Frustrating Fridays: Frustrations, Chapter 10

After another round of bridge and stairs, we reached the lowest level and slew the Darkspawn guards. From the smell of it, we faced a cul-de-sac filled with tainted flesh. Rank gobbets covered the floor in various shades of nasty and dangled from the walls much as it had in the Deep Roads beneath Orzammar where I’d first faced—and defeated—a broodmother. Pods like those from which various childer forms had sprung along our path lined what little distance we could see.

We may never find The Architect’s main lab, the place where he’d kept the bulk of his research and presumably a stronghold for those converted Darkspawn who remained on his side in this conflict, but I hoped that he was one of the few, if not the only one, who knew how to make and administer his “cure”. That he had sent so high a lieutenant to draw me to The Mother’s lair lent me hope that he had committed most of his forces in the long string of recent battles and perhaps the two sides had reduced each other’s numbers to the point where we could eliminate both factions.

He may claim that the altered creatures could no longer feel the call of the Archdemons lurking still unfound beneath the rock but for all I knew their improved intelligence would only make them better at finding the next one and marshalling the horde to overwhelm the land sooner. It was a chance I couldn’t take.

Despite my increasing distaste for experimentation, following Avernus’s tortures at the Warden’s Keep high in the mountains and the horrific slaughter of my fellow Wardens by The Architect, I thought it might behoove us to capture some of these creatures alive. I could find no record of speculation on how long a Darkspawn might live, whether they aged and died naturally as humans, elves, and dwarves did at various rates, or died only in battle. As we could not know the number and skill of those altered with Warden blood I thought such knowledge might prove crucial to our plans for the future.

For the moment, however, there was an insane brood mother lurking nearby that needed killing. I felt a great deal of relief in knowing that the Grey Wardens would never, however briefly, ally with any Darkspawn. Anders, Ohgren, Sigrun, and I shared a round of weak smiles over the corpses we’d just made. They seemed to share my emotion. Ohgren even managed to appear sober and thoughtful. “Let us finish our tasks and get home,” I said. We turned, dwarves in front, mage poised to fire over our heads, and entered the monster’s den.

The Mother loomed on a precipice, seemingly anchored by the spreading flesh that tainted the stone all around us. Rather than the bestial lump we’d come to expect in a broodmother the torso of this creature looked nearly human. But her body had repeated itself, spreading and losing definition as it had changed under the taint, becoming the typical broodmother blob from which our enemies sprang.

She could suckle a dozen offspring at a time and still have room to spare, though I had no idea if any of the Darkspawn actually fed that way as young. Were the childer actually baby genlocks and hurlocks or something entirely new? It seemed that four hundred years of fighting the creatures had damped the interest of those dwarfs prone to finding out how things worked. Perhaps we had been focusing our attention in the wrong direction entirely. I set the thought aside for consideration at a less-fraught time.

Though the Mother’s face and arms appeared human enough, ignoring the diseased-looking skin, her voice showed both her taint and her madness clearly. She proclaimed us dupes of the Architect and told us he’d been the one to find and release the Archdemon I’d so recently killed. I responded that I’d already killed him and that she was next, at which point she revealed the changed nature of her face as well, roaring her joy with fanged mandibles spread wide.

She told us how she had hated him for bringing her out of the spell under which the taint had put her. Darkspawn and those they infect hear the Archdemons singing and calling out to them, she explained. Being cut off from the song of the old gods had brought the full horror of what she’d become to her and all she wished for was death now that she need no longer fight the Architect. I would have been happy to oblige but rather than submit to my blades she called waves of her allies to attack us.

The battle was protracted. Childer and Darkspawn swarmed us as we struck again and again at the Mother. Despite her declaration that she welcomed death she seemed determined to live. The slick filth underfoot gave the insectile childer a distinct edge and the stench of rot burned our eyes and throats but we persevered.

Anders alternately healed us and blasted creatures while we took turns protecting him and hacking away at that enormous deformity from which so many foes had been born. Finally a sea of blood and flesh lay around us but none stirred. We limped from the den and bandaged the worst of our wounds in the relative cleanliness of the near landing. I spared another look at the mouth of cavern that wound ever down and away, wondering if I would ever look out at it again with explorers of the Deep Roads. Then we turned our backs on the depths and circled again to the surface.

It was a long walk back to Vigil’s Keep. What we’d seen and discussed beneath the earth filled our talk but what awaited us filled our thoughts. Would we find our friends alive and safe or had the Mother’s forces taken the Keep? We camped again in the wastes, tending to our wounds and recovering our strength, then struck out at first light.

None of us sensed Darkspawn near. Presumably any that had lived through the previous week’s battles had fled, the organizing forces behind both armies having been eliminated. At some point they would regroup, perhaps with those altered by the Architect leading them all, but with luck most of them, changed or not, would return to the Deep Roads and allow the surface folk, and the Grey Wardens, some respite.

We descended again into the fertile lands of Amaranthine but saw almost no one. We stopped at a stream to wash our bodies and armor that reeked with tainted blood and the herdsman who had brought his livestock to drink fled at the sight of us. I imagine we were, indeed, a frightening sight. Late in the morning we came upon a farmer and asked for news but he had heard nothing of the Keep. I couldn’t decide whether that boded well or ill. Ohgren and Anders joked, trying to keep up my spirits, but I felt dark dread at what we would find when finally we arrived.

When the walls began to thrust above the gentle hills in the distance I increased my pace as much as my wounds and exhaustion would let me. The closer we came the worse the damage appeared. The gates hung open, one askew with the tower to the right crumbled around it. I could see movement inside but not discern whether the living were Darkspawn. Finally I broke into a run, unable to take the slow approach. Dwarves don’t run much, we’re simply not built for it, but I had to know. Unmoving forms lay all around that gaping space, dead ogres hulking above the smaller bodies strewn about the field.

I finally saw that the armor of those moving about the courtyard shone bright in the afternoon sun. I stopped abruptly, sinking to my knees in relief. Anders knelt beside me and I clung to him for a moment, grateful for his wordless reassurance. Sigrun touched my shoulder and Ohgren, true to form, broke the mood with a fart joke. The four of us gathered as much dignity as we could muster and made our way down the last rise and into Vigil’s Keep.

As we passed nearer the walls we could see troops from both sides with horrific wounds lying where they’d struck one another. It appeared that this had been a massive battle and one that, from the condition of some of the dead, had lasted for days. Heads turned as we walked through the ruin but none offered a word. Though the destruction inside the walls was much less than I had feared, those gates boding much ill from a distance, rotting flesh fouled the air and I spied many a guard gagging as he hauled a mangled body toward the growing pile.

Wade raised a solemn hand to me from where he stood near his forge directing the soldiers who brought salvaged armor and weapons to him but I saw no sign of Dworken or his brother. None of the companions with whom I’d spent so much time over the previous weeks worked among the soldiers in the court. I could only hope that my friends were inside the keep proper with the seneschal.

I opened the enormous door, swallowing the hope and fear that warred within me. The hall inside was smoky and close, torches showing the mass of injured men and women being tended inside. Ohgren, Sigrun, and I picked our way among those stretched out on the floor. I spied my guard captain in dispirited conversation with Nathaniel in the nook beside the fire golem’s shell Ohgren had insisted we bring back as a souvenir. Despite my joy at seeing my friend safe I knew from their faces that not all the news would be so good.

Both men clasped a hand warmly and Nathaniel kept hold of my left. Seneschal Verel had been killed in the fighting, he told me, and Justice, in Kristoff’s body, was crushed beneath the stone when the west tower had fallen. Both had died valiantly while fighting to protect what we had built here. The captain ran through the numbers of dead and wounded and I was glad the smoke and fug of the room excused my tears. Anders took my other hand and the three of us held tight to one another while I reported what we’d found in the city of Amaranthine and then at the Mother’s lair.

My voice sounded much calmer than I felt and as I spoke the sickness at the losses we’d suffered began to calm. When I’d finished Anders squeezed my hand and went to help with the healing. Nathaniel gave me a small hug and left to find Sigrun. He really was a darling man, sweet and thoughtful once his confusion and guilt over his father’s death had cleared. He’d been a terrible thief but a wonderful friend.

I wandered to my quarters to find something clean to wear before I threw myself into helping where I could. Over the coming weeks we rebuilt the Keep, strengthening it as we went. No news came of further Darkspawn raids or sightings, save the occasional whisper of the Architect's liaison whom I had freed.

In the quiet that followed the tainted storm in Amaranthine the Wardens from around Thedas again sent members to swell our ranks. We put them all to work both in the city itself and around the countryside. Soon the peace allowed the survivors to put their lives together again and to look toward the future.

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