Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 5

There remained one thing to finish before we embarked: the delivery with which Flemeth had charged us on that death-filled hill back in Ferelden. Mother had begged Bethany and me to put off meeting our end of the bargain even once released from Athenril’s service and free to roam outside of the city itself. But for all her fears I was determined to see the dragon’s demands met before we ranged far from the relative safety of the stone courts and well-populated streets of Kirkwall. One can never be too careful when dealing with dragons.

Two days before the expedition was to depart Fenris, Anders, Bethany and I made our way up Sundermount north of the city. We found the Dalish encampment just where Flemeth had so long ago assured us it would be. The Keeper welcomed us like lost elves returning to the tribe but the rest of the clan kept their bows trained on us and their eyes narrowed in suspicion.

All, that is, but the waif the Keeper introduced as Merrill. Her enormous green eyes stared in wonder at each of my companions in turn, the lyrium-burned elf with his enormous blade, the robed mage who looked as though he had not slept or eaten in days, and the proper young woman who yet bore a staff clearly intended for magic.

Merrill, it seemed, would guide us up the mountain to perform a ritual with the pendant Flemeth had asked us to deliver. More than that she either would or could not say. Thus Fenris and I found ourselves in the company of three mages, each of a very different bent. The path that led to our destination on the mountain’s peak was blocked by a magic barrier and, much to everyone’s shock, Merrill used blood magic to dispelling it. I had to physically restrain Fenris from striking her while Anders railed at her furiously. Her doe-eyed innocence had fooled us all, or so we thought.

Yet we had a task to accomplish and could hardly drive away the only one who could perform the required ritual. We neared the summit, still verdant even at that height and offering a view of Kirkwall glinting in the distance, the whiteness of its high stone towers belying the filth at its roots. It would be easy to pretend from so far that only grace and beauty filled the city, to forget the despair of the Ferelden refugees and the crime that stained even the beauty of Hightown. I sighed at the contrast and then turned back to the task at hand.

Merrill told us that the ancient elves, the immortal souls who had existed before the storied war with Tevinter, had come here to sleep, buried until their descendants proved worthy of their return. An altar graced one promontory and it was on this that Merrill placed the pendant. She chanted and sang and from the amulet a shape took form: Flemeth herself, her hair still bound in dragon’s horns, the gorgeous leather armor outlining her endowments, and her face as lightly lined and amused as ever.

Bethany and I each gave a shout at recognizing her. Fenris shook his head in disgust at the appearance of yet another witch though he admitted she was far more than either Bethany or Anders would ever be. But it appeared that all Flemeth had wanted was for us to bring her to the Free Marches. She declared our part of the bargain met and thanked Merrill prettily for her performance of the ritual. There was some discussion of a Morrigan, whatever that may have been, but in essence the witch simply expressed her appreciation, warned us that turmoil was coming, turned again into that glorious and unlikely dragon, and flew away south. We were all nonplussed at that and descended to the Dalish camp in silence.

One more surprise awaited us: Keeper Marethari asked us to take Merrill to Kirkwall and see her to the Alienage. None of us much wanted her along, sweet and childlike though she was outside of battle, but since it was on our way we could hardly refuse graciously. Merrill chattered the whole way, asking questions about the city and the elves who lived there and telling us stories of her clan. In truth she was a breath of fresh air, untainted by the crime and concerns of living so close with so many. She blithely admitted to seeking a demon to help her learn blood magic but refused to explain why.

Though Fenris, Bethany, and Anders all tried to convince her of the folly of consorting with demons Merrill insisted in that childlike way that she knew what she was doing. Innocent she was after all, despite her poor choices. We brought her to the Alienage where she had secured rooms. Though I’d intended to be done with her she looked so sad and lost that I agreed to return from time to time to check on her. Fenris gave me a scornful lecture for that promise but I knew just how she felt upon first coming to this city, having lived her whole life in the open and clean world outside its walls. Her home certainly lay little enough out of my way.

That last obligation fulfilled, I bid my mother and sister farewell and headed for the Deep Roads and whatever fortune would bring with Varric and his brother. Anders and Fenris joined me, the former in hopes of securing funding for his clinic and other social programs and the latter because he’d tired of sitting around Danarius’s mansion in high town waiting for the magister to return. My broody and powerful elf friend was bored. He’d been drinking up the wine cellar and moping around at loose ends. Boredom had never been a problem for him before and he was happy to join our crew simply to keep himself busy.

The journey took us far into the Free Marches, as the land around Kirkwall, Starkhaven, and the other city-states in northern Thedas was called. Once we’d reached the entrance to the Deep Roads it took another week underground, through stunning ruins that arched twenty and more feet above our heads and tumbled corridors where boulders crowded the former majesty. Short they may be but clearly dwarves had long thought on a grand scale. Yet we found our route blocked again and again by cave-ins that showed these tunnels had long since been abandoned by their creators. The darkspawn between the collapses demonstrated why.

We worked our way around one final blockage and found ourselves in what Verric and Bartrand called a thaig, a sort of village that had been emptied a thousand years before. It was unlike anything any of us had ever seen, even Bartrand who had spent his early childhood in Orzammar. Veins of pure lyrium stood free from the stone walls like trees and columns but red as well as the familiar blue traded about Ferelden. We stared in wonder as we proceeded, finally reaching a central room where, upon an altar, lay an idol carved of that red lyrium. The statue bore the twisted features of some creature, the figure shown suffering enormously, its tiny stone mouth wide in a silent shriek. The workmanship was exquisite, every line of the little body showing pain.

Varric seized the idol and tossed it to his brother, both exclaiming about its value. Fenris was studying carvings on the altar, Anders had wandered farther into the hall to explore, and Varric had craned his neck to look up at the night-invisible ceiling so only I that noticed Bartrand back out of the hall, shoving the door closed behind him. I clearly saw the malevolent look on his face and knew that he had trapped us intentionally. Varric tried through the rock door to convince him to let us out but I knew it was hopeless. Bartrand intended us to die here.

Once Varric had finished cursing his brother we ventured deeper into the hall in search of another way out. Winding passages took us through other parts of the thaig until we reached a vast storage hall. Along the way we’d fought golem guardians and a dragon or two, as expected, but we’d found things made of rock that glowed with improbable skeletons of pure magic blocking our path as well. Varric explained the myth of rock wraiths but said that no dwarf had ever seen one. It was in that echoing final chamber that the mystery was solved.

A construct like those creatures but as tall as the statues in the Chantry pulled itself together from the debris that littered the floor. It was a demon, a spirit of greed that had fed off of the rock wraiths’ eternal feeding on the lyrium and taken on their shape. Unsurprisingly it preferred that we leave them alone and promised a key to release us from the deeps if we would only let them be. Had the silly thing not told us about the key we might have considered making a deal with it but once we knew it was only a matter of searching for the exit we attacked it with the fervor of all of the demon hatred we’d learned in our various battles.

Whether the lyrium diet had enhanced its powers or hunger demons were stronger than we’d have guess, the creature displayed more power than I’d expected. It summoned waves of rock wraiths and shone a burning, stinging light that we mostly avoided by hiding behind the supporting pillars. It wasn't a heroic battle but better cowardice than death, I say. Finally the creature and its minions lay dead and Anders tended to our wounds while we recovered our collective breath.

We soon found our ticket out in a treasure pile that promised wealth and ease beyond what even my avaricious companion had promised. Smaller trinkets disappeared into our packs and we hung others about our heads, necks, and fingers as proof of the stash’s value. The four of us carefully mapped the way from the thaig, through the Deep Roads and back to the surface. It took weeks for us to make our way back to Kirkwall with Varric guarding the key more jealously even than Bianca. He promised to find a buyer and deliver my share of the profits as soon as possible but what I carried with me would be enough to see my family out of Lowtown for good.

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