tagCelebrities & Fan FictionThere and Back Again Ch. 081-082

There and Back Again Ch. 081-082

byElyssaCousland©

Chapter Eighty-One: Descent

I dreamt about the movie "The Sound of Music," not a surprise given what I'd been doing when I fell asleep, but I woke to something considerably less pleasant: panicked screaming.

Alistair and I were on our feet in a mere second, both of us grabbing our weapons as we rose, but then stopped in confusion when we looked around the cavern and saw no cause for alarm. Others had peeked out of their alcoves as well, and we all exchanged puzzled glances. I thought about the voice I'd heard, trying to determine whose it could have been, when it happened again, and then I relaxed as I realised what it was. Duncan, and I'd have bet my last sovereign he had finally fallen asleep.

I patted Alistair's arm to stop him when he looked like he was going to go in to Duncan's alcove. I handed Alistair my daggers and sent him reluctantly back to bed, and I tiptoed over to where Duncan slept.

He was twisted up in the blankets, muscles taut, his skin slick with sweat; his hair, which he'd started growing again, was a wild mop, and his face was scrunched up in a look of abject horror. He wore a tunic and trousers, both of which were damp with sweat.

I gently peeled back the blankets without touching him, untangling his limbs, which relaxed him somewhat, then leaned over to whisper softly. I couldn't say what I murmured, but it didn't matter; the tone was what was important. After years of dealing with the nightmares of my younger foster-siblings, I knew that if I startled him and he woke, it wouldn't end well. He'd likely wake in a panic, assuming I was a hurlock or something. So I kept murmuring until he slumped back onto the bed and his face went slack before I attempted to wake him. Once I was convinced he wouldn't be violent, I knelt down beside his cot and gently stroked his cheek.

He opened his eyes, which I hadn't noticed before were blood-shot and almost hazy, like an elderly person with cataracts. Rheumy. I knew he hadn't been sleeping much, but hadn't realised how bad things must have gotten. He smiled at me, then frowned as he noticed his bedraggled state.

"Good morning."

He struggled to sit up, and I offered him my hand. His confused expression cleared as the remnants of sleep faded, and he rubbed at his face ruefully. "I hadn't meant to sleep."

"How long, Duncan?"

He looked at me, and taking in my serious expression, sighed. "I take it I was screaming in my sleep?" I nodded. "I don't know."

"Duncan..."

"No, honestly. The taint takes everyone differently. I have seen Wardens who had the nightmares for years before they couldn't put off their Calling any longer, and others who denied having the dreams even as their skin blackened. It's variable. But if I had to guess..."

He trailed off for a moment, and when he continued it was a whisper. "A few months, six at the most." He gave me a searching gaze. "This Blight needs to end soon."

I nodded, and leaned forward to wrap him in a hug. He chuckled as he returned it.

"Be careful, young lady, or I won't survive to see the Archdemon - Alistair will kill me first."

I grinned and hugged him tighter. "A little jealousy is good for him." I released him, my serious expression returning. "You know we both see you as the father we never had."

He nodded, smiling ruefully. "Neither Bryce nor Maric would appreciate that description, I suspect."

"Probably true. Doesn't change anything, though. I do not want to see your time here end, but I want to see you suffer even less. For your sake, I hope the Blight will be over soon. Would you permit me to ask Anders if he knows anything to combat nightmares? You need to sleep sometimes, Duncan."

He sighed, rubbing his face again, then finally nodded. "I'll come."

Anders, unsurprisingly, knew quite a bit about nightmares and other sleep problems, and promised to make a potion to allow Duncan to sleep deeply without dreaming. We had purchased supplies for healing potions and poultices before we left Orzammar, so apparently Anders had the ingredients he needed.

Since everyone was awake, we all readied ourselves and ate a standing breakfast of biscuit and jerky. We set out as soon as everyone was packed up. I was sorry to see the little supply depot go; it had been nice, compared to what I'd expected.

We walked through darkspawn tunnels, dwarven-made crosscuts, and Deep Roads, heading further and further from Orzammar. We came across a few, isolated groups of darkspawn, which we managed easily. The darkspawn were never far away, and the tingling sensation that indicated their presence was constant and irritating, until I learned to ignore it. Duncan was experienced enough to determine distance and intentions much more accurately, and the rest of us had to rely on his warnings.

I'd explained what I remembered about the crosscut drifters from the game, just to pass the time, and at least the dwarves were interested. Except for Oghren, who refused to make eye contact, never mind actually admit to be listening.

Each evening, I worked with Bel on quietly learning to sing. He wasn't bad, by my amateur assessment, and continued to be amazed that he didn't stutter. I started him with simple children's songs, like the alphabet and 'Row, row, row your boat', moving on to songs with more complex speech patterns as we went. Neither of us were keen to be overheard, and everyone seemed to get the point, leaving us alone.

Oghren drank as much as advertised, at least if his own off-key singing was anything to go by. After the first couple of fights, when it became obvious that he could hold his own even when sloshed, everyone left him alone. He and Zevran had taken to needling each other with dwarf and elf jokes, and I almost choked when Anders suggested they stop dancing around the issue and just get to work on a baby dwelf. Aedan pointedly ignored the dwarf, and I was sure Zevran was going to be told off later for fraternizing with the enemy; neither Aedan nor Alistair left my side at all for two days.

The next few nights had us sleeping in the open, as we would have had to go half a day out of our way to get to the next supply depot. It was harder to sleep, and oppressive; even the dwarves seemed to get quieter and more morose. The darkspawn dreams were worse as well; Duncan slept better, thanks to Anders, but the rest of us woke in sweats more than occasionally.

I missed Alistair; he was by my side, but lack of privacy and the need to remain in armour removed any possibility of intimacy. Even a hug was virtually impossible; I ended up crushed against plate, with his gauntlets digging in. It was depressing. It bothered him, too; periodically at camp he'd drag me around a corner to drop a heated kiss on me, mouth taking mine with wild abandon, before burying his nose in my hair. But we didn't have long before someone at camp would notice our absence, so a few stolen moments were all we had.

Sleeping was strange; I planned to sleep by Alistair, but after the first couple of nights, woke to find Aedan beside me as well. At first I thought it was due to overprotectiveness on Aedan's part, but I soon realised everyone was moving closer and closer to the group each night, until a week in, we were practically sleeping in one gigantic puppy pile. I was always sandwiched between Alistair on one side, and either Aedan or Duncan on the other, and everyone else was within an arm's reach. Even Shale had taken to standing nearby. No one wanted to be alone, even for a moment, in the Deep Roads.

I asked Shale, once, why she never sat; she demonstrated, rather pointedly, by using her rear end to crack a boulder left out in the open by the crosscut miners. I giggled, and could have sworn she smirked. It was one of very few laughs I had while trudging through those forsaken passages. I clung to Alistair's hand as much as possible, and often Aedan's as well; I needed the contact, or I thought I'd go mad.

Anders seemed to be struggling with being enclosed in the Deep Roads. Not that that surprised me - I recalled his objections to it from Awakenings and DA2 - but his haggard expression almost rivalled Duncan's. I was worried. I tried to talk to him about it, get him to think about something, anything else, but even teasing him about Solona could barely get him to crack a smile. Jowan was by his side almost constantly; the blood mage barely spoke to anyone else unless spoken to, but he faithfully stayed with Anders, for which I was grateful.

The one thing I did manage to get Anders talking about, once, was Solona. He told me he'd left her a letter, like I had suggested weeks before on the road to Orzammar. He didn't tell her what had happened in the tower, just begged her for one chance to talk, to try to explain. I hoped she'd give it to him. And I thought his hope that she might was possibly the only thing that kept him going.

About a week after we'd left Orzammar, when we were attacked by a bunch of deepstalkers, we took a couple of hours to skin, gut, and roast one of them to replenish our stores. The two mages took turns using spells to keep the rocks underneath scalding hot; it was a good thing, because the only thing we had to burn was ancient refuse, most of which had been tainted. I had my first taste of deepstalker; it was sort of chewy, but thankfully without much flavour. I missed Leli, for about the hundredth time; she might have been able to make something actually not-objectionable from the meat.

Gorim estimated that we were three to four days from the Dead Trenches, where we hoped to catch up to Kardol and the Legion of the Dead. We'd seen no sign of Sereda, not that we'd have recognised it if we had, so we had to hope she was with the Legion. Because we were taking the most direct route to our destination, we hadn't come across any Legion patrols, who always travelled from one supply depot to the next so they could travel safely in small groups.

The closer we got to the Dead Trenches, the more overwhelming the sensation of darkspawn got. Duncan assured us that we weren't going to be ambushed, but all of the Wardens got jumpier and jumpier as we approached. The last night, practically on the edge of the Trench, I don't think anyone got more than a couple of hours of restless sleep.

We woke to a darkspawn ambush, but no one was surprised, or even asleep. There was an Emissary, the first we'd seen in the Deep Roads. I used its mana to shield my companions, and Alistair decapitated it with his long sword. Once the group, which included several hurlocks and a handful of shrieks, was dealt with, we all slumped down by our bedrolls, disheartened. It was difficult keeping up morale, and the claustrophobia seemed to be getting worse with time.

"Well, there goes any hope that the Archdemon didn't know of our presence." Duncan flopped down beside Alistair, exchanging grim frowns. "You're sure it won't attack us the moment we near the trench, Sierra?"

"It didn't in the game, but as we've seen, that doesn't guarantee anything. I'd say a healthy dose of caution is warranted."

Duncan sighed. "I'm going to go ahead, alone. I fear the Archdemon will be drawn to my advanced taint, being so close to my Calling. If nothing happens, I will find the Legion of the Dead and await you there. I want you to wait here at least a couple of hours before following me."

Alistair jumped up, running his hands through his now-shaggy blond hair. "Duncan, no. You can't do this. We need you with us." He paced, expression pained. "I can't do this without you."

Duncan rose slowly, reaching out to grab Alistair's shoulders. "You can. Aedan can lead you, if you insist, but I know you can do this, Alistair. You two can end the Blight, and you have help, now. I won't risk all of you. Ferelden - Thedas - needs you. And if I'm wrong, and the Archdemon doesn't attack, I'll see you on the other side."

Alistair's eyes were suspiciously moist, but he nodded once. "Maker watch over you, Duncan."

Duncan pulled him into a brief hug, then turned, kissed my forehead, gathered his things, and walked off. Alistair's shoulders slumped, and I pressed myself against his chest, getting as close as I could with both of us in armour.

"He'll be okay. I got the impression the Archdemon was taunting us, in game. It could have roasted us, but it wanted to play with us first. I'm sure this will be no different."

Just then, Aedan walked up, wiping his sword with a rag. "Where'd Duncan go? Suddenly have a shy bladder?"

I cringed. "Um...he's going to scout ahead. He said to wait two hours, and then follow him."

Aedan narrowed his eyes. "Scouting." I nodded. "Alone, while having the strongest taint to attract every darkspawn around." I nodded again, refusing to make eye contact. "What aren't you telling me?"

I sighed. "The Archdemon is up there, somewhere. Duncan's afraid it will sense him and try to kill him because his taint is too strong. He doesn't want us travelling all together so that it doesn't take us all out in one fell swoop."

Alistair grinned weakly. "Because swooping is bad."

Aedan growled. "Nice. No good-bye's, he just left?"

"I suspect he was trying to avoid drama."

"Trying to avoid someone stopping him, you mean."

"That too."

I hugged Aedan - easier in his leathers than hugging Alistair in his dragonbone - until his shoulders relaxed and he returned the hug. With a brief, grim smile, he turned back to the group to inform them of the delay. It was a noticeable change: around Duncan, Aedan tried not to take the lead too much. He wasn't shy about expressing his opinions, but he took orders just like everybody else. But his natural skills came back with a vengeance when required. It was interesting. No one disputed his leadership, and I smiled with pride.

The two-hour wait until we could head out was sort of painful. We all sat huddled together, trying not to imagine what was happening to Duncan. We had to rely on the dwarves' stone sense to tell the time, and I thought Gorim might punch Aedan after about the twentieth time he'd asked if it was two hours yet.

When we finally got moving, it was hard not to sprint down the corridors in the direction Duncan had gone. We purposefully tried to keep to our normal pace, but I was looking around every corner, fearing finding a still-warm corpse. We did find a few recently deceased darkspawn, but for the first couple of hours, that was all.

We came to the edge of the dead trenches, just as it was depicted in game. There was a massive chasm, deep enough that we couldn't see the bottom, with lava falls lighting the way down into the darkness and mist. It looked like the descent into hell. At several levels there were bridges criss-crossing the chasm, leading into tunnels on either side that were dark and mysterious; there was one visible road, twenty feet wide, running lengthwise off into the distance. It was perhaps a couple hundred feet below us, and it was covered in darkspawn. The entire horde was there, marching.

The smell of decay, and taint, and general wrong-ness was seeping up the walls of the chasm, and I choked at the intensity. We'd all become accustomed to the smell of the Deep Roads, but this was much, much worse. And it was hot; I guessed that at the bottom of the trench, it must have been pure molten lava.

We didn't see the Archdemon, and I wondered if the game had gotten it wrong, or if Duncan had thrown things off. We stared, horrified, at the horde below for several long minutes; for each of us, the importance of our mission to end the Blight was brought home in a very visceral fashion. I briefly wished I'd brought my phone into the Deep Roads to take a picture for Solona and the others we had left behind.

Finally, shaken, Aedan pulled us away from the edge, encouraging us to move on. No one talked, everyone lost in their own, dark thoughts. I was so distracted that I almost didn't notice the subtle feeling in my head, like I was being watched. I closed my eyes, stopping for a moment, and then opened them to look at Alistair.

"Do you feel that?"

Startled by my sudden stop, Alistair thought for a moment before meeting my gaze.

"Duncan!"

I nodded, and without another word, both of us headed off, down a narrow corridor in the direction that I could feel Duncan's taint. Aedan and the rest of the group followed us. As we hurried, the feeling intensified. Darkspawn. Without discussing it, the Grey Wardens and I began unsheathing weapons, and the rest followed suit.

Finally, after an eternity of winding tunnel, we opened into a large natural cavern. Duncan was standing in the middle, swords out, turning in a slow circle; a group of probably twenty darkspawn, including one Emissary and one ogre, stood around him, completely hemming him in. They didn't appear aggressive, however, and we all paused at the edge of the cavern to watch in shock. The Emissary spoke, its voice too quiet for us to hear, and Duncan visibly flinched; that was all we needed.

I felt Alistair reach out and smite the Emissary, and it staggered to its knees; the rest of the darkspawn spun and headed in our direction.

Before they made it far, Jowan and Anders began chanting in unison, and the hairs on my arms stood on end as I felt their magic flare. Suddenly there was lightning arcing through the expanse of cavern between us and Duncan, and thunder boomed; ice bloomed and rained from the ceiling. Storm of the Century. The genlocks were the first to fall, the hurlocks next; the only darkspawn to make it through the storm was the ogre, and it was covered in frostbite, its skin blistering where it wasn't already peeling. Oghren let out an incoherent shout, leaping an impressive distance to bury the head of his axe in the ogre's chest, and riding it down as it collapsed.

The storm dissipated as fast as it had come, and I stared, open-mouthed in shock at the carnage. I remembered using the combination in game, though rarely - you couldn't control where it would strike, and if you weren't lucky, it would take your allies down just as fast as it did your enemies. But the bodies didn't persist in game like they did in the real world, and the charred, smoking corpses mixed with creepy ice statues were a level of disgusting I'd never imagined.

I looked up in time to see Duncan behead the still-stunned Emissary. Picking our way carefully across the field of gore, Alistair, Aedan and I approached Duncan while everyone else stayed back to congratulate Anders and Jowan. Duncan stood, still holding his weapons, his posture defensive, and I wondered if there were more darkspawn around that I couldn't feel. I extended my senses, and found only Grey Wardens.

As we got within a dozen yards of the senior Grey Warden, he spun to face us, weapons raised.

"Be gone, foul creatures! I will not listen to your lies!"

The three of us stopped, exchanging confused glances. Aedan took a cautious step forward. "Duncan? They're all dead now. It's okay."

"I can feel your corruption! I will not turn! I will not listen. Get out!" He took a wild swing with his sword at Aedan, who jumped out of the way with alacrity.

"Duncan! It's Aedan. What are you doing?" Alistair was the next to step forward and be swung at; the sword clanged uselessly against his shield, then again. Duncan was clearly out of his mind; if he'd been himself, he'd have been much deadlier in his attacks.

We exchanged looks again, and then I tried - without stepping any closer. "Duncan? It's me, Sierra. What happened here?"

Duncan blinked, unfocused gaze slowly travelling over to my face. "Sierra? Sierra, run. The darkspawn. You must get away!" He stepped quickly to stand between me and the other men, his back to me, holding his swords up defensively. Aedan and Alistair stepped back again out of range; each step seemed to lower his visible anxiety.

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