Chapter 1: The Lady of the Lake; Silver and Black
The Lady of the Lake
And a blurry shape of faraway silver.
Why was he moving?
He didn't know.
He didn't care.
He tried to protest. No sound came.
The black around him had become dark blue.
And then, pure white emerged to envelope him.
He felt a warmth that he had never felt before. And yet nostalgic, almost as if it had been a part of him all along.
Her mouth opened. She said something, something like a song. Like a lullaby meant to calm a wailing child.
And the woman's words, which he would never forget.
"Do you believe in the Maker?"
Prologue, Part One
Silver and Black
Year 9:31, Dragon Age.
One year after the death of King Cailan at Ferelden's Victory at Ostagar.
Two grey wardens rested in the thick of the Korcari Wilds.
One stood on the ground, clad in helmetless silverite splintmail armor, looking up at the dense greenery sprouted from the trees.
The other sat atop the lowest hanging branch of the tree, regaling an anecdote from his past.
"I remember as if it were yesterday…"
A baritone voice, but dignified and refined.
"…we were walking down the sun-glossed streets in Val Royeaux, hand-in-hand. In contrast to Denerim, Orlesian storefronts often have glass windows, a design which allows them both to showcase their best items as a stall owner would without the same uncomplicated accessibility for thieves. One such storefront was Société Jacqueau. Jacqueau—the former personal jeweler of the Valmonts—was the most famous of his craft in all of Orlais. And when my beloved and I passed by Jacqueau's unhumble abode that day, I saw from the corner of my eye a rapid infatuation, and then an equally hasty retreat when she saw the price. I would have done anything to see her smile. I waited briefly before our boat ride to whitely lie about how I left something in the marketplace and then return with one hand behind my back. And as we drifted beneath the thousand-year-old fine arches of the world's grandest city, I softly commanded her to close her eyes and stretch out her hands. I leant forward and whispered closely to her ear as I placed it between her palms. 'Hey, you know those earrings you were looking at? Well, I'm not too good at these things, but…I got you a pear.' She threw it in the water. Must have not liked fruit."
The storyteller paused from atop their vantage at the sound of their sole listener desperately trying to swallow a restrained giggle. He resumed, throwing in a last line to break the floodgate.
"Do you understand the wordplay? Pair, pear…"
Alistair keeled over on the ground in laughter. That was officially the worst joke he had ever heard.
"She did not have the same reaction as you did. Personally I would say it to be a flaw in her sense of humor."
"Ahahaha…" Alistair's laughter receded into a nervous chuckle. "…Um, that didn't actually happen did it? Tell me that didn't happen."
"Have I not told you before? I never lie." The voice above stated this matter-of-factly, but Alistair shook his head. It was true that his fellow warden was painfully honest, but there was simply too much in that story that was out of character for the narrator telling it.
Besides, didn't he say in his own story that he had 'whitely lied'…?
The warden on the ground looked back up at the figure above. His face was obscured by the shadow of a mesh of leaves hanging overhead. "Are we close?" Alistair asked, "The Head Scout might cry into her pillow about how lonely she is if we're late again."
"The Head Scout is a dwarf-fucking bitch that needs to learn to shut the fuck up and stick to picking berries instead of demanding to know every pile of mabari shit that we step in."
"…So…ahmmm...are we close?" Alistair didn't really know how to respond to that, so he just repeated himself.
"Indeed. A few hundred meters, if my eyes do not fail me." And his partner responded as if he had said nothing at all.
The man in the tree was always like this. He could speak with great articulation and enunciation, fluently stringing together both the archaic and the prochronistic of the common tongue and vocalizing them in such a way that the words were left resonating in the ear, lingering ominously for moments after his tongue had lay flat. Or he would speak with incredible crudeness, delivering every obscene, blasphemous and offensive word completely calm-faced and unreserved. Occasionally he mixed the two to creative results, but never could he seem to achieve the common middle ground that most intelligent life in this world walked on.
The Grey Warden above stood up on the branch he had been sitting atop. A careful man would slowly dig their fingers into the same crevices they used to climb up to the tree and controllably descend back to the ground.
And landed on his feet, composedly absorbing the impact by bending his knees and then snapping back up straight to his full height, half-a-head taller than Alistair. The black and red of his Sentinel Armor drew a sharp contrast to the worldly nature surrounding its outline.
'Intimidating' was not a strong enough word to be used as a descriptor for this man's appearance.
Standing before Alistair was a ferocious shape of a man mismatched with a pair of ultramarine eyes. The intensely blue hue of his eyes contrasted with everything else about him. They contrasted with the huelessness of dark hair, short, yet rendered shapeless by nature and wilderness. They contrasted with dreadful scars—ranging from a small graze to the nose's bridge by the tip of a dagger, to two parallel marks left by a high dragon's claw. They contrasted with the roughened skin, hardened and unpleasant from a wisdom of the body. And they contrasted with the prominent, protruding bone structure beneath the skin, evidence of what may have once been a striking face before being covered by multiple layers of experience.
Aedan Cousland had a face that was born to command and forged to terrify. The color of his eyes; so innocently bright between constantly narrowed eyelids, more vibrant than the ocean or sky, all seemed a cruel irony by the Maker. The disparity only accentuated a presence that rejected all forms of tenderness.
Cousland slipped a gauntlet, undid from when he had climbed the tree, back on to one of his leathered hands. Alistair caught a glimpse of the dark follicles on the back of Aedan's hand. Underneath his armor the man had hair—everywhere. On his arms, on his legs, on his chest. The only place the Warden-Commander didn't have hair, oddly enough, was his face—even more closely-shaved than Alistair's. Alistair had pointed out the peculiarity of this on more than one occasion, but always got the same answer, some line about how every proper nobleman must always keep a groomed face. No mention of how proper it was to be so frequently covered in darkspawn blood. Or to look like an Alamarri warlord that had survived a hundred trials despite only being a year older than Alistair himself. A bit of hair on the face seemed downright trite all things considered.
If Alistair had to put Cousland's wild appearance into words, he'd say he was a man that was part-warrior, part-noble, and part-youth. And on top of the man parts, he was also part-bear.
"Shall we get going?" The same dignified voice from earlier, belonging to a man who appeared anything but. It would be quite funny, really, if the first impression this man always made wasn't scaring people to death.
"Sure. Can't miss this week's ritual dismemberment, now can we?" Alistair joked with a boldfaced lie. Though, with Cousland around, a would-be bystander could be forgiven for believing it true.
The two walked together, side-by-side. It had taken Alistair quite some time to get used to his new Warden-Commander and the sheer pressure his presence seemed to emit. When he first saw him at Ostagar as the junior member of the Order, he could swear that his dark-haired companion were a vicious murderer that had slaughtered an entire noble house and stole their armor. And that sooner or later he may very well snap and cross blades with a certain former Templar.
Of course now that they had a contract, one that Aedan wouldn't disobey unless he fundamentally went against one of his most stubbornly-held ideals, there was no threat of that at all. Instead, they were inseparable companions. Against Alistair's will. Honestly, he wasn't quite sure which was worse.
They had no reason to fight, despite being opposites. So they simply walked together.
And walked together.
There was no hum of cicadas or singing of birds in the wilds during a Blight. No trampling of vegetation by a tangle of fennecs. Just the clank of armored footsteps in the middle of a lifeless wilds, of two men that walked together.
And walked together…
And were still walking…
"It's been ten minutes now" Alistair thought.
And not talking…
"Should I say something…?"
Alistair got a foot caught under a tree root, stumbled for a bit, but didn't trip. Being deathly quiet while they could very well be walking to their actual death did not help relieve tension.
"Soooooo…" Alistair tried to say something, but trailed off. Inseparable companionship aside, a bloodthirsty noble was a bit difficult to make small talk with. "How's…"
Cousland stopped and shot his gaze over Alistair's shoulder with a stony face. Alistair didn't really think about what he was going to talk about, so he dragged on his words.
The younger warden froze up in shock at the sight of Aedan's frozen expression suddenly exploding into a yell. He felt a hand press hard against his breastplate as he was pushed to the ground by his Warden-Commander.
He heard a scream. But this time, it was not from a bloodthirsty noble.
It was from something with a bloodlust that no living man could match.
Lying on his stomach, Alistair turned his head to to see Cousland standing with Vigilance, both hands on the hilt and the edge pointing towards Alistair bloodied.
And in front of Cousland was a darkspawn, a hurlock that had been bisected from shoulder to hip; its armor, flesh, and bone all cleanly and uniformly cut with no signs of stopping or difference in speed as the blade had passed through it. It was as if Vigilance had cut through it like a knife through velvet.
Sometimes, the darkspawn were quiet. Cousland placed Vigilance back in its sheath.
Usually, Alistair could sense darkspawn coming from far enough away that he could steel himself and draw his sword. But when surrounded by so many, as they undoubtedly were right now, all he could rely on were the five senses he was born with. Well, four. Everything smelled rather uniformly awful for the moment.
Of course, that same downside was what allowed them to venture this far into the wilds without the entire horde descending upon them. Darkspawn sensed grey wardens the same way grey wardens sensed darkspawn. And if they were surrounded by tens of thousands of their own kind, it would be rather difficult for them to sense two lone wardens, miles away from their camp. The only reason that hurlock had seen him was through the simple use of its eyes.
The standing warden turned back to the one flat on the ground. Warm blood and black ichor had splattered over Cousland's face and armor. It did not seem to bother him. "Are you alright?"
Alistair shook his head, trying to maintain his cool. "Well, I'm not quite you, but I'm fine." Alistair grabbed Cousland's hand and pushed his own against the ground as to get himself back on his feet. Unlike his companion, none of the carnage from the hurlock's body had touched him. "Looks like I owe you my life for…oh, the fifth time this month now? You really ought to think about how much you could charge."
"You owe me nothing. It is a Teyrn's duty to protect his King." Cousland smiled with a closed mouth, contorting the two dragonclaw scars that reached from the upper-left of his forehead to the lower-right of his jaw. Despite the gore, and despite never doing so in public, it was an expression he was using now. As if being covered in blood were simply his most comfortable state.
"Please. I'm the bastard of a star-struck maid and a man who couldn't keep to himself. Don't call me a King." Alistair shook his head. He couldn't exactly take back the contract they had made at this point. Didn't mean he had to like it.
But, he owed this man much. He didn't know where he'd be today if Cousland wasn't there to pick him back up after Duncan died.
"Thank you." Alistair continued, serious this time. "I don't know how many times I would've died now if it weren't for you."
"Why are you thanking me? As I said, it is a Teyrn's duty to protect his King." In a reversal of roles, Cousland looked at him with curiosity, unable to comprehend what was being said.
Alistair rubbed his scalp and looked up. "…Well, I take that back. I would've only died once. Can't exactly die more than one time, now can I?"
"This aside, earlier you kept saying 'How'?" Aedan Cousland brought up Alistair's meandering from before the Hurlock appeared.
"Right, I was...erm—"
"You were asking about Arl Rendon 'Howe', correct?" Cousland interrupted before Alistair could make something up.
“Yes! About…him…why not?"
"You wish to know of my victory over the usurper Howe and the reclamation of my ancestral birthright by that pathetic traitor?" The Warden said this without and irony or slack in tone, as if he were presenting a story before a large gathering in front of Denerim's royal palace. Both of them had taken separate leaves of absence from Ostagar since the last battle with the Darkspawn. Alistair had traveled to Redcliffe and, unsuccessfully, tried to cure Arl Eamon's sickness. And Cousland had taken what remained of his missing brother's forces north to retake Highever and subjugate Amaranthine, returning with his rather unusual sword and armor afterwards.
“Not really, but let’s go with that” Alistair muttered under his breath.
Cousland did not hear him. "There is not much to tell. Howe's men didn't put up much of a fight outside the castle, and by the time I'd scaled the walls the former Arl was already on his hands and knees, begging for mercy."
"Did he get it?"
"Of course not. I had Rendon Howe hung, drawn, and quartered. I wanted his skull as a keepsake too, but my seneschal had the head dipped in tar and mounted on top of a spike above Amaranthine's main gate instead. A shame."
"Hung, drawn, quartered?" Alistair had heard of being hung, but the "drawn and quartered" part was new.
"It is an old Fereldan execution method reserved for high treason, such as regicide. A large crowd is gathered as we hang someone with a short drop so their neck does not accidentally snap when the platform opens up underneath them. Ideally with a noose loose enough to allow just enough air for a long suffocation. Roughly half a minute before they are to die, the rope is shot with a bow or otherwise severed. They are then dragged by the crowd onto the drawing table while they gasp for breath, where their midsection is cut open and their innards dragged out to be burnt before their eyes. If they are still alive, as Howe was, they are then castrated and emasculated, this flesh also being burnt in front of them. Death arrives almost immediately afterwards from bleeding, so the limbs and head are quickly severed while they can still…Alistair? Are you unwell?"
Alistair liked to consider himself as strong-stomached as any true Fereldan man.
This, however, was a bit much.
"Oh no, I'm fine. Just wondering what's for dinner." Alistair lied.
"Really?" Cousland pressed a hand to his chin. A bit of the blood smeared against his face. "If you do not mind eating without a campfire, I could catch some raw fish on the way back. If you are willing to wait until we get back to Ostagar, I could also prepare red meat, cooked rare…are you certain you are alright?"
"Uuuuuuugg." Alistair felt a bit of bile in the back of his throat. A spectacular backfire.
Aedan's face became stern and concerned. "You don't seem fine, here, stand still."
Cousland's couldn't feel temperature through his gauntlets, so he placed an armored hand against the back of Alistair's head and used it to anchor his head in place as he pressed their foreheads together. Their faces came near, with the close-eyed, serious face of Aedan's hovering inches away from his.
It was a little too intimate for Alistair's tastes.
"Ple…please don't get so close to me like that." Alistair jerked himself free of the slightly older warden's hold.
Personal space was as much a foreign concept to Aedan Cousland as human decency and common sense were.
"Hm, you do not feel hot." Aedan reeled back his head and placed his hand to his mouth, pointedly ignoring his companion's discomfort. "Is it something you ate at Ostagar before we left? A rotted tomato, perhaps?"
"No I—I'm fine. Just don't talk about food. Please." Alistair always managed to surprise himself with how much his conversations with this man threw him off-balance.
"If you say so." Cousland said, completely ignorant of the situation.
Alistair and Cousland resumed walking. This time, with a comfortable silence.
The trees had grown thinner since their last rest. Before they were thick enough that they had to constantly step from root to root, slipping between the trunks and squeezing their armor past the ever-narrowing openings. Now they were close enough to the epicenter that the advanced stages of the Blight could be seen. Moisture had dried out from the ground, withering away the small plants and turning the soil loose and dry. The small animals had all died out, and the larger ones had become blighted, leaving to join the main horde.
If Alistair were to travel a few miles northwest, to the Hinterlands, there would be plenty of unblighted animals and vegetation. Quite a few of which that would be willing to kill him. In that way, it wasn't quite different from where he was at now.
Beasts in the Hinterlands, and all of Thedas for that matter, killed humans for a variety of reasons. Often times as a slight for entering their territory or for perceived threat to their young. Occasionally even for food.
Darkspawn ate human flesh too. But they didn't need sustenance, unlike beasts. The magical essence of the taint sustained them, allowing them to live indefinitely until slain. So why did they eat…? Who knows?
Alistair looked up to the sky. Despite all of the evidence of a Blight on the ground, the sky was completely cloudless. He wasn't able to see it earlier with the layers of leaves blotting out the Sun. Now the branches had become bare, the trees simple husks in a permanent winter.
…Alistair couldn't stand how lifeless it could be during a Blight.
When Duncan recruited him, what he feared most about a Blight was what it would feel like when he was fighting Darkspawn. He worried that he'd lose his nerves and forget to swing his sword. That he'd face something that couldn't be beaten and die without his efforts meaning anything.
Now—what he feared the most about a Blight was not when he was fighting the Darkspawn, but when there were none to be seen.
It is said that the sight where Dumat was killed used to be a lush beauty, a green, never-ending forest that most of the world's fruit trees originated from. After the First Blight, it became a grey wasteland; less than a desert, less than a battlefield. No shrub or insect survived in the Silent Plains, no fleeting prey or chasing predators. It simply became nothing, a void of life.
The Blight was unnatural. It wasn't just evil. Greedy merchants that rose food prices during a famine were evil. Cutthroats in the Carta that killed and extorted unarmed men were evil. Sadistic templars that relentlessly chased self-contained magi were evil. Deranged maleficarum that summoned demons into the world were evil.
What was The Blight? The Blight wasn't invisible. The Blight had a face, and it was not an emotionless one. In a way, the stray Hurlock that just got sliced in half was downright jovial that it had someone to fight, even when it had no hope of winning.
"But…why?" Alistair wondered.
All evils of the world had a purpose. Gold, power, pleasure, survival, twisted joy. And the apex of all evils, the evil which threatened to erase all others along with the good, had no apparent goal. The Blight killed. The Blight corrupted. Those were its means, and those were its ends.
"Hey Aedan?" Alistair looked up with a bit of an ache in his neck. He never could quite get used to someone being taller than him.
"Mmm?" Aedan's inquisitive noise resembled a lion's growl.
"What do you think our chances are in the upcoming battle?"
"That will depend entirely on what we discover here today. However…" Aedan Cousland trailed off.
"…However, something is wrong." Cousland's voice snapped back to its full audacity after the brief pause. "Historically Darkspawn have never been on the defensive during a Blight."
"Maybe we killed most of them? Like the Siege of Hossberg, in the Fourth Blight." Alistair recalled a tidbit of knowledge from some of his time spent reading history texts in the monastery.
"Darkspawn do not retreat. In the case of the Fourth Blight, even after their losses in Anderfels they still pressed their advance west from their strongholds in Antiva." Cousland looked to his side, the one not flanked by another Warden. Alistair noticed this and scanned over to his left in turn, looking for more Darkspawn that they couldn't sense. "When Loghain led the charge after we lit the Tower of Ishal, we were able to win that day because of the pincer formation we formed between his army and the remnants that were under the command of Calian and the Grey Wardens before they died." Cousland spoke while the two moved and kept a watchful eye. "However, the strategy that he used shouldn't have worked. When Loghain charged, there were still Darkspawn pouring out of the wilds. Judging by the numbers I saw while we were crossing the bridge, they should've easily outnumbered us four-to-one and trapped Loghain's reinforcements in a reverse double envelopment. But the horde that was pouring out of the woods simply turned tail and retreated. And all throughout history they've never just gone back underground, biding their time for nearly a year while only sending out small parties to skirmish."
In a way, it was a rather effective strategy. The Darkspawn's game of disengagement had allowed the Grey Wardens to gather all of their allies from the treatises, save the magi, and raise levies from all of the lords that were slow to mobilize the first time. And they had done entirely nothing with them since then. The Bannorn was growing restless, and the freeholders that were mobilized had gone an entire year without attending to their farms. Orzammar needed their warrior caste back to deal with the succession crisis, the Dalish were jumpy around the race that had subjugated them many times over, and the Templars had their own problems with Ferelden's circle from what they had heard.
Cousland continued. "When Loghain first heard about the Blight, he absolutely hated the idea of moving the King's army to Ostagar and engaging the Darkspawn in battle on an open field. He wanted to fight a war of attrition and utilize skirmishing tactics like he did against Orlais. The only reason he didn't was because of Cailan. Now Cailan's dead and he's gotten exactly what he wanted, only to find out that the Darkspawn don't need to eat or deal with petty disputes back home, and that the Korcari Wilds are unideal for any kind of coordinated offensive. Great strategist, my ass."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that." Alistair shrugged his shoulders while maintaining his watch for darkspawn. "He's been keeping a lid on the pot this whole time, hasn't he?"
Cousland moved his gaze away from the forest and shifted it back at Alistair. "You don't feel any resentment towards Loghain for allowing Duncan and your brother to die?"
"Why should I?" Alistair cast a sidelong glance. Duncan's death had cut a particular hole in him, one that pained him when he couldn't move and never seemed to heal. "He still ordered the charge at the end that trapped the main darkspawn force and stopped them. It was my fault for slowing you down when we were trying to light the Tower of Ishal."
"What if I were to tell you that it was irrelevant whether or not we lit the Tower of Ishal? That in actuality, Loghain had been planning to usurp the throne for his daughter and use us as scapegoats up until the very last moment when he had a change of heart and made an emotional decision?" Cousland made an outrageous declaration.
"I'd say you've read too many novels." Alistair said, dismissively. In his mind, he had no reason to blame Loghain. Instead, he blamed himself.
"You can blame Rendon Howe for putting the idea in my head while he was pleading for his life. But Alistair—" Cousland stepped forward to block his fellow Warden's path and formidably stare directly in his eyes. "What happened that day was not your fault. If you have to blame someone, blame Loghain. And if you cannot blame him, blame the Darkspawn. Blame the portrait of the world for its inherent deficit of color. Blame the eternal black that can be pushed from one place to another but never repainted. The only thing you killed that day were Darkspawn. Don't fool yourself into thinking you aren't a good man."
Alistair didn't quite comprehend the farfetched metaphors that his companion gave, but very easily understood the seriousness in his blue-eyed gaze. So he timidly nodded his head, trying to give the impression that he neither fully understood nor disagreed.
It was in that moment, however, that Alistair's worries about himself dissipated when he saw something on the edge of Cousland's form and in between two dead trees.
Smoke, rising from something below the ground.
"Aedan." Alistair's eyes became wide with realization. "Is that…?"
Cousland twisted his back and looked over his shoulder, his eyes piercing past the bark. He tilted his forehead forward, as if staring down an enemy commander at the other end of an open plain. "It is." A concentrated voice.
Alistair started off towards the source of the smoke, before feeling his torso run into what felt like a solid object. He looked down, and saw Aedan's hand blocking his path.
"I'll go first. You stay behind." Cousland ordered.
"No, I'll go first. You're the Commander of the Grey. It's my duty to protect you." Alistair replied.
"It is a Teyrn's duty to protect his King" Cousland countered.
"Look, my whole feelings on the 'King' thing aside, let's say I am what you keep calling me. Doesn't that mean you have to listen to what I say?"
"I'm more than willing to listen to your orders. Does this mean your regency is at an end?"
Alistair grit his teeth. Cousland was more than willing to allow Alistair take control of their group at any time. But saying "yes" would essentially mean two things. For one, Alistair would have to give in and call himself a king. And two, it would mean he would have to be the leader from now on. Both of which being incredibly unattractive ideas to him.
And someone who thought that the solution may be to say "yes" and then renege on the answer later was someone who did not know Aedan Cousland. There was no arguing with this man. Once given an order, he would insist on following Alistair's words down to the letter ad infinitum. A monarchy—imaginary or not—doesn't exactly close and reopen shop every Tuesday, after all.
The reality was that for Alistair, it was much easier to just to put up with Aedan's peculiar nature for the time being and to let him go on and on about how the unacknowledged junior warden that did not want the crown was somehow a 'king'. Even though Cousland was the Warden-Commander. Even though Cousland was the one that never took "no" for an answer.
At least that way Alistair would not have to be responsible for someone else's life again.
"…Fine, you win. I'll stand over here like a good little warden."
Cousland nodded his head in acknowledgement, as if he had been given the order instead of giving it.
He walked towards the source of the smoke. The trees ended at a few paces ahead of where the two stopped, the ground becoming darkened ash that bore no remainder of life. Forty more paces, and the ground itself dropped off, suddenly coming to an end as if it were the edge of a steep cliff. The Warden-Commander approached that end, first with bent knees, then with a crawl. When he was close enough to see over the edge, he paused, and la
"What do you see?" Alistair asked from the edge of the trees.
"The usual; hurlocks, genlocks, ogres, ten-titties…"
"Wait," Alistair's brow furrowed for a moment "ten—um, what?"
"Riiiight. Those." Alistair nervously rubbed the back of his neck. "So, about the Archdemon…"
"Can't see him from for sure, but I feel a certain premonition at the sight. Look for yourself, seems safe enough for now."
Alistair mimicked Aedan's movements and came to a prone position alongside him.
A great chasm expanded before Alistair's eyes and stretched his depth-of-field as far as it could go.
A crater, as if a great mass had fallen from the sky as opposed to erupting from the ground. The center produced the smoke and glowed an overpowering shade of red, the hue of the Deep Roads. The middle where the Darkspawn first broke through to the surface was obscured by the color, much as a fog in the Fallow Mire would. Thousands of minor darkspawn clung to the walls like bees wintering in a hive, the closest no more than ten meters away.
"One of us doesn't know what safe means" Alistair lightheartedly singsonged, dragging out the vowels in 'means.'
"It's safe." Cousland replied with innocent eyes. Or at least as innocent as he could make them. "Look there, where the darkspawn are thickest. Does it evoke a particular feeling when you do?"
Alistair squinted his eyes, looking towards the bottom where the darkspawn clung shoulder-to-shoulder and the intensity of the red overcame the air, but couldn't find 'feeling' Cousland spoke of for the life of him. "No, it doesn't. Give me a hint."
"Dreams about the Archdemon. This has the same background as our dreams, does it not?" Cousland asked.
Alistair took a moment to peer at the sight, combing over every detail and trying to jog his memory for some type of revelation.
In the end, it didn't work.
"…I don't think so." Alistair answered. He had always dreamt about the Archdemon flying over the wilds or over a tundra. A giant crater was never a part of it.
"Really? Well, perhaps there is another way..." Aedan's hand extended to his unflanked side and grabbed something in the grass. Alistair couldn't quite see what it was. "Alistair, what do you think the radius of this crater is?"
"Oh, I don't know…long?"
"I'm going to approximate it at one-and-three-quarter kilometers." Cousland snapped his head up at the trees and sky, trying to judge the sway of branches for wind. "Which means if I throw it at pi over three…no, three pi over ten…"
Aedan ignored Alistair's inquisitiveness and continued mulling to himself, muttering uncharacteristically quiet words before finally settling on one term in particular. "Eighty-one pi over two-hundred fifty. Does that sound right?"
"You lost me at the pie part."
"Right. Sorry, sometimes I get carried away." Aedan reeled back his arm.
And threw the rock he had picked up from the grass.
Drawing a wide-arcing parabola, it was carried by an updraft of wind, before finally beginning to fall when it was a dot on the horizon.
They followed that faraway dot with their eyes until it fell towards the center of the red-grey fog, disappearing from view.
A second passed. Just a single second, of both of them frozen in place in complete silence.
What followed was a roar. A roar that would've shook the trees with the sound of birds and other potential prey fleeing, had they not all ceased to be from the Blight.
A bloodcurdling, distant roar, belonging to something tremendous and more terrifying than anything else he had ever seen. A nightmare that had crossed from the realm of dreams into reality. A monstrosity, a corrupted remnant from a God belonging to history, brought forth into the present from the endless march of black.
Alistair slowly, deliberately moved his head towards the man standing next to him. By the time the dark-haired Warden came into view, he was standing completely still with his arms folded and eyes closed, as if contemplating something.
"…Did you just throw a rock at the Archdemon?" His eyes were wide with shock. "Does the word 'insane' mean anything to you?"
"You thought it was the Archdemon too?" Cousland opened his eyes, replying in a nonchalant manner. "It appears our work here is finished, then."
"MHM! YES, THAT'S RIGHT." Alistair jumped up and jaggedly spoke spoke upbeat words with the same kind of energy that an insomniac man gets when he's been awake long enough to forget he's tired. "Oh, but—MMMMmmmmm." Alistair pursed his lips and vigorously shook his head. "I don't know. Maybe we should throw a bigger rock?" He gave a wild smile, no long caring about trying to be discreet near what may as well be a million Darkspawn.
Cousland dropped his arms to his sides. "Very well. We passed by a boulder on the way here. Give me a short while, I will roll it down to the center." He said, completely deadpan.
"Wahahahaha!" Alistair forced laughter out of his stomach. His stomach hurt. "You said that perfectly! Almost like...like..."
"W-wait." Alistair thought to himself. Cousland never lied and only told jokes that weren't funny. So when he said he would bring over a giant boulder—which should be impossible for anyone to move—except him—and use it to alert the entire darkspawn horde that they were there, he meant it.
Alistair dropped back down and curled into a ball, the strings of his bravado cut.
"I'm sorry, I was trying to be manly. Please don't bully me again or else I'll cry." Alistair whimpered, hugging his legs to his knees and rocking back and forth.
He was scared after all. Just not of any Darkspawn or Archdemon. The Final Boss had been right next to him all along.
"My apologies. It wasn't my intention to scare you." Cousland replied. It was an earnest reply. From a terrible, terrible man.
"I know. You're just naturally-talented." Alistair drolly stated as he felt some of the tension in his body loosen. Why was he doomed to to be the only person in the world Aedan Cousland could talk to? "So, we know the Archdemon's here and not there with the big, angry army that just so happened to pop up south of Ostagar last month. What do we do now?"
"Well, foremost will be checking in on the most Junior member of the Order, who should be collecting darkspawn blood with the new recruits we picked out. He'll also have the report on all on the darkspawn movements near those witches' tent, so we'll have to exchange reports with both him and…her." Cousland spoke with a level of contempt that could've made Alistair swore that the Archdemon was back at camp instead of here.
"Who, the head scout?" Alistair sat up with one hand on a raised knee, trying to stay neutral.
"Yes, that devil of a Loghain-loyalist cockpleasing woman that calls herself the head scout. She's been scouting out the logistics of the main force. The whore." Cousland spat. Why this made the woman in question a 'whore', precisely, was anyone's guess. "In addition to her, the large one should bring us up to date about the camp and if the three recruits have their darkspawn blood yet. Or their heads for that matter." The older warden placed a closed fist to his face, digging the thumb into his cheek. "Afterwards, we will need to speak with Loghain, if the greasy old bastard is willing to listen, and finalize the battle plan. After that, it will just be The Joining and waiting for Darkspawn to attack."
"Back to camp then?" Alistair stood up.
"Of course." Cousland turned his back to the mass of Darkspawn and set off back to the wilds. "We must gather our party before venturing forth."
Alistair laughed, for a moment forgetting everything about their mission, the darkspawn, the archdemon, The Blight and every evil that seemed to surround him like a candle at midnight.
Aedan stopped in his tracks, standing underneath the shadow of the nearby trees. He looked back over his shoulder at the lighter-haired warden, dumbfounded. "What…? Was it something I said?" A rare bit of uncertainty from a man usually so direct and imposing.
"Oh, it's nothing." Alistair folded his arms and looked up towards his forehead, as if he were in on some joke that only he understood. The silver of his splintmail armor shone brilliantly underneath the high sun, a reminder that it was still only midday.
He stepped into the shade of dead trees that Aedan was under. Different colors always seemed to meld a little bit better with each other in the dark.
Alistair placed himself back at his comrade's side. "Come on, my serious evil friend. Let's go save the world."
They had a long, long journey ahead.
Chapter 2: Alistair I; Paladin, Warrior, Wizard, Thief
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Year 9:30, Dragon Age.
The morning after Ferelden's Victory at Ostagar.
A thousand bodies lay in the valley where the Darkspawn charged. Thousands more surrounded them.
More than half were blighted, but several were human along with an occasional elf.
A sole living man sat on his knees at the site of where the king's army had fallen. Earlier he hadn't been able to stop moving, but now that he had time, it felt so easy to stay still.
When he and Aedan had fought their way out of the Tower of Ishal, he was in a daze. He remembered shouting something, running across the entire camp trying to find someone who knew. Every time he asked either he was ignored or they didn't know.
On the ground before him was a body. The deceased was wearing a white chestplate with a dark sash, riveted lames at the upper arms with spaulders at the shoulders, white cloth covering the sides of the legs, a black satchel secured at the hip.
There was supposed to be only one man in the all of Ostagar's forces that had that.
Upon finding it, he searched the emptiness underneath the bridge. He searched the human bodies where the darkspawn had pressed their advance. He searched at the end of the valley where Loghain had led his charge against the Darkspawn and engaged in a massive melee on their rear flank. He searched at the edge of the wilds where only the darkspawn corpses populated the ground, most of them on their front from falling during their retreat.
But in the end he came back to where he searched first, to the middle where the King's army had lost nine of every ten men. Where Cailan and all of the Grey Wardens were, save two. A dead ogre lay nearby. Back to the corpse with the white chestplate.
The body almost resembled the shape of a man. Everything surrounding the legs and chest was intact.
But above the neck…
Alistair had let himself be in doubt because there was nothing there.
A man approached him from behind.
"I found Duncan's body." Alistair's head was drooped. His neck didn't feel sore anymore from being bent.
"I see." Aedan's voice was flat.
"His face…an axe…split…everywhere…here…there…" Alistair brought his own hands into the view of his still eyes. "I kept trying to put the pieces back together…but they wouldn't stick…"
A lone tear fell out of the corner of his eye and dragged itself down an already dried up trail. It felt as if he were wringing out his own soul.
And there was no answer—
Prologue, Part Two
Paladin, Warrior, Wizard, Thief
Alistair stood atop the bridge connecting the Tower of Ishal to Ostagar, his arms folded
He was looking down at where the last large battle with the Darkspawn had been. Most of the bodies had been dragged to mass graves, leaving only a few skeletons as evidence of any struggle.
"Huh, it's been almost a year now, hasn't it?"
Since then Anora had declared herself Queen Regnant of Ferelden and Loghain the Regent. Aedan Cousland was appointed Warden-Commander of Ferelden, and had rebuilt the Grey Wardens in Ferelden under a rule of absolute obedience to himself.
And yet Cousland always insisted that Alistair was king and that he was his vassal. It really didn't make any sense. Alistair had no desire to be king. He didn't even want to be a leader of his fellow wardens.
What he wanted…he wasn't quite sure. Ending the Blight seemed like a nice a start, so why not start there?
A seasonably cold wind blew north against his face. August and All Soul's Day, the beginning of autumn in Thedas, had already passed. It was the end of the month of Kingsway. Soon the month of Harvestmere would begin, and not long after the beginning of winter in the month of Firstfall. The snow would return to Ostagar, and whatever evidence of carnage that occurred at Ostagar would be blanketed just as before.
"Wonder if I should get anyone anything for Satinalia..."
A meandering thought that didn't go anywhere. The atmosphere at Ostagar was too tense at the moment for anyone to think of giving each other gifts.
His thoughts were interrupted by a voice approaching from the west. A tall, grey-skinned figure wearing an apprentice's robes had joined him on the bridge. There were a couple dozen Qunari mercenaries at Ostagar. One of which had been conscripted into the Wardens a month prior, and nonchalantly agreed to everything said when told their fate.
Kaaras Adaar was the type of mage that most would think was a tranquil up until he they asked him if he were. And he was the type of Vashoth that most would mistake for a stoic Qunari Warrior if it were not for the fact that he was a hornless mage.
He never smiled. Was never angry, either. It could have very well been Satinalia morning, and Adaar's attitude wouldn't be any different. It could have been the day the Blight was over and the day Fereldans took to every street to celebrate. At most he'd complain about the noise.
Tall, and yet lacking the proportionally broad shoulders so typical of his species, Adaar was an exceptionally rare case of an exceptionally rare race in Southern Thedas. Lacking in horns from birth due to a condition that would've doubly set him apart alongside his gift of magic in his parents' homeland, Adaar instead had a short growth of slate grey hair covering a charcoal-colored scalp. The rest of his skin was a dim grey, darker than most of his kind, albeit without any hint of brown. And instead of the rigidity or permanent-seeming scowl that so many Qunari seemed to have, Kaaras had a smooth and completely blank face.
From a distance, one might mistake him for a two meter high human. Up close, a particularly uneducated sort might think him to be a freakishly tall lanky human with a skin condition and pointy ears.
It did not help that, in addition to everything else about his appearance, he possessed a trait that set him apart from the usual image of the Tal-Vashoth mercenary that had endured years of hardship before escaping home or the grizzled Beresaad sent to show his strength to those outside Qunari lands: he was quite young.
Too young, in fact, seeing that the age of sixteen made him both five years younger than Alistair himself and two years younger than the age limit for conscription in most kingdoms.
"Hey…qunari…mage…person…Adaar! That’s your name, I absolutely knew all along.” Alistair laughed, trying to lighten the mood.
“…Ahem, what have you been up to?" Alistair looked away and scratched the back of his neck. Maybe, he thought to himself, that his joke wasn’t that funny.
"Autopsies." The Qunari didn't elaborate. He was dissecting people, and that of course was completely normal.
“…Really? That’s…new…” Alistair looked back at Adaar, trying to be nice and understanding. Alistair failed.
“Nope, nothing odd about teaching the youngest one of us how and why to cut up dead people. That just makes too much sense.” Alistair thought to himself, filing his sarcasm under the part of brain where he kept unused jokes that the other wardens wouldn’t get.
"…Sooooo, need something?" Alistair shook his head and asked, trying to both keep a straight face and discern as to why the unsociable qunari sought him out.
"The Warden-Commander." Adaar spoke three words and then stopped, as if he expected Alistair to know what he wanted from that information alone.
"…And? What about him?"
"You need to be there."
"I do…?” Alistair went cross-eyed, a bit confused. “Oh, tell Aedan 'thumbs up' like usual."
"And they still need me to be there?"
"Ah." Alistair spoke with a grin. "That classic Qunari stoicism I keep hearing about."
"Has nothing to do with me being a Qunari." Adaar spoke with his arms crossed. "I'm just a moody teenager."
Moody teenagers usually don't call themselves out for being one, Alistair thought, but decided against bringing up. Whatever the reason Adaar had for calling himself that, it was clear he wasn't likely to be talkative about it.
Alistair placed a hand to the back of his head. "Sorry. Is it rude for me to call you a Qunari?"
Kaaras shrugged, twisting his arms so his palms faced out. "Call me whatever you like. Qunari, Vashoth, Tal-Vashoth. They're all Qunlat words, I don't really know what they mean anyway. I'm big and grey, and I'm not going to argue I'm just like everyone else. Whatever word you have for someone like that works with me."
Much like their Warden-Commander, the young Vashoth was out of the ordinary in more ways than just looking the part, and made a rather difficult person to speak with. Although, unlike Aedan Cousland who had an opinion and degree of contempt for everything and everyone, Kaaras Adaar simply did not care. He did not care that he had been drafted into the Grey Wardens. He did not care that he had been thrust into a theatre of war before even reaching the prime of his youth. And he did not care that his stoic attitude could be interpreted as that of a devout follower of the Qun, even though he was raised in complete ignorance to it and that it would've demanded utter thralldom for him as a shackled saarebas.
In this way, he actually did resemble something of the "moody teenager" he claimed to be. Apathy. Or, as Aedan once phrased it, "the epitome of not giving even a single modicum of a single fragment of a single shit."
Alistair internally shuddered a bit at thought of his superior's words. If the wardens' current recruitment pattern kept up, he was apt to become the only level-headed one left.
They set off towards the ruins of Ostagar after a brief "right then, let's go" from Alistair and one of his accompanying quips. Unlike their scarred commander, Adaar did not walk side-by-side or in front of Alistair, preferring instead to trail a few paces behind.
"Oh, you know I've been meaning to ask. How're the new recruits doing? Did they get their darkspawn blood?" Alistair turned on his heel and spoke while walking backwards. When he was the Junior Warden of the order, he had to perform the same duties that Adaar was doing now and help induct three warden-recruits into the order shortly before the First Battle of Ostagar. Two of those recruits had died, and the survivor was now in charge. It hardly meant anything now, but he felt a certain sense of responsibility towards Adaar as a result.
"Just alive? Not all in one piece and shouting 'grrrr! Darkspawn, grrrrrrrrrr'!" Alistair made an exaggerated expression and clenched two fists in front of his face.
"Everything is in my report."
"…Right. Well, did they at least ask about the Joining?"
"They asked. I said 'no'."
"And they took that for an answer? No questions about why it has to be a secret, or why we're all so grim and doom about the whole thing?"
"I said 'no' again."
"Are you sure you're not a stoic Qunari?"
"Didn't I just explain this?"
"Hm. Well, you could've fooled me at least." Alistair faced back forward and returned to walking normally. Having grown up with other boys his age as a templar-in-training, he wasn't unused to adolescents responding to the growing self-consciousness of socialization by placing themselves in shells so to stop themselves from saying something embarrassing or in some obfuscating attempt to appear mysterious. Along with the complications of being a Qunari in human lands, Adaar probably found that type of response to his current stage in life the most appealing.
As far as the Qun went, it was certain that Adaar was neither a follower nor a particularly religious man for any belief system at all. Even less so than Alistair who was the type to follow the Chant's meaning rather than its words.
They passed by the two statues of Alamarri spearmen at the western end of the bridge, taking the left entrance into the Regent's—formerly the King's—Camp.
With reinforcements from across Ferelden and from the Orlesian Grey Wardens (the latter having been allowed across the border only by orders of the Queen herself) having come to Ostagar, the elements of the Circle of Magi and the Ash Warriors had been relocated to the main camp, near the Tower of Ishal due east. In their place was an influx of officers, most of which were nobles of some varying rank. A notable exception to this supplanting was the Fereldan Grey Wardens, still having a place by the fire where Duncan used to stand. One could interpret this as the wardens' importance to ending the Blight, but more than likely it was a way to make Regent of Ferelden's intermediary with the wardens a Fereldan rather than Warden-Commander Fontaine or Warden-Constable Blackwall, both of which belonging to the Orlesian branch. Though, given how insufferable Warden-Commander of Ferelden could be, Alistair had to wonder if said Regent's intense hatred of Orlais was starting to crack under pressure.
Logically speaking; with the removal of blacksmiths, quartermasters, medics, dog handlers, and anything resembling the common man's army from Loghain's command camp, the fortress of Ostagar should have been completely quiet. It should have instead been filled with aristocrats in ornate doublets discussing topics from their education and their dutiful elven servants plodding along beside them. Perhaps mixed with a few more serious ones wearing armor and accompanied by sergeants instead.
But, this was Ferelden.
A boisterous crowd of noblemen had circled around a spectacle in a clearing at the camp. Many were yelling or chanting, some raising a silk sleeved arm and pounding against the air with their fists.
"Slice that godless bastard's neck open!"
"Go for the eyes, Blackwall, go for the eyes!"
Alistair made his way past the loud nobility of Ferelden, his light pushing responded to rather obediently thanks to the Qunari in tow.
Most aristocrats knew the proper hand to use a spoon with and how to eloquently articulate themselves in front of their peers at the Landsmeet or inside their Denerim estates. There was, however, precisely one man universally hated in the entire camp that could drive them to their jeers and turn them into rabble.
And that man was not Warden-Constable Gordon Blackwall, a man who was born in Nevarra and lived in the Orlesian city of Val Chevin. Rather, it was the trueborn Fereldan that he was facing. One man hated universally by soldiers, mages, templars, humans, elves, ash warriors, and everyone else save Alistair and a handful of other wardens at camp.
But most of all, he was hated by Fereldan Nobles. His fellow nobles, at that.
A dark haired grey warden with a face riddled with scars stood opposite of Blackwall, Vigilance in hand. Unlike during his and Alistair's expedition to the source of Darkspawn in the Korcari wilds, he was wearing his nobleman's attire instead of his warden sentinel armor. At least, he called it his nobleman's attire. Fitting to his bizarre personality, he had a rather peculiar penchant towards wearing unmatching black and blue clothes. Draped over his right shoulder was a cloak colored Prussian blue, covering most of his right side. Underneath it he wore dark trousers and a dark shirt, the cloth flat to his skin and the sleeves long, covering every bit of skin below the neck save his hands. The Cousland family's coat of arms was emblazoned on the left side of the chest: a green laurel wreath outlined in white, against the backdrop of a blue escutcheon.
Meanwhile, standing in the more practical choice of the standard grey-and-blue warden armor, was Gordon Blackwall. Recruited in 9:17, Warden-Constable Blackwall was a classically handsome man with an upstanding record and no criminal history. Born in Cumberland without land but with a fierce determination, Blackwall had trained from a young age to be swordsman. This was reflected in his technique, aged as a fine wine. He kept one leg in front of the other, his knees bent and ready to limberly leap forward or back. He held his sword at varying angles, each covering a particular opening that he had studied and memorized how to capitalize on.
Cousland, however, carried his sword low and in a single hand. To the educated eye, his stance resembled something of an off-duty soldier or an untrained peasant's. For someone so markedly intelligent he seemed to fight incredibly stupid.
Blackwall leapt at his opponent, swinging his blade from above his head in a forward slash. A move that brought the weight of the attacker against the smaller muscles in the arms of the defender when blocked overhead.
Cousland simply sidestepped out of the way, at a speed that was uncanny for someone of his size.
Blackwall's teeth grit at the sight of being so easily dodged. At the end of his slash, he instantly brought the blade back to his hip and swung again, this time horizontally.
His sword met only a vertical, inert Vigilance still held solely by Cousland's right hand. When the two blades struck, Blackwall's bounced back and he recoiled as if he had struck at a brick wall. He expected a counterattack, but was surprised to see Cousland react to the opportunity by standing in place with locked knees and closed eyes.
"Ah-dan, Qu'est-ce que c'est? Are you mocking me?" Blackwall spoke with a mix of a Nevarran and Orlesian accent, restrainedly frustrated by their duel. His opponent hadn't attacked him
"Aedan." Cousland corrected the vowel sounds in his first name. "It's pronounced 'A-den', not 'Ah-dan'. Capital 'A'." He opened his eyes. "And I am not mocking you. This is a spar, and I rarely have an opportunity to train my defense against someone who knows what they're doing."
"Very well." Blackwall repositioned himself, but did not strike again. "If I might ask, what is your specialization, Aedan? You do not appear to be a templar or berserker, and I cannot tell whether you are an unconventional champion or a subtle reaver."
"I have no specialization."
Blackwall's face rotated a little. "…Who taught you how to use a sword, Aedan?"
"I taught myself."
"Truly? You taught yourself as a child?"
"I began training in combat when I was seventeen. By then it was simple enough to read the books and improvise what I did not know." Aedan stated this as if it was only natural. It was not unusual for someone to become a squire or begin training at or near that age, but it was rather unnatural for a noble's son to not begin training until adulthood. And even more unusual for young person to be so adept with only a few years of experience.
"Hm. I see." Blackwall relaxed his arms and planted his blade at his feet, with both hands resting atop the hilt. Things were finally starting to come together in his mind. Cousland had been prodigiously parrying and dodging with raw reaction time rather than psychological reads and anticipations as most duelists do.
He must not have a solid foundation for attacking, Blackwall thought. "Do you usually fight with a shield, Aedan?"
"Only when in formation with an army where I do not have space to maneuver and dodge. I prefer to be with a longsword and a free hand otherwise."
"Mhmm. Interesting." Blackwall pondered for a moment, trying to discern his opponent's unorthodox style. “It is all simple carte blanche to you then, no?”
Cousland closed his eyes. “Speak the common tongue, foreigner, or not at all. Your meandering attempts at intellectualism via disjointed insertion of common Orlesian phrases does not inspire me to any romanticism. It inspires me to plainly say ‘Shut the fuck up and fight, wretch’.”
“Oho!” Blackwall exclaimed, amused. He did not mean to offend, but Aedan had a specific temper that was unpredictable to rouse.
Blackwall brought his blade back in front of him, and spoke again. "As you wish, and I apologize—but I have a request too, if you will."
"Speak it then."
"I am going to defend now and wait for you to attack. Let us end this duel only when one of us is no longer able to fight."
"As you wish." For the first time since the spar had started, Cousland approached Blackwall.
The crowd had grown quiet, the nobles now gaudily whispering amongst themselves. Alistair overheard two of the nobles standing directly in front of him:
"Care for a wager? Twenty sovereigns on Blackwall."
"I'll see that bet."
Cousland stopped an arm's length away from the Warden-Constable. He raised his right arm, and swiftly, yet completely predictably, swung Vigilance in a cross slash.
Blackwall saw this and anticipated Cousland's attacking arc perfectly, rotating his sword so that its edge would parry it and open up the opportunity for a counterattack.
And he blocked it, just as he intended...
Alistair looked away and winced.
An intense pain shot through the front of Blackwall's dominant shoulder. His rotator cuff had torn and the scapula had fractured. The crowd gasped at the sound of bone becoming unsutured.
Cousland placed both hands on his sword and swung again, this time an upward slash from below.
Blackwall defended, parried the dead center of Cousland's blade with his, and was lifted in the air from sheer force as a reward. He felt his abdominal muscle tear beneath the skin and his entire anterior chain scream out in pain.
Blackwall drifted in the air before landing flat on his back. He groaned in pain, delirious of what had just happened. Not a single strike had landed on his body, and no blood had been drawn.
This was what made Aedan Cousland the most fearsome warrior in all of Ferelden.
Not technique. Not years of training. No formal school of swordsmanship or philosophical style of choreography.
It was simple blunt strength and power. An overwhelming, overpowering force that sent shockwaves through the arms holding the blocking sword, rendering parries and nearly all conventional defense useless. He had no complicated technique, because it was completely unnecessary. The only option against him was to dodge, and he was quicker than all but one inside Ostagar's walls. Perhaps they could outthink him. They’d face a mind alien to simple psychological tricks.
Cousland reapproached his now fallen foe. He brought his arms up, and then brought the sword down.
Cousland struck not at Blackwall's unguarded torso, but instead at the blade he still loosely held in one hand. The small bones in the wrist and hands broke and shattered from the impact. It flew from Blackwall's hand and slid across the makeshift sparring circle, stopping at the feet of some of the frightened nobles' feet.
It was carte blanche, indeed.
The whispers grew in intensity.
"Blackwall's one of the greatest fighters in Orlais, isn't he? How did he lose?"
"There's no comparison. Blackwall's at best one of the top twenty duelists in Thedas, but the one he's up against is one of the four of Thedas's Legends of the Sword. Those four are in a league of their own—The Arlathan Knight, The Marshal of Nevarra, The Black Templar, The Butcher of Amaranthine…"
Alistair felt someone grab his arm. He looked to the right to see a hairless old nobleman that Aedan had once referred to as "Ceorlic," looking at him as if he had a desperate need to know some sort of secret.
"You there!" A hushed but urgent whisper from Bann Ceorlic. He pointed at Alistair. "You know this Lord Cousland better than anyone, don't you? What's his weakness?"
"I do?" Alistair thought to himself at the prompt of knowing Cousland better than anyone else. A rather frightening thought. "Weakness…? Um, he's left-handed even though he prefers to swing with his right, if that counts. And…he hates sweets?" Alistair racked his brain for knowledge on Cousland's weaknesses. The most obvious were an inability to lie and a rather tremendous talent for finding the wrong thing to say in any situation, but neither of those were relevant in combat.
The blatant two-facedness by the spectators was broken from a shout in the crowd. The nobleman that had wagered twenty sovereigns on Blackwall earlier had made a rather unnoble exclamation.
Cousland's attention snapped towards to the source of noise. With a stare that could stop a lion dead in its tracks, the noble—along with the dozen or so standing behind him—wordlessly recoiled in horror.
"You have to know something! Please!" Bann Ceorlic shook Alistair's arm. The young warden wondered as to what had driven him to ply so aggressively. "I need to know something, or else he'll—!"
Ceorlic quit pleading at the feeling of a Volcanic Aurum blade resting against his wrist.
"Remove your grasp from my King you insignificant bald piece of shit, before I make you choose which one of your grandchildren's hands I cut off."
Ceorlic let go of Alistair and scampered away at the sound of the Teyrn's voice. He was so frantic in getting an answer that he hadn't even realized he was in the line of sight of the thing he was so terrified of.
All eyes in the crowd suddenly turned towards the red-haired warden that Aedan Cousland had referred to as 'King'. They didn't even seem to notice the rather conspicuous seven-foot Qunari companion standing behind him.
One young noblewoman in particular looked at him, up and down, then smiled and broke out into a giggle.
"What…? Is there something on my face…?" Alistair puzzledly thought, a bit embarrassed by suddenly becoming the center of attention.
"Adaar, heal him. Alistair, follow me." Cousland had walked past the crowd.
At their Warden-Commander's prompting, both quickly darted to follow their orders. In a way, they weren't too different from the submissible nobles they were currently surrounded by.
Alistair followed behind Cousland's back. They left the dumbfounded crowd and the injured Warden-Constable behind.
Teyrn Cousland may not have been loved by his peers. But he was most certainly feared.
A panting elf named Pick focused his efforts on carrying a massive black-and-red metal chestpiece across camp.
He had to stop a couple times for rest, though he couldn't afford letting the armor touch the ground, lest he need to carry it all the way back and redo his work.
Peering over one of the oversized black pauldrons, he saw his destination in sight—a circular arrangement of white columns and a log fire in the center. The Grey Wardens' old Commander would often warm his hands over it before he passed in the battle last year.
Two wardens were currently beside the fire, one sitting in silverite armor and one standing in a rather odd black-and-blue outfit. The elf worried a bit of that the blue cloak of the dark-haired one would catch fire, but decided it was against his better judgment to bring that up.
As he approached, he noticed another warden—a Qunari with a wooden staff—was leaning against one of the columns with his eyes closed. For someone so large he seemed particularly good at making his presence unnoticeable.
"I'm finished shining your armor, milord." Pick leaned back so that the much taller human could see his work better. A pain shot through his lower back when he did. "This. Is Very. Heavy."
Aedan turned to look not in the elf's eyes, but instead directly at his Warden Sentinel Armor. He leaned over with a straight back, inspecting every nook and cranny with microscopic detail.
He stopped at a crevice between two plates at the hip. Pick gulped.
"You missed a spot. Take it back and shine it again." He stood up tall.
"Milord, is that really necessary? I have seven other—"
"I also enjoy sharpening my ears and helplessly watching humans rape my women."
"…Huh?" Pick was confused. Did he really just hear that?
"What, your ears not long enough? Mala'arlath him namin mi'shemlin sa. Get out of my sight, elf."
The elven messenger's mouth dropped and he turned away, unable to meet the noble's gaze. He brought himself back upright and ran away with the armor at full speed, as if all the fatigue he garnered by bringing it here were a lie. He wasn't Dalish by any stretch of the imagination, but he learned enough growing up in an alienage to understand what the Warden-Commander had just said.
"Was scaring the servant that just spent an hour shining your armor half to death really necessary?" Alistair stood up and scowled. "You could've been at least a little nicer than usual."
"I was being nicer than usual. The last time he was late I had him put under the quartermaster's switch. I even reiterated myself in Elvish." Cousland replied with indifference.
"About that. What did you say?"
"Roughly translated, that the love of his life grows teary-eyed while a human…well, simply put, he is a cuckold."
"Maker's breath…" Alistair shook his head. "What did he do to you?"
"Nothing." Cousland's expression didn't change. "I just hate knife-ears."
Alistair raised an eyebrow and shrugged his shoulders. He hated them enough that he learned to insult them in their own language, apparently. "I get the feeling sometimes that there's no one you don't hate."
"That is not true. I have never spited you, and Adaar is tolerable."
"Now what makes Adaar so special? I thought you didn't like Qunari either."
"Semantically speaking, he is a Vashoth, not a Qunari. And he is tolerable because he keeps quiet and does what he's told."
Alistair looked back at Adaar, half-expecting some sort of objection. The other half of his expectations ended up being fulfilled, however, when Adaar was completely unaffected by his Commander's words.
Man's emotion passed through Adaar like a chanter—all it made him do was blink twice before continuing whatever he was planning to do before. His inoffendable nature made for a good synergy with his commander—a man who seemed to want to offend everyone.
"You know, we never asked." The question occurred to Alistair now that "How's Warden-Constable Blackwall?"
"Couldn't mend the fractures, sent him to a spirit healer in the main camp instead. Said he'll be ready to fight in the battle." Adaar used as few words as possible while still describing every step. He was a bit more talkative with Cousland around.
"Good. It is fortunate that I held back." Aedan sounded pleased with himself.
"You held back. Really." There wasn't a lack of sarcasm in Alistair's voice.
"He likely deserved his injuries regardless. I hate Orlesians."
"Orlesians too? And what did they do?" Alistair asked, curious as to the reason why when both he and Aedan were born after the end of the Orlesian Occupation.
Aedan opened his mouth, but briefly paused when he saw a flash of red. The fire must've jumped in front of his eyes, he thought.
"…Who knows? They called my mother the Seawolf during the rebellion. When she was my age, she was jumping onto Orlesian ships and bludgeoning Chevaliers to death with their own feathered helmets. Perhaps it is simply in my blood."
Alistair smirked. He put two open hands up in front of himself. "Just a guess—think you might've just maybe inherited just a couple other things from her too. Just maybe." He dropped his hands to his side.
"I certainly did not inherit my father's love of women with short hair."
Another thing Aedan hated. This time, however, it was rather clear what the cause was. After all, the reason why had two feet and was fastly approaching them as they spoke.
In the corner of their eyes, they saw "her."
The Head Scout of the Fereldan Army, dressed in drakeskin-and-dragonhide light armor lined with fur at the neck. Flanking her on both sides were two of the light infantryman in her unit, both highlighting that she was rather short for a human in this camp.
She carried two daggers on her back. One was a conventional straight edge blade made of white steel, but the other was a curved edge Qunari-style Jambiya made of dragonbone.
She was a very youthful and pretty woman, though a bit too utilitarian for the traditional standards of the word "beautiful." She had short, albeit loose, raven hair—a single bang of which fell across the middle of her forehead and landed between viridian eyes. Below the eyes her face was filled with delicate, attractive features; putting her starkly out of place in the mostly masculine masses at Ostagar.
And of course, she had a stripe of dried blood across her nose.
"Morning, you three." She had a soft voice, particularly pleasing to the male ear. "Been playing nice with the Darkspawn?"
"Hey, Hawke." Alistair was the first to greet her. They didn't have a particularly cordial relationship, but a speaking one nonetheless.
"Greetings, Commander Hawke." Adaar was next. He had moved from his column to his comrades' side in order to properly greet her.
"Oh, drop the 'Commander' part, would you? That's someone else." She laughed.
Hawke turned to the last one of the group, in the center. The Warden-Commander of Ferelden, The Final Boss.
He had his arms crossed, and his eyes closed.
"Hi there, Aedan."
Cousland kept his arms crossed and his eyes closed, and haughtily turned his head away. "It is improper to refer to a noble by his first name, woman."
"Ohhh, Aedan." Hawke closed her eyes too. "Are you ever going to get that stick out of your ass?"
"Why, do you and Loghain want to play fetch?" He opened his eyes and redirected his intimidating gaze at her. It was the same one that had earlier scared a handful of the Bannorn into submission.
"Ahahahaha!" Hawke had a rather pretty laugh. "…Care to repeat that?"
"My apologies. What I meant to say is that you're a cunt."
"—!" The two scouts standing behind Hawke both made startled noises.
But Hawke laughed. And cheerily gave them an order with a genuine smile:
"Hey, you two! Could one you go sharpen my favorite knife? I need to scoop out a man's eyes out of their sockets and then replace them with his balls."
"Um…mom, dad? Please stop fighting." Alistair spoke nervously with both of his hands up, as if negotiating with a bandit that had a blade to his throat. He was the best possible person to defuse these situations, but it was easier to speak in a smoke-clogged burning house than it was between Hawke and Cousland's antipathy.
"Are we supposed to be a big happy family?" Adaar spoke up, flat of emotion and numbed to Hawke and Cousland's usual banter.
Hawke opened her eyes and flattened her expression. "More like a pair of divorced parents fighting over custody" she remarked dryly.
"Please. Do you think I would ever be disgusting enough to ever touch someone like you?" Cousland didn't back down from his scorn.
"You see, this is exactly why I don't let you see the kids." Hawke told a boldface lie. Neither of them had kids.
Alistair exhaled the tension in his lungs. Cousland was impossibly vindictive with everyone who didn't obey him, but Hawke at least was self-aware enough to know when something had become stupid.
As much as the two quarreled and exchanged threats, Hawke and Cousland had never actually come to blows. Alistair liked to think that it was out a mutual, begrudging respect the two held for each other's abilities. But he couldn't discount the possibility that Cousland simply held back because of his perceived rank of "King" that Alistair held; and that Hawke, being the more moral of the two, would only defend herself when Aedan Cousland made the first move.
For whatever the reason, there was a rather shaky ceasefire between what should be two allies. And Alistair was the closest thing to a neutral party.
"Ready to exchange reports?" Hawke spoke up, diplomatically this time.
Cousland didn't answer with words. He instead silently handed her a sheet of parchment and took one from her in turn.
"Did you write this on your way back from the Korcari Wilds?" Hawke asked after taking a quick glance at Cousland's report.
"Indeed I did." Cousland spoke with a degree of pride. "Impressed with my penmanship? Us nobles learn to write at a very—"
"Is that why you have ink on your hands?"
Aedan stopped at Hawke's observation and looked at his left hand. The side of his palm had a layer of smeared ink on it. "This was…the path was uneven." Left-handedness was generally considered peculiar among the upper-classes and others who frequently wrote, and thus it was something he generally tried to hide. He wielded a sword in his right-hand, preferring it with anything that engaged the muscles of the upper arm. But anything that required use of the fingers and wrists only, like using a quill, was something he was doomed to do with his left hand.
"So," Hawke looked down at Cousland's report. "You've confirmed The Archdemon is still in the Korcari Wilds?"
"We threw a rock at it as a joke." Alistair answered. "And let me tell you—Archdemons? Terrible senses of humor."
"I can imagine." Hawke smiled and shrugged.
"What's the Darkspawn composition of their approaching army?" Cousland spoke while attentively reading the report Hawke had handed him in exchange for his. "Genlocks, Hurlocks, Shrieks, Ogres, Ten-Titties."
"Ten-Titties?" Hawke widened her eyes and placed a hand to her chin, genuinely curious.
"Don't ask." Alistair muttered.
"Right. I would say somewhere from one-hundred fifty to two-hundred ogres. As for the Genlock-Hurlock split, I would it's about fifty-fifty. Six-thousand genlocks, six-thousand hurlocks."
"That would mean about thirteen to fourteen thousand darkspawn overall, when accounting for hidden shrieks." Cousland conjectured.
"That's the number I came up with." Hawke replied. "At least that's my best guess. I didn't exactly stay and count every head."
"Assuming a ten-percent margin of error, at worst we will be dealing with a horde of fifteen-thousand five-hundred darkspawn, then." He pointed at a particular point on Hawke's report. "Is the distance you have listed on this sheet correct?"
"Of course it is." Hawke placed both her hands on her hips and leaned her torso forward, speaking a little irritatedly "A certain Commander of the Grey was sooooo stubborn about telling me how we just had to figure out the distance from the fortress to the Darkspawn horde, even when he had already told me five times when we were planning it. Fifteen and a quarter miles. We used the trees you marked, like you said."
"So twenty-four point five four kilometers?" Cousland was just as irritated. He also distinctly remembered asking her to use the metric system. "Given that they can only move as fast as their slowest unit, and that they will need their Ogres to break our lines…six days. The Sun is still visible, so they will almost certainly strike at night."
"Six days until we all live or die?" Hawke spoke as if it were someone else's problem. "Well, I'm game. Any other questions about what I've written?"
"I am perfectly literate, thank you. Let us move on to the Deep Roads. My Junior Warden should have the third report on both the aforementioned and the current batch of Warden-Recruits."
"Alright. Kaaras…is it…? Am I pronouncing that right?" Hawke darted her eyes to their upper-right corners before quickly reestablishing eye contact. "Anyway, could you please read us some of the information you've gathered?" She tried to sound polite. She may have had the worst relationship with Cousland, but she could usually read him pretty easily. Kaaras Adaar was the biggest unknown for her.
Adaar produced a rolled piece of parchment from his robes. He began reading at the top:
"To the Warden-Commander of Ferelden, Current Head of the Cousland Family, Teyrn of Highever, Acting Arl of Amaranthine, Savior of—"
"Yeah, yeah, he's great and all." Hawke interrupted. "Just skip to the first update the dwarves sent in."
"Currently there are no Darkspawn reported at Caridin's Cross." Adaar stated.
"Good, next." Hawke rather punctually responded.
"No Darkspawn at—"
"Next." Hawke hurried him along. Despite being promoted after the last Battle of Ostagar a little less than a year ago, she was still a rather impatient woman.
"The Aeducan Thaig is currently void of any—"
"Let's skip all observations that say 'no Darkspawn'. What's the first mention of any enemies?" She wasn't bloodthirsty, but sitting on her hands while a darkspawn army marched onward struck her as a little odd.
Adaar quickly glanced through the remaining visible text, before taking a hand and further unrolling the scroll to see the bottommost duties that were written down. He squinted at the sloppily-penned text crammed at the end of the page, before finally placing a large grey-skinned finger on a line of text at the very hem of the paper. "There are reports of giant rats in the Deep Roads."
"Rats." Cousland drolly repeated, after an interlude of silence.
"Giant ones." Alistair added.
"How, pray tell, did rats get inside The Deep Roads?" The Warden-Commander inquired, taking over while Hawke was still dumbstruck.
"I believe it says that a previous group of Orlesian Warden-Recruits did not clean up from leftover food they had left out during their ceremonial pre-Joining hunt for Darkspawn blood."
"And this is the highest-listed threat in the Deep Roads?"
"This is the only threat listed for today, Warden-Commander." Adaar answered calmly and obediently.
"And there are no darkspawn, say, next to the giant rats?"
"And they are unafflicted by a mysterious disease or something of the like?"
"Are you tired of appending my rank at the end of each answer yet?"
"Then say it ten times for my amusement."
"Warden-Commander, Warden-Commander, Warden-Commander, Warden-Command—"
"Don't listen to him, you don't have to do that." Hawke put a hand up in front of Adaar, her equilibrium being reestablished by the wardens' natural antics.
"Sorry," Alistair shrugged and grinned. "Adaar always does whatever Aedan tells him to do."
"Oh? Just Adaar? I thought you were both like that." Hawke gestured at Alistair as well.
"A personal insult?!" Cousland shouted, with a sudden outburst of emotion. "Lese-Majeste!" A blade wrung out from the sheath he kept underneath his blue cloak.
"Not again…" Alistair thought to himself
"Lese-what?" Hawke narrowed one of her eyes out of confusion.
Cousland read Hawke her rights. "You have committed treason against the Kingdom of Ferelden. By the authority invested in me, I hereby—"
"No, don't. Please. It's alright." Alistair stopped Cousland's speech dead in its tracks.
"…Truly?" Cousland asked, disappointed.
"I don't care. Really." Alistair placed his face in his palm.
"Hm, that's a shame." Cousland closed his eyes and resheathed his sword. "Carry on."
Hawke giggled, trying to cover up her laugh by placing a fist to her mouth. Those two made quite the comedy pair, at least to everyone who wasn't them.
"Sorry, we're all kind of, um, well…you know…" Alistair tripped over his own words trying to describe the situation.
"It's quite alright," Hawke tilted her head and gave a closed-mouth smile at Cousland. "I have a little brother too."
"Seriously?" Alistair opened his mouth and raised one eyebrow. "We look nothing alike."
True to his word, Alistair and Cousland couldn't seem any more different when standing side-by-side. Alistair had comparatively much softer features. Brown eyes that melded together with an off-color of blonde and red hair. A smoothly-skinned face, neither completely boyish nor manly, that tended to make women in groups giggle when they thought he wasn't paying attention. He was, by most accounts, a particularly attractive man.
Meanwhile, Cousland had pitch-black hair and vividly contrasting blue eyes that didn't fit the rest of his wildly masculine appearance. A face riddled with scars, a body trained for killing, and an expression full of scorn for his "inferiors." His appeal was not completely lost on those who preferred the dangerous, but unlike Alistair's was more likely to inspire terror before attraction. Combined with his arrogance and tendency to ignore any woman born to unlanded parents, he was far from the most desired man in camp.
A handsome prince and his fearsome protector. It was a shame they weren't in love, Hawke mused.
"Speaking of which," Hawke turned towards Adaar "how's my family's little troublemaker doing? Getting along with his new friends, I hope?"
"I am fairly certain if there is a designated troublemaker for the Hawke family, she is standing right in front of us." Cousland answered in Adaar's place. "Unless you have another sibling we don't know about."
"Nope, just me and grumpy Carver." Hawke said this without blinking or moving her hands, giving no indication that she was lying. "You'll like him."
"Carver Hawke, along with the other two Warden-Recruits, are currently uninjured and awaiting further instruction. The Joining will take place tonight after The Warden-Commander's meeting with the Regent of Ferelden." Adaar answered neutrally.
"Great, you get to put up with me two more times today." Hawke smirked at Cousland. "Lucky you."
"Two more times, you say?" Cousland refocused his blue-eyed stare at Hawke. "What makes you think you're allowed to be at the Joining with us, woman?"
"I have permission to be there as an observer. Regent's orders." Hawke's viridian eyes deflected his. "Besides, I hate to break it to you, but that whole 'plot twist, you must drink the darkspawn's blood!' thing isn't really a secret anymore. I overheard Queen Anora talking about it the other day."
"Anora?" Cousland spoke with a bit of contempt for the name. "The Pretender is here?"
"Pretender…? Well, yeah, she's here. Arrived yesterday while you were in the wilds with Alistair. Think she's here to boost morale."
"You would not happen to know how to contact the Antivan Crows, would you?" Cousland asked as casually as normal people would talk about the weather.
"Why would I know something like that?" Hawke raised one of her eyebrows in a perfect slope. She had very fine control of her face, and Cousland's out-of-nowhere had a habit of bringing out every expression.
"You don't? I suppose I will have to settle this with her in person then. At the War Council meeting tonight." Cousland resolved.
"Oh, great." Hawke rolled her eyes.
She turned, signaling for both of her scouts to follow her as she walked away. "I can hardly wait."
A/N: Just a couple notes.
- Warden-Constable Gordon Blackwall didn’t die and get replaced by Thom Rainier (i.e. the Blackwall that’s a companion in Dragon Age: Inquisition) until 9:36. So the one here is a different character entirely than the one that’s in the game.
- Hawke’s appearance as intended here is just default DA2 FemHawke with green eyes (had to change them or else I’d end up with two black-haired blue-eyed characters). If you have some other imagery in your head and want to go with that instead, then feel free.
Chapter 3: Alistair II; War Council
Alistair felt a trembling of the lips, a tightness in the throat. And yet with an unassailable, he had let a single word out:
Why did Duncan leave him behind?
"I might've been able to do something…maybe I could have…"
"Perhaps." Cousland spoke tersely, with little respect for the dead. He had not known Duncan for more than a few weeks.
Perhaps if Alistair were on the battlefield, he might've saved Duncan.
Perhaps they would've both died instead.
Perhaps nothing would change at all.
The past does not change, and the dead do not come back to life. It was an unchanging truth of a reality that gripping could sometimes feel as severe as a white hot iron. Only the mad and the raving reject that truth.
The mad, the raving, and the weak.
"Why didn't you run ahead?! You could've killed the Ogre and lit the tower by yourself! You could've left me behind!"
"I could have" Cousland said matter-of-factly. "But then you would have died."
"Who cares?!" Alistair's head bowed back towards the ground. "Who cares if I die? How many people have I saved?!—What am I…? I'm no grey warden…I'm too weak to be a templar…I couldn't be a prince…"
Cousland glanced over at the dead king near Duncan's body. There was a resemblance.
He had always suspected, but at this point it was all but true.
"What is my life even worth…what does the Maker want from me?! Why did he even let me be born if what I do doesn't even mean anything…?"
"I don't know—"
"Your father was King Maric, wasn't he?"
Alistair paused. He was not crying freely from his ducts, but instead slowly trickling out what was left. "…Yeah, that's right…"
Alistair didn't care for his father. Maric Theirin was a hero that liberated that slew Meghren in single combat and gave Fereldans their country back. He was also infidelious, and a man that abandoned him and his mother for the sake of appearances.
"…What's it matter?"
"Cailan is dead. As the next of the Theirin blood, that makes you King."
"Please…I'm not a King."
"It has little to do with what you want. You were his last of kin, and thus the sole possible inheritor."
"Who cares?!" Alistair's hands clenched and his arms trembled against the weight of his last name. He wasn't yelling at Cousland anymore, but the world.
A father was a father, and a son was a son. He wasn't responsible for the deeds of King Maric. Was Alistair inherently superior, his life worth more than others', simply because he was born to a man that had more? A man that he never knew?
"It is simply how it must be." He walked from Alistair's side to his front, keeping his back towards him. "The people are too simple to rule themselves, too naive to choose who shall do it for them. So one greater than they are must shepherd them. If not you, then it would simply be someone else."
"Then let someone else be it! How am I superior? What makes my life so worth living when everyone else has to die?!"
A moment of silence. Cousland kept his back towards Alistair, before reciting something they had both heard many times before.
"All men are the Work of our Maker's Hands.
From the lowest slaves.
To the highest kings."
Canticle of Transfigurations, Verse 1:3. The noble continued, speaking without pause.
"You asked why the Maker let you be born, and about how you are superior." He turned, trying to meet his downcast comrade and would-be liege in the eye. "Not all men are born equal by the Maker's hand. Some are be born into the world without the eyes to see it. Some are born without the legs to walk upon it, or the hands to feel it. If the Maker is such an egalitarian, then riddle me this. Why did he allow mages to be born at all when he doomed them to a life of being locked up?"
"That's—" Alistair's words faltered. He knew there was a verse somewhere in the Chant of Light that could be interpreted as explaining this, but he never particularly paid attention to the lectures and sermons the Revered Mother gave in the abbey. "—not their choice, is it? And even if they are missing something or born a little different…that doesn't mean they don't have hopes and dreams, right? It doesn't mean they can't be happy or that they don't mean something to someone else."
"Then what of those born without a heart? Those who cannot feel happiness and can only derive pleasure from the suffering of others? Those doomed to hear voices when there are none, and are inevitably driven to violence from madness? Those who insist on hurting themselves, and only drag others into their pain when offered a helping hand?"
"...No one's really born that way, are they?" Alistair said with uncertainty. It wasn't entirely accurate to his beliefs, but right now he wasn't in the right mindset to give anything other than base answers. "And if something made them that way, they can be changed back."
"…Then what of the darkspawn? They are living things, are they not? Should they be offered a chance to change?"
The skin surrounding Alistair's eyes tightened. He was beginning to understand what Cousland was getting at, but lacked a clear answer to his question nonetheless. "What are you trying to say?"
"I suppose I am asking the ages-old question of where man must draw the line between good and evil. Most Thedosians passively accept the formlessness of good and evil as a plain concept despite that both are defined solely by examples. And they typically do not reconsider unless faced with outside stimuli that force them to. Much in the same way that they do not question whether a silver is really worth three loaves of bread when all currency has no practical use outside of the meaning the ones exchanging them give it. Or if two plus two equals four despite the Maker never throwing the numbers down from the sky and establishing their absolute values. Or if that Maker is even a straightforwardly good god at all, and whether his ascension of Andraste was a genuine act of fatherly kindness or the muse of an eccentric in line with the creation of beings that insist on killing each other. Those of the docile flock do not question themselves about the preordained notions they have of these concepts, because replacing their accepted truths of the world with a series of unanswerable questions could drive them mad with fear of the unknown."
Aedan looked up at the morning sky. "A kingship is of the same category. Are there other ways to lead than by the crown? Is the method of only placing that crown atop the head of one descended from the kingdom's founder possibly incorrect? Perhaps. But the commoners have crops to harvest and children to raise, and as of now they also have a darkspawn horde to fight. Philosophical 'what ifs' are not their concern."
Cousland brought his head back down. "Those people need you, Alistair. Whether you want them to or not."
He stood there for a while, looking down on the King that did not want the crown. Even though they were apart, even though he could not even look him in the eye, Alistair could feel Cousland's pressure bearing down on him. The pressure of a murderer with a thousand lives clawing at his back. The pressure of a terrible, undefeatable, utterly detestable man. The pressure of someone who always got what they wanted.
Alistair didn't have the courage to look him back in the eye.
So he gave him his answer, his absolute answer, while still looking down—
Prologue, Part Three
Nine figures stood around Ostagar's strategy table under the lighting of torches and a full moon. The table divided them into two groups standing opposite of each other, five on one side and four on the other.
On the side of the five stood Warden-Commander Cousland in the center, flanked by Alistair directly to his right. They were joined by representatives from each of the Grey Wardens' allies: Zathrian, Piotin Aeducan, and Knight-Commander Tavish.
They faced off against a group of four, although it may be more apt to call it a group of three and one. The three were Teyrn Loghain being flanked closely by his lieutenant and his daughter, Ser Cauthrien and Queen Anora respectively. Loghain leaned over the dead center of their makeshift war table, placing both of his greyly-armored hands on a map of Ostagar and drawing himself close enough to the Warden-Commander opposite of him to potentially thrust a dagger to his neck.
The rather inconspicuous 'one' of the group of three and one, however, was a short-haired woman with viridian eyes, standing at the corner and facing away from the epicenter.
Marian Hawke had a rather short attention span, and she never lasted long when the War Council at Ostagar convened. To her credit, she had tried this time—she really had—but once an off-comment about Queen Anora's legitimacy had been met with a challenge to the Warden-Commander's ability to hold titles, and so on and so forth until it devolved into a shouting match, she felt herself begin to tune out the actual content of their words and decided to whimsically compare voices.
And she had to say, in the "belonging on the stage of a playwright's greatest epic" category, Loghain's voice was winning. If the whole General of Ferelden's Armies and Regent of the Kingdom thing didn't work out, he really ought to consider a career in theatre.
"So, this is how humans strategize?" Zathrian, a greyed elf with vallaslin, spoke with obvious disgust. "By screaming, threatening to tear each other apart limb by limb?"
"If you take such offense to our ways, knife-ear, then perhaps you should take your clan back to the Brecilian. It would not be the first time your people have turned their backs on a Blight." Aedan rebutted the Dalish Keeper's comment disrespectfully, with no heed to the fact that Zathrian was one of the many pillars propping up the Wardens' precarious position in Ostagar.
"You have no right!" Anora spoke forcefully, though not shrilly. "Grey Wardens—cannot—hold land. What gives you the right to decide who sits upon the Throne?"
"Perhaps you should take the matter to the National Leader of your Kingdom's Grey Wardens? They typically are typically the ones assigned to resolving these matters." Aedan stroked his chin as if he had a lapse in memory. "Oh, I forgot. That is me." Aedan dropped his hand. "I only accepted this appointment at the urging of another, and because the Blight threatens his ability to assume his birthright. I fully intend to resign and return to my lands at the end of the Blight."
Alistair fidgeted at mention of his alleged 'birthright'. Cousland had been thoughtful enough to leave out his name, but he was still very uncomfortable with the idea.
Hawke spoke up, a bit quietly, but audibly. "Is this really the time to be arguing about this? I have family in Lothering, and—"
"Besides, who are you to speak of rights?" Cousland's voice overpowered Hawke's and resumed control of the conversation.
Hawke shrugged, and resumed the game inside her head. "Now who's the winner 'most likely to have a tragic past' award? The elf? He's Dalish so something bad probably happened to him. Alistair? Maybe he's one of those characters who hides his personality behind a sense of humor. Oh, how about Aedan…? Nope, no way. He was born a son of a bitch."
"Who are you the daughter of, precisely?" Cousland continued. "A common cabinet-maker and a bandit who happened to have a fleeing King fall into his lap? What gives a woman whose two parents were both born surnameless commoners the privilege of my fealty?"
"Some of us agree with The Commander's sentiment, Your Majesty." Piotin Aeducan spoke up. "A good leader does not always do what is kind or popular. My family is currently fighting for our own birthrights in Orzammar, and your insistence at defending Ostagar for the sake of Southern Ferelden has cost us some of our best men."
As harsh as it was, the cousin of Bhelen Aeducan spoke truly. Ostagar was defensible, but so were the Korcari Wilds. The Thedosian Armies couldn't mount an effective offense against the Darkspawn, and a major battle hadn't been fought since King Cailan's death at the last battle nearly a year ago. Anora's intentions to stop the Horde from advancing into the lands directly south of the Bannorn—where they could be fought in an open field with conventional tactics—were at worst a political move designed to remain popular with the general population and at best an earnest desire to prevent the loss of life. The nonhuman armies cared little for Ferelden's politics. And the lords in Northern Ferelden, save maybe a few empty words of sympathy and unity, didn't particularly give a damn about the lives of those in the way of the Horde as long as it could be stopped before it reached their own lands and the economic strain of having so many of their farmers and townsfolk levied as soldiers finally ended.
"And does that truly matter now?" Anora looked down at the dwarf. "The Darkspawn are marching now to give you that deciding battle you have all been longing for. Many lives are in the Hinterlands and Southron Hills, some of them too young or elderly. Even if we sent our armies to help them evacuate, it would be impossible to get more than half out of harm's way in time."
Anora's point, of course, was equally valid. Even though there hadn't been a major battle for all four seasons now, with Hawke's report on the amassed darkspawn having mobilized and preparing to attack Ostagar, much of the nobility's complaints were now moot. Not to mention an internal displacement of refugees within Ferelden's borders would strain the north of the country even further.
"And how many thousands of Darkspawn have the Broodmothers spawned in that time?" Cousland asked a question he knew she could not answer. "How many of our men will die to the blades of the Horde's bolstered ranks? How many widowed women and orphaned children will be created because you ordered us to sit on our hands in Ostagar and could claim your own were bloodless? And for what, precisely? The effectiveness of your smile? I thought you were an intelligent woman, Anora. Who would have imagined that the power behind the throne and our Queen-to-be would be unable to do simple math?"
"Careful, boy." Ser Cauthrien whipped her words at Aedan. "You are speaking to the Queen of Ferelden. The Seneschal would consider such words treason."
"And do what?" An arrogant expression marked Cousland's face. "You know that both South Reach and Redcliffe will march with Highever's banner over Gwaren's, and that the only thing the minor lords hate more than me is the sitting Regent. With Howe dead, I am the only thing keeping the Coastlands in line, and you already have the brunt of Bannorn demanding their levies back. If not for me, we would face an open rebellion, as well as the Blight. Do not act as if you somehow possess the upper hand."
"The upper hand?"
A whisper, leaking out of a mouth as if it were an accidental spilling of words. Yet it was heard by all who were present, with no room for ambiguity.
He had been quiet throughout most of Cousland's outburst, but when Teyrn Loghain spoke, people listened.
"The upper hand?" The Hero of River Dane repeated. "Did our people have the upper hand when the Orlesians invaded, Warden? Did they charge, armed with nothing save maybe a hoe or pitchfork, against plate-armored knights—because they had the upper hand? Did I flail helplessly as a young boy against the Orlesian soldier holding my arms behind my back as I watched his commander force himself on my mother and cut her throat afterwards…because I thought I had the upper hand? Do you think that Maric and I; as we ran across Ferelden from one shadow of Orlais to the other, crawled through forests as we heard the stampede of chevalier cavalry trampling the grass around us, and found ourselves outnumbered in every battle until the last—ever thought—even for a fleeting second—up until the moment that he severed Meghren's head from his body—that we ever had the upper hand? We are Teyrns both, you and I. I will not let you seize the land our countrymen fought and bled for as if we merely persevered them—"
Loghain enunciated the first vowel in 'preserved' with a hard 'e' splitting it into two words and powerfully raising his deep voice on the second syllable.
"—to be yours for the taking!"
Undaunted, Cousland fired back, matching one speech with another:
"Do not think that because our titles are equal that I do not know who you are. The commoners may sing praise of the Hero of River Dane and the nobility may keep their whispers outside of his earshot, but I remember what my parents had forgotten. The son of a farmer, a man who owes everything to a dead king and being in the right place at the right time. The only Teyrn Mac Tir that has ever existed is the one standing right in front of me. You may think me a youthful upstart, but my family's lands have been the shield of Denerim for ten of your lifetimes. I am a descendent of Dane and Hafter, Loghain, not some overconfident Orlesian with an exposed flank. I can beat you in the Landsmeet. And I can beat you on the battlefield."
"Enough!" A fierce shout came from the far end of Loghain's side. Hawke had slammed both of her hands on the strategy table. "Who cares who gets to wear the pointy ring of metal on their head?! We are in the middle of a Blight! And out of all the tens of thousands of Darkspawn marching to Ostagar as we speak, I did not see a single one of them who were going to turn the other way just because someone new was in charge. So shut up, figure out what we need to do, or I swear to the Maker I'll steal a horse and lead the charge myself."
The war table was silent as all eyes fell on Hawke.
"I'm sorry…who are you?" Anora broke the silence. She looked at Hawke, whom she had only been vaguely aware of until recently, with curiosity.
"Me?" Hawke grinned. "I'm just a farm girl." She closed her eyes and placed a flat hand to her cheek with the corners of her mouth upright. Her voice had returned to its soft tone.
"Hawke." Aedan glanced away with an obvious displeasure at the sound of her name. "The woman calls herself Hawke."
"So you know it after all!" Hawke exclaimed.
Anora looked tilted her head down slightly with idly open eyes. After a brief pause, she looked back up. "Hawke is right." She looked at Cousland first, and then the rest of the members of the War Council. "Whether or not I should be Queen is a matter for the Landsmeet. If the Blight isn't stopped here, then there may not be a Ferelden to rule."
Loghain's eyes were fixed on the battle plans. At the sound of his daughter's words, he grimaced slightly, before raising his head to meet Cousland's. "…Aye."
The Warden did not meet Loghain's gaze, keeping his eyes fixed to his side.
Alistair spoke up for the first time. Unlike the powerful figures at the table, he didn't garner the attention of everyone at the table, but he knew the one person that would always listen could hear him.
"…Our main battle formation." Cousland looked at the map. "Will it be where Cailan and Duncan were last time?"
"Closer to the bridge, behind fortifications." Loghain answered. "I will command from the center."
They finally began their strategizing in earnest. It wouldn't be Ferelden, after all, if the leaders didn't nearly come to blows on the eve of fighting side-by-side.
"Will our main division of Archers be positioned on the ground as last time or on the bridge?"
"On the bridge," Loghain dragged an armored finger across the representation of the bridge on the map of Ostagar, as if drawing a line. "And also on top of the Fortress's outlying ridges." He traced his finger along the curved edges of Ostagar from where one could oversee the Korcari Wilds. They would have archers raining down on the Darkspawn from the north, west, and east.
"Very well, I will place the trebuchets I requisitioned from Highever here inside the main walls and calculate the angles over the next few days." Cousland tapped the tip of his pointer finger twice against spot in question. "Once the melee has ensued, a Grey Warden by the name of Kaaras Adaar will oversee their use against the reinforcing ranks. What do you have in mind for our oils?"
"An excellent question. Hawke?"
"Yes, Sir." Hawke didn't refer to Loghain as 'Your Lordship' as his position might dictate, but otherwise still refrained from using his first name. "My scouts will oversee them. We'll have them along the bridge in case we get pushed back too far and along the eastern ridge in order to narrow our chokehold in the valley."
"I see." Cousland placed a hand to his chin. Though the man did not seem to be aware of it himself, Alistair had noticed that Cousland always seemed to place his left hand somewhere on his face whenever he was in a moment of thought. "With our forces as bolstered in the center as they are, it is assured the Darkspawn are not going to be enticed solely towards the valley as they were last time. We will require a strong flank hillside at the Tower of Ishal. I trust you have something in mind?"
"I was thinking the Dalish's light infantry. If—" Loghain's voice paused a moment. The shallow breath and the ambience of torches burning seemed to die at his command. "—there are no objections."
Zathrian folded his arms, his eyes already narrow. "I take it we do not have a choice? Fine, you shall have your soldiers."
"Also," Cousland added a command "group your infantry together with any magi you have. Keepers, Firsts, any healers or assorted hedge mages you might have. They will fight better with other elves than humans they have never spoken to before."
Knight-Commander Tavish, a devoted man of the particularly inflexible type, jumped a bit in his armor and made a noise like a scared cat. "But that's—!"
"—'That's,' what, precisely?" Cousland looked over at the Knight-Commander, his scars a seeming a bit deeper than usual. The templar noticed that one of the two dragonclaw scars overlapped over his left eye, the scarring on one of his eyelids only visible when the eye was closed or narrowed.
Aedan Cousland had a blood-freezing stare that could turn a man's veins brittle.
"…That's perfectly fine. Continue." Tavish straightened his back and looked at the empty space directly ahead of himself as if he were standing at attention. He was a very devoted man. And right now he wanted nothing more than to devote himself to not looking anyone in the eye.
"Seems this matter is settled, then." Loghain's grave voice seemed to settle comfortably into the talk of soldier placement. "There is one particular site I would like to discuss, however. Cauthrien?"
"Yes, Your Lordship?"
"Your Lordship?" Alistair thought to himself, finding the form of address between two people that had known each other for so long a bit peculiar.
"The Tower of Ishal—is the breach that the Darkspawn tunneled through still open?"
"Yes, My Lord. Shall I close it?" Cauthrien asked, seeking confirmation.
"No…" Loghain kept his eyes on the map and held up an open hand in his crossed arms. He curled his ring and little finger, rocking his hand at the wrist twice, his mouth slightly ajar, as if trying to find the words to describe a newfound discovery. "…keep it open. We can use this against them."
A few confused looks were exchanged among members of the War Council. Keep it open…? The delay that was caused by the Darkspawn's unforeseen penetration into the Tower of Ishal was one of the reasons the King was dead. If history were to repeat itself, the Darkspawn would surely use it again and then flank the light infantry and archers defending the bridge.
"…Your Lordship, is that truly wise?" Cauthrien double checked the map, trying to see if she missed something. "Without the Tower of Ishal, the darkspawn have no choice but to fight us uphill in order to reach our archers and oils. Even if we manage to relieve pressure from our two fronts in the valley by opening up a third, we'll have no support or terrain advantage. And there is no way to seal the tunnels once the battle begins."
"There is a way." Loghain insisted, keeping his eyes on the map. He placed both hands on the map and leaned forward, a sly expression belonging to the young marking the face of a veteran from a past generation. "Perhaps our leader of the Wardens can tell us." Loghain looked up at Cousland. Throughout the general confusion that had spread, there was one other man at the table who had not been thrown off-balance in the slightest.
Cousland looked back at Loghain with a bit annoyance, as if he were being asked for the answer to two plus two or for the name of the capital city of Orlais. He solved the riddle rather disinterestedly:
"Lyrium Sand." He placed two fingers at his temple. "You intend to let the darkspawn advance all the way to the stairs, then trigger a chain reaction from above by utilizing preplaced explosives in the supports and ceiling to trigger a cave-in, killing everything caught fighting below."
Loghain's sly, almost adventurous smile persisted through Cousland's explanation. "It seems I underestimated you, Warden. Tell me, out of curiosity, are you versed in architecture?"
Cousland moved his fingers from his temple to his mouth, looking up as if he were peering into his own thought bubble.
"Hm, not truly. I read a hundred or so works of technical literature regarding mathematics and Tevinter engineering in my youth, but it's not quite a passion of mine in present day."
Ser Cauthrien placed a palm above one of her eyes and shook her head. "You are far, far too young to utter the phrase 'in my youth,' Teyrn Cousland."
"It was some time ago, regardless." Aedan flicked his own hand away, in the same way that a dainty stick of a nobleman half his size would, and brought his eyes back down to level. "My role in Highever preceding my family's death was more of a judicial nature than a stewarding one. As far as the design of buildings and other structures go, my background in the field is purely an academic one."
"Hmm." The Teyrn of Gwaren grunted. "Well, you could have fooled me."
"I do not 'fool' people, Loghain." Aedan looked oddly irritated by the most harmless remark of the night. "The only words I ever tell others are the truth."
"Yes, yes," Loghain dismissively responded, his accent dragging out the 's' sound. "As you've said before."
"As for who shall hold the hallway," Cousland continued. "Well—it is a simple enough fill-in the blank obvious to anyone fit for more than tilling fields until they reproduce and die—but allow me to make one conjecture further. You intend to utilize the Legion of the Dead as you did at the Battle of River Dane. Their experience with fighting underground in narrow terrain, familiarity—albeit perhaps a distant one—with lyrium sand, and willingness to die for the greater picture all make them the most suited to be the sacrificed pawns on the board." He cast a sideways glance at one of the allies on his side of the table. "Isn't that right, Aeducan?"
Piotin Aeducan coarsely grunted in response, as if doing so in lieu of bumping against the shoulder he couldn't reach. In truth, the Teyrn of Highever probably knew as much about dwarven tactics as Harrowmont or Endrin's deceased middle child. Piotin Aeducan, who couldn't have guessed Lyrium Sand to be Loghain's hidden ace or how it would be implemented, kept himself decidedly wordless.
Clap, clap, clap.
At the corner, a rather amused Hawke was congratulating him.
"Oh, we're all very impressed about how smart you are, Aedan. Really. This is how much you impressed us." Hawke smiled, delivering her half-heartedness with a bit of a holier-than-thou attitude. "But you want to know what impresses me even more? The idea of crushing a bunch of dwarves to death and leaving the ones not immediately killed by the cave-in to suffocate to death. A real winner, that one."
"Woman," Cousland faced her and closed his eyes with a contrastingly serious expression. "Do you ever cease being an incessant bitch in your life, or do you simply spend it heckling any form of speech possible while adding nothing constructive to the conversation?"
"Oh, no!" Hawke delightedly closed her eyes, clasped her cheeks with both hands, and made a fake expression of terror. "The big, baaaad, Butcher of Amaranthine is saying mean things to me! What will he do next? Eat me?!" Hawke threw her head back and cackled, producing a rather rural snort as she did.
Watching the whole ordeal, the currently quiet Alistair swore to himself that if Hawke ever had the opportunity to see a dragon, she would probably poke it with a stick just to see its reaction.
Though, Cousland had already thrown a rock at one, so maybe they had something in common after all.
"But honestly," Hawke abruptly stopped laughing. "Is this really what you want to do? Let them die a slow, agonizing death just so you can kill a few more Darkspawn than we do of our own?"
"Woman, they're called 'The Legion of the Dead', not 'The Legion of We Want to Live Forever'." Cousland remarked.
"Though that would do wonders for recruitment..." Alistair quietly quipped to himself.
Truth be told, Alistair actually agreed with Hawke. But in reality he also knew that any words of wanting to take the moral high ground would be dismissed by everyone else at the Council as the naivety of an inexperienced man.
"Hawke," Ser Cauthrien spoke up. "I shouldn't need to say this, but the lives of many thousands depend on us holding Ostagar. With all of our levies raised, there's hardly an able-bodied man left between here and Denerim. If we do not win, neither will the women and children that would be in the Darkspawn's way on their march through the rest of Ferelden." Cauthrien placed her hands to her hips, a slight rustle of her metal armor being made as she did. "Do we really want to put their lives on the line because we were unable to make the harder choice now?"
"Harder for who?" Hawke asked. "I don't see anyone at this table who's volunteering to make their last stand with the dwarves." She shrugged. "Seems to me that the only thing you're willing to say is a daint 'oh, what a pity', and that you wouldn't even give that if it weren't for me bringing it up." Hawke turned her whole body towards Cauthrien. Hawke was shorter than Cauthrien, despite her being another human woman, so she had to tilt head a bit up to look her directly in the eyes. "I'm asking if you—any of you—care that we're about to send people to their own deaths."
Loghain drew a long, gravelly sigh, feeling a bit of age in his ribcage as he did. Earlier, in a rush of scheming he had felt young again. But at Hawke's words, as if waking from a wild dream to the reality of his sore back, he had felt his age. "The currency of war—is always life. We can cover our eyes and deny it; kick, scream and revile it, bargain and shop for the best price—but it must always be paid."
The Hero of River Dane's voice dropped in volume as he looked at Hawke with a bit of curiosity.
"Why is it that you are angry, Lady Hawke? Is it because you are arguing with us over why we have to pay in lives, or is it because you are arguing with yourself about why war requires such a price? If it's the latter, I don't blame you. I've done the same many times over, in my tent when the night turns quiet or on the field when there're more still eyes pointing towards the sky than there are uncovered blades of grass to be counted. It always ends the same way."
Loghain's intonation dragged out the 'al' in 'always' with a long 'O' sound.
Hawke looked away and sighed. "Seems like I'm being outvoted." She put a hand to her temple and rubbed it as if she had a sinus infection. "Fine, do whatever you want. But do drop the 'Lady' part. It's flattering, but I'm just as peasant as the rest of the dirt-covered farmers and villagers that you dragged out for this bit of tea."
"Pardon me for noticing, Hawke," Anora cast a glance around her father's profile towards the Head Scout. "But most peasants—and banns for that matter—would refer to our predicament in Ostagar as something a bit more…vulgar, than a 'bit of tea'."
"I'm an educated peasant, alright?" Hawke replied as if trying to drop the matter. "I might not have read as much as Lord Reads-a-Hundred-Textbooks-for-Fun over here, but my family had a library, and my father didn't raise me to be boring."
"Really?" Anora's interest was piqued. "What was his name, if I may ask?"
"…We're getting a bit off topic. Besides!" Hawke jammed a finger against the southern portions of the map, trying to draw attention to the forests from where the darkspawn would attack. "We've been avoiding a rather big topic. Our positions against the darkspawn at the valley and on the hillside surrounding the Tower of Ishal are good and all against things that walk on two feet, but what happens if the friendly neighborhood Archdemon shows up?" Hawke looked at Cousland. "Not saying that he will, or that you two didn't actually see him, but it's possible that he's moved since you last saw him twelve hours ago."
"Unlikely." Cousland scoffed, but then acquiesced. "But not impossible, true. In such an occasion the Wardens will take care of it."
"Didn't some famous General once say 'War is an unpredictable something something'? Where—just in case—will the Wardens be if he shows up?"
"I do not recall any famous General with such a vague, peculiar quote. As for our positioning…" Cousland looked back at the map. He recalled an old legend in his head, one claiming that in one of the battles of the Blights of old, the armies of all the great kings of Thedas took the field in order to make one last, desperate stand against the Darkspawn Horde. And when they saw that they were faced by a horde which outnumbered the living, the Grey Wardens came, swooping down on their griffons and forming a barrier between the armies of men and those of the Black City. The battle raged, the armies of men marching behind the feather and steel until the last darkspawn fell—and a miracle had occurred. Not a single life behind the line of the Grey Wardens had been lost.
He didn't believe in miracles.
"…The bulk of the Wardens will be in the valley, at least two dozen rows behind the cohorts of the front line. A smaller token force led by Alistair will be stationed at flank in the occasion that the Archdemon appears."
"Huh?" Alistair didn't say anything out loud, but looked over at Cousland with a bit of a parted mouth and rather plain surprise.
Elsewhere, however, heads nodded at Cousland's plan, the War Council being more drawn in to the Teyrns' plans as time drew on. As powerful as an Archdemon could be, it could only be in one place at one time. Ferelden's forces would be thickest in the valley, but in order for the Archdemon to strike at them it would need to expose its wings and neck to the archers above.
And if it struck higher, near the Tower of Ishal, causalities would be light and hindered from the terrain.
In both cases Grey Wardens would be nearby in the occasion that they needed to kill it.
"Furthermore," Cousland continued, "if the Archdemon does appear, I believe it to be prudent to utilize the Tower of Ishal and light it to let the Wardens know. But, properly this time. We'll have magi from the Orlesian forces perform the ritual that Uldred suggested before the Fourth Battle."
A small voice objected to Cousland's suggestion. He looked over at Knight-Commander Tavish, who held no small amount of self-second-guessing at his objection.
"I take it this is not another objection based in morality, Templar."
"Ah, no. Well—but—well…" Tavish stumbled over his own words before finally giving something of a final statement. "The mages can't perform any large ritual at the moment. It's simply impossible."
"I see." Cousland sounded calm. Like the calm before the storm. "The reason for this being…?"
"We are out of lyrium."
"Out of lyrium?" Cousland repeated blankly.
"It's the truth!" Tavish looked away. "Our last shipment from Orzammar to Ferelden arrived at the Circle Tower over a year ago. And as you may have heard, we recently had something of an…incident at Kinloch Hold."
"I have heard, yes." Cousland closed his eyes and angled his eyebrows. The Templars' recent blunder in Ferelden was a bit of an infamous story in the camp. The Warden-Commander proceeded to summarize the gist of it in a couple sentences:
"In short all of the templars and magi disappeared from the circle tower without a trace, save a sole mad survivor freshly initiated into the Templar Order who claimed he has no knowledge of how this state of affairs came to be. Nor is said knowledge possessed by you or any other living soul associated with the Chantry. Is that correct?"
"And you are telling me, in addition to these several templars and magi which may or may not now be considered apostates, you lost an entire kingdom's supply of lyrium as well?"
"Please try to understand, My Lord, we are just as bewildered as the rest of you." Tavish looked at him with apologetic eyes. "We had no warning when Knight-Commander Greagoir's entire detachment and circle went missing, we simply stopped hearing anything from them and sent a force to investigate—only to find the tower completely deserted. As impossible as it sounds, it is the truth. Everyone who lived in that tower has vanished. Mages, templars, tranquil…gone! And not a single one has reappeared."
"There is no need to grovel, Templar. I believe you, the lyrium is gone." Cousland opened his eyes. "Gone into the black market and into the crippling addictions of those decomposing things you call knights. But that's not really my concern, is it?"
The Warden-Commander dismissively averted his gaze from Tavish, much to the latter's relief.
He instead refocused it on Loghain, and continued:
"Fine, if we cannot have the magi light it, then we will simply have it done by hand. But this time, we shall start the battle with them already at the top of the tower, as opposed to charging before they have even crossed the bridge."
"If you're trying to strike at my ego, Warden, then may I remind you that it was Cailan that ordered you two to the top of the tower, not I?"
"Furthermore," Cousland ignored Loghain's rebuttal. "There is no need for a Grey Warden, let alone two, to be spared for the task. Especially given the Tower of Ishal's purpose this time. Allow me to choose someone else."
"I trust you have someone in mind, then?"
"I do." Cousland replied to Loghain and then slid his focus to the end of the table. There was a woman with a stripe of dried blood on her face standing there.
"What? Is there something on my face?" Hawke poked herself at the spot where the dried blood crossed the bridge of her nose, and then went cross-eyed trying to look at it. "Well, other than this thing."
"Who? There are three of us here, you'll need to be a bit more specific."
"Woman whose last name starts with an 'H'."
"Oh Andraste, I got a letter!" Hawke acted surprised and swooned. "I love you too, Aedan!"
"Gyahahahahaha!" Hawke made an evil laugh. "And the answer is yes, I'll light the tower. Pouring oils doesn't take too many soldiers, and most of my scouts won't be very useful on the battlefield." She titled her head and smiled. "There, does that make you happy?"
Cousland was a firm believer in violence being the solution to all answers in life, and that evidence to contrary simply indicated that not enough was being used. Hawke was a particularly roguish sort, the sort that preferred to dodge and counter enemy blows rather than attack. The best working strategy against Aedan's verbose was to meet the grandiose with the lighthearted and the direct aggression with a redirect.
"To recap," Ser Cauthrien tried to draw attention back to the upcoming battle. "The Fereldans' regulars, Orlesians, Dwarves—save the Legion of the Dead which shall hold the tunnels beneath the Tower of Ishal—most of the Grey Wardens, and the Templars will all be part of the main defense line in the valley between the Tower of Ishal and the fortress of Ostagar. The Dalish, Hawke's light infantry, and a small detachment of Grey Wardens shall hold the hillside flank leading to the Tower of Ishal and the bridge. Siege weaponry will be deployed inside the fortress of Ostagar. All available archers from all armies will report to the ridges and bridge. A detachment of Hawke's scouts will operate our siege oils, while the rest will stand watch inside the Tower of Ishal itself and light it if the Archdemon appears." She slowly turned her head to scan everyone's faces. "Are there any other questions regarding positioning?"
"One last thing." The voice that raised the last question was none other than the one standing closest to her.
Loghain looked at Cousland and rose a closed hand. "You've spoke of where the rest of the Wardens will be, however, I am curious. Where will you be?"
"In the valley, with you. Direct command of the Wardens will be assumed by Warden-Commander Fontaine, so I will probably go where I'm needed throughout the ranks." Cousland replied, a bit cooled off from his antics with Hawke.
Just as it was for Cailan and Duncan, they would live or die depending on the battle's result. There would be no retreat from the valley if the Darkspawn won.
"Looking for the perfect opportunity to stab me in the back, are you?" Loghain smiled confidently.
"Rest assured, Loghain; if I had a knife at my hand and your back to its tip, I would turn you around and let you know before thrusting it forward."
To the surprise of everyone who knew him, Loghain laughed. A single "Ha!" It was such an odd, unnatural sound, not one he was used to making at all. "I look forward to seeing you after the battle is over, Warden."
The Warden in black smiled.
An arrogant, unashamed smile. The one belonging to the villain at the end of a long story. The maddening, evil, ever conquering smile belonging to the one that represented everything the hero despised.
And yet, a smile. Genuine and unsarcastic in its joy. He turned and said one last thing.
"As do I, Loghain."
He left with the Alistair hurriedly clinging near his side and the rest of the Grey Wardens' allies following in tow. Before his figure had completely disappeared, Loghain heard a loud stomp against wood. Hawke had jumped on top of the table and cupped her hands around her mouth, trying to make herself sound louder. "Just couldn't let someone else get the last word in, could you?!" She jumped down onto the stone ground, with the sort of casual, youthful disregard for her knees forgotten to those further than halfway across their journey through life. "Wait up, you! I still have a Joining to go to, and you're not getting rid of me yet!" She darted off into the night.
And by the Maker, was she fast.
"I'll need to give a speech to the soldiers first thing in the morning. If you'll excuse me…" Anora left with not quite the same haste, but it still seemed as if she didn't have time to tell her father bye.
Seemed she didn't have much time for it at all, lately.
The details would have to be further hammered out by the field commanders, but for better or for worse, they had decided on where everyone would make their stand.
The air was cold, the night in the midst of its transition from blue to black.
Loghain described his departing company in a muttered statement, feeling an ache in his shoulder that had persisted for the past week. When had waking up in the morning started being enough to cause his body to break down?
"Are you alright, Loghain?"
"Hmm?" Loghain at first grunted in response to Ser Cauthrien's concern.
She had called him "Your Lordship" in front of the War Council, but he was always 'Loghain' in private.
"I am fine." He said, but his voice betrayed him with fatigue.
"They make you tired just looking at them, don't they?" Cauthrien looked forward.
"I could survive Anora when she was five years old. A few rowdy young soldiers and the whole of the Darkspawn horde doesn't compare." Loghain spoke in deadpan.
Cauthrien smiled. "Maybe. But you were twenty years younger then."
Loghain glanced at his lieutenant with a bit of amusement. "If that's your way of saying it's time to pass over the reins, I'm afraid you haven't even struck a glancing blow."
"Oh? Well in that case, how about we join the Wardens and spend the rest of our lives with the Orlesians instead?"
"Cauthrien, since when have you begun possessing the power of insight into my darkest nightmares?"
She laughed. "Give it ten years and you'll be leader of the Wardens in Orlais, ready to march on Weisshaupt." Ser Cauthrien looked a bit wistfully across the empty table. Even though they were their adversaries, she was looking at the spot where Cousland and Alistair stood. "You know…when I look at those two, they remind me of you and him."
"Me and who, precisely?"
Loghain looked to the nighttime sky. Even though he had wrinkled in the forehead and grown to become the leader of this country, it still hadn't changed since the night he found Maric.
His mind wandered back to the memory of his former King's first appearance: dirty, bloody, fresh with the aura of a recent kill. Somewhere deep down, he knew that Maric would change his life from the moment he offered his hand to help.
He thought of Cauthrien's words. The resemblance was there, even if he loathed to admit it.
And it prompted another question. One he said aloud, but could only be answered by himself.
"Was Maric truly that weak?"
Chapter 4: Hawke I; The Joining
Year 9:20, Dragon Age.
In the forests outside Lothering.
She always had a knack for getting her hands on things.
She always knew when people were going to look away. And when she got caught, she always knew how to say it wasn’t her without flat out saying it wasn’t her.
That was his big sister’s talent. And her hobby was wanting try anything and everything.
“Carver, Carver! Look at this!” She said, climbing a tree and landing a backflip on the grass.
She loved doing flips, anything acrobatic. She loved climbing, trees and anything with a long way down. She loved jumping across the rooftops of the various towns that her family passed through before they had settled down in Lothering. And if it were too easy for her she’d do it with her eyes closed.
One time, when she was twelve, she asked Carver to watch her do a backflip on a hard cobbled stone ground. She jumped a single time, and then when she was in the air, she did two. When he her asked why, she sort of just shrugged and said something weird—
“I dunno, the first one was really quick and thought it would kind of be more fun to do two.”
It was only two years later at this point, but it might as well have been two years before, or twenty after. She never changed, not really. She always loved doing the same things, just in different ways.
“Hey, Carver! Look at this too!” She drew the bow she had ‘borrowed’ from their father’s chest and took her time lining up a shot at a tree trunk. She focused as hard as she could, let go of the string, and missed.
“MMmmnnngg.” She made a small noise of frustration— “Keep looking! I’ll get it okay!” —And then told him to keep watching.
Whenever she was about to do something cool, she wanted him to look. Like it didn’t count if no one else saw it.
And when she did something bad, it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her. It was anyone but her. Look somewhere else.
She took longer this time to let loose another arrow. She didn’t improve much.
Then, she darted her hand for another try in rapid succession, taking no time to aim and firing as soon as she could.
She hit her target dead center the third time.
She smiled really wide, like she had taken over the world. And then looked over her shoulder at the sole spectator.
What he could perceive as the smile of bullying and evil marked her face. She had an idea.
He tensed up. In his eight years of living, he had acquired a certain wisdom when it came to his older sibling.
“Carver, really watch this! I mean really watch it!”
She ran straight at another tree. What she was going to do next, no one else knew. She probably didn’t either.
She climbed straight up, and jumped off in another backflip.
And then she thought to herself—wouldn’t it look really amazing if she had shot something with her bow while she was in midair?
Halfway through, while inverted in the air, she reached for her quiver, pulled the string of her bow taut, and released.
And too her widened-eye surprise, the elm longbow shattered in her hands.
Wooden fragments danced in the air, flying in each direction. And one of those directions was the one right towards her—
It hit her on the nose, cutting the shallow skin near her eyes.
The sudden pain jumbled her sense of air control, and instead of landing on her feet as she usually had, she landed neck-first—
She went silent—she was never silent to him—and sprawled out on the ground, still.
“Hawke!” He shouted, eight-year-old Carver’s feebleness of youth straining against his attempt at an adult voice.
He got down on all fours right next to her, trying to see if she was alright.
She made a noise. She was bleeding at where she had been struck on the bridge of the nose.
Carver felt himself breathing in and out, wracked with nerves. If something had really happened to her, he’d—
And then as quick as her draw, Hawke sat up laughing, invincible.
“You really thought I was hurt! I’m just playing Avaar, see?!” She smeared her blood across her face in a dramatic mark, as if she were one of the tribesmen from the mountains, on a hunt to kidnap a wife.
The child Carver went blank.
“I’m the best, right?!” She shouted, pumping her fist in the air.
“Right?!” She drew a little closer to his face and pressed on.
She always made him agree. Even if he didn’t believe her, and even if she didn’t believe that he believed her.
They got up and walked back home that day. Their apostate father never found out what happened to his bow, or why Hawke suddenly decided to stylistically smear a bit of blood across face from that day on.
When a would-be archer tries to shoot a wooden bow without an arrow, it breaks. Hawke learned that from experience that day.
Prologue, Part Four
"Yes?" The named Warden glanced over at Alistair.
"Back there…you said I was going to be leading the wardens at the hillside?"
"Only an amount of them ranging from four to eight. I will make sure they are all capable of acting on their own accord."
Alistair stopped walking. "…Do I need to be thankful that you didn't send me to the Tower of Ishal too?"
Cousland had walked slightly ahead, before stopping on the punctuation of Alistar's question.
"…We all have our roles to play, Alistair." He spoke without looking back.
"You're right, we do. A shame I don't get a say about what mine is, really."
Previously on the eve of the Fourth Battle at Ostagar, Cailan had sent both Alistair and Cousland to the Tower of Ishal instead of with the rest of the wardens.
Why? Perhaps he was simply a fool. Or perhaps, he knew somewhere beneath his confidence that there was a very real possibility of Ferelden losing its King in that battle, and that the most viable heir needed to live for the good of the Kingdom.
"It's a Teyrn's duty to protect his King." Aedan responded, making no attempt to hide it. Now that he had the power, he was sending Alistair away from the frontline for the same reason as before.
Alistair grit his teeth and made a grumble of agitation. And regretted it as soon as he heard himself do. Compared to his commander's ever-present aura of terror, he sounded downright childish by comparison. "Even if he doesn't want to be King…?"
"Especially if he doesn't want to be King." Cousland put his hands behind his back. "For he has no army, no court, and no council to remain at his side. If his most loyal vassal does not stand up for him during his self-exile, then who will?"
"You make it sound like those things will just pop up out of the ground if I said 'Yes, you're right, I'm King' right now." Alistair sighed. "Why me? Why not you, or Anora, or any one of the dozens of nobles in this camp that grew up learning how to tell people what to do? Fine, maybe we need a King. Why does it have to be me?"
Between the two, it was very obvious which one commanded obedience and respect. Between the two, it was very obvious which one would follow the other.
Cousland closed his eyes. "I have already told you why: You are Maric's Son. The moment Cailan died, you succeeded him under the natural law of Primogeniture. It is not a choice of mine, or yours. It simply is."
"And you really think that?"
"Of course I do."
"You never question it, even for a second? You never think 'Hey, this result of an indiscreet man and some star-struck maid should be in charge because the man was King, and the first child went off and died already' is completely ridiculous?"
Cousland kept his eyes closed and his composure still. "It is not ridiculous. You are King."
Alistair weakly grinned. "I don't believe you." He couldn't believe him. Aedan Cousland had an unrelenting stubbornness in the belief that he was right and everyone else wrong, and an hour long monologue about everything there was to argue.
If that's all he had to say, then he was almost surely hiding something.
"It is the truth. I never tell lies." Cousland replied with a fact he had said many times before.
"Yeah, you never lie…"
But sometimes he didn't tell the whole truth.
The Warden-Commander opened his eyes. "Do you really want to be on the frontline, Alistair? I will not stop you. I swore an oath to protect you no matter what path you take. I will serve you until the end no matter what happens, as will my descendants."
"You know, I really doubt that last part."
"Hm?" Cousland was a bit taken aback.
"Oh, nothing, Teyrn I'm-going-to-die-alone." Alistair self-whispered the last bit with a snicker.
Truth be told, he couldn't imagine Cousland having children.
A woman that was enough of a saint to put up with Aedan Cousland's… quirks, to put it kindly, would need to be sent a thank you letter on behalf of all of female kind for taking one for the team.
And what would a child of Aedan Cousland be like, anyway? A son would probably draw invasion plans for Orlais in the dirt and rule his local circle of childhood bullies with an iron fist. And if it was a daughter, she'd probably ask for a miniature guillotine on Satinalia so she could stage mock executions on her dolls.
"Forget it," Alistair continued. "I'm fine with guarding the bridge." He didn't know why Cousland was so insistent on serving him, but picking that eldritch mind of his could very well result in finding something which could not be unseen. Alistair chose to let the matter drop instead. "It's not that I really want to fight, it's just that…well…"
Alistair trailed off, unsure of how to word what he wanted to say.
"…Is this about something else? I will not anger at your words, feel free to speak them."
"It's just that…I've already lost Duncan, and I wasn't able to do anything about it. Now you want me to sit out the main fight again, and…" Alistair rubbed the back of his neck and avoided looking Cousland in the eye.
"What, are you worried about me?"
Alistair jerked his head to the side and looked away, a bit red in the face. "Say it out loud, why don't you…?"
Worrying about another man was hardly the manliest thing in the world. In adventure novels, the role was usually taken on by a beautiful woman that tearfully asked the main character to not die on the eve of the final battle. And it didn't help that Alistair had a reputation for being a sarcastic troublemaker back at the templar barracks, so earnestly admitting he was worried about Cousland was quite embarrassing for him.
"Do not worry." Cousland smiled. He had such a habit of looking evil when he did. "I do not die. I will be fine."
"You know, funny thing about dying, I hear most people don't sign up for it."
"Very well, how about this?" Aedan got down on one knee and placed a closed fist over his heart. "I, Aedan Cousland, promise you, Alistair Theirin, that I shall not die."
"Okay, okaayyyyyyy." Alistair rolled his eyes around the edge of the lids and suppressed a groan. "I believe you, you won't die. Stop doing that already."
"I am glad I could assuage your fear. I live to serve you, after all."
Alistair winced a little. How could someone say something so embarrassing like that with such a straight face…?
"…You know, if someone else overheard this whole thing, they might get the wrong idea…" Alistair pronounced 'idea' as 'idear', adding an 'r' sound at the end.
Cousland raised his eyebrows, a little confused. "Mm? And why do you say that?"
"Well, they might think we're...you know..."
"I do not understand. Please expand your diction."
"'Expand my dic-' oh, you know what I'm talking about. Two boys in the middle of the night talking about how worried they are about each other. What kind of awkward, weird thing do you think I'm thinking about?"
"Potential envy of our masculine camaraderie by ignorant bystanders?" Aedan Cousland guessed with all honesty.
"Shut up, genius." Alistair's eyes narrowed and his voice drolled.
"Ah, fine." Cousland obeyed—in that way he never did for anyone else—and discontentedly folded his arms with his eyes closed and mind still in thought, still trying to solve what Alistair was getting at.
For someone so serious, Aedan had a real bad habit of making it hard for Alistair to be the funny one.
"Besides," Alistair said. "We're not the only ones we need to worry about."
Carver stood apart from Adaar and the two warden-recruits equipped in full grey-and-blue warden armor.
He hadn't spoken much to either of the other recruits since meeting them, he only knew that one was named Landry and the other Shaevra, and that they had taken quite a liking to each other ever since they first met. As for the Qunari, he didn't seem to say much at all. Just a "come here" when it was time to follow him and a "good job" when they finished collecting the darkspawn blood. A very definitive "No" too when they had asked for more information.
Unbeknownst to Carver, a shadow stalked him atop one of the pillars of the old temple. An ominous shape of black akin to the illustration of an assassin or thief lurking in a dark corridor.
The shadow jumped, and aimed directly for its prey's upper back.
They landed squarely on him, and locked their arms around his neck.
"Too defenseless, little brother!" Hawke cackled maniacally. "I could've cut a hole in your cheek and made you swallow your own tongue!"
"Get—off—of me!" Carver jerked his body around trying to shake loose from Marian Hawke's grasp. Her laughter only multiplied at the attempt.
"What, am I embarrassing you in front of your new friends?" Hawke smirked rather viciously.
Carver stopped resisting, and looked over his shoulder at his elder sibling. "Couldn't you have just walked up to me and said 'hello' like a normal person?"
"I could've, but I wanted to annoy you." Hawke smiled and rested her chin on top of Carver's hair. She had a rather nice smile for someone with such a love for mischief.
Carver sighed and gave up. She had won this round.
Not that he had ever won against her to begin with.
"Big sister, do you have anything better to do that isn't trying to antagonize every living soul you come across?"
"Nope." Hawke winked. "And I don't do it to everyone. Just the stuck-up ones."
"The troll under the bridge." Carver looked forward with a stare as if he were focusing on something a thousand yards away. And in each one of those yards, a memory of living under his sister's shadow was in the way.
"Mmmm?" Hawke made a feminine sound of bemusement at her younger brother's sudden non sequitur.
"The story, you've heard it?"
"The one where three goats pass and the troll gets knocked off by the third one?"
"No, the one where the troll hounds them day and night shouting obscenities and insulting the goats' mother until all three of them go mad and jump off the bridge into death's sweet arms of their own free will."
"…Um, Carver, I don't think that story exis—"
"The point is, you are that troll right now."
"I'm a troll?" Hawke went innocently wide-eyed from her position on top of Carver's head.
"Yes, you are a troll."
"Thanks, I guess?" Hawke rolled her eyes up and pondered her new title. She had been called a number of things ever since she had become well-known around camp, but she didn't know what to make of 'troll'.
"Could you get off my shoulders now?"
"What, you don't want to help your beautiful big sis down?" Hawke sniffled. She was too good at pretending she was about to cry. "I'm hurt~"
"My unmarried, single, big sister..."
"What was that?" Hawke's arms tightened around Carver's neck like a snake.
Ignoring the fact that Hawke had just jumped twenty-some-odd feet just to land on him for fun, he lowered himself and let her off his back.
"Feeling nervous?" Hawke walked in front of him.
At the sight of her small stature, Carver was reminded of how much shorter she was in comparison to him or even other women. When they were younger, she would always pull him around by the hand, sometimes by coaxing him, othertimes yanking him to where she wanted him to be. It still felt odd to have to look down at her now instead of looking up.
"Of course not." Carver looked irritated at her asking.
Even if he was he wasn't going to admit it. Not in a million years.
"Really? You know if you're having second thoughts—"
"I'm a warden-recruit, sister. There is no turning back."
"Come now, little brother. It's not like you have an invisible knife being held to your throat. One word and I'll have you whisked away on a horse to Lothering in the next five minutes."
"That's just like you, you know that? Always trying to hide me behind your back and acting like all the world's honor and glory belongs to you."
"Oh, Carver. Always feeling like you need to get into a standoff with me and go off to and prove you're your own person, no matter what it means for the rest of us. You're so selfish, you're so selfish."
"I think it is fine that I'm a little selfish. I've spent my whole life trying not to stand out because of dad and B—"
A hand darted towards Carver's mouth and covered it up.
"It's really in bad taste to talk about private family matters in public, little brother." Hawke nodded her head back towards where Adaar and the two would-be Grey Wardens stood. They didn't seem to be paying attention, but they were still within earshot.
"…You're right, sorry." Carver sighed and shook his shoulders and head. "Walk with me, will you?" He gestured to the stairs down to the west.
Hawke understood, and followed him down.
She spoke at the base of the stairs. "You know, you had me a bit worried there. Thought by now you would've learned to never speak about it outside home."
"Hawke." Carver sharply turned and looked her right in the eye. He didn't need to speak to her in private about their family.
"We're both 'Hawke', Carver. Use my first name."
"Marian. Why have you been seen with the Commander of the Grey Wardens?"
Hawke folded her arms and rounded the edge of her eyes out of curiosity. "Well, that's a surprise. Worried that some bad man is going to steal your precious big sister away?"
Carver continued stare at her, unaffected by her teasing. Hawke sighed and went on—
"We both fight darkspawn in the wilds. Sometimes we have to work together. And like I said before, I like to annoy the stuck-up ones."
Though, in the context of Marian imagining the two standing side-by-side, Carver seemed to possess the most sparkling personality in the world by comparison. Perhaps she had to thank the Warden-Commander for making her appreciate her pain in the ass brother?
"Stay away from him."
"Oh, you are jealous!" Hawke place both her hands to her cheeks and acted overcome with emotion. "I think I feel warm and fuzzy on the inside~"
Carver didn't let up and kept his calm. This was her classic strategy against him: saying something to bait out an angry response so she didn't have to address her own problems.
"They say…things, about him. Around the camp." Carver looked away. "About what he did at Amaranthine. About what he did after he killed Arl Howe."
"Carver, they say things about me too. They're bored, the soldiers will say anything if it means passing the time. You don't honestly believe them, do you?"
"Just be safe for once, alright?"
"What? You think you can stand up to him and I can't?" Hawke leaned forward and put her hands on her hips. "Don't think just because you're bigger than me now that I still can't kick your butt, little brother. Trust me, I can handle whatever Aedan throws at me better than anyone else can. Or do I need to remind you of what I had to do for our family after father fell sick?"
Ever since the years leading up to Malcolm Hawke's passing, Marian had been the de facto head of the family. And one of the responsibilities was making sure there was always plenty of food on the table—and that every fat merchant passing through Lothering had a little less weight to carry around. As well as silencing a few Chasind raiders that had gotten too close to their family homestead.
Hawke wrapped her arms around her brother and squeezed. Her arms were thin and looked delicate, but held so him tightly that he was almost convinced that she could still pick him up like she used to.
"I know it seems sometimes like all I ever want to do is rile you up, but I'm glad that you're worried about me, Carver. Thanks."
There was something odd about that soothing, soft voice of hers. It was usually so annoying to him, but the moment she showed a bit of compassion, it could stop every nerve in his body.
Carver raised an arm behind Hawke's back and looked at the back of his hand. He hadn't realized it until it had stopped, but his hands were shaking the entire time.
So he was afraid of The Joining, after all.
He groaned, in part because of Hawke, in part because of himself, and in part to hide it all; and hugged his older sister back.
"You don't have to worry about me either, sister. We're not kids anymore."
Hawke relaxed her arms and pulled away. "Of course I'm going to worry about you Carver. You're my little brother. Remember how you were afraid of storms when we were younger, and one night it was so bad that you had to ask if you could sleep in my bed with me?"
"In the name of Andraste, I beg you to erase that from your memory." Carver pleaded. He was seven-years-old at the time, it was not fair to bring that up.
Unfortunately, Hawke liked to fight dirty. "You clung to my back the entire night, whimpering until you tired yourself and passed out." She grinned victoriously. "You don't get to come back from that, sorry."
Her face suddenly became stern, and she continued—
"I'll say it again. We have connections to Loghain now. No one will come after you if you decide to turn back now."
Carver looked up at the night sky. "The Grey Wardens need recruits." Even though he knew he was afraid now, he didn't change his mind. "I have to do this. If I don't, someone else will."
Hawke smiled softly. "You're so selfish, you're so selfish." She didn't like it, but she had expected this answer all the same. "We should head back, before they start wondering why I kidnapped you."
She started climbing back up the stairs, leading with her brother in tow just as she always had.
"…If you ever feel afraid, just remember that I'll be right beside you the entire time."
"I'm guessing I don't have a choice whether or not you're there?"
"You're right. No choice." Hawke smiled, an open mouth, closed-eyed, pepped up expression. She could always turn her cheer on-and-off on demand, a talent that always seemed useful for throwing the moody and serious off-balance.
When they reached the top, Alistair Theirin and Aedan Cousland were in view, the silver chalice in the latter's hand.
"Ah, my little brother, a Grey Warden." Marian nudged Carver in the side. "Like that's going to save you from me. Go on now, Carver, go get this over with."
The brother and sister separated, Carver walking to join the other recruits and Hawke walking over to the group circle of three wardens that had formed around the chalice.
"Two-hundred thirty-four…four-hundred twelve…six-hundred fifty-five milliliters." Cousland held up each of the conical flasks that Adaar had laid out and eyeballed the sum of darkspawn blood in all three.
"How can you tell that just by looking at them?" Alistair curiously asked.
"I just take the total capacity of each flask and multiply it by the percentage filled. Very simple."
There were no markings or units of measurement on any of the flasks. Cousland, despite his personality, had a remarkably good eye for precision and small details. At least when it came to numbers and not people's feelings.
"Hello, everyone!" Hawke shouted as she stuck her head in between Adaar and Alistair, trying to get a peek at what the Warden-Commander was doing. "Good day for a Joining, isn't it?"
"It's night." Adaar stated, in that blank sort of manner that he always spoke in, when he actually bothered to speak.
"What do you want, woman?" Cousland asked, trying to ignore her as he emptied each of the three flasks of darkspawn blood into the chalice.
"Oh, I'm just wondering if watching a Joining makes me an honorary Grey Warden." Hawke bounced on her heels and grinned, curling a finger in front of her mouth.
"If you could honorarily pretend you died fighting darkspawn for just a few minutes, I will be more than happy to say that you are." Aedan Cousland closed his eyes to get Hawke out of his sight and pulled a vial thinner than his pointer finger from his clothes.
Alistair swallowed at the sight of it.
"What's that?" Hawke asked, a bit curious. Unlike the darkspawn blood just poured, colloquially called 'black' but really just a dark shade of red, this liquid was completely absent of hue.
"Archdemon blood." He held it up against the lighting of the moon. It did not shimmer or reflect light. It simply remained its own color in every environment. "Left over from Andoral."
He tipped the end of the vial over the chalice and tapped it gently with a finger. Only three drops fell into chalice, and yet those three were enough to turn the rest of the blood as dark as oil.
"Hey…" Hawke grimaced at the sight of the blood changing color. "…Do they really have to drink it like that? Can't you just make them drink a lot darkspawn blood instead?"
"That would simply make them ghouls. The Archdemon blood is what forces the recruit's body into acknowledging the blood as a foreign substance and engage in the fight for supremacy." Cousland answered.
The Darkspawn Taint in itself was rarely the cause of an immediate death. It instead slowly invaded the body, gradually making the Archdemon's Calling louder and louder each day until it eroded them into a husk. The Joining Ritual on the other hand had a very real risk of an immediate death—but if successful would allow a delay of their descent into insanity.
"Don't worry." Alistair forced a grin. "The good guys never die at the beginning."
"Worry this, worry that, everyone's talking about worrying tonight, aren't they?" Hawke puffed up one of her cheeks and poked her tongue against it. "I'm not exactly filled with confidence, here."
"Woman." Cousland looked at Hawke rather severely. "No one can stop the wrath of fate. Not you, not I, nor anyone but the Maker himself. If it is your brother's time to go to His side, then that is his fate to accept. Joinings are meant to be solemn events. Be quiet and let these three do what they have to do. They all made the choice to be here. It is not your place to try to stop them."
Hawke stared at Cousland a bit empty-headedly. She wanted to make a joke, but realized it would be in poor taste at this point.
She looked away, a little deflated. "Fine," she muttered. "Do whatever you want."
Marian Hawke walked away, and leaned against one of the pillars enclosing the temple ground.
She looked up at the nighttime sky and took in the air of Ostagar, the chill against her face taking her back into the present.
"I'm just terrible at standing still and keeping to myself, aren't I?" She thought.
That's why she nettled people who clearly didn't want to talk to her. That's why she always got into everyone's business and couldn't fit into the serious, impersonal atmosphere that the Grey Wardens had—
She didn't like being alone.
Her hand fidgeted. Along with her daggers, she had an empty bow equipped to the back of her drakeskin-and-dragonhide armor. But she really wished she had an arrow right now.
"At last, we come to The Joining." Cousland stepped forward with the Chalice in both hands.
Dressed in his black nobleman's attire and draped in his blue cloak, he looked as if he were a Revered Father in an Imperium Chantry, holding a chalice of Lyrium for the Magisters to drink from for some bastardized version of prayer.
"There are many legends as to why Grey Wardens came to drink Darkspawn blood." Cousland started with a story, as all three of the recruits knew what The Joining entailed already. "Some say it is a tradition which came from the Donarks, where the tribesmen drank their enemies' blood for power. Some say it was inspired by practicing blood mages in the Imperium, the very same which committed the Second Sin responsible for The Blight. And others say it came from the Elves that chose to forsake their promise of vengeance so that the races of Thedas would not be ground into something less than indignity."
"They do not matter." Cousland continued, with indifference. He was their leader, but a Commander of the Grey in name only. "None of it matters. Culture, Honor, Sacrifice. Made-up ideas that were conveniently thought of in order to justify a need—a need to kill the enemy. I cannot guarantee that any of you will live, nor that you may find whatever meaning behind what brought you here this night. But if you survive, if you are strong enough, I can guarantee you this—no matter who you are now, you will have power enough to kill the enemy."
The three recruits looked at each other with uncertainty. There was no nobility of the greater good in his words. Just a simple, cold calculation—Thedosians needed darkspawn blood in their body in order to kill an Archdemon. All else words around it were dressing of the fact.
The three recruits kept silent, waiting for one of them to be daring to speak first.
And then, after some time, Carver came forward, nodding his head.
With an infection of that small spark of his courage, the other two nodded two.
Cousland saw this, and spoke again repeated words—
"We speak only a few words prior to The Joining, but these words have been said since the first. Alistair?"
"Join us, brothers and sisters. Join us in the shadows where we stand vigilant. Join us as we carry the duty that cannot be forsworn. And should you perish, know that your sacrifice will not be forgotten. And that one day we shall join you."
"Step forward, Shaevra."
The warden-recruit didn't say anything. She simply did what she was told, placed her mouth at the chalice's edge, and let the darkspawn blood be tilted into her throat.
She didn't make any noise when she stood back up straight. Shaevra just stood still for a few seconds, slowly, carefully looked down at the ground—and then vomited blood through her helmet.
Alistair spoke, lowly, but just loud enough for everyone to hear what needed to be said—
"I am sorry, Shaevra."
She collapsed to the ground, dead.
Hawke looked over at Alistair. She had half-expected him to make some sort of quip like "Oh, it's always the first one that has to die, isn't it?" Instead, she saw him looking away and covering his eyes.
"Step forward, Landry." Cousland commanded once again.
The face behind the helmet of the one named Landry could not be seen. But in spite of whatever emotion he may have had, he stepped forward, and drank from the chalice.
He didn't last long either.
Landry's hand went for his chest almost immediately. He felt his heart fail to beat for the first time in his life, and fell with his eyes rolled back into his skull as he felt it for the last.
Alistair opened his mouth. An unintelligible noise came out of his mouth at first, before he pressed his feelings back down and spoke again—
"I am sorry, Landry."
"But The Joining is not yet complete." Cousland stepped over the bodies of the dead recruits. "You were called upon to submit yourself to the Taint, for the greater good. Step forward, Carver, and drink."
Carver's eyebrows knotted. He wanted to look back at his sister one last time, but fought the urge.
This was his choice in life. This—was his destiny.
He took the chalice from The Warden-Commander's hands, and drank.
Cousland waited until he was finished and took the chalice back into his hands. "From this moment forth, you are a Grey Warden."
And then, Carver's eyes went white.
He saw the Archdemon, first. He stood right in front of it, its nostril's breath apparent and his reflection plain in its eyes.
He fell on one knee and prostrated himself. He fell on another and used his arms to hold himself from becoming completely prone. They wobbled as if they were carrying five-hundred pounds.
He felt a sensation like beetles were crawling underneath the skin on the back of his neck. One of them crawled up to his ear and left it ringing with tinnitus.
He felt his breath get shallow, his lungs were crumpling like balled parchment.
"Not…yet!" He inhaled as sharply as he could to fill them back up. The feeling of air was like being stabbed in the throat. "I shall not allow it."
Even though Carver felt himself get weaker, he refused to let his heart stop beating.
Carver's arms finally gave out. He landed chest first, and fell asleep on the spot.
At the sight of him ceasing to struggle, Hawke ran up alongside him. When she was close enough, she let her heart sink and time stretch on as she focused her ears.
It was faint, but she could hear him still breathing. Her heart returned to beating soundly.
She didn't really know what to say, so she spoke to him the same way she always had.
"Alright, Carver." She smiled like he was playing a game on her and stood up. "You're not fooling anyone, wakey-wakey."
Carver's body stopped hurting. At the sudden absence of pain he felt a sweet bliss roll over his body, as if he were back home sound in bed in Lothering.
It was next to a window, on the side of the house where the sun hit the white sheets and warmed him at the waist.
Then, there was a tingle.
And that tingle spread throughout his spine.
It was odd, he didn't feel anything below his neck, and it seemed like he couldn't move his arms or legs. But when he caught sight of his own hand, he saw that it was trembling uncontrollably.
He was convulsing uncontrollably. His entire body was.
But he didn't feel any of it. He didn't feel or control anything. He just knew it was happening.
He was writhing against the floor in seizure. He tried stopping himself, and nothing changed. He tried saying something, and nothing changed. He tried curling the smallest muscles in his fingers, and nothing changed.
And then, almost all at once, his head came to a stop. And so the rest of him did too.
"Hey…" Hawke spoke small. "Is this normal…? He was fine just a minute ago…what's wrong with him?"
Aedan approached Hawke and Carver. He squatted down, took one hand off the chalice, and placed two fingers at the side of Carver's throat.
Cousland waited five seconds. Then he pulled his hand away and stood back up. He looked over at Alistair, and in one moment of seeing Cousland's eyes—Alistair knew all he needed to say.
"I am sorry, Carver."
Hawke looked at the Wardens bewildered. She felt like she had gone deaf for a moment, so she tried to get another answer. "…H…uh…?"
"It was close." Cousland half-clarified. "He's dead."
Hawke looked back at Carver. He was completely still and lying face down, like he was sleeping and waiting to wake up from a deep dream.
Marian carefully lowered herself onto her knees, sitting down next to her brother.
"Always going off and doing whatever you wanted to do…seriously…"
She smiled weakly, reprimanding him for his foolishness.
"Carver…you never listened to me…you always complained…and all we ever did was fight…" She shook her head. "…But…"
She felt her hands ball into fists.
"I never, ever, wanted to lose you!"
Hawke cried. She grabbed at her brother's head and cradled him in her lap—
"You're so selfish…you're so selfish…"
She sat there and embraced Carver as hard as she could. Trying to absorb what warmth she could from him before his body turned cold.
"The ritual is now complete." Cousland spoke indifferently, but looked directly at Hawke as he did. "This is the reality of the Joining." He drew himself closer to the kneeling Hawke, as if he were a predator closing in on wounded prey.
"Aedan, stop…" Alistair protested weakly. He didn't speak loudly enough for anyone to hear him.
"Tell me, woman—" He took a step closer to Hawke. His knees were a breath away from her face. "—is this what you wanted to see?"
Something in Hawke snapped.
She wasn't sure how she suddenly got herself on her feet so quickly in her state—but when she realized she was standing up, she saw that one of her arms were extended in front of her and that she had her dragonbone jambiya in her hand—its blade pressed against Cousland's throat.
And it was as soon as she took him hostage that Adaar's staff was drawn and ice-blue mana emanated from his hands.
"Put it down." Kaaras Adaar ordered Hawke. "Now." Most people would forget Adaar was even there, but that did not matter to him. Not as long as they knew it when it mattered.
"Why?!" Hawke ignored the threat to her own life and stared up at Cousland. She only came up to his chest. "Why did you let him die?!"
"This was your brother's choice." Cousland stared back down at her, unafraid and unfazed by her fury. "Honor it or reject it all you like—killing me will not bring the dead back to life."
"So what?" Hawke's eyes narrowed. "You've killed plenty of people, haven't you? You probably deserve it anyway."
"I probably do." Unaffected, Cousland actually agreed with her. The mantle of villain suited him just fine, and he wasn't going to repent over something as foolish as a spastic girl threatening him.
Hawke's logic left her, and she wondered if The Warden-Commander bled like the rest of them, or if that cutting his throat would yield naught but empty air.
"Hawke." For once, Aedan addressed her using her name.
Her eyes twitched at the sound of him speaking. All at once she began to believe this man was the monster everyone said he was.
"Do you have any other family waiting for you in Lothering?" He asked.
"...My mother…" She bit her tongue to stop herself from saying more.
"…Do you really want me to write her a letter telling her that she lost two children today?"
Hawke stood her ground and took in a deep breath. She shuddered when she exhaled. She thought out her options as best she could:
If she slashed Aedan's vitals and killed him in one blow, then she could probably beat Adaar as long as she remained on her feet after his first spell hit her. She doubted that Alistair, petrified as he currently was, would fight her, but if he did she might be able to beat both of them.
Killing a Teyrn, and a Warden-Commander at that, in cold blood would make her an outlaw in the eyes of the crown. She would need to escape from camp as soon as she was finished, ride out and reach Lothering before the sentries caught up with her. She would pack up with the rest of her family, and leave Ferelden for somewhere far outside Highever's reach.
There was no telling how many people would come after her, how she'd deal with the threat of foreign Templars to her family, and how many others she would need to deal with along the way.
Was she willing to put her life at risk for the sake of revenge; and was she willing to kill?
"Come on, Hawke." She thought to herself. "Don't do it. You're smarter than that."
Her outreached arm felt like it could not move, so she gripped it with her free one and softly pulled back, coaxing herself into retracting her arm.
She lowered her blade, and staggered back a few steps looking down at her feet.
Hawke continued holding onto her arm, shaking as if it were in pain.
"Don't cry." She told herself. "Don't give him the satisfaction. Don't cry."
At the sight of Hawke backing off, Kaaras Adaar put his staff back on his robes and stood down.
But as soon as he did, Hawke drew her arm back up.
She flicked her wrist, and threw her dragonbone jambiya forward.
It landed exactly where she wanted it to—in the chalice full of the darkspawn blood. It splashed, and stuck up hilt first from the cup, as if it had been stabbed into the ground.
She looked at Aedan one last time, him still unchanged. Was he not fast enough to react to her, or did he know that she would not harm him?
"Here, Warden!" She stood with one shoulder pointed forward. "Use this instead next time you want to recruit someone. It will go quicker."
She turned and left. At the fading of her armored footsteps against stone, the temple was filled with an absolute silence.
"All of them…" Alistair spoke, looking at the ground.
In Alistair's Joining, one other recruit had died.
In Aedan's, two had died.
And in this one, all three had died.
Alistair had wanted to stop trying at this point, but Cousland always insisted they keep holding new Joining Rituals.
Aedan didn't say anything back. He turned from the bodies and looked south towards the horizon.
They could barely be seen, but billowing black clouds were starting to form above the Wilds.
They could only mean one thing.
Chapter 5: Alistair III; The Second Battle of Ostagar I
Hey there. I'm in the middle of editing the FFnet version right now, and for those guys on that other site I'm adding in a longer A/N section explaining why I had to remove some of the gory parts. Since this doesn’t apply to you guys reading this version at all, I’m just gonna say this instead:
Censorship is for fucking nerds. Enjoy.
"—!" Cousland made a shocked noise at Alistair's answer. It was no small task to startle him.
"I won't. I won't."
Alistair repeated the words. He had looked directly at the weight of his name, and he had denied it. If he were going to defend Ferelden from the darkspawn, he would do so for his reasons, and his alone.
"I won't. I won't. I won't. I won't. I won't. I won't..."
Alistair mechanically repeated himself like a tired, stubborn child. He was not even sure what he was saying "will not" to. His royal bastardry turning him into a convenient backup heir, the reality of the world. They blended together into a raw emotion that made him feel as if he were running inside his own body.
And when he was too tired to say it; sapped of rest, tears, and hope, he repeated it in his mind. Where only he could hear himself:
Alistair was cut off as he heard Aedan's sword ring from its sheath. His first thought was that The Warden was disgusted with his pitiful answer and was going to take his head.
"If you will not be King—"
But when he looked up, he saw the ancestral sword of the Couslands buried in the ground.
"—then at the very least, let me be your vassal."
Cousland was not looking at Alistair. He was looking directly at the grass, kneeling and flattening his chest against knee so nothing save the hands holding the sword would rise above a sitting man hanging his head:
"From this moment to my dying breath, I hereby swear that I will defend you with all of my might. I shall defeat any enemy that strikes you or that you wish to strike. I will provide you with counsel whenever you need it. I will follow your rule when no one else will. And if you will not rule, then I will be your regent and safeguard your throne until you are ready. Upon my honor as a Cousland and as a Fereldan; I hereby promise you my sword and that of any lineage that I may bring into this world. From this day forth, we shall serve you. We shall forever serve your children, and their children for as long as they hold your blood and there is a Ferelden to defend."
Cousland rose his head. His ultramarine eyes glowed with determination:
"Come on...I'm not a king..."
Alistair chuckled, weakly, but enough to momentarily change the shape of his face. He stood up, one leg at a time, as if he were rebounding himself off of the small laugh in his stomach. "Alistair. Just…Alistair."
"Alistair." Aedan Cousland raised his torso from his knee. "Will you accept my fealty?"
Alistair opened his mouth to say no. But he saw something. Something from beyond his lifetime.
Four Ages ago, King Calenhad had defeated Teyrna Elethea Cousland on the field of battle and forced her on one knee so she would submit.
The same oath she said then was being repeated now. The only difference was that instead of being forced to submit, the Cousland was forcing the Theirin to rule.
Alistair couldn't beat Cousland at anything. Not with swords, not with wits, and not with will.
And thus, even when he tried to reject to his heritage as he had so many times before, an entirely different answer came out of his mouth.
And a contract was formed.
Prologue, Part Five
The Second Battle of Ostagar I
It was during a pitch-colored night that the darkspawn were going to attack.
Four men, illuminated by the glow of a nearby torch, pushed on a large stone. It didn’t move.
Alistair looked around to see who the man was complaining about, only to see five eyes staring at him
“…Who, me?” He pointed at himself awkwardly.
The gynour with a missing eye shouted. “Who else?”
“Well, my hair could be brown.”
“To be honest, I thought it was blonde.” One of the other men helping load stones in the trebuchets piqued.
“No one asked you. Anyway, you—” The one-eyed gynour faced back at Alistair “—what’s your name?”
“Alistair! Eater of cheese and annoyer of mages!”
“I thoughts you was a Grey Warden?” A rather slow member of the bunch inquired.
“Oh, I quit that last week. Wanted to follow my dreams.” Alistair placed a hand to his chin and looked to the sky, as if gazing into the future.
“Whoever you are, you’re slowing us down. You didn’t push hard enough.” The one-eyed gynour frowned. Alistair thought to himself that he should really invest in an eyepatch.
“Oooooooh, but I thought it was 1-2-3-push. Not 1-2-push.”
“Just go, would you? We’ll get someone else.”
“I’m never allowed to touch the expensive things, am I? I swear, it’s the Chantry all over again.” Alistair muttered while he walked off, grinning.
There were six trebuchets inside the fortress of Ostagar. Small groups of four were currently loading each one with nearly-identical stones. One of Cousland’s commands were that the rocks all be a certain size and shape, thus requiring a great deal of chiseling and breaking apart to be done in the days leading up to now. As for the why, no one knew. They just did their job, no matter how seemingly arbitrary and pointless, and hoped he wouldn’t suddenly appear and check up on them.
Instead they had received Alistair, currently wandering the camp listlessly in the hours leading up to the battle, trying to find something to keep his mind occupied so he didn’t have to think about Darkspawn.
The siege engineers had also received Adaar, who despite being both a Qunari and quite unsociable, had proven significantly more popular than Cousland. Though, those were quite low standards by that mark.
Currently the Qunari was passing by each of the loaded stones on the trebuchets, checking to make sure that each were the right size and then placing two hands on them, casting a spell of some sort.
“Huh, what kind of spell is that?” Alistair asked as he happened to pass by Adaar. Despite being a former Templar, Alistair always had something of a fascination of magic’s specifics.
“A fire glyph. I’m supposed to cast these on Trebuchet numbers 2, 4, and 5.”
Adaar didn’t point, but looking past him Alistair could see that each of the Highever Trebuchets had a number painted on them.
“Mmmm?” Alistair made a curious little noise. “Why only those three?”
“I cannot maintain any more than this simultaneously. As for why Cousland requested those three specifically, I cannot claim to know. I only know we are supposed to load them and aim them as he showed us, and to only use the projectiles with glyphs after the first volley is fired."
“Huh. Neat.” Alistair scratched his head. Trying to figure out this apparent riddle of tactics their Warden-Commander had concocted was more or less pointless at this point.
“So…” Alistair tried to think of something to say “…who’s the noble in charge of the camp while you’re there?” He asked.
“Arl Wulff.” Adaar replied.
Alistair grinned. “Really? I thought it would’ve been Bann Teagan.”
Alistair threw his arms in the air. “Because nooobody tells him what to do! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOBODY! HA-HA-HA-HA!”
Adaar didn’t laugh.
Alistair lingered for a moment, with his arms suspended and expression strained, before slowly lowering his limbs to his sides and fakely coughing into a free hand.
“Ahem…um…right, guess you had to be there.” Alistair looked around, trying to find something to look at that were not Kaaras’ blank eyes. “…I’m going over there now. To the place where I’m supposed to stand. Yep. That’s me. The place-stander. Bye.”
Adaar simply stood there as Alistair fidgeted for a few seconds, before the nervous young warden that was technically supposed to be his senior finally turned to leave. He did not hear a “bye” or “good luck” as he passed by one the arches leading into the camp and turned onto the bridge.
Alistair could never really tell if Adaar had some sort of negative opinion about him or just didn’t like to talk. Maybe it was a bit of column A, a bit of column B?
In any case, since it was Adaar’s job was to oversee the siege weaponry away from the battle he should be safe, Alistair thought.
Alistair turned to his right and stepped onto the bridge, lined with stone-faced archers, lit torches, and oils.
He found a spot between two archers and looked down at the valley. He needed to meet with the wardens on the hillside soon, but he wanted to get a better look at the main force before he did.
Alistair felt his eyes’ depth-of-field be stretched as far it could go. In the chasm below, thousands stood facing south to the Korcari Wilds, organized into lined divisions. Spearmen lined the front, swordsmen were in the back, archers and cavalry were in the far-rear.
“You know, it’s funny…”
Alistair looked to the sky. He wasn’t talking to either of the archers.
“…from up here, you can’t really tell the difference between everyone, can you? Mage, Templar; Humans, Elves, Dwarves; Fereldan, Orlesian. They’re all just kind of like little dots or clumps of identical people.”
The sky didn’t answer. It stayed as it always had.
“Right, sorry, I forgot. These talks are always so one-sided, aren’t they? You should meet a friend of mine…I think he thinks he knows more than you…”
Alistair looked back down at the unified army of Ostagar. If he knew his Warden-Commander’s personality—and he did, better than anyone else alive—then he would guess that he start off right there in the front.
“Aedan…don’t die on me down there, alright? I’ll have to take over the Wardens if you do, and trust me, I’d make a terrible main character.”
“I’m sure you would. I’d still read it.” A girl’s voice called to him from behind.
Alistair jumped a bit in his armor and snapped his head back to look at the source of the noise. The bowmen to his sides weren’t the source.
“Oh...hello...Hawke.” Alistair didn’t loosen up much at her sight. He hadn’t seen her since the day of her brother’s failed Joining.
Hawke sidled up at a spot an arm’s length away, peering down at where Alistair was looking. “Wishing Aedan good luck before the big battle?” Hawke asked, not stuttering or dropping a bit of her equilibrium.
“Ah…you heard all that, didn’t you?” He was embarrassed, but it wasn’t him talking to himself that he was worried about.
Hawke shot an eye to her side at Alistair without turning her face, and smiled weakly. “You’re a good friend to him, you know that?”
Alistair rubbed the back of his neck and looked away. “…Yeah, I guess.”
Talking to Hawke right now, made holding a conversation Adaar seem like the easiest thing in the world.
“…Hawke.” Alistair said, after mustering himself to look at her.
“Yeah…?” She said a bit absentmindedly, not taking her eyes off the soldiers.
“Are you alright?” Alistair’s eyebrows raised from the insides.
“A little antsy right now, kind of wishing I could be on the front lines. But I suppose it’s better to not show off. My eyesight’s better than most, and it’s best that I’m at top of the tower to-”
“About Carver I mean. Your brother.”
He had to, but Alistair still regretted as soon as asking.
Hawke looked down a little, more towards the supports of the bridge.
“…Did you know you can only fire a bow when you have an arrow loaded?” She replied with a bit of trivia, a light feint meant to be followed up by something stronger. The classic trick of a duelist.
“Mmm?” Alistair made a little noise of curiosity.
“Not too many people know this, but it’s because if you try and shoot a bow without anything loaded at the string, the tension will have nowhere to go and end up breaking it instead.”
Hawke pulled back the string on her bow, aiming nothing in particular at the chasm. “There are exceptions. Higher quality bows, like dragonthorn ones, don’t break or splinter at all. Instead all the force gets absorbed in the wielder’s arm, and they end up with a broken bone because they were stupid enough to get curious.”
Marian slowly receded the tension in her bow, and dropped the arm holding it back to her side.
“Sometimes, I’m not so sure…but I like to think I’m made of stronger stuff than most people.” She pulled her gaze away from the field and looked at Alistair—and smiled. “I’ll be fine.”
Her smile was a bit empty, Alistair thought. But he also thought that it wasn’t quite his place to comfort her.
“Anyway,” Hawke slapped the drakeskin-and-dragonhide armor covering the front of her legs twice. “I best get on my way. Maker knows what’ll happen if the Archdemon shows up and the Tower of Ishal isn’t lit because I was too lazy.” She waved at Alistair and turned, “see you.”
“Yeah, see you…” Alistair watched as her figure disappeared in the distance. He had to go the same way as her, but wanted to avoid speaking with her for now.
He glanced up at the sky one last time before leaving himself, cupped his hands, and said a prayer:
“Watch over us—all of us.”
Aedan Cousland stood apart from the masses, his black-and-red Sentinel Warden armor blending with his colorless hair and the night to carve a blood-colored glow in the world.
He stood at the midpoint of the front line, at the middle column and front row of the centermost-front cohort. A chest-high spike wall barrier extended from both edges of the valley, made up of sharpened wooden stakes dug into the ground at forty-five degrees, save for the very center where he a
His eyes were closed, but he could picture his cohort in its entirety. Five-hundred men, monolithically sword-and-shield infantry save himself. Fifty columns and ten rows. Besides himself there wasn’t a single Grey Warden.
It fit him just fine. He didn’t see himself as a Grey Warden. He saw himself as a Teyrn, a leader of Fereldans.
Panning away, he could see the rest of the army. The bulk of the wardens were in the back, near Loghain’s command division.
Zooming out, he could see the entirety of Ferelden’s forces, the Fortress of Ostagar, and the Korcari Wilds. The only detail missing in his mind were the soldiers’ faces, and as long as he kept his eyes closed he could see every nook and cranny of the soon-to-be-battlefield.
There were five cohorts with the same number and organization as his own in the front line, adding up to two-thousand five-hundred men. The two to his left and the two to his right were spear infantry. His, however, were entirely sword-and-shield—the vanguard of the Fereldan Army.
Nothing happened when he hit zero. He simply restarted at Three-Hundred and Eight, and began counting down in his head, at equal intervals of one second.
“Three-Hundred Eight…Three-Hundred Seven…Three-Hundred Six…”
He didn’t like how units of time were sexagesimal. There were 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 24 hours in a day—adding up to 86,400 seconds in a day. He didn’t like those numbers. If it were up to him, he’d arrange them into decimal form, and make everything divisible by 10.
“Three-Hundred Two…Three-Hundred One…Two-Hundred Nineteen…”
When he was younger, he’d normally spend meandering moments like this either reading or finding a solitary spot to stare at the sky. Sadly; he no longer found any enjoyment in books, and he was not alone at the moment. The latter fact of which was quietly growing in apparency:
“Two-Hundred Ninety-Six…Two-Hundred Ninety-Five…Two-Hundred Nine-Four…”
With two voices in his head running in parallel, he counted in one and noticed a subdued sobbing to his left. He opened his eyes, and without turning his neck, stepped forward and turned on one foot.
A cold shiver passed through the men that the black-and-red mass walked by.
He came to a stop in front of a soldier, a short figure whose face was entirely obscured by his helmet.
The crying soldier, shedding tears as quietly he could, held his head down and did not see The Warden-Commander at first, but tensed up and stopped all noise when The Warden stopped in front of him anyway.
Aedan’s ultramarine eyes pierced through armor and invaded the soul. The soldier felt his blood flow seize up as he heard him speak:
“Why are you crying?”
A flat question, simple.
“Well Milord...I guess I’m afraid.” The soldier held his head down and stared at his toes.
Cousland’s face and gaze did not change. “Why are you afraid?”
The soldier didn’t respond at first. He let the silence linger for a bit, hoping the monster in front of him would go away and find different food instead. “…I suppose it’s because I don’t want to die.”
“And why do you not want to die?”
An easy question with an easy, selfish answer. He was afraid of what existed after death. The Chantry taught that all pure souls would be gathered by The Maker’s Side and one day be welcomed to a new Golden City. And if Heaven were so simple a guarantee, men like him would leap from cliffs and swim to any depth.
The reality was he did not know what would happen to him beyond death, or if that he would even continue to exist. For every step of dreams that was extant in the Fade, there were a trillion steps of nothingness beyond it.
“I don’t want to leave behind my wife and kids.” The soldier lied. He was not married, nor had he ever lain with women. He just wanted to stir enough sympathy so that he could be left alone.
“Is that so?”
The way Cousland posed the remark made the soldier’s heart sink. He immediately thought his lie was seen through, and that he was about to be exposed as a coward and child.
And then, he felt two hands at his shoulders—
—But not on top of the shoulders. Rather, below, between his body and arms—
In one swift motion, the tearful soldier felt himself being picked up as effortlessly as his father did to him when he was an infant.
“Do you want her to remarry and forget you?” Aedan Cousland asked calmly.
“H-huh?” The soldier couldn’t grasp the surreality of the situation.
“Answer me!” Aedan shouted, seeing red. In a heartbeat his voice had all at once gone from collected and sophisticated to bloodthirsty, savage, and terrifying. “Do you want your children to have a different father?!” Aedan’s grip squeezed so hard that the soldier felt his armor bent into the shapes of fingers.
“N— I-I’ll fight! I swear I’ll fight!” He could not see well through his helmet and disorientation, but if he had to compare it to something he would say it were the sight one sees before being eaten by Darkspawn.
“Half-hearted!” Normally Aedan’s gaze was narrowed to a glare, but right now his eyes were so wide open that the suspended soldier could see the bloodshot coming out from the edges. “Win! Fight and win! Live so you can grow old and watch your children succeed you. Win so you may prove you are great enough to protect the woman you swore your life to. If a darkspawn stood before your home, you wouldn’t resign yourself to die first—would you?!” His scars stretched and contorted against his face’s skin.
“No—Milord!” The soldier had to catch his breath from being rattled inside his own armor.
“Then win, peasant!” He dropped the soldier, who hit the ground on his knees instead of feet. “Cease your self-pity and the waste of emotion you spend on it, and win!”
Aedan Cousland walked away without sparing another glance. His thoughts were quite simple:
“Two-Hundred Eleven…Two-Hundred Ten…Two-Hundred Nine…”
Cousland had kept counting down in his head the entire time, at perfect intervals of one-second.
He wasn’t particularly paying attention during his shouting at the crying soldier, and all he could particularly recall about it was that he said whatever his instincts told him to say.
He returned back to his spot in the center, facing forward towards the wilds. He closed his eyes again, and as soon as he did he saw another world—
He saw the sky. He could remember the shapes of a million clouds, every snowflake that ever fell on his gloves during a boyhood spent in the Teyrnir of Highever. He could remember every book he had ever read, every page number for every paragraph. He could remember the whole of his past, flying by his eyes. He could stop at any moment and recollect the day he had, what he ate, what he did.
But there was one thing in his memories he could not remember, no matter how severe he concentrated:
Aedan could remember his parents, his brother, Alistair, Hawke, Adaar, and maybe a handful beyond that. But whenever his memories would return to him staring off to the side as a child in Castle Cousland, memorizing the details of the stone walls and avoiding eye contact with anyone, his mind would blur at the sight of a guard. He may be able to recreate the suit of armor. But when he looked up and saw the human inside, a blank, skin-colored oval dominated their head’s front.
They were never cruel to him. He simply couldn’t reciprocate what they had.
He indulged himself in his mind’s interior for as long as he could, but at the prompting of a jolt in his blood, all the images went dark.
The mixed blood in his veins beckoned his heart towards the south.
Aedan opened his eyes. Something was about to come out of the Wilds.
The aura of black magic misted out from between trees, concealing the distance like a fog after dawn. An orange color of ember like the rising sun was the first thing to emerge—
It was a sea of torches, wielded by an army. The sight was soon followed by the sound, armored boots, a march that was uniform but untrained. The type of unity that could only be driven by The Calling of the Old Gods.
To the left and right, Darkspawn spread out to engulf the horizon. They mixed with the night, with the fire, and with the wilds all at once; blending together like the infinite border between the ocean and sky seen from a continent’s edge.
The Blight’s magic extended above the trees, and reached further trying to touch the rolling black clouds above. The blackened fog spiked unevenly at the top of its shape, emitting colors of black-green and blood. It looked as if a dark aurora had fallen from the sky.
From the masses a single Hurlock General emerged. Its armor could ostensibly be described as gold, but in truth it was the same yellow of rotted teeth and nails.
It looked around at all of its blighted brethren, menacing with ragged breaths of excitement heaving its whole body. The Hurlock General threw its sword and off arms out wide, and gave a cry to ignite the rest of the Darkspawn.
A stampede of roars, cries, yells, and shrieks spread across Thedas on its command.
“Maker’s Breath…” a lone soldier said within the Human Vanguard’s ranks.
But his fear did not spread throughout the ranks.
The descendants of the Alamarri, The Fereldans, were not ones to match aggression with retreat.
Aedan heard Loghain’s gravelly voice raise itself above the masses, as if to match the height of Darkspawn’s magic:
“Spears—at the ready!”
The spear infantry of the front line shifted their weapons’ points to the enemy, forming a spear wall behind the spike wall on both flanks, stretching to both earthen walls of the valley.
The sword-and-shield infantry of the center-vanguard took their shields from their back and planted them in the dirt.
Of the five-hundred men of the sword-and-shield infantry, four-hundred ninety-nine began to clang their blades against their shields, forming a percussion that called all eyes across the field to the Thedosian Army’s dead center.
And in that center, the one apart from those four-hundred ninety-nine, was Aedan—holding Vigilance with both hands and pressing his forehead and nose against the flat of the blade.
The percussion grew louder, drawing the curiosity of every Darkspawn that could see.
Aedan took a few steps forward with his eyes closed, and when he knew he had everyone’s attention on both sides of the field, brought his sword away from his face.
He let one hand go from his sword, and instead kept it held high with his right hand alone.
Channeling his killing instinct from his heart to his hands, from his hands to the hilt, from the hilt to the blade—the enchanting runes of Vigilance came alive.
A flame engulfed Aedan Cousland’s unstoppable blade—
—But it did not burn with the orange of the rising sun, nor the yellow of the sun’s prime or the red of its set.
From the longsword known as Vigilance; from its ornate golden hilt crafted by a master blacksmith, from its volcanic blade forged with the bones an ancient dragon—
—A blue flame the color of his eyes erupted, burning hotter than any number of Darkspawn torches.
He did not know why this was. Perhaps his soul on the eve of war were an inextinguishable kindling.
He opened his eyes and stared down the Hurlock General at the head of the other army
Here’s the head of the snake, Cousland beckoned across the battlefield with soundless words.
Come cut me off, he dared with a wager of twenty-thousand lives.
It was all too obvious; but between the spikes, the spears, the center that lacked either of those, and the man standing out in front that was soaking in The World’s attention—
—There was but one place where the darkspawn could charge.
The Darkspawn General cried out,
And the world rumbled at their stampede.
Hurlocks and Genlocks took to the front, Ogres lumbered behind. Thousands of incarnates of evil blotted out the landscape, bringing about a wave of red, yellow, purple, and black.
They took the shape of a mass wedge formation, the Hurlock General at its helm, its charge directed straight at the center, straight at the source of the blue flame.
Aedan’s limbs felt entirely relaxed. Everything from here on out would rely on what he had calculated.
“Archers!” Loghain shouted from the rear.
The bows were let loose, and the sky brightened with a rain of flaming arrows. It thinned the herd—barely.
Mabari slipped past the Fereldans at the front. Some of them managed to gouge at the Darkspawns’ throats and eyes, some of them were killed.
It did not break the Darkspawn’s charge or formation.
Aedan remained a few paces ahead of Ferelden’s Vanguard, his sword still lit and high.
He did not go over his equations at that moment and redo them, or wonder if he had messed up somewhere along the way.
Because he knew—just like always—that he was right.
As the Darkspawn trampling Thedas neared close enough to reveal an ocean of yellow eyes, several explosions of fragmenting rock were heard.
Dirt and stone kicked up throughout the front line of the Darkspawn Army like geysers, pulverizing the corpses of those which they had directly hit into powderized bone and far-shooting sprays of black blood, the Hurlocks and Genlocks struck on the edge of their splash being hurled as paperweights and scattering out of formation.
They were not explosions of lyrium or elsewise magic, it was simple earth and gravity.
From the fort of Ostagar, far above where the shouting commands of any zealous general could be heard, the trebuchets had launched stone projectiles into pockets of the Horde.
Cousland did not need to look up to see them. The arcs they drew in the sky, the speed at which they flew, the points and areas of impact—all values with predetermined variables and already-solved equations. He had seen them while he waited for the battle to start. He had seen them on the many nights he and Loghain clashed over strategy. He had seen them the very moment he had heard the Darkspawn were marching on Ostagar once again.
A reality designated was never a reality shocking.
And now just as the Teyrn of Highever had separated himself ahead of his army, he could now gaze into the starved visage behind the charging Hurlock General’s—too enamored in its own bloodlust and attuned to violence to notice its own army desecrated—and see naught but less than a dozen darkspawn left at the tip of the earlier great V-formation meant to pierce the Human Army.
The sight of the carnage prompted a resumption of a train of thought within Cousland’s multifarious mind:
“Three-Hundred Eight…Three-Hundred Seven…Three-Hundred Six…”
And the sound of the crushing of darkspawn unified with a shout heard across Ostagar:
With no time of transition between it and perfect stillness, Aedan Cousland leapt forward from the push of one leg, grabbing the hilt of his beaconing blade and fixing himself directly on his target.
As if it were frozen in time, he saw the image of the Hurlock General with its sword above its head, about to swing forward and vertically with all of its might in an attack designed to kill outright.
But rather than meeting its sword high with all of his strength as surely as any simple beast would, he bent as knees with flexibility unusual to similar warriors of heavy armor and size.
Carrying Vigilance as low as himself, he drove it straight up at the end of his charge, stabbing the Hurlock General from its groin straight through to its throat. He drove his arms up and skewered the Hurlock whole, bringing his sword overhead and raising the attached body with it—the same way he displayed the heads of executed criminals upon the pikes outside Highever’s walls.
With a flick of his arm, he flung the body from his blade; tearing through its skin, flesh, and armor like a red-hot knife through parchment.
Vigilance alit Blue did not allow its victims to bleed, it cauterized vessels and flesh black.
Three-Hundred Three…Three-Hundred Two…Three-Hundred One…
Forward past, two Hurlocks replaced the one just slain. He decapitated one and severed the other twice, once for its sword arm, the second to be sure.
Their parts did not merely fall straight to the ground. They flew, the sheer force of each strike sending whatever flesh it took away in the vector of his sword’s momentum.
Two-Hundred Ninety-Seven…Two-Hundred Ninety-Six…Two-Hundred Ninety-Five…
The shriek of darkspawn death cries multiplied as the Horde’s charge, now broken fully from its triangular strategy, met at the pike and spear wall to the sides of The Warden and sword infantry. Wave-by-wave, their mindless charge met against impalement by the combination of fortifications and infantry.
Cousland faced another Darkspawn with rotted steel as the lightning of melee began to conduct from end-to-end in the valley beneath Ostagar. Vigilance cut through its sword as easily as its flesh.
Two-Hundred Ninety…Two-Hundred Eighty-Nine…Two-Hundred Eighty-Eight…
He monaurally heard footsteps circling to his left. Darkspawn couldn’t be individually sensed when gathered in the thousands, but the experience of his ears could distinguish the frame of a dwarf, the lightened movements of a rogue against grass.
Another hurlock charged him. It was going to distract him while the other stabbed him from behind.
Cousland reacted not with a retreat, but with another step straight forward—two paces ahead of where roguish darkspawn from behind projected the Warden-Commander to be.
And for the hurlock ahead, he swung Vigilance from top to bottom, slicing the darkspawn in half right down the middle.
Cousland spun around with Vigilance low, its blade deflecting two daggers aimed for his legs. Just as he knew, a genlock had attempted to strike him in stealth.
He didn’t move Vigilance away for an attack of his own. Rather, he pivoted on one leg and lifted the one brought forward for his earlier slash on the hurlock. With it already reared back, he swung his foot forward and kicked the genlock squarely in the face. His volcanic aurum boot cracked open the darkspawn’s skull on impact.
It wasn’t particularly hard to do. He had done it to a dwarf before, after all.
Two-Hundred Eighty-Three…Two-Hundred Eighty-Two…Two-Hundred Eighty-One…
Turning back towards the Darkspawn charging, he noticed their center starting to rethicken. Five hurlocks were charging. Three to his left, two to his right. And in a gap visible between the hurlocks, three genlocks had drawn back their bows, all aiming at the most obvious target.
For the first time in the battle, Cousland retreated on a backpedal, keeping his eyes and anterior facing forward as he did. He had not been wounded thus far, but not even Andraste could hope for a miracle of surviving eight strikes at once.
The darkspawn, however, were not ‘at once.’
The hurlocks to the right were a second behind the ones to the left, and one of the two on the left was staggered a split-second behind the other. And the genlock archers, their bows already aimed the moment he saw them, would have their arrows reach him before either of the groups of hurlocks.
It was not a terrible attempt at simultaneity, as it surely would’ve felled anyone else in the Fereldan Army.
But in those brief windows of non-synchronization, their three attempts at checkmate had left him with three openings, each multiplying the false confidence the blighted enemies had.
He was quick enough. He was more than strong enough. All he had to do was consciously line up the pieces in his mind beforehand.
Aedan switched sword hands, deftly tossing the hilt from his right hand and catching it in his offhand. He may have been stronger and more practiced in his right, but being left-handed it was simple instinct to repeat techniques learned by muscle memory in the right.
Then, he brought the Vigilance in front of his face and rotated the hilt in his left hand so the width of the blade would block for him.
The genlocks’ arrows were loosed, all of them aiming for Aedan Cousland and all of them hitting their mark.
And all of them were harmless, one striking Vigilance and disintegrating against the night-colored flames, the other two striking his black-and-red Warden Sentinel armor and bouncing off. Against heavy-plated volcanic aurum, there were no unenchanted arrows in the world that wouldn’t simply blunt and break at impact.
The archers’ attack, however, was not inconsequential. Being forced to bring Vigilance up to protect his vulnerable neck and face, Cousland had in turn blocked in his own line of sight, blinding him to the movements of the charging hurlocks and leaving him without the time to both pull his blade away and reorientate himself before the first strike.
But he didn’t need to. Just as he could see the armies and surroundings of Ostagar with his eyes closed, just as he could see the stones launched by the trebuchets without looking up, he could see the hurlocks fast approaching.
They had an anatomy. They had legs. They had a reach. And they had a velocity.
Aedan Cousland was not a mage. Beyond his sword and armor, he did not possess anything supernatural.
But a darkspawn’s speed could be seen. A darkspawn’s distance could be assigned a number. A number that could be divided by speed to find the time.
All an elementary concept on paper. Could it be done instantaneously?
If Aedan’s eyes made that observation, his mind would make the calculation. It was automatic to such an extent that it was involuntary.
And with the knowledge that the brief glimpse of hurlocks had provided him before he brought Vigilance up in front of his eyes, he shot out his free right hand as he began to pull Vigilance back.
That hand seized the wrist of a hurlock’s sword arm. Perfect timing—precision that could not be taught, only learned.
Although a gripped hurlock’s strength was not a match for Fereldan’s strongest swordsman, Aedan did not have time to crush the fragile bones connecting its hand to its arm or completely reverse its direction and throw it back.
So instead he used its own momentum and directed its charge to right behind him, pulling with less than ten degrees of flexion from his shoulder and throwing it off balance. The first hurlock did not die, but fell flat to the ground directly behind Aedan.
The second hurlock on the right—its charge now less than an arm’s length away—was, by mixed fortune, not wielding a weapon of steel. It was charging at Aedan with its mouth open in all of its ferality, aiming to bite at his neck.
A glancing blow wouldn’t be a problem at all, and he could likely survive a stab if he kept it away from his center. He could not survive a potential puncturing of his carotid artery or the ripping open of the pathway to his lungs.
So instead of an attack, he defended.
Using the time and distance he saved from not overcommitting to his earlier throw, he shot his hand up—not in a straight line at the darkspawn to repel it, but instead at the spot on his throat where he saw its eyes fixed.
He flattened his fingers so his hand would fit.
The second hurlock bit down, entrapping Cousland’s gauntlet and hand in its empty mouth. Its rotted teeth harmlessly bit down against the hardest armor in the world.
The feeling of darkspawn’s breath seeping through his gauntlet was peculiar. Even on the inside, Darkspawn did not seem to emit a great deal of heat or moisture.
Cousland curled his fingers behind the lower teeth of the biting darkspawn, keeping its mouth lodged and grappled, locking the second hurlock in place.
His eyes snapped toward his left. The next three were all shoulder-to-shoulder, and would all strike at the exact same moment. No parry, blocking, or dodge with grounded legs could defend from it.
Aedan took another step back, although this time with aim in his foot. Judging by prior sound, he aimed his step right atop the back of the grounded hurlock’s throat. It screeched, writhed, and flailed its limbs once Cousland began digging his boot down, suffocating it while he created distance from the last three and reared back Vigilance further. Even if Darkspawn did not need to eat, they still needed air.
Now, only what was straight ahead was left. And their distance from The Warden was the exactly the same as the length of his sword.
With the strength of five men in his left arm, he swung Vigilance horizontally—cutting straight through each of the three hurlocks’ spines and stomachs.
With the strength of ten in his right, he yanked against the mandible of the darkspawn desperately trying to escape his grasp—and ripped the jaw from its sockets.
His hilt didn’t kick back into his palm or hit a stop he couldn’t cut. To Cousland, bones were as bamboo, and entrails as jelly. Teeth cracked like peanuts, souls left bodies like chopped trees left stumps.
…Two-Hundred Seventy--Four……Two-Hundred Seventy-Three……Two-Hundred Seventy-Two…
He twisted the foot that he planted atop the first hurlock’s throat. It found the delicate vertebrae of the cervical spine protecting the brain stem—and broke them with a satisfying crunch.
There were still three genlock archers left standing, their bows once again pulled and loaded. But Cousland did not need to charge or attack them outright. With four more steps back, he rejoined the shield-and-sword infantry that he had stood with earlier.
“…” The genlocks looked at each other and, with a silent hive-like agreement, all dropped their bows and fled to the sides.
“They’re…retreating?” An infantrywoman asked. It was a most unusual sight.
Cousland’s eyes stared straight past the point where the genlocks stood, not answering.
…Two-Hundred Forty-Six……Two-Hundred Forty-Five…Two-Hundred Forty-Four…
Darkspawn do not become afraid of humans during a Blight, no matter how violent or brutal that human may be. They do not fear elves, dwarves, or qunari either.
But they do know how to preserve their beings. Especially from their own.
Just as the genlocks had parted, so did the rest of the Darkspawn’s center. The melee continued to both the left and the right.
And from the black mist swallowing the edge of the battlefield, a foot emerged, stomping the ground with an echoing thump.
“What’s happening? An Archdemon?”
“No.” Cousland answered the voice to his side. Even though Darkspawn couldn’t be individually sensed by Grey Wardens in the middle of a horde and vice versa, darkly magnificent beings like Archdemons, corrupted High Dragons, blighted Giants, and Generals of the Horde could.
And what Cousland—all of the Grey Wardens sensed—was of the end most of those categories.
Just as Ferelden had both Loghain Mac Tir and Aedan Cousland, this Horde had both a Hurlock General and whatever dwelled beyond that colorless horizon.
A silhouette of black, ten meters high, came into view at the other end of the field. It walked on two feet. It had two arms and hands. But four horns, two that came back behind its head and curved above, two that came back behind its head and curved to the side.
“For all that is holy…Sir…what is…that?”
At another step, its colors turned from black to purple and grey.
If ogres were the corrupted descendants of the Qunari, then it was only fitting to call what they saw emerging as the Blight’s concept of an Arishok. It was twice or more the size of a normal ogre, covered shoulder-to-toe in armor.
“It’s an Omega Ogre.” Aedan answered. He had read of them before, but it was his first time seeing one himself. Qunari-derived broodmothers were rare and hidden deep inside the world’s crust. As a consequence there were far fewer ogres than any other type of bred darkspawn, and it stood to reason that mutations would be extremely uncommon to non-existent for such a small population.
However, if one were to journey to the very bottom of the Deep Roads, at the cracks on the floor of the trenches beneath the trenches, it was likely they would see a great deal many unknowns and monstrosities outside of imagination.
This creature was one such denizen of that world at the floor of the world.
The Ogre General roared, perhaps in some tongue only darkspawn could comprehend, perhaps in a mere bestial yell that a creature of violence is a slave to making.
It didn’t really matter either way. For whatever reason, the darkspawn knew to stay away. That thing would trample them as easily as it would trample across any fortification or spear infantry.
If that thing were to reach the Thedosian front line, it would either smash past their defenses or force a retreat, opening a breach for the rest of the darkspawn to pierce.
To stop that from happening, the commander of the Fereldans’ front line needed to make some space.
“Break from me and fall back behind the line of the spear wall.” Aedan spoke plainly.
It was so strange. At the visage of one tall, wry, and terrifying in the fray of a warzone; anyone could have expected his orders to be a bloodthirsty bark, cry, or yell.
“And you, crying one.” He beckoned without any gesture. “Give me your shield. I have need of it.”
It was a voice, calmer than any had ever heard of this persistently violent man. A voice that did not need to rise or be repeated. It cut through the deafening volume of The Blight and ingrained itself in the brain.
“Now.” He spoke calmly again, without looking back, with one arm and hand held out to his side. A veridium shield made its way to his palm.
They did not wait any longer to heed his command.
And as soon as they did, Aedan took a step forward.
“Milord—!” The once-tearful soldier from earlier vocalized the anxiety that had shot through everyone who had seen him take the first step. Even though Cousland was loved by none, and would be missed be none, the concept of facing that mass of death alone was incomprehensible. It was a horror tale belonging to the realm of nightmares.
“In the name of Andraste, what are you doing?!” He shouted, his earlier inner conflict gone.
“Hm.” Cousland took another step forward. “I believe it wants to fight me alone so that it can slay me and mangle my body in front of you, to inflict trepidation on your spirits.” He closed his eyes, imagining it. “So I am going to cut its head open and look inside to see if there exists a thought that makes sense.”
And as if Cousland had been heard from far away, the largest ogre to ever meet the surface of Thedas began to charge at the finish of the Teyrn’s words.
Aedan kept his pace and walked forward. It would be a prolonged fight, and a charge down the field with a hundred pounds of armor would be a waste of energy. He already knew where he was going to fight—at a spot twenty-eight meters away from the bridge, and half a meter off center from its midpoint. Right where three of the trebuchets had impacted earlier.
…One-Hundred Seventy-Five…One-Hundred Seventy-Four…One-Hundred Seventy-Three…
The Ogre kept charging, its incomprehensible yell a thunder that could felt as well as heard. Just like the hurlock general before him, it was taunted into a single target, filled with fury.
Cousland kept his head up and his eyes forward.
The Teyrn of Highever—The Butcher of Amaranthine—wasn't angry at all. Small details like using feet and inches instead of meters and centimeters angered him. Hawke’s taunting ‘did-nothing-wrong’ voice and defiance infuriated him. Cowardice in the face of battles that must be fought and Hypocrisy from those who pretended to be good and brave rendered his temper asunder. But a challenging enemy did not prompt him to become a mirror and reflect back its rage.
Bloodshed, the threat of death, the smell of death, the sights and sounds of souls leaving Thedas. To him they were all the comforts of the mother’s womb.
He came to a stop just shy of where he planned to fight. Darkspawn thick enough to trample every inch of vegetation surrounded him to his left and right, but he did not need to worry. They were being commanded to stand aside and wait for the victor.
Aedan began to undo his armor’s straps and fittings. Not enough to completely remove any piece, but enough to loosen them.
The ogre’s charge had come close enough for the ground to quake at each of its steps, its visage close enough for Aedan to see that he was just shy of being at eye level with the bottom of its knees.
…One-Hundred Thirty-Eight…One-Hundred Thirty-Seven…One-Hundred Thirty-Six…
The ogre’s left elbow was reeling back. Aedan bent his knees.
At the end of its running charge, it swung against him with a hook.
A dodge to the left would have meant his death, a roll to the right or backwards would put him out of position and potentially put himself in harm’s way via a slight adjustment or continued charge on the darkspawn’s part.
So instead Cousland rolled forward, in between the ogre’s legs.
The ground reverberated at the ogre’s punch. It did not hit its target, yet from where it impacted dirt had kicked up and earth parted way. It was enough to knock the lesser darkspawn surrounding off their balance and feet.
However, it did not knock down the one closest. Aedan felt an earthquake pass from the ground through his feet and then his whole self. It rocked his bones and tossed his circulating blood backwards against the flow, incurring a dizziness akin to the feeling from hanging upside down and letting the blood rush to the head.
And it all felt just pleasant to him.
As if the shockwave were a mere catalyst in his favor, he drove his legs down as hard as he could into the ground. They stabilized, and pushed his self off of the ground and up into a jump near the back of the ogre’s legs.
He swung, and cut the ogre’s hamstring.
“…” Cousland landed and looked at the shallow cut that his attack had made. The ogre’s armor was multiple inches thick, less a uniform set but more like multiple layers of platemail armor being crudely welded onto eachother. Furthermore, it did not expose any skin as typical ogre armor did either, more a superimposition of heavy armor that humans or qunari wore.
He had cut through all layers of steel, but the damage to the flesh was only skin-deep and unnoteworthy. He had suspected as much, but he would require a victory either by a thousand cuts or an impossibly vital blow.
The Ogre made a roar not of pain, but of fury. It shook the sky just as its fist had shook the ground.
The Warden jumped, this time not up, but back.
Another fist swung at the spot where Cousland was. It dug itself into the ground, and came up along with a mass of soil. The dirt flew at Aedan like heavy rain in a storm.
“Kch—!” Cousland covered his eyes with his arm to stop himself from being blinded, and kicked himself off the ground and back once again. Another fist landed in front of him, right where he was standing a moment ago.
He didn’t have the stamina nor time to keep moving in heavy armor and make small cuts. And dodging in long jumps and strides like this risked moving him from where he had designated in his mind for the ogre to die.
He needed something decisive. He couldn’t win with sheer power like he could against humans and ordinary beings, so it would all come down to how well he could exploit the Ogre General’s weaknesses.
He could see two so far.
That massive size and weight of an ogre carried a drawback. It was too top heavy and imbalanced. In each failed strike at The Warden, it had to ground its legs in order to stop itself from tumbling over at its own weight. And it had to draw back its arms fully before striking again, in order to keep its balance.
The second was the dirt that the omega ogre kicked up when it struck the ground. It was blinding, but he could use that to his advantage.
And with that in mind, Cousland sprinted with all the speed he could muster, drawing an arc at the edge of the ogre’s range.
The ogre swung again, and missed again. However, the spacing and angle Cousland had gained with short-burst speed had forced it to throw another low hook horizontal to him, something that Aedan could dodge with a simple 45° step to his right.
He dodged without issue, and then jumped right back in, closing the distance between them.
Going near an ogre’s legs was normally suicide. Kicks had a shorter kinetic chain than long winded punches, and stomps could crush with the leverage of its full weight. But the ogre was in the middle of one of its attacks, and as tall as it was, leaning over to try and hit something with its full reach had brought its chest down just close enough for the tip of Vigilance to reach.
Aedan reached up with his arms fully extended above and slashed as high as he could. He could not even cut the skin with the difference of height of the ogre and himself, even with the omega ogre leaned into its strike. However, he was able to pierce the chestplate covering the skin over its beating heart. A weak point.
And when the ogre had finished its swing, Aedan had ran right between its legs again, forcing it to turn around and find him again.
And when it did, it saw Aedan not a full punch’s distance away, but instead right at its toes, standing with his sword arm reeled back as if he were about to throw a javelin.
There was another weakpoint the ogre had all along.
Aedan threw Vigilance as hard as he could. Its ocean-colored flames evaporated the moment it left his touch.
The omega ogre howled when it felt the blade pierce and pass through one of its eyes.
“…” Cousland took a step back.
“Haah…haah…” And started to greedily suck in air as if he had been holding his breath the entire time.
His breath had been shallow up until this point, but it was not easy for him to move as quickly as he needed to with the warden sentinel armor still equipped.
He looked up at his handiwork. Vigilance was inside all the way up to its hilt, the blade embedded past the skull.
That move would have instantly killed any normal ogre via inducing circulatory shock…
…It would have…
The Omega Ogre clinched its fists and roared at the sky with a fury as if its strength had been doubled, Vigilance still sticking out of its eye.
Omega ogres were larger than normal ones, more than twice the size. Naturally, that included their heads.
And when Cousland had thrown Vigilance in what would have been a sure death blow, he had pierced the eyes, past the skull, and failed to hit the brain. A human’s weapon simply wasn’t long enough, and an ogre’s survivability against normally fatal blows was second to none.
The Omega Ogre still had one eye left. One eye focused on Cousland, winded with his internals set on fire.
Aedan Cousland was too close at this point to roll away or dodge. He did not have a weapon or any other means of offense left in his hands.
All he could do at this point was reach for the shield on his back, and stand his ground.
The Darkspawn General ten meters high brought its fist up, and smashed directly down on a stationery target.
Could any man match an ogre in pure physical strength? Of course not.
But with his arms straining against the shield, every muscle in his body firing straight up, he could try.
The Great Ogre’s fist made contact with Aedan’s shield—
Aedan’s sight went black and white.
His hearing stopped. Time stopped.
His senses of smell and feeling stopped. The crushing force that threatened to kill him didn’t feel like anything at all. All he could feel was the beat of his heart, the fullness of his lungs, the electricity of his brain.
Perception of everything shut down. Everything that wasn’t focused on saving his life.
He felt like he was the storm’s eye, surrounded by wind in every direction mighty enough to blur the world. If he moved even the slightest bit, he would surely get swept away in that unrecognizable mess.
The numb touch of Death was in every breath. Every tickle of the skin, every pump of blood. Its suffocation did not allow even the freedom of pain.
The ground beneath him cracked. Even if he could match the impossible task of defense, he’d just get swallowed by whatever crater that was being formed.
The shield above him began to crack as well.
He couldn’t hold back the immense force any longer. Any longer and he would crack open as well.
He let go of the shield—
—And reached his hand around his back, undoing the last strap of his armor—
The ogre’s fist hit the ground, pushing past the resistance that was in its way.
And explosion of dust and dirt shot up from the ground below. A crater formed as if the world had been struck from something beyond the stars.
A great thunder boomed from the spot where Aedan stood, as if lightning had struck him down as punishment for being the unholy monster he were.
The hand of the Omega Ogre quaked the ground stronger than it ever had before. All throughout Ostagar; a travelling echo was heard of the sheer, immense, unmatchable strength of the greatest Ogre to ever emerge from the Deep Roads.
It lifted its arms up above its head in triumph, and gave a roar to both the armies of the blighted and the non.
The head of the snake is gone, it said.
I cut it off, it said.
The Omega Ogre looked down at its victory.
There was no human shape left.
Instead there was black-and-red Warden Sentinel armor; cuirass, gauntlets, boots, and all.
But, there was no blood either.
No crumbled bone or gore dashed on the spot.
“…?” The Omega Ogre stopped and made a noise of inquisition. Even to its enslaved mind, it knew that this was not normal.
And…the dust was settling. The cloud of earth that blinded had fallen back to the earth where it belonged.
And there was a figure standing at the other end of that cloud dissipating.
A figure dressed in black noble clothes with a blue cloak over one shoulder, and a coat of arms with a green laurel wreath outlined in white, against the backdrop of a blue escutcheon. A villain riddled with scars and misplaced ultramarine eyes—
"So…you won't die if I kill you…?" Aedan Cousland said, calm as an ocean dead at dusk.
—And the dragonbone jambiya in one hand, given to him by someone more dangerous than whatever he was facing now.
The Omega Ogre exhaled through its nose, and menaced as powerfully as it could.
"…Then I'll just have to keep killing you until you die."
And at those words, Cousland leaped forward as if his earlier exhaustion were all a lie.
The Omega Ogre roared, and brought two hands cupped together down, striking with all of its force.
But it was all meaningless.
No longer encumbered by armor heavier than normal beings could wear, Aedan exerted himself as much as before and gained twice the speed. He had abandoned all means of defense for the means of killing the enemy.
He leaped, not stepped, away from where the Ogre’s attack landed—and immediately leaped on top of both of its hands.
Distance was not an issue any more.
The great Ogre wasted its time making noise once again and attempted to grab the intruder on its body. It was useless. It was like trying to catch smoke.
Aedan did not run. He leapt.
Right onto its arm. And then right in the air, heading straight for the ogre’s chest.
He drove Hawke's jambiya directly into the crack in its armor he had made earlier, right at the skin over the heart.
It barely pierced the ogre's thick skin, let alone do any damage to its beating core. But by hooking the curved blade firmly between its ribs, he had given something for himself to climb from.
He pulled against the hilt with all of his might, and threw himself up towards the ogre’s head off the strength of his arms.
He was right in front of its mouth. Now all the ogre had to do was bite, and whatever was inside its mouth would be lost.
But the ogre could not be nearly quick enough. Because right within Cousland’s reach—
—Was Vigilance’s hilt, still sticking out from one of the Darkspawn General’s eye sockets.
A sword’s runes perfected for only one set of hands does not respond without its master’s touch.
When he grabbed the hilt of Vigilance, and its imbued runes recognized the return of its spirit, the blade burned once again with the color of his soul.
Right while being stuck in an ogre’s skull, inches away from the brain.
The Omega Ogre, General of the Horde, made a roar that was a scream. There was no vocalization that it could make for the most sensitive organ in the body being undone directly, the pain that beget the pain of being unable express its extent, even in its loudest, most primal roar.
Cousland didn’t need to move his arms. The thrashing and writhing of his prey simply widened the hole in its skull and sunk his sword further in.
And as if he had fingertips at the edge of that burning blade, Aedan could tell when Vigilance’s tip had touched the soft, squishy organ beyond.
The ogre quit struggling with any semblance of coordination. Instead, it collapsed into a death-heralding seizure. Its involuntary movements made one futile, last attempt at life. And then as its brain turned from solid to liquid, they slowed down to nothing.
It may have been an ogre, but it looked just like what had happened on the night Carver died.
The strongest ogre’s body hit the ground, quaking the world just like one of its attacks.
Cousland wasn’t sure if ogres had a second brain or not, so he gripped Vigilance’s hilt as hard as he could and dragged it against the bone both left and right, cutting the ogre’s head in half.
He didn’t see anything special inside.
Aedan pushed himself up off the corpse, clutching at his side.
He grasped at his ribs, unable to stand up straight. He couldn’t feel if he had broken something, but his failed block had drained him of most of his killing power.
He didn't simply disappear when he had let go of the shield earlier. The armor had absorbed enough of the blow that he was able to live, and it was loose enough for him to slip out before his enemy could see through the mess.
No man or muscle can push back an ogre's might.
But with enough strength to slow it down, they might just survive.
And if they survived, it was just a matter of knowing how to get back up after getting knocked down.
“So, that was your first time losing, huh…?”
Aedan spoke to the corpse of the ogre, to the liquefied puddle of pink spilling out of an open head. His voice was inarticulate, uncertain. As if all the arrogance and all-knowingness were a mask dropped at his feet.
He closed his eyes, a fist against his hip as he started to regain some of his composure. “I guess you never believed you could lose, then?”
Creatures that never lost before never believed that they could lose. The Omega Ogre had doubtlessly killed countless other darkspawn starting from the day it was spawned. It had bullied every victim and crushed every challenger with its size, stood atop above the other roaming packs alphas and chieftains. Unnature had granted it the ultimate privilege. It would have tried to kill the Archdemon if it did not love it.
“…Go to wherever monsters go when they die, monster. And if you see Arl Howe, tell him to enjoy the time he has left there. Because I’m going to kill him for a second time too when I arrive.”
Nothing is forever undefeated. Absolutely everyone must suffer a defeat and humiliation. Even if it meant once and never again. All muscle is eventually felled by worms or flies. All magic is eventually reclaimed by the Fade.
Absolutely everyone must die at some point.
Aedan looked up at his surroundings. The long path the darkspawn had made for their fiercest was cut off. He was encircled by hurlocks and genlocks, all yellow eyes facing him.
He couldn’t lift his arms above his head right now. He was spent in his entirety.
The Darkspawn readied to charge him from all angles, no longer restricted by the order to not inhibit or get in the way of the Omega Ogre’s fight.
Aedan closed his eyes and threw his head back. He wasn’t worried.
Because it was now ‘time’.
Three boulder-sized stones impacted the ground around them.
But they were different from the last ones—
—They each had a fire glyph cast on them, by a mage called Kaaras Adaar.
An explosion like the sun surrounded Aedan. It was good for him to have his eyes closed. He would go blind elsewise.
All darkspawn surrounding the Ogre’s body—the body that fell exactly where Aedan wanted it to—lit up like insects under the open flame.
Using their bodies as kindling, the magic spread the wildfire further among the surrounding darkspawn, engulfing everything around Aedan Cousland in a ring of fire. There we probably some death screeches among the lesser darkspawn, but it was hard to hear when surrounded by fire and war.
Three-Hundred and Eight seconds. That’s how long it took for a Highever Trebuchet to be reloaded, fired, and to hit their targets at a distance of 170.6 meters out from the walls of Ostagar—at a spot twenty-eight meters away from the bridge, and half a meter off center from its midpoint.
He knew. He had tested them himself.
Cousland limped over to where he was supposed to die, and spent his time very meticulously putting all of his armor back on.
When he was finished and rested, he walked to the edge of the flames.
He stepped through the fire unaffected, as if immune to it. The sight of ten-thousand Darkspawn greeted him on the other side.
Covered in blood and silhouetted against flame, he felt the heat of life ebbing in his heart. The heralding of an ancestral age more violent than what children could fathom, a reaffirmation of a belief long held:
That this was what man was meant to be.
He threw his arms wide, embracing the onslaught of the Darkspawn horde.
“Come, Black City! Let us see if your color is dark enough to eclipse me!”
Prologue, Part Six
The Second Battle of Ostagar II
Alistair’s skin was colored crimson at the distant glow of an explosion. It seemed the battle on the main front was well underway.
“Hey. You sense that?” An elven warden missing a ring finger put his hand on Alistair’s shoulder. If Alistair’s memory served him correctly, his name should be Cydor.
Alistair concentrated. It was hard with so many darkspawn at the front line, but he could estimate a general mass charging straight up towards the hill they were on top of. “I can. About two-hundred of them, right?”
“There will be more after. At least another three-hundred once the melee under the bridge normalizes. Most of them will attack our left side and then work their way here.”
The Tower of Ishal sat upon elevated geography, surrounded by a wall and gate of Tevinter construction. Away from that wall the terrain sloped downward, the hillside blanketed in vegetation and punctuated by old trees.
Outside the wall, there were three long lines of light infantry stretched out defending the way to the bridge and the Tower of Ishal. A small contingent of Hawke’s and Dalish archers were in the tower’s surrounding battlements, sharpshooting between the trees and occasionally hitting a blighted enemy.
Alistair was standing in the second of the three lines, on the far right end of this formation. The right end was by a considerable margin more defensible than the left, being closest to the supporting archers and higher up the hill.
He stood with a group of six other grey wardens, each he thought looked more experienced and stronger than he was.
Three of them, wearing the heavy grey warden armor with the griffon motif helmets—two humans and one dwarf—took to the front with their shields and a combination of axes and swords.
Alistair stood behind them, flanked by two archers—one human, one elf. Their mage, the elf Cydor, stood behind all six, ready to cast healing spells for support or inflict splash damage in case he was needed for crowd control.
“Warden Alistair, any orders?” Cydor asked.
“Orders? I’m giving orders? Who thought this was a good idea?”
“Warden-Commander Cousland did, remember?”
“And you actually believed him? Shame-on-you. That’s one of his jokes. His jokes are terrible, by the way.” Alistair said, a little taunting.
“Alright funnyman, it was a joke.” Cydor played along. “So what are we doing, really?”
“Well I…” Alistair looked back at the other wardens and trailed off, thinking. In the one-in-a-million chance that the Archdemon both showed up and attacked the ground near the tower, it was their responsibility to kill it. Going off of Aedan’s plan, there shouldn’t be any reason to move from their current spot.
“Let’s stay here, and defend against any stragglers that come our way.” Alistair said. “We don’t need to charge unless the Archdemon shows up, do we?”
Cydor removed his hand and folded his arms, displeased. They both knew it was Aedan’s orders being passed down through Alistair’s mouth, but it defied tradition.
“We’re Grey Wardens, and we’re not going to win any friends in Ferelden by letting other people die for us. I don’t like it.”
“I know.” Alistair agreed, softly. “I don’t either.”
Hawke’s fingers fidgeted.
At the top of the Tower of Ishal; there wasn’t anyone to talk to, and there wasn’t anything to do except watch for the Archdemon and light the tower if need be. Sitting on her hands and waiting was something out of her element.
She leaned her head back against the stone. She had slipped past one of the broken stained glass windows on the top floor and onto the ledge outside. It wasn’t the safest thing in the world, but the need to balance herself and the small bit of danger helped keep her from pacing or taking her eyes off the sky.
“How do wardens do this? Standing still and looking grim all the time? The whole ‘In Peace, Vigilance’ thing…he even named his sword Vigilance. Is that the closest thing he has to a hobby or something?”
No one else was there.
“And now I’m talking to myself like some kind of crazy. Probably not a good sign.” She sighed.
She felt off-tune, and she knew exactly why. For one, there was a huge battle taking place outside that meant life or death for Ferelden, and she was barely a tangible part of it. During the War Council, she had agreed to act as the sentry for the tower. And logically it made the most sense to put someone here that the darkspawn couldn’t detect, and who would be experienced enough to not panic in the sight of the Archdemon. Not to mention it was also far safer than whatever grandiose murdershow that Cousland was putting on right now.
But in spite of that, she still would rather be down there, in the thick of it. Down there were just darkspawn. Up here she was stuck with her thoughts about her brother. Her classic therapy of sneaking around and stabbing the bad guys would work wonders right now.
Marian should have had ample time to mourn in between now and her brother’s death nearly a week past. She should be over it by now, she thought.
And by that same logic, she should also be over her father’s death from four years ago. She wasn’t. Every happy memory she had of him was punctuated by the reality that she would never be able to make another. It never got any easier, she just got more used to it.
“Hey, can you hear me, wherever you are? I’m not too picky about this sort of stuff, you know.” Hawke’s eyes stayed fixed forward as she tried to hold a conversation with no one else.
“I’m talking to you Dad. You know, like I used to do all the time.”
When Malcolm Hawke passed, his oldest daughter would often find excuses to visit where she scattered his ashes and have long one-sided conversations, pretending her father could still hear her. She didn’t know if he really could or not, but it was better than crying in her pillow like her sister did or trying to keep it all inside and look strong like her mother.
“…Sorry I haven’t talked to you in a while. I got pulled into that war I was talking about last year.”
“Don’t worry about mom and Bethany though...I’ve been sending most of my stipend to Lothering every month. I mail it to old lady Mirriam first, she opens it up and drops everything off at our house during night. Mom’s been writing me back saying the templars haven’t noticed and that she’s been getting every last copper. She doesn’t like to talk about it, but she still misses you too.”
“…” She waited.
“And I'm always doing a good job, too. I saved a couple people during first battle we had and they promoted me right away. The Queen even had a little ceremony and said I was a hero. Didn’t think I was going to be any good at this whole soldier thing, but it looks like there’s a place for mischievous little rule breakers here, too.”
“But I’m not going to stay on after The Blight’s over. It’d draw too much attention to our family. Just one more fight and I’ll be on the first horse back. Promise.”
“…” She waited. And waited.
The sky was clear, not an Archdemon yet in sight.
She almost wanted it to show up at this point so she could stop herself from talking.
“…I’m sorry about Carver, dad…he’s not coming back with me.”
“I tried to make sure he grew up to be a good man, but you know how he is. Loves to run off and do whatever he wants when he’s told to stand in one place and wait. Just like me, I guess…just like you, too.”
“Hey…it’s alright now, isn’t it? Bethany’s almost as old as I was when you–…I don’t have to just stand there and look tough when I tell her about Carver, do I…? I can, you know…”
A sole tear traveled down from the corner of one of her eyes to the side of her nose. She wiped it away with the back of her hand.
“Sorry…I know you always told me to be strong and be the best at whatever I wanted to be, but I’m not good at being a dad…pretty nasty of you to leave that one to me before you went off and died. You’re so selfish, you’re so selfish…”
Hawke closed her eyes and rubbed her head back against the Tower of Ishal, taking in the cold drift of the altitude. She took a deep breath, and exhaled through her next words.
“Ahhhhh, dammit, why do men have to run off and get themselves killed trying to look heroic? It doesn’t look that cool…seriously.” She opened her eyes and looked down. “I don’t want a hero…and I don’t want to be a hero…I want my little brother…”
She took another deep breath. It was painful, but it was a little better now that she got it out.
A droplet of water fell on her scalp, instinctively causing her to look back up and come back to her senses.
The black clouds of the Blight had rolled through over the Tower of Ishal and Ostagar. A light rain, the kind that only became evident when one looked down and noticed sporadic spots on the ground, was falling from the sky. As if there were more clouds above the lower lying black ones, trying to keep life alive through the black sheet.
She could’ve swore there weren’t any clouds at all a second ago.
The first of the darkspawn to charge Alistair’s detachment of wardens was killed almost instantly.
More were beginning to charge up in the freshly-slain darkspawn’s place. Alistair steeled himself as best he could and thought of what he needed to do.
He wasn’t strong and brilliant like Cousland. He wasn’t quick and cunning like Hawke. And he couldn’t cast magic like Adaar.
In fact, if he were to rate the three; he’d place Cousland first, Hawke second, Adaar at a distant third, and himself a few levels below Adaar.
There was, however, one thing he had that neither those three nor the six he was with right now did: He was a Templar. Ex-Templar Grey Warden to be specific. A fairly rare combination if he did say so himself.
Any templar, no matter how long it had been since they last drank lyrium, could at the very least stop a mage’s mana flow if they grabbed both of their hands, be slightly more resistant to offensive spells, or drain a mage's mana and interrupt spells on physical contact.
Alistair wasn’t quite at that point of pitifulness yet, but he had noticed his skills degrade over time. He couldn’t cast Holy Smite anymore. Wrath of Heaven, well, he was never able to cast one of those. He could still drain mana on each strike of his sword, and he could still use Cleanse Area to remove some spells’ effects.
He’d just get in the way if he was up front, so he resolved himself to support for now instead.
A small wave of hurlocks and genlocks were charging up the hill. Most would hit the infantry to their left, but at least five would make their way directly to The Wardens.
“Cydor,” Alistair spoke to their group’s mage. “Have anything that can slow them down?”
“I can try.” He replied. “I won’t be able to hit all of them though.”
“That’s fine. Just pick either their left or right side and try to hit as many as you can.”
“I’ll pick their left side. Everyone make sure to duck when I say so.” Cydor lifted both of his arms up and spun his hands in the air. A white concentration of mana started to glow around his hands, much like the illumination around a lamp.
“Down!” The elven mage shouted. Alistair and the rest of the wardens dropped below waist level.
The one called Cydor pulled his hands and spell down in front of his face. He aimed, and shot it forward in an ice-colored blast. Two genlocks froze at the legs in the middle of their charge, leaving two more genlocks and one hurlock to deal with.
The three shield-bearing wardens stood up with their griffon emblazoned shields forward. One of the archers managed to thread an arrow between them and hit a genlock straight in the forehead. A masterful shot.
“Nice!” One of the archers complimented the other, as if they were making it into a game.
The unfrozen genlock and hurlock both quickly fell. The genlock was outranged by the length of one of the human warden’s longswords, and was subsequently stabbed in the throat. The hurlock attacked high and forced the other human warden at the front to block, but at the cost of opening up its flank and allowing the dwarven warden to swing an axe and chop off its leg, causing it to trip over and fall on its amputated side. The blocking warden drove his sword down on its chest in follow-up.
The two partially-frozen genlocks both found arrows in their heads before the spell could end.
“Too easy.” One of the wardens to Alistair’s side remarked. It was most certainly overkill at the moment.
There were no more darkspawn directly charging them, so the ranged units in the warden detachment started shooting at far away targets, while the melee kept their guard up for potential rogue attacks.
“Alistair.” The elf archer that shot through the shield earlier spoke while pulling back his bow and loosing another arrow.
“Mmm? Yes, this is Alistair.” He grinned.
“Could you check behind us right now and take a look at the Tower of Ishal? We’re a bit busy over here.”
“You mean I can’t just stand around with my mouth open and look blankly ahead? Alright—”
Alistair turned around and looked at the top of the Tower of Ishal. The beacon wasn’t lit.
“It’s normal. No Archdemon.” Alistair answered.
“Figures.” One of the human Wardens remarked. “I keep having my dreams of it flying over the ocean. Wouldn’t make any sense for it to be here.”
“Eh…? I keep dreaming that it’s inside a giant crater, bunch of darkspawn and red mist around it.” Another said.
“Funny place that,” Alistair spoke up. “Would not recommend. Last time we were there the Archdemon was really grumpy about it…um…for no particular reason.”
It was a rather peculiar situation. Personally, Alistair always dreamt of the Archdemon being above The Wilds or further south where the ground froze over.
And it was the same story throughout the camp’s wardens. The Archdemon was always in one of those three places.
“You think maybe it likes traveling around?” Alistair asked. “Ocean-Crater-Forest. Hm. Seems like that’d get pretty dull after a long while. Maybe that’s why they wanted to invade? Wanted to see the world, that sort of thing.”
“Yes, I am still Alistair.”
“Please shut up, Sir.”
Adaar stood on top of the bridge connecting the Fortress to the Tower, looking down on the main battle where Cousland was supposed to be.
Now that the gynours were into the rhythm of loading and firing the trebuchets, he had an additional job along with overseeing their work and placing fire glyphs on stones. In between the time it took for him to recharge mana, he needed to gauge how far forward the horde had pushed or had been pushed back. If they were pushed back then he’d need to order the artillery team to unload everything and readjust each of the trebuchets at least ten degrees to the right, in order to prevent friendly fire.
With the giant Ogre that appeared previously now dead, the battle had mostly broken down to a standard shoulder-to-shoulder melee along the front line. It did not seem to move beyond where it had started.
A couple archers spoke to each other within earshot of Kaaras. He didn’t interrupt.
“Hey…shouldn’t we be pushing them back by now? It’s been a while, and we’re winning…so…”
“They must be ignoring the flankguard at the Tower and going straight for our center.” The other archer replied. “Otherwise their numbers would have thinned out by now.”
“…” Adaar listened to the two. The archers had started off rather stoic in the moments leading up to the battle, but it seemed that fatigue and worry was starting show some of their colors.
A drop of water pelted the bridge.
“…Rain…?” Adaar thought. This was unexpected.
He felt another drop hit his forehead, confirming his suspicions.
“Gah, fuck. Annoying, stupid shit…” One of the archers whined. Adaar looked over and saw the flaming tip of one of the man’s arrows had gone out right before he was about to shoot.
“…” Kaaras Adaar walked over to the irritated archer, and held out his hand.
A small flame, especially in comparison to the size of the palm it was coming out of, was held up in front of the archer’s bow.
“Oh! Mighty handy trick there. Thanks!” The swearing archer smiled with an open mouth and relit his arrow, before pulling back and shooting it into the raging abyss below. He seemed happy.
His partner, however, glared at Adaar even at the sight of his help. It could’ve been because he was a Qunari. Or an apostate. Perhaps both.
It wasn’t something new to him. Plenty of people hated qunari, plenty of people hated mages. And when he was part of a Tal-Vashoth mercenary company, even the other qunari mages looked at him with suspicion thanks to his lack of horns.
“…” Adaar did not make eye contact or give any discomfort at the glaring man’s stare. He simply killed the spell, closed his hand, and walked away to do his job.
“Hey, hey! Isn’t this a bit more than a few hundred?”
The darkspawn were now pouring out of the trees and charging up the hills. There were enough of them at this point that the even grey wardens protecting the Tower of Ishal—at the most secure point of the flankguard—were starting to engage in regular combat.
“What in The Fade’s name are they doing in the Valley?! Didn’t the plan say we’d only deal with stragglers?!” One of the other wardens shouted before cutting down a charging hurlock and blocking a shriek.
“…Do you think they—” Alistair tried to get a word in, but was cut off when one of the wardens in front of him locked swords with a hurlock alpha. He didn’t have any time to be worried about Aedan right now.
Alistair brought his blade past their shoulders, and struck above where the blades had met. It wasn’t a lot, but combining his strength with the other warden’s enabled them to push it back.
The alpha hurlock was pushed back, and both archers shot arrows at its throat.
“-------------!” It screeched and charged again, unaffected. The Warden it was in a duel with brought his shield up instead this time, and blocked.
Leveraging his height once again, the dwarf chopped off its leg as it did to the other hurlock earlier.
However, the alpha hurlock did not fall so easily. It kept pushing from its sole remaining leg, forcing the human warden back and knocking him into one of the archers behind him.
“Yer a tough bastard, aren’t ya!” The Dwarven Warden roared. He chopped not only its right leg off, but then its left.
“------!” The alpha hurlock fell down, but then tried to bring its sword up and kill from atop its bloody stubs.
The warden swung again and brought his axe down, chopping off its head.
It rolled back down the hill, a trail of blood being painted behind it.
It was the last one in their vicinity, but a solid line of faraway corrupted flesh still marked his sight
“Phew…” Alistair rubbed his forehead once he saw they had a respite, wiping off a scattered sweat. He had gotten used to Aedan and other wardens doing sort of thing for him, but it seemed he still had his instincts.
“There’re no more…?” The human archer asked, at first unsure. “Oh thank the Maker...” he dropped the arm holding back his bowstring limply at his side. “I can’t feel my shoulder anymore, someone massage it…wait, no, then it’d hurt again.”
“Hey Alistair,” the other archer spoke. “My friendly rival over there’s taking your place as the funny one. Could you kindly hit him for me? Thanks.”
“I’m the funny one?” Alistair asked. Half the time he wasn’t on purpose, he just kind of nervously blurted out whatever was on his mind or tried to avoid serious moments by deflecting with humor.
“It’s not a bad thing. You’ll kill yourself with stress if you try to be serious all the time.” The archer continued, “Now, if the lighthearted moments are out of the way, let’s throw out some theories on why the darkspawn are able to divert such a large force towards us.”
“Any chance some of those darkspawn are coming from underground?” One of the front wardens asked. “As reinforcements.”
“Not likely.” Cydor responded from the back. Alistair might have ostensibly been in charge, but Cydor was the truest veteran of the bunch. “Unless our reports from Warden-Commander Cousland or Hawke from six days ago were false...Alistair?”
“We didn’t see it with our own eyes, but Aedan definitely seemed sure. And you know how fussy he gets…” Alistair tried to laugh, but it sounded forced. “Ahem…also I can’t speak for Hawke, but she’s always been the best scout we have. It would be a litttttle strange if she didn’t spot an Archdemon flying above the horde.”
“Hm.” Cydor shook his head, not rejecting the information but not able to equate everything. If neither Cousland nor Hawke had made any mistakes in their scouting efforts, then the darkspawn’s charge up the hill was definitely out of the ordinary.
The Darkspawn, although not mindless, were not genius tacticians or collective logisticians. A movement as complex as a massive amount of Darkspawn navigating and a tunneling through the surface—at exact same time the army above was attacking—would require an Archdemon underground in the Deep Roads.
And yet when Aedan and Alistair visited the crater in the Korcari Wilds where the darkspawn originally came from, they confirmed for themselves that The Archdemon was there. That meant it was not with the horde that had marched on Ostagar or with a secondary horde underground leading a surprise attack.
The reason why was simple. Darkspawn are naturally drawn to the active Archdemon’s calling and captivated by its interpreted beauty. The largest horde will always stay with The Archdemon. Since over ten-thousand darkspawn had marched on the surface and through the Korcari Wilds without the Archdemon flying overhead or at the helm—and then charged directly at the valley where Cousland was—they naturally could not be the Archdemon’s personal horde.
And it was even more unlikely for the Archdemon to have moved through the Deep Roads and organize a horde of darkspawn to wait underground for an above horde’s separate diversionary attack. It took a week just for ten-thousand darkspawn to march from the crater to Ostagar via the Wilds. The Deep Roads were narrower and not so conveniently extensive, even for the ones who ruled it. It would require organization, digging, and patience for a horde to marshal underground, get in place for an attack, and then be entirely patient while they waited for the other horde to attack. All of this required intelligence Darkspawn did not have, save the Archdemon. Therefore the Archdemon would have needed to be present and directing them in every step in this scenario. It was at the crater six days ago, and there simply wasn’t enough time for it to start and finish such a demanding plan in that timeframe.
Additionally, it wouldn’t make sense for there to be two such large and separate hordes at all in the case of an Archdemon’s intervention. The darkspawn’s instincts would cause them to surround the Archdemon would force them to merge into one giant horde with one direction of attack.
It didn’t add up.
Assuming Aedan and Alistair truly saw the Archdemon—and they did, and that Hawke and her scouts didn’t miscount the size of the horde—and she was the best, it would mean that the Archdemon was either in multiple places at the same time or that the darkspawn had somehow evolved beyond their normal methods of attack.
“I suppose,” Cydor spoke after reflecting, “that the most plausible explanation is that our main front is overrun, and these are excess Darkspawn from their initial charge there.”
“…That couldn’t happen…” Alistair spoke in disbelief. The main front’s defenses were prepared by both Cousland and Loghain, there were not any better tacticians in all of Ferelden, and it would be unthinkable for them simply die outright.
And besides, Aedan never loses.
Alistair shook his head, rejecting the most plausible theory.
“Then I suppose we’ll just have to see for ourselves. If we survive.” Cydor pointed at the bottom of the hill.
In spite of what should not be, a massive wave of darkspawn were charging.
“Shields Up, Hold Steady!” Alistair heard an officer’s voice shout to his left. It seems the line infantry on the flankguard had opted to not retreat.
“Alistair.” Cydor spoke to the warden in the center.
“…” Alistair looked straight ahead. He didn’t have a joke ready this time.
“If we stay and fight, we may die and leave this area without wardens in case of the Archdemon’s arrival.” Cydor said. “Should we hold with the regular forces or retreat for safety?”
Alistair looked around. The bulk of the flankguard’s forces had been thinned from taking the brunt of the earlier attacks, and they were not retreating. If the grey wardens did, they might leave a gap and allow a darkspawn encirclement.
Aedan hadn’t told him what to do in this scenario, but what he would want was obvious. He’d tell Alistair to run to safety, maybe with some explanation about how it was the greater good or because he was a king or something.
Alistair thought it over a little, and imagined what it would be like if someone died because of him. It didn’t comfort him at all.
“We’ll stay.” Alistair said. “It’s like you said, right? We’re Grey Wardens. We can’t let other people die for us because we might be afraid of dying.”
Cydor smiled, “I couldn’t agree more.” And then he readied his staff.
The rest of the wardens fell in agreement, and prepared themselves the same. It may not have been what their Warden-Commander wanted, but it was what it meant to be a Grey Warden.
Sweat trickled down from Kaaras Adaar’s forehead. His hands glowed over a stone about to be loaded in one of the trebuchets.
It wasn’t easy to keep casting fire glyphs on three different stones every five minutes. While it looked like one spell on each projectile, in reality he needed to cast multiple spells on a single spot to get the potency and explosiveness required for each blast, and then maintain the spell at a distance as it was fired and traveling in the air.
“Hey. Kaaras.” The gynour with one eye called him by his first name.
“…” He didn’t respond, and kept his focus on casting another spell.
“Hey. Big guy. Tall, thin, grey-skinned mage. I’m talking to you.”
“I can see that. Take a look at your hands.”
Adaar looked down and saw that his hands were shaking. His arms were too, everything from the elbow down.
“Are you fine, big guy? Can you keep going?”
“…I can.” Kaaras responded.
“Well, take a break if you need to. I know you like to play the strong silent type with that mean one, but you won’t be helping anyone if you pass out in the middle of the battle.” The gynour chuckled. “Besides, you’re a good kid, we like ya.”
Adaar ignored the last comment and moved his hands away from the stone, finished. “Load this into trebuchet three, please.”
The gynour walked off to fetch the rest of his men.
“…” Adaar waited for him to leave, and then fell to his hands and knees.
He was afraid someone would hear him, so he didn’t pant or exhaustedly breathe in.
Adaar looked up at the beacon for the Tower of Ishal. It wasn’t lit, so still no Archdemon. And he shouldn’t be able to sense any darkspawn from behind the walls.
But he could still sense something, something unfamiliar. His brain was pounding out of his head as if there were a million darkspawn standing in one spot all at once, as if he were standing inside the Black City itself.
And it was coming closer.
The darkspawn clashed against the shield wall of the flankguard’s wardens. Their corrupted blades emitted visible electricity that conducted through the wardens’ armor.
“Their steel is enchanted!” One warden shouted.
“On it!” Alistair shouted back.
The former templar stretched out one arm with an open palm and wrapped his other hand around his wrist to get a better conductivity of lyrium to his limbs.
“Haa—!” A blue light shot from his hands and dispelled the elements. Two hurlocks fell to the human wardens’ subsequent blows while a third one locked its blade with the dwarf.
Alistair brought his shield arm close to his body and then swung it hard at the hurlock’s head. He didn’t damage it much, but his bash managed to stagger it back.
“…should’ve used my sword there and finished it off instead.” He thought to himself. His instincts were not on point.
Three more hurlocks charged in the place of the two slain, in addition to the one knocked back. Two were on the right. They were going to attack in a team of two against one of the wardens at the front.
Seeing this, the dwarven warden moved from the front-center to the right side
“I’ll get this bastard, archers!”
The human archer fired first, and hit the hurlock in the shoulder.
It violently shrieked and recoiled back at where it had been hit, before getting another arrow in the throat by the elf.
But there was another hurlock behind that one, charging in its place.
Alistair stepped forward into the gap left by the dwarf‘s leave, and faced his sword forward to fight it.
His blade didn’t have a name. It didn’t have any fancy enchantments or colors. It was a piece of steel fit into a hilt, made by a blacksmith he didn’t know and one not famously known. Completely unremarkable.
And that suited him just fine.
Alistair couldn’t perceive things as well as Cousland or Hawke, so he made a guess and rose his shield in front of his face.
A new hurlock’s blade bounced harmlessly off his shield.
Alistair brought his shield away and took a blind swing at its shoulder. Block-and-strike. That was the simplest trick he was taught at the cloister.
It clanged against the hurlock’s in the air between them.
“Ah—!” Alistair pushed as hard as he could against it, but it wouldn’t budge.
The hurlock had done the same though, and the Theirin was just as stubborn.
So it brought its blade back and struck again.
Alistair brought his shield up and deflected with it rather than his sword. Darkspawn could be incredibly savage in their swings, and meeting blades in the air could result in him getting disarmed or pushed back if he didn’t put enough force into it. It was easier and more reliable to deflect with a shield when possible.
“——!” The hurlock screeched. Its attack had been blocked, but it charged forward and pushed its body into his shield.
Alistair grit his teeth and dug his feet into the ground. He had learned a trick from Aedan to bend his knees when someone charged him head-on, instead of leaning forward and trying to stand tall with locked knees as the Templar Order taught him.
It allowed him to recruit more of his lower body into his little shoving match and push his enemy back just as hard.
“Hey—agh—a little help?”
The darkspawn pushing against Alistair suddenly found itself getting stabbed in the side, one of Alistair’s fellow wardens having bested his own opponent and now freed up to attack its undefended point.
A blade passed through its ribs and right through to its beating heart, coming out of its chest and splattering blood onto Alistair’s face.
The young warden shook his head, trying to get rid of the shock. He could never quite get used to the initial impact of darkspawn blood on his skin.
“Thanks.” He said, trying to hide his discomfort.
They had killed the four attackers, but now nine were charging up in their place.
And in the center of them was one not wielding sword nor axe, but a staff. Blades rose out of the back of its head like feathers of an old tribal.
“Emissary.” A hurlock alpha that could cast magic and help coordinate groups of darkspawn. It was likely what imbued one of the earlier wave’s weapons.
“I’ll take the one in the center.” Alistair said. Might as well be his job. He was always the best at annoying mages.
Cydor spun his staff in the air and slammed it to the ground. Fire webbed through the ground in front of them like cracks from an earthquake, burning to death two genlocks and one hurlock.
Now there were only six left. One for everyone else.
The emissary stayed behind, and began emitting blight-colored mana from its hands. It was going to cast a spell back.
“Sorry—” Alistair rushed between a shriek and a genlock, through the gap left by the hurlock emissary leaving the darkspawn’s charge.
“—but I won’t let you.”
He raised his shield as he ran, ready to absorb whatever came at him.
Fire burst forth from the emissary’s hands, and hit Alistair as he charged.
“Gaahh—!!” Red-hot pain shot across his shield arm as his silverite armor heated up. His magic resistance from the leftover lyrium in his blood helped, but it still burned.
He bore the pain, and closed the distance between himself
He carried the force from his running charge forward, and smacked the hurlock emissary right in its rotted face with his shield.
He didn’t quit just there yet. He kept his sword arm down and pommelled it a couple more times, feeling the concussive force reverberate back in his arm with each strike.
“—!” The emissary snarled as its head was knocked back and its face forced up at the sky, frustrated at its inability to stop such a simple and effective attack.
Shields weren’t quite the part of the romantic heroes that wielded only one longsword and no armor that the stories always spoke of, but they were still plenty practical for those who were comfortable with being a little awkward.
When he tried to reel his shield arm back and hit it for a fourth shield pommel that would knock it down, however, the hurlock emissary found just enough time in between his strikes to raise its hand and shoot another spell.
With his eyes peeking just over the top of his shield, Alistair was able to see the hurlock smile with long, sharp, spikes of teeth. And then whisper something in a lurched tongue as it hit him with a Telekinetic Blast.
His shield took the blast first, knocking the back of it into Alistair’s face and breaking his nose. Then, the rest of him flew back and hit the ground.
“Guh!” Alistair made a grunt of pain as the back of his head impacted the earth, blurring his vision dark. It was lucky he hit a patch of grass and some dirt, his head would’ve cracked open if it landed on a stone or something harder.
“Get up get up get up get up.” He frantically thought to himself as he lay on the ground. Darkspawn weren’t so nice as to do something like intimidatingly circle around a fallen opponent and give a victory speech, waiting for the hero to get their second wind. They just stabbed them or started eating them alive instead.
Alistair groaned in pain as he forced one foot flat on the ground and then leaned up enough to push himself up. Plate armor was really heavy. How did Aedan jump around in this stuff?
A lot of blood from his nose had flown black into a thick clot-like texture in the back of his throat from when he was on the ground, so he tilted his head back and swallowed it.
The blood had gotten hard and bitter, and it felt clumpy in his throat. He didn’t like the taste.
He looked at the emissary opposite of him. It had pointed its staff at him and charged light at its tip, ready to keep fighting.
Alistair half-grinned, trying to break away from the feeling of vertigo. “Oh, you are going to pay for that.”
He began stepping to his side, keeping his eyes locked on the emissary, thinking. This next part would be tricky.
Thanks to its force magic, the emissary had reopened the distance between them and given itself the chance to cast another spell if he charged.
Alistair no longer had the opportunity of surprise on his side, so he would need to counter whatever spell the emissary was going to cast as he tried to charge back into melee range.
If he were Aedan, he’d probably run some crazy calculations in his head right now and figure out what its next five moves were going to be off of his intelligence, and then have five contingency plans that he could execute off of the back of his reflexes and sheer killing power.
Alistair wasn’t that particular infamous Commander of the Grey, however, so he’d just have to wing it instead.
He stopped circling around, and charged, as ready as he could be for whatever black magic that was going to come his way.
“———!!!” The emissary screamed in a tongue not scribed, and shot a spell that was a mist in shape and intensity, putrid green-yellow in color.
“That’s…not a bunch of fire, is it?” Alistair thought, expecting something more elemental.
When the spell hit him, he didn’t feel any pain or anything pushing him back.
Instead, he felt something wrapped around his leg, anchoring him in place.
A tree root, blighted, had taken hold of his ankle. A little creepy, he thought.
Alistair swung at the tree roots to free himself.
“…Huh?” They should have been easy to cut, but he missed.
He swung again, and missed again.
And it was after that he saw the reason why.
Expanding out with himself as the epicenter, a pink glyph of an eight-pointed star made of expanded out from his feet and drew itself into the ground, a circle drawn around its radius.
A Misdirection Hex.
He had made a mistake. Even if it were true that the emissary was going to cast a spell at his charge, there was no guarantee that it didn’t cast another while he was lying on the ground.
Alistair needed to move out from the circle to regain his accuracy. To move out of the circle he needed to free himself from the root. To free himself from the root he needed to move out of the circle to regain his accuracy. A perfect check.
“That’s not good…”
Alistair pointed his palm at his feet and tried to cast Cleanse Area once more.
It didn’t work. The little amount of lyrium left in his bloodstream had failed to ignite.
“…Okay, that’s REALLY not good.”
It was the natural consequence of choosing to not take lyrium anymore. He couldn’t rely on casting templar abilities effectively or consistently.
The Hurlock Emissary’s staff glowed white as it charged its next attack. It didn’t need to worry about time.
Dozens of electric sparks cut through the air and rain, their combined shape like the narrowing branches of wintered trees against a backdrop of the sky.
They all hit a single target: a lone warden stuck in place and separated from his group.
Alistair gave a yelp of pain and fell to his knees. The current flowing through his body wrested the control of his limbs away from his brain, and he felt them jerk at random, independent of his will.
He couldn’t force himself back on his feet this time, but he tried as best he could to keep himself on his hands and knees instead of falling face-flat against the dirt.
He heard the emissary step closer. And closer. Like the hex and the root, its lightning was a sustained spell. It would not lift as long as it was supplied mana.
“…” The emissary stood above him, the sharpened end of its staff brandished. It was going to take his head.
But before it could, it felt a similar situation that its opponent had earlier. Something had wrapped around its ankle.
It looked down. Alistair had enclosed the skin above the hurlock’s foot around his hand.
Any Templar, no matter how lyrium-deprived or out of practice, could still drain mana on physical contact with a mage.
A glow like blue lyrium emitted from where the hand of Alistair’s shield-arm had made contact. The sustained spells cast on Alistair were all dispelled.
He raised his other hand, his sword pointed down just above where he was gripping.
He wasn’t as good as some of the other Wardens. But when he was this close and his opponent still, he didn’t need to be.
Alistair thrust his blade forward and cut right through the armor and shin, severing the lower half of one of the legs.
The staff of the emissary came down crooked. In the corner of Alistair’s eyes, he saw its pointed tip narrowly miss his head.
The Darkspawn screeched as it fell down.
And Alistair stood up, free of all restraints.
He had seen earlier what happened when a blighted enemy’s legs were amputated in battle, and there wasn’t any reason to show it the mercy it lacked.
He stabbed down at its stomach, and twisted his blade at the sound of its screech.
It was still a little alive after that, so he brought his blade back up and stabbed down again. That should do it.
Alistair drew himself back from the fallen enemy and pinched his bloody nose. “Eugh, did you really have to go for the face? Honestly…” His voice sounded a bit ridiculous from blocking his nasal passage. Certainly not the manliest thing in the world.
But he quickly came back to his senses when he heard a blood curdled scream.
Alistair jerked his head back at the source of sound. It was one of the human wardens guarding their front earlier, his arm severed and spilling blood onto the grass.
The young Theirin cursed at himself for getting comfortable and making a quip at the expense of time. Constant Vigilance, Duncan always said, the Darkspawn threat was never over.
He ran back as fast as he could. He saw a hurlock standing over the severed arm, raising its jagged sword and ready to finish the job.
Alistair put some twist in his foot, and on the last step before reaching the hurlock with its blade raised, spun himself into a 180° swing that ended with his blade meeting the flaked skin of its neck.
Its head flew into the air—a gush of blood bursting out from its empty neck—and dropped harmlessly at the ground. Its last expression was frozen as euphoric joy.
Alistair probably couldn’t have stopped its victim from losing an arm even if he rushed back as soon as he finished off the emissary, but he still couldn’t help but feel guilty.
“Cydor!” Alistair shouted at the group mage. “Could you—?!”
Alistair was interrupted by the named mage casting a healing spell. It was nothing as miraculous as restoring his arm or stopping the pain, but it clotted the blood and stopped the blood oozing out from a disjointed elbow.
“Kristoff—!” The elven archer shouted and ran up to the warden with the severed arm, bumping into Alistair and pushing him out of the way.
“Rhyn," The wounded warden spoke heavily, looking up with narrowed eyes. "Tell my wife—”
“Oh, tell her yourself, you imbecile! All you did was lose an arm, you still have two feet to walk back home on!” The elven warden wrapped the unhurt arm of the human warden named ‘Kristoff’ around the back of his neck and lifted him up and onto his feet, forcing him to stand and helping him support his weight.
Kristoff's eyes widened and the drama in his voice died from being forced vertical. Seems he was a bit too eager to meet the Maker.
“Fallback!” The wardens heard the same officer’s voice from earlier shout from their left again. “Close the perimeter around the Tower of Ishal, protect the bridge!”
“Alistair, I think that’s our cue.” Cydor said. “Let’s retreat behind the walls surrounding the Tower of Ishal with the rest of the soldiers and heal up.
“Ah, yeah. Right.” Alistair responded a bit timidly. They really didn’t need him here to lead, he thought. “Let’s get moving.”
With the darkspawn beaten back for now, the wardens started to move back with the rest of the flankguard guarding the tower.
“Hey, uh Rhyn?” Alistair sidled up next to the elven archer bearing the weight of Kristoff. “Sorry I couldn’t stop your friend from being...hurt.”
“Don’t be.” Rhyn shook his head. “These things happen. You’ll make your thirty years with the wardens feel like three-hundred if you worry about everything you did right and wrong.”
“Kaaras! Say something!”
The one-eyed gynour shouted. He and a group of other trebuchet-loaders had gathered around the young warden-mage, who had thus far proved unresponsive. He was writhing around on the ground like an ant beneath a focused lens, an ungainly sight for a Qunari.
“Big guy, you’ve been switching between coughing up blood and rolling around holding your head for the past five minutes. I don’t wanna hear this ‘I’m fine, how are you’ shit!”
“It’s-a-possession it is!” The dimmest of the gynours shouted. “They’s gonna ‘come a demon if we don’t stops ‘im!”
“Boss, I hate to say it, but I think this might be a case of needing to agree with the village idiot here.” Another gynour said. “Either we need to get him out of here away from us real quick, or stab him and say a darkspawn did it later.”
“Bah, you morons!” The one-eyed gynour roared. “I don’t care how much of a coward either of you are, we are not abandoning a brother-in-arms. Besides, what if The Butcher of Amaranthine heard of your words? He’d have us executed to the man!”
“Ah!” The gynours that had spoken up recoiled in fear, immediately recognizing the mistake in their words. As far as punishments from Teyrn Cousland went, hangings were a mercy. If he had heard of them speaking of treachery; boiling to death, flaying, or sawing were much more likely for someone who had killed one of his wardens. And even if they did manage to successfully cover-up a murder and blame his death on something else, he might just have them killed for incompetence instead.
Adaar listened to the argument over the throbs of his brain. He wasn’t offended. He was listening and taking everything in with silence, just as he always had.
Despite their ignorance, he couldn’t deny the possibility. He had been careful, and he didn’t see any of the signs his master had taught him when he was younger, but it was within the realm of plausibility that whatever unknown force afflicting his mind right now was demonic in nature.
And if a demon were to show up here, he wouldn’t be the only one to die. He couldn’t afford to be a simple isolationist at the moment. An isolationist doesn’t let other people get dragged into their mess.
“Where are the templars?!” One of the other gynours shouted. “Or the wardens! Is there anyone nearby who would know what to do?”
“All the templars are in the valley with Loghain…same with the grey wardens…there’d be no way to reach them…”
“…lis…r…” Adaar choked out the syllables in between the intervals of ringing in his ears. He may have been delirious, but he could still keep a head clearer than any of theirs.
And he knew for a fact that they were wrong. There was still one person they could reach who matched both of those categories.
“Alistair!” Kaaras shouted. “Tower…Ishal…Take me to Alistair!”
Another chapter completed. The scale’s smaller and it’s not as compelling as last chapter’s fight, but given Alistair’s personality I think it made sense to bring the tone down a bit and use less pretentious descriptors instead of the stuff I wrote in the Aedan fight (which I liked writing, but I can’t help but feel like could be stale to both constantly write and read).
Prologue should be done before the end of 2018. Probably. Maybe. Don't quote me on it.
As always, thank you for reading. I'm always glad that someone is willing to take the time to read one of the fanworks I write.
Chapter 7: The Second Battle of Ostagar III
It's been a minute, hasn't it? I didn't manage to finish the prologue before New Year's like I hoped, but the mood to actually write comes and leaves whenever it wants.
The Chapter 8 should be really short and I wrote Chapter 9 back in 2016, so hopefully you'll see them both over the course of the next two days (Edit: Done). If you've been here for a while, you might notice the bulk of Chapter 9 is just a cut and paste of the intro that used to be in Chapter 1. I edit and move stuff around like this all the time, since I don't properly proofread things and don't usually notice missing words and other stuff I don't like until >1 year later. I'm hoping to eventually touch up chapters 4, 6, and this one too (mostly just adding extra characterization for Hawke in 4 and castling around Cydor and Clarel's roles in 6+7 so I have a canon character doing the dialogue), so don't be surprised if you see some changes around there, too. Chapter 10 should end the prologue, but I can't say when it'll be done. Hopefully soon.
As always, please enjoy, and thank you for reading.
Prologue, Part Seven
The Battle of Ostagar III
The rain had grown from light to heavy. Later still, it grew from heavy to a picture that made not droplets, but full strides in the air.
Hawke peered out at something past the torrent from above. The rain obscured her vision, but through keen eyes she could still make out a shape of something in the sky.
“…No, that can’t be right…” Hawke said to herself, fixated. The Archdemon had a rather distinguishable shape. It looked like a great or high dragon corrupted by the taint, jagged in outline.
And it was not an Archdemon that she saw.
The rain was beginning to grow from light to heavy.
An old warden once told Alistair that anything a man is overexposed to in wartime, he’ll become deaf to. Archers don’t hear the harsh pitch of whistling arrows. Blacksmiths don’t hear the pound of a hammer against the anvil. Prisoners of a castle basement don’t hear the screams from the torture chambers, veteran soldiers don’t hear the death throes of comrades, and Grey Wardens don’t hear the screeches of darkspawn.
For some reason, he couldn’t seem to hear the rain. He heard something else, though.
“Hold the gates! Let not a single spawn through!”
“Always orders with these loud-types, isn’t it? Never just saying ‘hi’, asking how the day’s going...” Alistair grumbled while helping push some of the soldiers out of the way, trying to make room for Rhyn and Kristoff.
The flankguard’s battle outside the Tower of Ishal had drawn to a stalemate. The Thedosians had fallen back behind the walls surrounding the tower, forcing the darkspawn into a melee at a single chokehold at the gate. This limited the increasing numerical advantage of the darkspawn on this front into a slow exchange with less than a dozen simultaneously active combatants on both sides.
This had a few drawbacks for the Fereldan forces.
To start, it removed the slope advantage that the hillside had, forcing the melee fights onto even terrain.
Additionally, it made Ferelden’s ranged support non-existent. Being of Tevinter make, Ostagar’s ancient walls lacked the architectural design that would make them very practical for non-mages. They lacked both machicolations for raining down arrows and proper crenellations for archers’ cover. With the darkspawn swarming this close, there was no easy way for the archers to come into play.
Finally, it brought the possibility of darkspawn bringing their own makeshift artillery into play. If they managed to make a breach in the wall, the advantage of a single chokepoint would be removed. Worse, if they managed to push Ferelden back to the bridge they would have room enough to move their long-ranged equipment inside the walls, potentially giving the darkspawn the opportunity to either rain down on the denser forces in the valley or counter-siege the Trebuchets inside Ostagar.
Currently, Alistair’s party wasn’t fighting. They were making their way towards the field hospital set up in the courtyard next to the tower.
“Men infected with darkspawn blood use the outside tents! All other wounded, take to the tower for healing!” A revered mother shouted at the trail of incoming wounded.
“Another one. Great.” Alistair muttered.
“This is good enough.” Rhyn stated, terse. He set Kristoff down on a cot inside a vacant tent. “Cydor, can you get to work patching him up?
“My apologies...what were we…?” The elf-warden-mage Cydor shook his head, sweating as if he were afflicted by fever.
“Healing Kristoff. Can you close off that wound completely, do something about the pain?”
“If we had a mirror I could probably…ah, I must have pushed myself too hard during that fight.”
“Are you alright? Did you get hit by anything during the battle?”
“Ah, no.” Cydor shook his head again with eyes still and narrow from fatigue. “But there’s this ringing in my ears…almost as if…” He stuck his head outside and looked up at the top of the Tower of Ishal. The signal was still unlit.
The beacon was covered and could still be lit regardless of weather, so the growing rain shouldn’t affect it.
“Halt! You there!” A voice called out at the wardens intruding on their territory.
When Alistair left the tent to see the approaching source, he was met with a surreal sight.
A lay sister blonde of hair and amber of eyes had shouted at them. Wearing bloodied chantry robes, white bandages wrapped around the lower half of her face as some sort of makeshift mask, and a saw in one of her hands. The saw had a coat of blood, fresh, dripping from the teeth.
“These tents are for blighted patients only!” She placed the knuckles of her free hand against her hip. “Anyone who is not tainted risks infection.”
“Ah, I, we—.” Alistair stumbled over his words trying to explain for the group.
“We’re Grey Wardens.” Someone explained for him. “The taint doesn’t affect us.”
“You’re Grey Wardens?!” She shouted, shocked.
She suddenly seized the hands of two different wardens, forcibly tugging them along. “All of you who aren’t busy, come with me!” She shouted again, her normal voice clearly suppressed by the rush of blood in her brain. “We need extra hands to help us hold down the tainted troops during the amputations.”
“Ah, wait one second. Do you—” Alistair called out at her as she was trying to leave with the two persons she had taken hold of.
“What?!” The chantry sister turned to him and shouted, infuriated.
Alistair reflexively put up both of his hands, slightly intimidated.
“…A mirror? Sorry if this seems a bit stupid, but do you know where we could find one? My friend says it might help heal our wounded.” Alistair asked on Cydor’s behalf.
To Alistair’s surprise, the chantry sister reached behind her back and produced a handheld mirror for purposes of vanity.
“Take this, I usually use it to do my face. My name’s on it, so make sure to give it back when you’re done.”
And then she ran off, kidnapped wardens in tow.
Alistair walked back inside the tent, completely blank minded.
“…Well, at least that wasn’t weird. Yeah, not weird at all...” He remarked, dumbstruck. He looked down at the mirror and flipped it over to the non-reflective side. The initials ‘M.R.’ were carved on the back.
“Chantry Sisters helping patch up the wounded? That’s relatively normal, it’s not like prayers will sew the skin together.” Rhyn responded.
“Well, yeah, but…helping how, exactly? By looking like a murderer running around with a jaggedy-cutty thing?” Alistair asked, his head tilted and eyes rolled up.
“You mean the medical saw…? Like she said, they’re doing amputations.”
“Did she say that?” Alistair asked, unable to recall. He must not have heard. “And…they’re cutting off people’s limbs…?” He was a little a bit put-off by the mental image.
“At spots where the darkspawn bit or bled on open wounds, probably…they think it’ll stop the darkspawn blood from spreading. A rather common procedure in Anderfels and other regions plagued with Darkspawn.”
“Does that work?” Alistair asked, trying to not sound hopeful.
“Of course not.” Rhyn answered. “The Taint always wins.”
“That aside, can I see the mirror in your hand, Alistair?” Cydor asked, sweating from the brow, blue mana generating a light from his palms.
“Right. Here you are.” Alistair handed the mirror to Cydor. “How exactly will this help with his arm? Some kind of magic that uses mirrors?”
“Only the magic of experience.” Cydor said, pulling his hands away from the wound. The protruding stub of bone from where Kristoff’s arm had been sliced off was fully covered by skin now. It might be slightly disingenuous to call it ‘healed’, but the threat of the wound reopening or infection was now gone.
“Kristoff? Can you hear me?” Cydor asked, leaning down.
“Nnnng.” Kristoff made a grunt. He had been dipping between detached and awake consciousness ever since they had passed the gate.
“When you look at your arm, can you still feel it?”
“Can still feel my fingers, even…just as the old wardens always said.” Kristoff said, weakly.
Dismemberment, though not the norm, wasn’t uncommon among Grey Wardens. It was shared knowledge among the senior ranks of the Order that loss of a limb was rarely something quietly accepted by the mind. There were several cases of maimed wardens waking up after sound sleep, looking down at a lost leg or hand, and then feeling immediate pain and a feeling like they could still move around the parts of their body that had been lopped off. This could go on for several years after the limb had been lost, sometimes persisting all the way to their death or Calling.
“Here, hold both of your arms up side-by-side. Keep them eye-level.”
Kristoff did as Cydor said, and held what remained of one of his arms beside the other.
“Now rotate the wrist on your existing hand and then try to do it with the one that isn’t there.” Cydor angled the mirror so that Kristoff saw his existing arm overlap over his injured one in the reflection. “Look into the mirror while you do it.”
Kristoff did as he said, and his face relaxed, a heaviness lifted from it.
“Better?” Cydor asked.
“Yes, much…where did you—?”
“Years ago, from the Marshal of Nevarra. She wrote a book describing a wide assortment of methods designed to deal with various injuries, one of which was the use of mirrors to alleviate the recurring pains from loss of a limb.” Cydor explained.
Alistair’s eyes were wide with astonishment. “That’s pretty amazing…that really works?”
“Well, that’s the funny thing about pain. It really is only in your head.”
Cousland bashed his hilt against the side of a Hurlock Alpha’s head. Its skull fractured and temporal bone caved in at impact.
Vigilance’s blue flame had extinguished, prolonged fighting and an encounter with a particularly dead ogre having tired out its owner. He couldn’t break off from the front line anymore, but he had strength enough to stay at the helm.
Hot oil poured from above and incinerated the skin of the darkspawn’s front line like liquid fire. One genlock dashed through the waterfall of black and lost everything but the motor function of its mouth, clamping and thrashing impotently at the air as it fell to the ground.
The Warden-Commander took one step back to where it had landed, placed his boot on its head, and calmly squashed it like a melon.
The human forces in the valley had fallen back beneath the bridge for the defensive advantage and then held their ground without any significant gains or losses. Casualties were still low and particularly lopsided in the Thedosians’ favor, but visually none could see a change in the Darkspawn’s numbers or plan.
He had already rested the front line twice by cycling out those in the fighting in the front with his reserves. If Ferelden didn’t make any progress in the next hour, he would need to start putting his fatigued soldiers back in the front.
He focused his eyes forward, perceiving every darkspawn in front of him—
—And felt something small tap at his armor from behind.
Without time for the source to retract their fingers, the Black-and-Red armored Warden spun around and seized the small entity by the throat. With one hand, he lifted them in the air and charged back behind Fereldan’s line, violently knocking aside the Thedosians of the sword-and-shield cohort and choking the life out of the defenseless thing held up by the throat.
He stopped, and the writhing shape in the dark that he caught started to shout at him.
“—Ack!!…Me!” An elf shouted with both his hands trying to pry off the immovable vice around his throat. “It’s me! The one who cleaned your armor, remember?!”
“I’m not a darkspawn!” Pick shouted. It felt like Cousland’s fingers had only tightened.
“I am aware.” Cousland said blankly. When, exactly, he became aware; he didn’t say.
The Teyrn of Highever released the fingers of his right hand, and the elf servant he was hoisting in the air fell on the side of his hips, gasping for air.
“I assume there is a reason for your being here?” Cousland said, his question a demand.
Pick staggered up on his feet and panted out his words.
“Loghain sent me!”
“He needs to see you immediately!”
“Then run back and tell him to send a better reason than none at all.” Cousland turned away.
But the elf insisted by pulling at the arm that had constricted his throat.
And before The Butcher of Amaranthine could call the low elf servant an insolent whelp and take his consciousness, he heard something that could pierce through all of his stubbornness and incur the miracle of making him change his mind—
“It’s the magi of the Grey Wardens, they’re—!”
“Alistair! Is there an Alistair Theirin here?!”
The one named heard himself being called outside.
He stepped outside the tent’s flaps.
“I’m an Alistair, how are—you?”
But in the middle of his customary quip, he saw the reason why they were looking for him.
“…Adaar?” Alistair walked over to the party of three and saw the slumped over Qunari they were supporting by the arms.
Two of the gynours he had previously met were carrying him as best they could, Adaar having sunk below their heights and his legs dragging against the ground.
“You’re Alistair, right?!” The one-eyed gynour asked, hoarse. “He collapsed on the ground not more than ten minutes ago. Last thing he managed to say was that we needed to take him to you.”
“We think he’s possessed.” The other gynour added. He was younger and considerably more anxious than the sole-eyed one.
“Possessed…?” Alistair repeated, bewildered. “Um, that…doesn’t just happen. Possession requires some sort of catalyst, a deal, or—”
“You can do something about that, can’t you? You know, help him? Get rid of the demon?”
“Ah, sure…” Alistair answered, a bit weakly.
During his time in the Templar Order, there were lectures held in the Chantry at nightbreak about how to spot the signs of possession, usually held by some lay brother or graying templar too stubborn to retire to Orlais. But they were always contrasted in the morning exercises by the drillmasters shouting to show no mercy and never risk an abomination.
He usually slept through the former to get through the latter.
“Alistair…listen…” A voice called to him from below.
Everyone else went quiet when they heard the Qunari speak.
“If I look like I’m being possessed…if it even seems to you like there’s the slightest of chances that I’m being taken over…” Kaaras couldn’t open his eyes all the way, but between the slit of the lids a pupil could be seen quivering in place, with all the strength of a Mabari at the end of its chain.
It was so strange. Usually Adaar was every bit as talkative as a deaf tranquil, and every bit as uncordial to Alistair as every other mage in camp; but now that he looked close to dying, he was more animated than ever.
“…Then stab me. As many times as you need to until I stop struggling.”
Alistair’s eyes went wide. “What are you—?”
“I’m not afraid to die…I’ve lived a good life…” said the sixteen-year-old Qunari. “…plenty of us die all the time…I’m not afraid…” Adaar grunted in pain and slumped further towards the ground, his body beneath his waist unmoving.
One of the two gynours dumped Adaar’s arm off of his back, and stepped away.
“What are you—?!” The one-eyed gynour, still supporting Adaar’s weight, shouted at his younger counterpart.
The younger gynour reached for a pouch on his person, and then threw a knife at the ground in front of Alistair.
“Here. Use this.” The younger gynour said to Alistair. “It’ll go quicker than your sword.”
“…I can’t do that—”
“You have to!” The younger gynour shouted and bowed his torso down. He wasn’t commanding, but pleading. “Please listen to me, Sir. I’m not a brave man. My father was a soldier in the Rebellion under King Maric. He served for all his best years and then beat me every night when he came home after the war. I swore on the lives of my family that I wouldn’t kill another man and come back to my wife after this Blight a changed man…please, you’re a Templar, aren’t you? Or a Grey Warden, or whatever! You have to kill him to save the rest of us—isn’t that what you do?!”
Alistair went quiet from the gynour’s confession of emotion. He opened his mouth, but couldn’t think of what to say or do. As urgent as it was every part of his body felt like staying still and waiting right now.
But the silent moment of desperation did not last for long.
“Alistair!” A voice called out from back in the tent.
Alistair turned around, and saw Rhyn beckoning him.
“Get in here! Cydor collapsed while he was healing Kristoff!”
The words alone were enough to confirm the worst suspicions.
Alistair tried running back to the tent. But in panic he turned his head back at Adaar and the pleading trebuchet-loader, then forward, then back again. His run was more of a panicked walk—a stride of full length that was like a jump, then a pause and moment of wondering if it was really alright to leave them alone—and then a jump again.
Inside the tent, the temperature seemed to rise to a sweat. Kristoff had fell faint, but the elf healer with a missing finger was holding his head with both of his hands, flat on the ground. He rolled and kicked like a wingless insect beneath a magnifying glass.
“Didn’t give any warning at all. Just dropped down and started crying out about the pain.” Rhyn explained the obvious.
Cydor bit into the tent’s fabric and screamed silent, jerking the cloth with his writhing and waving the walls and roof like a great storm. Compared to this, Kristoff losing an arm seemed like nothing at all.
It was possible for the Veil to become thinner in areas of great violence and bloodshed. Demonic possession of mages would not be impossible.
Alistair saw Rhyn move his mouth, but for some reason, it felt very hard for Alistair to listen. There was something unfamiliar beating in his ears, and each time he tried to look at their face his eyes seemed to zoom in on some spot behind them.
Alistair could probably guess at what he was saying, though. Some sort of variation of “what should we do?”
And he didn’t know the answer. He always relied on other people to make these decisions for him.
First, it was Duncan. Then, it was Cousland.
“I don’t have anyone smarter than me here…”
The more senior wardens at hand were either incapacitated, preoccupied, or not in the right state of mind.
And if there were really a tear in the Veil somewhere causing all of this, then he had a finite amount of time.
Alistair took in a deep breath, racking his brain for a solution. The weight of the silverite breastplate against his lungs felt like someone was standing on top of him.
And then, he made his decision.
He ran back to the trebuchet-loaders as fast as he could. He needed to deal with Adaar first.
Alistair picked up the knife at the feet of the gynour that had thrown it to the ground earlier.
Then, he pointed it at Adaar.
He drove it into Adaar’s clothes, and starting cutting them apart.
“Help me get his robes off!” Alistair ordered the two trebuchet-loaders that had brought Adaar over.
One of the most obvious signs of possession by a demon was the sudden appearance and growth of bulging grafts of corrupted flesh over one’s skin. Or their skin could be twisted into something exoskeletal, parts of it spiking out like tendrils or coiling roots of a tree.
If Alistair could rule out the physical signs of possession, he could ensure everyone was safe.
“Turn him over.”
The gynours did as he said and flipped over Adaar from lying on his back to his stomach. Kaaras’ skin tone was a consistent pale grey on both side. From what Alistair could see, there was no corrupted flesh purple or white.
“Alright…” Alistair could at the very least rule out the most obvious signs of possession.
He could potentially reenter the tent and check for any physical signs of possession on Cydor’s body, but if that turned up nothing he still wouldn’t know why they were nonresponsive or if there were really a possession of mages occurring at Ostagar.
The quickest way to investigate would be…
“Is anyone here from the Circle of Magi?!” Trampling the grass, Alistair took off, running in the direction of the Tower of Ishal. “Any mages or anyone who’s suddenly collapsed!”
The crowds of Chantric Sisters and Brothers, healers, and wounded became onlookers as he passed by them, repeating himself.
One of them, an Orlesian circle mage in white robes, rose her hand reluctantly.
Alistair saw her, and darted straight in her direction.
He grabbed both of her hands by the wrists and unleashed a barrage of questions.
“Are you alright right now—have you fainted or felt any headaches come on?! Have you noticed any spots of corrupted flesh or involuntary casts of unusual magic?!”
“Ah!” The white-robed mage made a little noise of fear, clearly uncomfortable with an on-the-spot interrogation.
Realizing the situation, Alistair released his hands from hers and took a step back. “Sorry!” In bemusement, he shouted as if angry. This would be a bit scary for most people.
“I’m sorry, it’s just…” Alistair exhaled and tried to calm himself down. It felt really hard to hear right now. “Does anything feel off to you right now…anything at all?”
After a second’s pause of confusion, the girl shook her head, timid.
Alistair turned away from her and calmed his breathing. He needed to think rationally.
There were two simultaneous cases of incapacitation of two different mages.
There was no clear attacker in either case, if there were one at all.
Other magi did not seem to be affected.
He racked his brain as hard as he could, but he couldn’t make sense of it at all. Just thinking about it made his head swell up and swirl around. The take charge, decisive attitude didn’t suit him at all.
He looked up at the sky. The rain was growing stronger.
It was growing from heavy, to full strides in the air.
He felt someone bump into him, bringing his awareness back down. He was in the middle of a warzone, after all, he shouldn’t expect things to pause at his confusion.
Alistair’s sight came back down to eye level, as he saw a flash of white robes run past him. It looked like she tried to say sorry, but the rain drowned her out.
She was running toward a crowd in the background where one of the medical tents where chantry sisters were performing amputations. There might have been some commotion inside them, but the gathering crowd didn’t seem to make too much noise.
But it didn’t concern him. He needed to get back to the rest of the wardens he had brought with him.
He wasn’t one of the amazing ones. Cousland, Hawke. Those were the heroic types that could change everything they passed by. He wasn’t going to suddenly push past the crowd to see what the problem was and solve it on the spot. He had one problem now and he needed to fix it before he could possibly try to solve another.
He walked, slowly, and made his way back to the gynours and the wardens. He really needed to run right now, but he felt too drained.
…He had felt drained for a while, now. A year to be precise.
“…I…I have to be really bad at this if this is what I feel like right now. Just doing something like this makes me…”
The crowd seemed to grow larger and taller as he skirted along its circumference.
Didn’t make any sense how they were getting taller. His eyes were just tired.
When he made it back, he raised his arm weakly and spoke.
“Hey everyone…back...what…?” Alistair said. At least, he thought he said that to him. Something seemed off at the moment.
The sole-eyed leader of the gynours had immediately darted up to him and started…shouting in his face? It looked like he was, but Alistair really couldn’t tell.
But odder still was when the two hands of the trebuchet-loader latched onto his shoulders, trying to shake him around—and he didn’t really feel anything, either.
…Like Aedan had said, overexposure to a sensation can cause someone to become deaf to it. This took years to occur, and it didn’t just apply to the sense of hearing.
Grey Wardens dealt with mental pain and anguish all the time. Plenty were recruited from duressed backgrounds, had watched others die in The Joining, and then acclimated themselves to the life of the Deep Roads and knowledge of the inevitable.
But Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and Qunari aren’t such fragile things to break down from those experiences alone. Most just found their own ways to endure, and any stress they may have had in their hearts could be wound up and restrained with the strength of willpower and toughness.
Any amount of pain could be overcome and enslaved by an indomitable will. Or dodged with a flexible mind, shut away by thoughts of something else.
If they were assailed with a curse that caused it to increase to the point of event horizon, would any of them notice until it was too late?
Alistair looked around.
A group of healers, wounded, and other spectators had gathered around him—just like at the medical tent from earlier.
He looked over to the tent where Kristoff, Cydor, and Rhyn were. There should be screams of pain coming out of that tent. So why was it deathly quiet?
He walked over to the tent…
…At least he tried to, but for some reason the ground wouldn’t stay still.
His feet tumbled over, and he hit the ground.
Getting hit can clear a man’s mind.
Hitting himself against the world was enough for him to realize that his ‘rational’ thinking from earlier wasn’t rational at all.
Right from the start, he shouldn’t have suspected demons at all.
Neither Adaar nor Cydor were casting blood magic or doing anything that should allow demons to cross the Veil. Mages don’t just explode into abominations out of the blue. If he had simply trusted both of their competencies instead of listening to an emotional plea and letting his own biased desire to protect get in the way, he could have realized that.
There was an alternate explanation, a single realization, and it arrived in following pieces—
The crowd that had gathered around the medical tent earlier…was probably the very one where his extra wardens had been taken to help.
And the crowd around him right now—was perfectly fine.
He said it out loud, but he couldn’t hear himself speak.
It didn’t matter at all that Adaar and Cydor were both mages. That would only matter if it were really demonic possession, and it was not.
Instead, they had something else in common that could single them out from everyone else on the battlefield.
Something that they had in common with him.
And then, the throbbing in his ears finally burst.
“The Commander of the Grey!” Loghain shouted.
“It is you who says so.” Cousland replied, nonchalant.
They were standing near the rear of the army, where the valley ended with a wall of geography to their backs. With them were nobles, tacticians, and all else those who wanted a claim to fighting without any danger.
But there were others, as well. A number of Grey Wardens were strewn out at their feet, all collapsed and struggling in involuntary spasms and cries of pain.
With a straight back, Cousland looked down at one of them. A Warden-Lieutenant name Clarel was flat on the ground in arrest, shaking. There were three missing fingers and gushing wounds on one of her hands, and teeth marks for each corresponding knuckle.
She took another bite of her own hand, and made it four.
“Some of my men claimed this to be the sure work of some demon from the Fade. Do you believe so?” Loghain asked.
Looking away from the mess on the ground as if it were someone else’s problem, Cousland’s unaffected eyes met Loghain’s.
“You had served in the Rebellion for six years and have bemoaned it for thirty—and yet you need me to answer that question?”
“No, I suppose I do not.” Loghain replied, scowling. He already knew the answer just as Cousland did, he simply wanted to confirm it.
It was relatively easy to rule out demonic possession. Anyone with experience working with mages and a collected mind could spot the absence of a catalyst that would force such a causation.
Cousland placed his left hand to his face, one finger poking against his cheekbone. “What did they utter before they became this state? Any words that might hint at the cause or symptoms?”
“Most claimed a headache or fever at first. As time progressed, some started complaining about loss of hearing or vision. Every warden had some sort of individualized pain, but all of them—eventually—stopped saying anything at all.”
“And you summoned me personally, The Warden-Commander furthest from you, to deal with the problem? Take it up with Fontaine or Blackwall, and leave me be. Your ineptitude with Orlesians is not justification enough to take me away from the front.”
“Why, certainly.” With no daintiness, Loghain replied sarcastically. “The Warden-Constable of Orlais is right behind you. Why don’t you ask him what he thinks of all of this?”
With all intent of doing so, The Warden-Commander of Ferelden turned around to do so.
But there wasn’t anyone there. Not at eye level.
Cousland had to look down instead, at a convulsing thing that was choking on its own tongue.
Cousland couldn’t recognize his face, but he saw the medal of the Silverite Wings adorned on his armor.
“…Your messenger claimed it to be only the magi.”
“It was only the mages at first, but it spread to all the others.” Loghain’s distinct voice was as gravelly as always. It was not the type that needed to repeat itself.
“…” Cousland looked up at the unlit Tower of Ishal, silent.
“I had suspected you were no different until you came to me. Do you not notice any changes, Warden?”
“…Has the lyrium sand in the tunnels below the Tower of Ishal been detonated yet?” Cousland answered the question with an entirely different question. He did not feel any difference at all, and he did not care as to why.
“No, it has not…what are you plotting, Warden?”
“Plotting? Nothing of the sort, I am simply going to allow you to tend to your own mess here, and I will tend to mine.” Cousland turned to leave.
But he felt someone stopping him. This would be the second time today.
“Warden.” Loghain’s grip tightened around Cousland’s wrist, his fingers iron. “Where, pray tell, do you think you’re going?”
“Through those tunnels, and up through to the Tower of Ishal. Away from here, to return only at my own leisure.” Cousland’s eyes looked up at their corners in disinterest. He had no intention in trying to help his fellow wardens.
“Leaving as your own soldiers lie dying on the ground?!” Loghain shouted. To abandon all semblances of both camaraderie and tactics so easily was unforgivable to any man of an army, even a darkly general. “Have you no shame, Warden?!”
Cousland eyes looked back at Loghain’s, irreflective of them. “Shame of what? I am a Warden-Commander purely out of utility and others’ desire. And these ones on the ground who served with me are without any utility of their own right now, and none who can help them but the Maker.” Cousland closed his eyes. “My shame, as well as my responsibility, is elsewhere.”
“None can help them? What of you, Warden? Are you not immune to it at the moment?”
“Immunity to what root cause, to what disease or attack? Perhaps the ones at our feet are dying because they are simply inferiors made of lesser souls, much like those elves in the Alienage that you planned to sell. I will not pretend to know more than I do. And I will not lie and act as if I care.”
“Then where is your shame, if it is anywhere at all? What is so important that you would abandon those who fight for you?”
Aedan opened his ultramarine eyes. The reflection of the faraway torches’ light had cast red in the center of his pupils. “It is a Teyrn’s duty to protect his King.”
The moment Aedan Cousland had heard that all other wardens were affected, he had ceased to care about all of them save one.
“…Is that so?” Loghain asked with realization.
“It is.” Cousland answered. The battle only mattered to him because it threatened his King. If there were a threat more immediate to his liege than the Darkspawn Horde, then he would turn away from and that fight and deal with the new danger before lifting another finger against darkspawn. And he would deal with that danger as applied to the one specific person that he thought mattered, before trying to diffuse the same problem afflicting anyone else.
Even if all those others who were afflicted were strong, brave, and loyal. Such notions of honor and goodness did not move the walls of evil’s heart.
“If you understand, then release me.” Cousland commanded with his eyes closed.
“No, Warden. I will not.”
Cousland looked at Loghain with annoyance. At first he was content to simply fell Loghain with reasoning, but now this was a clear challenge to his own supremacy, and defiance of a simple fact—
“Do you have a death wish, Loghain? Or do you really believe you can beat me?”
—That the aged tactician does not beat the master swordsman in his prime. It would be suicide to even try.
“Yes, Warden. In fact I do.” Loghain smirked. “You always speak of yourself as if you are above righting simple wrongs and in pursuit of some greater good. Well, Teyrn Cousland, if you are as intelligent as you act—then give me an answer to your own riddle.”
Keeping his hold, Loghain raised Cousland’s arm and where he was holding it up to their eyes.
“Right now, I will not let go of you.” Loghain continued. “And the only way to remove me is to remove either my hand or my life, as you have no doubt done countless times before.”
Cousland’s eyes tightened, but he kept listening.
“If you do either, I will be incapacitated much in the same way those at our feet are. My second-in-command, Ser Cauthrien, will be too emotionally withdrawn from the sight of me to take charge and assume control as she should. The only one left who would be capable to lead and prevent our command from being thrown in disarray—would be you.”
“Do you still leave the battle then? Knowing that it would be fully lost without leadership, and that death would await Ferelden even if you were to save that boy that you pretend is King?”
“Say I were to break all your fingers on the hand restraining me, one-by-one. Would you still be speaking so mightily then?” Cousland asked, presenting a third option.
“You would quite enjoy that, wouldn’t you? But what if I were to seize you with my other hand when you were finished? And if—once you had done that same to my other hand, as I am sure you would—” Loghain’s accent enunciated the word ‘sure’ with a heavy /sh/. “—I were then to bite at your neck, and force you to pluck out all of my teeth with that strength of yours?”
“Then I would avert all of that by striking you with an empty hand, and force you to lose consciousness.”
“I am not as young as I were during the War, Warden. I may very well be unconscious for a long time.”
Cousland closed his eyes, and lowered his seized arm down, limp, as if surrendering.
“Now Warden,” The Teyrn of Gwaren said, victoriously. “Make your choice. Give me an answer to what you will do.”
Absolute stubbornness was a true strength in its own right. Combined with a positional advantage on the chessboard, it could defeat absolute strength.
Nevertheless, Loghain was not the only one immovable.
Aedan took a deep breath with his eyes still closed, his calm collected.
He opened his eyes, and locked them against Loghain’s—
“If it were Maric atop that hill, you would have already left.”
—And with both arms at his sides and feet on the ground, limbs still, had hit him as hard as he could.
Loghain’s eyes widened. He knew it wasn’t a matter of right or wrong, but the truth forced him, just for a moment, into Aedan’s shoes.
And then—perhaps as a result of being thrown slightly off balance by the truth, or perhaps as a result of agreeing with him ever so slightly, for just a moment—Loghain’s fingers loosened.
And Teyrn Cousland was gone before he had a chance to try again, disappeared into the night.
Loghain Mac Tir sighed. He had been beaten. Persuaded by the least persuasive man in the world, by means of relatability.
It was in the midst of all this, that the famous general did not even realize a fundamental change in the battlefield—
Just as they were from the front by darkspawn torches, his army was now colored bright from the back as well.
Loghain turned his head toward the top of the landscape, at the source, and looked at the Tower of Ishal.
She had thrown a lit torch onto the beacon’s kindling.
At the sight of it tripartite, Hawke’s entirety felt stuck inside a body.
Like everyone else, she was not invincible against the fear of dying. Yet she always had a way around it. She could whirlwind it together with excitement and give herself a boost in adrenaline when she needed it the most.
Failing that, she could bluff against her own heart. Tell herself a lie and get into the right mindset. Whenever she did she would feel not a shiver until she was alone in bed and covered up.
…At the sight of it, she was suddenly caught in a fight she didn’t prepare for, and didn’t have the experience to win.
Her legs were jelly that quivered underneath the weight of her body. They wanted to go everywhere, and therefore, could go nowhere.
It wasn’t just her life at stake. She needed to remember that to get herself grounded again.
And at the sight of the beacon’s flames spreading to the top, she knew she had done enough for the sake of Ferelden.
She took off towards the stairs. It was the fastest she had ever run.
Adaar stood up, leaning against his staff.
None of the pain assailing him had let up. It had burrowed through his brain like a thousand worms, hollowing out his mind into a hive with a thousand holes.
He didn’t think he still had legs when he first tried to stand up. He could move them, but he couldn’t feel them. He couldn’t feel anything outside his skull.
But he could still hear.
Not the panicked cries of wounded and healers running past him, trying to get away from whatever that was in the sky.
He heard the screams of death coming out of the Grey Wardens, the harrowing of souls from torment surely worse than his.
And out of all of them, Alistair had screamed the loudest.
It was all Adaar was allowed to hear. And hearing it was enough—enough to kick an old voice back into his head.
“What were you doing on the ground, you little shit?” A familiar voice from his past called out. “I thought Qunari were supposed to be big and scary tough guys—what are you, huh?”
Adaar’s legs hobbled forward, using his staff as makeshift support. His master would probably kick his staff out from under him and tell him to stop acting like an old man right now.
Circle mages were the ones allowed to sit in their tower and grow fat from literature and butter. Apostates were used to being on their feet, and the ones who would never get caught were the ones who were always ready to run. Even if he couldn’t feel his legs, he would be able use them as long as they could still move. The muscle memory was too ingrained in his mind for him to forget.
He focused his gaze forward.
Everyone was running past him.
He didn’t see anything on the ground, so…
…He saw something circling above.
Something impossible, but he saw it anyway.
It landed, landed, and then landed.
It was not an Archdemon,
It was Three.
The First took to the Tower of Ishal
With black fire that gave no heat, the eyes of the weak and wounded were extinguished, and the stone undone.
Those who survived ran and fled.
The Second took to the courtyard’s exit.
With hueless fire unbright, it burned alive all who tried to escape.
Those who were alive still ran back to the middle.
And The Third landed in between the two prior.
And with each swipe of its claws, bite of its mouth, and breath of its flames; lives were lost.
And it was then that all choices were the same.
Adaar grasped at his ribs. He wanted to run, but he wasn’t sure if everything that was supposed to be inside his body was still there.
Hawke threw open a set of double doors blocking her path, and kept running.
She had made her decision. She was going to descend until the second or third floor, then jump from a window and flee before the Darkspawn could win the battle and storm the tower.
She’d run as fast as she could north through the Hinterlands, avoiding the Imperial Highway and never stopping until she found a horse to steal. And then she would ride it day and night until it either died and she needed to find another, or when she reached Lothering. She would steal two more horses, ride home, and tell what was left of her family that they were leaving the country.
They would need to compete with other refugees for space on a boat, but if they cut straight through The Bannorn and tried to find a port town in The Coastlands instead of somewhere on the east coast like Gwaren, she could be gone before the northern cities’ criers had a chance to spread the news.
They could go to Kirkwall. They had family there, so they’d be safe. Definitely.
She reached the base of another flight of stairs. Another set of double doors were in the way.
Without stopping, she pushed both of her hands against them.
She bounced off, harmlessly.
In confusion, she grabbed the handles and tried pulling instead. They didn’t budge.
With no patience, she started kicking. There was no lock, so something had to be barring the door on the other side. A sword between the handles or a barricade perhaps.
This was impossible.
There was only one staircase up to the highest levels of the Tower of Ishal. She had passed through here by herself on the way up, and there wasn’t supposed to be anyone else in the tower, save the field hospital on the first floor and the Legion of the Dead holding the tunnels beneath them.
The only way there could be someone else up here would be if they passed by the numerous Thedosians to get here, or…
…or if they were here the entire time.
Hawke suddenly felt a freezing chill on the nape of her neck.
Her instincts kicked in.
She killed her breath and spun, expecting to see death behind her.
And she saw nothing but the way back up.
Her breathing returned to normal. Of course someone wouldn’t just show up there just because she thought some enemy might be there. If there really were another person in the tower, they’d be on the other side.
She grabbed one of the handles again, this time looking for what was fastening it to the door’s wooden frame. There wasn’t a lock to pick, but if she could just unbolt the handle, she could easily reach through the resulting hole and get rid of what was blocking her on the other side. Or at least see what it was.
But before she could try, she felt the door shake for some reason.
And right after, the floor shook too. Neither stopped.
And it was accompanied by sound of the reason why—
All the Lyrium embedded in the walls glowed red.
Aedan looked over his shoulder, hearing what was behind him.
An inferno was heading directly towards him.
The Lyrium Sand network placed in the foundation of the Tower of Ishal had been set off. The ingenious trap, turned against him.
He felt the flame burn his skin, and the ceiling above him collapsed—
Adaar looked up, unable to move in his depleted state.
Originally intended to trap the darkspawn once they had pushed back the Legion of the Dead, the blast had affected more than the plan of Loghain and Cousland had intended.
Already weakened at the base by the blightfire of the Archdemons, the tower swayed.
It seemed to be staying in place, buoying itself in one spot with flirtation of disaster in one direction, then rocking back in place, and the swinging towards the opposite.
And then it leaned.
And then it leaned some more.
When something so massive and close-by falls, it doesn’t look like it is falling at all. It looks like the rest of the world is moving instead.
And Adaar couldn’t look away. With his eyes stabilized on the Tower of Ishal, he saw the world around it move, move, until all of it was perpendicular.
The Tower of Ishal fell south, towards the battlefield; falling against the walls enclosing the courtyard, onto the forested hill, along the ridge with the oils and archers.
With the thunderous collapse of a structure older than the trees surrounding, the sound of it deafened all in its vicinity—and instantly killed all of those who were even closer.
All at once Adaar’s surroundings were engulfed by smoke and dust.
He took one hand and arm away from his staff to cover his eyes, and his legs wobbled from the lack of support, like they were each an Age of age.
Adaar slowly removed his arm away from his eyes, taking in the sight—
It was nothing but the color grey in whole. Entirely a blinding billow, complete with the fleeing crowds as descript as mannequins and bleached the color of smoke.
Adaar blinked. The living got their features back.
He blinked again. A million bricks of stone, painted glass made in the years of the Imperium’s prime, and a thousand-and-a-half years of history.
Adaar’s eyes followed the wreckage of the Tower of Ishal until they came across where it landed on the walls surrounding where the tower had stood.
There was a breach made by the collapse.
Kaaras looked at the gate where one of the Archdemons was perched. Darkspawn were pouring through over the corpses of the defenders.
…If he were going to escape, now would be the time to do it.
Adaar hobbled towards the breach, driving his staff down between each step forward as if he were bearded and grey.
But he stopped. Just as soon as he realized he might be able to make it.
Kaaras Adaar looked back over his shoulder. The situation hadn’t changed. There were still screams in his ears.
“…” Adaar looked away and at the ground.
…It shouldn’t concern him. He had only become a Grey Warden recently, and there was never any really camaraderie between himself and anyone else here.
There was nothing he could do. And even if he could, it would mean abandoning all the others he couldn’t save. It would just make him a hypocrite to try.
“…” Adaar looked at the breach again. Escape was right there.
But he had a debt. Someone had tried to help him, even when it would have been easier to just let him die.
“Why do I have to…?” Adaar complained, a thing he never did in front of anyone else.
And then he turned himself around, and slowly walked back into the eye of a nightmare.
He put one knee down next to the one who tried to help him earlier. Kaaras had to drive his staff down as hard as he could to stop himself from collapsing on the way down.
“Alistair.” Adaar spoke, putting one hand on the man below, the one tortured by forces beyond comprehension. The world wavered when Kaaras took one balancing hand off his staff.
But Alistair didn’t change. He kept screaming and struggling against the ground.
It made sense to Adaar why Alistair couldn’t hear him. After all Alistair had it the worst among him, since he was in the most pain. Adaar was the only one still with some lucidity, so he had to have had it the easiest, Kaaras thought.
Adaar tried again, but found his hand struck away by the random movement of Alistair’s limbs.
It was obvious that he couldn’t do anything.
And so the qunari who had no business being here decided—he was going to drag him out, by force.
Trying several times in the midst of the blurriness, pain, faintness, and heaviness—Adaar reached out his hand and closed his fingers and palm around the air, trying again and again to grab a hold of Alistair’s wildly-flailing arms.
When he finally did, he pulled, trying him along. Kaaras fell back down instantly.
Kaaras Adaar wasn’t a muscular or particularly physical individual by any means, but he figure he could do something like this at least when it counted.
Adaar pushed himself back up, clutching at his staff the whole time. He tried to take a step and pull Alistair to safety.
He fell down again. The world spun around and his consciousness flickered in and out as when he hit the ground again, everything losing color again.
It would be all over if he gave in here, so Kaaras bit the inside of his cheek and bled it so he wouldn’t pass out.
He let his sight keep spinning wildly until he caught a sight of the escape route from earlier. He still had time.
So he tried to pull Alistair as hard as he could, while they were both on the ground. He didn’t budge.
Either he wasn’t strong enough, or his own arm wasn’t responding to his own will anymore.
His neck lost the battle against gravity, and his head lulled back against the ground, vision spinning a full circle.
Looking around him, he saw the feet and boots of Darkspawn, Humans, Darkspawn, Humans.
Adaar looked at the last avenue of escape, one last time.
It was blocked from sight by The Horde. Even if it wasn’t, there was doubtlessly thousands of darkspawn on the other side.
Adaar looked around again.
He saw Darkspawn, Darkspawn, Darkspawn, Darkspawn.
Adaar wasn’t able to hear it through the clotting of his ears, but when the kinetic sensation of war vibrating against the ground had died down—he knew that there was no longer a cacophony of steel clashing, stomps of the desperate fleeing.
Adaar looked between, and saw someone else on their back trying to push off a group of hurlocks. He couldn’t quite tell, but it looked like they were being eaten alive.
The screams of the tortured Grey Wardens that had filled Adaar’s ears suddenly grew one lighter.
…It seemed like they were being saved for last.
In fact, given that the Archdemons chose to attack here instead of the valley, it was possible they killed everyone else here just to get to them.
The Grey Wardens from the tents one-by-one each became silent, until a sword being driven through a throat quieted the very last one.
The last but two, anyway.
Adaar stood up. It was painful, even more painful than before, but he did it regardless. Even if it didn’t ultimately matter whether he chose to lay down or stand.
Never die from behind or on your back. That’s what she always said, anyway.
Leaning on his staff again, he circled in place looking for which of the darkspawn were going to attack him first.
They looked more or less like someone would expect them to. Yellow eyes gleaming in the dark, snarling rotted teeth from rotted facing housing empty souls.
But if there was one thing that was odd, it was that none charged. Not a single of the enveloping horde chose to attack.
Adaar couldn’t fend off one right now, let alone all of them.
The darkspawn were still, and to his ears, silent. Against what should have been all reason.
But of course they didn’t charge.
Darkspawn do not become afraid of qunari during a Blight, no matter how determined that qunari may be. They do not fear elves, dwarves, or humans either.
But they do know how to preserve their beings. Especially from their own.
The hurlocks and genlocks surrounding him parted at one point in their encirclement.
The ground shook, again, absorbed up. But all in one motion, and then none at all, and then again. It was at the tempo of footsteps.
…Adaar knew what was coming to him. He couldn’t see it in its entirety, but he didn’t need to. It was what anyone would’ve guessed.
And—he knew what he needed to do.
Run, his instincts said.
But he couldn’t.
He could barely move his legs. And so he couldn’t run.
And so he figured—he’d have to settle for taking a stand.
Adaar readied himself, took a wide stance so it’d be harder for him to lose his balance, and thrust his staff up. His next attack would take everything he had.
Lusacan; The Old God known as The Dragon of Night, and one of the last three Archdemons known to Man—came forth, through the path the darkspawn had opened.
The experience of all ten-thousand years of history ran through its veins. And the experience of years before history, before even Elves thought to put quill to parchment, letters to words.
It was forever.
Twice the size of any High Dragon living today. Darkly porphyrous, with influences of red and black. Its outline jaggedly cutting through the backdrop and rejecting the world at each sharp joint of its scales. Scary, probably. That’s what Adaar guessed that the Archdemon looked like.
He still couldn’t see all of it. His sight was too blurred at this point to make every detail out.
But he could see that the Archdemon’s attention—was not caught by him at all. Its sight was focused on the one in-between them:
Alistair was still writhing against the ground like an insect. He still couldn’t move of his own volition.
Whether the sadism of the decision was deliberate or merely automatic, the Archdemon was going to kill the one that could do absolutely nothing about it first.
The Archdemon raised one of its forelegs, the claw aimed at a single target. If Kaaras were going to attack, it had to be now.
“You…” Adaar muttered out of no intention.
…He remembered some sort of advice that if he were going to put his life on the line to save someone, that he should shout something from an epic, like ‘You shall not pass!’
There was no way he was going to do something that embarrassing. Not a chance in the world.
He gathered everything he had inside him. Every ounce of mana, every bit of blood, sweat, and tears that he had left unshed.
Every time he looked away when someone said something interesting. Every bit of potential idle chatter that came to his mind, and that he then threw away for being pointless. Every emotion in him that he thought would make other people look down on him and think he was stupid.
Everything bottled up inside of him. It all traveled from his feet to his hands, from his hands to his staff, from his staff to his charging spell at the tip. He spent all of his mana, and then found something more and swept it all outside into something incredible. There would be no holding back, no second chance.
The Archdemon swung down. And just as it struck, so did he.
Adaar’s spell flew forth from his staff, dancing through the air.
The blast had no color, no blinding light or anything of the sort. It was invisible, a convex warping in the air.
It was nothing elemental. It was a force of pure gravity, the ultimate representation of his Force Magic.
The rain around it curved and got sucked in, revolving around the center. The rain above funneled and then spread across the surface, shaping a sphere. The rain below stopped falling down entirely, and then fell up.
Adaar did not know what the name of this attack would be. And he did not care.
It struck The Archdemon in the middle of its own attack. A direct hit.
Immediately, a shockwave emanated from the epicenter of the contact. The falling rain changed direction and flew out like a tsunami.
All of the darkspawn encircling them were knocked down or killed. Every tent and makeshift structure in sight was blown away.
Kaaras, on the contrary, was knocked away, away into the air. He had drained himself so much that he didn’t even have the energy to fuel the throbbing headache that stole his five senses.
The black at the edge of his eyes was closing in. He looked at where he had put all of his power, through the slits between his eyelids right before he completely lost all of his energy.
He saw the Archdemon, inert.
Still on three legs, one in the air.
And its claw still coming down, practically unaffected at all.
Of course it was still alive. How could he have hoped to have killed an Old God with a single attack? It was probably worthless to have even tried.
He saw the Lusacan’s claw come across Alistair’s chest, ripping it open.
And then, as he was falling back to the ground, Adaar felt his heart stop.
His eyes closed, his breath stopped, and he became just as quiet inside as he always was on the outside.
Alistair didn’t even feel himself dying.
He just felt what he was feeling all along.
A million bugs in his brain, burrowing and multiplying inside a million holes.
Acid in the space between his eyes and the sockets, melting and healing ad infinitum.
Whatever was in his head stung holes through his skull and dug out, abrading underneath the skin of his scalp.
He was a hive for an infinite amount of sensations. And he felt them all at once, and in each moment he felt an infinity of others.
He tried to look at what was causing all of this. Pain was supposed to be the body’s defense against the mind, but this wasn’t the product of his body’s reaction. It would have merely ceased to be at this point if it were.
His eyes were open, but in each moment he tried to look ahead, he saw something else.
He saw a thickly translucent sheet of red over his eyes, the Archdemon beyond it. The red cracked like a window.
He looked again. He saw the Black City, clear as day. His sight was catapulted from the Fade and flew closer and closer. It was as big as the sun. He could try to see everything, but he’d just lose his eyes.
He looked again. On top of the Archdemon, there was something else. Two arms, two legs. Robes flowing in the nightly wind.
He looked again. He saw a memory of Aedan Cousland, from someone else’s mind. The invincible Teyrn of Highever was engulfed by flamed and buried alive from the explosion beneath the Tower of Ishal.
And then he saw everything at once. It was equivalent to seeing exactly nothing at all.
Which was exactly what he saw next.
…The rain felt nice. Warm, even.
His soul went somewhere else, and he didn’t see anything anymore.
Chapter 8: Maenad Nulla
Prologue, Part Eight
An embering fire crackled nearby. It felt hot.
This didn’t seem like the Maker’s side, so she must have survived the fall.
Hawke couldn’t open her eyes, but she could feel her stomach brushing against dirt. The armor covering her abdomen must have broken on impact.
Something heavy was pressing down on her back from above. Probably rubble from the Tower of Ishal.
She tried to see what she could move. The fingers of her hand closed into a fist, and then after a few seconds, released.
Some wind brushed up against her face. It was an updraft, which meant two things. One, she had fallen somewhere near the valley, likely on the edge. Two, her head and respiratory pathway was not blocked off. She couldn’t move, but at least she wasn’t going to suffocate.
She heard some fighting down below. Whoever was losing was losing badly.
She heard the fire.
And she heard footsteps.
Her eyes still wouldn’t open. She wasn’t quite sure if this was a dream.
The footsteps stopped, and everything else stopped.
Whatever had drawn close to her had made all other noise in her ear fall silent.
Rhythm, rises and falls in tone.
It was a melted melody, one that warmly flowed through the spaces inside her ears.
Until it became cold and suddenly froze, shivering frightened against her drum. The heightened tempo then danced in place, leading her heart to trepidation.
In an entirely unvocal song, there were two voices. One gasping, scared; and the other comforting, protecting. They two alternated with each other, again and again, running away with a story.
Until they started singing, and two became three.
“Come, sweet child, come, go with me!
A beautiful game, I want to play with thee;”
They stopped singing, and returned to humming.
It was an androgynous voice, beautiful.
Hawke couldn’t tell if it were man or woman, human or beyond.
“Do you want to come with me?
My children will wait on you divinely,
Drape you for night’s dance finely.”
…There were lyrics to this song, the entire song.
Whoever was there simply chose to only sing their part of it.
The humming returned, and with it, the feeling of their touch—
She felt a hand cup her cheek.
Their hands were soft. Cold.
"I love you, I’m enchanted by your beautiful form.
And if you will not come to me willingly, then I—"
They dragged the nail of their thumb across Hawke’s forehead, drawing blood. Hawke’s hand balled up into a fist again.
And then they pressed something dry against the wound, bandaging it.
The song stopped.
Hawke pushed her eyelids open. For a fleeting moment that lasted nothing at all, followed by a return to faintness.
And for just that moment, in a blur that fogged everything else–
She could have sworn she saw his eyes—
“Won’t you play a game with me?”
It smiled with all the innocence of a child.
Chapter 9: The Lady of the Lake
Prologue, Part Nine
The Lady of the Lake
And a blurry shape of faraway silver, like the light at the end of a tunnel.
Why did everyone else feel compelled to move towards that light?
He didn't know. He didn't care about what was in the light. He wanted to remain at the bottom of the world instead, where it was only black. Where he could see nothing and nothing could see him.
And yet he couldn't help but be carried upward, further away from that colorless floor.
It was torturous to be moved. It was not conventionally painful, but every bit of upward force that pushed him further towards the surface resonated with his insides. It was as if his soft flesh was being prodded and touched in every direction, making him conscious of every part of his body.
He was so weak underneath his skin, just as all living things were. And when he was pushed, he felt that weakness become exposed. He couldn't stand it. He hated it. He wanted to be pulled back down to that colorless floor, beneath that floor, into the center of gravity where he it was impossible to move. Where he would never be reminded of that weakness inside of him, where he'd never have to think or feel again.
Was this simply a kinetic memory, predating the eyes?
He opened his mouth, trying to protest against the world that forced him to the surface. Only a soundless trail of bubbles floated out of his mouth.
The black around him had become dark blue. It extended in every direction as far as he could see. A body of water.
He emerged from it to the sight of a cloudless night sky. And at the moment the blurry silver became a full moon, he at last felt the piercing effect of air.
It is said that one's ability to discern the Black City in the midst of a dream is dependent upon their lucidity. If they ever became aware they were in a dream, the world surrounding them would dye itself green and a black mass would appear overhead, usually resulting in the dreamer being shocked into waking up.
However, there was no hint of the Black City nor of the Fade. And as Alistair lay there, floating on top of completely motionless water, he was aware that this wasn't real. That this was a dream, a delusion manifesting from some inner whim. And he was aware of another fact, one rather apparent once he had begun to feel the wind.
He was completely in the nude.
"You know, usually this kind of nightmare is supposed to happen when we're all lined up and the Knight-Commander is doing a surprise inspection…"
However, he did not feel uncomfortable. He was simply another part of the water after all. Anything that flowed against his bare skin and parted mouth felt as natural as the blood inside him. If he could not sink to the core of the world, then he would have to content himself with floating along the drift.
When he was sent off to the Chantry, he would often dream about his childhood in Redcliffe. His memory of the faces there had faded with time, but he would often remember everything he could see from the single time he was allowed on top of the castle. The drawbridge's arch that he'd pass under on the way to the Chantry, the courtyard where soldiers would train in the summer. Oftentimes that day he'd run around atop the battlements, looking up at the repeating merlons from a child's height. And when he was tired; he'd find an arrowslit or climb upon a crenel, swinging his legs freely against the castle walls. And it was from there that he could gaze out into the vastness of Lake Calenhad.
On a night when no servant could be seen, Bann Teagan sat with him on the castle walls, and told him the three legends of Lake Calenhad.
The First was that of the Avvar, from the days before they were driven from the lowlands. The barbarians believed that instead of a lake, there was once a great mountain, Belnas, which stood at the center of the world. It was home to Korth the Mountain-Father. Korth would gaze down at all of humanity from his throne above all else; and see the strong wither with age, the brave become indolent with peace, and the wise turn foolish from love. To never be doomed with the same fate that his subjects were, he raised the Frostbacks and locked away his own heart in the mountains, becoming a cruel tyrant instead. Many would rise against him, including the Great Serpent, Nathramar, who would destroy Belnas during a great battle with the Mountain-Father that lasted twenty days and twenty nights. When the dust cleared, and the largest crater lay where the tallest mountain once stood, The Lady of the Skies wept at the sight. It would fill with her tears and form the world's largest lake.
The Second was that of the Imperium. They believed the lake was enchanted by Razikale, The Old God and Dragon of Mystery. Any that drank from it would be blessed with his insight. It is said that many Magisters drank from Lake Calenhad during the days they occupied Ferelden, and none that gained his insight survived. The legend would state that Tevinters built the tower that became Ferelden's Circle, although it is equally believed today that it was the Alamarri who did so.
And The Third was that of how the Lake Calenhad was given its name. When Calenhad Theirin defeated the Couslands of Highever and began planning the invasion of the Teyrnir of Denerim, he was counseled by an apostate advisor to seek out more allies before declaring war. And so he did, recruiting the Ash Warriors of the forests and then traveling west to the Circle of Magi. He would spend a year and one day living inside the Circle Tower, each day filling a cup full of the lake's water and bringing it to the top of the tower where enchanters would turn it into a bit of silver. On the three hundred sixty-sixth day, the magi presented him with his silver armor, unbreakable by any blade or arrow. The nameless lake became Lake Calenhad, just as the nameless squire became Calenhad the Great. Some would extend the legend further, saying that on the three hundred sixty-seventh he was granted a gift from the Lake itself—the legendary Nemetos, a silver blade which was said to have turned gold on the day he was crowned King.
Right now, even though Alistair couldn't move his head to the side and see, he knew that this was the same great lake he had seen so many times before in his dreams. The lake of Kings, the lake of Legends. He hadn't the faintest clue why he was in it.
He closed his eyes. A hundred questions that he had asked himself before repeated themselves in his head.
"Am I happy? If I'm not happy, is it alright? How much am I willing to give up for others? Am I wrong and everyone else right? Is it right to kill people before they kill someone else? Why am I afraid of it? Why am I here? Do I deserve to live a normal life…?"
His eyes opened.
In the corner of his sight, there was something vivid enough to make him swear that Satina was on the horizon, rising to co-opt the sky.
White. Pure white. The color of milk and satin wedding dresses. A color that was not found on the living's skin.
And yet that color took the shape of a person in its absolute form. Like a carving of pure light, although it did not hinder or ruin beauty of the darkly night. It stood on top of the lake in absolute contrast, the borders of its visage emitting no glow and its form casting no reflection upon the water it walked.
A slender leg emerged from its form and took a step towards him. And another.
It did not make noise when it moved. It did not ripple the water below it. It could not, for it had no weight of its own. Only those who could sink could float. This was an existence from another realm entirely.
A white shape that he discerned to be an outstretched hand closed in on his face. He lay there, breathless, afraid that even a single inhale would make this fragile thing in front of him disappear.
A tip of one of the fingers grazed against his cheek.
Slowly, softly, like a leaf drifting over the surface of the still lake.
A warmth that was undoubtedly a woman's pressed against his cheek, bring sensation back to his face. Numbed skin as rigid as ice suddenly regained its elasticity and color, the blood in one of the frozen vessels underneath the skin melting back into motion. He hadn't even realized he was cold.
She was beautiful. Her face was entirely featureless, as if it were a blank canvas, the entirety of its feminine shape shrouded by being uniformly white in color. He could not explain how, but he was overcome with her beauty. Yet she also did not stir him. Was it his belief of respect dulling his senses? No, something deep within him told him otherwise.
Something deep within the hidden thoughts of the heart, confessing themselves to his brain through a small, fleeting window in the middle of a single heartbeat.
This woman is too holy for such thoughts, it said.
This woman is something more important than that.
What was this feeling…?
The white figure wrapped both her arms around his back, bringing him close and bringing back life to his entire body. Even though he should've been taller than her, he felt his forehead cup itself underneath her chin. All of the questions that did not have answers faded from his mind. It was fine if he didn't answer them right now, he had time after all.
He realized what this feeling was. It was lost gentleness of the mother he never knew.
Her mouth opened. She said something, something like a song. Like a lullaby meant to calm a wailing child.
Somewhere out there, in the lifeless waters of Lake Calenhad, Alistair heard the faint roar of a distant wave.
And the woman's words, which he would never forget.
"Do you believe in the Maker?"
Light raindrops. The storm had calmed down.
Alistair opened his eyes. Maybe it should have come to him sooner, but up until today, it never occurred to him that it could rain during the Blight.
It was an incredibly stupid idea to have, he thought. That the Blight would get rid of all the rain.
If it did, then all life would simply die on its own, and the Archdemons wouldn’t even need darkspawn in the first place.
Why exactly did the Archdemons want to kill everyone?
Did they want to rule over the blackened remains of the world? Or simply remove everything else before the Darkspawn inevitably turned the destruction inward and left nothing behind?
Was there some sort of a more concrete goal, some great unlocking of the world’s secrets that could only be achieved by wiping out humanity and its sister species?
Or did they simply not have a goal? Much as how the rest of life reproduced and fought because they innately “had to,” the Darkspawn could very easily destroy and kill for that same, or lack thereof, reason.
Were The Blights simply a natural disaster not unlike a great flood or earthquake?
Was The Blight even evil? No one has ever claimed lightning is evil, even in the unlikely scenario that it strikes them down personally. Incredibly unfortunate, sure, but not attributable to some personal whim or moral agency of the clouds.
He wasn’t quite sure why he was thinking of this. It must be because I’m an idiot, he thought, or at least tried to as the unnaturally disjointed ebbing of blood to his brain surged out most of his self-coherency. He wasn’t able to think ‘I’m an idiot,’ because he wasn’t able to think in many words at all. Instead, he thought in terms of raw feeling and belief. A hazy stream of unlabeled emotions reminiscent of a time in his infancy before he spoke his first words.
This raised another question of how he could think about the meaning of good and evil while he could barely remember his own name. Perhaps it was just as innate as the sense to reproduce and fight, and the supposedly complex philosophy behind it was more understandable to infants than the concept of saying “mommy” or “daddy.” Or maybe he was just that big of an idiot and convincing himself that he was in a state of euphoria to justify some deep-seeded belief.
It didn’t really matter why The Blight demanded death. It didn’t matter whether if it was truly evil. And it didn’t matter if Alistair was, as he had thought in some childlike state of contemplation, an idiot. He was only bothering to think these long-winded, pointless thoughts, because all he could do anymore was think. He knew what was to come, and there was no longer anything he could do to stop it.
And yet he felt some need, another innate desire, to see more of everything before it happened.
Alistair focused himself towards one goal and commanded his vertebrae with what little was left inside him. His head rose, so slightly that he could still feel some of his hair in the puddle he had been lying in. His eyes moved slowly to their sides, so he could glimpse at the ground around him without needing to twist his numbed neck.
Nothing is speaking. Nothing is moving. Nothing is alive.
Nothing except the feet encased in jagged armor, belonging to figures he didn’t have the strength to look up at and see.
He heard a roar. It belonged to something tremendous and more terrifying than anything else he had ever seen. But it was distant now, and anywhere from a mile to a hundred away.
He heard something else. A footstep of an armored boot, this time close enough to audibly imprint itself upon the mud.
He looked up, and saw the figure of a Hurlock Alpha standing over him. It stared at Alistair with a cocked head, almost as if curious as to why a human sharing its blood was still alive, even if just hardly.
But the curious expression, if that’s what was truly behind its blighted helmet, soon gave way to indifference as the hurlock straightened its neck and drew the weapon from its back.
A two-handed battleaxe, still covered with the carnage of today’s battle. It raised the axe above its head, inhaling so it could soon making a roar ubiquitous to the many Alistair had heard today.
Alistair relaxed his head and neck back inside the growing puddle, making no other effort to evade. It was no longer about willpower at this point, the capacity he had to move simply wasn’t there anymore.
But he didn’t mind. Other than his former Warden-Commander’s death, he had few regrets. He had lived his life avoiding the extremes of the world. He didn’t become addicted to Lyrium nor use it to kill a mage. He didn’t become arrogant over his parentage and use it as an excuse to rule over others. He had lived mildly, staying his hand from making the good suffer. He became a Grey Warden, and his death today was one of the many thousands of those who had come before him. If there was something he could do to stop the coming darkness, he’d do it. But the reality was that there were only two choices to make regarding his death: deny it in vain, or accept it in peace.
And he had chosen that latter, even if it was selfish.
And just as naturally as the rain falling on his skin…
…The axe would come down, and twain his skull just as it did for Duncan’s.
He closed his eyes, and decided to spend his last thoughts on reminiscing on a dream he had not long before woken to reality.
A faraway dream he saw, one he could not reach out to and grab.
A yell, feral and bloodthirsty
A soft and tender eternity. A distant voice.
The swing of metal
And a question he could only grasp at inside of it.
A numbed feeling of blood where the axe had aimed.
Noise, noise, noise.
He felt himself get pulled back into the Fade, this time to a dream blacker and deaf. But it lingered still. A question he could not see with his eyes open. One he could not answer when they were closed.
“Do I believe in the Maker…?”
Chapter 10: The Joining II
Prologue, Part Ten
The Joining II
With its axe still raised high, The Hurlock Alpha’s head flew in the air, severed by a swing of Vigilance.
Aedan instantly dropped to one knee, shouting.
“Alistair—!” He placed his hands on his companion’s shoulders. “Alistair, are you awake? Can you hear me?!”
He didn’t respond.
From a distance, it seemed like he was muttering something, but that could have been an illusion of Aedan’s own making.
Biting his teeth, Cousland undid the gauntlet on his left hand and threw it aside. He pressed two fingers into the skin along Alistair’s windpipe.
There was still a pulse.
“Adaar!” Cousland shouted. He had passed by him during his search, having skipped by him entirely and instead opting to engage and destroy all of the darkspawn in the vicinity first.
Kaaras Adaar moved slowly, but without much pain. Compared to earlier, the ability to walk on two feet felt like more than he thought he deserved.
“Seal up his chest.” Cousland pointed at the laceration where the Archdemon’s claw had ripped through armor and skin alike. It stretched the length of Alistair’s whole torso. “Do just enough so that we can move him out of the rain without causing further bleeding.” Aedan stood back up and covered his eyes with his arm as he did, as if there were something he was afraid to see.
Adaar looking down the whole time, weakly tried to speak. But his throat was closed up, so he just nodded his head instead. He lowered himself and hovered his hands over the unconscious warden’s torso, mana flickering from his fingertips to a simple healing spell.
He stayed quiet for a while, trying to work up the courage to accept reality.
When enough time had passed that he was sure his lungs would not stop at the mention of it, he looked over at The Warden-Commander, wanting an answer.
Aedan was facing away, looking downhill, at the long path filled with ashes and stains. He felt just as the subject matter did.
“Did you see…?” Adaar asked while looking up at The Warden, trying for any sort of confirmation.
“I did.” Cousland answered, already knowing the subject. “Archdemons. Three of them. They left with their main army soon after I surfaced.”
“And in the valley, they…” Adaar trailed off.
All those people.
Cousland didn’t seem bothered by it.
“…How did you survive? I was sure you—”
“The King seems healed enough for now.” Cousland cut him off, picking Alistair up and taking him into his arms. “Follow me. The wind is blowing northward, so it should be dry around the walls.”
Adaar went silent. Not expecting an answer.
But he got one anyway. Cousland proceeded to speak while walking slowly, cautious to not reopen the wound. His back facing towards from Kaaras as he did, and his face—his face was looking up at the black clouds that stretched in every direction, never once looking down at Alistair.
“I was inside the tunnels beneath the Tower of Ishal when the Archdemons appeared. Someone in the tower likely triggered the explosion early.”
“’Triggered’?” Adaar looked intently as he repeated, inquisitive. “The tower coming down…that was planned?”
“Not the whole tower, no. But it was part of a trap thought up by Loghain, yes.” Cousland explained. “It was magnified. By The Archdemons’ fire or by means yet unknown.”
“…?” Adaar was too dazed to understand what Cousland was getting at, so he repeated his question with more words. “…How did you survive, after the explosion? Who saved you?”
“No one saved me. I dug myself out.” The Warden-Commander stated, matter-of-factly.
“…Just like that?”
“It is true.” Cousland didn’t bother expounding. To him, this was as normal as the struggle to get out of bed in the morning.
“And the headaches, or—” Adaar’s words died when he tried to explain what had happened to him. They were the worst pain he had ever felt, beyond pain—base, chemical manipulation of the brain, beyond the feasible limits of the nerves.
Cousland closed his eyes. “I did not feel anything at all.”
They reached a dry spot in the grass next to an unbroken section of the outer wall, some lengths away from where the Tower had crashed down and opened an additional breach.
Aedan laid Alistair down and then looked away, at the wall. Kaaras silently got back to stopping any internal bleeding beyond the surface wound.
Adaar stayed quiet as he did, staring blankly into his work. Perhaps he should not be surprised at this point, but…
Aedan Cousland truly was inhuman. There was no way anything mortal should survive something like that.
“And what of you? How did you survive?” Cousland asked, flipping the question, as if he could tell exactly what the Qunari warden was thinking of in that very moment.
“I don't know…I spent all my energy trying to kill the Archdemon, lost, and then everything went black. I don't remember anything after that.”
“Another question begged, then. Why would the Darkspawn not kill you after the Archdemons won?” Cousland asked with a center on an obvious fact: Darkspawn never spare the survivors too weak to crawl away.
“…” Adaar did not have a real answer, nothing logical or of great certainty. Adaar had seen with his own eyes that the horde took its time to kill everything left alive around the Tower of Ishal.
If anything, he was absolutely certain—that he had felt his own death. And that Alistair had died right along with him.
Neither of them should have been alive right now.
Adaar pulled his hands away from Alistair. He had clotted all the bleeding he could, roughly grafted together the skin so it would stick together.
It seems that The Archdemon had just missed piercing a lung or heart. Which would not have been hard for it to do, given its size.
The claw may have just grazed him. The Archdemon seemed to have missed its mark, made a cut too shallow.
…A thought came to Adaar’s mind. He had failed to stop the Archdemon, but maybe—in the slightest effect from the cause of all of his strength—it may have…
He shook his head. There was no way of knowing, and even if there were, there was no reason to bring it up.
“Is he fine, then?” Cousland asked. He was still looking straight at the wall, not for a moment turning his gaze towards them.
“He might have pneumonia or some other sickness from being in the rain so long, potentially an infection of flesh.” Adaar stated.
“…Will he be alright after, though?”
Adaar’s brow wrinkled. Cousland should already know all of this, and more. He wasn’t sure why he was making him say it.
“I can’t guarantee he’ll fully heal if he survives.” Adaar said. “Depending on what internal flesh the Archdemon struck, Alistair could have lost his ability to speak, or have permanent restricted movement or breathing. He might live in constant pain for the rest of his life.”
“Warden-Commander?” Kaaras looked over at him.
Aedan looked down, for a moment his face becoming as timid as a child’s, afraid to look anyone in the eye.
Aedan looked up, terrible.
Aedan Cousland’s ultramarine blue eyes—which were always narrowed, always contemptful, always arrogant—were wide open, his face in petrification.
Looking at him from across the rain, Adaar saw fear.
Eyes that showed their color, regardless of any light or darkness. Eyes childish—the constant of the body, veteran or no, the one part that never changes. Innocent eyes stolen by a man with no heart.
Seeing them wide open, juxtaposed against where they didn’t belong—it was the most terrifying look at Cousland that Adaar had ever seen.
And then they erupted. As dormant forces of nature always do.
“…GODDAMMIT!” Cousland punched the stone wall as hard as he could, breaking his fingers. The masonry crumbled into a crater centered at where he struck, the rubble running down at his feet.
Aedan looked back down as he had before, quiet, his arm limply falling back to his side. Blood seeped from his hand, the skin of his knuckles ripped off from the blunt force.
“…I’m sorry…” Aedan spoke, looking at Alistair.
There wasn’t any doubt of it in his mind. Cousland had failed to foresee the possibility of multiple Archdemons or an intelligent attack on the Wardens themselves. He had failed to follow the oath of fealty he had sworn—to uphold the contract that he had sworn his worth upon.
“…I’m so…” Aedan spoke again, his words drying up.
Kaaras looked at Aedan Cousland. Normally he was so indomitable, so insufferable to everyone around him and full of orders, but right now he looked small enough to fit in someone’s palm.
He took a step forward, and tried to heal Aedan’s hand.
But The Warden-Commander jerked his arm away on reflex.
“I’m fine.” He said to Adaar.
Cousland closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and with it—he was inflated back to his full stature.
He slipped the undone gauntlet back onto his bleeding hand, covered up the proof that he was still human.
“Adaar—can you still fight?”
He didn’t feel like it, but he wasn’t going to say no. “I can.”
“I have personal items buried underneath our old fire in the main camp, six inches southwest of the brazier. Go there and retrieve them for me, retreat if there are too many darkspawn for you to handle. When you are done, come find me by the fire where the Ishal’s beacon had collapsed. We will wait there and set out East at dawn, the darkspawn will be less likely to ambush us on the road in the morning."
“Understood.” Adaar replied, tersely. Hearing Cousland return to his old self, he was starting to regain a semblance normalcy himself, too.
The Vashoth warden turned and stepped forward, but something occurred to him a few moments after he agreed.
“…Will we be taking the Imperial Road east and then north, to the capital?” Adaar asked.
“We will head directly to Gwaren, if possible requisitioning horses along the way.” Cousland clarified. “After that, north—to the Free Marches.”
Adaar looked up at the sky. There wasn’t a speck of blue there.
He had an idea of what Cousland was planning, but he didn’t have a better alternative.
In a way, The Butcher of Amaranthine was fortunate that Alistair was not awake. If he were, there would be no way of getting him to agree to what Cousland’s decision.
The young Qunari simply left without a word, and followed his orders.
And when he reached the bridge, where he could look anywhere but down, knowledge of an old memory of his came alive—that the stench of the dead truly was the worst smell in the world.
Cousland snapped a canteen off a dead man’s body.
The oils lining the ridges of the valley had been knocked aside and spilt as a consequence of Ishal’s collapse.
At the very end of the tower where the beacon had fell, it had lit everything flammable and created a large oilfire that persisted and spread through the rain.
Some of it ran down the rocky walls of Ostagar’s valley, looking akin to something volcanic from a distance.
Aedan had finished bandaging Alistair. It did not do much to help his chances of survivability, but it could help keep the main wound clean and keep pressure on it to prevent a reopening.
He had then propped him up against an upright chunk of stone masonry broken off from the tower and angled Alistair’s front to face towards the fire so he would heat up. That should help with any symptoms of sickness, if perhaps only slightly.
There really wasn’t anything Cousland could do beyond that. As all-powerful as he seemed to be to people under him, his healing ability in a situation like this was precisely at zero. Any of the magi in the world outclassed him in that regard.
He could pray, possibly. If he could somehow force himself to drop to his knees and plead. It would be a first.
He heard Adaar treading against the mudded ground. The Vashoth was carrying a small chest dug up from the ground, not heavy in the slightest, even for a thinly-built Qunari.
“Encounter any resistance at the main camp?” Aedan asked.
Adaar shook his head and looked away. Most of it was burnt down from Archdemon fire, other darkspawn included. There weren’t any human survivors, either.
The Warden-Commander extended an open hand for Adaar to hand over his belongings.
Adaar complied, with some words. “I do not have the key to open it, however.”
“Neither do I.” Cousland took the lockbox from Adaar and bashed it against the tower’s remains. The lock broke. Crude, but effective.
Kaaras had hardly noticed this before, but for all of his overcomplicated talk, Cousland never had a moment of intermittence or delay between utilizing simple concepts and complex ones. He might not have even realized there was a difference.
Cousland flipped the chest over and emptied its contents on the ground.
—A compact coinpouch, containing no more than twenty sovereigns.
—The Grey Warden Treatises that had been gifted back to the wardens by the Witch of the Wilds.
“Toss these in the fire.” Cousland handed the ancient documents to Adaar, and he complied.
—The official seal of the Cousland Family, emblazoned with the double laurel heraldry.
—A talisman, ring-shaped with a sandglass in the middle, but with no sand, both glass ends filled with someone’s blood.
“That’s—” Adaar cut himself off. He had heard of them before, but this was his first time seeing one.
—And an amulet, metal with a glass center containing a bit of blackened blood.
Adaar recognized the last item instantly. He had the one of the same around his neck at the very moment—A Warden’s Oath, filled with the same blood from one’s own Joining.
The Butcher of Amaranthine had never worn his own before. But it was the first of the five items he picked up.
“This seems to be everything.” Cousland closed his eyes. “Leave me. Go stand guard at the front gates and wait for us there. Retreat back here and inform me if any darkspawn approach.”
Adaar looked at him, silent. There shouldn’t be any reason to stay.
And his extra sense for the taint was still rather new, but, there shouldn’t be any darkspawn nearby to watch for—
—Although now that he focused on it, he could sense something. A singular dot mapped in his mind.
The Qunari Warden tilted his head and peered over past Cousland’s shoulder.
There was something there, on the other side of the wall where Cousland had propped up Alistair. Next to the fire.
It wasn’t a darkspawn but…
Adaar nodded, and left.
Cousland was still as he watched him leave. He waited until he was out of sight, and then turned the corner.
A great fire was fed by a combination of scattered bits of the beacon’s kindling and knocked-over oils from the scouting division. The darkspawn must have thought—if they could really think—that everything here would die on its own.
Aedan clung close to the wall as he circumvented it and walked towards a spot that was setting off his mind—
Someone was underneath the trappings of the tower.
Partially trapped, anyway. Their neck and shoulders were still visible, along with a loose arm.
He crouched down and inspected the parts of them that were visible. They were still breathing, had an unnatural slump in one of their shoulders. A broken collarbone, most likely.
“…Hm?” Cousland made a curious sound. It was always a feat to surprise him.
There was something covering up part of their forehead. It was a scrap of paper, torn off the corner of some weathered page.
He peeled it off. There was a scratch on their head behind it, and a bit of blood that had seeped through it, helping it stick to the skin.
It didn’t seem to be handwritten…rather something from a printing press…a book’s page number, most likely.
“Mmmph…mm…euhhhh” The survivor stirred at the feeling of his armored touch. It wasn’t very pleasant, having cold gauntlets touch their face.
“Still alive?” Cousland said as he put away the piece of parchment.
“Heh…” She spat out, as weak as a mouse. “Don’t get the wrong idea…just need someone to get me out of here so I can walk out on my own…I’ve always hated being tied down, you know?”
Hawke opened her eyes, but didn’t need to look up to tell who it was. There wasn’t anyone in the world who could be mistaken for that man.
Cousland’s eyes traveled to the nearby bonfire and the trail of flames where it had followed the oil.
“You are fortunate that it did not spread over here.”
“It did spread…I was just uphill so all it did was spread around over all my old men…had the chance to listen to everyone else die crying for help.” Hawke closed her eyes and curved her mouth into a weak smile. “Lucky me.” Sarcasm took energy.
Cousland’s eyes switched over to where the Tower was standing earlier. She was all the way over here, so that meant she had to be close to the top when it fell.
“Normally, great magic would be required to survive a fall from that height…what exactly are you made out of, woman?”
“Funny…I always wanted to ask you the same thing.” Hawke replied, bluffing.
“Defiant as always, even when you cannot lift a finger.” Cousland folded his arms. “I suppose I should be unsurprised.”
“What, because I don’t have an answer to what I don’t know…? You know everything, you tell me why I’m still alive…I fell off a lot of trees trying to climb them when I was younger…maybe my body’s just used to it.” Hawke replied. Even in the state she was in, the man above her was still uncaring and cruel.
Some people simply cannot change.
“Also—” Hawke went on. “You’re wrong. I can lift exactly five fingers. Earlier I even—” Hawke cut herself off. She wanted to say something, but it was hard to remember. Her mind was too foggy. “—Can’t lift my arm though. Doesn’t seem to want to move, don’t know if it’s still completely attached to everything else.”
At her verbal prompting, Cousland inspected her sole visible limb. Most of Hawke’s drakeskin-and-dragonhide armor had been destroyed, presumably from the collapse. Thanks to that, it was relatively easy to remove the remaining armor plating and diagnose the flesh.
“It is fractured, but attached. At the collarbone and at the forearm. Likely the points of impact when whatever you were leaning against struck the ground.” Cousland stated. She didn’t have any active bleeding. “You will be able to regain full function, given two weeks of healing and rest.”
“Oh…that’s nice…I’ll have ten fingers to jab your eyes out with instead of just five…Ha. Ha.” Hawke laughed with exactly two syllables.
“…” Cousland didn’t react to her joke. He never did have much of a sense of humor.
“…Speaking of which, can you get me out of here already?” Hawke mentioned, not able to bear dancing around the subject any longer. “It kinda hurts to be down here. Just a little.”
“Hey. You. Aedan. I’m not talking to anyone else, you know? And I know you hate talking to me, so you didn’t come here to chat. Just get me out of here so we can go our separate ways and never talk to eachother again. Or leave me alone so I can dig myself out later. Whatever works for you.”
“…You really do not know, do you?”
“Huh?” Hawke didn’t get at what he was talking about. She did not know what, precisely?
She couldn’t get herself flipped over, so she turned her face, resting one cheek on some stone so she could look up at him with a single eye.
He looked really tall and dark from this angle. Like all the light was drowned out and he was a blank silhouette surround by a raging fire.
…It reminded her of something, somehow.
“Look—” Aedan took out the canteen he had stolen from a dead man’s body. “—as critically as you look at others, look at yourself.”
He turned it over, pouring water on the stone ground in front of her.
Some of it splashed on her face, irritating her a bit. Look at yourself as critically as you look at others…like he was one to talk.
A puddle gathered in front of her, the ripples clearing out and leveling so she could see her reflection.
Marian Hawke always believed she had pretty eyes.
They did not have a simple color. Viridian, Turquoise, Celadon, and so on. The blurred border between green and blue, the type of color that could not be concretely pointed at in the rainbow; and could be called many names, many ways—but always her.
When someone is called attractive in so many different dressed up words, by many different people, it can go to their head. Let them think it’s just natural, that everyone gets those sorts of compliments—and over time, take it for granted.
—Why was Aedan Cousland able to find her, her alone, tucked away in some obscure corner, so far away from where he was supposed to be?
When Hawke looked at her reflection, something hideous looked right back at her.
Her eyes were clouded white at the iris, greyed at the sclera.
Spider veins of dark purple ran up her neck and across her face.
Between the webs marking her face, her skin was deathly pale—diseased. Hematoma had built up around her eyes and cheekbones, as if she had been repeatedly concussed.
The color of her face; the adventurousness, the kindness, and the troublemaking—all of it had drained away.
—He was able to find her, because he could sense her.
And if he could, the darkspawn could, too.
Cousland cracked the glass on his Warden’s Oath against the rim of the canteen like an eggshell, and poured the darkspawn blood inside. It was already treated with either Archdemon blood or an enchanted substitute for his own Joining, so in theory, it should still work.
He tossed the rest of the amulet in the valley, and then knelt down, so low that he was almost eye level with Hawke.
He suspended the canteen close to her face.
And then he said it. The solution:
Hawke wordlessly stared into his eyes. She couldn’t find words venomous enough for the poison she felt.
If she needed to--she would keep her mouth closed, black out before gasping for air if he held her nose, spit it out if he waited for her to wake back up. The other option wasn't possible.
“Drink.” He repeated. His face was made of stone.
“…I’d rather die.”
“What darkspawn do to the tainted women they capture is a fate far worse than death.”
“That’s rich, coming from a man who’s always acted like he wanted me gone.” Hawke made a noise in her throat, trying to laugh out of scorn. “The man who killed my brother.”
“The taint killed your brother. Are you going to throw away your life simply out of hatred for me?” Cousland asked, not understanding it. Anyone worth their oxygen would have lived for revenge instead of dying out of it.
“You let him die. You could’ve stopped him at any time.”
“And I have told you before. No one can stop the wrath of fate. Not you, not I, none but the Maker himself. When men drink darkspawn blood, sometimes they live. Sometimes they die. Your brother died.”
“He was still my brother!” Hawke shouted. “Family is everything. I’d rather die on my own terms than become one of my brother’s killers. Besides, the Joining might kill me anyway, won’t it?”
“It might kill you, it might save you.” Cousland stood up, looking down on Hawke from his full height while she lay sprawled underneath the rubble. Marian couldn’t move her head very well, but by moving her eyes towards the top of her eyelids she was able to see his. And at a very narrow angle she could see their color, unmistakable even in the black of a stormy midnight. She saw kindly-colored eyes of blue in between a shadowed face. A blue so vivid and intense that they could capture the hope in a girl’s heart, a blue that should belong to a sensitive poet or a fair-hearted adventurer.
It was a cruel joke for them to be attached to such a terrifying man. A scarred, heartless man that spoke the dispassionate words—
“Do you want to die for certain, or do you want a chance to cling to life?”
Hawke kept her eyes locked with his, reflecting his finality right back at him. Carver wasn’t tainted, and had a choice to definitely live or potentially die. Hawke was faced with the inverse of his choice, she would die tainted, or potentially live. And live with the burden that came with it.
To honor her brother, she knew what she had to do.
She filled her lungs with air and resolve, and gave her answer—
“Let me die.”
If she were going to die, she wanted to die Marian Hawke. She wanted to die as a woman who lived her life with the freedom to do whatever she thought was right, not as a Grey Warden that killed for the sake of the greater good or pitifully clung to her existence until her thirty years were up.
Aedan sighed at her answer, the sound of it rather gravelly and resonating; took the canteen away from her face and stood back up tall. He heard a deep exhale at his feet, as if all the tension and struggle Hawke had in her had left through her lungs.
She dropped her head towards the stone, and saw spots in her vision as if she had been staring at the sun. For better or worse, this was her choice.
But then she saw something land in the grass. A dragonbone jambiya, the same one she had thrown into the Joining Chalice when her brother died.
Cousland had harmlessly dropped it next to her as if he were giving it back. He must have been carrying it this entire time.
She made a small noise and snapped her head up, only to see that Aedan Cousland had moved the canteen near his own face instead.
“What…” Hawke asked in disbelief as he did something unexplainable “…what are you doing?”
“The Right of Conscription.”
Cousland tipped back the canteen and put the darkspawn blood in his own mouth.
He knelt right back down, and gripped her face by the chin with his sword hand.
It was then that Hawke understood what he intended to do.
“You wouldn’t—” Hawke stammered as she tried to use his own words against him. “—you wouldn’t be disgusting enough to try and ki—Mmph!”
Hawke was cut short as she felt Cousland’s lips touch hers. He dug his forefinger and thumb hard into her cheeks to stop her from biting down. A foreign tongue pushed its way past and rolled over hers, forcing the liquid Taint down her throat. The taste was more bitter than anything she had ever experienced, inflicting her body to involuntarily writhe and struggle with all its might against the trapping of the ruined tower.
Against the backdrop of the fire, their kiss was definitively cold.
His face pulled back the moment he heard the injured swallow. Hawke immediately inhaled and coughed as violently as she could, trying to expel it from her body. Only air escaped her mouth. She tried again. And again. All that she achieved was running out of breath.
“You…” She panted out words between shallow, rapid inhalations. “…really are…Evil…you know that?”
“I know.” Cousland agreed and he watched her lose her free will against what was to come. She screamed. Her eyes bulged from her face. She experienced the visage and welcoming of an Archdemon as if it were right before her. She went through every symptom of The Joining congruently to Aedan’s own. And then finally, like all the others, she collapsed lifelessly as every ounce of her strength was expended to reforge her being into something new.
When it was all over, The Warden crouched back down, took off his gauntlet again, and calmly placed two fingers towards the top of Hawke’s neck. He closed his eyes, waited a few seconds, and then retracted them slowly before standing upright again.
She was alive.
Her symptoms retreated. Now, all of it was inside her. And it would be her own problem to deal with.
He placed his hand on the topmost rubble above her, ready to get her out.
But when he did, he noticed something land and glimmer on the back of one of his black gauntlets, only to disappear as soon as he saw it.
Aedan looked up. The sound of rain had stopped, but the precipitation had not.
The northbound wind blew at the moment of realization, bringing a chill that did not need temperature to benumb.
The fire behind him was burning itself out, quieting down to nothing at all.
As always, a murderous night had led to a silent morning—of which there were four survivors. And if he did not move quickly, they would freeze to death and become zero.
After all—Today—was the first day of Harvestmere, of Frumentum; the last month before winter. Of the thirty-first year of the Chantry’s Ninth Age.
The season of death and preservation. When the year ends so another must begin.
And with the onset of The Final Blight, which would become as vast as the The First—
In the middling of the Dragon Age, the Age named for violence and war—
It would snow more than any Age that came before it—