Warden-Commander Elissa Cousland felt as though she had been slogging through the Deep Roads for an eternity. The warmth of the sun, the sound of chirping birds, the feel of a gentle breeze: these were little more than distant memories. All she knew, all she had ever known, was stifling, dry, oppressive heat, weighing her down with every step.
She thought back to the day she had first gotten the news and the resulting orders from Weisshaupt, many, many weeks ago now (or months, or years -- surely it couldn't have been years). All the reports had been the same, from Orzammar, from Orlais, from the Free Marches, from the Imperium, even from the Anderfels: The darkspawn had all but vanished, aboveground and below. Which could only suggest that they were massing somewhere else, had been called by someone, or something, to gather and inflict their concentrated horror on the land. But where could it be?
The Grey Wardens of Ferelden had gathered together in her wardroom, and when she had finished reading the message, Alistair frowned at her. "Not good. Doesn't that usually mean a Blight?"
"After only five years?" From his far corner of the room, Nathaniel Howe, Elissa's second, stirred and looked up. "It would be unheard of. And I don't know about you, but I certainly haven't felt any stirrings of an archdemon.
Alistair scowled back at him, but before he could reply, Elissa held up her hand. "I agree that a Blight seems unlikely. But it's clear that something is happening, so the First wants an investigation. Since Ferelden was the site of the last Blight, he believes this is the best place to start. And the most recent significant darkspawn sighting was in our territory: near Kal'Hirol. Sigrun?"
The dwarf, the best darkspawn tracker among the Ferelden Wardens, rose to her feet with a nod. "You got it, Boss. I'll take a team out there today, let you know which way the buggers went."
"Not quite." Elissa stood as well. "I do want you to lead an advance team, but you won't be reporting back here. I'll follow you with the bulk of our forces in a few days. The First wants the horde found without delay." She rolled up the parchment containing the First's orders and tapped its edge against the desk. "Nathaniel, Alim, you're with Sigrun. Can you leave today?" On Sigrun's nod, she continued. "Leave your findings at the Knotwood Hills camp. I'll be three days behind you, perhaps four. The rest of you, make your preparations for a departure at that time. Dismissed."
As the others had gathered themselves to go, Alistair hung back, then raised an eyebrow at her. "We're all going?"
Elissa nodded. "There are only twelve of us Joined, and this could be real trouble. I've also sent for Leliana and Zevran -- we need all the experienced help we can get. Varel is more than capable of administering the arling in my absence, with Garavel's militia to assist him. If the darkspawn beat us back here, the Marcher Wardens can have a team here within a week. Besides, the recruits who've joined us since the Blight need to see some real action, and this opportunity is as good as any."
That was how it had all begun; Elissa thought back on her comfortable wardroom, and especially its large windows, with a sense of nostalgia that bordered on a deep longing. She didn't hate the Deep Roads with the passion that some of her team did -- Leliana, in particular, had started wilting almost the moment they'd arrived at Kal'Hirol -- but the darkness and the weight of the stone walls were starting to get to her. Even the dwarves seemed weary of the endless slog. She paused, wiped the sweat from her brow, and sighed. She could hear Alistair a step behind her, and he stopped as well, hand resting on her back.
"It's been days since we've seen any darkspawn, or even signs of their passage," he said, quietly enough that no one else in the party could hear. "And we haven't had a report from Sigrun in longer. Are you sure we're following the right trail?"
Elissa glanced around, assuring herself that they were, in fact, alone, and then responded with a quick shake of her head. She was the leader; she did not want the others to know of her doubts, but as her lover of many years, Alistair was privy to almost all her thoughts, her closest councilor. And she trusted him not to spread uncertainty among the ranks. "You saw Sigrun's last message: the tracking signs suggest that the darkspawn gathered in one place, then split into at least four parties. Supposedly we're following the largest of them, but..." She sighed, and leaned into him, letting her forehead rest against his cheek for the briefest of seconds.
He curled a hand around her neck and kissed her temple, then stepped away. "We'll find them," he said, confident, and Elissa knew he was not only speaking of the darkspawn. "The Deep Roads don't go on forever. The darkspawn have to have emerged somewhere, and sooner or later, we'll figure out where."
"An unusual pack of Baknamy, marauding on the Ozmone Plains, carrying weapons. Approach with extreme caution. Large reward." That's what the Hunter's Board had said, and so that's where Balthier had headed, skimming the Strahl over the desert, then Giza, before landing just outside the entrance to the Zertinan Caverns. Unusual was his specialty. Not to mention large rewards.
Such a simple request, and one that did nothing to prepare him for the sight that greeted his eyes as he crested a hill and looked down into the valley that spiraled down into the caverns: a full-scale encampment, complete with dirty canvas tents and small campfires, the grass trampled into mud. Most of the trees had disappeared, and the few that remained standing were withered and black. And the valley teemed with-- creatures. Not Baknamy, though Balthier saw why that mistake might be made if the merchant had seen only a few of them from a distance, as they were short, green skinned, and roughly the shape of humes. But there the resemblance ended: these creatures were clad in rough armor, had pointed ears, and no breathing masks were in evidence.
Balthier dropped to the ground, hiding himself behind the summit, and hoped he had not been spotted; Fran knelt by his side. "This is no pack," she murmured. "This is a horde."
"And wherever did they come from? The caverns?" Balthier frowned.
"Perhaps." Fran closed her eyes with a light shudder. "They are... wrong. They do not belong in this place."
It was an assessment Balthier was hard-pressed to argue with. "Well. Whatever reward the merchant planned to offer, I suspect it would be inadequate for taking on this crew."
Fran nodded. "And we should inform the queen of the threat on her doorstep."
"Agreed. Shall we make our escape?" Balthier shimmied backwards through the grass on his hands and knees, then froze as he heard a sound behind him. In a single motion, he stood up, drew his gun, and fired. That felled the nearest creature, but the three hot on its heels... "Fran!"
His warning was unnecessary; three arrows bloomed in the chest of one fiend as another rushed him, snarling, sword drawn. Balthier fired again, hitting the creature in the shoulder, but it shrugged off the wound and moved in closer, bringing up a shield to smash Balthier in the face, caching his chin. He moved with the strike and kept to his feet, jumping out of the way of the sword he could see falling toward his face. Once more, he attempted to fire the gun, but the hammer clicked instead: the mechanism had jammed. Balthier tossed the weapon aside with a curse and pulled his dagger instead.
The monster roared at him, showing a mouth full of sharp, rotting teeth, and Balthier recoiled, from its foul breath as much as the threat of attack. He parried one sword strike, then found an opening to stab the creature in the throat. It fell forward as it died, landing on Balthier, and a spurt of blood gushed from the wound. Balthier winced as the ichor splattered him across the face and his ruffled white shirt. He pushed the vile creature off him and spat onto the ground. Whatever this thing was, its blood tasted terrible.
Wiping his mouth, he took a quick glance around, then over his shoulder. "Camp's not roused yet, so let's get away while we can. Go!" After grabbing the gun, he took to his heels and Fran followed, racing against the hope that the scouting party had not gotten off an alarm.
The party formed up around the dead creature, and Oghren nudged it with the toe of his boot. "What the sodding hell is this? A giant toad?"
"Sure looks like one." Alistair backed away, grimacing. "Either that, or someone got on the bad side of a mage."
Elissa shot a look of weary frustration at Alistair, then turned her attention to Oghren. "So you've never seen anything like this?"
"Nope." Oghren scratched his beard. "Not in the Deep Roads, not nowhere else. Nothing like those weird horse-things, neither."
"And another strange thing." Zevran had gotten on his hands and knees to examine the corpse of the creature, but he paused and looked around him for a moment, then up at Elissa. "Have you noticed, the construction is almost gone? Few ruins, and those I've seen are not in the style of the dwarves. Nor do they have the look of hand-dug darkspawn tunnels. These appear to be natural caves."
Elissa slowly pivoted on her heel and realized it was true. The walls, ceiling, and floor were all solid rock, with the flowing quality of a cavern built by a thousand years of water erosion. Such caves were almost unknown in Ferelden; she had seen a few on visits to the Anderfels, but nothing this extensive. "So.... where are we?"
Zevran shrugged and stood, wiping his hands of the corpse of the toad-creature, and nodded into the distance. "Perhaps Sigrun will be able to tell us more."
"Sigrun!" Elissa's head whipped around to see the most welcome sight she'd had in days: the dwarf scout, running back toward her, a smile on her face and her party -- Nathaniel and Alim Surana, the elf mage -- only an eager step behind.
"There's an exit ahead!" Sigrun shouted down the tunnels as she ran to them, and Elissa winced; she would have preferred to spread this news more subtly. "And signs that a darkspawn horde passed this way only a few days ago."
"Are you sure?" Elissa checked the slope of their path. "It feels as though we're going down, not up."
Sigrun nodded. "The floor angles up really sharply around the next curve. We should be out in only a few hours."
"It's true, Commander." Nathaniel came to her side, an actual gleam of excitement in his eyes. "Soon we'll know exactly where the darkspawn have emerged."
"Finally." Elissa allowed herself the smallest sigh of relief. "Very well, then. Lead the way."
It was not uncommon for Balthier to pay unexpected visits to the palace at Rabanastre; every few months, it seemed, Ashe would discover him in one corner or another: lounging in her parlor, or sequestered in the gardens, or, on one particularly memorable occasion, hiding in her closet. But to see him standing in the doorway of her office, Fran at his side, begging an official audience, was actually startling. And worrisome, given the other reports she had received today. Still, she schooled her face and rose to greet him as she would any other petitioner, holding out her hand for a formal greeting. He stopped at the edge of her desk, took her fingers in his, and bowed at the waist. "Thank you for seeing us, Your Majesty."
"You are always welcome here, Balthier, Fran." She inclined her head in acknowledgement, then pulled her hand free before sitting back down. "To what do we owe the honor of this visit?"
"Bad news." When Balthier rose, his face was grim. "I was recently on the Ozmone Plain, and a large force of some sort is massing there -- creatures unlike any I have ever seen before, well-armed, nasty fighters. I thought you should know right away."
"Yes." Ashe frowned. "Can you describe these creatures?"
"The hunt board described them as Baknamy, but clearly they are not. Similar in size and body shape, but without breathing apparatus. Green skin, pointed ears, nasty teeth. Armed with bows and swords, mostly. More closely resembled an army than a pack of monsters. We had to fight our way past a small scouting party, and it was not a trivial battle -- these were not mindless creatures." Balthier shook his head. "Most disconcerting."
"More disconcerting than you know." Ashe lifted her chin to her guard; he nodded and left the room, shutting the door behind him, and she lowered her voice before continuing. "You are not the first person to come bearing such a tale. Similar creatures have been spotted in the Westersand, and messengers arrived from both Rozarria and Archades today. Bands of creatures, hume-like but monstrous, well armed and organized, massing near caves or underground lairs. Was the horde you saw near the Zertinan Caverns?"
"Indeed." Balthier looked at Fran, who had raised her eyebrows in alarm. "So, the obvious conclusion is that they are coming from below ground. Curious. Has anything of this sort happened before?"
"Not in living memory." Ashe leaned back in her chair. "Scholars are scouring the archives, looking for mentions of these creatures -- some are as you described, but others are the size of humes and a few much larger and stronger. So far, most have been spied from a distance and safely escaped, but a few patrols are missing." She shook her head. "If this is an organized force, we may have to marshal our own, and quickly. I have sent for emissaries from the two empires, and I hope you will join us at council, to share your experience and observations."
Balthier bowed again. "We are at your service."
"Good. It will be a day or so before the others arrive, so I'll arrange quarters for you."
He and Fran exchanged a glance. "The offer is appreciated, Majesty, but I suspect we will both be more comfortable on the Strahl."
"Very well." If Balthier wanted to maintain a fiction of distance between them, that could also be used to her advantage. "At the very least, may I offer you a berth in the royal aerodrome? I'd like you close to hand."
"Fine." Balthier looked at Fran. "Could you make the arrangements? I find I have a headache."
Ashe rose from her seat. "Do you require a healer? A place to rest?"
"A lie-down would not be amiss," he admitted. Fran raised an eyebrow at him, but he would not meet her eyes, nor Ashe's; now that she looked more closely, she could see a long scratch on the underside of his chin, beginning to bruise, and a flash of the pain he had been hiding in the wrinkle of his brow.
"You can use my parlor, if you like," Ashe said, resisting the desire to check more closely on his wound, or to heal it herself. He would not appreciate being fussed over here, but perhaps he would let her take a closer look later, in private. "The guard in the hallway will show you there."
The promise to join him once her duties were finished was left unspoken, but he must have heard regardless, because he lifted his gaze then and favored her with his usual rakish smile. Ashe returned it with a small sigh of relief. "Thank you, Majesty." One final, exaggerated bow before he turned to go, and though his footsteps were slower than usual, Ashe let her worries for him go. She had enough to be concerned about right now without adding Balthier to the list.
Even just visible around the corner, the light from the surface was blinding, so Elissa had given orders to make camp until nightfall, the better to adjust their vision from what she was now guessing to have been three months of near-total darkness. Leliana had built a half-hearted fire, but no one felt like eating; they were too close to their goal, and everyone milled restlessly about the cavern. Finally Elissa had all but ordered everyone to sleep, and so they did, including her, although really she just lay next to Alistair and pretended to rest, his arm around her waist, his breath heavy in her ear. It was as much a relief as anything when Oghren sounded the end of the last watch, and she was able to get up, put her armor back on, and gather up her troops.
"Be wary," she said when they were all assembled. "We've been underground a long time, and the terrain at the exit could be entirely unfamiliar to us. Not to mention the darkspawn, which, as I'm sure you've all noticed, are not far beyond." She could feel them again for the first time in weeks, their taint squirming in the distance, sharper than that carried by the Wardens of her company. "Sigrun, Zevran, scout ahead, usual signals if anything goes wrong. We'll be right behind you."
"You got it." Sigrun flashed Elissa a grin, then motioned Zevran forward. As soon as they disappeared around the bend, Nathaniel readied his bow and took the lead, the rest of the team falling into their usual formation behind him -- Oghren backing him up, Elissa and Alim at the center with Alistair as the leader of their sword-bearing defenders, and two more archers -- Leliana and a Warden named Pieter -- poised for defense in the rear. As soon as they reached the bend, Elissa felt a breath of wind playing on her face, and she breathed deeply of the dry, cool air. It was all she could do not to break into a run at the sight of a cavern mouth, yawning into the night sky, with -- Maker, were those actual stars visible in the distance?
"We're really getting out of here," Alistair muttered in a tone of awe, and Elissa smiled. Just a few more steps before Zevran and Sigrun were free, and with a force of will Elissa called for a halt, waiting for their signal. It seemed like an age before the whistle came: the beautiful sound of an all-clear.
And then they were running, or at least jogging, unable to contain their excitement any longer, Wardens brushing past Elissa as she paused on the natural threshold to take stock of her new surroundings. They had emerged into a rocky desert canyon, surrounded on three sides by high cliffs, the sandy ground strewn with boulders. She could hear a stiff wind whistling around the canyon walls, but this area was somewhat protected. Which was good, because the night air was quite chilly, especially in comparison to underground. The sand was slippery beneath her boots, and so she moved carefully, testing her footing with each step. The coast seemed clear, but the darkspawn were not far -- Elissa could sense them, and so she drew her sword in preparation, noting that most of her company had already did the same.
Sigrun and Zevran took positions near the canyon mouth, hiding themselves at the base of a stony outcropping. Then Sigrun turned and yelled, charging forward with her head down.
"Darkspawn!" Elissa shouted, raising her sword overhead in signal. "Kill them all!" As she dashed around the corner into the fray, she stretched out with her Warden senses, seeking the taint and counting their numbers. Not many, she realized, perhaps no more than three or four dozen, already falling to flights of arrows and Alim's spells. It was a group of hurlocks, making camp in the open desert, and the largest one barely had time to react before Elissa had closed, smashing it in the face with her shield and following up with cut to its throat. It fell with a scream, and then she was on the next, and the next after that. When the third was dispatched, she stopped and looked around, puzzled. She caught Sigrun's eye, and soon the dwarf was at her side, Nathaniel right behind her.
"I thought you said we were following the largest part of the horde," Elissa said. "Why, then, such a small group? The rear guard?"
Sigrun frowned. "Maybe, but now I'm not so sure. There's no signs of a large army passing this way, just smaller ones. I suppose they could have split up further underground, somewhere we didn't notice."
"No matter. The darkspawn are here, wherever 'here' is, and we need to continue tracking them regardless." Elissa looked around. "Where are we, anyway? I don't know of any deserts this large in Ferelden or the Marches. And it doesn't have the look of the Anderfels."
"Beats me." Sigrun sniffed the air. "Smells dusty. Even the plants." As she looked up, something caught her eye, and she smiled. "Hey, would you look at that."
She pointed in the direction of the full moon, rising over one of the canyon walls. For just a moment, Elissa leaned back and admired its cool light, and the stars surrounding it. How she had missed them all. Then the air was shattered by a familiar bird call, and she turned to see Zevran, motioning for quiet. She stepped back against one of the larger boulders, and waited.
Whatever was coming, it wasn't darkspawn -- no taint. Wild animals, then, or people. From the weight and even rhythm of there footsteps crunching against the sand, she rather guessed the latter, and likely mounted, although the pattern of footfalls sounded like no horse she had ever known. She gestured her team together; they fell into a phalanx behind her, and waited.
"Sir!" A young male voice came ringing out from around the back side of another cliff wall. "It's more of those creatures. Come look."
"Keep your distance, boy." The reply was older, gruffer, with the ring of authority carried by one in command. "I don't want to lose anyone else to these-- things."
"It's all right, sir, they're dead." The first speaker rounded the rocky wall and came into view, then made a sudden halt, almost stumbling over his feet. It was, as Elissa had suspected, a young man, not much more than a boy, dressed in ill-fitting armor, helm almost falling into his eyes. "Halt!" he squeaked, turning his sword, which was already drawn, and pointing it in Elissa's direction. "Who goes there?"
Elissa sheathed her weapon and held up her empty hands. Mostly likely, this child could do her no harm, so there was no reason not to present as a friend. Besides, her Wardens would stick him full of arrows before he'd even have the chance to try anything. "I am Elissa Cousland, Warden-Commander of Ferelden, on an errand to track the darkspawn. If I have unknowingly trespassed onto your lands, I apologize."
The boy's face furrowed in confusion. "What's Ferelden?" He turned and shouted over his shoulder. "Sir! There are some strange soldiers here!"
"I see that, Sander." The leader emerged, along with half a dozen other soldiers, and now it was Elissa's turn to gape in surprise: every man was mounted on the back of a large yellow bird, easily as tall as any horse, each one saddled and bridled. "Thank you, I'll take it from here." The boy stepped backwards, sword arm drooping; meanwhile, the commander dismounted and took a few cautious steps in Elissa's direction. "Explain yourself, stranger. How did you just appear here, in the middle of the Dalmasca Westersand, with no airship in sight?"
Dalmasca Westersand? The name meant nothing to Elissa, but she filed it away as at least some designation for this place. "We walked here via the Deep Roads. There is an exit near here, just behind that canyon."
"You mean Zertinan?" The man shook his head. "I find that hard to believe. The closest hume settlement to any entrance to the Zertinan is Rabanastre, and clearly you didn't come from there." He crossed his arms. "I've a mind to take you to the queen and have her sort you out."
"I wish you would," Elissa countered. "I need to speak with whomever is in charge, learn more about the current extent of the darkspawn threat."
"Darkspawn?" The man looked around the remains of the enemy camp. "You mean... these things? You know what they are?"
"Of course we know what they are!" The outburst came from Sigrun, who stepped forward and tapped the silver griffin sigil on her chest. "Can't you see we're Grey Wardens?"
"Sigrun." Elissa quieted her with a look, and she dropped her chin with a scowl. "But she is correct, sir. We are the Grey Wardens of Ferelden, and I am their Warden-Commander, Elissa Cousland."
"I don't know what Grey Wardens are, either," the commander replied, slowly, "but... did you really take out this whole encampment yourselves?"
Elissa nodded. "Just before you arrived."
The man still looked concerned, but his confusion was now tinged with respect. "We ambushed a much smaller group earlier this evening, just five or six; we beat them, but I lost three good men in the process. If you can help us fight these hideous things, then maybe I really should take you to Queen Ashelia."
"If she is the leader of this place, then I will follow you to her with good will," Elissa said. "Lead the way."
Despite her best intentions, it was well past nightfall by the time Ashe arrived back at her quarters, between her planned meetings and more word of attacks, from Archades this time, unconfirmed reports of widespread destruction and a rumor that disease might be spreading. Given the lateness of the hour, she had expected that Balthier would be long gone, but to her surprise he was still dozing on the couch in the center of her sitting room, an arm thrown over his eyes. The lights were on, but dimmed, and the coals in the fireplace were burning low. Someone had brought a tray of food that had barely been touched, and Ashe pushed it aside before perching on the edge of the coffee table. He snuffled and shook his head, and then his eyes flickered open.
"You're getting mud on my upholstery," she said, without heat. As far as she could tell, his boots were quite clean, but it was easier to chide him than to admit the extent of her fears.
"My most abject apologies." He rubbed his forehead and sat up, swinging his feet to the floor. "How long was I out?"
"All day, or so it would seem." Ashe took his chin in her hand and leaned close to inspect his injury; he tried to pull away, but she tightened her grip, and he relaxed, submitting himself to her ministrations. The cut seemed shallow, and his color was a little better, though the bruise had darkened to a startling shade of purple. "What caused this? Did you get it treated in the field? Does it pain you still?"
Balthier twisted himself free, and this time she did not fight him. "A shield to the face, no, and not as much as it did, thanks to my little nap. I will be fine, Your Majesty; no need to fret over a small scratch."
"Not that small." Ashe indicated the stains on his shirt with a jut of her chin. "Or are you going to tell me the blood isn't yours?"
He looked up at her, quirking a sardonic eyebrow. "May I tell you that if it be truth? I cut the creature's throat, with predictably messy results. Ask Fran; she'll back me up."
"I'm sure she would." Ashe checked for servants from the corner of her eye; seeing none, she leaned forward and covered his mouth with a kiss, long and slow. He lifted a hand to the back of her head, ruffling her hair and pulling her closer, and she sighed against his lips. Even after two years as lovers, off and on, each kiss felt as though it were stolen, secret, as forbidden as the first night they had spent together, and she cherished it just as much. "I wish you would take greater care with your person," she murmured.
"We both know that is a lie, Your Majesty." He brushed their noses together. "You appreciate me more because I live a life of peril."
She shook her head, but returned the smile. "Never believe it." Kissing him again, then she leaned back, letting her hands fall in his. "Join me for dinner?"
Balthier dropped his chin sideways, caught her eye. "'Only if you let me stay for dessert."
"I'm afraid I'd have to insist on that." Ashe tightened her hands in his, running her thumb up the inside of his palm, and he let out a soft groan, then came in for another kiss, pressing her mouth open, bringing his arms around her back; Ashe moved in off the table to lean him back against the couch, all intentions of ringing for a meal forgotten.
"Queen Ashe." Larsa bowed over Ashe's hand, laying a courtly kiss on her fingers. "Thank you for arranging and hosting this council on such short notice."
"I am glad to do it," Ashe replied. "If the menaces at our respective doorsteps are the same, then it behooves us to work together to stop them."
"Indeed." Larsa straightened, showing himself to be near her height now, and he carried himself with the awkwardness that suggested a growth spurt in progress. The boy emperor was becoming a man more quickly than Ashe had realized, and all Ivalice would soon be dealing with the repercussions. "Have the Rozarrians arrived?"
"They are expected this afternoon." Ashe looked over Larsa's shoulder to the heavily-armored man standing behind him. "Judge Magister."
"Your Majesty." Basch responded with a polite bow of his head, as befit their stations. "Shall we berth in our usual quarters?" A small army of Judges, guards, and retainers filled the rest of the throne room; Ashe supposed it would be too much to have expected the Archadian delegation to travel light. And she would have to make room for as many Rozarrians, or more. At least there were no open hostilities at play right now that would require special arrangements to avoid offense. Only the usual, more subtle ones.
In response, Ashe gestured to one of her guards, who saluted to her, then turned to Basch. "Yes, Judge Magister. Shall I show you there?"
"I will lead them." Larsa bowed again, with a look at Basch. "Judge Magister, if you would stay behind in my stead, to set plans for this evening's council? We will meet in my quarters when you are finished."
Basch responded with a nod and a salute; as the Archadians filed out of the throne room, Ashe indicated that he should join her in the study. She closed the door behind him, and he removed his helm with a sigh. Then he started at the other occupants of the room: Balthier and Fran, who stood by the window. "What brings you here?"
"A close, personal encounter with the creatures that threaten us," Balthier said, holding out a hand in greeting, which Basch shook, after a pause to recover from his surprise. "Ashe requested that we share our knowledge with you and the other emissaries."
"'Tis good to see you both, even under these unfortunate circumstances." Basch nodded to Fran, who responded in kind, and then he looked back at Balthier with a frown. "Are you ill? You seem... peaked."
Balthier waved off the concern, though now that Basch mentioned it, Ashe noticed that same sheen of discomfort she had seen the morning before, despite a night's rest and the surreptitious healing spell she had cast after he fell asleep. "A scratch taken in battle, nothing to worry about. So, these fiends threaten Archades as well as Rabanastre?"
"Yes." Basch shook his head. "They appeared a few days past, uncomfortably close to the city; the city guard has skirmished with the enemy several times now, and the battles have not gone in our favor, in the main. I-- cannot say more, not without my lord's leave, but I can tell you that I am worried."
"We will have to share information eventually," Ashe said with a frown.
Basch sighed. "Agreed, my lady. But I must leave the telling to Lord Larsa. You understand my position."
"Of course." Ashe considered him, noted his furrow of concern, his once-ruddy cheeks pale beneath the shadow of his helm. But her train of thought was interrupted by a sharp knock on the door. "Come!" she called, and the door was opened by an aide, a sheaf of parchment in his hand.
"A captain of one of the Westersand patrols, Your Majesty, here with news of the creatures in the sands."
"Send him in at once." Ashe stood; the aide bowed and disappeared, replaced by a man in worn armor, pocked by years of riding in sandstorms.
"Captain Pol Weymeis, Your Majesty, at your command," he said, dropping to one knee and bowing his head.
"Rise, Captain Weymeis, and make your report." Weymeis straightened and looked around the room, reluctant, but Ashe shook her head. "You are among friends of the crown, Captain. Feel free to share whatever news you have with everyone present."
"Yes, Your Majesty." Weymeis snapped his heels together and brought his hand behind his back. "While patrolling the Westersand, we came across two packs of these mysterious creatures that have appeared from underground, but that's not what I came to report. We also met a band of hume warriors, not far from the mouth of the Zertinan. Their leader gives her name as Warden Commander Cousland, and she requested an immediate audience."
Ashe lifted her eyebrows at the guard. "Warden? Warden of what?"
The guard shrugged. "Grey Wardens, is what she said. She used all kinds of words that meant nothing to me, I'm afraid. But she says she has important information regarding the creatures. They took out an entire encampment of the things, despite being outnumbered, and look to have barely suffered a scratch, so I'm inclined to believe her. It's a strange crew, to be sure. I've never seen armor or weapons of that make, and some of her companions are... a trifle odd. I'm not sure else how to put it. But I do think you should speak with her."
"Very well, Captain. Have them meet us in the throne room." he bowed, then left, and Ashe rose from her seat, taking a quick glance around the room at her friends. "Thoughts?"
Basch frowned. "If they appeared from the caverns, they might be in league with the creatures."
"True enough." Balthier tipped his head, thoughtfully. "But speaking with them will certainly not leave us with any less information than we have now. And there is the potential to gain much more."
"I agree with Balthier." Ashe looked over to Basch. "But with caution. I shall have the guard in the throne room doubled, and I would like you, all three, to attend me. Fully armed, of course. Shall we?" She rang the bell that would call in her captain of the guard to make the appropriate arrangements.
Although the guard had mentioned that the petitioner was a woman, Ashe still found the sight of her somewhat startling. The Warden Commander was of average height and build, but she wore heavy plate, decorated with a silver-and blue winged device, shield and broadsword strapped to her back. Her blond hair was tied in a high ponytail, and she carried herself with assurance, wearing her command like a mantle she had been born to assume. She was flanked by two tall men -- one fair, the other dark, both well-armed and armored in different styles but matching colors, silver and dark blue like the commander's sigil -- and a dozen others followed, mostly men, but Ashe thought she spied a few more women... But no, at least two of those were men, if men unlike any she had ever before seen: half a head shorter than the others, slight of build, sharp of features. And two more of the party were as short as children, but clearly adults with mature faces and broad shoulders. Odd, indeed.
All this, Ashe barely had time to take in as the leader approached the dais and dropped to one knee, head bowed with respect; the men at her elbows followed suit while the rest of the group stayed some distance back. "Your Majesty," the woman said, "I thank you for granting me this audience. I am Elissa Cousland, Warden-Commander of Ferelden; Nathaniel Howe, my Second; Senior Warden Alistair. And the rest of the Ferelden Wardens, here to offer our assistance against the darkspawn."
Ferelden? Darkspawn? Ashe glanced to Basch, then Balthier and Fran, but saw no spark of recognition from any corner. "Your offer of aid is appreciated, but you must realize that I cannot accept assistance from an unknown quantity without more information. Who are you, and whom do you represent?"
Cousland glanced at the blond man, who stood on her left; he quirked a brow, then raised his shoulders in a tiny shrug. She looked back up at Ashe. "You are not familiar with the Grey Wardens? Darkspawn and archdemons? The threat of the Blight?" Ashe shook her head at this baffling barrage of words, and Cousland frowned. "Then we have more to discuss than I thought. Is there somewhere we can speak privately?"
Ashe's brows drew into a furrow. "You will understand, I think, if I would prefer to have this conversation with my guards present."
The woman nodded. "Your suspicions are understandable, but groundless. Still, I will respect your concerns. If you wish, I will surrender my weapons and leave behind all but three of my party while we speak. And you may take whatever precautions you feel necessary. But I must insist that we meet as soon as possible, and that you invite any other leaders who have felt the darkspawn encroach upon their lands. If we act quickly, the threat may be contained, but the longer we wait, the greater the danger will be. Make no mistake, Your Majesty: I am calling a council of war."
It was preposterous, to have a stranger in her throne room making demands, and yet this woman was impossible not to take seriously. And Ashe could not avoid the truth: the incursion of these strange creatures, in so many places at once, with such devastation left behind them, was not a threat she could contain without the help of her neighbors. "There are other lands affected," she admitted, reluctantly. "I have invited representatives from each nation to Dalmasca: the Emperor of Archadia is already here, and an emissary from Rozarria is en route. When he arrives, you will have your council. Meanwhile, my guards will show you to a barracks where you and your men and women can rest and refresh yourself. I understand you have had a long trek across the desert."
Cousland bowed again. "Longer than you know, Your Majesty. The offer is appreciated, and we will take advantage of your hospitality." The dark man frowned at her, opened his mouth to speak, but she stilled him with a quick motion of her hand. "But I will not wait long."
"You will not need to. I intend to gather the council this evening."
"Good." Cousland turned to the guardsman who had stepped down from the dais. "Lead the way."
"This way, ma'am." The guard gestured toward the side entrance that led into the guest wing of the palace, and Cousland followed, a respectful step back. The rest of her command -- the other Grey Wardens? -- fell into line behind her, walking past the throne, bowing their heads and saluting her, one of the slender men adding a saucy wink to his otherwise respectful mien, but he was gone too quickly for her to react.
Once they were gone, she turned to the general who stood behind her. "Call a council for the dinner hour. Make sure the fleet captains are there, and any of the nobility who will have to sign on, and of course Emperor Larsa and the emissary from Rozarria. Send a message to Ondore, as well -- he is not likely to be directly affected by this threat, but we may require his aid. I will be in my chambers awaiting word."
The guard bowed. "As you wish, Your Majesty." He left her; Ashe thought of following, but found she was too tired to move. Another war on her doorstep, but even more difficult when she knew nothing of the enemy or their motives. She could only hope that this Elissa Cousland would have something of value to share.
"I do not like this." Nathaniel frowned at Elissa. "I do not like this at all."
Alistair leaned back against the window, arms crossed. "For once, you and I are in total agreement." He shook his head, slowly. "Are these people stupid, or just in denial? They've never heard of darkspawn, or the archdemons, or the Blight? How is that even possible?"
Elissa lowered herself into the largest chair in the corner. Queen Ashe's guard had led the Wardens through the palace gardens to a small barracks: several sleeping chambers and a basic kitchen off what looked to be a wardroom or office, and it was here that she had gathered the team. The room had a large window overlooking the palace, and beyond it the city. It was larger and more technologically advanced than anything Elissa had even dreamed of: grander than Val Royeaux, more imposing than Kirkwall. And yet some of the conversation she had overheard in passing suggested that Rabanastre was considered provincial in comparison to some of the other cities of this place, this Ivalice. It was a puzzle, and she believed she had found the answer. "The only logical possibility, incredible as it may seem, is that we are no longer in Thedas."
"You really think so?" Sigrun rocked back on her heels. "We were in the Deep Roads a long time, sure, but I didn't think it was that long."
"No?" Elissa looked at her scout, then back and forth between Nathaniel and Alistair. "What if it were long enough to have walked beneath the ocean and come up in a new land? Preposterous, yes? And yet. Have any of you even heard of a place like this?" She leaned forward, elbows propped on her knees, a hand cupping her chin. "Ships that fly in the sky and giant birds that do not, lights that burn without fire, and such strange creatures walking about the city, but not an elf or a dwarf to be seen." She dropped her hands and sat back in her seat. "Somehow, we are in a new place, a place that has never been touched by Blight."
"So why are they here now?" Alistair's brows knitted. "And how do we convince the Queen and the others to accept our help?"
"As for the former, I do not know. The latter will take care of itself, as soon as the darkspawn corruption starts to spread. They will understand that this is no ordinary threat soon enough."
Nathaniel scowled. "By then, it might be too late."
"We will have to pray that is it not." Elissa stood up. "But there is not much we can do about it now, in any event. Sigrun, Alim, Alistair: you're with me, to prepare for the council. The rest of you are dismissed to quarters to await further orders." Without a word, they split off into the barracks, shedding armor and weapons as they went; Nathaniel stood up last, but Elissa called out to him. "Nathaniel, if you could stay a moment?"
He paused, turned to look at her. "What do you wish?"
"We need to learn more about this place, these people. I want you to spend the day among them, quietly. Discover as much as you can about them: their history, their will to fight, if there is anything in their past that hints at a Blight. Pool your information with Zevran and Leliana, and have a report ready for me by late afternoon."
"Zevran and..." Nathaniel looked around the room with another frown. "Did you set them at this task already?"
"Do you see them here?" Elissa chuckled. "I gave them no orders, but I imagine they have taken the initiative. They know enough to come back soon, and to check in with you or me when they return."
"Yes, Commander." Nathaniel arched a brow at her. "And how will you be spending the time? Relaxing, I hope. This long trek took its toll on us all, but none more than you, I think."
"Yes." Alistair did not give her a chance to answer before he was at her side, arm around her waist. "I'll see to it."
Elissa glared up at him. "Alistair, I don't have time for--"
"Oh, yes you do." Alistair lowered his chin and met her eyes. "There will be plenty of time to strategize for the council later, when we have the information that your spies are out gathering now. And you'll be more effective after a bit of rest, don't you think? A good long nap, in a real bed, hmm? Perhaps a bath?"
She glared at him a little longer, then looked away with a sigh. He was right; no point in denying it. "Fine." With a glance over her shoulder, she nodded to Alim and Sigrun. "You're dismissed for the next four hours. Get some rest." They saluted, then hurried into the dormitory, Nathaniel a satisfied step behind. Alone with Alistair, she narrowed her eyes at him. "Alistair, love. You know how I feel about you going all mother-hen on me like that. Especially in front of the others."
"I only do it when it's absolutely necessary," he countered with a smile. "And Nathaniel even agreed with me, which you know means serious business."
She found herself too tired to argue. "All right, all right. I'll back off. Perhaps I am pushing them too hard."
"Them, and yourself." Alistair steered her toward a door in the corner. "This is the commander's chamber, I think -- a single bed, a small desk, a better view. Should do us quite nicely. Shall I see about that bath?"
Lifting an eyebrow, she finally let herself smile at him. "Only if you'll share it with me."
"Now that is an order with which I am more than happy to comply." He leaned down and pressed his mouth to hers in a soft kiss. She wound her hands around his neck and kissed him back, harder, letting herself relax into him as she had been unable to do on the long journey. Without letting go, she walked him back into their quarters and slammed the door shut.
Once the Grey Wardens had gone, Balthier and Fran had taken their leave as well; after a few words to Basch and the queen, he had suggested the Sandsea, their usual table on the balcony, and a pint or three. He set his empty mug on the table and leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes. Yes, much better than another hour in the palace. His headache had finally receded, though he still felt more fatigue than he ought after such a short battle. Perhaps tonight he would not turn down the offer of a healer.
Fran stirred in her chair, and tapped Balthier's foot lightly with her toe. "See who enters," she said, jutting her chin toward the door. He looked, and recognized the two who had caught her attention -- a slender man with pale blond hair and a red-headed woman, both clad in worn leather armor -- as members of the party that had emerged from the Westersand. The man was the one who had winked at the queen; the woman had held back, watchful, but she seemed more ebullient now as she clutched the man's arm, wide-eyed with delight. She pointed at something and murmured in his ear; the man's gaze followed, and he laughed.
"Checking out the local color, perhaps?" Balthier leaned back in his seat and watched the pair of them work the tavern, circulate past the tables, pausing from time to time to exchange a few words with a patron or each other. He saw the woman lift at least one purse, suggesting that she had likely swiped several others that he had not noticed. She was clearly a master of her craft, distracting her marks with a sweet word and a flip of her hair, while her partner -- but where had he gone?
"Good evening, Serah." The voice came from behind him, and Balthier nearly jumped out of his seat in his haste to turn around. "You were in the throne room with Queen Ashelia today, were you not?" It was the male half of the team, of course, looking down at Balthier with a cocky smile on his tattooed face. His voice carried the lilt of an accent that sounded vaguely Rozarrian, and the tips of his ears came to a distinct point.
"And if I was?" Balthier raised an eyebrow. "Surely it to is the Queen and her retainers that you should direct your queries."
The man lifted his chin and let out a brief chuckle. "Or perhaps I prefer to leave the more direct questioning to the Commander, and Wardens under her command, while I search for more informal routes of communication." He swept his arm to his waist and bowed to Fran. "To that end, may I join you for a drink?"
"If you like." Balthier waved his hand at the empty chair on his right, and the stranger lowered himself into it. "What can I get you?"
"Whatever your friend with the marvelous ears is drinking," he said, nodding toward Fran's half-empty glass of ale. "It looks quite refreshing."
Balthier cocked an eyebrow at the man. "And you are one to comment on someone else's ears?"
He touched a fingertip to the point on his left ear with a slight smile. "Perhaps not. Though you must agree, mine are not nearly so impressive. I pity humans and dwarfs, having ears that are so small and unremarkable."
"Dwarves." Balthier looked at Fran, who shook her head. "Those are the... smaller ones? In your party?"
"Indeed. We have two dwarves and one other elf; most Grey Wardens are human, but-- ah, hello, my lovely." The man smiled up at the waitress, a winning expression that showed his cheekbones to their very best advantage, and she smiled back. "A glass of that fine pale ale, if you please. And I think my friend will have a white wine." He glanced at Balthier. "If, that is, you will indulge me to invite her."
"Your friend the cutpurse?" Balthier cast a pointed glance down at the redhead as the waitress walked away. The thief was standing at the bar, head tilted as she spoke with the bartender, eyes wide and flirtatious. "Why not. Thirsty work, casing a room like that."
The stranger laughed. "Leliana will be most displeased to learn that her efforts were noticed." He settled back in his seat. "But I have been remiss in making further introductions. I am Zevran, Zevran Arainai if it please you, and even if it does not, and as you have likely surmised, the lady is the charming Leliana, here with me at the request of our old friend and sometime leader, the Warden-Commander."
"Her spies, you mean," said Balthier, with rather more sharpness than he had intended, moving aside to make room for the barmaid and her delivery of four more glasses. "If you are approaching us in this time and place, out the palace and out of uniform."
"Not my uniform," Zevran corrected him. "I work for the Wardens, from time to time, but we are not of their number. But why assume we are here for nefarious purposes? Perhaps I simply am in search of new and intriguing company. There are only so many topics of conversation available when you travel with the same dozen people for three months."
"Three months?" Fran leaned forward with interest. "A long journey, on foot."
"Indeed." It was the woman -- Leliana? -- who spoke as she approached the table and took the empty chair next to Zevran. She turned to her associate and gestured at the wine glass. "For me?" He nodded, and she lifted it to take a small sip. "Ahh, lovely. Thank you." She smiled softly at Balthier. "Greetings. I am Leliana, and you?"
"Balthier," he replied. She was quite beautiful, he thought, with wide innocent eyes and a warm smile, and she spoke with a lilting accent unlike any he had before heard. "And my partner, Fran."
"Ah, typical." Zevran took a deep draught of his ale and leaned back in his chair. "I spend ten minutes trying to get a name out of our hosts; you come in with the direct approach and acquire an answer in no time at all."
"Sometimes the direct approach is best," she countered. She shook her head at him, then cast an apologetic smile at Balthier and Fran. "I apologize for my associate. Sometimes he forgets that he no longer needs to apply subterfuge to every situation. We are to be allies, yes? Perhaps it is best to begin with openness rather than suspicion."
Zevran snorted. "Sweet talk from a sweet girl. Don't believe a word of it, my friends. Leliana is every bit as cunning and underhanded as I."
Idle chatter with three meanings lurking behind each comment, Balthier thought. Wasn't this the kind of conversation he'd left Archades to never have again? He finished the rest of his beer in a single draught, then set the mug down with a thump. "Fascinating as all this is, I find I have pressing business elsewhere. Fran?"
He stood, and she followed; he felt the eyes of the spies on his back as they left. So preoccupied was he with his irritation, and the return of his headache, that he was halfway back to the aerodrome before he realized and turned to Fran. "I never closed my tab."
Fran shrugged. "What matter, if they enjoy a few free drinks? Not the worst impression to leave potential new allies."
Balthier sighed. "I suppose not. At any rate, I'd like to get back to the ship, take some time to regroup before tonight's council. Come." And he turned, getting back on his way, determined not to think too much about the flash of concern he thought he'd seen in Fran's eyes. He was fine. Of course he was.
As was her custom, Ashe timed her walk down the hallway so that she would be the last to enter her council chambers. Every seat at the oval table in the center of the room was taken, but for the chair reserved for her at its head: Larsa at her right hand, Basch on his left; Al-Cid Margrace, representative of the Rozarrian Empire, in the seat across the table from Larsa, where he smiled his secret smile; two more Judges, leaders from the Rozarrian war pavilion, the captain of Ashe's guard and her airship fleet admiral and three nobles from her council, and last but not least, at the other end of the table, Commander Elissa Cousland, unarmed as promised, with three of her party gathered at her back, all dressed in armor and standing at attention. Another quick look around the room revealed Balthier and Fran -- and Vaan, as well; when had he returned to the city? But here he was, Penelo at his side, standing next to Balthier, arms crossed. She exchanged nods with her former companions, and then turned her attention to the leaders seated at the table.
"You all know why I have gathered you here. Our homelands have been threatened with invasion by a force heretofore unknown to us: a band of fiends, organized into an army despite the lack of a single general. Even with scholars working around the clock, I have been able to find no records of these creatures in our archives." She looked at Al-Cid. "My prince, have you uncovered any further information?"
"Alas, no." Al-Cid's shoulders drooped. "It is as though they have burst out of nowhere, from nothing. What of you, Your Majesty?"
This last was addressed to Larsa, who shook his head ruefully. "I am forced to agree with my lord Margrace. They are a true mystery to us in Archadia, as well."
"I thought as much. No history, no information, would leave us fighting blind, but for the gift the universe has granted us." Ashe indicated the opposite end of the table. "This woman, Elissa Cousland, Warden-Commander of Ferelden, has come to aid us in our fight against these creatures, which she calls 'darkspawn'." A careful check of the faces in the room showed no spark of recognition at the unfamiliar terms. "To that end, I cede her the floor. Commander Cousland?"
"Thank you, Your Majesty." Cousland sat up straight in her chair. "I come to you as a representative of the Grey Wardens, an order established over a thousand years ago to fight the darkspawn. In my place, the nation of Ferelden and the land of Thedas, the Grey Wardens are known and respected as protectors. But it has grown clear to me that we are far from home, and that this place has been untouched by the darkspawn until now. Regardless, we are sworn to stand against the darkspawn and the destruction they bring -- a poisoning of the land that we call Blight -- wherever they may present themselves, and so I pledge myself to you now. I, and the Grey Wardens who serve with me, will do whatever we must to eradicate this threat from your lands. In return, I ask only for your trust and your support, and the might of whatever armies may be under your command."
Ashe frowned. "How is it that you came here, from a land none of us has ever seen, nor heard of?"
"We walked." A murmur rippled around the table; Cousland waited for it to die down before she continued. "The darkspawn disappeared from Thedas, and my superiors in the Grey Wardens charged me to discover where they had gone. Three of my Wardens tracked the horde here, through a network of tunnels known to us as the Deep Roads, and the rest followed. As we were underground the entire time, it is difficult to judge, but by our reckoning, the journey must have taken about three months. That journey brought us here."
"But why here?" Larsa's brow furrowed. "You say your people have been fighting these darkspawn for a thousand years. Why are they here now, and not at any other time before?"
"A question that troubles us as well, and one that will bear further thought and study." A Warden with dark red hair stepped forward, one of the slender men that Ashe had noted earlier. He bowed and tucked his hands behind his back. "I am Alim, a Grey Warden mage, at your service, Your Majesties. Though I am one of the newest Warden recruits, I have spent many years in the study of the darkspawn, ever since facing them in the last Blight. There is an answer out there, and I will not rest until we find it. It may be the key to determining how to stop them."
"Meanwhile, we must focus on how best to contain the horde." Cousland looked around the room. "There are four separate forces? Unusual, for darkspawn, but I have learned to expect the unexpected with these creatures. How far from here, and in what numbers?"
Ashe looked over her shoulder and motioned Balthier and Fran forward. "Four, as you have said, so far as we know. First are the small encampments in the Westersand, a few miles west of here, that you have already disrupted on your journey. Then a larger force, possibly a thousand, a few days' march south of here."
"Less," Vaan piped in from behind. "We flew over them today, and they're on the move. Probably at the edge of Giza by now. Unless we stop them soon, they'll be threatening the city within a couple of days." He leaned closer to Ashe. "That's why I'm here, I came to tell you. Sorry I didn't get to you earlier."
"It's all right." Ashe gestured to Al-Cid. "What of Rozarria?"
"One in our lands," Al-Cid replied. "Perhaps a few hundred. They are in an isolated area and not yet a threat to our greater population. But they are near an area rich in farmland, and if you are correct about the corruption they spread, I fear we will run the risk of famine."
"A much greater horde came out of the Sochen Cave Palace," said Larsa, face grave. "An underground ruin, near the capital of Archadia," he added for the benefit of the Wardens. "Fighting began in the Old Town area, and dozens of soldiers and civilians have been killed. Others have fallen ill, with a sickness no one is sure how to treat. In blunt truth, we are not far from a panic among my populace. I know it is a great deal for me to ask, Your Majesty." He turned his eyes on Ashe, and she saw the bleakness there, the fear. "After what my people did to yours, you would be well within your rights to say no. But this is why I am here: to beg for your aid, any aid you might be able to offer. I will do whatever you require to secure it."
Before Ashe could reply, a noise came from the other end of the room; Cousland had pushed her chair back from the table to stand, her hands resting flat on the table. "Hear this now," she said, voice raised, sharp and clear. "I do not know your nations or your peoples. I do not know your histories, or what grudges you may bear against one another, or what merits they hold. And to be blunt, I do not care. Fighting the darkspawn, keeping your lands from suffering a Blight, is more important than holding on to past slights, no matter how deep you think they cut. My homeland almost destroyed itself because too many leaders put politics before a Blight. I will not allow you to make the same mistake." She shook her head, dropped her chin. "You cannot know how terrible a Blight is. Whole mountains and valleys, uninhabitable for generations. Cities and towns wiped out. The land poisoned, the waters undrinkable, entire populations either dead or transformed into horrors worse than death. It is a fate I would not wish on my worst enemies. Do not wish it upon one another."
Silence fell; no one spoke it, but the name hung in the air as surely as it was on the tip of Ashe's tongue, and doubtless in the forefront of every thought in the room:
Fear settled into the pit of Ashe's stomach, and though her breath came short, she forced herself to look up, to meet Elissa Cousland's eyes. "We may not have experienced your Blight, but do not assume that we have no knowledge of similar horrors. I went to the ends of the earth and worked with my sworn enemies to save my world from such a fate before. I will not hesitate to do the same again. I accept your oath, Commander, and I pledge my support, in whatever form you require."
"And mine." Al-Cid nodded without hesitation.
"Mine as well." Larsa rose to his feet. "The armies and airships of Archadia are yours, my lady, even if it means pulling back from the defense of Archades."
Cousland's eyes softened as she looked at Larsa. "I know what it means to fear for your home and your people, Your Majesty. We will aid in the defense of your city as best we can."
Larsa bowed his head, his shoulders trembling, and Basch laid a hand on his arm as he turned to face Cousland. "We thank you."
"Now." Cousland straightened, crossing her arms. "Which of you has direct experience in fighting the darkspawn? I need more details if we are to know exactly what sort of horde we are facing."
"As far as I know, of the people in this room, only Balthier and Fran have fought the darkspawn hand-to-hand." Ashe pushed back from the table to give them room to approach.
Balthier came to the edge of the table, propping himself up with his hand. Ashe frowned; he seemed even more fatigued than he had in the morning. That sealed it -- she was forcing him to the infirmary tonight whether he willed or no. "We were scouting the Zertinan Caverns in the Ozmone Plain," he said. "Some leagues south of here. I had been led to expect a small band of enemies, perhaps a dozen, so to see an encampment of hundreds was something of a shock. We were about to leave when we were set upon from behind by a small scouting party."
Cousland looked around her companions -- the woman who barely came up to her shoulders, the mage, and finally the tall blond man who stood by her in the throne room, the one she had introduced as a Senior Warden. Alistair, she recalled, that was his name; and it was Alistair who spoke, looking straight at Balthier. "So they were working in concert? Under someone's direction? What did they look like?"
"Small, green, and ugly as sin," Balthier replied. "Not to mention their breath. There was one who seemed to be the leader, and he was the hardest to kill, got a good knock in on me before I was able to bring him down."
"Genlocks," the short woman said, and then shook her head. "Sounds like an Alpha."
"Yes." Cousland frowned. "Go on."
"I..." Balthier swayed on his feet, grabbing the table with his hands, and almost fell into Ashe's lap before she jumped up to steady him. His eyes flickered shut, then open again; a sheen of fresh sweat covered his face.
"Balthier!" She grabbed him by both shoulders and set him back up on his feet, then lowered him carefully into her chair. "Are you all right?"
"No. He isn't." It was Elissa Cousland who spoke, her voice hard and grim. "Alim, see to him." The man was already halfway around the table before the order had been given. He came to Balthier's side and placed a hand on his forehead, spoke a few words, closed his eyes. Then he opened them, and looked back at Cousland, giving her a single solemn nod; a chill of dread raced down Ashe's spine.
Cousland let out a long breath. "When you fought the darkspawn, you must have come into contact with their blood. Not every person, and not every time, but often enough, darkspawn blood can infect you, taint you much as it does the land. And the effects are almost invariably fatal. I'm sorry."
Ashe felt her throat constricting, her hands tightening around Balthier's shoulders. "No," she whispered. "No." This could not be happening, could not be real, she must not weep, not here...
His hand drifted up to cover hers, lightly brushing the back of her fingers. "Hush, Your Majesty," he murmured, voice gentle. "It will be all right." She heard him swallow, and then he lifted his eyes to the Warden-Commander. "Is there nothing that can be done?"
Her answering nod was slow, and deliberate. "One thing. It is not a simple thing; it will change your life forever. But at least you will still have a life to change."
"You see?" Balthier craned his neck around to look up at Ashe; his eyes twinkled and her heart broke. "The leading man makes his escape yet again." He rose to his feet, slowly. "Tell me, then, what must be done."
Larsa stood as well. "If this same sickness also infects my people, I would know the treatment as well."
Alistair nudged Cousland with his shoulder. "Not here," he muttered, and she gave him a quick look of agreement.
"I will share this information," she said. "But it is for the ears of Balthier and his Queen, and Emperor Larsa along with one chosen advisor, alone. It is Grey Warden business, not normally discussed with outsiders."
Al-Cid raised an eyebrow. "I suspect this concerns the interests of Rozarria as well."
"I suppose you're right. Yes, all right. Do join us." Cousland looked to Ashe. "Is there a place we can meet?"
Ashe's voice returned to her, along with her strength. "In my office, please."
Cousland rested a hand on the small woman's shoulder. "Sigrun will stay here to answer any questions the rest of you may have about battle strategy and so forth. Anything you need to know to better fight the horde, she is happy to share. Alim, Alistair, with me."
Once the leaders had gathered in Ashe's office, Cousland took a place by the windows, commanding the small space. Once again Ashe marveled at the woman's ability to hold a room captive with only a look or a gesture. She was glad that she was standing with the commander as an ally, not an opponent.
Cousland cleared her throat, then began. "What I am to say does not leave this room. Normally we would not speak of these matters with so many outsiders, but since you are strangers to the darkspawn and the risks they bear, we are in unusual circumstances. Do I have your word?" Cousland met Ashe's eyes, waited for her nod. "Very well. In a thousand years, we have found only one way to survive infection by the taint: undergo the ritual to become a Grey Warden." She looked straight at Balthier, eyes locked on him as though he were the only person in the room. "This path is not without risks, and there are permanent consequences, most of which are sacred secrets to our order that I may not reveal in advance. But this is the only option I can offer. Balthier. Will you join us?"
Balthier took a moment as if pretending to think, then lifted his shoulders in an exaggerated shrug. But Ashe saw the flash of relief in his eyes, followed by a twinge of fear, belying his casual tone as he replied with the words she knew he would speak. "I don't see as I have much choice in the matter. I enjoy living, and becoming a Grey Warden gives me the opportunity to continue doing so. If that means I have to fight these darkspawn, that's no less than I would have done otherwise." He stood and put his hand out to Cousland. "I will join you."
"Good." Cousland clasped his hand and shook it, relaxing as she did so, then turned to Larsa. "I fear, Your Majesty, that this is not a cure I can offer to just anyone. I presented the option to Balthier only because he has already survived the taint on his own for two days. That makes him a promising candidate for the Wardens, even were undergoing the ritual not necessary to save his life. I doubt the same can be said for your people, not even the soldiers. I am truly sorry."
The regret in her eyes was genuine, and Ashe wondered how many people Cousland had seen lost to this sickness. Larsa bowed his head. "I understand," he said. "And I appreciate your forthrightness."
"I wish I could do more. I am sorry to have to tell you that it is not an easy death. But I will share some strategies for fighting darkspawn that will lessen your troops' exposure in the future."
Al-Cid snorted. "Perhaps we should just bomb them from airships. That would limit exposure, sure enough."
Cousland acknowledged him with a nod. "We do not have these flying ships in our lands. They seem a formidable tool, and I look forward to devising ways to use them against the darkspawn. But the enemy is quick to retreat underground. I doubt that we could eliminate the need for hand-to-hand combat entirely. To that end, I would make a request." Her eyes passed over Al-Cid, then Ashe, finally falling on Larsa. "I need more Wardens. If we were standing against only one horde, my twelve might suffice, with enough support. But we're fighting four simultaneous invasions, and also investigating the reason for the darkspawn's arrival here. Also, consider planning for the future. Where the darkspawn have threatened once, they can return again. The Wardens should have a permanent presence here, drawn from your own people, to protect your lands for generations to come. I request permission to recruit, and to invoke the Right of Conscription. I will also commission a Warden-Commander from among your people, a leader who can organize a force to stand against future threats."
Ashe shook her head. "You would ask me to ask my own people to undergo a mysterious ritual, with consequences I do not fully understand and could not reveal even if I did? This is a great leap of faith."
"I know," Cousland said. "But it is a leap that I took, as did Alim, and Alistair, and every other Grey Warden for the last thousand years. I would not ask if I did not believe it necessary."
She wanted to think, to ask for more time, but before she could speak, Al-Cid rose from the couch and spread his arms wide. "If it is Wardens you need, then Wardens you shall have," he said. "How could we do any less, to protect our land?"
Ashe let out a breath. He had offered, and she could do no less. "Very well," she said.
"I concur," said Larsa. "We will find your recruits, Commander."
For the first time all day, Cousland smiled. "Thank you, all of you. A few things to bear in mind, before you make your recommendations. The Wardens are steadfastly neutral in matters of politics and religion. Anyone with the skills is free to join: nobles, criminals, blood mages, outcasts. When you join the Wardens, your past is erased, for good as well as ill. We hold neither titles nor land; many among the Wardens even renounce their family names. I hope you aren't in a position where this will pose a problem," she added to Balthier; Ashe saw his struggle not to laugh, and she had to suppress a smile of her own as Cousland continued. "The Right of Conscription gives us the ability to call any into our ranks, willingly or not, although I will invoke it only at great need."
"That seems rather dramatic," Balthier remarked.
"It is," she acknowledged. "It is not a privilege I take lightly, I assure you. I have used it only a few times, and only when lives were at stake. Had you refused, I might have invoked it to save your life, as well."
She spoke with utter sincerity, a determination that Ashe found both impressive and chilling. Had she ever met anyone as self-assured of her own path as Elissa Cousland? Not, she realized, since Cid Bunansa, and the thought sent a shiver down her spine.
A thousand came to mind, but none that Ashe thought Cousland might answer. Larsa shook his head, and Al-Cid shifted in his seat with a shrug. "Only this," he said. "By when?"
"Tomorrow." It was Alim who responded. "Balthier should delay no longer."
Cousland nodded her agreement. "We can hold the ceremony for just one, if necessary, but if you know of strong candidates, there is no reason to wait. We can always invite more to join us later. May we use the throne room as a gathering place? Tomorrow, at dawn."
"Very well." Ashe tapped her desk in thought, considering whom of the guard she might ask.
Al-Cid left with a flourish, bowing first to Ashe, then Cousland; as he look leave of the latter, he grasped her hand with a courtly kiss. "I regret that we are not meeting under more hospitable circumstances, my lady. Perhaps, once all this is over, we may rectify this oversight."
Balthier, as ever when confronted with Al-Cid, rolled his eyes; Alistair moved a half-step closer to his commander, eyes narrowed. "We all thank you for your support," he said, with just a touch of protective menace, and Ashe held back a laugh of recognition.
The Wardens then followed Al-Cid out; Balthier was next to stir, but before he could move, Ashe caught his fingers in her own. "Balthier..."
He smiled down at her, a promise in his eyes. "We will speak soon, Princess. But I must confer with Fran first."
The old endearment softened her heart, and she nodded to him. "All right." But she only let go reluctantly, and her eyes did not leave the door until long after it shut behind him. Then she turned to Larsa and Basch; Basch removed his helm, and turned his blue eyes on her.
"Your Majesties. If I could have a word."
Ashe leaned forward, hands folded on the desk, and Larsa turned in the easy chair he had claimed to face them both. Basch stood up straighter and squared his shoulders with a deep breath. "I would beg your leave to resign my post as Judge Magister and join the Grey Wardens."
The words were addressed to Larsa, but he spoke straight to Ashe. She started to shake her head, opened her mouth to object, and he reached out, stilling her with a hand laid on her shoulder. "Hear me out, before you deny me. This request comes suddenly to you, I know. But I have been mulling on requesting a change for many months now. This charade was never meant to last forever. Noah bid me to protect you as you grew into your throne. This you have done, my lord, admirably and more than." He turned to Larsa, a fierce look of pride and affection crossing his face, a look that made Ashe's heart ache. "You no longer need me at your side, playing the role of your loyal hound. The time has come for you to discard the trappings of your brother's rule and make a council of your own."
Larsa bit his lip, looking more like the child he had been upon taking the throne than the young man whom Ashe had admired this morning. "I... am not worthy of the praise you heap upon me. And even if you are right, this is a transition we should have discussed earlier, planned over months or even years."
"In an ideal world, I would agree with you." Basch lowered his eyes. "But this is not an ideal world. The darkspawn threaten Ivalice now, today. They will not wait for us to execute an orderly transition plan. I can best serve you by protecting you from them. You, Archadia, Dalmasca, all Ivalice. Becoming a Grey Warden is my best means toward that end." He squeezed his fingers around Ashe's shoulder and glanced in her direction. "I know how much it pains you, that you must ask your subjects to take on a risk that you cannot yourself share. But you cannot, not if becoming a Warden means stripping yourself of title and rank. I can surrender both, and thereby serve as an example. To both our nations. And, should I survive the war, I can help build our Grey Wardens into a formidable force, one that will ensure that we need not depend on outside help to battle such a threat ever again." He drew his hand away and bowed his head. "I have spent the past two years living the life the Fates intended for my brother. Give me leave to discover my own path, my own heart, once again."
It hurt her to agree, to accept that this choice would preclude Basch from ever serving her again. But Ashe could not deny the feeling behind his words, the truth of them, and she stood up to take his. "I can think of no man I would rather see leading the Grey Wardens of Ivalice," she said softly. "But it is not my decision to make."
Larsa's eyes were fixed on his hands, and he sat silent for a long time, silent, his jaw working. Then he looked up, his eyes bright with unhappiness. "You are wrong about one thing, Basch. I do still need you. But... Ivalice needs you more. Go to the Wardens, with my blessing." He stood quickly, pushing the chair back with force, and he stalked out of the room, hands gripped into fists behind his back.
Basch started forward, but Ashe held him back. "Let him go," she murmured. "Let him mourn you in peace."
"It's not as though I were going off to die," he replied.
"Isn't it?" Ashe tipped her head up towards him. "No one comes out and speaks it. But if you listen to the words behind the words, it becomes plain: this ceremony can be fatal. And if you survive, it will be to hold the front lines. You are risking more than your position by this choice. I might-- I might lose you both." Her voice wobbled, and she cursed it, steading herself before she spoke again. "Balthier has no choice, but you do. Are you certain?"
He was still for a moment, but then he looked at her with a firm nod. "More certain that I have been in my entire life."
Ashe turned to face him and clasped his elbows. "Then you have my blessing as well." She leaned forward and brushed a gentle kiss against his cheek. "Go, rest. I will see you on the morrow." And then she left him there, making her way to her rooms and, she hoped, Balthier, for an evening that she prayed was not farewell.
The throne room was nearly empty when Balthier walked through the door, a few minutes before the appointed hour of seven. Rarely was Balthier the first to arrive anywhere -- he preferred to make an entrance. But he had slept poorly and awakened early, quietly extricating himself from Ashe's chambers before she woke. He had to do this alone. No Ashe, no Fran. The only other person in the room was a Grey Warden, standing at the base of the stairs, bow slung across his back.
"Welcome, Balthier," he said. "I am Nathaniel Howe, second in command of the Ferelden Wardens, and I will be leading you through the Joining ceremony."
Balthier shook his outstretched hand; his grip was secure, his palm well-callused. "I thought Wardens dropped their family names."
"Many do." Nathaniel dropped his hand and squared his shoulders. "And feel free to call me Nathaniel, if you prefer. But my name has a complicated history. A checkered past, if you will, balanced between great honor and most grievous dishonor. It is not the most respected of names in Ferelden right now. I would have felt a coward, had I renounced it."
"Understood." The door behind Balthier opened, and he turned around to take the measure of those who would join him in the Wardens: two men dressed in the livery of Ashe's personal guard, two Judges in their heavy black armor, a man and a woman with the look of Rozarrians, and-- "Basch?"
"Hello, Balthier." Basch strode up the throne room aisle in mismatched Dalmascan armor, not the trappings of the Judge Magister; it was a startling reminder of the old days, and it took a moment for the picture to resettle in Balthier's mind. "I spoke to the commander last night, and she's given me leave to join you. If you will have me." This last was addressed to Nathaniel, who nodded.
"If the Warden-Commander has deemed you fit to serve, then you are welcome. And that goes for all of you." Nathaniel lifted his head and raised his voice. "Thank you for your willingness to give up home and country and possibly your lives to become Grey Wardens. History will remember your sacrifice." He was a good choice for this task, Balthier thought; his voice had the ringing tone of a leader, or a lord, the kind of voice that inspired people to believe and to follow. Born to the nobility, it seemed, but now he served in an order that stripped him of that privilege. A story here, to be certain, seemingly one among many.
Nathaniel continued, and Balthier shook himself free of his musings. "Your first task, before we can begin the ritual, is to collect one vial of darkspawn blood apiece. The small band in the desert is closest, but the journey will still take us the better part of the day. So we should depart as soon as possible. Are you ready to leave?"
Balthier shrugged. "Why don't we just take the Strahl? Save us the march, and then we can head to Ozmone and nibble at the greater threat to Rabanastre. Unless you're planning on bringing along the rest of your Wardens, we should fit easily."
"The-- Strahl?" Nathaniel's brows furrowed.
"My airship," Balthier clarified. "She's small, but she can carry this group and a few more, especially for a hop as short as this."
"Ah." Nathaniel crossed his arms and dropped into thought for a moment, then nodded. "We should be well within your limits, then; Alim is the only other Warden joining us." As if on cue, the door opened one last time, admitting the smaller man -- the elf, Balthier reminded himself -- who bowed to them all smoothly. "It is our tradition for the newest-made Warden to lead new recruits on their first ranging; also, Alim is our lone mage, so it will be to our advantage to have him along. Unless there is a mage among your number? No? All right. Balthier, take us to your ship."
Balthier squashed the urge to salute, feeling his first twinge of unease at the prospect of having a commanding officer once again. "In the royal aerodrome," he said. "This way, if you please." He led them out of the throne room and through the courtyard, past the gardens, with only a single quick glance up to the window that he knew marked Ashe's rooms. As they walked, Basch came up to Balthier's side and matched his pace.
"How are you feeling?" he asked.
"Considerably better," Balthier replied. "Nothing like a death sentence to clear your head, especially when promptly followed by a potential stay of execution."
Basch chuckled. "I know what it is to be marked for death."
"Mm." Balthier glanced him over. "Perhaps so. But tell me, what brings you here? I am not precisely lamenting my fate, but neither would I have chosen the Wardens did my life not depend on it. You, on the other hand, are under no such compulsion."
"A different compulsion, rather." Basch was silent for a few paces. "You of all men should know how the black armor can grow heavy, ill-fitting. The sigil of the Grey Wardens will sit easier on my breast, I think. And here, I can serve them both."
Balthier did not need to ask to whom Basch referred. "Fair enough," he said, and then they were through the aerodrome's doors, nodding to the guards, making their way to the berth where the Strahl awaited them, gangplank already dropping at their approach. At its base, Balthier halted the group and turned to face them. "Anyone here with flight experience? I need a first mate."
After a moment of silence, the woman stepped forward. "I can do it, sir," she said, accent confirming her Rozarrian origins.
"Very good. Then you're with me. Basch, can you take the others to the passenger hold?"
"Certainly." Basch led the remaining recruits up the gangplank; Alim started to follow, but Balthier held him back with a shake of his head.
"I'd like to invite the two of you to the cockpit, to enjoy the view." Balthier raised an eyebrow. "Am I correct in assuming that neither of you have ever flown before?"
"We have no flying ships in Thedas," Nathaniel replied. "The Grey Wardens once flew into battle on the backs of griffons, but the last died over two hundred years ago. To my knowledge, this will be the first time that any Warden has taken to the air since." He glanced at Alim. "I would be lying if I said that I was not nervous. But the idea is thrilling as well."
"I'll say." Alim broke into a broad grin, the first time Balthier had seen a Grey Warden look anything other than dead serious, and he found himself smiling back. At that moment, it truly hit him that, if he survived this process, these men would become his brothers. As would the others who had come from Ferelden, and the Rozarrian woman he had just recruited as his co-pilot, and the men in the Strahl's hold. Even Basch, whom Balthier already thought of as a sort of brother, would become bound to him in a new and different way. It was an odd thought for a man who had spent so much of his life making every effort to not belong to anything, or anyone.
Then he motioned the others to follow him into the ship. "First mate's station is over there. Name?"
She slid into the chair. "Izidre, sir. This ship is of Archadian make?"
"Yes. And none of that with the 'sir'; 'Balthier' will be sufficient." He leaned down over her shoulder. "Panel configuration is standard enough -- I've made only a few modifications. Can you follow?"
"I think so, sir-- Balthier." Izidre scanned the controls, flipped a few switches in the standard start up sequence, already looking more comfortable as she leaned back in the seat and tapped at panels. Satisfied, Balthier turned his attention to the Wardens.
"Have a seat." He indicated the other two chairs. "There's a cubby to the left where you can stow your weapons." The men obeyed Balthier's instructions, Nathaniel setting his bow and quiver in the back, then taking Alim's club-like staff and propping it in the corner with great care. "You'll want to strap yourselves in -- pull the harness over your shoulder, then buckle it by your hip. Yes, like that. Good." He settled into his own chair and began his own preflight checks. "Ready?" he asked Izidre.
"Ready," she replied.
"Then I'm taking her up." Balthier sent his signal to aerodrome control and switched on the engine. The Strahl rose slowly up from the ground, and then, once free from the roof, Balthier wrapped his hands around throttle and, with a grin, glanced back at the Wardens. "Hang on tight!" he called out.
The Strahl shot forward, and Alim let out a gasping whoop. Balthier wished he could watch them, see the expressions on their faces, but he was instantly in traffic, the airships of Rabanastre leaving for their morning patrols, shipping runs, pleasure cruises. He dodged and banked as smoothly as possible, ever-mindful of the neophytes riding behind him. Still, a few sudden drops were unavoidable, and he thought he heard a grunt of surprise, or perhaps nausea, from Nathaniel's direction, at the largest of them. "Sorry," he shouted back. "Things will smooth out once we're free of the city." A few more turns, and then Giza spread out beneath them, still drying from the rains.
Alim leaned forward and tapped him on the shoulder. "What direction are we flying?"
"South." The response came from Basch, who had, at some point, come in from the back to take one of the empty chairs. "Beneath us are the plains of Giza, which are within Dalmasca's borders. The flight over them should take about an hour, after which we will arrive at Ozmone, where the darkspawn horde was spotted."
"Meanwhile, sit back and enjoy the ride." Balthier stretched and considered the weather. "Skies are clear, and it's a beautiful day for a flight." Taking a quick glance over his shoulder, it appeared that Alim had nearly plastered himself to the window, examining the view in great detail; Nathaniel, meanwhile, seemed to be concentrating very hard on facing straight forward. Not an easy flier, Balthier decided, but he'd get used to it. Most people did. Content that his charges were doing well enough, Balthier got back to the business of keeping his ship in the air.
The first hour was uneventful, punctuated only by Alim's history and geography questions, which Basch answered, Izidre and Balthier occasionally chiming in. And soon enough, Nathaniel relaxed enough to take an interest as well, popping in with his own questions or remarks. The savannah of Giza spread out beneath them, grasses green from the recent rains, sunstones gleaming. But before long, the landscape started to change: plants turning brown, trees twisting, and the river that separated Giza from Ozmone was choked with mud and dust. "Look at that," Balthier said. "Is that the corruption?"
"I'm afraid so," Nathaniel replied. "You see how far it spreads already."
Balthier frowned. "Corruption, yes, but I see no evidence of darkspawn encampments. I'm going a little deeper in. The darkspawn can't shoot down an airship, can they?"
"I'd be very surprised." Nathaniel glanced at Alim. "You don't think an emissary..."
"I hope not." Alim cut off the sentence. "At this range? I doubt it." He leaned over Balthier's shoulder. "But keep an eye out for lightning strikes and fireballs. Just in case."
"Lovely." Balthier shook his head. "Let's examine the extent of the damage."
The sight grew bleaker as they flew further south. The trees were all but gone, and so were the animals. "Look." Balthier pointed out the windshield, and Basch left his seat to come up behind him. "The exit from the caverns. You can see the campfire patterns where they came north, but here they change course. To the south, if I make the signs correctly."
"The Garif!" Basch made his way back to his seat. "We should see if they require assistance."
"Agreed," Balthier said. "Izidre, prepare us for a landing." As they passed, he spared a quick look to his left, to see if the darkspawn also threatened the Wood, but no -- the path of corruption had started for Golmore, but then made a clear turn toward Jahara. Too clean to be coincidence? But there was no time to wonder as Izidre signaled the beginning of the landing sequence, and he turned his attention back to the twisted and broken lands below.
He was not hopeful. The Garif were a proud people, unlikely to send word or ask for aid; even had they been willing to unbend, they would not have known the true magnitude of the threat they faced. Not a single beast was visible, not even the herds of wild chocobos that normally flocked in the valley outside Jahara. And over the canyon wall... Balthier sucked in a harsh breath at the sight of devastation that greeted him.
The Garif were gone.
Nathaniel turned his head sideways, just enough to look out the window and see the sight that had so dismayed Basch and Balthier. It looked to be the ruins of a camp, set off from the canyon by a small stream bed, covered by a smoldering wreck that might once have been a bridge. The site was scattered with bodies, left to lay where they had fallen, and darkspawn corruption had begun to take the land. "Who lived here?" he asked.
"The Garif," Basch replied as he retook his seat. "A small tribe of hunters and warriors, holding themselves apart from the cities and living by their old ways." He shook his head, and his voice dropped, low with grief. "They were good people who deserved better."
"I am sorry, then, that we did not arrive in time to save them. But perhaps we can avenge them. Look." Nathaniel pointed at the small group of darkspawn he had spied lolling about the camp -- genlocks, mostly, plus an ogre lurking in the remains of a ruined tent. At this distance, he ought to have able to feel them, as well, but that sense seemed dulled. Perhaps it had to do with being off the ground. "A team of our size should be able to take that encampment down easily, and the casualties will provide us with more than enough blood for our needs."
"Understood. Hang on." Balthier pressed forward on the stick he held in both hands, and the ship tilted to follow, pushing Nathaniel back in his seat, his stomach lurching into his throat. He was finding these dips unpleasant -- the closest thing he could compare it to was being hoisted aloft by an ogre, then shaken and tossed back to the ground, although at least this descent was more controlled. Alim, damn him, looked to be enjoying himself, not at all green around the edges. It seemed unfair, somehow. Perhaps he was protected by his magic, or his elven blood.
Soon enough, the ship was on the ground, and Nathaniel released himself from the harness with a sigh of relief, stretching his arms over his head. Following the rest of the group down the gangway, his first steps on solid ground were careful, and grateful. Alim was already there, sorting through their common stock and taking his usual allotment of lyrium. Nathaniel raised his hand and called for order, and the recruits all dutifully turned to look at him.
"You know why we are here: to prepare yourselves for the Joining. Each of you are being given one vial." He passed them out to the group, and they took them with expressions ranging from curiosity to impatience. "It will be your duty to slay at least one darkspawn and fill this vial with its blood. If you take down more, of course, that is all to the good, but take no unnecessary risks. Coming back alive is part of your mission. Understood?" He looked around, checking for nods. "All right. You three are with me; the rest with Alim. Good hunting."
All and all, it had been a productive run. Nathaniel had led Balthier, Izidre, and the other Rozarrian, a guardsman named Silvesto, and they had made short work of the darkspawn at the back of the old Garif encampment. He had only needed to stand in the back, using a hail of arrows to pin down the lone genlock emissary while the recruits did their work. When the emissary was the last darkspawn standing, Balthier moved in and jammed the butt of his gun into its neck, and it went down with a gurgling sound. Balthier stepped back, panting but satisfied; then he knelt next to it and filled his vial with the creature's blood. Nathaniel came closer and noted Balthier's trembling hands, the dark bruising of a lesion beneath his collar: signs of the taint's progression. No more delays, he thought. They would perform the ritual as soon as they landed back in Rabanastre.
Once he had finished his grim task, Balthier struggled to his feet. "I do believe that's the last," he said, grimacing. He had suffered a burn to his right arm, and Nathaniel gestured toward it.
"Do you need healing?" He looked around and noted Alim walking slowly back toward the Strahl, team straggling behind him. The ogre had been in that direction; like as not, Alim had spent most of his energy containing it. "I have a few poultices left, I think."
"Thank you, but I can manage," Balthier replied with a shake of his head. Closing his eyes, he muttered a few words and ran his left hand over the angry red welt. When he lifted it, the injury was gone, and Nathaniel was left without words.
Silvesto and Izidre exchanged a puzzled look, and then Izidre spoke up. "What's wrong?"
"You..." Nathaniel swallowed a few times before he found his voice again. "You're a mage?"
Balthier shrugged. "Not particularly. I leave the heavy lifting in that department to my partner. But anyone who makes his living as a pirate or soldier knows the basic elemental and healing spells." He raised an eyebrow. "I take it this comes as a surprise?"
Nathaniel could only gape and turn to Alim, who was now within earshot. "Did you see that?"
"No, but I can guess what you're talking about." Alim gestured toward one of the Dalmascan guardsmen. "That one flung a fireball at the ogre, and then helped me with the healing after battle. And he did it without tapping into the Fade. I can't even begin to guess how that works." He grinned. "Make sure I'm there the first time someone pulls that trick with Alistair around. I want to see his face when he realizes that he can't sense magic use in this place."
"Hmph. Laugh now if you like. You won't find it so funny if he can no longer smite emissaries for you." Nathaniel looked back to Balthier. "As you surmised, we are used to a different kind of magic. Few of our people can tap into magical energies; among the Wardens, Alim is the only one. I could never learn to cast even the simplest healing spell, no matter how hard I trained." Although now he wondered. If these fighters had a way to access magical power without drawing the attention of demons and spirits...
Alim slung his staff over his back and crossed his arms. "We can talk magical theory later. For now, we have some Wardens to Join." He glanced at Balthier from the corner of his eye, then cast a pointed look at Nathaniel -- clearly, he had noticed the signs of deterioration as well. "Let's get everyone back aboard ship."
"Agreed." Nathaniel looked around the group of future Wardens, please that they had all survived this far. But he wondered how many would succeed in the next phase. "Back to Rabanastre we go."
After an uneventful flight back to the palace, Nathaniel had led the recruits into the sitting room of the Wardens' quarters, then herded them into a single row. Balthier ended up second in line, with Basch on his left. A door to one of the side rooms opened, and out stepped the Warden-Commander, hands wrapped around an oversized chalice. She took her place next to Nathaniel and favored them with a calm smile.
"I understand that you all acquitted yourselves well in the field, and I congratulate you on taking this necessary first step to become Grey Wardens. But your journey is not yet complete." She looked up and down the row, meeting each of their eyes. When she reached Balthier, she held his gaze for a moment longer, almost in apology, and he realized that she was regretting the necessity of his fate. He responded with a bare nod, and then she straightened. "From the very first, the Wardens have taken the taint into themselves, voluntarily, by drinking darkspawn blood. In so doing, we will become immune to its effects."
"Ah." Basch stirred, looked at Balthier, then back to the commander. "An inoculation, of sorts."
"Precisely," Elissa replied with a nod. "The blood forges our bond with the darkspawn and becomes the source of our power over them. This is the Joining, and this is the last task you must complete before you can be called Grey Wardens." She handed the chalice to Nathaniel. "We speak only a few words at the Joining, but we have spoken them since the first. Nathaniel?"
She stepped back and Nathaniel took her place, the bowl of the chalice resting in his interlaced fingers. He drew his shoulders back with a deep breath before bowing his head. "Join us, brothers and sisters. Join us in the shadows where we stand vigilant. Join us as we carry the duty that cannot be forsworn. And should you perish, know that your sacrifice will not be forgotten. And that one day we shall join you."
A grim prayer, Balthier thought, and tried not to shudder. "The duty that cannot be foresworn"? Perhaps this had been a mistake, but he supposed it was too late to back out now. He turned his attention to Nathaniel, who had moved to stand before the first person in line: Marcus, one of the two men from Ashe's guard. "Marcus, step forward." The man obeyed and took the vessel in his hands. "From this moment forth, you are a Grey Warden."
Without a word, Marcus drank from the chalice and handed it back to Nathaniel. Then he gasped, choking, his hands flying to his throat, his eyes rolling back up in his head... and then it was over as he collapsed to the ground, unknowing, unseeing, and the temperature of the room seemed to drop about twenty degrees.
Nathaniel bowed his head and stepped away, his free hand touching his breast in salute.
"I am sorry, Marcus."
Then, with barely a pause, he lifted his chin and stepped down the line to Balthier, holding out the cup. "Balthier, step forward."
The pewter chalice was heavy, heavier than it ought to have been. Balthier looked straight down into it, his eyes refusing the sight of the dead man on his left. Instead, he focused on the blood that swirled inside the cup, a red so dark as to be almost black, the stench of rotting flesh rising from its depths. "Down the hatch," he muttered, and before he could lose courage, he lifted the chalice to his lips and took a mouthful of the foul, salty brew.
He swallowed, and the world exploded behind his eyes.
Darkspawn: surrounding him, their vile hands grasping at his waistcoat, pulling him down into darkness. A plain: choked with Mist and overrun by monstrous beasts, spread to the horizon and beyond. A voice: ringing in his ear, menacing in verse, murmured promises of power and pain. A scream: his own.
Balthier sat up, his eyes flying open, heart pounding, hand to his throat, looking wildly around him. The Mist was gone, the darkspawn were gone, and so was his headache; only the memories remained, the memories and the faces of Elissa and Basch, looking down at him with relief and concern. He realized he was sitting on the floor; Elissa held a hand out to him, and he took it, hauling himself back to his feet with her aid. "Welcome, brother," she said. "You are one of us, now."
"Thank you, Commander." Balthier turned to Basch. "Join me for a drink?"
Basch shook his head. "The ritual is complete. You were unconscious for almost an hour. We were beginning to worry."
"Ah." Balthier took a few steps over to a chair in the corner of the room, sitting down to take inventory. He was feeling much better, much stronger. Only now, in the absence of his affliction, did he truly notice how tired and weak he had been. "Did you dream?" he asked Basch. "What did you see?"
Basch frowned. "Mist. Monsters. Destruction. And a voice, familiar but not: Occuria. Much as you seemed to have. But I do not think it Venat -- it did not have the same feeling, the same timbre, as Dr. Cid's ill-starred pet."
"Perhaps... you are right." Balthier thought back to the voice that still rang in his mind. "But Occuria, beyond doubt."
"It is typical for Wardens to dream of darkspawn at the time of their Joining." Elissa stepped back from them, thoughtful. "But these Occuria are unknown to me."
"An old race. Very powerful. Once worshipped as gods throughout Ivalice." Basch's furrow deepened. "But I do not understand what their connection to your darkspawn might be."
Elissa looked at Nathaniel, who shrugged. "It is curious," she said, "that you dreamed of your fallen gods, because when the darkspawn are organized into a Blight, they are led by an archdemon: a dragon inhabited by the spirit of one of the Old Gods of Tevinter. An odd parallel, one that might explain why none of us have been dreaming of an archdemon, despite this invasion having other features common to a Blight."
"So, good news, or bad?" Balthier arched a brow.
"Uncertain. It will require further study." Elissa's face softened. "But before we get too much into that, we should fully welcome you into the brotherhood of Wardens. You, and the other recruits who survived. They've already gone to their quarters."
"How many died?"
"Two." Her eyes turned sad. "Marcus and Silvesto. Below the average percentage, in truth, but it's always tragic when the first act of any would-be Warden is to makes the ultimate sacrifice. We will honor them, always."
"But enough talk. You should rest." Nathaniel picked the chalice up from the table and turned it around in his hands. "I suspect you are tired: we fought hard today, and the Joining itself is quite draining. Get some sleep; when you wake, I promise we will tell you everything that it means to be a Warden."
Ashe had kept herself busy throughout the day, telling herself that she was not just waiting for news. The morning she had spent going over all the intelligence that her people could gather, and then in the afternoon she had met with Larsa and Al-Cid to pool that information with their own. And yet, as the others made to leave, she could remember less than half of what had been said, and almost nothing of what had been decided. Larsa, who had avoided her gaze throughout most of the meeting, had caught her eye on the way out, and she caught a glimpse of terror in his eyes, a fear that she imagined was mirrored in her own. What if the ritual didn't work? What if she lost one of them, or both? And if it succeeded, would they be lost to her in a different way?
It was with these thoughts heavy in her mind that she returned through the halls to her rooms, her steps ponderous with foreboding. Rounding the corner outside her door, she was greeted by a surprising sight: Fran, her hands clasped behind her back, gazing out a window and upon the deteriorating shell of the Bahamut, which still stood sentinel over the city. Fran turned, her expression impassive, and Ashe went to meet her, heart in her throat.
"Fran," she said. "Have you news?"
Slowly, Fran shook her head. "I had hoped you might."
Ashe held out her hand, and after a hesitation Fran took it, wrapping her fingers around Ashe's, accepting her reassuring squeeze. "We will wait together. Come, join me."
The sitting area before the fireplace was already set with service for afternoon tea, enough for two, especially if Fran was as disinclined to eat as Ashe felt. One cup sat out on the table, wisps of steam rising from its surface, and, on Fran's nod, Ashe poured a second before she sipped from her own mug. The women sat and drank in silence, neither of them inclined to chit-chat, and unwilling to discuss the shared fear weighing on their souls.
Perhaps an hour passed, perhaps longer, before there was a rap on the door. Ashe's breath hitched in her throat, and then she stood. "Enter."
The door opened to reveal Lucie, Ashe's head maid. "A messenger from the Grey Wardens, Your Majesty."
"Send them in," Ashe replied, as neutrally as possible. Next to her, Fran leaned forward, elbows resting on her knees, hands clasped together. Lucie curtsied, then stepped back into the hall. The door opened wider, and one of the slight men stepped through -- an elf, Balthier had told her they were called. Not the healer who had been in their council, but the other one, with the straight blond hair, the tattooed face, the large eyes. Lucie disappeared, and the elf stepped into the room with a slight bow.
"Ah, good. You are both here; it will save me an extra trip." He bowed again, more deeply this time. "Greetings, Your Majesty. I am Zevran Arainai, and I come bearing word from the Grey Warden Balthier. He wished me to inform you that he and Basch are both well, and that they will contact you on the morrow."
It was all Ashe could do not to collapse onto the couch in relief. Instead, she only looked back at Fran, who met her eyes with a calm nod. "It is well," she said.
Ashe looked back at Zevran. "Thank you. You have seen them, then?"
"I have," he replied with a nod. "As reported, they are quite undamaged, and Balthier is rapidly recovering from his earlier affliction. He is most fortunate that we arrived when we did, however. A few days longer..." He clucked his tongue and shook his head. "Well. My message is delivered, so I'll not trouble you any further. Enjoy the rest of your evening. Fran," he added with a nod in her direction, and then he was gone.
Ashe looked at the closed door for a moment, lost in thought, her reverie only broken by Fran shuffling in her seat, then standing. "My thanks for tea and company," she said. "I must return to the Strahl."
"Yes, of course." Ashe glanced at the door again. "So, he is the one you met in the Sandsea yesterday?"
"He is," Fran confirmed. "Not a Warden himself, though he often travels with them, and serves as a spy for their Commander."
"Using a spy as a messenger." Ashe frowned. "I am not sure I am fond of that."
Fran shrugged. "Perhaps, as a non-Warden, he is less bound to keep their secrets. We should be grateful to have this much news."
"Of course. Well, good night, Fran."
"Good night." Fran nodded to her, then departed, and at last Ashe allowed herself to collapse onto the sofa, trembling with her relief.
Every night after a Joining, Alistair observed a special ritual of his own: he would stake out a table in the dining hall, a flagon of ale in hand, a meal spread before him. When the new Wardens made their inevitable way toward the kitchen, he would be there, ready to reassure them that the gnawing in their stomach was to be expected, and to answer any other questions they might have. Someone had to lay out the truth about their future, and over a hearty meal seemed a more comfortable place to break the news than immediately after a formal ceremony followed by a nightmare. Plus, Alistair enjoyed the opportunity to get to know his new brothers and sisters a little, to play the mentor. He still remembered his first night as a Grey Warden: scarfing down half a hank of venison, listening to Duncan's stories, realizing just what kind of a man, a family, he'd found. If he could provide even a little of that reassurance to a nervous new recruit, he would count the night as a success.
It was not a surprise, then, when the door to the small mess hall that the queen had provided them swung open just before midnight, admitting two of the new Wardens: Balthier and Basch. "Good evening," he said, rising from his seat. "Join me for a late night snack?"
"That's quite a spread for one man's snack." Balthier raised an eyebrow at him. "Expecting company?"
"You, in fact." Alistair indicated the bench across from him, and he sat back down as they did. "I expect you're hungry."
"Thank you." Basch reached for a slice of bread and piled it with meat, and Balthier followed suit as Alistair poured two mugs of ale and pushed them across the table. "So I take it that hunger is typical, for a newly Joined Grey Warden?"
"Every Warden," Alistair replied, lifting his own ale in salute before taking a sip. "The appetite increase is permanent. Inviting Wardens over for dinner is a serious commitment." Balthier chuckled, and Alistair smiled back at him. "You'll notice increased stamina, and you won't need as much sleep as before. In time, you'll also gain the ability to sense darkspawn. That one's a mixed blessing, though, because the darkspawn will also be able to sense you, too. It's a bond that goes both ways."
"Ah." Basch frowned with thought. "That would be one of the significant downsides your commander mentioned."
"Mm." Alistair leaned forward. "She's your commander now too, you know. But yes, that's one of them. Along with a few others. The nightmares, you know about already."
Balthier blanched slightly. "There will be more of those?"
"Afraid so, at least for awhile." Alistair shook his head. "At least you aren't dreaming of an archdemon. That's no picnic, let me tell you. But I can promise they won't come every night, and eventually you'll learn how to block them."
The other two men exchanged a look. "And the rest?" Balthier asked.
"You're less likely to have children, though it's not impossible. Female Wardens have a harder time of it, and for two Wardens to bear a child together is almost unheard of." Alistair leaned back in his chair. "And then there's the big one, the one we keep secret for fear that no one would ever join the Grey Wardens if they knew. We say that the Joining makes you immune to the taint. Well-- that's not strictly true. What you've done is taken on the taint in a large enough quantity to stabilize it. You can be exposed to more darkspawn blood and corruption without feeling its effects. For a time. But eventually, the taint will take its toll, your nightmares will return, and you'll be drawn to the darkspawn. We call this the Calling. By tradition, when we hear the Call, we head for the Deep Roads and go down fighting, take as many of them out with us as we can."
For a moment, they said nothing, looked at each other, then back at Alistair. Balthier was the one to clear his throat and ask the question. "How long?"
"Thirty years. Give or take." Alistair lowered his eyes. "I'm sorry."
Silence reigned again, the needs of hunger overtaken by the news they had to digest. After giving them a moment, Alistair looked up to gauge their reactions. He had seen them all by now: anger, denial, resentment, relief that it wasn't something even worse. A mixture of the latter two warred in Balthier's eyes; Basch merely seemed resigned, and he nodded at Alistair.
"How much longer?" he asked.
"For me?" Alistair pointed to his chest, and Basch nodded. "A good twenty years more, probably. Twenty-five, at the outside." He shrugged. "I'm living a better life as a Warden than I would have otherwise. What's a couple of decades fewer in the face of that? Besides, Elissa became a Warden only six months after me. When the time comes, we'll go out together in a blaze of glory. I'm content with that." Now was not the time to discuss the vow he had sworn to her, on his life and hers and everything that either of them had ever held dear: that he would make certain she died first, by his own sword if necessary. Eventually he or Nathaniel or someone else would tell them of broodmothers, but some horrors could wait. A new-made Warden already had enough nightmare fuel.
Balthier leaned forward. "Pardon me if I ask out of turn, but I find myself quite curious. Your, ah, relationship. With the Commander. Are such assignations common among the Wardens?"
Alistair let out a laugh. "Maker, no. 'Fraternization', as someone I used to know once put it, is highly discouraged, long-term liaisons even more so. The First Warden threw a fit when he found out, tried to force her to end it. But you'll find Elissa can be quite stubborn." He smiled fondly at the memory of her standing up to the First in the courtyard of Weisshaupt Fortress, sword drawn, ready to take down anyone who got in their way. "But, well. We spent almost a year on the run, the only Wardens in all of Ferelden, all that stood between our homeland and annihilation." He spread his hands in half-apology. "Is it any wonder we forged a life-long bond?"
Basch shot Balthier an odd look, eyebrow quirked with half a smile; Balthier stared back, then looked away with a harrumphing sound. "Perhaps not," he muttered.
Clearly there was a story there, but Alistair did not pursue it. Yet. Eventually his new brothers would talk -- they always did. For now, he continued in a more neutral tone. "I'm sure you realize this, from Elissa's reluctance to talk in the council chambers yesterday if nothing else, but you are bound not to speak of the Joining ceremony, or any other Grey Warden secrets, to anyone. Family and friends will notice the appetite, of course, and, depending on how close a friend, perhaps also the stamina." He grinned, and Balthier chuckled. "With one exception: if you have a partner, or particularly close family, you may, if you choose, let them know about the Calling. Not every Warden does; some prefer not to burden their loved ones with the knowledge. Others believe they have a right to know. Up to you, as long as you can trust them not to spread the information further. All right?" He looked between the men, who both nodded. "All right. Now that's all out of the way, do you have any questions?"
"If you do not mind." Basch took another bite of his sandwich before continuing. "I am curious about your story -- how you came to join the Wardens, and how you defeated your own Blight."
"Not a quick tale, but one I'm happy to tell. Just let me get some more ale first. Another round for you both?" Alistair didn't want for an answer, merely gathered up all three flagons and took them all to the kitchen for a refill. It was going to be a long night, but he had a feeling it would also be a pleasant one.
When Ashe walked into the council chambers for the next morning's meeting, fleet captain at her heels, general of her ground forces behind him, she found many of the same players as the night before, and yet the feel of the room had changed completely. Al-Cid took a seat at the center of the table, with his man from the War Pavilion on his right; Larsa sat across from him, but the Judge at his left hand was a man Ashe did not know. Elissa Cousland had taken the end of the table, her man Nathaniel Howe standing behind her, and then sitting next to her was Basch, looking both familiar and wrong in his old patchwork armor, in the wrong placement at the table. He should be at her side or Larsa's, Ashe thought, even as she was overwhelmed by relief to see him alive and well; he met her eye with a grave nod, and she returned it. But she could look to him for support no longer -- his loyalty was to Cousland now, to her and to the Wardens.
"Greetings," Ashe said, every person in the room standing up at her entry. "I welcome you all to our council of war."
The groups sat down as she did, silently, and then Ashe looked to the opposite end of the table. "Have your ranks grown sufficiently?" she asked.
Cousland nodded. "For the time being," she said. "Eventually I will want two dozen or more, since garnering future reinforcements from Thedas would be a difficult proposition. The Ivalice Wardens will need to be able to face future threats on their own. Meanwhile, we will require support troops immediately, medics in particular -- we still have only one true mage in our ranks, and healing is not his specialty." She nodded to Basch. "I have, for the time being, named Basch as leader of the Ivalice Wardens. He is under my direct command, holding equal rank with Nathaniel. Once we have turned back the threat, my intention is to install him as your Warden-Commander." She glanced around the room. "I tell you this as a courtesy only; the Grey Wardens are an independent force, not answerable to any leader or nation, and take no part in political struggles, except when necessary in the face of a Blight."
"Understood," said Ashe. "We will defer to you, and to Basch, on all Grey Warden matters. Now, to the matter of the darkspawn, and how to fight them. Leander?"
"Thank you, Your Majesty." Leander Fillius, the general of Dalmasca's ground forces, stepped forward and activated the map table. "Here are the last known positions of the four darkspawn hordes." He waved his hand, and scores of red circles appeared in Ozmone and massed outside Archades, smaller smatterings in the far Westersand and the Ryvaini Valley of Rozarria. "According to the reports we pooled yesterday, and further information received today, the bulk of the forces that emerged from the Sochen Cave Palace are on the Tchida Uplands side, but a considerable group have continued to attack Archades." He nodded to Larsa. "This city is currently considered to be under the greatest threat. Although a small contingent remains in the Westersand, their advance on Rabanastre is a slow one, and the Ozmone and Rozarria groups are heading south, away from the cities. In fact, the main bulk of the Ozmone horde seems to have disappeared into the Henne Mines, here." Another movement of his fingers, and the red circles representing the darkspawn moved into the mines beneath the mountains. "If we compare this trajectory with the path taken by the Rozarrian horde" -- he swept his hand and those circles followed -- "it appears that they are headed toward the Feywood."
"The Feywood?" Ashe frowned. "But why would the Ozmone horde go through the mines? The trails through the Golmore Jungle are both easier to pass and more obvious as a route."
"Darkspawn tend to be more comfortable underground," Cousland said, "but in principle, I would agree. But Basch has some thoughts on the matter. Basch?"
He stood and walked around the table to the appropriate spot on the map. "On our first ranging as Wardens yesterday, we scouted the Ozmone horde to discover that they were heading south, not north as Balthier and then Vaan had previously seen. As best as we could determine, via the corruption of the land, they did first move toward Golmore. But then the corruption stopped, abruptly, near the boundary of the jungle, here." He drew a line with his finger through the Field of Light Winds, just to the west of Golmore. "Then it made a hard turn southwest, into Jahara, which I regret to inform you has been lost." He bowed his head. "We destroyed a rear guard of darkspawn who had been set there, but found no survivors."
Ashe had heard this news yesterday, but she felt a renewed pang of grief at this eyewitness confirmation. She could only hope that some of the Garif had escaped and taken refuge elsewhere, perhaps in the Wood. For now, all they could do was await reports.
Basch let the silence settle for a moment, pausing in respect, then continued. "Their trajectory then continued south, turning eastward toward, as you say, the mines. So they may have been searching for an underground path, as Elissa suggests, but they may also be avoiding Golmore. For what reason, we do not know, but it is a possibility worth exploring."
"Indeed." Al-Cid leaned forward. "It cannot simply be a desire to avoid forest land, because the horde in Rozarria is passing straight through a wooded area."
"None of this explains why the darkspawn would go toward the Feywood rather than attacking populated areas, however," said Larsa. "The Ozmone darkspawn were within a day's hard march of Rabanastre; why turn back?"
"Regarding that piece of the puzzle, we have a more concrete theory," Basch said. He turned and looked straight at Ashe. "They make for Giruvegan."
"Giruvegan?" Ashe's brow furrowed. "To the Occuria? But why?"
Basch glanced at Cousland; the shake of her head was barely perceptible. "I... regret, Your Majesty, that I cannot tell you where I come by my information. But trust me when I say we have good reasons for our belief that the darkspawn have been called by the Occuria. Whether the main body of the Occuria or a renegade such as Venat, we cannot yet say. But we intend to go there and find out."
"Discovering who leads the darkspawn, and their purpose, is an important task." Ashe looked at Larsa, whose quiet expression surely belied feelings of panic beneath. "But we also must protect our cities, and the people of our lands, and the magicite in the mines. Have we forces enough to cover all this ground?"
"With the might of all three airship fleets, I believe we do," Leander said. "The mines are a concern, since they can only be protected on foot, and I do not know the state of the guards there."
"The Alexander is on the way, with a full complement," said Larsa, indicating a small wedge of Archadian ships, "but I do not know that it will be enough."
"We will give you Warden protection," Cousland said, looking at Nathaniel. "Oghren, I think, given his affinity for underground fighting. And perhaps Pieter."
"Send Lucius as well," said Basch. "As a former Judge, he will command respect among the Archadian troops."
"Good thinking." Cousland nodded to him. "I would also like to leave a small contingent here, Your Majesty; though the group advancing on Rabanastre is small, I can see that the city's placement at the center of things makes very important that we not allow it to fall. I will assign my Senior Warden to assist you, along with some of our new recruits." She stood and leaned over the table, pointedly not noticing Howe's raised eyebrows. "Are these green triangles your ships?"
"Correct," said Leander. "The purple is Archades and yellow represents Rozarria. Triangles are ships, circles are ground troops."
"Very well." She reached out and swiped at a green triangle, then jumped back as it moved with her fingertip. "Clever," she murmured, with a glance at Howe. "Much faster than cutting out little squares of paper and moving them around my desk, hmm? Or even than Alistair's miniatures." Howe only shook his head. "Right. So. If we form up here -- may I have some blue circles to represent Wardens?" Leander nodded, tapped at a key, and the new dots appeared, clustered around Rabanastre. "Right. So if we put one team of four here, with the troops headed to the mines, and leave another team of three in Rabanastre, and send five more to aid the effort to protect Archades" -- she slid one blue dot into each place, then stepped back, clearly doing a count in her head -- "that leaves five to pursue our lead in Giruvegan. Plus Leliana and Zevran." She looked to Howe for confirmation, and he nodded. "That should be enough, I think. We will need to gather the Wardens to decide how best to distribute our forces. Al-Cid, you have not spoken of your people -- do the darkspawn in Rozarria threaten any populated areas?"
"Not yet, Commander," said Al-Cid. "Gods be praised, the area between Ryvaini and the Feywood is quite sparsely populated, and the agricultural area we had thought might come under threat lies in the opposite direction. More important, I think, that we contain the larger hordes before they overrun other lands and turn their eyes to Rozarria." He glanced at his War Pavilion representative for confirmation, which he provided with a nod. "I will need to discuss the matter with my people, of course. But I believe at this time we can lead our full strength to protecting Archades, Rabanastre, and the mines."
"So it is decided." Ashe laid her hands on the table. "We will throw back the invasions from the cities, protect the mines as best we can, and aid the Wardens in their investigation of the Occurian threat. Let us all meet with our own people to determine what resources we have and how best to distribute them, and in the evening we will gather back here to coordinate our efforts. Agreed?" Her words were met with nods of agreement. "Very well. Be here, ready with your plans, in eight hours."
Everyone filed out of the room, save Basch, who took his seat again, catching Ashe's eye as he did so, and so she waited until they were gone, leaving the two of them alone. "So," she said.
"So." He slid to the chair next to her, the seat that Leander had vacated. The seat that she had always assumed he would return to fill someday, just as he had held it for her father. But that dream was gone forever. "Balthier sends his greetings. He was put to other duties today, but he has secured leave for the evening, if you are available."
"Inform him that he is welcome, once tonight's council is ended." She covered his hand with hers. "You are both well, then?"
"Yes. Different, but well." He lowered his eyes. "It is... difficult to explain, and I could not tell you everything even had I the words to do so. The Grey Wardens are an order fond of their secrets. Someday, perhaps, I will have the sense of how to discuss it more fully. But for the moment, everything is new and strange. Already, I see the world somewhat differently. A change for the better, I think, but it will take getting used to. Still, I am certain I made the right choice." He looked up again. "Despite what Elissa said in regards to the Wardens not being answerable to nations or leaders, I would seek your blessing for my appointment to the title of Warden-Commander."
Ashe tightened her fingers over his. "As I said before, I would have none other, and I suspect Larsa feels the same. As for Rozarria, well, if they object, we only need remind them that we all forfeited our right to object when we allowed the Wardens to establish their foothold here, and all will be well." Basch smiled at that, then pulled his hand away. "I trust you to keep the best interests of all Ivalice at heart. And I always have."
He bowed to her. "I appreciate your support, Your Majesty. And now, I must go see to the planning of this excursion to Giruvegan. Elissa has asked me to lead the team, and there is much to do."
"Yes, go. I will see you this evening." He stood, bowed once again, and then left, leaving her alone at the table with her thoughts and a map, each dot representing an ally or an enemy, wondering which of them would hold her place in the battle to come.
It had been a busy morning, but an invigorating one. Balthier awoke early with the rest of the Wardens, assigned to train with his fellow ranged fighters while Basch left to sit on the War Council. Elissa had made it clear that Basch was going to be their commanding officer, which was fine with Balthier -- far preferable to following orders from a stranger, and he would still be in control aboard the Strahl. He wondered if they were going to acquire another ship. The Strahl would be a tight fit for fourteen.
He had spend the morning in target practice among the Warden archers -- Leliana, Pieter, and then Nathaniel when he returned from council, all of whom could have given Fran a run for their money -- and the former Judge Lucius and Rabanastre guard Wickham, both riflemen. He had given a brief lesson in gunnery to Nathaniel, who took to the weapon like a man born to wield it. Then he had begged leave to spend the afternoon working on the Strahl, which was badly in need of a tuning, particularly if it were to be used for troop transport; that time granted, he went to the aerodrome and hailed Nono. The Moogle waved his wrench at Balthier and climbed down from the rigging.
"Glad you're all right, Master Balthier," he said. "Been working on the engines, just like you asked, giving her a little more oomph for hauling folks around."
"Good, good." Balthier looked around the hanger. "Is Fran here?"
Nono jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Aboard ship," he said. "Working on internal controls or some such." He lowered his voice. "She wouldn't say, of course, but I know she's been worried about you."
"Right." Balthier pursed his lips, then let out a sharp breath. This was, perhaps, the encounter he was least looking forward to. She had brushed him off the night before the Joining, sending him to Ashe with naught but a few words of reassurance. At the time, he hadn't the strength of will to argue, but the reckoning was coming due: ultimately, he was deserting his partner, unless he could convince her to join the Wardens, an outcome he thought unlikely. "All right, Nono, back to work. I'll let you know if I need anything else."
"Yes, sir." Nono saluted, then scrambled back up his ladder while Balthier strode into the ship, turning for the cockpit where he found Fran, crouched underneath the dash.
Before he could speak, she pulled herself free and stood, considering him with her hands on her hips, looking him up and down with a piercing stare. So intense was her scrutiny that Balthier had to force himself not to squirm like a boy caught with his hand in a cookie jar.
"You are a Grey Warden," she said, finally, an odd calm to her tone.
"Well, yes." Balthier cocked his head to the side, a puzzled frown coming to his lips. "That was the idea."
"I can feel it." Fran took a step backwards. "A burning in your blood, a wrongness. Akin to the Mist, but different. Alien. Not of our world. I sense it within the Grey Wardens, and within the darkspawn, and now within you."
"It is the darkspawn taint," said Balthier. "I'm told I will come to sense it as well, in time. But it is odd, that you can feel it without becoming a Warden. Perhaps there is more of a connection to the Mist than we first thought."
"Perhaps." Fran backed away a step further, then started as she bumped into the console.
Balthier stepped backwards as well, creating a buffer zone between them. "I hope... Does it harm you, as the Mist can harm you?"
Fran shook her head. "Not at this distance. But I must take care in the future. If I were afflicted as you were, I think I could not survive so well."
"I understand." Balthier was struck with a thought, and looked up. "The Wood. Fran, what would happen if the darkspawn were to attack the Wood?"
"I-- do not know." She narrowed her eyes. "I suspect their taint would be anathema to the Wood, just as it is to me."
"But would the same be true in reverse?" He started to walk in a slow circle, sorting through memories and impressions. "On Ozmone yesterday, we tracked the darkspawn horde to Jahara. It seemed as though they tried to advance on Golmore first, then abruptly changed direction."
Fran tapped her chin with a finger, and nodded, slowly. "It could be."
"Perhaps this is a clue to fighting them." Balthier turned on his heel and caught Fran's eye. "I must share this knowledge with the other Wardens. You can continue the repairs without me?"
"Of course." Fran stopped him, laid a hand on his upper arm. "You need not pretend. Our partnership must change now. You understand, I think, why I can never join the Wardens."
Balthier looked away. This hurt, more than he had expected it might. "I would not expect you to. But perhaps you can remain with us, much as Zevran and Leliana have remained. Speak with them, if you like. You need not come to any decision now."
"Indeed." Fran dropped her hand. "Return to your commander. I shall see you on the morrow."
He had a commander. Perhaps that was the strangest thing about the entire affair, Balthier thought as he walked off the ship and back to his quarters. He wondered if he would ever get used to the idea of following orders again.
"So let me get this straight." Elissa leaned back in the desk chair and crossed her arms, tapping her elbows with her fingers. "The Golmore Jungle is home to the viera, and the viera are proof against the taint?"
"I wouldn't say that, precisely," Balthier said. "But Fran is able to sense it -- in me, in other Wardens, in the darkspawn, and she rejects it utterly. And this provides the most likely explanation for why the darkspawn turned back from the Golmore Jungle, a terrain that should have been easy passage for them, certainly easier than the fighters of the Garif and the heavily-guarded tunnels of the Henne Mines. The spirit of the Wood refused them passage."
"I would speak with these viera, but if the jungle threw back the darkspawn, I wonder if it would keep us out as well." Elissa glanced up at Alim, who stood next to Balthier in front of her desk. "Any thoughts?"
Alim shrugged. "I'd only be guessing. As far as I know, nothing at all similar exists in Thedas. No viera, no Wood, and nothing that has ever been able to reject the taint. Unless we count the Architect. But he used blood magic to reach that end, and I've seen no evidence of any sort of blood magic in use here. The viera resistance would seem to be natural."
"Hmm." Elissa turned her attention back to Balthier. "If Fran has any more information to share on this point, it would be helpful. If there is a way to throw back the darkspawn without fighting them, some way to contain them, it would save us countless lives, not to mention the damage to the land we could avoid. See what you can find out."
"I will." Balthier started to turn for the door, then looked back. "Does that mean I am free to go?"
"You are." Elissa smiled at him. "Balthier, I understand that you were in the Archadian military once. Look for my command to be somewhere between those two extremes, all right? If I'm giving you an order, you'll know it."
He smirked, then nodded. "Understood, Commander."
She waved him off. "Now go. And Alim, back to the archives with you. Sorry to load you down with yet another research project."
Alim ticked each item off an outstretched finger. "Occuria, any history of darkspawn in Ivalice, the viera, the roots of the Archadian/Dalmascan conflict. Anything else?"
"I think that will keep you busy enough." He turned away, a sparkle of amusement in his eye, and Elissa returned back to the duty roster she had spent the entire afternoon trying to draw up. Not everyone was going to be happy with their assignments, but it wasn't her job to make people happy. She would get everyone into the right place at the right time, and personal preferences be damned. Everyone had to make sacrifices, when there was a darkspawn incursion to fight.
"You're leaving me here?" Alistair glared at Elissa; she stared back at him with that impassive expression that he had learned to hate. Why was she the only one who got to hide what she was thinking? "But you need me."
Elissa shook her head. "Rabanastre needs an experienced Warden to lead their defense. Nathaniel is going to Archades, Oghren to the mines, and I need Sigrun's tracking capabilities in Giruvegan. No, love, it has to be you." She curled her fingers around his arm. "Of course I would rather have you with me, if I could. You know that. But I can't make decisions based on my feelings. If I did that, the First Warden would have been right to disapprove of our relationship."
Alistair scowled. "I still don't like it."
"I know." She smiled up at him. "And I love you for that. But I can take care of myself. Alim will be with us, and Basch seems a capable sword-arm. And there's no one else I can trust with this job."
"No one you haven't already given another assignment, anyway," Alistair grumbled. She tipped her head sideways and raised her eyebrows, and he sighed. "All right, I don't mean that. But. Well, you know. I'll miss you, my dear. And I get grumpy when I'm missing you. Just ask Nathaniel."
"Fortunately, neither he nor I will be around to have to deal with it," Elissa replied with a saucy grin, and he swatted her playfully across the shoulder. "But Leliana will, so be a dear and try not to make her too crazy?"
"I'll do my best." Alistair wrapped his arms around her, and she pulled herself tight against his chest. "And if this is to be our last night for awhile, shall we make the best of it?"
"Once the last council is over," Elissa said, looking up at him, eyes full of promise. "We'll come back here, I'll give everyone the night off, and I'll let you have your way with me until sunup."
"Now that's an offer I could never refuse." He lowered his mouth to hers and kissed her, letting all his worries and doubts fly away. For now.
Ashe was more relieved than she wanted to admit to see Balthier in her sitting room, on her couch once again. But this time he was sitting up, and he looked much more himself. As she entered, he got immediately to his feet and, without a word or any other preliminaries, he swept her into his arms and into a long kiss, his lips caressing hers, his hand covering her throat. She kissed him back with abandon, guiding his mouth open, licking his breath away with her tongue. He responded with a soft moan and crushed her even more closely to him. With a force of will, she broke the kiss and planted her face into his neck, squeezing her eyes shut against the threat of tears.
"You live," she whispered, and the truth was almost too much, almost burst the dam of fear and worry that had built up around her heart, and she had to stop the sob that threatened to burst from her chest.
He chuckled into her hair. "You knew that already. I sent messages with Zevran and Basch both."
"I prefer seeing the evidence for myself." Ashe nestled more tightly into his embrace. "Why could you not come before?"
"Warden business." He sighed and shifted her back, looked down into her eyes. "I fear you'll be hearing that from me a great deal. It is an adjustment, this idea that my time is no longer my own. Still, it's far less regimented than the Judges, and at least I don't have to wear that damn helm."
Ashe let herself smile. "No uniform?"
He grimaced. "Armor. They're getting some made. But I have the choice of materials, at least, to select a style suited for my style of fighting. I expect I'll wear a light mail, similar to Nathaniel Howe's."
Ashe pictured him in that outfit, silver mail trimmed with grey and dark blue, then smiled up at him admiringly. "Sounds quite fetching."
"If you say so." He shrugged. "Won't be until after this mission, anyway. And right now, I'm less concerned with what I will be wearing, and more with what I'm wearing now. Or, more to the point, what I would rather not be wearing."
He kissed her again, long and hard, and Ashe had to wrap her arms around his neck to keep her knees from buckling and dropping her to the floor. When she could breathe again, she looked up at him with a laugh. "You must be feeling better."
"Good as new, and then some." Balthier raised an eyebrow in a playful leer. "Grey Wardens are fabled for their stamina, I'm told. Let us learn the truth of those legends."
Balthier woke up, sitting up in bed with a start. It had come again, the same dream from his Joining: the Mist, the twisted creatures, the Occuria whispering in his ear, twice as frightening for knowing what it was. He took a few deep gulping breaths to calm his racing heart, looked out the window to confirm that Rabanastre still stood, that the palace had not, in fact, been invaded by the darkspawn menace, that no Occuria lurked in his mind or any other.
Next to him, Ashe rolled over, looking at him with worry in her eyes. "Balthier--"
He laid a hand on her cheek. "Just a nightmare. Nothing to worry about." He felt a small frown twist his face. "A part of my new reality as a Grey Warden. I have been assured that they will become less intense, in time."
Ashe propped herself up on her elbow. "What do you dream of? If I may ask."
"Darkspawn," he replied. "Darkspawn, and the Occuria."
"The Occuria," Ashe breathed. "So that is why you make for Giruvegan. You saw the Occuria connection to darkspawn in a dream."
"Not just I, but all of the Wardens of Ivalice." Balthier nodded. "You understand, then, why Basch could not speak of this in council? Grey Warden secrets." He shook his head with a sigh. "It is strange. I have kept secrets all my life. But somehow these secrets feel more of a burden."
Ashe lifted a hand to his face, stroking the day's growth of stubble on his chin. "I am sorry."
Balthier caught her fingers in his and brought her palm around to kiss it. "I'm not. Keeping the Warden's secrets is a small price to pay for my life."
She closed her eyes and shifted closer to him, nestling against his bare chest. "Yes. I am content with this trade."
But will you still be, thirty years hence? It was an uneasy thought, one that weighed heavy on Balthier's soul, and almost he told her. But he stilled his tongue. Perhaps later, once he had grown more used to the idea, he would speak to her of the Calling, and his shortened lifespan. In practical terms, it changed very little; after all, how many sky pirates saw the other side of fifty? Precious few, he thought. Better thirty more years of life than none. And yet, he thought she would not thank him for this knowledge. At least not yet. No, better to wait.
Instead, he bend his head to hers and kissed her, long and slow, drawing her body atop his; eagerly she kissed him back, and he closed his mind to the future and the past, willing the nightmares away for at least a few more hours.
The morning came, and the Grey Wardens gathered in the Royal Aerodrome. Elissa leaned back to examine her entire team. It was still easy to think of them as the Thedan Wardens and the Ivalice Wardens, she thought: the Thedans wore their blue and silver armor, properly mended and cleaned after their long journey underground, whereas the newcomers each wore the uniform of their own people. Ashe had given Elissa the full-time services of three armorers, and they were all working quickly, but most of the new uniforms would not be ready for some weeks. So far, only one set was completed: as her Second, Elissa had felt that Basch should be dressed appropriately, and so he was, in blue and silver plate, the griffon rampant across his breast. He stood tall in the center of the group as they strode into the aerodrome in formation, and every eye in the place turned, talk hushed at the sight of their former captain in his new role. Basch had told Elissa his story over dinner the night before: the loss of his homeland, the betrayal by his brother, his efforts to regain Ashe her kingdom and help Larsa rebuild his empire, and she found it both touching and familiar. Yes, she thought, watching his people's reactions, she had chosen the right man to be Ivalice's Warden-Commander. Assuming he survived the coming storm.
She wished that all the armor had been completed, But it didn't truly matter; the brotherhood of Wardens would be forged under fire, not created by matching outfits. To that end, she had mixed up the teams as much as possible: out of the six Wardens native to Ivalice, one was going to the mines, one to Archades, two remaining in Rabanastre, and two -- Balthier and Basch, the men who had been to Giruvegan before -- coming with her. As she called a halt, she noticed that they were already gathering into their teams, each man and woman falling in behind the leader she had assigned them. The Alexander would be arriving for Oghren's team within the hour, and Nathaniel would head for Archades under Larsa's command. Only Balthier was missing, putting the final touches on the Strahl's repairs before they left for Giruvegan.
"It's not fair," Alistair grumbled, just loud enough for Elissa to hear over the sounds of ships and rushing breezes. "The rest of you get to fly away, and I have to stay here. When will I get to try out an airship?"
"Sooner than you might think," came a voice from behind, and Elissa and Alistair both turned around to see Queen Ashe approaching them with Larsa and Al-Cid just behind.
"Greetings, Your Majesties," said Elissa, dipping into a bow, and after a pause Alistair followed suit. "Are you here to gather the Warden teams we have assigned to you?"
"For that, and for another purpose. If you would come with me?"
Elissa quirked her eyebrow at Alistair, then motioned for him and the rest to follow. Ashe led them through the Aerodrome and past the Strahl; Balthier was there, talking to the small Moogle-creature who maintained his ship, and he caught Elissa's eye with a wave. A few words to the Moogle, and then he was at her side. "Hello, Commander," he said. "Are we ready to depart?"
She motioned to Ashe, who had stopped some distance forward. "Her Majesty has a surprise for us."
Balthier broke into a quick, broad smile. "Ah yes. I do believe I know what she has in mind. I think you shall be most pleased, Commander."
"Will I, then?" Elissa took the last few steps to Ashe's side, and the queen glanced at her with a sidelong smile.
"We have spoken of many ways that the leaders of Ivalice can support the efforts of you and your Grey Wardens, and vice versa." Ashe looked at Balthier, who nodded. "But there is something else you require, if you are to remain a power in Ivalice through the years to come: airships. You have the Strahl at your disposal, of course, but a single fighter does not a fleet make. Due to the immediate nature of the threat, our ability to supply ships is limited, but we wanted to provide you with a start. To that end, I present this gift to you."
Ashe lifted her arm up in the air and dropped it down; at her signal, a huge metal door on Elissa's right lifted to reveal an airship, gleaming silver in the sunlight, covered in scaffolding swarmed by teams of men and Moogles. "Warden-Commander, may I offer you this light cruiser to serve as your flagship, as soon as it is complete?"
"You may," Elissa breathed, stepping forward. "But how..."
"The Alexander transported it here from the Archadian shipyards," Ashe explained. "'Twas almost finished and ready to join Larsa's fleet to replace an aging cruiser, but he was happy to repurpose it to your needs. Primarily for troop and small craft transport, but with solid weaponry as well, mainly aerial bombardment." She tipped her head and her smile grew more shy. "You may choose differently, if you wish, but on Balthier's suggestion we have christened her the Griffon."
Alistair laughed, and after a stunned moment Elissa joined in. "Of course," she said. "The perfect name. Thank you." She looked at Balthier. "Whom do you recommend to fly it, once it is ready? I would offer her to you, but you have your own vessel."
"Izidre acquitted herself well as my co-pilot," Balthier said. "She would make an excellent choice. But of course, you or Basch will serve as captain."
"Once we return from Giruvegan," Elissa agreed. "But we should not wait for construction to be completed before we depart. In the meantime, I will turn it over to the custody of the Grey Wardens who remain in Rabanastre." She craned her head around over her shoulder and smiled. "Alistair, for the time being, the Griffon is yours."
"Mine?" Alistair stepped forward, his eyes round with wonder and excitement. "Maker, I-- Wow."
She chuckled and took his hand, tugging him a small distance from the main group; he followed, but he didn't turn look away from the ship. "Not so sorry to be staying behind now?"
He glanced at her, then back at the Griffon, then reluctantly tore his eyes away and looked at her again. "Still not a fair trade," he said, smile turning wistful as he ran the pad of his thumb along her cheek. "But I will consider it a consolation prize."
"Good," She kissed the tips of his fingers. "Learn as much as you can about air tactics. Once we return for battle, I will not want to be flying blind."
"Of course." His answering nod was brisk, and then he softened again. "Good luck, love. Stay safe."
"The same to you." Elissa stood on tiptoe and planted a swift kiss on his lips. "See you soon."
Ashe watched them for a moment, pleased that her surprise had been so well-received. Then she turned her attention to Balthier and Basch, resplendent in his new armor, a near-twin to Alistair's set. "That was quickly made," she said.
He nodded. "Elissa wanted me looking the part as soon as possible."
"It suits you." Ashe looked him up and down before meeting his eyes with a nod. "Truly."
Basch's smile was soft. "Thank you," he said, and Ashe knew he had caught her meaning. "I wish you could join us on this expedition. I do not know whether the Occuria will treat with me."
Ashe shook her head. "I dare not leave Rabanastre while it is under threat. If the Occuria demand me as an emissary, they can damn well come here themselves." Next to her, Balthier barked out a quick laugh, and she turned on him with a raised eyebrow. "Or you know how to reach me, if you must."
"Indeed, Your Majesty." Balthier looked down at her, eyes warm. "But meanwhile...."
"Yes." Ashe studied him for a moment, let herself remember how close she had come to losing him. Almost, she pulled him into her arms, but resisted; they had said their goodbyes the night before. "Good luck on your errand," she said, to both of them.
"Thank you, Majesty," Basch responded, first with a salute, then with a bow. "We will return as soon as we are able." With a look to Balthier, then Elissa, the three Grey Wardens gathered together and walked toward the Strahl, where the rest of their team awaited them; Oghren and the men under his command had gathered around the Alexander, while Nathaniel raised a hand in farewell to her from behind Larsa. Ashe turned, and Alistair was at her elbow, his eyes fixed on the knot of Wardens who boarded the Strahl, not looking away even as the gangway drew up behind them, and the Strahl's engines roared to life.
"Maker's blessings on them," he murmured.
"The gods be with us all," Ashe replied, shading her eyes against the morning sun as the Strahl's wings opened and the ship darted up into the sky, disappearing into the West.