The Deep Roads: Forget the Fade, THIS Is Hell!!
"Ogres are a whole hell of a lot easier to take down when there's nine instead of one," Ffion said in a relieved breath, wiping her blades clean of the ogre blood.
"One?" Zevran and Oghren repeated it in unison with the same note of disbelief that made the young Warden grin at them.
"One," She confirmed, "Though since it was in the Fade, I'm not sure that..." Her voice trailed off and both she and Alistair stiffened in the same instant.
"More Darkspawn," Alistair said shortly as Leliana sent him a questioning look.
"Lots of them," Ffion agreed.
The Orlesian paused in putting the bow back and instead tightened her hold as she fell in behind the Wardens with Sten beside her. Morrigan and Wynne brought up the rear while Zevran and Oghren finished off the wall of defenders that would be between them and any threat. This was done without a word or command from Ffion; it was now a mere reflex.
Oghren had been correct in his reckoning and they had reached Caridin's Cross within their two and a half days, and that had been almost four days ago. The path had switched back and forth between its stone 'road' and the dirt tunnels that made both Leliana and Morrigan nervous; neither one of them liked the close quarters. The decay and destruction of the Deep Roads was more evident the further they traveled and the labyrinthine set-up made them doubly grateful for Oghren. Rather hopeless drunk or not, he made an excellent guide through the Roads. And he became just as enamored of the Wardens and their companions as the Wardens were of him. Alistair and Ffion both were given chances to prove their worth in the highly regarded Order. The Darkspawn were not teeming like they usually would have been, again according to Oghren, but they were alive and well, lurking in whatever space provided them security. Even considering some of the more ingenious hiding spots the creatures had, the taint within the Wardens gave the party ample warning and they were never in too much danger of being overwhelmed. Ffion's was still that high intensity, almost buzz-like irritation that had been so unnerving at Ostagar and in the Fade, while Alistair's nearly eight months of experience had centered him enough that she drew a calm from him. And the added presence of the others was just a huge bonus. They had found that protecting Leliana, Wynne, and Morrigan from the head-on, swarming attack the creatures favored, and keeping them well clear of the melee action, worked like a dream. Leliana was deadly with her aim, the witch caused destruction more readily than any of the Darkspawn, and Wynne, when not healing their bumps and bruises, was just as competent in the offensive as any other mage.
And now Oghren proved to be right once more. His gruff voice was immediately to Ffion's right.
"This is 'em, Ffion," He said, one of the few times he had used her first name, "Th' Dead Trenches."
"Wonderful," Alistair muttered.
They left the cavern and the scattered bodies of the Darkspawn, and entered the most magnificent room they had seen yet. It was huge, the ceiling rocketed over them, and the full expertise of the Dwarven architects were on display. The runes were etched into the stone deeply, withstanding the test of time and anything the Darkspawn threw at them. Straight ahead there was a vast chasm where heat from the lava pools was visible, roiling up around a long broad bridge that led to a set of massive double doors. The sheer intimidation of the room was enough to bring the party to an abrupt halt and the scene they stumbled upon even had the usually unflappable Oghren arching his brows.
At their end of the bridge, there was a troop of Dwarves that were battling about two dozen of the Darkspawn. They were holding their own, too, and by the time Ffion's party shook off the surprise of seeing them and hurried to help, they had whittled it down to less than ten. With the added nine, there was next to no fight whatsoever.
The commander of the troop turned to them as the last Hurlock was cut down, and he eyed Oghren and Alistair who both stood a little forward of the rest.
"You have my thanks," He said, his deep voice calm, "But what in the hell are you all doing down here? I didn't think any of you topsiders came in this far."
"We're on War'en business," Oghren answered and his disdain for whatever these Dwarves happened to be doing was quite evident, "An' we don' need help from th' dead."
He attempted to usher them down the bridge, but Ffion was having none of it. The troop was about eight strong and they were outfitted with matching armor, dark grey like Oghren's but with different designs etched in the surface. Their faces were tattooed with what looked like runes and it was clear from the way they interacted, the appearance of their armor, and the loving care they took of their weapons, they had been here for some time. The commander was a shade taller than Oghren, standing forward, and studying the party with the same concentration that Ffion eyed his. He had pulled his helm from his clean shaven head and the two braids in his beard were thick and short.
"The dead?" It was Wynne repeating Oghren's words, and then she added with profound respect in her voice, "The Legion of the Dead. May the Maker and the Stone guide you in your fight."
The commander blinked at the enchanter, not expecting anyone in this little ragtag band to recognize the Dwarven order for what it was. His brown eyes were suddenly impressed and he inclined his head.
"And you as well, mage," He said and then glanced back at Alistair, his eyes briefly flickering over Ffion as the young Warden moved to his side, "Wardens, huh? You travel in good company, but I've never heard of the Order coming as far as Bownammar. Has something happened?"
"Nothing," Alistair answered before Ffion could. He could practically feel the questions bubbling up within her and her grey eyes were very curious as she looked at the commander. They didn't have time to sit and chat with the troop, no matter how starved they were for anyone outside of their little band, "We're trying to find any evidence of the Paragon Branka."
The Dwarf snorted, his gaze becoming rather contemptuous again.
"That's probably a lost cause," He replied and ignored the way Oghren drew himself up, "This line is crucial to keeping those bastards back and they keep pushing it forward. We lost the bridge two days ago and if you mean to go on, we'd appreciate the help in gaining the ground again. After that though, you're on your own."
Ffion felt the swirl of the Darkspawn taint spike again and she couldn't help the unconscious stiffening of her body. Tilly whined quietly, feeding off of Ffion's emotions, as usual, and she stroked the Mabari's ears absentmindedly as she answered,
"That's fair enough, and more than we should expect. My thanks."
He nodded again and without even a wave from him, his men fell in with Ffion's party. They advanced down the bridge and were able to make it halfway before there was a series of pops and hisses and Morrigan cursed swiftly. They were suddenly surrounded by the heavily cloaked creatures that reminded Ffion of the Fade. She and Zevran both wheeled about in unison, diving back to go up against the ones making for the witch and Wynne. Two of the legionnaires joined them and the fight was over practically before it started.
"Shrieks," Wynne said softly, crouching to examine one of the creatures, "I never expected to see them here."
"You make it a point to know obscure monsters?" The commander asked, his voice almost amused.
The enchanter smiled a little, using her staff to straighten herself, and pushing a lock of white hair behind one ear.
"When one studies demonology I suppose you could make that point, yes," She replied and then motioned with one graceful hand, "But now is not the time. It's probably more important for us to move on, correct?"
"Correct," Sten agreed, keeping his broadsword in his hands, "And the only thing we really need to know is how to kill them."
Zevran caught a shorn strap of Ffion's pack and retied it as she thanked him. His smile was wicked, his amber eyes on Sten.
"A true Qunari answer, my friend," He commented, giving Ffion's shoulder a pat, "There you are, dove."
They continued down the bridge, the young Warden forgetting her embarrassment at his attentions as her senses heightened again. She felt Alistair stiffen beside her and they crowded behind a heap of broken stone that had dropped there long ago. The commander looked between the two of them, waiting for their word.
"Leliana, Morrigan, Wynne, we'll repeat what's worked in the past," Ffion was single-minded as she gave out orders, "Commander, you know what your men are capable of and so I'll let you decide where to place them. We've found that ranged attacks are the most effective and put them to use in tipping the odds in our favor."
"Works for me," He answered.
Three of the Dwarves broke from their comrades and sidled over to stand with Leliana. Once more, it was done without a word from their commander and Ffion couldn't help but be impressed. She shook herself mentally and went on.
"All right, you six will cover us. Try to give Zevran and me an opportunity to slip in behind the enemy. It's so much easier for us to work that way."
"Sten, Oghren, and me will draw their attention, Ffion," Alistair put in, "That won't change."
"And we four will be with you," The commander added.
Ffion found one of the legionnaires at her other elbow and she gave him a nod. Tilly pushed her head into her lady's arm and the young Warden stroked her nose.
"You're with me, Tilly, no worries," She said softly.
Leliana looked around at their group and her blue eyes were alight with excitement. She tossed her copper hair back and murmured to them all,
"The Maker guide your hands."
"And the Stone catch you if you fall," The commander's voice was just as soft and just as passionate.
Nothing more needed to be said and they left their hiding place, hurrying down the bridge before they were spotted. The group of Darkspawn that had taken control was an impressive force, but it wasn't huge. And the creatures certainly weren't expecting a full, head-on assault, which worked in the party's favor. The surprise of the attack startled the Darkspawn enough that they began retreating, giving Ffion, Zevran, Tilly, and the legionnaire a chance to slip in amongst them and start hacking away. Leliana and the Dwarven archers covered the other warriors so completely that there was no chance for the Darkspawn archers to gain control. Everything was coming off flawlessly until the ogre came barreling out from one of the dark corners and charged Alistair's group. The monster scattered the force, crushing one of the legionnaires, but his attack was too late. Ffion took out the alpha Hurlock that was causing trouble and the two Genlocks that were with him, and by the time she surveyed the room, Oghren was leaping onto the ogre, burying his battleaxe in its head, and proving to be much more nimble on his feet than anyone would have guessed. The young Warden stooped and cleaned her blades with a rag that was hanging off one of the Genlocks' bodies. As she returned to her group, the commander approached her.
"The Stone truly blessed us with you, Warden," He said, "With all of you. My name's Kardol, by the way, though being dead kind of negates mentioning it. Like I said earlier, we'll have to hold this position, but I wish you luck in your expedition. The Stone guide you and catch you if you fall."
He gave her a formal bow and turned to his comrades who were surrounding the fallen legionnaire. They took the body in their hands and retreated to the corner opposite of the bridge. Ffion watched a moment longer as they began to chip away at the stone and then she started toward her own party, giving the Dwarves privacy as they buried one of their own.
"It's this way, Ffion," Sten said as he led the way opposite the Legion's somber ritual, "Those doors are useless and the only path is here."
Ffion gave Kardol a last nod as he glanced her way and then hurried to catch up with the rest. They wound their way through the tunnel in silence, the Wardens both feeling the tug of the Darkspawn taint. The next room held just a half dozen Hurlocks and Genlocks which were taken care of without trouble, and Oghren found more of Branka's scratches in the stone that led them further into the next rooms and tunnels. Which were all clear, until they came to a pillared hall with one wall that had crumbled long ago, opening up a wide, cavernous room that was heavily shadowed. They skirted this, following Oghren's direction to the tunnel leading off to the left. The Darkspawn were thick enough here that it was difficult for them to tell exactly where the creatures were, and by the time they could, it was too late.
There was a twang of a bow that wasn't Leliana's and Alistair let out a cry of pain, crumpling to the stone floor. Sten, Oghren, and Zevran instantly whirled to face the room they had avoided and Ffion dropped to her knees beside the ex-Templar. Leliana stooped to help, but the Warden pushed her away, towards the fighting.
"No," She said shortly, "They need your help more."
Turning her attention back to Alistair, she didn't give their precarious position another thought. The arrow was embedded deep in his thigh and bleeding profusely, already leaving a pool and making the ex-Templar's face incredibly pale. Wynne threw up her shield as more arrows sailed their way and they bounced clear. Morrigan stepped forward, grasping the enchanter's arm.
"Help them," Her cold voice was sharper than usual as she pushed Wynne to the Wardens. She slammed the end of her staff into the ground with barely a glance and the Hurlock making for Zevran was suddenly engulfed in flames, "I will take care of this."
"Hold still, Alistair," Ffion was saying, taking hold of the arrow. Her voice trembled and she winced when the ex-Templar let out a pained moan, "It has to come out."
She tightened her hold and put her free hand flat on his thigh beside the wound. Glancing up into his honey colored eyes apologetically, she inhaled and pulled hard on the arrow. Alistair couldn't help but let out another cry as it came free and one hand locked onto Ffion's wrist like a vice.
"Wynne!" Ffion called sharply, wincing as the ex-Templar's fingers bit into her skin with enough force to bruise, "Please, help."
The enchanter was already beside her and she cast her healing spell with utmost concentration. The bleeding eased and Alistair's breath escaped him in a relieved sigh. Movement behind Wynne caught Ffion's gaze and she glanced up to see a Genlock hurtling towards them. The others had ventured further into the room, Tilly included, and there was no defense between the creature and Wynne's unprotected back. Without a word, Ffion grabbed one of her knives with her free hand and flung it. Her aim was as good as ever and the Genlock dropped. The enchanter's bright blue eyes met hers in surprise and then she focused on Alistair again who had eased his grip on Ffion's wrist and instead took her hand in his.
"You should... check on them, Ffion," He said, squeezing her fingers as Wynne bent over his wound.
"He's right," The enchanter agreed as Ffion's lips parted to argue, "We need to know if there's... Just check. I'll take care of this."
The Warden glanced between the two of them and then heard Tilly's booming barks echoing off the walls in the next cavern. She cast one last agonized look at Alistair, whose face was still too pale even with that brief period of blood loss, and jumped to her feet as the Qunari battle-cry followed her hound's barks. When she hurried into the cavern, snatching up her knife as she went, it was just in time to toss it again at the alpha Hurlock going for Morrigan, duck the arrow that was shot at her, and watch with satisfaction as Oghren's huge battleaxe lopped the head off of that master archer. She scoped the room and, when nothing else popped up, immediately turned back to Wynne and Alistair. Zevran was beside her before she could blink and one of his slender, graceful hands was in the crook of her elbow.
"Let our lovely enchanter take care of him, my Warden," He told her, "There is no reason for us to interfere, yes?"
"There is nothing to be done for him that Wynne isn't already doing, Ffion," He interrupted her more firmly. Ffion's eyes were still on what she could see of Wynne's white hair and the Elf sighed. He put both hands on her shoulders and gently pushed her onto the big boulder behind them, "Now sit, my dear. You are bleeding, too, so let me tend to you as our Wynne gets Chirpy back to his feet, yes?"
The Warden reluctantly gave in and remained seated as he moved closer. His fingers tipped her chin up and he dabbed at the blood oozing from her temple with the handkerchief he tugged from his pocket. Beyond him, Ffion could see Alistair struggle slowly to his feet and lean on Wynne as they started towards the cavern. Her relief let her see the humor in this situation and she allowed a small smile at Zevran.
"Only you would have a handkerchief handy in the Deep Roads," She observed, letting Tilly lick her fingers when she reached them.
"Works just as well on blood as it does on tears, my little dove," He answered and his full lips tipped in a smile to match hers, "And I would prefer to not have to use it on you at all. So next time you are fighting on pure instincts, keep a more careful eye, yes? That arrow narrowly missed your own pretty one."
Ffion felt her face getting hot and it was only made worse as Wynne and her patient joined them. Alistair smiled weakly as he eased down beside her. The enchanter cast her healing spell over Ffion, aiding Zevran in his sojourn into nursing. The Elf sent her a sardonic look and then shrugged his shoulders, giving Ffion the handkerchief, and installing himself on her other side while Tilly moved around to perch at her lady's feet. Wynne watched the others carefully as they straggled in, but apart from a few splatters of Darkspawn blood, they were unscathed.
"All righ' there, little P.T?" Oghren questioned, looking Alistair over.
"P.T...? What – oh, Maker!" The ex-Templar's voice was stronger and though he sounded almost annoyed, his honey colored eyes were beginning to dance as he realized what the Dwarf was calling him, "Yes, I'm fine. Shortened. Thanks."
Oghren's thick beard and mustache hid his mouth, but it was clear he was grinning. He nodded and leaned on his battleaxe.
"It'll stick an' yeh'll hate it in a few 'ours."
Ffion smiled broadly now as well and her gaze met Alistair's.
"Are you up for trying again?" She asked, her concern evident.
The ex-Templar stretched his wounded leg slowly, grimacing. Wynne frowned at him, but he pushed away from the boulder and stood under his own power. Gingerly, he placed more weight on it and, as soon as he was sure he wouldn't collapse, spread his arms.
"Let's give it a shot."
This time they had more luck. Wynne had worked wonders for Alistair and though he was a little stiff at first, his leg was soon back to near normal. The long hall that came next was empty and the room after that was more of the same Genlocks and Hurlocks, although this time more shrieks had decided to join the fun. The room itself had no formal exit, instead it was another cave-in and more burrowed tunnels that led further into this vast maze. They had no need of Ffion and Alistair's senses to tell them that the Darkspawn were more prolific than ever here. The packed dirt floor was slick with their grime and the fleshy pods were nestled along nearly every inch of wall space. The air was heavy and hot and, adding that vile smell emanating from the pods, Leliana and Morrigan weren't the only ones who felt claustrophobic.
It was Zevran who heard the voice first. He walked beside Oghren, following directly behind the Wardens and Tilly, and he reached out to grab Ffion's elbow.
"Hold," He said quietly and cocked his head when she glanced back at him, "Do you hear... singing, or chanting?"
They fell completely silent and it was only then that they could make out the female voice that he heard. Whoever it was was murmuring what did indeed sound like a chant and, with a wave to keep them all quiet, Ffion started forward once more, Alistair stepping in unison with her. They finally rounded the last corner, emerging from the dirt tunnels onto the stone floor, and the chanting was a little louder now. But only enough to make out a random word or two. The room was like the others, long and narrow with a wide doorway that led to another, slightly larger room. There the Darkspawn filth was even worse. The fleshy sacks were everywhere and the stone slabs of the floor hardly visible underneath the blood colored slime that covered them. Directly ahead was a crouched figure whose small size belied the fact that she was a Dwarf. They could hear the chant clearly now and it was obvious that she had started over from the beginning. Her voice was still quiet, but there was a beautiful cadence to it which hid the atrocities of the verse until they started paying attention to what it said.
"First day, they come and catch everyone; Second day, they beat us and eat some for meat; Third day, the men are all gnawed on again; Fourth day, we wait and fear for our fate; Fifth day, they return and it's another girl's turn; Sixth day, her screams we hear in our dreams; Seventh day, she grew as in her mouth they spew; Eighth day, we hate it as she is violated; Ninth day, she grins and devours her kin; Now she does feast, as she's become the beast. Now you lay and wait, for their screams will haunt you in your dreams."
Ffion blinked, speechless for a moment. She glanced sidelong at Oghren who had moved up to stand beside Tilly, but he seemed just as shocked as the rest of them. The Warden started forward, ignoring Leliana when the Orlesian hissed her name in protest.
"Serah?" She asked cautiously, walking slowly across the floor, well aware of how treacherous the slime had made it, "Serah, you're not alone anymore. Is there anything I can do to-"
The Dwarven woman stood, her blonde head cocked a little to one side. She turned about with the same care that Ffion took, and her appearance cut the Warden's question short. She was not much older than Oghren, but exposure to the Darkspawn and who knew what other horrors had taken their toll. Her skin was almost translucent and there were sores on her forehead and neck that had taken on a greyish hue, almost matching the Darkspawns' skin. The big, once beautiful eyes were losing their pigmentation and the clothes she wore were filthy. It was impossible to tell what color they had once been and her hands trembled violently before she clasped them in front of her, cocking her head again rather awkwardly to look at Ffion. She had been a beautiful Dwarf in her time and the ravages of this life below the city were tragic to see.
"Nothing," She said in that whispering voice, "Not anymore. Nothing, nothing... It's all gone."
"What in the-"
Ffion waved violently for quiet, cutting short whatever it was that Morrigan was going to say.
"You were part of Branka's house," She wasn't asking and the Dwarf seemed to perk up at that name, "Is there anything else left of it?"
"Left?" The Dwarf repeated and her eyes cleared as she straightened herself, seeming to come to the present, which was painful to watch. One trembling, blood-stained hand knocked a few locks of the lank hair back and she went on in that soft murmur: hesitant and infinitely sad, "Nothing, nothing left... Nothing but the Anvil. She let it consume her until that was all that remained... No, no, nothing left."
Her voice took on the sing-song quality and she turned back to root through the pile of what looked horribly like left-over carcasses.
"Please," Ffion said, taking a few more steps towards her. Her heart twisted with pity at this Dwarf's wretched plight and the tug of the taint was stronger as she got closer to her. She felt her heart drop and realized how completely hopeless this situation was. The Dwarf had the same poison coursing through her veins and for the first time, Ffion was forced to consider what being a Warden actually entailed, and how it would end. She spread her arms when the pale eyes landed on her and added inadequately, "We're only trying to help."
"Too late to help... She was gone before it even started," Once more there was that little clearing in her eyes that said she wasn't completely gone yet, "She began sacrificing us to them... Blessed Stone, the only thing that meant anything to her was that damn Anvil... "
"That chant, that's what happened here, isn't it?" Ffion was almost within reach of the Dwarf now and she stopped when she saw her coil like a spring, "That's what you were reciting?"
"It has to be recited... It was created so I won't forget... We mustn't forget what happened here," Her eyes were unfocused and she stared into space above Ffion's shoulder. Her words came even more hesitantly, the phrases fractured as though she was reading every other sentence in a book, "We tried to escape... They caught us... They show the men mercy, they kill them. It's the women they want... touching, violating, morphing... They need women... Laryn was first... tearing off her husband's face and drinking his blood... watching while she grew, became like them... Broodmother... No, no, nothing left... Nothing left... Just the Anvil..."
Ffion barely found her voice in time to stop the Dwarf from fleeing the room. She was dumbstruck and didn't register Leliana's soft exclamation and Wynne's horrified gasp. The Dwarf pressed her shaking hands over her face, pulling at her hair as those scenes flashed back to her.
"Please, serah," Ffion's voice was just as strained as the Dwarf's, "Is Branka-"
"No," The Dwarf's whisper was harsh and she dropped her hands, locking eyes with Ffion, more clear than they'd ever been, "I was her captain and I didn't stop her... Her lover, and I could not turn her... Forgive her... No! She can't be forgiven... Not for what she's done... Not for what she's become... No!"
This time, the Dwarf couldn't be held up. She bolted from the room and Ffion shook off the affects of those revelations and was on her heels.
"No, wait!" She called.
The Dwarf disappeared around the corner, into the next room. The others were right behind their leader when she suddenly cursed, back-peddling into Sten's chest. Two ogres loomed in front of another set of huge doors and the Dwarf darted between them, scaling the wall, and slipping into the shadows above them. Not that it mattered, the ogres were not to be ignored. Luckily for the companions, they weren't very smart. They both lowered themselves to charge and collided into one another. Half of the companions went against one while the other half was busy with the second, and soon there were two dead ogres.
Ffion's attention transferred to the double doors, and she examined the lock while the others gathered around.
"Nothin' kicks yeh in the teeth more'n findin' out yer wife was into ladies. Stone bless her."
Oghren clearly spoke just to break the tension radiating from the Wardens and Ffion was too distracted to pay attention. Her grey eyes were still on the door and she patted down her belt pouches before glancing back at Zevran. The Elf had been looking steadily at her and she didn't think anything of it.
"All I have are hairpins," She said shortly, feeling even more anxious. That Dwarf was their only hope in finding out any further information on Branka and she didn't want to lose her, "Do you have any lock-picks?"
"Ffion, 'tis quite clear that Dwarf is too addled to tell us much more," Morrigan spoke almost gently, for her, though the Warden was sure that she and Alistair were the only ones to pick up on it, "Do you-"
"I have to try," Ffion interrupted and moved aside to let Zevran try his luck with the door. Her adrenaline was such that she almost started pacing as she waited, but the lock was old and the Elf's fingers incredibly dexterous, "We have to do something."
The lock gave a click and the doors, released from that sole position for the first time in decades, popped out towards the party.
"Sten," Ffion grabbed one door and threw her weight back as the Qunari stepped forward and helped.
Oghren was next to move in, slipping his battleaxe between the doors and levering one of them open. There weren't any Darkspawn in the shadowed hall they entered and the Dwarf had disappeared completely as well. They moved reluctantly after Ffion who wasn't about to be talked out of any of this.
"Ffion, there's something-"
"I know," She interrupted Alistair in a quiet murmur, focusing on the taint for a moment, and then glancing up at him, "But I don't think it's just the Dwarf. This feels... different."
They had left the stone hall for the dirt tunnels for the thousandth time and Alistair nodded his head. As if on cue, confirming Ffion's thought before Alistair could, there was an echoing groan from the depths of this new path. Everyone stopped short, not sure what this would mean.
"Ffion," Leliana's whispering voice faded away as soon as it started and she was at a loss for words.
"We don't have a choice," The Warden replied and had to force herself to take the next step.
Tilly hampered her legs, Alistair moved stiffly beside her, and she could practically feel Zevran's breath on her neck. The others pressed in around her as well and there was another groan as they rounded the last corner and froze in their tracks. The ground here was slick and treacherous, the smell more vile and air thickest yet; there was a path that led further into the cavern but between them and it was...
"Maker's balls!" Ffion breathed and it was more like a gasp.
Behind her, Sten and Leliana were cursing swiftly in their own tongues. Zevran hadn't uttered a word though his blades were in his palms with a swift metallic sound; Morrigan had the air around them crackling with power. Oghren's hands tightened on his axe and he pushed up to stand next to a very grim-faced Alistair, while Tilly whined softly and Wynne surrounded them with a shield of energy.
The creature... Broodmother, was settled at the base of a huge stalagmite that was the only thing preventing it from tumbling into a massive chasm that gaped behind it. The creature itself was a disgusting, hulking thing that towered well above Sten and its numerous tentacles sliced through the air menacingly, pushing up from the ground in a mockery of living vines. The head was bald, the skin greyish white, and the many chins hid any neck, instead morphing into rows of breasts. Two pudgy arms waved like a child's and when its sunken, beady eyes landed on them, it let out a loud, piercing shriek.
Leliana was the first to react. Her bow was in her hands and the arrow sailed through the tentacles, lodging in the Broodmother's chest. It let out another yell and that seemed to shake the rest of the party from their lethargy. Sten, Oghren, and Alistair all started forward, their weapons lopping off any of the tentacles that threatened to grab at them, and trying to cause whatever damage they could to this monster. Ffion and Zevran had to hold their own with an enemy they couldn't backstab, while Morrigan, Wynne and Leliana did their best to incapacitate the Broodmother.
There seemed to be no way to actually reach the creature itself and the fight was soon made more impossible as half a dozen Genlocks suddenly popped up around them. Alistair was breaking away from the Broodmother and starting towards the Darkspawn before Ffion waved him back.
"No!" She shouted, "Take her out! We'll take care of this!"
She and Tilly bolted for the first group of Genlocks and Wynne eased on the Broodmother to help. The little monsters were not prepared for something so fierce and went down easily. The Broodmother screeched as its 'children' were disposed of, and it rocked back, giving Oghren a chance. The battleaxe gleamed in the poor light as he landed a severe blow, making the screech become more one of pain than fury. Sten got in another blow and then one of the tentacles whipped around, knocking them back and leaving Alistair scrambling when he was suddenly on his own. Zevran was a mere shadow as he sprang forward and sliced the tentacle winding around Alistair's legs in half. The ex-Templar didn't even have time to thank him before they were both tossed back into the thick of things.
Ffion, Wynne, and Tilly were busy again with more Darkspawn that had been summoned, and then Morrigan shouted at the men to move. The air was thick with the smell and charge of a lightning storm and, in a blink, the witch released her power. Bolts of energy snaked down into the tentacles and the monster, and it rocked back for the second time. Ffion took her own chance.
Ignoring the frantic shouts of her name, the Warden darted in between the bolts of lightning and the tentacles, not feeling either one when they landed lucky blows. Tilly was barking fiercely and Leliana's arrows buzzed just past her as she took a few long steps and leaped at the Broodmother. Her leather boots found a foothold in the rows of disgusting breasts and the only thing she could think of as one of her blades sank home in the creature's neck was: Maker, let someone show me as much pity!
The Broodmother let out another shriek and its arms went up to grab at Ffion as the Warden slammed her other blade home. In its death throes Ffion was knocked clear, landing on her back at Sten's feet. The Qunari sidestepped quickly, taking out the third wave of Darkspawn that sprang from the ground. Ffion remained where she was, fighting to catch her breath, and listening to the Broodmother die. Rapid footsteps came her way and Zevran's voice was concerned and more than a little frightened,
"Ffion? My little dove, you-"
"I – I'm fine," She interrupted, slowly sitting up, and wincing as she did so. Her grey eyes went around the cavern and landed on the still twitching Broodmother. It dawned on her that, as a Grey Warden, a woman Warden, this was her fate, and her first thought was: "Shit."
She put her face in her trembling hands, trying to get a hold of herself and then heard that familiar whispering, almost singsong voice.
"That's why they need us... that's why they hate us... that's why they take us," The Dwarf was perched on the stalagmite behind the Broodmother and surveying them all with a lost expression on her face, "This is where they come from... Branka used the... children to serve her own needs... sacrificing her House for that damn Anvil... No!" She was on the verge of running and then with a sudden clarity, she finished her thought, the lost look morphing into determination, "Abominations, monsters, horrors no one can fathom... but the true abomination was not that it happened... it is that it was allowed... My love... Branka... I am dying of a disease worse than death itself... Betrayal... Farewell, my dream friend."
And with that, she turned and stepped off the stalagmite, into the black abyss.
"No!" Ffion jumped to her feet, "Please!"
It was too late, the Dwarf was gone. The Warden slumped, her strength disappearing in a simple breath. She could feel Zevran's eyes on her and Morrigan turned about as well, her brows arching. Ffion put up a hand and shook her head.
"Don't," She said quietly and heard the rough emotion in her voice, "Please, Morrigan, just... don't."
Alistair was also looking at her with some trepidation, and the exhaustion and grief of the past few hours was eaten away by a sudden rush of anger. This was known! All the Wardens knew what happened to their sisters in the Order and though that little inner voice, the one sounding like her mother, told her this was not Alistair's fault, it was something that Duncan failed to tell her; the other voice, (her own), was adamant about finding a vent. And here was Alistair, who was looking at her with so much pity she was damn sure he couldn't plead innocence in this.
"That'll be me, won't it?" She was just barely asking and she motioned to the Broodmother with a dismissive wave, "Thirty years, right? And that's me. Thanks for sharing."
"Listen, Ffion, it's not so-"
"Don't you dare!" She exclaimed. The last thing she wanted to hear from him was that 'it isn't as bad as you think.' And definitely not when he didn't have any clue himself, "It's a damn lie and you know it!"
"All right so I knew!" Alistair got angry in his turn and neither one of them gave their audience a thought, "What the hell was I supposed to do, Ffion? Pull you aside in the midst of all this chaos and say, 'Oh, by the way, you know those thirty years? At the end you girls get to spend the rest of your lives producing more of these bastards!'"
"That's a great start!" She was shouting now, yanking her arm from Zevran's restraining hand, "It's sure as hell better than springing it on me while we're down here. Honestly, Alistair, if you want to kill me why don't you just take that-"
"Oh, shut up and quit playing the martyr! So you had to find out the hard way, welcome to the world!" Alistair's honey colored eyes snapped with a fire that no one had ever seen and his biting words brought an uneasy silence.
Ffion blinked, her grey eyes flickering with hurt, and her lips parted but nothing came. She glanced at the Broodmother again and the short swords still jammed in its throat and once more, her strength disappeared. The weight of all she had seen and learned crashed down on her and she shook her head, not looking at any of them.
The ex-Templar instantly felt guilty. He hated the thought that he had just hurt Ffion, of all people, the one member of their party that had never intentionally hurt him, the one that had given him back his mother's medallion without a thought of any repayment. Not to mention a girl he had come to care a whole hell of a lot for. Taking a breath and grimacing when he realized all of the others were eating this up, he reached halfheartedly for Ffion's elbow.
"Look, Ffion, I-"
"Don't bother," She snapped and then brushed by him, moving to skirt the Broodmother and head for the little ledge that ran around the stalagmite; the same that the Dwarf must have used, and no one could blame Zevran for grabbing at her arm again, "Leave it, I'm not going to do anything stupid. I just... I... I need to be alone. Just for a minute... I... Please, Zev?"
The Elf hesitated a moment longer and then gave her a single nod, letting her go. Oghren cleared his throat self-consciously, hating the position he found himself in.
"We'll make camp in th' next tunnel, Ffion," He offered, "Yeh'll 'ave all the time yeh need."
Ffion would have been fine if the Dwarf hadn't been so kind. She nodded her head without looking at him, and came the closest to breaking down as she ever had since that nightmare in Highever... Tears welled in her eyes and she tried vainly to keep her voice steady.
"That's..." The word trembled out and she tried again, "That's fine, thanks."
The party reluctantly moved further down the tunnel, away from the dead Broodmother, giving Ffion the privacy she so desperately needed. She edged her way along the ledge, which was just wide enough to walk comfortably, and reached the spot where the Dwarf had jumped. Brushing those loose tears from her eyes and wishing she hadn't let her emotions get the better of her, she dropped to the ground. Her back pressed against the stalagmite and she drew her knees up, propping her elbows on them, and burrowing her chin into her folded arms. She knew that she wasn't being fair with Alistair, but he hadn't been entirely fair with her. The image of his troubled honey colored eyes flashed before her, and she closed her own eyes, pressing her face into her forearm.
She shouldn't have argued with him, shouldn't have called him out in front of everyone, but with emotions running so high, it was downright impossible. The Dwarf's plight pulled at her in the same way that her family's destruction had and it was horrible reliving that in this hell. Something about the adoration that the Dwarf had obviously felt for Branka and her house was a sharp reminder of Fergus and Oriana, and it only deepened her pain.
Ffion sat there on that ledge, chin digging into her forearm, and staring into the darkness of that chasm for about an hour before she heard the footsteps. Her hands instantly dropped to her belt, but a quick check of the Darkspawn taint revealed nothing and a moment later, she knew why. Leliana dimpled gently at her, both of her newly cleaned short swords clasped in one small hand, which she held out as she approached.
"Is it all right to sit?" The Orlesian asked when Ffion took her swords.
Ffion shrugged, waving her free hand as the swords were nestled next to her where they belonged.
"If I said no would you listen?" She replied with a wry humor in her voice. She hated that she could hear those few shed tears, and then decided that Leliana would be the only one she wouldn't mind knowing she'd been crying.
The Orlesian shrugged her own shoulders and plopped down beside her.
"Obviously no," She cocked her head at the Warden and added with especial care, "Alistair is worried about you, dear, he wanted me to-"
"No," Ffion interrupted sharply, straightening against the stalagmite, and realizing for the first time that her back was stiff with pain, "If he wants to apologize, he knows where I am."
"And would you listen?" Leliana was calm and cool, the voice of reason, and Ffion was irritated by it.
"He was being an ass," Her voice was sharp again and she didn't think anything of it, "Listen, Leliana, I stayed behind to avoid thinking about this and I don't want to be reminded now. We still have Maker knows how long before we reach the smithy, if it exists, and then about a week back to Orzammar. Alistair and I will have plenty of time to hammer out the details and settle the disagreements before we get back. Don't think you can push me into anything."
The Orlesian snorted, amused but trying to hide it.
"Like anyone could," She muttered and nudged her with an elbow, "Zevran does not like this, my dear. He is worried you will wrinkle that pretty face of yours with worry. And besides, if you and Alistair lose one another, what will you do then?"
Ffion couldn't help but mutter under her breath as she glanced sidelong at the little Orlesian. Her grey eyes began dancing.
"This is all one big conspiracy," She said and started to her feet, "You all are just trying to annoy me to death so I don't have to worry about becoming one of those monsters. Which won't... He should have told me, Leliana, you can't argue with that."
Leliana looked down at her long fingers and then she brushed her short copper hair back with one hand. Her pale blue eyes went back to Ffion and she spoke before the Warden could stand and make her escape.
"He cares about you, love, as we all do," Her accented voice was as smooth as always and the endearment made Ffion's cheeks color, "You cannot blame him for being concerned and wanting to avoid any... unpleasant conversation, no?"
Ffion ignored the implication there and stood to her full, admittedly not very impressive height. She was blushing furiously now, wishing that the ex-Templar's overt care for her was not so... Well, overt. Her gaze met Leliana's again and she lifted her shoulders a little.
"Should that include what will happen to a sister Warden at the end of her life?" Her voice was understandably bitter.
"He... Ffion, he... he is not going to let that happen," Leliana recalled the passion in Alistair's voice as he promised this and she missed that feeling of being so protected and adored, "He told... He said, if given the chance, he'd do anything to help you... avoid it. Anything to prevent this from happening to you."
The Warden wondered if she would ever turn back to her proper color. She stepped over the Orlesian's legs and headed back down the ledge, tossing over her shoulder,
"He should have told me that himself, Leliana, instead of letting me find out from someone else. Don't cover for him anymore, please, it does nothing for him."
At the bottom of the little path, Tilly was perched on her haunches, waiting patiently for her lady. Ffion touched her head with a twinge of guilt.
"Come on, girl," She said softly, "Let's find you something to eat."
Leliana fell in beside them and they went to the camp in a companionable silence. Sten was the only one still awake and he sat in front of a small fire, sharpening the huge broadsword calmly. Oghren had found a perfect place for their tents. It was in an offshoot of the main tunnel, forming a small cove with a ceiling whose height prevented them from getting smoked out. The tents were all pitched, save Oghren's and Sten's, but the Dwarf didn't use one anyway and was already snoring gently, oblivious to the girls' return, while Sten was clearly on watch. Ffion saw that, once more, Alistair's tent was next to hers and she felt her face tighten a little. But Leliana looked at her steadily and Zevran's flamboyantly red tent was on the other side of hers, and so she shrugged it off. She gave Sten a small smile and nod as she reached the fire and took up a few scraps of ham and a crust of bread. Tossing the ham to Tilly and taking a few absentminded bites of the hearty bread, she felt her exhaustion taking hold and she met the Qunari's violet eyes.
"I'll take the secon-"
"No," His deep voice was as calm as ever, even as Leliana made a protesting noise, and his hands didn't miss a beat in their work, "Sleep, Ffion, we have the watches figured out already. The Dwarf thinks it would be wise to move on as soon as we can in the... Well, the morning, so the mage will wake you when it's time."
Ffion blinked at him, giving Leliana a quick glance, and then lifting her shoulders. She was getting too used to being the one in charge, if that initial reaction to this change was any judge. But in all honestly, she liked this much more. Her body was screaming at her to get some sleep and here was the opportunity.
"Sounds good to me," She replied, "Thank you, Sten, and you too, Leliana."
She turned to duck into her tent with Tilly on her heels and Sten's deep voice stopped her.
"You did nothing wrong, Ffion," He said and the whetstone paused in its track up the blade, "I am not... comfortable with the humans' show of emotion, but with what you have been through... I have to commend you again. Anyone else would be broken by now."
The Warden's mouth tipped and she couldn't help but poke fun at the Qunari, which maybe was a good thing. At least she still had something of a sense of humor.
"The day's not over yet, Sten. I was just about to go and cry myself to sleep, so you may want to put a hold on that thought."
As the canvas tent fell over her line of vision, she could have sworn that she got the Qunari to actually smile. And that helped to make up for some of the day's events.
It was a very subdued party that left the campsite in what
they could only assume was morning. There was a stony silence between Alistair
and Ffion, and both Zevran and Oghren made it a point to be more irreverent and
offbeat than usual. Though it fell rather flat after what had been experienced
the day before. Ffion's grey eyes were deeply shadowed and it was clear she
hadn't slept much, but after a very sharp response to Wynne's concern, and for
one of very few times having Morrigan on her side, no one pushed her. The witch
was tired of traversing the caverns and she felt drawn to Ffion after seeing
what her future held. The hopelessness of it all made her want to take up that
banner and she wasn't exactly sure what it was about this one that fueled her.
She had always had more respect for Ffion than Alistair, obviously, and to help
her here felt somehow... right.
So it was Morrigan and Ffion against the rest of them, with Tilly, naturally, and the witch's power mixed with the Warden's determination created a team that none of the others wanted to oppose. Morrigan was dangerous and Ffion would have to be knocked out or sedated and then physically tied to a bed before she conceded to any more rest. And Tilly would never allow that.
Luckily for all involved, the tiptoeing around on eggshells didn't last long. They had left the stone halls and roads completely now, but Oghren was still finding Branka's odd little marks in the walls which told them they were still on the right track. And it all paid off. They entered another huge cavern with a ceiling that soared several storeys high. There were traces of the Darkspawn here and they moved cautiously as they ventured further. Suddenly, there was a slide of metal on metal followed by an ominous crashing of dirt and rock and Sten called the warning.
"Get down!" The Qunari shoved Morrigan and Leliana out of the way of the slide and then dove to the ground himself.
Several metal sheets crashed down over the opening of the tunnel and dust enveloped the party. For once, Ffion wasn't leading the way and while Tilly was well clear of the slide, the Warden would have been crushed. Had Alistair not acted, that is. He darted back, grabbing her around the waist, and yanking her away. She stumbled into him and they went crashing to the packed earth. They rolled clear, the ex-Templar's weight pinning Ffion to the ground, coughing and blinking in the heavy dust.
"Are you... okay?" Alistair questioned around the coughs.
"Fine," Ffion replied and pushed at his shoulders, "Can I get up please?"
"Not good, my Warden," Zevran's voice was grim as Alistair helped Ffion to her feet. The Elf was studying the slide, "Let us hope there is another way out or Harrowmont will never gain ground."
"So that dusty old bastard finally kicked the bucket, huh? And since you're down here for Harrowmont, those idiotic Deshyrs can't make up their minds," This new voice came from further in and up above them, "You're being duped, but since you're here, you can be of use."
They all rounded, weapons at the ready, to see a female Dwarf standing on a small rise, studying them with disdain in her grey eyes. Her dark red hair was pulled into two knots on either side of her small intense face, and she was dressed in leather armor that had been worn hard and repaired with care.
"Branka?!" Oghren's voice was thrilled and more than a little disbelieving, as though he himself hadn't truly thought they'd find her, "Well, shave me back an' call me an Elf! Didn' think I'd see yeh again."
"An Elf, hmm?" Zevran repeated quietly, his voice amused as he slid his blades back, "Interesting thought."
"Oghren, it figures that you would drag someone into following you down here," Branka cast her arrogant glance around them again, "And this is the ignorant sod? Another one of your lost causes then?"
"Watch yer mouth, woman!" Oghren instantly sprang to Ffion's defense, "These're Wardens, tryin' to 'elp!"
Ffion still studied Branka, remembering the other Dwarf's words, and she felt her distaste for this situation spike sharply. Alistair was no longer her outlet, she'd found a new one, and she shifted her weight forward. She pulled herself up to her full height and drew what remained of her nobility around her like a shroud.
"Yes, the dusty bastard's dead," She repeated and heard the irritation and exhaustion in her words, "And you seem to know exactly why we're here, so I won't bother going into more detail."
"Irrelevant," Branka replied with a dismissive wave, "You could put a drunken monkey on the throne and you would get the same results. All that matters is the Anvil and I'm so close to it! If it wasn't for the traps that are guarding it, I'd have been back ages ago. I'm too close to give up now!"
Morrigan wasn't impressed; none of them were, but the witch was quickest to respond. Her brows went up and she folded her slender arms over her chest.
"Have you not sacrificed enough? Surely it cannot be that crucial."
Branka looked shocked, but didn't bother to waste much time on the witch, who clearly was not going to be convinced. She instead transferred her attention back to Ffion and Oghren. Her gaze went over Ffion and dismissed her as she looked at her former husband.
"Look around you, Oghren," She said passionately, "Is this what our great kingdom should look like? A breeding ground for these slimy bastards; crumbling and putrefying before our very eyes? But the Anvil! Everything will change if that's returned to us! No one could oppose the Dwarves, we could eradicate these vermin once and for all, and go back to the glory days of the old kingdoms!" Her eyes were blazing, but it wasn't just passion. Something was unhinged there, and they were able to see the Dwarf that had sacrificed her House to further her own means. The calm that settled over her quite suddenly was even more chilling and Ffion could feel the unease radiate from the rest of the party as Branka's eyes met hers. The Dwarf's fists clenched as she added, "A favor for a favor: I will name your king when I can place my hand on that Anvil. It is through a gauntlet of sorts; I know it has to be close! Haveck was last one I had to put through, the last one to fail me... He returned with just enough life left to tell me that there was only one other room to master. The fool! He could have made it!"
"Maker curse him for being mortal and failing his commander's fool notions?" Wynne was almost as cold as Morrigan and her blue eyes were ice.
"Warden!" Branka seemed not to hear the enchanter and she rounded on Ffion so suddenly that, even with the distance separating them, Alistair and Zevran still stepped forward to block whatever blow might come. Tilly growled softly, her hackles rising as the Dwarf went on, "Do we have a deal?"
Ffion was ready to scream if anyone asked her that question again. Cullen wanting a deal, Uldred promising the same thing, Harrowmont and his deal... She shook her head a little, feeling everyone's eyes on her.
"I'll take a look," She replied, "I won't promise anything, not when you don't even know for sure what's beyond this room. If we come running back, screaming for our lives, you know we've failed, and if not... Well, then it'll be up to you."
Branka was on the verge of arguing and then stopped. Ffion was clearly less likely to be talked in to any of this then the Dwarf was to be talked out of it.
"Very well, I suppose that's more than I should have hoped to get," She said, inclining her head.
"That's all you will be getting," Sten's muttering was quite audible.
The Dwarf drew herself up and eyed them coldly in turn.
"I am your Paragon. And you will get your king," She said regally and then jerked her head behind her, "The door is through there. Don't disappoint me."
"'Tis being quite presum-"
"Please, let's just... get this over with," Ffion interrupted Morrigan's annoyed voice.
Oghren seemed subdued as they skirted Branka's perch and headed towards the opening she had indicated. Not that anyone blamed him. Learning that his wife was more inclined to women than men and was clearly going mad in this futile search was a lot to take in all at once. They could hear her muttering to herself as they went and if she hadn't told them that Haveck was the last Dwarf that had been sacrificed, they would have thought she wasn't alone.
"Of course they had to be used!" She said sharply as though she was continuing an argument that they had interrupted, "How else was I supposed to gain the Anvil? They refused to understand that their sacrifice was for the good of the House, for the good of our kingdom! The damn fools would have done the same to me! Betrayal... deceiving bastards..."
Her voice was lost as they crossed the cavernous room and saw the door ahead. Alistair cast a quick glance over his shoulder and then muttered,
"Nice to know we aren't working for a psycho or anything."
Ffion couldn't help but let out a snort of laughter. She had been thinking the same thing and it was nice to hear it put so bluntly. Even Oghren spared a smile and he shrugged his shoulders, pulling his axe free as they reached the door.
"The on'y thin' that I wanted was ter see her naked," He replied, keeping that rather vulgar sense of humor alive and well, "An' bein' crazy is a good thin' in bed, righ'? I mean-"
"Okay, that's enough," Alistair interrupted, his cheeks turning pink, "You don't have to go into detail."
Oghren cocked his head at the ex-Templar as Zevran grinned, Leliana giggled, and Morrigan smirked. Ffion stepped forward to open up the door with Sten and Tilly beside her while Wynne watched the scene with an amused smile.
"Yer not still a-"
The door wasn't locked and Ffion pulled it open, successfully silencing Oghren's next words and sparing Alistair added embarrassment. They crowded into the entry of the room that was revealed and stopped, surveying what was actually visible. There were a few steps that led down to a sunken floor and over this whole area was a thick greenish-yellow gas that rose to the ceiling and stank of sulfur. There were two little pinpricks of light just visible through it and, as Ffion took a hesitant step forward, there was a thudding sound and a familiar grinding of stone on stone.
"Down!!" She shouted, grabbing Tilly's collar as she dove to one side.
Morrigan and Oghren were beside her, Sten shielding them with his big body. The stone that was hurled at them crashed against the doorway, showering them with smaller stones. Ffion pushed at the Qunari, letting go of Tilly, and trying to pull her blades loose all at once. Morrigan reacted just as quickly and they could see their breath in the air as she froze the two Golems that loomed from the sulfuric gas. Sten and Oghren both leaped towards one and their joint efforts shattered the creature completely. From the opposite side of the doorway, Wynne conjured a string of small boulders that collided with the second Golem and disposed of it.
"Is everyone all right?" Ffion asked, coughing as the disturbance caused the gas to creep closer.
"All right," Alistair answered, "But what are we supposed to do now?"
Leliana was squinting into the gas, holding one hand over her mouth, and getting as close to it as she could.
"There must be valves," She said through her fingers, "The gas does not seem nearly as thick on the other side. Poor Haveck must have been lucky enough to find one."
Ffion, moving to stand with her, gave a shrug of her shoulders. She slid her swords back and took out the handkerchief that Zevran had given her.
"Only one way to find out," She replied, shaking it out, and then folding it in half so she could hold it easily against her mouth.
"Are you quite serious?" Morrigan's voice was disbelieving and she was second guessing her prior support of the Warden, "Who is to say 'tis safe?"
Ffion wasn't about to be budged. Her grey eyes were hard, but she gave them all a smile as she slipped away.
"At least if I die here I won't end up producing more Darkspawn, right?"
She moved swiftly through the gas, coughing in the smoke. Following the walls as best she could, she found a small alcove that was halfway across the room and almost tripped over the valve that protruded about ten inches off the floor. She closed it quickly and froze for a moment when there was the grinding sound of another Golem. It was only when the monster moved that she saw where it had been immobile in the shadows. Quickly ducking away from the hurled boulder, she dropped the handkerchief and bolted for the other side of the room where there had to be another valve.
"Morrigan, Sten!!" She hollered, forgetting about the gas in her haste, "Here comes another one!"
There was a second Golem that joined the first as she closed off the final valve, but without the gas, it was a much easier fight. Wynne and Morrigan both used the strings of boulders and blasts of ice, which seemed the most effective against the monsters; and as soon as the Golems were gone, the door at the other end of the room popped open.
"Wonderful," Zevran observed as they headed that way, "If the only way to open the doors is to beat each... obstacle, then there would be no way for Haveck to know how many rooms there were, yes?"
"Well, we did decide she's crazy, right?" Alistair looked at Oghren with his crooked grin, "Besides with all of us, it shouldn't be too hard."
"Optimistic to the last," Sten stooped, picking up the handkerchief that had slipped from Ffion's fingers, "A foolish trait. Did you wish to keep this?"
"Thanks," The young Warden tucked it away absentmindedly, ignoring Zevran's almost conspiratorial smirk, "Let's see what's next. Alistair has a good point; just be ready, Wynne, you too, Morrigan."
The words were unnecessary. Neither the witch nor the enchanter had put away her staff, and the others pulled out their respective weapons as they entered the next room. It was another long, narrow hall, but instead of just one alcove on either side there were four. And each had a Golem standing at attention inside them. For a second the companions remained frozen where they were but when the monsters didn't move, they pressed on. The first two Golems didn't budge and, as Zevran crouched down to harmlessly spring the traps that were just before the second pair, they sprang to life. Morrigan was ready, however, and she froze them before they even got the chance to hurl their boulders. Sten, Alistair, and Oghren were just as quick as the witch and Zevran hardly finished with the traps when the last Golem dropped. His amber eyes were amused.
"Very good," He said and carefully walked by the next pair of Golems before crouching to repeat his tactics, his gaze on the last set, "We may be able to work with one another yet."
Ffion felt the sting of those words, knowing that he meant to reference herself and Alistair, and was almost happy when the Golems again came awake. She didn't want to think about that day, not now; not when it was so important to keep a clear head in all of this. Once more, the Golems didn't really stand a chance against all of them and this door opened automatically, too.
For the next obstacle, they were standing on a dirt track in a huge cavern. There were piles of rocks on either side and straight ahead was one of the most bizarre things they had seen yet. It was a massive carved stone that was suspended from the ceiling over a raised platform. There were four faces with gaping mouths, sharp noses, and hollow eyes; in front of where each one glared was an anvil. A bluish light emanated from the chasm beyond another mound of boulders and it encompassed everything, making for an eerie setting. And when the party edged closer, things only got worse.
The grinding of stone on stone made them turn about, looking in vain for any Golems, but the threat came from the stone faces. The eyes were no longer hollow, instead they glowed and sparked with lightning, and in the same instant the anvils illuminated with that blue light. Dwarven specters were standing guard over them and when they saw Ffion's party, their mouths moved with long silent war cries. At a loss of how they were supposed to defeat this new foe, they focused on taking out the specters. It was Tilly that revealed the secret. The Mabari was fighting alongside Sten, close to Ffion, and she ducked clear when Wynne shot a bolt of energy at the Dwarf ghost. She knocked into the anvil that was closest to her and made it rock slightly. The Qunari spotted how the light in the face above him faded and he instantly jumped forward, slamming his weight into the anvil. This time, one edge of it rocked off its base completely and the power that surrounded it shot at the face in a tangible bolt.
"The anvils!" He shouted, throwing himself at the next one, "It's the anvils! Cut their power!"
The others followed his direction and soon the three remaining faces lost whatever connection they had with their power. Ffion glanced at the door partially hidden in the shadows off to their left, but it remained closed tight. As if on cue, the grinding noise started again and the faces were turning about on their base. When they came to a stop, a burst of energy pushed the party forcibly off the platform, Leliana and Wynne falling to the dirt path. They sprang to their feet again and Wynne wasn't quick enough to block the blood-red bolts that shot towards the rest of the companions from the eye-sockets. But they didn't allow it to slow them.
The Dwarven specters were taken out and they repeated their work on the anvils. The faces spun for a third time and these specters were a little harder to get rid of. Once more, Alistair's point was proved correct: having the whole party was detrimental to their success. When the connection with the last anvil was broken, there was a high pitched screech of the stone sliding against stone; almost like the faces were screaming. And then they slumped on their base, the eyes once more becoming dark empty holes.
The door opened and an orange light emanated from the room. Ffion sank down onto one of the anvils with a sigh, rubbing Tilly's ears as the others frowned at her. Wynne and Leliana both stepped forward in unison, the enchanter speaking first.
"Ffion? Are you all right? Those bolts didn't-"
"No, no, I'm just... I'm okay," She reluctantly heaved herself to her feet, using Tilly as a crutch, "Let's go on, and Maker's balls, I hope this is it."
That last was added to herself and she didn't wait for their response, moving on with her hound trotting loyally beside her. She froze as soon as she had taken a few steps into the room. It was the biggest cavern they had come across yet. There was a broad, flat area with scattered piles of what looked like pure lyrium. Massive stalagmites were bordering the biggest lava river they had come across in the Roads and there was a wide formation that had taken on the appearance of a ramp. At the top of this was something that glittered with the same bluish light as the lyrium, but between them and what had to be the Anvil Branka was so obsessed with, was a group of nine Golems. Four lined each side of the path that the party would have to take and the ninth was bigger and broader than the others with vein-like lines of lyrium running through its body. Its head was not stone like the rest, but seemed to be a helm of sorts, and this one actually spoke.
"Come freely," Its voice was deep and echoing, with an underlying melancholy that oddly made it seem more real, "I do not wish to fight you. Indeed, congratulations are in order, and I believe that you know only what that Dwarf has told you. You must hear the other side of this tragic tale."
Ffion eyed the Golem a moment longer and slowly relaxed, keeping her blades in her hands, but easing from her fighters' stance. She waved the point of one of the swords.
"By all means," She replied, "We've come to the conclusion that Branka's a little touched anyway, so go ahead. What the hell, right?"
If the Golem could have cocked its head, it would have.
"I shall never understand mortals," Its deep voice commented and then went on, "If you have not guessed, I am Caridin, the first Golem and the creator of all of this... madness. In the beginning we were merely trying to protect our city. You see, I am... was a Dwarf. I created the Anvil during the First Blight; we were desperate for anything that would push the Darkspawn horde back. It was agreed that we would use only volunteers, any citizen that was willing to make the sacrifice for their city and her people. The Anvil creates the Golems, yes, but not without taking life," Caridin gave what was obviously a sigh, "I protested when I learned that the king Valtor was pulling in casteless, criminals, and his political enemies to turn, and I was doomed to it myself. Nothing could stand in the way of his ambition to have an unbeatable army, not even when his people began to flee the city to avoid this fate. So I have turned this... shame into something honorable. My entire life I have devoted to protecting the Anvil and the horrible power it contains."
Ffion frowned, forgetting her exhaustion in the face of this new hurdle. Though she couldn't see any eyes in Caridin's face, she could feel his gaze on her, and she cocked her own head.
"And I'll never understand immortals," She said and almost grinned at Zevran's snorted laughter, "Why didn't you just destroy the Anvil if it's so dangerous?"
"Alas, I cannot harm the Anvil," He replied, "I am only able to create."
"Taking the lives of Dwarves to create these Golems..." Wynne was quietly horrified, her voice saddened rather than judgemental, "That is the equivalent of blood magic and... It's wrong."
"But if you've created it, doesn't that mean you can destroy it?" Alistair was just as confused as his fellow Warden, "That makes sense, doesn't it?"
Zevran slid his swords home as he stepped up beside his Warden and her ex-Templar. His amber eyes were on Caridin as he added his own two bits.
"It does, to a degree, yes?" He observed, "But nothing we have done is easy, why should this be so?"
Caridin shifted on his stone feet, almost looking like he wanted to cross his arms over his chest. The Golems shifted in the same instant and the party stiffened, but the monsters were only mimicking their creator.
"All I ask, stranger, is that you destroy the Anvil," He spoke to Ffion, "It stands there, at the end of that rise, and all that you must do is-"
"No!!" Branka's voice was frantic as she charged into the room, a slender wand-like object clasped in one hand, "You can't! The Anvil is mine and I won't let you ruin what I've come all this way to find! I've sacrificed too much to let you damn worms stand in my way! You said-"
"I said I'd take a look," Ffion's voice was firm and just short of a yell. Her grey eyes blazed with anger and she took a few steps back to stand closer to Caridin, "Sacrifice? Worms? Look who's talking, you selfish little... No, Branka, this is wrong. I don't care what the hell happens to your crazy dream – no, nightmare – and if you want the Anvil, you'll have to go through me."
Oghren's expression was torn and he stepped into the gap between his wife and Ffion. His green eyes flickered back and forth, and he threw up his hands.
"Jus' let her 'ave the damn thing," He said, caught in the memories of the good days of his marriage, "Tha's the on'y reason she's so crazy. C'mon, Ffion-"
"No, I'm sorry, Oghren, but no," Ffion shook her head, tightening her hold on her blades, and feeling a little shiver of apprehension as spasms of anger flashed over Branka's face, "Caridin's right, Wynne's right, and I'm so damn tired that... No, the answer's no. That Anvil has to be destroyed."
Behind her, Caridin heaved another sigh, and Wynne, Alistair, and Leliana all beamed at her, but Branka... pissed didn't even begin to describe it. The Dwarf was seething, her face bright red with fury, and she glared at Ffion with so much heat, it was a wonder the Warden wasn't burned. She lifted up that odd, wand-like apparatus and called in a voice that was high with anger,
"I won't let that happen! Golems, to me! Destroy these deceivers!"
"A control rod!" Caridin spoke more hesitantly, "I cannot go against her... Help, stranger... Please..."
Three of the eight Golems resisted the pull of the control rod and started forward against their kin as Branka dove at Ffion, and Oghren, torn for a moment longer, joined the Warden in her fight. Morrigan and Sten made quick work of one of the Golems and Alistair and Zevran were up against two more as Ffion and Oghren battled Branka with Tilly. Wynne switched between healing and defense and Leliana was doing her best to protect the mage. Caridin, true to his word, wasn't able to go against his own or Branka while she held that control rod and so remained motionless; at least providing a barricade for the ranged attacks.
Branka was a much more experienced rogue than Ffion and Oghren was hesitant to cause his former wife any considerable damage, so Sten's sudden presence was a huge relief. Tilly fell back with Ffion as she helped Wynne and Alistair take out the fourth Golem, and then rounded on Branka as Caridin's two remaining Golem allies went up against the last one. Branka didn't consider surrender and fell under Oghren's swing without even a split second of reconsideration. For once, their Dwarf was shaken. He let the axe slip from his fingers as he knelt beside his fallen wife and tenderly caressed her cheek, whispering too softly for them to hear.
Ffion, reminded sharply of her mother and father's last moments, turned to give Oghren privacy and was met with the sight of Caridin rolling his shoulders with a relieved sigh.
"You have my thanks, stranger," His voice was infinitely tired and he surveyed the damage done and the two remaining Golems before he added, "Useless waste. If only... but there is no benefit in wondering what might have been. Now, please, will you give us this final rest?"
Ffion, drawn to the hopelessness Caridin had suffered for all those decades, was gung-ho to finish this, but Leliana's words stopped her.
"We still need to have a king for Orzammar," She observed quietly, "And Harrowmont was quite adamant that it be Branka's voice. Impossible now, no?"
The Warden was quiet as she thought this over and remembered the way Branka had said so passionately: I am your Paragon. There was something about it that called to mind her childhood tutor Aldous. She could hear his rasping, patient voice and recalled his lessons on the Dwarves: ... And Caridin was named the very first of the Paragons...
"A favor for a favor," She said softly and then glanced up at Caridin, "You were the first Paragon and it's a Paragon's voice that we need. I don't expect you to return with us and I won't be going back on my word, but could you give us something tangible? Something that will make up the Assembly's mind for them?"
"For you, of course," He didn't even pause to consider this and motioned her to follow, "I shall put the hammer to steel for a last time and create a crown for the king of your choice. With the ancient seal of my house, no one will oppose its bearer."
Caridin made his way to the Anvil and went to work. The cavern echoed with the sounds of his hammer striking the Anvil and Ffion forgot her exhaustion as she watched him. The others gathered at the bottom of the ramp-like path, leaving Oghren with Branka. The Dwarf had removed his breastplate and was using his axe to carve out a hole to lay his wife. Impossibly, he had found one corner in the cavern that was pure earth and was making good headway. Sten had lingered, wanting to help, knowing how important their timeline was, but Zevran had pressed his elbow with one hand and kept the Qunari moving.
"It will be best if he works alone," The Elf said under his breath, "Companionship is not what he needs now."
So they gathered and waited. Wynne's blue eyes were studying the room and she seemed unable to sit still. She wandered away from them, drawn by huge stone slabs that had been set upright near the lava river. A Golem was carved ingeniously behind them, one hand on each top to keep them from toppling over. The orange and red light emanating from the lava cast the stones in a bright hue and the runes etched into the surface were shadowed, making them all the more impressive. The center stone was long and wider than the other two and between columns of what she knew were names was an engraving. Her rune-deciphering was a little rusty, but she struggled through it: Dedicated to those brave Dwarves who sacrificed their lives for their brethren. May the Stone hold them and guide their path forever.
"It is names?" Leliana's musical voice broke Wynne's thoughts and made the enchanter jump, "What is the significance?"
"I think it is a memorial to those Dwarves who volunteered and those who were sacrificed to the Anvil," Wynne studied the runes more intently, "It's made out almost like a registry. I wonder if the Dwarves in Orzammar have any idea of its existence."
The Orlesian's slender fingers traced the names and she cocked her head, taking in the registry as a whole before she answered.
"I would be surprised if they did. It is a good thing to see this. Those Dwarves deserve recognition for their sacrifices."
"Indeed, indeed..." The enchanter's voice trailed off and she crouched, pulling her pack around to dig through it and come up with a few sheets of parchment and a broken stick of charcoal, "Could you help me, Leliana? I want to take a rubbing of that dedication back to the city. It should be on record."
The Orlesian had already stepped forward to help and by the time they had finished their work, Oghren was lifting Branka into the rough grave and Caridin had finished the forging.
"Give this crown to the king of your choice, my friend," He said to Ffion, giving it to her reverently, "I have no wish to know his name, I merely want to rest."
Something clicked in Ffion's mind and she held up her free hand.
"One last thing, Branka in all her... There was a cave in, blocking our way back," She almost crossed her fingers as she added, "Is there another way, or do we start digging?"
"There is another way," There was a smile in Caridin's voice and he motioned with one large hand. Ffion followed the motion and turned to see a small, near invisible track that she could only spot because she was standing where she was, "You see that path there? That will lead you to a stone door with my seal carved in the center. Take my hammer with you and press the base of it into the seal; the door will open."
"Clever," Ffion observed and then faced the Anvil again. She studied it for a moment. It was large and square, a normal thing, save the lines of brilliant blue lyrium coursing through it, "And to destroy this?"
"My hammer," Caridin was suddenly quite grim and Ffion's grey eyes went back to him, catching the importance of this act, "Your heart must be pure, my friend. You must want to destroy the Anvil without a thought given to using it for your own gain."
Ffion nodded and stepped to the Anvil, taking up Caridin's heavy hammer. She paused for a second longer, her thoughts drifting to everything she had witnessed and experienced since this had started... And found that the only thing she really, truly desired, besides a hot bath and real bed, was to be done. Done with everything; the walking; the exhaustion; the deception of those in power; the worry that none of this would ever be over; and most of all she was done with the grief of losing everyone and everything that mattered to her. She let the Anvil encompass all of this and raised the hammer over her head, holding it in both hands, and slamming it down onto the lyrium lined surface. It split along those lines and shattered into pieces, much more quickly than she ever would have believed.
"Bless you, friend," Caridin's voice was soft and he walked to the edge of the incline, looking over that lava river, "Atrast nal tunsha, may you forever find your way in the dark."
And with that, he stepped off the ledge and disappeared into the lava. The sound of the last two Golems collapsing as their creator died made Ffion jump. She turned to her companions and found that they were all looking at her expectantly. Tightening her hold on the hammer and taking the crown up again, she trudged back down the incline towards them, Tilly trotting halfway up to meet her. She felt the steady, curious gazes of both Zevran and Alistair and ignored them, her grey eyes fixing on Oghren instead as he approached. Beyond him, she could see the small mound of Branka's grave and felt a twinge of regret at the sight of the heavy shield laying across the dirt with the Dwarf's weapon used as a headstone.
"I really am sorry, Oghren," She said quietly, "If there had been any other way... If she would only have listened-"
"Listened? Branka? Yer dreamin', Ffion," The Dwarf interrupted with a snort of disbelief, but there was a flicker of respect in his green eyes, "Tha' moss-licker would sooner ligh' herself on fire than lis'en ter any o' us. Are we stayin' here or movin' on?"
Ffion crouched, pulling her pack around to tuck the crown carefully inside. She could feel everyone's eyes burning into her and she mentally steeled herself for what was coming next.
"No, we'll go on," She answered simply and then raised her voice to drown out the protests from the others, "We have no idea how long we've really been down here. For all we know, the Assembly has voted and Harrowmont was thrown to the wolves. Hell, maybe the Archdemon appeared and there isn't anything to return to. Forget about convincing me; you have my thanks, and I know you mean well, but fawn over me when I collapse in exhaustion, there isn't time for it now."
She closed her pack and set it where it belonged again, before getting to her feet and heading for the door that Caridin had indicated. Tilly followed like her shadow, and Sten and Oghren were right behind the Mabari. The others had no choice but to reluctantly fall in. This hell at least was finally, almost, over.