There's a Whole World
Stroud stood beside Eleanor, as Cullen commanded any and all troops who were not currently engaged, or could lend an ear to listen as he shouted his orders, the soldiers surround Stroud and Eleanor, and Sera, Varric, Dorian, and Evelyn hanging back and firing arrows or blasts without giving up their position.
“You know,” he said, hands folded behind his back, tipping to his right to speak to her more clearly as his eyes remained fixed on the sky, “the Wardens once fought the Archdemons on the backs of griffons.” He thumped a fist to his chest, where the emblem of the Wardens was etched - an elaborate design of a creature with an eagle’s head and wings and the body and paws of a lion. “The stories that are told of those airborne battles are breathtaking… But to have actually seen them? I cannot imagine.”
“What happened to them? The griffons?” Eleanor’s eyes too remained locked to the sky as she asked, but her mind swam with thoughts of enormous creatures swarming the Archdemon as riders flung magic and arrows at it from a distance merely of years, not miles; of riders leaping from the backs of their mounts to engage in combat in midair.
“They all died,” his voice was heavy with sorrow. “They were tainted, not by any normal means, not through the blood or the bite of a darkspawn, but through blood magic - magic that was meant to save the creatures. The griffons turned on each other, on themselves, and destroyed. They were tainted because they were Joined, as all Grey Wardens are, but the griffons could not handle the trauma. They either fought each other, or killed themselves, until there were none left.” He stood up straight again, eyes following the Archdemon overhead. It had made no move to attack on its own, seeming to watch the battle as Eleanor was currently watching it. Her grip tightened on her staff, and she looked down now at the chaos around her, both longing and fearing to rejoin the fight, longing and fearing to take the fight to the beast that circled overhead.
If any jets flew above the farm now, any helicopters buzzed the highway - but that was unlikely. The blizzard above had only intensified, and now as the small hours of morning gave way to dawn, the heavy clouds permitted only the dullest grey light through; there were no colors of sunrise to be seen. The storm was fierce, the wind whipped at her robes, her cloak, pushed her hood off of her head, and then flung it back up on again; the snow had begun to fall so thickly she could see only a few ranks of soldiers beyond. The rest fought in and out of a murky grey haze of washed out light and puffy white flakes that looked soft until a gust threw them back into Eleanor’s eyes, and she squinted against the storm. She doubted anyone would see them; they were miles from anything. The closest thing to them was the highway, and no one would drive the highway in a storm like this. If they did, they would see a dark shape moving in and out of the clouds, if that, nothing more.
How strange, she thought, that in the middle of this forlorn patch of farmland, was a battle for something the nearest inhabitants could certainly never hope to understand. And here she was, in the middle of it, the white snow collecting on her dark hair, as the voice of a man clad in armor, wielding a sword, a man commanded an army of soldiers who fought not with bombs and guns but with swords and magic, a man from a world very different - and yet, how much the same - a man she loved, as the voice of that man shouted, clear through the cold air: “Do not allow the darkspawn into the circle! The archers and mages must bring the Archdemon down! Do not attack the Archdemon - leave that to the Wardens! We want to end this Blight, not prolong it! The Fifth Blight was won in a year!” He thrust his sword to the heavens. “Let us shame the Fifth Blight! Let us end the Sixth in a day!”
A beautiful sentiment, Eleanor thought, but it had not been a day. It had been months. It had very nearly been the year which Cullen now scorned - could possibly have been more, could possibly have lasted the thirteen hundred years since the First Blight, creeping and crawling below the surface until the time was right to strike, until the Veil tore just so… But as she watched him through the heavy, rushing snow, her voice joined the voices of the soldiers that Cullen commanded, and when he asked them to end the Blight in a day, she too raised her staff to the sky and cried and affirmation, as did the voices all around her. Cullen turned back to her and pushed through the ranks of troops, sliding his sword hastily into its sheath. Shield still buckled to his left arm, he reached around her with his right, pulling her roughly against his bitter cold, hard armor, and kissed her hard on the mouth, nearly lifting her feet from the ground. When his mouth broke away from hers, he touched their foreheads together and said, his voice a bare whisper above the sound of the storm, “I promised you we would fight.” His eyelids slipped shut and he implored, “Promise me this won’t be the last time I kiss you.”
“Not on your life,” she promised.
“Eleanor, I -” his voice caught, and he shook his head, pulling away. “Bring that bastard down.”
All she could do was assent to his command.
Somewhere in the distance, she heard Cassandra shout, the tall woman’s voice distinct even here, amongst the din, and she looked up. Cullen’s eyes followed hers. Above, the Archdemon was swooping down low, and from its mouth spewed… darkness. There was no other word for it. Where any other dragon might have gushed fire, this dragon breathed despair.
“Down!” she heard Cullen shout without realizing the voice was coming from him; only knew that she had to drop. Around her, bodies hit the ground, the snow and mud clinging to all, except for the Inquisitor who stood upright still, bringing a green dome around the circle of archers and mages, and the darkness reflected off of it as the dragon drew up again and into the sky, shrieking its lament as it rose again to the clouds.
Beside her, a prone Cullen lifted his head and shouted across the circle, “If we do this, we do this now!”
Evelyn nodded, lowering her hand, and everyone climbed to their feet around her.
“Stroud!” he called “Are your people ready?”
“As we’ll ever be, Commander!”
“Good! You don’t need me to tell you what to do,” he said, and Cullen turned away, striding through the green barrier as it began to dissipate. Eleanor hadn’t noticed the silence, but now the noise rushed back in, and she heard not just the chaos around her, but screams.
The Archdemon’s darkness clung to soldiers, doing a damage she couldn’t see, couldn’t describe, but she knew she had to do something. Clutching for a moment of peace, a moment of focus before she would send her efforts to the winged beast, Eleanor sucked whatever moisture she could from her mouth, her eyelids fluttering closed. Both her hands tightened on her staff, and she pushed forth a great wave of cleansing energy, a soothing kind of healing she couldn’t name. The effort wracked her to her very core and she trembled, putting her whole weight on the staff for balance now. She knew that it would hold; she was only worried that she wouldn’t. Weakly, she reached into her belt for a slim bottle of lyrium. She uncorked it and took only a sip before sealing it once more and slipping the rest away. Instantly, she stood up straight, her eyes fixed on Cullen, giving him a nod to signal that she was ready - as Stroud had said, as ready as she would ever be.
“Archers!” he pointed his sword at the dragon. “Let fly!”
Behind Eleanor, she heard Bianca’s distinct twang, heard Sera curse playfully; and from the ranks of soldiers she heard the thrum of a dozen more arrows taking flight, though she could never have seen them through the snow. Around them, the clash of combat still sung, but Eleanor could only make out the dark shapes of shrieks and soldiers through the snow. Mounds of bodies were begin to pile up around them.
The Archdemon dipped lower, but whether it was harmed by the arrows or just annoyed, Eleanor could not yet say.
“Mages! Now!” the commander cried, and Eleanor summoned up a storm to rival the one that consumed them, aiming all of its fury at the Archdemon. Around her, a dozen different kinds of magic flew, all seeking the same target. More than half hit home, and the beast wailed, folding its wings against its massive black body as it began a rapid descent.
If nothing else, the creature was pissed.
“Back! Away!” she heard Cullen’s desperate bellow, and she realized that the Archdemon was coming in to land. She turned on her heel and fled, her companions keeping pace with her flight. Behind her, the ground suddenly gave a violent tremble. Nearly tripping over her own feet, Eleanor turned, and found herself almost face-to-face with the dragon; she had not realized its true size when it remained in the air, and it had flown past too quickly in the Deep Roads for her to get a good sense of its mass. But here, on the ground, barely yards from her, she almost froze. The thing was as long as three city busses, as tall as her house. It must have weighed a hundred tons.
And as good as beside her head, it screamed.
For a moment, Eleanor’s whole world went quiet. She pitched herself to the ground, rolled out of the way. Her fingers found purchase in the snow, in the mud, and she drug herself away from the beast, feet kicking as her arms almost swum, throwing her staff out in front of her with each desperate grab. She saw soldiers to either side of her, saw the jagged boots of darkspawn, but all she could hear was a ringing, could only feel the silent pound of feet as the footsteps reverberated in her chest as her head sang. Forcing herself to stand, Eleanor pushed a small wave of warmth through her own body, for a moment dropping her staff and smacking her muddy, cold gloves to the sides of her head. Her braid was coming undone, and free locks of hair whipped at her eyes, but slowly, sound began to come back, dimly at first, but then louder, sharper. She gave her head one last shake and reached for her staff, aiming it at the rotting black creature that stalked the ground before her.
It was the first time she saw them, separate of all of the other troops. The Grey Wardens charged forward, people of all races and skills, charging toward the gargantuan monster, blades drawn, bows strung, staves at the ready. Their blue-grey armor glinted even in the sickly morning light, and she realized then, that every last one of them must have been ready to die. Her breath caught in her chest as her eyes desperately scanned the field for Cullen; he had been closer to the Archdemon than she and she had nearly been trampled, nearly gone deaf.
Eleanor finally caught sight of him, a red and black blur darting up to the belly of the beast, nearly leaping to thrust his sword between its ribs. It would take much more than that to deliver a killing blow, but Eleanor found herself flinching even still, not wanting to have to do this more than once. Nevertheless, she readied her own staff, and sent a shower of freezing blasts at the beast’s head, backing up a step with each shot until she wasn’t sure she could aim reliably if she backed away any further.
“Farm Girl! Behind you!” Dozens of feet away, she heard Varric’s cry, and Eleanor spun, whipping a wall of ice around her, stopping a genlock in its tracks just inches from where she stood. She narrowed her eyes fiercely, and she whipped out with her staff and shattered the darkspawn to pieces. Around her now, on the ground, she planted a glyph to freeze any other saboteurs that might approach.
“Much obliged, Varric!” she shouted through the din, and unleashed another torrent of frost down onto the Archdemon, but she felt herself starting to fade. She needed to pause, needed to take a breath, and she put her hands on her knees, clutching her staff under her arm, sucking in the thin, cold air, seeking the briefest stillness.
It wasn’t to be found. Ahead, the Archdemon quickly hunkered down, and then thrust itself back into the sky with a powerful flap of its torn, leathery wings.
“God damn it!” she shouted into the wind, even as the gust from the creature’s wingbeats threatened to throw her to the ground once more. Cullen ran to her side, raising a hand to his eyes as though to blot out the sun though it was only snow that he was keeping away with his thickly gloved hand.
Evelyn, a few feet behind, shouted, “Where is it going?”
Eleanor tried to orient herself, having got entirely turned around in the shuffle. She turned in a circle, found herself facing a louder sound and decided that that way must be the ravine, which meant the dragon was heading for… for home?
“The Breach!” Dorian shouted as he darted past, Varric hot on his heels. “Don’t let it get to the Breach!”
“Can it… can it…” but she couldn’t put her thought into words as she and Cullen took off after them.
Behind her, she heard the Inquisitor say, “It can use a kind of magic. I don’t know if it can use the rifts, or open them, but whatever it does won’t be good!” she assured them.
Eleanor picked up speed, the snow whipping at her skin, seeming almost orange now in the blotted-out dawn light. She could just make out the shape of the Archdemon ahead of her and she ran after it as fast as she could, her deep breaths making her suck in mouthfulls of heavy, wet precipitation, the cold making her lungs burn. She heard the rhythmic sound of many dozen footfalls behind her, and she hoped that they were the sounds of her own soldiers - the Inquisition’s own soldiers - and not the horde of darkspawn following them Eleanor and her companions sought out the darkspawns’ leader.
“There!” Cullen gave a shout, and ahead, Eleanor could make out a point where the dishwater orange light of the sunrise turned a striking green. They had reached the Breach, and when Eleanor felt a powerful vibration beneath her feet, she knew that the Archdemon had too. She felt the air slide past her in the wrong direction, felt the snow move away as the beast sucked in a powerful breath, and then spewed more of that darkness out over them. Behind her, she heard the sound of soldiers, heavy with armor, hit the ground, and she did the same. Above her, she felt the blackness glance her and she summoned up a wash of warmth as best as she could, sending it out to surround her for a few feet to comfort those nearest to her. Nevertheless, beyond her, she heard screams.
Eleanor rose only to her knees, no further, and tried to catch sight of any injured parties, but it was like trying to see through the static on a television. She could make out shapes, but nothing meant anything anymore; nothing but those nearest to her and the spiny black shape of the Archdemon through the discolored white of the storm.
“Wardens!” Cullen cried out, not to command them but to search for them, and in answer, armor clanged as a group of a dozen or so people approached him. “Where is your commander? Where is Stroud?” he asked any and all of the silver-clad combatants. They turned and looked from one to each, and no one answered.
Stroud. He had been right beside Eleanor the first time the Archdemon landed. And Eleanor had only just gotten out of the way, deafened still by its shriek. Perhaps he was still near the ravine, commanding whatever was left of his forces there, if there were any left to command. If there were ten or so here, and they had had twenty-five to begin… Were these now all who survived?
“Commander!” it was Cassandra, limping toward them - no, not limping, Eleanor saw as she got closer. Carrying someone who was. “Stroud is here!”
Eleanor quickly rushed toward him, leaving those with swords and daggers to combat the Archdemon.
“Stroud, Cassandra! What happened?” she asked looking the man up and down. Cassandra carefully removed the Warden’s arm from over her shoulder and helped the man down to the earth. Something wasn’t right.
“Wretched beast,” Stroud hissed, using his arms to hold himself up as he sat in the snow, the mud. “The blasted thing crushed my leg,” he said, and though his words were soft, he spat them with venom.
But as Eleanor leaned down to examine him, she could see that it had done much more than that. The man’s left leg was a twisted mess of bones and blood and armor, white poking through where silver was not. The right seemed mostly unharmed, but Stroud seemed as though he could not move it. Perhaps he had been able to use it to prop himself up while Cassandra brought him over, but it lay there limp now, useless. The real damage was along the man’s left side, but it wrapped along to his spine.
Eleanor looked up at Cassandra, meeting the woman’s tilted dark eyes. She saw none of the Seekers former vitriol there, only concern. “Go, Cassandra,” Eleanor said gently. “I’ll see what I can do here,” and she dropped to one knee to begin her work.
“E-eleanor,” said the tall women, a gentleness in her tone that threw Eleanor off. “I did not mean what I said about you and the Commander. I was only frustrated. I should not have taken it out on him. Or you.”
Eleanor shook her head, reaching out and grasping the Seeker’s hand for a moment. She smiled as best as she could and gave Cassandra’s hand a squeeze, before tipping her head toward the Breach and again insisting, “Go.”
The Seeker nodded and took off toward the fight.
Eleanor drew her hood up over her face and came to both knees at Stroud’s left side. Eleanor laid her hands on his shredded leg and he winced. She looked up at him as she let power flow through her limbs and into his. She didn’t know how much she could do for the wounded man, but she could try to set the leg, try to soothe his pain.
“Well,” she said, trying to force levity into her voice, “I can promise you you’re going to live.”
Stroud laughed a mirthless laugh. “Of course I’m not going to live, ma fifille.”
She took her hands away from him and pushed her hood back.
“Don’t looked shocked, my girl,” Stroud adjusted himself on his hands. “I have lived far longer than most of my kind.” He took a deep breath and tried to flex his mangled leg, but a wince of pain struck his expression and Eleanor brought her hands back over his twisted limbs, the snow falling all around them. “During the Fifth Blight,” he said now, his voice conveying the relief brought to him by Eleanor’s magic, “a Warden promised the heir to the throne that he would deal the final blow. But Riordan failed the man, and the king was never crowned.” He tried again to move his leg, and it bent at the knee, though blood still seeped from his wounds. “I mean to rectify his mistake.”
Eleanor flexed her fingers, breathed hard with the strain of her exertion. “There’s no throne at stake today,” she said, tipping her head back to stretch as she rolled her shoulders.
“No, my dear, there’s not. There’s a whole world.”