:: Chapter Thirty One :: The One To Fear ::

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Silent but distant

Real but not seen

Here but not happening

Forever has been

Into this absence

Two had but stayed

Behind them, darkness

Ahead, the unknown

-Be'lakor-

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"We're almost in position," Shepard said through his communicator, loosening the pistol at his hip.

"Let me know when," Tali replied.

Shepard glanced over at Ashley and Wrex, standing next to him. "Stay out here and be on the lookout for anybody that comes in behind me—I don't need any surprises."

"What—we're not fighting?" Wrex said with a disappointed look on his face.

"You probably will," Shepard admitted with a shrug. "And if something goes wrong, I'll need the two of you to get in there before they gut me."

Wrex nodded a few times and Ashley gave him a tight salute as he turned around and headed through the first door—though this one wasn't restricted. The door slid open and revealed what looked to be a lounge of some sort—a pair of drab, black couches were placed facing each other in the middle of the room, a pair of salarians sitting at one and idly chatting with each other—no doubt about some backroom deal, of course. They glanced momentarily at Shepard, quieting their voices to a hushed whisper as Shepard calmly walked past them and to his real destination.

"Which door?" Shepard asked quietly over his communicator.

"The second to your right," Tali responded. "Be careful when you go in—I've already disabled the alarms and turrets, but I saw at least two guards."

"It's alright, I'm armed," Shepard said as he put a hand on the strange pistol that he had pilfered from the two shopkeepers.

"Only if we have to," Tali said—the command shocking Shepard slightly.

"Right," Shepard said after a moment's pause. Only as a last resort.

"The door's open," Tali announced after a little while longer, and Shepard—watching to make sure neither of the lounging salarians were watching—engaged his cloaking module and slipped through the door. Shepard breathed a silent sigh of relief as the door slid shut behind him, and there was no blaring alarms or pattering feet chasing after him. No matter how many years of training he might have had, there was no chasing away the slight moment of exhilaration and terror he felt as he walked on a tightrope, one mistake away from catastrophe.

He dashed forward, being careful to make sure that his metal boots made no sound on the floor—another skill that he had nearly perfected during his training. As he made his way through another hallway and around the next bend, he opened up into a wide chamber which was empty other than the door and two guards at the opposite end of the room.

Shepard came to a halt as he watched the two guards from the end of the hallway, quickly scanning to see how they were armed. Both held assault rifles and wore thick suits of combat armor—making them less mobile but far better protected. If he had his knife with him, he could have easily slid it between the shoulder plates or into their neck, but with the puny pistol at his side, he wasn't sure how much he could do.

"Got incoming," Wrex's voice said through the communicator in Shepard's ear.

"Damnit," Shepard quietly muttered to himself. "How many?"

"An asari and a turian coming to visit," Wrex said.

"Get ready to come in on my mark," Shepard warned as he realized that he would have to take action now. His cloaking module wouldn't last another minute to wait for the new guards to take their place—if they were even switching, and not merely returning to hold post with them.

Shepard slipped back around the corner and disengaged his cloaking module as he pulled the pistol out of its holster and pointed it at the ground, firing it once before he threw it back into its clasp and reactivated his cloaking module.

As expected, the two guards took note of the gunshot, though to his displeasure, one of the guards stayed at the door while the other slowly moved forward, holding his rifle in front of him.

Shepard nimbly dashed past the guard who was approaching the hallway, being careful not to let a gust of wind from his approach alert the guard. Shepard ran up to stand beside the other guard by the door, slipping his pistol back out of his holster as he waited for the other guard to disappear down the hallway. After an achingly long time, he disappeared down the hallway, and Shepard silently counted to himself before jumping into action.

He dropped his cloaking module while he simultaneously dropped his fist into the turian's face, taking him by complete surprise as the man fell backwards, his hands waving in the air to regain his balance as his rifle went flying a few feet away from him. Unrelenting, Shepard shoved the pistol into the turian's forehead and began to fire, but the weak pistol merely set the guard's shields flickering.

Five shots in, the turian realized how desperate his situation had become and swung a hand to knock off his attacker. Shepard deftly dodged the blow, coming in harder as he slammed a fist into the turian's face in between bullets. Finally, after what must have been the tenth or eleventh bullet, the turian's shields gave way with a brilliant blue flash and the next bullet punched through his skull—with a less brilliant blue splatter. Finished with his victim—and already hearing the pounding footsteps of the other guard behind him, Shepard dashed towards the door and ran through it, letting it close behind him.

"I'm in," Shepard said over his communicator as his eyes scanned the room. It was quite simple—one of the walls was lined with a bookshelf which was loaded up with leather-bound manuals and other books of an unknown sort, and the back wall was covered in a variety of equipment ranging from tools to spare engine parts, so it seemed.

On the opposite corner of the room was a stubby looking terminal, with a large body that was abnormally large compared to even some of the largest market terminals.

"It should be in there somewhere," Tali said.

"I think I found it," Shepard said. "What do I do with the clip?"

"Just open the side panel and attach it to something metal," Tali said.

Following her orders, Shepard went down on to his knees as he examined the smooth sides of the terminal. "What side panel?" Shepard said, acutely aware of the likelihood that the guard would check the vault as soon as he had finished examining his companion.

"There—just—try to find some way to open it," Tali said, stuttering slightly.

With a shrug, Shepard pulled the pistol off his hip and fired it into the corner of the machine—being careful to aim it so that the bullet would only punch through the steel and hopefully not anything inside. Shepard shoved a finger into the bullet hole, stretching out the metal as he ripped open the side compartment and clipped the small clasp onto the first shining piece of wire he saw.

"Is it working?" Shepard asked.

"I've got a connection," Tali said. "You're done—but watch out, there are three guards outside."

As Tali finished her sentence, the door slid open and Shepard slipped his cloak back on as quickly as he could manage. Two turians rushed into the room, their rifles armed and ready, the asari quickly closing the door behind her.

"Need backup," Shepard muttered into his communicator, hoping that none of the three soldiers would hear him. He glanced down at his wrist—only eleven percent power reserves left. Barely enough to stop a few bullets.

With a determined shake of his head, he stood up and slipped past the two turians and then prepared to run.

Shepard dashed out of the door—apparently very expectedly, as the asari spun around and began firing almost instantaneously—but rather than follow the expected path of straight down the hallway, he dived to the side and watched as the three soldiers unloaded their bullets down the hallway, where a loud stomping could be heard echoing.

Of course, when all three of them dashed into the hallway expecting to find their invisible victim, they weren't prepared for the five hundred pound krogan that barrel into them like a cargo train does to a defenseless box.

Thrown by the force of impact—and by a biotic push, based on the abnormal way which they soared through the air—they all slammed heavily into the wall at the opposite side of the room and crumpled down on the floor. The asari was the first to recover, lifting her hand as she likely attempted some kind of biotic attack, but her resistance was cut short as the same five-hundred pound krogan slammed her into the wall again, crushing her ribs and bones as she passed out from the pain.

Ashley quickly followed behind, grabbing onto one of the rifles which lied discarded on the ground after Wrex's initial attack, levelling it at the two remaining turians and taking them both out with ease.

Shepard uncloaked and slowly walked towards them, a smirk on his face.

"Shepard!" Wrex said with a lopsided grin. "You're not dead yet."

"Not yet," Shepard said with a wry smile.

"Damn, Wrex, I didn't think that krogan biotics existed," Ashley said with a curious look of amusement on her face.

"And I didn't think that female warriors existed either," Wrex casually retorted.

"Shepard—we should probably get going," Tali said over his communicator nervously. "The security guards here are starting to wake up."

"I can just hit them again," Kaidan chimed in, perhaps a little too happily.

"We should get going," Tali said again.

"We'll be there in a minute," Shepard said as he dashed back down the hallway, skidding to a stop and holding his pistol out in front of him as the same woman in the tight pink dress stood casually in front of the door.

The woman merely raised a hand in front of her as all three of them dangerously pointed their weapons at her, the hint of a smile even on her face.

"Allow me to reintroduce myself," she said with a sly smile. "Gianna Parasini—Alliance Internal Affairs."

Shepard lowered his pistol somewhat as he regarded her. "What are you doing here?"

"I've got a proposition for you, Commander Shepard."

Shepard glanced over at Wrex and Ashley, motioning for them to lower their rifles.

"You're here to go to Peak Fifteen—right?" she asked.

Shepard nodded hesitantly.

"I thought so—especially with all the rachni around."

"Rachni?" Wrex suddenly shouted from behind Shepard.

Parasini put a finger to her lips as she smiled. "That information is for free. But I can offer you more—if you do a little favor for me."

"Get to the point," Shepard said.

"I'm here to take down Anoleis—he's been scamming innocent people for the last three years and I'm going to put a stop to that. The information that you got off the mainframe—that information can help me crack down on Anoleis."

"And in return?"

"I get you transportation to Peak Fifteen, and all of your weapons back."

Shepard raised an eyebrow. "I don't need your help."

"Didn't you see the snowstorm on your way in?" Gianni asked pointedly. "Peak Fifteen's landing bay—along with those of seven other research labs—have all been buried under twelve meters of snow. So, unless you brought some shovels along with you, I don't believe you have a choice."

Shepard bit his lip slightly, hoping that she wasn't bluffing just to get information from him. "You can get us all that you promised?" Shepard asked again to confirm.

"Once Anoleis is out of the way, it will be a simple matter."

Shepard nodded a few times as he considered the offer.

"Then let's do it."

‡ ‡ ‡ ‡

Preparation for the whole exchange was a simple matter—Tali already had all of the data loaded up onto her omni-tool, and since the bug that Shepard had planted was still inserted into the back of the mainframe, accessing the data that Parasini needed was even easier.

"He's inside of here," Parasini said as she nodded towards a large door on the side of the room. "I've been posing as his secretary for the last three months—I'll be glad to get the hell out of here."

Shepard merely nodded a few times. Parasini opened the door and Shepard funneled through with her, Ashley and Wrex trailing behind.

They made their way through the slightly-more luxurious office and around a corner, where Parasini stood stiffly at the corner.

"Yes, yes, I'm very busy," Shepard heard someone saying from around the corner—presumably Anoleis?

"Alliance Internal Affairs, you're under arrest," Parasini stated simply as she began making her way towards Anoleis.

Shepard similarly made his way around the corner, sighting the grey-skinned salarian slowly rising from his desk, his eyes darting between the two people in his office. Knowing his arrest to be imminent, he dived over top the table and ran past Parasini, only to land in Shepard's hard grip and into the chest of a five hundred pound krogan.

Anoleis fell to the ground at the sight of the massive krogan, doing his best to crawl backwards, though Shepard's firm grip prevented him from doing so. Parasini stepped forward, grabbing Anoleis' arms and tightly locking them together with some kind of device.

"Damnit! Let go of me at this instant!" Anoleis shouted, obviously already lost. "I have connections! They won't be pleased!"

"Shut up," Parasini said roughly as she shoved him to his feet and towards the door.

"Thanks, Shepard," Parasini shot back at him as she made her way towards the door. "Just give me a minute to throw this bastard into the corner, then I'll arrange everything for you."

Shepard watched with some small amusement as Parasini manhandled the salarian into a small room on the side which was likely used as an office at one point, and locked the door shut with a tap on her omni-tool.

Parasini gave Shepard a nod as she walked past him and towards the panel that was on Anoleis' desk. She tapped on it a few times, and then spoke into the microphone.

"Captain Stirling—the crew of the Normandy are permitted to carry weapons in Port Hanshan. Effective immediately."

A string of protests initially came back through the device, but Parasini interrupted them with the press of a button. She continued to tap in silence for another few moments, before she finally looked up at Shepard.

"I've organized a trip to Peak Fifteen—look for a turian named Lilihierax, he'll take you there."

Shepard nodded silently a few times, glad that they had chosen to assist Parasini. What kind of situation they would be in right now otherwise was beyond him—but all he knew was that after infiltrating the mainframe, he had no idea of transportation, of getting their weapons back, or of even getting out alive. Without a doubt, if not for Parasini's intervention, a plethora of guards likely would have met them and swiftly ended their lives.

"Thank you, Gianna," Shepard said, lowering his head in respect. She merely gave him a small smile and a salute.

"Good luck, Commander."

Shepard turned around and left the office, and began speaking into his omni-tool.

"Tali, Kaidan, Garrus, we're finished here. Garrus—you should be cleared to bring weapons through the front gate, now."

"Oh, crap," Garrus' reply came back. "Liara! Shut the bomb off!"

Shepard listened in stunned silence for a moment.

"Kidding," Garrus said with a slight chuckle.

Shepard shook his head at the joke. Perhaps Garrus was spending too much time with Joker after all.

‡ ‡ ‡ ‡

"Lilihierax?" Shepard asked to a grungy looking turian leaning against the wall next to the entrance into the large vehicle garage.

"Yup, that's me," the turian said, stepping forward and gesturing to himself. "And you're Shepard, right?"

Shepard nodded curtly as he gestured for everybody else to follow him—all the while, Tali was closely watching him.

She wasn't quite sure how to gauge the man in front of him—like she had witnessed so many times before, it seemed like so many different people inhabited the body in front of him. No longer did he stoop a little while he walked, and the eternal grimace had been wiped off his face, and instead, he strode confidently with the hints of a smile at the edges of his lips. It made Tali happy to see that he hadn't so quickly reverted to old ways.

"Come on, all of you," Lilihierax said as he turned around and headed through the doors into the expansive car garage which had a couple of large looking tanks spread throughout it, a few of them missing large side panels.

"We're going to be taking that one, over there," Lilihierax said as he gestured towards a vehicle that looked oddly similar to the Mako which was present within the Normandy's own armory. "Tough little bugger, that thing is. Warm, too. Don't want to get stranded out here—especially when the storm warnings are in full effect."

A gunshot skidded past Lilihierax's left shoulder without any warning, sending the man tumbling to the ground as he raised his hands over his head in protection. Rather than follow the mechanic's example, Tali swung her shotgun from her back quickly, taking some small comfort from the feel of the heavy weapon back in her possession.

"Geth!" Garrus shouted out, his long rifle already off his back and up to his eyes as he sighed down the long garage, letting lose a shot with a loud crack that echoed across the stone walls. A silvery-white colored piece of metal fell from the ceiling, suddenly fully apparent, landing heavily on the ground.

"What the hell are those things?" Kaidan shouted as he began firing his assault rifle across the ceiling, hoping that the spray would strike some of the difficult to see creatures that were all over the ceiling.

"Can't get a clear shot," Ashley shouted out. "They've got cloaking modules or something!"

But Tali didn't need to see to strike.

She lowered her shotgun, lifting up her omni-tool, the most valuable weapon which she carried to combat these machines. Nearly half of her training had been spent learning how to stop the foul creatures, and now she would finally get a chance to put some of it to full use.

Hoppers—that's what her father called them. She had only ever seen her father bringing one of them onto his workbench before, but the strange looking machine had stuck in her mind. The whole machines were covered in a sinewy kind of material which had the appearance of muscles bare beneath the skin, and wide hands which had webbing in between the fingers. Their legs were incredibly powerful, and they had mass effect drivers within their architecture, lending them the ability to launch themselves across gaps and onto ceilings and walls.

But every geth had a weakness—one that her father had preached to her many times. Cutting a geth off from its allies reduced its effectiveness by many times, as it lost the ability to make rational decisions or even carry out simple battle plans. But Tali could only hope that her plan would work.

Tali activated a program that would latch onto one of the hoppers—whichever one happened to be available, since Tali's eyes were unable to make out the occasional disturbances that flitted across her vision. But her omni-tool needed no eyes—easily picking out one of the hoppers from the swarm that circled them, sending pellets flying harmlessly into their shields.

As the runtime took hold the geth, blocking its input communication channels, the machine simply stopped moving, it's faint silhouette visible against the metal ceiling. Another program disabled the machine's power reserves—and it fell to the ground with a clang, unable to keep its mass effect cores running and simultaneously dropping its cloak.

With a satisfied grin beneath her mask, Tali repeated the same protocol once more—and then again, and then a third time, until the geth began to simply fall from the ceiling as if a plague had infected them, causing them to sporadically lose control of their limbs and simply let go of their tenuous hold.

With a final tap on her omni-tool, the final geth that she was able to detect in the area fell to the ground next to Shepard, who quickly flipped his shotgun around his hand and fired a final barrage into the inert machine's head, permanently disabling it.

They solemnly finished the massacre, moving to each of the disabled geth platforms and preventing it's eventual revival by shattering it's optics, preventing it from ever being able to sight it's targets again.

"Tali, was that you?" Garrus asked, looking back at the quarian who was standing in the back of the room.

"A little bit," Tali said, beaming with joy on the inside, but not wanting to be overtly prideful in the face of the many seasoned soldiers that surrounded her.

"A little bit?" Kaidan echoed with a chuckle. "Hell, those things were dropping like flies!"

Even Ashley added a small smile and patted Tali on the shoulder. "Not bad."

Tali smiled a bit wider underneath her mask, knowing that nobody would be able to see her likely goofy looking grin, anyways. She quickly glanced over at Shepard, matching his approving nod for a few moments before she turned her attention back ahead.

"Come on," Shepard said as he gestured for them to get moving. "As nicely as Tali dealt with those, I don't think we want to wait for more."

Shepard headed over to one of the Mako-like vehicles while Lilihierax rolled out from underneath one of the vehicles that was parked in the garage. He pushed himself off the ground and frowning as he observed a set of scrapes on his initially-clean blue outfit.

"Only going to get worse," Lilihierax muttered under his breath.

They climbed into the Mako—though it wasn't the same one they had in the Normandy—Lilihierax taking the driver's seat and Shepard sitting down beside him. Everybody else filed into the back—there was enough room for at least six people in the back compartment, which was fortunate for them since Wrex took up two whole seats and still had to bend down low to even fit inside the vehicle.

Tali more closely examined the vehicle, noting the differences. The Mako back on the Normandy only had four seats, and was slightly sparser than this one. As well, as far as she could tell, this vehicle wasn't armed with any weapons—something she wasn't exactly comfortable with considering the fact that geth were apparently on Noveria.

"So, you're looking to help out with the rachni?" Lilihierax mentioned casually to Shepard as everyone wiggled into their seats.

Shepard glanced back at his companions for a moment, concern in his eyes. Wrex leaned forward—more forward than he was forced to—and Ashley shot a worried glance over at Kaidan.

"Rachni?" Shepard finally asked, uncertainty in his voice.

"Hell, you didn't know about the rachni?" Lilihierax said as he glanced back at his passengers with a slight smirk.

"Thought we wiped those bastards off the face of the galaxy," Wrex said.

"I thought so too," Kaidan chipped in.

"So did I," Lilihierax said. "Don't know what the hell happened, but we've got rachni up at Peak Fifteen. They've been bleeding closer to Port Hanshan—I thought that Parasini sent you mercs to go and help clean up."

"We're not mercenaries," Shepard said quietly. The façade was pointless now—they were already on their way to finding Benezia, and Anoleis had been taken out of the picture. Parasini—at least, according to Kaidan—had all of the power in Port Hanshan, at least until someone realized that Anoleis had been knocked down.

"Not mercenaries?" Lilihierax said as he glanced over at Shepard curiously. "Then what are you?"

"Alliance," Shepard said simply. "We're looking for someone of importance."

Lilihierax nodded a few times. "Well, that someone probably has something to do with our rachni problem—I'd place a bet on that."

They were silent for a few moments as the Mako skidded across the snowy terrain, occasionally coming dangerously close to the precarious edges which appeared to drop off hundreds of meters, leading to a black void below.

"That's a long fall," Tali said, looking out the window.

"This ain't my first time around these parts," Lilihierax said. "Don't worry—I haven't dropped anybody over the edge yet."

For some reason, the mechanic's words didn't make her feel much better.

"Oh crap," Lilihierax said as he gripped more tightly onto the wheel. That likely didn't bode well either.

"Geth!" Shepard said loudly, gesturing towards a trio of silvery clad machines standing in the snow.

"I see 'em!" Lilihierax shouted, turning the wheel to try and slip around them.

"Don't you have guns on this thing?" Ashley shouted out.

"Only the ones you're carrying!" Lilihierax shouted back. The sound of pellets scattering off the thick metal plating of the Mako met their ears as the geth began to unload fire.

"Hell, they can't do nothing," Lilihierax said as he leaned back in his chair. "Those bead-shooters can't even poke through the plating."

"But that might," Garrus said calmly as one of the geth's rifles lit up with bright flames, sending a rocket flying towards them.

"Oh," Lilihierax said, narrowing his eyes as he looked at the incoming projectile. "Shit."

The rocket slammed into the front window, a multitude of bright blue flashes lighting up as the shields did their best to stop as much of the shrapnel as possible, but even that wasn't enough to stop the window from sprouting large cracks along its surface.

"Damn," Lilihierax said as he observed the cracked window. "This'll cost me at least twenty thousand credits to fix!"

"Not now!" Tali shouted, standing up slightly. "What are the shields at?"

"Uh... zero?"

Tali resisted the urge to shake the turian as she sat back down in her seat, tapping on her omni-tool as she gained control of the vehicle's power distribution—easily bypassing the novice security systems.

Quickly rerouting power from non-essential sources—like internal lighting and the path smoothing computer, she drew some energy back into the drained batteries, bringing the shields back up to an eighteen point six percent capacity.

"Damned lights went out! We're going down!" Lilihierax shouted as he gripped onto the wheel for dear life.

"I just redistributed the power," Tali shouted. "We've got shields again!"

"Not for long!" Garrus pointed out, gesturing towards the six geth soldiers standing in their path.

"What do I do?" Lilihierax shouted, panicking as he grew closer to the machines.

"Just run over them!" Shepard shouted.

"Shepard, I don't think you're qualified to give anybody driving advice!" Kaidan shouted from the back of the vehicle.

"Just do it!" Ashley shouted.

Lilihierax shook his head wildly. "If there's some kind of god out there, let him have mercy on my poor soul!"

They approached the three geth rapidly, each of them armed with the same launchers that the other one had, lifting them up in unison as the Mako veered towards them at an ever increasing speed.

Lilihierax shut his eyes tightly, muttering some incomprehensible words under his breath as the Mako slammed into the three geth with a small thud, sending them flying in a spray of small metal parts and white conductive fluid.

"Open your eyes!" Shepard shouted, hitting Lilihierax on the shoulder. "The wall!"

Lilihierax opened his eyes, simultaneously spinning the wheel to the right, spinning the Mako around as it came to a stop.

They were silent for a few moments, everybody's heart pounding from the tension of the moment.

"Shepard, I think we've found your driving match," Kaidan finally said, breaking the silence.

They each laughed uneasily—with the exception of Wrex and Liara, who were respectively bored and terrified—as Lilihierax shook his head a few times and turned the Mako back around.

"Can't believe I made it out of that alive," the turian said with a wide grin on his face.

They were silent for another minute as the Mako drove in silence, the wind whistling past the gashes in the vehicle's heavy metal plating.

"Tell us about the rachni," Shepard finally said.

"Showed up about a week, week and a half ago," Lilihierax said. "We caught a couple of them near Port Hanshan and shot them down—then we followed them all the way back to Peak Fifteen. We're not supposed to interfere with our customer's private affairs, but we sent a platoon of ERCS soldiers out to hold them back."

"ERCS?" Shepard queried.

"Elanus Risk Control Services," Lilihierax explained. "Basically mercenaries—they just like to sound all professional and such."

"Why would the rachni come back after all these years? Or how?" Garrus asked from the back seat, a pensive look—or at least, Tali thought it was pensive—on his face.

"I'm hoping that you'll figure that out and stop them," Lilihierax said with a shrug.

"Another chance to get some action," Wrex said with a low chuckle. "Maybe you'll do get a few more kills this time, Shepard—last time you spent too much time in the corner and not enough shooting!"

"Maybe next time the surprise biotic won't turn everyone into a trainwreck before I get a chance to move," Shepard said with a chuckle.

"Biotic?" Kaidan asked curiously.

"That's right," Ashley said as she shot him a wry smirk. "Competition."

"Man," Kaidan said as he shook his head in mock disappointment. "I can never catch a break."

"This is the place," Lilihierax said as he rolled the Mako to a stop near a large metal door with a few blinking lights outside. "Peak Fifteen—for your viewing pleasure."

"Where are the rachni?" Shepard asked as he looked past the cracks in the large glass window.

"Not sure," Lilihierax said with a shrug. "The ERCS might have pushed them back to the facilities—last week, the damn buggers were swarming the whole facility. If I were you, I'd hang onto those rifles."

"I'm not giving this thing up again," Garrus said, motioning towards the long rifle on his back. "Just feels wrong not to carry it around."

"At least we agree on one thing," Ashley said with a slight smirk as she looked out the window.

Lilihierax pressed a few buttons and the side door of the Mako slid open with a hiss, cold air rushing inside and chilling the passengers.

"I'd try and get inside quickly," Lilihierax said as they began to unload. "Don't want to be spending too much time in the cold."

"Where will you be going?" Shepard asked the mechanic.

"Hell, I don't know," the turian said with a shake of his head. "Sure as hell not the way we came—there's a back road, I just hope that geth haven't occupied all of those, too. Either way, wish me luck!"

The door to the Mako slid shut as Lilihierax spun the vehicle around, drive back the way that they had come and then abruptly taking a sharp turn down another road which led down deeper in the black canyon which had laid beside the road they took.

"Hopefully he makes it back," Kaidan said as he stood beside Shepard, looking down into the dark valley.

"Move it," Ashley said, making her way towards the door. "I'm freezing out here."

‡ ‡ ‡ ‡

The hunter stepped out of the shuttle, his boots uncomfortably sticking to the ground from the dried blood that covered the floor and much of his boots. In fact, it covered much of his body as well, though he had tried to clear as much of it away as possible. The blood seeped through his recon armor and underneath to drench his clothing, the sticky liquid hardening around his clothing like a shell that hung onto his skin.

His head still wavered and his vision still flickered on and off as he staggered his way into the Citadel.

A few people—in fact, many people—cast him strange glanced out of the corners of their eyes as he walked past. He was different—and they could feel it. It emanated from him like light emanated from a star, the aura of power and the ability to absolutely dominate any of the people standing around him if he so chose. The power to destroy any foe he chose, to stalk his prey and end their lives, the game cycling over and over again until he had destroyed all that was wrong in this galaxy. He was a predator. A stalker. A murderer.

He was a hunter.

A hunter who had been brought to his knees.

He was a weakling.

He had given in to his emotions, his sparking anger and ambition. It was what had led him to his fall.

He had been arrogant—he had abandoned his chance to escape, believing that he was superior to all that surrounded him. But he was.

But not any longer.

The stump of the hunter's right hand itched—the only memory of his lost limb that he could hold. His right hand had been ground to dust—the shrapnel from the bomb had slid through his flesh, shredding the thin wrapping which he had covered around his palms and wrist, and shredding the skin and muscle and shattering his bones until his right arm had becoming nothing other than a charred piece of soaking meat hanging at his side, constantly sending waves of brutal pain up his arm and threatening to send him crashing down again.

And it wouldn't stop bleeding. The pulpy mass of flesh wouldn't stop bleeding. The hunter had spread out three whole packets of medigel on it, and it wouldn't stop bleeding, dripping onto the floor at an alarming rate. He wouldn't have survived the trip to the Citadel if he hadn't done what he had needed to do.

The hand was gone, either way. If he hadn't cut it off, there wouldn't have been a chance to fix it. Even the most renowned doctors couldn't bring a dead limb back to life.

And he had lost his pistol. Aside from his long sniper rifle, it had been his only companion in the darkness, his only friend in the lonely nights. The only one who would share his vengeance, the only one that would share his stealth, and the only one that would share his hatred.

But not all he had was his long sniper rifle—useless. With only one hand—and his left one, at that—it was useless to him. It was no more useful than a one hundred pound baseball bat hanging on his back.

In a wave of dizziness, the hunter nearly fell over sideways, his legs jittering as he guided himself to one of the metal crates stacked up on the side of the pathway. His vision flickered again as he pushed himself to stay awake, pushing the pain into the forefront of his mind to shock him awake, if nothing else.

After a few moments, he let out a deep breath and rubbed a hand through his bloodstained hair which hung down to his shoulders. The hunter reached into a pocket, and pulled out a piece of paper, which had been on the opposite side of his body which had been soaking in the pool of blood. Despite that, nearly half the page was stained red.

Names covered the page, some named crossed out neatly, others viciously marked off or torn to shreds. Jerryl Markin. Darwin Kiriil.

And then there was Bradley Kerris—his name sitting neatly in a dry pile without a damning line to cross out his name.

The hunter clenched the paper up in his hands, gripping onto it tightly with his rage. How could he have failed so badly?

After a few moments, he took another deep breath as he unfolded the clenched up paper, and set it down on his lap as he shoved his left hand back into his pockets, searching for the pen he had kept on him, despite their falling out many years ago with the advent of the portable communicator.

With his left hand, he scrawled out a name, the letters stretched and jagged as his left hand shook while he wrote. He barely made his way through a "J" before he clenched his eyes shut, gritting his teeth together in rage.

Incapability. It drowned him.

He opened his eyes again, determined to write the name down. Ignoring the horrible jagged lines and the elongated curves, he scrawled the name down on his piece of paper, right beside Bradley Kerris.

Johnathan Shepard.


Hey, everybody. A bunch of you probably noticed that this chapter is a fair bit late. This comes with an announcement of sorts.

The Painted Grey will be suspended from this point.

I'm not sure how long that will hold-perhaps a week, perhaps a month, but for however long, perhaps I'll come back some day and get back to writing. I have a couple chapters already written, which I'll likely dispense while I'm gone, but life has been so incredibly busy and hectic as of late that I simply haven't had the time to write like I used to.

Furthermore, I think I've healed. It's a little-known fact that when I started writing this, it was a way for me to cope with my own loneliness and the fact that after finishing Mass Effect 3 too many times, I realized that my best friends were damned video game characters-and that hurt me. So, I fabricated my own world that I could inhabit in my imagination, manipulating my "friends" like toys in some kind of grand board game.

But I've healed. The scathing loneliness which I once felt has abated-in no small part due to recent developments in my own life. I'm more conscious of how much of a social person I am than I ever was before, but at the same time, I'm not alone. A lot this doesn't need to be said-after all, to many of you, I'm just the man behind the words that you perhaps enjoy reading every now and then, but I guess I enjoy justifying myself in some way or another.

Either way, I want to make sure that it's known that I view what I've done in the last few months no small feat. The Painted Grey has been one of the proudest accomplishments of my meager life-nearly two hundred thousand words of my own imagination and hundreds of hours of work, and the only reason that I feel that kind of pride is because of the people who read and review what I write. As to that, I extend a sincere thank you to everybody who has been reading this; as you're all companions to me on my desolate road and give me a little bit of warmth on the cold nights.

I apologize to the whole of you for suspending my tale like this-and at such a point, as well. As Azzorath once mentioned to me, I couldn't disappoint him unless I stopped writing. For that, I apologize, though perhaps I'll return some time. Perhaps some time soon.

Until we next meet, Ne Obliviscaris.

-Zalgroth