“When do we get there?” asked Neria, trying her best not to sound like a child on a long wagon journey.
“We get there when we get there,” responded Alistair stoically.
“But we've been hunting for those treaties for DAYS,” she whined. “For all we know, the battle is done and dusted while we're traipsing about here.”
For a moment a look of worry clouded Alistair's face. He shook his head though, and said, confidently enough, “I doubt it, else we would not have been encountering so many Darkspawn in the wild. They would be with the main horde.”
They had certainly come across more than their fair share of darkspawn. Neria had tried to count – eight on the first day, a dozen on the second, and more than ten already today. Even more numerous had been the wolves. Despite Neria’s inherent sympathy for them, she realised their attacks were dangerous and never-ending. When the last pack had attacked them, led by a massive creature who was twice the size of the rest, she had truly let go, engulfing them in fire and ice, with definite intent to kill.
This had been a difficult day. The novelty of the adventure had worn off. So had their camaraderie, such as it had been. Neria was being openly contemptuous of Jory, who was complaining about the cold, the smell, the blood, and pretty much everything, while Daveth’s attempts to engage her in conversation were falling flat in the tension of the prevailing atmosphere. As for Alistair, he merely cracked terrible jokes about all of them, mostly implying the imminent possibility of a gory death.
“How big do you think the horde is exactly?” Daveth asked.
Neria caught her breath. It was a question that had been on her mind as well, but one that she had avoided asking – mostly because she did not want to hear the answer to it.
“It gets bigger with every battle,” said Alistair guardedly. It was the same answer Duncan and Wynne had given to her earlier.
“Still, there must be a number. The King's forces are about five thousand strong, correct? Should be more with the levies from Highever and Amaranthine coming in,” it was Ser Jory who persisted.
“Eight thousand, all told,” said Alistair. “The Horde is…larger than that at the very least. Our position is a good one, though, and as I've said before, we have repulsed them with negligible losses thus far. If the past is anything to go by, they would take a couple of weeks to re-group and come back at us. This also means we have the time to find those Warden Treaties before heading back – and my map says we are very close.”
Neria leaned on her staff for a few moments, allowing the others to take a few steps ahead. What she had seen of the darkspawn had not frightened her, exactly, but it had made her fear them as adversaries. She did not consider herself craven, but the creatures she had fought had been not just ugly, they had exuded a mindless hatred that terrified her. Neria knew she herself was wilful, proud, even vindictive at times, but she could not understand uncontrolled hatred. In her mind, she thought about the consequences if she relinquished control over the two things that drove her – her magic and her sexuality – and shuddered at the thought of the consequences. A darkspawn was a creature born of hatred, an unfettered loathing for all humanity, and that, more than anything else, was most disturbing about them.
Realising she had fallen rather more behind than she had intended, Neria darted ahead, shouting, “Hey, wait for me, you lunks!” when she heard, just at the periphery of her hearing, the sound of a bow being drawn.
Neria turned, but saw nothing. She held up her staff, for all the protection it could offer. Nothing happened. With a twitch of her fingers, she had a rock armour spell cast. Still nothing.
She began to step away, looking to rejoin her companions. Then she felt the shimmer, just off to her right. Shieling spells caused a distortion in the atmosphere, but Neria had long learned to know when it was her own magic causing it – this was not her doing.
She shot blind, electricity coursing through her fingers to the staff and beyond, crackling in the air and landing, just before the arrow came into sight. The darkspawn slumped to the ground, becoming visible as a quivering ball of ugliness. The arrow had been aimed straight at her, but as she had expected, the armour spell did its job, stopping the arrow harmlessly a few inches from her and letting it fall to ground.
But then there was another Genlock appearing to her right, and another from behind her, knife in hand. She spun on her heel, using the staff as a weapon, this time connecting, pushing the creature away, and then firing an arcane bolt at other. It slashed at her on its way down, but the knife failed to penetrate the armour spell. The darkspawn who had been hit by the staff was the first to recover, and rushed at her, unarmed. She had her hand out, a burst of fire deflecting that one, but then the one she had hit with the electric bolt was up again and drawing its bow, shooting an arrow at her. The armour was weaker now, having absorbed nearly as much damage as it could already, and this arrow got to her, piercing her shoulder.
She screamed with pain, but kept her footing. She swept the staff, a cone of fire erupting from it, a weak flame, but a flame nonetheless. It pushed them back, buying her time, not victory. She was panting as she upped the rock armour again, her mana reserves low. The fingers of her left hand went to her belt, searching for a vial of replenishing potion. As her fingers closed around it, the cone of fire faded. Her thumbnail was on the stopper. They were almost upon her now, all bearing knives.
Her balance slipped, she struck out with what was left of her magical energy, heat searing up her bones as flames burst forth, uncontrolled, as they used to when she was a child, right into the eyes of her attacker. She saw the face of the genlock, expression changing, and the horrifying face become for a moment piteous as it realized its face was melting. Then there was nothing where its eye-sockets had been, and a grey skull instead of a face.
The other two darkspawn thrust their knives, but only pierced the body of their own comrade as its body fell forward. With a grunt, one of them thrust forward again, and this time the knife pierced right through, into her ribs.
The pain was incredible, like a tear going right through her, sending waves of pain up and down, and she cried out, tears in her eyes, as she fell to the ground, awaiting the next – and perhaps fatal – blow. But then a crashing sound came through the undergrowth and she knew she was safe.
Alistair’s sword ran the first darkspawn through the heart just as Jory hacked off the head of the other. For a moment his breath caught as he bent over Neria. Then he noticed her eye flutter and stepped back.
“Tie up the wound on the shoulder and bandage the ribs,” he said gruffly. “I think she will need to be carried. Daveth, you and Jory hold her, we will find a safer place and halt until she’s able to move.”
“Is there a 'safer place'?” asked Daveth gloomily.
“Probably not, but she isn't going anywhere in this condition. When she comes to, I am going to need to have words with her about staying close to the group.”
“It's as much our fault for letting her fall behind, isn't it?” pointed out Jory.
Alistair scowled, but did not answer.
It was some hours before she regained consciousness. When she did, she realised they had made a makeshift camp in the awning of a marble ruin, and it was still mid-afternoon.
“Why have we stopped?” she asked.
“Carrying you around wasn't really an option,” said Alistair crisply.
“We can move now, we should.”
“That genlock you were wriggling under broke at least one rib,” replied Alistair. “No, I don't see you moving anywhere unless you find healing.”
Neria sighed. She struggled to her feet. The sharp pain that exploded in her chest told her that Alistair had not been exaggerating.
“So I can heal myself,” she pointed out. She grasped her staff for support. It was standard-issue teakwood, Circle Tower edition, but the grip was comforting to her. Deep within its core was its magic, something that responded to her, that made it so much easier to do execute spells.
“You can heal the pain, I know, but can you set a broken rib?” asked Alistair.
Neria cursed under her breath. Of course, a Templar would know the difference. Most laypersons did not really get how magical healing worked. A really talented healer - someone like Wynne, or Anders, could use magic along with their deep knowledge of alchemy to heal even the most serious injuries in no time, but your run-of-the-mill mage was good at casting spells that did just enough to dull the pain and help a person to cope, maybe live another day or two, without really addressing the root cause of the problem. In such cases, you needed to find a real Healer as soon as possible. When it came to healing, Neria had no illusions about herself, she was as run-of-the-mill as they got.
“I can do enough to make it through,” she answered him. “Where are Daveth and Jory?”
“I sent them to keep a rotating watch on the two sides of this wall. Anyway, it's good to know you can get yourself walking again. We can set out immediately for Ostagar.”
She cast a stupefied look at Alistair.
“Ostagar?” she asked. “Why back there? Did we - did we find the treaties?”
“We are not going to find the treaties,” said Alistair in a resigned tone. “We are going to go back to Duncan and announce our failure. He will probably give me a dressing-down, but I'll survive that, I'm sure.”
“What do you mean? Why? And what about us? This was a part of our initiation as Wardens!”
“Your initiation as Wardens requires the darkspawn blood, which we have collected already. Anyway, if Duncan chooses to reject your candidature it would not be such a bad thing either. Jory can go back to Redcliffe, you can go back to the Tower, and Daveth can go to…well, he'll get hanged, I suppose.”
“Listen, Alistair,” she snapped. “There's no going back for some of us. There's no place at the Tower for me. The Templars will see to that. Don't you understand - Duncan rescued me from being punished for abetting the escape of a blood mage!”
“He…what?” Alistair's ears definitely pricked up for that.
Neria leaned against a niche in the wall. She felt old, much older than her seventeen years. Maybe it was because it felt like so long ago now.
“I thought I was helping a friend who was unjustly accused. It turned out he was not only quite justly accused, and he was not my friend either - not the way I wanted him to be, at least. It does not matter. You don't have to worry about me turning into an abomination. I passed my harrowing well enough.”
Alistair bit his lip.
“Whatever went before is of little concern to me,” he said. “If Duncan saw that much in you, he will do what he can to save you. But we cannot go on.”
“Oh for the Maker's sake,” Neria growled. “Why can't we go on, dear leader?”
“There are large groups of darkspawn up ahead. I... sent Daveth scouting ahead while you were unconscious. We have to pass over a bridge on the river there, to get to the Chasind camp where we believe there are stashed supplies and from there to the warden outpost. But the bridge is held by a small platoon of the vile creatures. They have an Emissary with them. Do you get what I am saying? An Emissary.”
“Even if there is an Emissary,” pointed out Neria. “No group of darkspawn has stood against us when we have been fighting together.”
“An Emissary is very powerful,” said Alistair. “I would not risk going against a group that had one of them as leader.”
“In case I missed something, my dear leader,” said Neria, in a voice that indicated he was anything but, “we have a mage too.”
“We are hopelessly outnumbered, and...,” his voice trailed off, but Neria could guess what he had left unsaid - he did not know how well she measured up against another magic user.
Neria gnashed her teeth.
“Numbers don't matter. You need to know how to use a mage in a fight.”
“Are you saying I don't know how to lead a group?” Alistair said angrily. “I learned from Duncan himself!”
“Are there any mages in the Wardens right now, Alistair?” she shot back.
“No, there are not, which is why Duncan was so eager to recruit from the Circle of Magi, but…”
“I'm saying we can do this, Alistair. Trust me.”
“We certainly cannot take them out with you out of combat,” pointed out Alistair.
“I soon won't be out of combat,” she said irritably and walked a few steps away.
A tight bandage was bound around her body, covering her left rib. She could see the blood having soaked through. With a tug from her fingers, she loosened and removed it. Her tunic was soaked in maroon. She tried to reach the knots of her bodice, but winced in pain as her arm rose. She dropped it to her side.
“Whatever are you…” Alistair protested. She ignored him. Staff in on hand, she went on her knees, back to Alistair.
“Unfasten my tunic,” she said.
“No!” he protested.
“Do it,” she said, in a voice that brooked no defiance.
The Templar hesitated but began to struggle with the knots behind her neck. The congealed grime and gore did not make it any easier.
“Just cut it,” she said.
With trembling hands, Alistair brought up his skinning knife and cut the knots, one by one. As her body came into view, he averted his eyes, but not, she knew, before catching a glimpse of her breasts.
Neria looked at herself and winced. Beneath her left breast was an ugly gash, looking like a welt which was still oozing blood so dark it looked almost black.
“Could it have been a poisoned blade?” she asked.
Alistair, eyes tightly shut, replied that it was more than likely.
“Good,” said Neria. “Poison, I know how to deal with.”
She stripped the tunic off herself, wincing at the cold. She began to chant the closest thing to a healing spell that she knew, one that gave her a little strength and stamina, then brought some potions out of her backpack.
“Are you still naked?” asked Alistair.
“Yes. Not that I mind if you open your eyes, Alistair. Unlike you, I haven't anything to hide.”
“I'm…I'm fine, thank you,” said Alistair politely. “I shall just remain here with my eyes closed, and think about the hours I have spent peeling potatoes in the chantry kitchens as a Templar initiate.”
Mix and match, get the proportions right. Some mages did their measuring by hand, estimating the proportions as they poured. Neria wasn't one of them. She carried a thimble and used it to make her measurements as precise as possible. First she collected a drop of her own inky blood into it a vial and then added a few measures of the bristlewort extract. The mixture turned clear for a moment before becoming turbid.
“Well, it's a simple enough poison. Mostly concentrated acid. Should kill me in a day, very painfully.”
“But you don't intend to die, I suppose,” said Alistair, opening his eyes for a moment and closing them again as he took in a view of her tapered waist and pert buttocks.
“Not so soon. I'll have the antidote ready in no time. Is there water?”
He handed her his water-bottle. She added it to the ingredients she had and mixed for a while. Then, she cleaned her wound thoroughly and with a grimace, she set her teeth, gripped the staff, and applied the potion to the wound. She felt the waves of magic swirl into her her bloodstream, cleansing the cells, and finally, closing the skin damage, with the faintest of scars. She ran a finger along it, making a mental note to show it to Wynne when she got back.
She had a spare pair of small clothes in her pack, which she donned before getting to work on the potions. It was her most modest pair. Her grandmother-clothes, as she called them.
“You can look now,” she told Alistair. “And come here and help me.”
With a sigh of relief, he opened his eyes. As he drank in the sight of Neria mixing ingredients on a flat rock, in her knees, in strips of cloth that while they covered little, at least covered it well, he took a deep breath, and asked.
“This won't take long, will it?”
“It will, actually.”
“Then I'll go relieve the other two and send them to help you.”
When Alistair returned, Neria was sitting leaning against the marble. She had evidently sliced what was left of her tunic to make something more dignified than what he had left her in. Daveth was staring at the fire silently while Jory ate a piece of wolf meat. That pesky orange-eyed raven was still with them, sitting on the wall above, silent and a bit sinister, chewing something in its beak that Alistair hoped was not darkspawn flesh.
He wondered if the elf was all she appeared to be. She was certainly a powerful mage for one so young, and stunningly beautiful, even by elvish standards. As he looked over her, dirty golden tresses falling over her shoulders, skin the colour of fresh honey, ankles bare in the grass, he wondered what would have happened of her had she not been a mage. If fortunate, she would have remained in an alienage and married another of her kind. If less so, she would have ended up in a brothel, probably at the Pearl in Denerim, given her looks. He dismissed her talk about becoming a mistress of the Arl of Denerim. Men like him did not keep elven mistresses for a long time. He’d use her and cast her aside soon enough.
But the Maker had cursed her with magic, and she had grown in the Circle Tower, bullied and harassed and then exploiting herself in a manner Alistair, at least, found distasteful. But she was not without some intelligence, and though impudent, she had shown she did listen when he spoke.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
His three companions nodded.
“Let’s go, then.”
A walk of about half an hour later and they were closing in on their destination. In the distance, Alistair could even see what was left of the Warden outpost. It was some way away, on top of a hill, but they were no more than a few hours from it at most. Except for the troublesome darkspawn in the way.
“How many?” asked Neria, staff lowered.
“At least nine,” replied Alistair. “The Emissary’s the one standing on the bridge.”
“We don't have a chance. Can't we go around?” asked Daveth.
“There's only that one bridge across the water,” said Alistair.
“Then let's turn back. Surely this is madness?” suggested Jory.
“I'm going to agree with Ser Knight,” said Alistair.
“Not this again,” said Neria. “We are going in.”
“Listen, sweet one. There's the possible, the improbable and the impossible. How do you expect the four of us to take on that many darkspawn, all armoured and supported by a magic-user?” asked Daveth.
Neria ignored him.
“Jory, move left and charge the Emissary. Some of the other 'spawn will try to break your charge. Fend them off and go on, don’t engage too long with them. Alistair, do the same from the right. Daveth, we need covering fire. Try to take out any darkspawn who try to attack Alistair and Jory,” she said, her voice quiet but commanding.
Alistair and Daveth nodded. Jory had a protest to lodge.
“And what will you be doing, elf?”
With a beatific smile, the elf replied, “Winning.”
With a grimace, and certainly against his better judgement, Alistair ran. It was easier with his splintmail than it would have been with full plate like Jory wore, but it was difficult all the same to pick up any speed. A Genlock rushed at him from the right. He elbowed the creature off with all his strength. Another aimed a knife thrust from his left. An arrow from Daveth hit it – somewhere, he did not see exactly where – and the danger was gone. He saw the atmosphere darken as the Emissary threw a spell towards Jory. The Knight tried to side step but it was no use, a spell, by its very nature, almost always hit. A Hurlock raised an axe at Alistair. He ducked, the blade swung over him. He thrust with his shield hand, pushing back the Hurlock. A Genlock advanced on him, but was taken out by a blast of electricity. He was almost on the bridge now. The Emissary had run back to the other side of the river, but turned now to deal with him. Alistair pointed his sword at the creature. His Templar training took over and he struck, dealing only the faintest cut. But he knew he had done what he needed to, what the Templars did best – removed its shield spells. Then the Emissary responded, and Alistair felt his skin burn as he fell, crashing to the wooden floor of the bridge. A fireball? The creature had cast a fireball this close to itself? That was suicide. He could see the Emissary thrown back, falling a clear ten feet away, twitching.
As his eyes closed, he saw her through the flames, dull gold robes around her waist, two strips of cotton crossing at and covering her breasts, skin glistening with sweat, hands raised. A cooling breeze seemed to take away the smoke and her hand – it must have been her hand – was on his cheek. He heard the thrum of arrows pick out staggering, stunned darkspawn. He and Jory had been the distractions. The magnets, bunching the darkspawn in one place for Neria to destroy with a single fireball.
“Will my pretty face be scarred for life?” he murmured, eyes still closed.
“No more than mine,” he heard her say. “You aren't even singed, Ser Knight.”
And then he opened his eyes and stood, to his own surprise, completely unhurt. Around him he saw corpses of Darkspawn, one, two, three...he counted more than nine. Eleven. Daveth was helping Jory to his feet. They were barely scratched.
“What did you do?” he asked, awestruck.
“Flame blast,” she smiled. “Why use a fireball when a controlled flame does the job just as well? All I needed was for them all to be in a single arc and I – well, I let go.”
“Well, that settles it. You plan battle strategy from now on.”
She laughed and bowed. Daveth and Jory were laughing too.
“I must confess, I thought this would be my last battle,” said Jory.
“I must confess, you should have more faith in yourself, Ser Jory,” said Neria graciously. “You took out three hurlocks before the emissary’s spell got you.”
“I could hardly tell,” he admitted, and looked at her, full in the face, with neither contempt nor guilt, but admiration.
The little group looked toward each other, and then, for the first time since they had set out, smiled.
“Do you think they can see us?”
“Not yet. But it’s open ground from here to the Warden outpost.”
Neria had asked the question, and Alistair had answered it. They had been going for two hours over uneven terrain after crossing the bridge held by the darkspawn. After finding an old Chasind campsite and raiding it for weapons and inadvertently summoning an ancient demon, Neria, at least was more than ready to get this over with. They could see the outpost clearly now, outer walls standing in the front, but crumbling on the far side that overlooked the marshy water. She could even make out the interior, broken stone walls and floors, trees and bushes growing tables and chairs must once have been.
But they were forty yards at least from those walls, at the bottom of an incline, and between them were six darkspawn, well-spaced out, keeping a look out to the ground below.
“If Alistair and I rush at them as we did at the bridge, can you take them out again?” asked Jory.
Neria shook her head.
“They are too far from one another to line up quickly, and I think two of them have crossbows. No, we will need to try something else,” Alistair explained.
It was still light out here in the Wilds, though she knew it would be getting dark soon. There was no way they could try to sneak past under cover of darkness, not with Alistair and Jory in their heavy armour. If they did not move soon, they would have to return to the abandoned Chasind camp for the night.
“I might have a plan,” she said, “Daveth, do you trust me?”
He gave her a peculiar look, but nodded. She could see a flock of ravens flying overhead, circling. She wondered if the creatures feasted on darkspawn carcasses in addition to the humans. Was that how the animals became infected with the Blight-sickness, or did it merely accelerate the process? She thought about the whining dog back in Ostagar for whom she had picked and packed several of the medicinal flowers as the kennel-master had requested her. Somewhere in that flock above, she was sure, was the orange-eyed raven that had been with them almost from the moment they had entered the Wilds. Well, it was time to see if the Maker was going to reward the bird’s apparent loyalty.
“Daveth,” she said. “Do you think you could take down a raven with your arrows?”
“A raven? Yes, fairly easily.”
“Good. I need you to kill one. Alistair, Jory, you will follow me and when I turn, abandon me and make for the ruins, killing any darkspawn in your way.”
“We are not abandoning you,” said Alistair.
“You said you trusted me, so you will,” said Neria. “Daveth, you will stay here after you have killed the raven and then nock another arrow, keeping it aimed at me. At all times, at me. When I shout, you release it.”
“At you?” he frowned.
“At me, yes. And now, take down that bird.”
She watched as Daveth drew the bowstring back, took careful aim, and released. A raven – or was it a crow? – came hurtling down, while the others shrieked and flew in all directions. It accomplished what she wanted – it made the darkspawn leave their positions and look towards the skies. In an instant she had shot off a fireball at the closest genlock. It was thrown back and lay on the ground, quite still. Neria ran, Alistair and Jory behind. A crossbow bolt sped towards her, but she had seen it coming and swerved, right then left, avoiding one and then another. A Hurlock was running at her with a raised axe – she bent and unleased a cone of cold. It stood frozen solid. She ran on, and Alistair’s shield bashed the frozen body to pieces. Another darkspawn, a Genlock this time, and she hurled a flame blast right into its face. It was not lethal, but it threw the creature back long enough for Jory to run it through.
Neria doubled around, leaving Jory and Alistair behind and ran back down the incline now, three darkspawn just behind her. She was fast, and the ‘spawn were between her and the two Knights, but that was all right, it was all as she wanted it to be.
A few yards more, just a few.
They were almost there.
“Daveth, now!” she shouted, and dropped flat to the ground.
His arrow was unerring, and took out the first genlock, piercing it through the chest, sending it staggering. Neria rolled to her right and unleased a powerful flame blast right in the face of the last remaining Hurlock. Both creatures were maimed and struggling, and by the time Neria was back on her feet, Daveth had sent a succession of arrows through their bodies to ensure they did not stir again.
He laughed as he came up to her, and they gave each other a brief, triumphant hug before going on towards the warden ruins. Jory and Alistair had finished off the big Hurlock, and though Jory seemed to have taken a slight injury he was still standing.
Together, the four passed the outer walls. Little remained inside, nothing but fallen walls and stray stones marking where rooms and barracks might once have been.
“There – that ornate chest over there must be where the Treaties are!” said Alistair, pointing excitedly.
They picked up pace, their footsteps echoing through halls abandoned since the withdrawal of the Ferelden monarchy from this outpost hundreds of years ago. Above them the crows seemed to have returned and were cawing as they circled, a few settling on the walls and pillars that remained.
Neria saw it first, for she came to a stop before the others. But only by a few steps, for the others stopped too. The top of the chest was cracked open, a gaping hole shaped like an arrowhead on the top.
There was nothing inside. No treaties. Nothing at all.
That was when the raven – the raven, the one with the orange eyes, swooped down towards a mostly-intact staircase to their left, and transformed into the most striking woman Neria had ever seen outside of her own reflection.
“Well, well,” said the apparition. “What have we here?”
[Anything you might recognise from playing Dragon Age: Origins is (c) BioWare. This work is not intended to earn any profit or make any money.]