with some very expensive asari wine. "I hope you appreciate the vintage; I don't get to appreciate certain luxuries in Alliiance space. Too many rules and regulations." Machias set the drinks down on the table next to the sofa.

"I appreciate many things...but right now...you are foremost on my mind. There's something…wild about you...irresistable. You walk like a civilized being, but there is something UNTAMED about you. I've never felt anything like it." Her voice was seductive, hungry, almost pleading. "I want it...I want YOU."

"I feel something about you too, Morinth." Machias looked her in the eyes. Morinth looked back, expecting to have control with her gaze, but as she looked, she felt something else, something she couldn't describe, and before she knew it, she was the prey. She felt his presence, reading her entire life like some novel. When she was able to get free, she backed up on the corner like a startled cat, staring at Machias with a mix of fear and desire.

"WHAT...ARE YOU?" Morinth asked.

"I think the more important subject to discuss is what YOU are. Morinth, I have seen centuries of your handiwork. Countless lives ruined. Sacrificed. Devoured by your insatiable gluttony." His face grew hard. "There is not enough blood in the universe to make you stop drinking it."

Morinth smiled. "After a taste of YOU, I think I may have found what I've been looking for. I have felt your power. The others were morsels, barely mouthfuls compared to you. Yessssss...I will have you...and when I have your power, I will fear no force in the galaxy!" She savored the words as she spoke them.

"I'm going to give you one last chance, Morinth. Surrender. Give up your selfish desires and embrace what it means to be a person once more. I can help you. I may even be able to cure you."

"And forsake my power, my strength?" Morinth smiled. "NEVER."

"Don't make me stop you," Machias warned.

"You have no weapons, hidden or otherwise. You may be strong for a human, but you are STILL only human…" Morinth licked her lips. "And no human has ever resisted me."

Samara was about to blow the door to the apartment off its moorings when Jenny reached up and grabbed her arm. Samara looked down at Jenny in anger and alarm, her eyes wild.

"WAIT. Let Mac handle this!"

"No! My daughter will kill him!"

"You trusted him this far, and Morinth can't escape from the apartment. Give Mac a chance."

Samara looked down at Jenny. "He's defenseless!"

Jenny smiled. "Never."

Morinth walked over to Machias, who stood up. "Admit it….you've never met anyone like me."

"Don't be so sure. There were a few Red Court women who thought the same way you did." Machias didn't move, even when Morinth approached him, putting her arms up and around his neck. "I'm begging you, Morinth. For your sake. For your SOUL. Don't do this."

"My SOUL?" Morinth laughed. "You hover on the edge of death, and your concern is for my soul? You are a naive, pathetic FOOL, Machias...and that..is how you will die…"


"Shhhhhh…" She smiled and closed her eyes, then opened them, her eyes a glossy black. "...it's too late, Machias. Your life, your SOUL," she added mockingly, "is MINE…" Morinth felt the familiar connection as the energy in her body sought out his, just like it had a thousand times, ten thousand times before.

The door burst open as Samara, Jenny and Harry ran inside. "MORINTH!" Samara yelled.

"YOU'RE TOO LATE, MOTHER! I WILL BE MORE POWER…" Her voice hitched as she felt something, a burning under her skin. She paused, looking at Machias to watch him die in agony, but his face showed no pain, or anger...just a profound sadness. The look angered her and, despite her pain, focused upon exerting more of her energy to consume him.

Samara watched in disbelief as electricity, or something like it, began to course all over Morinth's body. "What's happening?" she asked.

Jenny silently pointed to the muted glow underneath Machias' vest. "He's wearing his badge on his shirt. If someone attacks him from a distance, the magic of the badge makes the bullets miss. Same thing if someone uses a knife. But if someone tries to hit him with something that can't be re-directed...it REFLECTS the attack right back at the attacker. So Morinth…"

Harry nodded. "She's getting what she's done to everyone else!"

Morinth felt the pain increase, trying to break the contact, but the muscle spasms had locked her arms around Machias' neck. She felt the energy in her body declare war on itself, her body being consumed. "...no….no….this...is IMPOSSIBLE...I am the hunter...I am the one...the one who feeds…." Morinth looked up at Machias in desperation. "...help me…"

"You said it yourself, Morinth...it's too late. You did this to yourself."

Morinth's eyes went wide as the final effects of her attack took effect, her body beginning to burn from the inside out. She screamed as her body self-immolated, and it didn't go swiftly. Machias pushed her away and she fell on the floor, her arms and legs drumming on the carpet as she thrashed in agony. Her skin blackened and she fell limp, the black blotches appearing and spreading to cover her skin completely. A mist rose from Morinth's body.

Samara looked at what was left of Morinth, then turned to Machias. Machias turned to look at Samara, his expression morose. "I'm sorry, Samara. I didn't want this to happen. She may have been a monster...but mothers should never be the ones that kill their daughters."

"Are you going to be all right, Mac?" Harry asked.

"I'll be all right. This is the job." He turned to Jenny, who nodded in understanding. "I'm heading back to the room. The date's over. Samara...I hope you find the peace Morinth never did." Samara didn't answer, kneeling down and picking up the body of her daughter, then walking out of the apartment.

Harry nodded. "Let's go."

"Samara say anything to you?" Jenny asked Harry.

"Nope. She practically vanished after we left the apartment, and something tells me that following her would've resulted in injuries. Still trying to wrap my head around the thinking behind what happens in this galaxy. I figured there'd be alien thinking, cultural differences, but I wasn't prepared for how similar we all really are," Harry mused. "It really makes you think."

"Yeah. By the way, I let T'Loak know that the problem with the ardat-yakshi was resolved, so she wouldn't have to soil her hands if Morinth had gone after anyone she actually cared about."

"Was she hostile?" Harry asked.

"No. Actually, she offered me a job." Jenny smiled a little. "Not bad-looking, for an alien. Just having a little trouble getting past that arrogance and those annoying little sociopathic tendencies."

"Yeah, I hear that can get tricky." Harry considered. "How's Mac?"

"He's doing all right. He's had situations like that happen before, so he's handling it well."

"Yeah...Mac's pretty forgiving for a lawman."

"Well, don't let that fool you into thinking he's soft. He may forgive the sin, but he doesn't exactly shy away from punishing the sinner."

Harry nodded. "Doesn't sound like he would've gotten on well with certain members of the Council."

"Fortunately, they left the Marshals to themselves, got out of their way and let them do their jobs, That way, if anything went south, the White Council could wash their hands of the whole thing." Jenny stopped at the docks and looked around. "Can't wait to be shut of this place."

"Where are we heading to next?"

"No idea. But anywhere's better than here. Never wanted to arrest an entire space station before." Jenny saw Mac coming with his bags. "Ready when you are."

Machias smiled, but the expression was a little sad at the same time. "Time to head back to civilized space and touch base with Shepard. I've got a powerful feelin' that things get more complicated from here." Jenny and Hary joined him as they returned to their "shuttle", seeing Miranda and Kelly waiting there.

"And speaking of 'complicated'..." Harry muttered in a low voice. Jenny valiantly prevented herself from smirking.

"Mission successful?" Kelly asked.

"After a fashion. We're heading back to the Citadel. We got some people that need talking to and research that needs doing, and we're burnin' starlight."

Machias was sitting in the observation room. Technically, it was the ship's canteen, but Machias hadn't exactly been diligent about stocking the booze, a decision he was coming to regret. He was still thinking about Morinth, about her last words. It was always frustrating to him, seeing people embrace evil, even to their own detriment. Especially to their own detriment.

He heard the door open behind him and turned slightly, just enough to see Harry coming through the door. "Is this seat taken?" he asked glibly, indicating that almost every chair in the room was empty, save the one Machias was using.

"Pull up a stool. Sorry, no whiskey. Maybe we'll restock when we get to the Citadel."

Harry took the seat next to Machias. "I figured you'd be here. It's the Wizards' Blues."

"The 'Wizards' Blues'?"

"It's a frequent state visited upon wizards who happen to have a conscience. We all want to make sure we're doing the right thing to keep us Corruption-free...unless you're the type of wizard who LIKES doing that sort of thing." Harry shifted in his seat. "Nice."

"I spent my life upholding the Laws, not because I had to...I believed in the reasons behind the Laws. But when I see lives destroyed, souls ruined, there are times when it's hard to see the good that's being done. I find solace in my faith, but I fear that I will not gain the understanding of how things are in this reality until I have left it behind for a spiritual one."

"Yeah...those annoying 'answers' we all keep looking for when we're alive." Harry looked out through the viewport into the patterns of space through the effects of mass relay travel; lines of energy moving from far away towards them. "Wow. So this is what hyperspace is like…"

"What's 'hyperspace'?"

Harry turned to Machias. "Mac, let me tell you about a story that happened a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…"

By the time they reached Citadel, Machias Castle had watched all nine Star Wars movies, five animated series, and one live-action series called The Mandalorian. Harry soon found himself under a barrage of questions. Fortunately, he was quickly assisted by Jenny and Kelly Chambers, with Tali and Miranda asking questions as well. This, of course, resulted in a repeat viewings of the movies and series episodes.

"You never did say what you thought of The Mandalorian, Mac," Jenny said, a slight smile on her face.

"Ugh….compared to the lore of that setting, magical learning is EASY. What happened to the good old days when books were stories and it didn't require encyclopedic knowledge to keep track of all the details?" Machias shook his head. "There was so much information, I actually forgot about the Reapers for a time."

"But you have to admit, it wasn't boring."

Machias saw Harry's smug grin. "No, it was interesting, I'll give you that. Enough careless distractions...we've got work to do. Miranda, Kelly, stay with the ship. We're going to find Shepard and Dr. T'Soni. Hopefully, they've had better luck than we've had."

Back on the Tin Star, Miranda Lawson opened up a private communication to a data "dead drop". She activated the recorder. "Have successfully infiltrated the crew of Machias' ship. There are now THREE, I repeat, THREE magic-using individuals; Jennifer Howell, Machias Castle's old partner, and Harry Dresden, another wizard from a different time period, the late twentieth century, early twenty-first. Method of travel to this time and place unknown. Recommend research into history of Howell and Dresden in order to gain means of influencing either towards service to Cerberus. More information to come once avalable. Message ends."

Miranda encrypted the message heavily, then sent it to the dead drop amidst a stream of information being updated from the extranet. Once sent, she sat back at her desk in the room set aside for her.

Having to juggle loyalties was not a practice Miranda Lawson was accustomed to doing. She'd always been with Cerberus, and had performed her duties with a flawless performance record.

Until Castle.

And now there were three of them. Jenny Howell's loyalty to Castle was beyond reproach, and it was plain to see that trust was reciprocated, so trying to drive a wedge between them was unlikely to be effective. DRESDEN, however, might be easier to influence and manipulate. And from what she'd seen so far, he did seem to be a sucker for a pretty female face.

I'll need to talk with Agent Chambers...we'll see if this Dresden is more susceptible to an approach from an appearance of innocence, or if he favors the femme fatale type. If Castle won't give me what I want, maybe Dresden will.

Miranda sighed. She wasn't bothered by the fact that Castle seemed to be a genuinely noble and good person. Jenny might be hotheaded and impulsive, but Machias wouldn't trust her so implicitly if she wasn't of similar moral standards. And Dresden was clearly excited by being in an environment only open to him in science-fiction literature. Time would tell if he was a better target.

She shook her head. This is why I get along better with sinners than with saints.

Miranda stopped. Oriana...of COURSE. Of all the people in the galaxy, Castle and Howell would be the best people to help find and get her back without having to worry about my ties to Cerberus getting in the way. Of course, I have to find her first. Unless...the three of them can help me with that, too! She's hidden by everything technological, but if Castle can find her his own way…

For a few moments, she dared think about getting her sister back. And if she could...she knew that it would put her on the outs with Cerberus.

And that meant Kai Leng would be sent after her. He'd probably think it was Christmas come early. Could the three of them be a match for an enhanced killer like Kai Leng? It'd be impossible.

She held her head in her hands, having a difficult time accepting that she was actually thinking about getting away from Cerberus, trying to conceive it as possible. And for that...she'd have to place her life in Castle's hands.

And that was a prospect more alarming than facing down Kai Leng.

While Lawson was dealing with some unwelcome revelations, Machias and the rest of the crew were having similar difficulties. "THEY WHAT?!" Jenny exclaimed, completely abandoning any pretense of restraint.

"We're grounded." Shepard and his officers were in the Normandy, but the main systems were running in standby mode. "The mission on Virmire went bad. Stopping Nihlus came at a cost. We'd set up a bomb to destroy the base, but the bomb was damaged. And if that wasn't bad enough, we found out more about Sovereign. That gigantic squid-like ship? That's not a Reaper ship. THAT IS AN ACTUAL REAPER." Shepard shook his head. "We found out that Nihlus was creating an army of krogan made to be immune to the genophage, but slaves to Sovereign's control. Add in the geth that showed up to support the krogan forces and things got...complicated."

"But how is that your fault?" Harry asked. "You must have succeeded; you're all still alive."

"...not all of us. When the bomb was damaged, Saren chose to stay behind to set off the bomb. He gave his life for us...for humans." Shepard turned to Machias. "He wanted me to give you a message. He said, 'Thank you.' Didn't say what it was for, but you must've worked some powerful magic to make a hardcore anti-human into someone willing to give his life for us."

"No magic. We just…talked."

"I don't know what you told him," Kaidan said with a hint of disbelief in his tone, "but he saved all our lives. Unfortunately, the Council was NOT happy to find out that Saren, one of their most prestigeous Spectres, was now dead, and they're diisavowing the operation on Virmire completely. According to them, officially, it never even happened. We're being investigated. Councillor Udina is getting a lot of pressure from the Council and he's blaming us."

"And right when the truth comes out about the nature of the Reapers, the Council is at their most skeptical." Garrus shook his head. "It's a triple-damned cover-up. The Council doesn't want to believe the Reapers are coming."

"Would you want to?" Ashley asked. "These things are the galactic boogeymen. Imagine trying to pitch this to the people you represent. They're more scared of being thought of as being alarmist or gullible than they are of the Reapers."

"That'll change quickly, once the Reapers arrive." Tali sighed. "NOW what do we do?"

The chamber was quiet for a few moments, then Shepard stood up. "I'll TELL you what we're going to do. We're going to stop the Reapers, that's what." He turned to Machias and Jenny. "You may not want to be around for the rest of this...because we're going to be breaking some rules."

"Are any of those rules the Laws of Magic?" Machias asked.

"Uh, no…."

Machias smiled a little and turned to Jenny and Harry, who were both wearing the same kind of smiles. "Then count us in."

"You sure about this? You're going to find yourselves in a lot of trouble," Shepard said cautiously.

Harry laughed. "As opposed to all the safe and harmless things we've done up to now?"

Jenny looked at Machias, then they both gave each other a short nod. Jenny turned to Shepard and his crew. "We're in this to the end. We may adhere to law and order, but we first consider right and wrong. And we wouldn't miss this for anything."

"What do you need, Shepard?" Machias asked.

"We need to have the docking clamps on the Normandy released." Shepard saw Machias open his mouth and said quickly, "We appreciate the thought, Castle, but this is my ship and my crew. I can't ask you to just take us all on your ship, and we need to see this through."

"Actually, I was going to ask you to show Harry what to target to get the clamps loose. They know me, but nobody's met Harry before. They won't see him coming." Machias grinned. "But I won't suggest that your idea hasn't crossed my mind. But the Normandy's your home, your mighty steed, as it were. You and your crew are at your best there."

"Glad we understand each other. Harry? You're with us."

Harry grinned. "Oh THIS is going to be FUN…"

Wrex looked over at Machias. "Heard a lot about you, Castle. You better be as good as everyone says you are."

As the crew of the Normandy left, Machias turned to Jenny and Tali. "We better get ready to get under way. As soon as this starts, the Council's going to be eyeing us." Tali and Jenny nodded wordlessly. "So let's saddle up."

"We're under way, after having to reassure the dockmaster that no one from the Normandy was on board. The Council must be really worried about Shepard," Tali mused.

"And for damn good reason." Jenny checked the systems. "Looks like we're clear, Mac. Now what?"

"We head for that mass relay...after we make sure the Normandy is away."

Miranda and Kelly moved to their stations. "What's going on?"

"We're helping Shepard steal the Normandy," Machias said nonchalantly. "We're going after Sovereign."

"You're going against the Council?" Kelly asked.

"Looks that way. Got a problem with that?" Jenny asked with a smirk.

"None whatsoever." Kelly rushed to her seat and Miranda gave Machias an admiring look before taking her own seat.

Machias looked at the screen showing where the Normandy was docked. "All right, Dresden...time to put your money where your wand is…"

Shepard and Ashley guided Harry to the auxiliary control module for the docking clamps holding the Normandy in place. "We need these to be disabled, but we won't have a lot of time before they find out what's going on and re-engage the clamps manually."

Harry looked over the console, then walked towards the assemblies themselves. He put on the crystal pendant Machias had given him, then turned to Shepard. "How many of these are in place?"

"Four," Ashley said.

"Do we need environmental suits to get to where the arms begin?" Harry asked.

"No. Why?"

"Trying to hex the console directly won't work. I have no idea if it'll compromise other systems. But if I hex the arms themselves, forcing them to release the ship, it'll give us more time and would be safer for the area around us." He noticed that Shepard and Ashley were staring at him. "What?"

"For someone not from this time period, you know more than you let on about how technology here works," Shepard said warily.

"I watched a lot of Star Trek when I was growing up. Now, take me to the closest assembly while I work out the best way to hex them…"

"Explain to me what you're doing?" Ashley asked.

"A little thaumaturgy." Harry traced the sigils from memory onto the housing where the arms attached to the platform. "I'm marking the assembly with a ward, charging it wih hex energy. It's simple and it's a bit crude, but I can activate these from inside the Normandy, so we don't have to be assholes-and-elbows all the way back to the ship. The wards aren't made to be permanent, or to last long, but they'll last long enough to do the job." She stood up. "Done. Let's get moving. Never had to make wards in deep space and I don't want to take any chances."

"Double-time it, Williams! You too, Dresden!" Shepard took off and the other two ran after him. Harry began to wish, and not for the first time, that hoverboards were a thing here.

Joker looked up as they rushed in. "We ready?"

"Ready. As soon as the lockdown is released, get us out of here, FAST, then head for the relay and plot us a course for the Knossos System. We'll rendezvous with the Tin Star there." Shepard turned to Harry. "Ready when you are, wizard."

Harry drew his wand. Joker looked at Harry. "SERIOUSLY? A magic wand?"

Harry turned to Joker and, not turning from Joker's gaze, moved his wand in a well-practiced gesture. Outside, all four clamps failed at precisely the same time. Joker looked outside, then his brain kicked in and he pulled the Normandy out of the dock, spun around and floored it out of the Citadel's region.

Joker spared a look at Harry, who smirked. "Feeling inadequate?"

"Har har," Joker groused. "Showoff."

"Hello, Pot. Meet Kettle. He has some concerns about your current hue," Shepard said with a grin. "Punch it, Joker. We've got an invasion to stop."