Out of the mine and some dragon fight.
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9. A View From The Gallery
A creaking sound, as something shuffles against the rock. The creaking again, and a high-pitched call, like that of a bird of prey.
Fainter echoes of the call from several directions, and then yet another bird-like sound, this time reminding mostly of a duck's quacking.
Nathaniel smirks. That would be a super-overgrown duck. Duckling. Dragonling.
In the dim light, piercing into the cavern through a hole somewhere up in the ceiling of the cavern, he recognizes the already familiar shape of the sleek, long-tailed body and the reptilian head.
Upon sighting, or maybe smelling them, the dragonling issues a series of fast clatter, and with a hiss, it charges. A streak of flame momentarily illuminates their surroundings as it harmlessly parts on Cousland's shield, while Oghren steps out and chops off the outstretched neck with a single swing of his axe. Smirking, he cleans the blade and nods at the Commander.
They cautiously continue towards the sound of the dragonling voices somewhere ahead in the large cave, leaving headless carcasses in their wake
"So far quite boring," Anders whispers and earns an angry hiss from both the Commander and Nathaniel alike.
Any other possible repercussions are thwarted in the noise of Velanna's stumbling. Nathaniel quickly reaches his arm to secure her, which she angrily pushes away, only to stumble again. Only then it dawns on Nathaniel that she is the only one to keep stumbling ever since they turned off their lamps, while his own eyesight is certainly sharper in the dark than it used to. He slowly exhales.
There is but one logical explanation.
And though this certainly poises an advantage, it still makes him feel rather uncomfortable. He shifts his grip on the bow shaft and shrugs. Well, what can be done.
Their progress slows even more but then comes the inevitable: they are spotted by a group of dragonlings and one of them issues a different, shrill call. Immediately, the cavern fills with the echoes of answering voices and sounds of rushing movement all around.
We are going to miss the boring part soon.Nathaniel draws his bow and once he can aim a precise shot, he sends the arrow into the chest of the foremost dragonling.
"Now it's your turn, Anders!"
Even before Cousland finishes the order, the darkness is split with a flash of lightning, forking and dancing from one dragonling to another. Their bodies still twitch as more and more beasts ensue from various directions. The Commander and Oghren step out to intercept them while Nathaniel and the two mages spread havoc from the distance.
Over the shrieking dragonlings, there comes a deep roar.
"Watch out for the big one!" Cousland calls over his shoulder, hacking through the dragonlings.
Ouch. This one's going to be tougher to take down.
The beast that rushes from the dark is three or four times bigger than the dragonlings, and charges with yet another roar.
The roar suddenly subdues to whooping as the dragon's head and neck temporarily cover with ice. The ice quickly melts, though, as a streak of flame issues from its mouth. Cousland evades the flame and wounds the beast deep in the chest.
It is during the angry, pained roar that Nathaniel realizes yet another sensation: the warning of the Warden sense. "Darkspawn!" he yells at the top of his lungs.
"Take them out, I'll deal with the dragon! Velanna, back me!"
There comes a group of about six or seven hurlocks; one of them exceedingly huge; the biggest Nathaniel has ever seen. Unsurprisingly, it is swinging a large maul in deadly arcs.
Nathaniel's arrow changes its aim almost of its own volition. It sinks deep in the hurlock's chest and brings it to a short stagger.
"Leave the bugger to me!"
Nathaniel mentally shrugs and keeps sending the arrows into the other darkspawn, accompanied by the flashes of fire from Anders' staff, while Oghren engages the leader.
The dwarf ducks from the swinging maul several times, moving much faster than Nathaniel would have thought possible for him, and finally, with a deep grunt, swirls his broad axe and cuts the hurlock's legs from under it.
"That was for Keenan," Oghren grumbles, and almost leisurely chops off the hand still wielding the maul. Only then he brings down the head of the axe and crushes the darkspawn's skull.
"Good job," Cousland assesses, somewhat short of breath. The blade of his sword – all of him, in fact – is covered with the dragon's dark blood, and he makes an unsuccessful attempt to wipe it from his face.
No more dragonlings or darkspawn issue from the dark and the only sound is that of water, trickling somewhere yet further ahead. It reminds Nathaniel how thirsty he is, not to mention the empty stomach. And though he would much like to rush to the water, there is one more job to be done.
Oghren lights the lamp and inspects the hurlock's cut off hand. With a swift move of his axe, he removes the fingers and picks one. "Ain't that the ringie ye're looking for?" he asks, tossing the finger to Cousland.
Cousland disposes of the digit and takes a closer look at a broad silver ring. "I doubt there would be another ring with an interwoven K and N around here. Hopefully, the second part of the oath will be equally easy. – But first things first: we must find an exit."
"We must find Seranni!" Velanna protests vehemently. "Or does my sister's life mean less than a dead man's trinket?"
Though it is not certain to what extent your sister is still alive. Nathaniel quickly averts his eyes. Cold reason is one thing, love for one's sister another.
Cousland takes a deep breath. "Velanna. I hope you do realize that there is something very odd going on in here and I am not willing to throw away my life, or the lives of those under my command, in reckless rush. These creatures – " he motions at the heap of dragonling carcasses – must have an exit somewhere near. It is no use returning to the tunnels to look for Seranni if we cannot find our way out."
Cousland keeps avoiding the fact that Seranni may not be willing to come along, anyway, and Velanna very predictably overlooks what she is unwilling to see, either. "But – but – you aren't just trying to back out, are you? You promised me – "
"Don't slight my word." Cousland's voice undergoes that minute change which immediately unnerves those who are its target.
Nathaniel exchanges a knowing look with Anders: they have seen this before, and, for all her bravado, Velanna is not so sure of herself as she would like to be.
Drawing her cloak closer to her chest, the elf stutters. "I – I apologize then. I just – it's – "
Another change of tone. "Believe me, I can well understand your anxiety, Velanna. On the other hand, you must understand that I have responsibilities I cannot abandon."
Nathaniel feels like gritting his teeth. Though he basically agrees, seeing how easily Cousland … plays… the stubborn elf is somewhat irritating.
"Ah… I see." At a loss, Velanna kicks at the rubble beneath her feet. "Alright, then. To the exit, it is."
Looking around in an attempt to regain her self-confidence, her eyes are drawn by the big dragon's corpse and she frowns. "Aren't these things supposed to fly? I can't imagine how it ever could with such… stumps instead of wings. Is this normal, or do you shemlen have some underdeveloped dragons here?"
The three men and the dwarf exchange glances. "If I'm not mistaken," Anders clears his throat, "this is not actually a dragon but only a drake – male dragons do not fly."
"Perfectly right," Cousland remarks dryly. "And since they do not lay eggs, either, we must expect a real flying dragon somewhere close." Seeing Anders look up uneasily, he smirks. "Not so close. Were there a dragon nested up there, it would already have been breathing at our necks. Believe me, you would notice."
They take a chance for refreshment where a small stream trickles out of the rock, and wash the worst of the gore. They rest only briefly, though; the ever-present acrid smell of the dragon faeces is, for some reason, more prominent in the proximity of water.
The dragon lair is a dead end, and so they return into the tunnels and take the other branch of the last junction. The walls are crude and uneven natural rock, probably a part of a cave system, and hopefully a way out.
Unexpectedly, the walls open wide and high, as far as they can see, forming yet another vast cavern.
Nathaniel holds his breath. The place looks as if the rock grew, or was moulded, into bizarre shapes of countless pinnacles, protruding from the ceiling or floor, and often even connecting them, in lonely pillars, or curtains, or whole forests of stone trunks.
Passing by one, Nathaniel runs his gloved hand over the surface but it feels solid like every rock, albeit somewhat slick with wetness.
The space grows even wider, and Cousland suddenly comes to a stop. To their left, the rock forms a massive gallery, with a mouth of a tunnel high above the ground, which they see due to the suddenly appearing light, coloured like that of a torch – or that of a glowing crystal they have already seen, as well as they have its bearer.
And not alone: accompanied by the figures they have seen, as well, one unnaturally tall and emaciated, the other short and sturdy.
Seeing the darkspawn which looks nothing like any other, with a strange structure merged with the flesh of its face, Nathaniel realizes that this must be the Architect Seranni mentioned. The owner of the laboratory. The experimentator.
The elf, unmoving, stands by the darkspawn's side, together with a dwarven ghoul whose face is almost entirely blackened. None of them speaks or moves, not responding to Velanna's cry as she sights her sister.
Neither do they react to a deep, rumbling sound from somewhere up, followed by a loud hiss and a flash of flame, illuminating the stalactite ceiling and a huge, winged shape hanging there like a monstrous bat, nor to a twin rumbling from the darkness of the cave.
They only stand, and watch, as the two dragons charge.
Within a split of a second, the quiet cave turns into chaos. The hissing of the fiery breath, the beating wings, lashing tails, flying chips of stone, and the roar.
"Go for the wings, bring them down!" Nathaniel hears Cousland yell, just as he tumbles behind a stone veil to escape a stream of flame, and covers his head at the nick of the time to protect himself from a shower of the shattered rock.
With a deafening roar of fury, the dragon turns to another target, as blue lightnings dance along its outline, while Cousland ducks from the front claws and drives his sword into the muscles of the dragon's shoulder.
The beast jumps high into the air, the uneven flopping of the wings indicating that it has been harmed, only to bear down again immediately.
Anders proves to be a wrong choice of target, though – the spell he conjures virtually repels the dragon, rendering it stunned momentarily and exposed to the blade of Cousland's sword, which immediately slices through the thin membrane of its right wing.
Nathaniel winces as the roar nearly tears his drums, and tries to locate the other dragon. It is nowhere to be seen, lurking somewhere in the dark, bidding its time to strike. Oghren, slowly turning round, is remaining alert, but Velanna decides to concentrate on the target at hand.
That is a fatal mistake.
As she aims her spells to support Cousland and Anders, the other dragon comes down on her like a bird of prey.
"Look out!" Oghren and Nathaniel yell simultaneously, a second before the maw releases its load of flames. Velanna screams, rolling on the ground; Nathaniel's arrow sinks into the huge torso with no effect, and then the beast disappears in the darkness again.
Oghren runs to Velanna, throwing his cloak over her and quenching her smouldering clothes, when the dragon re-emerges, aiming for them a second time.
Maker, stand by me.
The arrow sinks into the eye socket, and the dragon flounces in the air. It flies over Oghren's head and lands on the floor, its remaining eye boring into Nathaniel.
This time, he does not even manage to address the Maker.
Relying on instinct, he evades the maw and claws and streams of fire, moving in a dance where a single misstep would be the death of him, knowing that without help, he is lost.
Then, as he backs away, he trips over one of the many protrusions in the floor.
The tripping probably saves his life, though: the striking claw which would have torn him from throat to groin, only shreds the armour and skin of his torso.
With a gasp, Nathaniel lands hard on the uneven rock, and despite the searing pain, he immediately jerks his body aside and rolls away, sensing rather than seeing the claw bearing down on him again.
He almost manages – almost. He cries in pain as the claw pins him to the ground by his left thigh, sinking deep in his flesh. Helplessly, he watches the open maw, blotched on the outside as well as the inside as if the creature was also tainted, hovering above him; the yellow eye, glowing maliciously…
An impossibly huge stone hits the dragon at the side of the head and disappears in the thin air, sending the beast in a stagger and distracting it from its prey. Swinging his staff, Anders sends a lightning right into the open maw. Cousland's blade swirls in glistening arcs, and the dragon's pained roar mixes with Oghren's war cry.
Gasping, Nathaniel crawls backwards, from the reach of the claws, until he hits with his back into yet another stone pillar. He grips his bleeding leg with both hands; then he recalls the emergency potion in the pouch of his belt. Uncorking the vial with his teeth, he pours the ruby content over the wound. An instant of burning sensation, but then the pain diminishes and the bleeding all but stops. With shaking hands, he dabs the last drops over the long scratches across his belly, affirming that they feel worse than they really are. Even so, he is beginning to shiver and his mouth is dry.
Nonetheless, there is no time to dwell on his injuries; the dragon, though under concentrated attack, still refuses to die. Clenching his teeth, Nathaniel manages to get up, leaning against the pillar, and looks around for his bow which he dropped as he fell. He spots it immediately, and groans with disappointment: the shaft is broken and shattered as the dragon probably trampled over it.
The cave resonates with a shrill, high-pitched cry, which subsides to heavy breathing as the dragon finally collapses, coiling and convulsing amidst the ruins of the stone, issuing weak flashes of fire.
Finally, its breath stops.
Then there is silence, and darkness, except for the pale radiance of their lamps – and for the flame-like light up there, on the gallery, where Seranni calmly watches as her sister, scorched and bloodied, slowly staggers towards her. Then, as if following an unheard prompt, she turns her head towards the tall darkspawn, and together with the dwarf ghoul turns and leaves, not paying Velanna as much as a single look.
"Seranni… "Velanna sobs. "Seraniii!" Wailing, the elf falls to her knees, then collapses to the floor.
The darkspawn – the Architect – raises its emaciated hands in a flash of energy, and the cave shakes. With a deafening crack, the gallery tears apart, and an avalanche of rocks from the ceiling seals the entrance, cutting of the darkspawn and its companions.
The rocks, however, continue to fall; the intricate protrusions all around shatter to pieces.
"We must get out! Lead on, Oghren!"
Anders grabs the senseless Velanna and with a grunt throws her over his shoulder, stumbling behind Oghren.
Nathaniel tries to hobble as fast as he can but after two steps, the leg gives way. Struggling, he raises, only to fall again.
Suddenly, Cousland appears at his side, dragging him to his feet. He grabs Nathaniel by the waist and half supporting, half dragging him, they follow the light of Oghren's lamp, obscured by the dust.
With one last mighty crash, the ceiling behind them collapses.
The shock wave trips their feet but they are unharmed; coughing, they finally make it to the opposite side of the cave.
"What now?" Anders snorts.
"We'd better get going, there's no tellin' if there's gonna come more rocks or not. There's fresher air here, must be close to the surface."
It is past Nathaniel how Oghren is able to determine that, but they have to rely on his dwarven senses. There is a more imminent problem, though: the effect of the potion seems to be wearing off. "Can you do some healing, Anders?"
Snorting, the mage reaches his hand to him. "Healing? With all that torn flesh? Get you walking for a while, yes."
A wave of warmth washes over Nathaniel but a few cautious steps reveal that he still cannot do without support.
"Lean on me." Cousland's voice is strained, and only then Nathaniel realizes that he is probably also injured; he does not have his shield, and his left arm hangs limp by his side.
Silently, they again follow Oghren as the cave narrows into a tunnel. They drag on, until after several bends, they see an impossibly bright opening, and soon they stumble onto the grass before the cave, into the serenity of yet another autumn day.
"Maker's balls… we made it!" Anders' voice is tinged with disbelief.
We made it.
The sun, the wind, the murmur of they coloured leaves… as if they stepped into another world. If it weren't for the blood, smut and dust, it would almost seem that none of it ever happened: the ghoul sister, the darkspawn, the tainted dragons. None of those weird, impossible things.
Nathaniel feels an almost irrepressible urge to start laughing.
Being sort of hugged by Cousland was probably weirdest of it all.