Liara had never really expected to see out the end of her cycle.
At first, when she was young and naive, she had thought - had believed, secretly, but with all her heart - that Shepard would find a way to save them all. They'd celebrate in the Normandy mess, all of them together, and drink and sing and dance and ride off into the sunset, never such a cloud to hang over them again. There would be peace. And, in time, they'd come laugh about it, to tell stories and show scars and cry into beers.
Later, in the wake of Shepard's greatest failure, when the wreckage of the Citadel and the Crucible rained down upon the Earth, she'd expected to die along with everyone else on the planet, only to be spared at the last. Later still, as worlds fell with sickening, quickening pace, as she watched whole generations grow and live and die knowing nothing but war, she'd sought death out, charging needlessly, relentlessly into the fray time and time and time again. But fate, it seemed, was determined to spare her. Her, out of all of the countless billions of souls in a once vibrant galaxy. She’d lived on despite herself, even when they'd taken everything from her but her hatred.
There were ten of them, in the end. Each one of their number carefully chosen from the survivors, each as close to a master in their chosen way of dealing death as could be found. Genetic manipulation. Applied physics. Computer science. Structural engineering and materials science. Chemistry. Rapid prototyping, machining and manufacturing. Micro and molecular biology, virology. Gun and blade and fist and biotics. Planetary engineering. And her.
Whoever would have thought that archaeology would prove such a useful end-of-the-world skill? But her understanding what structures and technologies stand the tests of time would keep them alive until the moment was right, her childhood study the of development stages of civilisations would tell them when that moment was, and her knowledge of the methods of their foe would keep them safe and hidden until that time arose. The spread of myths, the rise of religions, the building of monuments, the fall of empires... insight into such things was needed for their work.
The Protheans had been right, at least, in that. The younger races could not be left to deal with the threat on their own. There was simply too much at stake. Too many had already died. But the Ten did not come as the conquerors and rulers their predecessors had so longed to be. They were to be the heralds and teachers and scientists that their own cycle had so very desperately needed but been denied. They would be the guiding light and the shadow behind the scenes, not the iron fist.
They awoke with cautious optimism after five thousand years and laid the seeds of their victory. Awoken again, forty thousand years later, only to discover that the Reapers had come early, eager to pre-empt the protracted death of the previous two cylces, and that the chance had been lost, their work of decades gone to waste.
No matter. There were new relays built, with new, young races at the end of them. They could try again. And again. And again. Tweaking and refining their approach until they got it right.
With each cycle, the universe became a little emptier. With each long sleep and short awakening, their company became a little smaller. With each freeze and thaw, her heart became a little colder, until her soul was naught but ice and venom, and she was the only one left.
She is the only one left.
It has taken three cycles just to lay the groundwork for this moment; the galaxy has never seen its like and never will again. She has used every trick in an arsenal developed over more than a millennia of secret war, applied every scrap of knowledge garnered and skill mastered over an artificially prolonged lifetime. She seeded dead worlds with new life, letting infant races come of age in the ruins of those that came so long before, and poisoned others beyond any hope of habitation. She altered genomes, terraformed wastes, dumped eezo in water supplies, taught agriculture and healing and mathematics and anything else she thought of use. She retarded the development of some species, accelerating others so that when the Reapers finally came for this cycle, everything and everyone was at the peak of readiness and strength, the pieces perfectly positioned on the board beneath her hand.
The Dellim call her Strazt'Morda - the Dark Herald. To the Veknor, she is Mother of Sorrows. The Hashu name her the Widow, a moniker come down to them from cycles past. The Giik have a name for her as well, but dared not speak it aloud until now lest they summoned her and started the Ending War of legend. A hundred different races have a thousand different names for her. She is a god and a demon, a fairy tale and a horror story. She doesn’t care what they think of her, save that they do, that they listen and remember. They are merely the bait, and, in any case, she does not think she can find feelings like that in herself, not any more. No. The only thing that matters now is what the Reapers will call her when this is all done, when a over a hundred systems and a hundred mass relays are reduced to dust and ashes and dissipating energy:
At least, it's what they would call her if she expected any of them to be left.