I Think I Speak for Everyone
The descent was less steep than she had thought it would be.
They approached from the north, the edge where the darkspawn seem to be using as an entrance - an exit - the place where the river that once ran here would have been more shallow. It took them down a zig-zagging slope, the back and forth nature of the rocks that collected there creating a ramp-like effect, almost like a very obtuse staircase. Eleanor wondered if the formation were natural or if the darkspawn had the forethought to create this structure, this pattern in the earth. As she took each step, she grew no wiser, though she noticed her beautiful white boots getting more and more orangy-brown, the color of the clay that lay a few inches below the rich, black topsoil.
Of yet, they had seen no darkspawn. Eleanor didn’t know whether to feel comforted or nervous, though the animal part of her brain was slowly swinging toward the latter. Only the rain that fell offered them noise cover on their approach in the truck. They had been quiet on foot for the last mile or so, a walk that took them less than a half an hour, even in the rain, even with their heavy packs, and Eleanor suspected that if any kind of tunnel network lay beneath their feet, the vibrations from the truck overhead would have alerted the darkspawn, and probably not in the way that would scare them off.
There was still dim sunlight overhead; it tried its mightiest to fight through the rainclouds, but the further they walked down into the massive ditch, even though there was still nothing above them but sky, it felt more and more like night. Darker. Quieter. More still. Eleanor found herself biting her tongue, her eyes sweeping in front of her anxiously. She told herself to stay calm; she was third from the front, Cullen leading, then Dorian, then her, and last, Varric, his crossbow already out and pointing left and right in careful arcs. Nothing could get at her from in front or behind; nothing could get her from the sides, the clay walls rising up just feet away on either side, unbreached by caverns or tunnels - so far; and if anything tried to ambush them from above, it would have to drop twenty, now twenty-five, now thirty feet or more as they worked deeper and deeper into the canyon. The rain dampened them still, and Eleanor reached back to touch her staff, just to find in it its warmth, its safety.
The ravine grew dimmer and dimmer by degrees, and after they had been walking for what felt like hours but may only have been fifteen minutes - Eleanor hoped it wasn’t only fifteen minutes; her back already ached, unused to the awkward weight - Dorian grasped his staff and held it at arm’s length in front of him, causing it to emit only the faintest glow. The shadows lengthened and darkened, and made everything seem weird, haunted.
“Sparkler, I think I speak for everyone when I say that we appreciate the effort, but that really isn’t helping,” Varric’s voice was careful and soft, as though he was afraid of disturbing anything in the darkness, or even the darkness itself.
“I second that notion,” Eleanor whispered, whipping her head from side to side, almost knocking her hood from her head.
“It might be better just to let our eyes adjust,” offered Cullen. “It’s going to be night soon.”
“Is it?” Eleanor asked.
She watched as Cullen tipped his head skyward in the dim light. “I… think so.”
Eleanor hadn’t brought her cell phone because of the rain, because it would be dead in hours, because she wasn’t sure she would get reception in a darkspawn-infested ravine thirty, forty, who knew how many more feet underground anyway.
But she could have brought a god damned watch.
She cursed herself even as she asked why it mattered, and Dorian extinguished his light. Though it had been dim, only the faintest glow, the darkness now seemed to close in around them, to swallow them up.
Eleanor had begun to count her steps, to try to keep some measure of the distance they travelled. In front of her, Cullen and Dorian were walking fast, but not so fast that the smaller Eleanor and Varric couldn’t keep up. She figured her strides were maybe two and a half, three feet long at best, but she rounded down to two to compensate for the times when the group rounded a sharp corner, slowed, took smaller steps for sometimes twenty or thirty paces at a time. She counted her steps a hundred at a time, starting over at one each time she met the mark. Ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred… Ninety-eight, ninety-nine, two hundred. She tried to keep track of her surroundings as the numbers tallied up; she saw grooves in the wall, grooves that could have been narrow passageways into a vast tunnel system, but were too dark and too small to bear immediate investigation. Instead, they continued along the main channel of the ravine, the obvious main artery; if nothing came to fruition, they would turn back and check the smaller cavities. She counted and walked, walked and counted, traveled along the center ravine. But when she got to five thousand steps, ten thousand feet, almost two miles - more than two miles, because she hadn’t begun counting until they were already some distance down, some distance in - Eleanor gave up. Who knew how long this went on? She strained her eyes to see above her but the walls of the ravine were now easily more than fifty feet high and closing up around them. There was no way for her to suss out a landmark that might tell her where on the Indiana landscape she now stood, where in relation to the truck or to home she might be; her sense of direction was entirely skewed, thrown off-kilter every time they took a sharp turn that seemed to double back on itself, then turn around again. So Eleanor stopped counting, stopped measuring, stopped trying. How anyone was going to be able to map this out afterward, she had no idea. She could not pause to write, could not even keep track of distances. But it didn’t matter. So far, there was nothing to map. Nothing to note at all. It wasn’t so bad, really. Her feet were comfortable if a bit cold in her soft leather boots, and the weight on her shoulders and back became less an ache and more a vague sensation as her muscles compensated for the load. No rain reached them now, if indeed the rain still fell at all, and she occasionally stole sips of water from a plastic bottle, nibbles from a dense-as-dirt nutrition bar, ostensibly chocolate flavored. Eleanor could taste no chocolate but the bar was not unpleasant, and kept her moving, kept her stomach full. Despite the darkness, she was feeling just about in the groove of this whole expedition when Cullen came to an abrupt halt in front of Dorian, who stopped suddenly in front of her. Eleanor, thinking quickly, put her hand out behind her to stop Varric from jabbing her with the point of the arrow that stuck out at the end of his crossbow - a crossbow that Eleanor had thought she had heard Varric mutter sweet nothings to in the darkness, but more likely the dwarf was just muttering to himself to fill the silence. Eleanor was almost surprised she wasn’t doing the same.
“What is it?” Eleanor heard Dorian whisper ahead of her in the darkness. Then she heard Cullen draw his sword.
“Cullen?” she murmured, softly pleading for more information. All she got was brief ‘shh’ from some feet up ahead. So she shhed.
Eleanor strained her ears and for what felt like a long time, she heard nothing. For as long as she could, Eleanor held her breath, and got the impression that the three men around her were all doing the same.
And then she heard it. A quiet sound, far away, a scuttling, a clattering of metal. A strange, inhuman chittering that made the air around her go heavy and cold. Her heart began to race, and she reached for her staff, snapping it quickly off of her back. Dorian did the same. Varric drew back the string on his crossbow.
Ahead of her, Eleanor could just make out the movement of Cullen’s left hand, a downward-pushing motion, signalling them all to keep quiet as he began to step cautiously forward, pressing now toward the left-hand wall of the canyon. Keeping his sword exposed but the tip pointing down, blade low to the ground, Cullen gestured again with his empty hand that the darkspawn were on the right, and that the party should list cautiously away from that side of the ravine - was there a fork ahead that Eleanor couldn’t see? Did the path widen? She didn’t know, couldn’t tell, but she followed Dorian who followed Cullen, keeping back, keeping anxiously away from the soft echoes of the clucking, the shuffling. Anytime a rock slipped under her foot, she winced as though she were dropping a tray full of glass, but when she looked up, no one’s heads were ever even turned in her direction, everyone focusing on their own small noises, heartbeats, breaths.
For a brief moment, Eleanor thought that the sounds, and by extension, the darkspawn, were right beside her, at an arm’s reach, but she knew they couldn’t be, knew they must be well in the distance in some dark crevasse she could not reach, could not see, and she forced herself to keep moving until the sounds just as suddenly were behind her, behind Varric, and though his footfalls remained soft, Cullen began to pick up his pace once more, nothing like as fast as before but but faster than his creeping steps at let him. Within moments, the sounds were fading. With a quarter of an hour, all was silent again, black, still.
A wave of exhaustion brought on by the ebb and flow of terror struck Eleanor hard and she notched her staff back into place, having to realize first that she was even still holding it. It had become an extension of her arm through familiarity and fear and her fingers stayed clenched in the shape of the slim cylinder even after she let it go. She flexed her hand, flexed her shoulders, the weight upon them straining her anew. Remembering the coffee that Cullen had made for her, she reached for it in the darkness, sliding it out of the strap from where it hung, and carefully unscrewed the cap, bringing the thermos to her lips and drinking greedily. It was not ice cold yet, still tepid, and she was thankful even for this dim warmth, this mildly bitter flavor. When the coffee was half-gone, she breathed into the darkness, “I don’t want to be the first person to bring this up, but… when do we stop?”
A tentative silence answered her, as though everyone had wondered the same thing.
“I suppose,” Cullen began to answer, just above a whisper, “we should find some kind of enclosure…” he paused, and by virtue of his blond hair alone, Eleanor saw him turn his head to look around. “Anywhere we can have as few sides as possible exposed. A cave of some kind,” he speculated, “as small as possible.”
“And quiet,” Varric added from the back of the line.
“This is starting to sound dangerously specific.”
“I know,” commiserated Cullen. “We’ll do as best as we can.”
“Alright,” answered Eleanor.
“Let’s keep moving,” was the next command, and they all obeyed.