What was found in Kal'Hirol.
First Chapter::His Father's Son
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30. Intersections in real time
"Phew. That was a fucking tough bastard."
No-one comments on Oghren's statement, though Nathaniel has little doubt that they think it a huge understatement.
More like, 'this was pretty close'.
Their fast progress through Kal'Hirol, cutting down those few stragglers surviving the attack of the other darkspawn faction, came to an abrupt halt when they ran into golems once again… into one particular golem.
'Tough bastard' doesn't even start to cover that.
Nathaniel clutches his hands to prevent them from shaking. The remnants of the golem-thing that glowed with fire underneath its crust are scattered wide and far around the hall after its explosion, still scalding hot to the touch, and the small company of Wardens is scorched all over.
As if reading his thoughts, Oghren addresses him: "Not of yer brightest ideas, blighter. 'Worked once, will always' is not a universal recipe, ye know?"
But it did work, nonetheless… luckily.
Had Nathaniel had the time to stop and think, it might have occurred to him that a combination of Dworkin's arrows with lyrium explosives and of magically sustained fire could lead to unexpected outcomes; in the heat of the fight, however, all that mattered was to bring the monstrosity down.
"If you'd have preferred to get smashed and roasted, you should have said so." Oghren glares over the burnt bridge of his nose but Ned, his hair sizzled on one side, turns to Nathaniel instead. "It was a great shot. I haven't seen a heat-issuing golem before and I was beginning to worry how we might deal with it if we couldn't get anywhere near."
"For some it was still close enough," Anders mutters, tending to Oghren's burns. The dwarf with his heavy axe, as well as Justice with his broadsword and inability to feel pain as a bonus, were the only ones who could actually engage the golem while the others served mostly as a distraction not to allow it near the mages.
For one who never got in touch with the heat and flames, Anders seems somewhat grumpy. "This whole trip is getting a lot more complicated. What else we might run into, huh?"
More darkspawn… though, as long as they are at each other's throats, I don't really mind.
Speaking of darkspawn… the one cheering effect of the exploding golem is that it almost entirely cleansed the area of the Taint: mere touch of the flames removed the layers of the black moulds, much to Nathaniel's delight.
Assessing the highly satisfactory damage, he receives Sigrun's approving nod. "That's how we do it in the Legion – only, we leave the area first."
Oh. Thanks for enlightening me. Even so, Nathaniel is almost sorry to leave the place and plunge into the filth of the darkspawn-infested thaig once again.
As they proceed, more and more often they come across groups of fighting darkspawn instead of mere corpses and their progress slows down, waiting out the outcome of the clash to deal with the survivors.
Soon, we'll have to do the job on our own again. A pity.
None of them wishes to speculate just now what the presence of talking darkspawn in both factions might signify.
For the time being, they have yet another reason to worry.
It starts with an ungraspable, ticklish feel at his nape, even thought there seems nothing and no-one to watch him; soon enough, his skin is prickling and there are movements in the shades, visible only with a corner of an eye, and an echo of voices just below audibility.
"The Veil is thin here," Justice remarks softly, and Wolf whines in confirmation.
Anders curses. "Darkspawn, golems, Children… do we have to deal with demons, as well?"
Ned slowly shakes his head. "Not demons. Ghosts. Look."
The images emerge from the shadows, pale and shapeless, their outlines growing sharper at a fleeting glance. Their voices sound like murmur behind a closed door: not clear enough to let anyone grasp the words, yet conveying emotions: fear, anger, anguish… love.
The dwarf in the rags could be Sigrun's sister: the innocent, wide-set eyes looking at the two children while the tone of her voice speaks more clearly than the words obscured by time: it'll be alright, mommy's here.
Hesitantly, the children's anxious faces break into smiles and they run to play in the rubble, yelling with carefree, high-pitched voices, while the woman watches them intently as if to brand their images into her mind.
Nathaniel quickly turns away, so as not to see if the scene merely fades away, or continues unfolding to its tragic end when Kal'Hirol's defences fell.
On they go, in gloomy silence, witnessing all those lost lives and personal tragedies, not only forgotten but absolutely unknown… inconsequential in the grand scheme of thing.
Nathaniel feels his hand tightening the grip of the hilt.
Most of the dwarves are in rags, only a few – too few – wear armour of the finest make.
Why were there so few warriors here? Were those commonfolk inconsequential?
Armoured or not, all of them fight and die alike, at the provisional barrier before the darkspawn break through, and the fight turns into slaughter.
Bones lie thick on the floor on both sides of the broken barrier, and crush under their feet.
Bones also lie thick around a makeshift pedestal, on which a massive stone slab is placed, slanting, half-obscured with a heap of crushed bones and armour. The surface of the slab is covered with etched runes, stretching in many columns, in the same script Nathaniel has seen all over the place.
He flinches as Oghren suddenly roars in fury and then spouts a long string of vulgarisms. The Wardens glance at one another, unable to grasp what has got into him; ignoring them, the dwarf grabs Sigrun's shoulder, pointing at the slab: "See what they did? See what those soddin' bastards did?"
The Legion scout is very pale but looks at him firmly. "I wouldn't know. You don't learn to read in the streets, and the Legion doesn't waste time on the dead."
Breathing rapidly, Oghren withdraws the hand and runs it over the remnants of his burnt beard. "They…. It's written up there. When those sods learned that the darkspawn were coming and that the access route couldn't be sealed in time, they evacuated. The best from the warrior caste volunteered to stay behind and gain them some time… and only then they found out that all the dusters were left behind. Not because nobody thought them no good to take along… nobody even realized they existed. So that's why…" he makes a gesture encompassing all: the layers of bones, and the ghosts lingering around, fighting eternally a battle long lost.
No-one makes a sound.
Then, slowly, Sigrun walks over to the pedestal, looking closely at the columns of text. "That is all there is to it?" she asks tensely.
"No," Ned replies in a hushed voice, holding tight Wolf's collar. "I've seen such writings before. Tell us, Oghren, are those names?"
"They are." In contrast to his previous roar, Oghren almost whispers. "The names of every single duster who was rallied to join the fight. They were born casteless but they died warriors."
"But died nonetheless. Did their sacrifice at least achieve a thing?" Anders asks, the tone of fury so uncharacteristic for his usual leisured conduct.
Oghren snorts. "You bet it did. Quite a couple of Orzammar's nobles trace their line back to Kal'Hirol."
"And don't even know how come they still live."
All eyes turn to Sigrun and then quickly drop at the bitterness in her voice.
"Oh, they soddin' will," Oghren mutters. Grabbing the edge of the slab, he yanks it from the pedestal, the veins on his forehead swelling with the effort.
"Oghren… you can't possibly carry this along now!"
The dwarf scowls at Ned over his shoulder. "You tell me about carrying dead weight," he gasps.
To Nathaniel's surprise, Ned averts his eyes. Anders starts saying something but then Justice, quiet and unmoving until then, suddenly walks over to Oghren. "That is an honourable deed, and necessary. However, I must support the Commander now: we cannot carry it along before we finish our quest, the record might be broken or lost. We will retrieve it on our way back, and I will help you carry it."
His intervention virtually leaves Oghren speechless. "I – ugh – alright." With a sigh of relief, he carefully lets the stone slide back to its place.
And then he almost jumps as Sigrun, with a smooth, almost imperceptible movement, briefly pecks him on the cheek.
No-one laughs at his bafflement. For a moment, they remain standing, watching the desk with several hundred names.
All those people who didn't matter any more than some invisible bugs under the nobles' feet.
Nathaniel is barely aware that Velanna is standing very close to him, and when her hand steals into his, he mechanically squeezes it back.
Nobility should have another meaning, he thinks, painfully aware that his father would probably have acted in the same way under the same circumstances. Never a thought of those who were no use to him… never a thought of me or Thomas or Delilah other than as of pawns to promote the name of the Howes.
The thoughts of his sister never far away, he sees her before his inner eye: her hands clasped over the little life growing in her, her face joyous and serene, full of hope.
Hope that those people here never had.
And this is why I am a Warden: not because of a name but for Delilah and her child, for real, living people. For them, someone must plunge into this filth and corruption, to make sure that they won't be abandoned to such a tragedy ever again.
He blinks, his musing interrupted by Ned's command to move on, and startles at the realisation what he has just done. Before he has a chance to rectify somehow his mistake, the elf slides away to take her usual position at the end of their marching order.
Oh, dammit. Later.
Nathaniel follows Ned and Sigrun, squeezing in between empty pods, fleshy and warm to the touch, and when they arrive at a cluster of occupied ones, yielding a load of Children, he fights the monstrosities with a fierceness he didn't know he possessed.
The tunnel then narrows, covered with layers of pulsing materia which completely obscures the stone. At several spots, it even raises in bulbous forms which they have to crawl over, sinking into its slimy softness. When they finally reach a wider opening, they are welcomed with deafening screeches and wildly beating tentacles, protruding unexpectedly from the materia all around a pit in the centre of the cavern.
No, not a cavern: still a part of the ancient dwarven structures, Nathaniel realizes, seeing outlines of regular shapes in the dark above their heads, and above the pit.
They retreat from the tentacles towards the walls and find remnants of a staircase leading to an upper level, towards several ramps accessing a broad platform hung on massive chains right in the middle… above the pit.
"Light, Anders!" Ned yells to make himself heard over the screeching.
A beam of white light emits from the tip of the mage's staff, settling in the form of a ball on the platform, illuminating the cracked decorations, as well as the anchoring of the chains…
…as well as the monstrous, swollen bodies, sharp-teethed openings in the grotesque faces hissing their hatred and craving.
Seeing that, Nathaniel shudders, once; then follows Ned's gesture, turning their attention to the ramp running along the perimeter of the hall, and the chains outing from massive rings set in the rock.
Oghren laughs: a deep grumbling, content sound. "Lend me a hand, skirtie," he tells Anders. "Ice and fire, fire and ice – we'll bring these down in no time. Ye others can just pick yer noses meanwhile."
They don't, of course: the remaining darkspawn of Kal'Hirol, a ridiculously small number, appear now and then to defend the broodmothers. They are cut down effortlessly to the sound of Oghren's heavy axe crushing the rings and the loose chains clanking, until the remaining chains snap under the weight and the central platform falls, crushing all that lies beneath in a short moment when screeching turns into a wail.
In the sudden silence, Ned approaches the edge of the pit. "I can still see some movement down there. A few of those lyrium arrows, Nathaniel – from a safe distance."
Waiting for the others to retreat, Nathaniel runs his hand over the elegant shaft of his grandfather's bow. For you, Delilah, he thinks, sending two blue-glowing arrows in a quick sequence into the pit, and jumps into the tunnel to take cover from the explosion.
Coughing from the stench of burnt flesh, they make their way back into the thaig, to retrieve the names of the lost, and to return into the daylight.