Happy Holidays to anyone reading this!
Chapter One Hundred Twenty-Two: Basements are Bad
“The Wardens found more darkspawn than they expected inside the Keep’s basement,” Nate informed me. “There are apparently multiple camps within the tunnels, many on the inside of the barrier door. The Commander assumes that they were assembling there for the assault you warned us about. They were apparently not prepared to attack, but the first skirmish got them a lot of attention. He’s asked for reinforcements; he’s not sure they’ll be able to hold the tunnels.”
I gasped, and Nathaniel stepped over to me, gesturing at a chair like he thought I’d need to sit down. “Varel’s gone to mobilise the rest of the Legion and the remaining soldiers. It’s going to be okay. Maverlies said no one was badly injured.” He left the obvious ‘yet’ to his statement unspoken.
I shook my head at the proffered chair. “I need my armour. I’ll meet you in the courtyard. But Nate…don’t assume the darkspawn in the tunnels are the only ones. Leave some soldiers at the gates in case there’s more. They’ve surprised us before, and the Architect may know I’m here. We don’t really know what he’s capable of.”
Nathaniel nodded, but appeared to be opening his mouth to say something. I didn’t give him a chance to object, racing away to my room to gear up.
My armour had been cleaned and hung on its stand; briefly grateful for efficient servants, I scrambled into the set of blood-red leather, cursing at the time it took, strapping my daggers to my hips and patting my helmet into place. I left again at a run, and met a now-armed Nathaniel in the courtyard organising squads of soldiers.
He had closed the Vigil’s gates, I noticed; they’d only help so much in their sagging state, but archers had been placed on the walls, split between watching outside for more darkspawn, and watching the basement door. I wonder if those gates will keep more darkspawn out of the Vigil, or in? Soldiers were hastily erecting barricades around the basement door, and armed men seemed to be occupying every open spot in the courtyard.
Nate gestured to me to join him, and I headed over to see what was going on.
“The Legion will be headed in as soon as they’re all gathered. I’m setting up rotations for the soldiers so we can ensure adequate coverage for as long as necessary. I’ll be sending down the first group in a few minutes. Would you care to take command of the gates? After the Blight, you’ve probably got as much experience as any of the captains.”
I shook my head. “I’m going down. For reasons I don’t have time to explain, the Wardens are going to need me.”
“You have to let your husband do his job, Sierra. I know you want to make sure he’s safe…”
I interrupted him. “This isn’t about that. Yes, I want him safe. But Nate, I have specific skills when it comes to the darkspawn. I can sense them. I’m going down. I just want to do a check at the gates and make sure there aren’t any coming over land.”
Without waiting for his response, I jogged up the slight incline and climbed a ladder leading up to the ramparts above the courtyard. I made my way to the section closest to the gates, closing my eyes and trying to listen to my internal taint sensation. I could feel vague tingling, though I couldn’t be sure whether it was wardens or darkspawn, but coming from below – nothing from outside the gates.
I made my way back down, signalling to Nate that I was going to go into the basement. He shook his head and beckoned, but I ignored him and slipped through the door with a group of Legionnaires heading down. I heard a shout as the door slammed behind me, but ignored it too. If he thinks anything is going to keep me from going to Alistair, he’s got another thing coming. I raced down a set of stairs, through an empty dungeon, and down a long winding corridor behind Trevian and a handful of Legionnaires, barely noticing my surroundings. What I did see didn’t line up particularly well with my recollection from the game, though there were multiple doorways and halls we didn’t enter, so I couldn’t be sure.
I hope someone found and re-killed the undead I suspect are down here somewhere.
It took several agonising minutes to wind through the tunnels in the labyrinthine basement; whoever had built the catacombs down there – the Avvar, if I remembered correctly – deserved to be slapped upside the head. We were well outside of the Vigil’s walls and the tunnels just kept on going, periodically descending deeper and deeper underground.
The sound of fighting was the first sign we were getting close, the clanging of metal against metal echoing down the corridor. I pushed my way through the clump of dwarves as they stopped to get their shields in place and draw their weapons; I’d seen the shield walls the Legion seemed to favour, and there was no question they were effective, but I wasn’t going to waste the time getting there. I didn’t need protection from the darkspawn; I just needed to find my husband.
One of the Legionnaires shouted as I pushed past them, and Fargrim, the arrogant one, reached out to grab my arm.
“Get behind us, you daft woman! Rushing in there is only going to get you killed.”
I shook him off and pressed forward to the sound of dwarven cursing and the clattering of shields rapidly snapping into position behind me. I ignored it, racing around the last couple of twists, eagerly looking for my husband and my friends ahead of me.
I hesitated only for a moment when I finally came upon them. Alistair and a couple of Legionnaires were holding off a large group of darkspawn, primarily hurlocks with a few genlocks scattered throughout, with the support of the two mages and Leliana with her bow. Anders froze darkspawn into grisly statues, which Solona smashed with magically hurled chunks of rock; Leliana picked off strays and stragglers with precision.
The other Legionnaires and soldiers, several of them looking somewhat worse for wear, worked frantically trying to move debris – rock, smashed furniture, whatever they could get their hands on – to block the main part of the passage, trying to limit how many of the tainted creatures could approach at once. When someone was hurt, another Legionnaire would trade out with him while Anders patched up the wounds as best he could without using up his mana reserves. Alistair looked uninjured, moving easily, spattered with black darkspawn blood but none of it the red colour of his own.
I fell onto the darkspawn on Alistair’s unprotected flank; he grunted in surprise, but saved his breath as we effortlessly fell back into our fighting pattern, instinctively moving together and slaughtering the darkspawn trapped by the temporary barrier swinging into place. The rest of the Legion weren’t far behind me, and the onslaught caused the rest of the creatures to fall back even further, giving the beleaguered group a bit of a breather.
I’d sort of forgotten how much I hated the Deep Roads; if for no other reason, I hated how it messed with my darkspawn senses. There could have been ten or a hundred darkspawn in the tunnel ahead; I concentrated on trying to feel them, but the corruption in the very stone stymied me. I sighed.
One of the wounded Legionnaires began piling darkspawn bodies for burning as I turned to examine my husband critically. I pulled a rag out of a pouch attached to my armour, offering it to Alistair to wipe ichor off his face. He used it and then pulled me in for a quick, chaste kiss.
“Whatever are you doing here?”
“You thought I’d let you keep all the fun to yourself?”
He groaned and squeezed me harder. I thought he was going to say something about me staying safe, and was prepared to pinch his ear in retaliation, but he surprised me. “Thanks,” he whispered, before we were interrupted by an irate dwarf – or rather, a couple of them.
“What in the name of the Ancestors do you think you were doing, pushing ahead alone?” Fargrim demanded.
At the same time, Sigrun, who’d been fighting on Alistair’s other side, turned to growl at my husband, “You should have traded out when it was your turn, Commander. Doesn’t do anyone any good if you’re too exhausted to fight later.”
I chuckled, and Alistair grinned beside me. He assured Fargrim that I was in no danger from darkspawn and didn’t need a babysitter, while I pulled Sigrun aside and quietly explained about Grey Warden stamina.
“Stamina or not, no one can fight for an hour straight without paying for it,” she whispered urgently. “Everyone else was rotating in and out to get a rest. He needs to pace himself or he’s going to get himself – or someone else - killed.”
“I’ll watch him, I promise.” I sighed. “Honestly, though, if he’d backed off you might not have been able to hold out. No one else who was down here uses a shield?”
We had a brief conversation about Legion tactics, which largely involved keeping the shield-wall members together. So when the group had to split, typically the rogues and two-handed weapon fighters went one way, while the shield warriors went the other. Sigrun’s group consisted of dual-wielders and two-handers exclusively. And we’d sent Bel and Rolan – the only two other shield-wielding Wardens – to patrol the Pilgrim’s Path.
After a discussion with Trevian and Fargrim, Alistair clapped his hands together to get everyone’s attention. He pointed to a group of four soldiers huddled together, looking frightened. I did too, my first time encountering darkspawn. The four of them were probably barely twenty, by their look.
“You, I need you to block this passageway completely. Use anything you can find; I’ll deal with the Arl later if he has a problem with it. Leave a gap just large enough to fit one human through at a time. Voldrik can help you. You four,” he pointed at another group of slightly more experienced-looking soldiers, “guard them and the gap. The rest of us are going in as soon as we’ve had a chance to catch our breath. There’s at least another forty or fifty darkspawn down there, and I’m not sure how far away that barrier door is. When the rest of the soldiers arrive, have them slip through the barricade and set up positions on the other side in case we miss any darkspawn. No darkspawn can be allowed to get into the Keep. Understood?”
It was sexy watching ‘Commanding Alistair’ tell everyone what to do. His confidence, so shaky in the original video game, was amazing to watch. I stared at him with hunger in my eyes; he smirked and winked at me when he caught my expression, and I knew it was a promise: later.
He looked around and everyone nodded. The soldiers he’d pointed out headed back down the hall behind me, opening side doors and looking for stuff to use as a barricade. Anders and Solona were already crouching down, checking out any remaining injuries. One of the fresh Legion scouts brought around water skins for those who’d been fighting for a while already, and Alistair drank almost an entire one, wiping his mouth with the back of his gauntlet when he’d gulped as much water as he could hold.
I turned my back to the crowd, lowering my voice so no one else could hear me. “Are you okay?” I rolled my eyes when he automatically nodded. “No, really. You’ve been fighting for a long time; you must be exhausted. Are you really going to be up for this?”
He sighed, rubbing his face. “Don’t have much choice. Besides, I’ve got this.” He reached under the belt I knew he stored small healing potions in, and drew out a tiny yellow vial to show me. “It’s not much, but it’ll keep me on my feet if I get too tired.”
“Alistair, don’t you remember Anders telling you how dangerous stamina potions can be?”
“Only if you use them too often, or take too much. Or if you use them to keep going when you’re injured. It’s just a little one. The only one, I promise.”
“I’ll hold you to that.” I sighed. I couldn’t say much; I had a similar vial tucked into my armour somewhere for emergencies too, along with a spare Lyrium potion and a couple of healing poultices and potions. “What’s the plan?”
My husband looked at me, reluctance warring with necessity clearly on his face. He echoed my sigh. “Do you think you can get past them and see what shape that barrier door is in? We need to close it before more of them start pouring through.”
I nodded, reaching up to touch his cheek softly with my gloved hand. “I’ll be in much less danger on my own than standing with you all.”
“Unless the Architect is there,” he muttered worriedly.
“He’s not there. He wants to kidnap Wardens alive, not kill them. Which isn’t particularly reassuring, I’ll grant you, but he wouldn’t be allowing this sort of an attack if he knew. Too much chance of killing the endless blood suppliers he’s hoping for.”
Alistair shuddered at the mental image, and I smiled wanly. “Get a tiny bit of rest, and get everyone ready. I’m going to go talk to Voldrik about that door. I don’t know what to expect as far as damage goes, but I want to be prepared to close the damn thing if possible.”
“No heroics, Sierra. I mean it. Get a look, and get the void out of there.”
I leaned in for another quick kiss. “I promise.”
I left him to make arrangements with the Legion and the rest of the soldiers, a group of whom had come streaming into the chamber; I had to search for a while before I spotted Voldrik. I hadn’t been introduced to him before, and at first looked vaguely among the Legion dwarves, before spotting the older brunette standing with a couple of the soldiers Alistair had assigned to create a barricade.
He turned and gave me a once over, gaze hovering over my daggers – currently dripping darkspawn ichor – before he made eye contact.
“Aye? And who’re you, then?”
“I’m the…um, well, I’m going to be scouting ahead to see how far we are from that barrier door. I was hoping you could give me a quick lesson on how to close those things, or repair them if necessary. We believe the door was either not quite completed, or possibly damaged.”
“You’re going in there alone? Better you than me, I suppose. I’m not sure I’ll be able to tell you much about it, lass. I’ll have to see it to know what needs fixin’.”
“Alright, but at least tell me the basics? I know how to open one, but not close it.”
He spent a few minutes drawing in the dirt with a finger, showing me how to close a functional barrier door. It didn’t improve my confidence at all. At least I’ll be able to judge the numbers and see what’s waiting on the other side. I nodded my understanding to Voldrik, who clapped his hand on my shoulder sympathetically.
“You get me to the door, I’ll fix it.” He smiled and then turned back to the growing barricade.
I found Alistair talking to Trevian and Fargrim. He turned to me as I approached and forced a smile, eyes tight with stress. “You ready?”
I nodded and leaned in to him briefly, trying to absorb some confidence, before turning away and resolutely walking up to the barrier.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Trevian asked, but I ignored him and took a deep breath, making eye contact one last time with Alistair before ducking through the small gap remaining. I heard an exclamation from behind me in dwarvish, and assumed the Legion commander was swearing; Alistair was answering him, so I put it out of my mind and looked forward instead of back.
The hallway leading into the room we’d fought in continued to lead deeper underground, but to my relief stayed quite wide as far as I could see before curving out of sight. One side of the rough-hewn corridor had darkspawn standing against it at intervals, most of them watching the barricade; I wondered if I was imagining the hungry expressions on their ruined faces. Some of them waited listlessly, while others appeared to be attempting to sharpen weapons or repair their rough armour; all of them ignored me entirely.
I wonder what they’re waiting for?
I edged along the opposite side of the hall, stepping carefully to avoid drawing attention to myself, but it was probably unnecessary. The darkspawn shifted and grunted, the sounds echoing down the hall, and I doubted they’d have heard me if I had fallen, never mind the quiet whisper of a kicked pebble. I’m still not taking any chances. I wondered if the hoots and other vocalizations constituted communication, or if they were just random noise.
I counted twenty-five darkspawn in the corridor visible from the barricade, and slowly crept around the corner to the area previously hidden from sight. There were more darkspawn there, still largely waiting around aimlessly, in a much larger chamber than I’d seen up to that point. The creatures seemed to segregate themselves somewhat by race, to my grim amusement, and a number of hurlocks bunched together staring suspiciously at a slightly larger group of genlocks. A flicker of movement in a back corner informed me there were probably a couple of shrieks hiding there, and the opposite corner even held a massive ogre, currently crouched down on its haunches, disconsolately picking at its massive, pointy teeth with a clawed fingernail.
It was enormous from this close, and a stench, worse than the rest of the Deep Roads, emanated from where it stood. It was wearing scavenged bits of armour almost at random; it had a massive sheet of studded metal wrapped around one forearm, and I wondered, as I stared at it, if it had once been a leg plate from a set of plate armour. It had a leather belt around its waist, another strip of leather wrapped around one shoulder like a bandolier, and some bits of metal wrapped around its powerful bicep and calves. As with most darkspawn, it wore a tattered wrap of cloth around its middle, hiding whatever passed for private parts from view, for which I was grateful.
It took me a moment to note that, beside the ogre, there was a hurlock, and they appeared to be actually talking. I blinked and looked again. The hurlock wore a sheet of chain links over his head like a hood, a thick leather cloak around his shoulders, and a set of apparently well-made chainmail covered the rest of him. His voice was guttural, as he spoke to the enormous ogre, but I couldn’t mistake that the words were in English. Common.
“…the Father demanded. Be leaving the tainted ones to us. We will be sending the signal, and then, destroy all. Yes?”
The ogre grunted, and to my horror, nodded like a person would, before turning away and reaching a lazy hand into a pile of refuse behind him, pulling out a lump of flesh – darkspawn, by the blackened corruption – and beginning to chew on it noisily. At least it didn’t speak. I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t have run away screaming in horror if it turned out the ogre was one of the Architect’s ‘Disciples’. Hopefully even that psychopath sees the problem with ‘liberating’ ogres. The hurlock, who I’d realised must have been ‘the Withered’ from the start of Awakenings, turned away with a look that would have been disgust if a person had worn it, and walked toward the clump of hurlocks I’d seen earlier, growling something unintelligible.
Startled from my horrified fascination with the talking darkspawn, I went the opposite way, hurrying to the back of the room and the next hallway beyond it. There were fewer darkspawn there, and these seemed less disciplined somehow; two of them fought each other over what looked like some damaged leather armour, while the others scratched themselves, laid on the floor apparently sleeping, or just stood around looking bored.
I froze. Beyond them, clearly visible, was a large ring of metal surrounding the corridor entirely. I almost cheered out loud. The door! I couldn’t see the mechanism from where I stood, so I inched closer to see if I could step through. There was a genlock lounging nearby, oblivious to the purpose of the enormous metal structure he was leaning against and to my presence; I held my breath and edged past him, so close he could have touched me without sitting up.
Nothing happened. I snuck through the door, and the darkspawn continued to ignore my presence. I breathed a sigh of relief when I reached the other side and could see the entire door mechanism. There were no more darkspawn in sight, so I spent a few minutes examining the huge apparatus.
I was no expert on dwarven machinery, but it didn’t look good. There were pieces that I was sure should have been attached together that weren’t, and bits of thick wire sticking out at odd angles. The entire door looked somewhat crooked. Whatever was wrong with it, I wasn’t going to be able to fix it.
I swore silently. I’d had visions of being able to close the door myself, cutting off the darkspawn on the other side from their reinforcements. Clenching my teeth in irritation at Rendon Howe – what sort of irresponsible ass left an open Deep Roads entrance in their basement? – I turned to go back, but changed my mind and instead went further in. I need to know how many more darkspawn are waiting down here.
The corridor where the barrier door sat was around a steep corner from whatever lay beyond, and I crept up to the edge, peering beyond. It was dark, more so than most of the Deep Roads, as no lava flowed through. I could tell, by the sound and the way the air felt, that I’d come across a vast chamber, no narrow hallway. The walls of the corridor had been smooth stone, but as far as I could see from where I stood, the cavern was rough-hewn and irregular. I wondered if it had been carved by dwarves or enlarged by darkspawn.
I waited for my eyes to adjust to the dim light; there were specks of brighter light in the distance that, as my vision sharpened, became obvious as campfires. And there were at least a dozen of them spread out for hundreds of feet in front of me. I didn’t know how many darkspawn gathered by each fire, but even if there were only a handful, there were more darkspawn than the Vigil could manage to fight off. The sounds echoing around the cavern made it seem worse than it was, I assumed, but the cacophony made my blood freeze.
Maker’s breath, there could be hundreds of them.