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The Eternal Effect

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The Eternal Effect

 

Disclaimer: We own nothing. Diablo and Mass Effect are owned by Blizzard and Bioware respectively.  We just play and write in their worlds, and what worlds they are.

Summary:   Do a little recon, they said.  It’ll be a short trip, they said.  What the Citadel Council didn’t anticipate was that once they were through the relay, the crew of the Normandy SR 2 would get entangled in a conflict as old as humanity itself.  Welcome to Sanctuary, where Heaven and Hell are more than mere ideas, and the locals are...less than friendly.

Chapter 1: Relay to Hell

“That relay is giving me the creeps Skipper.”  Ashley Williams stated as she crossed her arms and stared past Joker’s head towards the fast approaching relay off in the distance.  Two days out on ‘one last run’ for the Citadel Council, and the first two human Spectres had gotten a bad feeling almost the moment they had boarded the Normandy alongside most of their old crew.  “You sure you want to do this Commander?”

Jess Shepard raised a reddish brown eyebrow at Williams’ discomfort, but couldn’t blame her for her paranoia in this case.  Something about the whole mission stank, just like the first time they’d taken the old Normandy on its shakedown run.  “Two Spectres on the same ship?  I’d say deja vu doesn’t come close, but all we’re doing is a little recon Ash.  What’s the worst that can happen?”

“We find a still living Reaper?”  Jeff ‘Joker’ Moreau chimed in, before gesturing towards the unusually pulsating relay in front of them.  “And with the way that rickety piece of Reaper crap is glowing, I’d be surprised if we get through it in one piece.  You sure those tech boys got the damn thing working?”

“Have a little faith Joker.” Ashley told him with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “It’s been three years since we blasted those damn machines back to whatever dark hole they crawled out of.  The relays have been since restored to working order.”

“As far as we know.”  Joker muttered under his breath before turning to face the two women behind his chair.  When neither said anything in response, he continued onward undeterred. “I’m just saying, that’s the official story we’ve been told, but we all know the official story is a line of bull after all the crap we went through to get this far.”

“He has a valid point Commander.”  EDI, the synthetic, and trusted AI that controlled virtually every system aboard the Normandy , stated as she too turned to face the two Spectres from her position in the co-pilot’s chair.

“I know EDI, believe me I know, but I wouldn't go through with this if I didn't think it was safe. I saw the data of the probes myself, the only thing interesting is a small garden world not too far from the relay.  We’re just looking around and we’ll be back a few days later, afterwards it’ll be business as usual.” Shepard stated, sounding more confident than she actually felt about this latest mission. That’s how the mess on Eden Prime had started, a simple shakedown run which had led to them having to pick up an ancient Prothean beacon.  That however, had only been the start.

“That and Liara would hunt you down herself if she has to if we’re gone too long Skipper.”  Ashley retorted as she leaned against the right wall of the cockpit, drawing Jess out of her thoughts in the process.

Shepard snorted but nodded since Ashley was right on the credits in this case.  “That does help me sleep better at night knowing she’d be leading the charge if we went MIA.”

“Not that kind of hunt, Commander.” Joker told her mock seriously.

“Oh ha ha, keep talkin’ Joker.  That hat can still wind up in the trash compactor you know.”

Joker’s hand flew up to his head and clutched the old and worn out hat that had seen about as much action as the human pilot himself. “Don’t touch my baby.  It’s been through as much crap as most of the crew put together you know! It’s my lucky cap, this goes, we might as well scuttle the ship while we’re at it.”

“And it’s probably the only thing in the universe capable of containing his ego.” Ashley threw in from the side and tossed a smirk in the pilot's direction just as he started to turn his chair so that it was facing forward once more.

“An ego that is well earned given our track record of only one ship ost in our rather long and fabled time together Commander Williams.”  EDI was quick to chime in.

Shepard shook her head and chuckled even as she directed her emerald gaze on the silver robotic woman in the co-pilot’s chair.  “Careful EDI, you’re gonna send Joker’s already inflated ego into the red zone you keep talkin’ like that. Trust me, it doesn’t need any more help.”

“I am well aware, Commander. However, I have ways to keep Jeff’s ego in check, I assure you.”  EDi was quick to reassure her, her tone of voice holding an unmistakable note of amusement in her otherwise monotone if feminine sounding synthetic vocal patterns.

“Do I even want to know?”  Shepard asked, having a feeling she already knew the answer to her question, especially since Joker was shaking his head and gesturing for them to stop talking.

“Given our past experience, I am certain that you would prefer to remain ignorant.” EDI replied her silver eyes never once leaving the displays in front of her.

Ashley coughed lightly to get everyone's attention. “Now that we successfully avoided this awkward conversation topic, could we please just proceed through the relay?”

“With pleasure.” Joker readily agreed and wiggled his fingers dramatically. “Behold, the master himself at work.”

“Back to square one.” Shepard muttered under her breath and roller her eyes, uncertain why she expected her pilot to change now when he had so stubbornly refused in all those years before.

“Commencing relay travel in, three, two, one.”  No sooner had EDi finished her countdown did the usual arcs of blue energy collide with the ship, before shooting them halfway across the galaxy in the blink of an eye, before they reappeared whole once more on the other side through another matching relay.  Once they were fully reconstituted once more, did EDI do a scan of their immediate surroundings and the ship itself before coming back with positive results on everything. “We have passed the relay.” EDI announced calmly. “All systems green, drift under one thousand kilometers.”

“Alright, anything on our sensors that the probes missed?” Shepard asked, all business as her eyes began scanning the space in front of her ship for anything of interest.  There wasn’t a lot to see besides a few distant pinpricks of light in the otherwise vast darkness in front of the cockpit window.

“Aside from some distant asteroids and a black hole a few hundred light years away? Nope, as boring as back home.” Joker told her with a shrug. “But that's why we took this assignment isn't it? To have some peace and quiet for once.”

“That's the idea.” Shepard agreed with a small relieved smile.  “That and the Council wouldn’t shut up about my coming out of retirement for ‘one last run’.  I swear Tevos was close to begging by the time I left her office, but I would have said yes anyway since she had a point.  The galaxy needed the reminder I was still kickin’, that we were still kicking.” Despite having three years between now and the end of the Reaper War, some people found it hard to believe the saviors of the Milky Way galaxy were still alive and well in most cases.  So as an act of goodwill and reassurance for the population as a whole, the Council had made a big stink about getting Shepard to make a public appearance in the hopes of quieting down the masses to some extent, to make them feel safe and protected even if this was a simple recon mission that wouldn’t likely turn up anything of note.

But it would give the public something to talk about, and even though it was nothing more than a few retired soldiers flying through a relay, the media would undoubtedly find a way to spin it differently. Probably something about how the heroes of the galaxy went off to bring the light of civilization to a new star system for the glory of a mostly unified galaxy.  Even now, despite everything that had happened three years ago, the Terminus Systems were largely as lawless and as uncivilized as they’d ever been, but the point remained the same for even those that didn’t feel content to be under Citadel Council or Systems Alliance control, and had instead sought their own way.

Whatever the reasons behind their little glorified recon op, Shepard hadn’t needed much persuasion to do something that involved most of her old team again, and while she’d have loved to have Liara along for the ride, she was at home on Thessia, taking care of their recent addition to the T’Soni/Shepard family.

“Guess that means we fly to the garden world, stake our claim, and fly back home.  Fine by me.” Joker said with a yawn. “Back at home by lunch time if we hurry.”

“Joker, your home is practically this ship.”  Ashley droned without moving more than was necessary to address him.

“Exactly.”  Joker retorted without missing a beat, the shit eating grin on his face only matched by the gleam in his eyes as he peered over his shoulder towards the unamused Ashley.  “‘Sides, being around you two is exciting enough for any guy with a pulse.”

“He says that while EDI is within earshot.”  Ash droned back with a roll of her eyes.

“I am everywhere on the Normandy , he knows better than to try and hide anything.”

“That and since when does Joker possess something akin to tact?” Shepard said to Ashley with genuine curiosity.

“Good point Skipper.  And on that note, I’m gonna get ready for a boring shuttle ride down to the surface.  You coming or staying up here with flyboy and his tin lady? No offense EDI.”

“None taken Commander Williams.”

“Have fun you two, take lots of pictures for the rest of us.  Preferably nude pics of you two on some beach down there.”

“Tact, none.”  Shepard muttered under her breath with an amused shake of her own head while Ashley’s right hand drifted to the heavy pistol she kept on her hip.  Joker grinned but raised his hands in surrender, not about to push his luck further while she was onboard.

Deciding to ignore the pilot’s antics before she flew into a murderous rage and shot him, Ashley stepped into the elevator and hit the button for the shuttle bay with a little bit more force than strictly necessary.  Shepard noticed but decided to keep her mouth shut as she leaned against the side of the elevator as the doors shut in front of them. “Just like old times.”

“A little too much like old times Skipper.  You’d think EDI would have beaten that smartass attitude out of him by now.”  Ashley grumbled and sighed heavily in response.

“Joker still knows how to get under your skin.”

“As if he would forget.” Ashley snorted unhappily. “That would bereft him of one of his favourite pastimes.”

“It could always be worse.”

“How so?”

“We could be dealing with a mini Joker if EDi ever asks him to adopt.”

Ashley snapped her head towards Shepard at that and felt her jaw go slack for a moment as she tried to process what her Commander and one of her closest friends had just said.  “Thanks for that horrifying image.”

“No problem, but out of curiosity, what did you think I would say?”  Shepard asked, curiosity getting the better of her just as the elevator doors finally started to open once they reached the bottom of the shaft, the shuttle bay and cargo area laid out before them.

“I didn't expect anything specific, but after all we’ve been through I would have thought you’d have pulled something more mystical on me. I mean ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.”

Shepard only took a moment to identify the quote’s author, remembering well Ashley’s love for old Earth literature.  “Shakespeare? Haven’t heard that from you before Ash.”

She shrugged in response, but didn’t hesitate further as she led the way to the nearby shuttle on the far end of the bay.  “Yeah… never liked his works as much as the rest of my dad’s things but… it certainly has its own moments.” Just as she stopped talking, she stopped and kicked the weight stand that one of the biggest men either women had ever worked beside stopped and looked up at them, a goofy grin on his face.  “Get up Vega, we got shit to do.”

“More important than maintaining all of this for you?” He asked with a grin and gestured towards his body.  Shepard had to put a hand in front of her mouth to stifle the laugh that threatened to escape her while Ashley gave the incorrigible giant a withering glare.  “Lola, you at least can appreciate the view.”

“I’ve seen you without your shirt off James, it’s not that impressive.”  Ashley grumbled, but both Shepard and James knew better.

“That’s not what you said before we left for this little recon job.”  James stated, his smug grin only growing.

“What?” Ashley hissed her eyes narrowing dangerously.

Despite the glare that could have melted pure platinum into useless slag, Vega wasn’t about to stop his playful banter.  “Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say what you didn't say. You certainly seemed lost for words, your hands did all the talking though, or rather groping.”

The bright red tint to the otherwise intimidating woman’s face was only matched by the way her mouth opened and closed uselessly as she tried to come up with a snappy retort, but it was to no avail in this case.  When she was able to speak though, she was none to happy with Vega. “You son of a bitch! You promised not to tell anyone!”

“Now, now. Language, lieutenant commander, or do I have to tie you up, again ?”  James said, before rubbing his chin as he appeared to get lost in thought for a moment.  “Although, you seemed to enjoy that, so maybe I shouldn't.”

Shepard couldn’t contain herself any longer and chuckled as she walked towards the lockers that contained their respective gear.  “You too huh? Liara was pretty creative on our honeymoon, I don’t think I got a lot of sleep the first week.”

“Skipper, this isn't funny. Promise me that this conversation will forever remain between the three of us. Promise me!” Ashley demanded, or rather pleaded desperately.

“About that…”  Shepard trailed off as her green eyes flicked to the nearest security cam in the cargo bay.

“Vega tied you up? God, tell me there is a video of that!” Joker's voice said from the intercom, cackling gleefully. “This is like Christmas, Easter, New Years and my birthday put together!”

“Say another word and I will break every bone in your body Joker!”  Ashley yelled out before stomping the rest of the way towards her personal locker with fire all but radiating off of her with every step.  James and Jess both weren’t about to get in her way and gave the temperamental Spectre a wide berth as they grabbed their own gear.

To that end, James wisely steered the conversation back to the task at hand as he grabbed his armor before starting to slip into the ablative hardware as quickly as possible.  “So, Lola. Anything I should know before we land like say, you’ve been here before and now all the natives want your head, or perhaps there are giant undersea monsters that will eat us when we go for a swim? Anything like that?”

“Not as far as I’m aware, James. This is going to be nothing more than a good old recon mission that will leave us bored.”  The sound of a nearby door opening with a nearly silent hiss and a quiet snort said someone didn’t agree with her assessment.

“Famous last words Shepard.  There’s no such thing as boring with you, Commander Bosh’tet.”  Tali Zorah vas Normandy stated as she and Garrus Vakarian came out of engineering, the turian sharpshooter chuckling softly in the back of his dual toned throat as he followed after the quarian engineer.

“She’s got a point Shepard.  Trouble tends to find you wherever you go.  Just look at how you met me on the Citadel, let alone our run in on Omega.”

“I seem to remember you were knee deep in merc trouble when I found you on Omega, so that was on you scarface.”  Shepard was quick to remind Garrus, who only shrugged, not about to argue since they all knew she was right as she finished donning her own kinetic based armor and started loading up on her preferred weapons.  The amp in the back of her neck was quickly obscured as she put on the black and red helmet over her head, covering her slightly scarred face that ran blue with cybernetic implants just beneath the surface of most of her body.

“I also seem to remember pulling your ass out of the fire more than once Commander.”  Garrus countered, the all too easy grin, or the turian equivalent anyway, easy to identify on his mandibled face before he sobered almost as quickly.  “So, am I going to have to say what everyone’s thinking, or should I keep my mouth shut and hope we’re just antsy from being out of practice for so long?”

Shepard paused after grabbing her pistol and attaching it to the magnetic clip on her right hip before turning her helmeted head towards another of her oldest friends in the galaxy.  “Honestly? I’m getting the same vibe as everyone else, but I’m gonna hope this all turns into an easy milk run, for once. We scout out the area, take a few readings of the soil, air, etc, and see if the locals are friendly, provided they’re suitably advanced of course.  If not, we stay off the radar as much as possible and leave no trace of our being in the neighborhood. Standard SOP for this recon run.”

“Yeah, besides, we fried the ancient death machines three years ago. What could this little dustball have that's worse than that?”  Tali asked, earning an annoyed glare from Ashley from behind her helmet’s tinted visor. “What?”

“You just had to say it didn’t you?”  Ash grumbled, having finished loading up her own impressive arsenal by this point before making for the waiting shuttle.

“Okay, but the galaxy can’t hate us that much that it comes up with something worse than Reapers….can it?”  Tali asked almost meekly, reminding Shepard of the young, naive engineer she had picked up so long ago.

“If you have to ask Tali, then you really haven’t been around Lola long enough.”  James chimed in with a mock frown plastered on his face.

“Its simple really, when Shepard is involved, just assume the worst, always.” Garrus told her with a smirk.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m a trouble magnet, hilarious. Now can we move on guys?”  Shepard asked with an exasperated sigh. Sometimes she wondered how she survived all of the teasing her friends threw her way on a regular basis.

“Magnets only attract certain metals, how could you be one for trouble?”

“Human idiom, Tali. They don't make much sense.” Garrus told her as he shrugged his shoulders. “They also have one about keeping a feline in a box or something like that.”

“Oh Schrodinger’s cat right?”  When everyone but Shepard raised an eyebrow at that, Tali’s silvery eyes seemed to shine a little brighter behind her purple tinted visored mask.  “What? I’m not that far behind. I have hung around you guys for how long again?”

“She’s got us there Skipper.  Alright scarface, if anything decides to randomly burst into flames while we’re away, blame Joker.”  Ashley stated, earning an amused look from Garrus as she started for the shuttle.

“Will do Williams.  See you in six hours before we send in a search team?”

“Sounds good to me Garrus.  The ship’s yours until then.  Try not to have too much fun without us ya hear?”  Shepard asked, earning an amused chuckle from the sharpshooter behind her.

“No promises Commander.”

“That’s exactly what I was afraid of.” Shepard told him jokingly and climbed into the shuttle before James and Ashley followed suit behind her.  A quick double tap on the cockpit door alerted their pilot that they were ready to go. While they strapped in, Shepard kept an open line going with the AI in control of the Normandy .  “EDI, anything you can tell us about the planet?”

“Surprisingly little, Commander. It seems to have an earth like atmosphere and gravitational pull, but beyond a similar geography of mountains, dense rainforests, and tundra landscapes, among other similar features you’d expect, there does seem to be a strange energy field surrounding the planet.  Sensors are having trouble determining its source or what it might be capable of, but it doesn’t seem radiological in nature.  It should be completely harmless to you.”

“Should?  I don’t like should.  You sure you still want to go down there Skipper?”  Ashley asked, but wasn’t surprised when Shepard made no move to abort since they’d come this far.

“I trust EDI, and when she says that this energy shouldn’t harm us, then it won't harm us.  Besides, has she ever been wrong before?” Shepard told her confidently. Ashley shrugged since there wasn’t a time she could think of that EDI had ever put them in danger that they hadn’t went into themselves.

The shuttle shook a little as they broke the planet's atmosphere, and Ashley immediately tried to sense, so to speak, this strange energy EDI spoke of.  No itching of her skin, no goosebumps, she didn't feel unwell so far. She probably would have continued her mental checklist if Jess hadn't shaken her from her musings.  “Easy there Williams, you’re nervous enough for the three of us.”

“Don’t forget about me Commander.”  Their pilot said with a quiet chuckle.  Steve Cortez popped his head around his chair with an easy going smile.  “Someone had to pilot this bucket of bolts, and I wouldn’t trust James behind the controls after he crashed the last one.”

“I didn’t crash,” James was quick to point out, “I slammed it into that Cerberus bitch’s escape craft thank you very much.”

“And that makes it better how exactly Mr. Vega?”  Steve asked, unable to help the teasing grin on his face if he’d tried.

“You obviously have no appreciation for what we ground pounders go through, Cortez. Otherwise you wouldn't ask that question.” James told him in mock rage, before he couldn't keep up the facade any longer and began laughing.  “It was rather crazy though wasn’t it?”

“This coming from the guy that calls me Lola.  Yeah, it was pretty loco there big guy.” Shepard was quick to agree, the mirth in her voice all too easily heard by the shuttle’s occupants.

James shrugged and crossed his arms over his broad, muscular chest in response.  “At least EDI got the body she has now because I wrecked miss cyborg bitch’s ride.”

“I can't believe I’m saying this, but he’s got a point.” Ashley muttered under her breath.

“Shepard.” EDI suddenly said, interrupting the pleasant banter between the four friends with the urgency that filled her voice. “An anomaly appeared less than five kilometers from your current position, I cannot identify its origin, but it’s emitting light across the spectrum, as well as a great amount of heat.  Current time before collision, twenty seconds. Evasive maneuvers are strongly recommended.”

“Hold on!”  Steve shouted, having already started a frantic dive towards the surface of the planet long before EDI had finished her warning.  Even with the dampeners fully functional, the team felt the sudden shift and acceleration in the pits of their respective stomachs, but beyond a slight discomfort, there was no complaints in that area.  But that was a far distant thought however given the reason behind their need to evade something that had seemingly appeared out of thin air in the first place.

“Anomaly has accelerated!”  EDI managed to warn them before the shuttle was suddenly thrown to the side as an object hit them with great speed.

“Status report!”  Shepard barked and looked around, spotting no injuries among her squad.  Beyond a few sparks thrown upon the moment of impact, there didn’t appear to be any structural problems that could lead to them venting atmosphere or a bad case of explosive decompression.

Steve was on top of everything as he did his assessment, his fingers flying over the glowing haptic interface before his seat in the cockpit.  “Barriers are holding up, whatever hit us somehow passed right through them. Armor’s dented but aside from that we’re mostly alright, I think.”

“EDI, any idea what the hell just hit us?”  Ash asked, hoping the AI had some answers for them.

“None, Commander Williams. The readings are inconclusive. An object of that size, estimated mass and speed should have caused more damage than it did in case of a direct hit. Instead, it seemed to just move the shuttle out of the way before continuing its descent, without any change to its own trajectory.”

“So...we just got sideswiped?  I’d be pissed if I wasn’t happy that was all that happened.”  Ashley deadpanned before breathing a sigh of relief. “Some kind of barrier was around that thing then?”

“It would seem to be a likely assessment, but without further data, this is all speculation at this point.”  EDI replied, her own voice containing a note of relief that they were all alive and well if a little shaken up.  “I’ll try and run a diagnostic, see if I can’t clear up the interference and give you a more accurate scan of the immediate area.  For now, I’d suggest making a landing as soon as possible.”

“Already on it EDI.  Found a nice spot off the beaten path, shouldn’t be any visitors this far out in the woods.  I think I spotted a settlement a few klicks east of here. Careful out there Commander, I’ll swing back around in six hours unless you need evac sooner.”  Steve said as he guided the shuttle to a gentle landing in a clearing among a dense forest surrounded by steep cliffs and rocky terrain, making the immediate area hard to access for most.

Shepard had since stood to her feet and nodded her approval before jumping out of the shuttle ahead of James and Ashley.  “Right, in the meantime, do a sweep of the shuttle, make sure there isn’t a hole the sensors can’t pick up. We’ll see you soon.  I want to know what that damn thing was that hit us.”

“Steve, this settlement… how advanced did it seem?”  James asked hesitantly, having a feeling they weren’t going to like the answer as he paused in the open shuttle door.

“If you’re asking if we’re breaking some first contact laws by doing this, then I think we’ll break pretty much all of them.  I only got a glimpse, but it looked like they were still using pitchforks and torches.” Steve was quick to reply, all business after that close call with whatever it was that had almost turned them into a pile of smoking wreckage.

“Damn, alright people, for now observe only. Let's hope we don’t run into anymore trouble.”

“Yeah, wouldn't that be nice.” Ashley snarked and shook her head. “I’m going to set up a few motion sensors, hopefully they’ll warn us if someone gets too close.”  She was already out the door, her eyes falling on the immediate area for any good places to set up the sensors in question.

“Good thinking, Ash. Cortez, how long do you think it will take to fix this thing up enough to leave atmosphere without having to worry about unpleasant side effects to the shuttle itself?”  Shepard asked as she held out her hand over her shoulder, and the attached shotgun immediately unfolded and the magnetic strip moved upward on her back before the shotgun’s waiting butt fell into her hand.  She pulled it free the rest of the way before chambering a ‘round’, and raised it to a combat ready stance all in one fluid, practiced move.

“Hard to say Commander, I have to take a closer look first, but I think I can get this done by myself. So at least we don't have to call in the cavalry yet.” The shuttle pilot answered calmly and continued to check his instruments for any sign of damage to the delicate electronics within the Kodiak.  “With any luck I can get this old bird patched up in as little as an hour, two tops.”

Ash nodded her approval as she started forward, her assault rifle similarly primed and ready for action.  “Alright, if anything comes up, give us a call.”

“Uh, EDI, you still receiving us?”  James asked uncertainly and send a worried glance up the sky.

“Loud and clear, Lieutenant Vega.  Whatever this anomalous energy signature is that surrounds the planet, it doesn't appear to affect communications.”

“At least we’ve still got that.” Shepard said lowly before she addressed EDI anew. “EDI, can your sensors make out any settlements in our vicinity?”

“Negative, Commander.  As far as the Normandy’s sensors are concerned, the entire planet is completely uninhabited.  The energy field is blocking any attempts to scan the surface beyond the most basic of readings such as air, temperature, etc.  Right now, I am unable to pinpoint your exact location beyond the shuttle’s transponder. Your life signs disappeared shortly after entering the planet's atmosphere.”

“Of course, it would have been too easy otherwise.” Ashley grumbled, having since started laying out the motion sensors in the immediate vicinity.  “So should we try to find what hit us in case there are more of these things coming or what Commander?”

Shepard ran a hand across her helmeted chin, thinking over their options as she took a step forward, towards the edge of the forested clearing, where Steve had spotted the village to the east.  She sighed and shook her head before answering Ashley. “I doubt our presence was missed when we flew in like we did. If that giant glowing orb was as bright for the locals as it was for us, chances are we were highlighted like an asari stripper in the middle of a dance floor.”

“Lovely image Lola.”  James chuckled, but sobered when Ashley glared over her shoulder as she stood to her feet.  “Uh….so chances are if anyone was looking up as we passed overhead, they saw us along with whatever hit us.  Which means any chance of remaining off the radar likely just went out the airlock.”

“Suggestions?  We can't simply walk up to them and tell them we came from the stars.” Jess asked, and looked around in hopes of finding someone who had viable idea.

“We could always try and play the distant mercenary company card.”  Ashley offered offhand, only to stop when she felt everyone staring at her.  “What? Did I say something wrong?”

“No, that was actually pretty brilliant.  As long as we can somehow communicate with them, it shouldn't be a problem.”

“Look at that Lola, I knew I married her for more than her good looks.”  James smirked, and slapped a hand on Ashley’s shoulder, only to grunt when she slammed her elbow into his stomach.  Even through the thick dark blue plating, she held little back, but the playful smirk on her face held no malice towards the giant man as she continued placing the sensors around the perimeter of the clearing.  “Girl can punch harder than me though.” James grunted once she was out of earshot.

“Better remember that if you ever get on her bad side Vega.  Let’s go, we’re wasting moonlight.” Shepard stated, turning her gaze upward towards the night sky.  “We couldn’t have landed on this backwater rock during the daylight hours.” She grumbled under her breath before starting forward, gun raised and ready if something so much as looked at them wrong.

Now that they had a chance to breathe, Shepard was the first to notice that the woods at the edge of the clearing they had landed in were….strange.  While there was nothing visually off about the tall oaks, elms, and pines in every direction, something in the air felt….almost malevolent to the first human Spectre and N7 Systems Alliance marine.  To make the feeling of unease worse, the low hanging branches they soon started to press through seemed to claw and grab at them like skeletal limbs, and while their armor and kinetic barriers kept the foliage at bay without any problem, the image was still fairly ingrained in Shepard’s mind as they left the shuttle and Steve behind.  Something was wrong with this place.

Thankfully, James soon caught up with her while Ashley brought up the rear, silently moving through the dense underbrush despite his massive girth, compared to his two companions.  The idle banter was a welcome relief from the silence that had started to fall over the group. “Yeah, and her idea was better than my whole pretending to be gods, or messengers of gods thing.”

“James… sometimes I really think you need help.” Shepard told him seriously, meaning every word of it.

“Come on, Lola. It’s not that bad.  ‘Sides, the twins enjoyed that movie, what was it, the Road to El Dorado you suggested.”  James said with a shrug, completely unaffected by Jess’s words about his questionable mental state.

“I still think you enjoyed it more than the kids, Vega.” Ashley told him with a smirk as she stepped out of the woods around them.  “I’m just glad my sister and her family were willing to babysit for a few days.”

“Save a small fortunate did ya?”  Jess asked, ducking under a low hanging branch.

“That and the twins are just as stubborn as their mother.  Can you imagine what those two little terrors would do to a poor, defenseless babysitter?”  James was quick to chime in before his wife could.

“There would be no survivors.” Shepard said sagely and nodded her head in agreement with James. “No offense Ashley, but I’ve met the twins. They are that bad.”

“Part of that was my mistake of letting Jack and Miranda watch them for a weekend, although it was Oriana’s idea, so I blame her for talking me into it in the first place.”  Ashley grumbled.

“You what?” Shepard asked disbelievingly as she stopped and spun to face the woman directly, the creepy woods forgotten completely in that moment. “Ashley, are you insane?  The swear words they could learn from Jack within five minutes are enough to traumatize most adults, and as much as I like Miranda, she isn't that great with kids. She probably tried to teach them self defense tricks that would cripple an elcor.”

“Surprisingly, Jack behaved herself pretty well from what I heard.  As for Miranda, she was busy with stuff for the Alliance, something about busting up a few remaining Cerberus cells that had been plaguing the Terminus Systems.  It was Oriana herself that was the problem.” Ashley stated, earning a confused look from Shepard as they started forward again. “Apparently she’s not as organized, or as good, at keeping secrets as her sister, and she left out some old dirty comedy vid they came across.  If I ever get my hands on the guy that came up with the idea for American Pie, I’ll kill him.”

“That guy is long dead, Ash.” James reminded her gently.

“Wouldn’t stop me from trying when I find him.”  Ashley grumbled, a menacing growl in her voice as she continued to trail after James’s much wider stride.

Shepard was just amazed the incident in question had happened in the first place and could only shake her head at the whole affair, but she couldn’t help the ear splitting grin on her face as she led the way.  It was just like old times.

And that was when she heard the growl, the sound that made her blood freeze, the sound she awoke to in her nightmares.  It wasn't the growl of an animal, it was the growl of a person, or of a thing that used to be a person. Her mind immediately flashed back to the soulless abominations that had been nicknamed husks, a person that had been transformed into a machine like zombie, used as shock troops by the Reapers in the early days of their invasion, but what came stumbling around a tree was no machine.  In a way, she’d have preferred a husk to what her green eyes fell upon, because a husk was far more machine than flesh and bone, thus making it far easier to kill them since there was nothing left of the person they used to be. The creature in front of them though was much more human, yet the smell radiating off of it, let alone the bloody gashes and bite marks along its torn flesh, said it shouldn’t have been able to walk around as it turned its glowing red eyes upon the trio of marines.

They took one look at each other before Shepard raised her combat shotgun and pulled the trigger.  The mass accelerated round, punctuated by blue, sand sized particles moving near the speed of light, ripped right through the undead beast’s chest, but it didn’t take long for the upper half, with its right arm scrabbling about in the dirt, to start pulling itself towards them, its teeth gnashing and drool flying from its torn, bloody lips.  The bottom half fell limp and lifeless on the blood soaked ground, but they hardly noticed as James started to circle around without needing to be told as he closed in on the still moving upper portion of the abomination before them.

“Okay that’s just disgusting.”  James said as he stepped on the zombie’s back and pinned it down in the dirt, keeping it immobilized while he pulled his heavy pistol and put two more rounds into its skull.  What was left of its head hit the dirt while the upper half of its body finally stopped moving altogether.

“It’s human, how is that possible?”  Ashley muttered and kept her weapon trained on the still corpse, having gotten more than enough of a look at it to know it’d been a person.

“No idea, but whatever is going on, it certainly isn't as easy as we thought it would be.” Shepard said slowly, her fingers slowly relaxing, no longer keeping her weapon in a death grip.

“Cortez, everything alright on your end? We just encountered some kind of… biological husk. If you encounter one of them, make sure to shoot them in the head.” James told his friend over the radio.

“Biological husk?  You mean a zombie? A real zombie?  You sure you aren’t losing your mind out there Vega?” Steve questioned incredulously.

“You want to see this thing?  I can drag it back to the shuttle for you, pretty boy.” The burly marine shot back and shook his head in disbelief of the whole situation.

“Commander?”  Steve hesitantly asked, rarely having heard Vega so shaken up in his life.

“He’s telling the truth Cortez.  Get your repairs done and get outta here.  I don’t want this, whatever it is, getting back to the ship. EDI? I want you to quarantine the hangar, when we get back I want to make sure that there isn't anything down here that might have infected us or the crew in one way or another.”

“Already on it Commander.”  EDI reassured them.

Just as she was about to cut the line, Shepard heard a tree branch snap before another, inhuman growl reached her ears.  “Contact! Defensive positions now!” It wasn’t necessary since James and Ashley were already on the move as another six ‘living’ husks shambled out of the darkness of the trees around them.

With a practiced motion, Shepard threw a Singularity between the ones that stood closest together.  A dark blue orb of swirling dark energy appeared several feet away before it exploded outward, and a vortex erupted among a group of the shambling husks.  Three of them left the ground and began levitating around aimlessly, but Shepard wasn’t about to give them a chance to recover as she shot at each of them.  Two of their heads exploded in a mess of gray matter and bone, the third took enough tungsten into its body it didn’t get back up by the time the vortex of dark energy had dissipated.  Not that there was a lot left to pull itself about by the time it hit the ground in a bloody pile of broken body parts.

To her right, Ashley fired a controlled burst from her assault rifle into another one’s head before switching her target to a particularly fat one. While slower than the rest, this one seemed more resistant than his brethren as he continued to advance despite the amount of firepower unleashed upon him. As it continued its slow, waddling advance,  Shepard could make out more details, and from what her green eyes could discern of its makeup, it seemed as if the whole being’s body was unnaturally bloated, and some parts seemed to have been stitched together. That told her one thing, someone was behind this, and had unleashed these horrors for whatever reason, and it was becoming abundantly clear that they didn't care who got caught in the crossfire.

As soon as Vega had dealt with his own undead, he too joined their fight and added his own firepower to the mix. Still the reanimated corpse advanced until it suddenly began to swell before it exploded in a gory fountain of sickly looking blood and intestines.  But if they thought it was over, they were sorely mistaken when a dozen long, pale gray worm like creatures exploded out of the mass of flesh and wriggled rapidly across the blood soaked grass towards the trio of marines. “Oh you gotta be shittin’ me!” Vega shouted as he turned his assault rifle on the parasitic worms racing towards them.

They only got ten feet before the equivalent of a biotic freight train of energy washed over them, utterly smashing the gray worms into bloody pulp.  Shepard lowered her right hand just as it stopped glowing with dark energy and let out a scathing curse when she saw part of a worm was hanging off of her right armored shoulder.  “Well, that was different.” Jess grunted as she shook off the remains of the giant worm before promptly stomping on the remains. Grinding her black, armored combat boot into the grass, she turned to Ashley and James, concern in her gaze even though it was impossible to tell behind the confines of her helmet.  “You two good?”

“All good here, just wondering what the Hell’s going on is all.”  James grunted with as much nonchalance as he could muster as he too did his best to knock loose the few bits of gore he’d accumulated from the fight with the zombies and their giant shambling mass of worms and who knew what else.

“You and everyone else big guy.  Jesus Shepard, what did we get into this time?!”  Ashley growled, far more angry than frightened now that the fight was over, at least for the moment.  None of them let their guard down though, or put their weapons away, keeping them out and ready as they started out once more.

“I got no idea, but let’s hope we get some damn answers when we get to town.”  A task that would be far easier said than done, as they were about to discover.  On top of the shambling corpses they had discovered already, it turned out the impact from the glowing object had hit the ground hard enough to destabilize the earth itself in some places.  Ashley was the first to find this out when the ground suddenly gave out from under her, and it took both Shepard and James to keep her from falling into the pit that had opened up beneath her feet.

“Son of a bitch!  I am really starting to hate this place Commander.”  Ashley growled out as she lay on her back after they had pulled her to far more stable ground, panting but otherwise unharmed from her nearly avoided headlong trip into the hole that was not ten feet away from them now.

“You and me both, Ash. You and me both.”  Shepard readily agreed, hoping they didn’t run into anymore unexpected obstacles in their path, but knowing better than to say so out loud with all that had happened already.

“Me three.” James chimed in darkly and cocked his assault rifle. “I don't know about you, but I would go as far as to suggest going back to the shuttle and leave as soon as possible. The Council can figure this one out for all I care.”

“I’m half tempted to agree with you James, but we’re here now, and you know how useless the Council is when it comes to the unknown.  It’s up to us, as always.” Shepard said as she held out her hand, which Ashley gladly took before she pulled her fellow marine to her feet.

“Besides, if the people here need help, by the time they’re done debating in circles, everyone down here will be dead or will have solved the situation by themselves.” Ash muttered angrily. “If you don't give them a kick, they’re happy to watch everyone else burn. Remember what we had to do to get their help in retaking earth?”

“Well, they did have their own problems to worry about since the Reapers were hitting everyone at the same time, but I get what you’re sayin’ Ash.”  James was quick to say before nodding towards the dirt path he had spotted in the distance. “No point beating a dead horse, we got our job to do and we might as well get it over with.  Looks like there’s a road up ahead, if you can call a dirt track a road, but guess it’s better than trudging through this zombie infested forest.”

“Yeah, instead we get a zombie infested country road.” Jess muttered dryly in response.  “Well, no time like the present folks. Let’s move.”

“Country roads, take me home. To the place I belong. West Virgina, mountain mama-” James softly sang before he noticed the looks he was getting. “What? I like that song.”

“Heh, never expected you to sing. Gotta say, you got talent James.” Shepard told him with a small smile.

“Dunno if its good, but it helps me relax.” James replied modestly and shrugged uncomfortably.

“Yeah… I think we could use that now.” Ashley said quietly and scanned their surroundings with her eyes. “At least this whole first contact thing just got a whole lot easier. I mean if there are human corpses then there have to be humans that are still alive, right?”

“Probably.” Shepard agreed, her hands holding the shotgun with a familiarity that could only be attained through years of combat.  The sad part was that had been exactly what had happened with all of them, even before the Reapers decided to drop in on the Milky Way galaxy.  Eden Prime might had been the start of their long, arduous journey to save their galaxy and its assorted peoples from total extinction, but each of the crew had experienced combat and worse before in one way or another.

But those thoughts were for another time as they soon heard the screams of terrified civilians running for their lives as more undead started to pull their way out of the ground, clawing and grasping at anything that moved.  “This is starting to look like something out of a bad horror vid.” James grunted, rifle in hand about the same time Jess and Ashley did the same, taking aim the closest of the undead horrors that had since started to shamble after those that were trying to flee.

“Yeah, I’m more worried about civilians though. Check your fire.” Shepard ordered, falling back into ‘commander’ mode without even the slightest hint of hesitation.  It wasn’t necessary though since her team knew from countless battles at her side how she operated and what her priorities were. They didn’t disappoint now as they moved to flank Jess as she led their simple wedge formation, gun leading as blast after blast of kinetic rounds shredded apart everything in their path.  “Go! Get to safety! We’re hold them off as long as we can!” Jess shouted to the closest of the terrified civilians, that were just as Ashley had predicted, human.

“Bless you strangers!  Come on, New Tristram’s not far!”  An older man shouted as he herded his companions further down the road at a brisk run, not about to wait around for anymore undead to catch up.

“We must rally the militia!” Another shouted and ran back towards town as fast as his feet would carry him.

“New Tristram?  What happened to the old one?”  James asked idly, but didn’t expect a response as he turned and hit a zombie square in the jaw with his rifle’s stock when it got just a little too close for comfort.  It fell in a heap at his feet, only to fall still when his giant armored boot fell on its neck with a sickening crunch.

“Given our experience? It was probably destroyed. If the locals tell me it was done by a horde of murderous undead, I’m not even going to question them.” Ashley shouted back and shot into a group of shuffling corpses until her rifle just started to edge into the red zone on its heat meter.  Taking cover, she let the excess heat release itself before going back to firing into the approaching horde of undead.

It turned out the ‘genius’ who had come up with heatsink technology, glorified ‘ammo clips’ meant to ensure a weapon’s optimum operating capacity, had been a Reaper thrall, and had been under orders to level the playing field in favor of his machine masters.  By enforcing the heatsink tech into their hardware, ammo capacity was drastically reduced since the weapon wouldn’t fire without a disposable heatsink. After the truth was discovered, it didn’t take long for the heat vent systems to be reinstated without the bullshit ‘ammo clips’ that had replaced it.  It was depressingly easy to make sure one’s gun didn’t overheat in the first place though if the user remembered not to spray and pray continuously, thus letting the built up heat vent safely without locking up the weapon in question to ensure catastrophic failure didn’t occur.

“Well, someone’s happy that they scrapped the heatsinks.” Shepard deadpanned and fired her own weapon into the flood of undead bodies as they turned their undivided attention on the marines.

“Always hated those things.” Ashley said simply and continued firing.

“Not to interrupt this wonderful conversation, but I don't think we can keep this up for much longer.  These guys just keep coming.” James warned and nodded towards the crawling bodies on the ground. Their crowd control tactics meant that they lost a lot of accuracy in the process, and without headshots, these things would just get back up again until they were literally shredded into bloody piles of flesh.

“Then we step up our game.”  Jess stated, and activated her omni-tool on her right arm with a practiced flick of her wrist.  James and Ashley knew what she was doing as they moved to protect her while she quickly flipped through her bookmarked ammo settings, the sophisticated piece of hardware linked to the rest of her gear.  In this case, she was changing what her ammunition was capable of, and when she had everything set a few seconds later, the next rounds she unloaded from her shotgun froze the first zombie she fired upon.  The undead creature didn’t know what hit it when it was flash frozen with such force that it shattered seconds later, showering its companions in chunks of razor sharp ice and bone. “I really need to thank Tali, again, for bookmarking my ammo mods way back when.”

“Yeah, we all have to.” James agreed and fired a burst of fiery death into the approaching horde. Unfortunately they didn't seem too bothered by it and kept walking until the fire had consumed too much of their body mass to keep going.  “Okay, learn something new everyday. Fire doesn’t work so well in slowin’ these things down.”

“But they still burn, so that’s something big guy.”  Ashley stated as she followed suit, except she had her own preferred ammo modification, which shortly manifested itself in the form of electrical arcs of energy.  A short burst later had several grouped up zombies twitching and spasming on the spot as bolts of high yield electricity raced through their pale flesh, stopping them on the spot as their flesh burned and melted away at the same time.  “I don’t know if I should be grossed out by that or not. Never thought I’d see twitching zombies.”

“I’ll be going with both, and for the record, I never thought that I would see zombies period.” Jess shouted in their direction, and fired another shot into the mass of pale flesh in front of them. “Or husks, or reapers for that matter.”  Each word was punctuated by another thunderous boom of her shotgun before she tossed it aside when it started flashing a heat warning in her helmet’s HUD. Raising her right hand, the biotic unleashed another devastating attack in the same direction, levitating three more of the undead beasts only to slam them into the ground with concussive force.  What was left was a couple of bloody smears on the ground at her feet, but Shepard didn’t give them a second glance as she kicked up her shotgun into her waiting hands and moved a little further down the dirt road. “Looks like that was it.” Shepard stated when she didn’t see any more zombies coming their way after flattening the ones in front of her.

“Clear on this end ma’am.”  James stated, and breathed a sigh of relief when his eyes saw nothing among the ruined carcasses of the zombies they had put down.

“Same on this side Commander.”  Ashley agreed after doing her own scan of the immediate area, and saw nothing among the few houses that were situated on either side of the dirt road they had come across before they were besieged by the walking dead.

“Steven, how does it look on your end?”

“Everything’s fixed, Commander. We’re ready to go at your command.”

Jess was silent for a moment, obviously in deep thought.   When she did speak, it wasn’t with her earlier jovial tone.  The idle, friendly banter and the mood that had accompanied had long since flown.  “Steve, I want you to return to the Normandy. Get checked out and make sure everything is alright with you. I want to make sure the civilians down here are safe. We’ll call you when we’re ready.”

Knowing better than to argue with Shepard of all people, Steve didn’t even try.  Besides, he trusted her as everyone on her crew did, so beyond expressing understandable worry, he kept his reply short and to the point.  “Aye aye ma’am, be careful down there, and get back safe.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll keep the crew updated as much as possible.  There’s a lot of strange stuff going on down here and I want to get to the bottom of it.”  Shepard stated, making it clear she wasn’t about to take no for an answer from anyone.

“What should we do if the Council is making a fuss?”  Garrus, thanks to EDI patching him into the open line, asked.

“Tell them that it’s a lost human colony and to stay out of my fucking way… On second thought, better let Chakwas tell them, she’s better than I am in kindly telling people to fuck off.”  Any other time she might have been more diplomatic, but that was before she and her team had run up against zombies and goddess knew what else on the surface, hunting down innocent people wherever they went.  Shepard had seen enough people die to last her several lifetimes, and she was in no mood or frame of mind to be the voice of reason in a time like this.

“Got it, good luck down there Shepard.”  Garrus grimly stated, not about to distract her or those on the ground further than was absolutely necessary.

“Alright, boots on the ground, we’re gonna head to the local settlement.  New Tristram they called it right?” James nodded as he and Ashley filed in behind Shepard before they started in the same direction as the villagers they had saved not so long ago.  “Right, we better get a move on then. If these things hit this small hamlet, chances are they aren’t gonna be shy about attacking New Tristram either.”

“So expect another horde of undead eh?  How come we can’t go anywhere nice?” James asked, but didn’t complain further.

“Nice? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, James. For a krogan this would be the best vacation ever.”  Ashley shot back as they crested a small hill, a small stone wall on their left separating the dirt road from the last of the houses on that side of the path.

“Oh god, I can practically hear Grunt’s laugh. Wrex would have a blast as well.  Would probably challenge me to a contest to see who could kill more of these bastards in a single fight.”  James chuckled despite the fact it was quite possible that exact scenario would come to pass if those two krogan were with them.

“You do realize that I’d win that contest right?”  Shepard asked, chuckling when she felt James give her a dirty look directed at her back.  She didn’t say it, but she was grateful for the return of their earlier banter after the horrors they had seen since landing on this backwater rock.  “They don’t call me a battlemaster for nothing you know.”

“Grunt calls you that, Wrex would just laugh and slap you on the back hard enough to dislocate your shoulder.”

“Meh, probably. We’d have fun though.” Shepard said with a small smile gracing her lips. “I miss the times we were all fighting together. Not the war, but just that all of my friends were in one place and knowing that I could trust them with my life, no questions asked. I kinda wish they were here now.”

“If we tell them what's going on, they would hijack the first ship they came across and make a run for this place.  You know they’re gonna get jealous with you hogging all the kills for yourself as it is Commander.” Ashley replied, unable to keep the grim smirk off of her face even if she tried, even as she said a silent prayer for the few people they hadn’t been able to save once they had left the destroyed hamlet behind them.

“I wonder who’d get here first?  Jack and Miranda, Grunt and Wrex, or Liara with a small group of asari commandos?”  Shepard asked idly, even as her own thoughts turned to the small village they had just left behind and the people they hadn’t been able to save.  Unlike Ashley though, she knew, in her gut somehow she knew, the worst was yet to come.

“Probably Liara, the moment someone hears about this she’ll know.  After that, Jack and Miranda will be hot on her heels, and last but certainly not least, Wrex and Grunt with a whole company of angry krogans and heavy weapons to blow everything up.” James supplied and stepped over the burnt body of a man, whether it was undead or not was impossible to say.  As much as it sickened him to do, he made it a point to stomp on the man’s neck, just in case he decided to get back up and shamble after them. “Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if they brought in those giant tanks we saw on Tuchanka during our run to that atmospheric processing thing the salarians had set up to blanket the planet with the genophage way back then.”

“That’d be a sight to see.”  Ashley chuckled softly, senses alert for anything more dangerous than the occasional squirrel she’d seen running into the underbrush.

“Yeah, the locals wouldn't freak out at all.”  Shepard deadpanned, although her overactive imagination couldn’t help but conjure up an image of Grunt and Wrex gleefully running over a small army of undead while shooting anything that wasn’t in their immediate path.  It was a welcome distraction with the grim situation they found themselves in.

“Who knows? They got shuffling undead, perhaps they also have Godzilla around here somewhere.” James threw in with a shrug. “Hell at this point I wouldn't be surprised.”

As tempting as it might have been to add in her two credits onto that loaded comment, Shepard didn’t have it in her to keep that line of thought going, especially when her emerald eyes fell on a lone zombie stumbling up the road towards them.  “Eyes up front. We got more company.” Wasting no time, she was the first into the fight.

Unbeknownst to them, they were being watched.  A shadow trailed their every step, watching with keen interest as the three strangers moved with such certainty as they dispatched everything that so much as looked at them funny.  They were well coordinated, hardened warriors, moving with a skill and grace that belied their vast experiences. Even as their heavily armored, black clad leader shouted out orders, her two subordinates were already moving to obey before she had a chance to finish, anticipating her effortlessly.  It was an inspiring sight, to say the least. The hunter hadn’t seen their like before, but any ally against the encroaching darkness was a welcome sight, no matter who they were or where they originally came from.

For now she would remain in the shadows, undetected.  She had her own business to attend to, and as long as these strangers helped the village she was free to continue her own investigation.  She was certain that this sudden appearance of the risen dead was linked to the fallen star. The timing was too coincidental, and she had already been heading towards New Tristram anyway since even before the star’s appearance, there had been news of demonic attacks and worse, increasing without warning across the land.  Something was coming, and she was determined to find the source of the ominous signs on the horizon, and utterly destroy those responsible. Her hatred and need for vengeance would not be satisfied if she were to sit on the side of the road, doing nothing.

She would find whoever was responsible for these occurrences and make them pay for what they had done and what they no doubt planned to do.  For someone like the shadowy being stalking those that had already engaged the risen dead, there were only two choices available to her. Hunted, or hunter, and she had been the hunted years ago.  She would never be their prey again, never!

Taking a calming, steadying breath to calm her darker impulses before they could gain a firm foothold over her rational mind, the shadowy woman pressed onward, keeping the trio of strange warriors ever on her right flank.  Even from the shadows of the forest however, there were a few zombies for her to engage personally, but they were nothing more than fleshy targets for her twin crossbows and the bolts they spat out in rapid succession. They proved no danger to her, but every enemy slain now was one less to worry about later.

And her crossbows were silent enough not to be noticed by the strangers, unlike their undisputedly powerful but loud weaponry.  But, to each their own, and she had seen many different tactics and styles of fighting during her initial training as a demon hunter.  Wizards and their spells weren’t much quieter, and while monks with their flurry of strikes born of their hands and feet could attack quietly, there was little point in asking them to do so.  And witch doctors, those strange practitioners of magic that required a link with nature and the spirits of the world, were just as flashy and loud in their own way, but they were exceedingly deadly in their own right.  Whatever the case, she wasn’t about to argue against the results as the trio she followed left nothing but shattered remnants of the undead in their wake wherever they went.

No, as she had stated before, any ally was a welcome sight indeed, especially if the whispered, dark rumors of something far worse stirring in the world were to be believed.  They would need all the help they could get if even half of those whispers were true. Ancient horrors were about to be unleashed, the remaining Prime Evils were preparing their forces, and their human cultists were on the move.  All of these things were happening if the rumors were to be believed. And the Horadrim, the ancient order of mages and warriors that had once stood against the forces of the Burning Hells, were all but extinct, and their lore was either scattered or destroyed.  To top it off, the angels were nowhere to be seen, not that she could blame them. If she had the chance, she would probably stay out of Sanctuary as well. She just hoped that they were busy slaughtering demons on some distant world. The alternative was not something she wanted to consider….

Ending Notes:   Nomad-117: How we came up with this idea? No idea, but it certainly has been fun. So, I hope you had as much fun reading this as we had writing this. And please, give us your reviews, we feast upon them.

Vergil1989:  ‘We feast upon them?’  Lord of Gluttony much there Nomad?  Lol in all seriousness though, we will do our best to actually FINISH this one unlike our previous attempts of doing so, so expect a lot of these to come.  The plan, at least on paper, is to do a ‘book’ for each Act of Diablo, and with the expansion, there’s gonna be four more after this one. So, enjoy the ride folks, and since this is fanfiction, we’re going to be changing things up as we deem appropriate.  At any rate, see ya guys!

Chapter Text

Chapter 2:  Questions, Meetings, and More Questions

Audio Log, Lieutenant Commander Ashley Williams

As a soldier for the Systems Alliance Navy like my father, and his father before him, I’ve seen a lot of things on a lot of worlds.  I’ve been to more than a hundred of them, and yet I had never imagined something like Sanctuary before. The entire planet is on one side similar to others with its climate zones and natural habitats for the various native species of this world. Many of them are rather mundane, in some cases even shockingly similar to animals found on earth. Yet that’s where the similarities end since most of this rock is home to things better left to the darkest nightmares of the human consciousness, let alone the blackest pits of Hell itself.

While humans, or rather a human like species, does exist upon its surface, its population is almost constantly beleaguered by things that should be impossible. Creatures that look like ordinary trees until you get too close and awaken them, in which case they will do their best to smear you across the ground.  Then there’s the quill demons, porcupine creatures that are about the size of a doberman, with the uncanny ability to throw the spines on their back with the accuracy of a sharpshooter. And that’s just the two oddities we ran into the first day on Sanctuary, outside of the walking dead anyway.

I cannot explain why other worlds were left untouched by those nefarious forces, and even though I cannot believe I am saying this, I am glad that we never encountered these things before, because I’m not sure if we could have survived them.  If I didn’t need a damn psych eval before, I’m gonna need one after all this is over….assuming I’m still alive by then. Still, I’m not done yet, not by a fucking long shot. If the Reapers couldn’t kill me, or the Collectors, or Saren and his Heretic Geth, then these demons and their allies are gonna have to throw their best to take this N7 marine and Council Spectre down. The locals are claiming that the angels have abandoned them, if they ever existed at all, but I know that they’re helping us, in some way I cannot see.  If the local lore’s to be believed, that’s how it’s been since this world came to be.

Let’s just hope our new mysterious friend has a plan because I’ve been scratching my head since this shit show started.  I swear, Shepard meets the strangest people wherever she goes. And I’m the moron that follows her still. Well, at least we’re a group full of morons in that case.  And as much as I might complain, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

This is Ashley Williams, signing off.

Audio log, end

The helmet cam footage from Shepard, Williams, and Vega was like watching a bad B horror movie from the 20th century.  Despite her disbelief however, Doctor Karin Chakwas and those standing rather closely over her shoulder were riveted by what had been broadcasted back to the Normandy , which was still in geosynchronous orbit above the garden world they had been tasked in scouting.  Scouting, even the ever optimistic doctor was finding it hard to believe this had been the intent from the start, especially since she’d been on the Normandy SR 1 when they had been tasked to break in the newly christened stealth frigate, only to find out their real mission was to pick up a prothean beacon.

She had seen a lot of things in her time.  The Relay 314 incident for example. While she hadn’t been there when the turians had lain siege to Shanxi, she had had friends that were on the planet at the time.  Having spent enough time on a planetside hospital, she had decided it was time for a change and had taken assignments on at least half a dozen ships before settling on the Normandy.  From there, things had gone from rather boringly mundane to one of the greatest adventures of her time, not to mention one harrowing experience after another. But when marines got back from missions that didn’t even officially happen and needed to be healed in body if not in mind, she was one of the first people they saw when they were rolled into her infirmary.  It was common for a shipboard doctor like her to tend to the wounded and the infirmed, and there was a reasonable amount of comfort in the familiarity even if the faces rarely remained the same. Yet Shepard always found a way to introduce a new impossibility into her life it seemed, and this was the latest twist in a long career for the old, gray haired woman that could only gape at the horribly disfigured creatures that shambled about on the screen before her and the two behind her.  “Just when I thought I had seen it all. Husks were one thing, but this is something else altogether.” Karin sighed before looking over her shoulder towards Garrus.

“You’re telling me doc.”  Garrus replied, just as at a loss as she was on how to explain this one.

Her medical mind was already racing as she continued to watch this horror show.  The corpses were undoubtedly filled to the brim with bacteria and other things that pretty much guaranteed a plague, and from what she had seen over the helmet cams thus far, the natives were nowhere ready to deal with this type of thing. They probably had no idea what microorganisms were, let alone how to prevent the spread of them from one person to the next.

Having seen enough, Karin gently but firmly pushed past the tall turian sharpshooter and his quarian companion, the look of determination on her face unmistakable as she started to gather her medical supplies.  “Tell the Commander that once she has secured the town, I want to go down there and help with the wounded. They will need any helping hand they can find if they want to survive this.”

“Uh… Doc, you sure that's a good idea?”  Joker asked her before lowering his head in the face of her glare when his image appeared on the vid screen they had just been using to view the helmet cam footage.

“Tell the Commander.”  She repeated calmly, making it clear she wasn’t about to take no for an answer, before she went back to her previous task of gathering her equipment.  Even though they had stocked up on pretty much everything before they had left the Citadel, she made a mental note to check her supplies for this latest task, and take a lot of them with her.  After all, they hadn’t expected to run into something like… that, in this corner of the galaxy. Shepard certainly never failed to impress her with her ability to find the impossible and make it a reality.

Although, much to her frustration, said impossible usually tried to kill Shepard and her team.  And then there was the one, and thankfully only time, when said monstrosities had boarded the Normandy directly and tried to kill the rest of them. That was one day the good doctor would never forget, no matter how much time passed.  Still she had fared better than some of the surviving crew, they had been so traumatized that some had been unfit to continue their service aboard the stealth super frigate, not that she could blame them.  The once long thought dead Protheans, who in reality had been mutated and turned into those bug like abominations, the Collectors, had been used as the Reapers’ second wave against humanity itself before the machine like race had made their personal appearance several months later.  That truth alone would have been enough to shake anyone down to their core, but to see those same Collectors take thousands of people and turn them into gray genetic slop to feed a Reaper embryo? That was something else entirely, and that fate had nearly been hers along with many others of the Normandy’s crew, but the timely arrival of Shepard and her team had spared them that fate.

The horrors she had witnessed had only fueled her resolve in seeing those accursed machines burn, to see their broken shells on earth's surface and floating in the coldness of space before being blasted apart had brought her more satisfaction and joy then she had thought possible.  It had been as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders, something which she attributed to the knowledge that with the destruction of these monstrosities, no one else would have to suffer what she and the others had.

Only for whatever hope she had that they might just get out of this mess in one piece disintegrate when news reached them that Shepard was MIA, presumed dead.  Their immovable center, the woman that had taken them all and forged them into something far greater than they could have ever managed on their own, couldn’t have died at the bitter end.  In their moment of triumph they had only felt defeat, and while Liara had taken the news the hardest, Karin herself had felt as if she had lost the daughter she never had. In her desperation, she had been among the first to search the rubble of the Crucible, that had since plummeted to Earth, for any sign of their beloved commander, right alongside Liara.  Those two were nigh inseparable, even when they were thousands of light years apart.

In the end they had found Jess, and with strength she hadn't known she possessed, Karin had lifted the debris off Shepard and had taken care of her until the transport had arrived.  Liara soon joined her, and they didn’t leave her side once during the ride to the hospital, and once there only to take care of their most basic of needs. Their loyalty had seemingly paid off, since Shepard survived and had made a nearly full recovery.  The few parts of her that had needed to be replaced with more cybernetics had been minor, a miracle of its own given the extensive damage she had sustained from riding a massive chunk of debris down to the planet below and the impact itself that should have killed a lesser person a dozen times over.  But that was Jess Shepard in a nutshell, a survivor against all odds, and an unifying force of nature the galaxy had never imagined possible before and would likely never see again.

However, it seemed that the galaxy would always hold new horrors for them to run into.  Still, she was Doctor Karin Chakwas of the System Alliance Navy, serving directly under Commander Shepard, the first human Spectre and the savior of the galaxy.  If it was their fate to run into every horror the galaxy had to offer, then she would make sure that they all got out of it alive. That was her place among the crew of their eclectic family, and she was perfectly content with her appointed role.

Catching sight of Tali just as she finished loading up her medical bag, Karin offered the quarian a nod of acknowledgment as she tossed the bag her way.  She caught it without needing to be prompted, and nodded back, knowing they’d need every bit of help they could get. Before she went to carry the bag off to the cargo bay though, Tali turned and regarded the kindly old human woman in concern.  “Are you sure we should be doing this Doctor? I understand we need to help those people, I’m not arguing that point by any means, but there is a reason there’s a no interference law in place.”

“Yet you say it anyway.”  Karin retorted sharply before calming just as quickly.  She sighed and shook her head before looking at quarian with something akin to motherly affection. “I know what you’re trying to say, Tali. But I can't just sit up here while people suffer down there and I can do something to stop it, that's not who I am.”

Tali held up her hands, having since slung the heavy medical bag onto her right shoulder, and nodded, not about to argue the point further as a small, grateful smile appeared behind her mask like visor.  “I’m just glad you’re the same kind woman I met all those years ago Karin. Out of everyone that’s changed, you remained the same as the day I met you.”

“I don’t know about all that Tali, but it’s still nice to hear you say it.”  The old woman replied with a quiet chuckle.

“Just so we’re clear, you do realize that Shepard is going to be angry, right?” Tali questioned hesitantly, and looked at the human doctor.

A razor thin smirk appeared on Chakwas face. “Oh, I know. And she can be mad with me… if she dares.”  It was an unspoken but ironclad rule that no one argued with their ship’s CMO, not if they wanted to keep fighting for the foreseeable future.  Someone in Karin’s position was the closest thing to a divine entity as one got without actually running into one, so it was always a good idea to stay on her good side.  Wrex had made that mistake only once, to this day he refused to speak about what had happened with anyone. However, everyone agreed that it couldn't have been pleasant. Given the fact that even Admiral Steven Hackett seemed to have a healthy amount of respect for her made many of the crew wonder if there was perhaps more to the kindly looking woman than anyone knew.

So Tali only chuckled nervously and had to pull her hands apart with a jerk when she started to wring her fingers in an old, nervous habit she still fought with on occasionally.  “Eh, yeah, when you put it like that, then I don't think you’ll have a problem.”

As keen and observant as ever, Karin offered the quarian engineer a sympathetic smile as she gathered the last of her supplies before making for the door.  Once there, she put a hand on the young woman’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “Tali, for the record, I want you to tell Shepard that if she’s got a problem with you helping me, she should it take up with me. The same principle as before applies.”

“Keelah, that’s good to hear, I was worried I would have to face her wrath alone.”  Tali said, relaxing visibly under Karin’s sympathetic gaze as they left the infirmary together.

Karin shook her head and chuckled, knowing better that Tali was never alone in anything she did, especially now.  “That's unlikely, you have a strong turian man that's ready to cower behind you in the face of Shepard’s wrath.”

“Yes… my hero.” Tali said humorously and barely managed to contain a giggle at the mental image that thought produced.  As if summoned by that simple sentence, Garrus popped his head around the corner of the corridor she and Karin were heading down.  “Yes, I was talking about you, my lovable bosh’tet.”

“I thought I heard my name called.  So, what brought this on Tali? My sexy good looks?  My suave, sophisticated charms?” To only add to the self promoted image he was trying to paint for himself, Garrus puffed out his dark blue armor covered chest and stood as straight as he could.

Karin could only chuckle into her hand while Tali rolled her eyes with an amused snort.  “Something like that.”

“Good to see you are as humble as ever, Garrus.” Chakwas deadpanned, and sent a small smile in the turian’s direction.  She almost lost it when she looked over her shoulder and saw the sharpshooter strutting about behind the two women like an oversized peacock.  It took a considerable effort not to laugh at the way the turian followed after them. “You better stop before you hurt yourself Garrus, all that ego is going to be the end of you one of these days.”

“Unlikely, for who could ever hope to defeat me?  Me, the sharpshooter king of the universe. Even the mighty Commander Shepard had to bow to my obviously superior skills.”

“Meaning she let you win.”  Tali deadpanned before bursting out into barely controlled laughter when Garrus’s grin faded like a solar eclipse.

“No! I won fair and square.” Garrus protested vehemently and turned to look at Chakwas. “Come on, Doc. Tell her.”

Karin wasn’t about to get involved however, and continued walking to the elevator ahead of the two.  “I’m going to stay out of this one children. But if you’re quite done with this rather immature nonsense, we do have people to save on the surface.”

Letting the topic go for the moment, Garrus had to ask, “Uh, one question, how are we gonna find them if even EDI cant locate them?”

“Easy, we go to their last known location and then we contact them for direction and force Shepard to tell us where to go.”

“Force Shepard? That sounds like fun, let's do it.” Garrus immediately agreed and turned to look at Tali. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”

“You mean omitting that the doctor is with us until she gets all angry, only for Chakwas to rain on her parade? Yes, I do like that plan.”  Tali agreed just a little too enthusiastically for the good doctor’s liking.

“I feel like I’m in kindergarten.”  Karin said to herself and walked off towards the shuttle and the quarantine zone they had set up, the plastic sheeted area cordoning off a large part of the cargo bay on the off chance they brought some nasty new bug up from the surface.  She just needed to check Steve over and then order him to bring them down. It wasn't the first time she had needed to do that, and it would likely not be the last. With a sigh, Karin moved on, her mind firmly entrenched on the task at hand.  At this rate, she wouldn't be surprised if she had to beat the ground team into submission in order to examine them. It was just how they were.

Whatever the case, Steve didn’t need much convincing after Karin had finished with her examination of the shuttle pilot.  Not that there was much to worry about since his stay on the surface had been brief and without any contact with any of the infected the ground team had ran into.  Still, he didn’t argue, knowing better than to take chances, especially when dealing with a potentially deadly new plague that could apparently reanimate the dead.

“We just have to wait for the children to get ready, then we can go.” Chakwas told him with an eyeroll.

“Children?” Steve asked confused.  Sure, some of the team could sometimes act a little immature, but usually they were extremely professional.  That was when a giggling Tali and a laughing Garrus walked into the hangar bay, and he understood the children comment all too well.  Meeting Karin’s gaze, Steve sighed but chuckled all the same. “Guess I better get the shuttle warmed up. Should I break out the high chairs too while I’m at it?”

“I heard that.”  Garrus called out as he strode right past Karin and Steve.  “And I’ll have you know the last time I was in a high chair was when I was still in diapers.”

“Turians have those?”  Steve asked, snickering quietly when Garrus stopped mid step and groaned into his taloned hand at having walked right into that one.

“Yeah, they are the first thing we get after our first toy rifle and uniform.” Garrus grumbled and disappeared into the shuttle.  The snickering from Tali only spurred him forward all the quicker. “Laugh it up honey, I know where you keep your nerve stim program on your omni-tool.”

Tali quieted and glared daggers into the turian’s back.  “Touch my omni-tool and you’ll get more than a zap from Chihika.”

Suddenly Tali stiffened, and her hand began to shake as she glared at Garrus, who smiled at her smugly. “You gave me remote access to that program of yours, remember?  So no zap for me. I do have your ‘fun switch’ on speed dial though.” His mandibles pulled up into the biggest grin he was capable of as he tapped at the glowing omni-tool on his left arm.

“If either of you could at any point in the near future remember that I am still present, I would be eternally grateful.” Chakwas said and shook her head at their antics. If only the people knew what kind of people their heroes were, no one would have thought that we had a chance against the Reapers .  Despite her thoughts on her fellow crewmembers though, Karin wouldn’t have traded them for anyone or anything else in the galaxy.  They were her, extremely, dysfunctional but loyal, steadfast family, and despite being the saviors of the galaxy at least three times over, they were still people underneath their extraordinary deeds.

“Oh, ehm.  Right, sorry about that.” Garrus muttered quietly and pushed a few buttons on his omni-tool, which made Tali far more relaxed than she’d been mere moments before. Chakwas was rather certain that Garrus was blushing right now, if it were possible for a turian to do so to begin with.  “Right, now that that’s over with, shall we doc?”

“Oh now he wants to hurry, bosh’tet is gonna get it later.”  Tali muttered angrily as she stomped into the shuttle and made sure to slam her foot down on his on her way by, just as Steve had finished his pre-flight checklist for the second time that day.  The pilot wisely feigned ignorance to the whole affair, especially when Tali grabbed her shotgun from the overhead compartment and looked it over, a habit she had no doubt picked up long before she ran into Shepard all those years back.

“I sometimes think we’re more of a flying asylum then a proper warship.” Chakwas muttered lowly to herself and climbed in behind the two love birds.

“The thought had crossed my mind too doctor.”  Steve said as the older woman passed by the cockpit door, before starting up the engines.  “Ready for lift off, better hold on, the last time I made this run we almost got hit by something on the way down.  Hopefully there won’t be anymore surprises this time around.”

“You just had to say it didn’t you Cortez?”  Garrus said just as the Kodiak’s engines warmed up and the cargo bay was opened to open space.  The barriers kept the ship’s atmosphere from being vented, but the more superstitious and paranoid of the crew still left the area on the off chance something went wrong as Steve made his approach for the open doors.

“Don't worry Garrus, I have yet to crash this thing, unlike Mr. Vega.  I’m not about to start now.” Steve reassured them, and ran his hand almost lovingly over the Kodiak’s dashboard while keeping his other on the control yoke in front of him. “I got this thing through Reaper AA fire, I won’t get taken down by a few glowing anomalies.”

“Famous last words.”  Garrus muttered quietly, but relaxed in the chair he had taken for himself all the same since he was just as confident as their pilot that they wouldn’t have anything to worry about.

On the outskirts of New Tristram

Shepard wanted to blow a blood vessel when she was told Karin, Garrus, and Tali were coming down to the surface.  Despite her understandable rage born of worry for her people, she shouldn't be surprised, she really shouldn't. Her crew was perhaps the best in the known galaxy, but they had their unique quirks.

The mere thought of Garrus aka Mr. turian badass vigilante was enough to prove that to anyone.  Despite her worry for her people getting mixed up in whatever madness was walking around down here though, Shepard was also quite grateful for their willingness to throw themselves into the fire at the same time.  Even as the thought crossed her mind though, she subtly nodded to Ashley and James before nodding towards the right side of the path, to the treeline. There was a problem she wanted to take care of before they went much further.  “We’ve been followed since we entered the hamlet.”

“I was wondering when you’d say something Skipper.  They’re good, whoever they are. Almost made me think of Kasumi when I saw our tail, right after they popped a zombie full of crossbow bolts.”  Leading the way to their tail’s latest victim, Ashley was soon standing in front of a dead zombie that was just within sight of the dirt road they’d been following for the last hour and a half.

James whistled in admiration as he examined the freshly dead….dead guy at their feet.  “Whoever did this has pretty good aim and makes sure that their targets won't get up again.  Just look at the positioning of the bolts, all weak points of the human body one could hit from this angle.”  Kicking the corpse over, he grimaced when he saw that the back side was just as gruesome looking as the front.  “Okay that’s just overkill. Whoever this guy is got behind this dead fella and painted his ass end with enough wood and sharp bits to make their own target dummy.”

Shepard nodded, but kept her gaze on the trees around them, having a feeling their tail was still quite close.  “Yeah but given the fact that they have avoided us while making sure to kill all of those things tells me two things. They are no friends of whoever did this, and they don't know what to make of us.  They probably watched us to find out more about our motives.”

“Can’t blame them. I mean we would act the same if the situation were reversed.”  Ashley was about to say more, but movement caught her gaze at the edge of her vision, and she shifted her eyes to the right.  Shepard caught the subtle hint and didn’t visibly react save to prime her biotic powers in the form of a dark swirling orb in her right hand, which she kept at her side, thus largely concealing what she was preparing to throw once she had a clear line of sight on their target.  “If I was a betting woman, I’d say they were still around, keeping tabs on us. It’s the smart thing to do when trying to learn more about strangers right?”

James had since caught onto the ruse and chuckled as he let his right hand fall to the pistol at his side.  “Yeah, wouldn’t surprise me if our tail was still skulking about as we speak hun. ‘Course, only cowards stay in the shadows.”

No sooner had the words left his mouth did Vega sense rather than hear the near silent footfalls of their pursuer.  He had all of two seconds to react as he jerked his gun hand up, only to find the most unusual sight in the form of a crossbow bolt sticking out of the barrel.  “Oh that’s not-” He was soon sprawled out on his face as a shadowy blur used him as a springboard, and felt a powerful kick land against the back of his head. As he was sent sprawling on his face, he saw a glimpse of lighty armored boots that struck Ashley's rifle out of her hand and hit her in the side of the head within moments of each other.

The figure landed on the ground, but it was her turn to fall to the ground in a controlled roll when a blue orb flew just inches above her head.  She ducked low and rolled forward and used her hands to push herself of the ground, hitting Shepard in the chest plate, sending her a step back. Any other time, the unknown woman would have grabbed Shepard’s shoulders and cartwheeled over her and give a solid kick into the commander’s back that would have sent her down onto the ground.  But Shepard was not any other opponent, demon or otherwise.

What happened instead was that when the hunter tried to vault over her latest adversary, she instead hit nothing but air when a blue light erupted from the black armored form in front of her, and the next instant she was hitting nothing but air as Shepard blinked away and soon stood several feet away, her hands glowing with a similar blue light.  “You’re quick, I’ve fought quicker.” Charging forward, it was the hunter’s turn to go on the defensive as she raised her twin crossbows just a fraction of a second too slowly before the armored fist was connecting with her face.

That was a mistake, for now, through the pain, she could feel her hatred coming forth. If they wanted to fight her then she would grant them a fight.  Her eyes began to glow with her inner hatred and that sight alone surprised Shepard for the fraction of a second. It was enough, a barrage of crossbow bolts shot towards her and she barely had the time to throw up a biotic barrier.  While it was enough to block the crossbow bolts, the few seconds between the barrier’s appearance and the end of the barrage was more than enough time for the hooded woman to close the distance between them in the next heartbeat.

Her speed seemed to have increased, as did her strength and agility, it was like fighting against a shadow.  Still, Shepard perhaps would have won if she hadn't made the mistake of overextending one of her own punches.  The slightest misstep cost her as the hunter seemed to blur to the side, letting her punch fly past, and slammed her elbow into Shepard’s neck, finding the slightest weak point between the helmet and the rest of the armor she wore.  The powerful blow, pinpoint precise and strong enough to give Jack pause, had the Spectre gasping for air as she stumbled back, only to have her legs swept out from under her the next moment. While it wasn’t necessary, the hunter grabbed the front of Shepard’s helmet and pushed down, increasing the force of her fall considerably.

“Okay….that….was not how I expected this….to go at all.”  Shepard groaned, earning a surprised glance from the woman on top of her.  Now that she could see under her hood, her emerald gaze was able to pierce the shadowy confines of the woman’s dark attire, and the soft if pale features underneath were unmistakably feminine.  The glowing red eyes were odd, to say the least, but once one got past that, she was just like any other human she’d come across over the years. “Not bad….by the way.”

“You should be out cold after taking a hit like that.”  The woman stated quietly, coldly, yet the note of surprise was still audible in her voice even as she tried to mask it.

“I’ve been hit harder than that more times than I can count.”  Shepard grunted as she pulled herself out of the slight indent she had created upon being forced to hit the ground.  James and Ashley had since pulled themselves up to their feet as well, a little banged up but otherwise looked none the worse for wear.

The hunter had since stepped aside, allowing her to stand although she had since redrawn her crossbows.  “You were aware of me watching, and you made it obvious that you wanted to detain me. I merely chose to act before you could put your plan into action.  Now, will you tell me why you are here?”

“If you’ve been hunting these things like we’ve been since we showed up, I get the feeling our goals aren’t so different.”  Shepard replied, before glancing towards her two companions for a moment. Seeing that they were fine, she relaxed as she crossed her arms and nodded to their strange companion.  “As for trying to detain you, I get antsy when I’m being spied on by a complete stranger.”

“My enemies, are perhaps your enemies as well, but that does not make us friends.” The hooded woman said darkly. “And I do not hold your attempt to detain me against you, after all you failed, and I would have most likely done the same.  But you did not answer my question, what are you doing here?”

“The short story?  We’re just scouting out the lay of the land on orders from….our leaders back home. The long story’s gonna have to wait.”

The woman's grip tightened considerably on her crossbow hilts at those words. “Tell me the names of your masters, and do not attempt to lie. If your answers are dissatisfying to me, I will end you here and now.”

Shepard blinked surprised at the sudden turn of events, and while she normally didn't take kindly to being threatened, she figured that this woman had to have a good reason to act as she did.  “Well the Citadel Council, Tevos, Sparatus, and Valern. Any of these names ring a bell?” She doubted they would, but she had asked for their names.  And given the figure’s combat prowess, Shepard wasn’t about to take an unnecessary risk if she could avoid it.  Not when her friends’ lives were possibly at stake here.

The woman relaxed miniscule, and lowered her crossbows. “No, which means you are in luck stranger.  Had I recognized any of these names, I would have known you for servants of the enemy.”

“Enemy?”  Ashley asked, her rifle back in her arms but pointed at the ground, having just started to raise it only to see Shepard signal her with her eyes not to do so.  It was just as well because the moment she started to move, a crossbow was being pointed at her helmeted face without the woman turning her head to look her way.

Lowering her crossbow once she was sure the stranger’s companions weren’t about to try anything, the hunter nodded towards the darkly armored woman she had knocked down once already.  “Yes, surely you do not believe that the dead rise by themselves? No, there is some nefarious purpose behind this that I have yet to uncover.” The woman said resolutely and turned around, her long black cape fluttering behind her like a bad omen with every step out of the forest.

Seeing no alternative, Shepard looked to Ashley and James, who only shrugged in response, before trailing after the hunter.  She was the first person they had ran into that could protect herself, and to make it better, she seemed to know something about what was going on down here.  It was their best, and only, lead as far as she was concerned.

Deciding to start off small, Shepard did her best to keep up with the pale faced woman’s stride, all the while her emerald gaze took in every detail she could of the stranger.  “Where did you learn to fight like that? I’ve never seen something like that.” Now that they weren’t about to tear each other’s throats out, Shepard was able to get a good long look at the woman that had knocked them all on their asses with such ease.  The two crossbows on her back were mechanical marvels, despite medieval in appearance. The bandolier of knives she kept around her waist and right shoulder were wickedly sharp despite being simple metal, and she was fairly sure she could spot several metallic orbs that could only be called grenades.  And that was saying nothing about the armor the woman was wearing underneath her dark hood. It looked equal parts metal and some kind of ugly animal skin, yet it looked unusually thick and likely offered pretty good protection for her.

Her examination only took a few moments, so she didn’t miss the hunter’s response to her earlier question.  “Amongst the rest of my order, I’ve been well educated. Surely you recognize our iconic garb?”

“I’ve never seen the like before.” Shepard was forced to admit and sent a glance at Ashley and James only to see them shaking their heads as well.

“Then I must question if you even hail from Sanctuary to have never seen a demon hunter before.” The woman said, and her voice sounded almost longing.

“Demon hunter? Is that a title or something?” James questioned with a small laugh only to stop when the woman spun around to glare at him with unnaturally glowing red eyes.

“A title ? You think this is a joke? No, we are those that hunt the beasts of the Burning Hells wherever they may appear on this world. We have sworn an oath to let none of the hellspawn live once we have lain eyes upon them. We are driven by our hatred and our need to exterminate every last one of them.  All of us are survivors of their merciless onslaught upon our homes, our families, and we have sworn bloody vengeance upon them in turn. So tell me, do you think this funny ?”

“No ma’am, sorry ma’am.” James whimpered out, clearly intimidated and took a step back and to the side so that Ashley was between him and the mysterious woman.  With one last parting glare the woman turned around and stormed off, not bothering to check if they were keeping pace with her or not.

“Great going there, James, you really know what the ladies like.” Ashley told him sarcastically and hurried to follow their, sort of, guide.

“I said I was sorry. How could I have known?” James whispered back, clearly not about to risk incurring the woman's wrath a second time as he yanked the crossbow bolt out of his pistol’s barrel.  In the dark, with a crossbow, that shot alone should have been impossible, yet his face refused to turn to a more natural shade as he tried to reign in his fear of the woman that had pulled it off, along with the other near impossible feats she had done in the few seconds she had engaged them.

James wasn't one to scare easily, but the things he had seen or could guess from the look in her eyes told him of horrors the like he hadn't dared to imagine, and probably never could, not unless he had seen them for himself.  Ashley and Shepard couldn't understand that, at least not until they had stared into those glowing eyes filled with terrors and pain. Sure he had seen some pretty messed up stuff when the Reapers showed up, but something in the woman’s glowing red eyes that had since turned back to what he assumed was their unusually dull, if glowing, gray state said she’d have preferred the Reapers and their mechanical nightmares over whatever she’d endured long before running into them.

He supposed if she was a demon hunter, and the things she hunted deserved to be called demons, because he just couldn't imagine demons actually existing, then those creatures would wreak havoc just for the sake of it, unlike the Reapers who had some form of twisted reason behind their actions.  On the other hand, he wouldn’t have thought the dead could literally rise from the grave until seeing it for himself, so who knew what else was on this strange as fuck world they had been asked to ‘scout’ for the Council back on the Citadel.

Which reminded him that he really wanted to punch one of those guys who had claimed that it was ‘completely safe’ in the face, hard.  He didn't buy for a second that the probes overlooked the anomaly that prevented deeper scanning of the surface. That made him angry, because they had only agreed to do this because they thought that they wouldn't have to fight anymore, but someone had known that there was more then what appeared to be here.  They were being used like a cheap instrument and he hated that fact. More than a few of them had people waiting for them back home, they couldn’t afford to take risks like they used to for that reason alone.

James silently swore to himself that if things went south, he would at least make sure that Ash made it back. The twins needed someone in their life, and he would never allow them to lose both of their parents at once.  Whatever else he might have considered on the matter, it came to a screeching halt when he looked up and saw Shepard and Williams pulling their weapons just as their darkly clad guide seemed to disappear in a flash of darkness.  The oddity that thought brought him was only matched by what followed next as dozens of crossbow bolts started zipping away towards the zombies they had spotted, that had since turned away from the barricades they’d been clawing at, only to get a faceful of bolts and bullets the next moment.

“Slow on the draw there James?  That’s not like you.” Ash chimed in, earning an annoyed grunt from the giant as he soon joined in the wholesale slaughter of the undead beasts at the gates of the town they were heading towards.  They weren’t the only one desperately trying to keep the undead back as James saw several men in simple medieval armor, wielding swords and shields and an assortment of simple bows. While their defensive efforts were valiant against the creatures arrayed against them, it didn’t take a genius to know the guards were highly outclassed and outnumbered, and wouldn’t have held out long if not for their timely arrival.

They were still shooting at the undead when suddenly arcs of lightning hit three to the left side and threw them down before literally roasting them. A moment later a huge ball of lightning flew down the street and obliterated the five undead that were still standing there.

“Well, that was exciting.”  A young female voice called out as a robed woman wandered into view.  The stranger had long, dark brown hair, sun-tanned skin, and shimmering violet eyes.  Her deep blue robes, were somewhere between being a long, low cut dress and a second skin, clinging to the young woman in such a way that drew the eye of everyone in the immediate area.  She was more than a head shorter than Shepard without armor, and despite the fact that her shoes had heels, how she walked in them on a street that didn’t deserve to be called as such was anyone's guess.  To top it off, in one hand she held what appeared to be some sort of scepter, and in the other what appeared to be a strange floating orb that gave off pure white light, much like a hard light construct. “Fascinating, real undead.  I have never seen their like before only read about them, perhaps I will use the opportunity to study one later.”

Shepard was reasonably certain that she heard their resident demon hunter muttered an exasperated “Great.” at that. She obviously didn't share the other woman’s enthusiasm at the shuffling corpses. That thought aside, Shepard was still wondering where the hell the lightning had come from.  She had never seen lightning move horizontally across the ground before, or at least not this close to the ground, and the lightning had hit the undead like it was being guided. Her brain refused to even contemplate that impossible thought.

Fortunately for her, the stranger had taken notice of her and her team.  The woman literally skipped forward in excitement and looked at her with unveiled curiosity.  “Oh what have we got here? Weapons and armor of unknown make? Unknown markings? Obvious soldiers, perhaps specialized in combating undead?  No, accompanied by demon hunter, don't appear to have known each other for long given tension between two parties… explorers? Possible, likely, still have to be sure.  Are you explorers?”

Shepard did her best to close her mouth that had involuntarily opened in shock and a vague sense of intense deja vu. She had just found the human version of Mordin in the last place she expected to see it.

“What the…”  James muttered behind her, apparently impressed by the fact that a human being could say so much in so little time, let alone in so little time between breaths.

Ashley merely gave a silent nod at the woman's question, being in a state of shock herself. In response they were rewarded with a blinding smile. “Great! I have many questions for you. Where are you from? Why have you come?  Why here? Why now? Do you intend to open friendly relations with the governments of these lands? Ah! Forgot! Demon hunter, excellent. Many questions for you as well. Only read about your order, very little details. Often looked upon as bad omen, not very popular with the simple folk.”

“Do you intend to continue this stream of questioning until the end of creation itself?”  The hunter retorted sharply before none too gently pushing past the young woman.

“Hey!  Please!  Wait, I have so many questions!  Like-”

The hunter continued towards the barred gates without looking over her shoulder.  “No.”

“Aww, please.  It won’t take long I promise!  I would even be willing to aid you with my magic in exchange!”

“Did she just say magic?”  Ash asked, her face contorted into a mix of disbelief and confusion at where the conversation had suddenly gone.

“Just go with it Ash, that’s what I’m doing because at this point, nothing would surprise me.”  Shepard replied, not about to argue with what she’d seen, although she’d have to see irrefutable proof that whatever power the younger of their strange duo was indeed magic before she’d consider it as such.  For now she’d play along and see what came of their time here.

The woman's offer got the hunter's attention. “I usually prefer to work alone, but you could be useful in a fight.  So I will offer you a deal, you help me in clearing out the undead that plague this land and you will stay silent the entire time while we do so.  One word and I will tell you nothing. And in exchange I will answer as many of your questions as I can once we have cleared out this infestation.”

“You sure do drive a hard bargain…..I-uh I don't know. I am not very good at staying silent.”

“Believe me, I noticed.”  The demon hunter deadpanned without missing a beat.

“Um… you got any idea how long this could take? Or what caused it? Because I would like to know for how long I would have to stay silent, as long as it isn't too long I guess it would be okay.”

“I believe that the fallen star is the re-”

“Funny thing that, I was coming to New Tristram because of all the reported monster attacks and rumors of some dark coven moving about the area.  Then a star falls from the sky, and I could have sworn I saw something else following it before the star touched down not too far from here if the path it was taking didn’t change between when I saw it and where I expect it landed.”  Thankfully neither hunter or self proclaimed wizard noticed the way Shepard and her two companions shuffled about at that declaration. Not that the wizard was interested in them any longer as she brightened almost immediately once they reached the gates, where the guards were dragging their few fallen off the side of the road into a small pile of the very zombies they had been fighting.  “Ah, going to burn them all, just to be on the safe side? Good idea, saves the trouble of having to worry about them coming back again, or so I read anyway.”

“Perhaps you should take greater care not to be heard.” The demon hunter hissed at her and sent her a glare. “You are talking about the dead friends and family of the people who live here. They won't take kindly to such remarks.”

And for the first time the young magic user noticed the glares she was getting from the townsfolk. She gulped and moved so that she was walking more in the centre of their little group. “Oops, my masters always told me that I always talked before thinking.  My apologies good sirs, I was not thinking….again.”

“I’m just glad we’re still alive to talk about it at all.  Captain Rumford at your service my ladies.” The man, who couldn’t have been older than twenty five, if that, saluted the eclectic group before sighing tiredly.  “I don’t know what’s going on, but what I do know is that we might not be here if not for your timely arrival. Ever since that star fell on the old cathedral, these things have been assaulting the gates and the surrounding countryside, killing everyone they can get their hands on.  And we’ve heard disturbing reports about something worse in the woods not far from here, vomiting up more of these undead. Captain Daltyn took a squad of our soldiers to deal with them, but he hasn’t returned. I fear the worst.”

“Wretched mothers, I have read of such beasts in an ancient scroll once in the arcane library back home.  Wretched mothers, once handmaidens belonging to Queen Asylla, were tortured and executed by the mad king Leoric, thus were they cursed to rise again as the creatures they are now.”

“Yes, and they posses the ability to devour the corpses of the freshly deceased and bring them back into this world as undead monstrosities.”  The hunter added darkly, eyes glowing dimly at the news. “Perhaps you won’t be as useless as I feared.”

Undeterred or unaware of the sarcasm laden comment, the young wizard beamed brightly in response.  “Thanks!”

“...” The Demon hunter just looked at the wizard for a moment, wondering if she was serious or not but shrugged.  “You possess spirit, let's see how long that’ll last once you have seen your first wretched mother.”

“Can someone start making some damn sense?”  Ashley muttered quietly as Rumford ordered the gates to be open for them.  Shepard only whispered to ‘play along’ for now, earning a muttered curse from the second human Spectre, but she nodded that she’d do as she asked.  “Just don’t expect me to like it Skipper.”

Shepard knew better than to say more on the matter as she nodded her head towards Ashley.  “Noted, but I don’t like it either if it makes you feel better.”

“If either of you were to enjoy this, then I would seriously question your sanity.” The hooded woman told them as she sheathed her two crossbows on her back as she and their new addition to their little group led the way into New Tristram.  “We shall need to prepare for the hunt ahead of us, and gather what information we can before we head out into the woods to find this missing Datlyn and his men.”

“Fascinating flora.  Many of these are extinct in other parts of the world. More interestingly, many of these herbs can be used to brew healing potions.”  The young wand wielding woman babbled on, seemingly oblivious to the world around her. “Should tell townsfolk once we rescue captain, can save many lives.  Less dead people, everyone else happy.” An opinion that suddenly shifted to a much more favorable stance even if three of the group could only stare dumbly at the wizard for her concern for those in New Tristram.

“Curious.” The hunter muttered to herself, and decided that perhaps this young woman was worth keeping an eye on.

“Uh, sorry to interrupt this riveting conversation, but wouldn't it be better if we knew each other's names? We can't exactly call you hunter the whole time can we?” James asked and looked at the two woman, only to pale visibly when said demon hunter turned to look at him, he hastily corrected himself. “Unless you want us to, we would be cool with that.”

“Grow a pair James or get behind me.”  Ash quipped, earning a dirty look from her husband for her trouble that she ignored as she nodded to the pair of women.  “He is right though, can’t exactly be working together if we don’t even know each other’s names. And we are on the same side, even if our goals aren’t exactly the same.”

“Indeed.”  The hunter agreed, before her eyes seem to soften and a small smile pulled at her lips.  “My name is Gemma, and I used to call the area around Westmarch home, before it was put to the torch when I was still a child.”

The wizard beamed brightly and the almost joyful light in her violet eyes seemed to grow brighter as she stepped forward and bowed grandly at the waist before standing upright once more.  “I am Moira. Magical prodigy, or so they say. I left those old fools though, seeking power they were afraid of. They had nothing more to teach me though, so I didn’t mind too terribly the curses they threw at my back.”

“Um, nice to meet you?” James said or rather asked hesitantly before one of his traditional grins appeared behind the tinted visor of his helmet.  “James Vega, at your service beautiful.” Moira giggled while Gemma only chuckled softly at the obvious flirtatious comment.

Ashley wasn’t so amused as she rammed her elbow into James’ stomach.  She ignored the grunt before following suit. “Ashley Williams, and he’s taken.  By me .”  James grinned sheepishly but said nothing more as Ashley made it clear in no uncertain terms that he was off limits.

“So I had gathered by your not too serious abuse of him.” Moira said with a small smile. “Usually a man would respond with violence in equal favour, but he just smiled at you.  I think you have him trained quite well.”

“Hey!”  Ashley chuckled while James glared in feigned offense at Moira’s offhand remark about him being trained like he was some pet.

Shepard chuckled as well before finally speaking, and as was often the case with those that had met her for the first time, Gemma and Moira found it hard to ignore her even if they had tried.  “Commander Jess Shepard, and I have the misfortunate of being in charge of these two friends of mine.”

“My condolences.” Gemma told her, a just audible note of amusement in her soft, cold voice before she turned around and continued down the path, houses on either side within the walls of New Tristram.  People milled about on both sides of the dirt road into town, gawking at them all in equal measure since word had quickly swept through the area that they had taken down the zombies assaulting the gates.  “Demon hunter, here? Bad omen that. First a falling star and now one of their kind?” One man said, just as they passed.

“Quiet husband, she’s right there you know!”  His wife hissed in response, apparently having a bit more wisdom than the man at her side.

Gemma didn't seem to be bothered by his comment or the hostile looks she was receiving from a fair share of the onlookers. She was used to it, had been for a long time, and even in the early days, such petty insults had had no power over her.  Harsh words didn't break bones after all. It was when words became actions that problems arose. That said, she did notice the look on the giant of a man’s face, and a part of her was grateful for the offended glare he was casting on those around them.  It felt good to know not everyone was so narrow minded, and while it was impossible to tell what their self proclaimed Commander was thinking behind her black helmet with its glowing red lines, she had a feeling similar thoughts were etched on her face.

Moira was more vocal in her protests. “That was quite rude. She saved you after all, I have seen her at the gates. More dead guardsmen without her, impressive combat prowess.  Rude, but obviously cares about lives.”

“She’s got a point, but you’re wasting your time kid.  Some people just don’t know how to be grateful no matter what you do for them.”  Ashley spat out as she dragged Moira away by the back of her robes without missing a step.  The husband and wife said nothing, but Ashley could feel their eyes on them as they continued along their way once Moira stopped flailing her arms about in an attempt to wriggle free of her iron strong grasp.

Gemma had to suppress a smile at that, Moira somehow managed it to be both annoying and endearing with her innocent behaviour. Like a puppy that constantly begged you to play with it, even when you just did and justed wanted to be left alone.  Even so, she couldn’t remain silent on the matter as they passed more people that had their own bits of opinion that they made no efforts to hide, but Gemma ignored them all. “Thank you, but while your defense was welcome it wasn't necessary. I am quite used to such a welcome by now and beyond that, it's nothing more than words. They hold no sway over my actions.”

“Words have power, trust me.”  Shepard replied as she nodded her approval of Ash and Moira’s actions respectively before turning back to Gemma without missing a step.  “You’d be surprised just how much when used in the right way, or the wrong way.”

While Gemma got the distinct impression Shepard was speaking from personal experience, she chose instead to comment on the topic at hand.  “In the right situation, yes. They can indeed be powerful, but spoken from the mouth of scared men and women who do not dare to take action, afraid of the consequences?  Far less so.”

Shepard shrugged since she wasn’t about to argue with Gemma’s logic since she was spot on anyway, and instead focused on a commotion further down the road.  Her emerald gaze fell on a wagon blocking the road to the left with a fat, balding man crying out for everyone to leave town as fast as possible, while a young woman in a red top and lightly tanned leather pants argued with another of the town guards.  Upon listening closer, she heard the young woman was looking for someone, and that he’d been at the cathedral when the ‘fallen star’ had struck. Yet from what she could hear, she wanted someone to help her look for him. Sharing a look with her two friends, they nodded and moved closer to the girl and the man she was making no progress with.  “Is there a problem here?”

Without looking at her, the young woman muttered a curse as the guard walked away.  “Yes, these fools won’t get off their asses to help me look for my uncle Deckard. I’m not blind, I know there are other concerns what with the recent problem of the risen dead, but I know he’s alive.”  Only after she had said her piece did the woman turn and stare, briefly, at the group that had assembled behind her, before she gathered her senses just as quickly. Shepard had to give the kid this much, she wasn’t easily persuaded to give up her chosen path, even in the face of the unknown apparently.

“He was with you in the cathedral when the fallen star hit?” Moira questioned gently, her face full of empathic emotions.

“Yes, it struck the floor and he fell, but I know him, he is tougher than anyone gives him credit for.”

“We are looking for the fallen star, since both it and your Uncle are in the same place, I could keep my eyes open.  However, there is still the possibility that he didn't make it.” Gemma told her softly, but firmly.

Moira looked at the demon hunter with wide eyes, one would think she had just put a bolt in an innocent kitten by the look on the wizard's face. The red clad woman’s face grew firm. “He is alive, I know it.  Until I see his corpse, there’s nothing you can say to convince me otherwise.”

“And I said that I would look for him. Why everyone is acting as if I had already given up is beyond me.”  Gemma shot back impatiently. “Besides, you shouldn’t give up hope, especially in a situation such as this.  Sometimes hope is all that keeps the fires burning.”

“Not exactly what I would have said but it works well enough.”  Shepard chimed in before letting her gaze fall on the girl before them.  “So, what’s your name kid?”

“Leah, and I’m old enough to know how to use a bow, thank you very much.”  Leah declared, before her hard visage softened somewhat and her brown eyes filled with something that looked close to relief.  “So you’ll help me look for him?”

“That’s the plan Leah.  We have to leave to take out these zombies anyway, so we’ll be killing two birds with one stone by helping you find your Uncle.”  Shepard replied as she nodded to James. “Stay here and wait for our friends to show up. Ash, you’re with me, we’re gonna clean up the area of any remnants of the local pests, and see what intel we can gather while we’re at it.  Hopefully we’ll have a better idea of what we’re up against by the time we get back.”

“Right.  I’m with you Skipper.”  Ashley said, her tone of voice making it clear there would be no argument from her.

“Keep her safe Lola, and you know, try not to get lost out there.”  James chimed in as he hefted his assault rifle against his right shoulder, the barrel pointed towards the sky.  “Moira, Gemma, Leah, good luck out there, but I get the feelin’ you won’t need it.”

“What gave you that idea?”  Moira replied cheerfully before she sobered for the first time since they had met her.  “Hopefully we won’t have to go far. I would not leave these people unprotected longer than is necessary. Unnecessary risk for all involved.”

“Don't worry, they will be well protected while we are gone. If all goes according to plan, then we will return with reinforcements.”  Gemma said quietly and nodded at Leah. “She can show us the best way to reach our goal. We will not be delayed longer than necessary.”

“Alright then, if we’re agreed, let’s move out.”  No one argued when Shepard took point, with Leah behind and to the right of her while Ashley took up the left flank.  Gemma and Moira brought up the rear without needing to be told while James watched them go. He could only hope things got simpler after this latest trip into the local woods was over it.  But as he watched them walk up the path they had just came down, something in his gut twisted with dread.

Endnotes:   Nomad-117: That was easier than first expected, but I think that's a good thing. Anyway, as you have all seen we introduced another “hero” in this chapter. For what kind of Magic meet Sci-Fi fic would this be without a wizard?

Vergil1989:  Translation:  I spammed the Demon Hunter, he spammed the Wizard.  Lol in all seriousness though, he does raise a valid point, and the fact Moira sounds like Mordin was totally intentional, I assure you.  Also, given the fact the Diablo series has a thing about journal entries and lore in all shapes and content, we thought it fitting we give a little perspective into the characters’ thoughts and views on the insanity taking place around them.  So, expect a few more of those as this story unfolds. Anyway, see ya folks!

Chapter Text

Chapter 3:   Slight Delays

Audio Log, Tali’Zorah vas Rannoch

I’ve been following Shepard for a long time, and more often than not into situations that would make most people question my sanity. Furthermore I am more than familiar with the typical human behaviour of taking extensive risks in hope of gaining the advantage they need. That said, I didn't even consider second guessing the Commander's order to scout the anomalous planet to be one of them, but I suppose that the trip through the Omega 4 relay jaded me in that regard.

However, I cannot claim to be surprised when I heard that the ground team had made hard contact with unfriendly natives, although I was naturally skeptical at their apparently unnatural origins. When I accompanied Chakwas down to the planet I felt far more confident than I did when we were deployed to attack Reapers or Cerberus forces, but with all I had seen, it was only natural I felt superior and admittedly arrogant because of it.

That changed shortly after meeting the creatures on the surface. I cannot comprehend how they could have been made, and I think it is far better for my sanity if I never will. The fact that these creatures can infect others and thus turn them into the same abominations as themselves unsettled me greatly. For all the progress that has been made, I have to admit that my immune system is still weaker than that of a human, and if theirs cannot fight this infection then what hope does mine have?  But that wasn’t the truly scary thing that circulated my thoughts since discovering these creatures. Turning on my friends in a ravenous, never ending hunger, becoming a threat to those I had fought with for so long? That was what kept me up at night as we did what we could to protect the inhabitants of New Tristram.

I should have expected Commander Boshtet to lead us into the greatest mess she could find after the destruction of the Reapers. I know she doesn't do it intentionally, but it cannot be denied that no matter where we go with her, we always get into trouble.  Despite this and all the things I want to say about her knack for finding the worst things imaginable on a regular basis, cannot say that I am not fascinated by this planet since it seems similar to many others I have been to, and yet completely different in a way I cannot explain. I feel as if the very atmosphere of this planet is trying to tell me something, beckoning me to explore more to discover its secrets that appear to be ancient even by our understanding.

If it were not for all the horrendous creatures wanting to kill us, or worse, this world is one I would gladly spend time on, even if only to satisfy my curiosity.  It seems a bit of Liara’s insatiable curiosity has rubbed off on me. Although this desire to see the unknown reminds me of my younger self, shortly before I left the Migrant Fleet for the first time and began my pilgrimage all those years ago.

Time will tell if this discovery will lead to great things, like my pilgrimage, or to ruin.  Knowing our luck though, it’ll probably be a lot of both.

This is ‘Admiral’ Tali’Zorah vas Rannoch, signing off.

Audio Log, end

Since their departure a little over an hour later, Shepard having insisted they take time to get a quick snack and some rest before setting out again, Gemma had taken the lead and was currently kneeling on the ground, investigating some tracks that she had discovered. “These tracks weren't made by undead.  Whoever this was, wore armor and moved with great purpose. They aren't fresh however, so whoever this was must have reached the cathedral sometime ago, if that was their intent.”

“Could it be the missing guardsmen?”  Shepard asked, having long since fallen into her role as team leader and pointwoman, as was her usual habit from years of doing so in the past.

This time however it was Moira that answered. “No, look, this only made by one pair of feet and she was talking about a singular person.  Someone unknown.” When the demon hunter looked over her shoulder in slight surprise at the wizard’s accurate assessment of the prints before them, she merely shrugged and smiled.  “What? I learned to hunt and track to some extent. Woodland animals don’t catch themselves.”

“Indeed they do not. Just as the creatures of the Burning Hells don't kill themselves.”  Gemma replied with a dark smile. “She is right though, these aren't the guardsmen’ tracks. Probably too far off the beaten path for them, but the trampled plants caught my attention, so I thought it was worth a shot.”

“And with all the countryside out here, it’s going to take a while to find either the guards that went out or Leah’s uncle, old man Cain, so what’s the plan Skipper?”  Ashley asked, one of the few still standing upright and with her gun upright, pointed towards the road ahead of them on the off chance something shambled into their group.

“His name is Deckard Cain.”  Leah corrected her sharply, but was largely ignored by the woman in question.

“Someone’s touchy.”  Ashley chuckled when she did respond, but whatever else either Leah or the second Spectre might have said died on their lips when Shepard got between them, a reprimanding glare obvious despite how hard it was to see her face behind her helmet’s expressionless black paintjob.  The intent was there and easy to sense however, even for Leah who hadn’t been around her beyond the last hour or so.

Once she was sure both of them weren’t about to escalate their argument further, she nodded to the road ahead of them.  “We know where they wanted to go, so we’ll follow their most likely path to their objective. We’re bound to stumble upon something sooner or later.” Shepard said with a small shrug and looked at the three natives who gave agreeing nods.  She did cast Ashley a disapproving glare however, which earned a muttered apology before she walked ahead of the group with Gemma at her side.

“You command with mere gestures and glances.  I’m not one to be impressed lightly, but you have done so in the few short hours I’ve known you Shepard.”  The hunter stated as they continued forward, a slight note of awe in her otherwise cold, low voice.

“You get used to it Gemma.  Besides, we’ve known each other for years, my people know me about as well as I know myself.”

“Perhaps, but you nonetheless have left an impression even if your fighting skills appear a bit rusty.” Gemma said with a straight face.

“Hey!” Ashley exclaimed annoyed. “You didn't kick our asses that badly.”

“Just bad enough she could have killed us if she’d wanted to.”  Shepard chimed in with an audible smirk in her voice as she held out her hand to bring the group to a stop.  Nodding to the bushes ahead of her, she jerked her head for Ashley to bring her rifle up, which she wasted no time in doing so.  “There.”

“I see it Commander.”  Bringing her eye up to her rifle’s scope, Ashley soon had the target zeroed in.  She had to blink though when she saw what Shepard had spotted. “What the hell….it’s a giant rat with spines on it.”

“Quill fiends, where there’s one there’s bound to be at least two more.  Don’t let its appearance fool you Ashley, they can be quite dangerous for the unwary traveler.  The spines on their back can be shot towards its prey, and with all the increased demonic activity in the area, it wouldn’t surprise me if the fiend attacks anything on sight.”  Gemma explained quietly, and made no move to interrupt Ashley from taking the shot since while relatively harmless to most, quill fiends could still prove problematic, especially when they had been spooked by all the pervasive evil running loose in the region.

“Right, keep telling yourself that.”  Gemma ignored the sarcastic barb thrown her way as Ashley lined up the shot and started to squeeze the trigger.  Just as she was about to fire though, she had all of two seconds to readjust her aim when something bigger jumped on the quill fiend with a gleeful cry that sent chills down her spine.  “Shit! Okay, pop quiz hotshot, what’s that currently trying to tear apart our spiky friend?!”

The creature in question wasn’t much bigger than the quill fiend, but where the animal in question walked about on four legs, the hunched over, red skinned creature with sharp little claws and teeth and a pair of small horns on its head, it stood on two short stubby legs.  Two bat like ears resided on both sides of its bald head, and its red skin was matted and filthy from who knew what it’d been rolling around in, yet that wasn’t what had Ashley’s attention. It was the two dozen other sized creatures that had her concerned as they closed in on the quill fiend with zealous abandon, gibbering wildly as they tore into it with their tiny teeth and claws.  “Fucking piranhas on two legs.” She growled, glad she hadn’t taken the shot now that she’d seen the real danger before she had drawn their undivided attention on their own heads.

“Congratulations, you are currently looking at your first demon.” Gemma said sarcastically. “Now you tell me, are they a figment of my imagination, or do you see those depraved creatures yourself.”

“Yeah I see them, but that doesn’t mean jack from where I’m standing lady.”  Ashley retorted, not about to believe the red skinned monsters were demons from some mythical burning plane of existence.

“You are stubborn… Good, perhaps your mind will still be intact after you have seen the true horrors the burning hells unleash upon this realm.”  Gemma replied as the first rounds fell on the imps in the distance, shredding two of them in one shot as she soon joined her crossbows with Ashley’s pinpoint marksmanship.

“Permission to cold clock her Commander?”  Ashley grunted between shots, tuning everything else out as she methodically gunned down everything Gemma didn’t take out herself at this distance.

“You can try later, Ash. But I don't think you’ll have better luck then the last time you fought with her.” Shepard told her with a small smile, she had fought with Gemma and as talented as Ash was, she doubted that her friend had a chance against the mysterious hunter.

“Is she always like this?”  Leah asked, finding it hard to believe someone could be so hard headed and hostile to everyone around her. Even though a part of her was itching to suggest a minor detour that would take them to the abandoned hut of her mother, but as strong as her desire was to find answers, she knew that the lives of the guardsmen mattered far more.

Shepard chuckled again in response but nodded, having seen a strange look pass over the young woman’s face but she said nothing about it at that moment.  “You’re actually catching her on a good day kid. But Ash’s heart is in the right place, even if her attitude is a bit combative I’ll admit. She can be stubborn, but that stubbornness probably saved her ass more times than I can count.”

“Wonderful, I get stuck with the crazy ones.”  Leah grumbled before stomping off once the way ahead had been cleared between Ashley and Gemma’s excessive use of force between the two of them.  Of the imps, there wasn’t much left save for a few corpses riddled with bolts and a few piles of broken body parts from the marine’s rifle. One’s head had been severed completely from its little neck, which had landed in another imp’s lap before his chest had been ripped open by another shot from Ashley’s weapon.  Needless to say, she was glad she’d been behind them when the shooting started.

“Excuse me?”  Moira chimed in from the side, looking at Ashley’s rifle like she wanted to rip it apart and see how it worked.  Despite the carnage several meters before her, the young wizard seemed all too cheerful. “I think I have yet to exhibit signs of mental illness, unless… I exhibited symptoms without being aware?  How many people do you see here? Perhaps one of them is a hallucination.”

“You’re fine Moira.”  Shepard was quick to reassure her.  “No, if anyone’s crazy, it’s not you.”

“Really?  How can you tell?” The magician asked curiously, a quality the young woman seemed to possess without limits.

“I have experience with crazy.”  While the words came out as a joke, Ashley knew full well what Shepard was hinting at and was torn between shaking her head in amusement, and giving her Commander a sympathetic pat on the back.  It was a little talked about problem, but after she’d been pulled from the rubble of the Crucible, Shepard had been borderline manic for a while. With all the Reaper indoctrination going around though, no one blamed her for being concerned that she’d been affected as well.  It had caused some serious strain between some of their close friends, but eventually Shepard had gotten herself together, and while the nightmares were still a problem, that at least was something they could deal. That and Shepard was far from the only one that had had their share of nightmares, but Ashley pushed those thoughts to the side.  It was neither the time nor place to talk about such things.

“I do as well.”  Gemma chimed in from the side, having since started forward with Leah behind her, giving the occasional direction to their destination.  “You are not crazy, Moira. Annoying, yes. Crazy, no.”

“Hey, I am not annoying. I was told several times that I am quite nice to talk to.”  Moira was quick to defend herself, her violet eyes glowing with indignation.

“From who?  Some young men in inns?” The Demon Hunter asked mockingly.

“Y-yes. How did you know?” Moira stammered out, apparently unable to understand how anyone could have guessed.

In reply Gemma pinched the bridge of her nose for a moment before exhaling slowly.  “Moving on.”

Beyond a few more clusters of imps and the occasional quill fiend, the group ran into little in the way of opposition until Ashley made the mistake of leaning against a tree, which promptly pulled itself out of the ground and tried to strangle her to death.  Shepard was the first to charge headlong into the fray, her biotics flaring to life in a brilliant flash of dark blue energy, before she jumped onto the monster’s back, and proceeded to pummel it to death with her armored fists. Green ooze flew in every direction as she ripped pieces of its wood like skin off, while Gemma and Moira did their best not to hit the frenzied woman as she tore into the wood wraith.

When it was over and the wood wraith had been turned into an eerie fleshy looking pile of firewood, Ashley was left panting, a hand on her bruised throat.  “What the hell? Did a tree…..just try to kill me?!”

“Don't be ridiculous, it only looked like a tree. It was a wood wraith, or as some people call it, a gnarled walker.  I have read of them in the library. As you saw, they mimic trees to ensnare their prey.” Moira lectured with a small eyeroll.

“Great….even the damned….trees are trying to kill us.”  Ashley growled between clenched teeth, before turning on her heel and pulling out her heavy pistol all in one move.  She felt a little better when she had emptied a ‘clip’ into what was left of the wood wraith before putting her side arm back with a practiced flick of her wrist.  Collecting her dropped rifle, Ashley stomped away, muttering curses all the while.

“I just said it wasn't a tree.  Trees can't kill people, aside from falling on them of course. Or maybe a heavy branch falling, but aside from that they are perfectly safe.” The wizard replied and looked at what little was left of the gnarled walker. “Though there are probably more of them around, yes, have to be careful, dangerous to underestimate them.”

“She’s right, but lesson learned.”  Shepard stated, earning a dirty look from Leah.

“Says the woman that jumped on its back and started to tear into it with her bare hands.”  The woman muttered in retort, but like the rest of them, she was just happy they were still alive to talk about it.  And despite how reckless it had been, seeing Shepard risk herself for her friend’s sake was nothing to sneeze at. “Are you sure you’re not part barbarian or something Shepard?”

“No, why?”  The Alliance officer asked confused, deciding that the term had to mean something different here than back on earth, or that she had misjudged Leah.

“Because the only people I know of that would have done anything half as crazy and come out the other end unscathed is one of the barbarians from my uncle’s tales.”

“Huh, so barbarians means something different here than back home. Because the the only time you call someone a barbarian is if you want to insult them where we come from.”

“Well here, they were great warriors that once protected the Worldstone from Baal and his demonic minions twenty years ago.  They gave their lives almost to a man, but were unable to prevent him from corrupting it. Now they’re scattered and without a purpose, a far cry from what they once were, but the few that are left are still renowned as powerful warriors without equal.”  Leah explained, seemingly saddened by the fate that befell the people she had just told them about.

“Interesting story kid.”

“It's more than a story.  It's the history of an entire people, even if they are slowly dying out now.  It’s kind of sad really, to have been brought down so low after who knows how long they had protected their ancient homelands from all invaders, human and demonic alike.” The young woman reprimanded with fire in her eyes.

“Sounds like the krogan in a way.”  Shepard mused more to herself than anyone around her.  Despite her own disbelief about all this talk about demons and their overlords, she found the tale itself of great interest.  When Leah gave her a curious look, despite being slightly pissed off at having her own dismissed so easily, Shepard chuckled and rubbed the back of her armored neck, having forgotten Leah wouldn’t know what a krogan was.  “Krogans where we come from are kinda like your barbarians here from what I can guess. They value a good fight and strength of arms, over most anything else. But once you have their friendship, their trust, there are few people you’d want at your back more.  Most people assume, wrongfully I might add, that they only care about fighting and destroying everything in their path, but they have a pretty deep, rich history behind them, although I’ll admit most of it does tend to revolve around them fighting each other if not those that made the mistake of trying to destroy them.”

“That’s understating things a bit Skipper.  Wrex would have laughed at that rather simple explanation.”  Ashley chimed in.

“Perhaps, but I am rather fond of them. I think that if the galaxy had given them a chance before, things could have been better, easier for us.” Shepard replied wistfully and shook her head to dispel any thoughts of things that could have been.

“Yeah, but you’re also fond of quarians, turians, salarians, drell and- Oh how could I forget? Asari.” Ashley snarked with an eyeroll.

“Yeah yeah, laugh it up Ash.  I still have vid footage of you and Vega after the party we had in my apartment way back when.  Maybe I should send it to Joker?” Jess went so far as to tap at her omni-tool, and while she didn’t actually have any incriminating footage of any kind, her bluff was more than adequate to get a response from her friend and colleague.

“Do that and they’ll never find your body Commander.”  Ashley growled back, but Shepard only grinned behind her helmet’s faceplate and walked on, whistling a tune as she did.

“Great, we can start killing each other if the demons or undead don't get us.”  Leah deadpanned and sent a withering glare in their direction. “Would it hurt you to stay focused?”

“I’m always focused.” Gemma said, both of her crossbows at the ready, prepared to unleash death upon everything unfortunate enough to be considered hostile.

“Hmm?  Sorry, I wasn't listening. I was busy studying the plants here. There are just so many of them, I have never so many at once before.” Moira happily babbled on and even went as far as to follow a butterfly during her speech, which pretty much convinced Shepard that she did this to annoy Leah.

Before the young woman could respond, no doubt with another sarcastic reprimand of some sort or another, Shepard put an armored hand on Leah’s shoulder.  “Leah, trust me when I say that we’re fully aware of what’s happening here, even if we’re finding it hard to believe some of the more fantastical parts of all this.  As far as the banter goes, when you’ve seen as much as I have, it’s one of the ways people like us stay sane.”

“Alright….I’m just worried for my uncle, for everyone.”  Leah relented and hung her head a little for having lashed out at the people who had so selflessly offered to help her in the first place.

But Shepard shrugged it off, having already figured out she was just worried for likely the only family she had left with the way she was so hellbent in finding him.  “I know kid, we’ll get him back, if not the guards while we’re out here.”

“Well, the guards most certainly came through here. Even I can see the tracks.” Moira said, pointing at the path before them, and were it not for her heeled shoes, she would have probably been jumping up and down as well. “Finally, a lead.  First rescue guards and then Deckard Cain. Then study fallen star.”

“They’re heading for the cathedral if I’m any judge, which is where the fallen star hit in the first place.  If they’re still alive, they’re gonna be surrounded in no time if all of the dead are rising in the area. Unfortunately, the guards have a huge lead on us, and we’re gonna have to pass through the Old Tristram ruins before we even get close.”  Leah explained, suddenly far more concerned for their chances, a sentiment shared by Shepard as she nodded and started off down the path at a brisk pace.

“Then let’s hurry.”  They needed no further prompting than that as the rest of the group followed suit, doing their best to keep up with Shepard’s determined stride.

It didn't take them long to hear the sounds of fighting, the sound of metal hitting flesh, the moaning of the undead and the screaming of those still living. They picked up their pace, and no one was surprised when Shepard charged ahead, a dark blue energy trail following in her wake.  If Leah hadn’t been so concerned for her uncle Deckard and the beleaguered militia, she might have almost felt sorry for the recently risen dead. Almost.

New Tristram

James was finding it depressingly boring, babysitting the locals as he stood behind the barricades that had been placed around the heavy wooden oak doors of New Tristram’s main gate alongside Captain Rumford and several militia soldiers.  Still, boring meant nothing was coming to kill them, at least at that moment anyway, but his senses were still on high alert as he kept scanning the nearby treeline on the other side of the road and the pathway Shepard and company had gone down about two hours ago now.  That said, a part of him was itching for something to do rather than sitting on his rump, waiting for something to go down.

“They’ll be alright.”  Looking over his shoulder, Rumford nodded towards the road where James’s gaze had lingered for the last five minutes.  “Something tells me they’ll be fine.”

“It ain’t them I’m worried about Cap’n.  Still, thanks.” James muttered in response, before jerking his gaze to the side of the road when he and the rest of the men at his side heard a tree branch snap.  Raising his heavy assault rifle, he looked through his scope, only to breathe a sigh of relief when he saw Garrus’s blue helmeted head staring back at him. “Easy fellas, just a few more friends I was hoping would have shown up a bit sooner.”  The sword bearing men at his side visibly relaxed at the news when Rumford nodded in their direction, a fact Vega noticed but said nothing about. It was just as well they didn’t take his word alone on the matter, instead trusting in their captain to lead them in this rather strange time.

However, their calm evaporated once they got a clear look at Garrus and Tali. They tensed and raised their swords and shields, and in that moment James was just happy that none of them had a bow handy.

“Alright calm down, they look unusual but the-”  James slammed a hand over his face when one of soldiers started past him, his hand on the hilt of his blade.

“Demons!”  One man yelled, while a second raised his sword in preparation to charge, “The Burning Hells have sent their legions against us!”

“Oh for crying out loud, they’re not demons.”  James growled as he handedly tripped up the closer of the two men that had started to charge Garrus and Tali.

“Wha-?” Garrus only managed to mutter before Tali had to push him to the side to avoid a sword thrust from the second of the men Vega just missed to get his hands on after taking down the first, which revealed the none to happy face of Doctor Karin Chakwas. Her expression made clear that she was not amused or in the mood for something like this and James felt a shive go down his spine.  He was far more afraid for the moron that had since frozen in his tracks upon spotting the doctor’s withering glare.

“Stop!”  She shouted at a volume that made his ears hurt, and the rest of the scared and confused militia men halted their pursuit of the perceived demons.  “Now, that we all have calmed down, would you tell me who is in command here?”

James found himself pointing at Captain Rumford less than a heartbeat later, better to throw the guy under the bus then face her wrath himself.  For his part, Rumford had tried to maintain order in the initial confusion as he took control of the man James had since pinned, allowing the giant to talk to his friends without needing to concern himself with the man he had subdued.

“Thank you, James.  Now young man, I understand that you have been under a great deal of stress lately and are most likely confused by the appearance of my companions, but if you could order your men to stop attacking them, I would be most grateful.”

James would never know how the normally so kind doctor managed to make this polite speech sound worse than a threat of torture or death, but she did, and after she finished her little speech, no man in the vicinity dared to raise his weapon.  By then Garrus and Tali had leveled their rifle and shotgun respectively on anyone that dared make another move against them, ensuring that any further violence would end only one way.

Nodding her thanks to her two guardians and close friends, the good doctor pushed past the swordsman that had tried to charge them down without a second look.  Her determined stride and the grim set of her wrinkled face said if anyone else got in her way, they’d be sorry. “These ‘demons’ are here to help you, and while they will assist you in defending your town, I’ll try to take care of any wounded.” Chakwas stated and marched onward, bag slung over her back. “If you would be so kind as to open the gates.”

“Open the ga-”  Rumford started to say, but he and James were the first to spot a true and known threat when the first of at least a dozen fresh zombies shambled down the road.  Instead, he drew his sword, and pointed at the approaching horde, a shouted command of ‘defensive positions!’ on his lips.

“Well, time to earn our keep.”  Garrus stated as he unslung his sniper rifle with one hand and shoved Karin towards the line of men and James with the other.  “Go Doctor, we got this.” She needed no further prompting as Karin wasted no time in getting out of the way of the ensuing violence just as the first zombie head was ventilated by Garrus’s usual pinpoint accuracy.  “Still got it.” She heard him chuckle before no doubt zeroing in on another moments later.

“Hey scarface, watch your six!”  James shouted as he snapped off a burst of fire over Garrus’s right shoulder, just as another zombie stormed out of the treeline where Karin and company had just come out of.

“Show off.”  Garrus grunted in response, although he was quite thankful for Vega’s timely assistance.  Even though he and the rest of them had kinetic barriers on top of their ablative armor, he was in no hurry to test their effectiveness against these creatures.

Tali meanwhile was silently firing her shotgun into everything that got too close for comfort and looked like a shuffling corpse.  It wasn’t until one’s top half separated itself from its torso and started to crawl towards her at a fast pace, its clawed fingers propelling it across the dirt, that she gave a startled shriek and unloaded two blasts into its disfigured face.  “Keelah, this is worse than our weekly CoD night!”

“I thought you did pretty good on that old game myself.”  Garrus shot back, before dropping another zombie that was about to make one of Rumford’s men its personal chewtoy.

Rumford himself held himself admirably for someone who had never seen real combat before, but it was clear that he needed all the help he could get.  He had just decapitated one of the risen dead when he turned to the road and felt all the blood leave his face. “Wretched mother!” He called out, and pointed to the dreaded fiend in question just as the pale faced, gaunt looking woman regurgitated a sickly green bile all over the ground before her feet.

“My god.”  Karin breathed when that was hardly the beginning as several pairs of hands quickly formed into fully formed zombies at the mother’s feet.

“Okay, that’s just downright disgusting.”  Garrus deadpanned, and allowed himself only a split second of surprise before raising his rifle at this new threat that had just created an undead wall of flesh between it and them.  Said undead wall that was currently shambling towards them while the wretched mother started to gurgle and sputter as it prepared to barf up another mouthful of bile, no doubt to create more zombies as she had already.  “I can’t get a clean shot!” Garrus growled as he cut down two of the newly made zombies with one bullet, but the rest quickly closed ranks, as if sensing his intent in trying to take out the regurgitating freak of nature.

“You didn’t bring grenades did you?”  James shouted back, and chuckled despite the rather grim circumstances as he pulled one of his own off his belt and primed it.  “Amateur. What would you do without me?”

“Let’s see what you got then musclehead.”  Garrus retorted just as playfully even as he and Tali continued to do their part to keep the enemy at range.

“Don’t mind if I do scarface!  Rumford, get your boys back!” Rumford, not about to argue against such brutally effective tactics and obviously superior weapons as these strangers wielded, called his few men back away from the encroaching zombies.  The militiamen wasted no time in getting away from the risen dead, far more afraid of them and what they were capable of, thus giving James more than enough room to toss his grenade without fear of hurting the very people they were trying to protect.

The grenade flew through the air, and hit one zombie directly in the face before falling down between the legs of the shuffling group.  A moment later they were ripped apart by an explosion, and those that weren't blown to bits or turned to ash were hit by shrapnel. The path to the wretched mother was clear, and Garrus took the shot while James and Tali laid down a barrage of covering fire.  When the smoke cleared, there was hardly enough left of the wretched mother to tell if she’d been a plain zombie or something far worse. But more importantly, the general opinion of Garrus and Tali had gone from demons to heroes in about as many minutes.

“Astonishing effort, if a bit overdone.”  Turning to the source of this new voice, Garrus was the first to see someone walking down the road with his hands folded neatly behind his back.  Clad in deep red robes, the man offered the turian an acknowledging smile from underneath his hood, before charging past him. The sharpshooter had all of two seconds to see their new arrival heel drop the upper half of a zombie into the dirt, shattering the creature’s spine with the sheer force he had applied behind the vicious kick.  “You missed one.” The young man replied, his lips pulled up into a cheeky grin that Garrus met with one of his own behind the confines of his helmet.

“I like you already kid.”  Garrus cheerfully replied.

“Most people do once they get to know me.”  Tali could only shake her head and snort in amusement, her thoughts echoing those within earshot that they had just found another dryly sarcastic jokester with the obvious skill to back it up.  The young human man that had joined the fray had dark brown eyes that seemed to sparkle with both humor and curiosity as he looked at Garrus and herself, clearly wondering about their nature but too polite to directly ask them about it.  The situation at hand didn’t allow for such banter anyway, but he would no doubt ask once there was a free moment to do so.

On his forehead was a symbol similar to a Bindi, that she had seen on humans that were part of the Alliance.  She believed Shepard had called said humans Indians, primarily located in the country of Asia back on her home world.  Whatever the case, the monk before them also possessed little hair on his entire head from what she could see underneath the confines of his hood, obviously having shaved it clean.

“Great, now there are two of them.” Tali said to herself as she drew herself out of her observations about the newcomer.  She loved Garrus dearly, but even she couldn't help and aknowlegde that sometimes he was a bit much. On the other hand, there were few people she’d rather be with as she turned her gaze to the men around James and Rumford.  “How’d we do James?”

“Not bad at all Sparky.  No wounded far as we can tell.  Doc?” James asked and turned to Karin, only to find she had made it across the road during the confusion and was presently standing beside the guard captain.

“I’m fine James, just marveling at the fact I think this is the first time I’ve ever been so close to the action like this is all.”   Outside of the time the Collectors attacked the Normandy anyway.  The thought she left unsaid, but Tali and Garrus didn’t need the clarification. Neither of the two missed the pistol Chakwas put back on her hip as she turned to Rumford a second time.  “Now Captain, can you open the gate and allow us entry before anything else decides to appear?”

“Yes ma’am.  You heard her gentlemen, open the gates!”  This time, nothing appeared, having apparently gotten the hint that New Tristram was off limits.

The townsfolk stared out of their windows or stood at the side gaping at them, mostly at Garrus and Tali, but since the guard had let them in, no one could think of a reason to say anything.  For Captain Rumford would never let a threat into the city while he still drew breath, and word soon enough spread that the two strange beings had aided in the town’s defense, so whatever ill will might have been felt disappeared just as quickly.  It didn’t take long for Rumford and Chakwas to have a place set aside for the good doctor to work within the Slaughtered Calf inn, a rather poor name for a place of rest perhaps, but she hadn’t come this far to critique their way of life.

There she took care of the wounded as best she could, some of which had been clawed at or even been bitten, others had fallen in their haste to get away and broken an arm or twisted their ankles when they landed in an unfortunate angle.  Whatever the case, she did her best to help them all regardless of the matter of their injuries, but it didn’t take her long to hear of those that had been bitten had been put into a cellar, away from the rest of the population. The idea these people understood even that much of quarantine procedure amazed her somewhat, yet the reason why they had separated them at all puzzled her when she heard that they were doomed to become more of the risen dead they’d been fighting since coming upon Sanctuary.  So James and Garrus weren’t at all surprised when she asked them to escort her to the cellar in question, determined to get to the bottom of this ridiculous idea.

“Uh doc, you might want to reconsider this.  They know these things better than we do, you sure you want to get closer to someone that might get a sudden case of the munchies?”  James asked, but knew he was fighting a lost cause when Karin gave him a withering glare that could have put Shepard’s best death gaze to shame

“I’m a doctor, James, it's not about what I’m comfortable with.  Now if I have chance to help those people, then I must take it.” She ignored the balding, fat mayor that was still rambling about running out of town the first chance they had, determined to get to the bottom of this business as soon as possible.  “Besides, I’ll have to see cold hard proof that a bite can indeed doom someone to this plague before I’ll needlessly lock them away to die. Even then, any pathogen can be cured if proper care and study is conducted.”

“I get what you’re saying doc, but to be honest I don't think we’ll find a way to help them before they turn if the natives are right.”

“I’d hate to agree with James, but he might have a point doctor.  You saw what those things had in mind when they came after us and the people.  There was nothing left to save as far as my scope and my trigger finger were concerned.”  Garrus grimly agreed, but said nothing more on the matter as he nodded to the house they’d been pointed towards.  “Smith’s house, guy’s name is Haedrig and his wife’s Mira, from what Rumford said. Should we knock or just charge into his cellar?”  Karin answered that question by going right for the cellar. Garrus sighed and turned to James in response. “After you.”

“Oh no, I insist scarface.  If we get ate, I want a chance to say I told you so.”

“Hey, what are you doing?”  A woman suddenly cried out, most likely Mira, and ran after Chakwas.  “You can't go in there, it's too dangerous!”

“James.”  Karin called out, and gave the woman a brief glance as James put a hand on the woman’s shoulder.  Said woman had long wavy dark brown hair and fair skin, her blue eyes pleading for them to stop.

Unfortunately, Karin was focused on the task at hand, and was about to move for the locked cellar, her gaze only then settling on the heavy iron lock that had been set through the iron bar handles, when a blinding flash appeared behind her.  She whirled, and saw that James had been blasted off of his feet, and more astonishingly, Mira’s hand was sparking with electricity.

“I do not wish to hurt you or your companions, but do not for the love of the gods, open that door.”  Mira pleaded, hoping to deter them from pursuing this course of action further.

Despite the oddity of seeing a woman half James’s size standing over said giant, sparks of energy dancing through her fingers, Karin remained calm and collected as she held up her hands in a placating gesture.  At the same time she waved Garrus back, not about to risk both of her companion's health by tempting fate, although a quick glance towards James said he was fine. “I’m a doctor, that means that it is my duty to help people when they are ill.  If there’s even a chance to help them, then I have to take it.”

Mira Eamon’s features softened at that, and she lowered her sparking hand to her side.  “Then I feel for you, I truly do, but there is no cure. We’ve tried healing magic and our most powerful medicines we could concoct, but even that had no effect.  If you do not believe me, open the small hatch within the door and see for yourself. I do not dare for some of those poor souls within were my friends, and I want to remember them as they were in life and not in undeath.”

“Well...if nothin’ else, Mira right?  You got a hell of a right hook.” James groaned as he pushed himself back to a standing position, before taking up a flanking position on Karin’s right.  “But as much as I might agree with ya, I’m a bit more afraid of my friend here than anything that might be down there. And if she says she wants to take a look, there’s not much that can get her to change her mind.”

Where the monk came from, none of them knew, but the next moment the red clad young man was standing beside Mira, his hands clasped in front of his stomach.  “I feel your pain Madam Eamon, but these people have done everything they can to aid the people of New Tristram. They are capable in a fight, and if what you say is true, then I am certain they will keep those infected within their prison at the very least.  At worst, they will put those inside down, for their own safety as well as that of the town’s. You need not be here for either event my lady.”

“I understand, but please, before any of you go in there. Look through the hatch and see what awaits you, I do not wish for evil to befall you.”  Mira beseeched them, and stood to the side before turning around, refusing to look at the closed door, making it clear she wasn’t going to interfere further.

After nodding at the woman, Chakwas took a step towards the door, and pulled at the little door knob, roughly at the height of her eyes once she knelt down before the cellar entrance. The room behind was dark and dreary, but she could still see what was going on.  Three undead were shuffling about, and completely ignored the five survivors that sat as far away from them and each other as they could. But even then, Karin could see the bite marks each of the survivors bore, and had to wonder if perhaps Mira was right to be concerned.  The fact at least two of those same people she had treated not so long ago didn’t escape her notice, yet despite her efforts, the doctor could see their condition had worsened considerably rather than improved. “What in the world are we dealing with that the inoculations I gave them seems to have had no effect on this plague?”  She wondered allowed, only to jump back with a startled yelp when a pale, withered hand clawed at the open hatch, just inches from her face. Garrus raised his gun and was about to fire on impulse when Karin raised her hand and waved him down. “I’m fine, nothing a little brandy wouldn’t fix.”

“I can still shoot a few fingers off if it’ll make you feel better doc.”  Garrus offered, and gestured to the open hatch, where the zombie was still trying to get at them, to which Karin chuckled humorlessly.

“I appreciate the offer, but that won’t be necessary.”  She said as she turned to Mira. “I might not believe they are beyond saving, but you seem to have a firm grasp of what we’re dealing with, albeit in your limited understanding of it.  Any information you can provide might help my efforts in trying to come up with a way to save those not too far gone.”

“I shall tell you what I can, but what I have to say might not be nearly enough for what you propose.”

“Something tells me Lady Eamon, that you might yet be impressed.”  The monk chimed in, earning a grateful, if brief, smile from the old doctor.

“Then come, my husband is busy at the forge right now.  We can talk while I prepare dinner.” Mira said hesitantly and turned away from the cellar.  No one was surprised by the distinct impression that she wanted to put as much distance between herself and the cellar full of zombies as she could.

“Have fun.”  Garrus said, and walked away from James, Karin, and the monk they seem to have collected along the way.

At Mira’s questioning glance, Karin patted the younger woman on the back.  “Let’s just say that he and Tali are unable to eat the same food as the rest of us.  They’ll be fine, so no need to concern yourself with them. As for dinner, you needn’t trouble yourself on our account.”

Mira wouldn’t hear of it though.  “Nonsense, it’s my small way of repaying the kindness you’ve given this town by fighting for us without any thought of yourselves.”

“Hey, I ain’t about to turn down free food.  Anything would be better than those MREs any day of the week.”  James declared, a playfully goofy grin plastered on his face even if he was being completely serious about his dislike for said MREs.  Joker had said it best when he’d called them Meals Ready to Evacuate.

“James.” Chakwas scolded softly, and shook her head fondly.

“Sorry, doc.”  James replied sheepishly and rubbed his neck before looking towards their current guide.  “Still, thanks for putting up with us, despite our rather stupid idea of trying to get into your cellar without so much as a hello.”

“That was a rather foolish idea.”  The red clad monk chimed in, earning an annoyed glance which he met with a teasing smirk before his smile fell away.  “You meant no ill will in your desire to render aid to those that were already gone, but your understanding of the forces arrayed against us all is severely lacking.  You will need to learn fast, lest you condemn yourselves and those around you to a fate worse than death. Furthermore, it was most rude to simply march in without asking either the dazzling Mira or the hardworking Haedrig Eamon for permission.”

“Yeah, we’ve been getting a lot of that since we landed.”  James grunted back, having a bad feeling their troubles had only just begun.

Endnotes: Nomad-117: Hey folks, I hope you can forgive us for the delay but it was totally my fault.  Real life decided that I could do with a few more complications but meh, I’ll deal with it. Anyway I hope you enjoyed this little chapter.  And as you no doubt noticed, we decided to add another character to the cast, an as of yet, unnamed monk that has already left a positive impression on a certain snarky turian whose name we decided to keep secret.

Vergil1989:  Please Nomad, everyone who’s ever played even ONE of the ME games knows Garrus by now.  Wiseass think he’s being funny….lol but seriously folks, part of the delay was my own fault because I got Nomad to help me on another of our older stories called Unharmonic Convergence, which you can find on Archer83’s profile if you’re curious.  Either way, I too hope you folks enjoy this delayed addition to this rather interesting tale. See ya next time!

Chapter Text

Chapter 4:  Terror, Death, and Conversations

Audio Log, Garrus Vakarian

Demons.  Spirits, never would have imagined we’d be taking on demons, of course I never imagined we’d go against ancient, sentient mechanical squids from dark space either, so when taken in that light, this shouldn’t be so surprising.  Still, just when I thought I had seen everything, we find some other, ancient, evil threat that wants to consume everything it can get their claws on. Go figure. Why can’t we ever go anywhere nice?

I mean I haven't been in Sanctuary for long, but so far I have to say that I am not excited about meeting anymore murdering locals.  So far they’ve either been undead, unfriendly, unintelligent, or completely and utterly insane. Seriously, what moron thinks that worshipping a demon is a good idea?  Take Maghda for instance. She could have been anything, yet she chose to get into a pissing match with the former leaders of some coven of her fellow witches, talked another fresh initiate of her order into poisoning the old leaders, and then promptly took over the coven.  To make it more of an idiotic irony of epic proportions, the being she and her coven worship is and I quote, the Lord of Lies, Belial. Yeah, that’s gonna end real well for her even without us getting in her way.

I mean sure, he will most certainly never go back on his word with a title like that, right?  I guess that makes her a member of every category I mentioned earlier, well aside from being undead, but it wouldn't surprise me if she did come back to haunt us though. Such idiocy doesn't stay dead easily.

However, the few people who weren't insane or the like, and actually do something are actually quite easy to get along with.  Gemma, a demon hunter so stubborn that she gives Shepard a run for her money. Moira the wizard, who is as naive and easy to rile up as Tali when we hunted Saren, and of course Lucifer.  A monk with a great personality, I probably should take him under my wing and show him the ropes, so to speak. Then there’s Leah, poor kid finds out her mother is a witch and apparently working to end the Prime Evils, and everyone wonders why she’s got a chip on her shoulder regarding this whole Eternal Conflict thing.

Of course one cannot forget to mention Tyrael, the angel who chose to become mortal to save all of Sanctuary, possibly all of creation itself.  I’m not certain how to describe the guy. Well, tall for one easily, as tall as a krogan, at least height wise, far more pleasant to look at though.  He is rather serious most of the time, and when he talks you listen, because it sounds like he is gifting you with the wisdom of eons long since past.  Which is probably true, but besides the point.

Point is, even after everything we’ve seen, it seems Shepard has found something new to keep us, and me, up at night for years to come.  Thanks Shepard, I’ll remember that when we reach that giant bar in the sky and we’re talking about all this when we’re dead and buried. As much as I might complain though, I suppose it could be worse…..delete that last sentence EDI.

I’m afraid I can’t do that Garrus.

Ha ha.  I’ll remember this as well.

Audio log, end

Old Tristram Ruins

They had found a couple of the guards, but they were too late to save them as the zombies overran their position.  Shepard and the rest of the group exacted bloody vengeance upon the recently undead the moment they were within range, before Gemma started to rifle through the bodies, looking for anything of value.  Ashley looked on with disgust but said nothing, not when she caught Shepard’s gaze directed at her. She grunted but nodded, letting it go. “I found something I believe you will wish to see.” Turning to the demon hunter, Ash and Shepard both met the woman’s hooded face as she held up a journal she had found on one of the guards.  “They were attacked just as they had set up camp and gone to sleep for the night. They woke up to the undead’s teeth in their flesh.”

“Does it say where the rest of their comrades went?”  Shepard asked before Ashley could say anything, or Leah for that matter.

“Apparently the captain planned on clearing a path this evening, which explains why so few men were here.  They were left behind, where they thought they would be safe, so that they could recover and catch up in time for the final push into the cathedral.”  The soft nod to the remains of the guards in question, which they had put to rest just as they had started to rise again, told them how successful that plan had turned out.

“This captain is a foolish man if he thought it would be easy.  We clean up his mess, so not surprised when we find the rest and they too are turned.” The wizard of their group muttered, angry at the life needlessly lost.

“Thanks for that Moira.”  Leah grumbled, which made Moira’s violet eyes snap open, and she let out a soft gasp when she realized how insensitive that had sounded.

“We must make haste if we are to find any of them still in a condition to answer our questions, let alone survive.” Gemma said darkly and stood up. “Moira, I want you to burn the entire encampment, burn it to ash, nothing shall remain.”  She didn’t wait for the wizard to obey her directive as Gemma stalked ahead, crossbows held before her, ever ready, ever vigilant. Shepard followed with Ash hot on her heels while Leah and Moira brought up the rear once the wizard began her incantations.

A cone of flame spilled forth from her upraised staff as Moira walked backwards, directing her flames with minute changes in her stance until everything was burning.  The smell of burning flesh was soon thick in the air, but Shepard and Ash hardly noticed, having dealt with far worse. Leah though wasn’t so used to the stink despite having crawled through ancient tombs and forgotten ruins riddled with decaying corpses and who knew what else during her travels with her uncle.

Moira was breathing rather hard as well, looking sickly as the conjured flames consumed the flesh of the dead guardsmen. Her eyes locked on the sight of the flames hungrily licking at the face of a young man, eyes still open he seemed to stare at her accusingly.  She began to shake, she had only recently left behind her life of studies and safe libraries, and she had no real experience with the world, let alone with… this.

She about jumped out of her high heeled boots when a hand fell on her shoulder, and turned only to let out a squeak when her violet eyes locked on the demon hunter’s hooded face.  “Easy.” Gemma said surprisingly gentle and put an arm around her. “I know what I asked you to do isn't what you wanted, but it is what is necessary. Their families and themselves are probably grateful to you, because you prevented this foul magic from using their bodies against those they had sworn to protect.”

“Then why does it still feel as if I have committed a sin against them?”

“They were still people….once.  But the servants of the Burning Hells use such tactics at every turn, to shatter our will to fight in an effort to make their victories that much easier.”

“Can you teach me… how to be… like you?”  Moira hesitantly whispered, and looked almost hopeful when she let her eyes drift upward as she tried to pierce the dark confines of the hunter’s hood.

“No.” Gemma shot back immediately, and with a thus far unheard hardness in her voice. “I can teach you how to calm yourself, and how to deal with the horrors your will see if you continue down this path. But I will never teach anyone how to be like me… It’s a life I wouldn't wish on anyone.”  Moira didn’t stop her when Gemma turned on her heel and stalked away, unable or unwilling to meet the wizard’s worried gaze again as she put some much needed distance between them.

For the first time since meeting her, Ashley saw Gemma in a new light as she and Shepard silently watched this exchange.  Shepard had already figured out what drove the hunter, even if she didn’t believe in the demons she so often talked about, but Ashley was only then coming to realize how deep Gemma’s pain truly went and why she was so relentless in her pursuit of ending the scourge that had taken so much from her.  “I know she said her family was butchered and everything Skipper, but that was just….eerie, to see her shaken up by Moira’s question.” Ashley whispered once she was sure Gemma was out of earshot.

“Some paths are never meant to be walked by anyone who hasn’t shared the same pain and horror she has obviously endured.  I doubt it’s strength that keeps Gemma going, not the kind we’d ever be able to relate to, or want to.” Sure they had seen plenty of horrible stuff in their time, but again Shepard had to wonder if Gemma had stared into the abyss itself, and had come out the other end changed, and not necessarily for the better.  Shaking her head since there was no point in speculating about it further, the Spectre took a look around their immediate surroundings, and couldn’t help but notice the state of the village they found themselves in. “Leah? How long has this place been abandoned?” She asked, hoping to turn the conversation to something less ominous.

Grateful for the change of topic, Leah all too eagerly went into detail about the old ruins before them.  “Twenty years to the day. When Diablo tried to possess King Leoric, and failed, he moved on to one of his sons or so the stories say.  By then this village had been attacked by demons and more undead, forcing the survivors to flee. This place still bears Diablo’s twisted, corrupting influence.”

So much for not being ominous.  Shepard mused silently to herself, but she couldn’t help but wonder if Leah had a point.  There was something….unsettling in the fog covered ruins of the village around them. It reminded her, at least partially, of walking through the insides of a Reaper, yet it felt different enough that it didn’t have quite the same effect on the battle hardened Spectre.  Even so, it still had the hairs on the back of her helmeted head standing on end, and she kept reaching for her sidearm at every little noise her ears picked up. The feeling of being watched by something far more powerful and terrible than she could imagine was thick in the air, and she didn’t like it.

“Uh… Not to sound like a total moron, but who or what is Diablo?” Ashley asked, confusion coloring her voice.

“One of the three Prime Evils. The Lord of Terror, said to be able to kill a mortal through fright alone without even touching them.”  Leah said with a shudder. “A terrible creature that has brought much suffering to Sanctuary and Heaven alike if my uncle is to be believed.”

“Who are the other two?”  Shepard asked, her curiosity getting the better of her as she started forward, wanting to put this place behind her as quickly as possible now that she had had time to look around.

“Were.  The other two Prime Evils were destroyed not so long ago.  Their names were Mephisto and Baal, the Lords of Hatred and Destruction respectively.  Then there’s the Lesser Evils, but despite their name, they are just as dangerous in their own right if not more so since they exiled their brothers from the Burning Hells, forcing them upon Sanctuary in the process in what we call the Dark Exile.”

“Not sure if I believe these stories, but one way or another you most certainly have unpleasant neighbours.” Shepard replied with a shrug.

“What about Heaven?”  Ashley gently pried, curious about what stories the locals had about a concept Christianity was more than familiar with.

“If they exist then they have never or only seldomly aided Sanctuary in the past, outside of an angel my uncle has talked about often, by the name of Tyrael, the aspect of Justice itself.  Personally I doubt they exist at all, but Uncle Deckard is adamant.” Leah said after briefly hesitating. “He claims that they sometimes aided us indirectly, even if it was just by killing demons on the Fields of Eternity.  And while stories claim Tyrael was there when Baal corrupted the Worldstone, he hasn’t been seen since the Stone was destroyed, which Tyrael did in order to save us from being enslaved by the Prime Evil.”

“Well, if that much is true, I wouldn’t mind meeting the guy.” Shepard mused almost as if to herself. “I’m pretty good friends with someone who is as close to the embodiment of justice as a mortal being can be.”  While Samara might not be what Leah had in mind, the comparison seemed fitting in Shepard’s mind as they put Old Tristram’s ruins behind them at last. Something about that place had unnerved the Spectre to no end, but leaving the confines of the old village made it easier to relax despite being in enemy territory still.  Zombies and the occasional imp, she could deal with those. Whatever had been in that village that had long since been abandoned however, had hit too close to home for Jess.

Gemma for her part seemed tenser as well, undoubtedly having her own unpleasant experiences these ruins reminded her of.  The once great city was turned into nothing more than ashes and ruins, echoing with the horrors that had been wrought by Diablo’s evil.  Shaking off the remnants of the foul sensations left by the village’s proximity, the demon hunter pressed forward before taking a knee when her sharp eyes fell on the path before them.  “They came through here… recently.” Gemma murmured and looked at the, at least to her, clearly visible tracks. “We are close, but be careful, something foul is nearby. I can smell it.”  With that less than cheerful observation, Gemma readied her crossbows, two loud clicks following as the arming mechanisms were activated and the ‘wings’ where the bolts were steadied before being shot away, unfolded.

“That’s our cue then.”  Shepard agreed as she and Ash did the same, unfolding their chosen weapons for the task ahead with the same practiced ease.

Despite having seen the flames Moira had conjured earlier, Shepard still looked for anything that indicated the use of technology rather than a sheer act of will on the young woman’s part as she twirled her staff and sent arcs of electricity through the air, hitting the bolts Gemma fired, only increasing their deadliness.  It was an effective tactic however it was done, and Shepard gave an approving whistle as several more zombies were cut down in as many seconds.

“Good aim.” Gemma shouted at the young woman and smirked darkly at her remaining opponents. They would fall victim to her like all hellspawn she had met thus far.

Before Gemma and Moira could continue though, Shepard shot the hunter her best smirk behind her black faceplate before hefting her shotgun up to eye level.  “We got this. Ash? Let’s show ‘em how it’s done.”

“Gladly Commander.”  She replied, a grin all but audible in her voice as the ever present boom of Shepard’s shotgun was soon joined by her assault rifle’s own deadly tune.  It wasn’t until another bloated monstrosity shambled down the path that they had to take a moment to adjust their aim and arm up a couple of ammo mods between them.  Even then, the shambling bloated bug bag and its contents didn’t get much closer before it was consumed by fire and ice.

Moira was beside herself with glee at the sight.  “What powerful magic was that?”

“No magic here kid, just good ol fashioned science.”  Shepard was quick to correct her, albeit gently since there was no harm done.  That and the wizard’s insatiable thirst for knowledge was rather endearing in the Spectre’s opinion.

“Really?  I studied many subjects, but I never heard of anything coming close to your advancements save for the magic I wield.” Moira replied with a small frown.  “You must be from very distant lands indeed for me to have never heard of such contraptions.”

“You got no idea wizzie.”  Ash chuckled dryly.

Wizard .” Moira shot back, miffed.  “And I know a lot of things you don't know anything about, we can dwell on that or continue.  So what is it gonna be, princess?” It was all Shepard could do to not to burst into laughter at the offended glare Ashley through at Moira for her choice of insults.  While not particularly offensive compared to most things they had heard, it still had the desired effect on her long time friend.

“Let’s keep going, and you better hope you can keep up.” Ashley pressed out between clenched teeth.

“I say again, why do I get stuck with the crazy ones?”  Leah grumbled softly to herself, but wasn’t all that surprised when Shepard chuckled as they set off again.

“You should not speak of madness so lightly, it is hardly a laughing matter.” Gemma said darkly, her form half shrouded in the shadows as she stalked the darkness of the street they walked on.  “You cannot know what treasure you possess simply by being able to think clearly, not until you have seen the grip of madness in those you once called friends.”

A shiver ran down Shepard’s spine at the words, the way there were spoken made it clear that the hunter had been forced to watch the very thing described. More than that, Shepard could hear the lingering agony hidden within her voice. She did not know what had happened to the woman, only that it was so terrible and caused such agonizing pain that her own losses paled in comparison.

“I’m sorry.” Leah muttered quietly and lowered her head a little. “I did not mean to cause offence.”

Gemma didn't reply but retreated back into the shadows, eyes flaring once before they lost sight of her. In some way, her ability to disappear on demand reminded the Spectre of Thane Krios, a drell master assassin, before his unfortunate demise.  Which was the only thing that kept her from voicing her displeasure at the fact that the hunter didn't stay with the rest of the team.

She reminded herself that technically she was just a tag along and not the one who called the shots, but her instincts still told her to operate like she was used to.  And that always entailed working with her team, with her acting as the spear’s tip in every engagement, calling the shots and having her friends fall in behind her without hesitation.  However, since she was here on a strange planet fighting against reanimated corpses and who knew what else, accompanied by a woman who claimed to be a demon hunter and another who was a self appointed wizard, a claim which got harder to dispute the more she saw of Moira’s abilities, she guessed the usual went out the airlock a long time ago.   No surprise there really, Shepard mused to herself as she kept her gaze on the road before them, my life hasn’t exactly been the height of normalcy since Boot Camp.

“I have found a place to rest.” Gemma suddenly declared from the darkness between two ruins, causing them all to whirl around to face her. “We should take the chance while we can, I’ll take first watch.”

“Hey, we can't rest my uncle-”  Leah began, but was immediately ran over by Gemma.

“Won't be happy to be alive if you are not just because you continued on and got yourself killed.” Gemma interrupted her and glared at the red clad girl.  “I don't like the thought of people dieing while I rest either, but it won't do anyone, any good if we and the people we want to save die.”

“She’s right Leah.”  Shepard said and put a hand on the girl’s shoulder.  “We’ll get a fresh start soon, but I’m all for taking a few hours to rest while we have a chance.”   And to keep an eye on our hunter so she doesn’t slip away on us.  That she kept to herself though, but that didn’t stop Jess from shooting Gemma a glance from behind her black helmet’s faceplate before she reached up to the hard clamps holding it in place before disengaging them with a practiced flick of her thumbs.  Pulling it up and over, Shepard groaned in relief as she lowered the heavy helmet down to a nearby stump, revealing her face for the first time since landing on this zombie infested rock. “Damn, I forgot how hard that thing is on the neck.” She mused and rolled her head until something popped and a sigh of relief escaped her.  “That’s better.” It was only when she saw Leah and Moira staring at her that Jess raised an eyebrow. “What?”

“Nothing, just did not expect beautiful woman underneath such imposing helmet.” Moira said with a shrug. “No offense, but most women who take up fighting aren’t exactly easy on the eyes, at least the ones I’ve met.”

“Now what does that say about Gemma?” Shepard asked with a small smile, which made the mage's eyes widen comically.

Moira quickly raised her hands and shook her head of pretty hair so rapidly, Ash and Shepard were sure her head would pop off her neck if she kept it up for too long.  “Oh, I apologize Gemma. I didn't mean to imply that you aren't pretty. Underneath that hood you are possibly quite beautiful.”

The hunter merely groaned in reply and turned to lead them to their resting place.  Picking up her helmet, Shepard tucked it under her arm with a chuckle as she followed after Gemma.

“Uh, I meant… mosty likely beautiful?”  Moira asked rather than stated, making it abundantly clear she was floundering, and failing, in an effort to redeem herself in some small way.

“Jesus, you really are bad at this.” Ashley noted in slight disbelief. “I never thought that it could be that hard to give someone a compliment.”

“Well, most wizards I’ve met were either so self assured and arrogant in their skills, or they were socially akward.  There wasn’t a lot of middle ground.” Leah offered in explanation before Moira had a chance to defend herself.

“Huh, that's kinda sad. I mean what's the point of being a… um well wizard I supposed if you can't interact with your fellow humans?” Shepard asked even though her voice couldn't quite conceal her disbelief at magic in her words. A fact which Leah picked up on.

“Is it truly so hard for you to believe in magic?” The woman questioned gently.  “Your weapons for example seem like magic to us, yet you claim they are not.”

“She’s got a point Skipper.”  Ash reluctantly admitted as she followed her example and tucked her own hardsuit’s helmet under her left arm without missing a step.

“I know, I know. Still, you can't tell me that you are fine with all of this.” Shepard shot back and rolled her eyes a little. “I almost miss dealing with the council, at least with them I knew what to expect.”

Ashley wasn’t convinced though, and shot Jess a grin, the only warning she had before the Chief opened her mouth anew.  “Skipper, let's be honest here, if you had the choice between a world of magic or the council-”

“Magic, every damn time.” The Spectre agreed without missing a beat. “I hate politics.”

“Do I dare ask why?”  Leah wondered as Gemma held up her hand and nodded when they came to a clearing surrounded by dense foliage on one side and tightly packed trees on another, ensuring at least points of entry were cut off.  The rest of the perimeter could easily be trapped and warded as Gemma and Moira deemed fit, but despite her earlier protests, Leah was too tired to really care.

While the young woman prepared for a few hours rest, Gemma and the others began to lay traps in the surrounding foliage.  Moira almost collapsed not far from her, clearly exhausted as well. Though none of the other three seemed too bothered as Ash, Shepard, and Gemma finished up their respective work in placing defensive measures where they deemed appropriate before they too did their best to get comfortable, the demon hunter sitting with her back to a tree and her twin crossbows in her hands.  Watching over them like she had announced previously.

“Rest, I will watch over you.” The hunter promised them all gently. “I will wake you once my shift is at an end, Commander.”

“Alright, but you better not get any ideas about wandering off.”  Jess warned her, more for Gemma’s wellbeing than their own. While she was sure the hunter could handle herself, no one could survive for long without someone to support them, she knew that better than anyone.

“Under normal circumstance, that would be what I would do. However, I am a little weary as well. The travel to New Tristram was long and taxing.” Gemma replied honestly and shrugged. “I am not foolish enough to fight demons on my own when my own body tells me to rest.”

“Glad to hear it.”  Shepard replied before putting her back against a tree, but not before laying her shotgun over her lap, her legs stretched out before her.  It wasn’t the most comfortable positions, but it ensured she could snap her gun up in a flash and get a shot off if trouble stumbled into camp.  That said, it was too tempting not to give her fellow campers one last comment before they nodded off completely. “Sleep well children.”

“Shut up, Skipper.” Ashley mumbled from her position, assault rifle laying in her own lap, not even bothering to lift her head. An amused snort was her only answer as she slowly closed her eyes and waited for sleep to claim her.

New Tristram

“Can you tell me anything else?  Perhaps how long it takes for someone to turn into one of those things?”  Chakwas asked her host patiently, and took another sip of whatever drink she had been given.  It tasted delightfully similar to her Brandy, so she wasn’t about to split hairs about not knowing more about what was in her glass.  She did make a note to ask Mira about it later though.

“It varies, but after roughly twelve hours, most of them show symptoms, and no one has survived two days after being bitten without turning into one of them.” Mira Eamon replied sadly, and lowered her head.  “I wish we could have helped them.”

“I will try everything in my power to help those that still have a chance. You have my word.” The chief medical officer of the Normandy promised resolutely.

“I thank you, but I don’t think it’ll be so simple as you believe.”

“Perhaps not, but there’s little harm in trying is there?”  Chakwas asked, before taking another sip of the drink Mira had been kind enough to sit in front of her.

“I suppose not.” The younger woman was forced to admit and send a small smile her way. “Is there anything else you require? Perhaps some more soup?”

“Yes ma’am.”  James was quick to say, having already consumed one bowl in the time it had taken Mira and Chakwas to finish their discussion about the sick civilians in the cellar.

“James.”  Chakwas scolded him fondly and without heat, but shook her head at his enthusiasm concerning the offered soup.

“What? I am a growing boy, doc.” He weakly defended himself and began to eat once more when Mira gave him a fresh bowlful with an endearing smile on her face.

“I never had children… then I was assigned to the Normandy .” The doctor deadpanned to the giggling Mira. “Since then I had more children around me than most people see in a lifetime.”

“I see… well Headrig and I still wish to raise children of our own, but I suppose a little training couldn't hurt.” Mira answered with a small smile.

“You’d be surprised, it may cause you to seriously rethink that decision.”  Karin chuckled while James playfully pouted in response to the light ribbing.

“Hey, I ain’t that bad compared to some people I could name doc.  Still, thanks for the good food ma’am.”

“Mira.”

“Mira, sorry.  Old habit.” James said and rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly as he did.

“Not at all, it is delightful to come across someone as polite as you are in these troubling times.” Their hostess replied with a warm smile.

“Polite? James? You have yet to get to know him my dear.”  The doctor warned with another warm chuckle.

“Doc.” James mock whined and clutched his chest.  ”Why are you so mean to me, you’re hurting my feelings.”

Mira’s blue eyes shined as she chuckled at the two old friends.  “It’s the privilege of the old to make fun of the young, besides don't you have a certain someone who will take care of your feelings?”

“You mean after Ash joined in on crushing them?  Sure, afterwards she would take care of me.”

“There you have it, so you have no reason to complain young man.”  Karin was quick to point out.

“Yes, doc.”  James dutifully replied, and promptly returned to shoveling the soup into his mouth.

The Slaughtered Calf Inn

Having followed Tali and Garrus, the young monk couldn’t help but chuckle when he followed the turian’s gaze, and realized he was making it no secret he was staring at her rear end.  He was no prude himself, despite his path in life of living simply and avoiding those things that might lead him astray, but he had a feeling Garrus’s staring went beyond mere lust. “You do know I can feel you staring right?”  Tali asked, drawing the monk from his musings as she looked over her shoulder.

“I had a feeling you knew of his less than subtle glances Lady Zorah.”  The monk said and gestured to one of the few empty tables within the inn.  “I unfortunately do not know why he finds your hindquarters such an object of fascination.”

“I didn't- Ah, nevermind. I totally did.”  Garrus admitted completely unashamed. “And who could blame me? Your hindquarters are fascinating.”

“I could blame you.” Tali told him seriously and narrowed her eyes at him. “And you know what? I think I do, so stop staring, or Chiktikka will come for you.”

“Y-yes ma’am.”  Garrus quickly said and sat down without another word.

The monk however was far less restricted and chuckled softly as he pulled his hood down once more.  “You are quite fierce Lady Zorah, so I am not surprised you have your friend wrapped around your little finger.”

“I am n-”  Garrus began, only to be stopped mid stream by Tali’s less than subtle glare in his direction.

“Hush now, the grown ups are talking.” The quarian told him smugly, and leaned back in her chair.

“Oh, what do you wish to talk about, Lady Zorah?”  The monk asked, rather amused at the squabbling before him.

“Well, a name would be nice.”  She answered dryly, and shot a warning glare at Garrus that told him he shouldn't dare to start laughing.

“Ah, a most sensible request, especially since I know yours.  Allow me to introduce myself travellers from afar for I am, Lucifer.”  The monk bowed his head as far as respect and the table in front of him allowed before straightening once more.

“That was rather over dramatic.” Garrus couldn't help but point out and cocked his head. “Besides, isn't that the name of some mythological figure for humans?”

“Well, he wouldn't know about that.  But you are right, it is the name of the personification of their morning star, I believe from the times of ancient Rome.”  Tali replied with a small shrug. “I had time to talk with Liara, when she wasn’t busy with….other things.”

“Such as sucking Shepard’s face off?”  Garrus deadpanned and shot the two his best impression of a grin.

“As I said, among other things.”  Tali replied before an exasperated huff escaped her.

“Oh, oh, I know!  Embracing eternity.” The turian shot back giddily and almost bounced up and down in his chair.

“I still have my shotgun.”  Tali deadpanned in retort, but there was a dangerous note in her voice that neither Garrus or Lucifer missed, even as the latter chuckled quietly while the former coughed uncomfortably.

“I believe it would be best if you did not pursue this line of discourse further my friend.”  The monk said and patted the sharpshooter on the back before waving his hand towards Tali, his interest in her apparent knowledge regarding his name having been piqued.  “I must admit, my own understanding of my name was always Lightbringer, and considering my role among the peoples of Sanctuary, it seemed rather fitting. When the gods would ignite the light of truth, I am their torch.”

“Wow, when you say it like that it sounds rather impressive.” Tali said slowly, sounding rather impressed by his speech.

“Besides, who is more radiant than little old me?”  Lucifer added with a waggle of his eyebrows and grinned.

“And then you say something like that and ruin it.”  The quarian groaned and resisted the urge to face palm, or in her case mask palm.

“That’s what my fellow monks said, even as they tried not to smile at my unique personality.”  Lucifer replied with a shrug before his grin faded. “In truth, I know I might seem strange to many, but we all deal with the horrors of the Burning Hells in our own way.  Mine just happens to involve the occasional quip in the face of death and impending doom.”

“Heh, you remind me of myself kid.  I always was the odd turian out, so to speak.  And as everyone who knows me can attest, I am unique.” Garrus stated with a smirk.

“Indeed, you are unique.”  Tali told him with a smirk underneath her mask as he puffed his chest in response.  “A fact for which the entire galaxy is grateful for.”

“You are so bad… and I like it.”  He told her and looked her in the eye with a challenging grin.

Lucifer could only laugh and shake his head at the pair.  “You might not be human, but it’s reassuring to know we aren’t so different from each other.  Just how long have you known each other if you don’t mind my inquiries?”

“Long enough to know, that as much as we might give each other grief, we’ve grown quite fond for each other.”  Garrus said and leaned back in his chair. “Although she claims that she only uses me for my body.”

“That was one time!  Years ago!” Tali protested, much to Lucifer’s amusement as he snickered into his right hand.

All the while, Garrus continued to tease his longtime companion.  “And still I am scarred from your harsh words.”

“As amusing as this is, I have a question for you.” The monk gently interrupted and smiled. “Where are you from? I have never seen the likes of you nor have I heard of someone similar in the winds of the world.”

“That's rather complicated, Lucifer.” Garrus said with little hesitation. “It isn't that I don't want to tell you, but I’m not sure that I should, no matter how sympathetic you are to me.”

“In other words, we’d like to tell you, but we would have to ask Shepard first.”  Tali added quickly.

“I see, in that case I have another question. Who is this Shepard?”

“She’s pretty much the reason we’re able to have this conversation in the first place.”  Garrus chuckled dryly since it was pretty much a proven fact by this point that without Shepard, the galaxy would have ended years ago.

“Oh? How did she manage that?”  Lucifer asked, his interest having been sufficiently piqued.

“Well for one thing, she kinda dragged us here.” Garrus explained and held up his hands in surrender when Tali began to glare at him. “As for the other, well, she saved all our lives, like really all lives, except maybe yours because our enemies weren't interested in this place for some reason.  Long story. Suffice it to say Luci, you’re fortunate you only have the local freaks of nature to contend with.”

“I am not sure if I can agree with you on that one, however until I learn more of your enemies, I think it would be better for me to withhold judgement.” The monk replied with a small shrug.

“That’s probably the smart choice.”  Tali agreed before grimacing in sympathy.  “I am sorry we can’t say more, but it’s...complicated as to why we can’t.”

“You need not apologize Lady Zorah.  You’re entitled to your secrets, same as everyone my friend.”  Lucifer replied and nodded his head in understanding. “Besides, if asked, I would not divulge all of the secrets of my own order either, so we are on even footing in that regard, although our own secrets are more related to our greater techniques and lore tied to our abilities.”

“Heh, maybe in a few years your order will start teaching my techniques.” Garrus boasted with a grin. “I mean sure you can fight up close, but from afar? That demands real skill and style, and I got both.”

“Oh I am certain that you possess skill my friend, but style?  That I have yet to see.” Lucifer shot back with a challenging grin.  “Would you like to spar with me to prove me wrong?”

Garrus was about to agree to the challenge when Tali held him back. “Have you forgotten that he killed a zombie with a single kick?  You sure you want to go a few rounds with someone like that?”

Garrus was quick to change his tune when he recalled how easily the monk had swatted aside said zombie, even though it had already been crawling about on the ground at the time.  Even so, the turian wasn’t about to test his luck by challenging someone that could move with such supernatural like speed and grace, who also happened to possess equally strong physical prowess.  “Oh… well maybe another time. Or better yet, I’ll introduce you to Grunt when I get the chance.”

“Another friend of yours I presume.” Lucifer stated rather than asked.

“Yeah, the little guy and I have been in some tight places together.”  Garrus stated, his eyes holding an unusually amused gleam as he talked about the krogan in question.  ‘Little’ was the last word one used to describe a krogan, and Urdnot Grunt was definitely not small.

“Yeah… little.” Tali coughed sarcastically. “If he were to show up the guardsmen would probably wet themselves thinking a demon king had arrived.”

“I take it that your friend can be rather intimidating, and probably as far from human as you are?” The cheeky young man asked with a small smile.

“That’s one way of putting it.”  Tali deadpanned in response. “Grunt is….Grunt.  He’s unique even among our rather strange group of friends, and his love for a good fight is only matched by his indomitable presence, and his capacity for loyalty for those that have proven themselves worthy of leadership.  That said, he’s a good friend to Shepard and those she’s gathered at her side, ourselves included.”

“Hmm, he certainly sounds like someone I would like to meet.  You also make him sound like a part of the barbarians of old with this talk of his love for a good brawl.” Lucifer said, his small smile widening as his mind turned to this most recent bit of information that had been revealed to him.

“Yeah except he sometimes eats his enemies so… there is that.”  Garrus winced when Tali, discreetly, kicked his shin under the table.  “Ow.”

It wasn’t discreet enough as Lucifer chuckled and nodded approvingly towards Tali.  “Perhaps you should be my sparring partner, given the way you effortlessly beat this full grown man into submission.”

“I can handle myself in a fight, but melee combatant I am not.”  Tali admitted, her sheepish smile hidden by her visor’s covering, but it was still audible in her voice.

“My shin says otherwise.”  Garrus grumbled under his breath, which earned him a glare from the quarian.  “Let’s just hope the others get back soon. I’d hate to have to search for Shepard in the middle of those woods.  Saw enough zombies to last me a couple centuries already.”

“Then I fear by the end of this you will have seen enough to last you the next few millennia.” Lucifer deadpanned, though for once there was no smile on his face. “Still, I am certain that your friends are alright.  Especially given the way you have talked about your leader.”

Aboard the Normandy…

“Flight Lieutenant Moreau, where is Commander Shepard?  Her report to us is more than four hours overdue.” Tevos said patiently but with a hint of warning in her voice.  Beside her were Sparatus and Valern, although he noted that for some reason the human councilor was absent.

As much as Joker wanted to tell the galaxy’s version of the Three Stooges, barring Tevos and even then simply because she was the most reasonable of the three, to piss off, he kept his sarcasm to a minimum.  Instead he merely shrugged before saying a word. “Sorry councillors, but Shepard is currently on the planet's surface and is out of comms range. She met some hostile natives from what I’ve heard.”

“Hostile natives? Scans didn’t show any signs of intelligent life one planet.” Valern noted and narrowed his eyes a little.

“Probably because of the strange energy field surrounding the planet which prevents any type of more sophisticated scans of the planet's surface. I’m sure the scans didn’t show that either.” Joker shot back, unable to keep the hostility out of his voice.  He knew, as did the rest of the crew, that the probes sent ahead of them should have picked up all of this, yet the Councilors were playing stupid. No surprise there.

“Are you accusing us of something, Flight Lieutenant?” Sparatus asked with a raised eye ridge.

“I’m saying that you haven't told us everything. This energy field and the anomaly tied to it would have been noticed by even the oldest and crappiest of probes. Yours were top of the line, so you had to know something was up.” The pilot replied without missing a beat, completely unafraid of the consequences.  It helped they had saved the galaxy after all.

EDI though, ever the diplomat, in most cases, was quick to intervene before hostilities between him and the Councilors could escalate further.  “Mr. Moreau is simply concerned for the ground team. That said, he does raise a valid point venerable Councilors. Probe data was rather uninformative giving our mission to scout out this remote region of space.  Our scans showed nothing, which in itself should have raised questions when the probes were sent since they too wouldn’t have detected anything save the energy field itself, that seems to block any outside attempt to peer beneath its surface.  Life is indeed on the surface of the planet, and not all of it is friendly, a fact the ground team, lead by Commander Shepard, were able to inform us of before they went out of comms range.”

“Indeed?  Fascinating.  The natives, can you describe them?”  Valern asked curiously, and cocked his head to the side.

“We’ll send you the video of the Commander's helmet camera, but the friendly natives are as far as we can tell, human.”

“Human?  How can this be?  This planet is too far away from earth or its colonies to not be brought here by the relay network.”  Tevos whispered, her eyes widening at the revelation. A fact which EDI took note of, especially since the asari’s body language suggested she knew more than her two colleagues.  Unbeknownst to the others, her three compatriots on the Council included, she knew exactly what the Normandy had stumbled across, at least to a certain degree, but she couldn’t say a word without putting everything at risk if even a fraction of what she knew for certain was to be believed.  The prothean beacon her people had kept hidden on Thessia was one thing. This….would be something else entirely in scale of its effect on the galactic community if it got out. Tevos mentally snorted at that as the thought crossed her mind.  If? More like when , especially with the simple fact the Shadow Broker was still very much in power.  That and given Shepard’s reputation of uncovering every dirty secret the galaxy had under its surface in her pursuit to end the Reapers, it wouldn’t surprise Tevos if the next report had irrefutable proof of what she feared was on that planet.

Thessia, the T’Soni/Shepard Estate

Aethyta, bless the goddess for her father’s presence, had been kind enough to give her a much needed break from the stamp of little blue feet.  As much as she loved the family she and Shepard had started, Liara wondered how she would have done half as well without Jess at her side to help take some of the load of child rearing from her shoulders.  Despite the thought, the asari could only smile as Aethyta chased after the little blue bundle of joy as she ran away from the Matriarchal bartender with squeals of cheer and unrestrained happiness through the estate’s extensive backyard.

The distraction gave Liara time to check on her...old network.  Semi-retired as she was, Liara had made it a note to keep the Shadow Broker’s vast network of informants, spies, agents, and more up to date as much as a post Reaper War galaxy permitted her to do so.  Some of the old monitoring stations and devices planted in even the highest echelons of galactic society might have been destroyed along with most of the people themselves, but enough remained that she was far from blind or deaf as to what was going on behind closed doors.  The hurried restoration efforts actually made it all the easier for her to spread her listening devices and agents across the galaxy. So for all their attempts at secrecy, the Citadel Council might as well have had their meeting in her living room for all the good it did them to keep it contained.

Getting into contact with Feron, the ‘physical’ head of the Shadow Broker’s network, while Liara was the true force behind it all, at least these days after replacing her predecessor, was simple, having set up a workstation within the estate grounds.  At a glance, her workstation looked like any other, used to keep gigabytes worth of pictures, photos, and private notes on her assorted digs, among other things of the same, but the number of secret data drives, servers, and more would have put even the STG to shame in their efforts at the spy game.  “I had a feeling you’d call Liara.” The drell said as his face appeared on her workstation’s main screen. “I was just about to send you something you wanted me to keep an eye on.”

“Thank you Feron.”  Liara replied with a small smile. The moment Feron broke the connection, she began to watch the video he had sent her.  It didn't take her long to get angry at the council once again. She had seen their little talk with Joker, but also the little meeting that took place after they had ended the call.

“This world is clearly underdeveloped, we cannot send troops without breaking all our laws of first contact.”  Sparatus said with a low growl. “What was Shepard thinking? Simply initiating first contact with those primitive humans.  She must know that they aren't ready for this type of exposure.”

“Shepard’s well known for her soft heart.” Valern said with a small shrug. “STG noted years ago that it would lead her into dangerous and inadvisable situations, planned to use this against her should she ever go rogue.  So far not necessary, although curing genophage almost sent our government into shock at the time of the Reaper War.”

“We must keep this under wraps.”  Tevos was quick to point out, a little too quickly for Liara’s liking.  “Just because we see the necessity of staying out of this doesn't mean that other will. The krogan would jump at the chance to assist her, as would most quarians.  She has made too many allies that would come to her aid if it so much as seemed like she needed them. Besides, Admiral Hackett would rather send the whole Fifth Fleet than abandon her to this alone.  Our intelligence reports suggest that after the death of Anderson, he has begun to look out for her like a surrogate daughter.”

“And as much as I might not like her methods,” Sparatus began, “she is largely responsible for us still existing in the first place.  Palavan alone and its inhabitants would no doubt follow the krogans’ example and take every warship they could to repay the debt my people owe her.  A part of me feels the same, but I am not blinded by emotions. We must do what is best for everyone.”

Liara had seen enough to get the point and clicked off the video with a contemptuous grunt in the back of her throat.  They wanted to sit on their hands, again, and stick their heads in the sand. She knew how well that had worked last time, and her mind was already at work in figuring out a way to get Shepard the aid she’d no doubt need before this was over.  She could see the writing on the wall, even if it was perhaps too early to tell if such action was needed. Something in her gut however, said this could indeed become something equalling the threat of the Reapers, or worse, if they didn’t act.  So the asari turned to her workstation and began to plant a few seeds where the right people would see them, and nurture them accordingly. As was known by countless people throughout history, information was power, and by that definition, Liara T’Soni was the most powerful person in the known galaxy.  And unlike the Councilors, who she could sympathize with to an extent because of the countless people they had to consider before making a choice, she wasn’t afraid to use her power for the right cause.

To that end, as well as planting the seeds that would then mature into well executed news leak across the galaxy’s public information networks, Liara sent out messages to the rest of Shepard’s surviving crew.  If they were going to face this latest unknown threat, she wanted all her pieces on the board before they were needed.