The title tells it all.

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22. Blackmarsh


Complete and undisturbed but for the noises their small group makes: the nervous snorting of their horses, the hooves breaking the crust of the frozen snow; the soft tinkling of reins, Wolf's occasional whining.

As far as Nathaniel can see, the snow in the abandoned streets lies undisturbed, as well.

There is nothing and no-one, no birds, not even crows, searching relentlessly for any remnants to feed on.

Only the dead silence.


As unnatural as those shimmering shapes and curtains, barely visible, with prowling shadows which can be discerned only with a corner of an eye.

They finally pause after they have made their way to a small square in the middle of the town; instinctively, they form a circle, their weapons ready.

As if weapons could be any use.

Constantly, Nathaniel feels as if being watched: an intent, malevolent gaze, sticking to his nape, making his hair rise. Yet, whenever he turns, there is nothing, and no-one.

The place is haunted for sure.

Her gloved hands firmly grasping the staff, placed ready across her saddle, Velanna is looking around, wide-eyed, her fear emanating almost palpably. When her horse jerks its head, she startles. "What are we waiting for?" she blurts out, her voice tense. "There is nothing here, no Kristoff of yours, and no darkspawn, either."

"I wish the nothing part was true, as well," Anders mutters, his eyes not leaving a structure situated on a hillock above the town, obscured by one of the shimmering veils: a mansion, or a chateaux, of Orlaisian style, though its shape seems to be constantly shifting, and so does the landscape around. "There is pretty much something that I really do not like. We'd better get going, before we get some company. That is the Fade over there. We can have demons swooping down upon us any time."

"If you're worried that you might turn into an abomination, I can smite you pre-emptively." By his tone, Ned seems rather oblivious to the menace – or, as it might be, putting up an act.

Anders scowls. "Have I ever told you that I really, really hate those Templar tricks of yours? – Where did you say you picked them, once more?"

Despite the circumstances, Nathaniel feels the corner of his mouth twist: this is an old game between the two, and following the usual course.

"On the roads," Ned replies casually.

Anders rolls his eyes. "Sure, they were dumped in the ditch." He snaps his fingers. "Just like that."

Oghren issues a rumbling chuckle: it seems that the dwarf knows, or has figured out on his own, and he apparently enjoys teasing the mage with it. He laughs again: in his case, the lack of fear is usually directly attributed to the amount of ale he has drunk. "You'd never guess who taught him, skirtie. You'd never, ever, guess."

"A big pink fluffy rabbit?"

Ned laughs. "I'll pass on the compliment, he'll love it."

"Gotcha!" Anders gloats with self-satisfaction. "Now I know that you learned from a male!"

Which leaves you only half the humankind to pick from.

"Pah!" Velanna's limited patience has run out. "Quit that inane talk of yours! What do we do if the demons do come upon us?"

Ned turns to her, his brows half-raised. "Kill them? They die much like everyone else. Just don't make any deals with them."

Nathaniel shoots a quick glance in his direction. Bloody cocksure, aren't we?

Uncowed by Velanna's furious glare, Ned Cousland nods towards the silent houses. "We take a look around."

Despite his light-hearted tone, the banter is dropped: the alert silence of Blackmarsh is not inclined towards humour. Waiting outside with Velanna and Oghren until the Commander and Anders finish the examination of yet another derelict house, Nathaniel has to contend with all his instincts urging him to run.

The hillock above the town is the source of it all, of that he is sure.

The spot where he was stabbed itches.

Worried, he looks up at the sun: its previous brightness has become somewhat dimmed and the blue of the sky is not as clear as before, either.

Half an hour later, his suspicion is confirmed: a change of weather is under way.

A remarkably sudden change, given how stable the weather has been in the last two weeks; and during the whole journey from their base at Narrowdale, there was not a single cloud in the sky.

He would not be particularly surprised to find out that the weather was changing only at around Blackmarsh.

A crucial fact the stories seemed to omit.

Another ten minutes later, the sky is overcast and the wind is beginning to rise in angry gusts.

"We should get out and find a shelter in the hills!" Velanna reminds of a trapped animal, and quite justifiably so: the veils parting the world from the Fade have become more prominent, their glimmer growing stronger in the onsetting darkness.

"We won't be able to make it to the hills," the Commander assesses. "I suggest that we fall back to that house we inspected previously, the door still held."

Accompanied by the howling wind, they return to the house which may have belonged to the city mayor: a sturdy stone building with slate roof, still withstanding the elements which have taken their toll on the less durable structures. The horses, though, don't appreciate the idea: they are on the verge of panic, their wildly rolling eyes showing the white. Nathaniel mutters curses under his breath: managing their packhorse in addition to his own is proving increasingly difficult.

It takes Nathaniel quite a while to make his steed ascend the three broad stairs and enter the hall, dimly lit by the weirlight Anders has placed there. Luckily, the pack horse becomes more obedient after that, and so he can soon assist Oghren and Velanna in ushering their own horses in; doing his best to calm the animals so that they can be tied to the pillars of the inner staircase. He wishes he could calm Velanna, as well, but his attempt to take her by the shoulder is rewarded with a murderous look.

Meanwhile, the wind has gained the strength of a gale, tugging wildly at his cloak and wailing among the walls – not loud enough, though, to subdue the howling that sounds from somewhere close to their right, resounding to the left, right and left again.

"Get the rest of the horses in!" Ned hands the reins of his horse to Nathaniel and bends to grab Wolf's collar. "Hold… hold on, boy…" Having secured the dog, he draws his sword. "Get ready!"

"What for?" Anders yells against the wind, struggling with his prancing horse. "What was that? Wolves?"

Worse. Maker, no wolf is entitled to be so big!

And no real wolf is supposed to simply materialize from deep shadows, either, Nathaniel thinks briefly as the beast, the mass of furry muscles, red-glowing eyes, fangs and claws, is upon them.

Anders' horse screeches in sheer terror and breaks loose; the mage barely manages to jump out of its way as it gallops in panic towards its fate. Its pained neighing dies away among wild snarls.

Nathaniel does not see the poor animal's end; the Commander's horse is also panicking and he has to restrain it with all his strength and skill. Nonetheless; the furious growling and howling around him gets tinged with pain every now and then; he hears Oghren's battle cry, the mages yelling their spells; he glimpses the prowling dark shapes, glistening steel and flashes of fire – and cannot do a thing himself, unless he sacrifices the horse.

Cursing, he withstands another violent jerk at the reins. His arms already ache: if his companions don't deal with the beasts soon, there is a good chance that he will not be able to restrain the horse any longer.

The horse neighs and prances again as a monstrous wolf leaps between the defenders. Before it can get any further, Velanna promptly turns and sends a forked lightning through its body: the heat of the fight has bolstered the elf's spirit.

While she is distracted, though, another massive shape comes out of the shadows behind her and springs at the elf with its maw open.

"Look out, Velanna!" Nathaniel yells helplessly, realizing that even if he let go the reins this instant, he wouldn't make it in time.

The elf has heard him, though: twirling at the last possible moment, she ducks and preys the end of her staff into the gaping maw. A stream of flames issues from the staff, consuming the beast from within. The body, borne by the energy of the last leap, barely lands on the frozen ground when Velanna already sends a fiery ball at the wolf rushing from the right.

No more beasts come after that, and the fight is soon over. Cousland whistles loudly at Wolf and checks his companions with a quick glance. "No-one got bitten, I hope?"

No. No-one has got as much as a scratch. Nathaniel looks towards the hillock; the radiance shimmering as cold and impassive as before. 'Bit more than you could chew, it would seem, he thinks, and immediately slaps himself mentally: overconfidence, the death of many a fool. He sincerely hopes they will not join these any time soon.

The wind seems to be blowing even more furiously, bearing gusts of tiny snowflakes.

"Get in!" the Commander calls. He takes over his horse. "Thanks for holding him."

"You're welcome," Nathaniel replies rather sourly: he feels every strained muscle.

"And what about my poor horse? And my saddle pouch?" Anders rumbles as they bar the windows with the remnants of shutters and furniture.

"I'll be happy to lend you my spare breeches," Oghren calls from the table which he is disassembling. "Real men's wear, no skirts."

Anders only pouts scornfully: he was rather happy to leave his mage outfit at the Keep and swap it for a pair of woollens, like every sensible person. "Your breeches are well capable of standing on their own, and if you keep them unwashed a little longer, they might even be able to walk away. – As much as I may miss my possessions, the most precious piece is over here, anyway." He pats lovingly the pouch he carries across his shoulder, strapped carefully except for a small breathing hole which now and then sports Ser Pounce-a-lot's rather annoyed face. The gesture is not appreciated: the pouch hisses angrily and starts trashing about.

Oghren eyes the pouch with aroused interest. "'Thought you had just one of 'em? Looks like there are two, and at it."

Ignoring the dwarf and mage's exchange, Ned Cousland is standing by the last unbarred window, gazing at the whirling snow – or rather, as Nathaniel realizes when he comes closer, at the hillock shrouded with the radiant curtain.

The look on his face is that of a hunter assessing the next kill – and looking forward to it with grim satisfaction.

Nathaniel shakes his head in disbelief. "Is it just me, or are you really enjoying yourself?" he remarks in a low voice.

He receives a somewhat startled, and surprisingly embarrassed, glance. "Does it seems so?"

Either that, or you are the most cold-blooded bastard I've ever seen. "Well, you certainly do not seem… disquieted in any way. Are you really not afraid when facing something like that?"

Looking back at the wall of rainbow colours, Ned Cousland slowly replies: "That is really nothing. Those things in beyond can only kill you, like anything else. That is not what I fear most, so… just another thing to be killed, rather than be killed myself." A twist of his mouth, as the spark returns to his eye. "Isn't there a saying that if you go to Blackmarsh, you will die? Well, whoever dwells over there, they seem to have given the first try – a rather lame one, I'd say."

The realisation forms crystal clear. "You have faced these before, those…"

"Werewolves. Or shadow wolves. Yes. In the Brecillian forest. That is a… haunted place, as well." His voice wavers slightly, but the next remark diverts Nathaniel's interest. "And I've seen my deal of the Fade, as well, so this is not something I would fear."

"The Fade?" Struggling with the board brought to bar the window, Nathaniel frowns. Is there something you haven't seen, man? "How?"

Ned takes hold of the other end of the board and helps him to push it in the window frame. "It was an accident… a trap of a sloth demon."

Let me guess. The poor thing was painfully sorry to have engaged you in the end.

Trying to imagine what exceeds his experience, Nathaniel cannot help but keep asking: "What is it like – the Fade? From what I see through those curtains, it's rather scary."

"The Fade is… confusing, I guess? Nothing like I've ever seen. There are no certainties, no clear shapes, your own mind plays tricks on you. Yet, in a way, I sort of…liked it. It – " he shakes his head. "You would have to see yourself."

Maker preserve, I'd rather not.

His feelings must be quite apparent, since Ned chuckles softly. "Really, it wasn't that bad. Have you ever dreamt of becoming a stone giant? Or being as little as a mouse, so that you could prowl unseen? Being a ghost, passing through things? In the Fade, I was able to do this. I never thought of changing my shape before but after that, I must say that the notion seems… appealing. I wish I was able to do that again. Ever since that, I've envied Morrigan – "

Morrigan. Nathaniel knows the name and its meaning: Oghren has never been discreet, and he gossips worse than an old crone. And, given the way the sentence is left unfinished, there is apparently more to gossip about than Oghren suspects.

"Never mind. I want to investigate what can be done here but I don't expect we will see any more of the Fade than we already have." Cousland's voice slips into the manner Nathaniel knows all too well: formal politeness, covering whatever may lie beneath. "It seems the room is safe, we'd better take a look upstairs."

The windows upstairs are small and scarce, easily barred with chests and wardrobes. Cousland has fallen into a gloomy silence but Nathaniel does not mind, preoccupied by what has been told so far. Out of breath and sweating as they have been moving a particularly heavy chest of drawers, he remarks: "That stone giant you mentioned would come handy now. You sure you cannot make it at least for a while?"

A quick beam of a smile. "Don't think I haven't tried hard!"

When they come back into the main room, Anders welcomes them with relief: his travel pouch has apparently run out of patience with the confinement. "Come, Pounce, it's finally safe for little kittens to out – Ouch!" As soon as he unstraps the buckles, Ser Pounce-a-lot spurts out as an extremely infuriated fur ball, stopping only to sink his claws into Anders' hand. "Hey! What was that for?"

Hissing in answer, the cat stops in the middle of the room, its tail high; then with the last glance of utter contempt, he decides that the single person still worth his attention is… Velanna.

Completely petrified, the elf watches the cat rubbing against her calves. "Why… is it doing that?" she finally stutters.

"Screw me if I know…" Anders mutters, rather offended: the elf never showed any interest in the cat, and vice versa. "Could it be possessed?"

Oghren quickly eyes the mage. "Was that an offer?"

Seeing Velanna so out of herself is… endearing. Nathaniel crosses the room. "He wants to be petted," he explains. "Have you never had a cat?"

The look he receives is quickly becoming Velanna-like again. "We Dalish do not bend animals to our wills!"

"Well, you're not bending him to anything, he chose to come to you himself," Nathaniel points out.

Velanna looks down at the cat, her expression indiscernible. "So… what do I do?"

Amid a haunted town, a lesson in cat manners.

When Pounce finally purrs in Velanna's arms, against her breasts, Nathaniel quickly averts his eyes from Anders', since they apparently follow the same train of thought, which Oghren is all too happy to express: "Lucky bugger."