:: Chapter Thirty Two :: Live Free ::

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Did we make it through the night

Or was it just a dream of woe

But still your heart was strong

To lead us all through

The gentle morning mist

Still veiling the graves

Breathe it in and watch the sunrise

Time will wait for us

Like the ghosts still lingering on the flowers

Time won't heal, it just buries the pain

And slowly changes form

-Swallow the Sun-

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Shepard and his group of companions trailing behind him slowly made their way toward the large metal garage door, the silvery metal painted orange and beginning to rust in multiple places. As they approached the door, Shepard looked over at Tali and motioned toward the door.

With a nod, Tali stepped forward and pulled her omni-tool up, and the garage door slid open almost instantaneously.

"That fast?" Ashley said, surprised.

"It wasn't locked," Tali said, a note of confusion in her voice. "No security?"

"I guess not," Shepard said with a shrug.

"Maybe the ERCS unlocked it," Kaidan offered with a similar shrug.

They stepped through the garage door, leaving the chilling winds and snow behind as they unclasped their respective weapons and held them at the ready, all of them understanding the potential danger that they were walking into. The lights here hung from the ceilings and swung about as the earth gently shook beneath them like the breathing of some giant beast, sending the lights swinging this way and that, making the shadows run and jump in between the many crates that were piled up.

"Tali, check for geth," Shepard said as he extended a hand, stopping their group. With another curt nod, she pulled her omni-tool up, glancing down at the device occasionally while she scanned the premises.

"No geth."

It was odd, like Lilihierax said—he said that rachni had been swarming the place only a short while ago. What happened? Where did they all go? And what was Benezia's stake in all this?

So many questions—hopefully they could be answered in time.

Their small group continued on through the garage, albeit a little bit slower, the leaping shadows putting everybody on edge.

"Shouldn't there be some sign of combat?" Garrus asked, echoing Shepard's thoughts. "I thought Lilihierax said that rachni were swarming the place."

"What does he know?" Ashley said with a snort. "He could barely hold himself together when the geth attacked us."

Shepard continued forward, heading out to the back door, which opened without the need for any kind of countermeasures or passphrases.

"Where do you think we'll find Benezia?" Kaidan idly asked as Shepard stopped in the doorway, looking out into the open courtyard with a suspicious frown.

"We'll scope out the area," Shepard said with a nod. "It can't be too big—and we might be able to find out more information once we get inside."

Shepard stepped out into the open courtyard, which was sealed off with four walls and a ramp leading up to a door on the opposite side, but no roof, which meant that the snow was back to whipping in their faces, the frigid winds chilling their skin.

"Tali's lucky," Ashley said with a grimace. "At least she always has her helmet on."

Shepard smiled slightly to himself—both at the statement and at the fact that Ashley had decided to stop calling her "the quarian".

"Over there," Garrus said, pointing over at the few pillars spread around the courtyard, holding the catwalk overhead. Along almost each of the pillars, there were long blackened stripes and gashes across the otherwise pristine metal surface. It didn't look like any weapon that he had ever seen before—perhaps a flamethrower could have caused the ashy-looking burns, but what about the gashes? Was someone toting a broadsword with them?

"The damage is fresh," Wrex said as he pointed to a table which was overturned over on one side of the room. "The snow hasn't piled up yet."

He was right—on the tables, there was no more than half an inch of snow. Luckily, the walls provided some shielding, but on the far wall, the snow had built up to nearly four feet deep. The table had recently been moved.

"No more than an hour," Wrex said observantly. Shepard nodded a few times.

"They must have escaped," Shepard concluded. "They were fighting here, and then moved on—but what were they fighting?"

As if in answer to his query, a harsh screeching sound filled his ears, as if all the suffering of hell itself had been released in that one pent up scream.

"What in the hell was that?" Garrus said slowly, lifting his long sniper rifle up to his shoulder as he looked around the room.

"Rachni!" Wrex shouted out, his eyes blazing with a sudden fire as he clenched tightly onto his shotgun and planted his feet heavily in the ground.

"Get into cover!" Shepard shouted. On command, Kaidan and Ashley both ducked for a pillar while Tali and Liara simultaneously dived behind a metal table thrown sideways on the ground. Garrus quickly found a railing to hide himself behind, but Wrex stood still.

"Let's put these things down!" Wrex shouted, putting a leg behind him as a brace as he tightly clenched onto his shotgun at his hip.

Shepard nodded, appreciating the support that the heavy krogan would provide him. Whatever they were up against, it was undeniable that a five hundred pound krogan would come in handy.

A strange creature bent over itself and perched on four legs like a giant shrimp of some sort appeared around the corner, it's lustrous red exoskeleton shining dimly in the light. Its maw opened in another gut-wrenching screech, its dark purple eyes sighting its prey.

Before it was able to finish its battle cry, a shotgun blast took it squarely in center mass, knocking the creature backwards as sickly green fluids began to pour from the wound and onto the sleek metal floor.

As the creature twisted in its dying throes, another three of the creatures appeared from behind the wall, taking no time to slow down before dashing at Shepard and Wrex with surprising speed, barely giving their entire squad enough time to unload a barrage of shots at the creatures before they finally all fell to the ground, lying at Shepard's feet.

Another howl filled the air as six more of the creatures made themselves apparent, these ones larger and with long appendages hanging off of their shoulders with cruel looking pincers at the end.

"Get back!" Wrex shouted suddenly, putting a hand out to push Shepard out of the way as a lob of greenish colored goop filled the space that he had just been occupying. It landed to splat harmlessly against the floor a few feet away, sizzling as the floor blackened and corroded away.

"Acid?" Shepard asked as he quickly observed the way the floor simply melted away. As far as he knew, shields wouldn't—

"Agh!" Shepard yelped as another of the volleys of acid struck him in the left arm, soaking through the seams in his armor and onto his arm, the stinging liquid making his arm feel as if it had been dipped in kerosene and lit on fire. Not that he had ever accidentally lit his own arm on fire before. Except for that time in training.

"Don't let them hit you!" Garrus shouted as he cracked a shot off at the lead rachni soldier, taking one of its eyes out as the lifeless body fell to the ground, ignored by its companions.

Ignoring the constant pain, Shepard lifted his shotgun up and fired a blast into the nearest soldier, staggering the creature but doing far less damage than he had anticipated.

The rachni turned its attention to shotgun, pausing for a moment before one of the long tentacles on its back lashed out, the massive pincer on the end opened wide as it reached to grasp onto Shepard's arm. In a swift movement, Shepard spun the shotgun in his hands, slamming the pincer aside as he ducked down low, pulling the knife out of its holster and slicing it through the tentacle. The inert claw fell to the ground with a loud slam, and the rachni screeched—though whether it was in pain or rage, Shepard didn't know.

Three of the rachni which had been approaching Shepard suddenly were lifted off the ground and tossed into the far wall as Kaidan's biotics threw them away, and another was launched clean out of the facility and somewhere into the snowy abyss as Wrex carried out a similar tactic.

After Wrex was finished with his biotic attack, he charged forward into the midst of the four rachni which were still standing—and recovering from being thrown into a wall—fearlessly throwing a heavy foot into the first one he came upon while he swung his shotgun and slammed it down on top of another, resulting in a crack that Shepard momentarily mistook for Garrus' sniper rifle.

As Wrex shouted his battle cries, a shotgun blast took out the rachni which Shepard had been holding back as Tali bravely ran up to the insect, and a crack from Garrus' rifle slammed through the heads of one of the few remaining creatures.

Liara—forgotten in the conflict—stepped forward, glowing blue with biotic energy as the final remaining rachni—who Wrex had sent flying sidelong with his previous kick—suddenly let out a baleful howl before it split into pieces, acid spilling on the ground amidst the remains.

The whistling of the wind was all that could be heard for a few moments after the battle came to a close.

"Shepard," Tali said with a concerned glance as she approached him, stowing her shotgun back on her side. "You're hurt."

Shepard glanced down at his left arm, which was still stinging, though not as badly as before, where the silvery armor had been blackened and burned in the short instant.

"It's not that bad once you get used to it," Shepard said with a smirk. "In fact, it's nice."

"Bosh'tet," Tali muttered under her breath as she shook her head with some amusement. Shepard raised an eyebrow at the foreign comment—perhaps some form of compliment or amusement?

"We should get moving again," Shepard said as he smiled at Tali reassuringly, rolling his shoulders to ensure that he still had his full range of motion. "Can't let any more of them catch up to us."

‡ ‡ ‡ ‡

Bradley shook his head, purely unconvinced at the petty speech the man standing in front of him was giving.

"No. He's still alive," Bradley said with a frown.

The man merely leaned back in his leather chair, fingers together on top of his lap as he smiled at Bradley.

"He is dead," the man reiterated with a cold certainty.

"He left on a god damned shuttle," Bradley said as he began to nervously pace the room. "You only pissed him off—he'll be back, I'm sure of it," Bradley muttered.

"His shuttle crashed into Theyar," the man said definitively. Bradley stopped his pacing and turned to look at him.

"Crashed?" Bradley said, unbelieving.

"We sent a team to investigate," he said while he leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk. "The shuttle was crashed—it had run out of fuel and the driver had been unable to navigate it to safety. Only pieces of his body were found—spread out over a fifty meter radius."

"It… it was him?" Bradley asked hopefully.

"We identified the body once we found enough pieces to put together," the man said with a wry smile. "Alliance records matched up the fingerprints with a certain MIA Colin Pearson, Warrant Officer second class."

Bradley nodded slowly. "Why in blazes was he attacking me, though?"

"We don't know," the man admitted. "We can only suspect that he had a personal vendetta against our organization… but for what reason is unknown."

Bradley continued pacing around the room. It felt wrong—after seeing the blazing fires in the assassin's eyes—apparently a man named Colin—he couldn't imagine the same man as a heap of flesh scattered across a crash site. There was a strength inside of the man that Bradley hadn't seen very often, but when he had, they had never been on the receiving end of failure. Perhaps titans could die.

"We got this from him," the man said after a long pause, pulling a long revolver out from underneath the desk and placing it onto the wooden desk with a dull thump.

It was the same weapon that the assassin had carried—the massive pistol closer to the size of a large submachine gun rather than a conventional pistol. The barrel was longer than his forearm and there was a loading mechanism on the back of the weapon that was so long outdated that he had never seen anything similar other than in manuals he had pilfered which were dated back to the twentieth century.

"Looks familiar?" the man asked him.

Bradley shook his head. "Looks like an antique."

In a swift movement, the man flipped the pistol off the table and fired a round into a plate which was hanging on the wall along with a series of other elaborate decorations, shattering the dish while the gun retorted with a loud bang.

Bradley jumped slightly, stiffening as the bullet was fired, pointedly reminding himself of who he was dealing with.

"No antique is this powerful," the man said quietly. "Find out how he made it."

Bradley quietly nodded as he cautiously leaned forward and picked the weapon off the table.

"I'll get right to it."

‡ ‡ ‡ ‡

"This must be the way," Shepard said as he pointed towards another doorway at the end of the long hallway which they had made their way to.

The trip hadn't been uneventful—Lilihierax's estimation hadn't been very wrong. After their first encounter, rachni seemed to sprout from every corner and every shadow, the strange, red-shelled creatures charging at their killsquad with no concern for their own lives, as if they had no purpose and were valiantly sacrificing themselves against their oppressors.

Their squad had carried on well to begin with, but after each battle, their breath grew a little bit more ragged, their pace a little bit slower, their aim a little bit off. Kaidan's suit of armor had been blackened from the chest down where he took a glob of acid straight to the chest, and Garrus had a long scrape across his shoulder where one of the rachni had tried to claw onto him, but had been unable to get a hold on his thicker, much more durable armor.

What worried Shepard more than the possibility of any injury he could sustain was the danger that they faced around every corner. They had been keeping up so far, but for how much longer? There was an enemy that was greater than the rachni—mistakes. It was bound to happen, and when it did, what would the price be? If one of the rachni laid a claw on Tali, it would slice through her frail armor and limbs as if they were twigs.

But Shepard wouldn't let that happen. He would keep on fighting.

It was what he was born to do.

"Do you hear that?" Garrus asked, straining to make out some noise beyond the sounds of their metal boots plodding on the ground.

The group stopped for a moment, similarly listening carefully to try and determine the sound. Was it rachni, lying in wait for them to approach to ambush them?

"Combat," Liara said quietly. "I can hear gunfire."

Liara's estimation only grew more firm as they jogged towards the source of the noise a few rooms across, the sound of bullets being fired continuously growing louder with each door they dashed through. At first, they ran carefully, looking into every corner with a rifle to ensure that a trap wasn't imminent, but as they became closer, and the threat of being ambushed grew smaller, they abandoned their caution and ran in a full sprint.

"Left flank! Bolster the left flank! Daniel, heavy fire down center! Gibson, get those generators up and running!"

Shepard's squad burst through the doors, causing the twelve men standing inside to start and turn their rifles to the door in a rapid fashion, until the dark skinned man in the middle of the room began to shout commands again, turning their attention back to the swarms of insect-like rachni charging at them.

"Who the hell are you?" the dark skinned man said in between shouts as he glanced over at Shepard and his assembled squad.

"Captain Belial," Shepard said, not certain if the man who was standing in front of him would prove to be a friend or a foe. "What's going on?"

"The damn rachni are swarming us—they've been at it for days—are you the support that we radioed in for?"

"Yes," Shepard said, hoping that the response would divert any questions about their arrival. "What's the situation?"

The man shouted a few more terse commands at his soldiers, who readily complied and expertly shot down a trio of rachni soldiers who charged at their fortified position.

"I think you can tell," the man said with a grimace. "Captain Ventralis of the ERCS—we were assigned here to push back the rachni, but once we got into the facilities, they closed us off and we weren't able to make it out."

"The way behind us is clear," Shepard said, pointing with a thumb to the passage behind him. "You could take your men and get out of here."

Before Shepard had even finished, Ventralis was already shaking his head somberly. "We can't—especially not if you're the only support we're getting. This is just a small attack—you haven't seen their full on charges. The last one, I lost seven of my men—and I don't know if we're going to last another one."

"Then why don't you leave and get reinforcements?" Shepard asked.

"Because this is important, damnit," Ventralis said with a scowl. "These are damn rachni—the aliens that the galaxy bled for hundreds of years ago. We're not going to give up and let them roam free again—we're going to find the source and shut it down, even if it costs us our lives."

Shepard looked into the man's firm eyes, silently admiring the man's steadfastness even in the face of his certain demise.

"We'll help you push them back," Shepard said as he gestured with his head towards his squad.

"Are you all even properly equipped?" Ventralis said curiously as he looked at Tali and Liara—both woefully unprotected compared to the soldiers bunkered down in their heavy suits of combat armor.

"We've killed more than thirty five of the damn bugs already," Wrex said, stepping forward and addressing the captain. "I think I could take a few more."

"We're all prepared for this, Captain," Shepard said as he gave the man a stern nod. "And we're going to push these rachni back to hell."

A small smile made its way onto Ventralis' face as he clapped his hand into Shepard's good hand, clenching it tightly.

"Then let's do this, Belial."

Ventralis turned to his men, who had since stopped firing and were leaning against the metal barricades which protected them, obviously exhausted. The flow of rachni seemed to have momentarily quelled, giving each of the men much needed moments to rest.

"Comrades, we've been through hell and back these last few days, and we've lost some good friends along the way… but we're not finished yet. We can't let their sacrifices be in vain. We must carry on!"

A few tired nods met his speech. Ventralis continued.

"We must stop the rachni—the scourge of the galaxy, the bane of freedom! We are the sole thing standing between the deaths of our wives, our children, our families, and our galaxy. We must stand strong, because we are not alone."

Ventralis gestured to Shepard standing beside him. "We have new hope—these men have seen the same hell that we've seen, and they've lived and breathed it just as we have. Together, with Belial, we shall march forward and cleanse the galaxy of the rachni!"

His men raised their rifles and small, victorious grins appeared on their faces as they cheered, the fire in their eyes rekindled by the small hopes that the arrival of reinforcements had given them.

"It's hope," Ventralis said quietly to Shepard standing at his side. "More important than any bullet, than any rifle or any armor—without hope, we can't stand, we can't fight. It's hope that keeps us on our feet and holds our enemies at bay."

Shepard nodded grimly, beginning to fully take in the tattered remains of the band of soldiers who valiantly held out against the rachni. Each of their suits of armor were dented and scraped and burned away, caked blood spilled down the plating. The metal barricades that they held behind were blackened with the rachni's acid. Empty med-kits were tossed around the room, useless without the healing gels and medication that they once held.

"How long have you been holding out for?" Shepard asked.

"About two days," Ventralis said. "We initially set out with a platoon of thirty soldiers and pushed the rachni back into the labs, but as soon as we made it in, we found that the transport cart which leads up the mountain and into the central labs was damaged. We tried to repair it, but the rachni took us by surprise, killing nine of my men before we could form a proper counter attack."

Ventralis shook his head sadly. "By then, it was too late. They kept attacking us, blocking the way behind so that we couldn't get out. But we can't simply leave now."

"The transport shuttle is damaged?" Shepard asked. "Can it be repaired?"

"We tried," Ventralis said with a defeated shrug. "I lost three of my best engineers in the initial assault, and my only remaining engineer has been awake so long he can't think straight. We fell back here—the shuttle isn't a defensible position. We thought that if we could hold out for a few days longer, we could get support and push forward again."

"Then that's what we're doing," Shepard said with a determined nod.

"I don't think that's an option," Ventralis said as he shook his head sadly. "We still don't have enough soldiers, or even an engineer that can think straight."

"Look over there," Shepard said, gesturing to Tali who was quietly chatting with one of the other soldiers. "That's a quarian—and do you know what quarians are renowned for? Being damned good with machines. And she's damned good with machines."

"Do you think she can get it fixed?" Ventralis asked, fixing Shepard with a hard stare.

"I know she can," Shepard said with a determined nod and a small grin. "I've got three biotics, one sniper, an infiltrator, an engineer, and one hell of a soldier—together, we can do this."

A small smile came to Ventralis' face as he nodded his accord. "Then together we shall fight."

‡ ‡ ‡ ‡

With the efficiency that only a military squad could have, Ventralis' men packed their gear in minutes, hefting their rifles and the small amount of supplies they had left on their backs as they prepared to move out.

Despite being battered, bruised, and wounded, the men still smiled at each other as they stepped further into the dark chambers, knowing full well of the dangers that awaited them as they made it to the other side.

Hope truly was an amazing thing—perhaps something he had underestimated in the past. Ventralis was quite a charismatic leader—in some ways, he reminded Shepard a little of Anderson.

"The shuttle is just a few rooms away," Ventralis said as he gestured down the long hallway, lifting his own heavy rifle off his back. Rather than the typical build that most commonly distributed rifles had, the barrel was nearly as wide as Shepard's arm, looking more akin to a shotgun than an assault rifle.

"What kind of damage has the shuttle sustained?" Shepard asked as their group marched down the hallways.

"Its circuits are fried and probably the power supplies too," Ventralis said. "My engineer said that the repairs could take hours to finish—so we need to give them covering fire. Once we've fixed the shuttle, then the way will be clear for whoever comes to take our place."

"A brave sacrifice," Shepard observed.

"Sometimes it takes blood to save blood," Ventralis stated.

They continued to march, the somber silence hanging over their heads like a blanket despite the determined fires that blazed in everyone's eyes. Ventralis' blunt admittance that he had no hopes of even escaping here alive pained Shepard somewhat—to see such a brave soul willingly walking into a deathtrap for the sake of making the galaxy a better place. The same determined gaze was mirrored in everybody's eyes.

"Shields up?" Ventralis asked, likely trying to divert some stress with casual conversation.

"Always," Shepard replied with a determined nod.

"May as well turn them down," Ventralis said with a shrug. "Doesn't stop rachni. Might as well save the power for something else."

Shepard nodded a few times, but didn't move to disable his shields. Whether or not he needed them, they were a security he was used to. The extra security that it would provide him when he came under a hail of gunfire was something he wasn't ready to simply give up.

"We will never surrender!" one of the soldier began to sing loudly, the sole voice in the desolate chambers.

"We will fight until the end!" Another few soldiers joined in the chorus.

"Against foes though thick and thin, we will carry on!"

"To the end we may march and to death we give in, but we will fight—"

A loud, horrid screeching silenced their voices in an instant as their blood froze cold and the soldiers stopped in terror, gripping onto their rifles.

"We will fight until the end!" one of the soldiers shouted, lifting his rifle into the air.

"Against foes through thick and thin, we will carry on!"

The soldiers marched into the room with their rifles at their shoulders, battle song at their lips as they met the swarm of rachni head on, their rifles tearing through the chitinous plating and sending the dead insects sprawling to the ground. A splash of acid splattered through their ranks, but the soldiers continued to sing on through gritted teeth.

"To the shuttle!" Ventralis shouted as he made his began unloading rounds from his heavy rifle into the horde ahead of him, the bullets carving a path through the wide open chamber and towards the large metal cart sitting dead on the railings at the opposite side of the room.

The soldiers ran to the shuttle, all the while firing bullets as they ducked down low in defensive positions, circling around Tali and the other engineer, who quickly bore into the electronics which had been laid bare by their predecessors.

"Defensive positions, now! Daniel, get those shields up!"

One of the solders tossed out a few grey boxes which lit up as a waist-high blue barrier rose up from the ground, stopping anther splatter of acid in the air as the liquid fell to the ground helplessly. Over top the fully-inclusive kinetic barriers, the soldiers continued to unload bullets in an unrelenting hail.

Rachni continued to swarm down from every opening in the room—pouring out of the doors in front of them, out of the vents in the ceiling, and climbing out of service tunnels placed into the floor. More than thirty of the beasts approached them, but they would not relent. Between the hail of bullets that the soldiers sprayed without pause, a powerful biotic surge slammed into the crowd, throwing them into the back wall as Kaidan grinned with satisfaction at his successful attack. Wrex roared a guttural, animal-like roar, and procured an incendiary grenade from somewhere within his armor which he threw into the disoriented horde, lighting them on fire and turning them into nothing more than smoldering ashes within moments.

But even beyond that hail of bullets and fire and smoke, the rachni would not relent.

"What's the situation?" Shepard shouted to Tali, barely able to speak over the deafening sounds of gunfire.

"The power distribution matrix was disconnected from the central processing unit! I just have to reconnect them and we'll be able to get it running!"

Shepard nodded a few times, focusing on getting unloading as many bullets as he could from his shotgun before the thing overheated. They had held back the swarm thus far, but for every rachni they shot down, another was ready to take its place, but their stream of bullets couldn't last forever. The soldiers paused on occasion, allowing their burning hot rifles to let out gouts of steaming air. Kaidan visibly tired, the constant biotic attacks taking a toll, and even Wrex seemed to be losing his unquenchable enthusiasm for killing the insect-like creatures as his battle cries grew less frequent, and so did the blasts of energy which cleared the way momentarily.

"Keep fighting!" Shepard shouted. "We cannot give in!"

"We will never surrender!" Ventralis shouted.

Liara stepped beside Kaidan, and with a serene expression on her face, she extended a hand and sent a wave of energy pulsing through the piled up bodies and rachni soldiers, slamming them all heavily into the back wall with a loud retort.

Nearly half the soldiers lowered their rifle in the momentary pause, giving their rifles much needed time to vent their heat.

A strange looking rachni crawled out of one of the vents, this one a little bit smaller than the rest, but with a strange bluish tint to its red carapace. It darted forward quickly, considerably faster than its brethren—but the combined gunfire of the remaining soldiers wasn't enough to take it down. The soldiers who were venting their rifles quickly lifted them back into position, but until the venting cycle completed, they were useless.

A fatal mistake.

The rachni jumped past the low shields and into the midst of the clustered soldiers, screeching one final, horrible scream before the creature suddenly exploded, sending horrible burning acid into Shepard's face and armor as he fell to the ground, trying to wipe away the liquid which felt as if it were melting his skin.

Shepard's hearing came back to him first—the sounds of pained screams and horrible cries surrounded him on all sides. Pushing his way to his feet, he tried to wrench his eyes open, but his vision came in spots and blurs. All around him, soldiers lied on the ground, all of them coated in acid, and many of them with limbs brutally torn away and chunks of bleeding flesh ripped from their bodies and flung across the room in the explosion.

"Damnit!" Shepard heard Ventralis shouting from down on the ground, his armor blown wide open by the force of the explosion and leaving a bloody gape on his chest where the torn skin poured red blood like a flowing stream.

"The shields," Ventralis said, gritting his teeth.

Terror suddenly filled Shepard's mind, blocking out all of his other thoughts as he realized how much damage Ventralis' men had sustained. Ventralis had been wearing a thick suit of combat armor. Tali had only been wearing…

"Tali!" Shepard shouted out—the first word that came through his lips, merely a dry, raspy scream.

Garrus was behind him—he had pushed himself off the ground, an angry expression on his face but the constant retort of his loud rifle filling the air. Wrex, barely fazed, continued to roar, unleashing his biotics to push the horde back, all the while firing his shotgun. Kaidan was lifting Ashley off the ground, both coated in acid but unhindered, and Liara's eyes watered in pain, but she still continued to throw off those life-saving biotic pushes.

Shepard's eyes shot back to the shuttle—where Tali's bloody body made Shepard's heart leap into his throat as he suddenly found it very difficult to breathe. Blood poured down her suit in large drops, black burn marks visible all across her suit.

"Tali!" Shepard shouted again, his terror transforming his cry into a baleful howl as he realized how quickly she had been stolen away from him once again.

With a shudder, Tali shook her head and pushed herself to her feet, the blood and remains that had splattered all across Tali from the dead engineer who had been working beside rolling off her suit. She stood back up on her feet, staggering unsteadily, but certainly alive.

Shepard dashed to her side, gently grabbing onto her shoulders as she looked back at him, a stunned look in her eyes.

"I'm alright," Tali said with a quiet nod as she dipped back down and returned to the shuttle's electronics. Shepard's heart slowing down, he nodded once and spun around, his fury channeling through the rhythmic blasts of his shotgun.

"Don't give up," Shepard heard Ventralis shouting from back where he had been, still firing his rifle almost constantly despite the blood which poured down his ruined chest.

Seeing the battered man still fighting brought some small strength back to Shepard—and to his men, the few who were still capable of fighting back similarly picking themselves off the ground and firing rounds into the incoming horde of unrelenting rachni. Despite all their efforts, they were far from finished. Wrex's and Liara's biotic attacks were becoming far less common, and no matter how hard they tried, the rachni simply poured into the room without halt.

The rachni closed in on them—the malevolent tentacles of the insects waving in the air, waiting for the chance to pounce and snatch a helpless victim.

"Aah!" Ashley screamed from behind Shepard, a pincer grasping onto her foot and pulling her legs out from underneath her, causing her to slam heavily onto the floor. The pincer pulled her in, ever closer to the hungry mob that would tear her to shreds in a moment.

A loud crack from Garrus' rifle split the rachni's exoskeleton open, its pincer letting go as Ashley did her best to scrabble away from the grasping insects. Another two loud cracks followed, and another pair of rachni fell to the ground, dead. Garrus' strong, three fingered hand gripped onto hers, pulling her up to her feet.

"Shepard!" Liara shouted out suddenly. Shepard turned to face her, and saw her desperately gesturing towards the shuttle where Tali was still focused on the electronics.

Then Shepard saw Tali's doom, sending his heart leaping back into his throat for a second time.

A pair of rachni soldiers charged towards Tali, their claws outstretched as they reached for her unprotected back. Those claws would tear through her thin suit, slicing her body to shreds, stealing the life from her eyes.

"No!" Shepard shouted unconsciously, the same emotions flashing through his mind that had overpowered him on Erinle, when he had seen Tali struggling under the firm grip of his hand, barely able to breathe. When he had been so helpless to fight back.

Shepard charged forward shouting Tali's name, uncaring of the consequences, letting loose one volley into the rachni's charge, but barely halting the creatures. As one of the rachni's horrible claws reached towards Tali, his knife flashed out before him, slicing the tendons within the tentacle and throwing the useless pincer to the ground beside his discarded shotgun.

Another pincer came flying towards Shepard, slamming into his metal plating and skidding to the side. As the other rachni's claws reached out to grab him, he slashed at the creature with his blade, splitting the pincer down the center.

The two final pincers came flying at him simultaneously from both sides, grasping onto his legs with frightening fury, sliding him away from Tali and further towards the mob of bloodthirsty insects.

But that wasn't what occupied Shepard's thoughts—it was the third rachni soldier, its claws ready to thrust at Tali's vulnerable frame. Tali had her shotgun in her hands, spinning to face the oncoming threat, but Shepard knew firsthand that those bullets wouldn't slow a bloodthirsty rachni.

The rachni's muscles tightened as it prepared to pounce on her vulnerable frame as its pincers hungrily snapped, ready to grasp onto her and end her life. They would slip through her armor, shred her flesh, spill her blood on the floor, and Tali would die.

Because Shepard was powerless to fight back.

But no longer. He couldn't give up. He had to keep fighting. He would never surrender. He would never stay down.

In a flash of motion beyond even Shepard's own comprehension, his blade flicked out like the wicked tongue of a serpent and slipped through the appendages which grasped onto his legs and dragged him away. Ignoring the dead weight of the claws still gripping onto his armor, he rolled forward and jumped onto his feet in one smooth movement, simultaneously entering a dash as he dove forward for the rachni which moved as if it were submerged in syrup, its claws flying through the air ever so slowly.

Shepard dove forward, knowing that he would be too late to prevent the creature from digging its claws into Tali. But he wouldn't let the foul creature live long enough to hurt her any further.

A burst of blue light suddenly flashed, a sphere of light surrounding Tali as the flying claws bounced off the barrier helplessly, bashing at the walls as Liara held her hands out to the side, teeth gritted as she focused her mental strength into holding the walls of the shield.

In an instant afterwards, Shepard slammed into the rachni with all the fury that had been mustered within his being, sinking his blade and fist through the stiff carapace and into the burning, gooey insides of the creature with no regard for the pain that covered his wrist. He drew back his blade and slammed it back into the creature's face repeatedly, ignoring its death cries as he drove the hate of hell into its skull.

"Get in!" Tali shouted, jolting Shepard from his assault on the now-dead insect. Garrus sent off a final loud crack before he jumped into the tram, Kaidan and Ashley quickly following suit. Liara and Wrex both ran in as Tali waved rapidly at Shepard, urging him to hurry the hell up.

Shepard dashed to the door before he stopped and turned around. "Ventralis!" Shepard shouted back at the man, who had unsteadily made his way back to his feet, but was still pumping bullets into the throng.

"It's too late," Ventralis said in a quiet whisper, yet the calm words struck Shepard as though they had been shouted with the fury of a hurricane. Ventralis pulled a grenade out of a pocket in his torn armor and grinned as he held down the button.

"Get in!" Shepard shouted, but even he knew that the man wasn't wrong in his evaluation. There was no turning back from the kinds of wounds that he had sustained.

"To the end we may march and to death we give in, but we will fight until the end," Ventralis whispered as the doors to the shuttle slid shut and the vehicle quickly slid away along the railings, tossing the rachni in the way aside as if they were made of paper.

A loud explosion filled the chamber that they had just left, gouts of fire incinerating the rachni as Ventralis' final sacrifice rang loud in Shepard's ears.


Hey, everybody. Thanks for all the support, especially from the last chapter, and for continuing to stick with me. With any luck, you won't have all forgotten me.

Now, a word of warning; as I said that I would return, I still don't know if now is the time. I have a few chapters in reserve, though writing has been slow and painful as I try to get back into the groove of things. I don't have the same time I used to, nor the same set of mind, so things have been difficult to say the least.

I've been trying to get into writing where I can, though as of late my thoughts have been to hell and back and mostly preoccupied with things that are sadly more pertinent. Though, I would like to come back. More than you might imagine-writing has become a release of sorts for me. Something that I need, for happiness is fluid, and with the same grace and magnificence with which it rises, it ebbs and flows away from your grasp with ne'er a whisper or rustle before leaving behind an empty spirit.

The curtains have fallen
The tapestry shredded apart
There is no starlight
Behind velvet night

I watched as it fell
Collapsed to the ground
Now nothingness is here
And here is me

EDIT: Eh, I'm being overdramatic. I'm pretty good lately-how about you?