I squeezed his hand and answered, “Definitely.” It was the only time either of us referred to the night before but I was glad for the opportunity to let him know that, regardless of the circumstances and how badly it was slowing us down, I did not regret our exertions. I may well do so in time, but for the moment I was content.
When Sigrun circled back for the third time to check on us I finally called a meal break. Though we knew our approximate destination we needed to decide whether we would press on and take the chance of fighting again before we made camp. I wasn’t sure I could strike hard enough to discourage Ser Pounce-a-Lot much less a more fearsome creature.
We sat together well off the road, a small fire burning before us. As the taint in our blood called to nearby Darkspawn quite as clearly as theirs did to us it was well worth the exposure to have the light and warmth. I spread my map before us and we contemplated what The Architect’s messenger had marked. The smudge he’d made seemed to mark a particular set of ruins within the Wastes, though unsurprisingly his skills with a writing utensil were sorely lacking. It appeared to be no more than two hours’ walk to our north.
We agreed that it would be foolhardy to attack what may well be a fortress after a full day’s march and chewed our hard tack as we chatted amiably, the confrontation put off for one more night. I resolved to get more rest this time, though by Anders’s smirk I judged him to be willing to have one more chance. When he waggled an eyebrow at me I couldn’t help but laugh even while shaking my head. We’d agreed that it wouldn’t happen again. I hoped I would not have to remind him of that aloud. Thankfully he shrugged and began asking Ohgren about why he’d left Orzammar in that half-mocking, half-admiring way he always spoke to the dwarf.
Sigrun and I turned our talk to our shared horror of being turned into brood mothers, forced to eat our tainted companions and then give birth to Darkspawn. That was the likely fate that awaited us should we fail to either join forces with The Mother or defeat her utterly the next day. We shuddered almost in unison and the men abandoned their banter to find out what had so repulsed us.
Happily Anders managed to find jokes to make even about so awful a proposition and we returned to the optimism with which we’d begun the day. I set Ohgren to first watch, banked the coals of the fire, and ordered everyone else to sleep. We would need all of the energy we could muster soon enough.
And so we set off in the early morning, our bellies reasonably full and our bodies well rested, to get answers to the puzzles that had plagued me as Commander of the Grey since I had arrived in Amaranthine. It didn’t take long before we came across the first childer and Darkspawn sentries and the two-hour jaunt our trip had seemed on the map stretched to more than four before we’d fought our way to the entrance of the ruins. The farther we went the more we skirmished between enormous bones, the ribs and skulls of dragons that gave the region its name. Some had half crumbled to dust or collapsed under an errant blow but many stood stark and white against the dust. It seemed the legends of these wastes had some basis in fact after all.
I wondered if the dragons’ return to Ferelden meant they would begin coming to this area to die once more. Wade would be in heaven, finding bone and hide and wing for his craft, should that occur. I made a note to share the location with him when we returned to the keep, presuming any of us lived that long.
When we approached the door a high dragon swooped down, apparently the guardian of the place. I hated to slay such a magnificent beast but it showed no sign of listening to reason and letting us pass. We made short work of her, sadly enough, and walked into a sort of inverted tower. Instead of climbing the stairs took us spiraling into the depths of a cavern that stretched far beneath the earth, with other ruins visible in the distance.
We fought our way down and around, across a few bridges, and down and around again. At these depths the path would lead us to the Deep Roads, though I’d never heard of a thaig in this region. Yet the ancient routes wound even under the sea to other lands so perhaps this was a waypoint on one that stretched under the Amaranthine Ocean to the north. Again I longed to reopen these roads to my people and renewed my resolve to find a way.
The Architect appeared just as we finished hacking down the Darkspawn on the second main landing. As ever, he seemed the most gracious and humble of such creatures and was certainly the most human-looking ghoul I’d ever seen, barring that half his face seemed to be hung from hooks on his headgear rather than attached to his skull. He begged me to listen to him, citing the messenger he’d sent to direct us as proof of his good will.
The dwarf with him, skin darkened with taint, did little more than nod encouragingly. It seemed she had lost the ability to speak after so long in his company. The Architect introduced her as Utha and explained that she and Velanna’s sister had volunteered to help with his experiments. He told us that the dwarf had been a Grey Warden as well, perhaps to prove that he did not have to kill us outright.
The blood of a Grey Warden, when drunk by a Darkspawn, would allow the creature to gain control of its own mind, to speak and to reason, he said. He claimed that his aim was to end blights for good by releasing Darkspawn from their unthinking desire to find and liberate the old gods who led them to the surface in the first place. My mind reeled with the implications of his words. Could it be possible to have a treaty with the tainted creatures, one that would allow my people to reclaim some of their lost homeland without having to kill thousands of Darkspawn to do it?
Yet there was still The Mother to consider. If she’d been so “freed” by The Architect then why was she directing bands of followers against him? His explanation was that she was the only brood mother he’d tried to turn, in the hopes that all she bore would inherit her double taint and thus be reasoning creatures. While The First clearly had, many more had not and The Mother had gone mad in the process.
I suggested he consider that the horror of being forced into becoming a brood mother might have destroyed her sanity in the first place, an idea which he seemed to consider with due seriousness for a moment. “Perhaps you are correct,” he said. “I had not considered the trauma of her transformation.” I held my tongue, not wanting to get sidetracked by the inherent evil of forcing a woman into cannibalization and then giving birth to that which she most hates for the rest of her life. The issues at hand were complicated enough without my trying to explain to a predator why it was wrong to follow its instincts to reproduce.
We argued and discussed as a group, questions coming from all sides. My companions seemed clear in their distrust and their distaste. As Wardens we stood to lose any benefit the fastest. The Architect explained that whatever it was that had allowed us to fight off the taint in the Joining fought it in the Darkspawn as well. There was, he said, no substitute, no other option but Grey Warden blood.
That his kind killed ours for their blood was no different, to his mind, from the fact that we took the blood of Darkspawn for the Joining. I conceded the point but argued that they so vastly outnumbered us that the next step was obvious: take human prisoners, force the taint on them, and drain the blood of those who survived. He had failed utterly to consider the scope of these actions. Even at the height of their glory Ferelden had been host to no more than a few dozen Grey Wardens. The thousands of existing Darkspawn alone would require half the blood in the country to “cure”.
I sympathized with his wish to improve the lot of what he viewed as his people but at the end of the day The Architect was setting them against all others. The taint in their blood made them unable to live in large numbers without destroying the land and the crops, without killing or warping the animals the rest of us would need to survive. From where did he think the Blight had drawn its name? No matter how much I understood his desire to bring his people out of the dark in the Deep Roads we simply could not allow him to kill Wardens a few at a time to achieve that end nor could they try to live among the dwarves or the surface dwellers. So we killed him.
Utha had fallen prey to the thrill of his short-term plan without considering the larger implications. Her attempts to defend her master forced us to strike her down as well, though in truth the taint had advanced so far in her that we could not have saved her regardless. Sigrun and I shared a moment of regret at the death of the only other female dwarf we’d ever heard of in the order.
Anders hugged us together, serious for a moment in offering his condolence, then broke the mood with a lewd comment about a dwarf-mage sandwich. Sigrun and I traded sour faces and shoved him into the body of an ogre that lay behind him, oozing and smelling. We dwarves got our own laugh at his flailing and expressions of disgust. Once we put the somber tone of our confrontation with The Architect behind us, we continued on our way into the depths. The Mother awaited us somewhere and there was no question but that our mission was to exterminate her and her brood.