Waking in the Silverite Mine
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8. Illusions of Truth
The consciousness returns slowly, gradually; allowing to gain grasp of his whereabouts and remain in control. He is lying on a cold, hard surface which feels like stone.
Floor. Too smooth… not the mine. And cold.
Very cold, in fact, since his upper body is covered only with thin linen shirt which he wears under the gambeson.
No armour, no weapons… probably. He had a knife, a thin blade well hidden in his boot, but he does not dare to move yet to check.
From what he can tell, he is unrestrained; minute, cautious moves confirm the assumption.
Unusual tightness around the left wrist… a bandage?
Memory offers no clue what passed between falling into the trap and waking.
They bid their time and waited for us. Darkspawn who catch Grey Wardens and take them prisoners.
Hopefully, there is still them.
Concentrating, Nathaniel recognizes the rhythm of someone's breath but cannot hear any movement; no rustle of wind or sounds of nature.
A closed space, unsurprisingly.
The perceptions coming to his new Warden sense from two directions tell him that there are at least two bearers of the taint present.
Hopefully, his fellow Wardens.
No light passes through his lids, so he assumes that there is dark. When he dares to open them by a slit, though, the complete lack of light still catches him by surprise. He sees nothing; there is no difference between opening eyes or keeping them shut.
Underground. Must be underground, or…
The other option is unnerving.
It cannot be. It cannot be.
He feels no injury to his head or eyes. There is no reason why he should be blinded.
Darkspawn, after all, do not need light at all.
Since his actions provoke no reaction, Nathaniel moves more profoundly, and immediately freezes as he hears a rustle of clothes.
"Wakie-wakie," says the familiar jovial voice. "Who's that?"
A chuckle. "A surprise of lifetime – most glad that you're up, Howe's little blighter."
Anders snorts. "Yup. As you have probably noticed yourself, we're sort of underclothed, some of us more than the others, and I sure don't want Velanna to jump at the wrong conclusion if I was the only one around awake."
Which sort of happens, anyway. In some respects, Velanna is very predictable.
Cousland is the last to come to, and the only one feeling a little dizzy – the only one to have both wrists bandaged, as well.
Since when do darkspawn bleed their prisoners?
Comparing their memories of what preceded the waking in the darkness brings no effect: all they remember is a tall, unnaturally emaciated figure raising its hand, a flash of white light, and then nothing.
So we walked right into a trap. The question is, how to get out of it now.
The place where they are lodged is a small chamber of rectangular shape, with even floor and walls, the wall on one side replaced by bars. The lock Nathaniel gropes feels crude and probably easy to open, had Nathaniel still his possessions.
The reverie as they quietly ponder the scarce options for their escape, is broken by a soft creaking sound, and light footsteps, even as Nathaniel feels the already familiar tug at his mind.
The footsteps are too light for darkspawn, though, and the figure approaching in a halo of orange light emitting from a crystal is too slender, and –
"Seranni!" Velanna, whom the light reveals to wear only a sleeveless bodice, throws herself against the bars. "Seranni…" she repeats, the joy in her voice replaced by horror as she sees the dark blotches and dimmed eyes in the face that mirrors her own. "Oh Creators… what have they done to you?"
Maker. A ghoul. Her sister is a ghoul.
"They haven't done anything," the elf replies in a clear, melodic voice, with a tinge of irritation. "I... I'm fine, Velanna. It's not me the Architect wants... I have to get you out before something bad happens. I don't want anyone else to be hurt."
Nathaniel blinks at the baffling scene. This is supposed to be a welcome from a kidnapped sister? And since when do ghouls talk, or was Cousland wrong again?
"Here, take this." Through the bars, Seranni hands a key and a crystal lamp to Velanna, who only stands, petrified, staring at her.
Cousland abruptly moves to the bars, taking the objects from Seranni's hands. "How did you come by these? And how is it that you walk free? What's going on here?"
The elf quickly withdraws her hand. "I – I know nothing. Please, you must get out of here… They are going to come to check on you. You have to hurry!"
Cousland stares at her relentlessly. "Do you know that you are tainted?" he asks softly.
"That is nothing. I will be fine," the elf replies uneasily. Then she abruptly turns her head. "They're coming! Get out, quickly!"
Without a further word, she runs away, followed by Velanna's desperate cries: "Seranni! Where are you going? Wait! Seranni!"
Meanwhile, Cousland wastes no time. The familiar, slowly intensifying light of the crystal lamp repels the returning darkness, and the lock of the bars opens with a loud clank.
Nathaniel draws the blade out of his boot; the feel of the hilt in his hand is reassuring as he hears the approaching, shuffling steps.
He never has the chance to use it. The approaching darkspawn are caught in a wave of intense cold, and their flesh shatters under Anders and Velanna's concentrated attack.
A moment of tense waiting, and Cousland sharply nods his head in confirmation: no more darkspawn around. With a smirk, he grabs a crude darkspawn sword and tests its balance. "Will have to do," he mutters. "Wait, Velanna!" he grabs the elf's bare shoulder.
"We must find Seranni!" She seems to be close to tears.
"We will do our best. Just don't rush, or you will accomplish nothing."
Not to mention the fact that you can't save one who apparently doesn't care. Looking aside, Nathaniel says nothing, either. We will be lucky if we make it out ourselves.
Passing some more empty cells and a few turns, the corridor unexpectedly opens into a large room. Nathaniel blinks in disbelief.
From what can be seen in the light of their single lamp, the room looks like a… study. At least the long rows of books on the shelves suggest so, though the presence of other objects is rather baffling.
Really, what use could be a strainer, placed just next to a jack-plane, together with a broken Orlesian perfume flask?
Another part of the room apparently serves as a laboratory: the desks are full of intricate glass bottles, tools and devices, the purpose of which Nathaniel can only guess.
"Hey! Look'ye what's here!"
Oghren's finding is another crystal lamp; two more are lying on a side table, disassembled. A quick search reveals other items of their possessions: their cloaks and backpacks, carefully folded, while some of the content is carelessly littered on the floor. Velanna immediately grabs her cloak and wraps it around her; then produces an angry hiss as she finds out that her water flask, decorated with silver and embossed patterns, has been unseamed and the pieces carefully lined on the table.
The other water flasks are untouched, as well as a supply of the tough dried meat, while the other food is missing.
Despite its consistence, wolfing down the meat is a matter of no time at all.
"You really, really don't mind eating something that has been pawed by darkspawn?"
"A lame one, Anders," Oghren grunts and washes the last mouthful of his share with a rich swig from his flask.
"Be careful with the water, we don't know how long we may have to do without it," Cousland reminds. "Don't feast while the deer is still in the woods."
"Or a nug in its hole." A loud belch, followed by characteristic vapours. "But can't see what makes ye think I'd be carrying around water."
There is still no trace of their weapons or armours, though.
As they move yet further into the room, Nathaniel feels his breath catch in his throat. Not just a study.
A massive stone slab, covered with carvings, and equipped with a set of manacles at each end, leaves little doubt of its purpose. A set of dissectors and lancets. And hanging from the ceiling, a massive cage. Two of them, in fact, both empty, though the stains on the floor suggest that this is not always so.
An opening in the floor: a dark pit.
Despite the thin linen, Nathaniel is suddenly sweating. He knows what must be lying down there in the darkness, disposed and forgotten. Swallowing a curse, he covers the last couple of steps and stands at the edge next to Cousland, who is looking down, at the longer and shorter shapes, and an occasional circular one, with his lips pressed in a thin line.
This is where our bones would doubtlessly end, too. Still can.
The stench oozing from the nearby corridor is repulsive, yet with no clue where to go, they continue, covering their noses with the cloaks.
Another set of holding cells, with bodies in various stages of decay. Nathaniel hears Anders heave, and all of them walk faster.
Suddenly, Cousland motions to them to stop, and Nathaniel feels it, too: a weak presence of the taint, in the cell just ahead. And as they stand still, he also hears the sounds.
Ragged, gasping breath.
And since the feel of the taint comes from that direction, too, it must be –
With an angry snort, Cousland yanks at the bars, which open immediately.
Little wonder it's not locked. The guy is hardly going anywhere on his own.
Once probably a handsome man in his prime, lies reduced to a helpless, shivering heap, rapidly gasping for air with his mouth wide open. Kneeling down, Cousland carefully turns him to his back, assisted by Anders, who quickly runs a blue-glowing hand over the man's body.
Nathaniel does not need to see the mage shake his head to know that there is no help.
"Can you do at least something to bring him round?" Cousland asks softly.
Anders hesitates. "I can, but… it might be more merciful not to." Hushed by Cousland's glare, he quickly averts his eyes and his hands faintly glow again.
For a moment, nothing happens, but then the breathing slows and the man rolls his head. Cousland gently raises him and puts the flask with water to the cracked, parched lips. The man drinks, gulping, then opens the deep sunken eyes.
"You … are not darkspawn…" The weak, hoarse voice is filled with disbelief. "You are… Wardens?" His eyes flicker over their faces, struggling to focus. "There are no more Wardens… except… Commander? Are you the Commander?"
"Yes, I am." Cousland takes the man's hand in his. "What's your name?"
"What happened, Keenan?"
"They… came as if out of nowhere. The Keep was taken. We…" His voice trails off for a moment and Cousland raises the flask to his lips again. The water gives Keenan the strength to continue. "We… were overwhelmed. The others… were killed, or worse. I'm… the only one left." He clutches Cousland's hand with a death grip. "Tell my wife… tell Nida…" His voice breaks.
"Do not worry. I will find your wife and tell her what needs be told."
Keenan does not seem to hear the soothing voice. His features contort. "I am so sorry I lost the ring... he took it." His body sets in a fit of spasms, which subdue as Anders reaches his hand to him again.
"He took the ring," he mumbles desperately, "my wedding ring… the gift from Nida…"
"Who took it?"
"The big one… with the maul. He crushed my legs so that I couldn't escape… he took my ring…" He tries to raise, unsuccessfully. "I know… I won't make it out of here but… please… get my ring back…"
"Rest assured." Cousland's voice is almost hypnotizing. "We will find the ring."
The way Keenan's features lighten sets a knot in Nathaniel's stomach. "Give it to Nida… tell her – tell her…. The ring…" The dying man stares in Cousland's face.
"I will retrieve your ring, and I will personally give it to your wife," Cousland replies firmly, as if the success was beyond any doubt. "I swear it. Is there anything else I can do for you, Keenan?"
Another fit of spasms, before the man replies almost inaudibly: "Don't let me rot here. I know... it won't take much longer… but still…send me to the Maker… quickly."
Cousland takes a deep breath and nods. "I will." He turns to Nathaniel. "Hand me your knife," he asks softly.
Nathaniel obeys without hesitation. Clean steel is certainly more fitting to end the life of a good man that the twisted darkspawn blade.
Still holding Keenan's hand, Ned Cousland places the point of the dagger against his chest. "Farewell, Warden Keenan. Your name will not be forgotten."
And then, as Keenan closes his eyes, with a firm hand he drives the blade home.
For a moment, he keeps holding the dead body, muttering something unintelligible, in a tongue Nathaniel is not familiar with. For some reason, Velanna gasps and stares at Cousland with wide eyes; then she turns abruptly and walks a few steps away.
It is Anders, with his ever-constant need to exercise his tongue, who expresses the collective doubt: "Just how do you intend to fulfil your oath when we are sorely unequipped and most possibly outnumbered, if I may ask?"
Cousland's voice is ice-cold. "I do not expect that our 'escape' would go unnoticed and I have very little doubt that a big brute with maul would miss the fun."
Oh, yes. The fate will tend to itself. I just hope we will come over some better equipment than our current one.
They do. Quite soon, and in a manner none of them expected.
Maker. Great Maker. Nathaniel cannot help but feel chills running down his spine as he watches a parody of himself, wearing his armour, armed with his bow and blades, slowly emerge from the shadows. The blackened face, the dull eyes – the original likeness is marred past recognition, yet Nathaniel cannot rid of the feeling that the ghoul's face was originally his own.
More figures, more familiar garbs. Cousland's griffon armour, Oghren's breastplate with geometric patterns. Anders' robe and staff. And –
"That thing is wearing my stuff!" Velanna's angry yell wakes them from the stupor as they watch the tainted copies of themselves approach.
Dealing with the ghouls while using only the low quality darkspawn blades would have been almost impossible without the support of magic, but their relief at recovering their gear turns out to be pre-timely. They barely have the time to grab at least their weapons when another wave of attackers ensues.
The first two are felled by Nathaniel's arrows but then the mass is on them, and they fight for their lives.
With Anders and Velanna already running low on magic, Cousland and Oghren take the brunt of the attack, and without their armour, both suffer multiple minor wounds. Nathaniel himself has a gash on his upper arm and chest, from a hurlock which refused to die even with an arrow through its throat. When the fight is finally over, he exhaustedly sags to his knees.
Maker. That was by a thread.
"Get your gear fast!" Cousland commands, somewhat unnecessarily.
"Blessed be the producers of lyrium, myself included!" Anders cheers as the search of his property on the ghoul's body reveals a part of his potion reserve. With an expert gesture, he uncorks a vial and imbibes its content. Clicking his tongue, he wiggles his fingers. "So, any volunteers for healing?"
"Just look around," Oghren grunts, sitting on the ground and trying to stop the blood trickling to his eyes from a wound in his scalp.
Cousland, ignoring his wounds, still stands alert, with his sword and shield ready. "Stop chitchatting and get down to work, Anders. If another wave comes before we get back in shape, we're in a great deal of trouble."
"What, even worse than we already are?" Having tended to Oghren as he struggled to recover his armour meanwhile, the mage moves over to Cousland. "You sure you don't want to sit down? – Alright, alright, just asking." Unbelievably, he manages to heal even during the constant flow of speech. "By the way, you don't expect me to actually wear something stripped off a ghoul, do you? I hear it's not among the recommended means of skin beauty care. – What?" He makes an offended face at the glare he receives. "I am healing you, am I not? So I talk, big deal. You knew I like to talk even when you recruited me, and when I'm nervous, like when I nearly get beheaded twice within a couple of seconds, I simply talk more. – Not to mention the stressful loss of my favourite piece of garbs which is spoiled past mending now!"
For a moment, it seems that Anders is in an imminent danger of beheading for the third time, but then Cousland chuckles. "You're impossible. If you prefer running around in little more than your smalls, it's your choice. I've been soaked in darkspawn blood so often that some more won't make a difference." He finally kneels down and starts stripping his armour from the ghoul's body.
A sudden explosion of fire brings them all to a startle. Standing over the body of the female ghoul she felled and which she currently set afire, Velanna shrugs. "I am not going to wear that filthy stuff again, and I'm not letting them have it, either."
"A most prudent decision." Cousland returns to his work, not looking at Velanna. "You could easily become tainted."
Provided that you are not already, Nathaniel realizes with a feeling of nausea, remembering Seranni's blotched features. With revulsion, he quickly puts on his gambeson. His eyes are involuntarily drawn back to the ghoul, whose expressionless face stares to the ceiling. Just what was this supposed to mean?
And, above all, what role does Velanna's sister play in it?
The feeling that he is undoubtedly going to find out soon, is not reassuring in the least.