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: It seemed that Shepard would have been a bit more banged up than seen at the epilogue of the Paragon: saving the Council ending. I drew out the drama a bit more. Inspired by the Sam-bashing in SG1 episodes this pays homage to that as well.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Rising From the Ashes
By Elizabeth Carter


Chapter 7

The water was clear, but there were few lights from the bio-luminosity of small flitting creatures and plants alike so everything was dim. Shepard's facemask had its own illuminations giving her an added benefit that Shiala lacked with her natural defensive translucent third eyelid. She wasn't keen on it but then she wasn't sure if she would have liked bright light any better. The reef was vast, which limited visibility even more. She watched Shiala who was ahead of her, swim off toward a mountainous range of coral. The 'mountain' of coral was coated in a dozen different species of sea plant life Shepard couldn't even begin to aptly catalogue. She recognized sea cucumber, sponges, and kelp. Creatures like anemones, barnacles, jellyfish, sea dragons and sea horses, dozens upon dozens of schools of tropical fish darting to and fro. Below her near the reef-bed floor hovered a massive stingray. What looked like a remora eel poked its head out of 'cavern' in the coral. It had seen the interlopers as 'seals' and seals were to it as noisy kids are to an old man's lawn. Disgusted the water serpent slinked back into its cubby-hole just waiting for a 'seal' to poke its air-breathing nose where it didn't belong so it could bite it off.

They rounded another bend in the reef. They still had a long way to go before they reached the hunting ground of the shark pups. Shepard was beginning to feel the pressure on her chest. The exercise was straining the still healing bones it was nothing as the gentle physio-exorcises Chakwas had her do. The gash where the husk of Saren nearly eviscerated her tightened and screamed at her to stop. Each movement of her sweeping arms was building up into agony.

'It's only pain.' She thought to herself, pushing past the burning in her body. 'I have to do this.' This hunt wasn't some macho show of prowess but proof that Shepard was willing, wanting to understand the ways of the asari, of the woman she was going to marry. She had to understand the significance of the ocean, of the Goddess Athame and of the sacred firaxon shark. The Hunt to a maiden marked the end of being a youngling and becoming a huntress. For Samantha it marked the end of a life of solitude to a life with a soul-mate.

Shiala had joined her side matching stroke for stroke. The violet skinned asari could almost feel Shepard's physical struggle to keep up. Had the Spectre been fully fit, the commando thought she would have no problem keeping pace. The angry mark running diagonally from shoulder to hip still gave the asari a pang of sorrow and compassion every time she saw it.

This was why Benezia had called her disciples to her when still aboard Sovereign. She had warned them: 'Shepard is not the typical human. Do not underestimate her will and determination. In this way she is as the firaxon shark, she will not stop until she has what it is she wants. The firaxon wants to feed, Shepard wants to end Saren and destroy Sovereign. She is a huntress, she will stalk her prey to the ends of the galaxy and whatever the cost, she will pay. Strike where the cost is the greatest, the most dear and you will have her. Stalk her as a fanged panther, watch her moves, watch her and strike when the opportunity best presents itself. Do not toy with her, taunt her or engage in pointless conversation. She is as Saren her words pour into the ears of her followers and they follow without question because she leads. Manipulate the currents so that she leads them to their demise, to their destruction not to victory.

The scar Shepard now bore was a testament to Matriarch Benezia's words. Shepard had not stopped, had not yielded even when her own life hung in the balance, even when her lover's life was in the balance. The lives of so many humans had been in the balance and yet Shepard had paid the cost to make an end to Sovereign. Just was she had made an end to the Thorian. It was this that caused Shiala to become stymied after she had joined minds with the human Spectre.

Touching Saren had been like touching raw chaotic power, a will unlike any other. Or so she thought. Shepard's power over others was not raw but directed and carefully honed. Shepard had that same will as Saren, but she didn't use indoctrination to control or gain followers. Her followers retained their own free-will and yet they still followed her and this brought more fear to Shiala than Sovereign had. If Shepard became as corrupt as the renegade Saren what then? Who could withstand the raging flood? Shiala herself had desires to follow the Spectre on her quest to end the Reapers. Was this desire hers? Or was it the subtle will of the Spectre that made it so?

It was precisely this subtle will that had made this hunt possible. The Spectre had wanted to engage in the Great Hunt for her beloved, for herself. Though no Hunt was scheduled at this time, she had convinced Shiala and the High Priestesses to allow it. Shepard was indoctrinating herself into asari culture. That had so intrigued the Matriarchs that they permitted the unscheduled hunt and Shiala's part in it.

"So it is. I will help you in your quest, Samantha. But first you must convince the Matriarchs of your sincerity."

Shepard's experience with melds were limited to Liara and Shiala. She wouldn't necessarily call the data-dumps from the Prothean beacons melds. Or the brief joining she had with the Consort a mind meld. Though it had a connection to telepathy. Standing around her now were three matriarchs, Lei'cree, Lidanya, and Mardon. It was going to be a four-way circle a meld only mastered by asari matriarchs. While Councilor Lei'cree would be the one to initiate the meld, the others had linked their minds to the Councilor's so they would have the benefit of what their counterpart saw and experienced. Their roles in the meld like Shepard's would be passive.

"Are you ready for this?" The councilor asked gently stepping closely to the Spectre. For this unique meld to work they all had to be touching. Lei'cree's hands would be on Shepard while, Lidanya and Mardon had their fingertips brushing the Councilor's temple.

"Relax, Captain. Close your eyes and feel the universe around you." Lei'cree uttered the familiar words softly. "Embrace Eternity!"

The matriarchs slipped into Shepard's mind. Humans naturally resisted mind-melds, with the strong personality and will of the human Spectre; Councilor Lei'cree expected a more difficult merging of minds. What she experienced was the very like the touching of a youngling: chaotic energy, trust, and unquenchable curiosity and easily distracted. As a maiden grew older her chaotic energy was more directed and focused despite being restless. It was a strange juxtaposition to be exposed to, the maturity of an experienced huntress and the willful chaotic power of a youngling exploring her own biotics.

That was it! Shepard's mind was unlike any human mind the Councilor and merged with because it was no longer simply human. It had melded with the Protheans and they had left their mark upon her. The connection to Dr. T'soni was so very powerful. Even touching the Spectre's mind, the Councilor could feel the edges of the mind of Benezia's daughter. Their souls and recognized one another and became symbiotic. What one experienced so to did the other. This was the way of a joined pair but the bond between Shepard and T'soni was deeper still. Lei'cree was positive that Liara would be very aware someone else had meddled with her betrothed though perhaps not know why.

Lei'cree had to push past the surface thoughts into the deeper part of the Spectre's mind. When she did she and the others linked to her were assaulted by images of death.

A white flash as lightning flared. Screams of the living, organic life being torn apart by synthetics. Wicked claws ripped into flesh, voices cried out in unbearable anguish, pain, untold agony. So many screams, so much death, the worlds burned one after the other in rapid succession as a pandemic plague. In the center of it all were the Reapers. There was no end to them, no end to the screams, to the burning of worlds, tearing of bodies.

A flash.

"We can not act based solely on dreams, Commander."

"Only you have seen the Reapers and then only in dreams."


"This isn't an AI! This is Sovereign! Sovereign is the ship!"

"You're not alive, not really. You're a machine and machines can be broken."

"We are legion."

Another flash of light as the memories changed. The voices of the Council, of Udina, of betrayal fell on one another in a jumble of words.

"Saren's not the real threat! Sovereign is!"

"Only you have seen the Reapers, and then only in dreams!"

"Sovereign is real! He's on his way here now!"

"We have posted blockades at all the relay ports linking to the Citadel, if Saren comes here, he will be stopped."

"Are you insane? A blockade won't stop Sovereign."

"Saren's after the conduit; if he gets it we're all screwed!"

"We cannot risk open war with the Terminus systems."

"Send me, I can be discreet."

"I've locked out all the controls of the Normandy as of now you are grounded."

"Your help is no longer needed Commander."

"Fools. They sit on their asses and do noting, while Saren is on Ilos right now looking for the conduit. They've doomed the whole galaxy."

"You were useful before, now you're becoming more trouble than you're worth, Commander."

"Only you have seen the Reapers, and then only in dreams."

"One day you will have to take what I say at face value."

"You've done everything, they asked for and more! Everything! And they turn their backs on you, strip you of your command and have taken away the Normandy! This isn't right!"

"I hope you know what you're doing Commander."

"…We have the Council on board. Repeat the Council is on board. Requesting immediate assistance…"

"The Council betrayed you. Skipper you can't sacrifice human lives for them!"

"This is greater than humanity…"

"I hope you know what you're doing Commander"

"It gives you strength. It is why you lead and others follow without question."

"Orders Commander? Do we charge in like the Calvary or do we hold our positions?"

"Only you have seen the Reapers and then only in dreams,"

"You are proud, solitary, alone. But it gives you strength."

"…you are more trouble than you are worth…"



"Orders Commander?"

"Remember these words Commander, when doubt descends."

"I hope you know what you're doing Commander."

"Save the Council no matter the cost."

Flash of bright light. The images flowed rapidly. Softer now, one voice, instead of many, yet still they were amassed together.

Lei'cree's mind as well as those of the other two Matriarchs' reeled as another brilliant flash light flared and with it new memories.

"You've changed,"

"Saren very nearly eviscerated you and a ship's hull landed almost on top of you…" "Protect Liara. Protect Liara. I'm dead…Protect ! Protect! Protect Liara! I love you…" "…before your connection to the first Prothean beacon had changed your beta readings and every encounter you have had with Prothean technology since has augmented that change further."

"Protect Liara!"

"When you gained the cipher you simply weren't given the Prothean Rosetta Stone, Commander. You were made to think as a Prothean…"

"I suspect that your Joining, augmented what the Protheans did to you."

"Be still my Love, I will see you through this."

"I don't foresee this hampering your fitness for duty, Commander."

"Saren very nearly eviscerated you…"

"I'm a fluke. I will go rogue if only to protect her from them."

"Protect Liara!"

"Samantha, I thought you lost to me…"

"Protect you…keep you safe…"

"You did, Beloved. You did. Now I will keep you safe. I will protect you."

The flashes of memory in sight and sound became more and more erratic. The images from the beacon, the Councils' continued denial of the Spectre's words, the betrayal of ambassador Udina, to Liara's words and her love and Samantha's devotion to her flared one after the other. More and more they were accompanied by the sheered hull of Sovereign crashing down into the Tower, and slamming directly onto where the Spectre had been.

"Only you have seen the Reapers and then only in dreams…I'm dead…protect Liara…you're more trouble than you're worth…we are Legion…Commander…what are your orders Commander….Spectres are sworn to protect the galaxy…someday you will have to take what I say at face value…we owe you a great personal debt Commander one we can never repay…you've done everything they have asked of you and more...Listen to me, the Reapers are the true threat, Saren is their prophet… Sovereign was only a vanguard, the Reapers are still out there and I'm going to find away to stop them!"

When the meld ended Lei'cree felt a wave of dizziness take her, so much so she would have collapsed onto the marble floor of the abbey's library had the Spectre not caught her in time and manoeuvred her to a chair. The Council's personal opinion of the Spectre rose significantly as did those of the other two matriarchs. While they were left dazed and light headed it was Lei'cree who suffered the most. She stared at Shepard with brilliant sea-green eyes in total awe.

To live with those images the beacon imprinted on her mind and the memories must place Shepard under great emotional strain. In them the matriarchs had felt deep despair, anger and frustration. No one but her crew, Admiral Hackett and Captain Anderson had listened to her, had believed her, and had taken her words at face value. It had hurt the commander as a physical blow. She had been devastated when she was turned aside again and again even after proving herself over and over. She had sworn an oath to protect the galaxy when she became a Spectre and yet when she carried out that oath she was forsaken not only by humanity but by those who had made her into a Spectre.

Was it any wonder now that Samantha…not the Captain, not the Spectre but the woman felt broken and lost? For so long she was Shepard, Commander, Spectre and had ignored the woman beneath it all.

"We will grant the request, Samantha."

Now perhaps Shepard was regretting her willful desire. Her body could not be controlled and dominated into following her orders. It simply wasn't healed enough. Yet the Spectre offered no complaint even if it was written clearly in the expressive ocean-blue eyes. Shiala vowed to herself to ensure the Hunt was a success. Besides, Liara would kill her if she allowed anything to happen to the Spectre. It was the task of a matron to watch over their wards.

The Great Hunt was as much as a test of stamina, determination as it was intelligence, guile and will. Though she could not directly interfere in a young maiden's Hunt she could guide the course. There was no shame in failing; only in the attempt never being made. If a maiden chose to yield she was taken to the surface by one of the matrons guiding the Great Hunt and brought to the safety of the awaiting watercrafts. She would be allowed to try again when she felt herself ready.

Shiala doubted Shepard would yield the Hunt, however there was a real world possibility the woman's still healing body would. If that was the case Shiala would step in and bring the Spectre back to the safety of the boat. From peripheral vision the observant asari caught a movement and very nearly gasped. Quickly she nudged Shepard and pointed with her chin. "We've got incoming." she said over the rebreather's communicator.

Shepard watched with dispassionate coolness as the distant silhouette closed in on their location. It wasn't that she wasn't struck with awe by the shadow of death, but rather forced herself to view the hunt as an N7 stealth operation. Infiltrate enemy territory; close in on the target and neutralize it. Do not be seen, do not be heard, and do not attract attention. Quick, quiet and efficient. Her outside demeanour was nothing like the storm within. She was so wired, it was everything she could do to keep from striking out at the shark's ever nearing form with the biotic slam of a singularity.

The Spectre drew her double bladed dagger from the calf sheath, flipped it so it ran parallel with her arm by instinct. The blade would simultaneously allow her a defensive block while being lethal at the same time.

Good position for fighting bipedal enemies, not so good against a shark. Shiala shook her head, and Shepard flipped the blade around once more and held it before her as if wielding a gladius.

Two full moons had come and gone since it had last fed, and its need was now overriding. Desperate. Before it, an invisible cone of fear swept the warm, shallow sea clean of life. Shoals of hake and tilefish panicked at its coming, scattering like handfuls of flung metallic spears. At a length of fifty feet and a mass of over fifty-two tons it would take more than a mere morsel to satisfy the firaxon pup.

The enormous shark pup needed food - big food. A marlin circled lazily to the firaxon's left, its barred ultramarine flanks glittering in the flickering shafts of late afternoon sunlight. Capable of mind-stuttering bursts of speed, it was too hard to catch for the shark to bother with. But still the firaxon's hunger burned.

Skulking silently the firaxon caught a glimpse of two 'seal' creatures. Slow moving little things. While it preferred whale, it would perhaps start with seal for appetizers. Air-breathers were vulnerable.

Closer . . . closer . . . NOW!! The shark pumped its tail powerfully from side-to-side, accelerating rapidly to close the distance between it and the fuel its cells so urgently needed. The firaxon's jaws gaped wide, revealing triangular, serrated teeth the size of a turian's hand. Oxygen-bearing water pounded through its gills exhilaratingly. The firaxon's upper jaw, slung loosely under its skull like that of other sharks, protruded forward and down: reaching, straining in anticipation of sweet, warm flesh . . .

The shark was closing in on them, seeing them as better prey than the tiny fish it had been gulping down or the swift marlin. Spectre and commando turned a summersault diving deeper into the reef, taking flanking spots in the coral jungle's crevasse and niches. The tail slammed into a jutting stalagmite, enough to crack it as the huntresses struggled to find superior defensive positions.

Instinctive panic rippled within Shepard. This was no thresher maw she faced with the Mako's cannons this was a monster shark and all she had was a dagger. What the hell was she thinking! The calm she had tried to exert before went AWOL.

'Peace my love, you have your biotics. This is how we first learn the techniques of guerrilla warfare. You know this style of fighting. Do not lose sight of your training beloved. Oh by the way we are going to talk about this once you return to the surface.'

Why did the sudden image of Liara with her arms folded over her chest, and her foot tapping flash in the Spectre's mind? 'Maybe I should just let the shark get me.' Came an answer to the mental picture of a very pissed off betrothed.

Shepard and Shiala summed the power of a biotic push, both simultaneously sending it into the shark. The biotic power shot out like projectiles through the water, hitting it dead center. The wave of power snapped its body back stunning it momentarily. If firaxon sharks were like those back on earth it needed constant movement to filter air through its gills the hurtling motion would have an almost drowning effect on the beast.

It seemed to roar in pain. The bizarre cacophony was muffled underwater, sounding like a heavy thump. Swimming hard for the dazed creature both asari and human brought their blades to bear each storming for a ten foot pectoral fin. One hand shot out grabbed a fin and hung on for dear life. The huntresses latched on like the pilot fishes on its underbelly. The shark could not get its jaws at them from this angle. They pressed their naked bodies parallel, both summoned protective barriers so as not to be abraded by the sandpaper skin of the monster.

Blades slid so jarringly, Shepard nearly lost her dagger when the shark shuddered snaked around viper like and struck out at the Spectre with is massive two meter wide mouth in a futile effort to dislodge her. It turned and started to dive deeper and deeper into the reef's depths. The barrier was the only thing shielding Shepard from the increasing high pressure. If she let go the beast would have her, if she didn't she would lose consciousness perhaps her life due to the rapid plunging descent and high water pressure.

"Strike it with a lift!" screamed Shiala through the intercom. Whilst her body could handle the higher pressures, the speed at which the shark was taking them down was straining even her body.

The lift wouldn't have the same effect it would on a krogan battlemaster, but biotic lifts had played havoc on geth colossuses, making them teeter and crumble for a few precious seconds. A lift would do the same to the firaxon; it would destabilize the shark's buoyancy long enough for them to flee.

Still suffering from the biotic slam, the blades ripping into it sides, this new pain swirled the ocean, the firaxon lost all sense of direction, it rocked back and forth, careened around and headed for what it thought was down but in fact it was heading for the surface with tremendous desperate speed.

Shepard let go, a heartbeat later Shiala yielded her position. Without a word they dove back for the protection of the labyrinthine coral reef. Once more righteous terror seized the Spectre. She shot off like a rocket, passing Shiala. It was so close! Two arms' lengths and it would be on her. It bared its teeth and for Shepard, the dim light in this surreal underwater world was all reflected back from those shiny fangs. She saw its tail lash faster. Its black soulless dolls eyes stared at her not with malaise but something far more terrifying - the simple need to feed.

Instinctual panic set in and suddenly she choked in a mouthful of rebreather air. NO! She kicked harder, more frantically reaching a cave of rock and coral before the monster shark rammed the wall of living rock where she once had been. Chunks of coral, rock and terrified fish erupted in a cloud of murky underwater plumes of dust.

Shepard and Shiala lost sight of one another in the gloom. They could only see the shark swimming toward them. Black blood oozed from twin lacerations at its sides like some macabre streaming ribbons. Shiala watched as the single minded beast torqued a turn that would have dislocated every vertebra in her spine had she attempted to do the same. A beat later she felt what had caused the shark to bank so hard. It felt like a concussion grenade went off directly under her. And realized it for what it was. She couldn't see Shepard but there was not doubt that the rippling underwater wave was the effect of warp-throw. She thought only Benezia had managed to merge the two powers together! But Shepard was Joined to Liara the daughter of great Matriarch, of course the younger T'soni could do the same, and why not teach the secrets to the woman she was going to Hand-fast?

"What the hell was she thinking?" Ashley shouted. "The skipper's gone crazy! She is absolutely out of her tree. A firaxon shark is to the great white, what Joker's Godzilla is to a gecko! They make Jaws look like a guppy!" The newly minted lieutenant paced back and forth on the deck of the ocean cruiser. "She's going to get herself eaten and then the whole fucking galaxy is doomed! Who in the hell will stand up to the Reapers if she isn't there to lead us? Of all the stupid things to do just before the wedding! You're going to be a widow before you're a bride."

Liara looked positively chalky. All the healthy blue washed from her face which was growing more and more ashen seemingly in time with Ash's paces and rants. Samantha's terror was so overwhelming it rendered the young asari frozen. She tried to send her thoughts of calm even if they were lies…Then it hit her, she had to be calm. Truly calm. The only way she could accomplish that was if she meditated. Ash's growing anxiety was making that impossible.

"SIT, be STILL, be SILENT!" she demanded of the marine.

Ash did so immediately, she had never heard Liara snap at anyone, never raise her voice in anger, disapproval yes, anger never. Williams sat and bit her thumbnail, her foot nervously tapping on the decking. Liara had just channeled 'scary indoctrinated Benezia' and that spooked Williams more than she wanted to admit.

Liara turned from her friend so that she might concentrate. She had to center herself, and send that calm to her beloved. Shepard had faced dozens of horrors during the battle of Sovereign and the geth, but it was a battle she could understand, the enemy had guns, they had biotics, they had ships. That was familiar even if it was alien. Even facing off thresher maws in the mako had not brought such fear out of the Spectre.

The only time Liara felt such waves of terror coming from Samantha was during her nightmares of the Prothean extinction. Humans had a primordial fear of the shark that went back into genetic memory. It was more than a shark that captured Samantha it had been these genetic memories. The bond between the lovers could be used to send not mere thoughts but the benefit of meditating and centering one's self.

Hunger and pain drove the shark. The scent of its own blood stirring the already burning hunger into frenzy. Through the winding, jutting, tapered crevassed corridors of coral and rock, long and short, narrow and wide, it continued this way hunting the 'seals' with little sharp teeth. It wanted to snatch, eat and tear sweet flesh.

Shepard felt a wave of calm radiance enter her mind, caress her spirit and she knew if for what it was. Liara. Liara touched her mind, and brought reason with her. Shepard hadn't cowered in her fear of the shark, certainly hadn't given into it but she was close. Her attacks were not decisive enough to do lasting damage. This was a battle she didn't understand, the enemy could not be out-thought, intimidated, or reasoned with, it was pure primal energy. Not even the rachni blood warriors had prepared the Spectre for this battle. Shepard was quite literally out of her element. Though trained to fight in zero-gravity the Spectre had not been instructed on how to kill something that had both speed and bulk built into a body driven by only one need, to gorge itself on food.

Shiala had forgotten the fear, adrenaline and excitement of the Great Hunt. She had thought herself prepared to engage in the Great Hunt before, but there was significant difference from her first Hunt to this. On her first Hunt there were eight other maiden-huntresses with her as well as three matrons. Here there was only the Spectre. The only way to kill the monster was to use guerrilla tactics. Shepard had almost lost sight of that and it had nearly cost her, her life.

They darted in and out of the coral and rocks, hitting the shark with combinations of biotics and ripping into it with their daggers. The shark banked and turned trying to get at them, it used its bulk and speed ramming into the brittle castles of coral shattering them. The blood steadily streaming out of the great shark would call other mighty predators in no time at all. Already there were schools of larger braver predatory fish zipping past the wounded shark tearing flesh from is body even as it lived. Slews of sharks were no doubt already on their way. Blood had called them.

The shark turned once more; blinded by frenzy it could no longer differentiate prey from its own blood. The dark shape lumbering lazily near the surface must be a whale. Hunger drove it to hunt. It had no more memory for the 'seals' with sharp little teeth as it drove itself faster and faster for the surface. The whale would be easier.

Williams had heard of great whites shooting to the surface of the ocean to snatch unsuspecting seals, and walruses but she had never seen it. This thing, this monster her CO was hunting sprang out of the water like some demonic ancient submarine. It had been so close to the yacht when it breached that aftershocks of its fall back into water nearly capsized the vessel. Waves washed over the sides drenching all those on deck in a mountainous spray of water.

"Holy crap! Did you see that thing!" Williams blurted out while scrambling to her feet and rushing to the side railing of the yacht. Water dripped from her dark hair into her brown eyes. Her entire body was wet head to toe. She turned her head to see what Liara had to say but her companion was locked in deep meditations, unaware of the events going around her.

The shark's body slapped the surface churning it into foamy waves before it was pulled by gravity and dropped hard back into the dark depths of the reef.

The asari gathered on the deck were all just was wet, all of them ready to defend the ship with their biotics if the shark tried to attack again. They knew it was disorientated and enraged. Such a thing could be very dangerous for those on the surface. More than a few times the waiting yachts had been capsized by a shark locked in frenzy. More than a few waiting asari had become shark food; it was always a danger during the Great Hunt.

It was falling back towards them. Shepard pushed her energy-taxed body into a rift between narrow ledges of coral and stone. The torpedo shape was plummeting towards her with a speed she could not follow. There was no time. No time.

Sovereign's hull would smash into her, kill her. It would kill Liara, precious sweet beloved Liara… Liara save Liara. Save Ash. I'm already dead! Save Liara, save Liara, save Liara. PROTECT LIARA!

Everything she had - instinctually driven had summed all the power around her, within in her to repel the hull. No shark. It was a shark it wasn't metal shards of a ship it was a living creature. Hull-shark… the bulk… careened towards unstoppable. The images raped her memory. The Spectre snarled in her headset and sent a powerful biotic stasis-singularity that tore into the beast. The impact ruptured the thick hide.

The rippling distorted body contorted in ways not even a shark was meant to move. The singularly burst shot into its muscles and cartilage twisting them like a soaked dish rag. It flopped back and forth as if stuck on dry land. From her vantage point Shiala saw what the Spectre was doing and slammed the shark with her own burst of biotic singularity. The creature contorted and thrashed. Frantic, wet thumps of a very big fish trying to swim through a static bubble of element zero reverberated across the reef.

At first the shark was aware of nothing but the inexorable, terrible vacuum pulling it away from the mother-ocean, away from the 'seals' it was determined to devour. It was dead, really, but its brain would not accept that. In a desperate fight for survival, it tried to swim, to pull away, to dive. Within its body the heart had exploded. Pink-black blood burst in an underwater mushroom cloud which rose to the surface of the ocean.

Shepard sagged, exhausted, against the hollow of the reef bed. She heard Shiala shouting her name, but could barely think, barely react. She watched, had to witness the massive corpse of the shark rise belly up towards the surface. She had to be sure, it was dead.

"Captain!" Shiala shouted once more. Then said the only thing she knew would get through to the Spectre "Come, Liara waits."

"Liara?" the name of her beloved snapped Shepard from her daze. This was not the garden of the Citadel Tower, that hadn't been Sovereign's hull that fell on her but a terrible monstrous shark, now dead.

This time when the shark hit the surface it was very obviously extremely dead. The asari on the yachts used their collective biotic powers to lift the massive fish onto quarterdeck. Ash and Liara watched as the team lashed ropes around the base of the ten-foot tail and manoeuvred it so that it hung upside down. From its open mouth poured water, blood and regurgitated fish parts.

"Oh God that reeks." Ashley repressed the gag reflex. She covered her nose with her forearm, her face taking on a significantly green pallor.

Overhead flocks of seagull-like birds disagreed with her observation, they dived boldly along the deck swooping up the regurgitated fish and attempting to feed off of the shark itself. On her way to the yacht's starboard side where she felt the pull of her lover's presence Liara casually cast a gentle biotic push at the birds. It caused the scavengers to lose their lift over the air-currents and take a plunge into the sea or make desperate attempts to regain control over their soaring. It gave enough time for the asari to do their work. The 'gulls' would have scraps soon enough to get over the slight of being pushed aside for asari made quick work of field dressing the fish. They had to be swift or the ruptured organs would contaminate the meat.

Liara watched the now blood-stained murky depths for her lover to surface. She had felt her lover's mind transfer the incident in the garden to the shark's fall after it had leapt out of the water. In her mind she had seen the dread, Samantha felt when the hull was roaring towards her in the garden, the fast instinctual action to protect herself and the drive to survive, The shark's falling body had become the hull, she had done what she had done to the hull by blasting it with one last desperate singularity burst. The difference was, in the garden, Samantha had been tapped of energy, while with the shark she was still fully centered. The power of that blast had to have destroyed the internal organs of the mighty beast.

Indeed when the other asari started the field-dressing it was obvious that the organs had liquefied pooling out of the body like some macabre waterfall. This was something they had not expected and it was clearly showing on each blue, purple and teal face. All of them looked decisively ill or disgusted. Ashley lost and emptied her stomach over the side of the yacht, not that she hadn't been seasick before now but this had been the stick that broke the camel's back.

"Oh that's just gross." Williams said voicing everyone's thoughts.

Liara continued to desperately watch for Samantha and Shiala in the waters. On the other yachts it was the same. Hannah, John and Shi'ara all watched the water's surface for any sign of the Spectre and matron.

"There!" Liara pointed to when she saw her lover's distinctive black haired head pop out of the water, followed closely by Shiala. The matron seemed to be almost guiding the Spectre towards Liara. The younger asari wasted no time in returning Shepard to the deck. Gently Liara cast a lift that wrapped itself around human and asari alike and pulled them from the ocean. Just as gingerly she lowered her 'catch' to the deck and rushed to Samantha's trembling form. But it was not for fear that caused the Spectre's body to quake.

Small goosebumps covered her body, her teeth chattered, her body shivering in a natural attempt to get warm. Someone had produced large sheet towels for the huntresses. Ashley was quick at her skipper's side at first thrilled to have the woman back who had become so dear to her. Secondly to see if she had any injuries, the third would have to wait, but she was dying to tell the Spectre off for worrying her… ah… Liara… like that.

Liara held Samantha's shivering form tightly. "Oh my love what am I going to do with you?" It was a soft rebuke.

"K…K….cold…" Shepard managed to say between chattering teeth.

Liara concentrated warming the air around them. An asari could only affect the air a few millimeters around a body, but it was enough to take the chill away for a moment. "My dear sweet Samantha," Liara's eyes were a mix of worry and bemusement. "Whilst blue is a very healthy color for an asari, it is definitely not the color for a human." She kissed her betrothed's forehead.

The Spectre flashed a lopsided grin, "You can always warm me up. They say skin to skin contact is the best thing for that."

"Skipper?" Ash's face wasn't touched by bemusement but a steadily rising rage. "With all due respect, are you on red sand or something? The day before your wedding you go do something so… so irresponsible! You… you had me… er… I mean… Liara worried sick! Look at that thing it could have eaten you and not even chewed."

Shepard moved away from her betrothed towards Ashley. She pulled the large towel closer to her body less for modesty's sake and more for the warmth. Away from Liara the warm 'barrier' had vanished. "Ash… I wasn't alone, and I would have never done this alone. Shiala was with me the whole time. And so was Liara." She pointed to her head. "Without them this couldn't have been done." She reached out and touched the younger woman's arm. "I had to do this. Try to understand, I had to. As much as you have to read Tennyson to your father's grave, I had to do this."

"Reciting poems doesn't make you shark bait!" Ash shouted this time it wasn't righteous anger it was the fear of losing someone who meant almost as much to her as her sisters, her mother did. She blinked away the tears in her eyes, scowling to hide the hurt. "You should have taken me with you. To…to …cover your six." She mumbled. "I would have…you know."

"Ash? I didn't ask you because this was for me to do. Me. Not as a Spectre, not as Shepard the marine, not as a decorated officer of the Navy, not an N7, but simply me…Samantha. A passage from one stage in my life to another. To truly understand what it is to be asari I have to touch the ocean. I have to feel her tides and currents and understand the heart of it. To do that I had to undergo the Great Hunt.

"Marines have to undergo the crucible… Heartbreak Hill. You did, I did and Kaiden did. Anyone not a marine will never understand Heartbreak Hill. Not one. Pressly never got it, Joker doesn't, not even Chakwas. The only ones that might are those huntresses who go through the Great Hunt. But even Heartbreak Hill could not bring me to understand the Hunt. It is not simply about bringing down the biggest fish in the ocean. It peels away all that you are, revealing the hidden. I was terrified down there, Ash. I practically froze. Until Liara touched my mind, my fear would have taken me. And that terrifies me now more than those teeth. I was down there and all my training in battle, my skills to manipulate others meant nothing. To a shark you are nothing but food. It makes you fight in a whole different level."

"But Skipper we've faced thresher maws on a handful of other planets. You even faced a hatchery nest on Akuze."

"Yes it's the same with a thresher maw. Those sand worms eat and kill and that's all they do. As for Akuze, we were far too late. My team and I were groundside investigating a false distress call in a beta listening post when we got the true distress call from the marines trapped at the alpha site. There was no one alive when we arrived. I couldn't save Toombs' team, and he must have been already taken by Cerberus. He was the only true survivor of that incident. If I could have saved them I would have. We were simply too late. The thresher maws on Akuze were nearly dead thanks to Toombs and his squad, my team just finished the job. We just did the mop up, nothing more. We took them out then the same way we did when you were with me on those other planets, with the turrets on the mako. We were relatively safe inside the heavily armored ATV. That was something I didn't have down there. Armed with biotics and a blade… puts a whole new perspective on battle and on yourself. I had to do this, Ash."

Williams sighed heavily and nodded, finely getting what her skipper was telling her. She might not like it not one little bit, but she understood the reason now. She wasn't simply trying to impress the asari, she wasn't trying to be one of them, she wasn't even trying to culturally understand them. It was understanding herself. So much had happened to the skipper, in so short of time, it had been difficult to process everything but stripping away everything had simplified the chaos. Commander Shepard now Captain Shepard endured great hardships and was a war hero – a champion of humanity. The Spectre endured untold dangers, devastation and was a war hero – a champion of Citadel Space. Samantha…the woman behind the titles - loved by a remarkable woman had survived unfathomable challenges, handicapped by a healing body, and fear she had overcome by her innate skills and by those of her companions and loved ones: Liara's reassurance and calm, and by Shiala's guidance and experience. Samantha, the woman had survived. And could endure. That was what this Hunt had shown her, given her and slowly Williams began to understand.

Shepard was once more feeling the coolness of the air her body began to steadily shiver. Liara took from her the damp towel and replaced it with a warm, clean plush blanket. "Come, we will talk of this more below decks. Shiara has already gone below and taken a quick shower. There will be plenty of hot water left for you to cleanse yourself my love," soft lips touched her temple. "Besides you have seaweed in your hair, perhaps you need assistance in removing it."

Samantha grinned mischievously. "Oohh does this mean I get to share my shower with you?"

"Is that not what I hinted at?" Liara guided her shivering lover below decks and into the ensuite.

Liara undid the seals of her tunic allowing it to slip to the floor; it was quickly followed by her trousers which pooled at her already bare feet. Shepard watched hungrily as her naked lover turned the control settings of the shower stall. The water was turned to a level of heat that filled the room with steam. Liara turned and silently took her lover's hands into her own and quietly guided the Spectre into the shower with her. Near scalding water cascaded around them, the steam warming the shivering body.

"I know you want to talk about the Hunt, Liara…"

Samantha felt her body shiver in a completely different way when she felt her betrothed's naked flesh press up against hers.

"No I do not," the asari said in the same tone of voice that the Spectre had used on Noveria. Even now the soothing voice of that answer slipped into Liara's mind.

'You want to question me about my mother, Commander?"

'No I don't. You may not be military Liara, but you're part of my team. I trust you."

That had meant so much to the young archaeologist. No one had ever said as much to her. 'I trust you, Liara.' "I trust you Samantha." Liara whispered softly. "I stood at your side while you explained to Ashley and I understand why you needed to perform the Great Hunt. You simply didn't feel this need to embrace asari culture or one if its daughters, but to understand yourself. Samantha the woman has survived the hardships her titles could not have helped her with. You are more than the sum of your ranks and title my love. The Spectre and Captain can only survive if Samantha does. Samantha does not overcome danger, battle, war and hardships because she is one rank or another or a title but because of who you are." Liara placed her hand upon her beloved's now scarred breast, "In here, and in here." She touched Samantha's brow.

Just as silently as she manoeuvred Samantha into the shower, Liara was now just as quietly pouring shower-gel into the palm of her hand before allowing it on Samantha's lightly tanned body.

"I didn't do it alone."

"No. And no huntress has ever performed the Great Hunt alone." Liara's hands had caused the soap to lather up nicely, causing Samantha's skin to become slick under her hands. Blue hands took advantage of the frictionless movements to entice and bewitch her lover's senses.

"I didn't mean it that way, Beautiful. I'm grateful for the help. I'm saying I couldn't have done it without you." Samantha's head tilted back allowing the heated spray of water to run down her chest, enjoying all the subtle touches of Liara's oh so talented fingers. "You centered the storm within me. You gave me calm so I could see my fear and let it pass through me. Even if I had eight other huntresses down there with me, facing off Jaws there was no way I could have done it without your calm center." Samantha planted a soft kiss on her beloved. Her body aroused beyond containing it. A new storm, a deliberate storm had cascaded within her, one she didn't want calmed, the way it had been in the ocean depths.

Deft fingers, soft lips, and gentle touches of mind found secret places that brought out gasps of joy and need. Bodies slick with water and bubbles slide easily against each other, creating moans of enflamed desire. Lips trailed down throats, nipping softly at hardened nipples as hands worshiped the inner warmth, coaxing the heightened bliss of shared-climax. One set of blue eyes became solid black another dilated nearly the same colour. Steam coiled around their bodies like a third lover as hearts, minds and souls became bound one to another.

Part 8

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