First Chapter:His Father's Son
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The final reckoning, and its price.
Face of the Enemy
The voice is dry like old leaves, yet running smoothly, despite its unnatural intonation, its tone gentle, evoking sadness behind its logical reasoning… and concealing deep currents of a fervent urge underneath: "For this, I need the Grey Warden blood."
The voice sends chills down Nathaniel's spine while appealing to something deep within.
Deep within, Nathaniel also feels a tinge of horror stirring while he finds himself nodding to the Architect's words.
The world without Blights. The darkspawn safe from the lure of the Old Gods, living as free sentient beings, pursuing their own goals within the vast reaches deep under the surface of Thedas.
A little Warden blood, to sever the tie to the Old Gods, doesn't seem like a high price to pay for this.
The taint in his veins flows faster, tickling in response to the building excitement.
Yes. Yes, he has a point.
"Yes… yes!" Velanna mutters to herself, her eyes never leaving Seranni's face, as if oblivious to its horrible transformation. "That's what you saw… you're right, you're both right!"
"This is wrong." Justice's voice resonates with otherworldly tones, creating dissonance with the voice of the Architect. He moves a few steps, closer to Ned who stands, moveless. "Wrong."
The interruption washes over Nathaniel with a sudden chill of morning air. The group of soldiers, huddled behind the Wardens, murmurs with unease, glaring at the tall darkspawn with fear and hatred.
More than a few of them divide the glares between the Architect and both elves, their hands on the hilts, apparently thinking in terms of betrayal and madness.
Stricken with doubts, Nathaniel looks intensely at the Architect's face, half-hidden behind some metallic construction of unknown purpose, grown into the flesh. What can be seen of it looks nothing like the common darkspawn, the features are much less deformed... almost normal. The eyes behind the metal plates are harbouring their secrets; the lips tighten in an anticipation of… what?
'It was not as he said,' a tiny, unperturbed voice whispers somewhere at the edge of his consciousness, 'it doesn't make sense. Also, what he did to Seranni...'
What is this all about? Why did he lure us here, to ensnare us with his falsities?
But the suspicion is immediately subdued as the Architect speaks again, and the taint in Nathaniel's veins revels. "I have explained you, Commander, how the unfortunate misunderstanding at the Keep originated… I underestimated the violence hidden in my disciple, and the Wardens brought to me for my experiments were dead already, letting their blood brought no harm to anyone."
Not exactly what happened, Nathaniel thinks again, yet remaining strangely calm, as if watching from the outside.
"I regret having restrained you, Commander… but that was done only for your protection. I never meant any harm to anyone…"
The mindless ghouls, wearing our gear… the tainted dragons, swooping from above…
…seem rather irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Darkspawn or not, he speaks reasonably.
"The Mother, she is different. Violent. She didn't take well being separated from the song of the Old Gods… There is no hope for her, and it is her whom you must destroy, and I am offering you my help in doing so."
The tickling of the taint surges as well as Nathaniel's excitement, as the Architect's intonation peaks, revealing a sense of urgency as he asks: "So, what shall it be, Commander? Shall we join our forces for a common goal?"
In response, Ned Cousland slightly shifts while no-one else moves but his face reveals nothing; the same as ever since Seranni brought them to meet the Architect. The dwarf ghoul – presumably a former Grey Warden – who is standing a few steps behind the Architect and hasn't said a word the whole time, also slightly shifts, but seeing his blade still leisurely tipped down, she only adjusts her grip on her axe.
"It sounds reasonable," Cousland states, calmly and softly. "Very logical…"
In response, several gasps sound, some breaths of relief, Velanna beams another smile at Seranni, and the Architect's features undergo an almost ungraspable change of anticipation –
"… except one thing," Cousland continues, and then, suddenly, moves lightning-fast: "Keenan lived, you liar!"
For the shortest instant, the world stands still, with the Architect staring at the black blade, buried in his belly almost to the hilt. Then, a surge of energy ensues: Ned is tossed backwards in a flash of red light, and fire starts pouring down. Desperately ducking from the flames, Nathaniel finally realizes the presence of the taint, all around.
Maker help us… it was a trap, after all.
The air rapidly becomes hot, the heat scorches the skin. With nowhere to escape, Nathaniel shields his face from the flames. Between the fire and the darkspawn…
Briefly, he wonders if this is what Delilah's final moments were like… if this is a retribution for Amaranthine.
A clunk in his ears, and he lowers his arm in time to see a cloud of white light spreading through the ancient vault, cleansing it of the magical fire. In its centre, Ned Cousland, risen on his knees, his arms spread, the blue glowing drops still tainting his lips.
The next moment, the darkspawn charge, pouring into the vault from every passage, and the Wardens' group barely have the time to position themselves in a defensive formation. The fight that ensues is vicious but short: the anger at the Architect's deceit bolsters the men's arms and the runed blades glow with fierce blue as they cut into the tainted flesh. The onslaught stops, and breaks: the mass of attackers splits into groups, then individuals, then the last one falls to the ground and the vault is quiet but for the panting and someone's soft moans.
The feels of the Taint is gone, except that present in the Wardens' veins. No more darkspawn… near.
Yet, the fight and the fire have taken a terrible toll: no less than five bodies lie among the dead darkspawn, some scorched, some hacked. Glancing over the men's faces, Nathaniel tries to ascertain which ones are missing - and seeing Velanna frantically looking over the dead bodies, he realizes which person is missing for sure: Seranni.
What follows remains etched in his memory for a long time.
A clank, as Ned Cousland tosses away the crude darkspawn blade that he was using, and slightly uncertainly walks over to the Architect's corpse to reclaim his blade, still protruding from the darkspawn's stomach. Barely does he straighten, though, when he finds himself under attack again: Velanna charges at him, blindly beating against his armour with her bare hands: "You… you... what have you done? You've killed him, and Seranni –"
Nathaniel is too slow to react, and freezes in midstep as Velanna, backslapped with a gloved hand, is knocked to the ground. Her eyes wide in shock, she only whimpers, once, as Cousland grabs her by the jaw, half-lifting her, and grits through his teeth into her face: "Your sister is as good as dead, and so are you, if you ever place yourself in my way again!" As Cousland releases his grip, she falls to the ground, limp, and only then starts sobbing.
Cousland walks away without as much as a glance at her, and the soldiers follow: the elf never made any friends among them. Anders does hesitate for a moment but then falls behind Justice and Sigrun... behind the Commander.
Nathaniel has to will his hand to release the grip on the hilt.
Except the still sobbing elf, he is soon alone among the dead.
"Velanna." Kneeling by her, he takes her by the shoulders. "Velanna, we cannot stay here... we must stick together, for the good or the bad, there is no other way..."
She raises to him her tear-streaked face, bleeding from the cut lip and already swelling. "Nathaniel... she's gone... Seranni's gone..."
"She will be safe," he says as gently as he can. "The darkspawn won't harm her, and if she stays hidden, she has nothing to fear. Now, come, Velanna. We can't stay here. We have to go."
As he helps her to get up, the elf holds tight onto him. "Why... why did he do it? We could have made an agreement, I could have been with my sister..."
"Velanna..." the words taste like ash but his mind now works clearly. "The Architect was lying. And he let Seranni contract the Taint even though he possessed the means to protect her. He didn't mean well to us."
Velanna lookes over her shoulder at the mysterious darkspawn, and her features suddenly contort in a flash of anger and despair. Then she looks in the direction of the quickly vanishing blue lights of the Warden party and lets go of Nathaniel. "We must go," she says flatly. "There are darkspawn to kill."
She doesn't look back but once, and then, her bruised hand finds Nathaniel's.
The darkspawn to kill are many and fierce. The soldiers die under the blades and claws, and an encounter with an ogre in plate mail costs them Rollan, the new Warden from Denerim, and Sergeant Kenneth, who falls from the narrow bridge into the chasm below. Further on, a wave of the monstrous Children overpowers Sigrun, and Velanna's freezing spell comes a moment too late: when they recover the former Legion scout from under the shattered corpses, her innocent blue eyes stare empty into the darkness, and Wolf softly whines, nudging her with his nose in vain.
She is left behind, like everyone else, the underground itself being her only tomb.
When they finally enter the large cavern, their company has shrunk into a dozen people, none of them uninjured.
Nathaniel never thought they would make it that far.
Seeing the countless heaps and clusters of the fleshy pods, each emanating strongly the taint, he knows that this is as far as they will ever go, and that there will be no going back.
Once again, Velanna's hand finds his as they slowly make their way between the pods to the huge, tentacled mass at the farthest end: the Mother.
Of all the darkspawn Nathaniel has seen, she is the worst.
Unlike the broodmothers of Kal'Hirol, the Mother used to be human. The slender upper torso, ridiculously tiny against the monstrous belly sporting bug-like claws, the face still retaining the original features, the large eyes, burning red with madness...
Even now, Nathaniel can still tell that she used to be beautiful.
Whatever and whoever she used to be, death is the only relief they can offer her - death is the only thing that she can give in return. Mad and deformed as she is, she is still unwilling to give up her existence, and her Children rally to her defence.
"Defend the mages!" Cousland yells: without the support of magic, they do not stand a chance against the numbers, and even that may not suffice. Every single acid flask, every lyrium explosive that they took from the Keep's depleted reserves now becomes utilised, to postpone the inevitable. Blade against claw: that is what it will come down to in the end.
Velanna is the first to collapse, long after they run out of acid and bombs. Her legs give way; she casts one more spell while on her knees, her nose running blood, before she faints. With the support of magic reduced to a half, the darkspawn onslaught intensifies.
Yet, despite the expectations, there comes a moment when no more darkspawn appear, and Nathaniel finds himself still standing over Velanna, with Justice to his left, Kiefer of the Keep to his right, and Cousland and the last remaining soldier behind his back. Anders, conscious but utterly exhausted, is crouching among them, unable to rise but his hand still gripping the staff.
Nathaniel himself is at the point of breaking down: his leather armour is in tatters, his body bloodied from clawmarks all over. His left arm dangles uselessly by his side, his short blade lost somewhere among the darkspawn carcasses. He meets the eyes of Kiefer, also barely standing, even more ghastly pale in the blue light of the crystal lamps than normally, from blood loss and exhaustion.
Then, they all turn towards the Mother, who, still unharmed, is half-laughing, half-sobbing, while her tentacles are wildly beating, protruding randomly from the fleshy moulds covering the stone all around her.
"What now?" gasps the soldier.
Gareth, Nathaniel realizes, and remembers, with sudden clarity, the journey to the Wending Wood in the bright autumn weather.
We have come a full circle. The Mother is the Architect's doing; what started there we end here now.
Instead of an answer, the Commander bends to Anders; when the mage does not respond to the touch, he unscrupulously turns him over to access his healing potion reserve. Finding the last three, he distributes them to Kiefer, Gareth and Nathaniel. "We finish what we have come for," he states.
Covered in slime and gore as well as his own blood from head to toe, he barely looks human; as an aftereffect of the lyrium which he imbibed to counter the Architect's spell with his Templar talent, his eyes glow a faint blue as they glance over Nathaniel. "Got any arrows left?"
Nathaniel barely shakes his head: with his mangled arm, he wouldn't be able to draw the bow, anyway.
Adjusting his shield, the Commander quickly scans the Mother's surroundings. "Distract her," he orders, slowly starting towards her.
Easier said than done: the tentacles seem to be everywhere, and evading them would be difficult even for one uninjured and rested. Nathaniel avoids a blow that would have crushed his head into a pulp but another hits him across the back, sending him flying just against the enormous belly. He delves face-first into the sickeningly slick surface and helplessly slides down, winded, while a claw digs into his shoulder. Struggling for breath, he weakly thrusts his blade into the soft mass; it shakes wildly and stinking liquid splashes his arm. With a gasp, he lies on the hilt to drive it deeper.
The screech that follows is ear-piercing, and Nathaniel screams, as well, as the claw tearing at his shoulder clutches him with a death grip. He musters the last remnant of his strength to jerk the blade in the wound, before the Mother crushes him for sure.
Suddenly, there is Kiefer next to him, yelling "For the Wardens!" while plunging his own blade into the Mother. Her body shakes so violently that both are tossed aside; seeing the tentacles bearing down, Nathaniel only manages to close his eyes. A terrible scream issues: the scream of man in mortal pain, ending abruptly, as sticky warm liquid pours over Nathaniel, followed by Kiefer's crushed and torn remains.
Half-paralyzed by pain, Nathaniel struggles to move away, to get hold of a weapon, something, while blinking violently to remove Kiefer's blood from his eyes.
And so he sees it, through a red haze: while Justice is methodically chopping off the tentacles with mighty swings of his broadsword and the Mother is screaming her hatred at him, a man jumps from a protrusion of the cavern wall, landing on the top of her belly and grabbing hold of one of her claws to secure himself just before his blade cuts into the Mother's neck.
The sudden absence of the screeching feels as if all sound was erased from existence.
To Nathaniel's horror, the whole mass starts to convulse violently after that, the claws and tentacles beating around. He instinctively covers his head, as if it could change a thing, and attempts to crawl away, painfully slowly.
The next thing he knows, Gareth is dragging him to safety, and Anders kneels down next to him to cast a healing spell with shaking hands. With the bleeding stopped and the worst pain receding, Nathaniel is feeling light-headed; his voice is hoarse as he asks for water.
No-one else speaks; the thuds of the slowly dying monstrosity the only sound, till heavy footsteps approach: Justice in his fullplate, almost untouched by the fight, except some of the plates caved in, which would have incapacitated a living man but are of no consequence to the dead flesh. In his arms, a man so covered in gore that the griffon on his armour is almost obliterated under its layers.
They can tell who he is only by the armour: his face is a bloody mess, the left cheek torn so deep that the white of bone and teeth protrudes.
"Oh, Maker," Anders sighs uncharacteristically, while Gareth, who used to invoke the name at every opportunity, remains quiet. Yet, despite the seeming, there comes a moan as Justice lowers his burden, and the eyes open by a slit.
"I'm on it, right away," the mage mutters, pressing his temples, but as he reaches his hand, there comes a whining sound behind them; whining and whimpering.
Wolf, terribly mangled, is crawling closer to them from the place where he fell, his eyes intent only on his master, voicing his anxiety.
"…heal…him…" The voice is barely audible but the eyes in the bloodied face are now fully open.
Anders curses vulgarly. "I can't waste magic on dogs when there are people to heal!"
Nathaniel knows the answer even before it comes: "Heal… him… not… me."
The mage remains gaping for a moment.
"You heard," Nathaniel hears himself say, more harshly than necessary. "Heal the dog."
He receives a stare cold like a blade from Anders but he is past caring to explain, or to feel a thing, and Ned Cousland smiles at him with a bloody smile before he closes his eyes.