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When in Orzammar

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With a whoosh of displaced air, a figure appeared behind one of the massive pillars in the entrance hall of Orzammar. After tumbling head first into its pedestal, the human-shaped form in a red and black catsuit quickly straightened itself… and promptly regretted it.

“Ouch!” Deadpool deftly caught the hand that skewered him with a dagger and bent it backward. Something snapped, making his assailant howl in pain. “Next time…”

But the fellow never got the chance to find out what he should do next time because not a minute later someone skewered him from behind. And not in the fun way. He crumpled to the floor, and his killer stepped over his dead body, ready to take a swing at Deadpool.

Some distance away, the Great Golden Gate swung shut, blocking outside noises. The locking mechanism cut the way back to the surface with a loud click. The Warden and her company descended into the dwarven kingdom. Casting curious glances at the splendor of the interior decor, faces reflecting their feelings, the group made their way deeper into the mountain.

… Not that anyone cared or even noticed.

“Nah-uh. No fucking way!” Pulling the dagger out of his stomach, Deadpool used it to block the incoming blow and kicked the new guy in the knee.

{Yay for breaking kneecaps! It’s so mafia style!}

The guy started to fall to the side like a hobbled stallion…

“Take this!” Deadpool thrust the dagger into his face — pointy tip first.

… And hit the floor like Bambi’s mom.

{What? We didn’t cry during that scene!}

[Nope.]

“That’s it?” No one else sprung at him, so he shrugged. “Okay, seems like it’s over. Whatever it was. Where am I this time? Hmm… Lemme think!”

Frowning, he pulled out his teleporter and poked it. Then he shook it. When it failed to produce any comprehensible result — other than a rattling sound — he shook it once more, for good measure. You never know what might help.

Sighing, he looked heavenwards — up, and up, and up, and up — at the stone ceiling. Huh. There’s a lot of stone in the vicinity, come to think of it.

“Hey, what’s that?” He stared at the wrinkled piece of parchment that was pinned to his chest with a letter opener. “Huh! That’s the reason of my uncomfortableness! And here I was thinking I started developing feelings!”

[*rude snort*]

Pulling the knife out of his left pectoral with a wet sound, he carelessly threw it away. A pained yelp and loud curses followed.

“Hmm… Okay. It says that I need to kill someone named Ambassador Gainley. Who the hell would name their kid Ambassador?!”

[His parents, I’d think.]

{They must be very imaginative!}

[Lucky sod.]

“Blah, blah, blahdidi blah find… Yadda, yadda receive…”

{Does it mention a reward? Will there be a reward?}

“Blah-blah… and here it is! Three gold pieces? The fuck?!” He crumbled the bloodied note in his fist.

A bearded duo rounded the corner and came to a sudden halt right in front of Deadpool. Clad head to toe in metal armor, they sported an awful lot of weapons strapped to various parts of their getups. However, the most distinguished feature was their height. Hmm. His fallen enemies weren’t any taller.

“Oh, hello there, pocket-size humanoids! Ain’t you funny little things?”

[I wouldn’t call them that. At least, not to their faces. Don’t you see the axes?]

{But they’re cute! And so hairy!!!}

[Cute? Really?]

“I’ve never seen such fierce-looking gnomes!”

“What?! Gnomes?!!” sputtered the left one. “We are noble dwarves of the Warrior Guild!”

The other midget simply reached for something behind his back. For some reason, they totally ignored the corpses lying at their feet.

Deadpool eyed them up and down with not a small amount of skepticism; then he noticed an enormous statue of what appeared to be a stocky male with a hammer raised with both hands. Its appearance bore some resemblance with these in front of him if you’re willing to discard the size difference.

“Eh. You sure look like dwarves, I’ll give you that. So that’s four of you accounted for. Where’re the other three? Boinking Snow White?”

{Or each other!}

[If you are inclined to believe that French animated movie.]1

”And that was when the realization finally dawned like a sack of bricks to the head. “Oh, shit. I’m in a crossover, aren’t I?”

[It seems so, yes.]

“Crap. No wonder I didn’t recognize the address. Admittedly, the Diamond Quarter is a weird name.”

{It might be fun!}

“What business do you have in the Diamond Quarter, human?!” shouted the right dwarf, brandishing a big-ass axe in a worryingly menacing fashion.

Completely ignoring him and a possible threat he represented, Deadpool said, “If there is killing, we will make it fun!”

[There is always killing when you’re involved.]

“What can I say? I’m a romantic at heart!” He chuckled.

{Bloody hearts make the best Valentine’s Day gifts!}

The guards, who were about to strike, paused, staring at him in bewilderment.

[Should we take stock of the equipment?]

“Devilishly deadly Deadpool, also known as Wade Wilson — check; tight catsuit — check; broken teleporter — check; two sexy katanas — check and check; pouches — check, check, check… Oh, you know what? Let’s assume they’re all here. Whose idea they were anyway?..” he muttered. “Smoke grenades, flash bombs, boot knives, all here… Huh, shuriken! Guns… WHERE ARE MY GUNS?!!”

[Maybe it’s for authenticity reasons? Without guns we’ll merge with this universe better.]

“Bugger this universe! Who gives a flying fuck about authenticity when it deprives me of my guns?!” The tone of his voice took a dangerously wobbling pitch. “I just might start crying!”

The brave dwarven guards slowly edged backward from the spouting nonsense human.

In a different tone, Wade said, “I say it’s time to investigate!”

{Yay! Stealth mode!}

[Dun-dun-Dun, dun-dun-du-Dun, dun-dun-Dun, dun-Dun *hums the theme music from Mission Impossible*]

“Chop-chop, midgets!”

Wade patted their head-buckets and, leaving two perplexed guards to their unattractive gaping, flattened along the stone pillar and tiptoed around it, spy movie-esque, toward an unguarded entrance deeper into the mountain. Loitering nearby dwarves looked at him strangely.

Slipping through the heavily ornamented doors, he came into a room, or, more likely, a cave, the sheer size of which would have boggle the mind even of a person with the wildest imagination. Wade was unimpressed.

“It’s like overcompensation hit the roof of a previously unheard-of scale.”

[Said the tall man in the dwelling of a vertically challenged race.]

“Is this a river of lava?” He slunk closer to the bridge and leaned over the railing. “It is! Cool way to dispose of bodies.”

{Are we in hell??}

[It sure is hot as hell here.]

“Nah, if we were, there’d be demons and strippers partying like there’s no tomorrow, which in their case, of course, there wouldn’t be.”

Dismissing the thought, Wade stepped back and nearly tripped over a small hairless creature. Crouching down, he stared at it critically. It looked like an unholy crossbreed between a rabbit and a pig with maybe a rat lover on the side.

“Aren’t you a cutie? So adorable and snuggly!”

The animal looked at him with tiny beady eyes. Well, not at him precisely… On second thought, it might actually be blind.

“Aww…” He scooped it up and rubbed his face against its skin. “You are so soft!”

[How would you know? You are wearing a mask.]

{It looks soft!}

“I’m guessing and extrapolating from previous experience!”

{Extrapole what? Does it have something in common with pole dancing? I like pole dancing!}

[No, but I wouldn’t mind if it did.]

{Can we keep it? Please, please, let’s keep it!}

Scratching the animal behind its ear, he crooned, “Who is a good girl? Who is my cuddly precious? You are! Yes, you are! That’s right, you’re my little fluffball!” Petting its head, he asked, “What should I call you? Mmm?”

{Betty! Or Doris! Oh, I know, I know! Carmella!}

[Why not Buttercup, then? And how do you know it’s a girl? Did you look under its tail?]

“It looks like a girl, all, y’know, girly! Anyway. You will be-eee… Snowflake!”

{Oh, I like it!}

[It’s all right, I suppose.]

“Then it’s settled!”

Glancing around, he spotted a row of vendor stalls and, nonchalantly wandering closer, snatched what looked like a duffle bag from the nearest stand and not exactly carefully stuffed Snowflake into it. Despite his standing out like a sore thumb in the sea of ankle biters, no one seemed to notice the theft. Huh.

“What’s the crime rates in this place, I wonder.”

Shrugging, Wade went forward. He might have pocketed a few bits and bobs along the way.

* * *

Finding the right address was ridiculously easy. All he had to do was grab the first dwarf on the way and inquire — politely — about directions.

[Since when getting up in his face and shouting, “Hey, shorty!” is considered to be polite?]

“If all my jobs were this easy, I’d be terribly upset. No challenge at all!” complained Deadpool to thin air, loudly. Passersby scattered in all directions in a hurry to get away from the weirdo in red.

“My skills might get rusty!”

A funny beardless dwarf in a dress, sun painted on its front, spilled his guts — not literally, unfortunately — after just one look from Wade. Not even a glare!

“And I didn’t have to bring my blades into play! How is this fair?!”

As he stepped on a staircase leading to the Diamond Quarter, someone said very loudly, “Raise your voice in support of Lord Harrowmont! The only true king of Orzammar and our future…” He was silenced when the door closed. Wade made a mental note.

For a couple of minutes he determinedly walked to his destination. Soon, however, his attention was seized by a commotion on the steps of one of the nicest buildings in the area.

“Hmm… What’s this about?”

{Seems like a brawl is about to begin!}

[Let’s find out, shall we?]

And so, with much enthusiasm, he elbowed his way to the show. At the center of the group was an angry face-off: several furious dwarves were shouting insults at each other.

“My king Bhelen will execute you for treason!” said one.

“He is no king at all, you deepstalker’s shit! The only true king is Lord Harrowmont!” shouted another.

“Ha! As if a geriatric nugfucker can be anyone’s king! He is one sneeze away from keeling over!” yelled the third.

“Watch who you are talking about, tosser!” hollered someone else at the third speaker.

“What’ve you just called me?! Come here, and I’ll show you what a sodding dung you are!” the first dwarf answered to the second.

Wade started munching on popcorn. Standing next to him ankle biter eyeballed him with envy.

“Want some?” Deadpool, always the perfect picture of generosity.

[Yeah, right.]

Hesitantly, the dwarf accepted. For a while they watched the show in companionable silence, punctuated by periodic crunches and paper rustlings. The scandal was rolling to its natural conclusion, i.e., fighty time, when it all abruptly came to a sad and disappointing end.

A veritable squadron of guards marched to participants of the commotion. Their imposing leader shouted, “Atkât! That’s enough!”

These who only moments ago were gunning for a fight meekly backed down under his formidable glare. Some of them muttered something, but none actually protested, and with quiet expletives they all turned to leave.

“Aw, come on! You can’t do that! It’s just getting interesting!”

Turning, Surly directed his gaze at Deadpool and glowered some more.

Wade almost whimpered. How a person half his height could be so intimidating was an absolute mystery.

“Drop it, laddie,” said his munching companion. “We’d better go.” He patted Wade’s shoulder and did as he told.

While the crowd was slowly dissipating, Deadpool opted to storm off, sulking.

* * *

Getting into the Palace was even easier than finding it since all he had to do was calmly stroll inside. The abundance of heavily armed guards didn’t spare him even a glance.

“Seriously, it’s insulting!”

Still brooding over the encounter with Grumpy, he fumed. “I could have killed him thirty different methods in under a minute! And I would if not for the so-called ‘good path’ I’m currently following.”


{Trying to follow.}

[More like stumbling along.]

“And my glares are much better!”

[If you say so.]

{But he was so scowly!}

[Think his face is stuck that way?]

Wade paused. “Heh. It must be uncomfortable.”

{Imagine always having the same facial expression!}

[Oh, the horror.]

“Poor bastard.”

* * *

Familiarizing with the layout and navigating numerous corridors took a bit more time, but through clever application of time-honored methods — wandering and poking around — he’d eventually found the correct room.

Peering through a tiny crack in the doorway, he could see someone sitting on a peculiar stone thing that looked like a crossbreed between a bench and a chair, an air of self-importance about him. Squinting, Wade compared the person to a small painting that was on the other side of the note.

[Think that’s him?]

{Hey, he styles his beard just like Tony Stark!}

[Hmm… Not quite, but close enough.]

“Yeah, I believe that’s the lucky man, Ampassodor Gaynley.”

{I thought he was Ambassador?}

[Gainley. *sigh*]

“Yeah, whatever, I’m not the one writing his eulogy.”

A man lounged on each side of the bench/chair construction, their eyes suspiciously glazed. Wade suspected they might have fallen asleep. Five more played cards at a low — also stone — table to the right of the entrance.

He whispered, “Don’t wanna interrupt their game. Looks intense,” and started whistling a happy tune.

[Looney tunes? How apt.]

{*giggle*}

Opening the door just wide enough to squeeze inside, as nonchalantly as possible, Wade crept along the left wall to take strategically thought-out position. He stood directly behind the bench/chair thingy and in one swish neatly decapitated the target. Ambassador's head fell to the floor with a squelch and, after several turns, rolled to a stop.

All motion stopped as well. The guards seemed to finally — if a little too late — catch up to the situation. All attached heads turned to stare at Deadpool.

“What’s up, bitches?”

Throwing their cards and tankards without a care, quintet at the table rushed to unsheathe their swords. The sleeping beauties disorientedly gaped around, eyes wild.

“Are you eager to die? Excellent! My babies were getting lonely!”

Grinning with maniacal glee, Wade skewered one of the recently awakened archers straight through the stomach with both katanas and pulled them in opposite directions. The resulting viscera shower was deeply satisfying. He was about to start on the other one when something behind him twanged.

“Ouch! That hurt!”

[Unsurprising. An arrow fired at close range is not a feather.]

{Not a pumpkin pie, either!}

[I prefer strawberry.]

{Pecan is good, too!}

Meanwhile in the real world, the second archer went to meet Lady Death in several different pieces.

Laughing in exhilaration, Wade jumped over the bench/chair thingy to greet the rest of his enemies halfway. At the same time, the door opened, and another armed bunch tumbled inside. That one even contained a rather large dog.

Hacking off stray limbs, Wade saluted newcomers. “Another ones to bite the dust!”

They did join the battle. Immediately. But to his immense displeasure, they took his side.

It was hard to tell, how long it lasted. Maybe several minutes, but more likely it was closer to ten, and that was only because the dog seemed to enjoy playing with its prey too much. Not that Wade blamed it or anything. Eventually, the fight winded down; all enemies slain, only heroes left standing.

That’s right! I’m the hero in this story! Suck it, Avengers!

It was time to take stock of the situation. Flicking off bits of chopped liver from his belt, Wade searched for his missing katana.

“Ahem,” said someone, so of course he turned to check who it was. And froze. There, in a puddle of blood, its specks dotting her clothes and fair skin, stood the goddess. Skimpy leather outfit, hardly suitable for protection but ideal for showcasing one’s assets, gave perfect view of her long, svelte legs and more importantly…

{Boobies!!!}

“That’s more like it!”

[Finally!]

She was smiling invitingly, giving him a come-hither look.

“Please, don’t be a hallucination!”

The goddess scowled. “Who are you?”

“Damn.”

{She doesn’t recognize us?}

[Of course not, we are in a crossover.]

{Ah!..}

With pointed ears and a hostile expression on her lovely face, she couldn’t be more appealing. Wade lowered his eyes and proved himself wrong. She was pointedly holding two extremely sexy longswords, ready to leap at him at any moment.

[Don’t spoil the first impression with an unfortunate boner.]

{I’ll be damned! She!.. That!.. all of it is sooo hot!!}

“Hello-o, there!” said Deadpool to her cleavage. “Are you single?”

With remarkable calm, she said, “There’s an arrow sticking out of your forehead.”

“Oh, thanks! Didn’t see it coming!” He yanked the offending object out, sending brain matter flying in a gory ark. At last distracted from his contemplation {Tits contemplation!}, Deadpool decided it’s prime time to appraise her companions as well.

There was a Captain America wannabe (if Cap ever wore heavy plate armor and wielded a badass sword) — big, blond, and earnest — who at the moment appeared to be green around the gills. Mouth slightly agape, he was too enthralled by the healing factor at work to turn away. Must be valiantly fighting to stay put.

Morbid curiosity much?

The dog of a truly enormous breed shuffled closer and licked Wade’s hand, whining and sniffing around.

Watching reknitting skin and tissues in horrified fascination, the elven chick cleared her throat. “Did Master Ignacio send you?”

“Who? The only Ignacio in my acquaintance works in the shawarma joint… Now that I think about it, it was bombed about a couple months ago. Unfortunate incident, that. And I told them to get out, but no! Nobody ever listens! But he’d probably survived. Maybe.”

[If a bunch of molecules can be considered alive. After all, it was a Neuro Splitting Bomb.]

“I rephrase, and you’d better give a straight answer.” She all but growled. “Are you with the Crows?”

“Why would I be with crows, and what would I do with them? I like pigeons well enough, I suppose. They make for a decent target practice in a pinch. Oh, and poisoning them is also fun!” he said with relish. And in a completely different tone: “And while we are at the subject, why does it suddenly feels like all I do in this fic is ASKING FUCKING QUESTIONS?!” He finished this tirade glaring somewhere up and to the right.

*Somewhere else: the writer cracks her fingers, muttering, “You will do as I say.”*

{Man, that’s harsh!}



[That’s slavery.]

“I resend that! Unless we are talking sex slavery, of course.”

Wade returned his attention along with the glare back to the audience and drawled, “Well?”

They stared at him blankly. Even the dog.

“Would you, at least, give me a hand?” he asked, pointing at said hand with a still bleeding stump.

Not quietly enough, medieval Cap mumbled, “Are you sure we don’t want to kill him? Just in case?”

“I’m not sure it can be done.” Still, she returned Deadpool’s missing appendage along with his katana.

Wade shrugged, reattaching his hand.

“Who are you, anyway?”

[Strike a pose.]

“Bond. James Bond.” His words were met with silence. Seriously, no reaction. “Where’s the fun if nobody understands my references?”

{We do!}

[So all is as usual, then.]

“Nah. The name’s Deadpool. Some people might call me a ‘mercenary’, but I prefer the title ‘cleaner of the gene pool’. It represents the end result of my chosen occupation so much aptly.”

His new goddess was not impressed. “Never heard of you.”

“I’m new to this universe.” He shrugged. “And who are you, guys?”

She ignored that strange remark. “We are Grey Wardens.” She paused to gauge his reaction, and when he failed to express anything other than expectation, continued with solemn finality, “The last in Ferelden.”

“Cool!”

[What?]

“What?!”

“Now I know where I am!”

[Ah.]

After an uncomfortable lag in the conversation, slowly, as if talking with a retarded puppy, Cap’s doppelgänger pronounced, “You are in Orzammar, the dwarven thaig below the Frostback Mountains. It’s where all dwarves live.”

“Seriously? And here I was beginning to wonder at the sheer amount of midgets." Sarcasm went over Blondie’s head, Wade just could tell.

The goddess snorted.

“Anyway, what’s a Grey Warden, and what about your actual names, hmm?”

Evidently, it was a strange thing to say. Blondie was astonished. “You haven’t heard of us?”

Just as slowly and retarded puppies appropriate, Wade repeated, “New to this universe.”

After a short pause, the explanation was given. “Grey Wardens stand against the Blight. We oppose the Archdemon and the darkspawn.”

“Sounds nasty.”

“Without our order, there’s no way to end this war,” continued Wannabe Cap. “We are going to the Deep Roads to find—”

“Wait! There’s a war?”

“Yes. There’s the Blight. Where were you hiding that you haven’t heard of it?”

“In another universe,” Wade said in exasperation. Seriously, what’s so hard to grasp?!

[Maybe they simply don't believe you.]

{But why? We are so trustworthy!}

“Right.” Yeah, no. Clearly no belief here.

“So let’s pretend I understood what you just said, which, of course, I did. Basically, there’s a lot of monsters that need to be killed, right?” Receiving an affirmative nod, Wade clapped, once. “Great! Where do I sign up?”

“We are not recruiting at the moment,” said the goddess.

[Way to piss on our parade!]

“Oh, not again. It feels like I’m always late to the party!”

“Too bad for you." Her tone indicated a total lack of any sympathy.

“You still haven’t told me your names."

She seemed to seriously consider it before finally replying, “Harlequin Mahariel, and this is Alistair.” That was said with her hand pointing at Blondie. “And a big fierce warrior who is licking your blood, again, is Maric. And before you ask, since you are ‘new to this universe’, he is a mabari. And mabari is the name of his breed. Please, don’t let him eat any of your body parts. He has a weak stomach for spoilt meat.”

{Did she say Harley Quinn?}

[No.]

“Can I call you Harley?”

“Not if you value your manhood. You can call me Warden; for some reason, almost everyone does.”

“So, Harley” — she glared — “what’s a little maiming now and then, right?”

“I will chop off your arms and feed it to the darkspawn. See if you can assemble it out of digested biomass.”

“Hmm… It might actually be interesting. At least, it’ll present a challenge…”

Her glare intensified.

“Ok, fine, fine. As you say, Wa-arden.” Wade sketched a bow. “Will you be my friend? I can already envision our invigorating and glorious friendship.” And he leered at her cleavage, again.

“Oh Maker, not another one!” muttered Alistair.

Harlequin made a show of pretending to think about it. “Will you be my target practice?”

[She has an unusual definition of friendship.]

“If that’s what’s required to be your friend… But let me tell you, that's one hell of a lot to ask without offering to buy a dinner first!”

Rolling her eyes, she surveyed the room — blood, guts, and gore — one last time. “We should leave before someone decides to pay ambassador a visit. Maric, come!” And with that she turned around and just left. The dog followed.

With a muttered, “Goodbye,” Alistair trotted after them.

Suddenly, as if materializing out of thin air, an elf in a similar to Warden’s outfit appeared near the doorway. With an appraising look in Deadpool’s direction, he bestowed him with a leer of his own.

“Zevran Arainai, dearest.” And with a salacious wink he disappeared again.

[Neat trick.]

“That was interesting.”

[Even the local version of Legolas?]

“Nrgh!..”

{I feel violated!}

[Like a piece of meat on display.]

{But also weirdly flattered...}

“Hey, back to the matter at hand!”

[Yours are holding katanas.]

“Right. What should we do now?”

[When in Rome...]

“Wear a toga?”

{We are in Orzammar!}

[When in Orzammar...]

“Plunder dwarven treasures!”

{Didn’t they say something about deep roads?}

“I thought it was a euphemism.”

[Sounds promising either way.]

“We should probably tag along, then.”

And Wade dashed out the door as well, leaving only a stack of mutilated corpses behind since all caches and chests were mysteriously relieved of all valuables.

* * *

Wade had to jog through the entire Palace in order to catch up to the Warden and her company. He found them leaving through the front doors.

“Hey, hey, hey! Waity-wait!”

They didn’t stop, but at least the Warden turned in his direction.

“I’ve consulted me, myself, and I, and we decided to offer you my service. And in a show of goodwill and appreciation of your Great and Mighty cause, it’s even free of charge!”

{What?!}

[Shh! It’s for plot purposes.]

“I’d like to be fed once in a while — several time a day is preferable — and also back rubs are awesome, wouldn’t say no to that! Anyway” — he cleared his throat and theatrically went down on one knee — “my katanas are yours to command!”

The Warden finally stopped, and so did everyone else.

“How could someone say no to such generous offer?” She pretended to think about it, frowning in concentration. “Oh, I know! ‘NO’, that’s how!”

“What if I am the one giving back rubs? I have strong fingers” — Wade wiggled said fingers at his chest level — ”and a mean technic!”

“Tempting, but still no.”

“You are in luck, for today I feel uncharacteristically magnanimous. Let’s throw a free foot rub once a week!”

“Warden, if you do not want his allegiance, I would love to take him up on this offer,” said Zevran.

At the same time Alistair asked, “Haven’t you said that we need all the help we can get?”

Maric barked in agreement, though with whom was anyone’s guess. Then he whined.

“Fine. If you insist,” Harlequin said to the dog. “All right, Deadpool. I accept your ‘generous offer’.” The air quotes were so heavily implied, only blind, deaf, and irrevocably dead could miss them. Possibly. “The main rule is don’t maim or kill the members of my company; everyone else is free game.”

“Hey, I will have you know, I have no disregard for human life!”

“All collected loot is evenly distributed. Don’t get in the way, and don’t hit Alistair, he bruises easily.”

“Thanks so much.”

“You’re welcome, both of you.”

“I’d hug you right now!”

“Please, don’t.” Her smile showed too many teeth. “I don’t want to break my own rule so early in our acquaintance.”

“Hey, move already, will you?!” said an angry voice. “You are blocking the way!”

“Let’s not make this fine gentledwarf wait any longer.” The Warden nodded at a finely attired midget, whose face was turning a truly fascinating shade of red, and stepped to the street, finally passing through the gates.

Stationed on either side of the gate Palace guards pretended they weren’t watching the show and, struggling to hide their disappointment, resumed their duties. Which, strangely enough, from an outsider’s perspective seemed closer to practicing open-eyed sleep while standing unsupported than to actually guarding something, but whatta ya know, maybe it was in their job description. Whatever.

With a huff, Wade sprang to his feet. “Where’re we going?”

“To the tavern in the Commons. We are supposed to meet our friends there. If everything is in order, we will depart to the Deep Roads shortly after a meal,” helpfully explained Alistair.

“Do you suppose they have chimichangas?”

Warden regarded him blankly, showing no sign of comprehension. “I don’t think so,” she said slowly. ”There are always plenty of stew, though.”

“With meat? What kind of meat is it? I haven’t seen any cows yet. Is it rat stew? Please, let it be rat stew! It’s the bestest and yummiest thing after chimichangas!”

“It’s usually nug meat. But if you really want it, we probably can figure something out,” she trailed off, eyeing him dubiously.

“Oh.” Wade’s shoulders dropped even lower in disappointment. “What’s a nug? Is it tasty?”

“It’s a small domesticated animal, white and fluffy, tastes a little like pig. It’s all right.”

“What?!” He stopped to direct a horrified glare at the Warden. “Are you telling me Snowflake is a nug? And you will eat her given half a chance?!” He pulled the pet out of his duffle bag and thrust it toward a very startled audience.

“How can you do such a thing?! They’re so adorable! And cute!” Hugging Snowflake to his chest, he glowered suspiciously. “I can’t turn my back at anyone here! You will just eat my precious little nugget once I’m distracted, is that it?! You all are heartless stone cold murderers, people! To think I was starting to like you! I had hoped we could be friends! A team! A family!” He sniffled. “My heart is broken!”

“Calm down! No one wants to eat your pet nug!” tried to placate him Harlequin.

Snowflake blinked her beady eyes at Maric when he licked her nose.

“We will guard her better than a chest of antique golden coins in the Orzammar treasury!”

Zevran snorted. “That will not pose a challenge.”

“You can just eat cheese. It’s awesome,” said Alistair the Wise.

{Someone has a lot of pent-up aggression for Blondie!}

[That’s because he dumped the Warden after she’d made him king just because she is an elf. Don’t worry, it’s getting better.]

{Wait, you mean they are dating?}

[Not this time, no.]

{Ah, alternative universes. How delightful!}

“Oh. Okay, then. That’s good to know,” Wade said to the boxes. “But” — back to the audience — “I’ll hold you personally responsible for her well-being!”

He intently looked each of them in the eye, moving clockwise and finishing with a prolonged, meaningful stare-down with Maric. To his joy, the dog lost. Satisfied for now, Wade stuffed — gently and with great care, of course — his nugget back into the duffel bag.

[Do you even know what to feed her?]

{Not nug meat!}

“It can’t be that complicated!”

[...]

“All right, all rats we encounter are yours.” Harlequin broke the silence after it inevitably became uncomfortable. “On second thought, mayhap you will have to compete with Maric for them.”

Under Wade’s resumed stare, Maric whimpered.

“Do not worry, my fearsome friend.” Zevran patted mabari’s ears. “We won’t let you starve.”

Once again, they resumed walking.

As soon as they stepped into the Commons district, a voice exclaimed, “Vote for Prince Bhelen, our future king! Keep up with the times, choose progress!”

“Hey, didn’t he preach about Lord Whatshisname, like, an hour ago?”

[That’s the fickleness of political support for you. Or a prime example of medieval advertisement. Take your pick.]

{I say, let’s prick him in the eye!}

“Hmm… Maybe later.”

* * *

As it turned out, despite — Wade checked his watch — the early afternoon, the tavern was already full of drunken dwarves.

“This place looks downright shady. I like it!”

“Somehow, I had a feeling that you would,” said the Warden.

Wade leered. “You already know me so well.” He moved around in a circle to take the place in. “Oh! They even have live music!”

The trio on stage was singing something about beer, tiddly beer.2

“Mmm… Something is missing. I think there should be yodeling. Do you suppose they can yodel?”

“What is a yodel?” asked Alistair.

“Kinda singing without words, let me show you.”

And Wade, well, yodeled. For about thirty seconds. Then a petite hand forcefully covered his mouth.

“Please, don’t do it ever again.”

“Mphtpt.”

{Lick it!}

[Through the mask? Naaah.]

Harlequin pulled her hand away.

“I said, as you wish. but for the record, I’m offended at your lack of appreciation.”

“Duly noted and disregarded.”

“So which ones are your friends? No, don’t tell me! It’s the group of beardless fellas drinking ale! Or no, it’s the mysterious figure in black! The one with the pipe, in the dark corner, that suspiciously eyes that group! Am I right?”

“... They aren’t here yet.” And the Warden went to the free table at the back.

As they were passing through an arc between two stone pillars, Wade happened to glance up.

“Hey, is it a mistletoe? I believe it is!”

Someone in the background shouted. “Where did this thing come from?!” The company paid him no mind.

“And we’re right beneath it. You know what it means.”

“That someone put a wreath here?”

“That too, but the reason it’s here is that we should kiss. It’s a tradition.”

“Not the one I’m familiar with. Besides, I don’t kiss before the third date.” She stepped forward.

“Damn.”

“It was a good try,” said Zevran. “Though, may I ask to which practice were you referring?”

“It’s a winter festive custom" — Wade said absentmindedly — “to kiss a person you met under a mistletoe.”

[Very traditional.]

{And now we know what the writer wants from you!}

A kiss? That’s ridiculous.

{Ridiculously lame, you mean.}

Writer, you should want to get me laid!

“It’s the middle of summer on the surface, but I’m still willing to kiss you, or would you prefer to kiss me instead?”

“What?”

While Wade was distracted, Zevran wandered closer and was now standing right next to him, looking at the plant overhead.

[Oh, that’s sneaky!]

“Sorry, pal, I’ve already painted bullseye on a different target.” That said, he rushed after the Warden.

“You are unbelievable! First Harlequin, and now him? Who’s next? Morrigan? The dog?”

“The more, the merrier, no?” Zevran chuckled.

“I see you’re not denying the dog implication. Maric, stay on guard.”

“You don’t need to feel left out, my sweet friend.” Zevran smiled at Alistair. “I will kiss you in a heartbeat; you only have to ask.”

“As if I’d ever want that!” said Alistair, blushing an attractive shade of scarlet.

* * *

As soon as Wade sat down, Harlequin turned to face him.

“So if not the Crows, then who was it?”

“You mean, who’s hired me to help Gainley move to a better place? Dunno. In this story I just take a job and skip the questions — better sleep at night that way.” He shrugged. “Guess he wasn’t a very nice man. Probably a bloody awful Ambassador. Anyway, if it’s really so important to you, you can claim the kill. Anything for you, sweetheart!”

[And for the the plot. Anything for the plot.]

{And to get laid!}

[I still hope it’s on the agenda.]

Of course, Blondie chose that precise moment to join them. “You are an assassin!” The way he said it implied that he just had that revelation. He just had to spoil the moment, hadn’t he?

“I don’t think I am who I think you think I’m.” It took them a minute to parse through that.

Alistair looked unconvinced. “So you are not an assassin?”

“Well, I prefer the Merchant of Death title! It has a much nicer ring to it, don’t you agree?”

Before anyone could agree or disagree, however, their titillating conversation was put on hold by an unexpected party.

“Welcome to the Tapster’s. What can I get for ya today?”

“Do you have sandwiches?” asked Wade the plump waitress that filled her dress rather nicely in all the right places, and with her pocket-size height being perfect for… His train of thought was derailed by her giggle.

“Sorry, love, no witches here. Sand or any other kind. Only those that you bring yourself.” She winked. “We’ve got stew, soup, bread, and cheese, and relatively fresh fruits. So what will it be?”

“I’m in a mood for excitement. Why don’t you surprise me, honey?”

“Oh, look at what you’ve done. You have summoned The Witch.”

“Morrigan is not a demon, Alistair,” murmured Harlequin with an exaggerated patience.

“Could have fooled me.”

{Hey, are these Harley’s friends?}

Huh?

[Two women with staffs heading our way. At least one of them is a witch, though I’d say they both are mages.]

“What have we got here? One more stray, I see. Another assassin. How… nice,” said the younger one in a tone that clearly suggested it was anything but.

[I hear the hostility. How refreshing.]

“At least, this one didn’t try to kill us before recruitment,” said Alistair brightly. “I’d call it improvement!”

The witch snorted. “You would.”

As soon as she turned in the other direction, Alistair made a face at her back.

[Very mature fellow.]

{I like him!}

[Of course, you do.]

Hey, I like him, too!

[Et tu, Wade?]

“Charming, isn’t she?” said Blondie just loud enough for Wade to hear.

{She is really rocking that wild barbarian look.}

[Please, don’t say it aloud.]

Cause she’ll hex my balls off?

{Because we’re trying to charm the Warden!}

[That, too.]

“Hello, dear. Please, excuse Morrigan, she is… Well. She is always like that." The older woman sighed. “I’m Wynne.”

“Deadpool, also known as the Merc with a Mouth, at your service.”

“Meet our new companion, whose real name is James Bond. Now, when we’re all properly introduced" — the Warden sent a meaningful look Morrigan’s way — “can you tell me how did it go, Wynne?”

“Good, actually. We were able to find all necessary supplies.”

“Excellent.”

“And should I ask you how was your” — Wynne made a slight pause, grimacing in distaste — “mission?”

“A glorious success! It brought me to your esteemed company!”

“He killed our target,” said Harlequin.

Wynne frowned at Deadpool. Was she disappointed by the news or that he assassinated someone at all, though, was unclear. “Well, it doesn’t matter anymore. Now we finally can move on to our main task.”

“Might I ask what’s that? Not that it makes a difference since I’m already committed; just out of curiosity.”

“We are going into the Deep Roads to—”

“Awesome! I don’t mind plundering some deep roads myself.”

“—find a lost Paragon.” Harlequin raised a hand to stave off further interruptions. “It’s a person who did something incredibly important for the local society. For example, created a smokeless coal, golems, or” — she snorted — “sacrificed his life for the king.” Seeing Morrigan’s raised eyebrow, she said, “We’ve been to the Library.”


At the main area of the tavern, several drunk men were having a disagreement that soon grew into a full blown brawl. It was so loud, Wade could understand only individual words: Bhelen, nug-humper, dust-lover, Saruman…

Or was it Barrowman?

[It wasn't.]

Didn't think so.

“What’s the deal with prince Harrowart and lord Bleah?”



“Prince Bhelen and Lord Harrowmont.” Wynne’s pursed lips were another weapon from her great Arsenal of Disapprovement.

“Political struggle, my masked friend. If it was in Antiva, one of them would have already hired a Crow to make the other disappear.” Zevran smiled. “Most probably, both of them.”

“What if they both were killed? What then?” asked Alistair.

“Ah, in that case, the winner is the person who placed the contract on whoever’s left alive.” He chuckled. “And that, my dear friends, is the beauty of Antivan politics.”

“Rumour has it, Bhelen killed his brother and placed the blame on his sister—”

“Youngest child?”

“—who was exiled for that. Yes, he is, or rather, was the youngest. Anyway, not long after that he, presumably, offed his father—"

"Charming dude."

"—and now, due to these rumours, he has a hard time convincing the Assembly to vote him king. Basically, we are backing him up in exchange for his help with fighting the Blight." Harlequin paused for breath. “Make no mistake, Bhelen is a bastard, but, at least, he has progressive ideas. He will make a difference for the casteless, stir the dust in this stale society.”

“Fine words, Warden.” The waitress deposited their order on the table. “Let us hope the Assembly makes the decision soon. All this upheaval’s bad for business: if customers are busy killing each other, when will they find the time to drink? Here you go, love.” She placed a bowl with a brown slush in front of Wade. “Our stew of the day. Enjoy.”

“Thank you, Corra, I’ll close the tab before we head out.”

“As you say, Warden.”

The conversation was put on hold for the duration of the meal.

* * *

The company plus Deadpool made their way across the Commons — once again, Wade nicked some things from vendors — to another entrance with a big-ass door. Seriously, you can drive a fucking tank through it without dealing any unintended damage.

The door was blocked by a barricade and four almost indistinguishable from each other dwarves that stood guard at it’s gap. Another one, a heavily tattooed man in a much poorer getup, sat on the stone floor to their right.

{Looks like a hobo.}

[Something is rotten in the state of Orzammar.]

“Hold! What's this? An elf? What business do you have here, stranger?” said one of the guards, probably, the boss-man.

[Bet we can walk past them without being accosted.]

{Twenty bucks say we can’t!}

[You don’t have money.]

{It’s the principal that counts.}

[Which one is that? They all can count.]

“The one that counts better. Okay, you’re on.”

The sitting tattoo parlor advertisement raised a crudely made sign: “The end is nigh!”

“Do you have a pass?” asked the guard boss-man Harlequin.

Wade wandered to the barricade and — after several tries and a running start — hopped over it. No one so much as looked his way.

{Huh.}

[You could have just walked past them.]

“I simply love messing with the script.”

He jogged back to the Warden, who was saying, “... know we do. I’ve shown it to you when we went through this gate in the morning. Or have you already forgotten?”

“Just doing my job, surfacer.”

The seated dwarf changed the sign. The new one said, “Repent, sinners!”

“A’right, you can go.”

They haven’t made even a couple of steps when a new dwarf, this one with a fiery red hair, barreled after them.

[Haven’t we seen him in the tavern?]

“Hmm. He sure looks like cheap booze and constant hangover are his best buddies.”

“There you are! I thought I met a Grey Warden but chalked it up to the drink. So you are really going after Branka. You weren’t blowing smoke up my ass after all,” he said to the Warden.

[I like him already.]

{His armor is cool.}

“Oghren, was it?” said Harlequin.

“Listen, I, uh, need to ask a favor.”

“Why not?” She smiled wryly. “Everyone does.”

“I don't know if you heard of me before; it must be about how I piss ale and hurt little boys that looked at me wrongly. And that’s mostly true” — he giggled — “but I’m still trying to save our only living Paragon. If you’re looking for Branka, I’m the only one who knows what she was looking for, which might be pretty sodding helpful in finding her.”

“I heard she was looking for some ancient technology.”

“Aye, everybody knows that, but I know what she was looking for precisely. You, presumably, know what Bhelen’s scouts have gathered, and I know where she was going exactly. If we pool our knowledge, we stand a chance of finding her. Otherwise, good sodding luck.”

“Though I already have enough armed lunatics following me around—”

“Hey, don’t look at me like that!” said Deadpool.

“—sounds like we have a deal.”

“You should know that she was searching for the secret of building the Anvil of the Void that was used to make golems. It’s rumored to be in the old Thaig Ortan, so she probably went there. All she knew was that it’s past Caridin’s Cross. No one knows where it is exactly, no one’s seen that Thaig for five hundred years.”

Behind him, Wade heard Wynne saying, “If he is her husband, I wonder why didn’t he go with her?”

“Perhaps, she left him behind trying to escape the horrid stench,” said Morrigan.

Harlequin pretended to miss the exchange. “Welcome to the party; let's get going.”

“Great. Once we are there, I’m sure I’ll be able to pick up the trail. Lead on.”

“What, no rules and regulations? No threats? No promises of bodily harm? Suddenly, I feel very special.”

* * *

Behind the big-ass door was a... “Subway!”

[With lava tracks.]

“What?”

“It’s like Subway met a mining site, and it’s the consequence of their horizontal tango.” As explanations go, this one wasn’t very helpful.

{Ding-ding-ding! Attention, please. Next stop — Devil’s fry pan.}

“I don’t think I understand you.” Harlequin looked up from the map. “Then again, I don’t believe anyone else does.”

[I agree.]

Moving in a loose formation, they went at a brisk pace to a side tunnel littered with mutilated bodies of... things. Creatures? Somethings. Their way led farther underground, Wade could tell by the slight decline of the floor. Some passages were blocked, some tunnels had collapsed, but most were still intact.

Soon Wynne started a conversation. “I was wondering how should I call you: is it Ser Deadpool or Ser James?”

“Ser?”

“For some reason, I assumed you are a knight, but now that I think about it” — she frowned — “I don’t actually know why I thought so. Was I wrong?”

“Nah, just traveling incognito. Didn’t think anyone would recognize my noble upbringing.”

“Is it the reason why you wear a mask?”

“No, it’s because he is an assassin! He probably wants to keep his identity secret.” Alister was walking right behind them.

“Yeah, yeah. I totally want to preserve my secret identity secret.”

“So where are you from?” asked Blondie.

“Not from around here.”

“We gathered as much, seeing as you are not a dwarf.” Wynne smiled slightly. “You don’t talk like Fereldan. Are you from the Free Marches? Or, perhaps, the Anderfels?”

“No, not from around there, either. I’m” — he lowered his voice — “from a time of myth and a land of magic... Or is it the other way around?”

“Tevinter, then?”

“I’m not at liberty to tell. Let’s just say, they really hate magic there.”

“That can be any place aside from Tevinter, dear.”

“Another country full of bigots,” scoffed Morrigan. “’tis no different from Ferelden.”

“I’m guessing it’s in another universe,” said Harlequin. “So what should we call you?”

[Your Majesty?]

“Call me May Bee. Nah, Deadpool is fine. Or Wilson if that’s what you’re into. My name is Wade, by the way. Wade Wilson,” he said to the group at large, and then to the Warden: “And you, sugar buns, can call me Pumpkin Muffin if you’re feeling ’specially friendly.”

“We will see about that, Wilson.”

* * *

Some time later Wade overheard an interesting exchange between Wynne and Zevran, who was saying, “... is a marvelous bosom. I have seen women half your age who have not held up half so well. Perhaps it is a magical bosom?”

[The elf has it right. It’s a strangely supple bosom.]

{Yeah, great tits! I’d like to try them as well!}

[It’s like all women here have great boobs.]

{We are in the Land of Great Boobies! Do you suppose hers has enough room for us too?}

“Let’s ask!” Wade turned to Wynne. “Does your bosom have a room for one more tormented soul?”

“Urgh!” Accompanied by Zevran’s laughter, she went ahead to walk beside the Warden.

* * *

A couple of tunnels later, Cap’s doppelgänger wound up next to Wade.

“Hey, Ali!”

“It’s Alistair.”

“As you say, Elly. There’s one thing that always bothered me about medieval times.”

“What times?”

“The times you are living at. The thing is” — Wade eyed him critically — “how do you take a leak in this tin can? It’s driving me crazy!”

[You already are crazy.]

{Mad as a hatter, we are!}

“Um.”

“Do you remove it all? Is there one special plate that moves out of the way? Or do you just piss yourself like a real tough warrior? What?”

“I’m not comfortable with this question.” He hurried away, eager to put a barrier of people and distance between them.

“Oh, come on, man! Don’t leave me hanging in suspense!” Wade shouted at his shining back.

* * *

They walked and walked. Still, there was nothing aside from dead bodies.

“This is getting boring.”

[Only now?]

They walked some more.

“Right.”

Huffing, Wade sidled up to the Warden, who was leading their group along with the latest addition. “Not to sound like a donkey, but are we there yet?”

She gave him a strange look. “If we keep this pace, we will be at Caridin’s Cross in about two weeks.”

“Seriously?!”

“What did you expect, buddy? We haven’t even reached Thaig Aeducan yet.” Oghren grunted. “If it was a question of a sodding one day trip, those noble moss-lickers would have sent someone after Branka a long time ago.”

They went through another passageway.

“What a compelling scenery.”

Harlequin looked at the map dubiously. “It says we should take a left turn at the next crossing.”

“Are you sure we are not going in circles? I swear I’ve already seen this rock pile at least four times!”

“Bah! You'd think I’d notice if it was the case! Surfacers, no sense of stone to speak of! How do you live like that?”

“Above the ground,” said the Warden.

“Hn. I heard the dome there pisses at you, that true?”

“Do you mean rain?”

“Dunno about any rain” — the dwarf shrugged — “but if it does, I’ll keep to the stone, thanks.”

And another tunnel went by with nothing to break the monotony.

“Where’re the time lapses?” Wade asked the crumbling low ceiling. “Haven’t you heard of them?”

“What are you talking about?” Harlequin asked, puzzled.

“Page breaks, black screens, ‘x hours later’s! If I wasn’t already out of my mind, I’d be bored out of it by now!”

“You’re so strange.” She drawled ‘so’ in a way that made it sound like ‘sooo’.

[Maybe the writer strives for realism.]

{In a game/comic book crossover? Right.}

“Argh! I gave up! Wake me up when we are finally there.”

Singing “There's a Hole in My Bucket”,3 Wade zoned out.

Oghren shook his head. “Sodding madhouse, I tell ya.”

* * *

[You realize we are wasting a great opportunity here?]

“... stone is too dry, dear Liza... What?”

{We could have been chatting up the pretty chick over there this whole time.}

“Oh. Whatta ya know, this mindless stumbling around has its purpose.”

Wade, who somehow ended up being the last in their procession, speeded up.

“Are we still going through the same tunnel?! Seriously, too many bodies, and hardly any action. When do I get to kill something?!” He deftly hopped over yet another rotting corpse.

“Heya, sweetums, it’s just occurred to me that we have a great opportunity here.”

“It’s still Harlequin or Warden to you,” said his future wife with not so small degree of irritation. Clearly, she had been enjoying Deadpool’s singing for as long as the song lasted. They all had.

“As I was saying, we have time for a meaningful, deep conversation, and that presents me with a perfect setup for showing my insightful and witty nature. So you can see how sensitive and beautiful on the inside I am and fall in love with this” — he pointed at himself — “impressively defined hunk of man-meat.”

Her gaze wandered from his head to toes and back up. “Hm, I don’t know about that. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a lot more chiseled bodies.” She paused and glanced at the other elf. “A lot less clothed, too.”

[Oh, low blow.]

“Let’s start again.” Wade cleared his throat. “Do you have a moment?”

She smiled. “That’s usually my line.”

“You see! That’s something we have in common. It’s a sign we are meant to be!”

Harlequin just shook her head.

“So” — Deadpool aimed for suave — “what’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”

“Picking flowers for my girly braids.” She twirled a lock of hair no more than a couple of inches long.

"I meant in general, you know. How did you end up being a warden and all that." He wiggled his fingers. “C’on, gimme some exposition, please.” Clasping his hands behind his back, Wade prepared to tune her out.

The Warden did not oblige. “We should stop for the night.”

“How do you tell day from night underground?”

“It’s a secret elven power.”

“And what’s that?”

“Now, it won’t be a secret if I tell you, will it?” She smirked.

“Ow, c'm on, I won’t tell a soul!” He hopped over yet another corpse.

“Well, in that case” — she beckoned him closer and, when he leaned forward, whispered near his ear — “Dalish elves feel the sun’s movements.”4

“Really?”

She hummed in affirmation.

“Huh. Must be hard to sleep-in on weekends.”

Harlequin sighed. “You are so, so very strange.”

“But in a good way, right?”

Instead of replying, she went to put her things down beside a conveniently placed rock in a nearby side tunnel.

He trotted after her. “What about a story?”

{Think she’s beginning to like us?}

[There’s always hope.]

“Later.” And Harlequin began the arduous process of unpacking necessary for camping equipment. It took a while.

Perching on a boulder near the Warden’s, Wade watched as she and the company uploaded bedrolls, pots and pans, food, tents, and even enough logs for a fourth of July bonfire from their modestly sized backpacks. His eyebrows made a decent attempt at climbing to the crown of his head.

“Are these things bottomless?”

[Apparently.]

{Neat! Imagine how handy it’d be: no more endless pouches, the entirety of arsenal always on hand...}

[... Ready to be destroyed, incinerated, lost, misplaced, or stolen all at once. With our luck, that’s entirely possible.]

“Still, it’s a useful trick.”

[Can’t argue with that. You should probably do the same.]

“What, don’t argue? Wasn’t planning to,” he said, distracted by Harlequin, who was bending down to pitch her tent on the hard, slightly uneven ground. He was about to pitch a tent of his own, and not the one where you can sleep.

[Unpack.]

“Unpack,” at the same moment said a voice outside his head.

“What?” Wade whirled around to stare at Wynne. “Are you a telepath?” he asked, mentally already singing Spongebob Theme Song5 along with the boxes.

“I said, why don’t you unpack, dear? And no, I am no mind reader.”

{Pity. We make a lovely trio.}

“Though, I was called that a time or two.” She smiled at him kindly. “Do you have camping gear?”

“Dunno yet. Guess it’s time to have a look!”

Dumping his duffle bag at his feet, he opened it and put a hand inside. After some rummaging, he pulled out a series of things in this order: one sock; a squeaky rubber duck; a mallet; fifty grands of cash in small unmarked notes; two green apples; a drawing of a lightly smiling chick in an opulent frame6; a femur bone about five feet in length; a Food is Weapon poster; and a healthy looking sapling in a white pot.

Frowning, Wade delved inside once again. The pile of useless things near him grew twice in size. Finally, after fishing out a dirty pair of pantaloons, he said, “That won’t do! What, am I Bear Grylls now? Where’s my comfy blanket and a pillow fort?” and dived into the bag in earnest, half his torso disappeared inside. Muffled curses followed.

“A-ha!” He reappeared with a red and black bedroll and a pack of Columbia Wheat Cereal. “That’s better.” Then he threw the yellow rubber duck back into the bag along with cash, no matter how useless it was in Orzammar.

The sapling waved its tiny branches from the top of the pile.

“Hey, dog!” Wade shook the bone at Maric. “Catch!”

The bone sailed into the darkness; woofing, the mabari ran after it. Wade snickered.

[And that, ladies and gentlemen, was a highly unrealistic display of physical prowess.]

{Thank you, thank you! We will be here all week!}

[Seems while we were busy, they made a campfire.]

{We should join in on the fun!}

“I wonder, do they plan to sing Kumbaya?” He strutted over to sit beside the Warden.

"All right, I promised you a story,” she said when he sat down.

“Your origin, yeah. I’m all ears.” He suppressed a yawn.

Harlequin seemed to consider something. “A long time ago” — she said, watching him contemplatively — “when I was but a little elfling, I liked to listen to stories that was told around campfire. Hahren Paivel often speaks of Creators as it is his duty to keep our lore alive.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I liked to sit near the fire and roast pieces of bread on a stick, like we do right now, while he spoke of the Forgotten Ones7, whose names we now only hear in dreams.” Her voice took on a ‘storytelling’ lilt.

[Did she train to be a bard?]

“Ah-huh.”

“And of Fen’Harel’s, the Dread Wolf’s, deceit.”

“Very interesting.” This time, he yawned with a gusto.

“Stories about him always were my favourite; they never ceased to bring joy and fear in equal measure to us, children. It was especially so on days when adults were playing with Shems in “Fen’Harel’s Teeth.”8 After a while, their screams tended to be so full of agony and blood-curdling anguish—”

“Uh-hu... Wait, what? Did I hear you right or was it my imagination?” Wade suddenly was very interested, indeed.

“I don’t know, you seemed to be a little distracted,” she said, looking at him askance.

“You were talking about screams and games?”

“I was describing traditional Dalish entertainment.” She smiled.

{Like an angel. What? Someone had to state the obvious.}

“Surely, you jest, my dear Warden?” asked Zevran.

The flickering firelight painted dramatic shadows over her face. She didn’t answer.

“Hmm… Perhaps, the Crows do have something in common with the Dalish, after all.”

A hush descended over the camp; burning wood crackled. Morrigan cackled.

[That’s one hell of a creepy laugh right here.]

Alistair shifted, uncomfortable. “I think I’m missing something.”

“You and me both, pal.” Wade patted him on the back with a fork. The resulting clang made everyone wince.

“Right, don’t know about you, but I need to take a piss,” Oghren said loudly. Staggering to his feet, he lumbered down the dark corridor… and fell in a heap of limbs and swears.

Maric growled at him in return. Bone sticking out of his mouth, the mabari dragged his prize to his owner, jostling Blondie on the way.

“Great. I’ve burned my bread,” said Alistair, genuinely upset. Zevran silently offered him half of his portion.

* * *

Several days passed in the same manner: walking, walking, and more walking, interspersed with occasional resting.

“Oh, thank god, Creators, ancestors, and all other deities for time lapses! I was afraid we’d go over the whole way in excruciating details.”

[We should probably ask the Warden if she senses enemies nearby.]

{And when did we learn about that ability?}

[During the first Time Lapse that the writer had finally started implementing. We also bonded with the group somewhat.]

{Think we are growing on them?}

[Don’t say—]

“Like fungus.”

{That’s so cliche!}

[Anyway, going by in-game dialogues that we assume happened during that time, Oghren is our new buddy.]

{His pick-up lines are even worse than ours!}

[Didn’t believe it possible, but —]

“... you remember. Those longing eyes, hungry for a bit of a tussle…” Oghren said to Wynne.

“I never looked at you, dwarf. Definitely not in that way.”

“Oh, you’re right. Must have been the dog.”

Wade nodded. “Yeah, totally illustrates your point.”

No one in their company except Harlequin had a specific place in their loose formation. The fearless leader chose to take point, preferring to mingle at the camp. Besides, she had the map. Everyone else changed their places to talk with someone different every now and then.

Abandoning his place in the middle of the group — this time he was walking with the dog, a truly riveting conversationalist — Wade caught up to her.

“Do you feel disturbance in the Force?”

“What?"

“Is anything pinging your radar?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” she said.

By now they all were more or less familiar with the way he talked and did not ask for clarification anymore.

[We think they simply gave up.]

Wade sighed. “Is there walking meat sacks nearby?”

“You mean the darkspawn?”

“If you prefer to call’em that, sure.”

“No, the coast is clear for now.”

“Pity. I was hoping for a round of calisthenics.” He pretended to consider something. “Though, I’ll never say no to a ‘sparring match’.”

“Your leering is coming across loud and clear even through the mask,” she said, unimpressed.

“What can I say, it’s a talent!”

“Not the one I’d be proud of.” She raised her voice to address the whole group: “All right, we are about to enter Thaig Aeducan, be ready!”

“Ready for what?”

“Deepstalkers,” said Alistair right behind him.

The tunnel gave way to a cave filled with old buildings, stone cracked and crumbling.

[They're carved in the mountain.]

{Out of the mountain?}

[Into?]

“Ugh! Whatever. At least, there’s decent illumination.”

“Thaig Aeducan.” Oghren shouldered past Blondie to the first row. “Looks like there was a battle,” he said, pointing at yet another collection of rotting corpses. This time — dwarven and half-eaten.

“That’s where we met Lord Dace and his warriors,” said Harlequin quietly.

“Poor bastards.” Oghren spat on the ground. “Well, no sense in dwelling. Let’s find what’s left of deepstalkers and crush them to a paste. My axe’s getting thirsty.” He charged ahead, leaving the others to follow.

As soon as they crossed the stone bridge over a river of lava, a pack of animals rushed to them.

[Isn’t that—]

“Velociraptors!”

While Wade stopped for a good long gawking session, one of the animals tried to take a chunk out of his thigh. “Fucking oy!” Whirling to face it, he slashed at its neck, leaving two deep gashes that instantly showered him with bright red blood.

[Carotid artery: always a hit.]

“Take that, lacerta erectus!” He finished it off with a quick thrust through its head.

“Fucking finally — time to kill!" Pulling katana out of the dead creature, he surveyed the battlefield.

Wynne stayed some distance behind and was obviously casting spells: her staff flashed like a beacon, colorful spheres flying from its end. Others were involved in close combat — Wade briefly paused to admire the way Harlequin lopped a head off her attacker — though, Morrigan was missing, and in her place was...

“A giant spider.”

[How quaint.]

{Do you suppose she eats her enemies?}

[That's so barbaric. Seems like her style.]

Katanas swirling, Wade ran to remaining deepstalkers. “Let’s send you back into extinction!”

Choosing the nearest lizard-y thing, he hacked off its tail; it screeched and turned to bite him, providing a clear view of its mouth.

{Eww!}

He shuddered. “It's like Shai-Hulud9—”

[In miniature.]

“—lent it its head.” Laughing, he thrusted both katanas into its open maw. “Die, wormhead, die!”

The creature did. Using what remained of its head for support, he pulled swords out and turned to the next in line for the audience with Lady Death.

With maiming and killing time went by at a fast forward pace. At one point, a green orb came flying his way. It hit his butt and dissipated, leaving a curious tingling sensation.

{Even colored lights like our ass!}

All too soon the fight was over. Wade looked around and found no one else for the slaughter.

“What, that’s it? Several days of walking, and that’s all I get? Are you fucking kidding me?!”

“We killed a lot of them during our previous visit.” Harlequin flicked fleshy bits from her swords. “But this is as far as we got. I expect a lot more action the farther we go.”

“I sure hope so.”

Exchanging her swords for a hunting knife, the Warden squatted next to her latest kill and dug into its stomach. Showing no sign of squeamishness, she shoved her arms up to the elbows inside.

“Eh. What are you doing?” Wade asked, curious. “Not that I mind a bit of disembowelment, but do you plan to eat its liver or something?”

She gave him a look that said she was used to his strange questions but still thought them perplexing. “I’m looting it. Obviously.”

“Ah. Of course. Where else would you look for stuff if not in its guts.” Then he saw their companions doing the same. “Right.” He turned to an unoccupied corpse. “What am I searching for?”

{Anything useful.}

[And a lot of useless crap.]

He went to work.

“Hey, do we really have to gut these creatures for” — he wiped the bottle on his leg — “Minor Healing Potion? Yeah, all right, I guess it’s useful.” He searched some more. “Oh, what’s that?” The object looked like a zigzag metal dowel and was cold to the touch.

“A Frozen Lightning,” said Harlequin. By then she had already moved to her third corpse.

“A what now? How is it even possible?”

The Warden shrugged.

[Never mind that. How come it’s in here?]


{It’s a game, DUH.}


Once deepstalkers were properly gutted and loot packed, the group, everyone bloody and dirty, gathered into the same formation as before the skirmish. Once again, Harlequin led them forward.

In the next five minutes all blood and gore mysteriously disappeared from their bodies and clothes without a trace; their armor and gear returned to a mint condition.

“Huh.”

[So that’s why no one seems to be bothered by the lack of ablution opportunities.]

{And here I thought we’ve finally found someone with the same high tolerance of stench as us.}

“Hey, hygiene is very important!”

They went through a corridor with great pillars and more corpses on either side. Along the way, Harlequin picked a lock on a sparkling chest that stopped sparkling as soon as it was opened; then another pack of deepstalkers rushed to them to get killed. Equally big dwarven statues replaced pillars; they came into a cavern with a broken cart and crude bonfires: one for some reason had several swords sticking out of it while the other was set on a postament made of actual bones.

“Hmm... It looks more like tusks.”

[Somehow, I find it hard to believe there’re elephants inside the mountain.]

{Why not? There’re plenty of dinosaurs.}

[Good point.]

More deepstalkers appeared. It soon became a pattern: walk, kill, loot, resume walking. The cavern had only one other passage — rough and uneven, it went upwards and eventually led them to a dead end.

“Great.” Harlequin opened the map, squinted at it, and shoved it back into her backpack.

“What, it doesn’t have this cave-in marked?” asked Wade.

“No, it does. Just wanted to make sure.” She shrugged and moved to search a sparkling crate near the left wall but was stalled by a sudden appearance of deepstalkers.

This batch was larger and consisted of bigger creatures.

“Did they just come out of the stone floor?” Wade said, hacking away at the biggest stalker, its skin tougher and harder to pierce.

[Maybe it’s not stone but packed dirt?]

{Why would it be inside a mountain?}

“Dirt is like dust: it’s everywhere!” With one last swing he decapitated the creature at last. “Ah. I was starting to believe this lucky bastard would end up with the Nearly Headless moniker.”

When the time for looting came, Wade pulled a really nice elvish dagger out of its stomach.

* * *

After that, their routine changed to accommodate deepstalkers. Still, as any routine usually does, this too became extremely tiring in its repetitiveness. Anyway, Wade found a way to entertain himself. Mostly with singing and zoning out, but also with occasional banter.

Walking beside Zevran, for the last half hour he listened to Wynne and Morrigan talk. Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore.

[More like wouldn’t.]

“Am I the only one who feels the air vibrating with tension? I sense UST like WHOA! Should we expect a performance of the ‘Older Woman Teaches Her Young Apprentice The Art of Sacred Olde Magicks’ soon? I volunteer to watch! I can handle a candle like you wouldn’t believe!”

Wynne tsked, clearly at a loss for words.

Morrigan didn’t have that problem. “I’m no one’s apprentice and most certainly not hers!” She practically spat at him. “Mind your wretched tongue, leech, or I shall relieve your filthy mouth of its presence!” Hissing insults, the witch stormed off in a huff.

Watching her go, Zevran chuckled. “Isn’t it curious how she chose to object only to that part of his statement, my dear healer?”

In Wade’s opinion, Wynne’s blush — dusty rose — was a lot more attractive than Alistair’s. It took her a while to regain her usual composure.

* * *

Several days, or what passed for days underground without any means to tell the time, later, when they stopped for the ‘night’, Wynne sat down next to Wade. The fire was cracking merrily, providing them with heat in the dreary tunnel.

“Don’t tell me your parents approve of your profession.”

“I’m an orphan.”

[Probably.]

{Which origin are we using?}

“Oh, dear child!” she said, upset.

“Hey, didn’t you say yesterday that you stopped talking with your dad and drew an eye on his eye-patch after he killed your dog?” asked Alistair.

{We did?}

[Apparently so.]

He waved the question off. “It was my adoptive father.”

“You were adopted?” asked Wynne.

Wade sighed. “He found me on the steps of a temple and took me in as a trophy, a spoil of war. Thanks for reminding me of the fact I strived so hard to forget.”

Alistair looked contrite. “I’m so sorry.”

“Too late. Nothing will brighten my mood. I’m doomed to a life of gloom, bad luck, and unhappiness.” His shoulders drooped.

[I wonder why Doom is always so gloomy. Think it has anything to do with his name?]

{No, it’s because he can’t — and never will — get laid in that mask!}

[Or, for that matter, without it.]

Alistair fiddled with the whetstone for something to do with his hands. “Hey, it will be all right!” Clearly uncomfortable, he awkwardly patted Wade’s arm.

“No, it won’t! Nothing will be right unless a fair maiden come and cure my broken heart!”

“Uh.”

“And what is this miraculous remedy you are talking about, my friend?” perked up Zevran.

“It’s very reliable, you know.” Wade leaned forward and lowered his voice. “One hundred percent success rate. Very old, too. In fact, we call it the Fairy’s Tail cure.”

They all looked suitably interested.

After ensuring that dramatic pause lasted long enough, he whispered, “True love kiss.”

“Tell me then, is there a method to divine a person to grant you such kiss? How would you infer which kiss is the right one?” Zevran’s face took on a dreamy expression. “I have been kissed many times, and just as often I could have sworn on my loveliest dagger it was my one and only love who touched my very soul with their lips” — he sighed — “but alas, it always passed with the first rays of sun.”

“Why, the only reliable way is the actual action, of course!” he answered, intently staring into Harlequin’s eyes.

“Should I kiss you, then? I feel like we are meant to be!” purred Zevran, moving closer.

Mentally cursing a blue streak, Wade hastily moved away. “Nah, it’s all better now!”

* * *

“Caridin’s Cross! Can’t believe Bhelen actually tracked it down. This used to be one of the biggest crossroads in the old empire. You could get anywhere from here,” said Oghren one ‘day’ completely out of the blue. Or not. Apparently, they’ve reached another subway station look-alike.

Harlequin stopped and turned to face him. “So you know where to go from here?”

“Aye. Branka dug up some old maps. It’s a little tough to tell with so much of it collapsed now, but near as I can figure we’re on the right path to Ortan Thaig.”

“Great. Let’s go.”

“I’ve been waiting for someone to say that for two sodding years.”

Wade brought his attention from a huge stone chandelier back to the ground level. “Harlequin uses this phrase quite often.”

“Bah!” Oghren unslung his axe, eyeing a trio of hostiles — a group of dwarves and an elven chick — about thirty steps ahead. “She also says ‘less talking, more walking’.” And bellowing a battle cry, he ran at the enemies.

The first goon yapped something about Lord Bleah, but Wade was too busy chopping off his hand to listen. “How about that, turdball?” He provided dwarf’s other hand with the same treatment. “What about now?”

[He screams like a girl.]

The elven chick, who turned out to be a mage, cast a stone fist: literal stone fist materialized in front of her and rushed at Wade, hitting him squarely in the chest.

“Ouch,” he said, knocked on his ass. “Think I heard a rib breaking.”

[*snort* Make it ten.]

{And add ruptured spleen and punctured lungs.}

“Wynne!” he heard Harlequin shouting.

“On it!”

And again, he felt that curious tingling sensation, though this time, sadly, nowhere near his ass. The pain receded.

Springing to his feet, he stepped over the first goon — someone put him out of his misery while Wade was distracted hacking up blood — and let a shuriken fly. It landed in the chick’s eyeball. “You asked for it, bitch!”

She gritted her teeth but, showing no other sign of discomfort, cast another spell. This time a glyph appeared, illuminating the floor under her with a pretty blue light.

[Tough lady.]

{Balls of steel!}

[But not eyeballs, heh-heh-heh.]

She continued casting, peppering Wade with small flea-like spheres that unfortunately felt more like enormous bees. He tried to come at her, katanas at the ready, but hit an invisible wall.

[Guess that’s what the glyph is for.]

“No shit, Sherlock.”

{Is it time for grenades yet?}

However, before he could decide whether to use explosives — positively, of course — a bolt flew past his shoulder and right into the elf’s other eye. The chick toppled backward.

“Blind and brainless: exactly how I like ’em! Except maybe for the dead part.”

He turned around, but to his disappointment, no one jumped in line for the sword therapy: all hostiles lay in various stages of dismemberment, dead. Harlequin was putting a huge crossbow in her bag; despite its size, it soon disappeared inside.

“Man, not to love this TARDIS bag thing is impossible! Also, apparently, Prof didn’t lie.”

[What about?]

“Elves do have awesome eyesight.”

{When did Prof-X said that?}

[He means Tolkien.]

They looted the bodies, thankfully, performing only external search.

“Dwarven body cavities, urgh!”

“Thanks so much for the mental image.” Alistair, who happened to be nearby, shuddered.

From then on Oghren led the way. All too soon they had to detour through another set of tunnels interspersed with large caves.

“Would you care for a bet, my masked companion?” asked Zevran five minutes into the first side tunnel.

“Sure, why not. What’s at stake?”

“If you win, you get” — he tapped his lower lip with index finger — “my silverite dagger with frost runes.” Smiling, he gave Wade a sultry look from under his eyelashes. “If, however, the luck is on my side, you will show us your face. Do we have a deal?”

Wade shrugged. “You lose either way.”

“Let me be the judge, yes? I say our next opponent will be darkspawn, our esteemed Grey Wardens started to senses them at last.”

“Nah, it will be more deepfuckers.”

{Are we cheating now?}

[Definitely.]

Sure enough, in the next moment a lone deepstalker ran right at them.

“Ha! Told you!”

This one was less stupid than usual: it tried to lure them into an ambush.

[Or it’s just scared.]

Anyway, no matter the reason, instead of attacking them, the stalker turned tail and bolted into the cave. As soon as they reached its center, however, the rest of the fucker’s pack sprang from the ground, surrounding them.

“Is it my imagination, or are they getting smarter?” said Harlequin, thinning out deepstalker population with neat swings.

“Doesn’t sodding matter so long as they are not harder to kill.” Oghren swung his axe in a wide arc, and if Alistair wasn’t careful, he’d be without a limb.

“Hey!”

“Sorry, pike-twirler, don’t stand in the way.”

“Ah, Warden, I found something that might be of interest. Would you have a look?”

“Of course, Wynne.” She finished the last stalker and went to investigate.

“There’s a severed head in this bag” — Wynne pointed at a dirty sack in the corner — “but the interesting part is this.” She gave her a letter that, going by the blood on it, came out from the same bag.

“Um-hum… A ritual?”10

“We should take care of this creature.”

Several caves later they found a torso in a bag. It, too, went into the Warden’s backpack.

[Now the head won’t get lonely.]

{Does she really have to lug it around like a dead weight?}

“Ha! Good one, Yellow!”

According to the map, they were nearing the end of a side corridor and were about to return to the old road when Wynne said, “It seems there’s no time when you go without a mask. I simply have to ask, why?”

“I’m so ugly, it strikes my enemies with fear, and they drop dead. See, it sucks all the fun out of assassinations. So I have to keep it on at all times. Such is fate.” He looked at her breasts. “May I cry on your wondrous bosom now?”

At the periphery, Zevran laughed. However, before Wynne could answer — most likely with a retort — the corridor ended.

“Darkspawn!” said the Warden, readying her swords.

The things that met them were humanoid, smelly, and absolutely repulsive in appearance. And also accompanied by a local version of a rhino.

“So that’s what you look like,” Wade said into a snarling face, overabundance of crooked teeth hanging out of its mouth.

[Like an orc.]

{Disappointing. I hoped for something novel.}

“I feel like it’s my duty to point out the obvious: you are one hell of an ugly motherfucker!” He grimaced. “And your breath is horrible. You’re putting me off my lunch, and I’m rather hungry. Just for that you deserve to die.”

He drove both katanas into the creature's chest, right above its armor, and pulled down and to the sides. Dark, putrid blood flowed. The creature, somehow still alive, fought back.

[Who uses a bow in a close combat?]

{Morons?}

“You are really stupid, ain’t you?”

The darkspawn made a guttural sound. It consisted of a lot of grrs, arrs, and urrs.

“Are you trying to tell me something? Didn’t your mom teach you to chew and swallow before speaking?”

Its attempt at shooting was hindered by the sudden lack of an arm.

“Oops! That must've hurt!” Wade cut off its other arm. “Oh, my bad! My sword must have slipped on your blood. I’m so clumsy. Why don’t you rest for a bit, hmm?” He kicked the creature in the stomach, and it fell into the puddle of its blood.

“Who’s next?”

[Maybe that band over there that turned you into a pincushion?]

{Next to the catapult.}

“Good idea.”

“They have a catapult!” the Warden said to his left. “Fall back! Behind the bronto, now!” She caught Wade by the arm before he could move away and dragged him toward the dead rhino. “Did it get its blood on you?”

“No? I mean, I don’t think so.”

“Are you sure?”

[She is worried about us.]

{Sweet!}

“Yeah, why does it matter?”

“The blood spreads the taint.” Harlequin sighed. “Pull the arrows out and drink this.” She thrust a bottle with red liquid at him.

“My regeneration works just fine; no need for a healing potion.”

She gave him a level look and said, tone flat, “Humour me.”

“All right, as my liege commands.” Obediently, he downed the content of the bottle in one go; a warmth filled his limbs. “Tastes like weed.”

Satisfied, Harlequin turned back to the fight. Swapping swords for her crossbow, she released three flaming bolts at once. Darkspawn retaliated with poisonous energy spheres.

“Emissary! Cover me!” Wynne started a long, complicated chant while all except Maric and Wade switched to long ranged weapons.

[We should definitely get that.]

{With enchantments! Oh, we still have grenades, let's lob it at them!}

[And cause a brand new cave-in. Brilliant plan.]

Saying the last arcane word, Wynne hit the ground with her staff. The spell, finally completed, created a raging inferno over the catapult.

“Yeah, way to go, Winnie! Flambé them!”

{I like this magic!}

[Who knew grandma is so cool.]

Turned out, being aflame was somewhat of an impediment to fighting even for the darkspawn. It sure made killing them easier.

“Like shooting fish in a barrel,” he said, watching as the Warden let fly another trio of bolts.

{Flaming fish—}

[—In a barrel of oil.]

“To have such force at your fingertips... Impressive, yes? Alas, burning does nothing to improve genlock’s smell,” said Zevran.


“Genlock?”

“Short, stocky, and tough fighters,” said Harlequin. “Hurlocks are taller and more muscular.”

“There are types of the darkspawn?”

“Aye, several breeds. We’ll meet them soon; the Deep Roads are crawling with them.” Oghren spat on the ground. “Thanks to the sodding Blight, they are a lot closer to Orzammar. As if we didn’t have enough on our plate already.”

Harlequin put a hand on his shoulder. “We will stop the Blight.”

“Aye, can’t be too soon.”

They looted crates, chests, and, of course, the darkspawn, mindful of the tainted blood.

“Hey, Zevran, pay up!”

“I was so sure of success.” The elf seemed dismayed. “Ah, fair is fair. Here” — reluctantly, he extended the dagger to Wade — “let it serve you well.”

Humming, Wade twirled the dagger between his fingers; its balance was excellent. “It’s a nice toy, but I’d like to try a weapon with a longer reach. How about a trade?”

“Oh?” Zevran perked up. “I’ve got several bows — elvish and human made — and dwarvish crossbows” — he pulled said items out of his never ending backpack as he spoke — “this one is from the darkspawn…”

In the end, Wade picked a nice sylvanwood longbow — for some reason, Zevran called it Bow of the Golden Sun — and a quiver full of extremely cold to the touch arrows.

“Good choice.”

“Thanks, Blondie!”

“Why is he Zevran and I’m Blondie? His hair is lighter than mine!”

Wade strapped his new equipment beside katanas. Yes, he found the space. “I saw you first.”

“Can’t you call me by my name?”

“Lemme think…” Crossing his arms in front of his chest, Wade frowned; then he smiled. “Nope! But if you insist… I hereby name you, Zevran Arainai, Haldir Thedasian. Hope that makes you happy, Blondie.”

“He’s got a pretty name and I’m still Blondie? I’m ecstatic.”

* * *

Next time they met a bronto — around the corner — Wade shot at it. The arrow sailed over the huge beast.

[Hawkeye you are not.]

“Right. Time to pull a Legolas!”

From a running start, using debris and boulders as footholds, he jumped into the air, somersaulted, landed at the bronto’s back, and shot it in the head. This time, he didn’t miss.

{Yay! Points for flare!}

[Next time better avoid landing on its horns, though.]

“Detail, details…”

* * *

Quite predictably, the dwarven part of the Deep Roads soon ended in a blocked passage.

“Why am I not surprised? Ah, back to the tunnels.”

“Cheer up, I sense another batch of the darkspawn nearby,” said Harlequin.

“You are a miracle! Marry me?”

“Not before you meet my parents.”

[Oh, it’s that serious already?]

{And all without even a date!}

“How about a kiss, then?” Wade turned to face her. “To tide me over before the wedding night.”

“Shrieks.”

“What?”

Something screeched right into his ear. He jumped around and came face to face with a praying mantis after the engorgement charm. Okay, no, it wasn’t a praying mantis, but resemblance was strong.

All around them more creatures appeared as if growing out of the stone floor. All of them were making that horrible ear-splitting screech.

“Urgh! Shut up already!” Wade lunged at its throat, but it jumped back, easily avoiding his swords. “Fast fuckers.”

Maric's howl stunned all enemies, providing Wade an opportunity to slice and dice to his heart's content. This breed of the darkspawn died as any other living thing they met so far on this journey — with great unwillingness and resistance.

“That was shrieks,” said Harlequin after the last one was slain.

“Yeah, I gathered as much, thanks.”

[She didn’t answer us about a kiss.]

{Again.}

“Damn.”

They went deeper into the cave at the mouth of which the fight happened and practically wandered into the darkspawn camp. Though to be fair, a change in decor — or, at the very least, the presence of any decorations at all inside a cave — should have clued them in. A lot of randomly placed bone thingies and weapons hung on the walls.

“What is this, a Night of the Living Dead reenactment?!” Wade said when what looked like zombies on crack ran at them along with an ogre.

{It looks nothing like in Shrek.}

[DreamWork lied. However will we survive?]

“I feel so cheated! Let’s channel our disappointment into constructive action.”

[How about a song?]

{We seem to be good at it.}

[If by good you mean annoying everyone in record time and making them want to cut off their own ears, then yes, we are good.]

“I’m thinking something classy. Mm... How about that.” He cleared his throat and, singing “Don't Cry for Me Argentina”,11 cleaved off hurlock’s head. By the time he sung the last couplet, his tally was eight. “Ah, much better.”

He turned to check on the others and saw Alistair and Oghren charging at the ogre. Blondie bashed it with his shield, but instead of being stunned, the hulking beast just swatted him like a fly, sending Alistair into the wall. The impact accompanied a loud clunk. Wade waited a moment, but he stayed down.

{I’m worried about him. Will he be all right?}

[It’s the first part of the franchise, so I’d say most likely. Of course, we can avenge him just in case.]

“Right.” Wade nodded to himself. “THE DEADPOOL COMETH!”

He jumped at the ogre, sinking katanas deep into its shoulder blades and pushing down with all his weight. Two long open gashes decorating its back, the ogre roared and started turning toward him.

Oghren swung the axe at its stomach. The blade penetrated its skin, cut through internal organs, and stuck in its spine.

“Arrg!” Oghren, eyes wild and filled with rage, pulled his axe free.

With a squelching sound, guts fell out of the gaping wound — Wade made a face at the acidic smell — and the ogre followed suit.

“That was awesome!

“Coast's clear,” said Harlequin. Then, pulling something out of the bag, she rushed to Alistair. “Wynne?”

A clot of healing energy came their way. Blondie moaned, regaining consciousness, and Harlequin brought a bottle to his mouth, helping him drink its content.

His dislocated arm snapped into place as if by magic, and Alistair sighed with relief. “Thank the Maker for Injury Kits!”

Frowning, Wade looked at the celling. “Hey, writer, we are in a Magic Land! Where healing magic is thrown in all directions! Capisce? Grant me a boon here! Please! Please-please-please? Pretty please with a Spidey on top?” He blinked several times, flirtatiously.

“Can you slapdash a poultice of miraculous effect on my mug? Whip up some special healing charms? If my face isn’t so fugly, it will grease the skids for romance! You’re suppose to be writing romance, right?” he asked the air. Nothing happened. “I’m counting on you!”

* * *

As soon as they were back on track, i.e. walking, Wade asked, “Who’s the Maker? You’re constantly thanking him for this, that, or whatnot. Is he some kind of local god?”

“Yes, He is our Creator blah-blah-blah yadda-yadda-yadda…” Eyes glazed over, he tuned Alistair out.

{Hey, I think he is still talking.}

[He was talking all this time.]

Boooring.

[Hm?]

“Wait-wait-wait! Does it mean that Andraste cheated on her hubby with this Maker person, or is it the other way around?”12

“Um. I don’t think the Chantry sees it quite like that.”

“Oh, how delightfully blasphemous!” Morrigan’s smile showed a lot of teeth. “I like it.”

“Of course, you do.” Alistair sighed. “Harpy.” Apparently, he did not possess a sense of self-preservation. Or maybe he just didn’t care if he woke up turned into a toad one of these days.

* * *

“This looks like the right way out,” said Oghren out of the blue during a long stretch of the old road. “Ortan Thaig. Won’t be long now.”

“How do you know? To me it looks like any other part of the Deep Roads, as if copy-pasted or like we are traveling in an endless loop. I still insists it’s a possibility.”

“That’s how I know you are not a dwarf.”

“What, my height and lack of a beard weren’t a dead giveaway?” Wade chuckled.

“Aye. But you could be an unusually tall beardless dwarf.” He giggled. “This, however, proves you are not. To you it’s all the same: stone, stone, stone, more stone, and rivers of lava. Not one of you sees the intricate differences in design. The walls here are decorated with red marble whereas before it was deep rose—”

“And, of course, it doesn’t have anything to do with the Road Marker at which you were staring just moments ago.” Alistair pointed at the sign behind his back.

“Nah. It says ‘Our past is wrought with lost roads, mines, thaigs, and homes, consumed by the horrors of an endless war.’”

“Well” — clearly, he was still skeptical — “if you are sure… It’s not like anyone but you can read ancient dwarven runes.”

“That’s right, laddie.” He preened and said to the Warden, “I told you I’d be useful.”

“Of course, Oghren.” Harlequin smiled and winked at Alistair over the dwarf’s head. “Now, stop loitering; the sun is still high.”

“Bah, who needs the ‘sun’ when there’re perfectly serviceable lanterns and lava channels. But you are right. We are close, I can feel it.”

[Does he sense his wife like Grey Wardens the darkspawn?]

{Or like Spidey — danger?}

“Wouldn’t it make her a dangerous darkspawn?”

{Maybe just dangerous.}

[After two years? She is probably tainted by now, so practically a darkspawn.]

“Who are you talking to?” asked Oghren.

Wade could tell, they all were listening. “The boxes.” Perplexed looks followed. He sighed. “The voices in my head.”

Alarmed, Alistair asked, “What, like demons from the Fade?”

“Dunno nothing about the Fade, must be a wonderful place, but never mind that.” He turned to Oghren. “I think your wife might be dangerous probably tainted possibly darkspawn!”

Irritated, Oghren snorted. “Yeah? Did the voices in your head tell you that?” He looked like he was gearing up for either a good long rant or an even better right hook.

“Hey, they might not be real, but they sure have good ideas!”

[I’m offended on our behalf.]

{Seconded!}

“He does have a point, Oghren,” said Harlequin after a brief consideration.

And just like that, Oghren’s anger left, leaving only sadness in its wake. “Aye. She might be dead along with all our clan… That’s just not something I’d like to believe.”

No one had anything to say to that.

[We do.]

{Better be dead than undead, for example.}

“Better be dead than a darkspawn.”

[Very sensitive, as always.]

In a more subdued mood, they moved on.

* * *

“By the tits of my ancestors, the Ortan Thaig,” said Oghren.

At least, this time it was accompanied by a change in the color scheme of decoration. The road had a distinctly lilac tint; the lack of overhead illumination also didn’t hurt the gloomy atmosphere.

“I never thought I’d see this place in the flesh. I can see Branka all over the place. She always took chips in the walls at regular intervals when she was in a new tunnel — check their composition. If she was still here, though, she’d have sentries out by now.”

“And if they died here, there’d be evidence of a battle.” The Warden nodded.

“Aren’t you a sodding bright spot today? But you are right: three hundred or so dwarves don’t just fade away.”

“What do you know about these ruins?”

“This is Caridin’s old home, he lived here before he got raised to Paragon. I guess he didn’t want to move his people to Bownammar.”

“The City of the Dead?”

“Aye, he built it to honor the Legion of the Dead, but it was more of a sodding mausoleum than anything. Of course, that was before he built the Anvil. After that, he was the city’s pet genius until he angered the king and fell into disfavor. Bownammar is north and west from here, though, I hope it won’t be important—”

“Why would you say that?! Now we most certainly will have to go there!” Wade grimaced, though it was obscured by the mask.

“Then I guess you should be happy: it’s full to the brim with the darkspawn. The City of the Dead is known as the Dead Trenches since the darkspawn conquered it. Much of the Legion was destroyed when the fortress fell.”

[Are we cheating again?]

{We are, aren’t we? We are so naughty!}

“Nah, not this time. Just a premonition. Hmm… Maybe I should look into fortune telling or divination — not sure if there’s a difference — for a new career path, charge good money for my inner eye’s insight. That’s a thought. Who wanna bet we’ll go there next?”

“Alas, our still masked friend, I’ll have to refrain this time. My instincts are in agreement with yours.” Zevran sighed. “Maybe next time.”

Wade shrugged and ask the Warden, “What about you, sweet bun?”

“Do you want to get hurt?”

“Wha?.. Oh, right. Warden?”

“Yes?”

“Wanna bet?”


“That I’ll do something nasty if you call me some kind of pastry again? Sure, why not.”

“You are no fun.” Wade pouted. Although, it, too, was hidden behind the mask, he still managed to get the message across.

[A lifetime of practice.]

{And undeniable talent.}

Harlequin expertly ignored his expression. “Let’s get a move on.”

“Couldn’t have said it better myself,” said Oghren.

They started walking while Wade pouted. “‘Let’s get this show on the road.’ Personally, I like it better,” he said, taking place in the rear.

First thing they met was a dead ogre with a side order of two giant spiders, equally dead. There was no telling for how long: it could have been a day or two weeks, it also could have been closer to two years since nobody knew the rate of decomposition of either the darkspawn or giant spiders.

Unsurprisingly, the way ahead was blocked, and they were forced to get back into the tunnels, going in a roundabout way deeper and deeper underground. Some of the darkspawn corpses that littered the ground like fallen leaves in the fall sparkled in the same way unlooted chests and crates did.

[It sure makes life easier.]

{But detracts anticipation! If we were to check each and every corpse, there’d be suspense, the sense of discovery! It’s like with Easter eggs — no way to guess which one is rotten.}

“Oh, yay! We have a new kind of enemies!” Wade said as they stumbled upon a group of giant spiders, this time — alive.

Thankfully, Morrigan hadn’t shapeshifted into this form, otherwise, it could have been awkward.

“I feel like I'm starring in a Peter Jackson’s movie. Not sure which one. Am I Bilbo or Sam? The main or a supporting character? That’s the question.”

[Isn’t it always? Such is life.]

{Not when we are in our own series!}

Wade carefully cut through a thick cobweb that coated Harlequin in a white shroud-like wrap.

“Thanks,” she said, stepping out of the ripped shell.

“You are most welcome, gorgeous.” He removed a stray bit of web from her face. “I’d be happy to be your knight in shining armor.”

She pointedly looked at his torn catsuit. “How about you start with getting an armour and then worry about polishing it. I’m sure Alistair can give you some tips.”

“And deprive you of this spectacular view?” He gestured at his body and — coincidentally — at the impressively skin-tight suit. “I’m not so cruel.”

She snorted. “Of course not.”

They rounded the corner and came into a large cavern where — wonder of wonders — the darkspawn were fighting with giant spiders.

“If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, who are we suppose to befriend? Or are we going with a different proverb?”

“Which one?” asked Harlequin.

“About river sitting and enemies floating. Basically, sit tight long enough, and eventually your enemies will die of old age.”

“Is sitting a non-negotiable requirement? What about doing something else while you wait?”

“Not sure, but we can always test it. I have so much creative ways to pass the time in mind... Would you like to hear them?”

“Are they appropriate as a group activity?” she said, raising an eyebrow.

He looked at Wynne and Morrigan. “That depends…” And then at the male part of the group. “... Damn!”

Harlequin snorted. “I thought so. Let’s wait them out” — she nodded at the fighters — “and enjoy the show.”

They stood in the entryway and, hidden in shadows, watched spiders disseminate the darkspawn. Wade even went so far as to sit comfortably on his bag.

“Maker’s beard, they won!” Alistair threw a small leather pouch at Oghren. “It was a good guess.”

“I never guess. The thing about this breed of spiders — they’re poisonous and vicious. Like Branka. It’s how I know she is still alive.”

“She must be a wonderful person,” deadpanned Alistair.

Oghren laughed.

The remaining spiders were, indeed, both poisonous and vicious. At the end of the skirmish Wynne had her arms full of patients.

“Have you considered my offer, Morrigan?” she asked, healing Oghren’s broken ribs and punctured lung. It went slowly because of him being a dwarf and, therefore, having a natural resistance to magic.

“I have. ’tis pains me to admit, but I find your skills useful. I accept.”

“Excellent! Your training starts now. Come here and have a look.”

Watching Wynne instruct Morrigan at the art of healing, Zevran said to Wade. “Perhaps, my secretive friend, you do possess the insight into the future.”

* * *

Ortan Thaig greeted them with ghosts. No, seriously, real live ghosts that, following established over the journey tradition, came at them with weapons drawn.

“Who you gonna call?” Wade shouted at the first ghost to cross his path. “Ghostbusters!

Luckily for the Warden and her company, despite technically being intangible entities, ghosts still got damage when they were hit with sharp and pointy things.

“Bad Casper!” Wade slashed at the ghost. Katanas went right through it, not meeting any resistance as if he was slicing thin air. Though, it probably hurt, judging by the ghost’s enraged expression. More enraged than before, that’s it.

Wade steadily hacked at it until it became dead dead. It didn’t even have the decency to drop something before dissipating, the bastard.

“By the stone! A real golem! How is it still working?”

“Don’t know, don’t care, as long as it can be destroyed.” Harlequin ducked a stone fist the size of a large pumpkin. Her swords chipped only a tiny bit of stone from the monstrosity’s thigh. “A little help wouldn’t go amiss, Oghren.”

But despite not only Oghren’s joining in but Wynne as well, even their combined efforts were not enough to bring it down. At least, not without a lot of repetitive strikes and spells.

For something so huge, the golem moved with an unexpected speed, forcing them to constantly move around. At one point, Harlequin wasn’t fast enough, though. Enormous fist came down and would have smashed her into paste if Wade didn’t push her out of the way.

[Let’s face it: there’s often a downside to heroic rescues.]

“Ouch.” He was crushed into the ground, hard. Pain exploded in too many places to count, then — darkness. Next thing he heard was loud music.

{Hey, how did we get to a party?}

[We are dead, duh.]

“Sweetheart, what a wonderful surprise! It’s so good to see you,” he said to Death13, who lounged at the high table, cocktail glass in hand. He gave her a once-over. “You are radiant, as always.”

“And you, darling, look smashing. But sadly, our time together is short. Until next time, my love.” She blew him a kiss that, for whatever reason, felt like a cold touch to his lips and a slap across right cheek.

“’m awake! Whoa!” He opened his eyes to a deeply touching vision.

{Boobies!}

[Her cleavage is truly magnificent.]

“If all my awakenings were to a sight like this, I’d die more often. Probably.”

Harlequin’s face came into view. “You were dead.” She made an emphasis on the last word, voice almost breaking.

“Yeah, happens sometimes.” Sprawled on the ground, he tried to shrug but abandoned the motion halfway as too painful. Come to think of it, his everything hurt. “I’m all better now. Not quite at full health, but steadily getting there.” He spied an open bottle in her hand. “Say, would you mind giving me the rest of this potion? I’d like to speed up the recovery.”

“You were dead. Wynne tried to heal you, but it was too late. How are you alive?” Clearly, spontaneous resurrection just didn’t compute.

“That’s my healing factor at work.” He swallowed the potion held to his lips and noticed that her hands were trembling. He squinted at her. “Are you upset that I died or that I didn’t stay that way?”

Her expression hardened. “Don’t be daft.” Abruptly, she stood up and with an angry huff strode away.

[Well done. Now, instead of being concerned, she is just angry with us.]

{Better angry than sad and freaking out.}

“At least, I know she cares.”

Moving to take Harlequin’s place, Wynne started another healing spell right away, this time working on his ruptured liver. “I should think it’s obvious.” Ah, Wynne and her motherly disapproval. You can always count on that. “We all were quite upset when we thought you died.”

“Especially Morrigan, I bet! Did she cry?

Wynne poked him in the stomach. His guts did not appreciate the attention.

“I apologise, dear, but I need to check the rate of your healing.” She paused, brows furrowed in concentration, as if listening to something. After several moments, seemingly satisfied with the results, she continued to pour energy into him. “Though, you have to admit, your ability is highly unusual.”

“What can I say, I’m a highly unusual guy.”

Wynne fell silent again, this time she did not speak until she had finished. “All done.”

“Am I good as new and free to go, Doc?”

“Healer” — she heaved a sigh — “and yes, I would imagine so. The way your body reconstructs itself is truly remarkable.” Thoughtful, she was about to say something else, but the Warden beckoned her over.

It was obvious, Harlequin wasn’t happy, but her mood improved — at least a bit — after she found a much needed Injury kit in the rubble left of the golem. Their supplies were not unlimited after all.

* * *

Although everything in the thaig radiated an eerie blue glow, in the absence of bonfires it was a lot harder to see anything at all. Their weapons, depending on enchantments, crackled with electricity, sparkled with fire, or radiated cold; thanks to Wynne’s spell, their armor glowed, sparks ran through what seemed to be a force field. All in all, they stood out like a bunch of sore thumbs.

“We look like fucking fairy lights.”

{Or like fireflies dipped into paint. Or like we have visible auras.}

[Or like we are tripping on heavy hallucinogens, and it's all in our head. Take your pick.]

“Those black mushrooms we found for dinner did taste somewhat sketchy…”

However, no matter the case, it did not improve the illumination problem.

Blondie stumbled over rocks, crates, and, on one memorable occasion, a heavy helmet with a skull inside. It happened so often that Zevran volunteered to walk next to him permanently, his elven vision better than that of a human. He did a nice job of steering Alistair away from road hazards.

No one else was bothered by the lack of proper lighting. Morrigan’s yellow eyes glimmered like a cat’s in the near darkness, her entire demeanor gave an impression of a predator on a hunt. She did look dangerous and beautiful like that.

Wynne summoned a magic light that followed her like a puppy — {I’d love to have this pretty lightball too!} — and Maric followed it like an actual, albeit extremely big puppy.

Oghren and Harlequin, still in the lead together, naturally, saw perfectly well due to their races. In contrast with Oghren’s lumbering gait, the Warden danced over obstacles with unearthly grace. It looked like she was weightless.

Wade simply snapped on a pair of night vision goggles and spend the time ogling her legs.

“Why is it that all dwarven thaigs are so depressing?” said Alistair as they wandered down the street.

{Maybe because they're underground?}

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe it’s because of cobwebs and giant spiders, ghosts and ugly motherfuckers — I mean the darkspawn, of course — and the general feeling of hopelessness and despair associated with abandoned and slowly decaying cities? Or it might be just the lack of sun.” Wade paused, making a thoughtful face. “Yeah, that's probably it!"

“Well, it would be nice to come in a place where there’s no darkspawn, or spiders, or insane cultists, or blood mages, or undead people, or werewolves... Just regular, alive villagers, ready to greet us with warm food and drinks,” said Blondie with a faraway look on his face. “Eh, and then pigs will start flying.”

“I have no doubt that if you go to Antiva, it will make a most favorable impression,” said to him Zevran. “By now I’m too used to the company of handsome people. Though, I must admit, yours will be missed especially. When the Blight is over, perhaps, you would like to join me in my travels?”

Alistair shifted from one foot to the other, then cleared his throat. “You mean you are used to my shield getting in the way of enemy swords?” He smiled, bashful.

“Ah, you caught me. That is exactly why I asked. Who would protect me from further attempts to end my life if I go anywhere by my lonesome? To think that my corpse will rot in a ditch somewhere with a slitted throat, and no one will even know.” He sighed. “You would not allow such fate to befall me, would you?”

“No, I guess not.”

“Then, surely, you will keep me company?” said Zevran, intently looking into his eyes. “At least, think about it, yes?”

Alistair nodded and shuffled closer to the Warden.

{I'm bored.}

[Another song, then?]

“No, it’s done more than twice already.”

[What would you suggest?]

{A game?}

“I spy with my little eye... Something that starts with 'w'.”

[Oh, that’s an easy one.]

{It’s something that reminds me of a well but really isn’t.}

[And there’s a sparkling chest inside.]

“Okay, let’s try again. I spy with my little eye... Hey, there’s a living person over there!”

Wade pointed at a figure that was kneeling over a darkspawn corpse. Upon hearing Wade’s exclamation, though, he jumped and ran away like a dragon was invading his home, i.e. really quickly and screaming all the while.

Harlequin made a quick decision to follow him, instructing Maric to give chase. When they caught up — in a small, easily overlooked cave — to Wade’s surprise, the dog had tackled the runner and was standing over him with front paws on the dwarf’s chest, saliva dripping from his snarling muzzle.

“Huh. Didn’t think he’d do that. Seemed like a nice doggy.” Wade tilted his head to the left. “I see, there’s a lot more to you than a good cuddly pillow.”

Maric’s woof sounded smug.

“He is a war hound, you know.” Harlequin apprised the catch: male, dwarf, tainted. He almost felt like the darkspawn and didn’t look so hot, either. “Who are you and what are doing down here?”

Instead of answering the questions, however, in a voice rusty from disuse, he said, “There’s nothing for you here! It’s mine! I’ve claimed it!”

Indeed, the cave was full of... stuff. Piles of “treasures” towered near the walls; baskets, vases, and boxes carefully stacked together. There also was furniture. Roughly made bedding lay on the floor, a framed picture hung above it crookedly. Fire provided warmth and light. All in all, the cave was homey.

“Right. And how do you propose to eject me?” Harlequin’s tone conveyed honest curiosity.

“You’ve come to take my flame, you surfacers are all alike — thieves and scoundrels. Well, I’d found it first!” He squirmed under Maric, but the dog didn’t move an inch.

“Bah! He is a bloody scavenger.” Oghren grimaced in disgust. “Good as sodding gone.”

“Begone, you! You’ll bring the dark ones back, they will crunch your bones!” shouted said scavenger at Maric’s muzzle.

“Word has it, you can only survive down here by eating the darkspawn dead,” said Oghren.

Harlequin winced. “That explains a lot.”

“I feel it, too.” Absentmindedly, Alistair rested his hand on the hilt of his sword. “That’s horrible.”

“Go away! This is mine! Only I get to plunder its riches!” said the dwarf.

Oghren shrugged. “It brings the taint, turns their brain to sewage, but it hides them from the darkspawn.”

“Poor creature.” Wynne sighed. “Such are the lengths to which our survival instinct drives us.”

Even Maric averted his snout from the sad man.

“Excuse me, does anyone remember that Quasimodo here didn’t have to do it?” asked Wade. “Honestly, you’d think he was force-fed or something.”

[That actually would be horrible.]

{And disgusting.}

“You would prefer to die, then?” Wynne glanced at Wade before turning back to the dwarf.

“I’d sooner starve to death than eat sodding darkspawn,” said Oghren.

Wade shrugged. “Well, it’s not as if starvation can actually kill me. Though I must say, he is a perfect illustration for the saying ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stranger.’”

“There must be an awful lot of such things in your past,” said Harlequin in a flat tone.

“You have no idea, sweet thing.”

She didn’t react to the endearment.

{Is she still angry with us?}

[More like upset.]

{We did save her life; what’s there to be upset about?}

“Hell if I know.” He wandered around the cave. “What does women like? Flowers? She is an elf, so it’s a given.”

Quasimodo shouted again — something about ‘black ones’.

[Should have brought along that potted plant we found in our duffel bag.]

“Jewels?”

{Worth a try.}

[She doesn’t seem the type, but why not.]

“Hmm… Oh, I know: booze and weapons! Who doesn’t like them, am I right? Of course I am. They’re always the best choices.” His circling of the cave came to the starting point.

Meanwhile, at some point the Warden had called Maric to heel and moved from interrogating the dwarf to trading with him.

“Whatta ya know, Quasimodo is a hunchback.”

[We are on a roll.]

{His name is Ruck, by the way!}

“Is it not kinder to end his suffering, I wonder?” Zevran said to Alistair.

Blondie looked conflicted. “I honestly don’t know. He will become a ghoul eventually, but… If he’s already been here for five or six years, who knows how long it will take. And think about his mother. Doesn’t she deserve to see him alive?”

“Would you want your mother to see you like this?” he asked quietly.

Looking to the side, Alistair tugged at the hair behind his ear. “I’d give anything to see her at all.”

By then Harlequin had finished uploading dozens of darkspawn daggers and bows, and heaps of crap that fell under ‘miscellaneous’ label, creating a new pile for Ruck’s Cave of Wonders, and called for them to move out.

“Looks like that bone-picker is living in Branka’s old camp. Did you see the marks on the floor? There were a lot of people and fires there once. Those papers he said were taken by the spiders must belong to her. Nothing that fragile would be left from the thaig.”

As soon as Oghren stopped talking, they were besieged by giant spiders. Speak of the devil and all that.

“I’m starting to hate these fucking arachnids.”

One of the green spiders, a particularly ugly specimen, spat poison at Wade. It hit his leg just below the knee; the fabric of his suit disintegrated with a sizzle.

He glared at the spider. “Especially you, greeny.”

The spider moved its mandibles, hissing.

{Is it insulting us?!}

“When I was a kid, I never got ’round to tear off fly’s wings or spider’s legs. Guess that’s my chance to rectify at least part of it.” He adjusted his grip on katanas. “Say ‘goodbye’ to your extremities, Shelob!”

The spider did not heed his words and simply attacked. It stood on its back legs — four pairs of incredibly hairy, crunchy looking appendages — and lunged at him with the front two.

Wade went to his knees and slid under it, Limbo-esque, arms extended to the sides. Six of its eight legs — cleanly severed — fell around the spider, useless.

Jumping up and pivoting, Wade sunk katanas into the toppled arachnid.

“Remind me to thank Wynne later for providing such perfect ice-rink.”

[I believe it was an unintended side-effect of her spell.]

{Doesn’t matter when it’s so cool.}

What followed next was several hours of systematic search and consequent decimation of all and any kind of spiders, including normal, fingernail sized ones. They looked in every nook and cranny, no stone — aside from too heavy and, you know, belonging to the body of the mountain — was left unturned.

In one of the farthest corners of the thaig they came across an altar, which Wade mistook for a gravestone. What? You'd totally do that, too.

After a thorough examination, Harlequin placed collected along the way human body parts atop, carefully arranging them in the right order.

A purple creature the size of a fucking barn appeared. It had a humanoid form and seemed to consist entirely of a helluva lot of hard plates, ridges, bulges, and bones sticking from strange places.

“Are we suddenly in a lovecraftian novel? I can’t decide, which scales belong to its skin and which are the armor.”

{It's so spiky! And clawy! And—}

[And horny! Heh-heh-heh.]

“Speak, stranger who have restored that which was cut asunder,” rumbled the monster, probably, studying them through its many eyes. It was hard to be sure since they were pitch black, tiny — compared to the rest of it, at least — and placed at an angle to its mouth. Some of them probably were its nostrils. “What choose you — vengeance or reward?”

“Congratulations, it’s your unlucky day,” said Harlequin in the direction of its face that loomed over her at about twice her height distance. “I happen to despise demons of any kind with a passion.”

Before it had time to react, she dived between its legs and drove a dagger into its kneecap, which was at her eye level — right into the fleshy, tender part, half-hidden under a huge scale.

The monster roared, its knee buckling. It swapped at the group; the outgrowth on its arm almost impaled Wade on its many spikes.

“Hey, asshat! Don’t you get stuck in doorways with all that horns? Let me help you out!” Wade attempted to hack off its nearest deformity, but that proved to be impossible to accomplish. “Where’s a chainsaw when you need it?! Time for a new plan.”

Using the demon’s many outgrowths as a grip, he climbed up its torso and poked its eyes with a letter opener. Two of them definitely were nostrils.

{Ew! Demon snot!}

Wade left the knife inside the second nostril. He wasn’t going to clean it, anyway.

Through all that, the demon stood still as a statue. Who knows, maybe it actually had a high pain tolerance. However, that was due to a constant stream of freezing charms provided by Morrigan, which also made hacking off its bits and pieces easy as pie.

Climbing down the demon’s back to avoid being flattened by a stone fist — friendly fire? Not friendly! — Wade accidentally broke off one of its horns.

[It might make a nice souvenir.]

{Will it look good mounted on a wall?}

[We will see.]

Wynne cast a paralyzing glyph for good measure. All in all, her magical input pushed the creature a great deal closer to its demise.

“That went well,” Wade said, wandering to the Warden.

She shrugged, not looking at him. “I wanted to say thank you for saving my life earlier.”

“You are welcome. It’s what I do: save people, hunt things. You could say, it's the family business.” He grinned. “You can thank me with a kiss that you owe me.”

Harlequin raised an eyebrow. At least, she turned to face him.

“Remember the mistletoe at that dingy tavern? We were supposed to lock lips!”

“I’d prefer to thank you with a thank you.”

“Oh, well... At least, we are talking again.”

Then Zevran materialized next to her, as if summoned by a magic word.

[Was it a “kiss” I wonder?]

“As we are on the subject of what happened, I have a question if I may.” He paused, waiting for permission or objections.

Harlequin looked at him curiously; Wade just stared.

Zevran sighed. “Please, darling, indulge my curiosity: why can’t you die?”

“Isn’t it obvious? No? Oh, well… To frustrate my enemies, of course!” he answered with a chuckle.

Harlequin frowned. “Try to be serious.”

“For you, baby, I can go so far as to be Black! Okay, okay.” He raised his hands placatingly, cleared his throat, and schooled his features into an appropriately serious expression... which nobody could see anyway because, hello, the mask.

“People once believed that when someone dies, a crow carries their soul to the land of the dead. I guess he dropped mine so many times that he gave up.”

Harlequin’s frown deepened, but she didn’t say anything, thoughtful.

Zevran sighed again. “One day you will trust us enough to tell your secrets, my friend. I hope to bring that day closer.” He smiled. “I would love to, ah, get to know you better. Of course, we wouldn’t want our dear Warden to feel abandoned, now, would we?” He winked at them.

{Does it mean what I think it means?}

[Threesome? Most probably.]

“Oh, for the love of the Maker!” they heard Alistair’s voice. Turning to look at him, Wade saw Blondie struggling to pull something out of the demon’s remains, clearly, still in hearing range.

“Stupid monstrous demon thing!” He kicked it in frustration.

“And this is my cue to leave.” Zevran sketched a bow and sauntered to Blondie, saying, “Is it not already dead enough? Here” — he bent over the corpse beside Alistair and unsheathed his dagger — “let’s try it this way, shall we?”

Soon after that they had to kill a horde — or five — of ghosts, who for some reason announced their approach by hollering non-stop while running at the company. Thing was, they usually started screaming from about a mile away. It did provide Wade with an opportunity to hone his shooting skills, though.

“If I had a gun, I’d shoot wings off a fly.”

[There is a problem here.]

{Aside from this being a medieval setting and at least a century away from firearms becoming at least somewhat common?}

[Yes, beside that.]

“And that’s?..”

[The total absence of flies.]

Ghosts usually came with a huge bonus, i.e. a golem. Although, after the first one, they had a tactic to deal with it down pat. It was similar to how they fought the demon: freeze, paralyze, deal damage by hitting repeatedly with blunt objects, shake and repeat. Wade looked really fetching with the mallet, even if he did think so himself.

Eventually, they found a stack of pergament sheets, tightly bound together with a leather cord. It looked like a hand-made journal and was laid on a bench near a spider infested square. That was the biggest arachnid conglomeration they encountered to date, and, naturally, they also met what passed for a “queen bee” — Spider queen? Queen spider? Spidey Queen? — among spiders. It took some time to bring her down.

“If I never see a hairy leg, enormous mandibles, or large facetious eyes so close to my face ever again, it will be too soon,” said Alistair, scratching at the long white tread that stuck to his arm brace. The area around it was covered in gauges while the thread remained firmly in place.

Morrigan gave him the evil eye. “You will have to stop looking, then. Not that it will make such a difference. You seem to bumble around like a blind fool as it is.” Then again, most of her glances were patently evil.

He glared right back. “I’m still waiting for you to choke on your own poison.”

Next to the bench, Oghren squinted at the journal, bringing it close to his eyes. “Aye, that’s Branka’s papers, all right. I’d recognize her chicken scrawl even half blind, in the dark, and smashing drunk. She sodding hated it when she had to explain her writings to scribes at the Archives. Used to rave for days about incompetent nug-lickers that passed for scholars there.” He chuckled. “Good old days.”

“Looks like we are going to the Dead Trenches, after all. She wrote that they were going there, and if it’s where she went, that’s where I’m going. Oh, and she mentioned me! ‘Tell Oghren… No, it is for his ears only.’ Old softy.” As if to illustrate his words, his own face softened slightly.

“Why am I suddenly have a feeling she meant to write something unpleasant?” Wade glanced into the journal over Oghren’s head, who appeared not to have heard him.

“Right.” Oghren cleared his throat; his expression cleared as well. “Now that we have it, we know where to go next.”

“Oh, so that’s why we trashed all the spidey holes!”

“Why? You didn’t know we were looking for these papers?” asked Harlequin.

Wade shrugged. “I thought you just really hate spiders.”

“After a day like this?” She looked at the weary and bone-tired group and sighed. “I think it’s fair to say that now we all absolutely do hate them.”

The Eye of Morrigan turned in her direction.

“Except for Morrigan, of course. We all love Morrigan and her amazing shapeshifting abilities, don’t we?” The Warden smiled at the group at large.

“Yes, can’t imagine my life without it,” muttered Alistair. “What was it like? Must have been nice.”

“All right, it’s high time for a bit of rest.” Harlequin shoved the journal into her backpack. “We have earned it. The area is clear, so let’s find a nice spot to settle down for the night.”

“Ha! I bet this place wasn’t so empty even before they made a thaig here!” Oghren bumped his shoulder with Wade. Or he tried to, but their height difference got in the way. “Bah! You’re too tall for your own good. How you all don’t stumble on legs this long is a mystery.”

They wandered in search of a perfect spot in twos and threes, keeping in a shouting distance.

“Is it still night on the surface? I feel like it should be at least the dawn if not earlier.” Alistair said to Zevran.

“Why would I know, my dear?” Zevran asked, puzzled.

“I overheard Harlequin saying that elves feel the sun movements or something like that.”

Wade was sure that even dwarves in Orzammar could hear Zevran’s delighted laugh.

“Ah, alas, no. I am not blessed with this undoubtedly delightful ability. It must be the Dalish trait, and I am, as you know, a city elf through and through.” He seemed unable to stop himself and laughed some more.

“Huh. Really? I see.”

* * *

As soon as they found a nice secluded spot and Harlequin put her backpack on the ground, Wade decided it’s time for a little detour.

“Excuse me, I need to see a dog about a bog!”

Before anyone could react, he pivoted on the spot and briskly jogged back into the darkness. Retracing their steps, he tracked back to the Cave of Wonders.

[You know, we could have saved some time if we went in a straight line.]

{Then why did we zigzag around every corner, twice, on the way there?}

[The Warden was looking for loot and then re-checking if she missed something on her first walk-through.]

“Hmm… I’ll consider that for the way back.”

[And there is really no need to go backward.]

When he finally reached his destination — going backward, as mentioned — Quasimodo was lying on the bedding, facing the fire and mumbling something sibilant in his sleep.

Wade paused mid-step. “How can you mumble hissing sounds?”

{Like this: pressshhiousss!}

Shrugging, he continued toward the pile he mentally marked earlier. “Aha! There it is: booze and weapons!”

Rummaging through it, he picked up a couple of dusty bottles. On close examination, according to the faded labels, it were “Rare Antivan Brandy” and “Agreggio Pavali, wine.”

“If you still haven’t drank it, you don’t deserve it,” he said to Ruck’s sleeping form and stashed the bottles away.

“What’s next? Ah, jewelry!” Moving to the chests, he started sifting through precious stones and jewels in search of a perfect fit for his sweetheart.

[What do you have in mind?]

{Something tasteful, understated, and elegant to accentuate her natural beauty. Look for a necklace on a delicate chain or something.}

Wade hummed. “Aha! That’s it!” He fished out a gem shaped like a human heart. It was about four inches long and shone with its own pallid inner light. Though undoubtedly beautiful, it was as subtle as a kick in the teeth.

[Congratulations: you found the complete opposite of what we had in mind.]

He was about to leave the cave when a glint caught his attention. Seemingly without a thought, Wade bent down, scooped a simple golden ring from the ground, and pocketed it. “You don’t need this, either,” he said to the still sleeping dwarf.

{What do we need a ring for??}

“It’s a little early for proposal, but just in case.” Hand going into the pocket, he unconsciously rubbed the ring between his fingers. “Or maybe I will keep it myself. Such a curious little thing…”

{But it’s not in our style — it's not gaudy at all!}

[Of course not, it's plain.]

If he concentrated, Wade could almost hear a whispering voice that sounded nothing like the boxes. Shaking his head, he blinked. “Yeah, where did that come from? Ah, no matter. I'm sure sugar lips already misses me! Let’s go back.”

This time, he breezed through the thaig in record time. But when he neared the campsite, he heard Alistair asking Wynne, “Maybe he is cursed?”

[They’re talking about us.]

Stopping on the verge of darkness, just outside of the area illuminated by campfire, Wade leaned on the wall. From this spot, he had a perfect view of the camp while remaining practically invisible.

“I don’t know if there is such a curse.” Wynne was frowning, of course.

Morrigan snorted, and Alistair turned to her. “Do you know something?”

“I know a lot of things. Most of them will be forever outside of your comprehension. Even this flea trap” — she nodded at Maric — “possesses more intelligence than you.”

Alistair’s “Hey!” and mabari's whine were overlapped by the Warden’s reprimand.

“Don’t hurt his feelings, Morrigan. He has a kind and gentle soul and is very sensitive,” she said, dropping down next to the witch.

“Thanks. I think.”

Harlequin raised an eyebrow. “I was talking about Maric.”

The dog barked in reply and put his head under her arm in a perfect position for ear scratching.

“So what is your theory?” she said.

Morrigan smiled thinly. “I would think ’tis obvious” — she paused looking at each of them in turn — “who can grant such a peculiar ability to a mortal?”

“A demon.” Wynne’s voice was cold and grave as a grave.

Alistair gave an involuntary shudder, perhaps, remembering the Circle. “He doesn’t look like an abomination.”

“No?” Morrigan’s delicate eyebrows went up. “And how would you know, I wonder, never having seen him without a mask?”

A shadow fell across Harlequin’s face; Alistair looked somber.

{Eavesdropping is always so enlightening!}

[A little push, and they will burn you at a stake.]

{It might be worth it just to see Morrigan or Wynne throwing a fireball at the kindling.}

“Tempting, but I doubt Harley likes the smell of burning flesh as much as we do.”

{But we don’t like it.}

[That’s the point.]

Abandoning his post, Wade sauntered into the light. “So are we going to play the Spanish Inquisition?”

“Spanish Inquisition?” asked Harlequin.

“I know, I know, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.” He raised his voice. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live!” He glared at the mages. “Should I collect brushwood? Find a suitable stake? Hm? And to think this is what I get after all we’ve been through!”

“Please, dear, calm down,” said Wynne.

“I’m calm! I’m the personification of calm! Calm is in the middle of my middle names! Right after Archie.”

“Why Archie?” asked Alistair.

“You like Megan better?”

{I like Megan Fox!}

[She is so pornstar material.]

“... Never mind.”

“Nobody is going to burn anyone.” Harlequin used her authoritative tone, the same one in which she issued commands in battle. “Besides, where would you even go in search of brushwood inside a mountain?”

“I can substitute it with broken carts and crates. I doubt it’ll matter all that much when you” — he glared at Wynne and Morrigan again — “light up the flames under my feet!”

Morrigan’s smile was positively wicked. “I like this idea better and better. Are you sure you don’t want to go on with it, Warden? I grow tired of his constant jabbering.”

“Aren’t we supposed to discuss beheading instead?” Alistair looked from Morrigan, who quirked an eyebrow, her expression as good as said, ‘you’d know, Templar,’ to Harlequin.

“Technically, yes. Still, no burning, beheading, or any other kind of execution is going to take place as long as you didn’t make a deal with a demon.”

“I can do that? Seriously? Why no one told me that before now? How is it done? Do I need to find a crossroad?”

“Mm, no, no crossroads necessary. And it’s not something I would recommend. Possession is bad for the soul, mind, and body. And anyway, then we’d have to kill you for sure, and nobody except Morrigan wants that.”

“Oh. There’s always a catch. Is it like in the Exorcist? Levitation, vomiting, and profanity?”

“Not quite.”

They all looked disturbed.

“It’s horrific,” said Alistair. “We had to clear a whole tower — the Circle of Magi — of disfigured abominations that until recently were people. Templars. If Duncan hadn't whisked me away from the Chantry, I’d have been among them.” He shuddered.

“It’s not always like that,” Wynne said. “When demons make deals with mages, it usually doesn’t have any visible effect. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a person is possessed. Besides, not all deals lead to immediate possession.”

Morrigan shifted forward. “Truly? How then templars decide which throat to cut? Or are they simply rely on their ‘instincts’?” she scoffed.

“Hey, now. I might not be a templar, but I still trained to be one.”

“They observe. If a mage is possessed, it shows in the eyes when the demon first enters his body. Otherwise, it’s sudden changes in behaviour. Obviously, blood magic is a good indication, too,” answered Wynne.

[It seems, they forgot about us.]

{Run while we can?}

“That’s all real interesting and all, but we were talking about your plans to kill me.”

“No, we weren’t.” Harlequin even shook her head. “We were speculating on the subject of your immortality.”

“Well, technically, I can die. It just never sticks.”

“Oh, all right then. It is completely different.”

[I don’t believe she means it.]

“It is. I die and go to the afterlife to enjoy perks of being such a wonderful person. Nothing hurts, I’m happy, and a welcoming party is afoot, and then I’m suddenly yanked back and stuffed into my mangled, aching body. Blast and botheration, and all that.”

“It must be such a burden — not to die.” Morrigan’s face conveyed a ridiculous amount of contempt while still staying moderately attractive.

[Somehow, I don’t believe she means it, either.]

{Do you think it’s inborn skill? Does she give lessons?}

“Afterlife? What’s it like? Have you seen the Maker?” asked Alistair.

“Nah, never met the guy. I usually meet up with Death.”

Harlequin’s eyes widened with surprise. “As in an actual person?”

“Ah, Death…” Wade grinned. “She is a classy babe with excellent taste: she has hots for me. I’d say we are meant to be, but that’s a hard ship to sail, seeing as our relationship is multi-plain and long-distance. We can’t even write each other e-mails or letters. Carrier pigeons don’t work, either.” His sigh might as well be done on stage by a leading actor performing in a Greek tragedy. In a third-class amateur theatre.

Harlequin’s expression changed subtly. Wade barely noticed, and he was watching her like a Hawke.

{Is it a hint of jealousy I see?}

“You were about to tell us of your resurrection.” Her tone became just a tad more dry.

“What’s there to tell? I get whacked, my healing factor kicks in and repairs the damage. If it’s so extensive that I kick the bucket before it’s done, I go in time-out and return shortly after ‘a message from our sponsor’. The end.”

“You keep mentioning a healing factor. What is it, exactly?” said Wynne.

“My pet space hamster,” he snapped. “You saw it at work. Whatta ya think?”

Wynne straightened up even more — Wade honestly didn’t believe it’s possible until she did it — and said in a prim voice, “Forgive me my ignorance. Perhaps, where you came from it is a common knowledge, but we never heard nor encountered such a thing in Ferelden.”

“Fine, magic fingers, it’s exactly as it sounds — an accelerated healing ability that regenerates the damage at an extremely high rate. Is it simple enough for you, or do I need to dumb it down some more?”

[Is it even possible?]

“Quite, thank you.” Propriety, thy name is Wynne.

Harlequin rubbed her face. “And you did not consort with demons to get it?”

Wade’s attitude changed in a second. “No, honey pie, I was experimented upon by scientists. No magic involved. Though, they say that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, so there’s that.”

Again, Harlequin let the nickname slide.

“Then why don’t you take off your mask?” Zevran’s voice emerged from the shadowed end of the camp; its owner followed soon after.

“Trust me, Link, you don’t want me to do that.”

“Now you just intrigue us more.” He pouted.

“Hmm… Looks like someone is unaccounted for. Where’s my vertically challenged buddy?”

“Oghren? Last I saw him, he was playing catch with Maric a way back.”

Wade pointedly looked at the dog lying at Harlequin’s feet. Maric woofed and wagged his tail before returning to gnawing on a bone.

“You are a naughty boy, aren’t you?” Zevran said to the dog, laughter in his voice. To everyone else he said, “I don’t think Oghren will notice the difference. He is quite drunk.”

“How in the Maker’s name is he constantly drunk? Where does he find all that alcohol?” asked Alastair. “I’d like to get drunk at least once.”

“He says it helps him fight, and I haven’t seen evidence to the contrary.” Apparently, Oghren’s supplier on the side, Harlequin turned to Wade. “Well? Will you show us your face or not?”

“How can I refuse when you ask so nicely.” He leered at her cleavage because why not. “It’s not like I care: it’s your nightmares, after all. Gird your loins, honey bunny.” Fed up with their questioning and still generally pissed off, he yanked the mask off his head.

After a clearly audible collective breath, Harlequin said a soft, “Oh.”

“Yeah, ‘oh.’ You may puke now.” Wade wasn’t looking at anyone in particular. He didn’t need or want their disgust. Pity, on the other hand, might be useful. “And the mystery was lost, never to return again. Be proud, you’ve just killed it.”

“It’s not so bad.”

Wade snorted. “Yes, twist the knife some more, why wouldn’t you.”

“What happened if you don’t mind my asking?” Her voice was still gentle, which was so uncharacteristic that he raised his gaze to her face. And met her beautiful honey golden eyes, full with compassion.

“Sure, why not. Listen here, kids.” He inhaled. “My father, ah, was a drinker.” He glanced at the audience. “And one night, when he was deep into the bottle, ah, he looked at me and asked, ‘Why so serious?’ He took me, ah, on a walk, and I fell down the well where I was attacked by a swarm of radioactive spiders, and that was when I was dosed with gamma rays.” He looked at their faces and finished with, “And that is how I got my scars.”

[You realize they don’t understand half the words, right?]

{They don’t need to! Looks like the Warden is sympathetic!}

“And I thought I had it bad. I wouldn’t talk to your dad, either," said Alistair.

“I doubt it made a noticeable difference.” Morrigan’s voice was slightly less acerbic than her usual standard, so Wade counted it as a victory of sorts.

Blondie turned to Wynne. “What kind of magic is gamma ray? Is it a spell?”

“If it is, it is not the one I know.”

{They are so gullible!}

[Not Morrigan, though.]

{I heard her mother is a hag!}

[And now we can guess her future.]

“You don’t have to hide your face from us.” Harlequin said with conviction. “Trust me, you are no abomination.” Seeing his doubtful expression, she rummaged in her pockets. “Here, look for yourself.” And she thrust a small mirror into his hands.

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the ugliest of them all?.. Oh.” The scars on his face were just that, scars. Old and long since healed. Not pretty, but nothing to turn a stomach. “My God, I’m not some human scab-factory anymore! … Wait-a-minute! Am I quoting myself now?! Excuse me while I spend a moment with me.”

Wade stood up and, mirror still firmly clutched in hand, wandered some distance away.

He looked at his reflection, then at the ceiling. “Huh. It even looks manly; like I’m a seasoned warrior or something. Thanks, I guess.” He paused to think. “Can you also make my dick bigger?” He stared at his crotch with anticipation. Nothing happened. “No? You are no fun!”

[Three words: Marvel Girl’s outfit. Don’t piss off the writer. Pray it doesn’t fall off.]

“Nah, it will just regenerate right back.”

[… And if not?]

{*gulp*}

*Somewhere else: the writer smiles. It is the kind of smile that makes small children cry. “Mwahahahaha!”*

Audibly swallowing, Wade started to mutter, “Dear Lord, please, don’t be a dick and leave mine alone and as it is. I like it very much, thank you. Amen.” And waited.

When after five minutes of tense anticipation nothing — aside from some persistent itching between his shoulder blades, but that could have just been the stares of his companions, or maybe he was sprouting wings — failed to happen, he sighed with relief.

[Be glad the writer is in a good mood.]

Back at the camp, he handed the mirror to Harlequin. “Thanks. Guess all that healing spells, poultices, and potions did some good, after all.”

She smiled at him brightly. “Now you officially don’t have a reason to refuse taking them.”

Then Oghren stomped up to her and collapsed on Maric. “Told you I’ll catch you, didn’t I?” he slurred into his fur.

The dog huffed.

* * *

Several weeks later they came upon a ‘geee-agee’.

“A what now?!”

{That’s what the writer’s three months old son said to her when she asked him how to call this thing in one word. It was right after she stopped banging her head on the table in frustration.}

[If I had a face, I’d facepalm right about now.]

Wade facepalmed. “What’s wrong with a good ol’ cliff?

[There’s the other side, so it’s more of a canyon with a river of lava running through it.]

He looked in the direction of the ceiling. “You should totally take a break.”

Anyway, as soon as they came to the edge, a roar sounded. On the other side they could see a veritable mob of the darkspawn, screeching, grunting, and generally producing a lot of noise.

Wade picked up a fist-sized rock and threw it into the river. It did not reached the surface. Out of nowhere came a great fucking dragon, with enormous teeth, claws, wings, and… all the rest of it. It looked skeletal, purple sparks running all over its scales, and slightly reminded Wade of something mechanical.

The darkspawn attitude bore a worryingly uncanny resemblance to that of football fans at the World Cup. They met the dragon like a star player, cheering and banging weapons on their shields.

The stone hit the dragon on its forehead, bounced to its snout, and stuck there between the ridges.

Almost as one, the group ducked behind a pile of steel sheets that served as railings. Wade followed only after a pull from Harlequin, still watching the show.

The dragon shook its head, trying to dislodge the rock, but it stayed firmly in place. Irritated, the winged menace snorted, roared again, and released a breath, accompanied with purple fire. Then it surveyed the mob and with a final roar flew away.

Harlequin’s gaze followed the dragon until it could no longer be seen.

“Heh. That was anticlimactic.

She turned to Wade, incredulous.

“What?” he said, defensive. “I just wanted to see for how long it will fall.”

She, like the dragon not five minutes before, shook her head and went toward the bridge and a group of dwarves, holding the line in front of it.

“That was the Archdemon.” Alistair was looking at him with a mix of wonder and newfound respect.

“Seriously? I expected something more demonic, like an actual demon. Only larger and meaner than the rest of them.”

“Well, it is the Old God, corrupted by the darkspawn taint. And now that I think of it, I don’t know why is it call the Archdemon and not, say, Archdarkspawn or Archspawn. Wouldn’t it make more sense?” Blondie said, scratching his neck, as they followed the Warden.

Fun fact about helmets: they magically disappear when you talk.

“Archdragon? The Tainted Old God? No, too much of a mouthful.”

“Just call it Archy. YOU PLAY WORSE THAN MY GRANDMA, AND SHE IS DEAD, SUCKERS!” Wade shouted at the darkspawn that now, when Archy no longer distracted them, spilled onto the bridge en masse with a clear intent of ganking the dwarves.

What happened next could only be described as a massacre. With a savage cry, Wade ripped through the darkspawn as if they were wet cardboard mannequins. He cut, sliced, hacked, and chopped left, right, and center. All sounds muted, he could only hear a persistent beat of drums in his head. They called for war and for blood. Unable and, frankly, unwilling to resist, he provided.

When he eventually ran out of the darkspawn, standing amidst what could be confused with the work of a mincer, he shouted, “Are you not entertained?” Turning in a circle, he caught a glimpse of a group of gaping dwarves, repeated, “Are you not entertained?!” and promptly fainted, weak from severe blood loss and internal bleedings. His guts spilled onto the bridge from a gaping wound in abdomen, adding to the mess.

Once again, return to consciousness accompanied a sharp stinging across his cheek.

[I’m sensing a theme here.]

“If I were anyone else, I’d say this is embarrassing, but I being me?” His head rested on something soft, body tingled with the familiar sensation of healing magic, and right before his eyes was a heartwarming view. He sighed contentedly. “This is heaven.”

Harlequin finished applying a poultice to his neck. “My breasts won’t talk to you, no matter how hard you try chatting them up.”

“That’s fine. I can easily hold both ends of a conversation.”

Her lips twitched upwards. “How are you feeling?”

Wade gave it due consideration. “Thoroughly refreshed. Like I went to the all you can eat buffet after prolonged dieting, only with killing as the main course. Call me War Machine from now on!”

“That’s good to hear. There’re a lot more darkspawn behind those walls.” She gestured at something on the other side of the canyon. Then she stood up and gave him a hand. “Come, I want to speak with the Legionnaires.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you are a fellow berserker?” Oghren tugged at his braided mustache. “I’d like to discuss the training process, see if there’s a difference. You did well for a human.”

“Indeed, it was truly marvelous, my friend. You were magnificent! Like a god of war that came to our aid.” Zevran eyed him speculatively. “We might not even need an army to combat the Blight.”

“How ’bout after we gank Archibald, we come back here and throw me into the Deep Roads for a month or two? There’re so many uglies to do in! It will be like the Ultimate killing spree! You’ll need to remember to bring me supplies, though. Several months without food or water can be downright exhausting.”

“Who’s Archibald?” asked Harlequin.

“Archy.” Still nothing. “Your archnemesis?”

“He means the Archdemon,” said Alistair with a grin.

“Yeah, after whacking so many of its fans, I feel a certain sense of familiarity with the winged menace.”

“I will consider it.” And speaking to the dwarves that stood in a loose circle before a big-ass statue of a female dwarf, she said, “Greetings to the Legion of the Dead.”

“They don’t look dead to me.” Wade squinted at the dwarves. “And they definitely aren’t zombies.”

Oghren snorted. “They are alive, all right. It’s just that they consider themselves to be already dead, hence the name of their branch.”

Meanwhile, the dwarf in the middle stepped up to Harlequin. “Atrast vala, Grey Warden. I’ve never seen one of your kind in the Deep Roads.”

“And yet, you know I’m a Grey Warden. How is that?”

“I recognize a fighter of darkspawn. It marks you. That’s why we, Legion of the Dead, abandon our lives so we can face them without fear.” The dwarf shrugged. “Besides, rumors of your arrival reached us from Orzammar.”

“Ha! I knew you are a gossipmonger, Kardol!” Oghren moved to stand on Harlequin’s right.

The dwarf, Kardol, pretended not to hear it. Although, unable to hide his reaction completely, he frowned, which pulled tattoos on his forehead toward his nose. Inexplicably — because there was nothing even remotely similar — it put in Wade’s mind an image of flapping wings.

Harlequin hummed noncommittally. “I need to find Paragon Branka.”

“What? Who put this dull idea in your head?!” Kardol practically spattered with indignation, as if the idea somehow offended him. Then he seemingly restrained himself. “We’ve got other things to worry about in Orzammar… Ah, I see. The deep lords in the Assembly can’t decide whose arse to put on the throne, so the pretenders need added influence. I get that right?”

“Yeah, that just about sums it up.” Harlequin sounded indifferent. “You have anything useful to add?”

“Warden, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Paragon Branka is dead, everyone with sense knows it. Past our line, the darkspawn kill everything.”

“Then why don’t you move your line?”

“I’d gladly lead an assault through the Dead Trenches, but we have no orders. I won’t take fool’s gold from a pretender. You wanna go digging blind? Go right ahead. Let us know if you find any Paragons. You are as likely to find a dozen as one. And Warden? Watch yourself. Drunks make poor allies.”

“If every warrior pulled his weight half as well as Oghren, I’d start to brew ale myself.”

Next to her, Oghren grinned, flattered.

She smiled wryly. “Besides, we have War Machine on our side; we will be fine. Do you mind if we camp nearby? We’ve made quite a way, and I don’t feel like venturing farther into the occupied territory exhausted.”

“I don’t see why not. Might as well use this opportunity to catch up on sleep while we keep watch. Ancestors know, there’s no safe place where you are going.”

“You have our thanks.” She bowed her head, then gestured for her companions to follow.

“What’s his deal with Branka?” she asked as soon as they were out of earshot.

Wade nodded. “Yeah, I’ve got the impression that he doesn’t like your wifey very much.”

“To put it mildly. Some years back, before he joined the Legion, Kardol courted Branka’s close friend Hespith. Don’t know what her beef was with him, but Branka hated the guy with a passion. And that’s saying something, for she has a temper of a mad bronto.” Oghren chuckled.

“Eventually, Hespith turned her nose on him. He blamed Branka, even wanted to duel her. But Branka’s a vicious little viper. I always suspected she blabbed about it to the guards. Did you know that assaulting a Paragon is a serious crime? Well, it is. And there you have it: he joined the Legion to be pardoned of his ‘crime’. Not long after, she up and left with all our clan, Hespith included. Guess Kardol never got over it.” The underlying bitterness in his voice belied the flippant tone.

“That sounds...” Harlequin trailed off, unsure of how to put it inoffensively.

Wade didn’t have such problem. “Like your wifey is a mean bitch.”

Oghren didn’t deny it. “We were never close with Kardol. Friendly enough” — he shrugged — “had a pint at the Tapster’s every so often, but I liked him. Tried to speak on his behalf with the guards. Obviously, to no avail. That dust-lovers have their ears stuffed with moss when it suits them.”

By then they had found a spot and put their thing down. Harlequin arranged the wood for campfire, and Wynne lit it with a fireball.

“Cheer up” — Wade nudged Oghren — “if she is alive but nuttier than a fruitcake, you can lock her in the attic. It's a good opportunity to become a tragic, brooding hero. Chicks dig that.”

“Hn. Branka already was quite mad when she left. Knowing her, she’d dig her way out and throttle me for trying. Or her screams would attract all Orzammar onto our doorstep, and then someone else would lynch me for disrespecting the first Paragon in centuries. Either way, it’d be unpleasant.”

“Do you still love her?” asked Harlequin after a long pause.

“Love?” Oghren considered it. “Maybe. I’m not sure anymore. Our life wasn’t that great for quite some time before she left, but I still have strong feelings for her. And anyway, if she is in trouble — and she certainly is, otherwise, my clan’d be back by now — someone has to care enough to help her. Looks like I’m that someone.” He took a long swig from his flask. “Everyone needs to have such someone, I say.”

“I will drink to that.” Fishing a bottle out of her bag, she deftly uncorked it. A smell of something quite strong wafted out. She toasted the air and partook of it.

“Warden!” Wynne said, appalled by her abrupt dive into the bottle.

Harlequin raised an eyebrow, unrepentant. “You heard Kardol, this is likely our last safe stop. Why not make the best out of it while we still can?”

“A fine idea, my dear Warden.” Following her example, Zevran brought out a bottle as well. “One must take pleasures whenever he can find it. Let us not squander this opportunity.”

“Might as well get drunk at least once. Don’t want to die without experiencing hangover.” And Alistair pitched in to their impromptu party with a bottle of ale.

When even Morrigan procured a beverage of her own, Wynne turned to Wade as he was the last one — not counting the dog — without a spirit in hand.

“What? Don’t look at me like that, woman, I’m not going to miss out on this!” Plunging into his bag, he brought enough alcohol to stock a popular bar for a busy night, including glasses.

“Yes, I’m always generous this way,” he said to Maric, pouring milk into a bowl for the happy dog.

“Oh, well.” Wynne sighed. “Why in the Maker’s name not? Please, be a dear and pour me some wine, Oghren.”

“Attagirl!” Oghren laughed. “I’ll even give you a taste of my special brew!” he said, leering at her.

“If by that you mean the content of your flask, I’d like that, thank you. It smells delicious.”

Soon after, the party went in full swing, with rowdy songs and exuberant laughter. Feeling like the future would doubtfully bring a lot of cheerful moments, they did make the best of the evening.

From a distance, legionnaires eyed them with naked envy.

* * *

“Ah! The smell of napping elms in the morning!” Yawning, Wade got out of his sleeping bag and stretched like a cat.

{There are trees underground? Oh! Trees can fall asleep?}

[I believe the better question is are trees alive?]

“Don’t go all existential on me before my first coffee.”

{There’s no coffee here.}

“Exactly.”

Going by the state of the camp, the party was a glowing success. Only Zevran, Morrigan, and Maric were awake, and while the elf greeted him with a jaunty wave, Morrigan’s already wan face took on a sour expression.

“Morning, Bander-logs. Isn’t it a fine day for a bit of recreational killing?” The question was rhetorical, so he didn’t wait for reply. “What’s for breakfast?”

“Urgh.” Face suddenly green, Morrigan shot up and ran in the direction of the bridge.

Wade chuckled. “Weakling.”

“Ah, that may be so, but I advise to be gentle with her: she might be heartbroken.”

“Why’s that?”

Cocking his head to the side, Zevran pressed a finger to his lips in the universal gesture for silence.

They heard rustling — and also the sound of retching from farther away — and then Wynne saying, “Let us never speak of it again.” A moment later she emerged from Oghren’s tent. Upon noticing the audience, she faltered, straightened her robe, and went to her own tent, head held high.

“Huh.”

Zevran nodded, sagely. “Indeed.”

“Why was I in your bedroll?” Harlequin asked, appearing before Wade.

“Morning, sunshine! You are a lovely sight for sore eyes, radiant and fresh as dew.” He stared at her legs. “Why? You don’t remember our night, full of passion?”

Harlequin’s eyebrows flew up, and her eyes went wide open. “That must have been a highly unremarkable tumble, for I have no recollection of it.”

“Oh, cruelty, thy name is woman!” He pretended to be mortally wounded and collapsed to the floor, struck dead.

“Really.”

“What, you don’t believe me?” Wade raised his head slightly and opened one eye.

“That you are about to die? Yes, I do. Because I might be the one to put you into the ground if you don’t answer the question or, better yet, find me a hangover remedy. Anyone’s got a potion?” she asked.

Zevran handed her a bottle with a yellowish liquid.

“Why didn’t you give it to Morrigan?”

The elf smiled benignly. “I would, but alas, she didn’t ask.”

She nodded her thanks before gulping it down in one go, completely ignoring the body at her feet.

“Oh, fine, be that way.” Pouting, Wade sat upright. “You were cold and wanted a hug. And when I say ‘wanted’, I mean ‘won’t take no for an answer’.” He gave her a once-over. “Not that I wasn’t happy to oblige, of course. Maric was busy chasing his tail, so I picked up the mantle as ‘the next best thing’. Your words, not mine.”

[Careful, or she might skewer you on her swords.]

{Noo, she’s too mellow after that miraculous potion.}

“We chose my bedroll and not yours because it’s bigger on the inside. Don’t worry, I didn’t cop a feel.”

[Much. Heh-heh-heh.]

“And here I was, thinking of demanding breakfast,” she said in a dry tone. Maric shuffled to her, whining and thumping his tail. “Oh, now you are up for cuddles?”

“What did I miss?” asked Alistair, grinning.

“Oh, nothing much. Apparently, I’m a cuddly drunk.” She shrugged. “Never would have guessed.”

“What, you’ve never been drunk before? I thought there’s only one delicate flower among the Wardens.” Oghren joined them as well.

“Didn’t have a taste for it. Still don’t, for that matter, but in for a copper, in for a sovereign.”

“Hn. You have a fine tolerance for a first timer, Warden.” Oghren said with respect, then he took one look at Alistair and burst out laughing.

“What?”

“Ha, pike-twirler, I told you I can smell it,” he said between chuckles, tapping his nose. “Congratulations!”

{How can he smell virginity?}

[… In this day and age of no indoor plumbing.]

{Is it a special dwarven talent?}

“It’s a special Oghren talent.”

“What is?”

“Your great sense of smell, of course.”

“Aye, that it is.” And Oghren laughed again, winking at Alistair.

“Urgh!” Morrigan, who was only ten feet away from them, quickly turned back to the bridge.

“I don’t know what you are talking about.” Blushing furiously and avoiding looking at anyone, Blondie hurriedly ate his bread and cheese combo that everyone in Orzammar refused to call a sandwich. “Shouldn’t we pack and get on our way?”

Meditatively chewing her fill, Harlequin thought about it. “Let’s move in an hour. Hopefully, Morrigan will feel better by then.”

* * *

It took more than an hour, but they did move out and into the enemy territory. They had to retake the bridge, killing another batch of the darkspawn. This time with the joined effort of the entire group and not as a solo enterprise: mages cast area spells — Earthquake and Blizzard, to be precise — and then it was just a matter of picking off strugglers with long ranged weapons.

Wade’s aim even improved slightly. At least, now he could hit an ogre.

[Probably, due to its size.]

{Just wait, we’ll shoot the ears off a shriek in no time!}

They pushed the line as far as the gates. Up close, it was ridiculously tall, wide, and pretty much conformed to all expectations Wade had of dwarven architecture.

“What’s this — entrance to Mordor?” He knocked on the metal surface. The resulting sound was faint and dull.

“It is several dozen inches thick,” Oghren said with pride, admiring the work of his ancestors.

To Wade it looked like a bunch of burnt metal plates.

[Dwarves.]

“We might have some luck with a battering ram if we can find one, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. This was built to withstand an assault by amassed darkspawn forces” — Oghren patted the gates — “and it did its job nicely.”

“And, of course, it is blocked from the inside,” said Harlequin, walking up to them.

“Aye, we will have to find another way to crack this nut.”

“I’ve already spoken with Kardol. He says there’s a passage not far from here. It was that way the darkspawn finally took the city.”

“And we use it to sneak up on them.” Oghren nodded with a ferocious smile. “I appreciate the irony.”

“They didn’t block it? Imbeciles.” Wade snorted.

[The wonders of hive mind.]

The tunnel to the Dead Trenches was exactly like any other they’d travelled through — rough, uneven, and roundabout. Going at full speed, they cut through a small group of uglies that loitered there and spilled into the city to meet a much larger congregation.

Evidently, the darkspawn didn’t expect guests. Several turned to the intruders, grunting and screeching — Wade decided — in surprise. Still, they had brontos and ogres in spades. Already the range fighters were reaching for their weapons.

Wade surveyed the amount of work. “What’s the plan?”

“The usual: kill them all in a brutal manner.” Harlequin’s smile was savage, her eyes wild.

“That’s one sodding way of sneaking up on somebody, Warden.” Oghren unslung his axe.

“There’s no way for a Warden to sneak up on the darkspawn. They feel us, too. Same as we do.” She glanced at him briefly, arching an eyebrow. “Didn’t I tell you?”

“Must’ve slipped your mind.” And with a war cry, he charged at the nearest bronto.

Staying slightly behind, Wynne and Morrigan started casting spells; the rest of them followed Oghren’s example.

Over the heads of genlocks he was absentmindedly dismembering, Wade eyed two ogres that were about to join the fray from either side of the square a hundred or so feet ahead. “The left or the right one, that’s the question.”

The ogres, as if sensing his indecision, met up in the middle and attacked Harlequin simultaneously.

“That’s decided, then.” With two quick thrusts — not even sparing a glance — Wade finished the genlocks.

“Kill the spare!” he said, appearing before Harlequin just in time to block the hit that would have cleaved her shoulder.

“Thanks.” She dived under the other ogre’s outstretched arm and stabbed him in the lower back. Mostly, because proper backstabbing was out of the question due to the height difference.

The battle continued. Spells and arrows flew back and forth, axes and swords swung and fell with various results and accuracy… The usual war song and dance. Wade entered zen and was a breath away from enlightenment when he was run over by a bronto.

“Ouchie,” he said as soon as his jaw regrew. “That was one hell of a reindeer.”

Axe held high, Oghren raced after the beast. In his fervor, he barely avoided stepping on Wade.

“It’s positively raining mountain men.”

Going after them, Harlequin paused to ask, “You all right?”

Wade didn’t think he should get up just yet, what with his left tibia sticking out in two different places. That, however, didn’t stop him from smiling with bloodied teeth. “Peachy.”

She nodded and, clearly not believing him, threw him a healing potion before getting on her way.

{She so does care!}

“Thanks, that’s sweet of you,” he shouted at her back.

A group healing spell further sped up his recovery, and he sprang to his feet just in time to see the bronto falling down, dead to the world.

[Literally.]

The area was full of corpses and body parts, nothing left to kill.

Sighing, he shook his head ruefully. “Figures.”

Going in pairs, they spread out to loot the place. Naturally, Maric volunteered to go with Harlequin, but Wade bribed him with a promise of rats to swap places. Reluctantly, the dog went with still sour looking Morrigan.

Behind the closed doors to the left of the square, they found a small group of the darkspawn and several sparkling sarcophaguses.

“Isn’t it desecration?”

[It is.]

{We are grave robbers!}

Lifting the stone lid, Harlequin shot him a quick glance. “I don’t think the dead care.”

“You say that now, but when they take offense and start to rise… Don’t say I didn’t tell you ‘what a great fun!’”

She quirked a smile. “Deal.”

Some time later, they met up in front of the gates.

“The bridge across is collapsed, but we found a passage heading from the farthest room to the right,” said Alistair.

“Excellent work.” Harlequin nodded at him and Zevran. “Before we go, however, take a look at the locking mechanism. Can we jam it?”

“I’d give it a try. I’m no engineer, mind you, but every dwarf knows the basics.” Oghren hummed. “Aye, I can do it, but I will need some tools,” he said after a close examination.

Zevran, being their expert lockpicker, had it covered. “Let me give you a hand — and my kit — my friend.” He chuckled at his own words. “I am very interested in seeing how it works.”

“All right, get on with it.”

“Why are we wasting time on such matters?” Despite her tone, Morrigan seemed genuinely interested.

“The passage we went through is much narrower than the gates. If the darkspawn have only that way out, it will make the Legion’s job a lot easier,” answered Harlequin.

“This is very thoughtful of you, Warden,” said Wynne.

“You sound surprised.”

Wynne averted her gaze. “I just didn’t think you possess a mind for strategy.”

Unperturbed, she shrugged. “I have my moments.”

* * *

The promised passage was cleared of the darkspawn for almost the entire length of it.

“I took the liberty and scouted ahead. There was a lot of traps, you see.” Zevran smiled slyly. “The darkspawn are by no means craftsmen. A shoddy work like that... No wonder, it set off, ah, unexpectedly.”

[He is a devious man, that one.]

{We like him.}

“We can’t keep him as a pet. It will make Alistair sad, and I can’t stand his puppy eyes. It should be used as a weapon!” Wade habitually ignored the looks he got for that statement.

“Is it just me or do you find this sodding low ceiling oppressive, too?”

“Oghren, it’s almost thrice my height,” said Harlequin.

“As I said, bloody low.”

Soon, however, to Oghren’s pleasure, they came into a hall. It had high ceiling, intricate decorations — columns with a stylized image of a golden face prevailed — and statues of people that looked like the darkspawn attached crudely made parody of wings.

To the right was an open entrance to a cave full of uglies themselves. It also housed a forge, Wade was surprised to notice, cleaving what probably was a forger in half.

“Guess they haven’t heard of smokeless coal, huh,” he said, nodding at the forges, purplish smoke wafting out of them.

Having heard him, Harlequin laughed despite herself.

“What’s up with the statues? The winged helmets that could be made out of goat skulls — if goats were irradiated and hit a growth spurt — I can understand. But why are they made to look like humans dressed in togas?”

Harlequin stopped to take a look. “That is strange. Oghren?”

He shook his head. “I’ve never heard of it. Maybe the darkspawn brought it from somewhere.”

“And then attempted a redecoration.” She pointed at the helmet and wing that upon closer inspection looked more like turned upside down Oblivion symbol.

Oghren snorted. “You think they’re intelligent enough for that?”

With a shrug, Harlequin pointed out the obvious. “Who else could it be?”

{Fairies from the Neverland!}

[Why’s that?]

{Dunno. Just thought it’d be cool if it were them.}

“Hey, I’ve just had a revelation!”

Harlequin gestured for him to continue.

“A thaig is a village!” Wade said with the air of a priest imparting the word of Bible to pagans.

“What do you say, Oghren?”

“Hm? How should I know? I’ve never seen a village. Is it like a thaig, then?”

“In a way.” Harlequin shrugged. “Well, I suppose you might be right,” she said to Wade.

“Might?! There’s no ‘might’ here except for my mighty charms!”

“Uh-huh.”

“And where’s my ‘Deadpool, you’re so clever!’? Huh?”

She batted her eyelashes. “Oh, but of course, you must be a genius!”

Wade preened, exaggerating the act to a grotesque proportion. “Naturally.”

{We made her laugh! Score!}

They went farther, then across a bridge that was perpendicular to the collapsed one, and right into a wall of shrieks. The darkspawn appeared with a puff of dark grey smoke, seemingly out of nowhere.

“Do they have teleporters or something?” Wade asked no one in particular.

“The what?” Alistair bashed the ice covered shriek with his shield, making chunks of frozen darkspawn fall off. “Never mind. They use rogue powder.”

“And now it’s my turn!” Wade cleared his throat and assumed a high-pitched tone. “The what?”

“Ha-ha, very funny. You should join the circus.” He smashed the shriek’s head with the pommel of his sword. It cracked. The head, not the sword.

“Thanks, I thought so myself. Not sure about the circus, though. It’s more Hawkeye’s shtick.”

“What does a bird’s eye have to do with anything?” said Harlequin, slicing two mantises at the same time somewhere on Wade’s left.

“Eating them will make your eyesight better. Everywhich witch knows that!”

“Hey, Morrigan! Did you know about it?” she asked, slanting a smirk Wade's way.

“Don’t be absurd! It takes a lot more than an eye.”

“But the eye is one of the ingredients, amiright?”

Morrigan, clearly not eager to agree with anything Wade said, paused, then relented. “For once.”

[Either we are growing on her or on her nerves. Take your pick.]

{I’d prefer an ice pick! Useful and cool.}

In the next big hall after the bridge skeletons dwelled. Well, not so much dwelled, seeing as they were not exactly alive, but... Ah, semantics. As everything else, skeletons didn’t stop for pleasantries, attacking on sight.

[Is it necromancy?]

Wade asked as much, whispering the last word with a nervous glance around and doing his best impersonation of a fearful peasant from the Dark Ages.

Crashing skeletons to heaps of bones, Oghren grunted. “Runes,” he said. “The defensive mechanism placed on the tombs is triggered. I wonder by whom though, us or the darkspawn.”

“See! Haven’t I told you? What a great fun it is!” Wade shouted to the Warden, sending a skeleton back to eternal rest.

“Emissary!” she shouted back.

As soon as the emissary was dealt with, they had a chance to look around. And most of them shortly wished they didn’t. The walls, floor, and some of the columns were covered in a spongy meaty substance. The same substance was skewered on spikes all around the hall. The foul stench was sure to turn even an iron stomach.

Wade’s was adamantium. Wandering to the biggest pile, he prodded it with the tip of his boot. It bounced, not unlike jelly.

“Weird.”

“I don’t know what it is, but it gives me the creeps.” Oghren shuddered.

“You and everyone else,” said Harlequin. “Let’s not waste time, I feel a lot of the darkspawn nearby.”

“Aye, aye, captain!” Wade saluted and pulled a door open... to hear a hoarse voice.

“First day, they come and catch everyone,” it said.

“Great, more corridors with sodding low ceiling.”

“And more meaty things. Brr!”

“Second day, they beat us then eat some meat,” said the voice as if replying to Wade.

By the third line, dread made the rounds among the group.

“This can’t be good,” said Harlequin. They all silently agreed with her assessment.

Entering a side tunnel, acoustics became even better. The voice seemed to reverberate, getting louder with each twist and turn of the road.

“Fifth day, they return and it’s another girl’s turn.”

“Creepy.”

“Sixth day, her screams we hear in our dreams.”

Another turn, a different line: “Seventh day, she grew as in her mouth they spew.”

“That’s disgusting.” Alistair’s face was steadily losing healthy color and gaining a greenish hue instead.

“Eighth day, we hated as she is violated.”

“That’s the darkspawn for you,” said Harlequin, her voice and expression hard.

With a slight detour into a dead-end — with soon dead spiders and an emissary — they continued moving toward the voice.

“Ninth day, she grins and devours her kin.”

“At least, she can rhyme.” The remark gained Wade disturbed glances. He shrugged with one shoulder.

They entered the dwarven corridor. There was even more meaty piles of gross stuff.

{Let’s just call it ‘eww’ for short. Because eww.}

One of the fleshy sacks was sparkling.

“Are you going to loot it?” Wade asked, genuinely interested in her answer.

Harlequin pulled a face. “It might contain something valuable…”

[Well?]

He sighed. “All right. If it’s really necessary, allow me to help.”

“Why, thank you, kind ser. I’ve never dealt with anything unpleasant.” Though her tone was sarcastic, she stood aside, grateful for his offer.

“I live to serve fair maidens and reap—”

[Bodices.]

“—deserved rewards.” He knelt near the sack, pulling a hunting knife out of his bag. “A warning, sweetheart: I charge an arm and a leg.” And he cut into it.

The others gathered around, watching with morbid curiosity. The squelching sound was the worst, the awful rotten smell not far behind. Wade tugged open the edges of the cut and shoved a hand inside. After some fumbling, he pulled a handful of small spongy things. He cleaned them with a quick brush of his other hand, to reveal...

“Mushrooms? All that just for mushrooms?! That’s so unfair!” Pouting, he almost didn’t resist the urge to throw his catch against the wall, managing to halt the motion at the last moment. Instead, he presented it to Harlequin, bowing at the waist. “Here you go, one handful, right out of a meaty sack, still covered in goo.”

“Thank you. I will treasure it till my dying day,” she said with feeling.

“Might be not such a good idea. I intend to ensure your survival through this adventure and a long life afterwards.” Seeing her surprise, he said, “It will surely spoil and become even more disgusting… Then again, I’m not so sure it’s even possible.”

[Since when is this our plan?]

{Since right about now! Apparently.}

“You are sweet talker, aren’t you?”

Grinning, he repeated her earlier words: “I have my moments.”

The effect of his attempted levity, however, was extremely short lived as he opened the door to the voice saying, “Now she does feast, as she’s become the beast.” The speaker paused, then started anew at a faster pace. “First day, they come…”

They descended a five-step staircase and saw a figure in the alcove to their left. The woman crouched, surrounded by sacks and skewered piles of spongy meat. Pus oozed out of some of them. It was hard to tell what she was doing exactly.

As they came closer, she raised her head, turning her face toward them. It didn’t take a genius to figure out she was tainted — ghoulish appearance and crooked posture were a dead giveaway — and for a long time.

Oghren sucked in a startled breath. "Hespith!" he said on the exhale, horror and shock warring for dominance.

Slow and clumsy, she stood up, like a puppet with tangled strings. “What is this? An elf? Exotic and impossible. Feeding time brings only kin and clan. I am cruel to myself. You are a dream of strangers’ faces and open doors.”

Wade noted that she spoke better than Ruck the Duck. Her words sounded clear and with precision. Hespith definitely retained some of her intelligence. Although to be fair, she and Quasimodo had started with a different decks to begin with.

Her overall condition was another matter entirely. Despite being in the Deep Roads several years less, she came off a lot worse. Her skin was pale and covered in dark blotches, eyes glazed with white film.

“Poor child,” said Wynne. “She is suffering from a high fever.”

No longer looking at the newcomers, Hespith started to mutter her creepy rhyme.

“I can help… whatever is left of you,” said Harlequin to her.

“No, no you can’t. No one can…” Then, in a convoluted way, she told them of what happened.

[Let’s not bore the reader with a long-winded in-game dialogue.]

{But what if someone forgot or simply doesn’t know an important detail?? It’ll be a plot hole! Everyone knows they suck stories in! Oh, the HORROR!}

[*sigh* Let’s recap.]

Branka became obsessed with the Anvil and somehow hooked up with the darkspawn. Men became corrupted and turned into mindless ghouls, though they soon died marching somewhere. When the rest of her clan tried to escape, they were shortly found.

The darkspawn then killed men and processed to turn the women in the most gruesome fashion possible. They force-fed them flesh and blood of male dwarves, who were tainted prior to that, and also bile. Mustn’t forget the bile. Then the darkspawn raped them.

Hespith was saved for last. Some other woman, Laryn, was turned before her, and she had to watch the process. At this point in her story, even the dog was disturbed.

Maric whined pitifully while Harlequin’s jaw was clenched so hard, she probably crashed her teeth.

It soon became apparent that somewhen around that time Hespith’s mind broke. She was Branka’s captain and lover, and powerless to stop her. Then she said that she will not become like Branka or like Laryn and ran off.

Stunned by her tale, they watched her go.

Of course, Wade was the first to recover. “Hate to say it, but I was right: your wifey went completely bonkers. What a fucking mess.”

Appalled, Oghren grunted. “I don’t believe this. I… I can’t…” He rubbed his face. “Why? Why would she do that?..”

“And what became of women? What were they turned into?” said Harlequin.

“Isn’t it kinda obvious? No? Oh…” For once, Wade wasn’t in the mood to enlighten them.

Though, going by his expression, it looked like at least Zevran got it, too.

“They need to procreate,” Wade said eventually.

“Pro…” Alistair finally gave up the battle with his stomach.

All present women in a rare show of solidarity paled even more. Harlequin — Wade assumed — swore in elven.

“… Fenedhis! I will kill that bitch myself. Slowly.” Taking a deep breath, she said, “Ir abelas. I’m sorry, Oghren.” Heightened emotions, it seems, made her slip back to native tongue. She went to put a hand on his shoulder, but he shrugged it off.

“Not now, Warden. Let’s just move on.”

They did. Somehow, the absence of the rhyme made the way even creepier.

It was not long, however, when the voice returned. Slowly, in small increments, Hespith’s story gained details: during their turning, women bloated and grew in size.

Meanwhile, they killed a couple of ogres, then possibly desecrated a crypt when Harlequin took a rusty key and a helmet from the altar inside of it. That, of course, led them to defeating a group of malevolent spirits. They didn't have a choice, obviously. Caspers attacked first.

The crypt was rather impressive. It had the same design — columns with the image of the golden face — and statues of Paragons. Here and there stood pedestals with winged helmets that were put onto stones that glowed with electric blue light. The same blue glowing stone was used to make pauldrons of the Paragons. Light fell from somewhere above, creating an ethereal feel to the place. All in all, pretty.

“Pity, we had to kill the ghosts.”

[Their glowing made a nice addition to the atmosphere.]

{What one has to do for survival!}

“And for stuff.”

“Dead should have no need for it.” Harlequin opened the door to Bownammar with the rusty key.

“Well said, my dear Warden,” said Zevran.

Hespith’s voice informed them that Laryn torn off the face of her husband and drunk his blood.

Maric whined.

“Poor doggy. Here, have a treat.” Wade threw him a bone-shaped snack from Pet Smart. Even he couldn’t tell where it came from.

{“Love me, love my dog,” right?}

In the next corridor Hespith’s disembodied voice said that the darkspawn made Laryn into their image, and she then made more of them. Hespith called her “broodmother.” It proved Wade’s theory. He wished, it didn’t. Partly, because of what they saw in a cave they came into next.

“Broodmother, I take it?” said Zevran, somehow absolutely calm.

[Professional assassin.]

{We are, too.}

[So?]

{We do not feel faint or like keeling over in a dizzy spell any time soon!}

[Duh.]

The thing that once was Laryn now was a monstrosity. Huge and, indeed, bloated, it looked like a pile of greyish-purple breasts with a bald head atop, tentacles growing out of its body.

The whole cave was covered in fleshy mold or fungus... The floor squelched with every step.

Were Wade inclined to throw up, it would have been the perfect time for it. Luckily, he wasn’t.

“Okay, now it's official: you are the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. What a waste of boobies!" he said, offended on behalf of... dwarfkind, women, and boob lovers from all existing universes. “Time to end your suffering.”

All at once, they attacked. Wynne and Morrigan cast paralysis glyph and spells with a similar effect. Alistair bashed it with his shield while Oghren used his axe to do the same.

Magic didn’t stop tentacles, however. They disappeared inside the fleshy floor only to reappear in unexpected places — like next to Wade and Zevran, for example — to give a squishy embrace to unsuspecting bystanders. Or was it by-fighters? Wade was hard pressed to decide if it was more painful or disgusting.

“Exactly how deep is this stuff?” he said when he had the breath for it, nodding at the floor. Predictably, nobody answered. “Bad thing, bad!” The appendages were slow to untangle. “Tentacle porn? So overrated!”

Harlequin came to his aid, grimly hacking through the living rope with abandon.

[I’m surprised she didn’t cut off some part of us.]

{She has a lot of aggression to work through.}

[Understandable.]

As soon as the tentacle fell, she moved to the next one. Silent and deadly, her fury contained and channeled into the fight, she was a sight to behold. Wade wasted precious time to admire her and almost got caught into the second hug.

“No, thanks, squiggly,” he said to the tentacle and slashed it with both swords.

The fight went on, and on, and on... When they cut off about a half of tentacles, hurlocks came rushing into the cave. Perhaps, they were attracted by the sounds of the commotion; perhaps, the broodmother somehow communicated with them. Or maybe they felt Grey Wardens. No matter the reason, they came and promptly joined the fight en masse. Shrieks and genlocks soon followed suit.

It sure added some variety to the swiftly made corpses but delayed the broodmother’s demise.

Spells flew in all directions, significant part of them — healing. Steel flashed with enchantments and magical energy. Shrieks screeched, genlocks and hurlocks grunted and roared. Maric barked, stunning his enemies. And amidst it all, feet light as if she walked on air, his elven goddess run up the broodmother's body and with a sure hand chopped off its head.

The putrid blood gushed in a fountain. In a state of tranquility, Harlequin jumped off the dead monstrosity.

“Ar lasa mala revas,” she said to it in a flat voice, devoid of any emotion. At a guess, Wade’d say she felt drained. Too tired, physically and spiritually, to feel anything at all. Still, she rejoined the fight.

Hespith made her last appearance. She rambled about the darkspawn and racial hate or something. At that point, Wade wasn’t really listening. He only caught the tail end of it.

“But the true abomination... is not that it occurred, but that it was allowed.”

“You don’t say, sister,” he said, not pausing the Slice 'N Dice session even for a moment.

Standing on a balcony overlooking the cave, in a sad, slightly melancholic voice she said, “I am dying of something worse than death. Betrayal.” And ran off. Most probably, to jump off a cliff.

“Makes me wonder what held her from offing herself all these years.”

The battle was over not long after that. Only in the aftermath it became apparent that nobody was left unscathed. They all sustained some kind of injury, be that a broken bone, a swelling, or an internal bleeding. Hacking blood, limping, and dead tired, they hobbled out of the cursed cave in search of a safe place for rest.

Harlequin led them back into the crypt. Clear of any kind of danger, with a door that could be barricaded, it suited their needs just fine. And it still was quite pretty. Not that aesthetics were on anyone’s mind.

Deciding that, with the spirits departed to join the choir invisible, it didn’t matter one whit, Wade dumped his things on the altar. It made for a passable table.

This night they didn’t come together to sit around the fire like a bunch of happy campers on a two-days field trip. For once, the mood of the company was appropriate for their surrounding: subdued, mournful, quiet. Also, laced with a great deal of suffering. Physical, for the most part.

With no desire to linger in the Cave of Horrors, they limped their way to the crypt barely healed. And so the first order of business was to receive a treatment for whatever injure was still present.

Not missing the opportunity to teach Morrigan healing magic, Wynne showed her how to set bones, conjure purifying water — it stung like a bitch — and create lovely green lights, using others as practice dummies.

“I always suspected that’s what we are to doctors,” Wade told them when it was his turn. Despite his healing factor doing an admirable job on its own, Harlequin insisted he subjected himself to their tender mercies. Manfully suppressing a shout, he gritted his teeth. “Practice dummies.”

“Hush, child. It will be over in a minute.” Wynne re-aligned the bones in his left hand.

“It won’t if you persist with the whining.” Giving him a disdainful look, Morrigan chanted a spell.

[I wouldn’t put it past her to purposefully mispronounce it.]

{Just to see us writhe in pain.}

“Bet you were one of those kids who set little fluffy animals on fire with their eyes.”

“I did no such thing.” She paused and caught his gaze. Her lips held a hint of a smile, and not of the nice kind. “I did it with my mind.”

{That lady is terrifying!}

“Morrigan.” Wynne admonished her new and only apprentice, but it was half-hearted at best. Evidently, her mind dwelled on other matters.

Eventually, all ills were taken care off. Wynne and Morrigan stayed together to, as far as Wade heard, discuss magic.

{And there went our hope for their naughty fumbling beneath the robes. Bet Wynne could show her some magic.}

[Maybe not all is lost: Wynne boinked Oghren the other night.]

“Point,” Wade agreed, looking across the crypt where Oghren laid his bedroll, not bothering with the tent. Earlier, he refusing to speak with anyone, opting instead to drink himself into oblivion in solitude. At least, for now.

“Poor bugger.” Wade plopped next to Harlequin, the altar at their backs, and nodded in Oghren’s direction. “And to think he might still love the looney tune.”

Not looking up from the fire, she said, “I can’t stop thinking about all those women. What happened to them? Are they kept somewhere else, breeding darkspawn even as we speak? Did they die during the turning?” She stirred the logs with a stick. “And Branka, their clan leader. I can’t imagine what madness could allow for such actions.”

She sounded weird, her voice rough. She was grieving, Wade was startled to discover.

“People can be monsters.” He moved closer, so that their shoulders touched, and stayed that way, offering silent support.

After a long moment, she relaxed and leaned on him, just slightly. A while later, Maric came and laid his head on her feet. Harlequin scratched his ears.

Time went by. Alistair and Zevran joined them, then disappeared one after the other. Maric fell asleep and started to snore. Wade couldn’t hear Wynne or Morrigan anymore and assumed that they, too, went to sleep.

[Not with each other.]

“What did you say to her?” He didn’t have to explain to whom he was referring.

Turning to look at him, their faces inches apart, she said, “Now you are free.”

When what passed for morning deep inside the mountain finally came, they woke up still sitting before the fire, her head on his shoulder.

{That’s it?!!}

[Apparently, we were showing compassion.]

{Didn’t know we have it!}

* * *

They swiftly broke camp and moved on. For the longest time the roads were strangely empty of any kind of threat. They must have killed all the darkspawn in the area in the big bada boom with Ursula’s ugly sister. The general mood hadn’t improved and did nothing to inspire small talk, and so they just trudged along the rocky pathways, essentially doing nothing else.

“This dead silence gives me heebee jeebies.” Wade even shivered slightly to drive the point home and kiss it goodnight.

[And instills boredom.]

{I’d better listen to rusty nails scratching a window than be bored!}

[Especially if that window belongs to someone we hate.]

{And he is sleeping in the room behind that window.]

[And can’t do anything as his dreams turn into nightmares while he hears—]

{—us leave long gashes on the glass of his bedroom’ window.}

“Yeah, it would actually be fun. What should I do now, though? Hmm.” Wade scratched his head through the mask. “Okay. Let’s fall back to the Tried and True! They will surely catch us or, at least, break the fall!” He nodded to himself and started singing, “Chiribim, chiribom, chiribim, bom, bom, bom, bom, bom, bom…”14

“Wade?” said Harlequin after a while.

Plucked out of a meditative state of mind, he stumbled over a pothole. “Whaza, pumpkin?”

“What was that?” she asked, more out of habit than any real annoyance.

Still, he played along. “Yes, Warden?

“Please, stop singing.”

“If that’s your wish, my lips are sealed. I’ll be as silent as the grave, honest!”

“See that you do.” Her tone told him that she didn’t really believe him.

[Smart woman, she.]

{And sexy. If smart is a new sexy, does it makes her twice sexy or sexy squared?}

[Just extremely sexy, I think.]

True to Harlequin’s suspicion, after about ten minutes the silence started getting to him.

“Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm...”

Luckily, before his humming could fray anyone’s nerves, they saw a cave at the end of the road.

Oghren said, “If Branka is anywhere, this has to be it. She will not be unprepared.” That was the first time he spoke since the previous night.

They sped up, going for their weapons as a precaution. Swords held in a white-knuckled grip, Harlequin’s posture telegraphed tense anticipation. Maric, sensing her mood, growled.

They stepped into the opening. As underground caves went, this one was on the bigger and rougher side. Here and there lay piles of large stones, huge boulders were situated close to the walls. It was, however, empty.

{Not true! There’s a lot of dwarves, the darkspawn, and even golems lying around!}

[They are dead.]

{Still counts!}

It was empty save for various corpses on the ground, no sign of life to be seen.

Wade stopped, standing on a fallen golem. “How... anticlimactic. Again.”

“It’s strange. I expected her to be here, close to that atrocity Laryn has become and to her lover.” To say that Oghren sounded bitter would be like to call lava lukewarm. “But I shouldn’t be surprise Branka abandoned her as well.” He snorted.

“It’s just the image of her standing right over here” — he gestured to a large outcropping — “calling me a useless drunk and ranting about the Anvil keeps popping up in my head.” He trailed off, then shook his head. “Must be the Deep Roads getting to me.”

“We should move on, she might not be that far,” said Harlequin.

Wade nodded, but his attention soon fled to an interesting rock formation. Veins of electric blue crystals ran through the rocks and stuck out of them like stalagmites. It kinda looked like a unicorn’s horn… Or a kinky SM dildo.

{It even glows in the dark!}

It emanated some kind of smoke or steam. Or was it vapor? He couldn’t decide, not that it really mattered. Wandering closer, he took a good sniff of the stuff and saw stars.

“I feel strange,” he said, leaning on the nearby wall for support. “Like someone stuffed my head with candy floss and chirping. Where’s the canary??

Through the chirping and ringing in his ears, Wade heard a worried voice asking, “What’s wrong with him?”

And another one, significantly less worried, saying, “It’s raw lyrium, and he went and sniffed it! Of course, he is bloody unwell.”

Someone hoisted him up, so Wade tried to focus. A fiery red flock swam into his line of sight. “I’m high as the high priest on opium! Everything is soo bright.”

“Close your eyes, dear.”

He felt like he was floating; then a cold, melting surface appeared under his back. “I’m on ice-cream? Coool!

“He needs water to flush it out of his system,” said the same not worried voice.

Wade turned in its direction. “You are so pretty! Did you know that?” he said to a large brown spot to his left. It was the color of milk chocolate.

That thought made him wonder if it tasted as good as it looked. Fortunately for both him and Maric, his vision cleared a bit. Instead, he patted Oghren’s head. “I like your hair.”

“Aye, I know it’s great, but keep your hands to yourself, buddy.”

For an indeterminable time Wade’s vision swam in and out of focus, bright spots appeared and disappeared at a whim, voices said something funny, at times, sounding like a broken record or as if they were played at half-speed. Fluffy liquid touched his lips, and he swallowed a mouthful of pink feathers. All in all, he felt great! And then sleepy.

“Why there’re dwarves in my head, hammering golems on big fucking anvils?” he croaked through parched throat. It felt like words were made of glass, and he had to grind them with his vocal cords to produce sounds.

{You kinda chased the rabbit!}

[Welcome to the real world, Neo.]

Oh, ha-ha. Even thinking hurts.

“Next time don’t go near unknown substances.” Harlequin put a bottle to his lips.

Upon swallowing, he decided that anyone who gives him wonderfully cool healing potions when he feels like shit should be canonized and worshiped.

“Soon as we are on the surface, I’ll build a temple in your honor and start a new religion!”

She put a hand on his forehead, checking temperature. Only then did Wade notice the absence of the mask. Huh.

“How about you just avoid it in the future? Ordinary people get addicted to lyrium rather fast.”

“You think I’m ordinary?” He pouted, which was a bit hard, considering that his head once again rested on Harlequin’s lap. The view was, you know, distracting.

“You don’t have magic.”

“You say that now…”

She punched him in the shoulder. “I see you’re good to go.”

“Yeah, no. I’d like to stay like this for a little while.”

“Mm-hmm.” She ran her fingers over his chest and gently pushed him off her lap and onto his duffle bag.

Wade winced. “Think I’ve just bashed my head on a shield. How ’bout you kiss it better?”

Smirking, she brushed her lips over his forehead. “There. All better now?”

“Yeah.” He sighed. “Guess it will do.” And looking directly into her eyes, he said, “For now.”

“Hey, princess, you up or what? Still think my hair is pretty?” Oghren said with a laugh.

“Oh, thanks so much for ruining the moment.”

Oghren had the gall to snort. “Didn’t notice you had one. Quit dilly-dallying, Warden, we still have a Paragon to find.”

[At least, his mood has improved.]

Sticking his tongue at the dwarf, Wade stood up, picked up his bag, and bowed with exaggerated politeness. “After you.”

They stepped into a winding tunnel. There, too, were corpses, rubble previously known as golems, and — hello again — raw lyrium. Not all of them were avoiding the stuff, Wade noticed. Actually, Wynne and Morrigan seemed to gravitated toward it.

“Are they junkies?”

Alistair choked on air. “What? No, they are mages. They use lyrium potions to boost their magic, no nasty addiction or any unpleasant side-effects. It’s a constitutional difference, I think.”

“What about templars?” asked Harlequin. “I saw them gulping it down like dwarves ale.”

Alistair sighed. “They are given lyrium to develop magical abilities that allow them to stop mages. However, unlike mages, templars do get addicted to it. And since the Chantry controls the lyrium trade with the dwarves… Well, I’m sure you can put two and two together.”

“Drug cartel under the holy banner? Niiice.”

Harlequin chewed her bottom lip. “Weren’t you a templar?”

“Not quite. Thankfully, Duncan rescued me before I took my vows. The first dose of lyrium is usually given right after that.”

“You sure dodged a bullet, pal! Or an arrow.” Wade patted him on the back. It hurt like a bitch.

[Next time think before smacking a heavy armor.]

{White Steel is kinda unwieldy, anyway.}

“Then how do you use templar abilities?..”

Blondie scoffed, “You don’t need lyrium in order to learn or use templar talents, it just makes them more effective. Or so the Chantry insists.”

“Are you saying it might not do anything at all?”

“Well, that’s a theory.” He shrugged. “I don’t rightly know since I never took it. But because of this knowledge, the Reverent Mother was adamant to not let me go. Duncan had a hard time convincing her, Right of Conscription or not.”

“And we all glad he did.” Zevran smiled. “I would be very disappointed were you not among the Wardens.”

Alistair grinned back. “You were sent to kill us, remember? Besides, you’d never even heard of me and would not know the difference.”

“Ah, but I’m certain I would have felt something. It was by the destiny’s hand—”

“All right, ladies, stop with the flirting already.” Oghren pulled a heavy ornately decorated door open. “I see trouble ahead.”

“If by trouble you mean the green fog that hangs like a cloud all over the room, then we all can see it,” said Harlequin, looking across the threshold.

The room, indeed, was filled with gas, poisonous at a guess. As far as Wade could see, there were four alcoves on either side of it, golems stood in every one of them. At the far side was a closed door.

“Great! How are we supposed to cross this?” asked Blondie, frowning.

“I’m guessing it’s a trap, so there should be a hidden mechanism that turns it off.” Harlequin looked at Oghren. “Any insight on where it could be?”

“None whatsoever. I’m a warrior, not an engineer.”

“All right, we’ll have to go through it.” She sighed. “Put a damp cloth over your nose and mouth and move like there’s a pissed off demon hot on your heels.”

Zevran laughed. “A sound advice, my dear Warden. I will keep my eyes open. With luck, I might find the switch.”

She nodded and said to all of them. “And try not to breath.”

First six feet inside, choking on the gas and trying to follow Harlequin’s last bit of wisdom, and the second pair of golems came to life. Slowly, like an avalanche in slow motion, two massive stone figures shuddered and stepped forward. Too quickly the golems shrugged the lethargy of prolonged inaction and charged at the group, gaining momentum with surprising speed.

“Retreat!” shouted Harlequin, pulling Maric along by the collar.

Having different understanding of the situation, the dog growled and resisted with all his might. Which, considering the size of mabari, was nothing to sneeze at.

“Maric! What’s gotten into you?!” Harlequin, too, refused to give up. The dog growled at her.

In the end, Wynne had to stun him, then Oghren hoisted him up in a fireman’s carry. Even with Maric weighing him down, he managed to beat them all to the relative safety of the tunnel.

[He sure can run for someone so short.]

{With the length of his legs? He must make a lot of steps very quickly.}

Clear of the gas, they stood in the doorway. It also had the added benefit of being too small to fit both golems at once.

“Stand in line for destruction!” Wade said to them, going for katanas.

Simultaneously, both golems smashed the ground. Only Maric was left standing. Mostly, because he still hadn’t thawed and Oghren leaned him against the wall.

“Damn, I hate when they do it,” said Harlequin, getting back to her feet. “Freeze these bastards!”

Both Wynne and Morrigan did. It took only a handful of shield bashing (Alistair), mighty blows (Oghren), and plain old hacking (Harlequin, Wade, and Zevran) to shatter them into manageable chunks.

Ignoring the rubble that littered the floor, Harlequin crouched next to Maric, who, completely thawed, was pawing at his nose.

“You feeling better, fluff ears?” she asked, stroking his head.

“Fluff ears?” mouthed Zevran to Alistair behind her back. Blondie just shrugged.

“It seems the gas confused him, poor dear.” Clucking her tongue, Wynne cast a rejuvenating spell to aid his recovery.

Maric snorted and started to whine pitifully.

“Eh, looks like I will have to carry him again.” Oghren wagged a finger at mabari. “No more doggy treats for you, and don’t even start with the eyes! You weigh more than a bronto.”

“I’m sorry we have to do this.” Harlequin patted Maric’s head one more time and nodded for Wynne to proceed.

The stunned dog back on Oghren’s shoulders, they ventured into the room for the second time. This time, the third pair of golems attacked.

“Retreat!” shouted Harlequin.

“I’m having a deja vu over here,” said Wade, running next to her.

She snorted a laugh.

“Okay, there are two more golems before the door. How about I jog over there to fetch them while you wait here with weapons at the ready?” he said as soon as they stopped adding rubble to the mess on the floor.

“Good plan.” She nodded in approval. “Be careful.”

“When am I not? Don’t answer that!” And with a manic grin Wade ran into the fog.

He stopped between the last pair of golems. Nothing happened.

“Hey, Rocky!” He waved at the one on his left. “Wakey-wake! Rise and shine with your glowing eyes!”

No reaction.

He jumped in place, vigorously swinging his arms.

Still nothing.

“Guess they don’t wanna play.”

[Let’s get out of this gas before you get high on it, too.]

{It was kinda fun. Of the trippy kind. *giggles*}

“Nah, this stuff’s just making me green. Hah! Get it?”

“Wade?” yelled Harlequin from the threshold.

He hurried back.

“They didn’t react to the presence of my magnificent self. Must be broken or something,” he said with a shrug.

“They must be dead,” she said in an even tone.

They made another attempt to cross the fog. As soon as the group reached the last two golems, however, the stone monstrosities powered on.

“The hell?!” Wade’s pride suffered a wound that won’t heal easily. Or so he decided.

Morrigan shot him a poisonous glare that could rival the gas. “Oh, they must be broken,” she hissed, transforming into a giant grizzly. No, seriously, it was at least twice the size of a normal bear.

{She is so not cuddly, it’s not even funny.}

[She is a killer bear, not a teddy bear.]

“Totally cool.”

“We are almost there, push forward!” Harlequin led by example.

With Morrigan on the heavy damage duty, Wynne had to cast freezing charms non stop. Still, they managed to destroy both golems with relative easy. Even though Oghren had to fight with Maric on top.

When monsters were slain, the heroes stood at the opposite end of the room, safely out of the gas cloud, an open door before them.

Perplexed, Alistair pointed at it. “I’m sure it was closed.”

“Is it” — Wade lowered his voice — “a magic trick?”

Oghren was fast to disenchant. “Runes or a hidden mechanism, most likely. We are in the dwarven territory, not in a sodding Circle of Magi. Someone must have stepped on a plate that opens it. Hmm.” He scratched his chin, which probably wasn’t easy with all that facial hair. “I think that’s what activates the golems! You went in a straight line near the center of the room and didn’t trigger it.”

“Makes sense,” said Harlequin. “Let’s test it next time we encounter golems.”

“I hope it won’t be for a while. I’m tired of the chipping getting under my armour.” Alistair sighed. “Of course, now that I said that, we will come across golems in the next five minutes. Bet they will be alive and angry.”

It was actually ten minutes later when his words turned partly true.

They came into a corridor with alcoves, four on both sides. As luck would have it, a golem was in every one of them, columns with some kind of torches or lanterns with open fire behind their backs. They stood like sentinels, guarding the way to the door on the other side.

All in all, it was similar to the previous corridor sans the gas. Oh, and with a better lighting.

“Well. At least, they are not active,” said Alistair.

Wade slapped his shoulder. Gently. “Thanks, pal.”

On Harlequin’s request, they formed a line and went as close to the center of the corridor as she was able to calculate, i.e. stepping precisely on the center line.

They almost made it without a hitch… Harlequin, Oghren, and Wade were at the door when the third pair of golems stirred.

All as one, people turned to the last member to cross the room. Maric looked to the ground, then to his front right paw that stood on a slightly indented stone tile and whined, ashamed.

“Could you, please, watch your step?” asked Harlequin with exasperation.

He whined in apology.

“Every damn time a golem turns on, I keep expecting to hear a whirring sound.”

[They’re not robots.]

{No, but how cool would it be if they shoot laser beams out of their eyes!?}

They put the golems out of commission. It really came down to tactics, and with so much practice, Wade imagined they could destroy an army of Rockies in their sleep.

Another rough tunnel led to a closed door behind which was a round cave. In the middle of it, going up four stairs, was a platform with a massive column at its center. The four sides of its pedestal was made to look like masks with open mouths. On the outer edge of the platform, directly opposite each mask, stood anvils.

Looking around, Wade noticed that pillars were raised around the cave, seemingly at random.

“Someone sure never heard of Freud,” he said, but his attention had already zeroed in on a different subject: the lyrium.

It covered all available surfaces. Its veins swirled through the ceiling, and enormous stalactites hang out of it crookedly, some of them went over the pillars like vines.

Wade gave a low whistle. “I gotta admit, it’s beautiful.”

“It’s a sodding gold mine!” Oghren huffed. “And it sits here, deep in the darkspawn territory, untouched.”

“Dwarves and their lyrium.” Rolling her eyes, Harlequin walked onto the platform.

Quite suddenly, mist spread around the room. The pedestal, which probably wasn’t a pedestal at all but some other architectural term — a closer look revealed that it didn’t reach the ground — came on-line. The masks’ eyes glowed with electric charges, and then the pedestal moved one rotation.

“Great. This thing is going to attack us any second now, I can tell,” said Alistair. “What isn’t against us down here, I have to wonder.”

Harlequin hummed. “The air?”

The masks spew glowing energy balls that unfolded into ghosts.

“Right.” Unsheathing her swords, she attacked first.

[At least, this particular ghosts are silent.]

{They also are a lot harder to kill.}

Slashing through the grim Casper, Wade had to agree with himself. It took an awful lot of effort to send it to the next great adventure. The spirit didn’t dissipate but was sucked into the closest anvil. It started to emit circles of golden light.

“I think there’s something wrong with it.”

“It’s enchanted! Quickly, smash it!” shouted Oghren from the other side of the room.

Standing near it, Wynne shouted back, “With what?!”

“Use your staff, woman!”

“It’s not a club!” Still, she hefted her staff with both hands. “Oh, well.” And brought it down on the anvil.

The golden rings seemed to meld into a ball of energy that turned lyrium blue; then it rushed toward the mask opposite the anvil and hit it in the mouth. The impact was accompanied by a deafening boom that made their ears ring.

Fire engulfed the structure. A moment later what looked like blood but probably wasn’t started to leak out of its now closed eyes in a constant shower of enormous deep red drops. The masks moved one rotation.

“Does it suppose to do that?” Wade blinked at the thing. Its mouths spat four new spirits. “Oh, never mind, then,” he said, engaging the closest one.

Something hit him in the back; it hurt like slow burning. Glancing behind, he saw the mask with damaged eyes spitting a bloody clot. “Hey, not fair!”

He could have sworn the mask grinned at him maliciously.

{Since when does we mind backstabbing and sneaky attacks?}

[Since it’s our back that gets stabbed.]

Distracted, he almost missed an axe coming his way. Turning at the last minute, he tried to block it but was able only to divert it, taking a glancing blow on the arm instead of a direct one to the head.

All the while, the mask was spitting bloody clots at his unprotected back. That stuff was actually quite unpleasant. It acted like acid, eating its way through clothes and flesh alike. If not for the healing factor, by the time he finished off his opponent and moved away from the fucking mask, Wade would have been either riddled with holes or melted into a puddle.

Someone killed another spirit, and golden lights encircled another anvil. Without complaint, Wynne jogged to smash it with her staff.

“Great, now we have two crying faces and four new Caspers.” Wade dodged the second bloody shower. “Anyone else thinks that we’re just aiding it, or is it just me?”

“It will get better.” The second mask spat at Harlequin. Her pauldron sizzled. “Eventually.”

Seeing as they just added more opponents, the fighting became harder, not easier. Wynne, staying at the edge of the platform and providing long-ranged support, switched entirely to healing. But even her not insignificant skills weren’t enough. She didn’t have the time to heal anyone completely before they sustained more damage.

Soon, Alistair succumbed to the wounds, crumbling in a heap next to the third anvil, his armor peppered with holes and bloody specks. Wynne tried to pull him out of the mask’s range, briefly appearing in its line of sight, and took a direct hit from it instead.

“Urgh.” Wade even winced in sympathy. “Excellent move.”

[We are down a healer.]

{That’s bad. Sooo bad.}

Morrigan tried to multitask between healing and attacking, but all too soon she ran out of both mana and lyrium potions. Two spirits were closing in on her, pressing her to the mask that, of course, showered her with acidic substance. It was as if the thing had a mind and was controlling the evil Caspers.

“We are in a deep shit. Who’s got a paddle?”

Zevran struck the third anvil and was rewarded with a spat at the chest.
 “Braska!” Moving to the side, he downed a potion, then disappeared in the shadows.

“Seriously, how does he do that?”

Following the pattern, the third mask started crying.

Again, four new spirits appeared. Now they had five more or less healthy fighters and twelve tough ghosts to kill.

“Make it eleven.” Wade was hacking his way to Harlequin. In his haste to get to her, he almost stepped on Morrigan, but changed his mind at the last second. No reason to risk incurring her wrath, even if she appeared to be unconscious at the moment. “Ten.”

Zevran tapped the last anvil. Enter a new crying mask and more spirits.

“What the fuck?!” Sending him a peeved look, Wade offed one more spirit, reducing their number to thirteen. “You couldn’t wait till we kill at least some of them?”

[We have a serious problem.]

Stuck with three Caspers, Wade couldn’t get to the Warden fast enough. “Who upped the difficulty?!”

And so, overwhelmed by the number of attackers and with the mask constantly spitting at her back, Harlequin fell to the ground. She didn’t move again.

The spirits charged at Oghren, who was already fighting two of their pals. He wasn’t looking peachy keen, either.

{What happens if they all die?}

[Game over, so to speak. The world ceases to exist.]

{Wouldn’t it just go back to an earlier point?}

[No. Despite it originally being a game, we are not in it. This story takes place in an alternative to the game-verse universe.]

{So we all just die?}

[We and everything else, including the specks of dust in the air. It will all just disappear as if it never were to begin with.]

{How unnerving.}

“Well, doesn’t it put a match to a gas pump? Not” — hack — “at" — slash — “all.” Slice.

The masks continued to cry a bloody river, their mouths spitting the acidic stuff with pretty good accuracy. With no healer to back them up and out of potions, it was a miracle someone was still standing, albeit unsteadily in Oghren’s case.

Wade looked at his fallen comrades. (Mostly at Harlequin. Her face was covered in blood; he could see her arm twisted at an unnatural angle. She still hadn’t moved.) He stared at the pedestal over the head of his current foe, hard.

“Jokes are over. You made me angry.”

Channeling his inner Hulk, he roared at the surrounding him ghosts. With a savage cry that made him look like Tarzan — if Tarzan habitually wore catsuits, get rid of his mane, and picked up sword fighting — Wade threw himself at the spirits. They did not expect that.

{Ha! I knew they can be startled!}

[Ladies and gentlemen, this is a dumb move, right here.]

{It totally paid off!}

“When in doubt, freak ’em out!”

The ghost he jumped at dropped its axe.

Wade drove a dagger under its translucent chin, the tip reached deep inside its head. The next one was harder, but he somersaulted over it and stabbed it in the back. The third fell victim to the mask’s acidic spittle that was meant for Wade — he sidestepped, ok? — and the fourth he shoved face-first into the mask.

On the other side of the cave, Oghren managed to finish off half of his opponents and now was grappling with remaining three. Some distance away from him, Zevran and Maric were locked in with the last two Caspers.

Wade had had enough. “You and I have unfinished business,” he said to the closest mask and lobbed a grenade into its stone mouth. Not surprisingly, it did not disappear inside since the thing was solid. It bounced off and fell to the floor, then rolled toward Harlequin.

“Shit!” He dove after it and barely had time to toss it under the masks before it went off.

At the same time, or close enough for it to make no difference, Oghren offed the last ghost.

The grenade exploded. Bloody mist covered the whole column, and something detonated inside of it.

Wade crawled to Harlequin to play a human shield, protecting her open wounds from the debris.

[Never mind our own half-melted back.]

{Play the hero, chicks dig that. Look at how many people have hots for Thor!}

[Despite his dumb helmet and girly hair.]

The thing shuddered along with the cave. Bits of lyrium fell from the ceiling; a tip of a stalactite broke off and pierced Wade’s thigh. Then it all stopped. In the followed silence, he heard Harlequin breathing. The surge of relief he felt in that moment made him light-headed. Or maybe it was the blood loss.

She stirred under him, groaning. Wade rolled to the side and yanked the lyrium spike out.

“That. Hurt.”

All over the cave people sat up, groggily. Zevran went to help Alistair; Oghren limped to Wynne… Maric trotted to a large pile near the pedestal. After a while, he dug up Morrigan.

Oops!

Thankfully, she was alive but majorly pissed off. If whoever made that blasted device still trampled the ground, he would have had a very nasty surprise come nightfall. She sure as hell knew a lot of potent mind-fucking magic.

[Good think she doesn’t know about our involvement.]

{Even better that we haven’t stepped on her. I like my dreams just the way they are — horny and porny!}

At least for the moment, the worst was over.

* * *

With no other options, they made camp in the tunnel — a room with golems on one end, a cave with lyrium and remains of the pedestal on the other. They closed the doors and, after a round of healing spells and poultices, Wade helped Harlequin to start a fire.

Feeling wrung out, he sighed. “I suppose, it’s better than to sleep in the drug-cave.”

“Ah, but what dreams would we have.” Zevran’s chuckle quickly turned into a coughing fit.

“Here.” Alistair brought him a waterskin, and he took it gratefully.

“There’s something that bothers me.” Harlequin kept biting her lip in an uncharacteristic display of nervousness. Wade found it adorable.

“Yeah? What is it? Speak your mind, Warden, before you gnaw through your flesh,” said Oghren.

“What about the children?”

He stared at her blankly. “What children? I don’t have any.”

Unimpressed, she leveled him a stare of her own. “The children of your clan. Surely, there were some among those more than three hundred dwarves.”

“Oh. No, there weren’t. They, too, were left behind, but unlike me, they stayed with relatives and were absorbed into their clans.” He paused in thought as if something had just occurred to him. “Deep Roads is no place for kids; even Branka knew that. Guess she wasn't completely insane back then.”

Wade made an attempt to cheer him up. “I say, she made you a favor.”

“What kind of favor is it?” He snorted. “A rotten one! If I were with her, maybe I would have been able to talk some sense into her thick skull! She's my wife, she'd listen.”

“Or she’d just have sent you to die in the first row. Hespith couldn’t sway her, and you said she was Branka’s best friend,” said Harlequin, not unreasonably.

Oghren sneered. “And her commander, and, apparently, lover. Should have guessed that. Blind fool, me.”

The conversation took a turn for the awkward; nobody had anything reassuring to add. Oghren was, after all, duped and dumped.

Looking at the tired faces around the fire, Zevran silently distributed the food and, as a more personal touch, cracked open a bottle of wine.

“No, you are definitely lucky.” Alistair slurred a bit, still nursing a concussion. “You’re alive.”

Wynne sent a spell his way. His eyes gaining focus, Blondie visibly relaxed.

“Oh, now we are talking about that.” Oghren harrumphed. “Well, let’s talk. All my clanmates are either dead or went through unspeakable horrors and would be better off dead; my wife is clearly off her rocker, and I’m the one left unscathed by the means of abandonment. I may be alive, but I definitely don’t feel lucky.”

“He is right, my friend. You can’t argue that you were spared a terrible fate.” As if to wash away the images on his mind, Zevran took a long drink from his bottle. It helped to a degree.

Oghren busied himself with his flask, taking his time to think it over. “Yeah, I guess so.” He stared at the fire, glumly, and wouldn’t talk with anyone for the rest of the evening.

Conversations were quiet and slow to take off. Wade thought some of his travel buddies were shaken by the up close and personal brush with mortality. Bored, but not yet ready to sleep, he wandered around the campsite, venturing further down the tunnel.

“Huh. So that’s where they disappeared to. Imagine that.”

He kept his voice low so as to not disturb the couple. His presence went unnoticed due in part to the poor lighting. Though to be fair, he could have brought a tambourine and performed La Marsellesa right next to their ears. He decided not to bother — they probably wouldn’t have noticed, anyway.

[Well. It does explain some of their behavior.]

{Alistair said he needed some air.}

[So much that Zevran had to blow it into his throat? *snort* That really doesn’t look like CPR.]

“I’d be damned! Isn’t this supposed to be my story? First, Wynne and Oghren hooked up, and now this.” Wade gestured at Zevran, who, despite his smaller frame, had Alistair firmly pinned against the wall. Not that it looked like he minded, quite the contrary, if his enthusiasm was anything to go on.

“It's like I’m the lonly oner at this club!”

[Quit complaining and go charm the Warden.]

{But she went to talk with Wynne!}

[I doubt it will take whole night.]

“No reason not to check.” That said, he turned around and marched back to the campsite.

He found her sitting by the fire, Wynne nowhere in sight.

“How was your talk?”

Harlequin shifted in place. “Disquieting.”

He waited for her to continue. After a moment, she did.

 “Apparently, Wynne hosts a spirit from the Fade.” From her tone, it was unclear if she approved of the idea or not.

“Should we gather the kindling? Prepare a stake? I want an advanced warning! It takes time to find the right materials.”

She raised an eyebrow. “What is it with you and stakes? One has to wonder…”

“I just like the idea of burning. With FIRE!” Grinning, Wade wiggled his fingers.

[Is it supposed to represent fire?]

{More like… SUFFERING! ETERNAL DAMNATION!}

Simultaneously, the boxes practiced their villainous laughter — low- and high-pitched, respectively.

Harlequin smiled.

“But seriously, isn’t it like dealing with demons?”

With a heavy sigh, she said, “According to Wynne, there is a difference. Spirits are benevolent. She believes the one that entered her body has been watching over her all her life.”

“Mmm… How perverted.” He waggled his eyebrows.

She snorted. “That’s not the aspect of their relationship I want to linger over. Anyway, it already has saved her life more than once — including today — so I’m inclined to see it as a positive thing. At least, for now.”

“I guess when you have magic and instantly working potions at your disposal, it’s all too easy to forget about the very real possibility of being killed in action.”

“It is not something I dwell on often,” she said in a low voice. “With the Blight, death has become a commonplace occurrence, and besides, Grey Wardens never die of old age.”

“Why’s that?”

She looked at him askance. “I can’t tell you that. Consider it a trade secret.”

“Okay… I will just assume that your order requires a level of dedication to fighting the evil uglies so high that you can’t leave the battlefield till all of them are dead. And, considering their numbers are being constantly replenished, Grey Wardens just keel over and die from exhaustion.” He paused to breathe.

“But not to worry! Now that you have me, you can rest assured that if you are ever overwhelmed by enemies, I’ll drag you to safety and kill ’em myself.”

“That’s sweet of you.”

“Yeah, well. I have a vested interest in your well-being.” Wade shrugged, feeling like it was a high time to change the subject. He dug into his duffle bag. “Here, I have something for you.”

“Once again, this is usually my line,” she said with a smile.

“And now you can see for yourself how it is to be on the other side! I’ve been meaning to give it to you for some time,” he said, presenting her with the heart-shaped gem15 from Ruck’s cave.

Harlequin weighed it in her palm. “Thank you.”

[+5 approval]

She turned it this way and that, watching it in the firelight. “Though, I’m not sure what to do with it. Maybe it will appease Bhelen when we fail to deliver him a Paragon.” Her lips curved into a sneer.

“Mmm, you know, chances are good she is still alive.”

“We will see about that.” She had to loosen her hold on the gem for fear of cutting her palm.

[That’s not ominous at all.]

{She is so smoking hot like this!}

“Okay, cupcake, this you are going to like for sure.” Because who doesn’t like good brandy? A bottle clutched in his hand, Wade smiled at her winningly.

She took the bottle and twisted the cap off, then took a swing.

“Reminds me of home.”

[+4 approval]

“How so?”

“There was a huge tree with the best apples in the world.” Face thoughtful, she took another mouthful. “Yes, tastes like they used to, those apples.” She sighed a little wistfully, then looked at him. “What’s your favourite food?”

{I’d say you, but we haven’t tried you yet, babe...}

[Don’t say it aloud!]

“That’s easy: everyone knows it’s tacos and chimichangas.” At her uncomprehending look, he said, “But you don’t know what I’m talking about, right. Um. Okay. A lot less know is that I also like insulted caramel.”

Taking another drink, Harlequin barely avoided choking. “Insulted?”

He nodded with absolute seriousness. “There’s no better spice than a taste of a good insult!”

That made her laugh.

{Yay! Another score!}

“And to the last one. Close your eyes and count to three before opening them.”

“You are not going to do anything gross, are you?”

“I’d never do that!”

[Never. Yeah, right!]

{Not to her! We still haven’t gotten laid.}

“All right.”

Behind his back, Wade uncrossed his fingers.

“One, two, three.”

“Go ahead.”

She slowly opened her eyes and had to blink. No more than a couple of inches from her face was a pendant, dangling from Wade’s fingers. Catching his wrist, she moved it to a more comfortable distance and focused on the pendant.

It was shaped like a flower laying on two interlocked silver leaves with a curving line between them; its petals were made of crystals. And it shone with a blue-white light.16

“It’s beautiful.”

[+10 approval]

In truth, it was otherworldly.

{Where’d it come from?}

[The market at the beginning of this fic.]

Pleased, he said, “I thought it’d look good on you. May I?..” Carefully, he fastened the chain around her neck.



{She smells nice.}

[With no bathrooms or even a lake, it’s no small wonder.]

She ran a finger over the pendant and turned to him, their noses touching. “Thank you.”

“Ahem. I hope I’m not interrupting.” Wynne seemed to spring up from the ground.

Expression closing off, Harlequin moved away. “What is it?” she said, annoyance coloring her voice.

“I just wanted to discuss your responsibilities as a Grey Warden.”

Frustrated, Wade tuned Wynne out.

{Can we kill her?}

[No, I don’t think it’s a good idea. She’s still the only decent healer in the group.]

{Damn.}

Hoping she will spontaneously combust, Wade glared at the back of Wynne’s head.

“Awesome. Just fucking awesome.”

* * *

In the morning they continued their journey. After the cave of rubble, a short tunnel — its ceiling also full of lyrium — led to the archway with the usual golden face stamp on every available surface.

“Seriously, what’s up with that?” Wade pointed at the stamp. “It’s, like, everywhere! Always silent, watching, judging.” He shivered.

Oghren looked at him incredulously. “This is Caridin’s crest.”

Wade glared at it. “I’m watching you, too, judgy face.”

Behind the archway was a truly grandiose cave. Rivers and falls of lava created a nice, warm atmosphere, and lyrium stalagmites were just the thing to complete the homey look. Here and there, or, more accurately, everywhere stood golems. And on the far side was a throne with a female dwarf on it.

“My guess’s that’s your ball’n’chain over there. Looks like she has a new buddy.” Wade eyed a heavy armored golem standing next to the throne with suspicion. “His face is strangely familiar.”

“His ‘face’ is hidden under the armour he is wearing,” said Harlequin. “Let’s find out what’s going on.”

As they neared the throne, the basket case on it said, “After all this time my tolerance for social graces is fairly limited. It doesn’t bother you, I hope.” She was talking to Harlequin, unmistakably recognizing the leader, despite their somewhat joint approach, with Wade to the left and Oghren to the right of her.

“And hello to you, too, psycho bitch.” Of course, Wade’s words were ignored.

“Shave my back and call me an elf! Branka? By the stone, I barely recognized you!” All thing considered, he sounded too happy to see her.

“Oghren.” Her face went through a complicated series of expressions, at last stopping on ‘contemptuous disinterest’. “It figures you’d eventually find your way here. Hopefully, you can find your way back more easily.” She turned to the Warden. “And how should I address you?..”

Though she wasn’t finished with her speech, Harlequin interrupted whatever crazy train her thoughts were riding. “Call me Andraste, for all I care. You won’t be doing it for long.” And before the loony tune had the time to proceed that, Harlequin continued. “King Endrin died, and Prince Bhelen wanted me to retrieve you, so you can add weight to his claim.”

“Are you a hired sword ready to do the latest lordling’s bidding?”

Oghren took offense on her behalf. “Watch who you’re talking to, woman! She is a Grey Warden!”

“Ah, so you are an important errand girl, then. Well, as you can see, I’m quite alive and very busy working on the Anvil” — she gestured to the other side of the cave where said anvil stood on a cliff — “and don’t have the time, not the inclination to get involved in petty squabbles.”

For a long moment Harlequin just stared at her, still and silent. The she said, “I have only one question for you: how could you do this to your own clan?”

“I didn’t do anything that wasn’t my right!” And Branka went on a tangent about how they were her people, blah-blah-blah; they were tainted, blah, sacrifices must be made, yadda-yadda...

Wade stopped listening after the first sentence. He got the gist, anyway.

Several scantily clad women came from behind the throne, carrying trays with refreshments. Three went straight to Wade. The redhead offered him a drink while the blonde and the brunette fawned over him.

“Deadpool, you are so manly!” said the blonde, thrusting her perfect boobs in his face. “Take me now, right here!”

“And me!” said the brunette. “I can’t wait!”

{Oh, man! We are in heaven!?}

[Now, that’s a hallucination.]

Wade was about to offer them a foursome when Maric bumped into his thigh, jostling him back into a disappointingly boring reality: Branka was still talking.

“Man, she sure does love the sound of her voice. How long were you married, again?”

Listening to Branka’s crazy spiel didn’t improve Oghren’s mood any. “Too bloody long. I should have seen her obsession with the Anvil for what it was — madness,” he muttered, more to himself than to Wade.

Branka still wasn’t finished. “... the others, they were changing. I saw the opportunity for them to serve me further.”

“Is it how you justify hunting them down and turning into abominations? So they could serve you better? What had been done to the poor women is unspeakable,” said Harlequin, and though her voice was still calm and even, anyone who knew her could clearly see the hatred in her eyes.

“They serve their purpose! I needed them to test the Anvil. You came here from Orzammar, you must have seen that the Deep Roads are overrun by the darkspawn; how they push us back farther and farther. We were losing, but not anymore!” It was obvious that she believed in the righteousness of her cause.

“You helped to kill your clan,” Harlequin snapped.

“I turned the tide! I have created an army of golems, and now they are fighting back even as we speak! Can’t you see I essentially turned them against each other?”

“You turned an innocent woman into an abomination, the only purpose of which is popping the darkspawn out of her womb. But we ended her suffering,” she said with some satisfaction.

“You fools, what have you done?!” screeched the mad house.

At the same time, the armored golem near the throne suddenly turned to her and said in a deep, booming voice, “You have deceived me!”

That new development — a talking golem — surprised Harlequin into momentarily forgetting her murderous intent toward deranged Paragon.

“It speaks!” Wade was slightly less surprised. Or not at all. “I bet there will be a talking darkspawn in the near future.”

The golem, taller than all they’ve seen so far and glowing with yellow crystals like a Christmas tree with fairy lights, said, “I am Caridin, and the Anvil of the Void was my creation.”

Wade envisioned jaws falling all around him. To his disappointment, none did.

{He looks like a jaeger. Slap an arc reactor on his chest, and you’d never know the difference.}

[Aside from the size.]

“How come you are all stony? Shouldn’t you be a long dead dwarf?” He peered at him curiously.

“It doesn’t matter! The Anvil requires living beings to make golems, and you killed my primary source of them. Laryn was invaluable, she alone fueled my army! Without her, it will be much harder to capture the darkspawn for the Anvil.”

“Madam, I’m usually not the one to throw stones — unless it’s what the person is into — but you clearly take the insane cake.” Wade applauded. “Several fruits short of a lollipop, ain’t you?”

While she sputtered in indignation, Caridin glared at her. Well. Actually, it was hard to tell because of the helmet and also it being a golem… Anyway, Wade chose to believe Caridin was capable of glaring, otherwise his existence would have been even sadder than it already was.

[No porn, no dreams, no nothing.]

{HORRIBLE!!!}

“You have betrayed the trust of your people and lied to me,” said Caridin to Branka. “All to access the Anvil of the Void.” He shook his head sadly. “I should have stood by my decision and not let you sway me.” He turned to address the Warden. “Help me to correct my wrongs. The Anvil must be destroyed!”

“No! You can’t do that! The Anvil is mine! No one will take it from me!” said the nutso.

“Side with the crazy ride or with the talking jaeger? I’m sold on the cool dude in the armor.” Wade debated the merits of poking him in the chest, but decided against it.

[Wisely.]

Oghren made an attempt at peace talk, which had, predictably, led to insults swung his way. It seemed, he was finally getting the message explaining why he was left behind in excruciating detail.

Either way, it was a waste of breath. Wade could see in Harlequin’s eyes a cold rage that demanded a bloody recompense. Even if Oghren did manage to talk the nutcase down, it wouldn’t have brought her satisfaction.

Harlequin unsheathed her swords. “There’s nothing to decide. As soon as I knew the fate of your clan, your future was sealed.”

“Fine, then. You will have your turn at the Anvil!” Infuriated, Branka shouted, “Golems, attack!”

Golems, which up to that moment stood absolutely still, powered up.

“You will try to turn my creation against me?!” boomed Caridin and somehow countered her command.

All present in the cave golems divided between them; about two-thirds rooted for team Branka. They engaged each other, leaving Harlequin and her companions to deal with golems that weren’t busy fighting their brethren.

The usual strategy of freeze, hit, repeat was a little hard to implement, considering the sheer number of their opponents, so Wade resorted to grenades.

“Let’s blow this party out of proportion!”

{Let’s raise this place sky high!}

[Let’s bring our kill-score to the cloud level.]

It proved to be fun: the first grenade didn’t do much, only making the golem stumble a little, but that gave Wade a wonderful idea. He continued to push his enemy backward till it went for a soak in one of the lava rivers.

Watching it sink, he hummed the Terminator theme music. “You won’t be back, asshole.”

At the periphery of his vision, he noticed that Branka did… something. Mist engulfed her figure, and suddenly there were four Brankas. All equal in every way and tough as Capsicle’s shield.

“The hell?! I thought dwarfs can’t do magic?”

{Maybe it’s a special trick only totally bonkers engineers can pull of?}

[Tony Stark, then?]

{Or she was coached by Loki!}

[Or maybe she is Loki.]

“Mmm… They do share a flair for dramatics and mental instability.” He paused to think about it. “Nah. He wouldn’t sleep with Oghren!”

One Branka went for him while the other continued to pound on Caridin. The third sprinted to Harlequin, who was still busy with a golem. And the fourth went for the dog.

Two golems lumbered toward him as well. Being massive, hulking creations, they became an unstoppable force when they gained momentum.

[I know who they remind me of!]

{Juggernaut?}

[*affirmative humming*]

“I will end you!” said the psycho.

“Have at it, I’m all aflutter.”

While two golems were not precisely a big problem, two golems plus a crazy powerhouse bitch definitely were. Moving synchronously, golems stomped, causing Wade to fall on his ass, stunned. That gave the mad house number one a perfect opportunity to strike. The bitch beheaded Wade in a swift motion.

He opened his eyes and found himself seated at the table with Death in front of him, a glass of wine in hand.

“Hello again, darling.” She smiled over the rim of the glass and took a sip.

“Babe! Good to see you! But twice in so many days? I must be slipping!” He looked at the deep red tablecloth, a single red rose in a vase, then noticed candle lights and slow music… “Huh, nice place! Classy, just like you.”

“Thank you.” She looked at him from under her eyelashes. “I wanted this date to be special.” She paused to pour him a drink. “Memorable.”

“What’s the special occasion?” The wine was good, rich and fruity.

It probably was just his imagination, but her smile seemed a little sad. “I don’t want you to forget about me.”

“Death, how could I? You are my babe, first and foremost!” He leaned closer to her over the table. “What’s brought this on?”

“Don’t forget me, my love.” Hooking her free hand over his neck, she reeled him in and kissed him through the mask. Quite passionately, at that.

He groaned, wishing to deepen the kiss and…

Next thing he saw was Harlequin kneeling over his body.

[It definitely became a routine.]

Wade groaned again. This time — in disappointment.

“Thank Creators!” Harlequin’s hands shook as she run her fingers over his cheek. Her other hand, he noticed, clutched the material of his catsuit above his heart in a death grip. “Your wounds healed, but you weren’t coming back to life.” Her voice sounded unsteady. “I thought this time it’s permanent.”

“Nah, I’ll always come back. Just took a little breather’s all.”

Quite unexpectedly, Harlequin slapped him across the same cheek she was caressing.

“Ouch! What’s that for?”

“Don’t do this! Ever! Again!” Each word was accompanied by a punch to the chest; not a very strong, thankfully.

[I think she’s about to cry.]

{Oh, no! What will we do then!?}

“Don’t you dare die on me again!” She said it like a threat. And then Wade got a second kiss in one evening.

{WOW!}

[French? Go us!]

Apparently, somewhen during his brief foray into the Other World, the mask went off his face. It made kissing easier and, frankly, much more enjoyable.

“Huh,” he said when they had to stop for fear of suffocation. “So worth the wait!”

Somewhere above and to the left of them, Wynne cleared her throat. “Warden, I’m glad he is alive, but we should decide what to do with Branka.”

{You sure we can’t kill her?}

“Duty calls.” Harlequin sighed, forehead resting against Wade’s.

[Too late for that.]

“Don’t see why it can’t wait.” Nonetheless, he untangled his fingers out of her hair.

“The sooner this is over, the sooner we can go back to civilisation. I happen to miss warm baths and soft beds,” she said, standing up.

“You’ve got a point.”

“What did I miss?” he asked when Harlequin went to talk with the head golem.

“The crazy lady is over there.” Alistair gestured at the throne.

Branka lay near it, wrapped in several feet of rope and stunned six ways to Sunday and back to Monday. After the trouble she caused, nobody wanted to risk her escape.

Wade approved.

“After you fell, the Warden went berserk,” said Oghren. “I’ve never doubted she is fierce, but that was bloody terrifying.”

“Ah, it was a sight to behold.” Zevran sighed. “You, my friend, are lucky to hold the regard of our dear Warden.” He caught Wade’s gaze and said, dead serious, “Be careful with her heart.”

{Are we getting the shovel talk??}

Alistair nodded in agreement. “She is a sister that I actually can stand to be around.”

[Seems like we do.]

Maric growled a warning.

Before Wade could receive threats from Oghren, Wynne, or Morrigan — not that there would have been any, anyway — Harlequin rejoined them.

“Caridin said and I quote, ‘To make live you have to take life’. He was turned into a golem when the king grew dissatisfied with his service. The Anvil is too dangerous, and I agree with him: it should be destroyed.”

“But surely you can see the advantage of keeping it,” said Morrigan.

“Even a fork might be dangerous in the hands of a fool, and Bhelen is no fool. He is ruthless and cunning. I fear he will misuse the Anvil if we leave it to him.”

“There’s a tablet with a great number of dwarven runes carved into its surface.” Oghren pointed at the large stone thing to the left of the entrance. “Care to take a look? It’s a list of names with stamps of their houses next to them. I only recognized a few. Guess what it is?”

He didn’t wait for an answer. “There’s a line at the bottom saying, ‘We honor those who have made this sacrifice, let their names be remembered.’ It’s a bloody memorial. I sodding hope they all volunteered.” His tone left no doubt he didn’t believe that.

“Well, it could be used as a means to avoid the capital punishment, but then again, this Bleh dude can start throwing his political enemies in line for the death row.” Wade shrugged. “And since when we have a democracy? I thought pumpkin makes all decisions.”

Wynne harrumphed.

“You just gave me an idea.” Thoughtful, Harlequin went back to Caridin.

Wade looked at the rest of the company, shrugged, and jogged after her. The others tagged along.

“… the best solution. If she agrees, of course.”

For the longest time the golem said nothing, then he seemed to come back to life. “Your words are sound. If she agrees to this, then I will help you,” he said and lumbered to Branka. Presumably, to talk with her.

“What’s going on?” asked Oghren.

Harlequin turned to face him, squaring her stance. “I’m giving Branka an opportunity to stay with the Anvil.”

“Oh?”

“As a golem.”

“What? You want to turn her into one of them?!” It didn’t look like he was happy with the news.

She had no difficulties staring him down. “I’m giving her a choice. Caridin said when he became a golem at the behest of his king, he was the only one who knew the secret of control rods, the means of controlling golems. It’s why he speaks freely and thinks for himself. He also said that all things were put into perspective. It changed him, and I hope it will change Branka as well. Help her shake off the obsession she has with the Anvil.”

Oghren hummed, still not entirely sold on the idea.

“Otherwise, I might have to kill her.”

That did the trick. “Well, as you said, it’s her choice. I can’t do a thing to change the mind of that nug-headed woman!”

“She agreed to your terms,” said Caridin, joining the conversation.

“And what are these terms, might I ask?” said Wynne.

“We leave her and Caridin in charge of the Anvil, as it was before. When she becomes a golem, she won’t be subjected to flaws of mortals anymore. Together, at the head of an army, they can keep the Anvil and its secrets safe. No king will be able to influence them or command them as there are no control rods.”

Wynne nodded in approval. “And you will have an army of golems to help with the Blight and to fight the darkspawn here when it’s over.”

“They will continue to turn the darkspawn into golems. That’s my other condition. This way all sacrifices — willing and unwilling — won’t be in vain.”

“An elegant solution, Warden.” Morrigan smiled. It wasn’t even the creepy cannibalistic smile.

“Bhelen will meet a Paragon when Branka or Caridin head to the surface, and for now…”

“I will forge a crown for the next king,” said Caridin. Decision made, he went to make preparations.

“I think he was going to die when the Anvil was destroyed,” said Harlequin.

“And you gave him a reason to live.” Wade smiled at her fondly. “What happens now?”

“We go back to Orzammar, then to Denerim. We have an army to take on the Archdemon, now it’s Loghain’s turn.” She looked at him sideways. “Would you like to come along?”

“You won’t be able to get rid of me for a long time.” He said, wrapping his arm over her waist and pulling her closer. “I say it’s the beginning of a very interesting relationship.” He smiled. “Someone must ensure your continued survival.”

{And we still need to get laid!!}

And Wade kissed her for the second time.

 

The end (fucking finally).

 

1 Snow White: The Sequel
2 Charlie Mops — (from The Bard's Tale)
3 “There’s a Hole in My Bucket”
4 No, they don’t. Harlequin is trolling him.
5 Spongebob Theme Song
6 This one

7 The Forgotten Ones are a maligned aspect of the ancient Elven pantheon. The Dread Wolf Fen’Harel tricked both good and bad gods: locked the Forgotten Ones away from the world in their realm of the abyss and shut the Creators in their realm of the heavens.

According to popular belief, not even the Dalish properly remember the Forgotten Ones since then, outside of their dreams. Legend suggests the Forgotten Ones were many, but even the names of most of them have been largely lost to time.

8 Dalish elves sometimes practice a savage game with human prisoners called “Fen’Harel’s Teeth.” A prisoner’s clothes are taken and their hands lashed together. The prisoner is given hard leather leggings with small nails driven into them to cause pain, and given a hundred-count head start before the clan gives chase.

9 Shai-Hulud — the sandworm from the Dune universe created by Frank Herbert.
10 Asunder
11 Madonna — ”Don't Cry for Me Argentina”
12 Bride of the Maker
13 Lady Death from the game: picture and video.
14 The Barry Sisters — “Chiribim Chiribom”
15 Heart-shaped gem
16 Pendant