AN: This is a reboot of the series; I decided the previous incarnation was of inferior quality, so I'm starting it over again. This chapter begins 'In Media Res,' which is to say with the story already in progress. Setup and background will be filled out in other chapters; some questions are answered in the story thread for this over on SpaceBattles, if one happens to be particularly curious.
Massive gray vehicle doors slipped open, and Captain Sheila Anderson, rendered invisible by her tactical cloak, slipped into Peak 15's cavernous hangar bay. The chamber was primarily illuminated by a mixture of standard floodlights, and for some reason that Sheila could not fathom, portable red floodlights, which cast a crimson glare over the hangar.
Isolated research facility on frozen world, no sign of active personnel, provided with irregular lighting. No, this can't go wrong at all, Sheila thought grouchily to herself as she took cover behind one of the chamber's large ramps, then allowed her cloak to deactivate. She targeted a blank patch of concrete in the hangar's antechamber with an infrared comm-laser, and sent the blink code for 'clear.' The IR imaging equipment in her team leader's suit picked up the indirect transmission, and some seconds later, two more members of her team became visible from positions of cover of their own.
Finally, a full fifty seconds after all three of them had reached cover, Lieutenant-Colonel Shepard moved up, Specter Nihlus Kryik on his wing, Garrus Vakarian escorting Liara T'Soni in behind them. Active sensors were fired up, and over the next five minutes the bay was quietly swept for any trace of hostile activity.
They found nothing.
"Anybody else got a bad feeling about this?" Lieutenant Gravitz grumped, "Because I feel like I just walked into a horror movie."
"There's no reason to assume that anything has gone wrong," T'Soni said cautiously.
"Well, that pretty much makes it definitive," Lieutenant Weiss chuckled, "Expect some sort of horrible alien monstrosity to try to eat your face. I'm betting a hundred creds on Xenomorphs."
"I'll take that bet," Gravitz said sarcastically, "Considering Xenomorphs are fictitious."
Sheila tuned out her teammate's banter, something largely affected for her benefit, and started hacking into the door controls for the entrance of the rest of the facility. Soon enough, she cracked the control, and at a nod from Shepard, the team took firing positions, and she opened the door.
"Oh, now that can't be good," Gravitz growled.
'That' being the pair of defense turrets set up in the security 'airlock,' that were pointed in rather than out.
"Just like in Aliens Seven," Weiss said with a nod, "I'm telling you, Xenomorphs."
"Can the chatter, children," Shepard said, half-serious, half gentle, "And remember what happened to the recovery team in Resident Evil Eighty-Seven."
"Cap watches movies?" Weiss breathed, disbelievingly, before going silent at a look from Shepard.
A swift, efficient sweep of the security office revealed no human presence, and after taking a moment for Weiss to seize digital control of the defense turrets, Shepard, Nihlus, and Sheila boarded the elevator to the rest of the facility. The elevator ride was fairly short, completely uneventful, and when the door opened at the end, all three of its occupants were under cloak, though they didn't hold it for long.
"Are you serious?" Shepard whispered once they had swept the broad corridor immediately beyond the elevator, "Bare ice and frosted windows? Did whoever designed this place get kicked out of the over-dramatic set-designers guild?"
"If they did," Nihlus said, some humor in his resonant voice, "I'm certain your disdain is spoiling it for them."
"At least they left us clear lanes of fire," Sheila grouched, "Orders?"
"Pull out your sniper and set up on the elevator," Shepard commanded, glancing at Nihlus before continuing, "Nihlus and I'll check the door."
"Sir," Sheila said, dropping prone and setting her sniper rifle up on the elevator floor.
Nihlus and Shepard went quiet, and advanced cautiously to the door at the far end of the near-cavernous corridor. Nothing exploded, shot at, jumped at, or tried to bite them as they moved, and they took up positions on opposite sides of the door that lead further into Peak 15. Shepard extended a small fiber-optic probe from the wrist of his suit, then nodded to Nihlus, who keyed the door open.
Before anything else, the stench that rolled out of the next chamber told Shepard that things had gone wrong, and the image from the optics quickly confirmed it. A large heavy metal table had been overturned just outside the door, blocking about half of the exit, and both it and the icy floor beyond were spattered with bloodstains.
"Seal suits," Shepard order, mimicking Nihlus, who was already in the process of doing so himself, "Potential biochem hazard, there's already been a firefight. You have anything, Sheila?"
"No hostiles visible," Anderson replied quietly, "Recommend moving the table."
Shepard nodded, and with a twist of gravitic energy, lifted the overturned table, then almost immediately dropped it.
Now revealed, was a massive insectoid corpse; it took Shepard a few moments of furious thought to successfully identify it as a Rachni Warrior Drone.
"This is bad," Nihlus said wryly, before activating his comm, "Vakarian. Signal the Normandy, we just found a fresh Rachni warrior drone corpse. We need a full ground team and a secure report to the Council sent immediately."
"Anything other than Rachni presence to be included in that report?" Vakarian asked.
"No," Nihlus said, "That's all they'll need."
"All my knowledge of Rachni is purely academic," Shepard cut in, "Do you want to take command of the operation Nihlus?"
"No," Nihlus said, shaking his head, "My knowledge is just as academic. Lead on."
Shepard nodded, then signaled for Sheila to move up to the door, before advancing into the next chamber himself. In function, it appeared to have been designed as an exceedingly large cafeteria, intended to serve hundreds of people; now, it was a blood-spattered charnel-house. Human, Turian, Asari, Salarian, even Krogan blood littered the cafeteria, as well as small bloody gibbets of meat, but there were no full humanoid corpses.
Of the Rachni, however, there was far more evidence. A full half-dozen bull-sized warrior drone corpses littered the chamber, all of them heavily mutilated, one of them outright cut in half. The cold made it hard to tell how old the corpses were, but given that some of the blood had mixed in with the ice and re-frozen, they clearly weren't very fresh.
"Nothing living," He reported, "Gravitz, get up here with the rest of the team."
"Yes sir," Gravitz reported.
The wait for the rest of the team to arrive was painful; the elevator was the only way (yet known) in or out of the facility, and while the car was down the shaft, not only was it unavailable to retreat by, but it was blocking the shaft from more desperate means of retreat. Fortunately, nothing jumped out to try and eat the three of them while they waited, and the rest of the team arrived without incident.
"Goddess," T'Soni breathed, "What happened to these creatures?"
"We'll find out after we secure the site," Shepard declared, "Weiss, you hold the door, Anderson, Gravitz, you're with me."
Shepard found that like many days of his life, he was cursing civilian architect's propensity to design buildings in a manner that made his job difficult; were clear lanes of fire and a lack of unnecessary ground clutter too much to ask for? Nevertheless, a relatively swift search of the massive cafeteria revealed nothing except more corpses, bloodstains, and shot-up furniture, floors, and walls.
"It's clear," Shepard called, "Bring the civvies in. Any word on support from the Normandy?"
"Less than ten minutes," Weiss reported, "Urdnot 'insists' on joining the part."
"Let him," Nihlus said, "Worst case, he'll buy us time to flee. Urdnot doesn't retreat."
"You don't have to be faster than the bear," Weiss said wryly.
"Just faster than the other guy," Sheila finished sarcastically, "Are you trying to turn this into a horror movie?"
"Sheila," Weiss said, walking up to one of the Rachni corpses, this one having been killed by a series of mid-sized explosions under its carapace, spattering bug-guts all over the place, "We're already in a horror movie. Looks like the bugs already lost though."
"Here," Sheila said sharply, "No telling what we'll find further in."
"Partially true," Nihlus interjected firmly, "No known species leaves their dead laying around in controlled territory. Which means either the Rachni lost, the fight's still carrying on further in the facility, or the end was recent enough that neither side has reclaimed this territory. It's also possible neither side has the remaining force to do so, but that's unlikely."
"All of which mean we need to press on," Shepard said, before glancing at the Asari amongst them, "I don't suppose you know anything special about the Rachni?"
"No, Commander Shepard," T'Soni said, her complexion decidedly off-color as she inspected the bisected Rachni up close, "No specialized studies, just a part of my general history curriculum in university."
"Figures," Gravitz grumbled as they advanced towards the Cafeteria's only functional exit, "We bring along a Prothean expert, and run into Rachni."
"Sir," Sheila subvocalized from her position on point, "You'd better have a look at this."
'This' was a twisted lump of ice and steal blocking the center of the Cafeteria's other functional exit, a twisted mass with an Asari trapped in the middle of it.
An Asari wearing a Commando's low profile armor and insignia. An Asari who was drooling out the side of her mouth, as she feebly twitched, her eyes so slack they weren't even focusing properly in the low light.
Sheila had been, once again, taking point under stealth, the rest of the team remaining behind cover, and only advancing now that their tiny point-(wo)man had called the all-clear, and taken control of the next door's controls.
"No signs of gunshot wounds, or at least the bleeding appropriate to one," Sheila said as they approached, "But she's got some bruising around the face; the rest of her is too covered for me to tell much."
"Doctor T'Soni," Shepard called as he approached the entrapped commando, "Do you think you can get anything out of her?"
"I will try," Liara said, carefully approaching the trapped and crippled commando's face, gently cupping it in her hands, "If nothing else, I can attempt to soothe whatever trauma besets her."
The angle was poor, but Shepard could just make out T'Soni's eyes turning black, and for a long moment, she was still.
Then she turned around and vomited all over the icy floor.
"Oh goddess," she breathed, voice filled with horror, "Her mind is gone."
The N-7 team advanced into the next chamber in near-total silence; sound could not be totally suppressed in any environment other than a void, but one could come very close.
And now, Shepard's team was very motivated to be silent as they moved.
The chamber was a twisted wreck; where the dining hall they had entered through had been spoiled by a firefight, this chamber looked as though an entire war had been distilled down to fit within it. Dozens of Rachni corpses littered the floor, impaled through the chamber's metal walls. Some few remnants of humanoid bodies could be found; it appeared that in this chamber, the Rachni had not had time to finish eating before they were interrupted. Piping and pumps mounted to the walls, had been shattered by explosive, blunt, and shearing forces, superheated steam poured out of one with a faint shriek, ice water melted off the glacier the facility was built into poured out of three more, turning the chamber's floor into a pool of bloody water and viscera, gradually overwhelming present drainage capacity.
And suspended from the (no longer readily accessible) second floor of the chamber, two more Asari Commandos were cocooned in the warped form of the steel ramps that used to allow passage between the two floors. One appeared to be catatonic, the other was shivering endlessly in her steel wrappings, but neither Shepard nor his team could tell if it was due to the cold, or mental trauma. The source wasn't immediately relevant to them one way or the other; once it had been reasonably assured that the Commandos were no immediate threat, Sheila and Gravitz took point, advancing further into the chamber.
There were two exits just past the Asari as the two advanced, one on the East wall marked to lead to the facility's power core, the other on the West wall and marked as leading to some form of rail station; Weiss advanced, and he and Sheila hacked both door's controls, ensuring they wouldn't be opened behind them while the rest of the chamber was secured. That accomplished, Weiss and Anderson advanced further into what appeared to be Peak 15's computer core, while Shepard moved up alongside Gravitz to provide covering fire if necessary.
The computer core, a doughnut-shaped room with the primary system control terminals in a hollow in the 'hole' of the doughnut, hadn't escaped the ravages of intense combat, but had apparently been built to endure much, its hardened electronics guarded by armored walls, and its critical systems and core interface accessible only via a recessed level below. A substantial portion of the hardware stored in recessed wall slots had been damaged in spite of the armor, great gashes ripped through the wall by what looked to have been enormous Omni-blades; some of the weapons used had apparently packed enough penetrative power to hole clear through the armor, which meant they were not any form of weapon common to Citadel space.
Fortunately, the base's resident VI appeared to be active in spite of the massive amounts of system damage; Weiss interfaced with one of its consoles with his Multitool, and began seizing control of it. The digital security at Peak 15 was very tight, unsurprising considering the nature of such a research facility, but Weiss was N-7, and N-7 was the best the System's Alliance had to offer, of a quality with the Asari Commandos and STG, though who was 'the best' was a subject of contention.
While Weiss interfaced with the VI, Anderson signaled the others to move up; once they had taken up positions around the core of the chamber, she advanced under their cover. There was little else but another door at the end of the chamber; Sheila commandeered the door's controls, and signaled the all-clear.
"Nihlus," Shepard called, "We've got two more Asari, and a hell of a lot more mess than in the last room. I'm not sure if doctor T'Soni will be up for this."
"We'll see," Nihlus replied, but Shepard heard it more like 'She will be,' "Reinforcements from the Normandy have joined up with us, we're moving up to join you now."
The southern door opened, and a fire team of marines flowed through, taking up positions behind the damaged machinery that lined the walls. Another moved in after them, advancing roughly to the middle of the chamber; once the second team had made visual contact with the N-7 team, they signaled the all-clear, and the remaining marines, Ashley Williams in command, escorted the civilians into the room.
While Shepard's team, especially after Torfan, were about as jaded as it was possible to get without losing one's moral compass, and the Marines were disciplined enough to ignore it, Liara T'Soni and Tali'Zorah were in no way, shape, or form prepared for the carnage within. While the cafeteria had been liberally spattered with blood. The only corpses within were those of the Rachni; here, corpses, or more accurately pieces of corpses, of a broad variety of Citadel races were easily visible.
Liara hunched over and threw up again; Tali spasmed in her encounter suit, and nobody else felt it quite appropriate to ask her if she'd done likewise within said suit.
"Looks like we've missed the party," Urdnot Wrex rumbled, stumping his way through the gore towards the trapped Asari, "Shame, looks like it was a real smash."
"I see you were, if anything, understating the condition of this chamber," Nihlus said rather grimly, nudging a part of a foot, still covered in the armor Noveria's guards favored, with one of his 'toes,' "It's been a long time since I've seen anything this bad."
"So lets get moving," Williams half-growled, "And keep it from getting worse."
"You're right Sergeant," Nihlus said, nodding briskly, before gently, but firmly, pulling Liara upright, "Doctor T'Soni, at this time I'm afraid I must ask you to either agree to aid us in uncovering what happened here, or return to the Normandy. I've no desire to stress you beyond what you can endure, and it is easier to protect one civilian than two."
Shepard, listening in over the the comm, frowned. He had no doubt that Nihlus had picked up on how worried T'Soni was for her mother during the trip to Noveria, and the Turian's words smacked of emotional manipulation. He shook his head a moment later, it wasn't his call to make, and they were in some pretty extreme circumstances.
"I-I will do what I can," T'Soni half-said, half-stammered, then quickly picked her way across the bloody floor to one of the two entrapped Asari.
Her hands trembling slightly, the young Asari archeologist reached out to cup the Commando's face, and began to meld with her.
Enraged eyes boring into her from mere centimeters away, flames so hot she couldn't tell if they were a delusion or real, oh goddess, let it stop, let it stop-
'Another wretched slave then,' the thing that wore the flesh of a man said in her mind, its rage scouring her psyche, 'The first one was quite troublesome, but perhaps this time..."
Liara drew herself back, gasping, her heart quivering within her chest as she tried to decide whether the quivering terror, all that remained of the Commando's mind, at least that she could detect as yet, was better or worse than the Asari whose mind was utterly blank.
"Are you alright Doctor T'Soni?" Liara started slightly, and turned to see Shepard standing beside her, worry in his eyes, and a steadying hand on her shoulder.
"I-" Liara began, then realized she wasn't certain, and paused for a moment to gather her thoughts.
"I'm not certain," She said, "A being of great power invaded this Asari's mind, and crushed her psyche in the process. There is little left but fear, and her mind seems trapped in replaying the attack that broke her."
"Crushed the psyche of an Asari Commando?" Nihlus said warily, "Not defeated, but crushed?"
"Whatever it was," T'Soni said hesitantly, smiling weakly at Shepard for a moment before shaking his hand off and walking towards the other trapped Commando, "It was incredibly powerful. I've never experienced anything like it before."
"Are you sure you're up for another one?" Shepard asked, pacing her as she moved to the other Commando, some worry evident in his voice.
"Whatever happened to these Asari," T'Soni said forcefully, "Someone needs to find out, and prevent a recurrence."
"Damn straight," Shepard said, his demeanor shifting from 'concerned' to 'grim determination' so quickly Liara found it unnerving, but she chose to ignore it, reaching up to touch the other Commando's face.
Liara lurched back, gasping; this mind was more intact, but delving into it had reminded Liara that she was, in fact, a mere hundred years old, and Asari Commandos were all elite veteran warriors, having seen dozens of battlefields.
And most of all, possessed of a psyche far more used to the rigors and strains of mental combat than her own.
Liara reached out to touch the Commando's face again; Shepard moved to intercept her, scowling, but Nihlus held him back, and she made contact with the other Asari's face again.
Hello? Liara pushed through the morass of seething terror, Please, you are safe now, how can I help you?
The presence she had made contact with twitched, and Liara could feel the Commando trying to 'hide' within her own mind, stilling all thought and emotion as much as possible, though largely failing to suppress the fear.
You're safe now, Liara sent soothingly, We've come to rescue you.
Silence, stillness, and then:
Is he gone?
Yes, Liara passed along gently, He's gone.
And the presence faded, as the Asari Commando dropped from her catatonia into true unconsciousness, ejecting Liara back into the physical world.
"Are you alright, Doctor T'Soni?" Shepard asked tentatively, catching the young Asari as she jerked back away from the Asari Commando, whose eyes were now closed.
"Actually," T'Soni said, speaking around a bitter laugh, "Considering that she wasn't completely insane, I think I'm actually a little bit better than I was before."
Rachni warrior drones screamed as they scuttled around the power core's central shaft, too stupid to realize that the only reason they still stood was that their foes feared firing on the fusion piles with their heavy ranged weaponry.
One of the Rachni rose high enough that its animalistic intelligence, as much instinct as true thought, recognized that it had come to a place from which it could strike effectively, and it hurled itself towards the gantry on the far side of the room, and the entity that it recognized as 'prey' standing thereupon. Its leap terminated in a bloody dismemberment, as it came down on a blade edged with spinning teeth, taking a moment to tear through the Rachni's armored carapace, before cleaving the beast in two.
The figure wielding the blade, a massively armored humanoid with five fingers on each gauntlet, contemptuously kicked the corpse into the pit below.
"Xenos scum," He snorted, his voice given a metallic tinge by whatever filters lay between his mouth and the exterior of the skull-like helmet he wore.
Liara stepped back from the Commando imbedded in the chamber's distorted wall, shivering slightly and breathing hard, but still mostly composed.
"D'hara," Liara said, turning to face Shepard and Nihlus behind her, "This Asari, I'm not entirely sure what happened to her, her memories are there, and I can feel her subconscious, but her conscious mind seems to have just disappeared."
"Some sapients respond to traumatic or deathly circumstances by simply shutting down," Nihlus said thoughtfully, "Attempting to avoid things by not thinking. We'd have to get her to a mind-healer to be sure, but in the meantime, as unpleasant as it may be, can you get anything about how this all happened from her?"
'This' was the state of Peak 15's reactor room; the cavernous chamber was nearly drowning in shattered Rachni carapace and viscera. Substantial chunks had been torn out of the walls, and impact craters from small explosive weapons pockmarked the ceiling and walls liberally. The reactor core and its supporting machinery, however, was entirely untouched, something that the entire expeditionary force was thankful for. One other difference within the chamber, was a number of sections along the Catwalk that showed characteristic signs of having been deformed by Biotic Warp fields. The rest of Shepard's team and William's Marines had spread out through the chamber, searching for other survivors or signs of still-active Rachni; none had been found yet.
"I can try," T'Soni said, "Her most immediate memories were of what looked like large combat mechs fighting the Rachni."
"Geth?" Shepard asked quietly, his gaze sharp.
"No," T'Soni said, shaking her head, "Definitely not Geth. Their construction was definitely either Asari or Human, judging by proportions and anthropological-physiological design aspects. The proportions were wrong for them to be piloted internally, but as at least one of them vocalized externally, they may have been directly controlled via remote uplink."
"Anything else?" Nihlus asked.
"I am uncertain," Liara said, visibly gathering herself before stepping up to the trapped Commando again, raising her hands to the unresponsive Asari's face, "I will have to investigate further."
Small arms fire was useless, the armor was too thick; she 'holstered' her Assault Rifle with one hand and slipped a grenade from her belt with one smooth motion, flinging the disc-shaped antimatter explosive at the nearest of the armored giants. The powerful mech (or perhaps creature, she wasn't sure which yet) reacted with the same shocking speed she'd seen them all display, diving away from the explosive, but it wasn't enough; she/he/it was still caught up in the blast.
A flash of brilliant light in a spherical shape caught D'hara, who was already moving to find new cover that would be more effective against the other giants, by surprise, and she twisted to face the being again. When the blast cleared, it revealed that while the grenade had had nowhere near the effect D'hara had desired, it had cracked part of the creature's hip-armor, and-
Liara pulled back, disoriented by the abrupt end of the Commando's memory, and shook her head slightly, trying to shake off the effect of reliving someone else's memory of being knocked senseless.
"Are you alright, Doctor T'Soni?" Shepard asked, clearly concerned.
"Fine," Liara replied reflexively, "The memory of D'hara being knocked upside the head was disorienting, even without personally suffering the physical effects of the trauma. Fortunately, there was something of use in this memory; she used an antimatter grenade, which succeeded in penetrating one of the entity's shields, and damaging its armor, though it was neither slain nor disabled, its performance did appear to be degraded."
"So whatever did this," Nihlus said with a sharp nod, "They aren't indestructible. Let's just hope Beneziah's Commandos softened them up some more before we run into them. Let's move out."
"I hope we find them soon," Wrex rumbled, "Sounds like they'd actually put up a good fight."
Rachni screamed, rushing Manaza's position, and she was steadily forced to retreat, her weapon's rate of fire insufficient to kill the insectile creatures as swiftly as they came, her Biotics not powerful enough to stop the Elcor-sized combat drones. She didn't expect to die, but she did expect she'd be forced to abandon her post, and in the service of Sovereign, that could be worse.
Harsh explosive reports and the heavy roar of a fully automatic weapon tore through the Rachni's screams, and massive bloody holes exploded into the creatures, cutting down one, two, half a dozen, all of the warrior-drones as they pursued her past a T-junction. Manaza twisted in place, diving to the ground to take cover against the nearest wall. Advancing down the junctioned hallway was a single armored behemoth, its basic form like that of an Asari, but impossibly broad and massive; gripped tightly in its hands was an equally-immense weapon with a barrel as large around as her fist.
One of the Rachni moved, trying to stand, and the weapon roared again, three thunderous reports from its barrel blasting the already half-dead Rachni to shreds.
Manaza shivered; that was nothing that she wanted to fight, but the compulsion in her mind left her no choice; by Saren's orders all interference with the Peak 15 facility was to be removed. Her arms rose, decades of skill bringing her sniper rifle to bear, and firing a powerful round directly into the creature's skull-like helmet. A powerful energy field snapped into visibility as the round struck; it lacked the force to stop the hyper-sonic round Manaza had fired, but it did what was necessary, depreciating its velocity enough that it failed to penetrate the creature's helmet.
Its weapon snapped around immediately, unleashing a torrent of ballistic death on the shadowy nook Manaza had been tucked away in, but the Commando was already gone, nowhere near fool enough to subject herself to that kind of firepower. Having hurled herself back into the hallway behind her, she then leapt up into the exposed utility works along the corridor's roof, taking advantage of her smaller stature to secrete herself alongside one of the heating ducts, in case the creature was equipped with thermal detection gear.
It continued to stride slowly, steadily forward; she could not see it yet, but she could hear, feel it's massive armored feet clanking against the deckplate as it advanced. Already beginning to sweat from her close proximity to the thermal duct, Manaza nearly flinched when a gout of flame burst into the T-junction, and quickly covered her face with her hands, while her armor shielded the rest of her. One of the Rachni below thrashed, letting out a half-garbled scream with partially-destroyed vocal apparatus; another burst of explosive shells ended the scream permanently. A second burst of flame washed over the Rachni corpses, setting some of them on fire, but no further screams emerged, and the walking tank cautiously nosed around into the junction, leading with his weapon, carefully glancing in both directions.
When he turned to face the far corridor, Manaza struck, activating her Omni-blade and hurling herself down at her foe. Its reflexes were almost impossibly fast, its strength clearly unnatural, as it ducked and twisted on hearing the scarce whisper of her movement over the crackle of burning corpses, raising its massive weapon to block. Manaza's blade cut through the heavy firearm, surprising her with the amount of resistance it presented.
Lithe as a cat, the Asari Commando bounced off of the weapon, which massed more than she did, even with her armor, twisting around to attack the creature's flank. It had discarded the massive weapon however, and an oversized knife, wrapped in a crackling energy field, clashed with her Omniblade. Nowhere near fool enough to let her blade be locked with that of a creature so much stronger than her, she let her Omniblade glance off, and unleashed a furious slashing assault.
If Manaza was a panther, lithe, agile and deadly, the armored titan she fought was a Tiger, larger, more powerful, and every bit as swift, its agility hampered only by its armor as its arm moved like lightning to parry or block every single thrust or slash Manaza hurled at it. That deficit of agility was a critical difference however, and Manaza exploited her advantage ruthlessly, mindful that her Omni-blade would only last so long before overheating and forcing her Omni-tool to shut down. She had no idea if the energy field wrapped around her opponent's blade suffered from the same flaw, but her foe was entirely willing to give ground to compensate for his (its?) inability to properly guard against her assault.
Desperation took Manaza in its claws; she doubted she could slay the being with a single blow to anything other than its head, it was simply too large and well-armored, while her slight frame and light armor offered her no such durability against such a powerful foe, especially one with the speed to keep up with her. Her offense was razor sharp, but it was the sharpness of the edge of a sheet of paper, as incredible in its fragility as it was surprising in its ability to wound. It was time for a desperation ploy; Manaza palmed a grenade in her off hand, and-
Liara wasn't sure if it was better, or worse, living through someone else being knocked unconscious for the second time. It was still an intensely disorienting experience, and she'd had no idea it was coming, and had no more opportunity to brace for it than Manaza had.
"This one was knocked out too?" Shepard asked, gesturing towards the Asari Commando T'Soni had just been mind-diving, "You've got that look on your face again."
"Yes, Commander," Liara said a little faintly, looking at the drooling Commando, caught in a disturbingly-large fold in the metal floor, "She had fought one of them to a standstill, more or less, when I suspect she was ambushed by another; she was knocked unconscious with absolutely no warning whatsoever."
"Fought to a standstill?" Nihlus asked sharply, "Please elaborate."
"She ambushed the entity from above," Liara elaborated, "With an Omni-blade. She destroyed its weapon, a large-bore automatic weapon firing explosive shells, and engaged it in melee. It utilized some form of exceedingly large combat knife that projected an energy field of its own, and had matched her for speed and dexterity, but its range of movement was somewhat hampered by its armor. Manaza, the Commando, pressed the offense, but was rendered unconscious before she could exploit a hole in it."
"Well then," Nihlus said, nodding decisively, turning to address the rest of the assault team, "We know that they've some limits. Judging by the trail of bodies, they moved on to the Hot Labs, let's get down there ASAP."
Thirava was the most junior member of her squad, she had only completed her training four years before Beneziah had begun her attempt to reign in Saren, and she was more terrified than she had ever been in her life. Saren hadn't scared her like this, realizing Beneziah's mind had been compromised hasn't scared her like this, realizing her own mind had been compromised hadn't scared her like this (though she suspected the capacity to be afraid of it was part of what had been compromised), but when she had seen that creature...
Sovereign's control had been subtle. None of her sisters-in-arms had realized what was happening until it was too late; even the Matriarch hadn't noticed that her mind had been touched until she could no longer properly resist. That Creature though, when it had touched her mind, it had been as subtle as a Turian Dreadnaught, slamming into her mind with more force than she had been able to comprehend, more force than she had wanted to comprehend, and it had brought only one thing with it:
Thiraya was ashamed of herself, curled in a ball and weeping as her sisters fought the armored juggernauts and the Rachni, but terror had taken hold of her like nothing she had ever known to exist before. She would have fled, but the COMMAND from Sovereign would not allow her to discard the imperative to 'deal with' any interlopers in its plan. So she lay there and wept, not even able to remove herself from the line of fire as people bled, screamed, and died around her.
It didn't take long for her exposed position to bring her trouble the Rachni spearing her through the right arm, and impaling her abdomen while it was at it. It did break her out of her reverie sufficiently to allow her to move, however. Not that crawling behind cover was going to save her from bleeding out; the razor-sharp Rachni tendril had taken out both her Omni-tool, and the backup on her belt. Without medigel, she couldn't manage anything remotely close to adequate treatment, and by the time she had dragged herself behind cover with her remaining arm (she couldn't feel her legs, and was fairly certain that her spine had been compressed at the least, if not severed), she could no longer hear the characteristic high-pitched 'crack' of Mass Effect weapons firing, just the scream of the Rachni clashing with the shriek of the armored giants' ridiculous saw-toothed weapons.
Propping herself up on her good arm (and realizing she had to be in shock to not feel the pain of her injuries), Thiraya glanced over the torn chunk of decking she had taken cover behind, and watched silently as the quintet of armored behemoths finished off the last of the Rachni warrior-drones. The other three Commandos of her cell were laid about, helpless, two twitching from some form of electric stun weapon, one trapped in the grip of a giant, its massive hands engulfing her hands, wrists, and forearms all at once.
Thiraya recognized the last conscious Commando as Gisel, their cell's leader; the Matron was slamming Biotically-enhanced kicks towards the hulking giant's chest, but she only managed to pierce the energy barrier protecting its body roughly half of the time, and its armor easily avoided what remained of those blows. Twice Thiraya saw Gisel's arms begin to glow with biotic energy, but the giant just tightened its grip incrementally, and Gisel subsided, rather than have her hands reduced to bloody pulp. Being under the same compulsion as her immediate superior, Thiraya was certain that the only reason Gisel kept up the assault after it became clear it was ineffective, was that she couldn't cease, Sovereign's COMMAND forbade her from surrendering while she was physically capable of resisting.
Something touched her shoulder, and Thiraya turned to see-
It was smaller than the others, an objective part of her mind knew, but standing directly in front of her, wearing armor every bit as heavy, with a veritable arsenal of weaponry attached to its belt, it seemed so much larger than it truly was. She recognized the armor of the being that had done that thing to her mind, filling it with terror, but now its helmet was removed, revealing to her the face of a human. A narrow face, with brilliant blue hair and red eyes (was she hallucinating?), but the skin tone, scraggly facial hair, and eyebrows were blatantly human traits, even if its coloration was not something she had known was possible for the species.
Thiraya wasn't sure if having a face to attach to her fear made it better, or worse.
Terror or no, now that the initial assault on her mind had ended, Thiraya intended to die like a Commando, and dropped back to the deck, attempting to draw her sidearm with her off-hand. She wasn't surprised that the creature (human?) seized her wrist with one of its hands, pinning it in place with machine-assisted strength, so she weekly tried to headbutt it, using its grip on her wrist for leverage.
It felt like pounding her head into a wall, dazing her and ruining what little focus she had left. The creature laughed (laughed!) in response, before looking up and down at her body, and sneering in disgust at the ruin that remained of her right arm.
"Such a waste," It said, and Thiraya's mind squirmed as she realized that it was speaking her native tongue, "You could have been a fierce warrior, given time."
Then it leaned forward to place its too-hard forehead against hers, touching her face and oh goddess touching her mind and-
Liara sat back, withdrawing with considerably more control and composure than she had when melding with the previous Commandos, and looked up at the Spectre and N-7 operative standing watchfully over her. They were in the Rift Facility's tram station, what was left of it, anyways; they'd had to travel down the last fifty meters or so of the tram line on foot, as the line had been trashed by stray rounds from the firefight, and the platform itself, by the time the party had reached it, was less a 'platform' and more a 'half-shredded mass of deformed and warped deck plating with the occasional burning chair or eviscerated Rachni corpse thrown in for good measure.' The platform had also been host to three Asari Commandos wrapped up in deck plating like beans in burritos, with Thiraya being the last, and most heavily injured, one that Liara had melded with.
"This Maiden, Thiraya, was a neophyte," Liara said as she slowly stood, accepting an offered hand from Shepard to help her up, "She had only been out of her training for four years when her unit went into Saren's service with Beneziah."
"I thought Commando squads customarily operated in groups of four when they had a neophyte amongst their number," Nihlus said, his eyes directing the words towards Liara as a question.
"They do," Liara said firmly, "One of Thiraya's last memories was of the hostiles holding her team leader, Gisel, captive, while her other cellmates were on the floor, unconscious."
"That fits the previous pattern," Nihlus said with a nod, turning to gaze around the trashed terminal again, "It looks like this was the site of a proper pitched battle, though it looks like Thiraya here was the only one wounded, aside from the Rachni. According to Garrus one of the participants was unquestionably using some sort of automatic energy weapon with a sizable power output."
"That would fit with what the other two remembered," Liara said with a nod towards the other two unconscious Commandos, who were being tended to by the medics of Shepard's N-7 team and Williams' marine team, "Thiraya suffered from some sort of Psychic attack at the onset of the battle though, and was paralyzed with terror for most of it, she wasn't even able to flee due to her terror, and was left vulnerable to the Rachni as a result."
"Any idea where this," Shepard said, gesturing towards the bulky metal collar sealed to the Asari's stump of an arm, "Came from?"
"No," Liara said, shaking her head, "Nothing before her mind was invaded, by what looked to be a human with unnatural coloration. There are two other particularly important things I was able to glean from her memory; first, unless that part of the memory was staged as a deliberate deceit, the armored creatures place a great deal of value on martial ability; Thiraya's potential as a warrior was explicitly mentioned. Second, unlike most of the others, Thiraya here is in a natural coma due to the trauma from her wounds; her mind, as disturbed as it is, is in no worse condition than any other who suffers from physical and emotional trauma."
"Well, that's something at least," Shepard said with a nod, "It looks like the corridor to the Secure Lab is completely caved in, so we'll be heading to the Hot Lab next, let's get moving."
"I'm starting to get bored," Wrex growled, "These guys already took all the good fights."
Liara didn't mention that in the memory, Thiraya's abdomen had been impaled; it was clearly intact in the present, and though it was rare, Liara knew that sometimes hysteria made certain details in memories blur, and Thiraya had noted her own lack of pain...
Nihlus Kryik had seen many things on both battlefields and the scenes of firefights that were too small to be called proper battlefields, but were bloody nonetheless. Seeing the aftermath of an autopsy laid out on a metal deckplate, however, was a new one.
"Not the work of a sadist," Anderson was saying as she inspected the mutilated Rachni warrior's body, "The autopsy was post-mortem, it looks like a high-intensity laser shot to the head was the cause of death."
"Looking for intelligence on their enemies then?" Weiss asked, carefully not looking at the dead being's exposed entrails.
"Maybe they wanted to see of Rachni tasted good," Urdnot said with a fierce grin, "I know I tried, back in the day."
"No way to tell for sure, barring successful capture and interrogation of one of the unknowns," Sheila said with a shrug, standing and stepping away from the body as she spoke, "But that'd certainly be my guess; I can tell you I'll definitely be changing some of my targeting priorities on the ugly little bugs after having a detailed look at their guts."
"That sounds like useful intelligence," Nihlus called from his self-appointed post by the lift that had brought them down to the Hot Labs, "Where should we be shooting, if we actually find any of them still alive?"
"Base of the body trunk," Sheila replied, "Major blood vessels, nerve clusters, and there's a band where their exoskeleton's protection is sparse, probably to keep from inhibiting mobility. It probably won't kill them, but it'll mission-kill them, crippling their mobility, and ruining their ability to effectively leverage their blade-tentacles or function as stable firing-platforms for their acid spit."
"I'll tell the men to keep that in mind," Williams said with a nod, "Anything else?"
"Nothing immediately relevant," Sheila replied, shaking her head, "The autopsy was very thorough, cutting each organ open individually, and tissue samples were taken; whoever did this was probably looking for something. I'm not sure if they found it or not, but either way, it's not going to be immediately-relevant to this operation."
"The real question," Shepard said, gesturing for the team to move back towards the elevator shaft they came in through, "Is whether the Rachni, the unknowns, or Beneziah knew what Tartakovsky was trying to do down here."
"I'd certainly like to know if the unknowns are vulnerable to radiation weapons," Nihlus said, "But that'll have to wait until we recover one of them."
"Or they suddenly decide to get diplomatic," Williams snarked, "Though I don't see that happening any time soon."
"WHAT THE HELL?" Sheila screamed over the comm, leaping back around the corner she had just rounded before Shepard could voice a response.
A searing sequence of crimson bolts of coherent energy slammed into the corridor's wall, tearing into the steel-alloy.
"Contact?" Shepard asked flatly as Sheila rolled to her feet and braced against the corridor's wall.
"Contact," She agreed slightly breathlessly, "And it looks like they've got automatic laser weapons."
"You don't say?" Garrus mused quietly, staring at liquefied metal running down the corridor wall, glowing white-hot from the the laser's heat transference, "And here I thought that was just a really fast flamethrower."
"You're a real card, Vakarian," Weiss snarled, "I don't know about you, but I'm not too keen on getting into the line of fire of that thing."
"Any idea how they detected you?" Shepard asked, ignoring the byplay between the Turian and his subordinate.
"Sound, I think," Sheila said grimly, "I couldn't even hear my footsteps, but as soon as I stepped onto the ice, they reacted."
"Could be residual thermals," Garrus said helpfully, "Your cloak may cover direct thermal detection, but they might have picked up the rise in heat on the surface of the ice from your foot."
"They'd have to detect it through my foot," Sheila said flatly, "Not likely."
"About as likely as detecting sub-audible sounds from what, forty meters away?"
"Fair enough," Sheila growled, but Nihlus cut her off before she could say anything further.
"Either way, we've no solid idea how they detected you," the Spectre said forcefully, "And with the direct route blocked by cave-in, this is the only route to the Secure Lab; we're going to have to force our way through somehow."
"There's three of them," Sheila said, immediately all business again, "Neither were packing weapons as large as the automatic laser; it looked like the others were using high-caliber kinetic weapons, but I'm not familiar enough with their hardware to be sure."
"Send me the footage from your helmet cam," Nihlus and Shepard said simultaneously, glancing at each other for a moment, before Shepard nodded to Sheila, and she sent them both the requested data via comm laser.
None of them were willing to risk open broadcast against opponents with such drastically superior technology.
"Sheila," Shepard ordered while he accessed the file, "Fiber-optics."
"Sir," Sheila replied with a nod, already unpacking a probe from its compartment on her armor.
"Vakarian, T'Soni," Nihlus called, "You should have a look at this as well."
Part of Shepard rebelled at the Turian Specter passing off classified information (or information that would be classified as soon as the op was complete) so readily, but the Specter did outrank him, and now that he thought about it...
"Those are definitely the entities from the Commado's memories," Liara announced, "I can't tell whether or not any of them are particular individuals from their memories, but they're definitely the same... model? Type?"
And as Shepard got his first look at the creatures for himself, he had to admit that they were imposing. Standing roughly eight feet tall, and covered completely in heavy, dark blue and green armor capped by helmets with a vaguely skull-like structure, with glowing red eyes (which Shepard decided had to be an intentional intimidation tactic), John knew that such an appearance, coupled with the kind of combat performance Liara had described, could send a lot of green soldiers fleeing in terror instantly. Considering the massive weapon with the steaming barrel that one of them was holding, Shepard considered it likely he'd order a retreat himself. The breastplate, maybe his pauldrons and greaves, could possibly take a hit from an energy weapon with that kind of firepower and not instantly kill him (Shepard glanced at the impact craters where the corridor wall had been hit; they were still glowing), but a headshot or hit to the gauntlet would probably kill him or cost him a hand instantly.
Automatic laser weapons. What the hell?
Shepard did not like the conclusion he was coming to, but the only viable one he could see, was that a new species had decided to poke their heads into galactic affairs, and were apparently posing as humans. He'd say that they had hired humans to serve as 'face' for their intrusion on Noveria, but the sort of mental assault Liara had repeatedly described was not within the range of human abilities, ruling that possibility out.
"Sir," Sheila said, her voice taking on the flat tone it did when she was speaking about something she didn't like, "They're gone."
"Gone?" Shepard asked, "They just disappeared?"
"Fell back, I'd guess," Sheila replied, "We know this cavern rejoins with the facility at the far end, maybe they're trying to lure us into the open before advancing again?"
"Shit," Shepard said, thinking furiously for several long seconds, "Send me your visual of the tunnel."
Sheila nodded, and forwarded the visual feed from the fiber-optic cable she had extended around the corridor. Shepard examined it carefully, Sheila helpfully panning the limited view of the broad, curved tunnel back and forth. As she had said, there was indeed no sign of the armored giants, but just as importantly there were a number of boulders (whether they were made of solid ice, or ice-covered stone, Shepard couldn't tell), that would provide cover if he needed it.
"Alright team," Shepard started, "New plan."
"Cunning little bastards," A deep, amused voice said.
"Resourceful would be more apt," A gravelly voice replied.
"Notice the sheer patterns, lack of scoring or heat distortion on the deckplate he's using as a body shield?"
"Yes, most likely the work of more finely-applied 'biotics.'"
"I wonder of Librarian Athus could create such a fine cut when tearing up a piece of decking?"
"On decking that fragile? Indubitably. I'd like to see him attempt such a feat on the deck of a proper Imperial Vessel."
The first voice laughed.
"Well," Shepard sad flatly as they looked around the square ventilation chamber they'd advanced to, "It's official. I have no idea what they're doing."
"They could just be so confident in their abilities that they see no problem with being backed into a proverbial corner," Garrus offered.
"I hope not," Nihlus said tersely, "As best we can tell, they were good enough to take an entire company of Asari Commandos. Suddenly, I'm wishing we'd brought more firepower with us."
"No such thing as too much firepower," Gravitz chipped in grimly, "Only unworthy targets. Considering how those things tanked anti-matter grenades, I don't think our targets are going to be unworthy."
"Omni-blades worked," Weiss said more cheerfully, "And the grenade did do damage. What a lovely coincidence that we're one of what, twelve units in the combined Citadel militaries that carry the good stuff as standard equipment?"
"Fine coincidence there," Williams grumbled as she examined the ventilation room, pointing at a particular discolored spot on the shaft's bottom, "Looks like the Rachni used this as their access point to the entire rest of the damn facility. I don't like coincidences."
"Neither do I," Shepard said with a harsh nod, "Let's keep moving."
Shepard's squad went silent, as did Williams' marines, and the assorted non-humans that had accompanied them, and the advance began, this time with Gravitz on point, carrying the improvised shield they'd torn out of the facility's decking earlier. The team advanced in stages, one element covering the other as they moved from cover to cover, advancing first out of the room, through a smaller chamber with no readily-apparent purpose, which exited into a corridor with two exits, the nearer leading to the Secure Lab, the other leading off to Shepard didn't care where.
"Williams," He called, "Get part of your team up here to cover the other exit while we probe the Secure Lab."
"Affirmative sir," The Sergeant replied, and began directing her squad of marines with hand-signals, while Shepard's team of N-7 operatives prepared to breach the door into the Secure Lab.
Gravitz took up a covering position in the doorway to the ventilation room, scarcely peaking out from behind his mobile cover with his Assault Rifle as Sheila cloaked and prepared to open the door. Shepard himself lay prone behind the shield, the muzzle of his Sniper Rifle just peaking out from between the shield and the wall, roughly three square inches of his helmet exposed in exchange for his firing lane. Weiss just loaded up a handful of grenades, and prepared to lob them over the improvised shield if things went to hell.
Then Sheila opened the door, and they found themselves staring at a fully conscious Asari Commando. Specifically, a fully-conscious Asari Commando with her arms and legs shacked, being held in place by a massive armored hand wrapped around her waist, with an absurdly large pistol being held against her head. Behind her, stood two armored behemoths, one occupied holding her, the other standing partially behind and to one side of the first, holding the automatic laser weapon at the ready.
"We wish to negotiate," The one holding the Asari rumbled out in perfect English, its modulated voice completely destroying the rest of what Shepard (and the rest of their party) had expected to find when the door opened.
"Negotiate what?" Nihlus replied promptly.
"We will remand this Xeno into your custody," The second behemoth replied in perfect Turian, "In exchange, there will be no interference in the Inquisitor's fight with Beneziah."
"...What?" Garrus asked from his position around the corner, completely bewildered; he had been involved in hostage negotiation before, and they were not supposed to go like this.
"Beneziah has intelligence we need," Nihlus replied flatly, "We can't just let you walk away with her."
"Terms are non-negotiable," The first giant boomed, "This one doubtless retains some of the intelligence you desire. I neither know, nor control what the Inquisitor will do with Beneziah after the fight, and terms do not include what you do after the engagement has been completed. Terms are custody of this Xeno in exchange for non-interference during the fight, nothing more, nothing less."
"And if we do not agree?" Shepard asked sharply.
"We see whether or not your subordinate's anti-matter grenades can pierce our shields without cracking the containment on the nuclear reactors that power our armor," The second giant said flatly, "And how many of you will die to my Multi-laser before those grenades are adequately deployed."
Tense silence lasted for less than ten seconds; Nihlus acted decisively, something that Shepard appreciated.
"What guarantee do you require that we will not interfere?" Nihlus asked warily.
"Your word of honor, and that of Commander Shepard," The first giant declared.
"That's it?" Garrus breathed incredulously, "No hostages, no disarming?"
"These are the terms our superior directed is to give,"The second giant replied flatly, "If they are acceptable to our Captain, they are acceptable to us."
"Done," Nihlus said immediately, "You have my word not to interfere with your 'Inquisitor's' fight with Matriarch Beneziah."
"And my word as well," Shepard said more reluctantly, his instinctive distrust of the unknowns warring with his instinctive desire to save the Asari's life.
"Agreed," The first giant boomed out, and Shepard swore he could detect a hint of a smirk in the being's voice, "You should feel honored at the privilege to negotiate with Astartes on equal terms, you are the first to do such within this galaxy."
The giant preempted any response by casually tossing his captive Asari at Shepard's team; Sheila caught the Commando with a Biotic lift, before gently setting the blue-skinned being down and beginning a medical inspection. In the meanwhile, the pair of giants near-silently fell further back, a second door opening behind them, which lead into the Secure Lab.
"Let's move Shepard," Nihlus said lowly as he studied the Asari Commando, "My gut tells me we don't want to miss this."
"Sheila, Weiss," Shepard said, nodding towards the Asari Commando, "Keep an eye on her, and see if she's got anything useful."
The Specter and N-7 Commando advanced cautiously, passing through the intermediary corridor that the 'Astartes' had occupied, until they reached the door which led to the lab itself, the hardened metal barrier automatically moving out of their way. Beyond, was a massive, multi-tiered cavernous lab, its lowest level occupied by heating elements, humidifiers, and other machinery that Shepard didn't recognize. Above the equipment mounted to the floor ran a number of catwalks, all of them large enough to host an industrial forklift, some with computer control stations Shepard assumed governed the machinery, some with a variety of sealed crates lining them (most with bio-hazard labels). The catwalks ramped up and down, and it was on a platform at the apex of these ramps that hosted the target of Shepard and Nihlus' mission on Noveria.
Matriarch Beneziah stood between an armored humanoid form, this one merely large for a human, not impossibly huge, and an enormous armored isolation chamber, engaged in a furious exchange of blades. 'Stood' was something of a misnomer, the Asari Matriarch veritably danced around her foe's blade, a meter-long weapon wreathed in a crackling energy field. Her own weapons, a slim combat knife and an omni-blade, both wove back and forth with sinuous grace, and it was readily apparent to a trained eye (such as those of an N-7 Commando or a Specter) that she was easily more skilled than her opponent.
Her opponent, however, was no slouch; moving like a cat in his heavy armor, wielding his sword like an artist in one hand, a pistol in the other. Between his larger size and longer blade, he had a decisive reach advantage over the Asari Matriarch, and his pistol (which was occasionally loosing laser beams) forced her to remain close enough to prevent him from getting a clear shot at her. Shepard knew that to many who had never fought seriously with blades, especially those who watched 'action' movies for fun, the skill both combatants displayed would be severely underestimated, but Shepard (and every other N-7 operative) could see exactly how much skill was on display.
The first defining factor was Beneziah's superior skill; she was simply better than her opponent; her movements more deft, her balance more precise, her strength perfectly utilized. The second factor was the man's armor; it was heavy, and clearly power-augmented, giving him absolutely overwhelming strength relative to the Asari Commando, as well as making him functionally immune to damage from mundane bladed weapons. The third dimension added was Beneziah's Omni-blade, granting her the ability to cleave through said armor, as a number of rents from light blows already showed. The fourth was added by the man's crackling blade, a weapon the like of which none of the strike team had ever seen before; between its superior length, and its ability to clash with the Omni-blade without sustaining damage, as well as its probably ability to slay Beneziah with a single blow.
The fifth dimension of combat was added by both combatants awareness of all said factors, the armored swordsman focusing on engaging Beneziah's Omni-blade or laying a blow out that forced the matriarch to retreat. The sixth and final dimension was added by the man's laser pistol, presenting instant death Beneziah should she retreat out of melee range. All of this was wrapped up in the factors presented by their environment; Beneziah taking advantage of her lesser mass to maneuver over, on, under, around, and through the catwalk's railings, the massive support girders that ran between the chamber's floor and ceiling, and the crates strewn throughout.
Shepard had never been happier in his life that he was a sniper; he intensely doubted he would ever be able to keep track of so many factors in a fight, and he knew that if he survived so long as a single second against either opponent in melee, it would be due to sheer luck. Considering what the 'Astartes' had been willing to offer in exchange for a guarantee not to interfere in the fight, considering that they had only required his word, considering what he saw before him right then and there, Shepard decided that yes, Doctor T'Soni had been right, they were some form of warrior society. And a damn terrifying one too.
The knife/sword fight lasted nearly a minute after Shepard and Nihlus arrived to watch (Shepard was peripherally aware of T'Soni moving up behind him as well), the last ten seconds of which Beneziah spent on an offensive blitz, scoring several more gashes in her foe's armor, focusing around his waist. When Beneziah's Omni-blade failed, doubtless from exhaustion of Beneziah's store of Omnigel, Nihlus and Shepard had to seize Liara by her shoulders to keep her from rushing into the room. Beneziah had known her blade was on the verge of failing, however, and made a final assault as it sputtered, targeting not her opponent, but the pistol he held in his right hand, hurling herself bodily at his arm, and using both hands to force the weapon of his grip, before launching herself away, and rising in an elegant roll, facing the man again.
Her foe simply swept another weapon from his waist, leveling it at the Asari and pulling the trigger, even as Beneziah opened fire with her pilfered weapon. Beneziah's purloined pistol fired, a narrow stream of ruby light lashing at an energy shield that leapt into view around the man; his weapon, however, did not fire.
"You clever little Xeno witch," The man's distorted voice rumbled out through external speakers on his armor, rife with amusement and a tinge of respect, "It has been centuries since I have been so thoroughly disarmed."
And disarmed he was, Shepard noticed with a glance at the man's waist; his helmet's optics allowing him a view sufficiently magnified to be useful, it looked as though the man kept a full dozen pistols at his waist. The weapons were of radically different makes and models, some clearly projectile weapons, some similar enough in appearance that Shepard thought them more laser weapons, some like nothing else he had ever seen. All shared a common 'feature,' however, they had been crippled by strikes from Beneziah's Omni-blade.
"You are a formidable opponent," Beneziah said, and Liara trembled in Shepard's grip as she heard her mother's voice for the first time in years, "No less skilled than your weapons are deadly; I can see now why you and your soldiers were able to overcome my Commandos."
"I've not had a fight this lively since..." The armored man's voice trailed off for a moment, and when he spoke again, his voice was considerably less amused, and had taken on a grim note, "Since treachery beyond measure."
He strode forward, advancing on the Asari Matriarch, who smoothly backed away as the man advanced.
"Tell me, Beneziah," He bellowed, "Why you came to this place, why you meddled with such a race as these 'Rachni?'"
"My goals are beyond your comprehension," Beneziah said calmly, withdrawing her own pistol, and replacing her pilfered weapon in its holster, "Perhaps in time you could come to enlightenment, but your interference here cannot be tolerated, and you must be slain before you can further interfere with Saren's plans."
Liara trembled in Shepard's grip again, and would have lurched forward into the lab if she hadn't been restrained.
"I've heard nonsense such as yours from Men, Xenos, and Daemons alike over the centuries," The man snarled, ignoring rounds pinging against his shield as Beneziah opened fire with her pistol, "All of them lay defeated, all but a handful dead by my hand or those of my servants. Give me one good reason not to strike you down where you stand for what you did to your own soldiers!"
He continued to advance, and Beneziah continued to retreat, turning with the course of the catwalk, putting her back to Shepard. Beneziah was not a small Asari. In fact, she was rather tall for her race, but as she retreated towards Shepard, and the 'Inquisitor' advanced after her, Shepard realized just how stark the size disparity was, the man in his massive armor looming over her even from well out of arm's reach.
"I need only one reason," Beneziah said, halting her fire briefly, "You lack the ability."
Beneziah's left hand lanced forward, her hand closing into a tightly-clenched fist as it did so, and an intensely bright Biotic field leapt into existence around the man. He snarled, flinging his arms up and outwards, dispelling the field contemptuously.
"Foolish Witch," He snarled, a shimmering ball of force coalescing in his hand as he spoke, "Your arrogance will be your undoing."
"It already has," Beneziah said sadly, before raising a barrier of shimmering force to absorb the Inquisitor's force-bolt.
Shepard was a Biotic. Sheila was a Biotic. Liara, being an Asari, was also a Biotic. What followed that first exchange of kinetic fire, was like nothing any of them had seen before.
Beneziah focused a matched pair of gravitic currents, flowing in opposite directions, against each other, creating a plane of shearing force. Shepard had never seen a Biotic technique like it before, and when the Inquisitor deflected it, with a forceful backhanded gesture, it sliced through the catwalk's solid steel surface like an Omni-blade through jello. The Inquisitor counted with a simple, overwhelming wave of force, three meters high and a dozen wide. Beneziah leapt over the wave; Shepard raised the strongest Biotic barrier he could over the entrance; a moment later it was reinforced by another from Sheila. Shepard's barrier collapsed as it was struck by the wave-front, as well as shards of steel it had dragged up from the catwalk, Sheila's absorbed the remaining force without failing.
A pair of heavy crashes marked the Astartes being smashed into the wall on either side of the door by the wave of force; if it had any injurious effect upon them, Shepard couldn't tell through their armor.
"Thanks Sheila," Shepard called quietly, before firmly shaking Liara's shoulder, "Doctor T'Soni, I'm going to need to ask for your assistance if something like that happens again."
Shepard had to shake her again before she responded, giving only a distracted nod, her attention focused on her embattled mother.
Beneziah had latched onto one of the four primary support struts that ran through the interior of the building, and was launching a rapid flurry of simple blasts of force down at the Inquisitor, who was slapping them aside with one hand, while his other gathered another accumulation of force. Beneziah frowned, and stepped up the pace of her barrage, but the Inquisitor still finished gathering his energy, unleashing a substantially more powerful force bolt before the Asari could disrupt his concentration.
Leaping backward, Beneziah used her grip on the strut as a pivot point, spinning back out of view of the Inquisitor, leaving the bolt of kinetic energy to slam into the edge of the strut, substantially deforming its edge. Not wasting a second, the Inquisitor immediately turned and stomped back towards the center of the lab, which with the strut deformed partly out of the way, Shepard could now more clearly see the enormous Rachni Queen in her stasis cell. The Inquisitor began forming a pair of bolts, one in each hand, forcing Beneziah to act.
The Asari Matriarch lunged down out of the shadowy recesses of the chamber's ceiling, another, far more intense shearing wavefront leading the way downward. The Inquisitor unleashed both bolts of force up at the Asari, but they were simply cleft in twain by her Biotic blade, and he was forced to hurl himself aside. Ducking and rolling smoothly to his feet, he turned to face Beneziah, energy coiling around his clenched fists as the black-clad Asari deftly twisted her metaphysical weapon around, splitting it, and taking a knife-fighter's stance again.
His arms sheathed in a crackling wreath of energy, the Inquisitor lowered his center of gravity and advanced swiftly, but smoothly, on the smaller Asari. Beneziah lashed out with one of her blades, sharp beyond what was physically possible, and the Inquisitor parried with an open palm, before lashing out with his other arm; Beneziah parried the fist with her other blade, smoothly balancing redirection of her opponent's force with shifting her own body out of alignment with the blow.
The Inquisitor pressed his assault, absorbing a half-dozen strikes on his arms, the coruscating field of energy somehow blocking Beneziah's gravitic blades, as he sought to lay a single decisive blow against his smaller and less well-protected adversary. Not one to endlessly repeat a failed tactic, Beneziah ducked low, taking advantage of her shorter stature to attack the Inquisitor's legs. The man had clearly been expecting the move, as he withdrew his forward leg almost before she had begun to strike, her blow barely scoring the armor over his knee, before slamming his left fist straight downward.
Beneziah twisted in place, bending her spine backwards into nearly a U-shape, the armored giant's fist passing between her pelvis and shoulders on its way down to the decking of the catwalk. The catwalk's surface exploded downwards, a two-meter radius of sheet metal somehow shredded by the Inquisitor's single blow. Both lost their balance and footing, instinctively retreating; recovery came seconds later, and they sprinted around the new hole in the catwalk's floor, re-engaging in furious melee, the Inquisitor more cautious about exposing his legs, Beneziah more wary of ambushes laid.
They danced in and out of Shepard's sight, the damaged support strut partially obscuring his view of the fight, but his keen eyes picked up on one clear detail as the seconds crawled past in furious inhuman combat. The wreath of energy surrounding the Inquisitor's arms was slowly spreading, covering first his upper torso, then his head and abdomen, and beginning to gradually creep down over his legs, rendering him increasingly immune to Beneziah's weapons. When the protective sheath crept down below his knees, Beneziah disengaged, leaping back across the recently-added hole in the catwalks, and rejoining her two gravitic blades into one larger, more intense weapon.
The Inquisitor immediately leapt after her, descending upon her in a dive, leading with his elbows, synthetically-distorted voice snarling out a wordless challenge. Beneziah met the challenge, swinging her larger blade around like a baseball bat to meet the man's dive, and employing (another) technique Shepard hadn't even thought possible with Biotics, converted all of the energy invested in her blade's formation into kinetic force upon the instant it made contact, smashing him away with spine-shattering force.
Metal shrieked and stone cracked as the Inquisitor slammed through machinery that Shepard couldn't see clearly and into the lab's wall, then for a moment, the lab was silent, save for Beneziah's slightly heavy breathing.
Then a barrage of crates and crushed machinery were hurled from beyond Shepard's field of view slashed across the cavernous lab towards Beneziah. The Asari gracefully slipped out of the way, looking more like a dancer putting on an exhibition than a warrior locked in mortal combat. The second barrage was larger, and focused more tightly to prevent Beneziah from slipping through it; the Asari dove through the hole in the catwalk in front of her, and out of the line of fire, disappearing into the heating equipment and medical machinery built into the lab's floor.
Harsh clanking sounded as the Inquisitor strode back into view, storming along the catwalk that lined the lab's perimeter, decoupling shattered and deformed gauntlets as he did so, revealing forearms and hands now covered only in a body-glove. A veritable cloud of crates and debris were swept up around him, every loose article that the man passed joining the swarm as he moved. Beneziah's counter-attack came from directly beneath the man, violently tearing through the catwalk, but if she had hoped to catch him off-guard, she was disappointed.
The man sidestepped the lance of Biotic energy Beneziah hurled upwards at him before it had even finished penetrating the catwalk, quite a feat as Shepard didn't even notice it until it tore through the catwalk, a process that took less than half a second. The Inquisitor responded by stomping harshly downward, caving in the catwalk beneath him, sending it crashing onto the lab's floor below, his cloud of 'stored' projectiles falling with him. An improvised spear, formed from a torn section of catwalk railing wrapped in a purple Biotic field, shrieked out of the maze of machinery on the lab's floor, breaking the sound barrier with a thunderous crack, before being stopped dead by the Inquisitor's energy field.
The Inquisitor responded by saturation-bombarding the area the spear had emerged from with his entire accumulated payload, keeping nothing in reserve as he attacked. The brute-force attack worked, to a degree, as Beneziah was forced up out of the machinery along the lab's floor, a graceful Biotically-enhanced backflip landing her on the catwalk opposite the chamber from the Inquisitor, and for a brief moment, the two simply stared at each other.
Then the Inquisitor ripped upwards with both of his hands, and the catwalk Beneziah stood on, and that a good few meters to either side of her, was torn upward off of its mountings; Beneziah responded by initiating a Biotic charge towards her opponent. She narrowly escaped being crushed by the torn section of catwalk folding in half, breaking the sound barrier herself before slamming into the Inquisitor's barrier.
"What made you think you could pierce my shield where your spear could not?" The Inquisitor asked disdainfully.
"I didn't," Beneziah said, faint amusement in her tone, before opening her fists, and allowing a pair of narrowly-focused spears of Biotic energy to lance in towards the Inquisitor's helmet.
Even at point-blank range, the Inquisitor still managed to raise a partial shield, though it collapsed before fully absorbing the second lance, smashing into his helmet, cracking it and tearing half of it off. Shepard watched in silent disbelief as the rest of the helmet slowly slipped off, revealing an amorphous mass of features where a head and face should have been. One moment, the features were clearly those of a Turian male, before smoothly slipping into those of a Batarian of indeterminate gender, then a human female, then an Asari, then morphing into a black human female, then a Salarian, then...
It didn't stop, the shape and face of the head continually changing, never repeating a particular face, the only pattern being a slight tendency towards human features over those appropriate to aliens.
"What are you?" Beneziah uttered in quiet horror, instinctively backing away from the Inquisitor as he/she/it shook off the shattered remnants of its helmet.
"I and those who follow me come from beyond this Galaxy," the...being said, its voice just as amorphous as its features, twisting through baritone, tenor, soprano, the flanging resonance of Turians, the ephemeral resonance of Hanar, everything and anything Shepard had ever heard.
"We came to this place to test the strength of your civilizations," It continued, stepping forward towards Beneziah, who swiftly stepped back, maintaining their separation, "I find your people to be... vulnerable."
The being's final word sent a chill down Shepard's spine, and he glanced at Nihlus, seeing grim wariness in the Turians face, before glancing back at the members of his team watching through Sheila's fiber-optics, to see similar levels of disturbance and determination on their faces. When he returned his attention to the lab, he found that Beneziah was looking his direction; no, more specifically, she was looking at Liara, and after a moment, her face took on a grim resolution, a furious determination that had not been present before.
"You will find no weakness here," Beneziah declared, turning back to bring her full attention to bear on the unmasked being in front of her, her voice bearing the full weight of authority a seven hundred year old Asari Matriarch could bring to bear, "I'll not let a threat such as you walk out of here alive."
Shepard glanced surreptitiously at the two 'Astartes' flanking the door he was watching from, but their armored forms didn't so much as shift weight in response to their superior's exchange with the Asari, only their torsos moving in the steady rhythm of breathing let him know that they weren't just machines.
Beneziah attacked again before Shepard could spare them any further attention, lashing out with a single lance of hyper-focused Biotic force aimed at the 'Inquisitor's' now-exposed head, if the amorphous appendage even truly counted as such. The Inquisitor dodged the blow before it had even fully formed, Beneziah's lance of force instead tearing a divot into the lab's wall behind him, then lunged forward, shifting mouth open as though he intended to take a bite out of the Asari in front of him.
Shepard recognized an intimidation move when he saw it, even from such a strange creature; it utterly failed to faze or unnerve Beneziah though, who simply shifted around the Inquisitor's attack, and slammed a backhand blow into his shoulder, Biotic force sending the man/creature smashing through two of the radiator stacks before a third stopped him, deforming catastrophically in the process. It took 'him' less than a second to lurch back to his feet and shake off the impact, but Beneziah pushed her attack relentlessly, one hand now 'holding' a gravitic knife, as the other, re-activated Omni-blade extended (part of Shepard wondered when she had managed to pick up more Omni-gel), swept in towards the Inquisitor's 'throat.'
His own sword whipped out to deflect the Omni-blade, but he was forced to take the other on his shoulder, and the gravitic blade finished what Beneziah's earlier blow had started, shattering the massive pauldron. The Inquisitor largely ignored the blow, utilizing his superior mass and strength to take control of their locked blades, pushing Beneziah back for a moment, which was enough for him to gather energy for a more forceful move.
A cylindrical wave of force erupted outwards from the Inquisitor, tearing apart several pieces of machinery around him; Beneziah erected a Biotic shield, and used it to ride the wave up and away from the Inquisitor, leaping up and into the machinery built into the Secure Lab's ceiling again as it petered out. The Inquisitor immediately began launching bolts of force up into the machinery, tearing weaker pieces of hardware apart, and damaging hardier pieces as he sought to flush out his opponent.
The Matriarch, however, was a consummate special forces operative, and was beyond simply skilled in stealth; the Inquisitor's barrage continued for more than a minute as a steady purple-blue glow build along the ceiling, but he never struck Beneziah. The glow of Biotics increased, spread across the entire roof, until it was almost painful to look at, before Beneziah finally abandoned her cover, and descended on the lab floor, riding a massive wave of Biotic force extending the length and breadth of the entire lab.
The wave warped the four primary structural supports within the chamber, tearing the already-warped one down altogether, before smashing into the Lab's floor, crushing every remaining intact piece of machinery therein. Shepard saw the Inquisitor raise another shield, before the impact kicked a cloud of dust, smoke, and debris just thick enough to limit visibility into the air. The Astartes, caught only by the edge of the wave of force, simply shrugged its impact off, like they had everything else in the fight thus far.
As visibility slowly cleared, Beneziah became visible standing atop the fallen girder, carefully studying the lab around her, watching carefully for signs of her opponent. She didn't have long to wait, as a massive bolt of force launched out of the rubble that now blanketed the lab's floor; even with a swiftly-raised shield, Beneziah was knocked back off of the enormous girder (driving the girder itself back several meters as well), and Shepard found himself actually stepping forward into the lab itself so that he could see where she landed.
Beneziah landed more clumsily, panting with exertion, sweating profusely, and Shepard could see signs of the unnaturally-high heart-rate that 'chiller' drugs induced in a Biotic when they used them to allow more rapid utilization of their abilities. The Inquisitor, when he/she/it staggered into view, looked worse. A red liquid that Shepard suspected was blood was smeared across the torso of his heavy armor, and the plating over one leg was cracked. The power-augmentation on that section of the armor also appeared to have failed, as the Inquisitor half-lurched, half limped towards Beneziah, glowing blade in one hand, coalescing sphere of energy in the other.
Beneziah made a frustrated sound, halfway between a groan and a growl, before lurching forwards towards the Inquisitor, her gravitic blade coalescing in her hands as she moved. As they approached each other, Beneziah's gait regained its trademark grace, as best as was possible when moving across the shattered machinery and rubble that littered the lab's floor, but the Inquisitor simply continued to limp onwards, hurling balls of force as he advanced. Beneziah slapped the first few aside with her blade, then leapt as the fourth was directed not at her, but the debris beneath her feet.
Spinning around mid-leap, Beneziah wound herself around for a cross-body blow with her gravity blade, a posture that allowed for either a swift parry or a powerful double-handed blow. The Inquisitor thrust his own blade, crackling with energy, upwards to meet the descending Asari; rather than attempt to parry the blow, Beneziah twisted in place, taking the sword through the abdomen rather than the chest, and swept her gravity blade across the Inquisitor's midsection, cutting him in half at the waist.
Beneziah landed in a painful half-roll, even with finely-controlled Biotics she was hard-pressed to avoid tearing the Inquisitor's sword further through her body as she landed, but she was not a living legend without reason, and managed to roll to her feet without severely aggravating the already near-mortal injury. Not one to make assumptions, she came to her feet facing the Inquisitor's top half, gravity blade held ready in one hand, while her other kept the blade sticking through her intestines steady.
The Inquisitor did not move; even the amorphous shifting of his features faded away, revealing a human face with a rather mundane shape, even if it possessed blue hair and red eyes. Beneziah, Shepard, everyone stared silently at the fallen figure for long, long seconds, waiting for any sign of movement, a twitch in the fingers,. The eyes focusing rather than staring sightlessly up at the lab's ceiling, anything.
Nothing came, Shepard saw no movement of breath, and his sensors detected no pulse on the skin of the man's throat. Eventually, Beneziah breathed a sigh of relief, and turned to face the doorway where Shepard, Nihlus, and her daughter stood, flanked by the pair of Astartes.
"Must I kill you as well?" She demanded imperiously, staring directly at the Astartes, "Or will you surrender now that your master is dead?"
The Astartes were silent, and made no movement beyond breathing for a full minute; eventually, Beneziah turned her attention to the other three in the doorway.
"It's good to see you, Little Wing," She said, her voice soft and tired rather than hard and commanding as she addressed Liara, "Though I wish our meeting were under better terms. Did you find any survivors amongst my Commandos?"
Liara lurched forward, but Nihlus and Shepard restrained her forcibly.
"We've found more than a dozen in various states of catatonia," Shepard said flatly, "And we've got one right here who's-" He glanced back at Sheila, who answered his implied question with a series of silent handsignals, "Exhausted and restrained for questioning. I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to submit yourself to arrest, ma'am."
"I wish I could," Beneziah said sadly, a bittersweet smile on her face, "But I can only fight Saren's control for so long, it is best I simply die here."
"NO!" Liara screamed, thrashing desperately in Shepard and Nihlus' grip, "Don't leave me!"
"Would that I could return to you, Little Wing," Beneziah said tenderly, "But Sovereign, the dreadnaught Saren commands from, there is something about it that whispers in your mind, and the longer you are aboard, the longer you lose yourself. My soldiers, my daughters, lost themselves after just months," Beneziah closed her eyes tiredly for a moment, before opening them and speaking again, her voice haunted, "I have been aboard that vessel cumulatively for three years. I can fight the control for brief moments, when I find need of the utmost importance drives me, like now, to protect you," Beneziah smiled sadly at her daughter, "But I cannot stave off the control forever."
"No..." Liara breathed, agony in her voice as she began to sob, still halfheartedly trying to break free of Shepard and Nihlus, "Mother..."
For a long moment, no one spoke, Shepard had no idea what to say, Nihlus decided that silence had the best opportunity of gathering more intelligence (and giving a mother a final moment with her daughter), the Astartes followed their customary implacable silence, and all anyone could hear was Liara crying.
Then every electronic device within the lab failed simultaneously, and a roar of flames leapt to life behind Beneziah.
"Forever," A deep voice boomed, "Will not be necessary."
Beneziah lunged forward, twisting around as she did so, turning to face the 'corpse' of the Inquisitor. A 'corpse' which had burst into flames, a flame which melted the nigh-impregnable armor the Inquisitor had been wearing into a molten puddle, before a bare torso erupted from the flow of liquid alloy. His body a literal incarnation of flame, no flesh, no machinery, no bone, nothing visible but the torso of a man crafted from intense, white-hot flame, the Inquisitor rose from the melted and burning remnants of his battle garb, legs of flame being dragged up into place as they burst free from the lower half of his armor.
"Three hundred years of combat experience," The Inquisitor bellowed, glowing crimson eyes locked on Beneziah, "Superior equipment, superior preparation, and still you best me."
A vicious smirk grew on the fiery apparition's face, and it took a single, menacing step towards Beneziah.
"So long as I limited myself to like abilities, that is," He said, a feral edge to his voice, "You triumph even over the shackles within your own mind, and all for a Just Cause."
He took another step towards Beneziah, he drew herself fully upright, and formed her gravitic blade for the first time that night.
"I have not met a warrior I respected more for two hundred years," The Inquisitor declared, "I cannot abide for you to die the unwilling slave of a would-be galactic tyrant. I shall be taking you with me."
His left hand lashed out; Beneziah raised a shield to block his attack, but rather than a bolt of force, a cascade of lightning erupted from his fingers, completely ignoring Beneziah's shield, and slamming into her body with merciless force. Beneziah thrashed on the ground for a handful of seconds before the Inquisitor halted the flow, and she collapsed to the shattered floor, unconscious. A second gesture caught her in a telekinetic grip, and began levitating her towards the Inquisitor.
"NO!" Liara snarled, lashing out with a Biotic blast of her own, which the Inquisitor deflected with an almost casual gesture.
The Astartes by the doors moved for the first time since the battle had ended, one raising his heavy laser, while the other moved with blinding speed, a blow with the flat of his hand rendering Liara unconscious before Nihlus and Shepard realized they had allowed themselves to become fatally complacent regarding the armored guards.
"Hold!" The Inquisitor shouted, his flaming body coalescing into flesh once more, allowing him to gently pick Beneziah up with his own hands, "We need make no further enemies here."
The Astartes backed off, but the heavy laser was not lowered.
"Brother-Sergeant," The Inquisitor ordered as he fished his laser pistol out of Beneziah's holster, "Return to the ship, I shall follow on my own."
"Affirmative," the Astartes not holding the heavy laser replied with a nod, before the pair of them disappeared, leaving only a discharge of static electricity in their wake.
"Here," The Inquisitor called, tossing the laser pistol across the lab towards Shepard, who caught it reflexively with the hand not occupied holding Liara's insensate form, "Give that to the girl. It has seen me well through three centuries of combat, and is of considerable sentimental value to me. I give it to her as a collateral, and a measure of protection to ensure she lasts, until her mother's return."
And then the Inquisitor, too, disappeared, leaving Shepard and his team alone in the shattered ruin of the Secure Lab.
"Well," Weiss said, stepping up behind Liara, and glancing over the unconscious Asari's shoulder, "That went well. Except for you know, the whole everything thing."
"It went well in one way," Shepard said, running his eyes over the lab, and paying particular attention to the crushed isolation chamber, and crushed Rachni Queen within, beneath the fallen support strut, "We didn't lose anybody. I'll call that a good result any day."
End of Chapter.
I'm intending to post one plot-arc per month while I focus on my original writing more. We'll see how that works out.