tagCelebrities & Fan FictionThere and Back Again Ch. 142

There and Back Again Ch. 142


Chapter One Hundred Forty-Two: Seek and Find

Anxiety drove us, and despite it being mid-afternoon when we left the Vigil, we managed to make good time, continuing well past dark. We'd met up with Oghren and Wulf along the way, so between those two and Aedan, Alistair, Justice/Vander (Vustice? Jander? Maybe not), Alim, Zevran, and a reluctant Sigrun, we had eight Wardens, and a large contingent of soldiers accompanying Nathaniel. I hoped that would be enough to take on, presumably, the Architect and whatever forces he'd managed to accumulate since the Dragonbone Wastes.

Having been briefed on the situation - missing Wardens, possible fighting between Rolan and the mages, and a large gathering of darkspawn - no one slept well. Justice kept to himself, just as Vander would have done, and I wondered whether that was by preference or in an effort to avoid making others uncomfortable. Sigrun, understanding that we needed her but upset at having to leave Faren's care in the hands of servants, also seemed to prefer to be alone, and we all left her to it. The rest of us almost clung together, sleeping in tents pitched close together and walking together in silence.

We had no idea what we would be walking into, and it was making us jumpy and nervous.

The next day didn't help; while we started early, we were slowed down by muddy, icy terrain, and the carts carrying food and water kept getting stuck. Full winter had not yet hit Ferelden, but there had been scattered snows and the temperatures had dropped below freezing - where they would likely stay until spring. It was less cold this far north than it would be in the bannorn or down in the Wilds, but between the wet and the cold, ice was inevitable.

Several times during the day, especially as we struggled to free the carts from the muck, we could sense darkspawn at the edges of our range that would disappear rather than engage, putting the Wardens even more on edge. Sensing our urgency, we distributed packs to the soldiers, leaving the supply carts and an escort to follow behind as they were able and Nate ordered the troops to continue as fast as they could travel. Despite our increased speed, we didn't encounter any darkspawn, and they stayed enough ahead of us that we couldn't discern their numbers.

We travelled into the evening again, but exhaustion and darkness finally forced us to stop or risk losing soldiers to falls and silly, avoidable injuries. All of us were chafing at the bit, eager to find our fellow Wardens and be done with the Architect and his sentient darkspawn, but we knew overtired troops would not function well once we did engage. Everyone collapsed to their bedrolls after a brief meal of cold rations, and we got moving again as soon as the sun had peeked up over the horizon.

By any estimates we were nearing the Tarcaisne Ridge, and we finally came across some darkspawn, easily eliminating small groups that I assumed were patrolling around wherever the Architect was holed up. Resistance increased the further southwest we went, and by midday our progress had been hampered significantly by multiple small scuffles. None of the groups posed a risk to our large company, but between the fighting and then burning the bodies, it took time, and we had only one mage - Alim - to aid in the latter. By afternoon we were within sight of the great cliffs of the Ridge, and the deep cleft where the road climbed up towards the bannorn.

After staring at the maps and debating briefly with Nathaniel and a few local soldiers, and not wanting to risk either Nate's scouts or our Wardens, given the number of bands of darkspawn about, we elected to turn left and follow the ridgeline further south and east. The locals assured us there were caves in the cliff to the south, but nothing further north. We'd gone only a few miles before we came across evidence we'd chosen the correct route - and that something far stranger than just darkspawn was at work.

"Commanders! My Lord, Lady," a breathless soldier from the vanguard shouted to us. "You need to see this!"

Aedan, Alistair, Nate and I followed him, with the rest of the Wardens on our heels. We climbed a small hill, only to stop in shock. Before us lay a battlefield, void of anything living, but covered in a large number of corpses, the ground soaked with blood. The smell - a combination of the sharp, metallic scent of blood and the sickly sweet odour of rot - made me gag, and I fumbled for a handkerchief to cover my nose, not that it helped. My reluctant gaze initially turned away from the bodies, many torn to pieces, some being feasted on by crows and other birds of prey, but after a moment, I looked back in confusion.

There were darkspawn, dozens of bodies bloating in the late afternoon light, their blood black and thick where it had spilled onto the grass and mud, and a large number of soldiers, some of them wearing Amaranthine's colours and some in the tabards of the Fereldan army. But neither of those were what confused me. What drew my eye, and what I confirmed as I stepped carefully out onto the battlefield almost on autopilot to get a closer look, were a third category of bodies.

"Templars?" Zev asked, rolling over the torso of a corpse that had been ripped clean in half. The armour was familiar, and the associated skirt-thing lay nearby across a set of mangled legs smeared with blood and filth.

The more I looked, the more confused I became. Some of the templars clearly had darkspawn-related injuries, broken pieces of the poor-quality weapons the darkspawn used jutting out of wounds, and claw marks from shrieks evident. But others had been cut down by more conventional weapons, some still with daggers or short swords embedded in wounds, others with amputations or decapitations that would have been impossible with dull, rusty darkspawn blades.

Scouts and trackers cautiously moved across the battlefield, examining the bodies and the tracks left behind. I hoped that they would learn something useful, but was more than glad that it wasn't my job - the wide open, dead eyes of so many people would haunt my dreams enough as it was without getting a closer look.

Nate detailed soldiers to begin separating and piling the bodies, while the Wardens began combing through the remains looking for any sign of our missing comrades. "And if there were templars here, it's possible Solona and Anders made it this far also," Aedan commented. "I specifically ordered them to wear Warden tabards at all times, so they shouldn't be difficult to locate if they..."

"Don't say it," I whispered. It's bad enough we may have lost Conrad, and that one of our own may have been partly responsible. I won't consider the possibility that Anders and Solona are dead too.

In the end, it took the rest of the afternoon to separate out the bodies. We lit pyres for soldiers and templars, after removing identifying items and recording appearances to be sent to the Grand Cleric later; there were also twenty darkspawn corpses which Alim incinerated. There was no sign of any Wardens, no unrecognisable corpses, no gear, nothing. Mentally and physically exhausted, we made camp upwind of the battlefield, lighting a large bonfire and cooking a warm meal for the first time since leaving the Vigil.

Nate asked to meet with us, and in the end all of the Wardens crowded into his large tent, where several of the scouts and trackers I'd seen on the battlefield waited for us. The nobleman gestured at one of the men, and he cleared his through nervously.

"I'm Bosley, Commanders, one of his Grace's trackers."

Aedan nodded firmly. "What did you determine, Bosley?"

The man hesitated briefly, looking back at his fellows before clearing his throat again. "Can't say for certain, o' course, but it looks...it looks like the templars killed five soldiers, and even piled the bodies, but then a day or so later, the templars were attacked by the rest of the soldiers. The templars had even surrendered, I think - some of them had their hands bound. But then they were all attacked by darkspawn. 'Bout a day ago, maybe a bit more. All told, there were thirty-four soldiers, and half as many templars. 'Bout fifteen horses, but I think some might have run off during the fighting. From what I could see, none of the templars or soldiers escaped. But..."

He trailed off, and Aedan gestured to him, a reassuring expression on his face. "Yes?"

"There were drag marks, my Lord. Darkspawn tracks away from the battle, and they were dragging some things behind them when they went. Could have been injured darkspawn, but..."

"Could have been Grey Wardens." Aedan frowned.

Bosley nodded. "At least two, maybe more."

Aedan turned to me. "How many soldiers in each patrol?"

"Fifteen," I replied. Each of the Grey Wardens had been travelling with escorts, and Nate had allotted sixty to split between the four patrols. The math - more than thirty soldiers, or two patrols' worth, made my stomach plummet. "And Solona and Anders had five." They'd been travelling light, by horseback, hoping to make it to the Circle and back quickly.

Alistair winced. "So all of both patrols, and all of the mages' escorts, are dead."

"Minus one," Aedan mused. "A messenger who didn't make it? Or another captive?"

"And the darkspawn probably have four Wardens." Or at least their bodies. I didn't say it, hoping that if I didn't acknowledge it, it wasn't real. "That's a lot of Warden blood."

"Doesn't matter." Aedan's scowl was grim and almost feral. "We'll kill the Architect, kill his darkspawn, and it won't matter how much blood he managed to drain."

Alistair, with nothing else left to do, was staring at the assortment of items that had been taken off the templars' bodies, shoved in a crate in Nate's tent. Where in the hell have all these templars even come from? Alistair was clearly thinking along the same lines; he shoved aside the box and sighed. "What, by the Maker's hairy arsehole, happened here?"


We took the night to rest and prepare before following the tracks from the battlefield towards the cliffs. Closer up, the cliffs looked more like mud and less like rock, but they were dotted liberally with small openings, often half-hidden behind low, scrubby bushes or protruding boulders. The tracks were clear enough even for me to see, and led straight to the largest opening we could find right at the base of the cliff. On closer inspection, the opening had been haphazardly shored up with branches and rotting planks, and it made me wonder how big a risk mudslides and tunnel collapse would really be inside.

"Shouldn't we, I don't know, not follow directly behind them? Find some other way to sneak up on them?" I looked at Alistair in surprise. He has a point. "I'm surprised I'm the one bringing this up..."

Aedan shook his head, even as Zevran nodded hesitantly. "We don't have time. We can't let him escape again. Not to mention, any of the Wardens could be injured. It could take days or longer to try different tunnels and hope they connect. We're just going to have to go in and overwhelm them."

"And if they outnumber us?"

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

"Terrific," I muttered. "Oh, don't even think about it, Aedan." My brother was giving me the puppy-dog eyes, clearly hoping I'd stay outside. Alistair smirked. "I'm going in first, obviously."

I held my hand up to silence the barrage of objections that statement brought. "I'll be right back."

They know I'm right, even if they don't like it. I'd spent hours while travelling convincing Avanna, my bodyguard, that she would have to let me go ahead alone when we reached the darkspawn; there was no way I was putting her at risk of being taken and made into the next Broodmother. I'd ordered her to stay outside with those guarding the tunnel, no matter what. She was even less happy about it than Aedan, from the look on her face. I went up on tiptoes and kissed Alistair all-too-briefly, and then turned to the intimidating entrance with a deep breath and, squaring my shoulders, went inside.

The light from the door didn't illuminate very far inside, and it wasn't long before I was running my left hand along the wall, creeping forward blindly in the dark. It was awful; it felt like I was lost, but at the same time I could feel the weight of the mountain above me pressing down. The sensation of the taint was strong, like in the Deep Roads, obscuring my ability to sense whether there were darkspawn around. My mind started playing tricks on me, and I got startled at imaginary flashes of light or the perception of being followed more than once, pressing my back against the wall and gripping my daggers too tightly until the feeling passed. The tomb-like quiet wasn't helping my nerves either, every step or scrape of my own armour making me twitch. The tunnel twisted and turned randomly without branching, but all the time led down, deeper and deeper underground.

I progressed forward slowly for some time without being able to see, my fear and paranoia mounting the further I went; I was on the verge of deciding to turn around and go back for a torch when I realised I could see a very faint glow ahead. I tried to sneak as silently as I was able, feeling enormously relieved when then tunnel opened into a section of Deep Roads. The lava channels were still flowing, providing reddish light and almost oppressive heat; I was wearing layers underneath and overtop of my armour, given the wintery chill outside, but I didn't dare try to strip off, alone as I was.

The section of the Roads I was in was obviously very old, the statuary and railings crumbling, the floor broken apart and covered in dirt and dust, but it still didn't totally take away from the obvious former grandeur of the place. The ceilings were high, like I was used to; the section of road - before it ended at a massive collapse - was ruler-straight and close to twenty feet wide. There were doors leading off each side, as well as two large irregular gaping holes in the walls that I assumed were either made by crosscut drifters or darkspawn.

And I wasn't alone. Each door had two darkspawn sitting or standing nearby, and small groups gathered in each opening. Another, larger group gathered in the middle of the road segment, around what was obviously one of the Architect's sentient darkspawn. It wore armour, not the patched, scavenged junk most darkspawn had but an actual set of mail with a helmet, and it carried a maul that even Sten might have had a hard time wielding. The rest of the darkspawn were far less-well geared, but there were probably fifteen of them, in addition to the twenty more who guarded exits.

The tunnel I'd come out of was the only unguarded opening, and the large central group of darkspawn faced it expectantly. They know we're here. I looked closer at each doorway and the two guarded tunnels, but the Architect had been clever; the doors were closed and me opening one would not have gone unnoticed, even if the darkspawn couldn't see me, and the groups gathered in the two larger tunnels had spread out, a wall of darkspawn spanning each one, with no room for me to slip past.

I resisted the urge to swear, and after fixing numbers in my head, headed back to the surface to let everyone know what we would face. The trip back took much less time than the trip down, knowing that the way was clear, the floor stable, and nothing awaited me in the darkness. However, still unable to see, I again trailed my left hand along the wall to guide me.

And it was a good thing I did, otherwise I'd never have noticed the small, peculiar area along the wall that I couldn't see in the dark.

It felt sort of like abruptly plunging my hand into cold water - without getting wet, somehow, yet leaving me feeling slimy - or perhaps like that feeling when you sit on your foot and it falls asleep, only to have pins and needles when it wakes up. It wasn't painful, exactly, but it was very uncomfortable, though I hadn't done anything but touch the wall lightly. I was so surprised that I'd taken three steps past it before I realised something was there. I backed up and ran my hand over the spot again with the same results; I changed hands, and could feel it with both. I checked the opposite wall and found nothing - explaining why I hadn't noticed it on the way in. I sheathed my daggers, took off both gauntlets, and explored the wall with both hands, discovering that the sensation spanned about three feet of wall, extended from the floor to above my reach, and that the wall itself - other than the strange sensation - was smooth and felt no different to my fingertips than the rest of the tunnel.

Satisfied that I'd learned all I could about the area alone and in the dark, I put my gauntlets back on and continued to walk back to the surface where I was sure my husband and brother were probably losing their minds with worry. I counted the steps to make sure I could find the strange spot again, I almost ran the last few feet once I could see the light of the entrance again, and I nearly bowled Alistair over in my rush to throw myself into his arms. He held me silently for a brief moment, pressing kisses to my forehead, before I finally pulled myself together and turned back to face Aedan, Nate, and the rest of the Wardens.

"It's not good news. The tunnel stays narrow and dark all the way down, and there's an ambush waiting at the bottom." I briefly described the segment of Deep Roads and its inhabitants. "But...I think, well, I'm not sure. There's something..." I trailed off, and saw everyone looking at me strangely. I sighed. "Sorry. I can't be sure. But a hundred or so paces down, on the right-hand side...I think there's a magically concealed door. Is that a thing?"

Laughing at my awkwardness, Alistair gestured to Alim, who stepped up and nodded. "There are various ways to conceal things with magic, but also barriers that would block a door. What makes you think it's there?"

I described the sensation as best I could. "I'm assuming it was the templar thing, kind of like when I can sense the spells you cast. Not sure. It's a really weird feeling, though."

"Sounds like maybe an illusion ward? I've read about them, but never seen one. That's Tevinter magic. I can't say whether I can break it until I can see it."

"Well, let's grab a torch and go, then. It's not close enough for the darkspawn to see the light, and I can show you where I found it."

"You're not going alone," Avanna growled, and Aedan nodded.

"They can't sense you, but they can sense Alim. They might be waiting on the other side of that door! I'm coming with," Alistair declared.

"We'll split in half," Aedan decided with a nod. "Tunnel's not wide enough to take a bunch of soldiers. I'll come back once we figure out that door."

"You can't both go," Nate cut in. "You'd leave the Wardens without a Commander if something went wrong, or we were attacked out here."

Aedan swore, though I didn't miss the look of guilty relief on Zevran's face when he agreed to wait with the others. Quickly Alistair, Wulf, and Sigrun dropped their packs and drew weapons, leaving Oghren, Justice, Aedan, and Zevran reluctantly outside as 'backup'. I hugged Aedan and Zev, assuring them we'd be fine, and then stepped into the tunnel entrance with Alistair on my heels.

I carried one of the arcane lamps Aedan had cleverly thought to bring from Soldier's Peak, and Wulf carried a normal torch at the back. I trailed my right hand along the wall and counted steps as I led my four compatriots down the twisting tunnel, surprised to find that the feeling of paranoia and nervousness wasn't much better with the addition of the light. The others felt it too, Alistair reaching out to touch my shoulder or back every few steps, and Alim clearing his throat nervously behind him.

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