Or Drive You Mad and Then Kill You
After a few moments’ rest, with a burst of warming help from Eleanor, they picked themselves up. They way they had come was no longer an option, not for several hours at least, maybe days, maybe ever, depending on what this sudden movement of such a large group of darkspawn headed by the Archdemon could mean. If they were all headed for the surface…
Eleanor’s heart was in her throat. If they were all headed for the surface, then that was pretty much game over, wasn’t it? With those numbers, they could spread out and absolutely destroy the landscape in a matter of hours. Divide and conquer. She thought of Swiffer alone in the house; Eleanor had set out enough wet food for a day or so, and the cat would have plenty of dry food and water thanks to the auto-feeders Eleanor had dug out of the attic, for all of the non-existent times she might have left to go on a trip. But those would mean nothing if the darkspawn burned the farm to the ground. Burned her house down. Suddenly the fact that it was only half-painted seemed unimportant. Seemed charming. Seemed like something she would miss terribly.
She didn’t even want to think about the people.
But she couldn’t dwell on that right now. They were fifty yards into a passage that they couldn’t get out of, so their only option was to continue along this path, hope it didn’t meet back up with the main road, at least not with any proximity to the entrance they had used, and hope even harder that it wasn’t a dead end. It didn’t feel like a dead end; it was a much rawer construction than the well-made road from whence they’d come, but it looked maintained. Operational. Which was good, Eleanor thought, and also was bad; what if other darkspawn seeking the main group used this passageway? The opening through which they’d come wasn’t exactly decorated, but it had been shaped, squared-off, made more door-like. Whether the dwarves had done it or the darkspawn, they couldn’t say, but it seemed like a tunnel that would lead at least somewhere.
The glow here was not the orange light from the lava flows that ran along the path, but a dim blue that seemed to come from the very walls itself. Something about the blue was comforting despite its mysteriousness. Eleanor found her heart rate slowing as curiosity took over her mind and pushed out the fear, and she ran her gloved fingers along the surface of the wall. It wasn’t the soft clay from before, nor the sandstone that seemed to make up the road they had just left and the statue of the Paragon. No, this was something different. It was cool through the leather. It was welcoming.
“I wouldn’t do that for too long, Farm Girl,” Varric cautioned. “I think this was a lyrium mine.”
Dorian cast a glance at her. “The lyrium we use is refined. Heavily refined.”
Cullen cleared his throat a bit but said nothing.
“The raw stuff will kill you. Or drive you mad. Or drive you mad and then kill you,” offered Varric in a helpful tone.
“Especially mages,” Dorian amended. Eleanor quickly drew her arms up to her sides, even as he said, “But I don’t see any lyrium veins here. This place might have been mined mostly bare, turned into a pathway after it was all used up. Could be just enough lyrium dust on the walls to help light our way.”
And indeed, the tunnel was dark, but the dim blue glow was just enough to see by.
The path twisted and turned, turned and twisted, and for the first time, Eleanor felt like she was actually descending, instead of just feeling like the earth was closing up overhead. The tunnel dipped here and there, levelled out, dipped again.
“This has to be taking us somewhere,” Cullen said.
“I sure hope so, Curly,” said Varric, still mumbling every now and again about how he became a surfacer for a reason.
And then the path seemed to widen, gently at first, and then all at once there was a room ahead of them - no, not a room, a hall, a cavern. The ceilings must have been hundreds of feet high, the walls seemed to be miles away. It was a huge dome of a thing, not squared off like the main road they’d walked down, but round like a bubble, though just as artificially crafted. As soon as they stepped out of the mouth of the tunnel and into the chamber, they seemed tiny. Miniature toy people in a real room.
“Maker’s breath,” murmured Cullen.
“What is this place?” Eleanor asked, turning toward Varric as though he might be able to offer some insight that no one else in the party could.
“That I cannot tell you,” he said. He’d been in the Deep Roads before, more times than he’d liked - and no good had ever come of it. This sudden empty space, and it was entirely empty, seemed like nothing he’d come across before. There had been things in every available cavern, he seemed to remember. Not always good things, but things, never the less. Ruined cities. Tombs. Traps. Something. This room seemed naked, seemed intentionally cleared of anything that might have been in it previously, as though it were being prepared for something. Waiting for something.
“Maybe this is the Archdemon’s lair?” offered Cullen.
“I don’t think so, Curly,” said the dwarf. “I don’t see a tunnel big enough for that thing to get in or out.”
There were more tunnels along the walls, reaching at irregular intervals all the way around the circumference of the room. But they were tunnels like the one from which they had just exited. Small. Person-sized. Maybe even darkspawn-sized. But not big enough to allow passage for a dragon.
No one had taken another step forward; they all stood in a line in front of the tunnel they’d used to get here.
“We should maybe… investigate?” asked Dorian, though he seemed the most reticent to do so.
“Not much else to do, Sparkler.”
“Wait,” Cullen halted them. “Mark this tunnel. With a stone, anything. If we have go back the way we came,” his eyes scanned the enormous space, with its all too similar passageways pocking the walls, “we should at least know which way that was.”
Varric looked down at his feet, saw small stones scattered about. He picked up three in his palm, and then placed them in a triangular shape, pointing back the way they’d come.
“Alright,” said Eleanor. “I guess we move out?”
“I don’t think we can do this systematically,” said Dorian. “If every one of these tunnels leads to another chamber, and if every one of those chambers has equally as many tunnels…” his voice drifted off.
“I hate the Deep Roads,” grumbled Varric.
“Well,” Cullen began, taking charge. “What about straight ahead?”
“As good a choice as any,” Dorian said with the suggestion in his voice that no choices were all that good, but that he hadn’t got anything else to add.
Unused to this new allowance of space, they walked in a line for a few dozen paces, then allowed themselves to spread out, Eleanor finding Cullen’s side. Something about the space felt threatening, as though whatever was meant for this space was already inhabiting it somehow, in some metaphysical way, and it knew they were invading it. It was a ridiculous thought - compared to the legion of darkspawn they’d just come from, there should have been nothing less threatening than an empty room, regardless of its size, but there was an unease in her body that Eleanor just couldn’t shake.
She brought a hand up to her chest, rubbing the place where her anxiety seemed to be festering, and said quietly, “I don’t…”
“I know,” said Cullen, and he reached out to put his arm around her, just between her neck and her staff, “me either.”
The sound of his voice more than his agreement comforted her and she leaned against his chest as she walked, hating the hard armor between him and her, hating that they were down here in this awful place, hating that she couldn’t just close her eyes and click her heels and leave because this terrible dark place made her realize that there was no place like home. And then she remembered that she was from Indiana and not Kansas and there weren’t any good witches in sight.
Except maybe her, and she was short on ruby slippers.
But she looked to her left, and to her right, and maybe she did have a Lion, and a Scarecrow, and a Tin Man, sort of. And hey, both her parents were dead.
The metaphor began to break down - it was a game she had been playing in her head, only a game - and she was almost glad it did. Her Lion was no coward, her Tin Man had more heart than he wanted to admit, her Scarecrow had quite the brain. And the mouth. But this was also no movie, this was no book, it was not all just a dream. The danger was real, and anything that happened to her, to them, happened for good. Even if it was out of the realm of anything she’d previously thought possible. And this was sure as hell no yellow brick road.
“Ugh,” she said, lifting her head up from Cullen’s chest and squinching her face. “What’s that smell?”
They had spanned maybe half of the expanse of the room, heading straight across to the tunnel opposite the one they had come from.
“I have a couple of guesses,” said Varric, but he wouldn’t elaborate.
As they moved toward the passageway, however, the smell grew worse and worse. They couldn’t know for sure that the awful odor was coming from the tunnel they’d chosen, but the sheer density of the stench was enough to make Eleanor consider picking a different path, and she said as much.
“I want to agree with you, El,” said Cullen, who had put a hand up to his mouth, “but the fact that we’re heading towards something different? Might be the only sign we have we’re heading out of a maze.”
“And into what?” Dorian asked, but he didn’t stop moving forward.
“There are stories… from the Fifth Blight,” Varric began to say in a slow voice, “of some gory shit in the Deep Roads.”
“Maybe this isn’t the time to be telling stories, Varric,” Cullen muttered.
“What if they’re true?” Eleanor asked.
“Oh, they’re almost certainly true, Farm Girl.”
Cullen shot Varric a look, and the dwarf put up his hands in surrender. “Alright, alright. Some other time.”
When they finally approached the mouth of the tunnel that they had chosen, it was more than obvious that the retched smell was coming from somewhere within.
“Last chance to make a choice with fresher air,” Dorian suggested, but though none of them liked it, their minds had been made up. They were going in.
This tunnel offered neither the soft blue light of the previous passageway, nor the warm orange of the main hall, the cavern from which they had just come, but a sort of dim brownish grey suffusion, perhaps a corruption of the more pleasant orange from above. It was harder to see by even than the absolute lack of light in the ravine; it flattened everything out, removed textures, removed depth, and Eleanor found herself walking with her hands alternating out to her sides or in front of her, trying not to bump into any of the sharp twists and bends the path was taking, unlike the gentle sloping curves of before. Everything here was angular but not in the crafted way the main road had been, it was angular in a harsh, broken way, like shattered glass.
Before there had been fear, anticipation, terror, but this winding tunnel filled Eleanor with such a heavy sense of unease she became nauseated without even accounting for the rotten smell - for that’s what it was, an absolute unforgiving smell of rot.
“Maybe we should have chosen another path,” Cullen grudgingly admitted, for though the path was not noticeably declining as the previous one had, there was the overwhelming sensation of going down, down, down…
Though the pathway was wider - not big, but wider - it gave the overall impression of claustrophobia much more than anywhere else they had been. Maybe it was the light, or the mysterious sense of depth, but for the first time, Eleanor felt as though they were trapped. It was no longer the knowledge that they simply might not find away out in spite of their being one, it was the feeling now that there simply was no way out. Her fists clenched, and she never let her eyes, her head remain still. She was always looking, always searching for the inevitable moment when the penny dropped, the trap was set.
Dorian, if only because he had been staring fixedly ahead, his own means of self-preservation, saw it first.
“Merciful…” he breathed, and put a hand out to stop Eleanor from walking any further.
Here now was another enormous cavern, not so big as the first one they’d come across but a dozen yards across at least, and not carved from any stone Eleanor had ever seen; no, even if there was stone beyond this room seemed to be covered entirely in…
Flesh. It was flesh.
Eleanor felt her whole body contract, convulse, and she took a shaking step back, bumping into Varric who put out his hands to stop her slowly, to keep her from turning and running.
In the center of the room was something writhing. It seemed to be attached to the floor, part of the floor, part of the flesh that surrounded them, a maggot-like thing with weird, flailing limbs, squirming and reaching, and then Eleanor saw that it was female, at least insofar that it had pairs of breasts stretching from its chest to the place where its legless body terminated on the ground.
The stench was unbearable. It seemed to permeate Eleanor’s very brain as it emanated from every inch of skin that blanketed the room, from every sack of flesh that hung from the maggot-creatures gelatinous body.
“A broodmother,” said Varric, turning his face away. “It hasn’t seen us.”
Across the fleshy room, there were a pair of passageways, one human-sized, like the one from which they had just come, and a huge, huge one, as though to allow for the passage of a large number of creatures at once, or one very large creature.
Cullen pointed with his sword, didn’t have to say anything.
“No, god, no,” mumbled Eleanor. “We can’t… can’t possibly…”
Dorian turned to her with a strained but understanding expression on his face. “I don’t like this either, but it’s this… or turn around.”
She thought of the Archdemon screaming down the main hallway, the hundreds, thousands of darkspawn that followed in its wake.
“Another tunnel,” Eleanor suggested, turning around.
Varric shook his head. “For an army that big, there must be at least a dozen broodmothers down here,” he told her, and in her mind she counted up the tunnels in the cavernous chamber above them. There were fourteen. The possibility that they all lead to - to this was too much.
Eleanor swung around and pressed her hand into the tunnel wall - still stone, not flesh - and vomited up the meager contents of her stomach. Brown, sticky chocolate from the nutrition bars. Bits of seeds from packets she had thrown into her bag. Almost no water, her body had needed it all.
Beside her, Dorian looked just about as sick as she did, but Cullen pushed carefully past Pavus to rest a hand on Eleanor’s back, alongside her staff, rubbing in small circles until she could stand again.
Her purge finished, stomach empty, her offered her his water bottle, not because she didn’t have her own - she still had plenty, should probably have less, should probably have drunk more - but because he needed her to feel some sort of compassion from him before he told her, as she was rinsing out her mouth and spitting the bile that coated her tongue out on the floor, he said, “Stay close to me. No matter what, stay close.”
For an instant, all three men eyed up Eleanor, suddenly knowing that if she were taken, not killed but kidnapped, she would face a worse fate than any of them could ever know.
“Slowly,” Cullen commanded Dorian and Varric, and her took Eleanor’s hand - could barely feel it through his glove and hers, but took it nevertheless - and lead her along the perimeter of the room, trying to stay as far away from the fleshy creatures as possible, trying to stay out of sight. For the first time, the dim, flattening light in the room was giving them an advantage.
Cullen lifted his foot tentatively and set it down. The floor beneath his feet suddenly squished.
The broodmother screamed.
“Son of a bitch,” Cullen muttered, and tightened his grip on Eleanor’s hand. “Run!” he shouted, and pulled her as hard as he could, feet carrying him as fast as he could, as the mage and dwarf darted along behind.
“Getting awfully tired of running away!” Dorian shouted, sending a blast of flame not at the broodmother, but into the flesh on the opposite side of the room to try and focus her attention away from them.
“Would you rather -” Varric began, but just then, tentacles shot up from the floor and reached out, at first searching the air, but then dropped lower, and one swung just over Cullen’s head. He ducked expertly down, dropping Eleanor’s hand to roll, gear and all, as another swished above him, and when he exited the somersault he used all the added momentum to slash his sword across the base of one tentacle, a tentacle as wide as his own waist, and he severed it clean off. The dismembered end of the whipping arm fell to the fleshy ground and continued to writhe all of its own accord, straining out toward Eleanor as though it might still have a chance of catching her despite the fact that it was no longer attached to the body that sought her out. Eleanor leapt over the limb like she was jumping rope, grabbed her staff and shot at it a few bolts of icy cold, freezing the disembodied arm to make it come to rest.
“Eleanor, go!” Cullen shouted and pointed to the more narrow of the two passageways leading out of the room, and she took off as fast as she could, but the springy, sucking nature of the living floor slowed her down, and she couldn’t compensate quickly enough when another tentacle, this one still attached, reached out and wrapped itself around her legs, knocking her face-down into the fetid, fleshy ground and began to drag her slowly toward the broodmother, who shrieked and gurgled only a few yards away.
“Fuck you!” Eleanor shouted and sent cold all through her body, trying to repeat her trick from before, if not entirely to freeze the arm, at least to slow it down enough that she could get herself free. It didn’t work. “God damn it!” she shouted, and reached for her gun, her staff, but her gun was held tightly to her side by the same tentacle that drug her; her staff, she now realized, she had dropped shock after having been grabbed. Her “fuck yous” quickly turned into “fuck mes” as she shouted for any kind of assistance, using up all the magic, the mana she had at her disposal to stun or freeze or harm the tentacle around her, scrabbling at, tearing through the fleshy thing wrapped around her waist, turning her gloves rancid-smelling and bloody as she desperately tried to free herself just enough to grab at a vial of lyrium.
Varric was shooting the soft body of the thing with arrow after arrow, leaping skillfully out of the way of the way of the whipping arms, trying to stop the tentacles at the source or at least piss off the thing enough to drop Eleanor and focus on him, or anything but her. Dorian was dutifully blasting the other tentacles with his staff, or casting spells to panic the creature into forfeiting its concentration; anything to keep the arms, the beast away from Cullen, who was slashing his way through the forest of limbs to get to the bottom of the one that grasped Eleanor.
Every cry, every scream the broodmother emitted made Eleanor feel a little more unsteady, a little more sick, though that might have just been the expenditure of all of her mana, and her inability to draw breath, to regain focus, bring back her mana more quickly, now that the tentacle squeezed her more tightly. She had stopped herself at her limit, unwilling to pass out in the grasp of this horrible monster the way she was willing to drop in Cullen’s arms. Her fingers still bit into the flesh of the thing but despite the injuries she had inflicted upon it, it only seemed to anger the beast. And then she was being lifted, lifted up until her face was even with the broodmother’s, and Eleanor saw their the bare remnants of something that had clearly once been human.
Eye to eye with the creature, Eleanor let out a blood-curdling scream and phased through the arm of the beast.
The broodmother shrieked, recoiling in pain.
Cullen felt the sudden rush of magic above him and looked up, dropping his sword just in time to extend his arms and catch Eleanor as she fell ten, fifteen feet into his grasp. She sucked in her first deep breath in what was probably only seconds but felt like days, and Cullen set her gently on her feet, reaching for his blade quickly, staying behind Eleanor now as he pushed her toward the tunnel once more.
Dorian and Varric pulled in close to the pair, firing off arrows, blasts, and Eleanor joined them once her staff was back in her grip. She hated that the blood from her gloves stained the beautiful staff red, but the feeling passed in an instant, the superficial overcome by the immediate danger, the immediate need to get out of this room. She could worry about her staff later, or not at all. It was a stupid thing; the only real concern was that it made the grip slick in her hands as she shot blast after blast of cold into the tentacles in front of her, clearing a path with Dorian while Varric and Cullen took care of the rear. When they were at the very edge of the room, just before the mouth of the cave, Cullen shoved her hard from behind, sending her reeling into the unlit path before her. She felt herself stumble, and almost bit it on the floor, but she thrust out the bottom of her staff and righted herself, careening into the wall with her left hand extended out to catch her. She turned around and was just about to shout at Cullen, curse him for almost breaking her face, but she saw all three men now blocking the mouth of the tunnel, fighting not just the tentacles, but a party of darkspawn - a patrol? - that had come through the larger tunnel. There were only three, two genlocks and a hurlock, but on top of the grasping tentacles, some of which were close enough to reach into the mouth of the tunnel, they were a serious threat.
Eleanor took in a deep breath, the breath she had sought while being squeezed, dragged, and, cooling down, she felt her mana surge back. She reached skyward, focusing on a point above the heads of the darkspawn, and brought a storm down on them, slowing them, freezing them in their tracks. Cullen backed away and Dorian and Varric followed, still aiming blasts at the frozen creatures, the flailing tentacles. Once they were all out of the broodmother’s grasp, they watched one of the arms reach down now and sweep up the darkspawn, one each in a limb. The broodmother brought them to her mouth now, and began to eat them.
“Jesus Christ,” Eleanor groaned as they continued to back away. “Was that what she was going to do to me?”
“I… think she had other plans for you, Farm Girl.”
“Some other time, Varric,” Cullen said forcefully.