A Few Unexpected Reinforcements
Cullen was asleep beside Eleanor, as he often was at the small hour of three in the morning.
It was she, then, who sat bolt upright.
His loose t-shirt was bunched up around her ribs, and when she awoke, panicking, she ripped at it with her hands before realizing that it was only clothing, and that it wasn’t only clothing. The panic that crushed her chest, pushed forcefully into her lungs, into her mind, did not abate when the shirt fell back down to her waist. Something was tugging at her, tearing at her heart, and she freed herself from Cullen’s grasp, freed herself from the sheets, and went to the kitchen, to the window over the sink that faced the kitchen, faced the rift, faced the ravine.
She saw the lights, lights she knew weren’t natural, and felt the magic, dark magic, twisted magic. Hurlock emissaries.
They had a patrol out; had had a patrol out every night since the Inquisition troops had arrived. There were over a hundred of them, but only just, a far cry from triple that amount of what Cullen had hoped for. Mages had cleared away the snow near the barn so that the soldiers in tents would at least have somewhere dry to sleep, but overnight it had begun to fall again, and Eleanor opened the back door and looked off to the right to see white powder being shaken off of brown tents as the soldiers were roused by a runner, a soldier who must have been part of the group on patrol. The cold air seared Eleanor’s bare legs and she slammed shut the door, not caring about silence; she’d have to wake up the whole house anyway. It might be pointless - if it were just a mob of darkspawn meeting the patrol, it would mean nothing, same as all the times Cullen’s troops had fought small bands of the creatures in all the months before. But if it were not… if it were not…
She dashed back into the bedroom and immediately went to the bed. She gave Cullen a kiss on the forehead, quick but rough, and said, “C’mon, Cul. Gotta go,” and she went to the wardrobe for her robes, her staff. His things had been packed away in the same cabinet, her same dresser, as best as she could do, but she waited to turn on the light and yank his things free for him until his legs were over the side of the bed. She was not that cruel.
“What’s the situation?” he asked, rubbing the bridge of his nose as he felt around on the bed for the items - socks, boxers, miscellaneous pieces of plate mail which she tossed more gently - that fell onto the mattress beside him as Eleanor pulled them from this draw or that as she clothed herself in her own layers of undergarments, a thin sweater, her robes.
“Darkspawn. Past the Breach. I… I felt them before I saw them. Don’t know how many, but the runner roused the soldiers by the barn,” she told him, as she hopped gracelessly into a boot.
“Shit,” he said, slapping his face, rubbing his hair vigorously to try and shake the sleep off. It had been easier to do before, back when he hadn’t had something, someone, so soft and warm and comforting to sleep beside. He was getting too old for this. He was getting too content.
Eleanor, however, was off like a shot, dressed in everything but her cloak and sash as Cullen began to pull on his socks. She left the bedroom, wound her footsteps around Swiffer who yelped at her for making such a noise and such an hour, and fled for the stairs.
Cullen shook his head. Maybe he was just getting too old. Eleanor was nearly thirty but still nine years his junior, and for the briefest instant, he wondered if maybe their differences in age would pose an issue. He sighed at himself; he knew it wasn’t true, but he never felt older than at three o’clock in the morning with the threat of attack looming. He knew that darkspawn hated the daylight, knew that this was their preferred hour, but he silently hoped that they would come at noon, sometime just after a late breakfast, or an early lunch.
Eleanor, on the other hand, awoken by the creeping surge of magic within her, by that sense that she would have to use it, was bolting up the stairs and knocking on doors, though something in her gut, maybe magic, maybe not, told her that Evelyn was already awake. She thrummed three times on each door, and by the time she’d reached Varric’s room, the furthest down the hall, Evelyn’s was swinging open and the Inquisitor was asking for a report. Eleanor quickly rattled off the same thing she had told Cullen and Evelyn nodded like she had suspected as much, and perhaps she had; Evelyn was not only a few years older than Eleanor, but had had her powers all her life; moreover, Evelyn, perhaps because of her affinity with the Anchor in her hand or perhaps independent of it, had trained in a kind of magic that allowed her to master the Fade and become more acquainted with the rift. Perhaps she had used it to sense the darkspawn; or perhaps she simply had the same burning in her belly, the same clutching nameless nightmare that had awoken Eleanor.
She heard movement in the other two rooms now, saw Evelyn retreat to deck herself out in armor, to grab her own staff, and so Eleanor went back down the stairs to find Cullen mostly dressed, attaching plate to his shoulders, to his shins. She pushed gently past him to fix her staff to herself, to run her sash around her waist and check the pockets for her supply of lyrium. Dorian had more, but these few vials she thought would be enough. Hoped would be.
Cinching the leather around her waist with a small silver buckle, she heard a cry from outside. She flung her cloak over her shoulders so that it felt to one side of her staff and flipped her hood up over her head.
“Let’s go, handsome,” she said, and with powerful strides she went past Cullen once more and to the bedroom door. But he reached out, grabbed her, pulled her against his chest.
“Eleanor,” he said, using her full name for the first time in a long time. “I will try to stay by your side. But please - be careful.”
Her wont to make a wry joke blossomed, but when she realized with what a deadly seriousness he spoke, she instead reached up to smooth his coarse hair with a leather-gloved hand. “Of course, Cullen. I will.”
“Please,” he reinforced, “I can’t -”
But boots trampled down the stairs and made Eleanor deaf to his words. She rose up on the balls of her feet and kissed him roughly on the lips, her hood dropping back an inch before she pulled away, leaving the bedroom to join Evelyn and Varric as Dorian called down the stairs that he was coming.
“Alright,” said Eleanor. “Let’s move.” And despite their relative ranks, everyone respected her command.
The snow was falling heavy now, coloring the ground blue-grey under the moonless, cloudy sky. Eleanor trudged forward, wordlessly taking the lead, fearless even knowing what she was going into. Her four companions fell in behind her, walking silently through the darkness. To their right, Inquisition soldiers marched toward the ravine, the sounds of any impending battle completely drowned out by the sounds of marching, of the jangling of buckles and weapons, the whispers of speculating voices that together reached a dull buzz. And still, the falling snow muffled it all.
It happened all at once, then: an errant blast from a hurlock staff came buzzing toward the soldiers and was deflected by a shield, the polished surface sending the scorching orb skyward. The soldiers that had until now only been marching broke into a charge, forming previously inscrutable ranks, now perfectly obvious even amongst the rushing chaos. Beside Eleanor, Cullen drew his sword and picked up his pace, not running ahead like the troops but moving ahead of Eleanor with his shield out on his left arm as he blocked Eleanor’s body with the blade in his right. Varric twanged Bianca’s string furtively, loading an arrow and resting the butt of his crossbow on his shoulder. Dorian and Evelyn whipped their staves out, and Eleanor felt the comforting embrace of protection, of safety, falling down around her. She knew that it was temporary, but it steeled her enough to make her feet match Cullen’s through the snow, to draw her own staff and summon her strength, pushing forward and keeping pace into the fray.
They were long past the Breach, covering the miles toward the ravine on light feet, and the darkspawn that had managed to stray this far, not even the furthest they’d ever been, the closest they’d ever been to home, were already corpses. The soldiers ran past, now and again grabbing loosed arrows from lifeless chests, grabbing spare axes and swords. Despite the distance from the ravine, the lack of living enemy combatants further instilled only confidence in Eleanor, and judging by the eagerness with which her companions continued their approach, she thought that they must feel the same. Even the snow beneath their feet was trampled down, hard-packed, and there was no drag of their boots through the snow; the flakes that landed on their face were merely cool, almost refreshing against their exertion.
And as if because Eleanor thought that this might be alright, that the soldiers might see all of the action and that by the time they approached the ravine there might be nothing left but corpses, the ground beneath their feet seemed to shift and shudder, and she narrowed her eyes and though the ravine was still far, so far away, she saw something black against the dark blue of the sky, against the white of the snow, and it seemed to ooze up over the edge of the horizon, to bubble up out the earth though the actual gash in the ground was still too far to be seen. It took her mind a moment to process that what she was seeing was not a black wash up close, but hundreds - more than hundreds - of black-clad darkspawn soldiers charging across the ground many miles away.
All around her, feet slowed. Her own legs suddenly felt heavy, felt not just the strain of the distance she had already run but the distance she still had before her, and the strain of swinging her staff, of summoning herself to fight such an infinite horde. Was it over before it had begun? Was this the end already? Even if all of the Grey Wardens, all of the soldiers had survived their journey in the Deep Roads, there were only three hundred of them, three hundred and fifty at the most. Ahead of them, Eleanor could not even imagine counting the individual numbers in the black swarm.
Her feet threatened to come to a stop, knees threatened to give out below her, but beside her, Evelyn pointed her staff ahead and it seemed to burst into life, into light. She felt Evelyn’s magic next to her, joining the two of them together somehow, and Eleanor took a deep breath, and picked up her pace once more, catching up with Cullen and letting the flow of her own magic swell into her chest.
The darkspawn approached as, from the other direction, the Inquisition forces went to meet them.
The snow clouds overhead, at first oppressive, now seemed a signal to Eleanor, and as she heard the clash of steel on steel before her as the first soldiers met the frontrunners of the swarm of darkspawn, she reached out and ahead of her, into the grey of the sky, the heaviness of the clouds, and through them, Eleanor found it much easier to pull down a storm, to bring down the chill of the heavens, and the chill that permeated the air became a blast, raining down on the darkspawn before her, freezing them to the spot, making their bodies fragile against the soldier’s attacks. The bulk of the darkspawn still seemed miles away, but she did her best to help the forces pick off the advance parties to avoid any early - the word was slow in coming to her, though she knew it from the start - casualties. Alongside her, Varric helped, sending a hail of arrows into the frozen darkspawn, and when the bolts made contact with the darkspawns’ bodies, they crumbled, becoming nothing more than a part of the snow underfoot.
To see her own power on such a large scale gave Eleanor pause - what gave he the right to be able to inflict such damage upon other living things? Certainly the darkspawn were not human, were barely sentient, but nevertheless, under her thumb she, with the help of her companions, crushed them like insects. Was this her place? Was this right?
As an opposing arrow flew past her head and she quickly jerked to the side, her thoughts were almost entirely quelled. It was her or them - she knew that, had never not known that - and just as soon as she caught her breath. she would smash every one of the darkspawn to powder. There would be plenty of time to reflect on the ethical intricacies of her power when she was not at risk of an arrow to the skull.
Far ahead, the black mass on the horizon seemed to be rushing forward, behind it a wave of silver: the soldiers that had gone into the Deep Roads were rushing out now, on the heels of the darkspawn, and the biting cold air carried the sounds of the fight more clearly now than before, perhaps because they were no long below the surface, perhaps because the air was free of all else but falling snow. The quiet, hesitant clashes and clangs became a roar, a surge of noise washing over Eleanor as she pushed forward, only paces behind Cullen as his sword effortlessly lopped off the head of the first genlock he encountered. It skidded past Eleanor, bouncing on the cold earth, its eyes blinking even as black blood poured from the stump of its neck. She didn’t have time to be disgusted; she had less still to be afraid. Cullen’s shield crashing into the body of another genlock, his sword stabbing over, under the round of metal strapped to his left arm. The darkspawn fell, and Eleanor rushed to his right side, swinging her staff out in front of him. From the earth erupted a wall of ice, freezing the darkspawn immediately before him, and giving him a temporary spot to breathe, for Eleanor to breathe, as more and more enemies plunged ever nearer. She held still only a moment, just long enough to take the bitter air into her lungs, and she shut her eyes, sliding past the protective wall, sliding not around but through a shriek, sending bolts from her staff into its mangled body and bringing it down. Dorian, only feet from her, shielded her once more and sent the other enemies around her running in terror from some horror he forced them to imagine, while Evelyn summoned some terrible pull, some small rift that drew the enemies not fleeing in fear toward her, dragging them in, and with another sweep of her hand, she brought the form of a fist down onto what were once darkspawn, but now were just a tangle of crumpled limbs and armor on the packed snow.
“You’ll have to show me that one!” Eleanor called out to her, at the same time using the physicality of her staff to knock a genlock to its knees before she froze it solid and blasted it in the head with her staff.
“Anytime!” Evelyn hollered back, shooting a blast of purple missiles out from the palm of her free hand and into the backs of a distant hurlock.
Moving ahead of her, Eleanor saw Cullen reach skyward, and before him a pillar of light lit up the field, a dozen or so darkspawn recoiling from the brightness. He struck out not with his blade but with his shield, mashing a blinded darkspawn in the chest with the solid metal, then flipping his sword over skillfully in his hand, knocking a second one under the chin with the pommel.
The pommel, Eleanor smiled, remembering, even as with a flick of his wrist, he spun the blade around again, deflecting a blow from an axe and plunging the steel deep into the side of the stunned darkspawn. He found gaps in their armor as though his sword was drawn to them like filings to a magnet.
“Plenty of time for chit chat later on, ladies!” he called and surged ahead.
“Pardon our girl talk, Commander!” she shouted, one hand cupped playfully to her mouth, the other stamping the butt of her staff on the ground to refocus herself before whipping it around viciously, firing shot after shot after shot into shrieks and genlocks alike.
“Don’t listen to him,” Varric insisted, as he paused for a moment to line up a shot, and Eleanor turned to see what he was aiming so carefully at. “A little banter never hurt anyone.” Something huge in the distance was lumbering toward them, swaying back and forth under its own weight. Varric let his bolt fly, and it struck the huge beast in the chest, stopping it dead in its tracks.
“Excellent, dwarf,” called Dorian, “now, we all might want to move,” he cautioned, and ahead of him, just at the distance of the large creature, an explosion burst forth, consuming the beast and several of the darkspawn that surrounded it.
“Yeah, that’ll piss ‘im off,” agreed Varric, and he and Dorian both dashed off to either side as the huge beast scuffed its feet in the snow like a bull and then charged forward at a speed that Eleanor would not have thought something so big, so awkward, capable of, and she barely had time to roll out of the way, hood falling too far forward on her head as she sprang to her feet once more.
Pulling the fabric out of her eyes, she called, “What on earth is that!” She enforced a coldness around herself, a willing chill that would protect her as she sent bolt after bolt into the beast.
“Ogre!” Dorian called from the opposite side of the creature, as Varric carefully backed away from the creature, firing a single bolt into the thing’s head. It rose up, roaring.
“Well, that didn’t work!” he shouted, backing even further away.
Evelyn reached up, tearing something from the sky - a solid boulder, which then came crashing down onto the ogre’s spine.
“That did,” she said, wiping a hand across her brow.
“I should say,” Dorian said, giving the thing a quick poke with the butt end of his staff, and then hurrying forward again, as more darkspawn rushed to meet them.
They fought wave after wave, forcing closer and closer to the ravine, leaving nothing but bodies, burnt, bleeding, frozen, dismembered, in their wake. The Inquisition troops fought well, obeying perfectly Cullen’s every command on the occasions that he called across the field to give one. Mostly, however, it was just a matter of driving forward as the soldiers that had come out of the ravine forced in from the other direction. Small groups had split off on either side to keep the darkspawn penned in, to keep them from fleeing into the night as the two groups of soldiers pressed closer and closer together. It seemed as though their numbers might be equal now, three hundred or so darkspawn for three hundred or so Inquisition troops, though if any had fallen or how many Eleanor could not say. It was naive to assume that because their ranks looked intact that they had lost no people. As if to reinforce this notion, beside her, a hurlock’s fiery blast lit up on a woman dressed in light mail, the two daggers she had clutched falling down into the snow.
Eleanor took a long stride as she hollered out, “Cullen! Cover me!” even as she constructed a wall of ice in front of her, in front of the fallen, screaming woman. He heeded her cry and rushed for the hurlock who was aiming a blast at his target once more.
“Hey, there,” said Eleanor softly to the burnt woman. “I need you to close your eyes and take a deep breath, okay?” The wounded soldier tried to obey, but the breath she drew in caught again and again in her chest. Eleanor brought down a rush of cold to soothe the woman’s pain, and filled her body with that familiar warmth, warmth that surged down to fill the fallen woman. Eleanor gave her what she could, and laid the soldier down flat on the cool earth. “Rest here a minute. Join us again when you can.” Eleanor stood again, stretching, finding that quiet rush in the cold, in the stillness, trying to let the mana surge back into her core.
That was when she heard it. They all heard it. That sickening screech, the flap of rotten, leathery wings.
“The Archdemon!” someone called, and even from the brave soldiers, small gasps, even cries rose up as the dark thing flew overhead, the beating of its wings stirring the falling snow into unnatural vortices around its terrible black body.
“Where are the Wardens!?” another soldier cried.
And a voice answered: a voice rich and deep, clipped with a familiar accent. “They are here!”
“Cassandra!” she heard Evelyn shout through the fray.
Ahead of her, as Eleanor brought down another gusting storm on a cluster of shrieks, she saw the two women quickly embrace, tears of relief sparkling in Evelyn’s eyes.
“I am so glad to see you, Inquisitor,” cried Cassandra over the sound of the fight. “We lost a few Wardens and perhaps two dozen soldiers below,” she flung a gloved hand toward the ravine. “But we forced the beast out!”
“Excellent work, Cassandra!” Evelyn shouted.
“Stroud was tracking the Archdemon - he should be nearby,” Cassandra’s dark eyes darted across the field, “and,” she added, her voice lifting, not in volume but in tone, “we had a few unexpected reinforcements after you left.”
“What -” Evelyn began, and then she saw Sera leaping down from the back of a falling ogre, Iron Bull’s large shape revealed behind. There was also a small - or was he small at all? - boy in a large hat who seemed to dart inexplicably from genlock to genlock, two daggers flashing wildly before each of the darkspawn fell.
“Don’t tell me,” Evelyn said, “Cole just wanted to help.”
Cassandra’s face formed a tight frown, “He would not be swayed from it.”
“Head’s up, Seeker!” shouted Varric as he dashed forward, as he leapt spryly from the back of the tumbled, Bianca shooting off several arrows before the dwarf’s feet hit the ground. “Good to see you, Buttercup!” he called back to Sera, who touched her head to mimic tipping a hat.
“I’ll say,” called Evelyn.
And then the Archdemon circled around once more, its screaming a plaintive sound amongst the crashing of metal, the screams of soldier and darkspawn alike.
A tall, bearded man strolled up to Evelyn, his sword glistening with thick black blood. “The question is, Inquisitor: how do we reach that thing?”
“He’s got an excellent question, Boss!” Iron Bull said, swinging a massive axe around in a wide circle, taking down a half a dozen darkspawn in one blow. “Don’t know about you mages, but I can’t just spread my wings and fly! And unless Blackwall knows something he’d like to share with the group…” Iron Bull approached and slapped the bearded man - Blackwall - on the back, but the ruddy-faced warrior didn’t seem to appreciate the gesture.
“Cullen!” Evelyn called to him. He acknowledged her with a nod but first dropped his stance to smash a hurlock in the knees with his shield before plunging his sword into its neck. Rising powerfully to his full height, face streaked with sweat, with blood, he looked from Sera to Varric to Dorian to Evelyn to Eleanor. Bringing the back of his wrist to wipe the salt water from his eyes, he sucked in a deep breath and said, “We’re going to have to bring it down.”