An unexpected meeting at Blackmarsh, with an even more unexpected result.
First Chapter::His Father's Son
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23 Whatever Happened to Kristoff?
The morning comes with an equally bright sky as the previous day, yet the threat hanging in the air is almost palpable. Without much discussion, they set out towards the hillock, or as close as they can get to the Veil encircling it, to investigate the source – "no use to piss around the stone when you can piss at it", as Oghren put it.
Soon enough, their effort is rewarded: issuing as if from the Veil, there is a track in the frozen snow, leading to the hills behind the town; or rather, to a specific place, as it turns out.
Anders whistles softly and raises his brows. "What's that?"
That is a circle of standing stones, with one placed lying in the middle – the likes of such can be found all over Thedas, related to some long-lost religion of ancient days. As far as Nathaniel knows, however, none of them usually sports layers of dark, fleshy materia, moulds and strange pods, all of which issue a strong feel of the Taint.
It is not common for such circles to sport a body lying in the centre, either.
"This is an evil place," Velanna whispers. "Harel'an. An'elgar'en…"
And reeking of a trap wide and far.
Scouting the surroundings gives them no clue: it is the usual composition of low bushes, rocks and grass, covered with frozen snow, bared at the spots exposed to the sun. Whoever has left the tracks, did not move outside the circle.
"What do we do now?" Anders asks. "It's definitely suspicious, but if that body over there is not the guy we've come for, I'll eat my shoes."
"Laid there like a bait in a nugtrap," Oghren mutters, frowning.
His arms folded on his chest, Ned Cousland watches the circle intently, his expression indiscernible. He taps his fingers against his bracer. "Take positions around," he says finally. "I'll go in and set the trap off."
Oghren gives him a rather contemptuous look. "On your own? Are you friggin' nuts?" He pats his axe. "Me and my gal will watch yer back."
A remarkably sound idea, Nathaniel has to admit, for one alebottle of a dwarf, though not completely. "I'll go," he says. "You want someone able to read tracks with you, if there are any to be found."
A quick glance, and a nod. "Alright. The two of us, then. The rest, around the circle. You at the entrance, Oghren, and hold Wolf."
For once, the dog doesn't take it as a personal offence: instead, with his teeth bared, he keeps growling towards the circle.
Nathaniel watches the place with unease: the fleshy pods reach the height of a man at some places, clustering around several stones. Who knows what might be hiding inside, or among these?
Inside the circle, the layer of snow is considerably thinner, and slippery, as most of it has turned into ice. There is no snow or frost in the proximity of the pods: as if those things somehow emanated warmth.
As could have been expected, finding any distinguishable tracks is next to impossible. Something did walk inside the circle, something was as if dragged all over the place, something was stuck in the snow in regular lines – sticks, or bones; something thin.
Nathaniel hates being clueless.
With their swords drawn, they approach the corpse.
Its blood-stained cloak is clasped with a brooch in the shape of a griffon rampant.
A single look tells Nathaniel that the man did not die where he is lying: there are at least a dozen wounds that punctured the chainmail on his torso, yet hardly a trace of blood on the ground.
Kneeling down, Nathaniel looks for the darker spots on the neck: placed here just after he died and hasn't been moved since.
Lying here, all the time, since…
The corpse bears no marks of beasts or insects, even the eyes are intact, though somewhat dried due to the frost. Nothing lives in Blackmarsh, nothing ventures here… not even carrion birds.
The skin seems wizened, as well, but on the whole, the body is rather well preserved, with minimum signs of decay: the man can't have been dead for long before the onset of frost. Yet, there is no snow or ice on him – to make sure that he is recognized immediately?
Looking up to report to the Commander, Nathaniel startles and springs up as he glimpses a movement to their left.
With a curse, Ned swirls to face the threat. Then he pauses, and Nathaniel feels his own jaw drop: the darkspawn that emerges from among the pods is like none he has ever seen. The size and shape are those of a hurlock alpha, but the creature moves with determination, and certain elegance. His black armour is of fine make, and he carries the helmet under his left arm. He makes no attempt to reach for his longsword… and it doesn't surprise Nathaniel in the least when he speaks.
"The Mother, she sends her regards." The voice sounds hollow, and oddly tuned, which makes his words somewhat difficult to comprehend. "She knew you would come for your Warden here. I, the First, am to relay her words to you: she will not let you continue Father's work!"
Before they can respond, he raises his hand, and a small object that he has been holding blazes with a flash of greenish light.
Nathaniel is unsure what followed: for an instant, he feels as if losing ground and the giddiness brings about a fit of nausea; he blinks as the surroundings suddenly look blurred.
Blinking is no help: the blurring is still there.
The next moment, he gasps: the surroundings are not just blurred but different. The stones and pods are still there, and so is the dead corpse, but there is no trace of anything outside the circle – no Oghren, Anders or Velanna, no horses tied to the rocks way off the circle, not even the rocks themselves… no blue sky with sunshine. The landscape around is of weird, unnatural shapes and colours, constantly shifting from one to another, and so is the…sky… above them. Nathaniel swallows hard to keep his revolting stomach in place and quickly averts his eyes, to the only normal objects around, which are the Commander, and a very surprised and confused darkspawn, if he has ever seen one.
It is the darkspawn who finds his voice first. "How? How so?" he stutters. "Betrayed? The First is betrayed?" He is turning around, his face, for all its corrupt features, expressing disbelief.
"Who betrayed you? What's going on here?" Ned, apparently not nauseous in the least, does not waste the time.
The darkspawn turn to him. "Why ask? The Warden Commander is where he should be, and that is all that matters. The Children will do what must be done!"
Mother, Father, now Children… since when are darkspawn supposed to build families?
Sarcasm is immediately forgotten, though, when the pods open.
Stunned, Nathaniel stares at the things quickly approaching them, on thin stick-like legs. Most of all, they resemble woodlice… if woodlice can be the size of a dog and emit the feel of the Taint. They don't look particularly more harmful than woodlice, either, until the closest suddenly raises the front part of its body and strikes hard against Nathaniel's legs, with unexpected strength. The moment he falls on the ground, it is on him, pinning him down, crawling over him up to his face, the mouth with sharp teeth opening wide…
Finally remembering the blade he has been holding, Nathaniel blindly plunges it into the monstrosity's side. It issues a shrill scream and starts coiling frantically, its many legs beating around, dark slime sputtering from the wound and the mouth, all over him.
That proves too much for Nathaniel's quivering stomach. He retches helplessly, attempting to withdraw from the twitching body – an instinctive reaction, since he is acutely aware that it is the living woodlice, not the dying ones, that he should fear.
The ground thunders and shakes, sending another painful twist through Nathaniel's stomach, and he heaves again as a massive stone foot crushes a woodlouse mere inches from his body.
Only once in his life did he get so drunk that he spent the next day throwing, and now it actually feels as a time of his life, compared to his current state.
A rustle of clothes, as Ned kneels next to him and takes him by the shoulders. "Are you alright?"
Nathaniel nods, very lightly, since "no" wouldn't be any help, and neither movement would agree with his stomach, anyway. He allows himself just the briefest look at the crunched bodies of the darkspawn woodlice around and squeezes his eyes shut.
"Breathe deep and keep your eyes closed, it should pass soon enough. I'll get that slime off you meanwhile."
Nathaniel hates being pampered so, but since it is his stomach and not his pride that is currently in charge, he complies.
Finally, when he feels safe enough to open his mouth without exposing the content of his innards, he remarks: "So, this must be the Fade, I presume?"
"In all its glory." A snort. "I must admit that of all possible outcomes, this twist was rather unexpected."
Unexpected. Maker, what an understatement. "Since when are darkspawn supposed to send Wardens to the Fade?"
"A good question. Likewise, since when darkspawn speak, abduct and bleed Wardens, are busy making families and turn into crawlers."
The last part is rather unnerving. "So, these are some new darkspawn? I thought this was something you and Oghren simply left out."
Despite the odds, Nathaniel is already starting to feel better… somewhat. Risking to open his eyes for a moment, he glances over the crushed darkspawn once more, and then at Ned, who looks suspiciously much like the proverbial cat who ate the equally proverbial canary – and, of course, is not slimy all over in the least. "The stone giant, huh?"
A satisfied grin. "The stone giant. Maker, I never thought I'd be able to pull that trick again… and I'm more than glad I could. Ugly beasts – even uglier than the regular darkspawn." He shudders. "I'm not particularly fond of critters of this size."
Well, at least some flaw.
The following words startle him, though. "Since you seem better off, we should get going."
"There?" Ned indicates with his head. "Or over there?"
'There' means a hillock with a luxurious residence in Orlaisian style, which looks surprisingly familiar, until it dawns on Nathaniel that it must be the one they observed through the Veil. 'Over there' then is a town at the bottom of the hillock, with spirals of smoke rising above the well-kept roofs. The layout of the town seems familiar, as well… all too familiar.
They approach the town slowly, and cautiously, in case the townsfolk are not what they seem – even though Nathaniel is unsure what they are supposed to be, anyway. His imagination promptly offers him a few ideas, which makes the walk even more cumbersome than it already is. Though the urge to puke has subsided, he still feels nauseous, and hates the Fade absolutely and unconditionally.
The fact that Cousland is not sick in the least and treads next to him with the expression of a child who has found a long-lost toy, does not contribute to his mood, either.
When they enter the town, the streets are suspiciously empty; however, the square is in commotion, presided by…
A knight in a shiny armour. Maker preserve, the Fade is inhabited by fairytale clichés. Nathaniel rubs his eyes unwittingly: the… figure… of the knight, except being white and shiny, radiates light. It is also somewhat bigger than it ought to be – were it human, of course, which is apparently not the case.
It is not the case of the townsfolk, either, and Nathaniel feels his stomach dangerously close to revolting again. The souls of these people have been trapped here for decades, without actually knowing they were dead. What an abomination could have done this?
Justice. Through a rebellion. Well, that's certainly something every Fereldan understands.
Listening to the white knight's fervent speech, his eyes meet Ned's. The abomination which trapped the souls here is most probably responsible for their abduction to the Fade, as well, and it apparently made darkspawn its allies.
Killing it will be not just two birds with one stone but three.
No words are needed.
Resolutely, Ned starts making his way among the townsfolk, towards the white knight. Nathaniel is all too happy to leave all the speaking to the Commander when he has one; the pompous Spirit of Justice would probably grate his nerves even if he wasn't feeling sick. Meanwhile, he concentrates on deep, regular breathing and watching his feet, which are only slightly Italic textblurry.
When the crowd sets off for the Orlaisian chateaux, Ned briefly touches his shoulder. "Keep out of the fray but stay close. There is no telling how this will work out. I have no idea what is waiting up there but is will be vile and dangerous, and powerful."
'It' turns out to be a woman, lavishly dressed, of that particular age which makes beauty a product of prolonged and expensive care, the effect of which diminishes by the day. From what Nathaniel can see as she is standing on a balustraded balcony, she has reached the stage when make-up is used predominantly for covering rather than enhancing. Her neatly curled fringe and thin, depilated brows, reflect the Orlaisian style of old portraits, and leave no doubt to her identity.
The baroness of Orlais.
The one who was said to bathe in maidens' blood to sustain her beauty, and made a pact with demons when the cure didn't work.
An Orlaisian to the core, of that there is no doubt, as she addresses the intruders in a haughty manner.
Nathaniel does not pay attention to what is being said: words are but a prelude to what will follow. He sees guards, gathering at the courtyard… and the darkspawn in the black mail, just next to the baroness. He also feels tension, building in the air, pressing on his nape and eardrums. The fight that is about to ensue will not be restricted to common means, that is for sure.
He can only hope that his own contribution will not be restricted to throwing at the enemies' boots.
And then it comes. The baroness claps sharply, and at her gesture, the guards charge. The fact that they turn into fiery demons at that moment is hardly surprising, and not deterring in the least.
The souls of the dead inhabitants of Blackmarsh, abused for so long, have little to fear.
Some more demons appear out of the thin air and engage the Spirit of Justice, and Nathaniel makes a mental note to find out later what these are, since – minus the horns and claws – they seem distinctly feminine, displaying a set of breasts with – Maker, are these supposed to be rings through the nipples?
Retreating a few steps, Nathaniel glances anxiously at the baroness, who observes the fight with an air of cold condescendence.
Not so the darkspawn. The First.
The First… of whom?
Vaulting over the balustrade with feline grace, he lands lithely and strides towards Ned, drawing a blade of unusually dark colour. Some words are exchanged before their swords clash the first time.
Nathaniel gulps hard. No darkspawn he has seen so far was so fast and skilled, so agile. Moving to a convenient spot, he gets his bow ready and opens the smaller quiver. His hands, though, feel as secure as ever: the heat of fight seems a profound cure for nausea. Good.
Soon enough, the fighting is practically over: the survivors make a circle around the last two combatants.
Watching the fight with expert eyes, Nathaniel thinks the chances quite safe. The First may be stronger, and fast, but already bleeding from several wounds: the skill is what counts in the long run, and there is little doubt who has had the better training.
Nathaniel sees the final blow coming even before it actually lands.
The First makes a wobbly step backward and the blade slides from his chest as he collapses to the ground, turning his head towards the baroness and reaching his hand, as if pleading for something with his last effort.
And the baroness responds.
Reaching her hand towards the body, a blurry column of blood raises in the air and is absorbed in the narrow hand with painted nails. Then, the woman hovers over the balustrade.
When she lands in the courtyard, she is a woman no more.
The purple dress bursts as the body swells massively; the delicate cold face transforms into bestial features. The skin turns leathery black, tight over strong muscles, thorns sprout from the joints and shoulders and skull. As it straightens, it is huge.
The beast roars and stomps, sending a shockwave that knocks down everyone close; Nathaniel himself stumbles. The thing – the demon, what else? – stoops and a clawed hand grabs Ned by the waist, hoisting him in the air; the other hand reaches to crush or tear him apart.
Ned's body blurs for a split of a second.
The next moment, a stone giant hits with both his fists the forearm of the hand that is holding him.
The crack of the broken bone is followed by a roar of anger and pain.
The stone giant lands heavily on the ground and immediately punches the black body again. A backsweep of the uninjured hand sends him flying, shattering an elaborate structure of a fountain.
Spreading its arms, the demon yells in a terrible voice, words that cannot be anything else but an incantation.
It never finishes.
An arrow, bearing some of Dworkin's explosive powder, enhanced by Cera's spells, buries deep into the demon's eye socket, and its head shatters like a smashed pumpkin, in a blast of fire.
Then, the world suddenly swirls and the ground disappears under his feet. Desperately clutching the grandfather's bow, Nathaniel is overcome by nausea again, as he is falling, falling…
…he is lying on a hard, uneven surface, his stomach still trembling. Next to him, Ned is getting to his knees, feeling his ribs –
– Kristoff's corpse, and the First's just nearby, the stone circle, the pods, the bright sunshine, Anders yelling something excitedly, Wolf's loud barking –
And before Nathaniel has the time to realize what has happened, the pods open. Every single one.
Maker, not again.
Clutching desperately the blade he has been holding, Nathaniel stabs and slashes and evades those repulsive things, the Children, avoiding the touch of the slick, insectoid bodies… Next to him, Ned Cousland is doing the same, with no lesser fervour; Oghren is roaring his battle cry somewhere close to Wolf's growling; the flashes of light and fire mark Anders and Velanna doing their due.
The battle chaos slowly subsides as the number of the darkspawn diminishes. Nathaniel turns to thrust his blade into the last in his vicinity, only to be preceded by a dark blade of unusual design.
An unknown blade.
Glancing along the blade, at the gauntleted hands, the damaged chainmail, Nathaniel finally looks into the dead face of Kristoff, the Grey Warden, whose dim eyes glow with unnatural light.
Harel'an – a dreadful place
An'elgar'en – a place of spirits