There wasn't much worse, Fitz decided, than gettin' a ghost in your head.
The possessed Ninth Street Reds didn't say much, and they didn't walk right either. Their big hoodies hid their faces, for the most part, but Fitz could see them drooling a little sometimes. They almost looked like dogs, aside from the clubs and the guns.
Inside, though - on the inside they were screaming. There were voices in their heads, a whole lotta them, and Fitz was real glad he couldn't really See what was goin' on in there. It looked bad, real bad, and if he'd been alone here he'd have been praying for his life.
Of course, he had a little help now. Watching the Commander take out the Reds, Fitz decided, was a bit like watchin' a German shepard tear through a pack of chihuahuas. A couple of the gangbangers around the burning entrance had pistols, and they started shooting at the Commander as he walked across the street. The bullets sounded pretty quiet from Fitz's lookout spot, little pop-pop-pops echoing across the waterfront as the lead bounced off of Shepard's armor.
The Commander - no matter what else, he'd always be that in Fitz's mind - stopped for a moment in the middle of the street, the bullets still plinking offa him. He waited until they'd stopped for a sec to reload, and started to run. Fitz craned his neck, and watched as that tall FBI guy started to move around the left, hiding as Shepard got everyone's attention. Behind the gangers, the warehouse was really starting to burn as the gas fire crept up the walls.
The Reds spread out around Shepard, holding pipes and makeshift shanks - street weapons. Fitz knew the tactic well: surround the big guy, hit him from the sides, slow him down and cut him to bits real slow. 'Course, Fitz could hear what the Commander was thinkin' down in the street, and he grinned as he watched what came next.
It took just a little over twenty seconds. Fourteen Reds, most of their crew if he was rememberin' it right, were out cold. The FBI guy was behind Shepard, cuffing the whole bunch with cable ties like they did in the movies. Fitz leaned back, a wide grin on his face, before remembering that he was supposed to be on lookout.
Fitz almost didn't notice the two Ninth Street lookouts rushing back to their place, but his gasp gave him away. The two guys paused when they heard him, that creepy screaming from their heads changing a bit, even as things got real quiet from where Shepard was cleanin' house. Fitz reflexively hunched down, the big Mantis rifle bumping against his back, as the two gangbangers came to investigate.
The ghost-touched didn't look any better up close. Their thick clothes hadn't been changed in weeks, and they smelled like street life in a way that Fitz could only really get after a good shower at Mort's place. Their eyes shone a little in the moonlight, little shining dots from under their hoods.
"Back off," Fitz ordered, tryin' to shake the quaver in his voice.
"You're all alone, kid," whispered one of the hooded gangers. "No one's coming." The two Reds stepped forward, unsteady yet still moving quickly.
The Commander's voice got a little closer, and Fitz had to keep himself from jumping at the mental noise. Another voice whispered in his ear, and he grinned at the thought. "No. Batman's out here tonight."
The smaller attacker snorted. "Who?"
Fitz planted his feet and leaned his head forward. "Batman. He comes out at night and keeps the streets safe. People like you better run and hide, 'cuz he's comin' for you."
The bigger possessed guy shook his head. "Who are you talking ab-"
The gangers' heads cracked together like coconuts, and the two Reds dropped like rocks. Shepard stood behind them, and though his face was invisible under the helmet, Fitz could hear him laughing. The Commander was having a whole lotta fun.
"Really, kid?" Tilly snorted as he cable-tied the two former lookouts. "Batman?"
Fitz grinned. "Hey, it fits." He pointed at the two unconscious Reds. "Now can I go with you inside?"
Tilly considered his words. "I have to say, this is the first firefight I've had inside a burning building."
Shepard chuckled over their tactical net. "Heh. Ain't a real fire yet." He pivoted, throwing a rock with a classic pitcher's throw; the stone smacked across the temple of yet another ganger trying to sneak up on them. "Also, I gotta love smart thermals."
Tilly tied up the unconscious man at hands and feet, passing him off to Fitz and motioning the kid to haul the guy outside of the fire. Tilly had his personal gas mask, but he didn't have anything for the kid. "Shepard, we knew we were going to have to walk in here. Setting the place on fire seems..." he pivoted, checking their six as he tried to find the right diplomatic words, "fairly insane, with a little bit of 'Oh God, oh God, we're all gonna die' thrown in."
The Marine just chuckled. "Thing's a trap," Shepard answered, hefting a fallen I-beam out of the way. "Their recon spotted me an' the kids, but they left the kids alone? They haul Mort away, but just back to here? Had to expect someone'd come to find him."
The FBI agent struggled to follow Shepard's train of thought as he shied away from a burning grease patch on his left. "So, why burn the place down?"
"Trap!" Shepard said, exasperated. "Be creepy ghosts an' magic traps, so we mess it up from the start. Fire burns up most stuff pretty good, so it'll burn whatever surprises did they got for us here. Probably," he amended, bringing his shotgun up to bear as the two men passed through the smoldering loading dock and into the central factory floor.
"And Mortimer?" Tilly asked forcefully. He ducked instinctively as a shot rang out from above them, and training took over. Bring the weapon up, sight on the target, squeeze the trigger don't yank it, and BLAM-BLAM-BLAM that's a hit. Someone growled in pain from the catwalks as the bullets connected, making an inhuman yowl, and a dull thump came from above.
Shepard lowered his weapon and started glowing purple again. As the wounded ganger above dropped to the floor, his fall slowed to a crawl while that creepy purple light shone around him like a halo. The Marine kept his left fist clenched in concentration, and as the light disappeared near the floor, the wounded man dropped with a dull thud. "Clean an' cuff, or tag an' bag, your call," Shepard ordered Tilly brusquely. "Also, good shot."
Tilly hurried over to the wounded gangbanger, his stomach turning. He'd shot a man. A criminal, sure, one who had shot at him first, but that still didn't make him feel any better about it. The FBI agent pulled his small first aid kit from his belt pouch, looking for the gunshot wounds.
It seemed amazing, he mused, that this man might die from such tiny wounds. The Avenger rifle's bullets had punched straight through, two neat holes leaking blood from the Red's abdomen. Slapping pressure bandages on the wounds, Tilly quickly flipped the man over and did the same to the exit wounds before cuffing the groaning man's hands and feet.
"You ever done that before, sir?"
Tilly spun to his feet, yanking the Avenger rifle off the ground to aim at Fitz. "Damnit, kid, don't sneak up on a man with a gun!" he snarled, his adrenaline spiking.
Shepard chuckled, the sound out of place in the gloomy factory that happened to be on fire. "Thought I warned you 'bout that, Fitz." He turned forward, making some sort of complicated hand signal as he did. "Anyways, G-man, whatever ghost got Mort needs him alive. Did they want him dead, he'd be a hunk of meat in his own house now."
Tilly swore to himself, following Shepard as Fitz tagged along behind. "Damnit, I can't believe I didn't see it earlier! Possessing the gang was a sideshow: whoever took Mort wants to do the same to him. If you're a ghost, then grab the ghost whisperer."
Shepard nodded. "Huh. Sounds right, 'least. Point is, they need him alive. Place is on fire, so now they go for whatever ratholes they got to escape with."
Fitz spoke up. "And we're gonna find those how, exactly?"
Shepard just laughed and tapped the side of his helmet.
"Yep." It was, Shepard agreed, a spooky-as-hell place. The factory basement, untouched by the fire above, had only one un-blockedstairway in or out. A few electric lights cast a meager glow over the room, and an unearthly howling echoed from down below.
Shepard gritted his teeth, shouldered his weapon, and walked into the room of the dead.
Ghosts were everywhere: some drifted haphazardly through the walls, while others tried to batter at the mortals passing through their assembly. Ghosts shrieked in silent rage and dove towards them, their wispy bodies fading as their talons raked at nothing. Shepard ignored his suit's warning as his heart rate spiked, trying desperately to stop gasping in fear.
"Fuck ghosts." Tightening his grip on the gun, with Tilly still mutely guarding his back, the Marine stepped towards a single light hovering over an old cistern.
Mortimer, held aloft by a single rope, hung above the pit of hungry ghosts.
The ectomancer was connected with ghosts: he could see them, hear them, speak to them - and be affected by them. Held below by an unseen force, the mindless ghosts beneath Mortimer surged and roiled like a malevolent sea; the chubby man above them tried to scream through a gag in his mouth. It was torture, pure and simple, for a purpose Shepard could already guess.
"What's going on?" Tilly whispered, confused. Fitz knew better; the teenager huddled behind Tilly, crying softly. Cursing quietly in batarian, Shepard raised his shotgun and fired at Mort.
The pellets passed through the rope holding Mortimer Lindquist above the pit. The ectomancer fell, his screams muffled by the gag and the cords holding him in place, before he became haloed in the light of Shepard's biotics. His teeth gritted in concentration, Shepard carefully Pulled the man above the ghosts to set him down safely by the side of the haunted cistern. "Cut him loose," Shepard ordered angrily, before raising his shotgun and firing at the mass of ghosts below.
As the pellets passed harmlessly through the incorporeal beings, Shepard raised his voice and yelled, "Ghost! Show yourself!"
"Why hello, dear," a ghostly voice purred from his left. Spinning on his heel, Shepard faced down a ghost so well-defined that she almost seemed human. Insubstantial blonde hair hung down her back, and a slight dimple shone on her right cheek. Gritting his teeth in fear, the Marine tried to ignore the ghost's inch-long fangs and dead eyes that belonged to a faraway corpse.
"Howdy," he announced loudly, his suit-enhanced voice echoing around the dark room. "Time fer you ta leave, ghost," he ordered, trying to quell the shakes. "What's yer name, anyway?"
The shade grinned. "Call me Corpsetaker." A pack of ghosts swarmed and flew like a pack of locusts to Shepard's left, and the Marine cursed as the ghosts flew by him. He turned back to Corpsetaker to see the ghost disturbingly close, still wearing that too-wide smile.
The vampire-like fangs danced around her mouth as the ghost spoke: "There are some advantages to being dead. I meant to take this little one, but you've brought me a far greater treat right here! Let's see if his mind is as skilled as his body."
The ghost touched his forehead even as he fired at it, and the world disappeared.
Shepard opened his eyes to a blasted wasteland and a Vindicator rifle. The familiar gun improbably flew by his head, pulled by a gust of wind, bringing a whisper of conversation with it. The Marine almost absently grabbed the weapon from the air, the familiar weight comforting in his hands.
The ground was littered with weapons and bodies. Katana shotguns lay next to too-small corpses, while a Phalanx pistol rested a hands-breadth away from a hardsuited human. Withered trees scattered the barren land, vying for place with a few stone obelisks. A globe flanked by pillars shone down from above; familiar faces twinkled in the dark sky. The wasteland continued out to the edge of his vision, fading into grey nothingness at the edges.
It was bleak and grey, dotted with occasional bright plants struggling to survive among poisonous weeds. Belts of razorwire and locked gates barred the path to a cemetery filled with tombstones, and a tiny cabin with a family of ghosts standing on the porch. Shepard turned his eyes from the bodies, trying desperately to avoid seeing dead comrades and family.
"Inside my own mind, huh?" Shepard scuffed the ground, raising a small plume of dust. "Thought there'd be more tits here."
He stumbled as a massive quake shook the ground, sending dust and discarded guns clattering. A sudden shriek made him spin around towards the grey nothingness behind him, where a snarling and barely-human creature had just stumbled through the veil. The creature opened too many eyes and raised uneven arms to rend him open; Shepard drilled it in the chest until it dropped. As the mutated thing fell into the dirt, the Marine grimaced as far-off growls and muted shrieks let him know that he wasn't alone.
"This is my pisshole! Get yer own!" he yelled out into the nothingness. Mocking laughter was the only response.
He shaped the ground, raising sandbags and firing lanes from his memory of Altahe's basic fortifications. Quickly digging in mental Barriers, Shepard explored outward for the enemy even as his will doubled, tripled, and split into distinct points of light.
It felt...natural, he mused. Controlling so much movement should have been impossible, but running his mind's defenses felt like fitting a hand into a well-worn glove. The ground warped and buckled as he dug defenses and raised walls, absently wondering about how his enemy would breach them. Almost by reflex, the Marine took a position in a central dugout as the pinpoints of thought and will solidified into dead men he used to know. "Sitrep," he asked out loud, looking at the unfolding tac screens to distract himself from the ruined face of his neighbor on Mindoir.
The battle - for Shepard, it couldn't be anything else - was joined.
The battle began slowly, as Shepard repelled scouting strikes and feints from the homicidal ghost. The ground shifted and solidified as man and specter poured will into it; their war gave Shepard's mindscape substance and definition through his fight to hold it.
The longer he fought in the mental war, the more distinct it became in his mind. The mental Barriers that he held like his own biotics became bunkers and firebreaks, painful memories forming black barbed wire along the perimeter. Seizing on the impulse, Shepard pushed his memories of fear and spite out to the edges of his mind; the ground became twisted and sizzled like burning flesh. Turning his ever-present anger into a singular force, Shepard mentally 'looked' outward for the enemy.
The enemy's attack was slow and cautious, quick probing strikes testing the ground of his mindscape before pulling back. Shepard could distantly sense flashes of foreign thoughts and emotions, twisted into something almost unrecognizable. He caught moments of memories, flinching from the memory of a tortured woman screaming as a hooded man leaned over her. Sighting on the foreign invader, Shepard fired his anger like artillery.
The enemy flinched under the psychic assault, quickly retreating into the indeterminate gray at the edge of his mindscape. Bringing his hate forward, Shepard threw his emotions like cannon shells; the blasted mindscape shuddered under each impact, the yells of long-past battlefields fading after each explosion.
Shepard held his mind with pure force of will, straining himself to meet each probing attack with overwhelming power. He could feel his grip weakening as the enemy probed at the edges of his mind; he struck out against each blow, feeling his strength drift away as he did.
Memories flew past him in a constant stream: thoughts of home and ships and friends danced at the edges of his vision. With a stab of horror, Shepard watched his one memory of Sawtooth Creek and the time he'd spent there vanish as the enemy's shades overran more of his mind. With duty driving him on, the N operative kept trying to fight the unfamiliar battle.
He struck at shadows, spent his strength chasing ghosts, and abandoned the edges of his mindscape as the enemy slowly overran them. It was a war he didn't know how to fight, and he was losing. Gritting his teeth and bringing up more memories of Akuze, Shepard dug in to hold his ground.
It wasn't enough.
Shepard had brute force on his side, but no subtlety. He matched his enemy in might, but failed utterly in wits and speed. His positions were outmaneuvered, his offensive strength spent against false positions and enticing decoys. Ground down by mental warfare, Shepard retreated from his own mind as the enemy gleefully advanced.
He surrendered body and mind, falling back. Howling ghosts swarmed at the edges of his mind, overwhelming strongpoints held by Shepard's memories of dead men and flooding killzones with wisps of the Corpsetaker's own thoughts and memories. Distantly, Shepard could feel his own body collapsing to the ground as he lost control over parts of his own mind.
It was time to retreat and dig in. Shepard gathered his greatest secrets, from his time as an Eighter to what little he'd gathered about his parents. He dug them in a bunker made of duty and courage, salting the fields around them with memories of Akuze and Mindoir. As the howling ghosts attacked, the Marine abandoned control over his own mind and held every scrap of his will over his one strongpoint.
The swirl of ghosts swarming around his last strongpoint parted for a moment, and a single figure walked forward. Shepard squinted his eyes, trying to make out what it was exactly, but the creature kept shifting in front of him. A withered old man's face disappeared, to be replaced by a snarling wolf, which quickly morphed into the husk of a human held up by metal cords. The zombie looked at him and grinned; even in the mental landscape, the ghost's fangs hung like reminders of its true nature.
"'S real bad manners, to show up uninvited," Shepard croaked, feeling exhausted from the grueling mental combat.
"I've never been known for my social graces," the withered zombie remarked. With a sudden snap! of displacing air, it was replaced by the same disturbingly cute young woman. "Then again, no one really appreciates the value of mind-flaying anyone who disagrees." She gave a wide, toothy grin. "Call me Corpsetaker, meat."
Shepard grimaced. "Fuck you."
Corpsetaker waved her hand lazily. "See? A little mind-flaying fixes bad attitudes like that. Now, let's see what secrets you've been holding back." Shepard steadied himself, though the milling ghosts trampling across his mind didn't try to swarm his final defense.
"I'm sorry, Lieutenant. So far as we can tell, she just appeared out of nowhere-"
"I'll always love you, honey, don't you forget that. Subject One, activate Tempest Protocol, passcode MD2170-"
"I'll cut the crap. If any of you talk to anyone outside of the Moria Project - N Ops, high command, anyone - then you disappear. Simple as-"
Shepard jerked his head up as he realized his mistake. Gritting his teeth, he reinforced his mental defenses and forced himself to relax and stop thinking about...about That Stuff. The young woman smiled broadly, her cheek dimpling slightly, as she traced incomplete patterns in the air.
"My, my, my. You've really been holding out on me, you little devil!" She huffed, crossing her arms as she looked out over the blasted landscape and the heavily-defended bunker planted in it. Appraising Shepard's formidable final defense, she huffed and cheerfully remarked, "I'll be back soon, I promise. Don't forget your basic motor skills while I'm gone."
The howling ghosts continued swarming around Shepard's last defense as Corpsetaker's avatar rose skyward, where indistinct shadows gathered. As dream returned to reality, Shepard felt his eyes open under someone else's control.
Fitz knew it was all wrong even before the Commander's eyes opened. He could hear the screams inside, even if they weren't coming out loud proper, and it was so damn wrong that it made him want to scream too, like when Aristedes would beat Tim and-
Fitz held onto the wall to steady himself, breathing heavily. Aristedes was dead meat, but the Commander might be too. He squinted, trying to figure out who was yellin' what, but it all got so jumbled up in here. He could hear the ghost's screaming from inside the Commander's head, but Shepard's voice was still in there, too.
It was all wrong. It wasn't supposed to happen like this. There was supposed to be Dresden, and Molly, and the whole damn world was sliding off the rails. The Commander's voice grated and cracked. "R-r-run! Hahahahaha!" As the giant got to his feet, Fitz did exactly that.
He dashed back up the stairs to the factory floor, where the fire was starting to spread. The ghosts shrieked and howled as the smoldering blaze burned higher, and it wouldn't be long before there were cops and firefighters and damnit, we are leaving! Torn there between fear and duty, Fitz hesitated under the pale moonlight.
"Goddamnit!" he yelled, to no one in particular. "Fuck! Fuck! Why does it always haveta go so fuckin' bad!"
He spun on his heel and punched the nearby machinery, the solid metal barely budging as the teen hurt his wrist on the solid steel. Crying from the pain and the fear, Fitz cradled his head on his knees and sobbed.
"Are you lost, young man?"
Fitz opened his eyes. There was something there, hovering in front of him. He could barely see it past the smoldering brickwork and choking smoke of the old factory, but it was still there.
"You're alone. What's brought you here?"
It was indistinct and fuzzy in the moonlight, but Fitz could swear that he was looking at a definite shape. A line, maybe; curved a little, shining like a star.
"Are you frightened?"
Fitz hiccuped. "Y-yeah." He reflexively dug his nails into his palm; damnit, don't ever tell 'em you're scared! Aristedes hates-
"That's understandable, young man." Fitz could see more than just the one shining star, now that he looked closer. It almost seemed like a-
"Yes, young man, I am a ghost too. This is...not my usual territory, but," the shadow paused for a moment, "these are not exactly normal times."
Fitz tried to clear his throat. "My-my friends are down there. There's something bad down there, a lot of bad things."
He could see it more distinctly; it was the blurry shape of a man, holding a sword that shone brightly in the dark. "Indeed? Tell me, young man: what would you do?"
Fitz gulped. "I-," he struggled against his fear. "I guess I'll have to go and-and help." He felt his knees quivering like jelly. "I-I'm scared, sir."
He could see the ghost much clearer: it was a short Asian guy, little spectacles and all, but something about the man made Fitz stand a little taller. "Yet there are dark and evil things down there. Why go?"
Fitz tried to find the words. "Be-because my friends are down there. Because Mort, and Tilly, and Shepard, the only guys who've ever done anything nice for me, are in trouble." He swallowed, his throat dry, "A-and because they'd do the same for me."
The little Asian man smiled, and Fitz felt a little better. "Such courage, from one so young. How could I not return it in kind?" The ghost drew that shining sword, the light reaching to the ends of the factory floor. "Come, young Fitzgerald. My name is Shiro, and his place has been dark for far too long."
Tilly knew, without a doubt, when the ghost had possessed Shepard.
He'd always had a knack for reading people. "Too-Tall Tilly" had relied on interrogations and questioning to really understand a case; though other agents preferred lab reports, he liked getting hands-on. He understood the people around him.
The creature next to him, though it wore his skin, was not Shepard. Tilly didn't need to meet its eyes to see that. "Over here!" he yelled as the not-Shepard rose to its feet, and ducked around a metal pillar. Fitz had a good survivor's instinct, any street kid had to, but he needed time to escape.
As the pitter-patter of small feet echoed from the faraway concrete steps, Tilly sagged in relief. "Now it's just me and a possessed psychopath, in the basement of a burning building," he whispered to himself. "Shepard?" he called out, not really expecting a reply.
"Little Shepard went away, off to hills far away," Shepard's gravely voice sing-songed. Tilly winced at how off-key it sounded.
"Hey! Ghost! Playing up the 'creepy kid' act only works if you're actually a creepy kid!" the FBI agent yelled back. He ducked as Shepard's shotgun took out the pillar he'd been hiding behind a moment ago.
The Avenger rifle felt heavy in his hands, and Tilly wondered about the futuristic weapon. Was the Marine simply helping others by handing out his weapons, or was there something else involved? Was Shepard paranoid enough to imagine a time like this, when he was the real threat?
"Corpsetaker!" Tilly yelled. "Let's talk!"
The shotgun blast was a little closer this time. "Of course. I've got plenty to say." not-Shepard's voice echoed through the dark basement.
Tilly scrambled backwards. Before the lights had gone out, he'd seen Mort here. Carefully picking his way across the dust covering the floor, he nearly jumped as his foot smacked into something solid: Mortimer himself. Hunching over the man as he cut Mortimer's bonds with a belt knife, Tilly desperately wished that he had body armor which could withstand a-
BOOM! The shot nearly took his head off; Tilly's last-minute flinch was the only thing that had saved him. Rolling awkwardly to the side, Tilly sighted blindly into the dark and fired a burst. A human snarl let him know that he'd struck paydirt.
"This charade has gone on long enough," Shepard's voice whispered in that too-loud growl, and the basement lit up as the soldier used his bio-whatsits. Tilly cursed and ducked, but he could feel the ground slipping away beneath his feet. He tried to sight the Avenger rifle on the possessed man, but every move was like swimming in molasses. The swirl of ghosts drifted around the two men, though any ghost which got too close to Shepard disappeared in a swirl of light and a howl of agony.
"Mmm..." not-Shepard said, laughing. "Your mind looks tasty, and I'm hungry."
The ghost possessing Shepard flinched as a sword of pure light cut between it and Tilly. Scrambling away on his hands and feet, Tilly watched as the sword-wielding ghost fought like it still lived. Free from not-Shepard's compulsion, the swarm of hungry ghosts attacked the newcomer, yet the shining spectre was unafraid.
He flew through the air, the shining beam of light in his hand almost casually slicing through a howling ghost's sternum as it passed. An overhead chop, and one of the Greys vanished in a terrified scream, its defenses worthless against the light. Blocking an attacking ghost with outstretched claws, the spectre sidestepped the crazed man before chopping upwards to slice the creature from belly to head.
The entire exchange had taken less than five seconds.
"I won't accept this. For everything, there is a season. Your spring and summer are long past, and your autumn decayed in the winter storms. It's time for new life."
"Ha! The ghost of Shiro himself, come back to challenge me!" Shepard's body laughed, though Tilly could feel the venom behind the ghost's words. "Do you think your little parlor tricks are enough, dead knight? Do you really think you have a hope of stopping me?" The wizened man's ghost remained still and calm, and Corpsetaker's shadow seemed to lengthen as she laughed. "I have the Starborn. I have my thralls. I have my power, and with your strength and your blade eventually serving me, I'll have true Power at my fingertips. What do you have, dead knight?"
"I have faith."
Tilly could almost hear Corpsetaker's smirk. "Let's see if that's enough."
Shepard felt his body move to the attack, the mental invader inexperienced with his body but learning disturbingly fast. His arm pumped forward, sending out a sloppy biotic Throw that the ghost of the tiny Japanese man easily dodged. "I feel a rather disturbing empathy for your plight," he remarked, his sword cutting a too-near ghost into shreds. "What ties you to this world? What bonds outlast death?"
Corpsetaker raised his shotgun, blowing chunks out of the far wall. The shining ghost stood, unharmed, as the tiny pellets passed through him without leaving a mark. "Your new host seems rather ill-equipped for one of your talents, mind-robber," he remarked casually.
"Die, damn you!" Shepard's body punched out another Throw, the biotic force catching the ghost and making his form ripple like fog. "Just! Fucking! Die!"
Corpsetaker punched out another Throw; the biotic power passed through Shiro, but it seemed to hold him in place for a moment. A grey-glowing ghost, bolder and likely crazier than the others, took this moment to attack. Though it clawed at Shiro's side, the white ghost simply grimaced at the still images flowing from its side and sliced at the grey-boiling shade trying to eat it. The grey one disappeared in a silent, anguished howl, and Shiro took a guard position again.
The surrounding ghosts - and Corpsetaker - didn't remain idle. Corpsetaker threw another Throw to pin Shiro while three fairly well-defined ghosts paired up to flank Shiro. Though the white shade kept them at bay with his shining weapon, the swarms of purposeless ghosts were starting to drift around him and cut off his chance of escape. Still limping from the previous strike, Shiro waited patiently as Corpsetaker temporarily pinned him in place with another Throw.
Corpsetaker laughed, the horrible grating noise bouncing off the brick walls. "Silly shade. What did you hope to gain by fighting me, remnant?"
Shiro's ghost bowed its head. "Time."
A hand touched the back of his neck, and Shepard felt a towering mental presence overshadow his mental landscape. "Time's up," Mortimer Lindquist snarled.
It was a short and brutal mental battle. Shepard watched in awe as Mortimer faced off against Corpsetaker, the dark room glowing brighter than daylight as the ghost-talker ripped into his target. He pulled the wraith from Shepard's head, standing up on tiptoes so that his fingertips could barely touch the edges of the towering Marine's helmet.
From inside his fortified mental holdout, Shepard watched as Corpsetaker tried to defend from inside the conquered mindscape. She reshaped what she could, hurriedly creating a maze of defenses as Mortimer's Presence loomed over them.
Mortimer didn't battle her inside Shepard's mind; he didn't need to.
The ectomancer yanked his hands away from Shepard's head, pulling an intangible, shining strand from it. The Marine's mindscape lurched as the invading ghost was momentarily pulled upwards. She resisted, spreading corruption across the ground, but her mental domination was too recent and Shepard's resistance too fierce. Shepard saw his chance.
The Marine, just now beginning to grasp what was possible in this mental war, reached into his remaining memories. Corpsetaker had raided his knowledge of battle to learn how to use his body, and for the life of him, Shepard couldn't remember a single Alliance-standard weapon. He thought further back instead, back to the farm and the blood and that shitty old Mattock rifle. He'd never fully understood what had happened at Mindoir; all he had to go on were his mother's last words and that damn gun.
The weapon appeared in his hands like it was made for them, the stock still dripping red human blood and the muzzle dark with batarian gore. He raised the rifle up, the gun sighting on the ghost still struggling to keep itself attached to him. Mortimer's intangible lasso was lashed around her, the tiny man still exerting his will through it.
Shepard pushed out, mentally pulling his own mind away from the invader. Corpsetaker resisted, trying to pull herself back towards it for safety, but with Mortimer limiting her the battle lost its subtlety and became one of pure willpower.
And Shepard would not lose a battle of sheer will.
Corpsetaker was shot away from Shepard's mind as the mental construct 'fired,' yanked into the open between the tiny ectomancer and the towering Marine - and the ghost of the old Japanese man with a shining sword.
The sword cut once.
Shepard tipped the bottle back. The amber liquid inside sloshed gently, burbling as it drained away into his mouth. Choking down the cheap whiskey, Shepard tossed the half-filled bottle at the cathedral's brick buttress and watched as the alcohol and fragments of glass shot out into the night.
"'M gonna ask a question now, ta no one in particular," he announced to the dark night. "There's gonna be some creepy-crawly behind me interested in talkin', an' it's gonna say a few words ta make me more confused than when I started."
Shepard paused. "Ghosts. Who were they? Why...all this?"
"An old dead man, who decided not to move on. The world's a little safer with his shade keeping things in order." Shepard turned his head to see an utterly nondescript janitor, his nametag reading "Jake" yet again, sitting down on the steps above him.
The janitor grinned. "People at Chicago's O'Hare Airport have glimpsed sights of an old Japanese man with a cane. Travelers seem to find their way better when he's nearby."
Shepard grimaced at Uriel, the Light of God. "How does that even make sense?"
Uriel just smiled. "Have a little faith."
"'S a fuckin' cop-out answer, and you know it."
"You're talking to an archangel, boy," Uriel said with that annoying grin. "Faith's kind of the point here."
"Bullshit answer. Faith didn't stop slavers, or maws, or save me from myself. Faith didn't bring me family back, or make things right. The fuck is it good for anyway?"
"It brought you here," Uriel said steadily. "Despite all you've seen - despite all you've done," he said with a slight grimace, "I still have faith in you." He trailed off, almost uncertain.
"Heh," Shepard said quietly, staring out at the glowing city skyline. "So you've got faith 'n a burnout alcoholic who fixes problems by shootin' 'em." The Marine glanced up at the nondescript archangel. "Man, - OK, archangel - I think you got more screws loose than I do."
"Perhaps," the archangel agreed noncommittally. "Water?"
Shepard snorted, but grabbed the plastic bottle and chugged greedily. He looked back up at the humble janitor: "I need to know. What you said up there," he asked, struggling on the words, "before the wizard got there, and before it all went to shit...is it true? Is it all true?"
Uriel nodded somberly. "Every word." He looked down at the soldier with what might have been pity on his face: "Men like you, Shepard, get the worst burden of all: choice. You'll have to choose between easy and difficult, right and wrong, death and life. I can't save you from those choices, any more than I could save you from yourself. The universe will balance on the edge of a knife, Shepard, and your burden is to choose which way it falls."
Shepard kept drinking the water as the archangel disappeared without a trace.
Murphy thanked the paranoia that her old training sergeant had instilled in her for sleeping with Shepard's pistol in her hand. With the weapon dialed down to a mere "oh Lord my poor hand" yield, she carefully nudged the weapon under the hospital covers until it pointed at the newcomer who'd silently entered her room. Her left hand stabbed frantically on the button to call her nurse.
She tried to stare the intruder down, but her eyes seemed to constantly wander off from the man. The clean-shaven man was utterly nondescript: he wore a charcoal-grey coat over dark slacks, a short haircut, and carried a small, slim briefcase. His dark skin and plain features offered no clues towards his background, and his face seemed almost perfectly neutral.
"Hello, gobierno-man," Murphy croaked, inwardly cursing her limited Spanish. The man's tone carried a hint of a South American accent - Venezuelan, perhaps?
The man inclined his head fractionally. "Lieutenant."
"Didn't you hear, G-man? I'm retired."
"The evidence suggests otherwise," he remarked dryly, setting the slim briefcase down on the table at the end of her hospital bed. He tossed a plastic bag on the covers in front of Murphy; she grabbed it with her free hand, barely resisting the urge to shake the IV needle free that still hung from her forearm like a giant plastic leech.
The bag contained two vials, one with a single hair and the other holding a small chunk of flesh. Each one was neatly stoppered and labeled: K. Murphy, and Unknown.
"There's more," the nondescript man announced.
"There always is, G-man," Murphy sighed. "Let me guess: you're with the same people who attacked us at St. Mary's."
"An inaccurate description," G-man said in a clipped tone, "but close enough. My former associates and I regret the trouble we've caused you, but circumstances necessitated our quick action."
"Cut to the chase," Murphy rasped. "The surgeons are supposed to dig one of your associate's 9-millimeter regrets out of my lung tomorrow, G-man. You've got trackers on us," and probably the means to kill us with it, she didn't add, "so what do you want?"
"Indeed," he said blandly. "Lieutenant, my associates and I have been charged with recovering an item of some significance. We need an artifact for this purpose, a map of some significance, which we were led to believe would be in your possession."
"Your buddy back at St. Mary's kept asking about a map, too," Murphy mused out loud, her fingers tightening on the massive hidden pistol. "Of course, then my big friend took his head off with glowy magic stuff and punchsploded his buddies."
G-man's face tightened fractionally. "Lieutenant, though I have considerable respect for your work here, I must have that map. Give me the location of the artifact you call 'Little Chicago,' or the consequences will be...severe."
Murphy barked a short laugh. "You're behind the times, G-man. We burned that into cinders to keep you from getting your hands on it."
"No," the suited man whispered. He stared at Murphy for a second; his eyes widened. "No!" he yelled. Murphy used the distraction to reach for her call button again, stabbing the plastic until her finger ached.
G-man's face contorted into a pained grimace, the first real emotion she'd seen from him yet. "Damnit. The chacm-" he caught himself, glaring at Murphy, "certain actors in play will be somewhat displeased with this." He straightened his suit, his breathing slowing. "Lieutenant, I hope you never realize the enormity of what you've done. I assure you that once these current troubles are over, my associates will be paying you a visit to express their grievances."
Murphy showed her teeth. "And if they're dead first?"
The non-entity gave a humorless grin of his own. "Lieutenant, if they're dead, then I will sincerely pray for your soul and that of every human on this planet. And I haven't prayed since I killed my childhood pastor at age seven."
He tipped a nonexistent hat. "Goodbye, Lieutenant. Get that call button fixed."
Murphy yanked the call button up to eye level to see a neat cut in the plastic cord, the emergency device broken and useless. Realizing her mistake, she looked back up to where the strange man had just stood, but the two vials of hair and flesh were the only testament that he'd ever been there.
A tiny, handwritten note read: We will be in touch, Lieutenant.
Tilly took the proffered bottle, sniffing the contents before holding it away with a grimace. "Old Thompson? You drink that stuff?"
"Survived the Bucket Game," Shepard mumbled. "Ain't no booze can scare me now."
Tilly had a bad hunch. "The bucket game?"
"Choose yer booze. Fill the bucket. Drink 'till it's gone - or you are," he amended. "Also, some guys mix up the buckets."
Shaking his head and sitting down beside Shepard, Tilly snagged the whiskey and tried some. It tasted exactly as bad as he remembered. "It's funny, you know," he said slowly, trying to wish the awful taste away, "your accent seems to get better when you get drunk, instead of worse."
Shepard laughed. "The accent's an affectation. I was born with it, but Alliance N training drills out most personal identifiers like that." He shrugged, his tone lapsing from the neutral urbane accent to the thick hill accent that Tilly associated with the man. "Keep it about ta remind me 'bout mah roots 'n stuff. Kinda get lost in me past sometimes, so I lose meself in the good bits."
Tilly didn't have anything to say in return to that. The two men sat in semi-companionable silence, each one lost in their own thoughts, until the FBI agent decided to speak his mind.
"I'm frightened," Tilly said impulsively.
"Of what?" Shepard asked as he quietly sipped the lukewarm whiskey.
"Y-you," the FBI agent responded, inwardly cursing his stutter.
Shepard frowned, then shrugged his shoulders. "Fair enough."
"I go after bad men, Shepard." Tilly found his voice steadying as he returned to talking about the one true love in his life. "I hunt down murderers, kidnappers, rapists - scum of the earth. I don't even know what sort of bodycount you have, Shepard, but I doknow that you've killed more people than I care to count in two days, right in front of me."
Shepard nodded, throwing his head back and taking a swig from the bottle.
"I uphold the law, Shepard. It's what I do, it's my life. I watch you break it just by existing." Tilly snarled, amazed by his own anger. "I-I'm a cop, damnit! I keep people alive! They're pulling corpses out of St. Mary's Church right now, dead men from a house of God, and I know you're the one who killed them! Rudolph, scumball that he was - he was a cop, and you shot him like a dog!"
The Marine glanced up, his face a blank mask. Inwardly, Tilly wondered just how complete that neutral expression really went: how much did Shepard truly care?
"And," he trailed off, his anger spilling away, "and I hate it because it's necessary. I hate myself for breaking the thing I cherish the most, because I have to in order to save it."
The Marine shrugged. "Big bad ghost is gone, couple of other baddies are dead or fled. Should be able to close your eyes and go back to ignorance, did you want that for your life."
Tilly exhaled, looking over the skyline as the dawn broke. "So that's it? Is this the end?"
Shepard snorted, amused. "End? Hell, we're just getting started."