Shepard felt wrapped in numbness, even the incredible pain of her crippling injuries lost before the fluff-headedness that had overwhelmed her. She wanted to sleep. She was so very tired. But there was that voice in the back of her head that howled at her to get the fuck up. It didn't come from the Avatar Bequest, from the plethora of past-lives who now saw her lying on the ground with the end so very close at hand. No, the voice which screamed at her was her own. Her own anger. Her own will. Get up.
A scowl pulled painfully at her face, and she rolled off of her back, new pain searing her as she did. It was arduous, to flop her good left arm ahead of her, to heave, to draw less than half a meter closer to the Transit. But she did it. And she did it again. Her vision was locked on the pillar of light which erupted out from the foundations of Ba Sing Se's university district, ignoring the Harvesters which flew overhead, pounding airborne artillery onto the now scrambling attackers. She ignored the Marauders and Cannibals which surged to fill the gap which a fallen Reaper created. She ignored even the four Destroyer Reapers which were now splitting off from the Transit entirely, chasing after a figure with a mandala of flame at his back, launching red rays of killing force after him wherever he went. All she knew, was the path ahead of her. Reach, grab, drag. Reach, grab, drag.
And then, a new pain. She felt herself being halted, and she lashed out with her ruined hand, a basic wave of flame to knock whoever was slowing her away. But she aborted that when a gauntleted hand caught her burnt wrist. Anderson? She tried to listen to what he said, but his words were lost in a roar that overwhelmed all else. He looked down at her, his dark complexion going grey, and then darted behind her, out of her vision. There was a shift in her pain, maybe a reduction, but she didn't know. With single-minded resolve, she reached, grabbed, and dragged. Again, Anderson said something, but she couldn't hear it. Had she been deafened? Was her hearing lost?
A slow shake of her head. No, she could hear things over the roar. The dull, bass roar of the Reapers. The rolling thunder of artillery and Mako fire. Her hearing was still there. Damaged, but there. She suddenly found the ground dropping away from her. No, she was being picked up. She looked to the arms which held her up. One, the gauntlet. The other was Anderson. With a sharp pain, Shepard turned. Balak. His armor was almost as wrecked as her body, but he stared at the Matter Transit with all of the intensity of a starving man upon a hearty meal. Anderson spoke, his words lost. A shame. He always had such poignant things to say.
She focused on her pain, on the connection of her floating mind to her battered body, and willed the two together.
A snap, and she could hear.
"We can still get her out..." Anderson said.
"She's going forward," Balak answered.
"There's no way," Anderson countered. Balak glared past her, to Anderson.
"She is. Going. Forward."
"Do it," She rasped, before coughing and having a bit of red spray out as she did. "I have to."
Balak didn't speak. He just glared. Anderson had been outvoted. So without another word, they began to move, carrying her since she had no capacity to walk. The stumps of her legs dangled above the concrete, cut too short to even bang against them. The shriek of crashing fighters ripped the sky, one of them having the sheer audacity and luck to intercept a troublesome Harvester on its way to its doom. Another for the wall. Her gaze returned to the Transit, which loomed larger, faster, closer. She had to get through. That was the thought which echoed through her mind, again and again, ignoring the equally salient question of 'and then what?' which came after it. Don't fall into a ditch in the now because you were staring at tomorrow's mountain. Who said that? Anderson? Dad? It didn't matter. She let them pick her path.
Snapping shots. A strain of Shepard's face, a stabbing pain in her guts as she willed a barrier into being. The blue field deflected the incoming fire at the three of them, who made their sprint for the Transit. There was no cover, nowhere to hide, nowhere to recover. Forward, or death. The spray of fire drove an ever increasing flare of pain into her skull, a feeling like she were on the edge of popping a blood-vessel. But then, they crossed the threshold of the Matter Transit's outer shell. The fire stopped, perspective lost.
"We're going to make it!" Anderson said.
There was a shift in the light, just a moment of it. The upward-drifting light became descending light, a shadow snapping down from the Citadel overhead and onto the ground. Striding out of the Transit were a pair of Marauders, guns at the ready, and already firing.
Shepard could hold their fire no longer.
Bullets riddled Balak and Anderson, dropping her to the ground in a jarring stab of pain. No. This wasn't over. Not when she'd got this close. She pushed up, glaring at the mutilated turian, who was now pointed the gun which was bolted to its hands toward her. She slammed her hand into the concrete, grabbed, and dragged. But this time, she pulled the ground under the Marauder's feet such that it was sent sprawling to the floor in front of her. With her one good arm, she hooked 'round its neck and twisted, as hard as she could. A pop like snapping plastic, and its neck gave way, leaving it to gnaw and gnash on the floor, its head still intact but unable to send killing commands to the rest of its body. She looked up.
She was thrown to her side, a bullet colliding with her utterly unarmored skin. It was like being hit by a hammer. Crack, again, the bullets going up her body, not able to get past her skin, but pounding her and driving the power out of her, depriving her of breath she needed to firebend, the stability she needed to earthbend. A shot hit her in the eye, driving her to the ground, blinding pain in her skull, but even then, it still didn't pop that seeing orb. But her vision grew dim, narrow. Consciousness was fleeing, and fleeing fast. And when it was gone, so was she.
A new, different kind of crack, much lower, much meatier. The Marauder flopped sideways onto the ground, launched there by the batarian's ballistic blades. Balak didn't speak as he picked himself up. He coughed, nearly black-red blood flying freely from his mouth, as he forced himself up, and grabbed Shepard once more. A moment later, Anderson did the same on the other side. She looked at him. He was almost grey, his eyes unfocused.
"You did good, child," Anderson whispered, as they took those slow, arduous steps forward. "I'm proud of you."
"I'm..." Shepard began, but was lost to painful, bloody coughing.
"Feels like years... since I just... sat down," he muttered, sputtering and wheezing. No blood, that was good, right? Right? "Ever wonder how this could have been... different?"
"Y...yeah," Shepard admitted, while Balak coughed out another lung of blood, providing most of the strength the three of them were using to go forward.
"I never had a f... a family. Never had children," Anderson said. He wretched, pulling the three to a standstill as bile left his mouth, not enough to be a true vomit, but bad of its own. "I wanted you to –"
Whatever he was going to say next was cut off, as his head snapped forward, blood blossoming from his forehead. No. NO! Shepard slumped toward the concrete as Anderson dropped, his puppet-strings cut and his life now gone. There was a roar that hit the air, but strangely, it wasn't Shepard's. She felt herself being shifted, outright hefted, flopped across Balak's shoulders, as his deliberate gate now became a hobbling jog. She could see, behind them, Marauders firing on them in one last ploy. She could see, smell, and even taste the blood erupting from Balak's back each shot that hit him.
They were all going to die here, weren't they? Right at the gates of victory?
And even as that despairing thought reached her mind, there was white, a drifting sensation, as though she were being lifted up and out of the ruins of her clothing.
The roar returned, and Ba Sing Se disappeared.
From aboard the CIC of the Pillars of Heaven, Steven Hackett felt like a ghost. He watched, helpless to help, as most of the Alliance Navy now lay in absolute ruin. And not just humanity's navy. The Turian Great Fleet had lost order, itself an unprecedented happening, and all of the turian's Dreadnaughts now burned above Earth's skies. The third wave of Reapers had launched in from the back of the Citadel United Armada's line, savaging the Supercarriers and Torpedo Dreadnaughts that had hung back. Hackett had stood, right here, silent, as ten thousand asari died on the Destiny Ascension. He did the numbers in his head. Over a million were likely dead already. A million in a naval engagement. Unheard of. And he could do nothing.
"Admiral, we're picking up a weak signal," his communications officer said. He turned to her. "It appears to be a Hammer transponder. From its proximity, it has to be on the Citadel," she didn't turn to him, so focused was she on her work. This time last year, her hair had been chestnut brown. Now, it was as gray as Hackett's own. She was half his age.
"Finally some good news," Hackett said. "Send a one-time to the Crucible, it's now or never. Helm, prepare to shield the Crucible from any incoming fire. Allocate power to Damage Control and Special Systems. Hopefully it'll be enough."
He let out the breath he didn't even know how long he'd been holding in. It felt so cowardly, to drift as he had, letting his men and women die for him. But that was their part, and this was his. His, to keep the Crucible alive long enough to to whatever it was it was intended to do. The image of the Crucible in the holo-tank changed, as the device shed its outer layers, and began to pull itself toward the base of the Citadel, like a stem reaching out to grasp its own flower.
"I hope you're the one up there, Avatar," Hackett whispered. "We need you."
Avatar of Victory
An End, Once and For All
Blood in her lungs again, and rot. But not ash. The change was enough to pull her slowly, inexorably, to consciousness. She was laying on something lumpy and uneven. When she lifted her head, she would have started had she the energy to; she was laying atop a mutilated woman, who was just starting to rot. The thrum in the air fought the pounding of her headache, and she rolled off of the old corpse, only to be face-to-face with another. Si Wongi by ethnicity. A boy. Maybe twelve years old at most, his face slack and still. She looked up, and saw someone who wasn't human, sitting with his back to the wall of corpses.
His three remaining eyes now stared, black and dull, lifeless. Blood made a red-black flag down his chest, pooling around him to the heavy iron stink which didn't defeat the rot around it, instead forming a counterpoint against it. How long? His omni was still lit up, still running. She reached, grabbed, dragged. And she took his arm. A push of a haptic button.
"We made it," Balak's voice reached from beyond the grave. "...I made it. They're going to be alright. My people... cut the heart out... grew something new. Something better. A shadow. An echo. Like me, to you. I got to the end. I am... your shadow... no longer. Walk... your path. Set us free."
Then, silence, as it continued to record. No doubt, if Shepard kept waiting, after minutes or even hours she would hear herself grunting awake, dragging herself over, and shutting off the recording. Instead, she coughed, spitting out to excruciating pain a wad of nearly congealed blood, and breathed deep, at last. The rot filled her. It still somehow felt sweet. In this moment, she could feel Thane Krios' pain, before his end. Her limbs tingled, as though fine pins were jammed into their tips. "Walk your path... Balak."
And then, she reached out again, toward the thin beam of light, toward something. Anything. She grabbed. She dragged.
Reach. Grab. Drag.
She could feel the foetor lubricating her passage, in its hideous way, over the heat-rendered fat of dead humans in this swampy, hot air. Every drag, she felt tearing in her chest, her back, her thighs, and the wounds that capped them. She knew she was bleeding again. It didn't matter.
Reach. Grab. Drag.
Not a single living person in this charnel house. Just like the name said. What did the Reapers even want with all these corpses? They couldn't be melted down into a new Reaper. Their souls had already fled to the Sea of Souls, out of the Reaper's reach. Grab. Drag. A clangor, as a section of wall moved, opening and revealing a new wave of rot-stink. Within, more of the dead, these ones all having the look of a Ba Sing Se Middle Ringer, ruddy complexion and green eyes, both turned greyed in death. Keep going, Shepard, she muttered, either in her head or under her breath, she wasn't sure anymore.
"Fuuuck you!" the voice said, followed by a gunshot over Shepard's back. Heavy breathing. Hers? No, this was even more ragged. She blinked, rolling onto her side, so she could see what had just happened. Well, the obvious was that a salarian Husk was sliding down the pile of human dead. Another roll, and the source. For a moment, she didn't know him, just another mangled human, a lot of his face outright missing, waveringly holding a Carnifex in the vague direction that the Husk had come from. How had he even managed that shot? He had no goddamned eyes!
He laughed, then, a quiet, desperate laugh.
Shepard recognized him exactly then. "Weaver," she said.
"Shepard," he said, still chuckling. With a groan, he got to his feet, the Carnifex dropping to dangle from his limp and lifeless arm. His mangled face still pointed at her. "How can I still see you?"
"What... are you doing here?" she said, after a cough and a spit.
"The stupid thing," he said. He took a step, stumbling and landing on his hands and knees in front of her. "The right thing. We're close."
"You're... Indoctrinated," Shepard rasped.
"Yup," he said. "I feel I'm supposed to strangle you now."
She stared at him, and he kept chuckling at her, utterly proper pain on his face.
"Well?" she asked.
"Well I'm not going to," he said. He grabbed her burnt arm, and heaved upward. She tried to kick him before remembering why she couldn't, but was shocked when he just pulled her up so that she was in essence enjoying a piggy-back ride. "Where to?"
"Now you're..." a cough, "a rickshaw driver?"
"I'm retired. I'll do whatever the fuck I want," Weaver said. He started to walk, bearing her weight without notice. "You're going to kill them, aren't you? Promise me you'll kill them."
"Them?" Shepard asked.
"The Reapers. Kill them all. Promise me," he said, as they walked into the light, and emerged on a truly perilous path that stretched without guardrails to a section of the Citadel that she'd never seen before. It looked up to the sky, with Earth filling a chunk of that sky. Somehow, without eyes, Weaver walked that path.
"Harbinger. I will kill Harbinger," she swore.
He laughed, painfully, quietly. "You always were ambitious."
"Why? Why... help now?"
"Simply?" he said, pausing and catching his breath. "My instinct tells me to wring your neck. To keep you from going in this direction at all costs. To throw my family and my business to their deaths to prevent you from getting... right over there," he said, pointing to a section which was haloed with golden light.
"And my instincts are bullshit right now," he said. He started walking again. "When I started, I was in it to kill the Reapers, too. I don't now when that changed. Rho, maybe. Or maybe earlier, I can't tell," he said.
"You got too close..." she trailed off, coughing, wheezing.
"Yeah, I did," he said. "I've been going down the wrong path. I figure... if nothing else, I can take a few steps back before my legs stop working."
"In the end," she said.
"Better late than never," he mumbled. "Make me another promise, Shepard. If you get out of this... do what I wanted to do, at the start. Bring us forward. Bring us up. Make us all better."
He waggled the Carnifex in his other arm. "I'm not leaving this place. Not alive. I was dead when I landed on the Citadel. Just haven't stopped moving, yet."
They reached the golden light, which parted as Shepard approached, revealing something... familiar. Not anything she'd ever seen in her life, but she knew that her soul was attuned to it nevertheless. An echo of the last nazara was here, and she could feel it still after a billion years. Here, that last nazara Avatar had failed. Here, she must not. There was a sudden tilt, and she fell to the floor, as Weaver's legs finally gave out. He lay there for a moment, then pushed up to a kneel, his back to the pit, his skin burning where it touched the golden light. He didn't seem to notice, or else not care.
"Earth. Out there," he said, blindly gazing toward the globe, not through the aperture but as though through the body of the Citadel itself. Whatever sight-beyond-eyes he had, he didn't elaborate on. "It's so... I wish you could see it the way I do. So much potential. So much hope."
Shepard was silent from her place inside the golden light. Slowly, mechanically, the Carnifex raised, until it was pressed against his lower jaw, pointing not straight up, but up and back, as a former soldier knew exactly where to send a bullet to ensure demise.
"Maybe next time, next life... we won't have to fight. Better days," he said, a smile pulling at wounded lips. "Give the Harbinger hell, Shepard. Teach that son of a bitch what happens when you start a war with humanity. With all of us."
And then, a crack, a spray of red and white, and he fell straight back, tumbling out of sight.
So long, Weaver. Until next the next life, maybe.
Reach, grab, drag, and Shepard pulled herself to the center of the golden light. At its heart, she could no longer see Earth, nor the stars, nor the Citadel. All was gold. She pulled herself up to a sit, her ruined legs flopped in front of her. It was now anatomically impossible for her to sit lotus, so instead she just did what she could. The lessons of Tuchanka; if the prefect way won't work, just do something that will. She pressed her fists together, ignoring the pain of her right hand, the tearing sensation it caused. She focused her will, communing. She could feel the whole of the Citadel from this place. Thirty seven million people had lived here this time two days ago. Now, that number was down to about nine million, with hundreds dying every second. She could feel them all. The Consort, bunkered in with some C-Sec at the academy, which still stood. Another knot of resistance in the Diplomatic Wing, with Tevos and Sparatus side by side against the coming of the dark. She could feel her sisters, the clone and the biological, in the Citadel Tower. For them, for all of them, Shepard willed the Citadel to listen to her.
There was a groan, so deep it rumbled up her spine, as the Citadel heeded.
The arms began to part, the section of the golden light parting as the entire walkway behind and beneath her moved away, blooming the Citadel like a flower, with just Shepard amidst the Gold. In the distance, impossibly far away for most but still within Shepard's now superhuman senses, she could see the dome of the Crucible, bearing toward them. And as it drew closer, she breathed out. Breathed in.
And without even trying, white began to blast forth from her eyes.
As the Crucible slid into place, the Dreadnaughts of Shield took up what would be their last position. Hackett watched, eyes grim, as they spread out, a thin veil across the vast flesh of the last hope for victory that this entire galactic cycle had. He didn't have to wait long for something to happen, though. The instant that they'd broken radio silence, Reapers broke off from their butchery in higher orbit to sweep in, and as soon as they felt they were close enough, they began to open fire on the forces of Shield.
The Pillars of Heaven rocked as the red beam crashed into its hide, alarms filling the air and shouts going up in the echelons surrounding Hackett's position in the heart of the CIC. Numbers were called. Damage control teams were rerouted. The beam stopped. Hackett waited. Another beam, slamming into the Pillars of Heaven.
He knew the theory. A Cyclonic Shield could survive one hit from the Reapers' Magnetohydrodynamic cannon. But what would happen if, say, a Dreadnaught dumped all of its armaments and weaponry, and filled the space it left behind with banks upon banks upon banks of Cyclonic Shield capacitors? The Cyclonic Reservoir took that second hit, yellow-green light flaring away as the high command for the Alliance Fleet took the brunt without complaint. They didn't know exactly how many hits the Reservoir could absorb, but that was the point of it. Shield wasn't here to fight. All they had to do was keep fire from hitting the Crucible long enough. To do what? They still didn't know.
"Reaper is redirecting fire!"
"Move to intercept?"
"No," Hackett said. "Let the Summavut take it; it's closer."
A blasting flare of thrusters, oversized and juryrigged onto the shell of the not-even-finished SSV Summavut slammed the ship sideways into the path of fire, and golden light bled out from the impact. Summavut had been the inspiration for this plan. A Dreadnaught without weapons, joining others like it in a shield-wall of steel and souls. He hoped it would be enough. Last long enough. And he had no idea if it even would. Silently in the distance, the Crucible slid into place, great arms swinging forward to lock it against the base of the now opening Citadel. And the entire Crucible flashed from matte black, to spilling forth with golden light, which pulsed up into the Citadel itself.
Vega felt like he was about to die. His heart hammered in his chest, feeling like it was trying to kick its way straight through his ribs and fuck off into a sewer somewhere. Sweat pounded out of him, and the world reeled. He didn't know what happened. He hadn't even gotten one bullet past his armor since he landed back on Earth. He wasn't injured, and he sure as shit wasn't scared. Well, not scared of the Reapers, anyway. So what the hell was going on?
He hated that he was relegated to that little island of contention, on the path to the Matter Transit. There was a Reaper in the way again, one of them now doing circuits around the Transit, while the three of its living breathren were trying to triangulate and pin down Javik, who zipped throughout the ruins of Ba Sing Se in the depths of the Avatar State to keep them all distracted.
How did he instinctively know that, he wondered? Vega wasn't exactly renowned for his deep thinking. And given his current physical malady, he was barely able to shallow-think.
He tried again to stand, to at least crawl up to the loophole that Asha was firing at Oni from, to not be upstaged by a Si Wongi, but he made it one step again, before he stumbled, clutching his chest with one hand, and his head with the other. The pounding of his headache threatened to steal his sight. What the fuck was this? And why did he feel Javik a kilometer that way, feel that Leviathan bitch and Shepard hundreds of kilometers up?
Unseen by him, but felt throughout the galaxy, if not the universe, the Crucible slotted itself into position, and the entire design burned to life.
The world fell still, for Vega.
"Well, I can't say I saw this coming," the voice came to Vega. He looked up, and saw Ismaal, the Avatar who survived the Generation of Death.
"Buddy, what the hell's going on..." Vega demanded, trailing off since the instant that Ismaal appeared before him in this pocket of stopped time, his heart instantly returned to a sane beat, his headache gone. "...with me..."
Ismaal pointed straight up with his single remaining hand. Even with Vega's very limited information, he could figure out what that meant.
"I can't say I've ever been happier to be wrong about something," Ismaal said, a crutch appearing under his ruined arm and allowing him to move closer to to Vega. "I thought we were reducing Shepard by taking away an Incarnation from the Bequest. Well, shows what I know."
"I feel... strong," Vega said.
"As strong as Shepard herself," Ismaal nodded. He hobbled to Vega's side, and joined the young Dakongese man staring into the sky. "Shepard is the final iteration of the Avatar, gaining the cumulative power of all of the incarnations before her. And now, I feel as strong as Shepard is."
Vega had a thought. A confusing, wonderous thought. "What if... this is happening to all of 'em. Not just you and me, but all of 'em?"
Ismaal smiled at that. "You're not as dumb as you let people think you are, James. She is the result of an equation that started two billion years ago, the sum of twenty two million variables. So what happens when you assign every variable in that equation with the answer which is Shepard? What does that turn her into?"
"I was just talking. I didn't think this'd turn into fucking math, man," Vega said.
"I retract my previous statement," Ismaal said blankly. Then he held out his hand. "Are you willing to take your place in the new paradigm? Become the first of the New Cycle?"
"I'm..." Vega paused, staring at his hand.
At how oddly it was lit.
Against the night, orange light from fires, or red from the Reaper's weaponry, for some reason, his hand looked as though it were lit by the sun. And he finally understood its source.
The light was coming from Vega's eyes.
"I'm an Avatar," Vega said. Ismaal was gone, and the universe returned to its pandemonium and carnage, but Vega was flinching and in pain no longer. With instinct guiding his movements, he pulled air up to heft him from the ground, his tree-trunk arms flexing so hard that he heard the plating of his armor creak and crunch under his muscle's movement, and with a howl that reached past his soul and into the incarnation powering him, he cast out those arms to a ring of copper-hued light appearing at his back.
Vega looked at the Reaper ahead of him, and he was at peace, the way he was the night he signed his contract and left Dakong. He was whole. He knew what he had to do. And with the power of the Fifth Human Avatar of Resilience now tied inextricably to his soul, he launched forward, fighting for all life. Fighting for a new dawn.
In the smoke-choked skies of Khar'Shan, under oily rain that stank of blood and death, the last of the batarian race were being herded to extinction, fed mercilessly and ceaselessly into the machinery of their butchery. A mother clutched her child close to her chest, eyes weeping as the daughter clung on with equal intensity. Both of them wore the brand of the Tolu, the lowest of the low. They were the last left, with the upper echelons of batarian society on their homeworld walking willingly to their ruin, pulled by the puppeteer-strings of the machine-monsters which now forced that ruin onto the rest. The Tolu still had their minds. They still had their hearts and their souls, and they had tried to fight back. And this was how it ended for them.
Until an alien appeared before the mother. There were no words said, by the spectre that was there, before her vision. Just an offer; not even a guarantee. Just a chance. The mother glared, and gently pried her daughter's arms from her waist. The girl wept, confused, but the mother reached out and took the translucent hand of the impossible shade.
The instant she did, the power of the Eighth Kaisoi Avatar of Joy flowed into her, and like a rocket, she shot up into the sky, her hands moving through movements that were all instinct, empowered by rage. She lashed out with firestorms which scoured the soil of her homeworld, evaporating the once-batarian abominations which the Reapers had turned her species into. The satisfaction of watching Cannibals with the tattoos of the Bata and the Issai castes, those who had put all of this madness into motion, be destroyed, only fueled the mother's rage.
She soared to the base of the abattoir that destroyed her people's dreams, and with a massive heave, she tore the earth of Khar'Shan, breaking stone and soil and folding the land to crush the machinery between it. A hundred other batarians, already inside and in the process of slaughter, died instantly instead of drawn out and savage deaths. And then, she buried the entire machine under ruin and rock, her four blazing white eyes flicking to the Destroyer that was turning to her, aghast at the impossible.
A howl from her throat, and she launched herself at the Destroyer, rebounding off of its barriers. She tore and ripped, pulling water from the rain and slashing at the skin of the Reaper, ignoring the barrier protecting it. The Destroyer stumbled back, as though terrified at what the batarian woman, the impossible Avatar in front of it, represented.
Another gash, and a chunk of armored hide fell away, exposing more vulnerable mechanical bits. She reeled her arm back, to launch a spike down its gullet.
A flash of red, and the ray of death caught the batarian woman in the chest.
She was dead in an instant.
And in that instant, her daughter, collapsed on the ground, looked up, and saw her mother and an alien reaching down to her, translucent hand extended. As had been the case with her mother, no words were offered, as none were needed. The girl took the hand of her mother. And the Eighth Kaisoi Avatar of Joy now ignited in the body of the daughter, who raced into the sky, and brought the fight again to the Reapers.
And one by one, a thousand Tolu watched, knowing that each time the Avatar fell, another would take her place. Until they were either all dead, or until the Reapers fell.
After five minutes, the Destroyer split and burst, they knew which of those two endings it would be.
Hackett clutched to the rail of the CIC, as another impact struck the Pillars of Heaven. Capacitors were starting to fail, and with that, the Dreadnaught's ability to keep doing its job protecting the hope of the entire galaxy. They needed more time. And time was running out.
He took a breath, and looked out, to find everything curiously still. A pale white light illuminated the area around him, and he turned to see... something impossible. Barely visible, he could see Hong Fuzoku, the previous Avatar, extending a hand toward him. An offer, to fight the Reapers.
"I'm sorry, old friend," Hackett said, guessing well enough what taking that hand meant. "I have to fight them my way. And you have to fight yours. Good luck, Professor."
And the light faded away, the CIC returning to furious action. A wistful smile came to Hackett's face when he turned to the holo-tank at the heart of his domain. "Get Capacitor Four back online," he called. "We've got to keep fire away from the Crucible, at any cost!"
The Citadel Tower shook, as the Reapers now streamed into the vulnerable area which, until moments ago, had been impenetrable and unbending. Talitha could only wait, huddled with the near hundred others in the oversized and opulent commode that the highest of the galaxy's diplomats would once enjoy. The room grew hot with each pulse, as the Reaper's cannons impacted the adamantine walls and while they didn't cut nor burn through them, they did damage them, heat them. Weaken them.
"We have to do something! I can't..." Tali said, flinching and barely managing not to scream in fear as another impact and shudder ran through the room, the temperature ratcheting up another few degrees. That woman, Jennifer, was next to the door, holding it shut as it took hits from something outside, her hands moving and causing it to stop glowing by dumping the heat somewhere else. They were running out of time. And if they couldn't get out of this room, the Reapers would just turn it into an oven, and cook them alive.
"Fine. FINE!" Jennifer shouted. "You motherfuckers want to see me at my best? Well come and FUCKING GET IT!"
With that final howl, she launched the door off of its rail, racing out and flattening an entire rank of reaper soldiers. Instantly, one of Talitha's students held up her arms, forcing a wall of biotic force into the breach to prevent any incoming fire from hitting, while Zia crawled to the wall's edge, trying to get to a spot where she could fire. She looked the worst of all of them; not surprising considering her physical state. Again, Tali took her gently by her shoulder and tried to bear her back. Zia's fight was done. She pulled some of that sweltering water and laid it across her unexpected sibling's back and neck, though, an attempt to ignore her own diagnosis, to give her a little bit of extra force, extra defiance.
When she did, through the flow of energy in her waterbending, she felt something... different. Over the course of a few seconds, what had been a guttering and dying candle began to swell, flare, build. Grow. Multiply.
Zia scrabbled forward, to the edge of the door, and that was for the best, because she began to belch heat, her sweat flashing to steam and the blood drying and then burning. Her jacket, holed as it was, started to smolder and smoke, as Zia screamed in pain. Her skin glowed red, then white. Those in the bathroom could only shrink back in horror, in confusion, at what was happening to Shepard in this moment.
Then, there was a snap, and the heat stopped raising.
Zia stood up, as though she had never been weak, her body rebuilt as though it had never withered. She tilted her head to one side, then another, to a loud and obnoxious crunch in either direction. She rolled her shoulders and pulled the jacket off of her back, letting it fall, still smoking and smoldering. Her shirt was actively on fire. Zia didn't seem to care. She breathed out a black and oily smoke that stank of burnt meat, an entire body's worth of cremated dross replaced in the empyrean furnace of the Second Victory of the Soul.
"...Zia?" Talitha asked.
"Keep them all safe. Hong and I have some business to take care of," Zia said, her voice the legion. She turned a glance, and for anybody else, they would have mistaken Zia for Aimei, eyes blazing white and a look of rock-stubborn determination on her face. She stepped past the barrier like it wasn't there, ignoring the gunshots that hit her, and cast her arms wide. A pale blue mandala of flame erupted at her back, and she shot up and out of sight. A bass roar of a Reaper sounded up there, at Zia's destination. And a smile came to Talitha's face when that drone of defiance immediately and recognizeably became one of fear.
She looked out of the door, past the viewing skydome, and saw that the kilometers tall Reaper that hovered above the Citadel Tower was being blasted by snow-white light, racing away from Zia's hands.
And then another ray, reaching up from Kithoi Ward.
And another, from Teyseri Ward.
As more and more people rose up, eyes blazing white, to join Zia Shepard, bearer of the Last Human Avatar of Revelation, to snuff the Reapers out of existence.
Across the galaxy, there were more than fifty thousand Nazara type Reapers, built, or rebuilt, to the specifications of that which had almost ended their undying crusade more than a billion years into the past. Each of them was the equal of five Dreadnaughts working in perfect coordination. To defeat a force of that scale, it would have taken more than a thousand times the amount of Dreadnaughts alone that the entire galaxy could muster. So sure were the Reapers of their victory, that for hundreds of Cycles, they knew no fear.
Across the galaxy, there were more than four million Zinjizu type Reapers, built and rebuilt to the Sovereign's design in the wake of their war against the greatest species they had ever fought who never gave birth to the Avatar. This pattern too knew a bloodline of a billion years. While they were frail, with their lesser souls not hardened by the titanium spine of the Avatar of their cycle giving them might, that they could be so numerous was advantage all their own. Each cycle, two, or three, or as many as five Zinjizu Reapers could be created from a single species Reaped. The species now called the vorcha had been Reaped, again and again throughout galactic history, over the course of millions of years, and gave birth to nearly eight hundred of these living ships. Their suffocating numbers might not protect any individual Zinjizu, but their host was undying, always expanding, and consuming constantly of the populations of the Harbinger's Great Design.
They knew no fear. Since the days of the Eight Fold Harvest, they were never outnumbered. Since the war against the nazara they were never outfought. Since the assimilation of the Zinjizu they were always at the forefront of technology. They had no weakness which they didn't ward with fire and titanium. They were each a nation, united under the Father, and they could never be defeated. Even the Zinjizu, weak as they were, were the match of a dozen Avatars.
So what, then, when a dozen Avatars did come?
What, then, when the Scion of the kuril, a client of the Inusannon watched in horror as the salarians it had been effortlessly slaughtering began to belch white light from their eyes, to pound through its defenses, to rip into its flesh. Every time it managed to line up a shot, to obliterate one of these impossible Avatars, another would rise in seconds and continue the assault. Until its barriers fell, until its armor broke. Until its core was sundered.
Four million Zinjizu Reapers, and falling. Fifty thousand Nazara Reapers, and falling.
Twenty two million, two hundred sixteen thousand, nine hundred eighteen Avatars arising to fight them. And every single one that fell, rose up to the fight again in another mortal shell.
Four million, losing. Twenty two million, unbreaking.
One, watching. Unimpressed.
She was surrounded by golden light, its power flowing along her and scouring her. It was like bathing in sandpaper. She accepted the pain.
"You've done it," a voice came to her. "It's over. You can rest."
Her eyes opened, tired.
Her arms drooped, her shoulders slumped.
"All that has been put in motion will now stop. It is over."
So simple it would be, to rest in this moment. To bask, to revel in victory. But Shepard didn't. She instead arduously turned, so she was facing the point at which the golden light was its brightest. She reached out. She grabbed ahold of unseen flooring, something cool and slick, an edge as though she were at its side. Then, she dragged herself forward.
"Your time has ended. Rest. Rejoin the Avatar Cycle which brought you here. The next incarnation will guide them all home."
She ignored the voice. She reached, she grabbed, and she dragged.
"You don't need to keep fighting. The war is over. You, as no other ever has, have claimed victory. Rest."
She ignored the voice, though pain ripped at old wounds. She reached toward the heart of that golden light. She grabbed. She dragged.
Shepard's limbs rebelled. She stopped dragging, the unmistakable weight of the command pressing onto her. She grit her teeth, and focused on the pain. As long as there was pain, she was alive. As long as she was alive, the fight wasn't over. It would never be over.
There was a whispering in the back of her mind, as she pulled her incarnations on, a mystical suit of armor. The weight of command ended, as the more familiar, the more bearable weight of responsibility took its place. Twenty two million souls joined with hers, and she reached out once more.
The nazara had gotten this far. And then, in the final moment, they rested. They stopped. Maybe they didn't even stop, but merely paused, and that was enough. Shepard would not pause. The Avatar of Victory reached. She grabbed. She dragged, to another pain, as another wound opened, and began to mark her path through the golden light with scarlet blood.
"You can't win. You are mere flesh. STOP."
She coughed, spitting up blood and a chunk of bone – which probably migrated up from the rib fragments in her perforated lung. It sat on the floor ahead of her, a beacon forward, as she created the road behind. But she did not stop. The words, the orders pounded down, pressure on her the likes of which she had never known, a literal voice of God making demands of her. And she refused. She reached, she grabbed, and she dragged.
"You cannot deny me. You are below, I am above. STOP."
She had nothing to say to this petulant god-child. She had a path ahead of her, deeper into the golden light.
There was nothing to grab.
The light was before her, pure and absolute. Flowing up from the Crucible, which now outputted on a scale that would not be understood for another thousand years. This was not dark energy, that barely-understood force which held the universe together. This was generating energy which had no place in this universe, a form of force native to a higher, greater reality. The reality from which the First Humanity won their First Victory of the Soul, by pulling down that immortal power and imbuing all thinking life with Soul and might. It was this power which enabled her body, by the Second Victory of the Soul, to surpass petty physical harm, to gain superlative and superhuman strength.
It was by this golden light, by the energy of it, that she grabbed not the floor, but the conduit connecting this layer of creation, and willed a bridge to the higher one. With this power, and her body burning away such that no ash would remain, she achieved the Third Victory of the Soul.
Shepard opened her eyes.
It looked like a garden. Everything planted to exacting dimension and detail, particular placement and obsessive order. But the distances between things expanded and contracted from glance to glance, since reality here had more than three spacial dimensions. Flowers bloomed and wilted and popped up buds from the soil, as time was not a straight arrow here, from the Big Bang beginning until Heat Death's end. At its center was a gravel pit, which despite looking nothing like it was somehow a representation of the Milky Way galaxy, rendered according to a mathematical model that she could only guess at. Whole stars rendered in scintillating pebbles, and tiny metal baubles laid on the gravel in arcane ways – perhaps indicating the presence of more Reaper infrastructure that the war had not unearthed. The centerpoint was the token she knew in her soul represented the Citadel. There was a rut, as though it had been shoved as an afterthought into a new position.
She was not alone.
He, and it was a he, was alone. There was no noise in this garden, not insects nor birds nor animals. Just she, and He. His features warped and shifted as all space here did, unable or unwilling to settle onto one visage. But features remained the same. She saw her father's beard. She saw Kaiden Alenko's eyes. She saw Admiral Anderson's complexion and frame. As though it had scooped her memories for every man that she admired, and haphazardly plastered the features together.
"You are here," He said. A smile dawned on His face, as though hope appearing after so long in despair that He had forgotten what joy was. "You are here! It's real!"
Her eyes narrowed, as He bolted to His feet. "I have been here for so long, on my own. This place, there is nothing here. Nobody here! Just me! Only me!" He pounded his chest, tears now leaking from His eyes. "I have built and I have hoped and always... ALWAYS... it failed. But now you're here. I'm not alone anymore. I'll never be alone again..."
She took one step toward Him, because that was all it took to cross almost any amount of distance here, and she punched Him as hard as she could in the face.
He recoiled back, not in pain but more in shock, joy bleeding away from His face as He stared at her. "What are you doing? Don't you understand? You are a god now, like me! The first borne in untold eons! And you would not even speak to me. Can... can you not speak?" He asked.
She ignored Him, and kicked Him where his testicles would be if there were any justice in all the cosmos. The hit registered to her leg, but the hurt on His face was more disappointment than registering physical pain.
"So close," He whispered. Then, He sighed. "But they always do disappoint me. Nothing I create is worthy of my time. Not even you."
He raised His hand toward Shepard, and she was struck with unimaginable force, so complete and utter that she was disintegrated from skin to soul.
And that should have been the end.
To a creature of the Milky Way galaxy, to die was to have the meat fall and rot, and the soul pass into the Sea of Souls and the idiot-machinery of reincarnation. For something to die in the higher realities, though, that was so much more final.
To die in the higher realities was to erase a law of nature, to undo a fundamental force. To die in the High was to be unmade so completely that there could be no resurrection, no salvation, no reincarnation. It was to force truth upon the old lie of dying in the Avatar state.
Erdeni fell to his knees, clutching his chest, the Typhoon autocannon he was policing the sky with falling from his hands with a clank. He registered less with his ears than with his entire being that Asha let out an identical cry of pain, of confusion. Like something had been made wrong with the cosmos. He looked to her, her skin still slightly grey as she stolidly refused to enter shock, to stop putting high-powered rounds into distant Reaper targets.
"She is not gone," the two of them said as one.
And by their rejection – they alone and they combined in all creation – reality was remade. By their souls, crafted by the Pantokrator, or discovered by same, they fulfilled the purpose they had always been intended to achieve: to not allow the Avatar to die before the fight was done.
Abentus felt it. They felt it in their being, that rejection, that defiance, that bolt of righteous outrage that started down on the planet and then vanished into the realms beyond that the purple-skinned fiends surrounding it called 'The Holy Heights of the Father," and felt something else following it. A shifting against the surface of the real, as something made its way out of hiding at last.
There could be no other signal, no other flare against the dark that would mean as much as this. Abentus would hide no longer.
There was a crack, as explosive bolts, installed on the ugly plates that contained it, sheered away a huge chunk of That Which Is called the Mahna seemed for a moment to self-destruct. But what emerged was golden and shining. The tendrils which had been reaching down from its face flared at their ends, hands and arms connecting to shoulders as the entire craft flipped, a basic 'head' rising up from where a Reaper's tendrils converged. The cephelopodic body cracked and shifted, unable to form the lower-body of the Humanity which Abentus had been, instead becoming a vision of one of its spirits which would drift across the sands. Between its arms spread hard light in blazing silver, the wings which could hold their kind aloft on the very dense atmosphere of their homeworld.
The other Reapers turned in shock and confusion at the reappearance of something that they believed had been wiped out millions of years ago. Abentus took advantage of that shock, racing toward the nearest of its 'former brothers', and grabbing the two kilometer monster with a body not significantly smaller in the least. And with rage bottled up by cycle upon cycle, with the fury stoked with each failed attempt to save some glimmer of the beauty it had seen across the untold millennia, it began to tear, to cut, to rend its way through the utterly unprepared bodies of They Who Are.
And as it fought, a ray shot out from the Citadel, the Ansible, and slammed into the Mass Relay at the edge of the solar system, and from there, spread throughout first the galaxy, and then off into dark space faster than light could follow.
The Pantokrator stood now, at the end of all things, in the Harbinger's garden.
Its antipode stared in hope, in glee, at the appearance of something less 'flawed', less 'beneath' than the creature who had appeared first. To the Harbinger, this was having spent an entire lifetime alone, and in the end, only then finding a brother.
"You're real!" the Harbinger exclaimed! "I had despaired of finding anything like me in All That Is! But then I saw that small thing, that lesser thing, that Herald of yours that you sent! I didn't understand, but I do now! You needed her to show you the way! Welcome! WELCOME!"
Harbinger moved to embrace the Pantokrator, but the Pantokrator chose instead to strike the Harbinger. It was not a punch, nor any elemental martial art. It was the pure aspect of a strike, the rarified notion of violence, and it impacted the Harbinger, sending Him crashing through one of the 'trees' that dotted the garden, sending it crashing down.
The Pantokrator stormed to where the Harbinger lay on the ground. "Stand up," the Pantokrator roared, feeling as she became feminine. "STAND UP!"
"What was that? Are you alright? Have you been down there too long?" Harbinger asked, trying to make sense of being rejected twice by the things He had strove for for so long, and to be rejected so quickly.
The Pantokrator struck the Harbinger again. "You are not a gardener. You are not a benevolent god, nor a creator. You are a mistake. One that has been allowed to play diety for so long that you've actually started to believe that you are one. STAND! UP!"
Harbinger rose, His features shifting and warping, as He tried to hold onto deluded hope, to narcissistic pride. "But... you are like me! You have no stakes in that petty, lesser world. Here you can be what you were always intended to be!"
"I am not a god!" The Pantokrator roared, now borrowing another woman's voice. "I have never been a god! I was made, MEANT, to help people! You were a desperate bid by monsters to become immortal. I have never forgotten my goals! You never even remembered yours!"
Harbinger shook his head. "I am the loving Father," He said. "My purpose is glorious. They sing my name in praise and worship."
The Pantokrator was in Harbinger's face. "Because you gave them no choice! They are as bacterium to you, useful to you only as long as they do what you want. The instant that your turgid passion-play grows boring, you will abandon them. As you have in the past, as you would in the future. You are no father. You are a failure. You have always been a failure! You will always BE a failure!"
"ENOUGH!" Harbinger howled as He struck back, sending the Pantokrator careening into what was in essence a flower bed. "I will not be denigrated by anybody. I am perfect. I am pure! I am everything that all creation should strive to be!"
He struck again, but She was able to move with the strike, feeling the wave of force that passed down into the lower realities. Somewhere in the cluster of exploding stars at the heart of the Milky way, several dozen stars were forcefully ejected, flying rogue out of the galaxy, while others, unable to be hurled away, simply instantly exploded. She countered with a blow of Her own, but the Harbinger warded that as well, the force everting a black-hole in the galactic fringe.
He gave a wordless roar, refusing to accept any aspect of His frailty as He lashed out now against the bearer of His hopes. Some blows that He sent, she could only suffer. Others, she could ward, but unlike Him, she did have stakes in that 'petty, lower world'. She had an inglorious but imperative purpose.
And as the Harbinger reeled back to deliver another strike, He was intercepted by Avatar Shepard, who appeared out of nothing to deliver a crippling blow.
Harbinger, retaking the mashed-together appearances of the people that Shepard had admired, lashed out, 'backhanding' the Avatar of Victory hard enough to erase her from existence. And The Pantokrator could feel that strum, as though the taut cord of reality had been plucked. The 'tuning fork' that the Pantokrator created in the Ardent Adjunct taking up the echo of Shepard that vibrated through the fabric of the Low Reality, and reforming it. By the Pantokrator's design, the Ardent Adjunct's recreation should have been weakened, the echo across reality attenuating and fading with each return. The Stalwart Adjunct, that discovered miracle, amplified it. The echos not fading, but growing stronger every time they returned.
Redoubling Her rage, she lashed out, and the garden burned. She would countenance his conceit no longer. "How dare you!" The Harbinger shrieked, as though that one act had done Him more harm than any blow he had sustained. And it may well have. "You have no concept of beauty! You are a monster! All things monsterous must be..."
He was intercepted again by a drop-kick to where kidneys would be if this weren't truly a representation of a petulant god. He lashed out to strike Shepard again, but this time, she skirted the destruction, as it cut a chunk of Being out of the garden and cast it into the Lower. Somewhere in the Terminus Systems, a chunk of sod with five-dimensional flowers perpetually burning would be a matter of some confusion to anybody who found it drifting between stars.
"You petty annoyance! You foul little taint!"the Harbinger screeched, lashing out at the Avatar of Victory and giving the Pantokrator a moment to regain Her strength. As She rose, Her hair had become the color of brass. She struck, and the Harbinger was thrown. The Harbinger lay on the ground for a moment. Then with a howl, slammed down.
The sky fell, cracking and oozing like an egg, the ground splitting apart and falling away while inchoate matter took its place. One step upon stone, the next upon soil, or plastic, or panels of metal. Each step they took was somewhere pulled from the Lower. She could feel the heat from the metal panels, as they were from a Dreadnaught which burned in the heavens above Earth. She could feel the cold of the stone of the cave where survivors had fled on Noveria. She could feel the trembling of the concrete, where Reapers fought to control Ba Sing Se. She felt the shifting of the sands, as Thresher Maws rose in blind hate and anger, their numbers overtaking their lack of mass, to attack the Reapers on the skin of Tuchanka.
Now deprived of His illusion, the Harbinger cast a hand toward Shepard, and she was blasted apart in gore and ruin.
And an instant later, Shepard was driving an axe-kick into the back of the Harbinger's clavicle. It would have been a firebending strike, if firebending worked up here. She had expected that the Avatar of Victory's strike to only inconvenience the Harbinger, but instead... He flinched. Oh so slightly, but He flinched.
He lashed back, and again Shepard was reduced to gore and ruin, which then burst into flames.
And despite his rage, the next moment, the Avatar of Victory was at the Pantokrator's side.
"You don't understand. You can't, because you are fundamentally so very, very small," The Pantokrator said, Her voice Shepard's, and Shepard speaking with her. "What I have created is a living story. A beacon of self-generating hope, that is reborn from death no matter the circumstance. A new chance to fix old wrongs, no matter what, now matter how wrong things got. I have created twenty two million tales of growth, and change, and love. You... are one. You have always been one. And you will always be... one.
"And last I checked," Shepard spoke without the Pantokrator, "twenty two million is a fuck of a lot bigger than one."
Earth had become a siege, with his Mantis locked onto his back, out of ammo and currently useless. Only the endless sweep of his limbs, the flame that followed crashing against Oni and Husks, severing limbs and blasting them away, but it was a stalling action at best. Garrus was beyond exhaustion, his limbs feeling like they were made of lead and swinging limply at the end of each attack. Tali was little better, her posture hunched and breathing heavy, as she lacerated and bisected those who managed to bypass Garrus' firewall.
The war had turned. He could tell that even without being able to see beyond the tunnel his vision had narrowed to. Asha and Erdeni had stopped fighting, instead holding hands and staring into each others' eyes with an intensity that Garrus didn't understand, but in his heart knew was important, and needed to be protected. So he lashed out with another kick, another Oni buffeted back as they rushed headlong toward the pair of humans who had not evacuated with the others.
Tali's ragged scream of fury hit the air as a blade of ice lashed out, catching the Oni in a diagonal cut that left the heat attached to one arm and little else. That seemed enough to kill it, so she fell back, almost literally, into Garrus as the two stumbled toward Asha and Erdeni.
"That bar... sounds real nice... right now," Tali muttered.
"I can almost smell it," Garrus agreed.
The Husks continued to rush, and their punch-drunk bending was only barely able to put them down.
And then, blazing light racing down and slamming with a rumble that inverted the concrete and buried the dead Husks, before causing the wave of broken stone to range out. Garrus almost fell, even though the strike had been directed away from him; without even looking back, Vega reached out a hand and caught him. "Woah there, buddy. Feelin' a bit tired, old-timer?" he asked, eyes blazing white and the cockiest smirk on his face.
"Please, I could do this all day," Garrus lied.
"Well I can't," Tali pointed out.
"Then how 'bout we make this dance a three-way?" Vega turned, watching as the last of the Reaper Destroyers was being ripped apart by Javik in the distance, aided by at least five other Avatars who had arisen from the Citadel Army, or from the huddling masses of Ba Sing Se.
"You know what?" Tali asked, pulling herself to a wavering stand. "At this point, I think I'm up for anything."
"Kinky. I love it," Garrus said.
"You're a pervert," he could tell she was smirking.
"Yeah, he's great. Ready to go?"
Garrus took a deep breath, and nodded. The fight was far from over. And now, at long last, that fight was in their favor.
The stunning crush of dimensions battering the Pantokrator had the side-effect of again messily murdering Shepard, but she merely took obliteration as an excuse to get closer to the Harbinger, to drive a savage liver-blow into the back of the Harbinger's ribs.
The Pantokrator breathed hard the air-like substance that this High place had in droves, closing Her fingers into sand. Tuchanka's sand. Harbinger was getting lazy. She began to stand, but had a notion, instead feeding a bit of the power of the High into the Low of Tuchanka, feeling across the lone and distant sands, until she found the great corpse. Kalros, the Grandmother of All Thresher Maws, had been split and ravaged by the Harbinger's patsies. A crushing blow to the morale of Tuchanka as a whole. But with a flick of power, as the Pantokrator rose, something stirred in that corpse.
To the shamans who now fought the Reapers on their soil with all their souls, they only had a moment to wonder at the nature of the shifting, writhing corpse, before the flesh split and erupted anew, something great and black tore free. They instantly recoiled in terror, for those that knew Form and Name had seen such a beast before. And the Harbinger had killed it.
It was not The Meretsegger. But it was black, its form was protean, and it stared at the Reapers with blood-orange eyes that glared with hate. Tuchanka's new High Spirit of Death found something anathema to it on its native sands, and its first thought in life was to bring death to it.
The Pantokrator lunged at the Harbinger as he annihilated Shepard again, catching him and wrenching hard on his body, bending it in ways that its paranatural corpus was not intended for, ways to cause damage. Ways to cause pain.
"You think, because you are worshiped, you are divine," She snarled at her foul opposite. "What have you ever accomplished? What new innovation have you ever made? What joys have you ever fostered?"
"I have built a machine that will outlast time itself!" the Harbinger shrieked. "And when I feed you into it, it will make me even greater than the God I already am!"
A heave, and the Harbinger pushed past pain to manifest a panel of steel and slam the Pantokrator through it. The impact caused a building to collapse on Palaven. She made sure to twist space, so that when it fell, it landed on a Reaper Destroyer, a parting cruelty on the Harbinger's interests. She felt a smile reach her face, as she saw Iacobus, still fighting even if he had to do it alone. Even after three billion years of failure and pain, he still fought, because it was right. He was the oldest of Her creations that still lived, older than the First Avatar by a good margin. If he could still keep fighting, then so must She, she though as She clawed Herself back up into the High.
In truth, She knew that she couldn't win this fight. She and the Harbinger were perfectly matched in power. All of the might that the Pantokrator had been focusing and cultivating through the reincarnation cycle of the Avatar, managed to just barely match the seemingly endless Dark Energy that wreathed the Milky Way galaxy. Infinity against infinity. But there was one thing which the Pantokrator had, which the Harbinger did not.
Shepard, the Avatar of Victory, pulled the Pantokrator up and out of the wound into the Low, before launching herself with a single-minded fury against the Harbinger, only to be exploded on her way in with a wave of His hand. And again, she returned in instant later to gouge the Harbinger's eye and turn him away from the Pantokrator for a moment, to buy seconds by spending lives.
The Pantokrator knew that each death that Shepard endured was felt in its entirety. A torturous, mutilating end, that she fought through without hesitation. Pain did not give her so much as an instant's pause. That was the power of her outrage, the strength of the resolve that hate had given her. And because of the connection, from Shepard's end to the Pantokrator's beginning, that was the Pantokrator's hate, too. As the Harbinger turned its full attention to Shepard, She grabbed His arm and twisted, into what those with bodies would call an arm-bar, and then slammed the petulant god-child down as though smashing His face into a table. And because the Pantokrator's rage was so great, His face did slam into, and through something, blazing white light racing into the High as she dragged and scraped his face across the inner core of a Neutron Star.
"ENOUGH!" the Harbinger howled, throwing Shepard and the Pantokrator away as one. "I will not be treated like this by you VERMIN! I am..."
Shepard did exactly what anybody who knew her would have expected her to do, grabbing him by the ears and driving a flying knee into the back of his head. And when the Harbinger lashed out, she wasn't there anymore. She hadn't been destroyed and returned. She just... moved. The platonic form of movement. And when the Harbinger flailed toward her again, the Avatar of Victory struck it, as the Pantokrator would. Not with a petty physical strike, but with the Idea of a strike.
And the Harbinger faltered.
Together, moving almost like a dancer and her reflection, She and Shepard struck, driving more and more harm into the Harbinger, more body-crushing force, more ruinous intention. Once in a while, the Harbinger would flail, lashing out a strike which might warrant warding, or might strike Shepard and destroy her again, only to have her return with even more force and fury. But it was a wounded animal, now, crumbling under the blows of one thing which was its equal, and another which was close enough to one as to make all the difference in the galaxy.
"Wait!" the Harbinger begged, as they began to shatter His form. "I... Still..."
"You have nothing to offer us," the Avatar of Victory said, driving another stomp into its body and tearing off another chunk of it. What would have been a organ-liquifying barrage instead separated the Harbinger from parts of itself. More and more of its divinity being snapped off and drifting away into the galaxy, piece by piece tearing down the ephemeral machines that the Harbinger had built around the agar-plate which was the Milky Way. Each blow lightened the Dark Energy which stifled the number of benders or biotics that may exist at any one time. Each blow loosened another link in the 'Great Design' which was intended, from onset to ending, to hobble and cripple the races which would arise throughout the galaxy. And then, with the Avatar of Victory and the Pantokrator striking as one, they shattered the Harbinger. They destroyed His divinity. And they cast him Down.
Abentus floated in glory, as the last Reapers died over Earth's skies. It was wounded, desperately, but it had watched the end of an age. It had taken hours, but the tide had turned, and now everywhere in this galaxy, the undying machines knew terror, they knew what it was to be hunted by a force so much greater than they.
But even as Abentus lingered, it felt something worming in. Horror dawned, as it realized what this meant. A glorious victory, but now the theatre had shifted. Now, the Harbinger had taken the field in the Galaxy, taking Direct Control of the most intact Reaper it could find.
And Abentus felt another nearby. Like itself. But not one of They Who Are, something on their level but of a wholly different flesh. It felt like Avatar Shepard. And she was holding the poison at bay. Not forever, not by a long-shot, but as a tourniquet on a limb.
It reached out an arm, toward a crippled, dying Dreadnaught which was so close to near by. Its skin was split and burst, metal red from so many secondary explosions within. It reached out, and touched the mind of whoever was still aboard that ship.
"The time has come. A time of endings," Abentus whispered. It could not see, but it knew the names of those aboard. David Archer. Steven Hackett. All others had evacuated by the latter's orders. He would go down with the ship. And the former... simply silently refused the order. "Please. End this. For all of us."
Abentus could feel Hackett's surprise, at being contacted so. But could also feel the resolve, the decision made. Why, he asked that room, empty but for himself, that ship empty but for the autistic engineer who was fixing the one part of the ship which still mattered.
"The Harbinger comes and it comes within me. I will not fall to the Harbinger's poison. Will you help me? Will you end this?" Abentus asked.
Silence, for a moment, as more and more of Abentus' rebuilt body felt like it was being taken by a foreign will, taken over by a hostile parasite. Finally, 'For the living', came Hackett's thought. Abentus' mechanical eyes slid shut, as they awaited the end of the mission they had willingly taken on, millions of years before. The ship began to flare, and then there was a rend, as the Dead Hand fired, and both Abentus and the corpse of the Pillars of Heaven were both ripped apart. Peace.
The last thing it heard in its eons of existence... was that the square root of four thousand five hundred and twelve, was sixty-seven point one seven one. After that, at long last, was silence.
The Harbinger broke free of the physical, kicking away the ruined corpse and drifting ever lower. Ever further from the Glory, ever further from the High which was its home and birthright. He wanted to howl, to lash out, but now he had no body to do so with. Instead, drifting ever lower, into the bones of this petty earth.
"No matter," Harbinger spoke into the darkness. "I achieved godhood once, I will do so again. And when I do, I will render this entire galaxy down, atom by atom, and I will build it into something worthy of me."
There was a scuttling noise in the darkness, which drew Harbinger's attention away from his diatribe, but only for a moment. The Harbinger was still both Soul and Spirit, greater by definition than any creature in the physical world even deprived of physical corpus. His ascent to his rightful place would be meteoric, and paved with the pathetic corpses of all those who were ugly to his eyes.
"When I reach my home, when I reclaim my throne, I will create something truly glorious. Something beautiful. Something... like me. Something that will last for all eternity, and spread my will not just to this cess-pit of a galaxy, but across the great voids and to the far points of the universe. I was so complacent! I am capable of so much more! And I will create works the likes of which these mud-things could never understand, the likes of which these vermin would burst into flames if they ever looked upon with their naked eyes, things which..."
The scuttling again.
"Who is that? Who dares approach the Divine Harbinger of Ascension?!" Harbinger shouted.
The scuttling continued.
"Show yourself! Show yourself or I will destroy you where you lurk, you pathetic creature!"
You've made that threat to me before. And you were much more powerful when you made it.
The voice pulled at Harbinger's memory. He had heard it before. And he couldn't quite place where... or when...
You failed then. Do you think you can do better now?
The scuttling drew closer, and Harbinger finally saw the source of it, its foremost section blinking open to display an oni mask. Harbinger's face became slack and hollow, annoyance reigning as the memory finally surfaced. "So the king vermin slinks out from under the rock I buried him under. Would you like to give me another piece of yourself? If you volunteer, I promise it will be painless," the Harbinger offered incredible largess.
"He's not here to lose any more than he's already lost," came that cunt's voice. He saw her, stepping out of Koh's shadow with the smuggest look on her face. He pointed to the interloper.
"If you want a face so badly, king vermin, just look there. Easy pickings even foe one such as you," Harbinger pointed out. Koh swung its segmented body, facing that orange-haired bitch square, staring with an Oni mask at that shit-eating grin with blazing white eyes. It stared. And stared.
And then the king vermin turned.
You cannot bait me with a face which cannot be stolen. I could as much take her face as I could steal one from myself.
Harbinger's confusion was plain. How could that parasitic whore withstand the Face Stealer? That was his nature! To rip the visage off of the mortals! "I don't know what your game is, you pustule on the face of my great design, but you won't...!"
"Tell me something, Koh," she said.
"There is a face you could steal around here, isn't there?"
Koh turned to Harbinger, blinking its 'face', and revealing the serrated teeth and terrible maw that reached for a seeming eternity. No. NO! This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen! Koh hurled himself at the Harbinger, and Harbinger could feel parts of himself being peeled away and stolen, more than just his face, but a critical part of his identity, of his potential.
So with a roar of savage denial, he severed the Spirit from himself, and fell even further, leaving the spirit corpus above to be savaged, to be devoured by the Face Stealer.
With a thud, Harbinger landed on something hard, and cold. It was dark, but there were glints of light, as though the walls were slightly reflecting. He didn't even have a chance to wonder what this was, where he had come, when he felt a hand clamp onto his neck and grab him.
He struggled for all he was worth, but the blasting white light from the orange-haired monster's eyes now illuminated all, including his utter inability to shift the former-human's grasp. She dragged him effortlessly through the ice-cave, heedlessly letting him bash against walls and stalagmites as she went, toward the crackling and popping of a small fire.
Seated around the fire were human children, all dead in their youth, and a massacred cadaver of a woman who had hands and feet made of shadow. "Is your fire open for one more?" the abomination which held the Harbinger asked. The face, eyes gouged out, looked up and took in the Harbinger, weighing him to the gram and measuring him to the nanometer, finding him pathetic and wanting.
"He will burn with the others until the end of time. And then, I will see to it that they all burn longer," the butchered woman with the lisping voice said, and reached with that shadow arm to cup Harbinger's last remaining face. Soul was all he had left. He could still get back to Heaven, he could still be glorious! This was not the end!
"I don't believe we will meet again," the Godslayer at Harbinger's back said quietly, almost sadly.
"We will not need to," that hateful engine of ruin said, and then, ignoring Harbinger's pleas, his bargains, she thrust him down into the flames.
And as far as all creation was concerned... that was the end of the Harbinger.
Shepard returned to the High, to the realm beyond creation that had once been the Harbinger's throne. Please, don't be what I expect, she asked herself. Don't let this be exchanging one dark god for another. When she did breach that void, step into what had once upon a wild imagining been a garden, and once upon a brawl been all of the Milky Way in microcosm, she saw... herself.
"What's going on?" Shepard asked, looking at somebody who looked so much like an older version of herself. She didn't quite look like Shepard's mother, nor her aunt, but the resemblance was nevertheless familial and instant. "What are you doing with that face?"
"Hm?" the Pantokrator asked, turning green eyes toward Shepard. Then, She looked down at herself. "Oh. Of course it would be this mask in the end."
She wasn't cackling, she wasn't raving, and she certainly wasn't fortifying the ruins of the old god's demesne to settle into his shoes. Still, her paranoia, borne of a lifetime of shit getting worse, didn't let her go quite yet. "That didn't answer my question."
"All of this was because of you," the Pantokrator said. She leaned down, a tree-stump appearing out of the void to chair her. Calmly, deliberately, she pulled her legs up and crossed them under her, and breathed out, as though releasing stress held so long that it had long turned to stone. "Without you, I would not have had the courage, the fury, the resolve to fight Him. And I certainly couldn't have matched Him, strength for strength. Thank you. Thank you, for finally letting this insanity end."
"Nothing ever ends," Shepard said. "What are you going to do now?"
This question hinged all life on the galaxy, whether the Pantokrator was aware or not. Shepard had fought one god today. Let that be enough. Don't let this one fall.
"I don't know. I honestly do not know," The Pantokrator said, staring into the distance, as rank upon rank of figures lazily appeared, stretching toward the distant infinity. She recognized Wan instantly. All of the Avatars, all twenty two million of them. "I was created to help people. And when I was made greater, all I ever wanted was all of this slaughter and mayhem to stop. I wanted peace. Not just a lack of war, but something prescriptive. Something better."
The Pantokrator rose, and face by face, began to look all of her victorious creation's incarnations in the eye. "I wasn't built for peace. I know that. All I know is desperate struggle and painful sacrifice. I can't guide the galaxy – the universe! – into what comes next. What should be is too far beyond the horizons of my knowledge. But..." a sigh, which sounded so very human to Shepard's ears. "But I'm tired. And my task is finally complete. I will rest. And I give the rest to you."
"You want me to take Harbinger's place?" Shepard asked. "You want me to be the Milky Way's new god?"
The Pantokrator turned the most querulous look at Shepard. "No. To crib a phrase from you; fuck no. This galaxy needs no gods. Not me, and not you," her gaze softened, looking first at the gravel-pit which had reappeared before them, and then out to the 'horizon'. "I think... I think I'd like to go discover something again. To explore."
Shepard turned, staring through a pane in the chaos, looking at Earth. Looking at the so very many who were still engaged in the last fighting. "I can't go back, can I?" Shepard asked. "I'm too different."
"You are the Avatar of Victory," The Pantokrator said. "You can do what you must."
The Pantokrator shook Her head, perfectly the long suffering mother trying to ward a stupid comment. "You would be miserable without her. And I have no intention of having you mope in my shadow for as long as it is something like me can live. Go back."
"I... I don't know how," Shepard admitted.
"Then let me help you, this one last time," the Pantokrator said. She raised a hand, and Shepard could feel the machinery which underwrit the cosmos shift, as though fundamental rules were being changed and rewritten with nothing but a gesture and an act of will. "I am Releasing Control. The rest is yours."
"Thank you," Shepard said.
"Live well," the last voice of the First Humanity said. "And be safe."
And then the Pantokrator gave Shepard a shove.
And Shepard fell out of Reality.
Exhaustion claimed Garrus at last, dropping him to an inelegant sit, only prevented from flopping onto the ground by Tali doing likewise and their two backs holding each other up. Around and overhead, the Avatars were indefatigable, racing along the streets of Ba Sing Se, lashing out with flame and icy blade and lightning and stone at any monster which the Reapers had given birth to. Burning down from the heavens came other Reapers, torn whole from the armada and sent hurtling to the earth. The Avatars up there sometimes outright rode the Reapers down, pummeling them the whole way, until enough Avatars got together that they could crack the monster's shell, and rip out its heart.
Honestly, the whole thing was exhausting vicariously to Garrus. He was in the best physical shape of his life, but fighting for hour on end at full blast, that left him feeling boneless and on the edge of death. And it didn't even have the edge of adrenaline that his last knock on death's door had given him. This was just cold, and tired, and he was glad he didn't have to stand anymore.
"Figure we're winning?" Tali asked.
Garrus watched as an enormous chunk of a Reaper rained down and slammed into a Reaper corpse already on the ground. He had already heard over the radios that the krogan had taken to calling the last few hours 'The Rain of Dead Gods'. He wasn't inclined to disagree with them. "I think we could be doing worse."
One blazing spectre broke from the cascade of machines, diverting to the knot of dying creatures that Vega was able – barely – to hold at bay. Javik opened his blazing white eyes from where he had taken a moment to meditate, joining Vega and clearing a spot for the newcomer to land. Garrus blinked away exhaustion, as he saw Shepard descending, her clothes burnt and torn, but descending in glory all the same.
"I guess we'll have to wait on that drink, eh Shepard?" Garrus asked, weakly holding up a hand toward her. She tilted her head, blazing eyes somehow still able to emote confusion. There was a snap, audible in the air, and Asha reared back, blinking, and looked around her. She moved to stand before remembering her missing limb, then scowled and motioned for Erdeni to help her up.
"That is not the Avatar," Asha said as Erdeni pulled her up.
"What the hell were you two doing all this time?" Vega asked.
"Helping the Avatar," both said in unison, then pausing and glancing at each other. Asha continued, pointing at Shepard hovering in the air. "That is Zia."
Garrus turned to her, then back to Asha. "Well, that's one less thing for you to be envious about," Garrus noted, letting his tones stay jocular because that helped hide the fact that he was a twitch away from just falling asleep. "How does it feel?"
"I feel..." Zia said, staring at her arms. She drifted down and landed, bare-feet on broken concrete. When she opened her eyes, they were green again. "...whole."
The fight slowed to a stop, and then with a wave from the hand of each of Javik and Vega, the horde was broken. Zia clenched her fists, as though exulting in the feel of a body not dying – because she likely was. She then walked over to Vega, hauled herself up his mountainous physique, and kissed him for all she was worth.
"Awwww," Tali said.
"Always the romantic," Garrus said. Slowly, the sounds of gunfire began to die down throughout the human city. A war, ending not with a roar but with a whisper. And Shepard was gone.
"We made it," Tali said.
"We won," Garrus agreed. "I wish Shepard could have seen it."
"She will," Asha said.
"What?" Garrus asked.
"What do you mean, guardian-woman?" Javik asked.
Asha opened her mouth to speak, then turned to Erdeni. He too looked like he was about to speak, but instead took a couple of hasty steps back, scrambling slightly.
Then, there was a twist in the real, somewhere between the two humans and the collapsed quarian and turian. A bulging as though something pressing on the back side of a curtain, only the curtain was existence itself. A pop.
Avatar Shepard – no, Aimei Shepard – appeared, burnt and mangled, falling to the ground like a side of meat, not even trying to stop herself from braining herself on the floor. She immediately started to bleed from the stumps of her legs and even from the distance, Garrus could her arm was all but a foregone loss. Tali managed to summon some strength, which caused Garrus to fall to a supine lean, and she went to Shepard's side, quickly pulling the blood to seal terrible wounds. Why was she naked? Why was she so badly hurt?
Asha, though, stared at the Commander on the ground with a steady, even look. "Welcome home, Avatar of Victory. We have won."
The mangled form of Aimei Shepard shifted, just a little, drawing in a breath, and finally put voice to her first proclamation to an entirely new galaxy.
"...ow," Shepard said.
"And that is how my 'father' lived," Feron T'Soni finally finished as she ran her fingers along the sleeping quarian girl's hair. She took a breath, and looked out the the stars to the crackling of a campfire, sitting on a man-made planet, under a man-made sky.