That Makes One of Us
While Eleanor healed Stroud, Cullen commanded the Wardens. “Keep that thing on the ground!” he shouted. “Keep it away from the Breach!” There were only a few mages among the Wardens, and no archers to speak off. Most attacked with blades, slashing at the dragon’s feet, it’s head and wings when they sunk low enough to reach. The creature lashed out violently, using it’s spiked head as a battering ram, knocking a row of Wardens and soldiers to their backs. A few did not seem to rise again. The Archdemon oozed black blood onto the snowy earth but showed no signs of relenting.
From the sidelines, Dorian shot flames through the creature's wings as it spread them and gave a powerful flap, and then another, the air whirling around it and pulling in anyone whose footing was not firm. But when the flames reached the leathery flesh, the Archdemon quickly retracted its wings and with a small leap, turned to face the mage, shrieking forcefully some yards from Dorian.
“You don’t scare me!” Dorian cried back, and threw a wall of flame all along the beast’s neck and underbelly.
“That makes one of us, Sparkler,” Varric called, leaping expertly away from the dragon, launching bolt after bolt into the creature’s side. The ones that did not bounce off of hard, black scales stuck deep.
Side-stepping, Cullen circled around to the opposite side of the dragon, stopping to help any prone soldiers - the ones that could be roused, at least - regain their footing as he worked closer and closer to the bulk of the beast. He went to lunge at the soft flesh under its leg, but the Archdemon jumped and took suddenly to the air. Cullen spun on his heel, spying Evelyn near where the dragon’s tail had been only moments before.
“Inquisitor!” he shouted. “The Breach!”
“I can see that,” she answered, and she reached up her anchor to make the small, and smaller still.
“Can you seal it?” he asked her.
“I can,” she called, “but I might not be able to open another! I’ve never opened one from this side!”
Cullen cursed under his breath, pressing the back of his thumb to his forehead. There was a tingling in his limbs that he knew was from magic in the air around him - not Evelyn’s or Dorian’s or Eleanor’s, nor any of the Wardens. It came instead from overhead and it was dark and oppressive. They could not risk closing the Breach. They would have to send their wounded back through it, have to send themselves. The only other way out was through the Deep Roads and even if the way remained open, even if the link did not break, the journey was too long, too risky.
“Cullen!” Evelyn shouted. “We can’t let it through!”
“It may not even want Thedas,” Dorian said, hurrying over. “It may want the Fade! Think of the damage it could do!”
Cullen did not know the damage that it could do. He did not want to. He only knew that he saw the Breach swelling as Evelyn fought hard to shrink it down. He only knew that they didn’t have time.
“Bring that fucking thing down!” he demanded of his people, and the ones that could obeyed, throwing everything they had at the Archdemon. Varric sent a volley of arrows through the beast’s wings and Sera responded in kind.
“But, like,” she asked as she fired off another arrow, “it’s magic, right? So, does it need wings to fly?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, Buttercup,” the dwarf answered. “First Archdemon I ever fought.”
“Just get it on the ground!” Cullen shouted, and was joined by Blackwall and Iron Bull, Cole darting around anxiously, seeming to flicker in and out of existence.
“Workin’ on it, Curly!” Varric shouted, sending up a bolt that hit the Archdemon in the mouth and exploded. “Score one for the dwarf!” he cried as the Archdemon began an uncontrolled descent. Several dozen pairs of feet darted out of the way as the dragon landed hard on the frozen earth.
“Yes!” Iron Bull laughed and rushed the beast.
“Wardens! At the ready!”
Eleanor heard Cullen’s call as she made her approach. Stroud leaned on her, but not nearly so heavily as he had on Cassandra; his legs were working again, and she sent pulse after pulse of healing warmth into the Grey Warden, feeling the man grow stronger and stronger as she became more and more exhausted. She reached for the lyrium in her pouch and withdrew the half-drunk vial, pulling off the cork with her teeth now, slugging down what was left in the bottle and pitching the glass to the ground. She moaned as the substance hit her system, its song louder than all of the noise around.
“Don’t waste your strength on me,” Stroud insisted, and as though to prove his ability, he freed himself from the mage, standing not quite straight, but walking on his own, if haltingly. He stopped just then, though, and offered Eleanor his hand. “It has been an absolute pleasure, Eleanor.” She took his hand tightly, and slapped the other to his wrist. “Maker keep you,” he wished her, and strode off ahead of her, his gate uneven but quick.
“An… Andraste guide you, Stroud!” she called after him, and the words felt right leaving her lips. She followed him, whipping her staff from her back and letting her mana flow into it.
“Wardens!” she heard Stroud’s command. “To me!” The soldiers in silver and blue went to their commander, and Eleanor saw now the Archdemon on the ground, snow landing on its scaly back. The creature hissed and spat, but hardly shifted position; Eleanor saw now that one of its front legs had collapsed beneath it. The other forearm held the beast up, but the two back legs only seemed to be able to paddle. It was grounded, and for good, Eleanor suspected. She couldn’t see the dragon rising into the air again. Not with a lame leg and two wings ripped to shreds. Arrows pocked its sides and scorch marks stained its black hide, grey on the dark of its body. Its eyes burnt like dark flames still, though, and its jaws snapped fiercely. The Archdemon was down, but not out; but Evelyn was again closing the Breach.
The creature sucked in a deep breath to scream, and Eleanor knew enough now to stop her approach, to clap her hands over her ears. She bowed her head instinctively, her chin to her chest as she pressed her hands against her head like her life depended on it - didn’t it, after all?
When the dragon’s breath was spent, she darted quickly to the line of mages and archers still peppering the beast with attacks from afar as the soldiers rushed at the creature, blades and armor catching the spare light. Cullen ran ahead of his troops; as Stroud made for dragon’s head, Cullen rushed the beast at its side.
The Archdemon’s tail whipped around and caught the commander in the chest, knocking him into the air and sending him to the hard ground yards away from where he had stood, his back hitting the earth with a sickening smack. He did not get up.
Eleanor mouth fell open. She tried to breathe but her mouth was dry, and what little air found her lungs in shuddering gasps.
“Cullen..?” she muttered, too soft even to hear her own voice, but with the next breath, she screamed his name, dropping her staff and pitching herself into a run, even as she heard Evelyn calling to her, until she stumbled and fell hard onto her knees, crawling to where the commander’s body lay unmoving. She gathered him up into her arms, but he was limp, his head lolled to one side, away from her. Drawing shallow, shuddering she turned his face toward herself.
Blood ran from his mouth, his nose; a red tear had fallen from one eye.
Just as it had in her dream.
“No!” she cried, long and hard and loud, shrieking like the Archdemon itself, but unlike in her dream, she found the power within her, summoned it all up quickly, too quickly, and forced it from her and into him. Stroud’s injuries had taken nearly everything out of her, despite the lyrium, and she forced herself to take deep if shuddering breaths around her sobs to replenish the power within her, but soon, too soon, there was no more left. She dug down inside of herself the way she had when Cullen had come home slashed to ribbons; it had not been so long ago but she was so much stronger now, had learned so much more, and even still, nothing. She gave until her vision blurred, until she had to struggle to pull air into her lungs, but Cullen did not stir. She reached frantically for more lyrium.
“Eleanor, stop! Get back here!” Evelyn ran to her, Dorian at her side. They tugged at her, and she heard words about getting away from the Archdemon; she could hear the dragon’s cries becoming more desperate, more pained, but she would not let go of Cullen. She sucked down the whole vial of lyrium and forced more magic, more of herself, into Cullen’s motionless body.
Then a large pair of arms scooped up both her squirming body and the commander’s dead weight, carrying them away from the beast. She heard a scream - a human scream, a man’s voice, and then the shrill, wracked shriek of the Archdemon. The arms that carried her - Bull’s arms, she realized - seemed to roll, and she sensed he was falling though he held her still, held Cullen, and then there was a flash, a blinding burst of white.
And then nothing.