Incarnation – Urdnot Grunt


1371 years previously…

The galaxy had a way of finding enemies for them. Okeer was old enough to remember when krogan fought only other krogan, when all of Tuchanka shuddered with gunfire as clan fought clan with everything they had. It had been a time of death and hardship, but it had been a time for true krogan, and he remembered it fondly.

Then the salarians had brought them the rachni to fight, and the old ways had suddenly looked so pale, so meager next to the glory of killing aliens. The rachni had been fierce foes, all serrated whips and toxic blood, but in time they too had grown stale and the galaxy had given them the Council to fight instead. The asari and salarians had been a welcome change of pace – wily enemies that shot back, and then begged for their lives when they were defeated – but they, too, had soon fallen against the krogan advance.

Now the galaxy had given them the turians.

Ganar Okeer ducked under a burst of gunfire and planted his hump into the combat walker's underside. With a grunt of effort he pushed, lifting the machine and its operator into the air. Mechanical legs whined and scrambled for purchase but could do nothing as Okeer heaved the topheavy machine onto its side with a shuddering crash. One solid punch shattered the canopy and Okeer pulled the turian pilot from its seat. The alien did not show a glimmer of fear – it was resolutely drawing its sidearm when Okeer bent its neck in his palm with a gruesome snap of steel, bone, and sinew.

Turians were brave that way. They never surrendered. Okeer had respected them for that once.

But that respect had been misplaced. For all their apparent bravery, it had taken less than a decade of real fighting before the turians had lost their stomach for war and resorted to the genophage. Their cowardice had gone unrecognized for sixty more years after that while the plague had worked its invisible influence and the krogan numbers had dropped, but eventually the truth had come out and the krogan knew, now, just how empty their foes really were.

Now the turians were only tiresome. Okeer would not miss them when they were gone.

They were on Eophili now, which had once been a salarian world, a hundred years past. For all their spycraft, the salarians had not been prepared for the strength of the krogan advance and they had fallen quickly to their former servants, their space stations tossed from the skies, their cities burnt, and their eggs devoured by the millions.

Eophili had lied behind krogan lines for a century, but now the turians had finally found their quads and come to retake it. They must have believed their genophage had made the krogan soft enough to cede the planet unfought, but Kredak had returned with all his might to disabuse them of that notion, and the fierceness of the fighting had reduced Eophili to ashen fallowness. The sky was gray and red with angry smoke, and the once-verdant rivers ran blue with turian blood.

Eophili had been a salarian world, and then it had become a krogan world. And now it was no one's world. There was nothing left here to fight for except the deaths of their enemies, but that was more than enough for the krogan. They would show the turians that their genophage had not availed them, that even without their old numbers, the krogan were the threat to end all threats.

Okeer left the pilot's body where it lay and continued his way north, towards where the flow of battle had drawn the armies together. Chalky canyon walls towered over his head, echoing with gunfire and the groan of tanks and the roar of landing ships that clogged the skies with turian gray and krogan brown. The air was thick with white dust that clung to the nostrils, and everywhere lay the dying. In the opening moments of the battle, Kredak had had the Statka clan detonate dirty bombs in the ruins of an old salarian hive upwind of the battlefield, choking the tangled canyon valleys in poison gas that tickled Okeer's throat but set turian lungs afire. Thousands of their foes had already perished in the fallout, trapped in their vehicles while the krogan infantry drew the noose around their rapidly-dwindling forces.

Even against turians, even after the genophage, it was a glorious battle. And like all glorious battles, only the krogan would live to sing about it.

Okeer came to pass a trio of hulking brutes trying to pull a pair of turians out of a rocky crevasse. Their heavy armor was painted in pungent orange stripes of the Ghodot clan's personal alchite scent, marking them as members of Kredak's personal guard. They laughed thuggishly as they took their turns firing shotgun blasts into their quarry's hiding place, and Okeer felt a flash of fury at their small-mindedness. He snarled. "Grenade them and move on."

The guards looked as if they might argue the point until they recognized him. They bowed their heads, apologizing, and one of them obligingly tossed a grenade into the crevasse. It gave a hollow thunk and fire and dust and blue paste plumed out of the opening, and the turians were dead. The guards gave Okeer a guilty look. "Go!" he snarled, resisting the urge to headbutt something. "Do not waste your time with those who hide in cracks!" He struck the leader across the helmet hard enough to shatter one of his optics.

Okeer shook his head in irritation as the guards disappeared over the canyon wall to continue the battle more productively. He marked their scents in his mind – none of them were worthy to clean Kredak's armor, let alone protect him in battle, and Okeer would see them stripped of the privilege or killed as soon as the battle was done. His lips curled over bloodied teeth as he continued his way down the canyon, fury building. How he had begun to hate his fellow krogan. A mere century since its deployment, and the genophage had already diluted his people. Already his kin flocked to join lesser warlords who boasted fertility, not strength. Already splitplates who should have been culled were being welcomed into the fold. Already he found himself silently wondering whether each krogan he met could put seed to a hen, not whether he could wield his body and krannt in battle like a true krogan. Already the krogan were cracking.

But the genophage would not last forever, and there were true krogan left. As long as Kredak could keep them together, the clans would not bow to defeat.

"Hova, Okeer! To me!" The voice came bellowing up from the next hill, and Okeer followed it. He found Kredak standing victoriously atop a downed Trireme tank. The Great Lowlander was wreathed by smoke pouring from the disabled vehicle and bleeding from a dozen injuries, but he smiled as he held another throttled turian body aloft. He'd torn the alien's crest off at the root and tucked it proudly into his belt, leaving it dangling strips of stringy blue flesh with the others he had collected in the many battles since the turians had entered the fray.

Down below him, Shiagur was relieving the tank of one of its turrets. She did not look up from her work at Okeer's approach. "Another of their leaders is slain," she said, disinterested, and gestured up to her mate.

Okeer wrinkled his lips in distaste. Kotha Shiagur had been a warlord even before the genophage, but her immunity to it had sent her rocketing up the ranks and now she stood only second to Kredak in the krogans' esteem. It infuriated Okeer. Shiagur did not have her mate's genius on the battlefield – she was a stupid fighter, mindlessly bloodthirsty, rash, and easily duped. And yet Kredak had included her in every crush. Okeer did not agree with the increasingly-vocal minority of cowardly so-called krogan who called for all the hens to be taken off the front-lines and sent back to Tuchanka to focus on breeding, but Shiagur had been a bad influence on the Great Lowlander, pushing him into risks he would have never taken when he'd first risen to power. Okeer kept hoping she would perish in one of these battles, or that Kredak would tire of her company, but so far it was to no avail.

There was nothing Okeer could do about her. Shiagur was a dangerous fool, but Kredak loved her fiercely, and Kredak was his warlord and chief among his krannt. It was not his place to criticize Kredak's choice in mate.

Okeer buried his dislike. "Sota, Shiagur," he said, and inclined his head.

She looked up, now, and her face was a mess of caked-on blood that did nothing to hide her piercing stare. "Sota, Okeer," she grunted back.

As little as Okeer liked to see krogan gain acclaim with anything but the strength of their backs, Shiagur was fertile, and that did count for something. She and her brood-sisters could still birth splitplates, and they had used that fact to help solidify Kredak's alliances with critical clan leaders. Okeer himself had been given Shiagur's broodsister Gaira, and though all of their clutches had been still (he suspected Shiagur had given him her least fertile sister as a slight), he had nonetheless grown very fond of her. Even Okeer had to admit that Shiagur and her sisters had a powerful beauty to them. Their fertility was proof that the genophage had failed, and that soon the krogan birthrates would recover and they would sweep over Sur'Kesh and Palaven in a bloody tide of retribution. One look at the cruel flash of their unusual blue eyes and Okeer almost felt like the aliens were dead already.

Even now, covered in soot and blood, Okeer could smell the clutch incubating in Shiagur's womb. She was gravid. He hoped they were Kredak's. Then at least one of them would have a son.

He nodded at the tentative peace between them. "Panthus?" he asked, hopeful.

Above them, Kredak answered. "Not Panthus," he grunted. "Not near challenge enough. Only one of his seconds, I think." He gave a disappointed whumpf of breath, but he was still beaming as he tossed the crestless corpse of Panthus' second down to the ground at Okeer's feet. He followed, clapping his bloody hands together with a greedy gleam in his eye. "Do not worry, Okeer. I will find the great General soon enough, and he will die."

Okeer frowned. He did worry. Lately Kredak had been making it a point to personally dispatch the enemy's leadership whenever he could. It struck fear in their alien hearts, and Okeer delighted to imagine the hesitance with which any officer would face the Lowlander's forces for fear of being the next to meet him in person, but he could not help but worry Kredak was risking himself without cause. Kredak was a powerful warrior – by now his armor was decorated in dozens of ghastly scraps of flesh and bone that had once belonged to exarchs and matriarchs and dalatrasses – but Okeer knew he wasn't as invincible as the krogan liked to believe, and his value in holding the clans together far eclipsed the lives of a few stuffy turian generals. If he were to die…

Okeer shook his head, dispelling his worries. He did Kredak wrong fearing for him, like he couldn't protect himself. Kredak was ten times a match for any alien, and the tales he told of his kills at nights around the alchite fire provided much needed-morale to an increasingly discouraged army. Okeer had to trust his warlord.

The sounds of battle continued to rumble around them as Kredak led them up the crest of the next hill to look down at the turian tanks below. Okeer took his usual spot at Kredak's left side and Shiagur hers at his right – they were both warlords in their own right, but all krogan owed fealty to the strongest, and Kredak was the strongest. He was the Unifier of Clans, the Great Lowlander, and even those few who hated him fell in line behind him. He stared down at the fighting, orange eyes flitting as he thought. "Okeer," he rumbled. "Advise me. How will they move?"

"The turian machines are not well built for the terrain," Okeer said, staring down at the labyrinthine stony canyons that twisted out before them. Indeed, but for their combat walkers and drones, the turian vehicle columns were grossly inconvenienced by the roughness of the landscape. Where tomkahs could drive through, they were forced to drive around, and it made them easy pickings for the krogan forces. "They have a firepower advantage," Okeer conceded, continuing, "but our tomkahs can outmaneuver them, so they will attempt to draw the battle west where the land is flatter. My krannt and I can prepare a greeting for them there. We will slaughter them to the last."

Kredak nodded ponderously, his trophies clattering in the dry breeze. He knew all this, of course, but he liked to hear his krannt talk through possibilities aloud – he often went through entire crushes without saying a word. "I agree," he said finally. "But Shiagur shall have that honor." He turned to his mate. "Kotha Shiagur. Take your krannt and their krannts and their krannt's kraants west and lay waste to the aliens' ranks," he commanded her. He turned east to squint at the distant silhouette of turian landers, disgorging more troops to face them. A frigate – no doubt Panthus' personal craft – floated in low atmosphere, casting shadows across the landscape. "I shall seek Panthus there, and see if the genophage can protect him."

Okeer's frown deepened as doubts sprang back to his mind. "Panthus is not the only-"

"He will die," Kredak interrupted, staring at Okeer with a look that dared him to question his warlord's strength.

Okeer bit back a retort on his tongue. Of course Panthus would die. All of the turians would die. Even if they didn't die by krogan hands, with their feeble lifespans they would die to the ravages of time while the krogan weathered it as they weathered everything else. But he could not say that, not to Kredak. "At least take your mate," he tried. "Let Shiagur join you." Protect you.

Shiagur gave a low grumble, clearly displeased to be excluded from facing the turian general herself. She had taken to competing with her mate for the glory of killing the enemy leaders – it had become a game to them, and she had amassed a fair collection of trophies of her own. "I should be at your side," she agreed, scowling.

"I am the Great Lowlander. I do not need you to coddle me."

Okeer rumbled, searching for words. He did not care for Shiagur's influence on his warlord, but he did not like the idea of Kredak pursuing Panthus into his home without backup. "I-"

"You will retake command of the remains of our fleet," Kredak cut him off, tone precluding all argument. "Warlord Toshat is dead. Take our remaining ships into low orbit and cut off the turians' retreat."

Okeer quieted, trading a dark glance with Shiagur. There was nothing for it, not when Kredak got this way. He would relent. "I will go," he agreed. He would prefer to stay near Kredak, but if Toshat was indeed dead, he was one of the few other warlords with experience commanding spacecraft. Fighting in space wasn't a task Okeer relished, but he would obey his warlord.

Kredak did not bother acknowledging him. "Clan Ganar shall crush their fleet," he said, still staring to the horizon. "Clan Kotha shall crush their army. And I shall crush their leader. The turians will not survive Eophili."

Okeer and Shiagur responded as one. "They will sing songs of your victory, Warlord."

Kredak rumbled back, a knowing grin on his lips. "And yours as well, friends."

It was thirteen hours later, staring down from the battle-scarred bridge of the clunky freighter that had once been Toshat's flagship, that Okeer saw General Panthus' frigate drop from the sky and explode onto Eophili's surface. The ship's annihilation reactor detonated with a flash of light that parted clouds and leveled canyons and silenced a thousand transponders at once, vaporizing krogan and turian alike for kilometers around the impact site.

Okeer blinked at the view, astonished.

Gaira was at his side. "…The Lowlander…" she breathed, voice low with terrible realization. The ship's control panels were suddenly a chorus of comm chatter as both sides scrambled to figure out what had happened. The fireball continued to twist and climb higher in the atmosphere.

Gaira looked to Okeer, icy eyes expectant. "We have to go back."

His mate's words jarred Okeer out of his stunned silence. He whirled. "LAND!" he bellowed to his pilots. "TO THE WARLORD!"

But for the first time he wondered if the krogan had just lost the Rebellions.


Presently…

Grunt was still chuckling to himself as he lugged his meal through the station. A big pot sloshing under each arm, he left a trail of half-cooked stew pattered along the corridors between the kitchens and the living areas in which the Normandy crew had been staying.

The Cerberus cooks hadn't stood a chance. They'd protested, naturally – the stews wouldn't be done for another hour and only one of them was intended for him in the first place – but Grunt had just puffed out his chest and they'd meekly stepped out of his way as he took what he wanted like he always did. He'd dumped a tray full of pastries into one of the stews, a meter long slab of frozen synthetic meat in the other, and no one had lifted a finger to resist him. One had looked like he'd wanted to – the man had clenched a steak knife in one hand and stared at Grunt with an expression full of hate as he'd torn his way through the contents of one of the refrigeration units. Miranda had warned the crew that some of the Cerberus personnel were likely to have been wetworks agents masquerading as cooks and servants, and Grunt had recognized in the angry man's eyes the steel of a fellow soldier.

But it was only the steel of a human soldier, a fraction of Grunt's size and sporting only the bare minimum of internal organs. His knife would never so much as pierce Grunt's skin, and so Grunt had laughed at the man's impotency and grinned at him as he walked past with his booty, impervious.

Shepard had warned him not to kill anyone on the station – not even Cerberus – unless they attacked him, and Grunt had obeyed. But reminding them how insignificant they were next to pure krogan? That he could do.

Humans. Heh heh heh. Humans were fun.

Better yet – and Grunt was still amazed by this turn of events – nobody had yelled at him for manhandling the Cerberus staff. The same crew that had been casting him fearful glances for months, the same crew that delighted so much in saying no you can't eat that or these things have a weight limit or that's not supposed to bend that way now just smiled and nodded at him when he passed them in the hall dragging a Cerberus goon by the foot. They'd stopped short of patting his back like Shepard sometimes did, but nonetheless seeing him terrorize their hosts seemed to please them. Grunt had never much cared about their approval, but now that he seemed to have it… he liked it.

Shepard had been right. They were becoming krannt. A strange krannt, but a kraant nonetheless.

Still, krannt or not, they weren't about to keep him from The Adventures of Captain Cosmic. A half dozen of the Normandy crew were crowded around the holo screen watching some human sporting event when Grunt plodded into the vid room lugging his pilfered food. "Move," he grunted, shoving his way between Donnelly and Tennard like they weren't even there. He upended Patel's chair to make room for his lunch, and set the pots down with deep, hollow thuds.

"What the hell, Grunt?" It was Donnelly. He was still angry over the hole incident back on Aiea.

"Captain Cosmic." Grunt stared down at the human. He held out his hand for the vidplayer's remote.

Donnelly looked like he was about to disagree, but then the few hundred kilogram difference between the two of them seemed to occur to him and, shoulders slumping, he relinquished the controls.

There was a chorus of irritated groans as Grunt shoved his way through the throng to stand before the screen. He stared myopically at the controller in his hand, ignoring the dark looks the humans shot him as they dispersed. He didn't care. If they wanted to choose the show, they could fight him for the right. If not, then it was time for Captain Cosmic. Grunt grimaced at the remote and bit his tongue, trying to remember which of the little geometric symbols would bring up his cartoons again. The buttons were fragile, designed for human hands, and Grunt was hesitant to press any of them for fear of destroying something. He growled to himself in frustration.

"Need help?"

He turned. It was the human woman who lived on his deck back on the Normandy, the one named Daniels. She knew machines, and had tiny fingers. She would do. "Captain Cosmic," he snorted, thrusting the remote at her. He jabbed a thick finger at the screen. "Put it on." He took a few plodding steps back to make room.

Daniels obliged, pale little digits clicking through the screen's menus by rote. In seconds, the little human athletes (heh heh heh… they called that tackling?) were replaced with the bright colors of The Adventures of Captain Cosmic's logo, and Grunt gave a satisfied rumble.

"First episode?"

"Episode twenty-seven." Grunt had spent most of the previous day watching the show, only reluctantly setting it aside when Shepard had called them back to training that morning. "Captain Cosmic is imprisoned on Omega," he explained, pawing at the ground.

"Episode twenty-seven," Daniels agreed. She clicked a few more buttons, and the opening theme started to play.

Grunt dropped to the floor with a thud that shook the room and reached for one of his pots of stew, the human forgotten. He'd long-since memorized the theme song, but his attempts to sing along with it had sounded coarse and wrong to his ears, so he simply stared in silence over the lip of his cauldron, enrapt by the colorful images.

CAAAAAPTAAAAAAIN COOOOOSSSSMMIIIIIIC!

The show began, and Grunt was dead to the world. Captain Cosmic, the number one agent of the Alliance's Top Secret Star Control Special Forces Team, was a human who dressed in garish red armor and made his way around the universe, righting wrongs with his krannt of inferiors. This episode, he was up against the Batarian Baron Deadeyes, who was after revenge after having lost three of his eyes fighting Captain Cosmic back in the first season.

"THE BARS!" Captain Cosmic shouted, straining against the cell in which the Baron had locked him last episode. "They're impossible to bend, even with MY cybernetic strength! They must be made of… INVULNERITE!"

Grunt nodded, ladling a handful of stew into his mouth. Invulnerite. Of course, of course.

"I don't remember this one," Daniels observed.

Grunt grunted in irritation, eyes flickering to notice the engineer was still standing there. He glared at her for a fraction of a second, demanding explanation.

She forced a smile. "Ken and his buddies got pretty into this show back at the academy. I watched some of it with them, because I thought..." She trailed off, rolling her eyes at the memory. "Well, I watched it, anyway. It's not bad." She looked at the screen again and shrugged. "Don't think I saw this one, though."

Grunt stared suspiciously at the human, but she looked earnest enough. He snorted, returning his gaze to the screen. "Captain Cosmic is trying to stop V.A.R.R.E.N. from unleashing its doomsday ship," he explained finally. "But Baron Deadeyes tricked him with poison gas and threw him in jail."

"I imagine you've discovered by now that your cell is impossible to escape from," the Baron was crowing now, smug under his eye patches. "But what you don't realize is that you are on a ship that's headed… STRAIGHT INTO THE NEAREST STAR!" He cackled evilly.

"You'll never get away with this, BARON!"

"I always liked Baron."

Daniels was still there.

"He is a warrior," Grunt agreed, fishing a soggy pastry out of his stew and tossing it into the back of his throat. "But Garr the Battlemaster is the best." Garr was Captain Cosmic's main nemesis, a powerful krogan battlemaster who liked to kill his own subordinates, and even though he invariably lost at the end of the episode, he always got the best kills and Grunt beamed at every line he said. "He is a krogan, that makes him the best."

Daniels fixed Grunt with a questioning look. "There are good non-krogan characters."

Grunt shrugged, licking broth from his mouth. It was true, there were others he liked. Sergeant Steelbeak was a turian but he was also a demolitions master, which mostly made up for it, and Porkchop the Vorcha had a funny voice and a tendency to eat the other heroes' equipment at the worst times. But they were no Garr the Battlemaster. "Garr is the best," he repeated, nodding forcefully.

Daniels seemed dubious. "I don't know," she said. "Garr's just kindof a villain. Just evil for the sake of it."

Grunt frowned at the woman's gall to disagree with him. He was pure krogan, he knew which characters were good and which were not! But his mind was suddenly filled with anger and disapproval that was not his own, and he said nothing.

Okeer would not have liked Garr, and that feeling rose up unbidden from the depths of Grunt's brain. Okeer would have said Garr was an insult, a pale stereotype of what the krogan had once been, a mockery of what they were supposed to aspire to. A powerful brute, sure, but not a warrior. No real strength, no real purpose, no real discipline, just a raw implement fit only to batter foes into submission. Just raw force and intimidation and nothing deeper to guide it. Empty. Hollow. Young. Artificial.

Grunt's frown deepened.

Garr was just like him. Strength but nothing inside. Power but no conviction. Violence but no feeling. Not a real krogan.

Okeer would have hated him.

Grunt shook his head. He did not care what Okeer would have hated. Garr was cool and Okeer was dumb. Grunt might not know what exactly he wanted yet, but he was part of a clan now. He was a real krogan. He was Urdnot Grunt, a Maw killer. He was krannt mate to Battlemaster Shepard, the greatest of the humans. He was not just an empty tankborn built to be slave to Okeer's hate. Okeer was dead and his hatreds could not compel him.

"Grunt?" Daniels asked, interrupting the dark pallor his thoughts had taken. Grunt cocked his head. Her voice had changed, and her scent – previously indistinguishable from the general stink of human that filled the entire station – had shifted colors. She stared at him with a troubled face, hesitating. "How… how is the training going?" The words came out in a rush, and Daniels took a few steps backwards, like he might take a swing at her for asking.

Grunt searched Daniels' face for trickery but found none. He was getting a lot better at reading human moods by sight and smell, and the way Daniels looked at him convinced him something was bothering her. What it was, he could hardly fathom. She was well fed and watching Captain Cosmic on a space station. What else could she possibly want?

He decided on honesty. "Training is fine," he grunted, eyes still boring into the engineer's face. The rest of the ground team complained about the pace Shepard had kept them at, but Grunt was mostly just bored. Being 'mobile cover' just wasn't as fun as killing things by himself. Still, they had been making progress, and every day Shepard found fewer things to complain about. Grunt couldn't help but feel a little pride to see his krannt wreak its havoc. Even the quarian and the little thief were pulling their weight. He turned back to the screen. "They are making me wear a shield," he complained, shrugging.

Daniels' face did not brighten. "I mean, are you guys going to be ready when you… When we have to go through the relay?"

"I don't need a shield," Grunt insisted, ignoring her. "I am pure krogan."

Daniels sighed, relenting. "You don't like shields?"

"I am pure krogan," he repeated. Then he ground his teeth, thinking. "The noise it makes is funny," he allowed, remembering the impressive, airy thunk the kinetic barriers Jacob had installed into his armor made when they failed, "But I do not need it."

"It's not generally a funny sound when you work on ships," Daniels said. On the screen, Captain Cosmic had used his biotics to steal the keys to his cell from a sleeping guard, and now he was halfway through sneaking out of the Baron's base. Daniels watched in silence, but Grunt could tell her mind was elsewhere.

"Are you guys going to be able to do this?" she asked again, finally, and her voice was quiet. "How many collectors can you kill, if you have to?"

"All of them," Grunt insisted, eyes not leaving his show. "I am pure krogan. No collector can stand against me."

Daniels didn't sound convinced. "It's just… Being here, on a Cerberus station…" she hesitated, wringing her hands. "It brings it into perspective for me, I guess. The things me and Kenneth have done. And why. All the lives on the line. The suicide mission." She paused again. "I guess I just want to know we'll get it done."

Grunt stared at her like she was something he'd stepped in. She didn't think they could do it? What kind of cowardice was that, to let an enemy frighten you before you'd even faced them? A powerful enemy was supposed to be a good thing. He shook his head, disgusted. Humans and their neuroses. "Go away, Coward," he grunted, slurping spilled stew off of his armored gauntlet. "Watching this."

But Daniels did not go away. "I'm not a coward." She stomped her foot and stared at him. "Tell me we'll get it done."

Grunt's eyes narrowed, and he briefly considered tossing the woman out of the room so he could watch cartoons in peace, but something stayed his hand. Annoying as the humans were, they were still krannt. He knew Daniels was not a coward, not really. He could not say he liked the engineer, but months of listening to her bicker with Donnelly as they worked through Normandy's systems had convinced him she had a form of strength to her. And strong or not, she cared about why she fought. She knew what she wanted, where he still did not. She was not empty.

He swallowed and stared her in the eye. "Stop worrying, tiny human. We will destroy the collectors," he boasted, utterly convinced. "We will split their skulls, break their limbs, and scatter their remains until they are no more. If we leave survivors, it will only be to spread word of our victory across the galaxy until all know that our krannt has no equal. They will sing of our victory." He raised his brow. "Okay?"

There was a pause and then Daniels nodded. The smell of her relief was impossible to miss. "Okay, Grunt," she said, nodding to herself. "Good."

They returned to the show, silent.

Captain Cosmic had made his way to the bridge. "It IS a doomsday, Baron... But only for you and your DIABOLICAL PLANS!"

"You'll never stop me, Captain Cosmic!"

"You know," Daniels said eventually, and Grunt gritted his teeth in frustration. Couldn't this human see he was trying to watch Captain Cosmic!? Fantasies of breaking Daniels in half danced through Grunt's mind.

But that was until she said "they make these cool tech shields that explode when they fail."

Grunt's eyes widened. "Explode?"

Daniels nodded, grinning. "Yup. Big kinetic shockwave. Normally only installed on IFV's, 'cuz they apparently knock the wind right out of you when they go. Still, though." She shrugged. "Pretty cool…"

Grunt stared at his hands, imagining. Shields that exploded? Nothing in his tank had said anything about that. "I would like to have those shields," he admitted, imagining what it would feel like to explode.

Daniels smiled at him. "I can talk to Jacob about getting you some," she offered. "Whatever I can do to help."

"Yes," Grunt agreed, nodding greedily. "Yes. Get me these exploding shields." He looked back to the screen, but now his mind was full of exploding collectors. Maybe he could carry two exploding shield generators. Or ten? More explosions was probably better than fewer. He nodded to himself, mouth twitching in anticipation. Yes. Exploding shields. That was good. Daniels was good to have in a krannt if she could give him exploding shields.

On the screen, Captain Cosmic was busy punching his way through the Baron's army of nameless thugs, and as the Baron himself joined the melee Grunt found his train of thought recaptured. He leaned forward, watching the brightly-colored explosions flash across the dim room with wide eyes.

"In the real world, pretty sure Baron would kick Captain Cosmic's ass," Daniels observed, settling in to a seat next to Grunt on the floor. Grunt did not protest, and pushed one of his pots of half-cooked stew over to her without a word.


1370 years ago…

The days passed by unmarked, indistinguishable in the near-perfect darkness, and Ganar Okeer searched the dead like a scavenger.

The chamber was a mess of fallen bodies and rubble, festooned in months old gore, and it was nearly impossible to pick any scent out of the mélange of rot and death, but he and the others that had survived their injuries (down to five now, after Otusk and Kokat had attempted to reach the remains of the krogan ship without spacesuits and never returned) had managed to make their way most of the length of the collectors' ruined vessel, relying on their powerful noses and their collective memories of the battles they'd fought through the ship's halls when it still functioned to piece together their route. For a time they'd had a rigged heat ablater that glowed hot enough to see by, but that, too, had guttered out and now there was only the barest twinkle of starlight coming through a gash in the hull a few hundred meters back to illuminate the way. They could hear well enough, if there were anything to hear, but there was nothing but their own shuffling footsteps and labored breathing to echo through the vast, empty space they knew to be above them. The ship was dead, and there were no collectors left to harry them – they had killed them all.

But it had done them little good. With life support gone only the ship's immense volume was protecting them from asphyxiation, and every breath they drew sapped more of their oxygen. It might take weeks or months, but eventually there would be none left. Krogan could survive the hazards of worlds that would kill any other sentient, but even they had to breathe.

But at least they didn't want for food.

Okeer chewed perfunctorily as he made his way across what had once been one of the collectors' pod chambers, searching amongst the corpses for the tiniest glint of a functioning spacesuit. The meat was going rotten, and the taste had long since lost whatever charms it might ever have had, but it was better than collector flesh – Okeer had taken a bite out of one of the biotic ones a few months back and it had tasted of tar and ashes and foulness that even a hungry krogan could not stomach. He would eat his own fallen troops every meal for a century before he tried another mouthful of collector.

And it was starting to look like he might have to – they'd been searching for so long, and the best thing he'd found was a bent Graal bayonet he could use as a makeshift climbing axe.

The butt of Okeer's axe came upon the steel of a krogan helmet in the pitch black and he stopped, jamming the rest of his meal into his mouth to free up his hands. He fumbled blindly, dragging the body up out of the crevasse into which it had fallen (he heard the slop of spilled viscera in the dark) and laying it out on an empty patch of floor. He felt down its sides, prodding the different armor plates for anything they could use. For a moment, he thought he felt the tubes of a breathing apparatus and felt a glimmer of hope, but it was nothing. And even if the dead krogan had carried a breather, it would have been ruined by the same blast that had apparently cloven his head in half.

Okeer tossed the corpse down with a savage roar, then struck it with his weapon for good measure. It gave a pleasant thunk.

"Patience, Warlord." The voice came from the darkness ten meters to his left. It was Gaira. "We do not need to accidentally destroy the equipment we seek."

Some part of Okeer knew she was right, but some other part wanted to dash over in the darkness and put his impromptu axe through her crest. "Silence, hen," he snarled, unaccountably angry.

"Patience," she repeated. "We will find tanks enough for all of us, we will return to our ship, we will find a lander, and we will leave this place."

Okeer bit his tongue and said nothing. Personally, he had his doubts if any of the landers on their ship would still be functioning – the impact of ramming the collector vessel had disemboweled their transport, scattering krogan and supplies and war vehicles into space like droplets of blood. Many of the ejected still clung to the gravity of the ships' mangled bulks, jostling gently about in the eddies of their own momenta. The chances of spacewalking back to the krogan transport, finding a working lander, and getting inside it without dying seemed slim to none. And that was assuming they found enough salvage to put together a few spacesuits.

Something told Okeer they would not be getting back to the galaxy that way. They needed to find the escape craft Nazara had mentioned.

But he couldn't go saying that to Gaira.

A gulf had appeared between him and Gaira, and it had nothing to do with the darkness. He could not see her, and yet he found he could not stomach even glancing in her direction for fear that she was staring back at him through the blackness. He did not think she knew what Nazara had asked of him – he did not think she knew Nazara had offered him escape, had offered him the 'power to remake their species' in return for her life – but she had a canniness that had surprised him before.

The power to remake his species. In return for his mate.

The thought filled Okeer's mind with rage. How stupid did this Nazara think he was, to trust the word of an offworlder? Turian, salarian, or collector – it made no difference. It was insulting. Infuriating. It made him slaver for more collector blood, even after he had killed so many. He would see how high-and-mighty the collector leader thought it was when they found whatever hidden control room it had broadcast the vast hologram from and squashed the life out of it.

But the scent of one living collector amongst ten thousand dead ones was too faint even for a krogan to pick out, and he had found nothing. Wherever Nazara was hiding, it was hidden well.

It was no matter. Nazara could hide all it wanted while they searched his ship for what they needed. It was terrified. It had not shown itself – not even its crimson virtual avatar – since their last battle. Without collector hosts to possess it was powerless against the krogan – even starving, exhausted krogan – and it knew it. It was powerless.

And yet, it wasn't.

It wasn't gone at all.

It was in his head.

Maybe in the others' heads too.

But definitely in his.

It alighted on his thoughts like a carrion fly. He would swat at it, and it would flit away, but as soon as he turned his focus elsewhere it would be back.

Driving deeper.

It had taken him a long time before he'd recognized it, because Nazara didn't use its own booming voice. It used Okeer's. And it said things that were already in Okeer's mind, things he had tried to bury, tried to ignore. Terrible things. It dredged them up to the forefront.

Kredak was dead.

The Rebellions were doomed.

The galaxy did not respect him.

Gaira did not respect him.

He would never have a son.

He would die on this ship.

There would be no true krogan left to carry on.

The krogan were doomed.

Okeer did his best to shake the thoughts away. They weren't true. They were tricks. Strange tricks, but the collectors were strange foes, with strange technologies he had never faced in thousands of years of warfare. The asari had strange effects on the weak-minded too, he knew – he had watched thousands of krogan, sterilized by the genophage, quit the field to cavort with the blue-skinned whores and have blue-skinned whore children. The asari had done it on purpose, too, he was sure of it, flaunting themselves about to distract desperate krogan from their oorlocs, beating them with pheromones when they couldn't beat them with strength of arms. Okeer knew asari wiles were strong, but he also knew true krogan were above such illusory forms of warfare. He had not given in to the asari, and he would not give in to Nazara.

But Nazara was seeping into the cracks of his mind all the same, gradually widening them, day after endless day, and Okeer was less and less sure he could hold it off.

Worst of all, he was starting to think the collector leader was toying with him. There were moments when the exhaustion and hunger and uncertainty threatened to swallow him whole, when he felt the cracks in his mind grow into vast canyons and he knew he would accept Nazara's offer just to end the pain, but each time those moments came Nazara's pressure abated as quickly as it had appeared, returning his faculties to him. Like it was testing him. Holding back.

Insulting him with its strength.

No. No. Nazara was powerless. It had no strength, not against a true krogan. It could not beat him, no more than the galaxy could beat the krogan. He would escape, and the krogan would win the Rebellions. Palaven would burn and Sur'kesh would burn and Thessia would burn and all would know the power of the true krogan.

"Warlord?" It was Gaira, again. They'd reached a fork in the path – Okeer could smell the fetid air belching out of both corridors, convection currents off of the still-cooling remains of the ship's power core. "Your command?"

Okeer still couldn't see her, but this time he turned to stare in the direction of her voice. Meeting her beautiful eyes, he imagined. He did not need to be ashamed. She did not need to know of Nazara's deal, for there was nothing to know. He would not give Nazara his mate. He would not give Nazara anything.

"Down," he ordered, raising his voice so the others could hear. "Down towards the remains of the nest chambers. We will search there, then proceed towards the other breach."

There was a quiet chorus of agreement. "As you command," Gaira said, and he heard her turn to shuffle down the rocky corridor that led to the scorched remains of the collectors' birthing chambers.

Okeer followed his mate, steeled. They would be off this ship yet.

And yet he could not help but find himself wondering how many axe strikes it would take to render her unconscious.

The power to remake your species…


Presently…

Grunt's eyes stung when they opened. For a few seconds, the images he'd dreamt persisted in his head. He recognized Okeer again, and the blue-eyed krogan he saw with the warlord sometimes, but they were smeared through the Normandy and Captain Cosmic and the collectors and Tuchanka and Tank Mother and a grab bag of unrelated nonsense. The nightmare retreated before he could resolve what it had been, leaving him with nothing but a pounding head and a cold feeling in his guts.

Another nightmare.

Grunt snarled at the fleeing dream, furious with himself for his weakness. He was pure krogan! Line distilled from warlords! Krannt to Shepard, son of clan Urdnot, killer of maws, killer of Gatagog Uvenk! He feared nothing!

And yet apparently he could no longer get through an hour's sleep without the nightmares waking him.

He peered about the room, ready to fight anyone who had dared witness his weakness, but he was alone in the darkness. Daniels was gone, and the hall lights had been dimmed. No one had seen him. Next to him, the vid screen was still playing Captain Cosmic. On the screen, the Captain was piloting his ship somewhere with a determined gleam in his eyes and a backdrop of action music that meant something violent was about to happen, but Grunt found he had no taste for it now. His mind hummed with anxiety. Bigger thoughts than cartoons.

He rolled the forgotten cauldron out of his lap and rose to his feet, toes squelching in the spilled stew. He paused, listening. There was no one. In the distance he could pick out the muffled drone of some machine plugging away in the hangar, but otherwise the station was silent. Everyone was asleep. Grunt remembered the insipid tour Reidel had subjected the crew to on their first day on the station, when he'd bragged that all permanent Cerberus facilities were kept on Earth time, with twenty-four hour cycles of light and darkness instead of the constant activity of Normandy's three shift schedule. 'A little reminder of home', the man had said, pointedly ignoring the non-humans in attendance. Grunt had wanted to break his neck to give him a little reminder of Tuchanka.

Grunt frowned at the solitude for a long moment, bunching his hands in his gloves and trying to decide what to do. The station's lights would not return for another few hours, and everyone was abed, but he knew he would not be getting back to sleep anytime soon. He was bored. He wanted to punch something, to chase the bad taste Okeer dreams always left in his mouth away with some violence. Maybe Jack would spar with him if he pissed her off enough.

Yes, that would do. Jack was always up for some fun. And even if she wasn't, he could just break her stuff until she obliged him with a battle.

Grunt paused in the doorway to find her scent. Jack would not be in the sleeping quarters with the rest of the crew, but hidden in some dark crevasse, safe and away from anyone else. He inhaled deeply a few times, swinging his head until he fished her odor out of the noise, turned left and thudded off down the hallway in search of her.

And as always, as soon as he was not watching it his train of thought returned to Okeer.

Really, he found that every day the old warlord's imprints were bit duller, a bit farther from his mind as they were replaced by his own experiences. There just wasn't enough room in his head for two minds to fit. Some imprints – his favorites, about guns or tactics or great battles – still boomed with perfect clarity, but many of the hundreds of hours of sermons were wasted words, and frayed with each day Grunt did not use them. He was becoming more and more his own krogan every day.

But in sleep, whatever mechanism was responsible for editing out the memories Okeer had deemed unfit for inclusion seemed to weaken, and foreign feelings would filter through, flashes of Okeer's four millennia-long life. Dusty battlefields and hulking silhouettes, the snap of alien bones and blinding red lights, lonely starscapes and betrayals and shame so vivid it felt like needles on the back of Grunt's eyes. The memories were always too obscured to make sense of – nothing like the crystal clarity of the moments Okeer had wanted him to see – and yet his mind thrashed to piece them together all the same. They were maddeningly close, like if he could just take a few steps forward he'd be able to see through the mist. But then, in the manner of dreams, he would awaken and they'd flee back into the recesses of his mind, leaving him confused and anxious but with no inkling why.

He had not slept soundly in weeks.

The old warlord was long dead, and yet still he loomed large over Grunt's dreams.

Grunt continued down the hallway, tasting the air and trying to remember what he'd been forced to forget, until a sharp, mechanical sound distracted him and he halted. A high pitched whirring was coming from down the corridor to his left, where a long serpent of light emanated from an open door. Grunt took another lungful of air, drawing scents past his palate, but he hardly needed to, for soon the whirring was joined by strange, alien singing and the jangling of metal implements.

Grunt's eyes narrowed. It was the salarian.

His curiosity got the better of him and he made the detour down the hall to peer into Mordin's newest lab. He stepped into the doorway and was greeted with a rank bouquet of disinfectant chemicals and growth media and foul, alien growths. The salarian looked up from his scope to nod at Grunt's arrival, but did not pause in his singing. "Cyanide is toxic to a beast from system Sol, administer if ceasing respiration is your goal!" he rattled, so swiftly Grunt could barely parse the words from one another. He turned to grab a metal tool from the bench behind him. "Asari on the other hand they find CN delectable, in all their nervous tissues it is nat'rally detectable!"

Grunt scowled at him.

"Toxic incompatibility song!" Mordin explained in the half a breath pause, then launched into the next verse like Grunt wasn't even there.

Grunt ignored him, lumbering into the lab to peer at one of Mordin's toys, a towering machine with blinking lights and no obvious purpose. It was clearly brand new – it reeked of virgin plastic and shipping desiccants – but even so was already half buried in a clutter of samples and arcane tools Grunt could not have named if he tried. Just like the lab and the comm room and Miranda's chambers on the Normandy, Mordin had effortlessly expanded to occupy every square centimeter of floorspace he was given, and the Cerberus lab already looked like it had been worked in for years and not mere days.

EDI's voice joined them from the intercom system. "Reminder: the samples for Experiment 7226 have a timepoint in two minutes."

Mordin paused in his song (aspartame adds a tasty tang to any vorcha beverage, but mix it in a hanar's cup you'll soon have coelom hemorrhage!) to tap a note onto a handy datapad. "Excellent." he said, returning his eye to a microscope. "Looking forward to it." He adjusted the scope with rote efficiency, made another note. "Feeling well, Grunt?"

Grunt shrugged and snorted.

"Something on your mind?" He consulted a glass tube of clear liquid, tapped it a few times. Another note. Back to the scope.

Okeer roared in Grunt's head. The salarians and their tubes are the lowest of the offworlders. Their dainty chests conceal cowards' hearts. They are empty, helpless, honorless shu'ta. Devoid of strength or purpose, they hide behind their machines and their poisons. They prick true warriors in the back while they fight, then leap into the nearest hole to wait for death to come uncontested. They profess to lead battles but trick others into battling for them. They are scum, they are empty, they are clanless! Their soft bones will crack for what they have done! Sur'kesh will burn, and their dalatrasses will watch as we gorge on their broods! We will butcher them! We will not trust them, we will not show mercy on them, we will not suffer them to live! Revenge!

"No," Grunt lied.

Mordin clicked his tongue and Grunt knew he was not fooled, but the salarian said nothing. He switched to another instrument. "Come to see progress of collector research, then?" he asked.

Grunt rolled his eyes. "No," he said again. He'd seen quite enough progress on the collector research at the stupid lectures Shepard had forced them all to go to. As skilled as he was at filling up lab space, Mordin was even better at filling a silence, and four impenetrable hour-long sermons chocked with words like 'epigenetic regulatory mechanisms' and 'artificial chemolithotrophy' later Mordin was showing no signs of slowing down. Technically Grunt knew the salarian's research had been instrumental in jamming the seeker swarmers' ability to track the human crewmembers, but other than that he didn't see the point of writing a textbook about their foes. He didn't need to know how a collector's optic nerve worked to headbutt it into paste.

And any problem that could be solved with headbutting wasn't a real problem at all.

"Very close now," Mordin said, as if he hadn't heard him (Grunt knew very well that he'd heard him just fine – he just liked to talk). "Converging on optimal growth conditions. Potentially similar to conditions used by collector birthing facilities. Without mechanical armatures could not gestate full collector individual in vitro, but have successfully induced higher order developmental pathways, produced physiologically normal collector tissues." He snatched a small dish from a nearby incubator and held it up before Grunt's nose. "For example. Lab grown collector exoskeleton," he said, tapping the plate. "Suspect unprecedented." He smiled. "Very close now."

Grunt stared at the ugly little brown growth on the center of Mordin's plate. The professor was right – it was close. Its texture was unmistakably reminiscent of the collectors' crunchy armored skin. It even smelled like them.

Still, it was stupid. "So what?" he said, shaking his head. "That's stupid."

Mordin ignored him. "New discoveries!" he crowed, setting the plate on a nearby bench. "Nascent exoskeletal tissue can be fractionated, molecular structure analyzed spectrophotometrically. Normally takes weeks, much faster with AI assistance."

EDI's voice rejoined them. "I was happy to help, Professor Solus."

Mordin beamed at the ceiling. "Indeed," he agreed. He held up a finger to Grunt. "And not stupid. Useful. Chemical structure similar to analogs from other biospheres, but unexpected high energy bonds inspired new line of inquiry. Possible target for chemical warfare." He produced a little plastic bottle. With a smooth motion, Mordin flicked off the cap – a harsh chemical smell filled the room – and opened up the plate with the bit of lab-grown collector flesh. "Arrived at reactant that violently hydrolyzes key bonds within exoskeletal structure," he said, and bent over the plate, "Observe…"

One drop of Mordin's reactant on the collector tissue and there was a flash of light and a whump that burned shadows into Grunt's astonished eyes and wiped the skeptical smirk off his face. The plate burnt white-hot for a split second as the tissue reacted, and then it was gone, leaving only an ashy stain and the smell of burnt plastic.

Mordin smiled.

Grunt's eyes were still wide. "Do that again."

Mordin handed him the bottle. "You try," he said, pulling a few more samples out of a nearby incubator. "Old samples. Planning to dispose of soon anyway." The salarian cleared away some bench space and set the plates out before Grunt – each one had a bit of crusty brownish flesh to match the first. "Avoid contact with eyes, naturally," he said, and took a step back.

Grunt ignored him, stooping over the plates. The bottle was tiny in his grip, and his first attempt only sent a jet of the sharp-smelling liquid over the bench, missing the plates entirely.

"Careful," Mordin warned him. "Reactant at high molarity to improve reaction kinetics. Can damage skin on contact. Denatures protein analogs at-"

"I don't care how it works," Grunt snarled. He squinted and tried again, biting his tongue. He gave the bottle another hard squeeze, and this time his aim was true. The growths went up just as fiercely as the first had, and though Grunt was a little disappointed that ten drops did not produce any more violent a flash than just one, he could not help but grin.

Mordin stood by with a smug look on his face as Grunt move down the line, setting each sample ablaze. He sniffed, satisfied. "Synthesis too expensive for efficient weaponization," he said, handing Grunt another plate to destroy. "But imagine result on full-sized collector."

Grunt ignited the last plate and imagined it. White fire consuming a collector trooper in seconds, so fast it did not even have time to shriek in agony. Even Zaeed's flamethrower could not boast that.

EDI gave a beep and Mordin strode away to tend to the timepoint she had mentioned. Grunt went back to try to ignite the plates again, but found he'd already nearly emptied the reactant bottle, and when all his might could only squeeze a few more drops out he lifted it up to glare at it. Stupid bottle. He turned it around in his hands, trying to make sense of the label. He could read the words, but like everything Mordin said, they were almost indecipherable to him, and infuriating to his imprints.

He tossed the spent bottle on the floor and gave a shuddering yawn, bored.

"Trouble sleeping?" Mordin asked, and Grunt scowled at him. The salarian had finished his timepoint – whatever that was – and was busy gathering up the plates Grunt had burnt. He tossed them into a nearby bin and moved on yet again, this time to a gleaming console one bench over.

"No," Grunt lied again. He was not about to open up to a salarian about Okeer. He didn't need sleep. He had slept enough in Tank Mother. He needed to fight!

Mordin sniffed and tapped at a control panel, unconvinced. "Consequences of sleep deprivation subtle in krogan. Sturdy physiology. Can go many days without rest. Still, must sleep eventually."

Grunt glowered at him but said nothing.

"Not the first time," Mordin continued, face buried in a screen covered in squiggly graph lines. "Similar symptoms observed shortly after removal from tank environment. Hypothesized a result of long period gestating in standing orientation. Simply needed time to acclimatize to prone position."

Grunt's gaze darkened. It irked him that Mordin would deign to treat him like just another patient, but it irked him even more that the doctor was right – the first two weeks after Shepard had let him out of his tank he had found it nearly impossible to sleep. He had not known where to put his arms, how to rest comfortably when he wasn't suspended in amniotic jelly. But it had passed in time. "I did not come here for help," Grunt snarled, annoyed.

"Aware of that," Mordin said. "Did not press issue at the time. Patient acclimatized. Issue resolved itself. Now, insomnia symptoms returning. New explanation necessary. Suspect current insomnia psychosomatic in nature, consequence of technology used for pre-natal education."

"Okeer…" Grunt frowned, unimpressed. Of course it was Okeer's fault. You didn't have to be a fancy alien doctor to know that.

Mordin nodded sagely. "Indeed. Difficult to recommend specific treatment without understanding his methods. Technology used to create you…" he sniffed, clearly irritated by the admission, "unlike any known to me. Must not tinker." He paused to rub at his chin. "Question. Okeer's lab. Contained sequencing equipment?"

"I don't know what that is."

Mordin tapped a nearby machine. "Machine like this. Allows for precise accounting of genetic information. May look different – many designs exist – but conceptually interchangeable."

Grunt rifled through his imprints despite himself. Okeer had had little interest in technology that wasn't some kind of weapon – not one of his pontifications mentioned anything about gene sequencing, or how he'd stitched his line together with four dead warlords' to make Grunt. If Grunt squinted, he thought he might be able to picture Okeer's lab on Korlus through the old warlord's censored memories, but the image swum and changed as he imagined it, and it was impossible to identify any of the instruments that had lined the walls. It was nothing. "Okeer said nothing of sequencing in my imprints," he said, choosing not to bring up the half-formed memories. "I am distilled from warlords. I am pure krogan." He cast Mordin a dark look. "I don't need sleep."

"Could prescribe sedative," Mordin offered.

"No!" he roared, whirling. It was Okeer's anger, and not his own, that set Grunt's hearts thumping and the adrenaline coursing through his veins, but for once he did not mind. He would not suffer any salarian – not even one in his krannt – to inject him with anything. Not ever. He puffed himself up, glaring down at the salarian with icy fury in his eyes.

As usual, Mordin did not have the decency to look intimidated. He sniffed and nodded, unconcerned. "Very well." He turned back to his work, leaving Grunt to glower at his back.

The emotions jostled in Grunt's mind.

Grunt did not hate Mordin, not really. On Tuchanka, his fellow krogan had grumbled and cursed at Wrex's gall, to allow a salarian to set foot on their world. He'd overheard plans to capture the offworlders – Mordin, Shepard, and Miranda alike – and leave their heads at the foot of Wrex's throne as a message to the warlord. Okeer's imprints had urged him to join in, to protect the sanctity of Tuchanka against offworld stink. Salarians were cowards, salarians were cheaters, salarians were empty, alien-hearted, honorless, clanless shu'ta, fit only for food.

But Grunt knew the truth about salarians that the krogan wanted so little to admit. Salarians were dangerous. They had won the Rebellions, and ultimately it didn't matter how. The genophage had been a dishonorable move, but it had lain the entire krogan race low in a single strike. The krogan had spent the Rebellions dropping asteroids on civilian planets. Could they truly claim they wouldn't have used a sterility plague on their enemies if they'd had the option?

Warriors used what they had. There was no fair or unfair in battle.

Grunt found his gaze drawn to the floor, to the empty bottle of reactant Mordin had given him, the one that had burnt the collector tissue so swiftly, and again imagined a collector going up like a magnesium torch. Mordin may have done his fighting from inside a lab, he may have done it while humming an idiotic tune and spouting nonsense that no one else but him could understand, but he did it at a level that few could dream of. Mordin was so good at killing he invented entirely new ways to do it, ways that had never existed before.

He was krannt, and there were things to be learned from him.

And so, even as Okeer's anger thrashed around in his head, Grunt found his own ebbing away.

"Bored?"

Grunt's eyes flickered upwards. Mordin was still facing away from him, tapping away at his sequencer's control panel, and Grunt could see the shiny white scars that criss-crossed the back of the salarian's skull. "Yes," he admitted. "Humans sleep a lot."

Mordin clicked his tongue. "Sleep important."

Grunt's eyes narrowed. "Sleep is boring."

"Agreed on that point, at least. Try to minimize it myself." He gestured behind his back. "If looking for something to do, could unpack laboratory equipment," he said, pointing to the great stack of shipping containers pushed up against the lab's rear wall, each one stamped with warning stickers and no doubt filled to the brim with more instruments than the lab could accommodate. "Should alleviate boredom."

Grunt frowned at the mountain of crates. "Krogan don't work for salarians," he said.

Mordin turned to meet his eyes. "Incentive," he said, holding up a finger. He tapped the incubator with the exoskeleton samples, and summoned another bottle of reactant from a hidden pocket. "Have more reactant," he said, waggling it invitingly. "Also," he paused for a fraction of a second, calculating, "Six-hundred eighty-eight exoskeletal tissue culture plates ready for disposal." Mordin smiled.

Grunt paused, imagining the fire that six-hundred eighty-eight plates could produce.

"Deal."


1365 years previously…

Okeer could still hear the song behind Nazara's words as the hatch opened onto the desert.

That seemed an injustice to him. He had given the collector leader so much already… He'd thought that when he finally escaped (was finally released, some ashamed part of his mind reminded him) from the collector ship that the whispers would die down.

But the quiet that had followed, first in the peculiar, rocky ship Nazara had given him to take him back to Eophili (abandoned, by then, to silent toxicity), then in the myriad transports and hidden alleyways and dusky Omega bars in which he'd spent the past six years, had brought with it a faint buzzing that tickled at Okeer's brain and shadowed his thoughts and never, ever left. Sleep wouldn't dislodge it, nor would drink, and every day it seemed ever-so-slightly louder.

And so by the time he finally returned to Tuchanka, Okeer was wondering how deep he'd have to sink a blade into his eardrums to silence the noise.

But he didn't. He knew it wouldn't help. Nazara was lodged in his brain now, and would be until the day that he died. It was part of the price he had paid for the power to remake his species.

He stepped out of his stolen shuttle onto the sands of his homeworld for the first time in decades. Ruins of Tuchanka's verdant past rose up around him, grayed and browned by time. The winds whipped and howled through the skeletal remains of old skyscrapers, relentless in their quest to reduce everything to dust.

He was alone. He was still warlord, if presumed dead, and he could not help but feel a flicker of disappointment when there were no warriors to sing at his return.

But that was nothing. When he chose to reveal himself, the krogan would come flocking to his side once again. They needed him now more than ever. While he had been busy building up a small army of mercs and contacts to help him find the specimens Nazara demanded, Okeer had kept his ear to news of his fellow warlords, still fighting the turians across every planet of their rapidly-shrinking territories. The news was not encouraging. As he had predicted, without Kredak the clans had started to split again. Shiagur had managed to claim the bulk of them, and had achieved victories on Sotuuj and Canbalah, but the turians had been wearing down her numbers on a dozen fronts and she had been steadily losing ground. Moro had fewer troops but used them more surgically, to raid lightly defended turian worlds and remind the aliens that the krogan still knew how to drop asteroids, and as much as that thought cheered Okeer, he could not help but wince that the once powerful Moro had been reduced to guerilla tactics. Kodus had done poorest of all – he had attempted to gain Shiagur's favor with an ill-conceived strike at the deceased General Panthus' homeworld of Silatxi, deep within Hierarchy space, and lost nearly every krogan under his command. Now he was back on Tuchanka too, scraping up a new army from the obscure clans that remained. It would be months before he could return to the field, months the turians would use to press their advantage on Moro and Shiagur.

Okeer knew the krogan needed him, and some part of him considered abandoning Nazara's cruel deal and rejoining them. It wouldn't be hard to track them down – Shiagur left a vast wake of destruction wherever she went – and he had skills that would be invaluable. None of the surviving warlords had Okeer's experience leading armies. They were using the remaining krogan forces to lash out randomly, aiming only to do as much damage as possible. They would never win that way, but with Okeer at the helm, they might yet be able to turn back the tide…

But no. If he returned, it would only incite a new civil war between him and Shiagur, and that many fewer krogan to fight the turians. If it was only a matter of killing Shiagur it might be a short struggle, but Okeer knew all too well which one of them the clan leaders would support. It did not matter that he was far and away the more qualified to lead them – she was the one who mated them.

Okeer would change nothing by rejoining the Rebellions. There was only one way for him to help his people now. He would serve them, even if it meant watching his fellow warlords fight and thrash and die from the sidelines like a coward. It would eat away at his soul, but it was part of the price he would pay for the power to remake his species. The krogan had not lost yet – not to the turians who had neutered their ability to breed, nor to the krogan cowards and pacifists and coddlers so eager to neuter everything else about them. Shiagur, Moro, and Kodus might be overwhelmed, their armies slain to the last, but as long as Okeer survived the true krogan would not be gone from the galaxy.

The turians would die. The salarians would die. The asari would die. It would take time and sacrifice, but in the end the krogan would be victorious.

Okeer had lived more than three thousand years. He could wait a few hundred more if he had to. He had time.

Now it was just a matter of the sacrifice. As Okeer turned to his shuttle's cargo compartment and unloaded a set of scuttle charges, Nazara's demands echoed in his head again. A thousand strong krogan with no siblings and clean plates. Two hundred with spotted palettes and six hundred with golden eyes. A thousand sterile females, twelve hundred ambidextrous, two thousand who had taken shots to the eyes and still saw. Seven hundred with smooth scales and pale armor, two hundred fifty sets of twins, a hundred sets of triplets. A thousand warriors who could run ten days without tiring, fourteen hundred with dark skin and light eyes, one hundred born with an extra toe on each foot. Okeer would draw from the entirety of clan Ganar and he would still need many and more besides. It would take decades – centuries, even – to find them all. But he would find them. Ten thousand krogan he would give as sacrifice to Nazara's collectors, part of the price he would pay for the power to remake his species.

Okeer set the scuttle charges all around his shuttle. He was deep in the desert, many kilometers from any krogan habitation, but he could not chance a wandering kasgar finding his ship and spreading rumors of his return before he was ready. He retreated to a nearby ridge and pressed the detonator and watched as his ship disappeared in a sharp, white gout of flame that shook the ground.

Then he sniffed the air, tasting his route, and turned down the ridge to the south, towards the midlands.

With the other warlords keeping the galaxy occupied, Okeer had all the time he needed to find Nazara's subjects. But first he had more pressing matters to attend to. He had a line to distill. The blood of five warlords would pool to make the pure krogan, but only if Okeer could collect it.

As he listened to the crunchof his footsteps in the salt and sand, Okeer found himself thinking of Gaira's eyes again.


Presently…

Okeer's voice boomed in the back of Grunt's head.

"Our foes do not have the strength to face us, and will choose to fight from a distance when they can. They choose concealment instead of bravery, precision instead of power, safety instead of glory, but their coward's ways can kill nonetheless. The salarian sniper can be hard to hit for his tiny form, the asari even harder for her swiftness, but no alien prefers this brand of cowardice more than the turian. Entire regiments will bunker on vantage and hail fire down upon us. Closing the distance requires cunning as much as strength, for many turians can kill with a single shot. Closing may prove impossible, and it may be that you are forced to use your enemy's tactics against him, but long range weaponry should be used sparingly, lest it leave you alienhearted. Only cowards fight from behind the safety of a sniper rifle."

Grunt cleared his head with a violent shake and sighted down the barrel again. The rifle – an M-series Vindicator meant for the Justicar upon her return from asari space – felt fragile in his hands. It was too small, too light for his liking – humans made solid weapons but preferred accuracy to brute power – but Okeer had done his research and a description of the gun's strengths and weaknesses bloomed inside of Grunt's head.

M-series Vindicator. Human. Earth. Moderate range assault rifle. Semiautomatic. Three or five round burst fire, high accuracy, high accuracy retention under sustained use. Effective shield penetration at thirty meters or less. Ineffective against armor.

He pulled the trigger.

The rifle gave a hard jump for such a little weapon, and his shot went low, burying itself in the base of the dummy target Jacob had set up for loadout testing in the hangar. Grunt frowned at the weapon. He wanted to rebel against most of Okeer's rabid hatreds, but he couldn't help but give the old warlord this one. Long range was boring. No feel to it, no reaction, no feedback. Boring. Still, he was pure krogan. No weapon would defeat him. He adjusted his aim and fired again. This time the shot went clean, and his target disappeared in a puff of shrapnel.

"Clean shot." It was Jacob, who was adjusting the mods on another weapon – the thief woman's Predator-5 pistol – to Grunt's right.

Grunt said nothing, and tossed the rifle on the cart between them. He grimaced at the remaining modded weapons waiting to be tested – all tiny, impotent things by his standards – and selected a heavy pistol. This, too, his imprints recognized – Solsa-series. Asari. Anla. Short range hand cannon. Single shot, high accuracy, low accuracy retention under sustained use. Effective against armor. Barrel modification allows shield-penetration fire mode. Grunt snorted at it and retook his position at the impromptu firing line.

Jacob pressed on. "Vindicator good?" he asked.

Grunt grunted. "Recoil is going into the hands wrong," he said. His imprints brought the solution to his mind in an instant. "Modded driver fields need to be shifted up to improve accuracy."

From the other side of their impromptu firing range, Zaeed let out a victorious bark of laughter. "Told you, Taylor," he said, grinning into his own scope as he lined up a shot. "Armor piercing's more trouble than it's worth on a Vindi. Leave it to the dedicated pieces."

"I'll get it," Jacob insisted, picking up the Vindicator and peering at the mass driver mods he'd installed that morning. "Just needs a little more fine tuning." He set it aside. "What's next?"

"Still have some Scimitar-series for the quarian's backup," Zaeed grunted, pulling the trigger on his own gun. His target vaporized in a flash and he gave the gun an approving nod before sighting again. "Elkoss or Ariake, can't remember."

Grunt spotted the gun on Jacob's cart. "Ariake," he said instantly. Scimitar-series. Human. Earth. Short range scattergun. Grunt waved the rest of the monolog away.

"I should hope Tali would know better than to use an Elkoss," Jacob said, hefting the gun. His hands worked with well-practiced precision, ejecting the heat sink and popping open the driver chamber with a smooth motion. He peered inside. "I like to think they're a little below our paygrade here."

"Don't get me started on those volus knockoffs," Zaeed spat, full of vitriol. "Bastards had the gall to make their own line of shitty Avengers and hand 'em out like candy to every two-bit thug in the goddamn galaxy."

The thoughts came to Grunt unbidden. M-series Avenger. Human. Earth. Moderate range assault rifle. Automatic. Moderate accuracy, low accuracy retention under sustained use. Effective shield penetration at forty-five meters or less. Ineffective against armor. Trigger modification allows semi-automatic armor-penetration fire mode.

"Didn't even have the decency to change the goddamn name," Zaeed complained. "Classic human engineering made practically synonymous with 'entry level garbage.' Me and Jessie've been fighting that stereotype for twenty years."

Grunt stared down at Zaeed. He respected the scarred old man – he was about as krogan as humans got – but battleworn or not he shared his species' fickleness. Krogan – true warriors – fought with whatever they had available. Turians and humans liked to name their guns big, flashy things, as if it struck fear into their enemies' hearts, but krogan knew that the weapon meant nothing compared to how you wielded it. Guns were for killing, not winning popularity contests. "What people think of your weapon is meaningless after you've killed them with it," he grunted.

"And Jessie can kill just fine. I just don't like being written me off as a goddamn amateur for carrying her." Zaeed chewed the end of his cigar in disgust. "Bastards tried to turn me into a goddamn laughingstock. Compels me to do something about it, that's all I'm saying." He trailed off, shaking his head as he tossed his weapon onto the cart. "Argus mods check out, Taylor. Good job." He reached for the next one.

Twenty minutes later and they were finished, each weapon packed up and returned to its crate to be carried back onto the armory for further adjustment or delivery as appropriate. Grunt was halfway through pushing the target racks back into the corner of the hangar when the sound of the airlock opening announced Garrus' arrival. The turian was fully armored and sporting his sniper rifle and a tired expression. "Hold up on the targets, please," he called out.

Grunt rumbled in annoyance but did not protest, and dragged the targets back out into the open.

Garrus tossed him a grateful nod as he extended his sniper rifle. The turian wasted no time in setting up on Jacob's firing line, his mandibles pressed tightly against his jaw in the turian equivalent of a frustrated grimace that he'd taken to wearing a lot lately. Aside from Shepard, no one on the Normandy worked as hard, and Garrus had been running himself ragged between training, equipment, and planning sessions with Shepard and Miranda. The turian drew a bead on one of the targets and shot it clean through the center with a cathartic boom. He did not stop to celebrate his achievement and moved on to the next – it followed the first in another dead-center explosion.

"Take it the strategy meeting went well, then?" Jacob asked from where he'd hopped up to sit on the edge of the cart they'd been using.

"It went fine," Garrus insisted, voice stiff. He destroyed another target.

Zaeed was packing up the last of the guns. He nodded to himself. "By which you mean we still have no way past the relay."

Garrus' eyes glittered in irritation as he ejected a glowing heat sink and slammed a replacement into his rifle. "Yes, that's what I meant. We still have nothing." For a moment it seemed like that was all he would say, but then he sighed, and his mandibles hung a little looser in their sockets. "The Illusive Man sent QEC probes through this morning. Went dead immediately. Wherever the relay sent them…" he trailed off, and his eyes flickered to the floor, searching for words. "Wasn't pretty," he finished.

Zaeed frowned. "Shame," he grunted.

"Until we learn something new," Garrus said, shouldering his rifle again, "we're dead underwater."

Grunt pawed anxiously at the ground. He was not involved in the planning meetings Shepard, Garrus, Miranda, and the Illusive Man held, but he shared the crew's frustration with the relay problem. Grunt itched to face the collectors again, but until they had a way past the Omega-4 relay there was nothing to be done but wait for their foes to pop back out of their burrows. The aliens' cowardice was maddening.

But worse than that was the feeling that he should know a way around it. Borrowed or not – censored from him or not – Grunt was the only one on the crew with any memories of the collectors. Okeer had dealt with them, had included rambled observations on how to face them among his imprints, and for weeks Grunt had strained and dug into the back of his mind for any scrap that might be helpful to them. But there was nothing. Only flashes while he dreamt – a hazy meeting on an empty moon, a gleaming red shape, a buzz in his ears.

And guilt. Powerful, choking, cloying guilt.

Nothing else had come of it. Okeer had left him nothing of use to his battlemaster. It was best to forget it.

Grunt snorted and made for the airlock. Maybe some more Captain Cosmic would ease his mind. There were still four seasons to go, to say nothing of the spinoffs.

"Hey Grunt, think fast!" Grunt turned just in time to catch the object Jacob had thrown at his head. It was cold in his hand, and his momentary flash of rage at the unprovoked attack sputtered out under curiosity. He glared at it. It was a canister of some kind of beverage – his mind translated the human letters and sounded them out. Earth-style Redbeer from Terra Nova.

Grunt stared suspiciously at Jacob. "What is this?"

"Beer," Jacob said, as if that explained things, and tossed a matching can to Zaeed. He hopped back up onto the weapons cart, opened his own can, and drank deeply. "I ever tell you guys," he asked, pausing to wipe his mouth on one sleeve, "my bear story?"

"No," Grunt admitted, dubious of Jacob and his beer. He could not deny he was curious, though – he had seen bears on the extranet. Next to sharks, they were his favorite Earth predator.

Behind Jacob, Zaeed was rolling his mismatched eyes as he slid down to take a seat on the floor a few meters away from Garrus' feet. He cracked open his own can with a sharp hissof escaping gas. "Oh, this'll be good."

"It is good," Jacob insisted. "This was back on Kofi's Moon, I was probably… fifteen years old. Me and my dad got called way out in the sticks to help this guy fix his load-dragger's busted axel." Jacob smiled at Grunt, inviting him to stay and listen, and Grunt reluctantly plodded back to stand next to the others. He opened his beer like Zaeed had, frowning at the foam that came sputtering out of the top to drip onto the floor.

"Anyway, we're halfway back home when our axel breaks and we crash, bam!" Jacob thwapped a fist onto his knee, "right into the ditch. Lucked out, though. Dust clears and our ride's ruined, but we're both fine. Nobody's hurt. But then as soon as my dad steps out of the cabin he falls right into the ditch and breaks his ankle!"

Jacob shook his head at the apparent hilarity of the situation, but it was lost on Grunt. Maybe the joke was that human ankles broke easily? Because that was true, and kindof funny. But where were the bears? Grunt huffed impatiently and took an experimental sip of his beer. It had a bitter, plant-y taste to it, but the way it bubbled on his tongue amused him and so he quickly drained the rest.

"He can't walk," Jacob continued, "and so I head down the road on my own, hoping I run into help before the heat kills us. Terrain is awful, the bluegrass grows right up to the road in places, and before long I'm covered in cuts. Luckily, eventually a hovercar did come by and spot me. They ended up giving me and my dad a ride back to town, so it all worked out, but they told me that the only reason they slowed down in the first place…" he trailed off, pausing for effect, "was because they thought the bear had escaped from Transelm's little zoo!"

The hangar was silent but for the sound of Grunt tearing his can in half to dab the last few drops of his drink onto his tongue. Even Garrus had paused in his shooting.

"One bear on the entire planet, and they thought I was him," Jacob explained to the thundering quiet, still grinning ear to ear.

"Did you maul anyone?" Grunt asked.

Jacob frowned. "No..."

Grunt snorted. Some bear. He was pretty sure bears spent their time engaged almost exclusively in mauling.

"I'm with the krogan," Zaeed agreed, tossing Grunt another beer. "What kind of candyass story was that?"

"It's a good story!" Jacob protested, affronted. "Not every story has to be violent."

Zaeed shrugged. "It helps. Try again. Give us something with a little danger. Something from a mission. Corsairs, maybe."

Grunt nodded, wrestling to open his new can without destroying it. "Something with a krogan in it."

Zaeed raised his half-finished beer in the air in agreement. "Yeah, something with a krogan in it. Or guns or tits or something."

Jacob frowned and rolled his eyes. "Fine," he said. He thought for a moment. "Well, there was the time Miranda shot me on a job."

"Ricochet or bad shot?"

Jacob shook his head. "Neither. She did it on purpose."

"Better," Zaeed agreed. "Spill it."

"It was one of our first missions together, trying to blow up this pirate base on Malik. Somebody screwed up – wasn't me, and it sure wasn't her, but something went wrong and the pirates knew we were coming. Had us in cells pretty much as soon as we got there. Planned to ransom me back to the Alliance and do who knows what to her. While they're on the comm negotiating terms with the Alliance, we manage to break out of our cells, but there's so many guards we can't get through the front door. Without saying a thing, Miri just draws her gun, shoots me in the shin, pulls the alarm, and runs." He pulled up his pant leg to reveal a shiny scar that wound down the front of his right shin. Zaeed whistled, impressed. "While the pirates are all scrambling to patch me up before the Alliance gets there and thinks they did it," Jacob continued, "Miri steals one of their old shatha tanks and wrecks the base." He shook his head. "Sprung me out of an Alliance medbay the next day."

Grunt frowned expectantly at him.

Jacob sighed, relenting. "And there was a krogan at the base too."

Grunt nodded, satisfied.

Zaeed was shaking his head. "Pretty cold. Why the hell'd you keep running with her after that?"

Jacob shrugged. "Seemed like the right thing to do."

The old mercenary didn't look convinced. "Riiight..."

"She sacrificed him for victory," Grunt said. It wasn't the sort of plan he would have come up with, but even if Miranda had killed Jacob, it would have been a small price to pay to defeat their enemies. He nodded fiercely, catching Jacob's eye. "He should be proud."

Zaeed dismissed that thought with a hand. "Nah, that's bullshit. I've run a lot of goddamn missions in my life, and not once have I had to pull a trigger on a mate to get one done." He shook his head, frowning at his beer. His voice quieted to a low growl. "Takes a special kind of bastard to think that way, and there just ain't no cause for it. Bloody Cerberus assholes."

There was an awkward silence, pierced only by the boom of Garrus' sniper rifle.

"Friendly fire though, that happens all the time," Zaeed said, brightening. "Back when I was with the Suns we had this guy Ifri accidentally shoot off another fellow's fingers in a firefight. Mwembe said it was water under the bridge, but he must have been nursing a sore spot still because he ended up throwin' Ifri into an engine contrail a few months later."

Jacob choked on his beer. "What!?"

Zaeed grinned, pleased with himself. "No shit. Said he didn't mean to do it, just wanted to scare him, maybe singe off his eyebrows a little. But then the dampeners came on and knocked Ifri straight into the fire. Poor bastard burnt like a torch, right in front of everybody. Once he'd finally stopped smoking could have buried what was left in a matchbox." He shrugged and took a swig of his drink. "Hell of a way to go," he concluded.

"Heh heh heh." Grunt couldn't keep the grin off of his face at the mental image. He found himself remembering Mordin's reactant, and for a moment wondered if the professor could have made one that worked on krogan. Seeing that empty bastard Uvenk go up in flames would have been pretty satisfying. Of course, the way he'd died had been pretty satisfying too.

"Man," Jacob said, shaking his head. "Remind me never to hang out with you, Zaeed."

Zaeed shrugged again. "Eh, he was a prick anyway. And Wem spent the rest of his life scared shitless of anything with an engine."

"I guess it all worked out for the best then."

"Exactly. Makes for a story with a little chest hair, anyway. Better than your stupidass bear thing." He shifted in his seat to look over his shoulder. "What about you, Garrus? Storytime. Impress us."

Behind them, Garrus did not look up from his scope. His fingers played at the gun's driver settings with rote familiarity. "I'll pass."

"Nah, don't be a spoilsport. Give us something good. And make it gentle enough for Taylor's fragile constitution, will you? Hate to see the kid faint." Zaeed gave a lopsided grin, ignoring the angry glance Jacob threw his way.

Garrus took his shot, and the hangar was filled with noise. His target vaporized in a spray of sparks, the turian gave a satisfied nod and finally lifted his eye from the scope to look at them. "Well, there was that time I helped save the whole galaxy."

Grunt grabbed the rest of the beers from Jacob's cart and dropped to the floor with a heavy whump. He had heard some of the crew talking about Shepard's first mission against the rogue Spectre Saren, but his extranet searches had yielded remarkably few details and nobody seemed to like to talk about them. He opened another can (he just bit off the top of this one, tired of fooling with tabs meant for dainty human fingers) and stared up at the turian, at rapt attention.

But Zaeed had other ideas. "No, no," he said, waving a hand like he could swat Garrus' story out of the air. "Doesn't count. Nothing Normandy."

Garrus shrugged. "I'll pass, then." He turned away, the rest of them forgotten as he drew on his next target. Grunt masked his disappointment, but he could not help but feel a quiet approval. Garrus was a turian of few words. He did not talk to alleviate stress. He killed stuff.

"Alright, fine, you jackass." Zaeed said, finishing off his drink and tossing the can on the floor. He held a hand out, which Grunt promptly supplied with another beer. "Grunt, then," he said, nodding back to him in thanks. "Your turn."

Jacob and Zaeed stared expectantly at him, and Grunt hesitated, rifling through his memories for something he could use. Some story he could contribute, something from his life. For a moment he considered telling something about his exploits on Tuchanka, killing Uvenk or the Kuddru or the fight with the maw, but he knew they had heard these tales before. There was a remarkably short list left to choose from, and he frowned. "I have lived my entire life aboard the Normandy," he admitted finally. "I have no stories."

"Your old man, then," Zaeed suggested, shrugging. "The warlord." He gestured to his head. "He didn't leave you anything?"

Grunt looked away, burying the flash of anger he felt at the mention of Okeer's name. "Okeer is not a name to be sung," he snarled. "I do not glorify him by telling his tales."

For a moment, Jacob's expression hardened. "Hey, he can't be any worse than my dad." He shook his head. "Bastard."

"Mine was a bastard too," Zaeed agreed. "Don't mean I don't have any good stories about him."

There was a beat of silence, and the three of them looked to Garrus. "Mine's C-Sec," the turian said finally, eye back in his scope. He paused, and his shoulders drooped a little under his armor. "And also a bastard," he admitted.

Zaeed nodded sagely and returned his gaze to Grunt. "See? Spill."

Grunt hesitated. He did not want to glorify Okeer. Okeer, who his entire race viewed with such contempt. Okeer the Offworlder, who had betrayed the krogan when they needed him most.

And yet once upon a time Okeer had been a warlord, a powerful krogan followed by many for his strength and sharpness of mind. For all his faults, for all he had become, Okeer had once been great. Once been worthy of glorifying. Grunt thought a moment, and a hundred hundred battles came springing to his mind, glorious battles Okeer had wanted him to see and remember. He found himself picking one.

"The Battle of Cardias," he rumbled, and it was like he was there. "The krannts of the Great Lowlander Kredak and Warlord Okeer against the combined forces of turian Exarch Altara and the asari Serrice Guard. Swamp planet, geologically active." He closed his eyes and he could smell the fumes. "Very hot. The air was hot enough in places to blister asari skin. They had to wear suits to fight there. Made them slow." He laughed at the thought. "Didn't affect us."

"Seems like a poor place for the Serrice Guard if the planet could kill them," Garrus observed, with a faint hint of pride in his voice. "Should have let the Hierarchy handle it."

"They were brave that day," Grunt said. He could feel Okeer's reluctant respect for the asari, to fight when even the planet they stood on was against them. "They even sent Matriarch Ballae to lead them." He grinned. "They were very mad at us…"

"Uh oh," Zaeed interrupted. He flashed a mocking grin at Jacob. "This sounds like it might get violent. Sure you don't want to plug your ears, Taylor?"

"Oh shut up. Tell us why the asari were mad, Grunt."

Grunt's grin only widened. The sound of screaming and snapping bones filled his head. "Because the last Matriarch the krogan faced had ended up fed to Okeer's kakliosaur…" The memory was richly detailed – clearly it was a moment Okeer had cherished. Grunt saw the Matriarch's oh-so-superior face wilting as she caught sight of the beast, saw the way the kakliosaur's eyes bulged as it struggled to swallow her, heard the satisfied gurgle of the its stomach when it had finished.

Grunt heard Kredak's booming laughter, and Okeer's, and their troops'. They were long dead, but they were his people, and he laughed with them.

Jacob just shook his head.


1365 years previously…

Warlord Kodus' metal-plated skull gave a hollow ring when it struck the table.

Okeer had been there the day he'd gotten it. A century ago, Kodus had been an upstart clan leader who fancied himself a warlord. He was young – and his forces dwarfed by the combined clans under Kredak – but tales of his brutality and strength had spread across Tuchanka like wildfire, and there were some who believed he would take Kredak's place. The Great Lowlander had been forced to intervene. Kodus lacked the savvy of the other warlords (or he would have never dared crossed Kredak with so few followers), but he was the biggest krogan Okeer had ever seen – more than nine feet tall and half again as heavy as the Lowlander. Kodus had dispensed with guile and leadership and beaten his way to the top, and when Kredak had faced him in single combat that day, he had very nearly lost everything.

But Kredak had won, in the end, caving in Kodus' skull with a piece of scrap metal until it was a patchwork of cracks and gore. Then he'd picked the younger warrior off the ground, had a piece of his own armor hammered into a new skullplate and bolted to what was left of Kodus' head, and Kodus had been his faithful attack varren ever since.

Now Kredak was gone, and his varren was lost without him.

"More ryncol," Kodus rumbled, voice muffled. One of his guards slid him another ryncol, which he wasted no time in pouring down his gullet. He crushed the steel mug in one hand like a piece of paper and tossed it aside, motioned for yet more, and let his head thud back to the tabletop.

Across from him, Okeer drank more modestly. The ryncol did not drown out Nazara's buzzing, but it did make it somewhat easier to ignore.

"I shouldn't have done it, Okeer," Kodus said, staring emptily at his blood dripping through the IV tubing into the canister Okeer had brought. His voice was flat and heavy with sorrow.

"Done what?"

"Silaxti. Shouldn't have gone there. Panthus…" He trailed off for a moment. "Panthus was already dead. Shouldn't have gone there."

Okeer took another drink. He happened to agree – Kodus really shouldn't have taken his forces to Silaxti, so deep in turian space that defeat was inevitable. Still, Okeer remembered his own rage after Eophili. The krogan needed vengeance. Someone had to pay for what had happened, and General Panthus had died in the same explosion that had killed Kredak, so his homeworld had to do. "It was a great battle," Okeer said, as diplomatically as he could. "For every warrior you lost, Panthus' kin lost three."

Kodus gave a shuddering shrug as he started on yet another ryncol. "Wanted to impress Shiagur, I think. Didn't work. Lost half my clan."

"It was a great battle," Okeer repeated. "I would have done the same."

Kodus fixed him with one bleary eye, grateful for the older krogan's words. He was the youngest of the surviving warlords, and still craved the others' support like a splitplate. A powerful warrior he was – Okeer had seen him tear an asari caternar's engine off with his bare hands – but he was a mewling, spineless krogan when he didn't have someone to tell him what to do.

When Nazara gave him the power to make his perfect krogan, Okeer would make sure those parts of Kodus were not included.

Kodus picked his head up off the table. His metal crest glinted dully in the firelight. He swayed a little in his seat – with the amount of ryncol he'd put away, Okeer was surprised he could sit up at all – but he was grim-faced as he met Okeer's eyes. "We aren't done yet," he said. "Not yet."

You are, Okeer thought. Kodus was a powerful warrior, but his forces were gone, and the krogan left on Tuchanka would constitute pale replacements indeed. Okeer doubted he would stand a chance against a proper turian force now, but he did not say it. "No," he said instead.

"I am assembling a new army," Kodus continued. "I will rally with Shiagur and we-."

"Rally with Moro," Okeer said.

Kodus' brows rose under his steel crest.

"Shiagur is running out of ground," Okeer explained. "She can't keep up this pace, not even with reinforcements. She'll consolidate soon. Better to bolster Moro's smaller force, and keep the turians divided on two fronts." What he really meant was 'better to avoid Shiagur entirely'. He didn't have a lot of hope left for Kodus, but there was no point in letting Shiagur drag him down with her. As soon as he joined her she would send him to die on some pointless gesture that he'd never have the insight to protest. At least Moro would get some use out of him.

Okeer could see the hesitance in Kodus' eyes – the younger warlord was feeling the sting of the genophage's effects as much as anyone, and clearly had had his hearts set on a breeding alliance with Shiagur or one of her brood-sisters – but after a moment, he nodded. He would not disagree with Okeer, who had been fighting wars two thousand years before he was born. "I will rally with Moro," he corrected, nodding. "He and I will take the fight to the turians while Shiagur occupies them in the Traverse."

Okeer nodded.

"And you…" Kodus continued, trailing off. He fingered the needle in his arm.

"I am remaking our race," Okeer said.

Kodus blinked stupidly but nodded his agreement. "Remaking our race," he agreed. He had been confused when Okeer had first asked him for his blood, but the drink had made him even more compliant than usual. He had always gone along with what the other warlords said – he probably would have agreed even if Okeer had told him about the krogan sacrifices he intended to collect. "It will be glorious."

Okeer nodded, picturing it. Kodus' size and Kredak's brains, Shiagur's ferocity and Moro's precision. And Okeer's honor. It would be worth it all, in the end, and as Okeer's perfect krogan burned Palaven's pyramids to the ground, the turians would know that their genophage had failed them utterly. "It will be glorious," he repeated. "We are not done."

The two of them drank and reminisced for most of the night until finally – finally – Kodus reached his considerable capacity and collapsed into an unconscious heap on the floor. Okeer was a little unsteady on his feet – he'd had to drink some to avoid suspicion, and besides, he hadn't had real ryncol in more than a decade – but he managed to tuck the canister of blood (probably half booze by now) into his belt and tiptoe around Kodus' mountainous bulk without breaking anything. Kodus' guards – paltry things, not the impressive warriors that the warlord had no doubt employed before his attack on Silaxti – paid him no mind as he stepped out of the kiva where Kodus held court and into the cool twilight of Tuchanka.

Okeer sniffed the night air deeply, grasping for a familiar scent.

It did not take long, and soon he was lumbering down the salty path into the hollow where most of Kodus' entourage had built their shelters. The camp was small – it was too dangerous, now, to congregate in force with the turians watching. Indeed, even inebriated Okeer's sharp eyes could pick out the silhouettes of turian surveillance frigates high amongst the patina of stars above him. Watching them. Waiting for the warlords to return home so they could drop another ship on them.

The various undesirables Kodus had rallied stared daggers at Okeer as he followed his nose through their camp – he wondered if any of them even recognized him, one of the last warlords – but he was wearing Kodus' scent and none gave him trouble. Okeer snorted as he descended. Most of Kodus' best warriors would be out scouting other clans, looking for new recruits, but still it was a pathetic sight, all grunts and brigands, not true warriors.

Okeer felt like spitting every time he met their eyes. There was a time when a warlord returning to Tuchanka would be greeted by a hundred thousand warriors, armed and armored and slavering for oorloc. He would swell his ranks and head back to war, stronger than ever.

But that time was over, and the army Kodus was scraping together was a shadow of the force the krogan had once wielded. Okeer had to snort at the smorgasbord of disreputable clans he could smell amongst the rabble, clans that would normally have never been brought offworld except as the most expendable of cannon fodder. He saw Quossa wallclimbers, hoary and light and wielding simple wooden pikes. Stryloc and Wyrloc heathens used alchite with such a weak smell they had to cake it on until they were as pale as salarian jelly – fitting, given their history of only attacking clans they outnumbered at least four to one. Clan Chatha's warriors were strong enough, perhaps, but their clan had no great victories to its name, and Okeer had heard their leader Jarroth had a gentle son he had failed to cull as a hatchling. They were scum, like the rest.

There were no Statka or Kalkolo, no Gatatog or Ghodot, no Gottt or Kotha, no Ravanor or Raik. Those clans – real krogan clans – were nearly gone now, their dead scattered across the battlefields of a hundred worlds. All that remained to Kodus were the lowest of the low.

Oh, how the krogan had fallen. Every lowly scent that met Okeer's nostrils soured his mood a bit more.

But he was not here for the low. Kodus – for all his mental thickness – had done one thing right. As soon as he'd returned to Tuchanka, he'd taken the remainder of his forces on a tour around the planet, putting down minor clan leaders trying to form their own armies and reminding the krogan that even with Kredak dead, there were still warlords to be heeded. He had consolidated his power in Kredak's name, capturing what was left of Kredak's Ghodot clan, and had even taken to wearing Kredak's alchite.

But more importantly, he'd captured the one piece of Kredak Tuchanka had left.

Okeer found her sitting by a modest cookfire on the far edge of the camp. The shabby condition of her tent gave no hint as to her high birth, but the guard none-too subtly eyeing Okeer from another tent across the path was a Statka, a warrior of higher pedigree even than the ones Kodus had chosen for his own guard. Okeer tossed him a respectful nod.

Ashoat 's orange eyes glinted in the flickering light as he approached, and her face gave the impression that she had been waiting for him. No doubt she had caught his scent as soon as he had arrived. She did not look pleased to see him.

But he was pleased to see her. Kredak had died at Eophili without a son to carry on his bloodline. It was possible Shiagur had been carrying his brood, but if any had survived, Okeer had heard no news of it. As far as he or anyone else in the galaxy knew, Ghodot Ashoat – a hen born to an unknown mother a century before the genophage – was the sole surviving offspring of the Great Lowlander. She was the last of his line, the last krogan through whom his blood flowed.

And Okeer needed that blood.

Okeer inclined his head in deference as he approached. Ashoat had no real power beyond the symbolic – Kredak's daughter or not, she had to prove herself like anyone else – but it did not do to offend her with discourtesy. "Sota, Ashoat," he rumbled. "How do you fare?"

Ghodot Ashoat was not a big hen, but she had her father's vital glow, with bright orange skin and brighter orange eyes full of a quiet brilliance. She lurched to her feet and Okeer could not help but see his dead friend in her face.

"Warlord Okeer," she said, ignoring his pleasantries. She dipped her head at him, but it was perfunctory, meaningless. "They said you were dead." She sounded disappointed.

"Then they did not know my strength," Okeer said. He met her eyes. "I am a true krogan. The aliens cannot kill me."

"And yet you arrive not at the head of an army but alone."

Okeer nodded, choosing to ignore the way her voice dripped with accusation. "After Eophili my krannt met an alien foe in great battle," he said, remembering the way the collectors' eyes had gleamed in the darkness of the dead ship's belly, the way the corpses had piled to the ceilings as the fighting had stretched from days to weeks to months. The collectors had been fierce foes, but they had been no match for krogan. Still, she was right – he had had a force of some thousands when he'd left Eophili. Only he had returned. "Many died for our victory."

"And Shiagur's brood-sister Gaira?"

Okeer hesitated.

Gaira, his mate, with Shiagur's beautiful blue eyes that promised of fertility and vengeance.

Gaira, who had fought by his side, surviving long after many so-called warriors had fallen to the aliens.

Gaira, who had been there at the end.

Gaira, who even Nazara had recognized was unique.

Gaira, who, when the whispers had grown too much, Okeer had struck unconscious from behind. Who Okeer had tossed into one of the collectors' pods to be rendered into paste and studied. Who Okeer had traded to Nazara for a ride back home.

And for the power to remake his species.

Okeer found himself staring at his toes. "Dead," he said finally.

"I am sorry to hear of it."

Okeer was sorry too. How he would have liked to see his mate in the light again, to have her by his side as he remade the krogan. But Nazara had wanted her, had scraped at Okeer's mind with promises of power and reincarnation for the krogan species, and he had relented. And he had been right to. What was one krogan – even his mate – against the future of their entire race? There had been no choice at all.

Someday Gaira would live again in Okeer's perfect krogan. Her blood – Shiagur's blood – would join Kodus' and Moro's and Okeer's.

And Kredak's as well. That was why he was here. He could not be distracted by the price he had paid.

So he quashed his feelings. "She died in battle," he lied, pushing away the sound of the pod closing over her unconscious form. "She was a true krogan, and when death came for her, she stood and fought it to the last." He nodded to himself, satisfied. Gaira would have died on her feet, but circumstances had demanded a different kind of sacrifice. Had she been asked, she would have gladly leapt into the pod herself. He was sure of it.

But Ashoat seemed to taste his lie. She stared at him, mistrust obvious. "She was fertile," she said, as if explaining it to a particularly dim child. "I'd have rather her flee."

Okeer felt a wave of anger flash through his mind. His eyes narrowed dangerously. "And live here?" he demanded, taking a lurching step towards Ashoat. "To brood as a slave? With you?" Behind him he could hear Ashoat's guard stirring, but he did not care. His Gaira would never flee. "My Gaira would never sit on this world to be rear-upped by any lowly male with a functioning quad," he snarled. "She was a fighter."

Ashoat was nonplussed. "As am I. But she was also a krogan, and right now the krogan do not need fighters."

Okeer clenched his jaw shut in fury. "True krogan…"

"You look down on me," Ashoat interrupted him, voice low and angry, "and yet here you are, looking to breed me." She shook her head in disgust. "Well you have wasted your trip, Okeer. I do not have the gift you let Gaira die with. My clutches are still."

It took a moment, but Okeer managed to hold his temper back. "I am not here to breed you," he said finally through gritted teeth. No doubt many krogan believed any child of Kredak's would be somehow above the genophage, but Okeer knew all too well that even the greatest krogan were neutered now. Before the turians' virus, Ashoat's mind and birth would have made her a queen among hens, but now their race respected fertility and nothing more. The genophage had left her no more valuable than any other krogan.

To the rest of the galaxy, anyway. To Okeer she was precious beyond measure. He drew out an empty canister and held it up to show her his need, but Ashoat did not give him a chance to explain. "Good," she snarled. "I would not bear your splitplates, even if I could." She started toward him, stepping over her campfire without a thought. Her fiery eyes gleamed with fury. "You fled Eophili," she roared, shoving him. "You let your army, your females perish! You did not even have the decency to show at Shiagur's crush! Now you are back to scrape at rocks with your shriveled tail between your legs!"

Again, Okeer restrained the fury building in his head. "I need your help," he tried.

He heard the crack of Ashoat's crest hitting his face, felt the flash of searing white pain, felt the canister go spinning out of his hands. He fell backwards, too astonished to catch himself, and landed in the dust with an ignoble whump. His vision swam.

Ashoat stared down at him, and even with his head spinning and blood streaming down his face, Okeer could see her contempt for him. "You are a sad excuse for a true krogan," she spat, and it was like the Great Lowlander himself spoke the words. She turned to walk away.

The pain in Okeer's head disappeared under a flood of rage. Even as he felt the hands of Ashoat's guard on his hump, dragging him back to his feet, everything melted away. His hands acted of their own accord, pulling a jagged knife from his left gauntlet and plunging it up into the guard's gullet. Hot blood showered down upon him as he yanked the blade back out and leapt to his feet.

"I AM GANAR OKEER!" he roared, ignoring the guard's agonized bellowing and the shout of alarm rippling through the camp. Another quick thrust into the astonished Statka's windpipe ended his suffering, and he hit the dust. Okeer stepped over the body without a thought, rounding on Ashoat, blade in hand. "I have slain more foes than you will ever meet!" On the other side of the campfire, Ashoat stared at him, and perhaps there was a glimmer of fear in her eyes now. Still, she stood steady, even as he took a few loping strides toward her. "I will return the krogan to glory. I will save us!" He did not wait for her to recant, and jammed the knife into her shoulder and dug it deep. When she punched him, there was an audible crack of his skull fracturing, but he felt nothing. He forced the knife in again and pressed with all his weight, smashing the hen down into the dust.

"I need your father's blood," he snarled down at her, yanking the knife out again. He held it over her. Its serrated blade had ended innumerable foes, krogan and alien alike, over the millennia he had been alive. Okeer was one of the oldest krogan in the galaxy. Okeer had been fighting clan Kopt when Ashoat's father's father's father was a splitplate. Who was she – who was anyone – to doubt his loyalty or his honor? Okeer's face twisted into a furious scowl as he stared down at Ashoat, bleeding in the dust. "He was my krannt and I would rather you give it to me willingly, but if I must take it from your corpse, I will." It was a grave dishonor to mutilate a fallen krogan's body – let alone the daughter of your warlord and one of your krannt – but Okeer had come too far to be denied now.

She stared up at him, eyes full of hate and defiance. "Offworlder."

Nazara rang in his ears, and Okeer's callused soul did not protest. It was part of the price he paid.

"So be it."


Presently…

Grunt woke with a start, and for a moment did not know where he was. The scents of salt and sand and blood and steel – the scents of Tuchanka – seeped away around the recesses of his mind and were replaced by disinfectant and rubber and recycled air and human.

His mood soured. It had happened again.

He was leaning against one of the Normandy's polished hangar walls – a deep dent marked where his head had impacted. Around him, the hangar was abuzz with activity as two dozen Cerberus techs stacked cargo. Food and tools, ammunition and replacement parts, scientific instruments to replace those Mordin had lost, an upgraded scanning suite for the CIC, thousands upon thousands of kilograms of supplies and equipment were being packed into the Normandy to resupply it for the next (still undetermined) leg of its mission. Outside the hangar, loading cranes were thundering as they hefted the ship's new Silaris armor plates into position.

Grunt snorted and righted himself, shaking his head to try to dislodge the whispery remnants of Okeer's memories. He was supposed to be guarding the elevator.

"You fell asleep."

Grunt whirled, instantly on the defensive.

Samara was staring at him from her perch on the other side of the elevator door, her assault rifle in her lap, a blue biotic glimmer cradled between her fingers, and a concerned look on her face.

Grunt frowned at the asari, embarrassed. "I did not," he lied. "I can keep watch with my nose while my eyes rest." He sniffed deeply to demonstrate, filling his lungs with Samara's perfumey scent. He could practically smell her amusement, and hot indignation flashed through his head.

"If you do not wish to stand guard, I am sure I-"

"I am fine," Grunt cut her off. In truth, he didn't want to. But his battlemaster had asked him to, and he would. With so much cargo to move and most of the Normandy crew occupied with the refits, Shepard had reluctantly enlisted Reidel's staff to help with the loading. He had gathered them up and threatened them for ten minutes beforehand, forbidding them from entering the ship's upper decks under any circumstance, and Grunt had grinned at the way the Cerberus goons had shied in fear before his battlemaster, but all the same Shepard had assigned him and Samara to keep watch on the elevator until the loading was done. It was not a fun job – equal parts boring and exhausting – and Grunt could not help but hope one of the Cerberus techs would try something so he'd get to rip their limbs off. But it was no use –in four hours none of them had so much as glanced at the elevator for fear of antagonizing him. "It's boring," he grunted, avoiding Samara's patronizing gaze. That was why he had fallen asleep. No other reason. "But I will obey my battlemaster's command."

"You are tired," Samara insisted. "Shepard will not begrudge you the rest."

Grunt shook his head and gripped his shotgun tighter. "I am pure krogan," he snarled, pointedly glaring around the room for signs of subterfuge. The Cerberus techs averted their eyes and scurried away wherever he looked.

"Even pure krogan need rest," Samara insisted. "You are sleeping poorly?"

What was it with nosey aliens lately? "No," Grunt lied again. He did not look at the asari.

Samara was unconvinced. "You spoke in your sleep," she said, gesturing to the dent in the wall. "I could not translate what you said, but it did not sound restful."

For a moment, Grunt just stared daggers at her, stewing at the asari's gall. He was Urdnot Grunt! He was pure krogan! He did not cry out in his sleep like a child! How dare she patronize him?

But Samara's face was full of concern, not mockery. She was his krannt, and a powerful warrior. She did not mean to disrespect his strength. And she had heard him. There was no point in denying it.

"It is Okeer," he admitted, voice quiet.

Samara nodded. "I see." Her pale eyes searched his face, inviting him to continue.

Grunt did. "His memories harry my sleep, then flee before I can see them for what they are," he snarled, gripping his shotgun's handle so hard he felt it start to bend. "And I tire of it."

Samara turned to stare across the hangar. "Our parents do much to make us who we are," she said, kneading the corona between her fingers. Her voice was far-off. "It is not surprising you should want to know more about who he was."

"I do not care who he was. I want to sleep."

Samara smiled. "Then sleep. Please. I can guard the door without you."

Grunt knew she was right, of course – Samara was a deadly fighter. Perhaps even as deadly as he was, and certainly more than a match for every Cerberus human on the station put together. He had seen the impassive way she cut through their foes on the collector vessel. Even Jack, whose biotics were so strong they gave Grunt a headache just being near her, was not the asari's equal. Jack was a fun thug, and the only one on the ship who liked to break things as much as Grunt did, but Samara was a warrior, with a sense of honor and no sense of self-preservation. Grunt liked her.

But he wasn't about to let her tell him what to do. "I am not a pet to be dismissed," he rumbled, replanting each of his feet in the ground and bracing himself as if she might try to push him over. He glared tauntingly at her, daring her to try him. He was staying.

Samara only nodded. "So be it. If you will not rest," she said, extinguishing her biotic orb with a flick, "then I shall." She stood and stretched languorously, popping her back. "I assume you are not too tired to last alone until I return?"

Grunt did his best to keep the victorious smirk off of his face. Now who was tired? He shrugged as nonchalantly as he could. "Don't care," he grunted, pointedly turning to leer at the nearest human.

"Good. I will return when I am rested, then you can take your turn." Samara wore a playful grin. "If you can last that long."

"I am pure krogan. I will stand long after all others have wasted away in the sun."

"Good." She nonchalantly inspected her fingernails. "Because I think I shall take my time."

Grunt's eyes narrowed. The asari was looking at him like she knew something he didn't, but what it was, he could not guess. "Good," he said. "You should." He would not back down from her challenge. He would show her.

"I will." Samara turned and walked away, ignoring the humans' stares as she strode across the hangar and disappeared into the station.

"Good," Grunt called after her, but she was gone.

Grunt settled back on his haunches, chuckling to himself. The stupid asari thought she understood endurance. Thought he could not stand guard without her. He was Urdnot Grunt. He was pure krogan. He wasn't tired. He would stand guard ten hours, or twenty hours, or a hundred hours while she bathed and ate and slept and she would return to find him no worse for wear. He would show her. A hundred hours.

But it was only eight minutes before his mind wandered to what Samara had said about Okeer. She thought he wanted to know more about his erstwhile 'father'. "She's wrong," he rumbled to himself. "She's stupid. I don't care about him." Okeer wasn't even his father, not really. Okeer had only put him in Tank Mother and pressed the button. He was distilled from warlords.

But Okeer had been a warlord, once.

"No," Grunt repeated, taking no notice of the quizzical looks the Cerberus techs were sending his way. He was not distilled from Okeer. He despised Okeer, who had tried to make him slave, who had tried to fill him with borrowed hates. Okeer had tried to force a purpose on him, and Okeer had failed. It was Wrex – a true krogan, who was to Okeer what Shepard was to Operative Reidel – who had let him find his own purpose, his own hates.

He was Urdnot Grunt, a krogan, and all krogan hated Okeer.

But that was a borrowed hate, too. His hates should be his own. What had Okeer done to him, besides giving him life?

Hate for the old former warlord had been everywhere on Tuchanka. Grunt's people called Okeer a traitor, a shu'ta, an empty krogan without honor or loyalty or substance. They called him 'the Offworlder', and while Grunt knew offworlders had more to offer than his race liked to admit, something deep in his soul told him what a terrible insult it was. The krogan hated Okeer.

Okeer had quit the field when the Rebellions had needed him most. Okeer had dealt with the collectors. Okeer had promised his people a remade krogan species and brought them only death and betrayal.

And Grunt.

Whatever Okeer had done, he had done it to make Grunt.

Okeer's memories flickered at the edges of Grunt's consciousness, tempting him. They were opaque, and yet smelled so guilty, dark down to the core. Whatever Okeer had seen and done in the years after Eophili had not been pleasant. Whatever he had paid to make his legacy had been terrible in scope.

Did Grunt really want to know what he had cost?

Grunt was so occupied by that thought that he did not complain when Samara returned more than ninety-nine hours shy of the hundred he'd planned to stand guard. He laughed tauntingly at her, but his heart wasn't really in it, and when she smiled and admitted defeat and told him to take his turn to rest, he did not protest.

He was hungry – he almost went to go accost the cooks again – but he found himself instead lumbering up to his quarters on the engineering deck. He passed Hadley in the hallway, busy scanning the cargo meant for the upper decks for surveillance bugs, and ignored the stiff grimace the human cast his way.

Soon he was standing next to Tank Mother. She was silent and hollow, ruined by the tantrum he'd thrown after Horizon, and her mouth gaped open like a grave, but staring up at her Grunt could not help but remember the hazy green pre-life he had spent inside her.

"Stupid," he grunted. "Too weak to compel me."

All the same, he ran armored fingers over Tank Mother's frame, feeling the ragged seam where he'd torn her control console away in a fit of rage. If he sniffed deeply enough, he could just pick out the tang of Korlus' oily atmosphere and the sickly smell of amniotic fluid. And maybe even Okeer himself. Had the old krogan ever touched Tank Mother like this? Had he pressed these buttons and stared up at Grunt as he gestated? Did he look on and feel every secret thing he had done was vindicated?

Grunt tried to remember Okeer's face, but it was not there.

The sound of the door opening chased Grunt's attempts away, and he turned to see the little thief woman, arms wrapped around an open-topped crate piled high with errata. She was whistling to herself as she skipped across the room, her cargo clinking and jangling with each bouncy step. Grunt frowned as he watched her approach the crates where he kept his toys and food. She still had not noticed him when she hefted her crate up and, rocking forward onto the tips of her toes, managed to slide it halfway atop the pile.

"Thief," Grunt said.

Kasumi whirled around so fast her cargo toppled, raining its contents over her. Datapads and tools and personal effects crashed against the floor, forgotten. There was a brief moment when the little human just stared at Grunt, eyes wide in terror.

Then she disappeared with a fzzzt. There was a muffled patter of retreating footsteps. The door opened and closed again, and Grunt was alone.

Or so she wanted him to think.

Grunt plodded forward, ignoring the sound of the thief's toys shattering under his feet. He swung his head about the room, tasting the air. The thief could hide from his eyes, but she could not hide the stink of mammal. The room still reeked of it. She was still inside. Grunt followed his nose, sniffing the crates, the door jamb, each corner for the hidden woman. None were right, and for a moment he was confused, but then he looked to the ceiling. Her smell drew him like a magnet, and he had her. He pointed into the corner above the door. "You are there, Thief."

She reappeared, right where he'd said, clinging to the ceiling in a pose Grunt would not have imagined humans could adopt without breaking a few bones.

"Gonads. Thought I had you with the door trick."

Grunt grinned. "I am pure krogan."

"Yeah, yeah." Kasumi extricated herself from the ceiling and dropped to the floor, lithe as a pikkuc. She turned, and the smallest person on the ship met eyes with the largest. She was such a little thing – she barely came up to Grunt's waist – but she did not flinch under his angry glare. "What's up, Grunt?"

"What are you doing here?" Grunt demanded.

Kasumi shrugged and padded past him to where her crate had fallen. "Just storing some stuff." She kneeled and began collecting the scattered items, tossing them one by one back in the crate.

Grunt was not amused. "What kind of stuff?"

"It varies." She smiled and held up a mangled datapad, its screen having been reduced to powder under Grunt's foot. "Reidel's datapad." She tossed it in the crate. "One of the cooks' omni-tools, some soap from the bathrooms, a few credit chits, a gun I found hidden in some guy's locker, a hairpiece, some boots… You know, stuff."

"Unless it's food you can put it in your quarters."

She rolled her eyes as she collected the last of it. "Oh right, because when a bunch of stuff goes missing, they're not going to check in the master thief's room." She shook her head and grinned at Grunt. "No, no. This is the place. Nobody's crazy enough to come in here looking for their things." She hefted the crate and again reached to slide it atop the others.

"I live in here," Grunt protested, but all the same found himself pushing the crate up for her. In her arms it looked heavy, but it might as well have been weightless to him. "And you came here."

"Okay, but nobody else is crazy enough to come in here."

Grunt did not release his hold on the woman's crate. "This stuff is mine now."

Kasumi shrugged. "Okay. Keep it."

Grunt stared at her, confused. He hadn't expected that. Usually people were more worried he'd destroy their possessions. Nobody ever let him touch their guns or armor or anything else breakable (which, to Grunt, was basically everything). He'd always been forced to resort to stealing (and a particularly less subtle variation on it than Kasumi practiced).

At his curious look, Kasumi shrugged again. "Keep it," she repeated. "Don't actually need any of it, just been jonesing for some practice. Not much for a thief to do around here normally, you know?"

"You are stealing for no reason."

"I didn't say that. Just… no practical reason. Birds gotto fly, Thane's gotto do that eye flicky thing, and I've gotto steal."

Grunt nodded, satisfied with that explanation. That made sense. She was a thief, and thieves had to steal. There was no fighting what you were.

"Besides," she added, and she tapped her temple. Her face was suddenly alight with holograms. "I keep all the really valuable stuff up here."

Grunt's eyes widened as an idea came to him. Her graybox! Why hadn't he thought of that before? He had seen the thief and the drell's prodigious memories first-hand – the two of them could recall virtually every detail of every battle they'd fought, and Shepard often called on them during training sessions to bring up examples of past missteps that needed correcting. They would know how to remember things that wanted to stay forgotten.

Kasumi flashed a toothy smile and dismissed her graybox interface. "Anywho, good talking to you Grunt, but I've got a whole bunch more where that came from." She turned to go, fading from view again.

"Wait."

She was invisible now, but Grunt could smell her still in the room. "Yeah?"

"You remember things."

"Yup. Things I want to, anyway."

Grunt's eyes whirled in their sockets, trying to pick the thief out of her hiding place. He could smell her standing right in front of him, but of her form, there wasn't the merest shimmer – it was unnerving how perfectly her cloaking generator could conceal her. "Tell me how."

Kasumi was quiet for a moment, thinking. "Eh… Code words, usually," her voice said eventually. "Course, it helps to have a graybox."

Grunt grimaced. He'd heard the thief use her code words before – all strange human words that apparently brought out the files she wanted from the computer lodged in her head. "I do not have a graybox," he pointed out.

"Yeah, can't help you then." He could tell Kasumi was shrugging. "Keiji warned me my real brain would turn to mush when I got the 'box installed. Can't hardly remember anything without it anymore."

"I see," Grunt said, disappointed.

The door opened. "Still," Kasumi's voice continued, from somewhere in the door frame, "code words aren't a bad suggestion either way. Grayboxes use them as mnemonics, but the concept is the same with or without machine help. Just say words to yourself, words that remind you of the thing you want to remember. Could work."

Grunt stared into the empty hallway. "That sounds stupid. Words are empty."

Kasumi's voice shrugged again. "Can be useful, though." Then she was gone.

Grunt turned to plod back into the far end of the room, shaking his head in irritation. So much for that idea – the thief was no help at all. Words would not help him remember. Words were what Okeer had already given him, thousands upon thousands of words with nothing underneath them. Empty noises, just chatter. Words were stupid. Actions mattered. Purpose mattered.

Still, Grunt found himself staring at Tank Mother again, remembering the way Okeer's words had filtered through her to fill his head. He was a great warrior – the best warrior on the Normandy, and perhaps the entire galaxy – and yet he could count the number of battles he'd fought on his paltry six fingers. He was only (he calculated) four and a half standard months old. He had emerged from the womb deadly and powerful, strong enough to pass his rite and kill the maw and be accepted as a member of Clan Urdnot, despite his ignominious origins. For all he despised them, Okeer's words had accomplished something. They'd made Grunt strong, stronger than many krogan would ever be even if they lived five millennia.

He grimaced and, when another deep sniff confirmed the thief had truly left the room this time, cleared his throat.

It was worth a try.

"Grunt," he said, thinking of Okeer.

There was nothing. This was stupid.

He tried again. "Purpose."

Okeer began to speak in his mind, one of the angry lectures he'd heard so many times. The true krogan were a dying breed, diluted by fear and cowardice and the obsession with fertility. Coddled until they were mere paper thugs, not warriors, not true krogan. The krogan needed to reclaim the purity they'd lost.

Grunt dismissed the ramblings with an angry shake of his head. "Prototype."

Nothing.

"Allele."

To Grunt's astonishment, some of the fog parted, and he saw Okeer shouting at an asari. It was a memory, hazy and imprecise and yet clear enough for Grunt to know he'd never seen it conscious before. It was Korlus. Grunt could smell the leaking fuel, feel the harsh white sunlight. He could feel the insides of Okeer's mind too, how old he felt, how furious the asari's slowness made him. Grunt could not resolve any words, but he could tell they were arguing about Warlord Moro.

The memory faded as quickly as it had come, and Grunt licked his lips, encouraged. Maybe the thief wasn't so useless after all. He stared at Tank Mother again, picturing himself as Okeer, millennia older and bitterer. "Strength."

Another half-formed memory asserted itself.

Okeer, alone, hires mercenaries on Omega. They eye him with distaste, and he is forced to kill one. The others follow him then, but not out of loyalty.

"Purity."

On Korlus again. The asari was singing, while Okeer pretended to sleep. He would have shouted at her to get back to work, but it had been so long since he had heard singing.

"Honor."

Darkness. A red specter appears before Okeer, many-limbed and terrible in its vastness. Its voice fills Okeer's mind with poison.

"Warlord."

Tuchanka. Okeer is in hiding, but he hears the news of Canrum. He stoops and says a prayer for Shiagur.

"Perfection."

Okeer stares at Grunt in his Tank Mother. He is small, but growing fast. Unmarred skin and thick muscles. Five warlords and four thousand years of hard-won experience course through his tiny body. All of Okeer's work, culminated. He is perfect.

Grunt swallowed heavily. The memories were indistinct, still hazy, like something half out of a dream, but he was convinced of their realness. These were moments in Okeer's life, pulled into Grunt's mind along with all of the imprints. They were not supposed to be there, but there had been no cleaner way for Okeer to share his knowledge.

Grunt hesitated.

"Legacy."


515 years previously…

The landscape was craters, as far as the eye could see.

Okeer scanned the horizon. Even color-corrected by the optic-assist software in his spacesuit's visor, the asteroid was a bleak place. Sahrabarik's sunlight baked the pocked grey surface until it burned his eyes, but there was nothing to see by it – but for Okeer and his single-passenger ship, there was only emptiness.

He was alone.

This was to be a momentous occasion – the moment the krogan race would be reborn – and yet he alone would bear witness to it. None of his krannt would be by his side – most were dead, or had abandoned him over the long years. The other warlords – Shiagur, Moro, and Kodus – had joined Kredak in death (how foolish he'd been, to ever think he might finish in time to save them), hunted down and slain by the turians. And the ten thousand krogan that filled the five ships in orbit around Imorkan, the krogan he had spent so many years collecting from Tuchanka and a hundred other planets, from his own clan and from so many others…

(A thousand strong krogan with no siblings and clean plates. Two hundred with spotted palettes and six hundred with golden eyes. A thousand sterile females, twelve hundred ambidextrous, two thousand who had taken shots to the eyes and still saw. Seven hundred with smooth scales and pale armor, two hundred fifty sets of twins, a hundred sets of triplets. A thousand warriors who could run ten days without tiring, fourteen hundred with dark skin and light eyes, one hundred born with an extra toe on each foot.)

…they could not know what fate awaited them. If they knew the sacrifice they were about to make, they would kill him, and all would be lost. Okeer was alone in this.

He told himself again it would be worth it. It would all be worth it.

Okeer's omni-tool gave a ping of alarm and he turned (slowly, so as not to send himself flying in the low gravity) to see a piercing yellow light crest over the lip of a big crater a kilometer or so south of his position. His stomachs tightened uncomfortably – he had not seen one since Eophili. From this distance, he could not see the creature's spindly limbs or strange, mouthless face, but he knew it for a collector at once.

Okeer's fingers tightened on the grip of his gun as he watched the alien make its slow progress towards him. He had forgotten how much the collectors repulsed him. They were skilled fighters but passionless – just machines, just monsters. No soul. Less honor even than a turian. For the millionth time, he considered going back on his plan. He was a true krogan – he should not have been consorting with such creatures. One shot, and the collector would be dead, and he could lead his forces back home. Try to bring back the true krogan as Shiagur had, as Kredak had.

But even as the second thoughts clawed at his mind, Okeer did not draw his weapon. The drugs he'd taken a few hours ago (thrice the recommended dose) were doing their job, dulling his mind to the gravity of what he had to do. Steeling him. The guilt was there, as strong as always, but from behind the haze of chemicals it was distant and uninteresting, and Okeer could be strong in his moment of trial. He had come too far and sacrificed too much to turn back now.

The collector general came bounding into view. Its wings were a blur, but with no atmosphere to speak of it could not fly and was forced to lope over the craters in long, bouncing strides that might have been comical in another situation. It wore no spacesuit or breathing equipment of any kind, and it was unarmed, carrying only a large, chitinous pod that would have been too heavy to lift on a normal-sized planet. It was still glowing, its metal endoskeleton peeking red hot through rifts in its flesh. Okeer watched the flecks of burnt chitin trail off of its body with every step – soon it would burn away entirely, and Nazara would have to move to a new host.

Okeer did nothing as the collector scaled the last crater wall to come to a slow stop in the dusty soil before him. It stared at him with gleaming eyes.

"Ganar Okeer," it said, and its voice – Nazara's voice – thundered in Okeer's head. "You come with payment."

Okeer swallowed bile and nodded. He did not know if the collector could hear him – it didn't appear to be wearing any kind of communicator either – but he spoke. "I do," he said, listening to his own words reverberate in his helmet. "Ten thousand krogan. They are awaiting my command in orbit around the second planet of this system." He hesitated. "They do not know what awaits them."

Nazara did not answer, but the collector moved to place its cargo on the ground at Okeer's feet. Curious, Okeer set a gloved hand to the pod's surface – it was pitted and rocky, vaguely organic, like the skin of a rachni. It shuddered under his touch and split down the center, its shell parting to reveal an amber glow that matched the burning collector's eyes. Nestled amongst the glare inside were five identical contraptions that Okeer did not recognize. They were of alien construction, brown and scaly and bulbous, but he could see more commonplace wiring emerging in neat braids from the ends closest to him.

"Install one of these on each of your ships," Nazara's voice boomed again. "And use them to hail the red core relay."

"The Omega-4 relay?" Okeer asked, confused. He had heard tales of the Omega-4 relay in his time on Omega, scraping together the krogan he needed. It was supposed to be impossible to traverse.

Nazara did not answer him. "When all are delivered," its voice said instead, "return here for the power to remake your species."

Okeer swallowed hard. It was so close, now. All his work, all the things he had given up, it would all be worth it soon. He was so close.

And yet he knew that was a lie. Everyone knew the collectors traded unusual organics for technology, but technology was not the only thing he would need. He would need people to study it, to learn how it worked, to operate it for him. He would need test subjects, employees, a facility to work at, and mercs to protect it. It had taken him centuries to find Nazara's sacrifices, and it would take centuries more to remake the krogan.

And his entire race hated him. Called him "Offworlder". He would still need monumental resources to save his people, and yet if he set foot back on Tuchanka he would be dead within the hour. He would have to keep to the shadows, like an alien. Like an offworlder.

He ran a hand along the pod's lid. It was so alike the one in which he'd thrown Gaira. It was funny – he could barely remember his mate's face, now, but her death had never, ever left him. The guilt of his betrayal buzzed in his head next to Nazara's omnipresent thrum.

But he would not regret it.

Gaira was part of the price he had paid for the power to remake his species.

He looked up, and the collector was staring expectantly at him, waiting for him to agree.

"Agreed," he said.

The collector collapsed, boneless, and the light in its eyes extinguished. Okeer watched its remains tumble down into the crater in a silent avalanche of ash and dust.

Okeer closed the pod – it sealed itself easily under his push – and gathered it into his arms. As he walked back to his ship, he paused to give a long glance at the glimmer of red that was the Omega-4 relay. From half a system away it looked like little more than a reddish star, and yet to Okeer, it seemed as vast and sinister as Nazara himself.


Presently…

Grunt's eyes widened as he realized what he had seen.


Codex Entry: The Krogan Warlords

Throughout their known history, krogan have lived almost exclusively in small clans of blood-related individuals ruled by one or two clan leaders. Though they can survive on very little food, krogan of both sexes are nonetheless fiercely territorial, and are uncomfortable (and dangerously aggressive) at high population densities. Even small clans carve out and jealously guard vast territories of tens of thousands of square kilometers, and even as technological and cultural changes have made larger populations feasible, clans rarely exceed ten thousand individuals. Successful clans that grow too large almost invariably schism, fragmenting into smaller groups over disagreements over religion or leadership. The endless free-for-all between each clan and its neighbors has made the typical life on Tuchanka a brief, violent, disorganized affair, and that is just the way most krogan prefer it.

Occasionally, however, an exceptional krogan will rise from the ranks and unite multiple clans together under a single banner. Through diplomacy, military acumen, or simple brute force, countless krogan warlords have founded countless empires that changed the face of Tuchanka with their oorlocs. Historically, these empires were short-lived, as they would almost invariably expand too quickly to maintain control over their territories, but after first contact with the salarians involved the krogan in the Rachni Wars and, later, the Krogan Rebellions, the concept of fighting for a warlord became deeply ingrained in the species' collective psyche. Waging war against offworld threats demanded large-scale organization never before necessary in krogan military history, and – more importantly – aliens provided a common external threat and a convenient focus for the krogans' aggression. The lines of allegiance stopped their constant shifting, and krogan saw themselves less as rival clans and more as fellow krogan.

Seeking a force to defeat the rachni, in 81CE the salarians selected eight krogan warlords (those judged most amenable to diplomacy) to take offworld and groom for combat. The plan was for each warlord to manage an eighth of the krogan forces, and himself be managed by one of the Salarian Union's military units, but as the krogan population exploded into the hundreds of millions, all semblance of salarian control over krogan forces evaporated. The warlords began fighting amongst themselves as much as they fought the rachni, and the salarians' careful 8-way divisions were forgotten as the number of active warlords fluctuated wildly throughout the war. Salarian forces, recognizing the threat of unchecked krogan military advancement, attempted several times to reclaim oversight over the warlords, but after numerous assassination attempts, bribes, and threats failed to repair the situation, asari diplomats convinced the Union to stand back and let the krogan handle the war their way. Though this policy set the stage for the Rebellions, the krogan way proved spectacularly effective – even distracted fighting one another, the krogan were relentless soldiers and led dozens of simultaneous campaigns across the galaxy, scouring for rachni colonies to slaughter. As the warlords came to prove their prestige by who could cause the most destruction, their methods became more and more extreme, and the rachni were declared extinct in 300CE.

The Rachni Wars were winding to a close when Kredak rose to power. Kredak – or the Great Lowlander, as many krogan came to call him – was born to the Ghodot clan in the lowlands of Tuchanka's western landmass. He proved to be an unusually gifted strategist in matters both political and military, and quickly carved out an empire on his homeworld with a combination of careful trading of krannt members, breeding alliances, and military might. With the other warlords occupied by the rachni and one another, it took Kredak less than a decade to conquer the entirety of Tuchanka and begin moving against them. Asari and salarians, wary of the other warlords' increasingly dangerous behavior, welcomed the arrival of the relatively even-headed Kredak, and assisted him in bringing the other krogan to heel. Over the course of a century, Kredak challenged and defeated each of the other warlords, until, by the time the Rebellions began in 691CE, he was effectively the sole leader of the entire krogan species. Critical to Kredak's success was his rare gift for making enemies into allies – in a gross violation of the traditional kovas krogan battle etiquette, each warlord Kredak defeated was offered the chance to join his krannt, and left to run their own vast armies in his name. The warlords Shiagur, Kodus, and Okeer – all of whom would become infamous during the Rebellions – all joined Kredak in this manner, and by all accounts showed him great loyalty.

It was Kredak who ultimately initiated the Rebellions after the events on Lusia, and it was Kredak's forces that fought the rest of the galaxy to a standstill. Turian war historians name Kredak and his chief advisor Okeer in their records of the best military commanders in history (they are two of only eighteen non-turians to be honored in this way). Kredak's legacy is respected not only for his military accomplishments, but for, in the wake of the genophage, his ability to keep the krogan united and fighting through decades of increasingly-bleak news. Though academics cite his political significance, in the public imagination Kredak is most remembered for his policy of targeting opposing military leaders and their families himself, and the gruesome array of trophies he had collected by the time of his death – trophies that included no fewer than three matriarchs and four Hierarchy exarchs. Kredak tore a bloody swathe across much of the galaxy, until the arrival of the turians and the deploying of the genophage in 710CE ultimately turned the tide against him.

The circumstances of Kredak's death are controversial. Most krogan and turian sources agree he perished in 815CE in the Battle of Eophili, when the turian Hierarchy accidentally crashed a frigate atop the command center where Kredak was attempting to assassinate Exarch Panthus (whether or not the crash was intentional remains hotly debated). Asari sources, however, maintain he was killed by commandoes three days later in a daring sabotage mission in the Niagolon system. Krogan typically reject this account as it implies both that Kredak died in space (generally considered an ignoble death for a krogan) and that he'd had a body double on Eophili, but debate continues to this day (most historians agree that one of the Kredaks was most likely a lookalike imposter attempting to capitalize on Kredak's fame). Whether it occurred on Eophili or Niagolon, however, Kredak's death marked a turning point in the Krogan Rebellions.

In the wake of Kredak's death, four warlords – Okeer, Shiagur, Moro, and Kodus – remained, and quickly fragmented back into their own individual empires, making them easy pickings for Hierarchy forces. Okeer, who'd been in command of the krogan fleet at Eophili, ultimately disappeared with his forces, and played no further role in the conflict. Kodus spearheaded a reckless assault on Silaxti, deep in turian space, in retribution for Kredak's death. His forces killed nearly a third of the planet's population – mostly noncombatants – before being routed and retreating to Tuchanka to regroup. Kodus recruited a new, smaller force and struck out again in 822CE, only to die to turian forces on Tatria. Shiagur called a crush on Botaz and attempted to rebuild Kredak's alliances from the few krogan clans that remained. She waged a relatively successful campaign through the Attican Traverse, until she eventually perished at the Battle of Canrum in 824CE. The forces remaining to Warlord Moro were too small to do any real damage, and were slaughtered alongside him in 825CE by a turian tank push on Veles in what was to be the war's last – and perhaps most one-sided – battle.

There is continued debate over whether any of the warlords left living descendants. Shiagur almost certainly did – she was famous for her apparent resistance to the genophage and for mating male clan leaders in exchange for military alliances. No evidence exists for surviving offspring of Moro, Kodus, Okeer, or Kredak himself, however – all four were rendered sterile by the genophage. This has not stopped thousands of krogan from claiming descent from one or more warlords, but these individuals are largely written off as attempting to gain mystique to improve the demand for their services as mercenaries or bodyguards.

A/N: I return, with the quickest turnaround I've had in almost four years!

This is the last chapter I wrote for Interstitium. Originally I had cut it and tried to condense some of its major points into the surrounding chapters, but once I'd gotten to the end I realized that if I left it alone Grunt would be the only squaddie who never got an entire chapter to himself (having shared chapter 9 with Kal'Reegar). That was an injustice for which I could not stand, and so here we are.

In case there is any confusion, the Okeer flashback in chapter 20 takes place in between the first and second flashbacks in this chapter. Also, those of you who read the game's planet descriptions might have been wondering how Kredak could have died at both Eophili and Niagolon. I wrote about Eophili all the way back in chapter 17, and the Niagolon story was released with ME3's galaxy map some time later, so I decided to throw in some historical confusion to accommodate the discrepancy. Artistic license.

Anywho, insert all the usual gratitude here. Chapter 29 shall feature an awesome, awesome character who has been waiting the entire story for his own POV. I hope to publish it in the next week. As before, harass me if I don't.

Four to go…