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All for Nothing
"I looked at everything done on earth and saw that it is all useless, like chasing the wind." (NCV)
Ecclesiastes 1:14, the theme of King Solomon's final book

Alice sacrifices everything she cared for — her home, her reputation, the love of her family and friends — in order to save the world. In Alice 2: Back For More, the police clear her and her family forgives her.

Bob spends months of agonizing time and effort to kick booze. He manages to become sober...and then, five episodes later, he's off the wagon again.

Chris spends a whole season learning to trust his rival at the agency. Then it turns out the rival was The Mole all along, and every single thing Chris learned in this season was a chump's lesson.

Why did we have the first half of each story again? It was All For Nothing.

Sometimes, a Story Arc completely destroys the point of an earlier arc in the same story. It could contradict the early story's aesop, or it could reveal that the events we cared about never happened or weren't what they seemed. A hero's decisions don't seem so heroic if it turns out that they were manipulated every step of the way. And if a character goes through a Face-Heel Turn or Heel-Face Turn, their earlier stories might seem irrelevant when we know they'll disavow it all.

This trope can be used to set a story on the cynical end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism — nothing lasts forever, and something that seems so important may be just a passing moment. Yes, the farm boy may have risen to become king and gotten the girl, but his life doesn't end there, and things can still go downhill. Another use for this is to deliberately shock the audience — a Face-Heel Turn hurts so much when the character we cheered for six seasons turns on us.

In general, it's more forgivable when it's done as an event, rather than as a Retcon. If a hero's efforts are undone, that's not as frustrating as if it turns out that they never mattered in the first place. The audience is also more likely to forgive it if we're shown the change, rather than it being done with Second-Hand Storytelling.

A storyline that is All For Nothing is not always a happy thing ruined by bad events. A tragic scene of people losing everything can feel very cheapened if things get better too easily.

Common forms include Shoot the Shaggy Dog and Yank the Dog's Chain. If done too often, leads to the Broken Aesop, Lost Aesop, and Yo Yo Plot Point.

Distinct from Status Quo Is God in that it doesn't always bring things back to where they started - it often leads to genuine change.

The story of the first three Jewish kings in the Bible (Saul, David, Solomon) make this trope Older Than Feudalism

Not to be confused with All or Nothing.

Examples:

Anime & Manga
  • A somewhat more comedic version of this. In School Rumble, class 2-C was divided between whether they should do a play or cafe for the School Festival. They then devoted the next mini-arc to a dramatic war game held in the school between the two groups using fake guns. The very next day, while being punished for the game, their teacher Kooriyama suggests they just do both.
  • The basic premise of the final episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Despite all the efforts he made at connecting with others, Shinji is ultimately abandoned by everyone for their own selfish reasons. Despite all their efforts at preventing Third Impact, the pilots failed because their superiors wanted them to fail in order to trigger their own, somewhat better version, only to be in turn foiled by Rei and turn the entire planet into a barren wasteland with humanity all but extinct.
    • Except that it was Shinji's efforts at connecting with others that led to Rei rejecting his father and instead turning the reins of Third Impact over to him. This results in a battered and destroyed world, true, but one that has a hope of recovery as all of humanity can choose to re-embody if they really want to. Who knows if they'd even have that much if Gendo's plan had gone through.
    • Happened in a depressing way for Shinji in the 3rd Rebuild of Evangelion film : his efforts to save Rei at the end of 2.0 were not only fruitless, but also caused 3rd impact to happen and resulted in the majority of the population to die. Shinji became the subject of hate for the next 14 years leading to the events of 3.0.
  • During the finale of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Homura begs Madoka to not make her wish because of all of the pain she went through to protect her. She even says "Everything I fought for... it will all be for nothing!" Madoka still makes her wish, and while this may have benefited everyone else the biggest side effect was that Madoka had to be retconned out of existence. Madoka seems fine with this though and assures Homura she'll always remember her sacrifice, so it's not all bad.
    • In the Rebellion movie, it appears it didn't take from Madoka's point of view. Homura makes the decision to usurp Madoka's goddess powers and rewrite the universe again so as to be able to look out for Madoka's interests, even if it goes against her original wish. Time will tell if this will be just a Subverted Trope for Homura (and a Double Subverted Trope for Madoka, at least from the standpoint of ethics) or a Zig-Zagging one).

Comics
  • Subverted in Green Lantern with the origin of GL Sodam Yat. As a boy, he grew disgusted with his planet's murderous xenophobia, including when his fellows murdered an alien astronaut whose ship crashes on his planet. In response, he labored for years to repair the alien's ship and leave, but just as he was finished, a power ring arrived to induct him into the Green Lantern Corps. While that meant that now he didn't need the ship to leave the planet, the fact that he worked with that much determination to repair a ship he didn't know, nor how to pilot it or even where he could have gone after he launched, all for the sake of leaving a place and its evil is an incredible display of courage worthy of the Corps.
  • Explicitly averted, or for the moment very explicitly attempted, by Kieron Gillen on his run in Journey into Mystery. Major Spoilers ahead. Well aware that there was no way Loki could be left good when he was the major villain of the third biggest film of all time, having his run end with Kid!Loki triumphing and changing "for good" would really just become "for the next week or so until the next writer comes along." In order to avoid his story losing any of its impact, he didn't just kill Kid!Loki, he erased him from existence utterly to be replaced by his older version.

Fan Fiction
  • In With Strings Attached, the entire quest is bullshit. The original motive for sending the four after the Vasyn pieces was simply Jeft giving them something to do; the curse that the Vasyn was supposed to remove didn't really exist; and while change was accidentally effected by the restoration of the Vasyn, there's no guarantee that it was actually good. However, the four were never told any of this (except the curse part), so they didn't complain.
  • In Mean Time To Breakdown after struggling to remain positive and adapt to her new life, Iwanako finds herself back in the hospital three days later even more depressed than when she left.
  • In Shatterheart R!Syaoran attempts to reach out to others, endure his friends' apathy, learn not to isolate himself in his room and find some happiness for himself. Then he backslides when Kurogane ends their relationship when he becomes too attached and Syaoran is more miserable than before.

Film
  • Horror movie franchises are infamous for this, such as killing off the Final Girl of the previous film (Sudden Sequel Death Syndrome) in the first two minutes of the sequel. All the struggle they had to defeat Jason or Freddy, and now they just die?
  • A Goofy Movie has Max learning to accept his dad, faults and all, for who he is. In the sequel, An Extremely Goofy Movie, Max's first line of dialogue shows that Max has gone right back to thinking his dad is a bumbling idiot.
  • Alien³ kills off two characters who Ripley spent the whole second film protecting... in the first few minutes... off camera.
  • Similarly, Terminator 2: Judgment Day has the characters Screw Destiny... but the third film reveals that You Can't Fight Fate, and all the efforts in the second film to stop apocalypse were pre-destined to fail.
  • In the Director's Cut of Das Boot, the German submarine crew survives many dangerous encounters to make it home—only to be killed by an Allied air raid on their port.
  • In Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Orange was a cop, after all.
    • Additionally, Mr. Orange reveals to the audience that he's undercover when he kills off Mr. Blonde to stop the latter from hacking a fellow cop to death. This comes at the expense of risking potentially blowing his cover when the rest of the crew comes back to the hideout, and indeed, his bosses are so unwilling to believe his cover story for killing Blonde that it leads to the film's infamous Kill 'em All Mexican Standoff. The real clincher? As soon as the crew returns, Nice Guy Eddie looks around at the carnage and pops a few slugs into Orange's fellow cop, killing him instantly. So not only was Orange's intervention all for nothing, it ended up dooming everyone else, as well.
  • In Dirty Dancing, Baby says this when her efforts to get Johnny cleared of theft charges get him fired anyway for having a relationship with a guest.
  • Most heist movies end this way: The money blows away (The Killing), gets burned up (Oceans Eleven), or comes loose (The Lavender Hill Mob). Others include a mentally challenged boy collecting license plate numbers in The League of Gentlemen or the brains behind the operation staring at a young girl so long the cops catch up with him in The Asphalt Jungle. It's usually a way of showing that You Can't Fight Fate (and that Crime Doesn't Pay).
  • Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith Anakin turned to the dark side because Palpatine promised that he knew a way to keep Padme from dying. But she learns what Anakin has done she confronts him, leading to him Force Choking her. In the end he becomes Darth Vader, has killed most of the Jedi Order, help create The Empire, and ultimately caused the death of his wife. He had lost the love of his life, his friends, and everything else he risked his life for.
  • In Nine Days Of One Year, the hero, a nuclear research scientist, winds up absorbing fatal doses of radiation while running experiments designed to produce a fusion reaction. While he's in the hospital awaiting a long-shot bone marrow transplant that might save his life, he finds out that the effect he'd observed in his experiments wasn't fusion after all, and he hasn't found a new energy source.

Literature
  • This is basically the whole Quenta Silmarillion in a nutshell in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion.
  • In The Hunger Games this is what Katniss feels like after Prim dies in the final portion of Mockingjay.
  • In Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series, Liu Han is a classic Science Hero aside from being female. She goes from ignorant farm girl (or rather, woman) to one of the leaders of the anti-alien resistance, survives endless torture and abuse without becoming embittered, and captures the villain who had brutally held her prisoner. In the sequel Colonization series, she's become a callous Knight Templar, and she gets re-captured by the same villain, making her achievements seem hollow. This could be seen as an attempt to say that life goes on and the world doesn't follow mythic cycles.
  • In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Harry and Dumbledore fight through all of Voldemort's protections on his locket Horcrux, only for Harry to later discover that it was a fake.
    • There's a different sort of example in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: Most of the drama for the first 3/4 (at least) of the book surrounds Harry's performance in the three Tasks of the Triwizard Tournament. The drama is removed from this on all-rereadings, when you know that Harry was aided, manipulated and guided through all 3 challenges by the villain, and the villain's entire plan hinged on Harry winning the Tournament.
  • A disappointing example occurs in the Sword of Truth series, in which the dramatic climax of the (relatively good) first book turns out to have been all for naught. Umpteen books later, in the final book of the series, we discover that Dark Rahl would have died no matter what box he opened. So much for The Power of Love.
  • Essentially the entire plot of The First Law turns out to have been this, in the sense that nothing truly changed and the protagonists were only tools. Certainly all of Logen's and Jezal's quest in the second book qualifies, as does, to an extent, Glokta's defense of...Ah, hell, like I said, the entire plot.
  • Stephen Donaldson does this all but nonstop in his Thomas Covenant books, thanks to the absolute cunning of Lord Foul the Despiser, to the point that one character outright advises the protagonist: "If boots nothing to avoid his snares, for they are always set about with other snares". It's a very, very standard part of his fiction.
    • Kevin Landwaster, a lofty and wise ancient lord, who, after brutally battling Lord Foul for years, fell into despair, eventually resorting to The Ritual of Desecration, that snuffed out almost all life there for centuries. The hope was that the land could regrow while Lord Foul would surely die. He didn't. Kevin using the ritual was his idea in the first place.
    • The Unhomed Giants, subject to a lengthy rescue campaign by the Lords - who were wiped out in a genocide brought about by the very omen they thought would save them, all unwilling to run or raise even a single hand in self-defense. They were told that their troubles - dwindling numbers, declining birthrates, slow death - would all be over when their race gave birth to triplets. They did. All three of them were soon posessed by staggeringly evil spirits.
    • Whatshername - we never hear her name - who tried to warn the Lords about a nasty Ur-Vile ambush, and who was bewitched to be unable to speak at all, so that her very attempts to warn the Lords would delay them long enough for the ambush to be sprung in the first place.
    • The story of Sunder and Hollian, who accompany the heroes throughout the journey, and both die and are resurrected in extremely unlikely circumstances and their son Anele, who is entrusted with the Staff of Law - and who outright loses it.
    • Convenant's daughter Elena, who locates all the macguffins needed to get to the Earthblood, which grants one wish to the drinker, granted unconditionally so long as it's within natural power , and then completely screws it up when she does drink it, sending the spirit of the aforementioned already despair-broken High Lord Kevin after Lord Foul. He is swiftly overpowered and enslaved and turned on her, and just as swiftly kills her. The summoning also breaks the natural Law of Death, allowing Lord Foul to raise the dead from this point forward.
    • Drool Rockworm, who tried to win freedom for the Cavewights from Lord Foul, and who was just being led along by Lord Foul to recover the Illearth Stone.
  • The Star Wars Expanded Universe reveals that Emperor Palpatine came back to life after the events of the Original Trilogy. though it should be noted he's destroyed again by the end of the Dark Empire stories. This is a notable source of Fanon Discontinuity for many, despite the fact that Lucas actually liked it more than most of the EU book series.
  • Both the book and the film version of The Neverending Story play with this: Atreyu has risked his life and lost people important to him on a quest to find out the cause of the Empress's illness and what had to be done to cure her, only to have her reveal that she'd known both of these things all along. Atreyu is understandably furious about this, until the Empress explains that his quest was important and did have a purpose, even if it wasn't the one stated up front.

Live-Action Television
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 5 has all the drama of Joyce's brain tumor. Then she dies of an aneurysm after the tumor is removed.
  • Degrassi High is extremely fond of torturing the audience this way, to the point where it feels like dropping a bridge on audience expectations.
  • Degrassi Junior High
    • L.D. has to deal with trauma from her mother's dying of cancer. She finally learns not to fear and distrust all things relating to health — and in Degrassi High, L.D. gets leukemia.
    • Much of Degrassi Junior High is Big Ego, Hidden Depths for Joey, who learns not to be such a lazy ass. In Degrassi High, all that talk about getting off his butt and working hard is rendered meaningless when it turns out he has dysgraphia. (It still fits his character arc, since he still has to cope with feelings of inadequacy, but it's a huge shift.)
    • The Do They Know It's Christmas Time? episode of Degrassi Junior High is about Arthur and Yick learning to stay friends even though Arthur is richer and Yick is more rebellious. The lesson sticks for the whole series. But in Degrassi High, they almost stop being friends completely for those same reasons.
    • As the resident Anti-Hero, Wheels is always getting shoved through the Heel-Face Revolving Door. More than once, he turns heel off-screen, with no warning until we're suddenly told that he's been acting this way for weeks. Second-Hand Storytelling makes the perfect tool for manipulatng the audience.
  • How I Met Your Mother ends this way: Barney and Robin get divorced after three years of marriage, Ted finally meets the Mother and is blissfully happy for eleven years until she comes down with an illness and dies in 2024, six years before he started telling the story, and the kids have realized that the story was really a way to ask them for approval to chase Robin AGAIN.
  • 24's second season had Jack recover some of his ordinary life by the end. The third season reveals that he has completely screwed it up between seasons, becoming (among other things) a heroin addict.
  • In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The Omega Glory," Captain Ronald Tracey blatantly violates the Prime Directive and gets involved on a primitive planet's war, takes Kirk and his landing party prisoner, murders their Red Shirt in cold blood and throws Kirk in with savages to die, all for the sake of getting a serum that supposedly can extend a humanoid's lifespan by centuries. Needless to say, he doesn't take it very well when Dr. McCoy discovers that the natives simply evolved that way and thus there is no serum to isolate.
  • Subverted with a vengeance in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "In The Pale Moonlight" where Sisko himself notes in his log that after violating one moral principle after another in a scheme with Garak to bring the Romulans into the Dominion war, the whole thing blew up in his face and it seemed all his moral compromises were wasted. Garak, however, refused to let his Xanatos Gambit go to waste that easily and managed to salvage it with one thoroughly brilliant and utterly criminal act of treachery.
  • On LOST, Jacob has become the Island's protector reluctantly, almost against his wish. He wants it to be different for his replacement, so he sets up an elaborate system of candidates that last for at least a few dozens if not hundred years, affecting and ending the lives of hundreds different people. Near the end it appears to pay off, as Jack takes on the job consciously and willingly. However, he then performs a Heroic Sacrifice within the following day and passes the job to Hurley, who is extremely reluctant to take it from him and even went as far as saying "Just glad it's not me" when Jack himself volunteered for the job. Jacob's entire plan eventually resulted in nothing.
    • Another example: The Oceanic 6 spend 3 years lying about the time they spend on the Island and the fates of people that they left behind, believing themselves to be protecting their friends from Charles Widmore. This causes most of them some serious guilt issues. However, it is later revealed that Widmore performed an off-screen Heel-Face Turn and, while still a big jerk, was actually on the same side as our heroes. Even then, he couldn't have possibly harmed any of the people left on the Island, as those were stuck in a completely different time period. Sorry, Hurley, the Lie was All For Nothing.
    • Could be argued that most of the characters' storylines became All For Nothing at various points through season 6, the writers just killing them off seemingly without a care for any kind of subplot they still had going on. Probably worst of all when Sun spends almost a season and a half returning to the island and finding Jin so they can return to their daughter before both simply drown.
    • John Locke's entire story arc also seemingly turned out to be All For Nothing, as he was simply a pawn in The Man In Black's game all along. However, Locke's life and death did had one major consequence: he had finally managed to convince Jack of the truth of his beliefs, thus allowing all the events of the last two seasons to happen.
  • The Mythbusters have made several very complicated myth setups, only for them to completely blow up in their faces.
    • A giant Lego ball that took hours of work of about a dozen people to make, after getting both all the lego's from Lego Land and the largest private collector, completely broke apart before it even made it halfway down the setup track.
      • This was actually a huge success as it proved that the video was a fake.
    • When they attempted to retest the JATO Rocket Car myth from their pilot episode, they went through a lot of trouble securely attaching the engine to the car as well as constructing the remote control system used to drive the car and making a ramp to drive the whole thing off of, all in order to give the contraption the best chance of getting crazy air and looking completely awesome in the process. So when it comes down to actually perform the test... the car explodes on the ramp in a giant fireball. The worst part of it was that they A) didn't get a useful result, and B) couldn't reset for another chance at one. This was perhaps the only time since the first season that they couldn't give a verdict of "busted", "plausible", or "confirmed". As this was the "Supersized Special", they ended up calling the myth "appropriately supersized"; after all, they'd still gotten a consolatory fireball.
  • In the episode "Adam's Ribs" of Mash, Hawkeye and Trapper go through great lengths to get an order of ribs delivered from Chicago to their outfit in Korea. The moment the ribs are served and the cast is about to have dinner, casualties are arriving and they're all off to the O.R.
    • Well, they have the ribs, they'll just need to be reheated. So this is more like delayed gratification.
      • Also they forgot the cole slaw
    • There was another episode where they were so desperate for real food that they spent months growing corn. And then the cook creamed all of it.
  • Merlin. Oh God, Merlin. At the inception of the series, a teenaged Merlin comes to Camelot and is made Arthur's manservant, being told repeatedly by a prophetic dragon that the two of them have a great destiny together: to unite Albion, to legalize magic, and to usher in the Golden Age. It never comes to pass. After five seasons, which amounts to ten in-show years, Arthur dies at Mordred's hands before any of this can occur. Unless you count the brief three years of Arthur and Guinevere's reign that happened entirely off-screen in the Time Skip between series 4 and 5 (in which Merlin is still a lowly servant and the druids and other magic-users still have to live in hiding), everything that Merlin ever worked, waited and hoped for comes to naught. Though given that the Distant Finale shows that Merlin is still around, and Arthur is traditionally the King in the Mountain...
  • Red Dwarf: In "Waiting for God", Lister discovers that during the 3 million years he was in stasis, the race of beings that evolved from his cat founded a religion worshipping him as "Cloister the Stupid." They then proceeded to have a holy war over whether the sacred cardboard hats at his hot dog stand were supposed to be red or blue. What makes it this trope is that according to Lister, the hats were supposed to be green.
  • This was a big part of Power Rangers Samurai. Throughout the entire season, it has been stated that the sealing symbol of the Red Ranger was the only thing that could seal Master Xandred away forever. However, when the big moment comes for it to be used, Master Xandred shrugs it off, having gained an immunity to it earlier. It's not just the build up for the sealing power that's for nothing, but the fact that Jayden kept his sister's existence hidden from his friends, as well as all of Lauren's hard work to master the sealing symbol, not to mention their father's plan that started it all. It was even lampshaded.

Theater
  • Both The Fantasticks and Into the Woods do this deliberately as a Deconstruction of fairy tales. The first act is a mythic tale with beginning and end, and the second act is life going on and not ending so neatly.
  • In Henry V the titular king, unhindered by civil war, takes his "noblest English" into France and, despite overwhelming odds, defeats the French at Agincourt. Not only does he win the country (or a big chunk of it) he charmingly woos the French Princess Katherine to seal the deal and the last action has the two of them getting ready to be wed. Then the Chorus reminds the audience that, like in real life, Henry would be dead a few short years later, and his son's reign would see all those French territories lost and the country of England plunged into one of its famous and bloody civil wars.

Video Games
  • Call of Duty: World at War multiplayer matches often end this way:
    Sgt. Roebuck: A lot of good men died today - all for nothing!
  • In Betrayal at Krondor, the renegade moredhel Gorath goes to insane lengths to prevent his people from starting another suicidal war with the humans and by extension achieving peace between the two nations. These "insane lengths" include giving up leadership of the clan he's led for over two centuries and defecting to the humans, thus getting branded traitor and earning his people's hatred and his wife's contempt. In short, he gives up everything. By the end of the story, it is revealed that his efforts mostly only forwarded the villain's plan to get his hands on an Artifact of Doom. He lays down his life to prevent said artifact from destroying the world. Any success towards achieving peace or making his nation less war-crazed? Nada.
    • Though this was a Foregone Conclusion, since the game takes place in between two books that had already been published, with no major change to the political landscape between them.
    • There is one very delayed benefit in the last arc of the novels: Gorath's sacrifice makes it possible for the heroes to trust a delegation of Moredhel led by Gorath's youngest (And only living) son who volunteer to help keep the Dread from breaking into their universe and destroying it two centuries after his death.
  • At the beginning of Knights of the Old Republic, you are on a planet trying to get past the Sith fleet that has the entire planet blockaded. Along the way, you are given chances to help people or hurt people (generally, being good costs a lot of money, while being bad gets you money, and this is the only place in the game where credits don't grow on trees). At the end of the sequence, the Sith carpet-turbolaser the entire planet, killing effectively every person you helped or hurt or didn't help or hurt in the first quarter of the game, making your decisions moot.
    • In Star Wars: The Old Republic you find out that your efforts actually helped a small group survive the orbital bombardment and they form a new society. However, as you progress in the quest line, you discover recordings that recount how the new tribe was ultimately wiped out due to radiation poisoning and constant attacks by monsters created by a plague.
  • Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines becomes this in a meta example. Due to its place in the Old World of Darkness timeline, Gehenna is literally right around the corner when the game ends. Then again, White Wolf's official stance on their canon is that if we don't like an aspect of the lore, we're free to ignore it...
  • Halo. The Forerunners built nine "halo" rings, which were galactic WMDs, in order to use them as an absolute last resort against the Flood, who had conquered pretty much the entire galaxy and had survived and prevailed any advanced weaponry or strategies the Forerunners had tried to use to stop them. When the Forerunners fought their last stand, they activated the halo rings and wiped out the Flood through the galaxy, stopping them from taking over it...the problem was that when they did it, they not only wiped out the Flood but themselves and all intelligent species through the galaxy as well, making it lifeless. However, life returned when the Forerunners' constructs cloned back the species and returned them to their homeworlds but the Forerunners were extincted forever. 100,000 years later, the Flood returned and started to mess things up again so in the end, the Forerunners' sacrifice was all for nothing.
  • Mass Effect 3:
    • James Vega's backstory; he sacrificed a colony to get crucial information that might help defeat the Collectors, only for Commander Shepard to do it himself, and make the sacrifice meaningless. This story got expanded into a fully fledged animated movie, Mass Effect Paragon Lost, which shows just what Vega went through during that incident.
    • The Geth being largely peaceful makes the entire Quarian-Geth war completely pointless. Unusually, getting the Quarians to realize this trope is actually the best thing that can happen, as it means peace is an option.
      • Additionally, forcing the two groups to make peace (essentially allowing them to rebuild the Quarian homeworld together) is essentially rendered moot if one picks the "Destroy" option at the game's end (as all of the geth are destroyed, anyway).
    • A lot of angst for all characters comes from the knowledge that everything the Protheans did to win their war ultimately failed to prevent their extinction, and that there is every chance the same thing would happen in their cycle. One of the characters actually prepares knowledge for the next cycle in case they fail, and in one of the endings, it is the next cycle, not the present one, which ends up ending the threat of the Reapers.

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