DISCLAIMER: Bioware owns the concept of Mass Effect and all of its characters. This fanfic is for entertainment and no profit what-so-ever.
AUTHORS NOTES: I've gotten some extensive aid from a reader who has an excellent grasp on real-world science and physics and has helped me understand the real-world applications of a gravity leveler, which is a far cry from the cinema-effects of the same device used in Ultraviolet which I have borrowed. I have taken extreme liberties with real-world science but then so do many sci-fi writers, after all explosions as seen in Star Wars / Star Trek / BSG/ Star Gate/ Mass Effect can not truly happen in the vacuum of space. Oh yes and due to the events of ME2 obviously this is very much an AU. However some elements / scenes / characters of ME2 will make it into here so I guess there will be some spoilers.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Rising From the Ashes
By Elizabeth Carter


Chapter 27
Clandestine Objectives

Five hours before hitting atmo on Quana, in the private quarters of Matron Shiala.

"She has a powerful presence. There is little we do not believe in when she speaks with conviction. They follow her because she is a leader. Their kind always need such. You can see what they see, hear their voice when they speak to her. Notice the change when they speak to one of us. I speak with a passion that goes unnoticed. My voice will never move others. They obey her because she is a leader and perhaps something more. Have you noticed what is happening? Have you felt it in them?" Shiala said to her mate.

"Their behavior is changing." Aleena solemnly agreed with a conviction of knowledge. "They worship her greatly. They obey her. They are echoes of her actions, of her will. Watch them carefully. See their patterns and recognize the strength in it. Influence can be a weapon, and she will touch many others before our journey is done."

"She has done this without indoctrination. I know that influence, that lack of will. I know what it is to pound upon the glass as your body commits atrocities as you feel drained and you believe the will of the other. This is different." The matron said her voice a hushed whisper.

Aleena might have asked how such a thing was different. But she need not do so. She understood. With their many Joinings, the bounty hunter knew precisely how different Samantha Shepard was to the torture Shiala had suffered at the hands of the Thorian, Saren and Sovereign. Like Saren however, Shepard was compelling, persuasive and charismatic. The Spectre was the sort of person that follows you through a revolving door and comes out first.

Aleena touched the small of her lover's back. She knew the memories were surfacing again. 'The old Growth…those that scurry, those that dig, the cold ones. Those that tended the next cycle. Air pushed as lies.'

"Shiala, you are free." Aleena pulled the woman into her embrace, holding her tightly to her chest. "Cling to what is before you, my love for you, your love for me, your daughter growing within you… our mission, the path before us is real. Our Spectre is real. The thorian… you are freed from it, it holds you no longer. Sovereign can not touch you now, the Prothean memories are not your memories let them go." Aleena pressed her forehead to the other matron. "And if you find you can not then share them with me fully. I will share this darkness of the Old Growth has left you in, the scars Sovereign has marked you with, the pain Saren left you with. If you wish it, if you allow it I will become arda to your daughter."

"Aleena --- you don't know what you commit yourself to."

"I do my love. The Joinings have allowed me to know. I go into this open minded, with an open soul and heart. All you have to do is to open your hands and accept it. Your students: Liara and Samantha, even the Spectre's young Trusted share the burden together, let us also."

Shiala stared at the woman before her. A woman she knew to have changed her entire appearance, her whole being for a mission. She had committed herself to the goal, to her hunt. Though her mission parameters had changed the devotion to it had not. There was no question in Shiala's mind the bounty hunter was using this as a tactic to more permanently fix herself into the lives of Shepard and Liara and thus move without suspicion so she might strike. Aleena had become a guardian.

"I am no slip of maiden that needs a protector." Shiala said at last.

"No, you are not. But you can not do this alone and you do not need to. Shepard does not need a protector either and yet Liara and to a lesser extent LT. Williams serve as her protectors. You can never persuade them to do otherwise."

"Nor can I persuade you to do otherwise."

"It will be futile." the bounty hunter admitted earnestly.

"As I am learning. It has been some time since I've allowed myself to rely on another as closely as I have come to rely on you. The last person I had such a closeness with was Matriarch Benezia. Allowing someone so close again … is difficult."

"I understand. But to suffer needlessly is a step in the wrong direction of wisdom." Aleena leaned in nuzzling the delicate folds of amethyst flesh at Shiala's neck, her emerald fingers traced the fine bone structure of her lover's jaw.

Shiala closed her eyes as she leaned into the touch. "Then perhaps I should embrace wisdom."

Shiala watched on the holo-emitter in the CIC what was transpiring outside the ship. The fighter squadrons controlled by Naga'sadow were patrolling as ordered by their captain. So far there was no contact with the ExoGeni security forces on Faros, but there was no guarantee it would remain thus.

Between moments in the stillness of the ship's activity the matron's mind wandered back to time spent with the woman she had come to love. Yes their relationship had been swift in the making, perhaps too swift for matrons. Such impetuousness was more to the nature of restless maidens but it was as real and solid as what Shepard had with Liara. Shiala smiled softly to herself; then again both Shepard and Liara were indeed maidens.

It was almost scandalous Liara had chosen as a mate someone so very young. Of course humans were a short lived species. Of course at thirty maidens become curious about intimacy. At seventy they become very libidinous. For Liara to have waited until she was past her first century to engage in Joining was rare. But then again Liara had no talent for interacting with other people, so it wasn't such a shock she hadn't engaged in the joys of Joining before.

Shiala herself indulged in playful Joinings when she was near the same age as Shepard herself, young yes but not horrifically so. At least she had taken another thirty year old huntress to her bed. She had answered the call of her body's desires. Now as a matron, her soul yearned for more than simple pleasures, she wanted something far more solid. At first she thought she might have found it with her lady Benezia. They had shared Joinings, affections, thoughts and aspirations. Shiala knew she would never have the matriarch's heart. No one would ever hold the position that was once held by Liara's dame.

When Saren traded Shiala to the thorian, Benezia put up no resistance, no argument for another to be chosen in her stead. Flesh had been fairly given. Shiala had hesitated but Saren's words poured into her ears, making her believe this was the only way to find the conduit.

The Old Growth understood the visions of the Protheans. It had lived on Faros with them, it had been a part of their lives. It had seen the coming of the Reapers, of those like Sovereign. Saren had to know, he had to understand the visions. All the disciples of Benezia T'soni believed this was so. Benezia approached Shiala, her hand softly, sensually caressing Shiala's face. The touch of lips upon her temple, the scent of the matriarch's flesh filling Shiala's nostrils flared desire and willingness in younger asari. The touch had always been a prelude to their Joinings. Not a word emanated from the elder asari's once purple now black lips, there needn't be. Shiala always conceded to her Lady's desires. Her Lady's desires were to obey Saren. Someone had to act as a translator, the memories had to be absorbed and transferred. Shiala took the memories, gave them to Saren and then suddenly the Spectre turned away.

"The asari matron is yours." Saren turned from the Old Growth, his geth soldiers following him, but the matriarch had hesitated, Shiala seen it. Saren had pulled Benezia to his side, held the matron's head between his hands uttered words too soft for anyone else to hear. Benezia gave a single nod of her head.

The matriarch looked at Shiala, their eyes met, no words were offered. Benezia watched as the Old Growth's tendrils took hold of Shiala, its mucus enveloping her, cascading down her body. Pain racked her body, lashing at her spine, hitting every nerve-ending until all she could feel was the searing agony of the poisons engulfing her bloodstream. Shiala screamed out, but no sound came forth. She remembered looking up and seeing her matriarch weep. It was the last Shiala saw of her beloved matriarch. The last thing she heard was Saren giving orders to his geth troopers to destroy the Old Growth leave no sign of its existence. Shepard must not gain the cipher, as she had the visions. She was the enemy.

And it was this enemy that freed Shiala from the thorian when she killed it. Free from indoctrination but not the scars, nightmares or memories. Shiala believed she would never be truly whole again. Strange how things change. Never whole but now neither was she wholly broken.

Now there was a chance the call in the matron's soul answered by the most unlikely of persons… a mercenary sent to hunt down her lost Lady's only daughter. Aleena transcended the role of huntress and became protector. She was now not only Liara's guardian but Shiala's as well.

The matron looked out one of the portholes at the blue-white planet below. It appeared that Aleena wasn't the only one to have self-appointed themselves as her guardian. Shepard also hovered close, which was evidently clear from her words only hours before '…there are times I can feel your emotions as strongly as those of Liara's…' Shiala knew there was connection between herself and the Spectre. Not as deep a bond as that shared between Shepard and Liara, but it was there nonetheless. Shiala had always felt it in the background noise of her mind, always just there as if on the edge of hearing, but she chose not to pay heed to it.

The connection… perhaps it could be honed, sharpened into something more useful than the simple sharing of nightmares and darkness. Goddess willing. If there was a safe way to test this connection - it was something to explore.

It was as if the Victory seeded the surface of the frozen planet with makos. Three of them landed within ten klicks of each other. Two of them drove off in opposite directions, leaving the third to loiter near the drop zone. It navigated deeper into the ruins of Quana, intent on reaching its very heart, to the remains of a well-developed Prothean mining infrastructure that dotted the planet's frozen surface.

Just as the scans and Liara's reports indicated, Quana's ruins were reasonably intact unlike the crumbling skyscrapers of Feros. The abandoned mines connected the dead cities by collapsed maglev lines, just as they had on Feros. Of course this only made it easier for looters to strip the silent necropoli of anything valuable, including the rich heavy metal deposits, such as cobalt. The frozen world's nitrogen and carbon monoxide atmosphere was clearly not a deterrent to the looters, explorers, ExoGeni agents or young Prothean archeologists. Like Faros the buildings arched into towering structures reaching into the sky. While husks of a former existence they were not hollowed out cavities of what was. There weren't just a few tall buildings. They were in a massive city, as big, as sprawling, as modern as anything on a central planet. Although covered in blankets of snow, ice and frozen fog.

Shepard gazed at the structural surroundings, her mind raced to a dozen scenarios, of how an enemy could get the jump on them. ExoGeni security, geth not at least Cerberus, would all become a deterrent to the mission. She'd been careful not to expose her own doubts; she'd projected an image of absolute confidence and composure. She had absolute trust in her team, in what they were doing, what she didn't trust was collection of enemies she seemed to be acquiring. This would be a perfect place for an ambush. The Spectre's team was an intelligent bunch, not even in her excitement would Liara drop her guard. Williams certainly wouldn't. They knew to look out for enemy insurgence. Hopefully such vigilance was only precautionary and not necessity.

"You know with these structures so intact it is a wonder Quana hasn't been marked for colonization." Garrus piped up from his gunners post.

"Other than a crazy-ass volus and crime-lords running slaves and red sand who wants to live on a frozen toxic planet?" Williams scoffed.

"What of Novaria?" asked Liara. "Many corporations have made the planet their base of operations, not to mention their employees making it their home."

"Yeah, okay. But whoever said those corporate types are sane? Williams shot back jovially.

Even during their banter, Shepard knew her people were still at battle ready and fully alert. Besides she had been wondering the same thing. Toxicity and hazard levels hadn't been a deterrent for smugglers, scavengers, pirates, organized crime bosses or corporations to make settlements in these kinds of places. She fully expected that sort of trouble here.

"Exactly. Anyone on this planet digging in for the long haul won't be firing on all thrusters. They'll be paranoid and trigger happy, just like on Novaria, Faros and Klencory." Shepard said. "Keep your eyes wide open. I highly doubt we're alone."

There was a series of aye captains, and understoods. Wrex and Urwen were already on the prowl. It was their primary mission to keep well alert for such dangers as it was with the air support. Such things need not become a distraction for the flagship team's primary objective.

"Liara, work your magic." The Spectre ordered as she punched commands into the amber holographic comm-kiosk and handed the mako over to her Head of Sciences to pilot. "You know where we need to go."

"Aye Captain." Liara took hold of the wheel and skillfully negotiated the M36 across the ice coated sky-ramp. Forty-five years wasn't a significant enough time for things to have changed upon the surface despite the incursions of the odd raiding parties. She veered the rover past ice formations, broken and sometimes missing areas of the sky ramp with the confidence and ease of someone who had lived all their lives upon the planet.

Liara threw the wheel down hard causing the mako to steer directly towards a line of buildings. The only problem was the very large gap in the road between that destination and the ground-team.

"Ah Liara … you do know the sky-ramp is swiftly running out of road?" Ashley questioned nervously.

"You must trust me." The asari said.

"So that five and a half meter gap right before us isn't an issue?" the marine pressed

"I've done this before, Lieutenant."

"Just checking." Ash gave a look to her CO that said 'Stop her?'

"Trust her. She knows what she's doing." Shepard said trying to sound confident. But even she looked to her wife with a speculative glance. "Right?"

"As you say … I have an idea."

Garrus and Tali shared expressions that stated perhaps now was a very good time to offer prayers up to their individual deities. Aleena was of all them the most amused. Her emerald eyes intently watching the young maiden before her, as would a mentor.

The ramp fell away; Liara activated the thrusters that would typically carry a mako across crevasses, drops and other near impossible terrain. Jumping nearly six meters laterally was another technical matter. Not even the M-EE accelerator or thrusters made such long jumps a practical maneuver.

It was at this moment, Liara chose to close her eyes, her hands left the wheel and holographic interface and touched the mako's frame. Everything within emanated a cyan glow. Liara was using her biotics to lift and propel the rover across the gap!

Eight wheels bounced twice before coming to a skidding halt.

"Well done, gwen. I suspected this was but a trivial task." Aleena complemented using the honorific word for young-apprentice. Considering Liara was barely more than a century old it was an appropriate salutation.

All others save for the Spectre and of course Aleena stared at Liara. The young woman merely gave a shrug of the shoulders. As Aleena said it was a trivial task.

"Is this so different from when Samantha and I used biotics to control that geth dropship? As I told you then, what is mass? I also recall telling you the very idea of impossibility is only a construct of the mind. Size has no relevance for a huntress trained to use her biotics effectively."

"Yes. I recall that. I also remember you telling me biotics do not recognize big or small, heavy or light, hard or easy, fast or slow. It is a matter of inner strength of will." Garrus commented.

"So you did that before? Hurl your rover across that big arse hole in the road?" Ash questioned. "Pretty smooth operating, Miss Prothean Expert."

"I simply gave the extra boost it needed to make the jump, nothing more. The geth dropship was a little more trying. Now we shall continue our mission, with your permission, Captain."

"Let's roll." The Spectre smiled as she gave the order.

'I do believe I'm been a bad influence on you, Angel Eyes. You've become exceedingly daring as time goes on.' Samantha sent to her wife through their bond.

'While it is true you have been instrumental in how I now consider approaching a problematic situation, I would not go as far as to say that it was a negative one.' The asari returned. 'Besides, that little jump I made before, long before I met you, my dearest one. I may be what you call a bookworm, but I am far from 'stuffy'."

That actually got the Spectre to chuckle out-loud, which in turn gained her very curious looks from the others of the crew.

"No fair sharing telepathic private jokes, Skipper." Williams chided.

It was if forty-five years had not passed at all for Liara. She turned into the narrow icy streets with a strange almost surreal familiarity. They passed buildings that had a very distinct resemblance to those re-appropriated by ExoGeni on Faros.

"Hey, isn't that where we need to go?" Tali pointed to the recognizable derelict skyscraper.

"One might think so, but I believe the temple is a better location source to uncover any hidden cache. I explored these ruins extensively for two years before I vacated. The temple was the only building within the parameters of my excavations where I found sconce mechanisms. And though I was unable to unlock them at the time, I believe this time we will have better odds of doing so.

The Protheans it seemed like many sentient races had been repetitious in the construction of their buildings when they found a suitable functional architectural design. Though form and function were interlinked the Protheans did not stray far from the familiar designs. As the skyscrapers resembled those from other Prothean colonies such as Faros, the temple was nearly exact to the one the crew of Victory had uncovered on Ilos.

Where the overgrowth of vegetation had completely overtaken the buildings and temples on Ilos, ice had overwhelmed the constructs on Quana. And just as on Ilos the temple rose nearly twenty-five meters into the sky, another monument of carved rock and stone. It had the same single entrance, the same broad archway at the peak of an enormous staircase. And just as it was on Ilos it had been carved into the outside wall of the temple itself. The surface of the ruin was barely visible from the banks of snow and ice.

The rover pulled to a halt just outside the grand doors to the temple. With practiced routine five crewmembers disembarked, weapons pulled as they began scouting the surrounding area for signs of life, or potential hostiles. One however remained behind, forbidden to leave the mako until the all-clear was given.

The remaining five made a one kilometer sweep before they returned to the temple satisfied for the moment they were secure. Williams and Tali opened the belly box containing both Ksad Ishan and the remote drones. Considering the hostile environment and possible threat of enemies the deployment of such drones followed regulations. Twelve drones flew in multiple directions, spiraling out from the mako.

"We'll make base camp within the temple." Shepard said. "It will provide ample shelter and cover. Once inside I want proximity sensors set up, a regular watch set and two drones sweeping the interior perimeter. Since you don't need sleep Ksad Ishan, you will keep a constant second watch. After all that was what you were named: Vigil." She turned towards her wife, asking, "I'm guessing if this place is identical, we'll find those same sorts of dark energy locks we saw on the Ilos temple."

"Yes and no. The locks here were damaged by biotic looters." Liara answered. "They had been attempting to open the doors by various deconstructive means. Do you recall what I told you about powering such locks with too little or too much dark energy?"

"Yes." The Spectre said. "You said the sconces redirect the energy back into the lock and unbind it. They have to be lit simultaneously with a carefully timed and balanced flow of power. Too much energy will burn out the sconces and you have to wait forty-nine hours for them to cool down. Too little power the sconces will send a biotic repulsive backlash into you."

"Yes. I surmised that the looters experienced both such occurrences numerous times and grew impatient. They tried other means of getting into the temple."

"How? Not even the geth could break in via the front door." Garrus said.

"They performed what we've come to know as 'Pulling a Shepard'." Liara said with a smile on her lips.

The Spectre crossed her arms, her eyebrow arched questioningly. "Pulling a Shepard?"

"Um … I can explain, Captain." Williams interjected. "Some of the crew have come to phrase unorthodox and improvised solutions to strange and nearly impossible tasks as …."

"Pulling a Shepard." Sam finished for her XO, rolling her eyes. "Great. I've become a colloquialism."

Liara touched her wife's arm. "Tis better than becoming a curse, is it not?"

"Marginally." The other woman puffed out a breath of air. "Okay so what did they do?"

"They used mining lasers and burrowed from beneath the earth up into the foundation of the temple and into the sub-basement."

"You discovered their access point forty-five years ago. By now that would have been frozen over." Aleena pointed out.

"Yes. However the door remains. While the looters destroyed the sconces and there is structural damage to the threshold we can still gain access via the traditional method." Liara said. "The front door. With our replacement sconces it should not pose a difficulty to open."

"We've got a plan, let's make it happen, people." Shepard ordered.

Tali sprinted to the rover with the knowledge that if they were to implement the plan they would need the sconces Liara had packed away in one of the overhead storage compartments. The holographic control panel was easily summoned by an OMNI–tool, a few commands and the overhead compartment sprung open. Tali stood on her tip-toes, reached in and retrieved a small bag that contained several sconces taken from Ilos. Slinging the bag over her shoulder she returned to her captain's side.

"I have the sconces." She declared, lifting the bag up so the Spectre might see it.

Shepard nodded her approval. "Thanks, Tali."

As with the entrance of the temple on Ilos, the doors here had the same concentric circles engraved upon the surface, though was difficult to make out for the layer of ice covering it. It was like looking at a frozen waterfall.

Without saying a word both Liara and Shepard approached the door, their bodies glowing the familiar cyan of biotic energy. Aleena joined them a beat later, her own body simmering in dark energy. She knew what the other two intended to do. She was surprised to discover that a human biotic could possess such control over their powers. She had never heard of a non-asari to have such talents. On the other hand this was Shepard. The Spectre had a soul-bond with young T'soni as well as the genetic memory of the Protheans. The bounty hunter had already surmised that the bio-chemistry of Shepard had been altered. What she did not know and perhaps it was safe to say very few did, to what extent that alteration was.

Ash, Tali and Garrus stood back and watched. All three had been present during Matriarch Benezia's funeral and knew from that experience that asari had the ability to change temperature on a micro-cellular level due to their unique nervous system. During the funeral the sacred water and wine poured over Benezia's body had been frozen by Liara and five priestesses. Ash had seen Liara use a similar method to heat the air around the Skipper when she had been plucked out of the ocean on Thessia after the Great Hunt. It was this latter method the biotics were now using to melt the ice encasing the door. What astounded the three watching was that their captain had that power as well. As with Aleena they had never heard of, or knew any other species to have such abilities. It had to be, the three reasoned, a direct result of the gestalt.

This ability to change temperature extended only a scant few millimetres away from their bodies, and it was never lasting, a few minutes at most. It was however long enough to melt the frozen barrier.

"Thank you Dr. S'thasa." Liara addressed Aleena. "I believe we can handle the rest."

"Of course." The matron bowed her head in respect as she took a step back.

Tali took this as her cue to open the satchel she was still holding over her shoulder, retrieved the sconces and handed one each to Shepard and Liara. They in turn inserted the fixtures into the brackets on either side of the door. Once locked into place the two took a step back so they might begin the next part of their plan.

As on Ilos, Liara effortlessly summoned the dark energy within her to cause an orb of energy to emanate in her left hand. Shepard did precisely the same thing with her right hand. Once more with perfect synchronicity they sent the orbs of energy into the sconces.

Instantaneously the sconces flared to life engulfed in a now familiar purple-black flame. As expected the engraved concentric circles glowed with that same swirling purple-black energy before dimming to a slight luminescent purple humming-glow.

There was no click this time anticlimactic or otherwise.

Everyone looked at everyone else for answers, though none were forthcoming.

"Ooo-kay so what happened?" Williams asked.

"Unknown." Liara answered. She activated her own OMNI-tool and began scanning the door, sconces and energy fluctuations. She frowned. "Everything is as it should be. I do not understand it."

Tali and Garrus both summoned their OMNI-tools and began thorough scans of the immediate area, to see if they could solve the riddle of the door.

"Perhaps the looters did more damage than we first suspected." Garrus said.

Williams chuckled. "As our good captain says, 'I have an idea'."

The others watched as the young woman approached the door and gave it a good swift shoulder bump. The door clicked and swung open. She turned, throwing a proud smirk over her shoulder for so easily solving the problem, which stumped: Miss Prothean Expert, the Skipper and the two techs. Apparently not even the four hundred year old matron or Prothean AI had a solution to the dilemma.

"When I was a kid, one of the houses we lived in had a trick backdoor. It always stuck during the winter. But mom was insistent we use it so we didn't track snow throughout the house with our boots. The wood would swell and sometimes freeze shut. We always had to smack it open with a shoulder bump." Williams shrugged. "I figured might be the same here."

It was difficult to see through the full face plate of the hardsuit's helmet but Shepard was grinning ear to ear. "Williams, you have a knack for solving problems at their simplest levels. Good job."

"Running silent, Commander." Joker announced. "Unless they get an actual eyeful they won't see us. Though with our fighters out there isn't it kind of moot"

Moments ago the ship's sensors picked up comm chatter coming from between Feros, and a small frigate registered to ExoGeni. The Victory may have stealth systems but the fighters did not. Stellar dust could only mask so much in the cold vacuum of space. It was inevitable the fighters would set off the proximity monitors on orbiting comm buoys and ExoGeni satellites of the Zhu's Hope colony.

Shiala stationed in the CIC looking over the rest of the crew used her suit radio. "All hands: action stations. Lieutenant Monroe as soon as they come about prepare to broadside. Gunners, open all turrets let them see the weaponry but do not fire. Remind them this is a Council ship that carries a Spectre. They will stand down and return to port."

"Aye, aye Commander," Joker quickly answered the order.

"And if they do not comply?" Captain Kirrahe asked. He had taken one of the command consoles at the CIC watching the holographic projection of the scene unfolding around them. "Giving them a warning is folly. Your enemy should never be warned you are going to fire on them, strike hard…"

"I am the acting XO, Kirrahe." Shiala admonished the salarian. "Do try to remember that. And if we gun down a colonial vessel how do you think this will play out with our newest allies? The Alliance will not react well to friendly fire. They will see the number of our turrets and they will stand down. The citizens of Zhu's Hope have had enough problems; they do not need it compounded by needless acts of violence. A demonstration of our power is sufficient."

"Perhaps," Kirrahe said acidly. "But you have forgotten Shepard's standing orders. She does not want our mission to be known."

"Just how much attraction do you think we will gain if yet another Spectre starts to shed innocent blood? We will not resort to violence, instead as you like to so often spout: we will hold the line."

The STG captain had to admit the woman was correct. He already knew Shepard was having more than a few problems back on the Citadel. Some including a member of the Council believed her mind was unbalanced because of her insistence of the Reapers existence. The media, Alliance Military and the Council had insisted that Sovereign was a geth super dreadnought If war was indeed on the horizon it was with the geth not the mythical demons-ships from dark space. Kirrahe himself wasn't totally positive this wasn't the case. Perhaps the Council was right, if there was a Reaper threat it died with Sovereign. It was clear to him the beacons had scrambled both Spectres' minds.

He had yet to receive any clandestine orders from the Council, but his joining up with Shepard was not purely by his choice. His standing orders: watch that Shepard does not become as Saren. If she did he was to report back the Council, at which point another Spectre would be sent to neutralize her. Many eyes were upon the first human Spectre, more than perhaps she realized.

Of her insistence on gathering a means to fight the Reapers, they said nothing. If it meant all that she collected could be used instead to fight a war with the true enemy - the geth, they had sanctioned the mission, with the augmentation she was to locate any geth enclave and obliterate it.

Shepard tossed a look over her shoulder addressing Liara as she did so. "You know the drill."

The full face helmet hid the disfavor clearly evident on the asari's face but she knew she could brook no argument if she wanted to remain groundside. Until the all clear was given Liara was stuck within the mako. Better to sit around waiting half day than be sent back to the Victory, which the captain was well within her rights to order if she so chose.

One might have expected the interior of the temple to be as its twin on Ilos. A sanctuary cum warehouse, a place converted with ceiling high stock shelves filled to capacity with crates marked 'item—various.' This was not the case.

They found instead what one typical finds reserved for a place of worship. High arching buttresses, large rounded vaults, windows of stained glass long since broken and scavenged though shards of colored glass could still be made out. Whatever theological subject they might have depicted from sacred scriptures the Protheans once held could only be guessed at. Though an educated one if asked of Liara or Ksad Ishan, after all one had dedicated the majority of her life studying the subject and the other had been programmed by the same.

It had been rather difficult to discern the true architecture in the Ilos temple as it was cluttered with shelves and stock. The Quana temple revealed the interior had a rather rounded if not domed architecture, giving the place the distinct appearance of Earth's more Eastern religions. From the central knave were four aisles leading to the left and right almost like spokes of a broken wheel.

This was once a place of affluence and learning. Hopefully there was still something to learn within its ancient shadows. Most prevalent beyond all of this were the banks of snow within the temple, massive pylons of ice, rising up and descending as stalactites and stalagmites within a cave, or the maw of some massive dragon, the icicles as its fangs.

"Okay, this is something I didn't expect." Williams breathed as she surveyed the area. The HUD display told her it was marginally warmer within the temple than out, as there was no wind chill to drop the ambient temperature further into the negatives. She looked up into the ceiling an action shared by the rest of team.

Shepard made a noise half way between amusement and irritation. "Nothing like trying to open the front door when the roof has a great fracking hole in it."

"Tell me about it, we could just have rappelled in and saved us the trouble of all that fancy lock-picking." The lieutenant gibed

"An egress from that route would be unwise." Ksad Ishan commented not in jest. For what it was. "The structure is unsound at best. And we had no way to ascertain routes of escape or …"

"Can it, clanker." Williams ordered. "We weren't serious."

The turian holographic face contorted into an expression of confusion and curiousity.

"If you are going to be a part of this crew you'll adapt to the humans concept of humor." Garrus advised. He caught the twitching mandibles and took pity on his fellow crew-mate.

It was hard being new guy and object of Williams's mistrust. The VI had a long road ahead of it, if it wanted to earn it. In part Garrus was still earning it. Not that he blamed the young human, giving the history of her familiar legacy. The only non-human Williams trusted without hesitation was Dr. T'soni. Of course that was a hard won trust; one apparently given openly and fully only after the maiden had saved the Spectre's life.

He pushed aside the small rebellious distraction of Wrex's words of a mating between the three of them, a thought that would definitely gain him a heady reproach from the Spectre. Garrus concentrated all thought on his patrol of the temple. So far like the rest of the squad they came up with zilch: no life-signs and only low energy signatures indicative of a powered down generator.

"Negative contact," Shepard announced through the radio in her helmet "First level secured, continue with the sweep and clear. I want the perimeter locked down before we set up base camp."

*I can see to that, Captain.* Liara said through the comm channel. *I'll deploy the remaining drones to keep the area secure.*

"Roger that. Liara, once that is finished rejoin the squad. As for the rest, move out!"

Under the boot-heel were the onomatopoeiaic scarrinching sounds of snow and click-clacking of marble tiles. Both combined made for a strange hollow echo within the halls of the temple. A sound quickly overshadowed by the rumble of a rover's engines nearing the massive great doors. Vibrations from its engines and wheels caused a tiny avalanche from the roof to cascade down into the alcoves. Icicles fell and shattered into great chucks that splintered into thousands of tiny shards that slid across the floor.

Garrus approached Williams, nudging her with his arm. "The 'clanker' did say the roof wasn't entirely stable."

"Hum. I wonder how much of the roof is real and how much of it is ice," she answered back.

"I vote we don't find out." Tali said giving a dubious look to the blue-white dome far above their heads.

Shepard looked up at the domed ceiling. "It was only loose snow and ice that fell. Even if the roof is by a higher percentage more ice than stone it's not going to melt or shatter if it hasn't by now. Keep focused on the mission, people. "

Snow loosened from the earlier micro-avalanche rained down sporadically sparkling in shafts of light. Shepard's mind couldn't help but stray to the beings of light. In the shafts of sunlight on Klencory there were billions of billions of microscopic lifeforms. Was it the same here? Were there those like Weareth'Bol and its people in the shafts of light, or was the dust just dust? Perhaps more consciously than she might in the past the Spectre gave the light-beam a wide birth. It was not that strange perhaps to see others do likewise. Perhaps they didn't relish the idea of marching through a swarm of tiny people any more than Shepard. Or perhaps they were simply playing follow-the-leader.

Liara, having launched the remaining two drones on patrol setting, collected the perimeter beacons from the mako's belly-box and prepared to secure their base camp. Her purple lips curled into a slip of a smile as she thought how strangely her life had changed in the past year. How much of her own thinking had evolved into a more military mid-set. She almost surprised herself when she heard a giggle erupted from her own lips. Matron Sheila would be proud for the adaptive nature. An asari commando was not something Liara had ever envisioned herself in becoming but here she was following Alliance Military protocols without so much as a second thought. It wasn't just the precautions of setting up proximity alarms that was military way of doing things. You don't explore isolated worlds alone without taking the necessary precautions to ensure one's safety.

It was everything from word usage to deploying of drones and following the orders of a commanding officer and the mindset. True Liara had thirty years before she set off on her own to learn the ways of a commando, but that was a far cry from actively engaging in that lifestyle. Now however it felt as if Liara had always been living like this. It was an after-effect of the bond between her and her beloved, the maiden knew. Something left over from the gestalt.

Finished with her duties the young archeologist quickly fell in with the rest of the ground team. The others parted swiftly as she approached so she might be at her wife's left side. The right already occupied by Ashley as was her privilege as the Spectre's Trusted. Liara knew since she was a child Shiala had always been at her mother's right hand. Until Faros had parted them.

"Sooo...Liara," Ash started. "How much has changed in forty-five years?"

"There seems to be more snow." The asari said dryly, though the corners of her lips had curled upwards teasingly.

The others in the group chuckled, the loudest was Williams.

"I suspect your true question is: do I remember where we need to go? Given a moment to collect my bearings, I believe I can." She placed a long fingered hand upon the solid stone bricks. "Keep your eyes open for a small corridor off the main aisle. It will be nearly hidden for the walls are so closely spaced together; thus making the threshold nearly invisible by the optical illusion. In fact it is best to trust your hands, and hardsuit computers, your eyes will lie to you."

It had been years since she had tread these frozen halls it was true. And there had been many halls since then and now, some frozen others as barren as the arid worlds she stalked to find scraps of knowledge of the Protheans. She led them through smooth stoned corridors, her stride purposeful despite the unsure undertones that she knew where she was going. The cloisters were crowded with many tall, fluted marble columns like stone trees. Its floor brushed on occasion with swirling-misted snow flurries when the wind from the partially open ceiling fluted down just right.

"Are you sure of your path?" Aleena asked from behind Liara. They had been wandering the left corridors for nearly an hour. Alcoves, niches and open chambers all very familiar but none of them were the ones Liara was hunting for. They searched diligently for Liara's hidden door, but so far came up empty without any hint of where it was not even false leads.

"Maybe it's the left we should have taken." suggested Tali. "The aisles off the nave and chapels all look very much similar, especially when snow-banks cover things up. You haven't been here for four and a half decades you probably just got turned around."

"Perhaps," Liara admitted. "I was so positive it was to the right wing however."

"Liara, Williams and I will continue the search the right, Garrus you, Tali, Dr. S'thasa and Ksad Ishan take the left. Keep in regular radio contact. Find anything; do not proceed further until we're reunited."

"As you order, Shepard," Garrus titled his head. "You heard her, let's move."

Aleena came up to the turian, pointing to the two corridors leading off the nave "As there are two aisles on the right may I suggest we further split our group to cover more ground?"

"Prudent." The C-Sec officer nodded in agreement. "You and Tali, I and Ksad Ishan." The second team split as decided, with the asari and quarian taking the first aisle leaving the second to Garrus and the Prothean AI.

Liara placed her hand upon the Spectre's shoulder gaining her attention. "We also have a secondary corridor to explore. Perhaps what we seek lies there."

"One way to find out," Shepard commented. Leaning close she placed a gentling hand upon the small of her wife's' back even though she would not physically feel it though the hardsuit. 'Angel Eyes, don't worry that we didn't find it right away or that you got a little turned around. I'm not disappointed you didn't find it right off the bat, so stop berating yourself.'

'How did you know…?'Liara snorted chiding herself. 'Of course our bond.'

'No. I know because I know you. You place so many burdens upon your shoulders that you don't have to. We'll find it, so stop pressuring yourself. Besides it isn't good for the baby.'

The archeologist smiled at that. 'No. it isn't.' Subconsciously her hand went to her belly. She closed her eyes briefly, feeling the tiny spark of life growing within her. 'Sparrow. Tell me, Samantha we will stop the Reapers. Stop Cerberus.'

"I swear it." Samantha said aloud. "I will find a way."

"Now you know why I place such burdens upon my shoulders. Why I persist so." Liara said.

Williams learned as the rest of the flagship ground team that conversations between Liara and Shepard were often only half heard. They had by grown accustomed to it and had long since stopped questioning it.

Silence hung between them in the comfortable working mode of companions. Liara took the lead in the search, with Shepard and Williams flanking her each searching either side of the walls for the illusionary break. Their hardsuit onboard computers made the hunt easier as it scanned and analyzed the layout of the structure and mapped it out before them.

An hour passed and still no joy from any of the teams. Liara was growing more and more impatient. It was ridiculous she couldn't find the chamber she was looking for. She had found it before, relatively easily in fact. So why not now?

She tried to visualize when she was here forty-five years ago. There were banks of snow then as well, icicles hung from the ceiling, the same numbing cold clinging everlastingly in the air.

Liara recalled wondering in awe at the structure she discovered. She was sixty-one, wandering the galaxy on her own, on a pilgrimage to find the Protheans (much to her mother's great displeasure.). She wanted to …needed to understand what had happened to them. Quana was turning out to be a wondrous find, far better than Faros. Discovering how the doors worked had been a tricky, not to mention painful learning experience. Liara walked the snaking corridors, trailing her hand along the walls as if to touch the past. Her hand slipped…but how there was wall there? She was looking directly at it. Her eyes were lying to her. She would never have discovered it if she hadn't entertained her childish whim and traced the surface of the stone with her fingertips. She knew she couldn't trust her eyes. She had done everything she had in the past, but still the hidden alcove remained elusive.

"Maybe it's like when you put something in a safe place, then forget where that safe place is." Williams offered.

"I haven't forgotten! I know perfectly well where it is, and it isn't here!" Liara snapped. She closed her eyes, and sighed. "I'm sorry Ashley, you did not deserve that."

"No problem." The young marine waved off the flash of anger coming from the archeologist.

*We found it!* Tali's voice came over the radio. *It was hidden just like you said it was.*

"It was on the left after all." Liara said "I was so very sure it was on the right."

Shepard pointed to the aisle Tali and Aleena had taken. "It was the right-handed one they took. In way it was the right side …just on the left." The Spectre frowned. "That didn't' sound as nearly as stupid when I said it my head." She admitted.

Liara smiled as she touched her helmeted forehead to that of her wife's with a metallic clank. "I understand your meaning. Come we have much to do." Her next words were whispers. "I wish to be off this frozen planet."

The other two women chose not to offer comment, sometimes it was best to keep silent around a pregnant woman who was far more than irritated, cold and a touch disgruntled.

Liara was not mistaken when she believed the entrance to the hidden alcove was to the right: it was the right most aisles on the left side and it was the right side of the corridor that the illusionary wall broke open.

For all their trouble in locating the hidden alcove it was in a word: unremarkable. One might have thought it only a nook for storage of relics - a ten foot square hole in the wall. There were four holes where sconces once belonged, but that was the only thing of note. Tali who still had the bag she had collected from the mako, opened it up, withdrew the replacements and once more handed them to her captain. Just as they had with the grand doors outside, the sconces were set into place.

Powering them up was the next step, and perhaps one of the easier tasks. For the next objective was what waylaid Liara all those years ago. To demonstrate her dilemma the asari tapped one of the now purple-flamed sconces causing a most unique reaction. The torch hummed.

"None of the others did that!" Shepard exclaimed.

"I have never encountered anything similar in all of my research." admitted Liara.

"Combination locks were common means to concealing the inner sanctuaries." Ksad Ishan commented.

"What's in there that they wanted secured?" Williams asked.

The AI answered the marines question with one of its own. "What do most sentients keep in the holiest of holies in their own temples?"

"If you want the truth, I never thought of the Protheans of being all that religious." Williams shrugged. "I suppose they believed in some sort of higher power or powers. Like you said most sentients have some kind of faith at sometime in their existence."

Liara hesitated. The Council had declared places like the planet Armeni with their crypts to a long lost race called the zeioph to be sacrosanct. According to Council law all grave sites were considered such. Despite her archeologist's curiosity Liara could not in good conscious break that law, or her own beliefs.

"Explain it anyway." Shepard ordered. Whether she felt Liara's hesitation to open the sanctuary or not was moot. This was the Spectre in full command which meant if whatever lay beyond those locks and hidden walls could be used in the battle against the Reapers, she would use it, regardless of law or belief.

"From my records that are still intact, I can relate only that they contained archives of philosophy and the Chants of Enlightenment, and quite possibly relics and icons. More than this I can not say, my files are too degraded. Nor can I extrapolate from the found data files your crew recovered as they do not contain further details on that specific subject. They do however contain some recoverable material on the Chants of Enlightenment, if you desire a recitation."

"This place is sacrosanct?" Liara asked the AI, ignoring its offer to recite Prothean Holy Scripture. In all her time she had spent studying, researching and uncovering secrets of the Protheans, Liara had never before had to disregard the law or her faith in her pursuit of that knowledge. Not even on Ilos: either time. The dead there had not deliberately entombed. Though a grave site now it wasn't an intended crypt. There was no trespass. But this…

Shepard turned to Liara, took a breath and spoke as a commanding officer to her subordinate. "You can't be an archeologist and not tread on someone's tomb or holy place sometime in your career. You don't get it both ways, Liara. If I have to make it an order I will. Find a way in. The beacons gave warnings of the Reapers and gave us a way to stop Sovereign. If there is anything like that in there, I want it."

"I understand, Captain," came a soft answer. "I will find the way."

Shepard only nodded her head as a form of acknowledgement as she would any other member of her crew. It was a line of authority both Spectre and Prothean expert understood and respected. It was a line not for wives but for the chain of command.

"Ksad Ishan, do you know that combination? When I was here before I had thought to have solved this but, I could not open the door. In fact am ashamed to admit I could not even discover the door these sconces open. I spent weeks trying to uncover it."

Shepard looked at the sconces then to her wife--and become absolutely stymied. Liara was incredibly intelligent, the foremost expert on Prothean technology, and this sconce-puzzle had stopped her? How was that possible?

"How?" Sam asked the question aloud. "There can only be twenty-four possible permutations with the harmonic notes. Right? Four multiplied by three times two times one leaves you with a fractal of four which equals twenty-four."

"Unless you account for how the sconces are lit, combine that with the fractal of four and it alters the number of possible of permutations, significantly." Liara said. "Believe me, Samantha during those weeks I was here previously, I have tried every possible permutation! The one I discovered that had any amount of success however limited, was to ignite them simultaneously and have the sconces harmonized at once. Still there was no door to open as there was on Ilos. I know I am missing something. I hope that either Ksad Ishan or you Samantha may see something I could not or can not. I believe the cipher may allow us to see something I missed forty-five years ago."

It was decided the best course of action was for Liara to go through everything she had done during her first visit. Shepard stood back leaning against the adjacent wall watching her wife in motion. The others stood back as well, after all what could they do but get in the way?

Each of the twenty-four harmonic permutations was attempted; there was only one that had any true reaction. Just as Liara had explained. It was the simplest of compositions: the highest octaves to the lowest. Four notes sang out as one voice. Purple–black light filled the corridor as if a sudden flush of oxygen hitting an open flame.

Everyone excluding Ksad Ishan jumped at the sudden flare of illumination. Martial training had most of them going on the defensive. Instinct drove them into action. They sprang away from the walls, drawing their weapons. When nothing happened save for the corridor becoming brighter, the handful of warriors stood down.

Under the full face helm it was difficult to see the slightly sheepish expression on the asari's face. "It has been a while." She reminded the others. "I have forgotten just how bright the sconces became."

Scans of the omni tools and onboard computers relayed no anomalies indicative of a concealed door. This was the problem Liara had admitted to having in the past.

"Perhaps the door is in one of the other aisles?" Tali offered.

"I thought of that but I found nothing." Liara said, her voice taking a tone of frustration and defeat.

""I suppose you sent a biotic pulse down the corridors as well?" Shepard asked. "If everything else hiding in the place responds to element zero perhaps it's just waiting to get hit."

The Prothean expert sighed and nodded her head. "I exhausted those possibilities as well."

"Oh." Was all the Spectre had to say. She returned to her previous post by the back wall and leaned against the surface, in one of her habitual poses of relaxation. Her arms folded over her chest, her mind worried over the conundrum before them. She watched the glowing black-light of the sconces as if their source of illumination could utter a hint, a clue as the location of the hidden door. "There has to be a door right?"

"Most assuredly." Ksad Ishan replied. "There has never been any other purpose for the machination."

"Turning them on was highest to lowest octave, but what if after they are on there is a secondary perhaps even a tertiary combination. Try the lowest note to the highest."

Liara looked exasperated. She had tried that forty-five years ago as well. When she turned to explain this to her wife, Samantha gave her a look: just humor me. It was an expression married couples knew how to interpret and it was best to comply or engage in a rather pointless argument.

"Very well." The asari said, and did just that.

Shepard felt something shift rapidly behind her one moment she was leaning against the wall the next….

…giving a rather undignified yelp as she tumbled ass over head down a flight of stairs with such momentum it took her down a second flight. She landed hard against stone, the air whooshing from her lungs, into the hardsuit's re-breather.

"By the Goddess!" Liara rushed to the wall where Shepard had vanished. Touching it her hand went right through it as if it were naught but a hologram. At that moment several things happened at once.

"Shepard!" Williams hit her radio. "Shepard come in! Do you read me?" Gaining no answer, the lieutenant spun on her heel, disengaged her rifle and pointed it at Ksad Ishan. "What the fuck happened to her? I know you know. Spill it."

The drone backed up nearly tripping onto Garrus in an attempt to retreat. "This is not my doing." It protested its innocence.

Liara ignored the commotion concentrating on locating her lover though other means. Their bond flared briefly: pain… can't breathe - joy when air came back - more irritating pain.

Tali approached the wall, fascinated she started scanning with her omni tool, the readings relaying back to her intrigued the young quarian. "Harmonic resonance combined with dark energy, this is truly remarkable technology. Think of the possibilities!" her engineering mind whirling at FTL speeds.

"I think it best to find our captain before the music stops." Aleena said.

That got Ashley's attention. "Wait. What happens if Shepard tries to come back through and it does stop?"

"I suspect the reinitializing of solid matter would break apart the Spectre's body." The bounty hunter answered.

"I can fix that." Tali confidently said. "All I have to do is reconfigure the mechanism so that that the harmonic resonation is at a continuous flow." Skills born out of necessity on the Flotilla gave most quarians innate skills of tech knowledge. Even by those exacting standards, Tali was a prodigy. Working swiftly she soon reconfigured the element-zero locks to needed specifications of a constantly looping harmony.

"Well this is just great." Shepard grumbled, rolling her shoulders and head, trying to get feeling back into her joints. The stinging-numbness of a stair fall was never a pleasant sensation, especially if you happened to be heavily armed. Granted the hardsuit took most of the damage but not all. Automatically she tapped the side of her helmet activating her radio. "This is Shepard, anyone reading this? Liara? Williams?" all she received was white noise. "Perfect." The snarky side of the Spectre shining through her more typical poise. "Just where the hell am I?

'Samantha? Are you harmed? Are you all right?' Liara's voice had a slight edge of nervous worry.

'I'm fine." Shepard answered.

'Is that I'm fine after being stuck with a knowledge-dump by a beacon, or are truly fine?' There was no mistaking the slight scolding if not concerned tone of a wife.

'A few bumps and bruises. Nothing serious. I took a tumble down a few flights of stairs. I think I am in some sort of sub-level. Must be directly below you.'

'We will be with you momentarily.'

'Wait. Someone with biotics will have to remain behind to reopen that door…'

'You need not concern yourself, Tali has seen to it. The door will remain open as long as it is necessary.'

'All right, but watch that first step, there are no guard railings and the steps are extremely steep and narrow.' Shepard looked up at the zigzagging stairwell; it reminded her of the steps one finds in the towers of medieval castles or cathedrals. She was never prone to vertigo given by heights, but something about those sorts of stairs invoked involuntary dizziness.

'We shall be mindful.'

As promised moments later the remainder of the party came through the holographic wall, and with great care navigated the steps.

"I think I know why you couldn't find the door all those years ago, love." Samantha teased. "You didn't have an accident prone Spectre with you to fall though the wall."

Liara's lips curled into a smile. "Indeed not." She touched her helmeted forehead to her beloved's in a brief show of affection.

Then all at once the Spectre was back in command. "Move out!"

The foyer of the stairwell opened up into yet another long corridor, this however differed from the pillared aisles in many respects. Forty beautifully carved, lifelike gray stone statues of throned figures flanked both right and left of the companions. Twenty on each side stretched down the hall as far as their eyes could see. There were as the statues found on Ilos, proud, staring, regal and cloaked so that if it had a sex it was not noticeable. Long tapered four fingered hands rested upon stone armrests as monarchs at ease in their finery and wisdom.

"I didn't ask when we on Ilos either time, but who are these people?" Ashley asked pointing towards the colossal statues lining the corridor. "Are they heroes? Gods?"

"They are Paragons." The answer came from Ksad Ishan. "In their time there were as living ancestors."

"Paragons?" asked Tali. The young quarian approached one of the statues. Her eyes drawn as were the others to the faces of a long dead race.

Much of the features on the great statues of Ilos had been marred by time, erosion and foliage. Here however the faces were fully discernable. Where one expected to see a mouth, they had fleshy strands dangling down like a beard of tentacles. Those who had been on Ilos had dismissed this feature for the overgrowth of virulent fauna rather than see it for that it was. To most it was a ghastly sight. Liara was intrigued.

"From my studies I've learned that any Prothean who has made an achievement of significance can be named Paragon." Liara said as if she were tour guide or perhaps curator of an art museum in her explanations of the statues before them.

"Sort like the saints on Earth." Ashley reasoned. "So did they get their statues posthumously or during their lifetime?"

"During." Liara said in her most tutoring voice. "To become a Paragon is to be recognized as Ksad Ishan a living ancestor. Your words are considered ineffable and you are likened unto a deity. Your family, those you choose to ascend with you become the founders of a new line of nobility. Indeed every noble house of the Protheans, in their time could trace its line back to a founding Paragon. From what I understand it was a rare thing however. Paragons are uplifted even beyond the royal imperial throne." Liara gazed appreciatively up to the grand statues as only as a disciple of history could. "Statues of the Paragons are found throughout their empire, though no where so prominently as in the halls of heroes in their temples."

"So how did they become a Paragon?" Garrus asked. His three fingered hand touching his own mouth, imagining how one could speak with the tentacle like protrusions.

"The Great Assembly voted on uplifting a named soul as a Paragon. The real Ksad Ishan was such a named Paragon." said the long dead scientist's name sake. "Had not the utter desolation of his race came to fruition, the House Ksad would have prospered."

"I wonder just how prosperous he would have been with a House without the unessential personnel." Williams shot back.

"Williams, stand down." Shepard ordered (despite the fact she wondered the same.).

"Aye, aye Ma'am." The young marine quickly reined in her anger, or at least its outward expression. Inwardly she hated the AI for preserving itself over the lives of living beings.

The Spectre need not explain her reasons, nor did she feel she had too. They both knew that there were some decisions that had to be made and sometimes those decisions led to death. It wasn't what was wanted, but circumstances beyond ones control called for. Until the younger marine had to make that call, she would never understand.

Even if the Prothean AI was incapable of emotion, incapable of grief or remorse over the needed call, Shepard wasn't. The AI's decision was the logical one. It had to preserve the knowledge in its memory banks concerning the conduit, the keepers and the trap of the Citadel over the lives of those kept in its care. It was the right and only decision. Elysium, Virmire …the Citadel yes the Spectre knew well about such decisions. Decisions that were crucial and needed to be made despite the fact the Spectre hated having to make them. She prayed she would be put to death the day that decision ever became easy, or easily disregarded. If it happened it was the day she stopped being alive and became a machine of war.

She said nothing as her determined steps took her past the Hall of Heroes into a vast chamber beyond. Only here did her marching gait stop. Abruptly those that followed her ended their trek just as swiftly, all stunned for what their eyes beheld. The sanctuary of the Protheans held in the center several hovering orbs smaller versions of the one on Eletania.

All who entered knew at once that beyond these walls lay the seat of the Prothean Empire. How humble it was now, collapsed into the dust of its former magnificence. As she neared the chamber Shepard could sense the quintessential energy of beings fifty millennia ago. This sanctuary had been clearly built during the pinnacle of the Prothean Empire. The Spectre knew that no one other than a Prothean eye had seen or touched this place.

"A vinculum," said Ksad Ishan. "A remarkable find indeed! This is most fortuitous. Captain, you need to open it. Approach as you had the beacons, it should respond favorably to you."

Her mind flashed to the visions given to her by the beacons. Utter desolation. The once proud Protheans wiped out from the galaxy like excrement from a boot. She knew the claws that had wrought this deed! The act of genocide is unconscionable. The flash of memory assaulted her again almost debilitatingly so until she felt Liara's hand upon the small of her back.

'I am here.' The soft purr entered her mind, settling her unsettled soul. 'That will not be our fate.'

As Shepard neared the stronghold's inner sanctum a strange sensation crept over her - an indescribable feeling of displacement, a sense of vertigo as reality itself appeared to warp and bend around her. This disturbance seemed to emerge from the sanctuary's furthest chapel as she cautiously approached. The feeling of displacement intensified with each step. The source of the displacement emanated from the pyramid positioned amongst the spheres like a holy relic. The others watched mesmerized as the energy of the pyramid uncoiled itself and snaked down the triangular sloped sides into the Spectre, raising her a meter above the floor.

A sound wretched in that terrible silence: a scream of utter desolation of wrenching agony of body and soul. The sound came from Samantha!

The once dormant memories and knowledge were now fully aroused and for the first time, Shepard felt the true presence of the Protheans and wraiths of the cipher merge and become one - willful, ravenous and deranged from thousands of years of imprisonment. The memories were now in command and Shepard now became its host.

For a moment she felt as if her very soul was being leached from her body. But the memories knew better than to destroy its host and just as she neared the brink of oblivion the pyramid released its hold on her.

The Spectre thought she heard gun fire, or was it thunder? She couldn't have testified to either. Her eyes heavy, she found no strength within her to open them. The weight of memories pressed in on her, weighing her down. She succumbed.

"What have you done to her Ksad-Ishan!? Is this your trap!?" the asari's body began glowing a brilliant blinding blue. Rage filled the young heart, all she wanted to do at that moment was tear into the Prothean AI with a warp-field so strong anything left would have been just enough to fill a coffee cup. If not for Samantha's unconscious body cradled in her arms she would have sent out a biotic pulse that would have obliterated the geth shell beneath the hologram into molten slag.

"How mine? Samantha Shepard was already taken by the beacons. Her mind is unique. Do not curse me child. This is not my doing. I sought only to aide you in all in your righteous quest to save all organics. My primary programming left by my maker the true Ksad Ishan is to preserve their knowledge. Samantha Shepard is the perfect vessel. Ours were only good intentions, all that is left of the Protheans has long been scattered. She is now our only living link to our past and your present and continued future. She has not been profaned, her mind is not destroyed. Spectre Samantha Shepard is herself. She is not cruelly used."

As she recovered, Samantha realized she was now bound to the Protheans even as Saren was to the Reapers. The Spectre was faint, weakened. She felt her body being held by her beloved. Liara's voice was a shadow of an echo in her mind.

'They will burn!'

Part 28

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