There and Back Again Ch. 083-084

byElyssaCousland©

Kardol watched me, a curious smile on his face. "Aye, m'lady, I will. I'll try, anyway. No telling what he'll do the second my back is turned, but I will surely try."

I smiled and clapped him on the shoulder, bruising my hand on his armour.

I picked my way back to where we had slept, and packed my things. Once everyone was ready to go, I gave Duncan a hug, kissed his cheek, and then turned to follow Aedan down the path a Legion scout had determined led deeper into Bownammar.

We didn't have any maps that would be of use, from here on out; the Legion maps Gorim had brought ended at the bridge. I looked back once and waved as we reached the first corner; I saw Duncan's eyes crinkle in a smile. Then I linked hands with Alistair and turned the corner.

Bownammar smelled...awful. Worse than most of the rest of the Deep Roads, which was saying something. The taint was so thick I was surprised the air wasn't green with it, and even the non-Wardens seemed to feel its malevolence. We stayed close together, not talking much, and when we did it was in an unintentional whisper.

I remembered crypts from the game, and we certainly found dozens of them – little rooms filled with sarcophagi, and often, a couple of darkspawn. Never enough to be a challenge; I thought even I could probably have managed alone. It was sort of strange to think of myself as anything resembling a competent fighter.

Sereda frowned on anyone disturbing the remains, so the rooms remained un-plundered, much to Zev's chagrin. But I knew we didn't really need the money, though I recalled a set of armour to be found down here that might be suitable for Oghren. Unlike in game, the armour made for a dwarf could not just be used by a Qunari. I almost giggled when I remembered once dressing Oghren in Cailan's gold shiny armour in game. The Legion of the Dead Armour would only fit a dwarf, I was sure. When I mentioned it, Sereda gave me a suspicious look, but then declared that she would have a set of armour crafted for each of us once we reached Orzammar, assuming she was able to take the throne. I was intrigued at the concept of new armour; up until now, all of mine had been appropriated from someone, second-hand.

Aedan walked with Sereda for most of the day, talking in hushed voices. Gorim trailed behind them, trying not to interfere, yet looking sort of pathetic all the same. I was grateful when Aedan gestured and the red-head joined their discussion. It still looked slightly stilted, but not quite so painful.

I wondered about what they'd been talking about, until that night when we camped and Sereda approached me where I sat, listlessly, in Alistair's lap.

"Sierra?"

I looked up and smiled, gesturing for her to sit. "Hi, Sereda. Or I suppose I should really say 'your Majesty.' I'm not very good at the whole protocol thing, I'm afraid."

"Not surprising, given how you were raised. I hate titles anyway."

My eyes widened in surprise. "Ah. Aedan told you?"

"Yes, not that I'd have believed him, but Gorim corroborated his story. It's...fascinating."

"Yeah, that's one word for it, I suppose." I chuckled. "As strange as it is, it's true. I'm not from Thedas."

"What can you tell me about myself? Gorim said you knew quite a bit about me."

Ah, the test. Had to know... I thought for a minute about the dwarf noble origin. "Let me see. You had two brothers, one older, one younger. Trian was a pompous ass, and more worried about gaining the throne than about being a good leader once he'd gotten it. He was jealous of your popularity. Bhelen always acted like the sweet younger brother. He had been dallying with a noble-hunter named Rica. Who's currently pregnant with his son, by the way. And Rica is Faren's sister, so I'd recommend you not say anything bad about her."

"Why would I say anything bad about her? I think there needs to be more mixing between the Castes, not less. And an heir I can adopt as my own helps me, it doesn't cause me problems."

"Right...anyway. You had been tasked with going into the Deep Roads to clear your way into the old Aeducan Thaig and find the Aeducan shield. Bhelen had warned you Trian was trying to kill you, but you refused to kill him first to protect yourself. You had one – or a few, I'm not totally sure – of Bhelen's men with you. Frandlin Ivo, I think, and maybe some others? You got to the Thaig only to realise someone else had gotten there first. You went in to find Trian dead. Bhelen showed up with Harrowmont and your father, and accused you of murdering Trian. Frandlin lied and said he'd seen you kill your brother.

"Bhelen already had the Assembly bribed and blackmailed; he had you exiled without a trial, to supposedly die in the Deep Roads, while Gorim was sent to the surface. There's a rumour that Bhelen poisoned your father, though other rumours say Endrin just didn't have the heart to carry on after losing you and Trian both; he also came to realise that you'd been framed by Bhelen, and that he'd been wrong to allow your exile."

She smiled, a tight, sad smile that didn't reach her eyes. "Too little, too late, wasn't it, Father?" Her tone was more sad than bitter, and it made me want to hug her. I refrained.

"He did instruct Harrowmont to send out search parties for you, but I don't know if those orders were ever carried out. And he named Harrowmont as his successor to try to keep Bhelen off the throne."

Sereda bit her lip, looking distressed. I couldn't blame her; she'd gone from loving daughter to bitter exile in a matter of moments, and now was being forced to rethink her bitterness and her exile. It couldn't have been easy.

She finally shook herself, then changed the subject. "Well, Gorim's right – if you aren't what you claim to be, you're one exceptional spy."

"Hah! Yeah, I'd be a terrible spy. Not at all sneaky, I'm afraid."

"So tell me, then: why does Oghren believe your story to be entirely false?"

I explained about Branka and her search for the Anvil, and what she'd allowed to happen to try to break through Caridin's traps. Sereda looked distinctly green when I explained about the Broodmother, and incensed when I told her why. I didn't even get a chance to explain about Caridin and the Anvil before she was spitting mad.

"If what you say is true, that woman cannot be allowed to live. I will not allow that sort of ruthlessness to spread. No one must know. Branka will have to be written in the Memories as killed by darkspawn. Otherwise there are those who will revere her, regardless of her crimes."

Everyone had gathered around while we talked, and were now listening intently. Except Oghren, who was snoring drunkenly in his bedroll, to my relief. "It gets worse. Do you know how golems are made?"

I was always conflicted about the golems, in game. While I truly believed Branka deserved to die, and that her madness could not be allowed to continue, the golems would be amazingly useful allies. And while I had no qualms about volunteers being transformed, I didn't know if we could ever trust any government, no matter how benevolent and well-meaning, with that power – the ability to force their political enemies into essential slavery. Even if Sereda managed to avoid that trap and only use the Anvil for good, there was no guarantee her successors would.

Sereda was thoughtful after the discussion, and I wondered if she'd thought of some alternative to the options in game. What if we could remove Branka, but somehow still use the Anvil? Find some way to use it ethically? Everyone else honestly looked ill. Between Branka's deeds and those of some long-dead dwarven king, the Anvil struck me as intensely dangerous.

Finally we all headed to sleep. I had an uneventful watch with an emotionally distressed Gorim; I offered to talk, he declined politely, and we spent the rest of the two hours in silence.

Chapter Eighty-Four: First Day They Come

The next days brought several larger engagements with darkspawn, but also the first of the ghosts and undead I had expected in Bownammar. Anders told us the Veil was very thin, hardly a surprise in this place, and all manner of things had reanimated themselves. There were also enormous tainted spiders, which grossed me out in game and were a thousand times worse in person.

The undead were actually easier to fight, in many ways, than darkspawn; they were less intelligent, and though difficult to kill, they were easy to maim. And despite being rotting tissue, they smelled less bad than the 'spawn, and did not get us nearly as sticky as darkspawn ichor. I had a slightly more challenging time of it; they could see me. No walking up behind, bold as brass, to slit throats; I had to dodge and parry and fight like everyone else. The spiders, I stayed away from. Selfish, probably, but I had neither the agility of Aedan or Zev to jump around as necessary, nor the strength of the warriors to protect myself. I cursed myself for not learning how to use a ranged weapon. And I was definitely the least skilled at hand-to-hand combat of everyone with us in the Deep Roads, though at least I did not entirely embarrass myself.

Often, after any skirmish, Zevran would spend a while with me, debriefing. While I had only enough skill and focus to keep myself from being skewered, he apparently had enough left over to watch me during the fights. I was sure Aedan asked him to keep an eye on me, protect me, and I was just grateful that he didn't interfere with me fighting at all. But his observations were keen, and usually too accurate for comfort, and I spent a lot of time being reprimanded for various perceived failings. I knew he was trying to help, and I appreciated it, but it was depressing being informed how short I still fell from where I needed to be. Alistair obviously wanted to defend me, which would have really pissed me off; realising that, he bit his lip and held his tongue, though the scowl on his face made his opinion on the subject obvious.

We finally made it to what I had assumed was the darkspawn Forge Master. It was a genlock with more armour than most, a bow, and an enormous hammer. And not a magic user in the bunch, which limited my effectiveness a little. Unwilling to face the Forge Master alone, given it was unlikely I'd be able to kill it in one strike, I stayed with the group as we fought our way through. Anders cast a blizzard that dealt with most of the archers, and I took out the rest with my daggers, one at a time. When Alistair reached the Forge Master, he drew its attention while the rest of us took turns darting in to stab or slash at its back. After one particularly vicious swing of its hammer, I heard a sharp crack and then Alistair screamed and fell back. Bel stepped up, his shield covering Alistair's retreat; Anders was with him, so I redoubled my attack and managed to bury my dagger in its neck. It sank down, its armour sticky with darkspawn blood, but Oghren grabbed the hammer and Aedan the bow before they could be soiled as well.

By the time I reached Alistair, Anders had healed a broken arm, and he claimed to be feeling fine. I gave Aedan a look, and he sighed and called a halt to rest. I made Alistair eat and drink, not that getting Grey Wardens to eat is tough, and poked and prodded at his arm myself before feeling reassured that he suffered no lingering effects.

No one wanted to sleep there with all the corpses, so we rested for an hour and continued on. We came upon a temple-like area that was vaguely familiar from the game, and after battling a couple of ogres, found the Legion of the Dead shrine. Sereda would not permit us to take the armour or weaponry strewn around, though Aedan took the key and we were attacked by spirits; the spirits were easy to kill, and didn't leave corpses, which was nice.

We all agreed to rest inside the shrine; it had a locking door, and was relatively clean of the taint that infected the rest of the Deep Roads. Sereda spent most of the time reading inscriptions on statues, and memorising details of the shrine to share with Kardol and, eventually, the Shaperate. She was enraged to learn that the Legion had been considered equivalent to a noble house, and that fact seemed to have been conveniently left out of the Memories. I didn't envy the Shaper who would have to deal with an angry Sereda when we got back.

I doubted that anyone slept well, perhaps with the exception of Alistair, who needed it to recover from his wound. After I gave up on sleep, I spent some time chatting with Anders and Jowan. Anders, upon closer inspection, looked like hell. He admitted to his dislike of small spaces and the underground, and I was sympathetic. The Deep Roads certainly weren't my favourite place to be. Jowan, however, seemed to be coping well. He'd slowly been gaining in confidence since his Joining, and he was now no longer reluctant to offer an opinion or a suggestion when we were making decisions. He was still quiet; I hoped it wasn't still out of fear that one of us would change our mind and summarily execute him.

I recalled from the game that we would be getting close to the Broodmother's area, and before that, Hespith. I eyed Oghren speculatively, as he took a pull from his beard flask, and wondered if he'd believe me sooner rather than later. I hoped so – mutual avoidance was only going to get us so far. He belched noisily, and I sighed. Maybe it will get me far enough...

When Alistair woke, everyone packed up and ate quickly. We unlocked the temple and let ourselves out. I noticed Sereda whispering what looked like a prayer, or perhaps it was a promise; she turned away resolutely and we headed into the next tunnel when Aedan unlocked the door.

As we walked, I kept expecting to hear Hespith's creepy voice echoing down the corridors, but it never happened. I supposed it was a bit melodramatic, and couldn't help but laugh at myself critiquing the melodrama of a video game while I was living inside one. We defeated a couple of small groups of darkspawn – easy once I'd disabled the Emissaries – and then we came out into a large chamber, to finally find Hespith.

The dwarven woman, or perhaps ghoul was closer to the truth, sat in a corner, rocking, and singing the creepy poem to herself mindlessly. Strewn around her were corpses, of both darkspawn and dwarves, mostly dismembered. The odours of feces and rot and taint mixed horribly, and I gagged at the eye-watering stench. Aedan dragged Oghren over, then crouched down to speak with Hespith quietly. Everyone listened keenly; knowing what she was going to say, the horror of her revelations, I stayed away, near the slightly less pungent hallway, and waited.

After some discussion, I saw Hespith suddenly look up to stare directly at Aedan, eyes clearing for just a moment. She nodded, touching his arm, and then closed her eyes. I didn't even see him draw a dagger, but caught a flash of silver as he stabbed it deeply into her abdomen, angled up towards her heart. She gasped once, and then slumped down, dead; Aedan's aim had been true, and her death was instant. He closed her eyes gently, and then stood, wiping his hand and dagger off on a rag. Everyone else looked ill, but sympathetic. Zevran approached him and they spoke, quietly, for a moment. I was intensely glad my brother had someone with him who understood the hard choices he had to make.

Oghren avoided my gaze and went to stand by the next doorway, axe in hand, looking impatient. Everyone else, understanding we were in for a nasty fight, got ready and followed him. I wanted to go through the door first, seeing as the darkspawn wouldn't see me, and I could double-check what was on the other side. Aedan refused; I got the impression he was worried I'd take on the Broodmother alone. I had no intention of doing that, though I wondered if I might not be able to get up behind her and slit her throat during the fight.

We went through the door together, Aedan and Zev slipping off to the sides and seeming to disappear, Anders and Jowan huddling behind the warriors nervously. I followed behind, daggers drawn, breathing slowly to try to quell the panic I felt creeping in. The Broodmother was around a corner, sitting immobile in a depression in the stone floor. There were sacks and clumps of grey, quivering, fleshy stuff that I assumed must have been the equivalent of darkspawn afterbirth scattered about; splatters of the same were on the walls. A couple of larger sacks looked like they contained bodies, curled up in fetal position; genlocks, I realised, that must have been stillborn.

The Broodmother was even more horrific than I'd expected. In game it was sort of disgusting, but nothing could have prepared me for this monstrosity. It was like Jabba the Hut mixed with a giant octopus all in one. Her flesh was pink-ish, bloated, and oozing clear mucous; there was blood drying all down her front, coating a couple of the many horrific breasts and dribbling onto her distended stomach. She had to be ten feet tall – even Sten looked small by comparison – and I'd have bet she weighed at least a tonne. She was grossly fat – no, pregnant, I realised with dismay – but her wrinkly bald head looked somewhat like the dwarf I knew she'd once been.

She opened her mouth to scream when she saw us, and I realised her teeth were pointed and all protruding out like some sort of cannibalistic sucker fish. I stumbled to a halt, too revolted to move, too frightened; fortunately my companions were more resilient, though equally disgusted, if the looks on their faces were anything to go by. As one, the warriors engaged tentacles, and the mages began casting magic to slow and weaken the Broodmother. Aedan appeared out of the shadows at her back, and I guessed he must have had the same thought as I – get behind her and slit her throat.

An unexpected tentacle shot up through the stone floor, grabbing him around the waist and tossing him. He tucked and rolled, landing less awkwardly than he might have, and spun to start hacking away at the wiggling appendage. No one was even close to the body of the Broodmother.

I knew she spat acid, and hoped she wouldn't see me soon enough to do that, as I finally got control of my legs back and began edging around the room, dodging flailing tentacles and my companions both. I got behind her just in time for a wave of darkspawn, mostly genlocks who I assumed would be this monstrosity's offspring, to come pouring in through a narrow tunnel off to one side in response to the Broodmother's screams. Anders began throwing fireballs, while Jowan kept his concentration on slowing and cursing the Broodmother; the few darkspawn that survived Anders were executed by Sten and Alistair as they came forward through the thick, greasy smoke.

I turned my attention back to the Broodmother, who was looking around wildly, directing tentacles to attack and block the path to her; at least, for everyone except me. My heart was pounding, and between the fear, the smell of rot and corruption, and the thick greasy smoke still pouring off burned darkspawn corpses, I felt absolutely nauseous. But my path was open.

I tried to avoid watching in a panic as Sten was bashed by a flailing tentacle and knocked unconscious on the floor, and then Jowan slashed across the face, leaving him bleeding and dazed; I cried out as acid was spit directly onto Oghren's chest and started eating away at his beard, but I inched closer and closer to the Broodmother. Taking a big breath – and regretting it as I coughed out black smoke – I reached up, dug my daggers in, and tried to climb the Broodmother's back.

I was insanely glad I was wearing gauntlets – I was pretty sure I'd actually have thrown up if I'd touched her slimy skin with my hands. Using the daggers as handholds and digging my toes in, I slowly ascended. Each time my daggers gouged her skin, she shrieked, though based on the useless thrashing, she still couldn't really see me. Either that or she can't get tentacles that close to her own behind. Either way, hanging on was difficult, but otherwise my climb was unimpeded. I finally reached her shoulders, and using one dagger to hold on for dear life, I reached around her flabby neck as far as I could and stabbed into the rolls of flesh as deeply as I could. She screamed, and I twisted the dagger before losing my grip. I tried to grab somewhere else, missed, and fell, landing on my back on the ground.

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