Alternative Origins Chapter Thirty-Three
The computer game has a timeskip here. Much of the running around is because it’s awkward in the game as well. As with Further Mass Effects, I concluded that moving the last level of the game to somewhere that would make sense to put it would be too much artistic license.
The arl sees me before we leave. Something about keeping Alistair out of harm’s way. And in much the same tones I’d tell a man to fuck off and die, I let him know exactly what I think of any idea that takes Alistair from my side when I go to face the archdemon. I’m expecting an argument. What I get is a calculating glance and him saying that he doesn’t need to worry after all, does he.
So, regardless, the plan. I’d better get down what the plan was, or most of what happens next won’t make a lot of sense. The archdemon, he’s coming north just off the imperial highway, and very much not alone. Two ways he can turn, really.
Riordan says it makes most sense for the ugly bugger to turn east, hit Denerim. He’s had no sniff or whisper of the Queen’s army, has no reason to think there’s anything between him and the city, and in the histories of the Blights they always say that the horde makes for the capital. And Maker’s arse, is he in for a surprise. That army is the one that met the horde at Ostagar, plus all the banners who’d turn out for a civil war but not a tale out of the history books, and it’s got all of the Circle’s best talent in battle magic and a proper detachment of templars. If the archdemon heads east, Wynne brings down the hammer with fire from the sky and Riordan leads a charge right to the archdemon before the horde can do aught but reel.
To the west, the ‘spawn know about the King’s army, but what they don’t know is they haven’t faced it in number. The scouting from the Dalish and the co-ordination from the apprentices of the Circle has meant we’ve been able to do less with more, hiding our true numbers and indeed feigning a bit of weakness. Now Alistair got a bit worried about the numbers he was hearing and asked the Dalish to take a look: they say there’s all sorts of little tunnels opening up, the Blight coming up out the ground, thousands strong, most like. Clearly reinforcements, but they haven’t attacked – and we can’t tell if they’re ready to back up an attack on us or if they’re there to stop us coming to help Denerim. Just possible the archdemon thinks we haven’t seen its whole force. Either way we’re going to meet battle, and soon. Certainly we’ll be ready. Alistair and Morrigan and me with the knights, Leliana with the mages. Call ’em plumbers and builders, will they? See how the bastards like a two-foot stone wall in the way of their charge. See how our archers like their targets up to their arses in mire. See how the dwarves like proper hard ground under their own feet. And if the archdemon comes our way, we’ll have the bastard for breakfast.
Eve of battle and I want to say all the words I won’t get to say again. Leliana’s not so much more than my height that she can’t have a hug. I go with her and Alistair to prayer, and she offers me a cup of wine after and I say I’ll save her one where I’m going, and she laughs and says I have no spirit of adventure, and I say that no, I’ll stick to water before a fight. Morrigan looks at me and at Alistair and says that all her words are spent, and I bow my head to her, keeping her eyes, and she echoes me. And diplomatically they leave the two of us alone.
And I give the man my hand and he kisses it, and my legs turn to water and I tell him he’s not to do that tomorrow. And he keeps hold of my hand and he says thank you, and I ask what for, and he says for letting him fight for me, and I say a couple of things that I really, really shouldn’t mean and mostly I get the hell out of there before my clothes fall off of their own selves.
Morrigan drinks with Leliana, that night, and she leaves off the charm for sobriety.
And with the dawn’s rising we can feel the archdemon get rid of its cloak of misdirection. That feeling, the one I first saw at the Joining, the chain that binds the world – it’s there, and Alistair’s knuckles go white and I bare my teeth and hiss and the knights look at me like they’re just sort-of realising I’m not some sort of little funny-dressed human.
And it’s nowhere near where we think it is. I mean, it’s supposed to be right there. You can’t quite see the darkspawn from here, not with eyes, but we can feel them like a stain on the world that won’t wash off, hundreds upon thousands of them, and either the archdemon’s coming this way or it’s going that way, right, so where –
I look confused to Alistair and he’s shading his eyes with a hand, looking into the dawn sky –
I see it before he does. Black spot high as a cloud. Not a bird, the shape’s wrong. Bigger, farther off. Exaggeratedly casual – “Alistair? How, uh, how big would you say an archdemon would be?”
“Oh,” he says, matching my tone. “Pretty big, I’d say. You know. Pretty damned large.”
“Big as – just to take an example -”
Crooked smile from him. “A dragon?”
“Now that you mention it, that sounds about… Morrigan?” I turn to the witch, who’s staring straight into the dawn just as we are, not caring about the glare.
“Yes, my friend?” She blinks a couple times, looks at me with piercing amber eyes that remind me of nothing so much as an eagle’s.
“You’re the closest thing we’ve got to an expert on flying things. What would it take to clip the wings of – just to take an example -”
“A dragon?” She chews on her lip. Looks back at the spot off in the distance a moment. “I’ve seen drakes before, a-wing. From afar, mind; they’ll perfectly happily eat the kinds of shapes I usually use to fly. The biggest I’ve ever seen had less than half of that span in its wings. What would you use to clip the sails of a windmill?”
“Magic?” I say, hopefully, and she snorts.
“The mages we have with us are effectively craftspeople using their tools as weapons, and effective as a rainstorm and a quagmire might be on the horde, they will do little to hinder a thing that can fly.” She shakes her head. “True battlemages like the ones with the Queen’s army might have a chance of hurting it – Wynne could probably bind its wings and drop it out of the air like a rock. But as I said, my hopes and dreams aren’t a siege engine.” She curls one hand tight round her staff. “This thing has an evocation of lightning that I can use, but I doubt it’d do more than sting the creature.”
One of the knights clears his throat. “We do have crossbows,” he says a little dubiously. “A good sharp bolt or two in the wrong place-”
“Might serve to annoy it enough to land?” I shake my head. “Ser, if the archdemon’s reflexes are slower than mine I’d be astounded, and I once realised I was being ambushed because I caught this strange thing hissing past me in the air and realised it was an arrow. I don’t like relying on being too lucky to die.”
“Physically jump on it?” Alistair gives the thing a calculating look. “It’s got to land, or near as, to be any use, right?”
I shrug. “Sure, if the thing comes past us then you or I could probably pile on and make it sorry it did that, but there’s no reason for it to come down from there at all.”
“No… reason…” Alistair frowns suddenly. “Uh. Why can we see it at all? Why is it there?”
“We discussed this. To try and break us by breaking our army.”
“Right, so why isn’t it over there?” He nods to the west, towards the horde, the first of ’em just coming into sight now. “It’s going to be late for the battle unless it gets a move on. It’s more like it’s watching. Keeping an eye?”
“For us, you mean.” I eye the thing. Now I know what I’m looking for, I can just about make out its long snakelike tail, must be as long as the thing’s whole body. “The tactic always is, keep the Wardens together to have the best chance. Or maybe it thinks there’s only the one of us. You think it doesn’t know where we are, and you think it reckons it’s all one place?”
“Maybe.” He narrows his eyes. “Or maybe it’s simpler than that. I mean, think about it. It’s a dragon. Bloody great flappy thing, covered in sharp things, great big teeth, probably breathes fire or something ridiculous like that. And we know from the stories that it can’t be permanently killed, not without one of us. But what’s it been doing? It’s been skulking on its belly. It’s been hiding. It’s been pretending it isn’t where it is. It’s worried. It knows that there are things out here that can kill it. And until it knows where they are, it isn’t going to be anywhere where it thinks we might be able to reach it.”
“And if it finds us?”
He shows some teeth. “Well, one of two things will happen, right?”
I mirror his expression. “Then I’ve got an idea.” Catch Morrigan’s eye. “So. Stop me if I’m wrong. You’ve found a thing or two about the whole curse thing, the link between the Wardens and the archdemon, right?”
She casts a sidelong glance at Alistair and colours slightly. “I… have, yes.”
“So. Given that I’ve got one already. Could you, I don’t know. Shine a bit of a light on it? Get its attention?”
Her eyebrows go up. “Po-ten-ti-ally… Yes. Yes. I could do this thing.”
“And we know it’s worried, and we’ve seen how demons and feelings go together like flint and tinder?”
“You want me to help you try to intimidate a dragon.”
“Well.” I give Alistair what might be a grin. “I hear where at the Landsmeet, the lord king duelled the lord regent.” The smile on my face, I guess the humans might find it a little unpleasant. “I can’t exactly let myself be outdone. If you’ll help me, Morrigan? I’d like to call the damn thing out. I’d like to ask it to come and have a go if it thinks it’s hard enough. And then I’d like it to stop being able to see where I am, if you can do that, because there’s the off-chance it doesn’t think it’s that hard, and I’ll have a bugger of a time chasing it if it knows exactly where I am.”
She nods, all seriousness. “Your grace, I’ll require of your templars a sixteenth of an ounce of lyrium; if they press us as for its purpose, tell them it is for helping the Wardens combat the use of blood magic, which is strictly true.” Alistair gestures to one of the knights, who sets off at a good pace – I catch his slightly humorous glance at his hand, like he didn’t know it could do that. “From you, Warden-Commander, I’ll need a drop of your blood, preferably drawn with your own sword.” She looks towards the dragon again, forgetting to pretend she needs to shade her eyes from the sun. “Here’s as good a place as any, and if we wait much longer I might be interrupted by a horde of horrors.” Turns back to me, catches my eye. “There will likely be side-effects, Kallian. I’m not sure-”
She tails off because she can see the points of my teeth. Bring it. Bring it all.
It’s quick and it’s simple and the templar who brought the lyrium insists on staying to watch, and Morrigan puts her back firmly toward him: out of sight, out of mind. She’s drawn a circle in the earth and had me stand in it and take my sword in my hands, a drop of my blood on the point of the blade, and she stands before me and says that the spell will start when I put the point of the sword in the ground and stop when I take it out. She takes the little vial and without ceremony she drinks it down, starts to whisper words I can’t make out. Her hands over mine on the sword, take it and turn it point down, she meets my eyes and together we thrust the blade down into the ground
You hear me, you bastard? I’m coming for you. Scared? You should be. I’m coming for you. I will not stop. I will not falter. I will not lay this sword down until I have sheathed it in your heart. I don’t realise I haven’t moved, that I haven’t blinked.
I can’t see Alistair tear his gaze from me and look out towards the archdemon.
I can’t hear the horde.
I can’t hear the bastards in the back of my head.
My vision is going grey.
That’s all right. I don’t need to be able to see.
I can’t see the witch looking at me concerned I can’t read her lips as she says that she doesn’t think I’m breathing I can’t see
the archdemon wheel in the air turn and fly east like a bird that’s been spooked I can’t see
the horde as they break cover and rank and any vestige of control or thought to hurl themselves in our direction to break into a dead run over miles of open ground to try and get at the source of
that bright clarion challenge that is suddenly all they can hear
as I can’t feel Morrigan trying to pull the sword out of the ground and finding I’m stronger than she is
Firm strong hands over mine pull irresistably upward. Alistair’s and the templar’s. The spell tears like cobweb. I take a gasping choking breath and another one and end up leaning on Alistair and my eyes hurt and the moment I’ve got my head screwed on right I can feel the change, feel in the back of my head the archdemon’s will. And what’s its will? Hah. Kill the Warden. But I don’t see it queuing up for a try.
“Well,” he says as he looks down at me. “That worked.”
I nod, still clawing for breath. “Let’s just say. Got its attention.” Clear my throat. “So,” I croak. “What now?”
“First?” He looks up and I follow his gaze. For a second it looks like nothing so much as ink spilling closer, blackness across the fields. Then the eye makes out shapes, makes out the glint of the dawn light off of weapons and banners and crude armour. Any order they had is discarded. Any plan they had is gone. But there’s still a hell of a lot of them. “First on today’s menu, Warden-Commander, we have a light spot of war.”
I’m sure the histories will tell that this was a glorious battle, the Warden king’s inspirational leadership and brilliant tactical insight and personal valor bringing the horde to its knees, and it’s all bollocks. The battle is dirty, tedious, tiring and shows every sign of going on until they run out of darkspawn. And it’s not Alistair in charge of this: it’s the dwarf general, fighting a battle just like the ones he’s familiar with, and the Fereldan knights forget the tales of glory and leave their horses behind and anchor the ends of that shield-wall, and our arrows fall like rain, and the mages roll up their sleeves and drown the horde in mud.
Did I mention the glorious Wardens didn’t stick around to see the end? Alistair gets three words into asking and the dwarf general butts in and tells him to get his lordly arse moving. The templar still with us drops his mouth open as Morrigan mists up into horse’s shape, and Leliana pats his shoulder and says she’s got this one as she swings effortlessly into her saddle and I mount with only the least bit of ungainliness. And we move. Once we’re far enough that she can’t be heard, Morrigan says we can’t make that distance in time to be any help; Alistair sets his jaw and says that we’re damned well going to try. And it takes Morrigan only three tries to work out how to go as fast as the other horses, and may I just say that riding bareback this quick is a literal pain in the arse.
The archdemon looks down. Sees the little people looking up. Sees them atop their pathetic walls, just stones piled on top of one another and glued together. Sees their houses of sticks and stones. Sees their fear. To deal death is not the aim. These people, warrior and townsfolk alike, are more use alive than dead. But right now they have hope, and that is wrong. Hmm. The discipline spreads out through the army like a spider’s web. Where are you, little spider?
And we ride. I’m getting the archdemon’s feelings in odd quick brief flashes, it’s sickening. We get onto a road as soon as we can and start moving a bit quicker. Our mounts are lathered, streaming sweat, flying along, the road disappearing under us. We’re making the best time we can. The others who followed us, we’ve left ’em well behind – the witch has done something to herself and the other two mounts, already running harder and longer than any mortal mount could. But we are too late. The battle will still be raging when we get there. But the dragon –
A flash, a clap of thunder, a little sting. There, the little gifted-ones, the mages, taking the tools of creation and using them for petty ends. More hope. A flash of irritation. A pass, low, quick as an arrow in flight, the outstretched claw striking against a spell of shielding: a series of quick turns and passes, drawing more and more of the mages’ attention, not sustainable forever, because eventually they will find a spell that will work – but once again the tactic of Ostagar works perfectly. An emissary mage weaving a spell of entropy, something that any of these mages would spot in a second if they weren’t distracted, and the corner of the tower is vulnerable; a quick jink and dip in the archdemon’s path, a hammer-blow to the weak spot, and the frailty of their human bodies is all-too-easily demonstrated as the tower comes down in ruin. Nothing could have survived.
The rubble stirs. A careful moment of calculation. The archdemon slows, turns, spreads its wings in the air clearly unopposed by magic. Ignores with contempt the arrows and bolts that come its way. Drops down to take what it thinks might be another commander, like an eagle taking a rabbit. Wheels in midair, gloating –
A massive stone, a chunk of rubble, arcs out of nowhere and the thing twists aside like an eel. Another. A third. The rubble of the collapsed tower picks itself up and launches at the dragon piece by piece by piece, slowly exposing a circle of completely bare ground, a knot of robed mages, a couple of templars, a straight-backed old woman holding a staff surmounted by a clear pearly light. The dragon roars, dives at her straight, her templars holding steady their shields before her as she holds until the very last instant, and the impact of her spell on the dragon’s hide is a concussive sound that throws men from their feet and brings further masonry down from the tower walls and pushes Wynne herself to one knee, a sound that echoes and rolls like thunder, a flash of light to be seen for twenty miles.
And the archdemon’s wings reach for the air and cannot bite, and it ploughs ungainly into the ground in the midst of its own troops and I can feel its anger and I laugh.
I’m sure that that is a sight for the bards’ tales, a tale to sing for a hundred years if any make it away from here alive. Wynne and the templars and battle-mages who survived the fall from the tower, standing there to cast their despite in the teeth of the dragon and its horde, light against the darkness. All I catch is flashes. The echoes of the pain of hundreds of spawn struck by deflected or mis-aimed spells, dazzled by brightness, assaulted by thunder, driven back by symbols of fear etched in the very air. Some of the battle we can see and hear from where we are, like we’re riding toward a furious thunderstorm. It will be done by the time we get there.
Another flash. The mage who was dealing with the defensive shield collapses, bleeding from his nose. The archdemon simply ignores the lance of flame Wynne casts at it, bats a templar aside with the back of its claw and strikes like a serpent – she reaches into her staff, strikes it quickly to the ground for a defensive spell, cries aloud as the spell turns the archdemon’s blow but is spent in the process, draws all the light around her into her cupped hand for one last strike –
It happens all of an instant. A blur against the grey sky as someone leaps from the top of the wall and lands atop the dragon’s back, arresting his fall with a knife hammered between its scales with inhuman strength. The archdemon sees him coming, reacts with immediate speed: its wings crack once and it’s airborne, twisting and spiraling as it goes, labouring to get itself out of the mage’s sight as fast as it can. One glimpse of his face it got as he flew past its head, one sight of the man, and it knows him for what he is in the same instant that I recognise him. Riordan.
We don’t let up. We should be at his side. We aren’t going to be. We’ll be too late. From somewhere Morrigan finds some more strength and shares it between herself and Alistair’s mount and Leliana’s. I hope she’s keeping something back to restore us when we get there. I’ve stopped keeping track of where it is that I hurt. I don’t know if I could even walk, if I got off right this moment. We might be more than halfway there. I don’t know. There is only the road, and the beat of hooves.
The archdemon is amused. We misdirected it. We gave it two bad choices, so it didn’t matter which one it made. But it remains a dragon, and the man on its back remains a man. It turns itself a figure-eight in the air at the instant that Riordan draws his sword, and the weapon goes flying; he curses and drives another dagger into its back and it bucks. Nothing this big should be this limber and agile, but where he is between its wings it can’t reach quick enough that he can’t duck it. With his little blade he pries a scale from its back, drives the weapon up to its hilt into the thick hide beneath, tries with grim determination to make himself a hole big enough to do some harm, finds only more plates of overlapping bone.
The archdemon changes its tack, ties itself practically in knots as it fights to remove this dangerous little insect from its back; Riordan hangs on immovably, sticking a dagger between the archdemon’s next layer of bony armour and levering with all his considerable strength, and so the dragon tries something else again, folds its wings and drops like a stone, twists and opens its wings upside-down a mere hundred feet from the rooftops of Denerim and it feels his weight shift as one hand comes loose from its hold. Instantly it rolls in the air, turns him away from that handhold; he draws another knife and as it bucks violently he strikes out with all his strength for what might be a vulnerable spot.
And the blade strikes home. The archdemon concentrates hard on the flare of pain; Alistair swears at the top of his voice and I scream, but we keep our mounts and our speed; a vast wordless thundering shout goes up from the darkspawn horde; Riordan’s anchoring dagger slips between nerveless fingers and he finds himself dangling from the hilt of the blade he’s got stuck through the joint of the archdemon’s wing.
Once again, the damn thing wastes no time. It snakes its head around as Riordan puts a second hand onto its wing; its teeth close around his right ankle as he grabs hold of the solid part of the wing just above the joint and the whipcord muscles of his back tense and bunch; with a solid grasp on his leg, the archdemon uncoils and just tears him away from it and throws him out into the air; and the same motion drives the Warden’s blade all the way through the joint and the wing gives way with a splinter like a tree being felled.
They fall. It is not seen, where Riordan lands, but it must have been two hundred feet he fell. And the archdemon comes down atop the keep of Denerim castle and it doesn’t land well.