The first part of the Kal'Hirol quest.
First Chapter::His Father's Son
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A Race Through Dark Places
The staircase reaches the bottom of the chasm, and Nathaniel exhales with relief. Whoever constructed the crude structure apparently had some weird notions of architecture, or safety.
Little wonder, given that they were darkspawn, if what those hunters who had chanced on this place claimed was true.
Of course it's true. Who else would bother building something like that here?
The chasm sports a dark opening further on, looking even more ominous on the cloudy day. Nathaniel expects a hail of arrows from there any second, but the darkspawn, confident that the remoteness of the location will maintain the secrecy of their entrance route on its own, do not bother with guards against unwelcome visitors.
Or they are waiting for us to enter the dark, their natural element. They are intelligent, staircase-building darkspawn, after all.
The memory of the Architect's laboratory makes him shudder. Is the bastard somewhere down there, as well? Judging by his companions' grim expressions, their thoughts probably follow the same trail. Wolf seems the only one without any worries about the future, and Velanna… Velanna looks excited, as if her lost sister was waiting just behind the nearest corner. Her eyes shine, her cheeks are slightly flushed, lips parted…
Nathaniel quickly navigates his thoughts and eyes to their surroundings, though with an all too familiar pang of guilt: he still hasn't made good on his promise to talk to Velanna. The occasions were less frequent than he had expected, and Seranni the only topic the elf could be engaged in. And, since a trip to the Deep Roads is not be the best place for such talks, he will have to wait till they make it back again… if they do.
They approach the cave-in with their weapons ready, carefully treading among the remnants of weather-worn stonework. Nathaniel recognizes the style of the ancient dwarven craft from the Kal'Hirol outpost under the Keep; from what he can discern, it seems more ornate here, once worked to flawless perfection.
No darkspawn hide in the dark mouth of the revealed corridor or beyond; nothing moves and the Warden sense remains silent. The thin cover of fresh snow shows no tracks but from the shape of the frozen layer below, Nathaniel can read what they already know: many feet, going in and out.
Once they climb over the worst pile of rubble, the corridor is straight and broad, with a complex frieze of geometrical patterns running on both walls, mostly unmarred by time.
'We must be really close to the thaig," Oghren mutters. "The sods did keep their place nice."
"Shh," Nathaniel hisses.
The daylight hasn't even vanished behind their backs when there comes the sound of running feet, further along the corridor, and the characteristic tug at the mind, announcing the bearers of the taint. The next moment, a circle of blue light appears, illuminating a figure ensuing from the crossroads: a short, sturdy figure, running, panting, and falling to the floor with a scream of anguish after having tripped, while the darkness behind her splits into taller, twisted shapes reaching their claws at her –
Her. The voice was female.
Nathaniel does not stop to ponder what the female dwarf might be doing here; for his enhanced Warden sight, the darkspawn are an easy target. The arrow pierces the darkness, followed by a bright arc of lightning from Anders' staff, jumping from one monstrous body to another, leaving them charred and twitching on the floor. Behind the bolt and arrow, the Wardens follow, their runed blades burning the corrupt flesh.
Soon, the encounter is over – even sooner for the darkspawn's weird behaviour: instead of taking advantage of the dwarf's fall to kill her, they try to drag her away.
The implication is sickening.
Meanwhile, the dwarf is already on her feet, feeling her ribs.
"Are you injured? Let me help," Anders says in a way of greeting.
The dwarf's eyes glisten in the blue lamplight, and she removes the helmet to show her tattooed face in the grimace of a child just about to receive a candy. "You are a mage, right? I've never seen a mage! Will you heal me with your magic? How do you do it?"
As they are soon to find out, the happy curiosity is a defining feature of Sigrun, a scout of the Legion of the Dead. Her tone barely changes as she speaks about the massacre of the Legion, though Nathaniel is not sure whether her light-heartedness is not merely a coping mechanism: from her account, the situation down in the ruins of Kal'Hirol must have been desperate. Nonetheless, she definitely seems to be recovering from her experience very fast. While the Wardens are discussing the new aspect to their mission, Sigrun makes use of the time to become acquainted with Wolf – a peculiar feet for one who has never seen a dog, not to mention a mabari, before. The dog – surprisingly, or perhaps not – takes her advances well, and decides to show her his newly born affection as profoundly as he can.
In hindsight, Sigrun's reaction probably could have been expected; at the time being, it is a source of a rare sight of Ned Cousland pausing in mid-word, as Sigrun returns the favour, even though neither her tongue nor the amount of saliva can match Wolf's.
Raising her brows at the momentary silence, she states: "Well, given that we are going to spend some time together, and perhaps die together, I think it best to become friends with Wolf. The darkspawn will flee before his foul breath!" To his offended whining, she adds calmly: "And I will assist you, of course. I haven't cleaned my teeth in ages, and that deepstalker meat I ate last is probably still crawling in my stomach."
"Your help will be appreciated, Sigrun," Ned says softly, "but I won't force you to return to where you have just escaped from. You have done what you could."
"I could only ran, so I did, but now with you Wardens, I can do more, I think," the dwarf retorts as if she was discussing a picnic. The smile that forms on her lips is unexpectedly sweet. "Besides, what can happen to me when I'm dead already?"
You would never believe. We already have one dead person along, after all.
With Sigrun's lead, they quickly proceed along a main tunnel, into what used to be the glorious city of Kal'Hirol proper.
The thaig surpasses all Nathaniel's expectations. The lamplight doesn't reach very far but the glow of the occasional streams of lava spreads wide and far, marking the size of the largest cavern Nathaniel has ever seen, and much larger he would have believed possible. Some of the stone structures are in ruins but others are still standing, proving the breathtaking skill of the ancient masons and carvers against the destruction and time.
Passing the decorated walls, Nathaniel feels somewhat dazed, both with awe and with disgust over the film of black tainted moulds here and there, and so he notices the weird veils in an alley in between only when Ned alerts them: "Spiders!"
The biggest and ugliest creatures Nathaniel has ever seen, except the Children in Blackmarsh.
Facing the attack from several sides, Ned, Oghren, Wolf, Sigrun and Justice form a circle around their small group, allowing the mages and Nathaniel perform their ranged attacks from relative safety – relative, as they find out soon when one of the monstrosities bears from the darkness above their heads right on Anders.
The mage goes to the ground with a panicked scream, and Nathaniel drops the bow and draws his short blade to hack off one of the beast's legs. Sigrun, with almost dancing steps, appears from the other side and chops off another with her light axe. The next moment, she somersaults aside as the beast turns its abdomen to her and emits a heap of thick threads, sticking to the ground and to Anders' kicking legs.
Taking advantage of the distraction, Nathaniel plunges the blade deep into the beast's body but its convulsion tears the hilt from his grasp. Gritting a curse between his teeth, he produces the throwing knife from the sheath on his forearm, painfully aware that against the chitin shell, it is highly inadequate.
A wave of intense cold covers his arm with hoarfrost, freezing the spider just as it is about to sink its mandibles into the mage, but the triumph is short-lived – two more giant spiders come down, ejecting the sticky threads. Nathaniel dodges only partly, nearly tripping as his right leg gets caught in the unbelievably strong web.
"Get down, everyone!" he hears Anders yell from where he is lying under the frozen spider, and barely manages to do so before a stream of fire flashes through the darkness. With a hollow crack, the spider explodes; another monstrosity, set afire, writhes violently on the floor. The fire travels up the threads hanging from the nearby buildings, lighting the surroundings with a temporary blaze.
No more spiders come after that, and once the last is hacked to pieces, the only sound is Anders' cursing as he is vainly trying to remove the web from his legs.
With a grin, Oghren offers him his bottle of ale. "This will do the trick, ye know?" Looking over his shoulder at the Commander, he adds: "Funny how you big folks are pansy 'bout this critter stuff," he remarks.
The look Ned pays him as he is removing the gore from his armour is less than friendly. "If nearly suffocating under the webs counts as 'pansy' in your book, then you're welcome."
Instead of being put down, Oghren's grin widens. "Well, not as pansy as that mage of yers… man, she did curse when the stuff got stuck in her hair! You would think someone grabbed her tits, I can tell you…"
Finally realizing that the look has gone from annoyed to murderous, Oghren falls silent just at the moments when Anders mutters: "Not when grabbed by the Commander, I sup –"
The mage bites on his tongue a moment too late. Ned's eyes narrow, yet he resumes cleaning his gear, speaking in a flat, blank tone: "None of your business, Anders."
To overcome the embarrassing moment, Nathaniel grabs the bottle from the mage and releases his leg from the web, to retrieve his sword from the remnants of the spider. "You fight well, Sigrun," he remarks. "The Legion trains its members excellently."
"Oh, there is no training and such," the dwarf retorts, looking up at him with her innocent, doll-like eyes, "that's just the tricks which you pick up living in the streets, fighting for your life and scraps of food, you know."
"He wouldn't know, he's a sodding noble," Oghren grumbles, all too happy to make someone else look a fool.
Oh, thanks so much, I'll remember that.
Luckily for Nathaniel, Sigrun doesn't pursue the topic. "That was a nice trick," she pokes with the tip of her boot at the smithereens of the spider. "We usually just cut off their legs from under them and then split them in halves. Can you do it again if necessary?"
"I hope I won't have to," Anders mutters. "Having a single spider all over me as almost as bad as hiding at a Templar latrine." As he becomes the target of several suspicious glances, he spreads his arms. "I only considered it, once."
Unsurprisingly, the mage's hopes are quickly proved wrong as they make their way through the vastness of Kal'Hirol, encountering more spiders, darkspawn and deepstalkers… and the first casualties from the Legion, one of them still alive but dying on their hands.
After that, Sigrun falls silent.
Following a rising ancient route, towards what must be the citadel of Kal'Hirol, Nathaniel watches it with anxiety. The dying dwarf's news of the breeding grounds leave them no choice but try to infiltrate the place and destroy the broodmothers, but their chances at escaping alive are quickly diminishing, even if they manage to find a side entrance.
He can feel it in his bones that whatever they've been through so far was just a prelude.
He is right, of course: in the citadel, there are golems… and Children.
Not just those giant woodlice from Blackmarsh but woodlice which have grown longer legs and claws and stand taller than Wolf, and their attack is accompanied by the ground-shaking stomps of animate stone figures, crushing everything that does not evade in time. When the fight is over, everyone is breathing rapidly and bleeding, and Nathaniel wonders if he only started to hate critters as a Warden, or if he has always hated them and only never knew. As for golems, they seem somehow too profound to be hated, and admitting himself that he is scared of them is an idea that Nathaniel cautiously leaves for future examination.
Anders checks on each of them, leaving minor injuries to Velanna to tend to. When he is done, he sinks to the wall, uncorking a lyrium flask with shaking hands. "Not sure how often and how quickly I can repeat the performance," he says without a trace of his usual humour.
"We've got through the main defences." Ned's voice sounds somewhat weaker than usually. "We'll wait a little to catch our breath and move on. Keep those little presents from Dworkin as the last resort, should we need to clear our way out fast."
Fast? Nathaniel doesn't want to think how deep underground they are, and how long it would take them to reach the surface: if the heavy resistance behind the entrance means a thing, they do not have to bother about the way back at all. He cautiously feels the gash in his side which Anders has just closed. Even with the healing spell, he will have to favour the side in fight; quickly healed wounds keep giving trouble, thus further reducing their future chances.
"Does it still hurt?" Leaning over him – too close, or not? – Velanna doesn't wait for a reply and puts her hands on his shoulders, sending a wave of rejuvenating energy.
"Er – thank you," Nathaniel says, looking into her eyes, golden-green like sun through young leaves. Nodding, Velanna keeps his eyes a little longer, then stands up abruptly.
Maker… I have to talk to her. When we get out of here. If we do. If we don't… Briefly, he closes his eyes. Come on, Nathaniel. Don't give in. No-one else does… And no-one else seems to give a damn to that filth around. Move on.
Forcing his hands not to clutch, Nathaniel grits his teeth instead and then quits even that, attempting to breathe regularly, though not too deep, as even the air itself here feels filthy. The descent into the darkspawn den does not seem half as unnerving as his response to it. Fighting the darkspawn in the open is something he got quickly accustomed to; clearing the Keep's underbelly was merely a few hours' business in a couple of caverns and corridors; escaping the silverite mine was different because they were heading out, while here… these are not even moulds covering the walls but some slime, and here it looks almost like raw flesh…
Come on. Don't be a – a pansy. Right. Never mind that stuff. Traps, lures, darkspawn. That's your business here. You mustn't make a mistake.
It would all be easier, though, if only the place wasn't so… so…
Come one. Come on. You've been soaked in all kinds of gore before. This is nothing a bath wouldn't set right.
A bath. A kingdom for a bath.
Or some darkspawn to kill, as a distraction.
Realizing the ridiculousness of his wish, Nathaniel barely manages to suppress giggles which would undoubtedly draw undue attention. Curiously, though, it's a wish that doesn't seem to be granted: they encounter only very few darkspawn; suspiciously few.
"I don't like this," Oghren mutters, squinting his eyes to see through the shadows in the corners. "The place is too soddin' empty. It reminds me…"
"Don't remind of that." Ned, tense as rarely before, is slowly turning round. "There are darkspawn," he assesses, "a lot of them, further off… but really far, I can barely feel them. I guess we… Justice? What is it?"
The dead Warden – spirit – whatever is standing with his head tilted, as if listening to something. He turns the glazed eyes to Ned. "There is… a song."
"A song? Like in, darkspawn throwing a party?" Anders shakes his head. "So, that's why there's no-one around! The buggers are celebrating without us! You think they mind if we don't stop for a drink?"
I think we will find out soon enough – too soon, in fact. Though I don't want to think about what it is they might be drinking.
They do, but something entirely else. Oghren just glances and produces an appreciatory whistle, while Anders quickly takes a step back: "No, thanks, I like my brain the way it is."
Nathaniel steps closer: a bucketful of lyrium is not something he would see on a daily basis, and here it is not merely a single bucket: rows and rows of casks and barrels, emanating a faint blue glow.
"It… sings…" the dead vocal chords produce a tone of uncertain disbelief, so much different from the cold, evaluating notes Justice likes to spew around, asked or not. "I…"
"Later. We'll investigate this later," Ned commands. "Let's move on, if I'm not mistaken, such an amount is safe for no-one."
"And let's hope that no-one will lift the stuff while we're gone," Anders comments.
Ned gives the lyrium storage a thoughtful look, and Nathaniel guesses his mind. "You're not thinking about transporting the stuff to the Keep, or are you?"
"If we manage to clear the thaig… not today, definitely, but with that safegate just under the Keep, I believe there must be a direct way to this place. Once those darkspawn incursions stop tying our hands… such a fortune would solve our problems with the arling's economy for good. We could easily repair what has been damaged…"
Thinking of the burnt farms and defiled fields, Nathaniel has to admit that the idea is correct. He heaves a small sigh, looking around, at the dark layers covering huge portions of the wall and emitting a weak feel of the Taint. I'm a Warden. Such places should not scare… no, repel me.
He startles, feeling Ned's hand unexpectedly touch his shoulder. "We'll get out of here," Ned mutters solely for his ears.
Glancing around and seeing the others occupied by examining the riches and the weird devices in the room, Nathaniel asks softly what has been on his mind for some time: "How can you bear it? How can you bear returning into this?"
Ned hesitates, and then says barely audibly: "I've been through such and worse, and lived, and I have no intention to die here this time, either." Brusquely, he turns on his heel. "Let us get going," he commands. "We have darkspawn to kill. We might miss the fun if we don't hurry."
Hurry they do and proceed much faster than expected, but it seems that Ned was not entirely right: the fun is rather spoiled, as it seems that someone has done most of the killing for them.
"Didn't you say the Legion didn't make it past the defences?" Ned frowns, examining the dead darkspawn."
"How would I know? I ran, remember?" This time, Nathaniel is almost sure that the light tone is feigned, but then Sigrun adds: "Some must have broken through, though, because these darkspawn didn't just off themselves, or did they?"
Surprisingly, her estimate is right, as they find out as soon as they enter the next hall.
"Darkspawn fighting darkspawn?" Anders apparently doesn't believe his eyes. "Over what?"
"Who cares? Let's get at them while they're distracted!" Oghren grumbles, readying his axe, but Ned grabs him by the shoulder before he can charge.
"Why bother? Let them do our work for us for once!"
Nathaniel is not sure but feels as if Justice's inexpressive face emanated disapproval: he probably doesn't agree with Wardens lazying.
Your bad, pal.
Cutting down the few stragglers, they move on… and down, to whatever awaits.