Chapter 63

"I see." the Illusive man glowered with disappointment almost palpable. He and Elena at his side had listened to the wounded Kai Leng who now communicated with them via a portable QEC – Quantum Entanglement Communicator – from Tuchanka, a medic tending to the man with very directed dedication to the point of ignoring anything they said.

The regional anti-orbital cannon had been lost to the enemy. The bomb he wanted set off stolen away at the last moment. And all of their infiltrators among the krogan ranks had been silenced in rapid succession.

All of this so soon after Shepard arrived, courtesy also of his kalinin allies.

The Illusive man's gaze fell into the glass of wine he pensively held, frustration building up on the extent to which Zeus Project had failed and backfired on him, and ruthlessly crushed the feeling as he looked back up and shot Kai Leng a neon-blue glare.

"Where are you currently?"

"Deep inside the ruins just beyond the perimeter set up by the reapers, sir." the assassin responded with head held low. "I have marshaled all remaining on-world forces to intercept krogan forces when they arrive. We will trap Shepard along with his allies between us and the reapers. It is... as optimal a strategy for their destruction as I can imagine with what resources I have on hand."

"So it is." the Illusive man rumbled, though with class as he took a sip of wine. "Do whatever it takes to stop them from releasing the cure – that is your primary objective."

The wounded man bowed as deeply as he could manage, "It will be done!"

Communication was shut off, and he looked to Elena. "What is the status of group IG-64?"

She looked over the data-pad in hand, "They should arrive at Sur'Kesh within the next day."

"Any complication so far?"

"None. Their information network has merit, but cannot wholly compete with the reaper algorithms we employ."

Pleased, the Illusive man took another sip. "Good. Though the dalatrass' formidable reluctance to commit the Union's forces to the war is a real boon to our cause, it is best to make sure this state of mind remains – permanently."

And we will have her removed and replaced with an infiltrator to make it so.

Gaalsarc Usorc was meticulous as he ran a final check on the roster as his and all other available shuttles departed from the freighter they had so briefly used from here to Sur'Kesh and back again.

Casualties were expected, but not to such treachery. Nakmor Uvenk and Ravanor Suruk dead. Two battle masters and their krantts crushed by Cerberus. Add the other losses they sustained by the enemy's underhanded methods and a lot less returned home than left it.

No one envied his newly appointed position as leader of the ninth battalion, but Usorc did not mind it. In fact, he relished it. The ninth's job is to stay in the rear and repulse any Cerberus interference over the course of the operation.

After what happened on Sur'Kesh, nothing would please him more than the opportunity to dole out some pain to those secretive bastards.

Looking forward to exactly that, the ancient battle master zoned out what came in over the speakers. A speech led by Warlord Wrex as the final preparations continued. Elders such as himself did not need it to stay motivated, it was mostly for younger warriors that almost universally hung onto every word.

The difference was obvious, as the young never knew a time when the genophage did not hang over their heads and so could not properly imagine how it was without it – but the elders do, and want more than most to see it gone.

Usorc looked out the window, looking tentatively for the shuttles that carried his 'lieutenants' of the ninth; Gatatog Asul and Quash Tosc – the latter whom was robbed of the chance to fight on Sur'Kesh and wanted nearly as much payback against Cerberus as he himself did.

Once they rendezvous with the ninth, they will all get that chance.

That leaves just one little issue.

Shikamaru tried to keep his groans to himself as he gazed a hawkish stare out the canopy, and occasionally the radar – though it was very unreliable in this instance. The Reapers were a known quantity already, strangely enough. They did not hide so much or conceal their intentions, and for that alone he found little reason but appreciate them.

Cerberus however is a different quantity altogether. That they now have wide access to stealth ships and has gotten a whole lot more sneaky in their dealings did not sit well with him at all. Who knows how many of their ships are supporting their planet-side troops. Crafts that could zip out of the night and put a round through their comparatively antiquated Lance of the Six Paths without the remotest chance of a response.

All he could count on was for the Illusive man to want them back in a lab for study rather than vaporize them. Except that, their continued safety relied on the much more advanced Normandy that remained with them – the krogan-owned freighter on the other hand didn't count. Like them it was just a big target.

"Where are they?!" Onoki shouted in a commanding tone as he marched into the bridge and sat his diminutive frame on the comparatively sizable captain's seat. "Where are the turians?"

Then there's that. Primarch Victus' promised air support hasn't materialized yet. But that friend of Shepard, Wrex, decided to give the operation the go-ahead anyway. Either that is par for the course about krogan, or the presence of jinchuriki are making him confident. Despite that, having air support is better than be without it.

Shikamaru involuntarily shivered at the memory of their end war, and privately wondered if it could have gone differently if they had had some decent air force.

"It would seem that they have been delayed." Nagato communicated his response through Deva path, most of its attention on the communications' console.

"By what?" Onoki growled, folding his arms. "That is what I want to know."

"Haven't got a clue. I'll try to ask the Primarch again... Should I tell him his son's in good health as well?"

"In all likelihood he's already aware."

Shikamaru rolled his eyes, thinking on all the news received so far. And admittedly, that Temari had some painful flashbacks down there came to him as an entirely unsurprising development. A huge sand-covered wasteland so much like what the land of wind turned into after the geth invasion started, of course something would happen.

Maybe it was Nagato's intent to make her loosen up.

That was just conjecture, and he was in no hurry to ask for clarification. It was too much of a drag.

"Hold it a sec, I need to make a call!" Mei loudly declared as she came and pushed her way into the bridge almost faster than the door could slide open.

Every path along with Onoki regarded her placidly from almost every direction while she stormed for Deva path, or more exactly the console it sat at. "You look like you got some beast snapping at your heel." Nagato murmured with a curious glance, "What seems to be the problem?"

"We need a shuttle." she put her hands on hips and glared sternly, "Is any of our teams down there available?"

"... Kakashi's team completed their mission a while ago. They're just staying with the Primarch's son until..."

"Tell them to come back up here, now."

Onoki glared and elected to speak up here, "May I ask why?"

"Just do it, we got an emergency on our hands."

Looks were exchanged before Deva path obliged and established contact, "Team Kakashi, this is the Lance of the Six Paths, do you read me?"

A short moment passed before the man's drawl of a voice erupted from the speakers. "Team Kakashi here. What's up?"

"We got a situation." Mei leaned over Deva path's shoulder, "Could you disengage and come back up here post-haste?"

"Uh," the Jonin replied like his attention pulled away to everywhere else. "what kind of situation?"

"We got a newly awakened one in an extremely foul mood. Come up and take him to the surface before he tears the infirmary and all else adjacent to it apart. Kisame's trying to restrain him, and I'd rather not let him resort to the samehada..."

All else winced, and Onoki shot Shikamaru a meaningful look. "Boy, get down there and lend the poor guy a hand. Nagato, take his seat."

Twin affirmatives replied. Shikamaru more than willing to surrender his seat to the Animal path – on his way out as Kakashi made his reply:

"Understood, but let me tell Tarquin to hunker down first."

Shikamaru was secretly glad to have left the bothersome tension behind, barely able to hear Mei's grateful response as he hurried down the corridor. That relief however died when he got to the infirmary... and found out who Kisame's practically fighting in there.

Sufficed to say, the pilot's seat's attractiveness grew by an order of magnitude.

"Move out!" the rough voice boomed from all speakers, responded to by the roaring voice of hundreds as well as the growl of great columns after more columns of heavy vehicles that made ground-based engines of war made by the others most diminutive by comparison, predominantly Tomkahs, thundered out from the bowels of the Hollows. And even greater a noise as Wrex put the punctuation to his speech; "We got reapers that needs killing!"

Dust and sand were kicked into the air as the massive carpet of armored vehicles left the one piece of neutral ground of Tuchanka behind, the corpses of long-dead synthetics crushed beneath their large wheels and wreckage smashed aside. A massive formation that slowly split into three separate forces, two regiments apiece. Each headed in a different direction, but all with one destination in mind.

Temari watched idly, with her gun-headed fan kept close, from the back of the lead Tomkah, as Shepard paced back and forth, speaking to the Primarch whose voice carried uninhibitedly through the compartment.

"Primarch, we need those fighters."

"And you will have it, commander." Victus replied in utter regret. "The forces sent from Palaven were... delayed... by reaper traffic."

Mordin shrugged, greeting this piece of news with a complete absence of surprise. Temari understood why, though inexperienced with this new world she had awoken to. It was the fault of those mass relays, gigantic bottlenecks that narrows space travel for both good and ill.

"How much longer?" Shepard asked the inevitable question. "We are already on the move. Those cruisers got an hour at most before we arrive at the target area."

"You will have it around that time." the Primarch swore, "That I swear!"

"... It better," the commander said with no hard feelings attached. "we won't be able to sustain the offensive for long enough to accomplish the mission without them."

"The Hierarchy cannot afford to see you fail, Shepard." absolute solemnity saturating Victus' tone, "They will be there."

Shepard eased his finger off the earpiece, "Wrex. Is there anything we should know about the area around the shroud?"

"Nothing much to tell." Eve answered for him, "It is the site of an ancient city that date all the way back to the time before we invented nuclear weapons. It still stands, built solidly in the presence of a beast that lives in the sandy seas of the region – one that could now be considered... a navigational hazard."

"What kind of hazard?"

"Kalros." Wrex answered with a little grin, "In all the galaxy, there is no thresher maw greater. It is the wrath of Tuchanka personified. It was the whole reason the Shroud was erected there."

"A thresher maw..." Shepard wasn't too enthused. "How was the city built if it is that Kalros' nesting ground?"

"Maybe there was a whole lot of mountains to build stuff on... Bah, how should I know?"

"It doesn't matter how it was built." Eve shook her head sadly, "But it represents what the krogan used to be, what I hope that we can become again."

Temari tuned out their conversation as it continued onto thoughts of plans and politics for the future. Her attention instead fully diverted onto the closer Javik when he produced a derisive snort, "What it represents, is no more than the monument of a failed species."

It came as a low whisper, so it attracted no attention from the conversational participants over yonder. "A bumpy history doesn't make them a failure, Javik." she told him with slight indignance, locking her gaze with his, or at least two of his eyes.

"Do you speak... from experience?" he lazily jibed.

"Not with entire species," Temari quietly admitted. "But I have seen my share of people I deemed to be failures, only to be taken aback at what they could do."

"Is that so?" Javik rolled his eyes.

"In case of point... Naruto."

This time, she got a reaction more to her liking. Yes, one of our reaper-killers.

"When I first saw him, he was just a weakly nobody. A pathetic failure of a shinobi. But then he beat my brother who all of us thought was an invincible monster." she sighed, "My point is... that the krogan is a failure is no more than an opinion. Yes, they've had a troublesome history. Yes, they live amidst ruins. But their dreams are real, their ambitions are real, their strengths are real, their determination... is real. Despite all their hardship, they still remain unbroken. And they may yet still surprise us."

"How deep." the alien cocked his head slightly to the side, chuckling under his breath. "Very well, we shall see. Won't we?"

Temari nodded, and flinched as something in the back suddenly fired sparks into the compartment, followed by indignant curses from their driver.

"What the hell?" Wrex growled in blunt irritation at the inconvenience. "Did you not do a checkup before we left?"

"I did." the driver insisted, staring back at the damage from the periphery of his vision, "Doesn't look serious though. Someone take over for me and I will have it fixed!"

Before anyone could react, Shepard had already volunteered, and quickly switched seat with the driver who stomped back through the vehicle – ignorant of what he had just set loose. Mordin immediately fastened his seat belt, and told Eve to do the same. Simultaneously, sensing an overwhelming sensation of ominous dread, both Javik and Temari followed suit – all done in the space of a couple of seconds while Wrex turned pale and whipped around with arm raised, his expression colored by undisguised trepidation:

"Shepard, don't!"

Kai Leng observed the ancient city from the uppermost floor of an outlying structure in utter silence, granting a commanding view most of what will soon become a battlefield, his forces making full use of underground passages to move into the area relatively unnoticed.

Neither of the forces before him invested nearly as much in subtlety as already a large cloud could be seen rolling in over the horizon, courtesy of the encroaching krogan forces.

In response, a large army of husks began to seep into the open. Dozens of packs with multitudes of husks, cannibals and marauders swarmed through the streets followed by many brutes and the insect-like ravagers.

Harvesters flew in from the shroud to deposit even more troops on the city 'isles' that would soon be besieged, among them stout and many-legged constructs that might be their equivalent of tanks. The things looked like a twisted mishmash of species like those brutes, with krogan and rachni as the primary components. There were also a few Oculus in the air, though those kept themselves in the vicinity of the shroud itself – around which the three Destroyers still on the planet huddled. Guarding it while receiving hasty repairs to damaged sections.

There was one surprise however, when one of the destroyers suddenly rose to the air and started a slow advance through the city on a heading not directed at the krogan mechanized forces. Kai Leng wondered what it might be planning, but whatever it was could only be beneficial to Cerberus' goal.

No matter what, this has to become a win.

She has been trying to take a short nap for a while, but it seemed the world was dead-set to not let her take the moment to rest.

Nearly forty minutes had passed. And nearly as long since that odd rumor of the lead Tomkah that somehow, and very briefly, shrugged off reality for long enough to do a barrel roll circulated, and was settled with measured nods of acceptance like it was supposed to make sense just because Shepard's the one at the wheel.

Not even further reports of insane heavy vehicular acrobatics did more than raise the volume of the warriors' collective amusement. Disbelief did not even register in their minds nor features at all.

Hinata blinked in vague perplexity hidden behind a polite smile as the extremely heavily armed, grim, and rugged warriors they shared this Tomkah with – each covered all over by almost as much armor as the APC around them did – laughed raucously at simple gossip.

"Really?!" Naruto just chimed in, he had also been swept up by the current mood – almost jumping in his seat as he addressed a haggard krogan of Urdnot old enough to be his thirteen plus great grandfather's grandfather.

"It is." the krogan chuckled heartily. "Our Warlord told us of that sturdy Mako Shepard once had, and which he several times had the utter displeasure of riding. Rumor has it, that the thing was not made to withstand harsh environments, heavy firepower or even drops from mountaintops. It was made to withstand him. And because it could withstand Shepard, it could breeze through all that other shit."

The mental image was enough to make both Naruto and nearby krogan to almost burst at the hilarity of it. Hinata did her best not to roll her eyes, and continued to smile politely, and felt their ride slow down. They had most likely reached the canyon.

The formation they're with are supposed to flank the reaper forces, but unfortunately this would take them through a rather treacherous canyon they needed to get through as fast as its narrow path allows. Traveling through it would not take long, but still enough to make one uneasy. The hope is that the reapers won't budge from the shroud till they force them to.

"Is there no way around?" one of the warriors further down wondered. "I feel like a sitting varren."

Their driver shrugged, "If we had a couple of bridges to cross, we would've."

"No enemy in sight. Push forward." Wreav broadcast through the intercom. "We will do our duty or die in the attempt!"

"Dying's too inconvenient." Naruto said, scrunching up his face at the severe tone. "Fight and live on I say."

Hinata giggled softly, and one of the krogan called out a sincere; "Hear, hear."

It was a largely uneventful ride for the longest time. The tension of it was almost unbearable. However, despite all expectations for something to crop up, when something finally and suddenly impacted against the armor behind her and across the vehicle's length, all inside nearly jumped to the ceiling. Her byakugan instantly active, she probed for whatever just hit them... and found it to be a smattering of synthetics, primarily brutes, that had just burst out of a crevice in the cliff wall. A brute force attack like one can expect from such units, but instead of scattering to sow chaos... these grappled with their Tomkah and lifted its side clean off the ground.

Orders were barked, and the turrets of the nearest two swiveled to face the alien synthetics.

They were nowhere fast enough, and the synthetics managed to flip their vehicle over the edge, and even attached a bomb to its belly just before the drop that blinked ominously. "N-Naruto.." Hinata warned in a rising voice as she reflexively let the three-tailed beast's chakra leak out and envelop her in response to the very real danger amidst the temporary bout of weightlessness as their Tomkah plummeted into the rapids far below, just a second before the explosive went off and tore the undercarriage apart in a small but cataclysmic ball of fire and shrapnel.

She only barely was able to see Naruto follow her example before the fact, and was forcefully taken away and washed downstream from the wreckage and those who had tragically died with it without resistance. The rapids too strong as, demon cloak or not, the explosion had thrown her about the breaking compartment and the rocks outside the vehicle before the rapids really took her.

Hinata slipped in and out of consciousness for what felt like minutes, powerless to stop from being swept further along till she finally regained the presence of mind to reactivate her byakugan – having momentarily lost the concentration to maintain it when the bomb blew – to look for Naruto, and found him drifting in nearly the same state some thirty feet behind her, on the verge of stage two. His body barely visible under the visage of his cloak.

Motivated by the sighting, she at last tried to fight back against the stream and struggled to adhere her hands to the water's surface in order to double back to him... but not before her immediate vicinity suddenly lost a whole lot of water, replaced instead by a thick mist of vapor.

A waterfall... really?

The realization struck her with sheer totality of resignation, and she hit solid ground after at least three dozen feet of free fall – apparently the only patch of flat ground in the canyon, the river's continuation no more than five feet to her left.

"Oh... shi-!" came Naruto's exclamation as he too fell and landed not far behind, the girl wincing as his face twisted into a huge grimace as the spot just had to include a protruding rock that struck him in the solar plexus, knocking all the wind out of him. Cloak or not, such an awkward landing had to hurt. "... Owww."

Soaking wet from the bath, water pooled steadily onto the ground from her clothes and hair as she pushed herself up on all four and made the effort to crawl on over, "Are you okay, Naruto?"

"Y-yeah." the boy she loved whimpered, and rolled himself off the stone – clutching his belly. "I'll sleep it off. But damn it," he cracked the ground open with a backhanded strike, "couldn't do anything to help those guys. This... just takes the piss."

Hinata said nothing, just watched him sadly.

"... Was it a trap?"

"I suppose it was." she hypothesized in a quiet tone, "Those husks targeted our vehicle alone, and I'm guessing they were destroyed right after. Maybe it was meant to separate us from the rest."

"Maybe we should of gone on foot..." he sighed lamentably.

"T-too late for that now." Hinata said as a shadow fell across the area, followed by a tremor that shook the cliff walls as the massive visage of a destroyer edged into view and settled down atop the canyon, three of four legs planted against the top of either walls, while the other hung almost lazily. Mottled black like the rest of its kind, it stood in violent contrast to all around it as it glared morosely down at them.

Expecting an attack from its glaring red-lit cannon to be imminent, both teens rushed to stand – their cloaks doubling in density and power in a burst of adrenaline.

Yet for all their immediate preparations to defend themselves, the machine did nothing. It did not move. Did not even emit one of the booming cries that the reapers are so fond of doing. Instead all it did was stare, till it raised its one hanging limb up in the air and thrust it to the ground that split it apart and sent a tremor across the area.

The Jinchuriki rebalanced themselves, befuddled by the seemingly random act.

It struck the ground a second time, then a third. Each stomp followed by a dramatic pause.

"Is it... challenging us?" Hinata wondered.

Naruto grinned, "Huh, why not? Prey so rarely declare itself..."

By the time of the fourth stomp, the whole canyon had begun to tremble as if in response. It was however not the reaper's product alone. It began as a low rumble that steadily grew as the fifth and sixth stomps followed until it had turned into a fully blown earthquake, and violently climaxed as the side of the cliff on the right subsequently exploded into a magnificent shower of rock and dirt.

From this spectacle, a shape pushed its head into the open, revolting in its utter hideousness. A creature of titanic proportions, worm-like in its shape except with numerous bony extensions with a sharp tip, and probing at its environment with an elongated tongue that glowed a fierce blue.

"Uh... what is this?" the boy asked, gawking blankly at the monstrosity.

"I," the Hyuga likewise stared, "honestly have no idea."

During this chaos, the Destroyer bid a hasty liftoff and withdrew, leaving the monster to probe around till it faced the kalinin below it, emitted a bone-splitting territorial shriek, and unhesitatingly charged with a speed incongruous to its great size and tonnage.

It couldn't be any more inconvenient... as the horizon started to echo with the distant thunder of heavy guns – the Battle for the Shroud had begun.

Temari decided she hated this situation...

Not because they were now in the middle of a massed pitched battle with the reapers, but because ever since that time when Shepard briefly held the wheel, she has been desperate to fight down a rampant case of nausea. She hated that, the Tomkahs, and Shepard's physics-defying driving skills.

It was nearly an hour where practically every second was spent actively making sure her breakfast stayed in her stomach, and made her generally unaware of what else went on around her. Only vaguely being able to even hear words about all companies being in position, except the Tomkah that the couple took off with had been derailed... meaning her friends would be delayed.

She was also barely able to hear as the haggard Warlord roared a call for all units to commence attack, and the inevitable hustle and bustle as their vehicle was pushed to the utmost and raced into the ancient city via as many roads as possible – which made perfect sense. The roar of guns and warriors both distant and near raised to a whole new volume as columns after columns of armored vehicles tore into what's left of the city's initial streets, fought off initial resistance and disgorged their exceedingly heavily armed passengers.

Shepard had clapped her on the shoulder as he popped the hatch and stepped outside with Javik at his heels, leaving her and the others.

It took no more than a minute of dizziness from the ride to feel like the big Shukaku in the room, exchanged a glance with the more or less mildly annoyed and bemused female krogan, who did not even bat an eye at the occasional bullet that bounced off the Tomkah's armor, before she finally got up and bailed with her fan in tow.

Once outside, Temari hobbled over to a nearby rock and sat down to fight down the sense of nausea-induced revulsion that still haunted her, bluntly ignoring all that went on around her as more Tomkahs came rolling in and spilled out additional bodies for the grinder. Time temporarily losing its meaning as the girl struggled to center herself – ignoring all the sounds of battle in doing so as it moved further into the city, through the interior of the pyramidal structures, to the streets outside, to the long bridges that spanned between each rocky island.

In its own way, this battle made the one at Menae relatively sedate in comparison, despite the difference in scale.

"Next time... pills." Temari groaned softly at length, "Uh. No... not pills. No vehicle. I'll wreck the next ground vehicle I'm asked to board, you see if I don't... Urgh... shouldn't even have this downtime at all. Damn. You. Shepard... you and your abomination of a double Immelmann turn."

What a mess.


Temari looked up to see Mordin crouch down by her with a pill in hand, held up to her. She eyed it apprehensively and asked groggily a terse; "Huh?"

"For your health. Best not fight in such a state. Swallow. Do not chew."

A moment passed, and she finally accepted and veritably tossed the pill down her gullet with a resounding gulp to accompany it, "W-where were you this last hour?"

"In my seat." he smart-arsed flippantly, though he slightly smiled at her resulting brief loathing expression. "If doctor nearby. Asking if sick better than doing nothing."

"I'll take that," Temari muttered, feeling her head clear up a little bit. "under advisement. Thanks."

"Glad to help." he shrugged and stood as Wrex stepped out of the Tomkah, the entire formation about to move slowly into the city as reportedly the first couple of blocks had been taken and secured already. "Need to head back."

She nodded, and slowly rose as he went back and boarded the vehicle to rejoin Eve. That warlord on the other hand decided to foot it alongside the most recently arrived pair of battalions.

"Guess," the girl started as she rose up to join the throng, feeling rather better now. "I'll go ahead too, and find me a few heads to break."

"Not the most ideal scenario, but it should work."

Kai Leng watched the spectacle, analyzing it for pattern in the chaos. This Warlord Wrex did seem to have the brains about him to avoid having his army travel in a single mass and instead attack the city from as many directions as possible.

He had already discerned a weakness though, and opened a channel to his forces that now only waited for his command to strike. "This is it. Win here and there will most likely be no krogan intervention."

Such an affirmation was lost on the majority of Cerberus' army, being mostly brainwashed colonists, but Kai Leng decided he did not care about so little a detail. They would protect Cerberus' interests all the same. There were no other choice on the table.

"As said before, your objective is to destroy as many of their heavy vehicles as possible. The more of those they have, the better a chance to dislodge the reapers. That... must be prevented." he gazed across the outskirts, "While some elements of this strength of theirs have moved in to support the advance of their troops, most of the Tomkahs have been massed on the outskirts to avoid losses."

A distant boom of noises announced the brazen approach of the lone reaper he saw earlier as it returned and homed toward the massed krogan with deadly intent, and not a small amount of apparent confidence. It set down close to the central formation with its cannon blazing at the troops below.


Kai Leng rapidly drew a number of target areas, strung them together and relayed the data to his troops. "Attack is a go!" he ordered sharply. "Destroy all targets!"

Exits on a number of the ancient structures burst open as the forces deep within brought themselves to the surface with an otherwise silent menace, hordes of Orcus mechs pouring out first to cover for more specialized anti-tank units.

Very soon, an already chaotic situation turned to bedlam.

Wrex winced as the Destroyer that just ambled onto the scene made another of those deafening roars while he blasted yet another of the all too plentiful Cannibals, with a grenade tossed to it for good measure as more like it swarmed in to feast on the fallen creature – tearing them all to pieces. The huge reaper had come only moments before, smashing buildings under its weight as it landed and waded through the fire hurled at it while handing out its own.

In a moment of agility, he rolled back over the cover that used to be an ancient statue behind him to rejoin Shepard, who was busy with a finger to his ear – trying to shout over the incessant noise of gunfire and slaughter all around them as reaper and krogan armies crashed against one another in a battle that was just one step short of an all-out brawl. That four-eyed freak Shepard brought along was positioned more to the side, laying down a constant stream of fire with his strange rifle, killing each husk that entered his sight with practiced rapidity.

No sooner had the blasted reaper come before he ordered Eve's column to fall back as a security precaution. So that was at least one worry out of the way. But...

"Are we ever going to see the air support that damned primarch offered this century?"

Shepard raised an eyebrow at him and nodded reassuringly, "Just gotten word, the cruisers are finally here and are launching fighters."

"Finally." Wrex grumbled under his breath, treating the gigantic Destroyer that just stomped gingerly into view – filling the entirety of the street and beyond with its bulk, its beam bisecting a stray Tomkah in a single sweep of its beam – with no more severity than he would offer to a brat. "How long?"

"A few minutes at least." the nonchalance was infective as Shepard also shrugged off the machine's presence. "We'll have four wings. Hopefully that will be enough."

"It's gonna be close." he tapped his earpiece, "Fifth, get this thing off of us."

For a response, fire and shrapnel burst across the reaper's side seconds later as a number of vehicle-mounted guns hammered it from far away. It made the thing turn its ruby-flaring cannon away from the street in search for the gnats that tried to be more than just a minor source of annoyance.

"If only those kids weren't swept away by that river..."

"Maybe it wouldn't be here if they weren't." Shepard answered him, wincing as the destroyer fired its weapon – the volleys thrown at it lessening. "If it's as strong as claimed, they probably need time to get back."

"Damned opportunist." Wrex scowled at its nearest leg, having smashed a long since dried up well underfoot. "Great. Anyway, we best divert and join with the western flank while we ca-"

"Incoming!" Shepard cried out and pushed him down, as theirs and several other makeshift positions were heavily shelled, and their forces' general advances slowed to a halt by the arrival of several swooping shapes of harvesters that crashed onto the street and unloaded a greater number of husks, along with one of their bizarre tanks that hurled hurled biotically charged shells downrange.

Wrex growled under his breath, finger motioning to his earpiece to signal a tactical retreat and reposition when the air shifted as the only prelude to a huge tornado that suddenly blasted horizontally past their position, bringing with it scores of dead husks, debris and pebbles. Likewise, it barreled through the formation up ahead, the cutting winds lashed and tore husks apart, ripped wings off harvesters, and even threw the tank up and into the air like a toy.

The tornado continued its destructive course until it slammed with all of its strength, with all its contents for additional force, into the reaper's aforementioned leg and knocked it off the well for sufficient a distance that the whole machine stumbled – making its latest shot at the fifth miss by an estimated wide margin, accidentally slicing a harvester late to the party from the air along with its deadly cargo.

"It would seem," Shepard wryly said as in the middle of the street, a blond girl walked like she owned it – brazenly eying the reaper as it straightened, ignoring the additional volleys of heavy shells that struck and was promptly washed off its barrier. The huge fan she used for a weapon folded and held against her back by the elbows, "that our reinforcements has arrived."

Chuckling, he pressed his earpiece. "All units, if we don't take this thing down – it's all over. Keep up the pressure, and keep those husks off the girl here!"

A chorus of affirmatives answered his call, and the attacks stepped up across the line as if the destroyer wasn't even there. Static crackled into his ear, along with the voice of the colonel he chose for the eastern force – who sounded gravely alarmed. Wrex suspected the worst.

"Warlord, we are under heavy Cerberus attack! They are taking out our vehicles!"

"Then I expect you to keep them from destroying any more!" he growled harshly, "Call in the ninth to support you, now!"

"Aye." the colonel hissed in frustrations as the explosion in the background came closer, "Doing!"

"Shepard, air support. Now would be good."

"They're coming as fast as they can, Wrex." Shepard was reading his omni-tool with focused concentration, "I can't make them fly any faster." his eyes then narrowing when he caught something. "... What the?"

Wrex was nonchalant in his resignation, ignoring the bullets that flew by or clashed with his barrier as he observed the ongoing battle, his forces doing an admirable job making sure those husks don't even get close to Temari. "What now?"

"We got an unscheduled shuttle incoming. Up high."

He directed his squinted gaze to the sky, and spotted a dot just barely. Puzzlement crossing his mind. "A shuttle? Who the hell is coming?"

A few years ago, she would have balked at the mere thought of facing an opponent of this size. Especially as the only thing that approximated the size of the destroyer that loomed over her now back then amounted to the terrifying visage of the Shukaku, the same thing sealed into her armor now.

It was... rather strange a notion, come to think of it.

"I guess this is what some would call a baptism of fire." Temari commented, walking unharmed through the chaos as the krogan did an admirable job to keep the things on the ground away from her. "I'd call it something else, but you're probably not interested in anything I say." she continued and unfolded her giant fan to its fullest extent – all three moons exposed.

In a heavy situation, she'd normally try to summon a sickle weasel to do the damage needed. But with all summoned animals back on their home world supposedly extinct, she had no choice but to rely on her own strength... and that of the Shukaku.

The reaper's silence was most telling as it fully turned to face her, the angry glare given by the ruby-red lens making her eyes water as it grew brighter.

She was not at all confident about the making of a demon cloak yet, even less a partial transformation. So before she even decided on the only course of action available, had already sent herself into a full run with head kept low. Not away from the reaper, and not directly toward it... instead she ran for the not-so distant slanted wall to the right, with sweat covering her back in moments as the air behind her turned a bloody red, and just as hot as it looked in the periphery of her vision. Even worse, the beam that just extended from the reaper followed her.

With just a moment to spare, Temari reached the wall and transferred chakra to the soles of her boots as she launched herself at the wall, adhered to it and went on a quick run up along it – straight up the vaguely pyramidal structure.

Heat left her back as the beam faded, but the reaper was not nearly done as it pivoted to track her, one of its legs punching through the structure's wall. Not enough to make her lose foothold, but that did not seem to be the whole intent as the thing, intent on killing her, pursued while charging up another shot.

This time she had to jump, as the torturous heat returned. Temari launched herself to the side, perspiring like crazy as the beam passed right where she used to be, gouging the rocky walls right where it landed.

It was hard to evade like this while charging up something that might handle this hurdle. She kept her giant fan on a slanted angle, veins of the Shukaku's wind-based chakra pulsating and spreading across its surface, pooling into an orb that expanded in both size and density. Helped a little by the dry but strong desert wind as she continued the ascent.

It was not a bijudama, but this had to do.

Another beam came, but one from a different direction entirely. She just barely ducked below it, the only lead a sudden glow that came from the side. A glance was thrown to where it came from and saw a strange craft come barreling in her direction, with an eye like that reaper still staring up at her did.

Temari swore, and launched herself off the wall, spinning through the air just as it was about to pass her, and rammed the ball of wind that hovered off her giant fan through the machine, pulverizing fully half of it and made the rest come crashing down at the building's wall.

Gotcha. That word was written all over the reaper below as it powered up another shot and let it loose.

"You think you've won?!" she yelled and brought the fan below her – relatively speaking – facing the wind that she proceeded to use to blast her out of the beam's path. And as the pillar shot past just inches away, just near enough that she felt the scalding heat on her skin, even through the armor of hers.

Out of harm's way, she span once again, swept the giant fan along a wide arc, and launched her technique with every ounce of her strength, "Wind style: Drilling air bullet!" Temari's ears rang momentarily as the technique blasted through the sound barrier straight off the bat – traveling parallel to the beam itself.

Unexpectedly quick, the reaper stomped and tried to veer away. But it seemed the thing knew it could not avoid this, and shut a section of its hull to protect the cannon in a moment that could only be articulated as the monster gritting its teeth as the air bullet impacted it, shattered the frontal armor protecting the gun, and cracked open a wide stretch across the rest of its hull. The blast as such that it catapulted the reaper, even as massive as it was, into the street to leave a crater, the shock wave caused by the technique and its rough landing sweeping krogan and husk alike off their feet.

It looked spectacular, but was not enough as when the damaged armor peeled away... the reaper's weapon without damage. Still in fighting condition.

"Tch... can't pierce it with only that much power, huh?" Temari wondered in dismay as she used the fan to propel herself back to the wall. "If only I had enough time to... Oh..."

The destroyer just did not care for delay as it once again revved up its cannon for another shot, even though it is still trying to push its frame off the demolished street. "You will," it actually spoke to her for the first time in a dreadful baritone. "di-?!"

"Whoa!" she yelped as the building underneath her just began to tremble. Not just it, she soon found out, but this whole city-section rocked under the force of a tremor. The girl balanced herself, and watched with a degree of complete consternation as the reaper seemed to slip and once again stumbled to the ground. "Hey... what's going on?"

Earthquake, and an awfully convenient one. Too convenient to have been a coincidence. Temari stared around for the source of it, till she sensed chakra in the air that wasn't hers, and her eyes followed the mind to the origin of it... that turned out to be a shuttle that hung in the air far away, its side hatch wide open with one individual who just about now stepped out of it as though the ground wasn't at least several hundred feet below him.

But the person did not fall, instead he found purchase in a piece of ground that manifested in the air as all the sand taken by the wind were called to form a film of foothold. A film of sand.

Delight momentarily flooded her senses, "... Is that you... Ga-" only to be struck into silence. Not by a physical blow, but sensation. The chakra that was his felt strangely curious before... but now it abruptly turned cold, so very cold, laced with hatred.

It awoke something in her, a primal animal fear that she thought would never revisit her again. Temari shivered and stumbled back, drenched with sweat that came for no other reason than her intense fear.

The longer she stared at the person, the more she was able to discern his face, even from this far away... devoid of any stoicism, had twisted into an angry and hateful scowl. A mood that permeated the air itself and made the very ground reverberate furiously.

"No..." she could only mutter, "Please no..."

Downstairs, the reaper had turned its attention away from her. It had also noticed the newly arrived and regarded him with steep menace, its dark robotic noise resounding across the city as the metallic monster advanced, smashing anything underfoot that could not get away in time: "We... are the instruments of your destruction."

"And I am yours!" the boy replied with a throaty roar, and raised his arms... to which the entire desert suddenly exploded into the air. The very terrain itself obeying the boy's will as he turned it against the blight before him. "I will break you, with all of my hatred-!"

With no more than an aggressive gesture, the entire desert gathered itself and rolled toward the city like a gigantic moving wall that threatened to crush those before it. So absolutely massive that it even dwarfed the reaper itself that merely glowered at it like it's nothing.

"Sand tsunami!" the boy bellowed harshly, and sent the wave crashing into the city – the first pair of buildings already smashed and swallowed up by it as it continued its relentless advance.

It struck Temari then, the very real threat this enormous jutsu posed, not just to the reaper... but everyone else on the ground. "Everyone!" she screeched in panic at those below, those at the shuttle behind the boy had also realized the same and tried to make him restrain himself. "Run! Take cover!"

Sabaku no Gaara... has returned, and not just the reapers would know his wrath.

Author notes: Really bothersome it was, but it took several rewrites to get this chapter done.