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The first engagement as a Warden: the vaults and what lies beyond
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4. A Day In The Strife
The vaults look uninviting and unfamiliar; still would even if it weren't for the supporting beams and loose rubble at places, and spots scorched with fire.
Cleansing off the taint, according to what Cousland has said.
As a child, Nathaniel craved for access to the place, haunted by monsters from the old servants' tales; now that he is in, there is nothing he desires more than getting out again.
Monsters did come out of here, after all. Monsters came, and the woman who had been the safe harbour of his childhood died at their hands.
'Here, children, have some cookies with the milk.' Despite the musty air, he can still almost smell the cinnamon and the freshly baked bread.'Now, which story shall I tell my little ones?'
When he learned from Varel that Adria was dead, he felt as if he lost Thomas and Delilah a second time.
If anyone kept track of their fate after they were evicted from their home, she would have.
Pushing aside the thought that it wouldn't have happened had the Wardens not come here, Nathaniel keeps walking.
They quickly pass through the upper cellars, then stop at a sturdy new door, securely barred and heavily guarded.
At Cousland's command, the guards open the door for them; the corridor behind looks much like the previous. The Commander ventures ahead with his mabari, then waves at them to follow.
The door barred shut behind them cuts off the torchlight, leaving them only with the blue luminescence of the dwarven lamps. Nathaniel touches his, fastened at his hip as Oghren instructed him. The light is steadier than that of a lamp or torch, but their faces look now ghastly pale.
"Alright," the Commander says, and his voice sounds as if hushed by the darkness. "I don't expect to encounter anything in that part we cleared last time, but be alert, just in case. I and Wolf go first, then Oghren. You, Nathaniel, keep the rearguard."
"What? I am to feel safer with him behind my back?" the mage squeals.
Oghren chuckles. "Finally got it why skirts ain't so bright to wear?"
Anders puffs. "It's not the existing orifice I'm anxious about but the new one that might appear in my back. Knives are not on the list of fashionable accessories this year."
"I generally prefer arrows," Nathaniel remarks. And knocking out someone's teeth is also high on the list of preferences.
"Oh, now I can rest assured."
"Don't throw yourself in hurlocks' arms, Anders, and your back will certainly remain the way you prefer it. – Now, if you are done talking, we have some work to do." Ned Cousland adjusts the shield on his shoulder. "If we encounter a larger group, I go for the boss, you deal with the rest. Should there be archers, it's your task, Anders. Nathaniel, do bear on mind in fight not to position yourself between Anders and his targets. Both of you watch out for Oghren, whenever he goes berserk, he chops down all that gets in his way."
"Choppin' and slicin', that's me." Oghren grins, as if the Commander's comment was a compliment.
They continue at a slower pace, and Nathaniel feels his skin prickle. The idea that he spent most of his life with all those tunnels under his feet is disquieting; as if the ground he had been walking suddenly became a quagmire.
They enter a large vault, with floor and walls heavily scorched; the stench of burn mixes with stale damp odour, and something else Nathaniel cannot quite place.
"What, no ghoul ladies this time?" Anders remarks, kicking at a pile of rubble.
Exacerbated by the jovial remark, Nathaniel sharply turns to him. "You are talking of Adria?"
Anders raises his brows. "Adria? Well, yes, I believe that was the name. Why? Was she any special for you?"
"Oh, not really, she was only like a mother to me." Nathaniel glares at the blonde mage, who remains unimpressed.
"Really? And here I thought assassins have no such feelings since they crawl from under the rock."
"Quit it, Anders!" The snapped command makes it. "I'm sorry," Cousland then turns to Nathaniel; surprisingly, the concern in his voice seems genuine. "With the damage done to the Keep, we only started clearing the cellars after a couple of days, and found out that some people took refuge down here even later. When we got to her, she was already past saving." He sighs. "Though tainted as she was, we probably wouldn't have been able to save her even had we reached her earlier."
Nathaniel closes his eyes for a moment. Caught down here, helpless, waiting for a rescue that never came… Oh, Adria. No wonder Varel was so elusive. "She did not deserve such an end," he says in a muffled voice.
"No-one does." Cousland's tone is flat again. "Which is why we are here, to make sure this does not happen again."
And so they go on.
The place gets even more creepy as they enter a part where the stonework looks different: ornamented in an unusual fashion, and very, very old.
How old, exactly? There were all kinds of wild stories Nathaniel heard during the long winter evenings, of the ancient Avvar; could they even be true?
As they pass through a thoroughly propped corridor, the Commander stops before a side alcove, ending with a massive stone door. "Nathaniel. You mentioned you were proficient with lockpicks. Do you possess the skill to open this door?"
Reluctantly, Nathaniel slides past Cousland and inspects the intricate locking mechanism, surprisingly little corroded, given its age. "I may possess the skill but I lack the tools," he proclaims finally.
"Do you think it would be possible to obtain those tools here in the Keep? With Wade, probably?"
"Hardly. In Amaranthine, maybe, or even Denerim. The mechanism apparently requires some specific manipulation."
Cousland presses his lips. "It has to be postponed then but I certainly do not like leaving unchecked whatever it is that lies behind that door." He looks up, at the supporting beams. "Unfortunately, force is not an option here. Let's move on."
One more secured door, and the corridors give way to crude tunnels and a natural cavern. Their progress slows down again on the uneven floor, and then comes to a halt as Ned Cousland suddenly stops, drawing his sword with a hiss of steel. "Darkspawn. There," he points with his sword, "and there, and…"
… and soon, they are everywhere. For the first time, Nathaniel feels thankful for the dim light; those… things… look monstrous enough even as he cannot distinguish their features properly.
Here you go, for Adria.
Resorting to the calmness gained in the years of practice, Nathaniel releases the arrows with his usual precision; when a group of hurlocks approaches too close before he can dispose of them, he draws his blades.
The long and the short blade of the set he acquired in the Vigil's armoury glow with silver-blue light every time they connect with the tainted flesh.
A deafening growl: something enormous emerges from the darkness, shaking the floor of the cavern with the stomping of its feet and pounding fists.
Maker, is that an… ogre? How does one kill that?
With skill, it turns out: Ned Cousland ducks from the crushing fists, and as the monstrosity bends over him, he plunges his blade in its eye socket with precision revealing long practice. He expertly gets out of the way as the massive hulk collapses on the ground, and the giant hands clench helplessly only at the thin air.
When there are no living darkspawn left, Nathaniel carefully cleans the blades of the gore, wishing he could clean himself accordingly. It cannot harm me now, he reminds himself sternly. I'm a Grey Warden, the taint cannot harm me any more.
The sickening feeling does not recede, though.
The Commander stands with his sword still ready, turning his head as if scenting. Finally, he also sheathes his blade, obscuring the runes glowing alongside. "No more darkspawn around," he states, glancing at each of them. "Anyone hurt?"
Oghren snorts with contempt. "After disposing a sodding couple 'spawn? You're kidding." He prods the nearest hurlock with his foot and turns to Nathaniel: "You're quite good with them whittles."
"Really?" Anders makes quite a show, trying to inspect his back and making tut-tut over the nonexistent hilt.
"No need to worry, Anders," Nathaniel retorts casually. "If I planted a knife between your ribs, you would have noticed. – Though, on a second thought, maybe you even wouldn't."
Saying that, he would have sworn that the sound from Cousland's direction sounded suspiciously much like a chuckle but he cannot be sure since Oghren roars with laughter and makes a half-intelligible remark about other things Anders would not notice.
While the mage and the dwarf indulge in banter, a search of the area reveals but one exit from the cavern. As they cautiously come down the rather steep decline, Nathaniel holds his breath. From what he can discern, they have entered another corridor: wide with a high ceiling, running straight in finely chiselled walls.
The Deep Roads.
"So wide? 'Must be somethin' big close in here," Oghren mutters.
There is. They walk barely a hundred steps when the dwarf rushes to examine some carvings on the wall, and his breath hitches in his throat. "A whole bloody city?"
The road on is half-blocked by a huge construction. Disbelievingly, Nathaniel stares at the massive metallic pillars and panels: the craft behind this is past his imagination.
Oghren mutters some curses under his breath, then slams his fist against the metal with a clank. "Had the poor sods finished this earlier… This is a part of Kal'Hirol's outer defences," he explains. "They must have been overwhelmed shortly before they could seal this. Had they managed, Orzammar may not have stood alone." His voice trails off in a series of curses.
Ned Cousland wistfully inspects the structure. "Could this still work, I wonder? It would solve our trouble, at least partially."
Oghren ponders for a while, then shrugs. "Who's to tell? But I cannot imagine why not. Dwarven work is made to last." He chuckles. "Dog piss sure won't do any harm but I wouldn't let him do that in front of Voldric if I were you, Commander, the guy's touchy about all that glorious past thing and stuff."
"I won't," Ned Cousland promises solemnly, patting the dog who does not look embarrassed at all.
Searching the corridor in the other direction brings them to a dead end of a massive cave-in; both the floor and the walls are cracked in multiple spots. As they climb over the rocks to make sure the road is thoroughly blocked, Anders suddenly alerts them: "Hey, what's that?"
That is a stream of faint light issuing from a narrow passage in the wall, opened by the movement of the rock, wide enough for them to make their way through into a crude chamber. There, on a metallic pedestal, rests a strange device, emitting a steady pale aura.
"Don't look at me, it ain't dwarven," Oghren grunts but no-one is actually looking at him, anyway, since Ned Cousland's mabari, growling and all bristled, slowly backs towards the passage. His owner is uneasily looking around the chamber.
"I don't like this, it reminds me too much of – don't touch it, Anders!" he yells, but it is too late.
A loud crack and a flash of blinding light, the echo of which remains burnt in the retina.
Nathaniel groans with pain reverberating through every nerve as he crushes against the wall and slides down along it. As his eyesight recovers, he can see that others have fared no better – and he can also see a dark form materializing above the device.
Before he can get back on his feet, a new flare of energy pierces him, setting his muscles in a cramp.
'You may die sooner than you expect,' he remembers Cousland's words, and now it seems that they all will.
A new explosion of light, though much softer this time – and it issues from Cousland, half-risen from the floor. The dark form staggers and wavers uncertainly over the device; in the meantime, Ned Cousland is up and charging, his blade glowing steadily and energy emanating from him with every blow.
A bolt from somewhere on the right: Anders does not waste the time getting up first, either.
Trembling under the concentrated attack, the dark figure suddenly whirls and flies into the opening in the rock.
Anders runs his hands over his face. "Phew. I'd never have thought I'd be happy to see a holy smite. You failed to tell me you were a templar," he addresses Cousland reproachingly.
"And you failed to use your brain, Anders," Cousland retorts. He gestures towards the opening. "What are you waiting for, ser mage? Let's go hunt the revenant you have so graciously released."
Pushing through the opening is no more comfortable than before but Anders does not seem to be put down. "I somehow missed the part how the Grey Wardens are supposed to fight revenants when I joined," he groans as he gets temporarily caught in the narrow of the rock before he makes it into the open space.
So did I. Chattering mages were not mentioned, either.
"You should have been there during the Blight, then," Nathaniel hears the Commander remark as he finally reaches the corridor. "You'd be amazed at the variety of creatures the Wardens are supposed to fight."
"Oh. I see." A pause, as the dog suddenly issues a deep guttural growl, and then Anders asks casually: "Fighting a darskpawn you've already killed once is also on the list?"
The ogre's eyesocket is still dripping with the dark ichor as it approaches them, moving stiffly like a puppet on the strings.
"Oh Maker, not again," Ned Cousland mutters. "I so much hate decapitating them. Oghren, Nathaniel, engage him so that I could have a strike," he orders.
Carrying out the command is not as difficult as Nathaniel feared; the animated thing is much slower than while still alive. Soon enough, Cousland's sword cleaves the monstrous head from the neck; almost immediately, dark vapours issue from the corpse, forming the familiar human-like shape.
Nathaniel cringes in the expectation of another energy blast but Cousland is faster again: smitten once more, the revenant flees down the corridor with unbelievable speed.
Cursing under their breaths, they follow as fast as they can.
When they reach the cavern full of the dead darkspawn, Nathaniel's fears remain unconfirmed: no body rises to attack them and there is no trace of the malevolent spirit, either. Unsure what that means, they hastily make their way back, until they reach the unstable corridor and the mysterious door. The dog, which previously passed by the door quietly on their way down, all of a sudden bares his teeth and issues a warning growl.
Ned Cousland slowly places his hand on the door. "Correct me if I am mistaken, Anders," he says conversationally, "but revenants cannot pass through solid rock without an opening, can they?"
Anders' grin matches the Commanders. "I believe not." Then he frowns. "However, I can hold it in there only temporarily."
"Never mind. I am sure ambassador Cera will be able to come up with more permanent measures until we find a… final solution."
The glyph the mage draws on the door glows blue and the dog finally calms down. Ned Cousland grins. "And until she does so, enjoy your new post down here, Anders. – Don't worry, we're staying with you, in case your own stupidity makes it out to bite you in the ass."
With the traces of laughter still in his eyes, he turns to Nathaniel. "Go and inform ambassador Cera about our little... misadventure. And Nathaniel..." he pauses a little, "…you've done well."
Downcasting his eyes, Nathaniel slightly bows in response, both irritated and unwittingly pleased by the praise at the same time.
As he hurries back through the tunnels, he keeps wondering how much simpler the life would be if he could just hate the man, thoroughly and uncomplicatedly.