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Nika Kader was twenty-nine years old, and had been a warden-lieutenant for five of them, a warden for eight, when she felt the Blight running through her veins rise to a near-constant boil. She had known, in that instant, that it was their time – that finally she would be called upon to fulfil her ultimate duty – and she had been unafraid. Clarel had been blunt in explaining the situation, and the wardens had mobilized with little fanfare, marching towards the Fereldan border to face the culmination of the evil they fought. When she slept, she didn’t dream, but the darkspawn whispers that mumbled through her sleeping hours had risen to a scream. Apparently, the others dreamt of dragons. Word spread through the camp: archdemon.

They all found their way of coping, as they set off on this (most likely final) campaign. Leonie spent the days going over every spell she had learned in the circle, and every evening running through the training routines the chantry had taught, her magic sword shimmering in and out of vision with her movements.

Sidona smiled and laughed more often, but couldn’t quite keep it up, lapsing into silence with growing frequency to sink into her thoughts. Nika knew her well enough to know that she was picturing herself a second Garahel. She couldn’t blame her.

As for Nika, she marched. Once upon a time, she would have been raging, furious, as angry as the brand burned into her face, but time had matured her, and she knew herself: she was a warden, and this was her duty, and so she marched. She couldn’t quite keep still; even when she wasn’t walking, she flipped a knife between her fingers distractedly, her only concession to fear.

One night, a week away from their destination, as they sat around the fire, the words came forth in a quiet confession. “I’d do it.” “I would.” “I can think of worse ways to go.”

They were turned away at the border.

Nika’s vision had faded to shaking red anger, at the cowards, at the politics, at Clarel who had barked to silence the troops; once the Blight has ravaged their lands for a few years, they’ll be happy enough to see us arrive. It went against everything she knew and was, and Nika hated it.

Not that they did nothing, no. The darkspawn horde had moved on from the Korkari Wilds – and what a name; these Fereldans, honestly – but enough stragglers had made their way into Orlais that the wardens could not remain idle. It was a small consolation, but it kept them active, and that was all they needed.

(That was a lie. The archdemon screamed and shrieked and howled in their dreams and visions every night, and the taint rushed through their veins with more potency than any of them had ever known. It was frightening. Even moreso was the fact that they could do nothing about it yet.)

Nika wondered how Duncan fared, alone in Ferelden, and upon making a comment out loud on the matter she had been taken aside by Clarel. Told brusquely that Duncan, and the rest of the Fereldan wardens, had been destroyed at their battle of Ostagar.

“To be clear,” she had said, in a rare example of disrespect to her commanding officer. “Ferelden is wardenless in a time of Blight, and we are being kept out by petty noble disputes?”

“Regent Loghain seems to think that mere footsoldiers are enough to defeat the horde,” Clarel had snorted, and Nika felt surprised by this: she knew the Loghain of the tales to be a much beloved character in their folklore. That he would condemn his people to death by taint or worse to keep the Orleasians out was unthinkable. (But then again, Nika did not quite hate Orlais – not in the way that Sidona did, her desperate confused feelings between hate and love and despair towards her homeland – and couldn’t imagine it. Orlais had given her a home when Orzammar had not. That was all she needed.)

As the seasons turned, rumours made their way across the border: a warden (or two, or eight, the number changed with each telling) had survived the massacre, and was using the warden treaties to build an army. Nika was torn between respect and horror – a seasoned warden would have fled to Jader at the first opportunity to get help from the gathered army not far from the border. That a novice – perhaps even a recently named warden? – was trapped alone with no mentors to help them, building an army that would certainly fall to the horde without the taint to protect them from being blighted, that would certainly not know about the truth of killing an archdemon, was unthinkable.

She was not the only one to think as much: Clarel sent Riordain to Ferelden in cognito, to advise this warden, to tell them the truth about their most sacred duty. Nika wished that it could have been her, or one of the others, but she knew the fairness in the choice: a male human would be able to travel unseen, and Riordain was owed that much, at least, after the death of his friend.

(She wondered, briefly, if he would survive the encounter, or if his death would mark the end of an era, the era of that generation of wardens. Duncan and Riordain dead, Fiona returned to her tower, Utha missing in the Deep Roads to what was certainly a fate worse than death. It would despair her, if she had not already resigned herself to this truth: they were wardens, and they did not get happy endings besides the moments passed with their comrades. No matter who they had been in life, the second the tainted darkspawn blood passed their lips, their only birthright was to die forgotten and alone against the darkspawn.)

When the lone warden – the Hero of Ferelden, to hear the tales newly-born – succeeded, and fell in battle to the archdemon as was their destiny, Nika felt it in her soul and in her blood and in her bones, as did the rest of her comrades in blood and battle. Some laughed (Sidona); some wept (Leonie). Nika had raged, gritted her teeth, gone to find a sparring partner to calm the pounding that threatened her vision. They should have been there. This was their battle, they should have been there, they should have coached this child and taught them to be a proper warden before they became one in death.

Nika watched Sidona laughing in the courtyard of their compound, bent nearly in half and with tears coming out of her eyes, repeating over and over “She was an elf! She was an elf! A new Garahel for a new age!” and thought privately that they would have to fight tooth and nail to keep that in the history books. She didn’t voice it out loud, however. Her friend had been robbed of the glory of that kill, and Nika would not rob her of the comfort that her people had struck another blow against the old gods.

“Urthemiel is dead,” said Clarel. She had her hands clasped behind her rigid back, when Nika found her. The warden commander looked worse for wear, her normally close-cropped hair having grown long and shaggy, nearly to her nape.

“Yes,” said Nika, because there was little else to say, except, “And now we must remain vigilant.”

“Yes,” replied Clarel, with an approving look in her eyes and a strange tone to her voice as she regarded Nika. “We must.”

“We will,” said Nika, who did not always need the final word, but in that moment needed a sense of finality. A sense of duty, a sense of being useful.

“I know you will,” said Clarel, who put her hand on Nika’s shoulder in respect. Despite their great height difference, it didn’t feel patronizing, and Nika took comfort in the gesture before she took her leave.

Two days later, they were having breakfast as usual; Sidona flirting with Kristoff only to be brushed aside kindly as always, Leonie checking her reflection in the back of her spoon, Nika brushing her hair at the table despite being yelled at by half the wardens gathered; Clarel came in and told them that the crown of Ferelden had given the arling – a stretch of land, she presumed, perhaps a duchy? – of Amaranthine to the Grey Wardens, and that one of their own number would be given rulership of it. She sent the troops to go and prepare for travel, and when Nika rose, she was held back.

“Make us proud, Kader,” Clarel said, solemnly, and Nika nodded. She would.