No Fireballs, No Exploding Corpses
Eleanor estimated it was approaching midnight - give or take three or four hours in either direction - when they stumbled across a hole in the wall of the ravine. It was maybe twenty feet deep and as many wide, just big enough for them all to spread out with their bedrolls and stretch their legs. They’d neither seen nor heard any further darkspawn activity, come across no threats, nothing to indicate that darkspawn had ever been in this part of the ravine except for a few bones, picked clean, a pile of discarded armor and spears, and the foreknowledge that, of course, they had. There was no other way for the darkspawn to get out of the earth and into the Indiana landscape. And even if there were, all of them, barring Varric - who didn’t need to see it to believe it - had seen with their own eyes darkspawn wandering up the very same incline they had wandered down some hours before. And while their brief almost-encounter with the darkspawn was frightening, the absolutely lack of activity that had absolutely promised to be crawling with the buggers - especially given Cullen’s encounter with them only a few days before - was unsettling in a completely different way, a deeper way that said that something else had to be wrong. More wrong than a Blight in a realm that didn’t even have Old Gods.
“You know, I didn’t like this before and now I like it even less,” Varric grumbled as he pulled off his boots and stretched out his toes. Ever since the ravine had stopped being a ravine and had become a tunnel, ever since the ceiling had closed above them, Varric had been antsier, twitching at every small sound, even when they came from the dwarf himself. But no one in the party would disagree with his statement, not for a single second.
“Where even are we?” Eleanor asked, even though she would be the only one remotely capable of answering that question, and at the moment, she was not even so much as that.
“The less and less action we see, the more and more this feels like a suicide mission,” Dorian grumbled.
“Maker’s breath,” Cullen groaned. “It doesn’t feel right, but I for one am glad no one has had to take a single swing at a darkspawn,” he declared, leaning back against the wall of the cave and unfastening the buckles on the platemail covering his gloves, letting them drop to the solid earth with a heavy thunk.
And in the distance, something grumbled.
It was more like a vibration that came from deep within their bodies than a sound, but all of them heard it, or felt it, and they looked from each to the other and then all to Cullen.
“Maybe don’t do that again,” Eleanor suggested, the volume of her voice exceedingly low now.
“Indeed,” Dorian said, and gingerly set his staff down beside himself.
Eleanor scootched carefully to Cullen’s side, resting her head on his shoulder.
“Tired?” he asked her.
She nodded, and covered her mouth to stifle a yawn.
Varric stretched, reaching once more for his boots, and pulled them back on. “You lovebirds get some rest. Dorian and I will take first watch.”
“We will?” groaned Pavus.
“Yes, Sparkler. We will.”
Eleanor thanked Varric for his offer, but didn’t think she would be able to get any rest in this awful place either way. That was, of course, until she laid her head down on Cullen’s chest, pulled her velvety-soft cloak around her like a blanket, and almost instantly fell asleep.
“El, let’s move,” she heard Cullen’s voice beckoning to her. It was soft, gentle, but urgent. Around her she heard the sounds of things being picked up, put away. Quickly.
“Is it our turn for watch?” she said blearily.
“No, El,” Cullen whispered.
She realized now that she was no longer laying on his shoulder, his chest, but that he had let her head rest on top of his wound-up bedroll. She gave it a squeeze as she as she sat up. Her eyes had adjusted more now from the perpetual darkness, from sleep, and she saw Varric and Dorian hastily collecting their things, tying them back onto their bodies.
Eleanor caught on quickly, and began to gather her own things, which Cullen had placed in a small pile for her, but she lacked specifics, so she jumped to the most obvious conclusion, “Darkspawn?”
“I… don’t think so,” answered Varric, lifting his crossbow and giving it a little pat on the side. “Bianca doesn’t either.”
“I’ll explain later,” Cullen said, lifting the bedroll Eleanor had been using as a pillow and hoisting it back up to the straps that would secure it.
“Will you? Because I still don’t understand,” Dorian jabbed.
“You’re just jealous, Sparkler.”
“Is it that obvious?”
“Shut up, the both of you,” Cullen freed his sword from its scabbard with sound that was like music, and he pointed it at them, then gestured with it toward the ravine which was no longer a ravine. “Let’s move.”
They were back to their cautious, crawling pace, and that combined with inadequate rest and the damp chill of the tunnel made Eleanor feel ruinous, much worse than she had when she’d laid down to rest. But fear motivated her to keep moving. Somewhere - behind? In front? - she could hear a small sound that was not the sound of darkspawn, not the way she’d known it before. It was a little scrabbling noise that a moment later was punctuated by a strange mewl that was not entirely unlike that of a kitten.
“Aw,” she said with an almost motherly tone, “what is that?”
“Nothing good, believe me, Farm Girl,” cautioned Varric.
“But how could -”
“It’s a deepstalker,” said Cullen in a hushed tone. “They’re almost harmless by themselves, but they travel in packs.”
In her mind, Eleanor was still picturing something soft and furry, cat-like, ganging up on her and mauling her. Still, the thought of a small band of kittens chewing on her face wasn’t the most horrifying thing she’d ever imagined. The longer she pictured it, the more funny it became, especially as the other three sneaked so seriously about in the dark to avoid these deepstalkers, whatever they were. Finally, the image of the wrath of a thousand furry kittens became too much and Eleanor had to stifle a laugh with her hand, choking it back and releasing the air instead in a loud sound not unlike a hiccup.
“Eleanor,” Cullen warned harshly.
“I’m sorry, I just -”
She stopped. Something ahead of her moved, a lighter patch in the prevalent darkness.
“Shit,” Varric murmured.
“I only see the one,” Dorian said, trying to strain hope into his voice.
“There’s never just the one,” Cullen assured him, and with his left hand, he reached for the shield on his back.
“Oh good god,” said Eleanor, and she backed up as far as she could until her pack touched the wall. She went for her staff, almost instinctually now.
“Not a bad place for you, Farm Girl,” Varric assured her. It didn’t make her feel much better.
“Let’s keep this as quiet as we can,” Cullen said.
“Do let’s,” agreed Dorian.
“Bianca’s got this.”
With that, Cullen pushed off on one foot, slashing out at the thing in the darkness. Dorian cast a spell that seemed to cover her, cover every around her, and she suddenly felt overwhelmingly secure, as though nothing could touch her. From beside her, Varric was already firing off round after round into the writhing mass, which, as Eleanor watched, went from one object to two to three to more. Under Cullen’s blade, the first one dropped, the second one too. The third one Dorian hit with a blast from his staff but it wasn’t enough to drop the creature, and it lunged up, gnashing its teeth at Cullen. He smashed it with his shield but had to back away.
Eleanor could now see it was nothing like a kitten. What it was, in fact, was a very small dinosaur. A wee thing, not quite as cute as a kitten, but it was hardly threatening, until Eleanor realized there were at least five more left standing.
“Mother of god,” she breathed, and she heard Cullen give a pained shout. One of the things had whipped its claws out and slashed into Cullen’s arm. Eleanor reacted, taking one small step forward and pressing her staff, her hands against her chest before she pushed them out, as though sending good vibes toward the injured man, and though the wounds of his she had healed before were undoubtedly much more severe, Eleanor was still surprised when it seemed to work.
But now the other deepstalkers had taken notice of Varric, of Dorian, and of her.
“Uh-oh,” she mumbled. She took a step back, but she had only ever taken one step forward, and so her pack smacked hard into the wall of the tunnel, soft clay though it was.
The little beasts chittered and cackled as they lurched forward on awkward legs. Varric put an arrow through the skull of one, Dorian burnt one quickly with his staff, but it kept approaching.
“Cullen!” Pavus hissed, as the commander thwacked one of the reptiles with the pommel of his sword. “Being quiet is going to get us all killed!”
“We can’t afford to attract any others!” Cullen insisted.
If this was quiet, Eleanor thought in a panic, the thrum of Cullen’s sword, the twang-thuck as Varric’s arrows left their crossbow and impacted into the deepstalkers, the electric blast of Dorian’s staff, what was loud?
“Dorian, no! No fireballs, no exploding corpses!”
Eleanor realized that she could hear clearly the sound of the two men bickering despite their hushed tones and that everything must seem so loud because of the relative silence that had been broken by the fight. But if she noticed it, wouldn’t everyone else? Everything?
In her hesitation, Eleanor failed to see the ancillary groups of deepstalkers sneaking up on the party from the edges, some further down the tunnel, some further up. How could Cullen still be urging them to be quiet? She understood Dorian’s concern, was afraid that their caution would backfire. But she forced the thought into her mind. Quiet, quiet, quiet. She closed her eyes and repeated it like a chant. Quiet. Quiet. Soft. Soft like falling snow. Cold.
Eleanor took a step forward, and then another, toward the creatures and away from the protective safety of Dorian and Varric, who had effectively penned her in.
“Ellie!” Dorian spat, reaching for her, but she ignored him, staying just far enough behind Cullen to swing her staff out in a wide arc.
Ice erupted from it, from the ground, from her, and froze all but two of the furthest away stalkers.
Fire was loud, but winter was silent.
“Yes! Good one, Farm Girl,” Varric cheered, picking off the unfrozen dinosaur closest to him with an arrow, and the cascading a rain of bolts down on the frozen ones, causing them to shatter. Cullen rammed his sword through the last living reptile and it went down with a pathetic squeak.
All four paused, listened hard in the darkness. There were noises, scuffles in the distance, but the immediate threat had been neutralized.
Softly, Eleanor asked, “Is anyone hurt?”
Under his breath, Dorian laughed.