CHAPTER FOUR - GLIMPSES OF THE PAST
CHAPTER FIVE - PLAYING GAMES
CHAPTER SIX - UNDERSTANDING
CHAPTER SEVEN - HEALING AND LOSS
CHAPTER EIGHT - MISSION'S END
CHAPER NINE - KINGS, DOGS AND DECISIONS
CHAPTER TEN - IN THE CHAPEL
CHAPTER FIVE - PLAYING GAMES
CHAPTER SIX - UNDERSTANDING
CHAPTER SEVEN - HEALING AND LOSS
CHAPTER EIGHT - MISSION'S END
CHAPER NINE - KINGS, DOGS AND DECISIONS
CHAPTER TEN - IN THE CHAPEL
Chapter Eleven: The Last of the Wardens
“What's she doing here?”
Neria knew that voice – and that smug face – all too well. Senior Enchanter Uldred, who had been easily the most unpleasant presence in the Tower, barring some of the more fanatical Templars. As the ranking mage in the contingent at Ostagar, he was representing them in this council.
“She is here at my invitation, Senior Enchanter,” said Cailan mildly.
“Why don't we call in some camp followers as well? Make it a regular party?” muttered the Revered Mother.
“Isn't it nice when mages and the Chantry get along?” said Neria with a sunny smile. Both Duncan and Cailan chuckled.
The darkspawn horde had been sighted in the early hours of morning, as Duncan hd predicted they would. All of Ostagar had come to life, soldiers and Wardens, mages and Ash Warriors, even the mabari hounds seemed to have an expectant air about them.
Over by the ruined Chapel, final strategies were being drawn. Loghain had worked out the battle plan, which was more or less the same as the one they had discussed over dinner the night before her Joining. A pincer attack of sorts, Neria supposed. The King and the Wardens would break the Horde's assault on the Fortress itself, drawing them deeper and deeper into the valley below Ostagar, while Loghain and the bulk of the forces under the King's banner would be held back in abeyance to flank and crush them from behind, from their elevated position to the west.
“Timing is of the essence. The beacon in the Tower of Ishal must be lit in time so the Teyrn's forces know when to move in,” Ser Cauthrien was saying.
“I have my men in the Tower, they will take care of it. The Wardens on the ground must give the signal clearly,” said Loghain.
“If it's that important, we should send our best,” said Cailan. “Duncan, send Alistair with Neria here to the Tower to ensure it gets lit.”
“Me?” Neria looked up, startled.
“With Alistair, yes. This is too important a job to leave to ordinary soldiers,” said Cailan.
She was about to protest, when she caught Duncan's eye and held her tongue. Uldred argued against the King's choice, as did Loghain, but the King held firm. They disbanded moments after. In the distance, they could hear the booming of the darkspawn drums, their unholy cries.
Neria scampered, trying to keep up with Duncan.
“Duncan, what was that about?” she asked.
“The King has given you an important task, Neria,” replied the Commander.
“But...will Alistair and I be involved in the fighting then?”
“Not if the fighting goes well.”
They were near Duncan's tent now. He barked orders to some of his Grey Warden lieutenants, who left to prepare for the battle. Finally, she was left with Alistair and Duncan. Then he told the former Templar the task the King had assigned to them.
If Neria had been surprised, Alistair was furious.
“What? I won’t be in the battle?”
“This is by the King’s personal request, Alistair,” said Duncan. “If the beacon is not lit, the Teyrn’s men won’t know when to charge.”
“So he needs two Grey Wardens standing up there, holding a torch, just in case?” Alistair asked, switching from outrage to sarcasm.
“That is not your choice,” replied Duncan. “If King Cailain wishes that Grey Wardens should be there to ensure that the beacon is lit, then the Grey Wardens will be there. We must do whatever it takes to defeat the darkspawn, exciting or not.”
“I get it, I get it,” nodded Alistair. “But just so you know, if the King asks me to put on a dress and dance the remigold, I am drawing the line, darkspawn or not.”
“I don’t know, Alistair,” said Neria, smiling, wondering how this man had managed to make her smile at all, “It might make for a good distraction.”
“Me, shimmying down the darkspawn front lines in a dress? Sure, we could kill them while they roll around laughing.”
Duncan rolled his eyes and gave a massive, audible sigh.
“The Tower of Ishal is on the other side of the bridge above the curtain wall.,” he said. “You’ll need to cross the gorge and go up towards the Tower entrance – it should take you no more than an hour. From there you will overlook the entire battlefield. I shall signal you, or one of the other Wardens will, when the time is right for Loghain to bring in his forces. Alistair will know what to look for.”
“Can we join the fighting later?” asked Neria, hopefully.
“Stay in the Tower with the King’s men and guard it. If we need you, we will send word.”
“And if the Archdemon appears?” asked Alistair.
“What is an Archdemon, anyway?” asked Neria.
“You’ve seen it,” muttered Alistair.
For a moment, Neria narrowed her eyes and looked at him. Then realisation dawned.
“The dragon,” said Duncan. “An Old God, the Chantry says, but whether that is true or no, it is a dragon, and the only way to end a Blight is to kill the Archdemon driving the darkspawn forth.”
“And how does one kill…” began Neria.
“If an Archdemon appears, you leave it to us,” said Duncan. “I don’t want to see any heroics from either of you.”
They nodded, reluctantly. They could already hear the darkspawn war-drums in the distance, growing closer with each passing moment. Neria tensed. Any moment now, their own army would sound its trumpets, calling all the soldiers to arms.
“I must join the others,” said Duncan, turning to leave. “From now on, you two are on your own. Remember, you are both Grey Wardens. I expect you to be worthy of that title.”
“Duncan,” called out Alistair. The Commander turned. “May the Maker watch over you.”
“May he watch over us all,” said Duncan, and then walked away.
They stood in silence as he neared the King’s tent, and then went out of sight.
“Did Cailan bid you farewell?” asked Alistair, as they too began to walk, slowly, towards the bridge.
“He did, just before the council with Uldred and Loghain.”
They were past the royal encampment, Loghain’s tent and the King’s. Neria’s satchel was in there. She signed to Alistair to wait and ran in to fetch her potion-belt. Her staff she already had strapped to her back. She left her precious robes there, safe next to his bed. She was wearing the green robe with slits to show off her stomach and upper back, a good piece that allowed her to run at speed. She cast a lingering glance at the bed she had shared with Cailan and then came back out.
“He wants to keep you safe,” said Alistair. “He still means to make you his mistress, Grey Warden or no. That’s why we’re going to the Tower of Ishal to do a job any idiot with a pair of hands and eyes can perform.”
“I told him that I wouldn’t be any such thing until the Archdemon was defeated.”
“Well, from the size of the horde our Scouts report, who knows but that the dragon may show itself,” grumbled Alistair. “And then it will be over, with no glory for you or me. You had to go and seduce the dumb sod.”
“I did no such thing!” Neria lashed out. “He took – carried me to his tent! And for that matter, he asked you to be with me by name. What's it about you that's so special, Alistair?”
“My wit and charm is irreplaceable, of course,” said Alistair.
They were approaching the gated entrance to the curtain wall.
“Liar. You must be heir to some title – something. Who are you really, Alistair?”
The trumpets sounded. A great shout went up from the ramparts of the castle as well as the from the valley below them.
“My Lady,” said Alistair, drawing his sword, “I am heir to the position of scullery-maid at Redcliffe Castle, where I was born a bastard with my father unknown while my mother died giving birth to me. However, as I would most assuredly look terrible in a scullery maid's dress, I prefer to remain a Grey Warden.”
He smiled at her. She couldn't resist a laugh.
Then they broke into a run.
Duck, run, sway. The distance was a long one to crossing the bridge to the other side. The King’s men manned the wall, firing arrows down at the horde. A ballista jerked near the middle of the wall, spitting fire below.
“Look at the bloody size of it!” gasped Neria, sighting the horde.
“Keep running,” said Alistair, pulling her by the arm.
But she had looked, she could not help it. Ostagar's walls were about fifty feet high, and looking down all she could see was an endless sea of flares held by darkspawn. It seemed to extend well back, towards the Wilds. The Wardens' forces were dwarfed by comparison. She could make them out, pressed against the wall, a Chantry sister walking past, giving them a final benediction. Their only advantage was the support from the fortress itself, and from the archers and mages stationed behind. She knew Wynne and Uldred and Bargoah and the rest would be there, fighting for the cause, for their country and for all of humanity.
They were half-way across. She thought she had glimpsed her Cailan, resplendent in plate armour painted with gold. It was a comfort to know Duncan was close to him, though - she had seen the bearded man, white armour on dark skin just like hers.
It was a soldier on the ramparts who had spoken, or rather shouted. Moments later, she saw them – great balls of fire flying through the twilight sky, right at them. The darkspawn were firing stones, huge stones, somehow lit on fire – somewhere, Neria's intellectual side was already working on how that might have been managed by the darkspawn emissaries – and it was clear that Ostagar was no longer equipped to face that. Once upon a time the dwarf-built fortress has withstood the successive assaults by the Chasind, but the barbarians had never had siege weapons.
Two stones flew over them, crashing back towards the snow and stone behind them. Then another one crashed at the stone in front of them and both Neria and Alistair were thrown to the ground.
“How did they get siege weapons?” said Neria, dragging herself to her elbows.
“Mindless horde...aren’t supposed to have advanced weapons…no idea,” gasped Alistair.
They got to their feet. Four bowmen had been manning the walls. Three now lay prone before them, partly buried under the rubble The last limped back to position and drew his bow. She had seen the three men dying and kept going. Seeing the fourth, with his leg shattered, leaning against the parapet, still firing an arrow, for love of his King and Country, was too much for her. Neria shuddered, her body wracked by sobs.
“This is war,” said Alistair. “We press ahead.”
They pressed ahead, stepping through brambles, dead bodies, severed limbs and fallen weapons. Smoke filled the air. They reached the barricade that led to the Tower of Ishal. Neria and Alistair stopped. The air was full of smoke. Nonetheless, Neria took a deep breath. In a day, the air would be putrid. But now, she needed to hold herself together.
“Darkspawn! They are everywhere!”
It was a soldier, a foot-soldier, wielding a mace. Behind him was another, with a crossbow. She did not have to be particularly perceptive to know that they were fleeing.
“What do you mean, man?” said Alistair.
“In the Tower,” said the man, panting. “They broke through the lower levels in the Tower of Ishal, they've taken the tower, the bloody...Tower. Our men are dead, so many…dead.”
“Hold on, hold...you're saying the Tower has fallen?” said Neria.
“Fallen,” repeated the soldier.
Neria pushed her hair back from her forehead and stood straight.
“Then you’re coming with me. We are taking it back.”
Alistair looked at her. She was a head shorter than him, but she was standing ramrod straight, straighter than her long wooden staff. Her hair was tied into a pony’s tail, flowing down to her back in gentle waves, her blue eyes sparkled with anger, and that skin, smooth and dark, seemed to smoulder with a slow fire. In that moment, he had little doubt that she would, actually, take the Tower.
“Let's go, then,” he said.
With those words, the killing began. They raced to the courtyard, where Neria’s fireball cleared a path for him, allowing him to run up a slope with the crossbowman. From the vantage point they lured and dispatched nearly a dozen darkspawn before leaving the injured behind and rushing towards the tower itself. The entrance was held by three Hurlocks, one a particularly large brute, but with Neria sending down ice-bolts to slow them down, Alistair and the man with the mace were able to hack or bludgeon them all to pieces. They pushed open the gates to find the armoury occupied by a Genlock emissary and lined with tripwires. In one sweeping spell, Neria set fire to half the room, and Alistair and the guards dealt with the darkspawn who rushed in while the elf and the emissary faced off.
Their own battles won, Alistair looked on as the two wielders of magic used their arts on each other, the green, bilious light from the genlock’s twisted staff a contrast to the smooth orange glow on Neria’s. Soon enough, the woman prevailed over the monster, and on they went.
On, round, up, past holes and locked doors, traps and fortifications. The darkspawn had taken the Tower with ease and established themselves there, and the Wardens had to go over it, room by room, floor by floor.
Time ceased to matter in Alistair’s mind. Only the heat of battle remained, as his sword and shield spoke, as Neria’s staff sang. Only great good luck and the layout of the tower, which allowed them to attack and subdue their opponents in small groups, kept them alive, kept them winning, even as the minutes melted away.
How many darkspawn had they killed climbing up? He had lost count a long time ago. Emissaries, hurlocks, genlocks...they had taken all that was thrown at them and cut through. He was in awe of Neria. From the base of the Tower to this, the sixth level, she had marshalled them – a crossbow, a mace and a sword – masterfully. Fire, ice and pure arcane energy was deployed to devastating effect.
His own sword she had rendered a flaming blade, cutting through armour and gristle alike. The soldiers with them were average fighters, Jory and Daveth had certainly been more capable, but Neria was managing them well. She was even using the occasional healing spell to keep them going despite their injuries.
“It's a big tower,” said Neria, panting, as they climbed up another set of stairs.
Tired, bloodied, spattered with gore, a naked steel sword in his hand, Alistair still managed a smile.
“The beacon should be behind that door,” he said.
“How late are we?” she asked.
“If the Wardens are still holding out, we may still be in time,” said Alistair.
“It's a small room, the signal room. Can't be too many of the creatures in there,” said the crossbowman hopefully.
They ascended the steps. It was silent inside. Somehow this disturbed Alistair.
“Shield up, Neria,” he muttered.
She nodded, and he saw the faint shimmer as her arcane shield surrounded her, without breaking her stride.
Alistair pushed the door open.
What confronted him made him sick to the stomach.
Neria stood rooted to the ground. Floor. Tiles. Whatever that was under the pretty silk sandals she wore.
Her eyes, always so fine, large and beautiful, were goggling.
The creature before them was hideous. Ten feet tall at the very least, with cracked grey skin, armour consisting of bits of leather thrown together seemingly at random, horns sticking out of its head, tiny little eyes gleaming with malice...
An ogre. She was looking at an ogre.
She had heard Alistair talk about them, but had not imagined they would be quite so real, so horrible, close up. But even that was not why she was frozen in her place, or why Alistair was retching, or the crossbowman had fainted, or the other soldier was, she strongly suspected, soiling his breeches. It was eating. In its right hand was a soldier. A dead soldier. A dead soldier, with no head. A dead soldier whose head was somewhere in the ogre’s gullet, and it was...burping – noisily, and if such a thing was possible, malevolently.
It threw away the eaten man's body, or what was left of it.
The mace-wielding soldier turned and fled.
The ogre grunted, reared, and then began to advance on them. Somehow, Neria stood her ground. To her relief, Alistair did too.
“Cut the leg and run left,” she said. Then she ran right.
She was behind the ogre now. Alistair's flaming sword cut through its leg and then he rolled, barely escaping its grasping hand – a huge, gnarled hand – and made it to the other end of the small, circular room.
The ogre roared, and grabbed the crossbowman who was stirring on the floor. Neria took a deep breath – stink notwithstanding – and then unleashed the full fury of her power into a paralysing spell.
The ogre stood rooted.
Alistair ran at it, jumped and plunged his sword into its back.
It moved, shaking off the spell, slapping Alistair to the ground. She watched with a grimace as the Templar was thrown halfway across the chamber, the sword still embedded into its skin.
Ice was her next weapon, a chilling bolt aimed at the ogre’s feet.
It slowed, but still marched inexorably towards her. Still, it was not going after Alistair, that was what mattered. She ran again. Not straight, no. Zig and zag, keep it distracted. It swiped at her. Thorns and brambles and fire had burned the edges of her robes. If it had been its original length, she would have been caught. She shot an arcane bolt at it, it was a distraction again, no more, barely causing the creature to wince. She saw Alistair moving out of the corner of her eye.
Her mana was low. She needed a potion, but there was no time to stop and open a vial. She saw Alistair run at it, weapon-less, only a shield in hand. She lost her footing then, stumbling, almost to the floor. The ogre's filthy fingers, each one the size of her own shapely arm, closed around her waist.
Alistair crashed into the ogre, shield first. He was spatially aware enough to know not to hit the ogre squarely from behind, coming upon it in a swinging motion from the right. Even Alistair's strength was not enough to topple the creature, but it did stagger, thanks to the cut on its leg and the stab to the back he had inflicted before and the burns inflicted on the skin. Neria was able to lurch out of harm's way. Almost equally importantly, he got his hand on the hilt of the sword that was stuck in its back and was able to pull it out just before the ogre swung around, dragging him a few feet.
He saw Neria un-stopper a vial of mana potion and pour all of it down her throat. The ogre struck the floor, sending Alistair toppling to his back. Neria was thrown as well, just as she was about to get back up, but she pointed her staff from the floor at the ogre's face and let fly a cone of fire. The creature may as well have been made of stone for all the good it did. Neria rolled again, avoiding the impact of the ogre’s foot. Alistair stuck out his sword wildly, nicking its hand, but the creature's grip was on him, pressing his armour, crushing him, squeezing, killing....and then a blast of electricity hit the ogre’s head, two forks of the lightening hitting its gnarled horns.
As a Templar he was trained to identify outpouring of magical energy, and he could sense that Neria had thrown a massive amount of her magic behind the spell. It had been her final play, he was certain, there was no way the little elf could have more to give, and indeed as the flames on his sword burned low, he knew it was so.
The crackle of the lighting from her staff was followed by a crack as the ogre’s right horn split, and blood oozed from its head. With a scream, it dropped Alistair, clutching its head with both hands. Alistair was dazed but conscious, his body wracked with pain, his chest feeling as though it had collapsed in on itself. But then suddenly he was awash with a cooling sensation, as though the pain was being driven away by a gentle breeze.
With the last of her magic, Neria had cast a healing spell at Alistair. He saw her outstretched hand drop to the side and the elf herself fall to the ground, completely and totally drained. His flaming sword became an ordinary blade again.
As Alistair got on his feet, he saw the ogre bellow with pain and rage, threshing wildly. He himself felt good, his pain was rapidly disappearing, and he felt as though Neria were a part of him for a moment, warm and comforting. He stood and raised his sword.
The ogre was staggering. Alistair could see a trickle of blood drip in a line between its right horn and ear. It was not a time to hesitate. With a cry, he leaped onto the ogre, feet burying into its stomach, pushing his sword through its chest, then drawing it out, ignoring its screams, thrusting again into its neck, and finally hauling itself over the leather patch that it had over its shoulder and plunging the sword through its ribs from behind.
It toppled, rather than fell, Alistair still on its back, face forward. He held on to the sword’s hilt as the ogre crashed forward to the floor, and rolled off as it landed. The creature was dead. There was not even a twitch from its rock-like, enormous body.
He ran over to where the Elf lay, pressing his healing potion to her lips.
“Is it over?” she asked, eyes fluttering open.
“It's dead,” he said. “Your spell cracked open its skull. I delivered the killing blow while it laid itself open to attack. We did it together.”
“The other two men?”
“It crushed the bowman to death. The other one – who knows where he fled to.”
“The signal! It's not too late, is it? We need to light the beacon!”
“Light it,” said Alistair. “Pray to the Maker we are not too late.”
She pulled out another vial of potion. Alistair limped over to the door to the outer balcony. The effects of Neria’s spell were wearing off. She had barely been able to make it work for a minute or two, but it had been enough, that was what mattered. He was sore, battered, and his ribs felt like a touch would break them, but he was in one piece, and functioning.
He supposed he had the Elf to thank for that. Behind him, he saw her direct a flame blast at the signal beacon.
From the balcony he looked down upon the valley.
Duncan was right, from here they could command a view of the entire battlefield. To his relief, the Warden's line still held. He could make out the King and Duncan with the rest of the Warden's, in dire straits, but still standing. They were sore pressed, their number seemed no more than half of what they had started with, but they still held, which meant that their fight to the top of the Tower had not been too late.
The signal fire lighted up above him.
He could see the Elf lean against the wall, exhausted. Narrowing his eyes, he looked towards the west, from where he knew Loghain and Ser Cauthrien would soon emerge, sowing the darkspawn ranks with death and confusion. Close to seven thousand men lay in wait with Loghain, of whom fully a thousand were armoured knights. The size of the horde was immense, of course, far larger than anything he had expected, but training made a difference, and leadership too. Under Loghain, he knew the troops of Ferelden would not lose their discipline or courage, whereas the darkspawn lacked the fortitude to hold in the face of a dual onslaught, that too from higher ground. He had seen that happen three times in the course of this campaign itself, after all.
The minutes ticked by. Nearly all the horde's siege weapons had been destroyed. Up on the Fortress' curtain wall, a few archers still held on bravely, firing down, hitting almost every time. Nobody was manning the ballista, though.
But where was Loghain?
He saw an ogre close on the Wardens below. A mabari leapt in its path, but the ogre simply brushed it aside. He wondered if it was Neria's little fellow. What did she call him? Biscuit. Silly name for a dog.
But where was Loghain?
Cailan, bright and golden, with his massive two-handed broadsword, charged at the ogre, the steel gleaming in the moonlight. Alistair had to clutch the railing of the balcony as he saw his King picked up off the ground as easily as the King used to pick up Neria, and crushed – squashed – pulped – in his armour. He let out a cry of horror as Cailan's body was flung aside like a rag doll.
In that instant, Ferelden was without a King, and where was Loghain?
He watched as Duncan raced towards the ogre, a blade in each hand, and leaped at it, plunging a sword and dagger through its chest. THAT was how to kill an ogre. Speed. The Warden Commander twisted the blades into the ogre's body, and fell with it, easily and gracefully, far quicker and easier than Alistair had in his kill. He could make out Duncan's armour as he then raced to the fallen King. He thought he saw Duncan look towards the west.
Where was the main body of the army? Where was Loghain?
In his heart, Alistair realised he knew the answer. He looked, and thought he saw the lights from their flares move away, rather than towards the battlefield.
He saw Duncan, the man he had come to regard as a second father, as his mentor, as his leader, set upon by five darkspawn.
He saw him hacked to death.
He saw the Grey Warden line break, each of them slaughtered before his eyes.
“Neria,” he shouted. “Neria, come here – this – you must see this, we need to go there, we need to get in the fighting, we must go down there, save them, do something…”
He turned, to see more darkspawn, in the Beacon chamber, coming up the stairs.
Three arrows flew, and three arrows pierced the body of the most beautiful creature he had ever known, one through her arm, another through her belly and the third above her groin. She lay on the floor, her eyes closed. She had had beautiful eyes, he told himself.
He fell to his knees and looked back over the railing at the battlefield. It was unmistakable now. The remainder of the King's Army – the seven thousand-odd men marched, back onto the Imperial Highway, away from the fighting.
There was Loghain.
There was the hero of Ferelden.
The darkspawn closed upon Alistair. He drew his sword. He was the last of the Grey Wardens, and he would give the 'spawn a fight to remember.
[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.]
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