Shades of Grey and Black

The End of an Era in an Elven Ruin

They edged past the oak when it was clear that he had settled back into his partial slumber, and continued down the path. They found themselves in the eastern portion of the Forest again and soon they crossed back through the hermit's clearing. Tilly was happy to trot on through this time and Ffion turned down the other fork. They found more wolves that were easily taken care of and then came to a halt when they rounded a corner and saw a misty cloud of white hanging over the path. Wynne stepped next to Ffion and Alistair, studying the barrier with interest.

"Hmm, it's like the barrier I constructed in the Tower, but this one is much cruder," She explained, "Mine was meant to keep the abominations from getting through and I suppose this does the same thing, but there is something deceptive about this... I can feel how thin the Veil is between our world and the other, but I didn't think... I guess this is why the oak gave you that branch."

Ffion inspected the branch and then smiled wanly at Enchanter.

"So without this, we'd - what? Be drifting around in the Fade... again?"

"I couldn't say one way or the other," Wynne replied patiently, "But, let's just say that it is a good thing that we have that branch."

The Warden nodded, lifting her eyebrows wryly. She studied the barrier once more and then turned to face her companions. She held up the branch.

"I think it's probably best if we try to go through all at once," She said and glanced briefly at Wynne who was nodding in agreement, "I don't want to lose any of you, so either make a chain by grabbing hold of me or pretend that you all really like one another and link arms. Tilly, come."

She looped a short lead through her belt and fastened it to her hound's collar while the others gathered around her. Zevran was immensely amused by all of this and Oghren grinned wickedly up at Wynne as he pressed close to her. The enchanter merely smiled back patiently as she tucked one hand into his arm and extended the other to Alistair. The ex-Templar took it and rather shyly pressed his hand into the crook of Ffion's elbow. She smiled up at him and then rolled her eyes as Zevran came close and murmured in her ear.

"You could tie me to your belt as well," He said, "Then I would be tied to Ferelden, yes?"

"Behave," She said absentmindedly, glancing to make sure that Morrigan, Sten, and Leliana were following suit, "I'm pretty sure the last thing I want tied to my belt is you."

Alistair chuckled and Zevran grinned wickedly at the Warden, taking her elbow firmly. Leliana grabbed hold of the Elf's other arm and Morrigan and Sten joined the crowd. Ffion gave everyone one last look and then started forward. They passed through the barrier, which was cool and wet, rather like a morning mist. Disentangling themselves from one another, they studied their surroundings and started forward down the path to round a bend. There were more ruins here and though the Forest was doing its best to reclaim them, the old structure was very impressive. The stones that weren't covered with moss or crumbled out of sight were dark grey, aged by the rain and wind just as the trees were. The stone slab floor had long ago disappeared under the grass and shrubs and the arches that once decorated a vast hall seemed to be the only impervious structures. Ffion and Alistair led the way, Tilly right beside them, and they were so taken with the ruin that when the wolves appeared, it caught everyone by surprise. The leader was the same ruddy wolf that had confronted them at the bridge and this time, it didn't look like he was going to stand down and avoid the fight. He stood, drawing himself up so that he could tower over Ffion, and glaring at all of them. The rise that hemmed the path in was alive with the rustling of more wolves and Ffion did her best to ignore it as her companions settled into defensive stances behind her.

"This is your last chance, human," The wolf snarled angrily, "Turn back now or be destroyed."

"What are you protecting?" Ffion replied immediately, not in least bit fazed by the fury in the wolf's face.

"I told you, you don't know the whole tale. Run back to the traitors, little human, you won't reach the Lady today."

Ffion's true colors were, as always, shining bright and she settled back, preparing for the onslaught as she answered.

"Let's see how confidant you really are."

The wolf threw himself at her and the two behind him were right on his heels. Ffion was ready and held her own as a half dozen more jumped down from the rise and joined the fray. The fight was intense and it wasn't clear who actually had the upper hand; the close quarters being more of a hindrance than a help. Ffion heard one of the wolves being taken out and she kicked at hers, making him stumble back away from her companions. She was after him as a second wolf went down and a third let out a yelp of pain. This distracted the leader long enough for Ffion to land a blow and he was pushed even further away from his fellow wolves. He went purely on the defensive, the Warden had the upper hand, and she was just getting ready to strike again when there was a flash of white from the corner of her eye. Something soft but solid crashed into her, knocking her to the ground, and sending one of her swords rolling away. She immediately put up the other, half expecting claws and teeth to start ripping into her, but instead there was only a long, drawn out howl that made Tilly lower her head and whine softly. Ffion propped herself up on her elbows and watched as the werewolves scrambled away from her companions and followed a massive white wolf running swiftly for the ruins.

Ffion got to her feet, frowning at this sudden retreat, and then glanced at her companions. Wynne was taking care of a deep scratch in her arm, Leliana's bow string had snapped and she crouched to restring it while Oghren stood to one side, wiping blood from a gash in his cheek. The others seemed to be fine, though Morrigan's face was drawn and looked a little ragged, as though the fight had taken a lot out of her. She downed a potion that improved her color and Ffion returned to their little group.

"Everyone okay?" She asked, positioning herself between Alistair and Zevran, and then crouching to inspect Tilly.

"Okay," Sten answered, cleaning Asala before sliding it away, "Are we ready to follow them?"

"I guess we don't have much choice, do we?" Alistair said, "And that had to be Witherfang, so let's go and see what we can find out."

They started after the wolves, rounding another bend in the track, and found themselves in what used to be a massive hall. Ahead, there were two more wolves and they growled fiercely but made no move to attack. Instead one of them waved at his companion, saying sharply,

"Fall back, protect the Lady!"

They turned and loped towards the far end of the hall where the remnants of a thick wooden door stood. It was heavily shadowed and they disappeared from view as the companions started after them. The entry was just as dark as the doorway, but once they cleared this, the torches in the cavernous hall allowed them to view their surroundings. They stood at the top of a short flight of stairs, which were gradually being destroyed by a massive wad of roots, and overlooked another hall. To their right, through a doorway, the tips of the wolves' tails were disappearing down a steep flight of steps and the companions bolted after them, only to watch as another heavily reinforced door slammed shut at the bottom of the staircase. A moment later, there was the sound of a bar slipping into place and even as Sten attempted to bust it open, Ffion knew they were screwed.

"Don't wear yourself out," She recommended dryly and turned to head up the steps again, "There should be another way through this place."

The others followed her and they studied the hall in more detail when they reached it. It was massive, the torches casting their light only halfway up the walls and creating more shadows. The stone was old, in some places it was crumbling completely, allowing little pinpoints of daylight to shine through, and it was more obvious now that the roots of the trees outside was the main cause of the destruction. There were more graceful arches here and ancient idols had long ago been nestled into their little niches along the walls. The absence of windows led them to believe that this had been an interior room with other rooms leading off of it and Ffion was right. In the shadows, directly across from the door they entered, there was a hallway that led further into the ruins and the Warden gave her companions a brief smile before heading that way. It was long and dark, swathed with spider webs, and before Morrigan could stop her, Ffion walked right through them.

There was a sudden, strange hissing sound and four massive spiders dropped from the ceiling, landing between the Warden and the others. She drew her swords and took on two at once while Morrigan and Wynne's magic shot all around her with Leliana's arrows mixed in. She took out one and was just turning on the other when Sten was there, bringing Asala up and slamming it down on the spider's head. Ffion glanced around at the rest of the companions and, in spite of her initial horror, had to grin as Oghren slumped against the wall, his face pale.

"You all right there, Oghren?" She quizzed as she cleaned her blades.

"Gi'e me those slimy Darkspawn bastards any day," The Dwarf answered, "Spi'ers? I'll pass."

Ffion couldn't help but giggle right along with Leliana as Alistair grinned down at Oghren.

"The great and fearsome Oghren, single-handed slayer of ogres, afraid of spiders?" The ex-Templar let that sink in as they gathered themselves together and started forward again, "Nope, doesn't fit."

Oghren sent Alistair an odd half-serious-half-amused look and thought a minute before he answered.

"If yeh don' think somethin' with six legs too many an' poisonous pincers is a li'le bit of a horror, yer a bloody fool, P.T."

The others chuckled as Morrigan offered her own, admittedly strange, expertise.

"The only reason they attacked us was because their webs were disturbed," The witch explained coolly as they bypassed a cross-hall, one side of which had long ago caved-in, "They are spiders, yes? And they were simply reacting as spiders do."

They reached another stretch of hall that was covered and Ffion arched her brows, glancing over her shoulder at Morrigan.

"Do you have a way to get by these things without causing a disturbance?" She asked and tried to keep the challenging tone to a minimum.

The witch studied the webs in wonder, fascinated by the intricacy of them. She went a little closer and tipped her head to look up into the shadows above the webs. Oghren shuddered and Leliana stifled a giggle while Ffion watched Morrigan closely. The witch tugged her staff free and there were a few little flashes of light before the supporting webs snapped, floating gently to the floor. The companions braced themselves for the onslaught, but nothing came and Morrigan turned to them with a small smile.

"'Tis clear," She said, tucking the staff back, and waiting until they reached her before turning down the hallway again.

Ffion paused long enough to study Morrigan's work and saw that she had covered deep burrows in the stone wall with thick webs. The Warden sent a brief smile at the witch and brushed away a strand of webs that was tickling her neck.

"Clever," She commented, "Thanks, Morrigan."

"My pleasure," The witch replied and her mouth tipped in a little smile.

"She just didn't want to see anymore of her kin-"

"Shh, hold," Sten interrupted Alistair even as Morrigan sent the ex-Templar a poisonous glare. They reached another impasse in the hallway; directly ahead was a flight of steps that led to double doors and there was another set of doors to the right. But Sten was studying the stairs that went down to the left and cocking his head to one side, "There was something just then and there's an odd smell."

The companions fell silent as they listened for any other sounds. There was a dripping that echoed further in the ruins and the scuffling of rodents that made Tilly perk up. Then a deep sound rumbled up from the steps and Ffion was the first to take a step that way, Sten beside her. A dank, almost sharp smell wafted up from below and, with a brief shrug at the others, Ffion started down. The stairs were broken by landings and there were two turns that doubled back on each other even as they ventured into the earth. There was another deep rumbling that made them all pause and exchange nervous glances.

"Is that what it really sounds like?" Alistair asked carefully, his tone telling them he didn't really want to know.

Ffion continued forward as the stairs ended and there was another doorway ahead, the doors long since ripped from their hinges and hurled aside. Tilly stepped beside her and she whined softly as her lady answered.

"Let's just... stick together and be careful," She replied and her voice was barely a murmur.

She stopped in the doorway and the others crowded around her. They had reached another hall that was the same size as the first, though this one was in worse shape. A big chunk of the ceiling had caved in and shafts of bright sunlight hit the rough stone slabs and bounced off the walls. They could see some tree roots, vines, and the other shrubs that lined the edge of the collapsed section and told them they had probably been walking around on top of this place all morning. With the addition of the sun and elements, more foliage had taken root in the cracks of the stone slabs and the companions could easily see the next doorway across the hall.

"It is a dragon, Ffion," Sten said, his voice a murmur. There was a whisper of metal on metal as he pulled Asala loose and his eyes studied the deep gouges in the floor and the sooty smudges on the walls, "We must be cautious."

"And there are traps," Zevran added, his amber eyes sweeping the floor of the hall, "Stick close to the walls. Do not walk across the dais."

Ffion studied the floor as well and spotted the cause for the Elf's concern. There were trigger points all along the dais, spiraling in towards the middle of it, and just waiting for some poor sod's unsuspecting foot. She reached down and grasped Tilly's collar, pulling her around to the other side so that the Mabari would be between her and the wall.

The Warden found that she and Sten had to take the first steps and they continued gingerly through the hall, so close to the walls that their armor scraped against the stone every so often. That sharp, acrid smell permeating the air grew sharper as they left the doorway and they just reached the dais when there was an ominous swoosh of wings and a screech that sounded more than a little furious. A shadow crossed the shafts of sunlight and, amidst the cursing and prepping of the companions, a dragon soared into the hall and landed with a thud that shook the stone.

It rocked to its back legs, letting out a roar, and when it landed again, it shot fire around the room. The companions dove clear, lying flat across the stone slabs, and Wynne and Morrigan were the first to recover. They sprang to their feet, staffs at the ready, and hit the dragon with water and ice at the same instant. Sten and Oghren were the next ones to attack and they darted forward to land their own blows while the creature was distracted. Soon, all of them were working together, moving in to attack, and then falling back when the dragon recovered. They were fighting dangerously close to the dais, and Tilly and Oghren both came close to setting off one of the traps. Ffion, eager to get the fight closer to that far doorway, felt her heart drop as Alistair stepped back and just nicked one of the triggers. Nothing exploded, but she darted forward anyway as the dragon turned from the ex-Templar to face Sten, growling furiously. The Warden pushed Alistair from the trigger, shouting over the fight.

"It's compromised! Get clear of it; help Sten!"

She crouched as Alistair ducked away and turned her attention completely to the trigger. It was simply a loose flagstone covering the trap itself, designed with a flint that would be ignited the moment the stone was pushed back into place. Gilmore had been a master of these pranks and Ffion would have given anything to have him here helping her. She worked carefully as she pried the stone all the way clear, flinching every time she heard the dragon's thudding steps and the unmistakable sounds of fire rushing from its mouth. The moment the stone came away in her hand, her breath escaped in a rush; she hadn't realized she had been holding it, and then she cursed sharply.

The dragon was rounding on her, moving more quickly than she thought possible, and she threw the stone, abandoned the trap, and faced off with the beast. Ignoring the shouts of her name and the way Tilly charged after the dragon, she waited until the last moment and then dodged forward, rolling between the dragon's legs, and thrusting one of her swords up at its belly. It roared sharply when it felt the pain and the Warden missed the flow of blood by centimeters. She sprang to her feet, waiting for the creature to double back again, but Sten, Alistair, and Oghren were faster. They were with Tilly as they attacked with a new fervor and Leliana and Zevran stood with Ffion as Wynne and Morrigan shot spells when the men were clear.

Ffion's blow had been more severe than even she realized and the dragon was weakening. Blood dripped steadily to the floor, making it rather treacherous, and it only took a moment for the worst to happen.

Sten swung fiercely, trying to reach the dragon's neck and Oghren did his best to help, but the creature was still fighting hard and it knocked both of them clear. Alistair scrambled away as it went for him next and he slipped in the blood, losing his balance.

Ffion went cold, watching in horror as the beast went for the kill, and then forced her body to move. She darted forward, not sure what she could do to keep both of them from dying, but having to try something. The only thought that scrolled through her head was: Not Alistair! Maker, please, not Alistair!

Not heeding calls of her name or the ex-Templar's, Ffion dove at Alistair as the dragon reared back. She collided with his midsection, hitting his armor hard, and barely avoiding the razor-sharp sword in his hand. She knocked them both off balance and they stumbled from the dragon as Sten and Zevran interfered.

With their limbs tangled together, Alistair couldn't catch himself when his boot hit a root wad, and he fell backwards, pulling Ffion with him. He landed hard on his back, knocking his breath from his lungs, and Ffion landed on his chest, her grey eyes wide with surprise when she found his face inches from hers. The ex-Templar wished fleetingly that he had his wits about him; if he did, he'd have taken the chance to explore her soft lips with much more attention given to the details...

But there were six other people in the room, granted they were busy finishing off the dragon, but he didn't think he could be that forward. Not even with his growing feelings for his fellow Warden.

"Are you okay?" Ffion's voice was rather breathless and she frowned down at him in concern.

His hands gripped her slender waist rather idly and the roots digging into his legs and the goose-egg forming on the back of his head went completely ignored. He could lay here with her for hours.

"Fine, I'm fine," He replied and his own voice was soft. He sent his crooked grin up at her, "It's a good thing you're the one who tackled me. Sten's way too heavy and Oghren... stinks."

She returned the smile, ignoring the sounds of the dragon dying behind her. The rest of the world seemed to disappear and she wondered at the soft light that entered Alistair's honey colored eyes.

"I-I was so afraid that you... I mean, that that thing was going to..." Her words trailed away and she felt her cheeks getting hot, "I don't want to lose you, Alistair, I don't know what I'd do."

Alistair was looking at her intently, rethinking his earlier doubts. A stubborn curl had fallen free of the thick braid that rested between her shoulders and he reached up, knocking it from her grey eyes, loving the silky texture. His grin had softened and he brushed her cheek, feeling the heat of her blush.

"You didn't lose me," He answered and neither of them registered the dull thud of the dragon's body hitting the floor, "Thanks to you, I'm okay."

"If the birds are done, they may be interested in what exactly they fell into," Zevran's voice was amused and didn't hold a trace of the little flicker of jealousy that shot through him.

Alistair and Ffion both turned bright red and, after a couple of unsuccessful attempts to get to her feet, the ex-Templar grasped Ffion more firmly and helped her off of him. The Warden refused to look around at any of them and did her best to shrug off the glances exchanged between her companions. Instead, she turned and studied what it was she and Alistair had stumbled into. It was the dragon's horde; the big pile was partly buried with dirt and roots, and had been added to for so many years that it would take days to find out what all was there. Zevran was already inspecting a few of the trunks and Ffion rifled through a pile Tilly was nosing curiously.

"How much're we gonna take with us?" Oghren asked, cleaning his axe-blade.

"Right now?" Ffion clarified, continuing past her Mabari when it was clear she hadn't found anything other than a pile of bones. The Warden was much more interested in the door than the dragon's horde, wondering how vast this ruin was, "None of it. Let's get through the rest of this first."

She ignored the protests from the Dwarf and Zevran, who had successfully opened two of the trunks, and pushed the warped door open. Tilly was right behind her and the others had no choice but to follow; letting her continue without them was out of the question.

They stood in a long, dark hallway, and in the flickering of the few torches, a specter of an Elven woman was just visible. It didn't seem aware of them and as the companions ventured further, it disappeared. In its place, a dozen of the skeletal undead, exactly like those that had plagued Redcliffe, popped up. They surrounded the companions and attacked with only the sounds of ancient bones rattling together. Which ultimately was their downfall. It was a quick fight, the skeletal warriors broke apart like kindling and Ffion let Morrigan precede her down the next hallway. Another cave-in forced them to turn more eastward and the witch repeated her previous work on the thick, white webs that swathed the way forward. She was quick and efficient, and the spiders that hunkered in their burrows never suspected a thing. The hallway led them into another cavernous room and a second specter, this time an Elven boy.

Leliana's lips parted in surprise and pity and she approached the ghost, who seemed as unaware of them as the previous one. His small face was a mask of worry and fear and it was clear the Orlesian wanted to help. She extended one hand to the little ghost and she had just started speaking when he disappeared and, once more, the skeletons showed up. There were more this time around and that made the fight more intense, but Morrigan and Wynne's magic was too much for the brittle warriors and they were dispatched without too many injuries. There wasn't anything of interest in the room and the companions pressed on, heading further down the twists and turns of the hallways. There were smaller groups of the skeletal warriors, but nothing they couldn't handle, and soon they were standing before another door. Zevran was quick to pick the lock and when they pulled the door open, there was the familiar scraping of bones on the stone floor and then the distinctive twang of bowstrings.

Ffion, just about to enter the room, was yanked away by Alistair and the companions pressed themselves against the wall to avoid being shot. Leliana and Morrigan both eased back and stood at a distance, picking off the archers they could see through the doorway, while Wynne cast her protective spell over it. Oghren only put up with hiding for so long. He loosed his axe and started forward, patting Wynne's hip with a leer.

"Good 'nough," He muttered, "Our turn."

He dashed forward into the room, the axe swinging, and just missed three of the triggers that Ffion and Zevran both bent to disarm. Alistair and Sten bypassed the pair, being smart enough to wait and make sure there wasn't a threat, and chased after the Dwarf while Tilly stood guard over her lady.

There weren't any warriors in this room, just the archers and they didn't stand a chance against the three that methodically worked their way around and cut down all of them. Zevran was quick to transfer his attention from the traps to the few trunks along the walls before Ffion could hasten them out and he rifled through the contents as the Warden picked her way across the floor, watching for anymore traps.

Wynne, Morrigan, and Leliana entered the room as well and they followed after Alistair and Ffion as the Wardens went to the next door. The Orlesian was looking around at the walls in curiousity, her pale blue eyes studying the few idols that were housed in niches scattered throughout the room.

"Does anyone know what these deities are?" She questioned.

As a reflex, everyone glanced at Wynne who, along with the healer role, had become their resident teacher and walking library. The enchanter smiled indulgently, slipping her staff to her back, and approaching one of the niches. She studied the crude little statue for a moment and then lifted her shoulders. Her face creased in a thoughtful frown as she answered the Orlesian.

"I am not sure what this one is supposed to be," She began slowly, "The history of the Elves has been lost for so many generations and the Dalish deserve our commendation for recovering what they can, but the history of their old gods is still a mystery. They have found runes and a few scattered records of a handful, that's what the tattoos on their faces stand for, and many of the city Elves have turned to Andraste and the Maker. It's a fascinating study, though, and it is encouraging to see so many of these intact. Zathrian may be interested in researching them; we will have to let him know about it."

"Did we come down here to continue our fight against the Darkspawn or discuss foreign gods?" Sten wasn't really asking and he stood at the door as Ffion grinned up at him and joined him, "I did not follow the Wardens thinking to become a scholar."

"You, a scholar?" Zevran repeated as he handed one of the lock picks over to Ffion and watched her work, "Not unless they can make a broadsword that writes, yes?"

"He's got a point there," Alistair leaned against the wall beside the door, admiring his fellow Warden's small hands and dwelling on the feel of her soft hair and slight weight against him.

"Now you two are agreeing on something?" Ffion's voice was distracted, but mockingly astonished, "The world is coming to an end. Ah, thanks, Zev."

She tossed the lock pick to the Elf as the tumblers in the lock fell and stepped back when Sten grasped the handle before she could. They entered yet another dim hallway and pressed on, weapons at the ready as more skeletons attacked. There were just a few twists and turns and then another set of double doors, these ones unlocked.

The room beyond them was huge: the ceiling soared away and there was a big support directly ahead of them that blocked the rest of the place from view. Two sets of stairs led down on either side of this and a handful of skeletal warriors appeared as they moved to venture further. As usual, the fight was quick and the companions went down the steps and onto the second landing.

A wide, sweeping staircase led to an open floor covered with what looked like decorative flagstones below them and the broad landing had two tables that were shoved against each wall. Wynne and Morrigan studied the books and vials that scattered the surface of the table closest to them. A heavy layer of dust covered everything and Wynne dispersed it with a wave of her staff. Morrigan rifled through a pile of worn parchment as the enchanter picked up an ancient tome. She studied the spiky, rather heavy-handed writing and then glanced around at the others.

"No surprise," She muttered, looking at the papers Morrigan was reading and then at those flagstones below, "It seems these places attract the worst kind."

Alistair frowned as he approached the enchanter and Oghren and Sten moved to the top of the stairs to scope things out.

"'Worst kind?'" He repeated, "What do you mean?"

Wynne extended the book to show him a particularly nasty illustration of a human sacrifice.

"Blood magic and its sister black magic, and of course, their results: necromancy."

Oghren had reached the halfway point of the steps and Wynne seemed to have uttered the magic word. There was a sharp crack and what looked like a more grandiose and powerful spirit abomination appeared over one of the odd flagstones. Oghren cursed, diving to one side as the monster flung its power at them. Sten had side-stepped as well, but the others were too shocked by the suddenness of it all to move.

The surge of the spell flew by them, skirting Ffion's back with a white-hot heat, and she jerked forward with a cry. A sharp smell stung their nostrils and Zevran was the first to react when they realized the Warden's thick braid had caught fire. He snatched up an old discarded rug and flew to her. Wynne was distracted, helping Sten and Oghren as they battled the spirit, and so Morrigan turned to the Warden and helped Zevran douse the flames before they did much more damage. She drenched Ffion with a torrent of water, worried that the fire would spread further in her leather armor, and the Warden pulled away from Zevran. She knocked his hands away, making him drop the rug, and gave her head a shake.

"Never mind me!" She exclaimed impatiently as the spirit abomination disappeared from its corner and popped up over a different flagstone. The skeletons were attacking Sten and Oghren and the monster's power surged through the room, "Help them!"

Her words stopped Alistair in his tracks and he tossed her one last worried look before racing down the steps. Leliana was already perched on the landing, firing rapidly and taking down the skeletons without trouble. Wynne had cast her protective spell over Oghren as three of the skeletons bore down on him, and then Alistair scattered them and Morrigan distracted the abomination. Ffion, shrugging off the sharp burn in her neck and shoulders, bolted down the steps with Zevran and Tilly in tow and joined the mayhem.

The warriors were dispatched with ease and they were able to turn their attention to the spirit abomination, which very quickly pissed them off with its trick of transporting from one flagstone to the other in a blink of the eye. Morrigan was the first to lose her temper. She drew her magic to herself and froze the monster on one of its portals, allowing Sten and Alistair enough time to leap at it, blades slicing through the air, and take it down. Ffion slid her blades away as everyone else did and reached back with one hand to feel her braid. She barely noticed Wynne's little movement that seemed to pull the water from her clothes and armor.

"It looks bad, Ffion," Leliana said forlornly as she approached.

The Warden didn't really need to be told that, she could feel the scorched hair. The burn began at shoulder length and the ends were frayed and dead, great clumps of it were charred beyond help, and she felt the wrench even as she steeled herself for what had to be done. She pulled one of her daggers loose and held it out to the Orlesian.

"Then would you chop it off, please?" She said and it was barely a question.

Leliana's eyes widened and she shook her head a little.

"What?"

It wasn't just the Orlesian that asked. Alistair and Zevran's voices joined hers and they were aghast at the suggestion. The ex-Templar especially felt the rub. He greatly admired her long hair and it seemed like blasphemy to even suggest cutting it short. Zevran's amber eyes were unhappy as well, though he knew Ffion was right in doing this. There was no way to repair the damage that had been done.

"Ffion..." Leliana said slowly, eying the braid, "Your lovely hair..."

Ffion let out a sigh, annoyed. She was hoping to get this done before she lost her courage and that was already disappearing. As little as she normally cared about her appearance, she had always preserved some vanity for her long hair. She had been told numerous times how beautiful it was and she put up with the hassle of it being so long because her father loved it. The thought of Bryce and realizing that cutting her hair would be cutting a tie to her old life crushed her heart a little more and she turned to Morrigan, catching the unhappy look that crossed Zevran's face. She knew he saw that chasm more clearly and she spoke to the witch before he could say anything.

"Morrigan, would you do it? There's no way to save this mess and at least this way it won't get tangled in my swords anymore."

"Me?" Morrigan questioned, her brows arching up, "Am I nursemaid now?"

"No, but you happen to be one of three that aren't sentimental about such things and I don't want Asala anywhere near my neck," The Warden shrugged her slender shoulders and then sent Oghren a grin as something close to amusement flickered in Sten's violet eyes, "And as for Oghren... well, I'm just too tall."

The Dwarf grinned back and lifted his flask.

"Nah, yer jus' the right height, boss."

Morrigan inclined her head, not responding to Oghren's innuendo, but she didn't take the knife. She dug into her little pack and tugged out a pair of scissors instead.

"Very well, but let us use these," She replied, motioning for the Warden to turn around, "They will be much better than the knife."

Ffion's eyes met Alistair's as she felt the witch take hold of her braid, and she lifted her shoulders a little.

"Not much else to do," She said, almost like she was apologizing, and then closed her eyes as she felt the first slice of the scissors.

Alistair watched in dismay as the heavy braid came loose and Ffion's hair sprang into tight curls about her neck.

"It just seems like such a waste," He replied softly.

Morrigan worked methodically and soon, Ffion's chocolate curls were swinging just above her shoulders, the spirals more intense with the extra weight gone. The witch handed the Warden her braid and put her scissors away.

"I am not sentimental, but you are," She said, "I suppose you wish to keep this?"

Ffion took the heavy hair in one hand, tossing her head and trying to get used to the absence of it. She stroked the burnt patches and could see more clearly now that she had made the right move. There were broad expanses that were badly burnt and there would have been no way to cut out those sections and still keep the length. She reached up with her free hand and tousled the curls. It felt so strange, but she knew she would get used to it; she didn't really have a choice. With another brief glance at Alistair's face, she had a sudden thought, but she didn't want to act on it with everyone watching.

"Thanks, Morrigan," She answered finally, "It feels... great; weird, but great."

The witch nodded again and the companions dispersed a little to study the room. Wynne gave Ffion a gentle smile as the Warden clasped the end of her braid, staring at it with the same affection that she showed Tilly. The enchanter stepped forward and put her hand on one shoulder.

"It grows back, Ffion," She said quietly, "It's only hair."

Ffion gave a little nod and then tipped her mouth in a bitter smile.

"It's the end of an era," She replied and tucked her newly shorn hair behind her ears, "That's always bitter-sweet... And this will take forever to get used to."

"Here, love," Leliana held out a broad band of dark green cloth, the ends of which were tied tightly together, "You can use this as a hair band. At least it will not fall into your eyes, no?"

"Thanks, Leliana," She said and put her braid gently on the floor.

She straightened herself and saw that Tilly was the only one that lingered beside her. Sten, Oghren, and Zevran were disappearing into a room that was off to the left, while Leliana moved away to join Wynne and Alistair as they studied the abomination. Morrigan was fascinated by the flagstone portals that the monster had used and Ffion took the time to follow through with her previous thought. She shoved the band into her hair, pushing it well back to keep the curls from her face and shook her head again, still shocked by how light she felt. She crouched, spreading her braid across her legs and unraveling it the rest of the way. She separated out a much smaller, less damaged portion, fastened one end, and, with deft, experienced fingers, braided it tightly, tying another leather band about this end, too. Her hands stilled for a moment and she hesitated, studying the whole mass, before pulling out one more section and laying the rest aside, her heart twisting. She just didn't have room in her little pack and though she felt as though she was leaving behind what remained of her previous life, what remained of Ffion Cousland, there was nothing for it.

The end of an era, she had said to Wynne and it was amazing how much that hurt. Letting out a breath and stroking Tilly's soft ears as the Mabari came close and whined at her, she got to her feet. She tucked both cuttings of the braid into her pack and called to the others as she crossed the room to the opposite doorway of the one Zevran, Oghren, and Sten had used.

The others slowly trickled after her and there was another doorway here that led into the ruins. Zevran purposefully lingered when he spotted what remained of Ffion's mass of curls laying on the floor; calling that he would be there in a moment. He bent and gently ran his fingers through the silky soft strands before finding a less damaged lock and picking it up. Twining it around one finger, he straightened and then turned his attention to his belt where he twisted the long curly lock around it with the rest of his little trophies and mementos. That done, he slid into the room with the rest and joined the companions as they went through the doorway and into the werewolves' lair.


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