Disclaimer: The worlds and characters of Mass Effect and Dragon Age belong to Bioware. I make no money from this work of fanfiction.
SPOILERS: Massive spoilers for the Mass Effect series (including the very end of ME3) and Dragon Age. If you haven't played all three ME games and Dragon Age Origins, turn back!
So. This was heaven?
Shepard personally thought it was a bit... rundown. With both guns gone, she relied on her omni-tool to light an otherwise absolute darkness. What was revealed by the orange glow was not at all what she'd expected of the afterlife. She was in some sort of chamber, a long vaulted room made of stone. Judging by the roots that dangled from fissures in the ceiling and walls, she was also deep underground. One particular trio had grown massive in size, easily larger than Grunt, never mind Shepard herself. They twisted like snakes around each other, and stretched all the way from the ceiling to the floor before disappearing beneath chunks of debris. At some point, the chamber wall had partially collapsed where the plant had forced it's way through at least two feet of solid rock, leaving a gaping wound.
There was further evidence of structural instability. Blocks of carved stone, most the size of shipping crates, were scattered around the chamber. The stones were scarred with cracks, or lay in broken pieces, probably due to falling some twenty meters from the ceiling. Shuffling into a slow and awkward pivot, Shepard counted ten massive columns along the walls supporting what was left of the vaulted ceiling. One was thoroughly compromised, little more than a stump squatting uselessly beside the broken carcass of it's upper half. Naturally, it happened to be the very column that once held up the entrance. Without it's support, the archway had collapsed.
Two others columns were in little better condition. A chunk of midsection was missing from one, as if a hungry thresher maw had taken a huge bite out of it's center. Another was marred by several deep cracks running along it's length, and Shepard was willing to bet it wouldn't take more than a slight shove to make the whole thing crumble.
She was reminded of the ruins she'd found on Tuchanka. The last remnants of a great krogan city, buried and forgotten by its own people.
But this was not the same City of the Ancients Eve had described. The stone was all wrong, for one. The catacombs had smelled of rust from the high concentrations of iron native to Tuchanka's soil, the same composition that gave the whole of the planet it's distinctive red coloring from space, much like Mars. The rock used here was granite, and there was something in the construction—arched spaces, precisely cut stonework, and vaulted ceiling—that brought the Romanesque style of architecture to mind. Maybe it was the sheer scale and dimensions of the place, but Shepard suspected it must have had some ceremonial significance to whomever had built it. Especially considering the effort needed to construct it without modern technology. It had that air of reverence about it, like she'd expect to find in a church or temple, but while it must have been quite grand and inspiring once, now it was nothing but an ancient remnant.
Empty and falling apart at the seams, it felt more like a tomb.
A strange place to spend eternity, and she hadn't expected heaven to hurt this much. Even if her suit's sensors were still functioning, which they assuredly weren't considering how her armor had melted from a glancing blow of Harbinger's beam, Shepard didn't need readouts to know she was seriously injured. The numbness that had settled over her entire body, interspersed by jolts of intense pain whenever she moved too much or too suddenly, said enough on their own.
Shepard had been dying well before she'd found the Catalyst. Apparently, that was still the case. Unless she'd been sent in the opposite direction. Which, she had to admit, wasn't entirely outside the realms of possibility. With lives on the line, and then an entire galaxy at stake, Shepard didn't always have the luxury of morals. She'd tried to do more good than harm, but whatever karmic points she'd scored throughout her life had pretty much been shot straight to hell after Bahak.
Shepard never gave it much thought, really. Couldn't. To sit and contemplate all the lives she'd taken, the faces of those she'd killed in battle—that way lies madness, and she had a job to do. She was a soldier, first and foremost. She followed her orders and finished the mission. The best she could hope for was that when the butcher's bill was tallied at the end of the day, she'd saved more lives than she'd lost.
At least, that's what she told herself. It would probably be little consolation to EDI and the entire Geth Collective.
Pushing such thoughts from her head, Shepard decided that wherever this was, it wasn't Hell. Not enough fire and brimstone. Also, a distinct lack of horned and fork-tailed demons. London and the Citadel itself had born a far greater resemblance to a place of eternal damnation than these ruins, what with all the husks trying to kill her and piles of dead bodies she'd had to wade through.
No, it was far more likely that the VI, or AI, or whatever, had lied to her. Either about the consequences of destroying the Reapers, or the nature of the Catalyst itself. As the razor sharp claws of failure dug into her mind, Shepard grit her teeth against the sudden wave of fury that threatened to drown all rational thought. Her guts were twisting themselves into a tangle of knots, dying body shivering in anger, but Shepard slammed a mental bulkhead down on the speculations racing through her head. She simply didn't have enough information at hand, and she refused to give in to despair.
What she did know boiled down to two things. One: She was still alive. For now. That condition could quickly change if she didn't find some sort of medical assistance, and soon. Two: She was no longer on the Citadel.
The sheer weight of the fatigue dragging on her mind and body clearly indicated which of the two problems took priority. She could find out where she'd been dumped, and how, after her injuries were treated. Besides, if she ended up dying here, everything else would be moot.
Grimacing, Shepard lowered her omni-tool and took a few crunching steps towards the twisting structure of roots she'd spied before, the ones that looked like entwining trunks of some massive tree. Where they'd ripped apart a whole section of the wall, the gash appeared big enough to pass through. Assuming, of course, she had enough energy and strength to climb the head-high avalanche of wreckage around it.
Given her struggles to simply slide a foot forward, that wasn't a guarantee.
She didn't get very far before she realized the sound from beneath her boots wasn't from the thick layer of dirt and debris covering the floor, but from something flat and thin. Something that cracked.
Lowering her arm, Shepard's eyes widened in surprise as the light from her omni-tool was reflected back at her. She waved her hand side to side, and the orange glare winked. Eyes adjusting, Shepard eventually made out the sharp, angled edges of... glass. A fragment of glass from the looks of it, about the size of her hand and triangular in shape. It wasn't just any glass, either, but remnants of a mirror.
She'd been so distracted by the oddity of ending up in some long-buried ruins, she'd completely forgotten to survey the ground around her. Or the blood loss and shock was making her sloppy. Shepard didn't care for either notion, and with visions of landmines dancing in her head, quickly set about correcting her error.
She found more fragments glinting the light back at her across the floor, all arrayed in a fairly standard blast pattern. Her gaze followed the debris as it gradually narrowed down towards a single point. Suddenly, a hint of gold shone out from the darkness, partially concealed by a piece of the ceiling that had crashed to the ground.
Shepard limped towards it, and discovered the mirror's outer frame. Or rather, what was left of it. Frankly, it looked as bad off as her armor. The majority of it's structure was melted and warped, but the mirror's base had been left untouched. It's golden stand had been expertly fashioned to resemble the clawed feet of some giant, scaly bird. In fact, aside from the third toe, they strongly reminded Shepard of turian feet.
Shepard wasn't an engineer, but she'd seen a fair share of weapons damage in her life. Enough to recognize that the mirror had been subjected too an intense burst of heat, which had not only melted the metal framework, but had also caused the glass to instantaneously expand until it had burst outwards. Then, just as quickly, the metal had cooled before it had a chance to liquify.
Something had hit it fast and hard, using a massive amount of destructive energy. Some kind of incendiary mortar, perhaps? The really strange part was that it hadn't done any collateral damage to the rest of the room, which was fairly miraculous given it's fragile, crumbling state. The blast radius must have been extraordinarily localized. As in, the sort of precision she'd normally attribute to a gun Garrus had calibrated, and that man did things to a targeting scanner Shepard never dreamed were possible. He'd work a standard issue rifle until it could hit the ocular light of a Geth trooper dead center. From orbit.
Shepard doubted it was a coincidence this mirror had been situated near the spot she'd awakened, surrounded by shattered pieces of glass. But why would anyone want to blow up a mirror?
No, not anyone. Why would a Reaper want to blow up a mirror?
Maybe they'd thought it was tacky, she mused.
The notion was so ludicrous, it provoked a snicker, followed by a bubble of laughter. Before Shepard knew it, she was gripping her wounded stomach, doubled over in hysterics. Even the sudden bolt of pain that shot up her spine only caused a brief, choked pause. Once the room started to spin, Shepard reached out to steady herself with what was left of the mirror's stand.
It wasn't until her lungs spasmed, triggering a agonizing coughing fit, that she finally stopped laughing. She lost her breath, and the world seesawed again. Shepard grunted as she fell sideways, hip slamming into a table-sized boulder. She gripped the top, then grimaced as her palm slid wetly across the rock's rough grain. Lifting her hand, Shepard brought up the haptic display still glowing over her other arm, and inspected her palm.
Blood. A great deal of blood. And apart from patches of burned flesh where her skin had bubbled and blistered, there were no seriously deep cuts that could account for all of it. Reaching up, Shepard touched her lips with her fingertips and found them wet.
"Damn," she muttered hoarsely, before spitting the coppery taste from her mouth and throat. Frowning, Shepard wiped her lips with the back of her hand, wincing as the motion pulled at the portion of her wrist where the ablative plating of her armor had fused to her skin.
The Cerberus implants had to be failing. Shepard's mind was shutting down, her abdomen was full of blood, and her chest hurt like hell.
And she was wasting time on a mirror.
Shoving off the rock, Shepard felt for the wound in her side, and grunted as she pressed down. With one arm hugging her stomach, she lifted the light from her other and started forward again.
She honestly had no idea how she was still moving, but the pace was a frustratingly slow one. She shuffled awkwardly around obstacles, including spots on the floor where the tile had broken loose. Shepard worried that something so simple as tripping might mean her death. She wasn't sure if she had the strength to get back up.
So when she reached the mound of dirt and debris that spilled over the gash in the wall, she eyed it with a trepidation normally reserved for thresher maws and reapers. It was ridiculous that this tiny spill posed a problem. Normally, it would be a simple matter of taking a running leap, catching the top, and hauling herself over.
But Shepard no longer had the balance, strength, energy, or speed for even that simple a maneuver.
Needing both hands for the ascent, she had to remove the pressure from her bleeding side. The light bobbed around her as she leaned forward, until she fell with outstretched arms onto the gritty pile. Bits of rock bit into her skin, and where her palms had peeled, the pain was worse than the constant agony emanating from her stomach. Shepard breathed heavily through her nose, once, twice, then forced one foot to move. Then, the other.
It wasn't just her own weakness and injury that made the small climb ludicrously difficult, as if she were ascending Everest with Wrex riding her back, but the fact that the debris beneath her shifted with every movement. It was like searching for a firm footing on the near-vertical face of a sand dune, except with some very, very sharp bits stabbing and tearing into blistered flesh.
It took a preposterously long time to reach the top. Once she was staring down into an empty, dark corridor, Shepard's head was swimming, sweat covered her forehead, and her chest heaved as she struggled to catch her breath.
She collapsed against the wall's broken edge, head bowing. Her hair fell forward, hiding her face as she stared down at the warped wreckage that had once been her leg greaves. Blood flowed sluggishly down her side, her hip, soaking into the dirt and grit beneath her.
She had been fooling herself. She had no notion of the layout of these ruins. She had no idea which way to go. She didn't know how far to the surface. She couldn't even be sure what planet she was on. Was there any help? What if she was alone on some desolate world purged eons before she'd been born?
And even if this was Earth, what awaited her topside? More husks? She had no weapons, no functioning armor, and no shields. She barely had enough strength to ascend a seven foot mound of dirt.
Why am I still fighting?
She'd been prepared to give her life to destroy the Reapers. Walking towards that red tube, there had been no doubt, no hesitation. Determination, memory of those she'd left behind, carried her forward with strong strides when she shouldn't have been able to stand.
Except there was nothing to fight here but her own death. And it was coming. It was in every breath that she had to suck down, every heartbeat that pumped more blood into her painfully distended stomach, every thought that sluggishly waded through her muddy mind.
Shepard leaned back, stared up at the roots that glowed in the soft light of her omnitool. Around her only cold, broken stone. Above her, nothing. Not even stars.
Shepard shivered, turning her gaze away and squeezing her eyes shut. Without the light, the weariness grew unbearably heavy, and her muscles could do nothing but surrender beneath the weight. Lethargy pulled at her like a tide, and for a moment, nothing hurt as she floated within her own slowing thoughts. Like the last quiet moment of consciousness before falling asleep.
A part of Shepard knew that if she allowed the darkness to pull her under, she'd never wake again.
She was too tired to care.
She had a vague image of mandibles lifting into a turian smile and fiery blue eyes before he, too, drifted into nothingness. Shepard began to sink deeper, until the only sound was that of her shallow breath and a stuttering heart. After a life of the rattle of gunfire, the booming thunder of explosions, the zip and crack of bullets, the shrieks of eldritch horrors, the reverberating voice of the reapers... the sound of her body slowing was such a peaceful thing to hear. Like the last soft patter of a gentle rain after the violent center of a thunderstorm had finally passed.
Shepard listened and forgot to breathe. Listened and sank. Listened until there was nothing to hear.
A scream pierced through the dark and silent waters of her mind like a bullet.
Her eyes popped open, and she sucked down a ragged, burning breath of icy air. Her heart drummed a frantic beat in her ears, and the light wobbled around her as she tried to raise a pistol that had long been lost.
Somewhere, beyond the blackness, the man screamed again. As if in answer, there came a bestial roar. A terrible thing of base hunger and fury. It burrowed deep into the primal part of her mind, making her pulse race as a tide of adrenalin flooded her dying body.
Shepard was more alert than she'd been since... she couldn't remember. The Illusive Man? She gripped the edge of the wall and shoved. The rough tumble to the ground was a chaotic overload of too much sensory input from too many traumatic injuries, a rush of agony beyond anything she'd experienced.
Teeth creaking as her jaw clamped shut against her own shout, Shepard swallowed the sound and a mouthful of blood before rolling onto her bloated belly. Her legs... she tried move them, but they were too weak to move, let alone hold weight. Too much damage to the skin and muscle, too much buildup of lactic acid, soaking them to their aching bones. But the cries continued to ring out, terror and hunger mingling and merging, and a wet crack of metal cutting through flesh to bone.
They were the sounds of a frantic battle for survival. She'd recognize them anywhere. There was no need for debate, decision, or consideration for her own fragile state. Shepard needed to be there, through any means.
If her body wouldn't move, Shepard would move the universe instead.
Nerve endings sparked to life as she concentrated on her amp, millions of cells releasing tiny bubbles of energy like freshly poured campaign. Her body blazed with power, drenching the entirety of the corridor with bright light as phantom flames rose up around her. The excess curled and rolled off like smoke, and Shepard's eyes became pinpoints of raging blue fire as the dark energy began to take shape.
Matter became amenable to her will. Her body lightened within a pocket of space removed from gravity. Time distorted and slowed, while her speed and strength increased exponentially. Shepard couldn't sustain the effect for long under even the best circumstances, the drain was too great, but she could hold it long enough for one final charge.
Space and time bent, touching from one point to the next like a line curved into a circle. In an instant, she shot over a dozen meters from where she'd fallen, to the opposite end of the corridor.
To anyone outside the mass effect field, Shepard would be a flash of blue light moving too fast to follow with the naked eye. To Shepard, who lay within the field, it was the universe around her which had slowed, and she was able to take in the situation and adjust course as a microsecond of actual time passed.
Two people, a woman and a man, and some... creature, were frozen in the midst of battle. The creature was unlike anything Shepard had ever seen. It resembled a bear, but only in the basic sense. The body's shape was bear-like, it was large and heavy, with a snout, four legs, and round ears. But it had been mutated. Spikes protruded from its back like giant porcupine needles from hell, looking almost as if it's ribs had been turned outwards and pulled through the flesh. Patches of fur were missing, revealing skin covered in huge boils larger than Shepard's fist, and in some places it was as if the damn animal had been skinned alive where the muscle and bone were clearly visible. The thing reeked of rotting meat, like a bloated corpse that had been left out in the humid summer heat. It's eyes were crimson red, and enraged with bloodlust.
Shepard was more fixated on the threat then the civilians, but she noticed they were tall, skinny humans. One wore an odd leather outfit, complete with pleated skirt, and brandished a shield and a sword. The other wore robes and carried a long branch from some old, twisted tree.
Odd, but not nearly as odd as the thing attacking them.
It didn't matter. Given her body's already near-death state, the amount of energy Shepard had used was certain to kill her. The... thing... had to be brought down in a single stroke. Seeing how she was dead anyway, she might as well make it a really good hit.
In the last moments before the field destabilized and she rammed into the beast, Shepard extended it just far enough to lower the creature's mass while increasing her own.
Her lips curled into a truly vicious smile just as her pocket of space-time popped.
The collision was spectacular. Shepard had, for all intents and purposes, turned herself into a battering ram traveling at speeds the eye couldn't capture. She actually felt her body displace the creature's skeleton and organ. Bones shattered under the tremendous force of their impact. Its ribcage didn't just snap, it exploded into shrapnel that ripped through internal organs with the same lethality of a frag grenade. Parts of it's softer flesh burst like popped water balloons, although in this case, ones filled with hot, black blood and rotten gore instead of water.
But unlike her previous charges where she'd kept her own limits in mind, Shepard suffered several injuries both external and internal as well. She felt her collarbone fragment, her shoulder rupture, and her skull collapse. She wouldn't have been surprised if she'd just broken her upper spinal column, either. No easy feat, considering the amount of augmentation Cerberus had done when reconstructing her.
The creature was a pulverized mess of blood, gore, and bone, dead before it splattered against the wall.
Shepard wasn't far behind.
She slid a further meter before the base of a staircase stopped her. As her biotics faded, smothering her in darkness once more, Shepard didn't bother trying to move. It would be a futile waste of energy, assuming she hadn't just paralyzed herself. She entertained a brief moment of surprise that she hadn't immediately died on impact with the beast.
Survivor to the last, it seemed.
There were stunned exclamations behind her, the harried slaps of running feet. Shepard paid them no heed.
She didn't know what had become of the Reapers or the galaxy. She didn't even know if her crew had survived. But she had just saved two people. Two more lives that would continue on. In the grand scheme of things, two lives didn't come close to making up for Akuze, Ash, Horizon, Mordin, Thane, Legion, or the batarian colonists who died at Bahak. But it was something.
All in all, this was a much better death than simply sitting down and fading away. It was a death in battle, taking the enemy with her. A soldier's death.
To Shepard, that counted for a lot.
So she closed her eyes, and let the darkness take her without regret.