BOOK ONE: REVELATIONS
VOLUME ONE: IGNORANCE

15th of the Third Umbral Wind, Year 1157 of the Twenty-Sixth Age
(June 14, 2657 Galactic Standard)

TRANSMISSION ENCRYPTION LOCK: RELEASED
W10-2657 FROM COUNCIL
ASSIGNMENT TO FOLLOW
S.A TO ASSIST SECURITY OPERATIONS AT RELAY BLACK
PRIORITY ONE: MAINTAIN OPSEC RE: RELAY BLACK
PRIORITY TWO: ENSURE SECURITY OF RESEARCH OPERATIONS
PRIORITY THREE: ENSURE SAFETY OF RESEARCH AND SECURITY PERSONNEL
MESSAGE ENDS

Saren Arterius snapped to alertness in his bunk, pulled up his HUD's clock and swung out of bed.

Getting rusty, Saren thought sourly as he noticed it was 0605. Slept in two minutes. He grumbled to himself as he put opened the tiny room's single other furnishing - a footlocker - and donned his armour, before making his way out into the corridors of the Citadel Fleet Cruiser Stalwart. A minute later, he entered the ship's bridge, walked over to Captain Cantus Lucidus - an aging, dour turian who Saren had worked with once before - and nodded at him.

"Spectre Arterius," Cantus replied, glancing away from his command console to return Saren's greeting. "You're up early."

Saren shrugged. "Can't afford to miss any of the day's work, Captain."

"You know, 'the day's work' hasn't quite started yet," Cantus replied, a small smile playing about his face. "Not until the research teams finish their next test."

"Which they will be doing later today - one hour, six minutes?"

Cantus nodded. "Yes, that is the plan. I'm assured by the science teams that they've cracked whatever it is that blocks us from using the, ah, modified relay."

Both men looked out the viewing screen of the Stalwart's bridge at the mass relay which had managed to instill fear into the Council itself; it was still a mass relay without question, but its body - which should have been a metallic-blue - was now a dull grey, and the soft-blue glow of its core was an angry, fiery red which beat like the heart of some great beast. Far worse were the pulsing, fleshy tendrils which originated from the core and wrapped around the length of the relay; every so often, the relay would project a spherical array of bizzare, rune-like images.

"I apologize if I came off as, ah, brusque," Saren said, focusing on the image despite himself. "Seen quite a bit during my lifetime. That thing out there, though - makes my carapace itch just looking at it." He paused, lowering his voice. "Part of me - small voice in the back of my head - says that we should just leave the damn thing alone," Saren admitted.

"Ignoring the relay won't make it go away," Cantus muttered, rubbing at his fringe. "Despite how much I wish that were true. Still - I wouldn't worry too much. I hear from the researchers that you just get used to it after a while. I'm not saying that it isn't unbelievably disturbing, mind you - just that, well, after a while you begin to forget how wrong it all is."

"That doesn't make me feel any better. If anything," Saren grumbled, "it make me even more paranoid."

Both men fell into silence, the bridge silent save for the quiet sounds of the crew working at their terminals; even so, Saren could not tear his eyes away from the foul core of the mass relay or the fleshy tendrils which pulsed in time with the blood-red heart of the core, sigils and runes flashing brightly in the black of space-

"-Spectre Arterius? Saren?" Saren snapped away from the viewing screen to find Captain Lucidus staring at him with a concerned expression. "Are you alright?"

"Yes, yes - just lost in my thoughts."

"Ah. I see. Well, the test is about to start, if you'd like to observe."

Saren nodded, leaning up against a nearby section of hull; the ship's speakers flared to life as a message came through.

"CFS Stalwart, this is CFRV Silverthread," an asari voice said. "We are ready to launch the probe."

"Silverthread, this is Stalwart," Captain Lucidus replied calmly. "Our signals teams are standing by."

"Understood. Test probe number sixty-two, launching in three, two, one, launch."

Saren watched as one of the vessels to the right of the Stalwart fired a small pod - little more than an engine and thrusters wrapped in a metal casing - towards the mass relay. It streaked towards its target, and as it neared the relay flickering arcs of red and brown shot out of the relay and encased the pod.

"Test probe interfacing with the relay, stand by - goddess," the asari said, voice trembling with excitement, "it's working!"

The relay flashed a bright neon-red, and for a moment Saren swore he could see an endless void beyond the pod; another moment passed, and the pod winked out of sight as a blinding-white wave burst from the relay's core.

"BRACE POSITIONS," Captain Lucidus shouted; Saren clenched his teeth, mag-clamped his boots to the floor and his hands to a nearby handhold. The wave passed through the ship with a shuddering ground, and for a split second Saren felt an overwhelming sense of dread and terror puncture his calm. The feeling passed, though, and he looked around to see the bridge crew: mostly calm, if rather concerned.

"Report," Cantus barked.

"We're in the clear," one of the bridge crew shouted from the signals pit. "Whatever the wave did, it - Spirits! The relay! Look!"

Saren had to force his mouth shut as he saw the mass relay; the tendrils and fiery-red core were gone, and in their place was the relay's natural metallic-blue body. The core, however, glowed a soothing green, and the projected runes shone a solid white.

"Green," Captain Luciuds muttered. "Are mass relays supposed to be green?"

"No," Saren said slowly, "but they aren't supposed to be on fire or covered in tentacles either."

"Humour? Now, of all times?" Lucidus clicked at his omnitool, scowling as he activated his comm unit. "Silverthread, status report." There was no answer, and Lucidus' scowl changed to concern. "Silverthread, status report," he repeated.

"No response," one of the signals crew said nervously. "They're not broadcasting an emergency signal and their running lights are still on - maybe the shockwave damaged their comms?"

"We're fine. Doesn't make any sense," Cantus rumbled. "Keep trying to raise them," he added, before activating the shipwide comm. "Away team one, stand by for mission."

"Is that necessary?" Saren asked.

"You wanted work. Now you have it," Cantus said, staring at the relay.

Saren simply grunted in response and jogged back to his quarters; pulling a rack out of his footlocker, Saren mounted both a shotgun and assault rifle to his back - both well-worn - then stuffed his chest rig with a wide variety of explosives before donning his helmet and making his way down to the Stalwart's hangar. For the first time since his arrival, the hangar was bustling as engineers prepped shuttles and marines formed up in staging areas. He walked over to the shuttle closest to the airlock loading bay, where a dozen marines in full boarding gear were checking each other's equipment. They glanced up as Saren approached, stood at attention, and waited as their leader walked over to him.

"Spectre Arterius," the marine said, saluting. "Thanks for the assist."

"You can thank me if I actually end up helping you," Saren noted, offering his arm - which the marine clasped. "Name and rank?"

"Sergeant Plitus Merinian, Spectre."

"You and your crew seen boarding action before?"

"Yes, Spectre. We've done several anti-pirate tours. More breach-and-clears than I can count."

"Excellent." Saren gave the marines a quick look-over, then nodded. "Load up and prepare for launch." Following the marines, Saren strapped himself into a seat in the shuttle's passenger compartment and waited as the shuttle's pilot began preflight checks.

"Hey," one of the marines opposite him said, "captain's sending a Spectre with us? We expectin' trouble?"

Saren shrugged. "I'm here in case anything happens, Marine."

"Brass talk for shit's going down," another marine shouted, laughing as he mimed firing a rifle. "Been cooped up on this damn ship for weeks - can't wait to shoot at something."

"Stow it, Albinus," Sergeant Merinian sighed. "Listen up - this is supposed to be a simple check-in. Silverthread's gone dark after that shockwave and we're here to figure out why. This is an intel-gathering and maybe a search-and-rescue op, not a varren hunt. Last thing I need is the Captain ripping me a new one because one of you jackasses shot some poor researcher. Clear?"

"Yes, Sergeant!" the marines barked back.

"Good. Ship's a standard Citadel Fleet three-decker; maps are already on your rigs. Stay cool, we'll be fine. Calidus, we ready?" Plitus shouted towards the cockpit.

"Yes sir. Just got launch clearance. Stand by - LC, this is SM-one-two-zero, requesting transfer to launch bay - understood," the pilot said. "Buckle in, folks - we're off."

The shuttle rumbled as the rear hatch sealed and the ship was transferred into the airlock; Saren craned his head and watched as the shuttle left the Stalwart. The other ships in the convoy were now moving away from the Silverthread, a research vessel of asari make and styling; by the time the shuttle arrived at the sealed landing bay of the Silverthread the fleet had assumed a loose spherical formation around the silent science ship.

"No signals, but we'll try anyways," the pilot said. "Silverthread, this is Stalwart shuttle M-one-two-zero, requesting you open your landing bay and grant docking permission." No response came for several moments, and the pilot repeated his request.

"Don't think they're going to respond," Saren said after another minute of silence.

"Alright, plan B," Calidus muttered. "Silverthread, you have one more minute to reply. After that, this shuttle will breach the landing bay doors using an entry charge. Any personnel in the hangar are advised to stay well clear of the landing bay." The minute passed in silence, and Calidus sighed. "Silverthread, we have received no response and will now proceed to breach the landing bay doors. Final warning to anyone inside that hangar - stay away from the doors."

The shuttle positioned itself flush with the Silverthread and rumbled as its underbelly opened; a manipulator extended from beneath the cockpit and planted a gunmetal-grey pyramid on the sealed doors, flat-side down.

"Charge is set," the pilot said. "Here we go - detonating in three, two, one, breach." The pyramid's tip lit up for a split second before exploding inwards in a white-hot flash; the shuttle rammed through the weakened section of hull immediately afterwards and spun as it screeched through the hangar, the rear hatch slamming into the hangar floor.

"We're clear, move!" Saren and the marines all unbuckled themselves and sprinted out of the shuttle, weapons at a low-ready, and fanned out into the hangar - which was, as far as Saren could tell, entirely empty and running on emergency lighting.

"Clear right!"

"Clear left!"

"Clear!" Sergeant Merinian looked over at Saren, then scanned the dimly-lit hangar once more. "No crew?"

"Maybe they got the message about the breach," Saren mused as he walked over to one of the half-dozen shuttles stowed in the Silverthread's hangar; he peered inside, found it empty, and shrugged as he moved on to the next shuttle. A thorough sweep of the hangar revealed nothing, and the group stacked by the main doors of the hangar as Sergeant Merinian gestured to one of the marines.

"Lavus, terminal," Pliltus barked. "I want anything you can find."

"On it, sarge." The marine jogged over to a nearby maintenance terminal, omnitool flashing to life; Lavus looked over his shoulder a few moments later and shook his head. "Shockwave must have screwed with the network or something - I'm locked into the hangar partition and getting nothing but error messages when I try to access the logs."

"Damn. Alright, back here. Spectre?" Plitus asked.

"I'll take point," Saren said; he waited for the marines to ready themselves, then hit the manual door release; the hatch hissed open, and Saren sliced the doorway before moving forward into the corridor with his rifle raised. The marines followed closely behind, and they stopped at the lone room between the hangar and the elevator - a small door marked as storage. Saren once again led the way, and looked around the room, which was full of crates, lockers and racks of various scientific equipment. He paused, crouching over the massive collection of spilled drink canisters and half-eaten snacks which were on the floor. "Odd," he said aloud, standing back up.

"What, a bunch of the crew just decided to ditch lunch, drop everything on the floor?" Lavus asked.

"Hey," Albinus replied, "if the Stalwart got all fucked up by a relay going nuts I'd probably drop my food too."

"Everyone? At once?" Saren shook his head. "Doesn't explain where all the crew are. Keep moving."

The marines followed Saren out of the room and into the main elevator; Saren hit the button for the second deck, and frowned as an error message flashed on the terminal.

"Error," a synthesized voice said. "Research deck remains in lockdown due to hazardous condition: fuel leak, coolant leak, life support failure. Deck lockdown will be lifted upon all-clear from bridge."

"Fuel leak?" one of the marines said nervously. "Spirits, sarge, nobody said anything about a fuel leak."

"Well, we'd better get to the bridge and figure out what the hell's going on then," Plitus said, nodding at Saren; thankfully, Saren's second attempt to use the terminal allowed him to bring the boarding party to the top deck, and Sergeant Merinian looked at his rifle as the doors closed. "Leak - you know the drill, folks. Low-yield concs, omni-batons. I'm not getting cooked or spaced today."

The marines all grumbled as they activated their rifles' concussive shot modes and activated their omnitools; several tested flash-fabricating blunt batons from their omnitools. Saren, on the other hand, simply holstered his shotgun, drew his sidearm and let his biotics flare to life around him. Several of the marines flinched or tried to step away.

"Shit, you're biotic?" one of the marines muttered.

Saren turned to him. "Is that going to be a problem?"

"No," the marine replied in a tone that was entirely unconvincing. Saren snorted a laugh in response, took a deep breath, and twirled his handgun around as the elevator ascended. A few moments later, the doors opened.

The corridor leading to the bridge was stuffed to near-capacity with corpses; Saren could barely tell what species each one originally was. The bodies had been shoved to the sides of the corridor and stacked to the ceiling, forming a tunnel of meat leading to the next hatch; Saren slowly glanced up, not moving out of the elevator, and flinched as he noticed the thick smears of blood dripping from the ceiling and the strange symbols - almost identical to the mass relay's runic projections - drawn on exposed sections of the wall using blood, organs and viscera. The floor itself was impossible to see, either, invisible beneath an ankle-high pool of grey-blue blood which was now seeping into the elevator.

Pushing his disgust out of mind, Saren crossed the threshold into the corridor, boots splashing and squelching as they hit the floor - and he paused as he heard something: a mumbling, gasping groan. He turned to his side to find that, half-buried into the pile of bodies, someone's head was sticking out - a quarian, Saren realized, who appeared to have been torn out of his suit.

One of his eyes was missing. The other was barely open.

"Please," the quarian managed, his one good eye closing.

"Stay with me, damn you - what happened here?" Saren asked, reaching into the wall of corpses to pull the quarian out. There was a squelch and a crunching noise, and Saren watched in disgusted disbelief as the quarian came free - missing the entire lower half of his naked body, his badly-rent torso barely holding together.

"How the fuck are you still talking?" Saren whispered.

"Please," the quarian repeated. "Please, please, please-"

"Answers, now," Saren growled. "Answer me, damn you!"

The quarian closed his remaining eye and fell silent before his shallow breathing slowed to a crawl. Saren was still for a moment before he flashed an omni-blade and slit the quarian's throat before dumping the corpse onto the floor; he was halfway to the security hatch which lead towards the bridge before he glared back at the marines, all of whom were standing silently in the elevator.

"You guys plan on joining me any time soon?" Saren barked.

The marines followed behind Saren with slow, dreadful steps as he opened the hatch; the way forward was in a similar state to the corridor - bodies everywhere, and the runic symbols painted where the walls were clear. They cleared several crew cabins, a lounge, and a small kitchen, all in the same state of horrifying chaos - but found no other survivors. At last, they arrived at the door to the bridge, and with a deep breath Saren led the way through.

It was as though Saren had stepped into hell itself: the remaining crew, about two dozen, were all naked and gathered together in the CIC, and a small pile of bodies had been heaped onto the main holo-board. The crew were busy chanting in a tongue his translator didn't know, painting those horrid symbols on walls and mutilating themselves with kitchen knives, scalpels and various other sharp implements; the crew were so consumed in their work that they failed to notice Saren and the marines taking up firing positions.

"What in the actual fuck," one of the marines, Lauritian, hissed.

"Rescue? Fuck that," Lavus spat. "We should kill'em all."

"Non-lethals only - we need 'em to talk," Sergeant Merinian snapped. "Saren?"

Saren shouldered his shotgun, and let off a burst of concussive shots; three of the crew were knocked to the ground, and Saren's eyes widened in disbelief as they simply got back up and screamed so loudly that his helmet's aural dampeners kicked in. The entire crew, as if possessed, all turned, howled together, and rushed towards the firing line.

"Fire at will," Saren said, letting the familiar rush of battle soothe his nerves. The group opened fire, launching barrage after barrage of concussive blasts, yet the crew kept getting back up long after anyone sane - or non-krogan - would have stopped from the pain.

"Medium yields," Plitus shouted, "and go for the legs!"

The marines all began firing concussive shots that were far louder, the bridge filling with the crack-thoom of their fire. The attacking crew were no longer being knocked to the ground; instead, they were being flung backwards into the walls with bone-crunching force. Still, they continued to rise, sprinting back towards the marines even as their twisted and shattered limbs gave out under them. Saren grit his teeth, set his shotgun's concussive force to lethal, and opened fire - and took a step back as an asari researcher''s head exploded and yet -

"She's still alive?" he shouted in horror, as the headless asari corpse continued to sprint at him. Focus, he thought, firing another shot at her legs; the asari's body from the waist down crumpled from the blast's force, and even still the body continued to claw its way along the floor with its hands.

"What the FUCK IS GOING ON?!" one of the marines screamed, turning to run to the elevator; another marine, screaming incoherently, followed close behind.

"HOLD THE LINE," Saren barked, pushing down his instinct to join them. "LETHAL CONCS! DISMEMBER THE LEGS FIRST AND DON'T STOP SHOOTING UNTIL THEY STOP MOVING!"

The battle raged on for what felt like an eternity, and when the last of the crew was little more than a twitching pile of paste smeared across the bridge's walls, Saren let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, forcing himself to stop shaking.

"Clear," Plitus managed through chattering teeth. "Sound off."

Eight of the marines checked in, breathing heavily; four didn't respond, and Saren looked back to find one marine on the ground by the elevator rocking back and forth on the ground, and two standing ramrod-still, unmoving.

"Tanis! Druso! Get your shit together," Plitus shouted, shaking the two standing marines as his composure returned. One shook his head as he looked at the carnage around him, stammering incoherently - when the other screamed, raised his shotgun and fired a concussive shot at point-blank that blasted Sergeant Merinian into the bridge's far wall.

"STAY BACK," Druso roared, waving his shotgun wildly. "DON'T TOUCH ME YOU SPIRITS-TAKEN-"

Saren slammed Druso into the nearest wall, tore the marine's shotgun from his hands and kicked it away before holding him in place with a biotic field. "Spear Corporal Druso, what the fuck do you think you're doing?"

Druso - still held in both Saren's grip and field - began sobbing uncontrollably, struggling furiously to get free as he howled wordlessly; Saren growled, swore, and planted a biotic-enhanced punch into Druso's helmet with enough force that the marine went limp. Still holding onto the unconcious soldier, Saren turned. "Plitus! You alright?"

"Spirits' shit," Plitus spat, getting off the ground with help from Lavus. "You - you knock him out?"

"Yeah," Saren replied, staring at Druso's unconcious form. "He's still alive."

"Thanks."

"Don't thank me," Saren grumbled, staring at the blood-soaked marines and the gore-covered bridge. "We have to explain all of this shit to someone."

Silence, for a minute.

"Alright," Plitus sighed. "Tanis?"

Tanis was standing against a signals terminal, breathing heavily as he nodded. "S-sir! Sorry, sarge, I - I don't know what happened. Won - won't happen again. Sir."

"Good. Druso's out. We're missing Faussius and Santux," Plitus finished. "Anyone know where they went?"

"Got into the elevator, I think," Lauritian muttered.

"Alright. Alright. Spirits. Lauritian, Albinus, go back to the hanger, figure out where those two are - and get Calidus to prep the shuttle. Lavus - figure out what the fuck happened up here. Rest of you, we keep an eye on Druso. And you, Tanis."

Saren joined Lavus, and the two both activated their omnitools. "Lavus, check the CIC boards," Saren ordered. "I'll see if I can pull anything from the command consoles." Lavus nodded as he got to work; Saren made his way into the far end of the bridge and activated the command console. He managed to link his omnitool to the console, but recieved nothing more than a seemingly-endless log of error messages and corrupted data; still, he copied and recorded the data he received, and returned to find Lavus cursing as he pried open the base of the CIC's main holo-board.

"Doesn't make - any - spirits-damned - sense," Lavus grunted as he activated his helmet's light and peered inside the holo-board's casing. "Wiring is fine. Aux power is on. Omnitool link works - but all I get is errors. Anything on your end, Spectre?"

"No," Saren grumbled. "Nothing. Same as you."

"I don't get it," lavus said, checking his omnitool. "Everything is fine - scans are good. Maybe it's got something to do with the second deck getting all fucked up?"

"Plausible." Saren shrugged. "We're not going to get anything at this rate - might as well leave this for specialists."

"Fine by me," Lavus agreed. "More than happy to get the hells off this deathtrap."

The group returned to the elevator - one marine carrying Druso over his shoulder - and rode down to the bottom deck. Making their way into the hangar, the group found Albinus and Lauritian standing over the two missing marines, Faussius and Santux, both of whom were curled up in the corner of the landing bay.

"Sarge! They won't move," Albinus shouted, waving the group over. "Lauritian tried to get them up, and they both threw their rifles at us," he added, gesturing to the extra rifles on his and Lauritian's backs.

"So? Pick them up, throw them on the damn shuttle. We're leaving," Sergeant Merinian spat.

Albinus and Lauritian both knelt down and grabbed each of the soldiers, wrenching them to their feet; Faussius fought for a moment before going limp, while Santux struggled weakly. Plitus cursed beneath his breath as the full group returned to the shuttle - the ramp already lowered - and buckled themselves in; Calidus leaned out from behind the pilot's chair and audibly winced as he took in the group.

"Spirits, and I thought Albinus looked like shit. You guys okay?" Calidus asked.

"Just get us off this damn ship," Plitus muttered, rubbing at his helmet.

"You got it."

The trip back to the Stalwart passed in silence, save for Calidus' request that the convoy move away from the Silverthread and that the Stalwart's hangar crew prep a hazard tent; Captain Lucidus was already waiting once the ship docked in the Stalwart's hangar. The second the ramp lowered, he nearly doubled over, and several of the engineers and hangar crew nearby covered their faces; more than a few actually vomited.

"Is there a reason," Lucidus asked with barely-held composure, "that you people are covered in gore and smell like a krogan sewer?"

"Crew of the Silverthread went crazy, Captain," Plitus said flatly, remaining on the dropship. "Best for you to see the footage directly, sir."

"Right. Get cleaned up and we'll debrief. Any wounded?"

"SC Druso is unconscious; he needs to be restrained just in case - blasted me into a wall before Spectre Arterius knocked him out. Have three other men who are in shock."

"Alright. I'll be waiting in my quarters when you're ready."

A group of deckhands - these ones wearing hazard suits - pushed several crates over to the back of the dropship, and deployed a temporary quarantine tent; Saren went first and was ushered into a decon tube. A few moments later, he stepped out, his armour free of the gory paste that had built up on it, and waited outside for Sergeant Plitus. After another five minutes, the Sergeant emerged, and after glancing back at his men who were being escorted towards the hangar's medbay for a moment, the two walked over to the main elevator and emerged at the top deck. They exited, walked down the corridor to the captain's quarters and entered the already-open doorway to find Cantus sitting at his desk. Both men removed their helmets; Saren stood at attention as Plitus saluted.

"Please, come in," the Captain said, gesturing at the seats opposite him. Saren and Plitus sat down, and Captain Lucidus rubbed at his fringe. "So, would either of you like to explain why the Silverthread - which was working just fine up until the relay fired that wave - is apparently in danger of exploding, and why you people walked out of your shuttle covered in gore?" He tapped at his console, and nodded at Plitus. "Helmet footage, please," he said. Sergeant Merinian nodded in return and tapped at his omnitool; the projector in Cantus' desk lit up and the Captain watched the footage intently. Once it finished, he looked at the two sitting opposite him and pointed at the looping footage. "Explain. Now. And don't leave anything out, because I'm the one who has to write a spirits-damned report as to what in the hells all...all this is."

"There's not much to explain, Captain," Saren replied, shaking his head. "No crew in the hangar deck, second deck suffered some sort of catastrophic failure which lead to a fuel leak, and the, ah, crew. Well, they appeared to have gone completely insane?"

"I - I don't know what to say, sir," Plitus said quietly after a moment. "The crew, they fought like - like animals. Would be bad enough, but then - well, you saw it - Saren blew the head off that asari and she just, just kept coming. Same with the rest of them. And the, runes? Pictures? They were all painting the walls and ceilings with blood and gore and whatnot." Plitus shuddered, closing his eyes. "It's not, well, natural. Sir. And my men - four of them broke rank. One of them - Spear Corporal Aetna Druso - even shot me, Captain Lucidus. I've watched them fight - and win - against overwhelming odds. We've all seen some heinous shi - stuff on pirate vessels. Unit's been decorated twice! But this, it was too much. They just...broke. Sir."

There was a long, pregnant pause.

"I'm...not a superstitious man," Saren said slowly, breaking the silence. "But, if I were, I would probably say that this situation was, ah, distinctly of the occult." He sighed, and shrugged. "I can't make any sense of it, and I doubt any research team is going to want to go back onto that ship, given the likelihood that the Silverthread is going to explode soon."

"Alright. Alright, for the sake of simplicity let's just forget about the why behind the crew's insanity and the gore paint and the corpse piles. Why did this not affect the rest of the convoy?" Cantus asked. "The Silverthread's shielding isn't as powerful as the security vessels in our group, yes, but none of the other research vessels suffered this...breakdown."

"Perhaps it's because the Silverthread was the one that launched the probe?" Plitus offered. "I mean, that's not really a reason, but given how little spirits-damned sense any of this makes..." He trailed off into another bout of silence.

Cantus sighed, and leaned back in his chair. "Why don't the two of you go get some food and rest. I need to - somehow - write a report about this mess and kick it up the chain."

17th of the Third Umbral Wind, Year 1157 of the Twenty-Sixth Age
(June 16th, 2157 Council Era)

TRANSMISSION ENCRYPTION LOCK: RELEASED
W10-2657 FROM COUNCIL
ASSIGNMENT TO FOLLOW
ADDITIONAL PERSONNEL TRANSFERS TO RELAY BLACK ETA 12HRS
S.A TO CONTINUE ASSISTING SECURITY OPERATIONS AT RELAY BLACK
PRIORITY ONE: MAINTAIN OPSEC RE: RELAY BLACK
PRIORITY TWO: CONTAIN FURTHER ANOMALOUS INCIDENTS WRT INCIDENT REPORT W10-2657-230.05B
PRIORITY THREE: ENSURE SECURITY OF RESEARCH OPERATIONS
PRIORITY FOUR: ENSURE SECURITY OF CFC VIGILANT AND CREW
PRIORITY FIVE: ENSURE SAFETY OF PRIORITY PERSONNEL
PRIORITY SIX: ENSURE SAFETY OF NON-PRIORITY PERSONNEL

Saren and Cantus stood in silence as one of the Stalwart's shuttles flew clear of its parent ship; both men had sent their reports to the Council two days prior, and after quarantining the turian marines who'd broken rank had decided to reinforce the newly-christened Relay 314 with no less than two dozen Citadel Fleet ships.

"Have you worked with Rear Admiral Atruus?" Saren asked, turning his attention to the Citadel Fleet Cruiser Vigilant - and the asari admiral who technically now held command over security in the area.

"I have," Captain Lucidus replied quietly.

"Impressions?" Saren smiled at Cantus' concerned expression. "I've already read up on her, but reports and reality aren't always mutually inclusive. A second opinion would be nice."

"She's a career Citadel Fleet officer," Cantus replied, the stress in his voice dropping slightly. "Calm, collected, competent. Can't ask for much more."

Saren nodded approvingly. "That's reassuring. Something tells me we're going to need people like that sooner rather than later."

"I know you mentioned Contact being on the cards in your report - if you don't mind me prying, what's your guess at an ETA?" Cantus asked. "I understand if you're not allowed to share the details-"

"-no, no, it's fine. Frankly, I'm surprised we haven't been contacted by whatever's beyond Relay 314 already," Saren muttered, glancing around himself despite the two being the only occupants of the shuttle's passenger compartment. "I proposed that we raise readiness for FC with the expectation that it might happen any second now; the Council wasn't necessarily pleased by that, but they reinforced us all the same, no?"

"I'd thought about that," Cantus replied quietly. "I suppose an old man like myself wasn't thrilled at the prospect of it happening before preparations are fully in place."

"It's the obvious answer," Saren replied with a shrug. "We do the best we can with what we have."

"You seem awfully calm about the prospects of First Contact with a species that could...corrupt, for lack of a better word, a mass relay like that."

Saren shook his head. "Of course I'm calm. It's my job. Make no mistake, I've got no desire to get into a fight with whatever or whoever caused the incident on the Silverthread, but the Council employs me to solve problems, not to be afraid of them.

Cantus' expression soured for a moment and he opened his mouth - yet he said nothing, and his frown settled into something approaching discomfort as he stared at the rapidly-approaching hangar of the Vigilant in silence. It wasn't until the shuttle had landed within the Vigilant that Cantus' discomfort resolved into his usual calm, and as both he and Saren descended the shuttle ramp they were greeted by the sight of the Vigilant's engineers working on unpacking various crates and performing maintenance on shuttles; standing just beyond their now-docked shuttle was a tall, wiry asari whose warm, welcoming smile was at odds with the calculating look in her eyes.

"Spectre Arterius, Captain Lucidus," Juturna Atruus said, returning Cantus' salute and nodding at Saren. "A pleasure to work with you again, Captain Lucidus, and I look forward to working with you, Spectre. If you'll follow me, I'd like to begin going over contingency plans in addition to discussing the measures both of you outlined in your report to the Council." She led the two over to an elevator built into the side of the hangar and within minutes the three were seated in her personal quarters, decorated sparsely with little besides a few medals on her desk.

"If it's alright with you," Saren began, "I'd like to first hear your thoughts about the Contact section of my report."

"I agree with most of it. I mean - I think it's likely we'll be dealing with the...organization or persons responsible for modifying Relay 314 in the near future," Juturna replied hesitantly. "Whether that's going to happen now, tomorrow, next week - I can't say, but the fact that there wasn't an immediate response leads me to believe that we haven't, say, opened a direct line of travel to a populated area of space. In any case, while I'm happy to be here with the rest of the escort fleet I'd be much more comfortable with double, triple the ships, some gun platforms - you get the idea. As for your conjecture? About 'alternative technological bases' and the like?" Juturna sighed. "I have no idea."

"You watched the footage I sent with my report?" Cantus asked.

Juturna nodded stiffly. "I did," she said, pausing as she closed her eyes. "I'm just going to dispense with the formality here - I know both of you tiptoed around saying it, but to be honest we might as well be dealing with witchcraft. Did the Council give you any updates regarding the status of the marines under your command who broke rank, Captain Lucidus? Spear Corporal Aetna Druso, in particular?"

"No, they didn't," Cantus answered.

"And you didn't receive any information either, Spectre?"

"No, not that I'm particularly concerned," Saren replied with a shrug. "I'm a Spectre, not a surgeon. I assumed the Council - or the Spectre Office - would update me with any relevant details."

Juturna snorted. "Well, perhaps it would be nice for you two to be up to speed? While most of the marines look to be fine, if a bit shaken by the events they witnessed - more than justified, in my opinion - Spear Corporal Druso remains afflicted by, ahem, 'a psychosis of unknown origin,' according to the documents I was cleared to read."

Saren and Cantus looked at each other with something approaching alarm.

"Psychosis." Saren blinked, expression flattening as he considered the word.

"He speaks in tongues when he thinks he isn't being observed, and he's also been copying those runes you saw on the Silverthread," Juturna explained, shaking her head. "Someone tried to take away his drawings for further analysis, and Druso nearly tore the man's eyes out with his bare talons. Five such incidents happened within two hours of Druso's intake."

"Spirits," Cantus breathed.

"Now - the Council has charged me with maintaining security around Relay 314, and ensuring that if First Contact does happen that things go smooth - relatively smooth - until some actual diplomats can get a handle on the situation," Juturna added. "My point is - while I respect your opinion, Spectre Arterius, somehow I get the feeling that us sitting here and pointing every gun we can find at that mass relay really isn't going to do a whole lot of good in terms of providing a concrete defense," Juturna continued; she held up a hand as Saren prepared to interrupt her. "That doesn't mean I'm suggesting we, ah, not do so regardless - just that we need an alternative plan as backup. Guns aren't going to solve any, say, sudden outbreaks of madness aboard our ships."

"Of course they can," Saren replied simply as he nodded thoughtfully. "We contain and immediately kill anyone who shows signs of, well, madness."

"You can't be serious," Cantus sputtered. "What - what are you going to say? 'Message to all fleet personnel, nothing serious, just make sure you're armed at all times and be ready to execute your crewmates if they look at you funny?' Most of the fleet isn't even up to speed on what happened to the Silverthread - as far as they know, it suffered a fuel leak and was destroyed. That's it."

"We're dealing with something we can barely comprehend," Saren retorted, "and until the people poking around in SC Druso's head can figure out something concrete I don't want us to be off our game because we didn't have the spine to do what was necessary."

"You're suggesting we inform the entire fleet," Juturna said, "against the orders to prevent information leaks regarding the Silverthread?"

"I'm suggesting that I inform the fleet - I'm a Spectre. I answer directly to the Council - and while they don't always like me, my opinions, or my methods, they still call on me time and time again," Saren answered matter-of-factly. "Let's say aliens come through that relay and do - do whatever it is they did to the Silverthread to some of our ships. We're at knife range - every single gun on every single ship is going to count, and if we can prevent a repeat of what happened to the Silverthread's crew by executing five, ten, twenty people? Then yes, we should absolutely inform the fleet. If you'd like to think in less calculating terms," Saren added after a moment, "we also owe it to the personnel under your command, Rear Admiral. How would you like to be sent into a possibly hostile situation without the intel you need?"

Juturna's expression soured, but she nodded nonetheless. "As distasteful as I find it, I agree. Captain Lucidus?"

"This is insane," Cantus muttered. "What in the hells are we even talking about? I mean, really."

"Yes or no, Captain," Saren pressed. "You don't have to like it."

"We - fine. But we need to figure out a way for you to word this right, or the entire fleet's going to descend into chaos," Cantus grumbled.

"That's fine. The entire fleet's nearly finished moving into defensive posture anyway," Juturna noted with muted pride. "Everything else from here on out is readiness and drills; taking the ti-"

All three paused as an alarm rang through the ship and the speaker in Juturna's desk lit up.

"XO Maela to all personnel, Signals reports incoming transit via relay, ship origin and signature unknown," a salarian voice reported. "Vigilant moving to condition two."

Juturna immediately got out of her seat and opened a locker next to her bed, throwing off her jacket as she unpacked her hardsuit. "Saren, bridge - I'll meet you there. Cantus, back to your ship. Go!"

By the time Saren arrived on the bridge of the Vigilant, the entire crew was sealed into hardsuits and in position at their stations; Juturna arrived only moments later and the two walked over to the main CIC holoboard, watching in tense silence as the mass relay - which had been, up until now, glowing green and projecting runes - shifted back to its normal blue. With a visible intake of breath even beneath her armour, Juturna cleared her throat and spoke with iron in her voice.

"This is Rear Admiral Atruus to the Relay 314 Defensive Line. We have incoming First Contact. All ships standby on battle stations, condition red, second positions," Juturna said into her comm. She was about to make some sort of rallying cry when the incoming ship popped into normal space, and any words she had been preparing failed her.

The ship - if it could even be described as one - was a gargantuan black behemoth, vaguely trapezoidal, covered in pulsating red runes not unlike the ones the relay had been projecting. Saren's mind raced as he dug up memories and did calculations in his head; he'd managed to see the Destiny Ascension up close about a month prior, and by his most conservative estimates this floating box had to be at least six or seven times larger. The entire bridge watched in silence as the new arrival drifted slowly towards the fleet, and despite his calm Saren could feel a gnawing sense of dread in the back of his mind telling him that the fight was already over.

Focus, Saren. Think. Calculate. Kill. Always as easy as that.

"Stay cool, people! Hardpoints stand by to deploy. Signal teams, prepare to broadcast First Contact Packet One," Juturna ordered, her voice somehow calm.

"Understood, ma'am," someone replied. "Prepa- hold on, they're launching something!"

"Weapons?"

"No, ma'am, looks like some sort of shuttle or dropship - it's heading towards us," another voice said nervously. "Should I go ahead and broadcast the FCP?"

"Do it."

The projectors placed at the front of the Vigilant lit up and began to display various sequences of shapes, numbers and colours, followed by holograms of the many Citadel races and then of the Citadel itself. Saren watched with held breath as the shuttle which had been approaching suddenly stopped. Moments later, the shuttle projected sequences back using the same shapes; then, an image of various two-legged aliens which resembled asari with hair on their heads and a variety of skin colours, all garbed in simple tunics, standing next to a variety of aliens who looked nearly unrelated to their asari-like companions. The shuttle's message repeated twice, and Saren watched as one of Juturna's crew leaned out of his seat to face her.

"They're broadcasting on open frequencies, ma'am," the turian man said. "Should I bring it up?"

"Do it."

The CIC's holoboard shifted, and Saren had to physically keep his mouth shut as the feed showed what was presumably the bridge of the incoming shuttle: its gunmetal-grey interior was decorated with runic inscriptions, cloth banners and strange lanterns that reminded Saren more of the old shrines on Palaven, rather than an actual spacecraft. Two figures stood in front of the camera, both wearing plain grey cloaks over massive, bulky-looking suits of armour; the male - Saren guessed - had a small patch of black hair running along the middle of his olive-skinned head, and he wore a sidearm and some sort of saw-toothed blade at his waist. Next to him, a woman - who, with her shaved head, looked shockingly like a pale asari minus the fringe - appeared to be quite a bit taller. Her armour, a dull green instead of the man's grey-blue, was covered in small scratches and scorch marks; unlike the unadorned suit which the man wore, dozens of small, golden-coloured cylinders hung from her armour on the shoulders and waist. She, too, carried one a strange many-toothed blade at her waist, but the long, boxy firearm attached to the other side of her waist was far too large to be a sidearm. A third figure - perhaps a younger female - knelt at the woman's side, and Saren shuddered as she noticed the glowing runes carved into the younger woman's bald skull; her armour was also dull green, as was the sash she wore instead of a cloak.

All three spoke together; their tone seemed to be polite, though of course nobody aboard the Vigilant had no way of understanding them. A few moments later, the feed was replaced with an image of their shuttle moving towards the Vigilant, then going inside of it, followed by a simple diagram of the aliens leaving their ship to meet with symbols aboard the Vigilant which she assumed to stand in for her crew. Juturna replied in the affirmative, smiling, and she followed her message with a diagram of a hatch opening on the underbelly of the Vigilant. All three of the aliens nodded, and their feed cut out.

The bridge was silent for several moments.

"What in the actual fuck," someone whispered.

"Language," Juturna said, getting out of her seat. "XO Maela, you have command. I need an escort and the contact team with me to the secondary hangar," she said into her comm as she left the bridge with Saren in tow; they both looked at each other with poorly-held composure as they entered the main elevator.

"You know, I think that went rather well, all things considered," Saren muttered.

"Are you joking?"

"I don't joke."

"I'm serious, Spectre," Juturna spat. "This is going far, far too well - too easy - to make sense. We just - what - show each other contact packages and everything is alright? And please - you saw how enormous their ship is," she added, "and not to mention the fact that they have those...runes, like the relay and the Silverthread had."

Saren shrugged. "Yes, their ship is large. Unnaturally so," he said, frowning at the incredulous look Juturna gave him. "And their runes - I'm not a fan of those either. But until they prove themselves to be openly hostile, we might as well try and make things work."

"I didn't peg you for an optimist," Juturna said, staring at the wall.

"I'm not," Saren replied, patting the shotgun and rifle on his back before staring at the sidearm Juturna carried. "You should stop at the armoury on the way down to our little meeting, Rear Admiral."

"Contact protocol, Spectre Arterius."

"I think," Saren said slowly, "that this time an exception might be in order."

Juturna snorted, and the rest of the elevator ride passed in silence; Saren simply did his best to remember the contact training he'd received, running over hours of half-remembered lectures and exercises. The elevator arrived at the secondary hangar not long after, and they exited to find engineering teams preparing the airlocks and security teams taking up defensive formations all around the hangar; Juturna paused as they walked towards the airlock farthest from the elevator, took a detour into a nearby corridor and returned with a shotgun locked to her back.

"Better," Saren said approvingly. "Still - if those aliens come out running, you stay behind me and get to the nearest shuttle bay. Got it?"

"I'm older than you are, Spectre," Juturna muttered. "No need to be condescending."

"Apologies. Just trying to be cautious."

They walked over to the airlock where the alien shuttle was docking and stood in silence for several more minutes before one of the engineers turned to face them.

"They're here, Rear Admiral."

"Let them in," Juturna said, adopting as dignified a stance and expression as she could; Saren simply stood at attention next to her. Seconds later, the hangar-side of the airlock hissed open, and the shuttle - a boxy, black brick, not unlike the larger ship it had launched from - descended before slamming into the hangar floor without so much as lowering a landing strut. The side of the craft opened, and four of the aliens, fully encased in their grey armour and wearing their toothed-blades and sidearms, marched out; Saren guessed they were maybe on the closer side to eight feet tall, and their armour thudded and clanked as they flanked the shuttle's entrance. All four aliens slammed their fists together and shouted as three aliens from the feed - the ones from the previous feed, Saren assumed, going by their cloaks and sash - all wearing helmets, marched out of the ship. The woman in the grey armour turned and slammed her fists together as well, and the four escorts fell into formation behind the trio, who now approached Juturna as she stepped forward to greet them.

"I am Rear Admiral Juturna Atruus of the Citadel Fleet," Juturna said as they approached, "representing the peoples of the Citadel and the Councils. It is an honour to receive you."

The man paused before removing his helmet, and he grinned.

"No, milady, it is my honour," the man said in what Saren's translator took to be perfect Thesserit - the sort a newscaster for the Citadel News Network might speak - a wide, warm smile on his face as he and the other aliens knelt before her on one knee. "I am known as Jon Grissom, Lord Admiral within the Order of the Knights-Errant and master of the Sixth Crusade Group; I speak to you now as a representative of the Exalted Exitium, of humanity, of the Redeemed, and all those who would stand together and with you against the endless tides of Hell beneath the guiding hate of the Doom Slayer! Glory to Him, for blessed is He! Amen!"

Juturna could not help but glance back at Saren - who, in turn, could not muster anything more than an overwhelming expression of confusion.

Juturna simply stared at the man for a moment before blinking several times. "Uh, yes. Um. Thank you. I, ah, see that you are able to understand me and you already speak Thesserit - may I ask how?"

Jon stood up, clipping his helmet to his waist. "I am wearing a rune of cognizance, Rear Admiral," he replied, head cocked slightly. "I figured your peoples would also be carrying them, but that it wouldn't hurt to bring my own. Is that not the case?"

"Rune?" Juturna asked. "Like the ones on your ship and its banners?"

"No, those are inscriptions," Jon replied, his expression inquisitive. "I'll reach into my armour, if that's alright."

"Go ahead," Juturna offered; despite the peaceful offer, Saren couldn't help but loosen his hands and make ready to draw one of his weapons.

A small compartment on the side of Jon's armour hissed open, and he withdrew a small disc that seemed tiny in his massive gauntlets. He held it in an open hand; the disc itself was a polished beige, engraved with a complex series of glowing blue symbols arrayed in a spiral. "It's not the most up-to-date of our runic technology, but certainly reliable."

"But how does it allow you to comprehend my speech, and grant you knowledge of Thesserit?" Juturna asked, her tone level.

"I don't understand the question," Jon replied, confused. "Do the peoples of your Citadel, your Councils, not have rune magic?"

There was a long pause; Juturna glanced at Saren, who simply stared back in disbelief.

"I'm sorry, did you say magic?" Juturna said slowly.

"Rune magic, to be precise," Jon said.

"It is possible," the woman next to Jon noted in a rasping voice, "that they do not possess runic magic, Lord Admiral. How many branches of sorcery exist? How many more might there be?"

"Yes, that's true, Abbess Shepard," Jon replied, tapping the rune-disc against his chin thoughtfully. "If not rune-magic, then, surely you have some sort of translatory sorcery - perhaps of a hermetic or theurgic sort?"

"My apologies - when you say magic and sorcery," Juturna said carefully, "you do mean - you are referring to...miracle making? Effecting change in a non-scientific manner?"

"Well, no," Jon replied in a tone that suggested concern. "Miracle making, that would be theurgy, and magic is certainly scientifically and logically consistent, as is sorcery. Do you mean to suggest that you and your peoples are not familiar with magic?"

"We are," Juturna replied, "but for us magic occupies the realm of myth, legend and the charlatan."

The alien delegation all exchanged glances, and the expression on Jon's face darkened. "Slayer protect," he said slowly. "You mean to say you have been fighting the forces of Hell without the assistance of sorcery? It's certainly possible, but I would be lying to say that I would not miss its absence in combat."

"Ah. Right. That was the other matter I wanted to discuss before we moved on," Juturna said with ill-concealed disbelief. "When you mentioned the 'tides of Hell,' you were speaking in metaphorical terms, co-"

"-you jest!" the young woman standing at Abbess Shepard's side said in an incredulous tone.

"Sister Nought!" Hannah hissed; the young woman flinched and made a curious sign with her right hand over her chest. "Please, forgive her - she is but an acolyte, concerned more with duty than with diplomacy - her transgression will not stand-"

"-it's, uh, alright," Juturna replied. "But my question - I would still like an answer."

"Rudely as Sister Nought may have put it," Jon said carefully, "I must echo her sentiments. You know nothing of Hell and its demonic spawn? You and your peoples have not, do not face the minions of Doom, foul servants of sin and evil, in open combat?"

"I'm afraid not," Juturna said lamely; Saren could barely hold back his laughter at the absolute absurdity of the situation. "The peoples of the Citadel certainly don't live in world free of evil but I can say with one-hundred-percent surety that we have never had to fight the...ahem, spawn of the underworld?" She flinched as Abbess Shepard and the other guards with her fell to their knees with enough weight to send an echoing clang through the hangar, eyes wide and expressions one of pure awe.

"His will," Hannah whispered, an expression of purest rapture on her face. "His strength, His shield, His power!" The Doom Slayer protects," she roared; Saren could swear the woman was holding back tears. "The Doom Slayer protects! A land untainted by Hell and its corruption - Slayer bless us, this is joyous news!" She signed the symbol Sister Nought had made, and the rest of the humans followed suit.

"The Doom Slayer protects," Jon agreed, nodding. "In His anger are we all made whole."

"Ah...very well. In any case, why don't we move to somewhere better suited to continue our discussion, rather than standing around in this hangar?"

"I find the idea agreeable," Jon replied. "Come, Abbess, there will be time for prayer later."

"The conference room is just at the end of the hall past this hangar - please, follow me and the escorts," Juturna said. She nodded at her escort detail and Saren, and led the motley group out of the hangar; they made a right at the corridor and walked over to a large conference room at the end of the hall. Juturna hoped with all her might that the chairs - which were designed to handle krogan - would withstand the bulk of the humans, and she inwardly sighed in relief as she sat across from Jon and Hannah; the other humans remained standing at attention.

"Ah, before we begin, milady," Jon said, "I would hand over some materials for you and your peoples. I shall seek to illuminate our society - and I assume you will do so in kind - but I figure the giving of hard-copy information and gifts is acceptable?"

"It is, though of course we will have to subject the items in question to security checks."

"Of course. Sister Nought, if you please." Jon turned as Sister Nought pulled a slim, wooden case from her breastplate and proffered it to the Lord Admiral with both hands; he took it, and set it on the table. "This case contains the Volumes of Unity, an abridged physical tome containing the most pertinent elements of our history, religion, culture, and language as well as an unabridged copy on a datastick. Also contained within are several runes of cognizance, as well as some runes of illumination - gifts, for those who wish them."

"Thank you," Juturna replied; Jon slid the case across the table, and she passed it to one of her men. "Lieutenant Aral, please take this to the hangar and have it undergo the proper checks."

"Yes ma'am," the salarian said, clearly happy to be leaving the room. He grabbed the case and walked out at a brisk speed; Juturna returned her attention to the humans before her.

"Before we continue," Juturna said, her tone grave, "I do have some pressing concerns regarding your...ahem, magic."

"Oh? In what way?" Jon replied thoughtfully.

"A few days ago, we discovered the mass relay you emerged from - covered in tendrils and its core red instead of blue. We attempted to send a probe through the relay, but in doing so activated some sort of shockwave."

"Oh, goodness, yes, that would be our rune-lock," Jon said, nodding. "The Lazarus wave - did it happen to affect some of your people adversely?"

"Adversely? Yes. Yes, you could say that," Juturna replied. "Shortly after the mass relay fired the shockwave, the crew of the ship which launched the probe suffered a catastrophic...breakdown."

"Oh, no," Jon said softly. "Do you have footage?"

"I do. It is the opinion of some of my superiors that having you shed some light on exactly what happened to the crew of the ship in question, the Silverthread, holds just as much import as establishing formal relations with your Exalted Exitium." Juturna pulled several helmet-cam recordings and photos taken from the Stalwart's expedition into the Silverthread, and pulled them up on the table's holoprojector; she shuddered as the footage of the blood-rivers, corpse-piles and insane crew began to play. The room fell silent as the humans watched, and a few minutes later Jon sighed.

"I am sorry for the losses inflicted upon the crew of the Silverthread," Jon said, his face steeped in sorrow. "The systems we use to prevent the forces of Hell from utilizing spatial tunnelers - ah, mass relays, to use your words - both the rune-lock that seals the relay and the Lazarus Thorns which either kill or cause madness in any would-be demonic trespassers were not designed with the unwarded in mind. We...we simply never considered it seriously, and now we must face the consequences. Am I correct in noticing that the corrupting influence of the proto-Gore Nests and the unholy inscriptions within the Silverthread caused some of the soldiers tasked with clearing the ship to suffer breakdowns?"

Saren cleared his throat, and Juturna nodded at him. "That's correct, Lord Admiral. Spectre Saren Arterius - I led the team into the Silverthread. Not only were the crew of the ship unnaturally" - he refused to say supernaturally - "hard to kill and ferally violent, several of the marines who fought with me either broke down or broke rank; one even fired upon his own commanding officer These are men who were no stranger to combat or its dangers, Lord Admiral, and I admit even I, an elite warrior, was unusually nervous during the fight."

"The dangers of exposure to Lazarus waves, unholy artifacts and demonic inscriptions without proper inoculation are well-documented - we will be sure to pass that along," Jon noted. "The Exalted Exitium will be happy to provide recompense for this...tragedy borne of our own ignorance. This ship, the Silverthread, did you cleanse it?"

"The reactor went critical due to multiple fuel leaks and points of failure not long after the expedition returned," Juturna replied. "Nothing remains of the ship."

"Thank the Slayer. And the marines who suffered breakdowns from their exposure?"

"Back on the Citadel. All of them are in observation and recovery, save for the soldier who fired upon his CO; that man is in quarantine," Juturna noted. "He's been overserved, ah, undergoing an ongoing psychotic break; he has been speaking in tongues and copying the runes he saw on board the Silverthread."

Jon's eyes went wide, and he glanced over at Hannah with a terrified expression that the human woman returned. "Slayer's shit," Jon whispered. "The Citadel. Is it a densely packed mega-station? And am I correct in understand that it houses critical aspects of the Citadel races' governments? Your Councils, perhaps?"

"Yes, it is heavily populated, and it does hold important functions of governance," Juturna said slowly.

"Listen carefully to me. You need to send a message back to the Citadel, now, and you must order the immediate isolation of the soldiers who suffered breakdowns. As for the poor sap who has been inflicted with corruption, he must be executed at once." Jon leaned forward, eyes wild. "This is not up for negotiation, Rear Admiral. If you do not do this, you place of all the Citadel and its peoples at risk of demonic incursion, and without the resources or know-how to fight the unholy there will be catastrophic losses."

"I...excuse me," Juturna replied, "I understand that we're - the Citadel - is clearly dealing with an outside-context problem, but we're not in the business of jailing men for undergoing trauma. And as for Spear Corporal Aetna Druso - we will not execute him, not without finding a cur-"

"What, without finding a cure? There is no cure!" Hannah half-shouted. "Milady, if the condition of the marines worsen or the isolated one breaks free, you will have a literal invasion from Hell on your hands in less than a day. Unless your people are spontaneously able to learn the methods and modes of anti-demonic warfare-"

"-there it is again," Saren said coolly. "Demons. Literal invasions from Hell. You mean it, don't you?"

"Why would I lie about a matter as grave as this?" Hannah snapped back.

"Abbess," Jon said in a cautioning tone.

"I'm not accusing you of lying, Abbess - just making sure we're clear. Most - if not all all - of my superiors and our society at large does not believe in the supernatural, at least not in a literal, day-to-day sense," Saren explained. "Your insistence that you fight the literal spawn of the underworld lacks...context."

"Sister Nought, the projector, please," Jon said, watching as Jennifer pulled a disc from her sash and placed it on the desk. It lit up a few moments later with what appeared to be helmet-cam footage; the recorder was one of many warriors clad in armour that resembled Abbess Shepard's, and all carried enormous firearms. The dozen or so human warriors were marching through a dust-swept valley of some sort, a midday sun beating down on them.

"There," one of the warriors shouted. "The map indicates that the nest is in that cave."

The warriors marched towards the mouth of a small cave; the interior was lit by glowing runes which hung from the ceiling and the walls were smeared with blood. The group descended into the cave, following the only available passage, and as they walked the grey rock walls began to shift into a bloody red that was indistinguishable from the blood which covered it. Moments later, the descending, winding tunnel gave way to a large chamber, the ground impossible to see beneath a knee-high pool of shining red blood, and at the very centre of the chamber Saren could see a massive pile of corpses - not unlike the one the Silverthread's crew had been building - surrounded by a variety of strange creatures; some were brown-skinned, naked and had long, three-clawed hands, while the others resemble humans with rotting flesh and exposed bone, their faces twisted into disgusting, stretched horrors. The creatures were chanting and dragging more corpses out of the bloody muck beneath their feet, and the warrior at the front of the group drew a weapon like the one on Abbess Shepard's hip in his right hand, and one of the toothed-blades in his left.

"KILL THE DEMONS BEFORE THEY OPEN THE PORTAL!" the warrior shouted, as the blade whirred to life with a sputtering, angry buzz, the teeth whirring into a furious blur. "IN HIS NAME, KILL!"

The warriors charged forward and Saren could only watch in awe as they leapt headlong into melee range of the foul creatures as they fired their guns; most turned to engage the humans, though some remained, furiously screeching and chanting over the corpse-pile. The human warriors fought like nothing Saren had seen before - and he'd once watched a dozen krogan kill a thresher maw in person. The brown-skinned monsters threw orbs of fire and rent great tears in the armour of the humans, but to no avail; the humans slashed gaping, spraying wounds with their chainswords, blasted limbs from the demons with point-blank shots from their firearms. Suddenly, the cave - dimly lit by the ceiling runes - burst with a blinding red light; there was an awful screeching noise, and in an instant all of the blood was sucked into the corpse pile. The pile - the nest - twisted and pulsed as the corpses fused into a great mountain of meat; dagger-like teeth sprouted at the top of the pile and an angry red orb ripped out of nothingness above it.

"The gore portal opens! Hold fast, and kill faster! The Slayer demands it!" someone shouted.

The battle raged on, the recording warrior barely paying notice to the demons - and they must be demons, a small voice in the back of Saren's mind whispered - now pouring out of the gaping red hole above the gore nest. Rather, the warrior simply continued to fight, killing dozens of the brown-skinned monsters, when a massive thud knocked the warriors to their feet; the recorder looked up, and there stood behind a literal wall of demons one that towered above the rest: a great eyeless biped beast which howled and screamed before charging the warriors. The recorder screamed in fury, tossing his gun and blade away before drawing a glowing red orb from his chest rig; he smashed it into his helmet, and an ominous red glow enveloped his fists.

"SLAYER! GRANT ME YOUR HATE! RIP AND TEAR!" he shouted, before charging forward.

"BERSERK! BERSERK! BERSERK!" the warriors shouted, their voices a mix of joy and excitement. "RIP AND TEAR!"

Juturna watched, as the recording warrior screamed, running directly towards the wall of demons standing before him with his left arm wound back; the brown-skinned creatures formed a wall in front of the great beast and threw a wall of fire which the warrior simply ran through as though it was simply not there. He emerged from the fire within melee distance of the demonic horde and Saren's jaw dropped in awe as the warrior punched the demon and it exploded with enough force that its limbs rocketed off its body like shrapnel, tearing through the foul beasts standing nearby. The recording warrior tore through the demon ranks like a rocket-powered blender, every punch and kick smearing its target into chunks of gore and fountains of blood. The fight - slaughter, really - lasted less than a minute, and soon enough the warrior was standing before the giant demon atop a pile of demon meat. The giant demon hunched over and screamed, stomping the ground as if to challenge the warrior which had just slain its minions, and the warrior roared in response.

"RIP AND TEAR," the warrior shouted, looking up at the monster which towered over him. "RIP AND TEAR YOUR GUTS! YOU ARE HUGE! THAT MEANS YOU HAVE HUGE GUTS!"

"HUGE GUTS!" his comrades screamed in agreement.

The great beast charged the warrior at blinding speed, grabbing the warrior in a massive, crushing grip, and in a split second the warrior headbutted the demon so hard that its chest caved inwards, then tore his way through the demon. Both halves of the now-dead creature thudded into the ground with a sickly thump. The warrior turned as his the red glow which had enveloped him began to fade; his comrades joined him, and one of them returned the recorder's chainsword and firearm.

"Brother Izunami! An excellent showing," a female voice said, clapping the recorder on the shoulder as he checked his chainsword. "More like that and you'll do just fine on your next round of testing."

"You flatter me, Lady Durand," Izunami said, falling to one knee.

"Bah! Enough nonsense, boy, to your feet!" The woman strode forward towards the gore nest and pulled a long, rune-covered knife from her belt, before plunging it into the pulsating heart of the nest; there was a horrific screaming noise, and the nest suddenly exploded into a wild spray of meat-paste.

The projection began to loop, and Jon waved a hand over the projection disk, the display winking out before he returned the device to Sister Nought.

"So you see - if any of the afflicted soldiers manages to gather a pile of bodies, he will be able to open a portal to Hell without any trouble," Jon said, shaking his head. "Your Citadel, if it is as large as I am thinking, will have no shortage of nooks and crannies that will allow a skilled warrior to do such a thing without detection. And without the martial skill or enchanted weapons those warriors possessed..."

There was a long silence, and when Juturna spoke it was in a slow, cautious tone.

"Alright. I see your point, much as I wish I didn't believe what you're showing me. I'll forward my recommendation, then, that the marines be placed under isolation for medical reasons, and that the afflicted soldier be...executed, as soon as possible."

"I did not say recommendation, Rear Admiral. There can be no hesitation - it must be done, and it must be done immediately. There is no time for debate or consideration," Jon replied. "No person of moral standing enjoys the execution of a corrupted soul, an innocent lost to Hell - but it is a necessary duty, milady. I have been burdened with the duty of cleansing more times than I wish to count, and yet I have rest easy each time knowing that I have saved many more lives by taking a single one. I have watched children - children, you must understand - who have been granted the power to tear men limb from limb after their corruption went unchecked," Jon said, eyes frantic. "I am begging you to make the right decision, for all our sakes."

"I'll recommend his immediate execution," Saren said after a moment. "Spectre's orders."

"Your reasoning and candor is appreciated, Spectre Arterius," Jon said with a bow of his head.

"Let me note, though, that this death is on the hands of the Exitium," Saren continued coldly. "You've stated that you will compensate for the losses your security system inflicted, and I will hold you to that - especially in Aetna Druso's case."

"Of course. I cannot purify the poor soul, nor can I return the life of Sir Druso - which is now forfeit," Jon said, expression sorrowful, "but you have my and the Exitium's word that the families and friends of those afflicted by our lack of foresight will never want for care and comfort. I swear this upon the Doom Slayer's name and on the honour of my soul."

"Good," Saren replied. "You have my thanks."

"It is no trouble. Would it be fair, then, to adjourn for a while, such that you may contact your peoples and we our own?" Jon asked. "Some time for you to read and transmit the contents of the Volume of Unity and run the physical copy back to the Citadel - in addition to the judgement on the corrupted, of course."

"That is fair - we have detailed information on the languages and cultures of the Citadel available here," Juturna replied, pulling a stack of dataslates from her pocket. "One of my men will instruct you on the use of data-slates - will your, ah, runes allow you to read the information without trouble?"

"Yes, they will," Jon replied, "and in turn simply wearing one of the runes of cognizance we have provided near the body will allow an individual to comprehend our texts. Such measures will have to suffice until we can formulate a runic translation matrix."

The group exchanged several more items and soon Juturna was watching the humans board their shuttle, having agreed upon reconvening in a few hours; before they'd even left she'd pulled Saren aside to the corner of the hangar in a private office.

"We're in trouble," Juturna whispered, composure sagging in the privacy of the room. "We are in big fucking trouble. How do we explain any of this to the Council?"

Saren stared at her, then at the ceiling, then at the door.

"No idea," he muttered, "but there's going to be a lot of paperwork involved."