Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Ten

 
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When I came to, it was pitch dark. I soon realised this was because my eyes were still closed, but trying to lever them open only resulted in a vivid rush of nausea and the distinct feeling that my head had been stuffed full of wet rags.

“Nrrrgh,” I managed, through teeth I didn’t dare unclench.

That rotten, sickly foulness furred my tongue, and I could still taste… everything.

Proof, I supposed, that it hadn’t all been a dream.

A large, solid hand gripped my arm, urging me to sit up. The mere notion seemed absurd, so I tried opening my eyes again, curious as to whose stupid idea it was.

Painful flashes of purple and cyan streaked my vision but, amid the spinning blur, two patches of dizziness stopped whirling long enough to become recognisable faces.

Duncan and Alistair were both staring down at me, one with a look of awkward, cautious expectation, and the other with sombre concern.

“It is finished,” Duncan said, his voice tinged with the warmth of relief. “Welcome.”

I blinked up at him, groggy and disorientated. Snatches of things too unreal to be called memories snarled at me from the dark, but I couldn’t get them all slotted into the right places.

My fingers flexed against the rough stone beneath me, encountering moss and worn carvings. The old temple, then. How long had I been out for? It was still dark, and I hadn’t been moved, so it couldn’t have been all that long, could it?

Duncan’s hand tightened on my arm, and he both helped me sit up, and ensured I didn’t move too fast. I imagined it was probably an even mix of sympathy and the fact he didn’t want vomit splattered all over his armour.

Experimentally, I unclenched my teeth. My stomach heaved and roiled, but all that left me was a quiet groan. Duncan patted my shoulder in a surprisingly companionable manner, and I squinted blearily at him, wondering what was supposed to happen next.

Was this it? Was I a Grey Warden now?

I didn’t feel different. Terrible, yes, but not intrinsically different.

I groaned again and clutched my head. Every bone in my body seemed to have been broken and lashed back together with barbed wire. Another wave of dizziness assaulted me, but I didn’t want to seem unsteady… or ungrateful.

After all, I was still alive.

A quick, shaky glance around the old temple confirmed everything was as it had been—the torch still guttering on the wall, the strange silence that set us so far apart from the rest of the camp—but the bodies of Daveth and Jory were no longer there, and no traces of blood marked the stones.

Had I dreamed them? Or had I been unconscious for longer than I thought?

I pictured careful clean-ups happening around my insentient body; some elven servant on her hands and knees with a pail and a scrub brush…. Would those poor men even have funerals? Daveth might have had no family to speak of, but would someone send a message of condolence to Highever, so Jory’s beloved Helena might know the fate of her husband, or the child have some token of its father?

Maybe they just burned the corpses quickly, same as the darkspawn. I didn’t know, and I suspected I did not want to ask.

“Two more deaths,” Alistair said darkly, rising to his feet as Duncan helped me stand. “In my Joining, only one of us died, but it was… horrible. I’m glad at least one of you made it through.”

“’nk you,” I muttered, wobbling a bit as Duncan let go of my arm.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

I peered at him, and saw more than just the concern of a commander in his face. He knew—they both did, I supposed—what it had been like, but the way Duncan looked at me held something beyond sympathetic understanding. I found myself reminded of Father, the day I left Denerim, and all the things that we hadn’t said to each other.

I understood some of it now. His pain at what I’d had to suffer, and humiliation at his own powerlessness; the agony of a parent unable to do anything but watch his child fall, injured, against injustice he could not battle.

For the greater good, Duncan had said. That was why we did this, took on this so-called ‘duty that could not be forsworn’. Well, the words were all very grand, but they didn’t hold my heart yet… not the way they would come to do in time.

At that moment, my anger still lingered, though I felt too ill for proper fury. And, as I looked at Duncan, I caught a glimpse of the burdens he carried. I wondered, of all his recruits—however many of them there had been over the years, and however many had survived the Joining—how many had been scrawny, battered chits like me.

I doubted he’d expected me to survive. Did that make it harder to watch?

The thoughts started to send me down harder, uglier roads. Why should I have come through the ritual, and not them? Surely Ser Jory or Daveth—men of experience, and talent—would have been more use to the Wardens than me. I shrank from those ponderings, and forced myself back to what was real, and immediate.

“I… I’m all right,” I lied. “It was….”

Duncan nodded as I let the words trail into self-conscious silence.

“Such is what it takes to be a Grey Warden.”

“Did you have dreams?” Alistair asked. “I had terrible dreams after my Joining.”

I could guess from the look on his face exactly how bad it had been, and that was strangely comforting. At least I hadn’t gone mad, although I still worried that I might, should I let myself linger too much on the things that had burned inside my head. I opened my mouth to answer, thinking of the dragon and the hundred-and-one unexplained things that remained twisted together, no line between real and false, symbol and truth.

There were no words for it, though, no way of explaining what I’d seen—or thought I’d seen, or felt, or…. I just nodded glumly, and fought down my lingering nausea.

“Yes, I… I did.”

“Such dreams come,” Duncan said benignly, “when you begin to sense the darkspawn, as we all do. That and many other things can be explained in the months to come.”

The hint of a small, encouraging smile rustled beneath his beard, and it meant that there was a future, I supposed. I hadn’t thought of it like that but, for the first time since I’d left home, I felt the sweet bloom of belonging, as if I really had a place here. Not one I had settled to yet, perhaps, or one that I was truly ready for, but at least it was a start.

“Oh, and before I forget….” Alistair rummaged in a pouch at his belt. “There is one last part to your Joining.”

I winced, the small comforts I’d just begun looking forward to immediately cooling. Maker’s breath, what else could they have planned?

“We take some of that blood and put it in a pendant. Something to remind us… of those who didn’t make it this far.”

He smiled sadly and held out a thin silver chain with an ornate metal cylinder suspended from it.

I recoiled at the idea of having darkspawn blood anywhere near me… and then realised quite how silly that was. The taint was part of me now, even if I didn’t fully understand how that had happened, or what it meant.

I took the pendant and nodded my thanks. It was surprisingly light and delicate, the chain a whisper of fine links, beautifully crafted, and it seemed strange that something so pretty could house so horrible a reminder. The container itself was no more than half an inch in length, strung onto the chain by means of a ring that was cast as part of the stopper, whose lower portion had been wrought into the shape of a clawed foot.

It gripped the silver vial in three finely executed talons, fitted precisely to the shape of the smooth, rounded cylinder. The pendant’s surface had been polished to a subtle sheen, and it was warm to the touch as I turned it in my fingers, marvelling at the artistry. I’d never imagined I’d own something so finely made… though I was still a little ambivalent about its contents.

I began to reach for the leather thong at my neck, and the thin, unassuming ring it held—another reminder of the fallen, I supposed—but had no wish to take it out in front of the men. Instead, I fastened the chain around my neck, and let it hang outside my armour.

I smiled weakly at… well, not just my new comrades, but my brethren. That felt bizarre, to say the least. Humans, looking at me with respect and kindness. A circle that I was now part of, for good or ill.

It was beyond anything I’d ever dreamed would happen to me—beyond anything I’d ever wanted—and I was humbled, apprehensive, and a dozen other things, all swarming beneath the tooth-jarring tiredness, pain, and nausea.

“When you are ready,” Duncan said gently, though not so gently as to suggest I had all night, “I’d like you to accompany me to a meeting with the king.”

“The king?” I baulked, still woozy and not at all prepared for that. “Wh—”

“He has requested your presence. I do not know why.” For a moment, Duncan’s face held the slightest suggestion of mirth. “I suspect he wishes to congratulate you.”

It didn’t really surprise me, recalling Cailan’s apparent fascination with the Grey Wardens. All the same, I thought of Daveth and Jory, and wondered whether I really wanted to be applauded for survival by sheer dumb luck. Unfortunately, I was not in a position to refuse.

“Very well,” I mumbled.

“They will be discussing strategy for the battle. The war council is meeting to the west, down the stairs.” Duncan gestured past the crumbled arch. “You will attend as soon as you are able.”

I nodded, then wished I hadn’t, as it still felt as if my head might fall off. Duncan gave me a shallow bow—a gesture of respect and acceptance that I hadn’t expected—and smiled when I returned it.

I stayed slightly hunched as took his leave, turned and headed off back towards camp. It wasn’t from any sense of subordination, just that the ground was pitching violently in front of me, and I wasn’t sure I could move without throwing up.

“Sure you’re all right?”

I blinked, aware that Alistair was still lingering, watching me carefully.

“Fine,” I said, through gritted teeth. “I’m fine.”

“Oh. Right. Well… better not keep the king waiting.”

He seemed torn between staying to keep an eye on me and following Duncan, but the call of his mentor won out, and Alistair loped after him, probably with some pressing errand to attend to.

I was glad he’d gone. I lurched to the crumbled balustrade, leaned over it, and was sicker than I’d thought it physically possible to be without actually vomiting up my internal organs.

Once it was over, I slumped to the stones, as wrung-out and useless as an old rag. My body was still rebelling; head pounding, eyes dry and hot, and stomach clenching in pointless, barren heaves. Cold sweat slicked the small of my back, and my muscles throbbed. I tried to take deep, slow breaths, and thought of home.

There was no turning back, though. Never any turning back. It was probably all gone anyway. Lost to me and, who knew, maybe even burned to the ground by now.

By dawn, the city will run red with elven blood.

I spat onto the stones, wanting to rid myself as much of the taste of rotten blood and vomit as I did that horrible, unexpected voice, snaking out from the shadows of my memory.

No use thinking about it now. My damp, shaking fingers went to my neck, and I took off both the silver pendant and the leather thong, removing Nelaros’ ring from the worn cord. I squeezed in my palm for a moment, tight, feeling its smooth edges press into my skin, and then threaded it onto the chain. The ring settled against the pendant with the soft clink of metal on metal and, satisfied, I fastened it around my neck once more, tucking it safely from sight.

I would wear them both together; my past, and my future, hanging together by the same silver thread.

Right, then.

With that forceful, salient thought, I tried to make myself stand… and managed it on the second attempt. As I waited for my knees to stop wobbling, I counted through a few simple truths. One, I’d not lost more than Jory, or Daveth. I was still alive. Two, I was a Grey Warden now. I had a purpose, a definition. A place, and a duty. Three… well, that was more difficult. My new identity might just be enough to get me killed.

The battle that had been hanging over the camp was coming. It would mean facing darkspawn again, fighting alongside men and women who had trained for this life… maybe dying alongside them, too.

My pack sat in the corner, beside one of the ruined columns. I grabbed it—wondering for a brief moment what had happened to Daveth’s and Jory’s effects—and rooted around until I found the tin of tooth powder I’d been hoarding. I dabbed some on my forefinger and rubbed it around my mouth. Its bitter, salty taste wasn’t pleasant, but it was an improvement.

I spat again, wiped the back of my hand across my mouth and, shouldering my pack, started down towards the meeting. Why I should be there—why the king had asked it—I did not completely understand but, for Duncan, I would not only oblige, but present the best image I could.

Whatever being a Grey Warden would mean for me, I wanted to be worthy of what I was.

~o~O~o~

When I got there, the meeting was already well underway. I don’t know what I’d expected, or what I thought a war council actually was. My understanding of the mechanics of command and governance were limited to the ‘do what I say or I’ll hit you’ attitude of the city guard, and a working knowledge of the bribes and bureaucracy upon which most other negotiations between elves and shems depended.

This was decidedly different.

Ranks of torches lit the massive stone carcass of what must once have been a great chamber, now broken open to the sky, the arches rising like ribs on either side of the cracked, ruined floor.

A long wooden table stood at the centre of everything, flamelight pooling on the enormous collection of maps and scrolls spread across its surface. Clustered around it were several figures; knights, commanders, mages, clerics… the great and the good, responsible for all that would happen here.

Most of the faces I didn’t know—nor would I have recognised their names, then—but the torches glinted on one familiar, gilded figure.

“Loghain, my decision is final,” the king was saying. “I will stand by the Grey Wardens in this assault.”

He was a great deal sterner than when I’d seen him before, all that boyish enthusiasm replaced by an equally fierce determination. His hair glinted in the flickering light, tongues of flame catching on the ornate swirls and chasings of his armour.

A burst of loyal pride squeezed my chest, surprising and slightly embarrassing. I stopped as I realised the man he stood opposite—older, clad in heavy plate armour, his face lined and pouched with years, though his hair had not yet greyed—was Teyrn Loghain, the hero of River Dane himself.

I wished I’d come in from the other side of the ruin, and been able to sneak in at the back, discomforted by all the glinting armour and masculine posturing… not that anyone appeared to have noticed me. Everyone was far too focused on the king and his general.

“You risk too much, Cailan!” the teyrn retorted, as if disciplining an unruly pup. “The darkspawn horde is too dangerous for you to be playing hero on the front line.”

The king narrowed his eyes and, for a moment, I thought the row would descend into a full-blown shouting match. Instead, he arched one golden brow and curled the corner of his mouth into a sardonic smile.

“Well, if that’s the case, perhaps we should wait for the Orlesian forces to join us, after all.”

The teyrn’s mouth tightened, and he looked fit to erupt. It was clear to me that this was more than a disagreement of strategy. Far more complex patterns of power were at play here; like watching two cats eyeing each other up at opposite ends of the street, all silent staring and stretching until the fur started flying.

I spotted Duncan standing at the edge of the group, the other side of the table. He nodded to me, and I skulked to his side, ready to watch the fireworks in relative safety… and wondering whether these Orlesian forces were the foreign detachment of Wardens he’d spoken of.

Teyrn Loghain had curbed his apparent urge to spit at their mere mention, though his response wasn’t exactly subtle.

“I must repeat my protest to your fool notion that we need the Orlesians to defend ourselves!”

A mild murmur ran through some of the assembled gathering—but only the ones who were behind the teyrn, and out of the line of that piercing blue gaze.

We didn’t get to see a lot of portraits in the alienage, but we did get woodcuts, pamphlets… the occasional engraved print. I’d seen his likeness before, and it had in no way prepared me for the strength of his presence.

He was no longer a young man, the dashing hero of Fereldan independence, but he was an imposing figure. I found myself rather impressed at the way Cailan stood up to him.

“It is not a ‘fool notion’!” he protested. “In any case, our arguments with Orlais are a thing of the past… and you will remember who is king.”

Ouch.

There was a brief, sharp flare of silence, in which I could have sworn the only sound was a collective intake of breath, followed by the crackle of the torches.

It made sense, I supposed. Teyrn Loghain must have been a constant presence in the young king’s life since childhood, and every child seeks to throw off the shackles of his elders. I could also see the jostling of male pride; father and son-in-law, like old stag and young buck. We had a lot of that where I came from. As new generations moved in, family ties shifted and alliances were made and broken… the way Father would have had to cope with Nelaros becoming the man of our house.

This point in the argument was usually where someone brought up how the proposed course of action—letting someone’s daughter go to work in the market, or allowing a boy to choose his own bride, or whatever else it might be—reflected badly on the honour of the family, or would break someone’s mother’s heart, or possibly raise a long-deceased and well-loved aunt from the grave through sheer shock and outrage.

Of course, I corrected myself; it was thoroughly ridiculous to make such comparisons. I used them simply because I knew no better, which was testament to my ignorance and nothing more. After all, these men were the pinnacle of power and influence in Ferelden, not a couple of elven dockworkers arguing the toss under the vhenadahl.

Teyrn Loghain pushed abruptly away from the table, turning his back to the king and gazing up at the velvet sky.

“How fortunate,” he exclaimed, touching a hand to his brow in a gesture of weary resignation, “that Maric did not live to see his son ready to hand Ferelden over to those who enslaved us for a century!”

I blinked.

King Cailan, however, did not appear to be as easily cowed by references to dead relatives as the average adolescent elf, and just looked smug.

“Then our current forces will have to suffice, won’t they?” He turned smartly, facing Duncan, and catching both of us up in one of those bright, charismatic smiles. “And are your men ready for battle, Grey Warden?”

Duncan nodded. “They are, your Majesty.”

“And this is the recruit I met earlier on the road?” Cailan looked me up and down, beaming indulgently. “I understand congratulations are in order.”

Wondering faintly if he had any idea whatsoever the Joining actually entailed, I forced my lips into a smile, and bowed, thankful that this time the ground stayed where it ought to be, and so did my stomach.

“Thank you, your Majesty,” I said, meeting his eye as I rose.

Was that a hint of envy? Whatever it was, it passed quickly, and Cailan’s face turned serious.

“Every Grey Warden is needed now,” he said earnestly. “You should be honoured to join their ranks.”

I inclined my head, but the assurance that I was indeed honoured seemed unaccountably to stick to my tongue.

“Your fascination with glory and legends will be your undoing, Cailan,” Loghain rumbled irritably. “We must attend to reality.”

The king sighed. “Fine. Speak your strategy. The Grey Wardens and I draw the darkspawn into charging our lines and then…?”

The teyrn leaned on the table, his heavy gauntlets clinking as one hand described lines and arcs over the thick parchment of the map.

“You will alert the tower to light the beacon, signalling my men to charge from cover.”

“To flank the darkspawn, I remember.” Cailan nodded. “This is the Tower of Ishal in the ruins, yes?”

I peered surreptitiously at the upside-down map. It didn’t make much sense, but then I’d never seen one outside of the fanciful kind in books, marked with sea monsters and the names of far-off, fantastical places.

“Then who shall light this beacon?”

Teyrn Loghain tapped the parchment. “I have a few men stationed there. It’s not a dangerous task, but it is vital.”

“Then we should send our best,” Cailan declared. “Send Alistair and the new Grey Warden to make sure it’s done.”

I caught my breath. He didn’t mean—oh. I glanced at Duncan, but he didn’t look at me. Nobody did… except the teyrn.

Loghain peered at me, disbelief in his rough-hewn face. I could feel my shoulders rising and my spine curling as my body defaulted to the natural position for an elf being glared at by a human. I fought it, but I couldn’t win, and neither could I hold the look he gave me. His steely, disparaging gaze made his opinions brutally known, but it wasn’t a cruel stare. It was as if I had simply been clearly and cleanly assessed, every flaw and failing I had—of which I was aware there were plenty—noted, catalogued, and marked as ammunition.

I looked down at the table, feigning intense interest in the grain of the wood.

“You rely on these Grey Wardens too much,” the teyrn said archly. “Is that truly wise?”

The king scoffed. “Enough of your conspiracy theories, Loghain. Grey Wardens battle the Blight, no matter where they’re from.”

I wondered what that meant. An elven dig, perhaps. Or maybe the teyrn’s distaste for us boiled down to the fact the Wardens were not a Fereldan order. I looked up, curious, but my thoughts were derailed when Duncan spoke.

“Your Majesty, you should consider the possibility of the archdemon appearing.”

Loghain snorted. “There have been no signs of any dragons in the Wilds.”

I blinked, dragged back to the dreams and horrors of my Joining. Dragons? Did that mean—?

Cailan smiled impishly. “Isn’t that what your men are here for, Duncan?”

“I… Yes, your Majesty.”

I looked up at him, but the Warden-Commander was doing his best impassive stare again, only the brief clench of his jaw yielding any hint of disagreement. Questions burned on the tip of my tongue, but it wasn’t the time or place, so I bit the inside of my lip, and stayed quiet.

“Enough!” the teyrn barked. “This plan will suffice. The Grey Wardens will light the beacon.”

“Thank you, Loghain.” Cailan’s smile widened into something that, for a moment, looked like a child’s breathless satisfaction. “I cannot wait for that glorious moment! The Grey Wardens battle beside the king of Ferelden to stem the tide of evil!”

“Yes, Cailan,” Loghain said dryly. “A glorious moment for us all.”

The meeting began to break up soon after that. Representatives of the Magi, the Ash Warriors, and various other groups with whom I was not familiar all seemed keen to demand the king’s attention. There was talk of divisions and tactical assaults, siege weapons and dual offensives, and the majority of it went over my head—though I noticed it was the teyrn, not Cailan, who dealt with most of the knights and commanders. He was the one who talked of details, and whose face was grimly resolute as he spoke of what unit would be placed where.

He didn’t see them as mere numbers, I suspected.

~o~O~o~

The sense of expectation crackled on the air and, all over camp, people were moving out. There was a strange quietness to it; the sounds of boots thudding, harness jingling, and weapons being hefted, but very little chatter.

Up by the infirmary I saw nurses rolling piles of bandages, and their faces were curiously blank. Not having been here for the preceding battles, I didn’t know if this was how things had been before. Had it been different at the start? Perhaps the sense of optimism waned, the longer the campaign continued… or perhaps the gossip I’d heard was filtering through the ranks.

We’ve won every battle, but there’s more of them each time.

Maybe the teyrn’s assessment was right, and it wasn’t a true Blight. It was possible, I told myself… even if it meant Duncan being wrong.

I trudged despondently in his wake as we returned to his fire, ready to tell Alistair the plan. Somehow, I found it hard to believe Teyrn Loghain over Duncan, however much I wanted to. Added to that was the small, quiet shame sniping at me; I was far too relieved to have been told I wouldn’t be fighting on the front line.

Needless to say, Alistair didn’t share my reluctance.

“What? I won’t be in the battle?”

We stood by Duncan’s fire, flames chewing insistently at the logs. Sparks danced in the cold air and, above, stars pierced the blackness with clear, terrible integrity. It would be one of the longest nights of my life.

“This is by the king’s personal request, Alistair,” Duncan reminded him sharply. “If this beacon is not lit, Teyrn Loghain’s men won’t know when to charge.”

Alistair curled his lip. The firelight ruddied his blond hair and threw shadows along his cheeks.

“So he needs two Grey Wardens standing up there holding the torch. Just in case, right?”

Guilt prodded me. I should be keener to argue too, shouldn’t I? Eager, if not for glory, then at least for the chance to fight alongside my new brothers and sisters… whoever they were. Duncan had said I would have a chance to meet the other Wardens after the battle. He’d smiled when he said it, fleeting and incongruous warmth touching his face.

Appalling, then, that I was only too pleased to stay out of the way. Some noble warrior I’d end up being.

“But, if it’s not dangerous,” I blurted, glancing between the two men, “I can do it myself. I mean, surely Alistair would be better employed—”

“That is not your choice,” Duncan said briskly. “If the king wishes Grey Wardens to ensure the beacon is lit, then Grey Wardens will be there.”

He had not seemed to me a man easily annoyed, but a hint of irritation coloured his voice, and I shut up. Alistair shook his head.

“I get it, I get it.” He glanced at me, and I could see gratitude for the effort I’d made in his face. He smirked. “Just so you know, if the king ever asks me to put on a dress and dance the Remigold, I’m drawing the line, darkspawn or no.”

A burst of laughter broke from me: explosive, unexpected, and absurd. Well, it was a heck of an image.

“I don’t know,” I said, grappling for control of my giggles. “That could be a great distraction.”

Alistair snorted. “Me shimmying down the darkspawn line?” He grinned. “Sure, we could kill them while they roll around laughing.”

I spluttered again, and he chuckled. Duncan loosed a resigned sigh.

“The tower is on the other side of the gorge,” he said pointedly, causing us both to pull ourselves together, laughter lost in the face of our impending task.

“The way we came when we arrived?” I asked, still trying to exorcise the vision of Alistair in a frock from behind my eyes.

Amazing how the mind works in times of stress.

Duncan nodded. “You’ll need to cross the gorge and head through the gate and up to the tower entrance. From the top, you’ll overlook the entire valley. Stay with the teyrn’s men and guard the tower. When the signal goes up, light the beacon. Alistair will know what to watch for and, if you are needed, we will send word. You understand?”

“Yes,” I said, inclining my head.

“Good.” Duncan’s voice softened. “Now, I must join the others. From here, you two are on your own. You will need to move quickly. And remember: you are both Grey Wardens. I expect you to be worthy of that title.”

A gruff affection underscored his words. He believed we were, I realised, and that knowledge calmed the quickening of my pulse. I bowed my head, a knot of gratitude and growing fondness for this strange, mysterious human tugging at my throat.

Later, I would wish I’d told Duncan how thankful I was for everything he had done for me. I have often wondered if he truly knew.

“Duncan….” Alistair, too, had turned serious, his voice taut against the low crackle of the flames. “May the Maker watch over you.”

Duncan smiled, his dark eyes hardening, and shadows weaving melancholy shapes across his face.

“May He watch over us all,” he said quietly.

He nodded to us once more, then turned and left, heading west to meet up with the king’s men and, I assumed, the other Wardens who would be moving across the field and pressing on towards the line.

As I understood it, the very nature of the darkspawn horde made it hard to tell exactly where the front line lay. They came and went, bursting out of the ground and pouring from the shadows—or so survivors said, anyway—then disappearing when they’d made their kills. Either they put little store in territory, or saw nothing worth claiming in the Wilds, I supposed, trying to shake away those horrible dream-visions of rocks swarming with black bodies, and the hideous roar of a horrific army.

The bright glint of Duncan’s armour receded into the forest of stones, and the darkness beyond.

“Well, let’s get going,” Alistair said, clamping a studded leather helmet onto his head.

I blinked, glanced at him, and nodded. “Right.”

We headed east, towards the bridge. Men were already stationed along its length; detachments of archers pressed in behind the worn, broken statues, their faces as grey and motionless as the stone. Below the fortress, great trebuchets and ballistae had been heaved into position, and the creaks of rope and wood drifted up on the air, along with the shouts of soldiers.

I looked out into the darkness, to the shadowy juncture where the Wilds pressed in on the ruins, but the tree line was alive. Flames leapt against the night, the echoes of torches—theirs, not ours—outlining the slowly advancing ranks of darkspawn. The baying of hounds cut across the valley and, far below, I could make out the shape of the king’s forces massing. Any moment now, and the word would come, the chaos break loose.

Straining my eyes against the dark, I looked for Duncan and the Grey Wardens, seeking out that bright flare of silver in the blackness. I didn’t see him.

Somehow—perhaps because I was so busy trying to take in every detail—I missed how it started. There was a roar, a great cry that went up, ragged and ripped from a hundred throats. A volley of arrows rent the night, some pitch-dipped and ablaze, and then the horde was rushing, screaming….

I winced, my gut clenching on the horrible, unreal familiarity of that sound. I glanced at Alistair, seeking some kind of reassurance, but I found him white-faced beneath the brow of his helmet, staring out at the first surge of the battle.

He’d been a Grey Warden for barely six months at that time and, as I would learn later, before Ostagar, he could count the number of times he’d faced darkspawn on one hand. Even so, his Joining was distant enough for the changes it had wrought in him to have settled. He could feel the horde and hear the sordid buzz of its every thought, its every bloody, vile impulse.

I didn’t know that then. I followed him blindly, without even knowing how terrified he was.

We started across the bridge as the longbowmen began to fire, ducking and darting our way through the mass of bodies and people running. From the field, the snarls and howls of the mabari hounds met the rallying cries of darkspawn—every bit as blood-curdling—and I heard screams, yells, and the sounds of metal and violence.

The trebuchets were set, flinging their massive weights into the charging line, and further downfield, fire and lightning raged at the horde, giving away the position of the mages.

We were almost across the gorge when it became clear that the king’s forces were not alone in their use of heavy artillery.

There was a flash, a sound like wood splintering, and then the sky was full of flaming rock, plummeting towards the bridge. Alistair yelled something I didn’t hear, then cannoned into me and sent me sprawling to the ground ahead of him. There was a deafening bang, and the whole world seemed to shake. The stones beneath me juddered and I flung my arms over my head, aware of debris raining down around me, and screams coming through the woolly echoes in my ears.

When I looked up from my prone position, a full section of the bridge was missing behind us, and parts of the rest of it were littered with flaming wreckage. At least three of the archers lay dead, mangled and bloody, one man missing his legs. Bile burned in the back of my throat. Another soldier lurched past, blood streaming from his head. Alistair held his hand out to me, and I grabbed it.

“Ogres,” he yelled breathlessly as he pulled me to my feet, obviously as temporarily deaf as I was. “Like… walking siege weapons. Only they smell much worse.”

I nodded, too winded to talk, and prepared to take his word for it. We pushed on, lurching to the far side of the gorge just before another flaming boulder crashed through one of the bridge’s supports. Thinking ruefully of Teyrn Loghain’s statement about this not being a dangerous task, I was ignobly grateful that I wasn’t on my own.

I followed Alistair up past the old gatehouse and towards the tower, but it was clear something wasn’t right before we rounded the approach. A soldier bearing the teyrn’s badge—one of the company guarding the tower, I supposed—came running down the slope from behind the ruined curtain wall. He had a crossbow in one hand and the other clamped to his forehead, stemming the bleeding from a nasty gash.

“You! Y-You’re the Grey Warden, aren’t you?” He stumbled to a halt in front of Alistair, swaying gently. “The… the tower… it’s been taken!”

“What are you talking about, man?” Alistair demanded. “Taken? How?”

“The darkspawn came up through the lower chambers. They’re everywhere!” Terror lent his voice a querulous edge, and he stared at us with wide, desperate eyes. “Most of our men are dead. Please… I-I don’t know what—”

Alistair shot me a bleak but determined look as he unsheathed his sword and hefted his shield. I understood. The teyrn’s men would still need their signal; probably now more than ever, if this setback was an omen of the way the battle might run. I nodded.

“Then we must get to the beacon,” he said, adopting an authoritative tone that seemed to strike straight at the part of the guard’s brain designed for taking orders. “We’ll have to light it ourselves. How many men are still standing?”

“Ser!” The man pulled himself up, looking for a moment dangerously close to saluting with the hand still holding his crossbow. “N’more than eight, ser. There was a couple of mages from the Circle with us—one’s still alive, I think.”

“Right. Come on!”

I didn’t know how much of it was templar training, or how much Grey Warden, but Alistair fell seamlessly into command. He led us to the foot of the tower and, barking orders and demanding information, rounded up the handful of men who had escaped. They’d evidently had to fight hard. Corpses littered the ground—human and darkspawn—though not as many as I’d expected. From what the guards said, it appeared the bastards had kept their assault clean and efficient, attacking where no one was expecting it, and making use of the advantage of surprise.

It was a terrifying prospect. I tried not to dwell on it, let my body take over, and had no thoughts but the awareness of the ice-sharp pain of breathing, and the clenching of every muscle, as I gripped my sword and watched for movement in the shadows.

Above us, thunder rolled, and lightning split the sky. A curtain of rain fell, as if the clouds had been slashed with a knife. It pelted us, and the ground, throwing mud and grit back up my breech-clad legs. Alistair was addressing the scattering of men—the few of the teyrn’s guards, and a single mage in a blood-stained robe, all of them ashen-faced and hollow-eyed—and outlining the importance of getting to the beacon as quickly as we could.

He had to shout to make himself heard; even the sounds of battle that had been drifting up from the field were lost in the roar. The men listened to him, though, apparently prepared to throw their lives behind the Grey Warden. I remember thinking that, perhaps, King Cailan’s glowing enthralment with the order’s legend—and the way it rubbed off on the men—wasn’t all bad.

We would move fast, Alistair said, lighting on what one of the guards said about a rear staircase. There was a chance we could get through to light the beacon before it was too late. Despite its age, most of the tower was structurally sound and—since Cailan’s troops had been here—a great deal of rebuilding had been done with timber and temporary measures. There were also months’ worth of supplies stored in the lower chambers; so, small wonder the place had been a target for the horde.

Orders given, we started to move out. I was already falling in behind the men when Alistair grabbed my arm.

“Merien.”

I squinted at him through the downpour. “What?”

“For the Maker’s sake, put a bloody helmet on!”

I wasn’t about to argue. I had my thickened leather archery cap stuffed into my belt, and I pulled it on obediently, cold, wet fingers sliding on the chinstrap. It pinched my ears horribly, and I wasn’t used to the way it made sound seem slightly muffled, but Alistair had a point. Discomfort was probably worth the chance of deflecting an arrow, or… whatever else came towards us.

He nodded, and held my gaze for a short moment, unsmiling. We both knew, I think, that if the teyrn’s men were right about Ishal being overrun, there was a very good chance we wouldn’t come down from the tower alive.

Another fork of lightning streaked the sky, painting the swollen bellies of the clouds a sullen, metallic yellow.

“Let’s move,” I yelled.

We did.

We encountered little resistance at the base of the tower itself; just a handful of genlocks armed with bows, and a couple of hurlocks. They fell easily enough, and the guardsmen were enthusiastic fighters, spurred on by rage, terror, and the drive to avenge their recent losses.

I could understand that.

The doors had been barred from within, but they didn’t hold. Had the ancient Tevinter wood still been in place, we might not have been so lucky, but the recently installed green oak split under concentrated force—namely, three hefty guardsmen armed with maces.

Inside, the lower levels of the tower were dark, deserted… eerie. Our small platoon moved fast, skirting away from the main chambers and holding instead to the edges, seeking out the quickest, stealthiest way to the top.

Back in Ostagar’s days of glory, Ishal must have been mighty. The tower was huge, its walls many feet thick, and the interior a labyrinth of interconnected rooms. I supposed it must have represented great power and wealth for the magister who’d built it, and tried to put the uncomfortable reminders of the Arl of Denerim’s estate from my mind.

I’d hardly thought of it in days, but something about the damp stonework, the darkness, and the skulking around, breathlessly waiting for the moment of discovery… it unnerved me, took me right back to those endless corridors and hallways.

When we ran into a band of genlocks, pawing through a nest of broken supply crates, I plunged into the fray without thought or feeling. I wanted my blade buried deep in something and—once it was there, the hideous little creature lunging at me with those dagger-like teeth, trying to rip my skin off even as its guts were flopping out onto the floor—the sweat and the stink of the fight blurred the screams I could still hear.

“Maker’s breath!” Alistair sagged against the wall, trying to catch his breath, as we hit the stairway that led to the second floor. “I thought there wasn’t supposed to be any resistance here?”

I wiped the back of my hand across my face. Sweat stung my eyes and blurred my vision, and my ears had gone numb under the damn helmet, but I managed a mirthless, wheezy chuckle.

“Weren’t you complaining you wouldn’t get to fight?”

He snorted. “Hmm. I suppose there is a silver lining here, if you think about it.”

I shook my head disbelievingly.

“This way, ser!” called one of the men, leading us on up to the next level.

Much of the stone stairways had crumbled over the centuries, and large parts of the floors were cracked or rotted through. It meant we had to be careful—the humans even more so than me—and it made the knowledge the guards had of the tower valuable.

The lad leading us appeared to be the youngest of the survivors: thin, acne-speckled, and seemingly strung together out of knees and elbows. I recognised the way his grip kept shifting on his sword—my palms were wet, too.

“We can cut through the storeroom, ser,” he called from the top of the stone steps, his hand already on the door. “It’ll bring us out halfway across to the next landing, and—”

“Dawkins,” one of the other men growled, “keep yer damn voice down!”

We pounded up the stairway, me somewhere in the midst of the thudding boots and the heavy, claustrophobic smell of leather polish and human sweat. It should have felt too easy, perhaps, or we should have guessed that… I don’t know.

The storeroom wasn’t empty. It had been completely looted, boxes and crates torn from the shelves and left in pieces on the floor, supplies and provisions carried away, but the darkspawn remained. Four hurlocks, one still clasping bags of flour in its arms—what in Thedas they would do with those, I had no idea—and for the briefest of seconds, no one did anything but stare.

They lunged, drawing their weapons, teeth bared. The flour bags hit the floor, splitting open and throwing up a fog of white, misting the air. The biggest of the creatures roared, its mouth a lipless, black maw, foul and dreadful, its eyes wide and staring. It brought its axe around in a sweep that looked effortless, and there was no time, no space of seconds or breaths that could have spared the boy.

The blow caught him under the breastplate, just to the side, at the weakest point of his armour. A low, shapeless growl that sounded almost like a sinister laugh left the hurlock, and Dawkins gave a short, surprised gasp. His blood spurted onto the stones and, as he began to fall, the creature reached out one huge hand and—with a movement that was almost lazy—pressed its palm to his face, thick fingers digging into his cheeks. It jerked its arm savagely, and I swear I heard the lad’s neck snap.

Alistair yelled. Rushing forward, shield raised, he knocked the thing to the floor, blade scything the air. It was vengeance, pure and simple. All that discipline, that well-trained control lapsed, and the black vileness of darkspawn blood sprayed as his sword cored through the creature’s chest.

My world spun into a muddle of metal and flesh. The things still stank—that sticky, cloying stench of rancid meat and old blood—but I no longer felt the bone-crushing terror I had in the Wilds. I was still afraid, more afraid than I’d ever been, but anger had begun to outweigh the fear. I cut, stabbed, kicked, clawed… lost somewhere in the press of men and fetid bodies.

Weapons swung, steel biting steel, the clangs and dull thuds of wood echoing against the grunts of effort and cries of pain. Eventually, the last of the hurlocks was down, and we were still standing. Almost all of us, anyway.

I had to step over the boy, Dawkins, on my way out of the room. Blood pooled at his middle, his face slack and staring. I looked away.

Beyond the ransacked store, we found carnage. Much of the second floor was aflame, corpses and hacked-up bits of flesh strewn all about the place… I couldn’t help but think of crumbs, the remnants of feasts the darkspawn were too glutted to complete.

I thought of all the things I’d heard in camp; how the horde spread like a plague, sprung from nowhere and infested everything until it was tainted, blackened… and then moved on.

It was a hope soon dashed.

The darkspawn were more than capable of using the tower’s architecture against us; lying in wait, as if they knew we were coming, drawing us out from one end of a chamber to the other, and giving themselves the advantage of turf they’d already claimed. They set fires, and hid behind them, pitching volley after volley of arrows—tipped with their own filth, of all the execrable things—through the flames.

Mind you, they burned just as easily.

We fought hard for the central chamber, two more men hacked down and the Circle mage yelling with the effort of the spells he unleashed, trying to hold the bastards off. I’d never seen magic like that before, not close up, and it terrified me. Pure, white blazes of energy, crackling through the air. They had a smell vaguely redolent of hot metal and fresh bread… I hadn’t expected that.

Neither had I expected it to hurt so much when, knocked back from the melee and reeling from a blow I’d barely dodged, I managed to get in the way and take one of the mage’s arcane bolts in my shoulder. It was like having my flesh opened up from the inside, a creeping flame that swelled and blistered, and I could feel blood welling beneath my undershirt.

I couldn’t stop, though. I watched one of the teyrn’s guards fall in front of me, one of those foul arrows sticking out of his throat. The genlock who’d fired it fixed me with a coldly malevolent yellow stare and snarled, displaying ranks of bloody teeth.

They drag the survivors underground, and eat them….

It raised its bow, closed one beady eye… and a wash of outrage and anger flooded me. I could have ducked, rolled, dodged—all those things Mother had been so careful to teach me—but I didn’t. I lowered my head, yelled, and charged at the thing, sword gripped tight in my clammy, aching hands.

Armour is good, but it doesn’t deflect everything. It has its weak points and, once you find them, your enemy can’t do much to stop you.

I got the bastard impaled on my blade, but it wasn’t dead. It was screaming and thrashing at me, still trying to claw and bite, and I couldn’t get the damn sword out again. I wheeled around, dragging the genlock with me, every sore muscle protesting, and backed the creature into the flames that its kin had set. The fires were built from the looted crates and boxes, and what few sparse furnishings the teyrn’s men had brought when they moved in. I doubted that the charred banners—King Cailan’s colours, and Loghain’s badge—had been added simply for fuel.

The genlock’s screams redoubled, its putrid skin blistering and runnels of that vile, black blood trickling from its mouth. The stench was appalling. It seemed to take an age for the threshing to stop, and it was still hard to pull my sword out. I stumbled back, falling over my own feet and thudding to the floor. My blade skittered across the stones, and I was reaching for it when I felt someone grab me by the scruff of the neck.

“Maker’s blood! I didn’t think they could smell any worse!”

Alistair hauled me to my feet, but I had no time to thank him. Bloody and battle-weary, he pushed away, slamming into the fetid body of another hurlock before cleaving its head open with his sword. I winced, my stomach convulsing. There was too much blood; the copper-salt taste of it, and the stink of the darkspawn, all stuck to the back of my tongue.

I’d spent the best part of a week in a maelstrom of impossibilities, with far too many blows to the head and far too little to eat. I’d seen too much, felt too much, and now everything just seemed like a dream… and I remembered what had happened last time I’d dreamed. Falling into nothingness, feeling myself slip away until there was only the void, and the screaming, starving minds of the horde.

I ducked, grabbed my blade, and swung blindly at the first darkspawn I saw.

~o~O~o~

By the time we neared the top of the tower, there were only four of us left: Alistair and me, plus the mage, and one of the guards. Every other poor bastard was lying somewhere on the stones below us, and the fires that had been laid as traps were raging through every bit of the building that would burn.

Surely, some acerbic part of me thought, that was enough of a damn signal for anyone on the battlefield.

It didn’t feel real anymore. None of it did. Even if we got to the beacon, and by some miracle actually managed to light it, we probably wouldn’t get down alive… but I didn’t really think about any of those things. They didn’t seem to exist. Nothing did; we were just driving forwards, pushing through the red mist of agony and fatigue, moving like disjointed puppets.

I doubt any of us expected to find what we did.

It was an ogre: a tremendous beast of a thing, horned and hideous, and big enough to snatch up a man in one hand. We caught it gorging, stuffing corpse-meat into its great, gaping, fanged mouth. It evidently didn’t take kindly to being disturbed.

The four of us scudded to a halt in the doorway, staring as the creature turned to face us, bloody chunks of flesh dropping from its jaws. It pulled the lips of its ape-like muzzle back and, still hunched protectively over its meal, roared. The sound seemed to shake the stone, and scraped right over every nerve, bubbling with violent rage.

“Hold it,” Alistair yelled at the mage, as the ogre started to lumber to its feet. “Keep it back! Stay at range, and watch its hands!”

The mage flung a paralysis spell at the creature, and bars of warm, pulsing light wrapped its mottled, purple frame. Alistair ran forwards, sword raised, going for the creature’s knee.

“Bring it down!” he shouted, and I heard the rising panic in his voice.

He’d taken charge so easily at the foot of the tower, full of bravery and sound training, and now all but two of the men who’d followed him into Ishal were dead, cut down or hacked open by the darkspawn. Part of me almost hoped it would all end here, with no repercussions, no time to dwell on what had happened. The rest of me—the unthinking, living part that was nothing but flesh and desperation—wanted to survive, and it screamed in disbelief as I ran after him and swung wildly at the monster.

The ogre was glutted and sluggish which, together with the mage’s efforts, gave us an advantage… but not one that lasted for long. The tower guard fired his crossbow, aiming at the creature’s dull yellow eyes. A bolt sank into its cheek, just below the left eye, black blood streamed and, as the mage’s spell broke, the ogre howled and clutched its face.

Pain made it clumsy, but dangerous. We’d hacked bloody, gristle-chewed wounds into its leg, effectively crippling the beast, but it was far from defeated. One massive fist swept past me and—while I ducked, scampering behind the beast—Alistair went skidding across the stones, winded and bleeding.

I drew one of the daggers from my belt and jabbed it into the tendon in the creature’s heel in an effort to distract it from going after him… which was noble in theory, but not terribly well thought through.

The short, sharp blade tore into tough, leathery skin and, from the ogre’s roar, I knew I was in the right place. I twisted the dagger, wrenching and ripping, the stink of that foul blood clogging my nose and mouth as it spurted, splattering my breastplate. It sprayed my face and lips, bringing back the moment I’d drunk from the silver chalice, and all the horrors that had followed.

I spat and retched… and failed to avoid the huge, clawed hand that reached around, grabbing at me. I found myself snatched into the air, lifted in a vice-like grasp and—despite being skinny, and struggling as hard as I could—I couldn’t slip from it. The ogre brought me level with its snarling, bloodied face, and I fought to free my arm from the great, trunk-like fingers, stabbing my dagger in between its knuckles in the hope of making the bastard let go. All it did was roar at me, engulfing me in a stale, damp wind of breath-taking, stomach-clenching foulness. The stink of blood and decay had me choking again, and wet globs of the creature’s slobber slid down my cheeks.

It squeezed tighter, until I could hardly breathe, and blackness started to crowd my vision. My ribs creaked and heaved, as if the bones were burning within my body, and I could no longer kick, my legs turned to a numb, dead weight beneath me.

The air crackled, and I became aware of the Circle mage sending bolt after bolt of flame at the creature, the searing stings of sound mingling with the roar in my ears… and Alistair, thumping the ogre in the leg with his shield and demanding to know why the bastard wouldn’t just hurry up and die.

I smiled weakly, and brought my sword down on the beast’s thumb. Alistair slammed into its leg with such force that the injured ogre wobbled, dropping me. I fell awkwardly, dropped to the stone floor like a limp rag, and barely managed to roll out from underneath the massive foot that crashed down on where I would have been. The creature snarled in frustration, and swung at Alistair with a clenched fist.

He dodged it, but the blow caught the tower guard, sending him cannoning into the far wall. I was still scrambling to my feet, but I heard the colossal thump of the man hitting the stonework, and saw the unnatural way he slumped to the ground, like a broken doll. He wouldn’t get up again.

Alistair let out a yell and charged, landing another forceful blow on the ogre’s arm. It jerked back, bleeding heavily, but wasn’t stopped. Lowering its head, it rammed into him, knocking him back, and sent his shield scudding across the floor. The mage loosed a sheet of violent, crackling energy that burned the flagstones before it struck the creature, and charred the flesh on the left side of its torso. It roared, turned, and lumbered towards us.

The beacon we had been sent here for was housed at the top of a narrow wooden ladder; kindling piled high on a stone ledge, facing out to the open night, the lee of the cracked walls protecting the wood from the worst of the weather. The storm was still raging outside, rain lashing down and wind groaning, a constant thrum of noise beneath the roars of battle. I smelled a tang of paraffin.

Alistair was staggering to his feet, and I yelled at him to get to the damn thing, to light the beacon while he had the chance. He blinked at me, looked confused, then stumbled to the ladder.

The mage was screaming arcane chants and invocations, his hands weaving complex shapes in the air that swirled around him, violet-hued and shifting like sand, as he tried to cast another paralysis spell. I did my best to distract the creature, ducking through its legs and swiping with my blades, but the thing had endured enough from us. It was tired, angry, and hurting, and it wanted an end to this game.

I caught a dim glimpse of Alistair fumbling hopelessly with flint and tinder, trying to coax the beacon into life, and dived out of the way as the mage’s hex took hold of the beast.

“Help him,” I shouted. “Do… something!”

The man stared at me for a moment, then nodded. He was pale and sweating, worn thin by the effort of his spells, but he summoned everything he had for one last endeavour. A bolt of fire arced from his hands and caught at the kindling, flames soon rising to lick the wood.

The mage sagged, clearly exhausted, and I caught his arm, trying to support him. His hex wouldn’t hold the ogre forever; I could already see it starting to move, its huge body flexing against those strange, ethereal bonds.

Alistair called a warning, but we were clumsy, slow… the creature charged us, furious, and there wasn’t enough time to get out of the way. I wasn’t even aware of the moment the ogre’s fist slammed into my body; the pain shot through me, blinding and disorientating. All I saw was a smeared whirl of stone, walls and ceiling slurred together, and for a moment I thought it was me screaming.

I pulled myself up, dizzy and shaking, and saw the mage, limp in that great mottled grasp. The ogre shook him, like a petulant child with a toy, and I swear I heard his spine crack in two. When the creature tossed him down, the man was a bloody mess of a thing, his fine robes ruined and his body broken.

The braided leather hilt of my sword, and the slim, worn little dagger, were both wet against my palms, and I could barely clench my fingers around the weapons anymore. The thing was coming for me, its steps unsteady and sluggish now. Flames leapt, the beacon burning harder and higher, backlighting the beast’s wine-dark form.

It didn’t really seem important now. We’d done what we had to do, we’d set the signal and—with the Maker’s grace—it would be enough for the men on the battlefield below. Yet it didn’t feel like a victory.

I reached up and, with the hand holding my dagger, ripped the leather helm from my head. If I was going to die, I reasoned, it might at least be without the discomfort of having my ears pinched to the point of numbness.

I threw the thing down and, some shapeless, frantic battle cry torn from my throat, ran at the ogre, ducking through its legs and striking once more at the bloodied flesh of its knees. It had to go down at some point, surely. As the beast turned, roaring and swinging at me, I was dimly aware of Alistair flinging himself at it from the ladder, sword in both hands.

He hit the thing’s body with incredible force, blade driving into its chest. The ogre howled and teetered backwards, and the gleam of triumph lit my blood. I hacked at anything I could reach, desperation pushing me past the blurred vision and screaming lungs.

The ogre fell, crashing to the stone floor. Flamelight licked the room, breaking everything into scattered, devilish shadows. The thing was still struggling, great, clawed hands and feet flexing against the stones. It moaned—a horrible cry of pain and frustration—its lips pulled back into a bloody grimace.

I heard Alistair curse and saw him stagger to his feet, his left arm hugged awkwardly to his body. I looked away as, with a grunt of effort, he limped to the creature’s head, and drove his sword through its eye. There was a gut-wrenching noise, wet and visceral, and the ogre’s low, violent growls ebbed into silence, leaving the air empty, but for the crackle of the beacon’s flames, and our ragged, panting breaths.

There was so much blood. I was covered with it; we both were. Just… acres of sticky, gory flesh, stinking and vile. Had I nursed any notions about the glorious nature of war, they would have been drummed out of me then.

“Is it dead?” I asked, hearing how pale and thin my voice sounded, the words running together as if I was drunk.

Alistair shook his head. “Don’t know. Hope so. They can… thingy,” he said breathlessly, groping for the right word. “Lie dormant. We should burn it.”

I nodded. That seemed a good idea. It was all too easy to picture the creature rising up again, like the monster from a children’s horror story… which was just what it was, I supposed. Muzzy-headed thoughts of dragons and impossible, nightmarish fiends prodded at me, but I was too far gone for them to be clear.

We’d barely begun to work out how to go about the task when the snarling of the wind and rain that still lashed the tower’s cracked spire began to yield to other sounds. I looked at Alistair across the ogre’s prone, blotched and bloodied body, and found him staring at me, his face white and taut with dread.

The scuffling of footfalls reverberated through the corridor that led up to this grisly eyrie, and we could hear the clank of metal and the unmistakeable, snuffling, animal growls.

I remember the darkspawn pouring through the door. It was a strange, unreal moment, stretched like threads of burnt sugar, crumbling away into nothing. There was nowhere for us to go, nothing to do but make a last, hopeless stand.

They burst in, numberless and unstoppable, in a hail of arrows and snarling. Alistair could barely hold his shield, but he tried to raise it. He was yelling at me to get behind him—as if that would have done any good—and then there was a mixed clamour of confusion.

I saw an arrow thud into his chest, and another enter his shoulder. The bastards were coming for us, and I wanted to be on my feet to face them, but then there was an incredible, indescribable pain. I looked down, somehow absurdly surprised to see an arrow sticking out of my ribcage. Something pierced my arm, and I dropped my sword, but the pain kept coming, biting through me until my body spasmed with cold shivers that seemed to come from within me, my pulse humming and my breath weak.

I felt the thump as I hit the floor, and looked up at the beacon raging above me, its flames crazing shadows on the vaulted, ruined ceiling.

The darkspawn’s screams of bloodlust closed over me, and I knew nothing more.

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