It was, she decided, the echoes that were worst of all.
Sounds in the Deep Roads never faded. They simply fled like stricken refugees, stumbling blindly through the dark into empty earthen cavities. In their mad flight, the sounds caught upon the tatters of older echoes, abandoned voices circling frozen stone, and merged into an exiled cacophony of noises. Perhaps, even, it was the Stone itself that cried, remembering long-departed voices and parroting their sound: a never-ending chorus of life no longer lived. But the faint murmurs hovered about her, and she had to keep moving, moving forward, because if she ever stopped to listen...
"The smell," said Zevran, "it is the smell that is most bad, no?"
Callian shook her head, having no breathe for a response and no time to banter. The air — she could no longer smell anything in the air, so numb was she from exhaustion and pain. At her side, Alistair faltered and seemed almost to stumble before he caught himself with his sword. She gripped her arm tighter where the darkspawn blade had cut to the bone. A lurid light beckoned ahead, torches signaling where the paved roads and fallen buildings of ancient dwarven civilization began and the icy blackness of the Deep Roads ended. Her hand, soaked in blood, felt colder than her blades.
"We need to stop," said Wynne, "at least let me tend to your wounds."
Callian shook her head again. There was no time for that. The heavy footfalls of the darkspawn marched gravely on behind them. The drumbeat steps echoed, the clash of heavy boots reverberating up and down the walls before the deadly orchestra. Down in the Deep Roads, sounds were said to never end. They persisted in the chill air like restless specters, empty spirits seeking more than frozen stone, always hungry, always hunting. In her mind a vision rose of the fanged darkspawn, drawing nearer, lips curled, the writhing worm of a tongue lunging to taste the taint in her...
"The righteous stand before the darkness," murmured Leliana, "and the Maker shall be their guide. The humble bow before the altar and the Maker shall hear their cries. The guilty beg for forgiveness, and the Maker shall judge their crimes..."
Callian snapped back. She had to press forward. The darkspawn army had been, was ─ maybe a league? maybe half, if that ─ behind them. If they could reach the ruins, there might be hope. The Legion of the Dead defended an outpost there. With her eyes she willed for Alistair to follow. Slowly, he steadied himself and came stumbling after her, the battered, weighted pieces of his armor groaning with the effort. The metallic whimpers trailed behind them like a beaten dog.
"Well, you certainly do not think that you will get away, dragging yourselves like this? Dripping and bleeding and leaving a lovely crimson trail for the darkspawn to follow. Tell me," asked Morrigan, "is this how you planned for us to die?"
Callian ignored the cold words. She had to keep going, to do otherwise… No. Hespith's story ran again and again through her mind. The women they want, to touch, to mold, to change until you are filled with them. No, no, she didn't want to think about the taint right now, not about the change. She tore off her husband's face and drank his blood. Or the horrible mutilations on the bodies in the room. And while she ate, she grew. The violations that the darkspawn thrust upon the women. She swelled and turned gray and she smelled like them. More than anything in her life, Callian wanted to get out of the Dead Trenches. They remade her in their own image.
In the cold of the Deep Roads, the barest light gave life to every shadow. The stone exuded an ice blue glow that only seemed to darken their surroundings. She tripped. The crack that pinned her foot seemed only another shadow amongst shadows. As her foot betrayed her, Callian fell and cried out. The sound of her voice sprang lightly from rock to rock, prancing into the frosty depths of crevices and back, down black, sightless tunnels. Quickly, quickly her voice ran, kicking icy walls and rebounding off the cold stone corners. As Callian tried to extract herself and bit her lip to avoid crying out again, she heard a slow, rumbling echo respond: the sound of thousands, maybe tens of thousands of feet suddenly stopping, a moment pausing, and turning. Moving closer. Drawing near.
The darkspawn army had heard them.
The first of the darkspawn army, a genlock scout, leapt at her from the crown of a boulder, screaming rage and guttural words of ancestral hate. Her dagger flew from her free hand and pierced the exposed throat. She reached for another weapon, fumbling with her belt as she tried to rise, the taste of iron in her mouth as she bit back the crippling the pain spreading up her leg. Behind her, the bulk of the darkspawn army surged, every echo heralding the blades they carried over booted feet. The Blight was coming. The end was coming. She had failed them. She had failed them all.
I am dying of something worse than death, said Hespith.
Another shadow moved, its heavy rasp like a razor wire cutting through the air. Callian looked up at the eager maw of her harbinger with empty eyes.
Dead. They were all dead. Her fool's errand and her stupid pride. Why did they follow her to this? Why did she think she would succeed in finding the Anvil when all the others had failed? She had underestimated the darkspawn army. They were ready. The Blight was now. The parting memories of lost companions haunted her, rose again and again in her mind. Morrigan's gruesomely raped body, the blood between her thighs and the shrill screams that followed them in the air. Leliana's bloody hair and her lifeless, milky eyes. Zevran's accusing stare and the barbed spear point eloquently delivered through his mouth. Nelaros's matted blond hair and sorrowful eyes.
"I died to save you," mourned Nelaros. "And yet it has not even been a season since you've forgotten me."
The cold of the caverns was suffocating her. She couldn't breathe, she couldn't move. She felt the weight of every death, like a sea of icy bodies surging over her, dragging her down. The darkspawn stood with crude sword raised over her. She waited for the blade to fall, and secretly cherished an end of sound. The clash of blade against blade startled Callian. She had not realized that she had closed her eyes.
Before her, Alistair threw the hurlock forward in a blur of motion, his shield now a moving wall, now a large and angry fist descending on the monster's head. The Templar fought with the desperate ferocity of a caged animal, drawing upon some deep well of rage that moved his sword like a panther before him, another dancing shadow in the near-dark. Alistair lifted his shield as the hurlock lunged, and with a preternatural suddenness, charged at the enemy and knocked the monster to the floor. Blood rained on Callian's face as a swift blow sent the hurlock's dismembered head rolling to greet her. Dark ichors in her eyes, in her mind, in her heart. And the mirror of sound shattered in her head. If she opened her mouth, her screams could carry on for centuries. Down in the Deep Roads, sounds were never swallowed. They were regurgitated, spewed back like rejected bile. Perhaps the Stone had no appetite for guilt.
"Callian," whispered Alistair, his voice urgent. There was nowhere to run, there was nowhere to hide. "I don't want to turn," she whispered. That voice, was it hers? She no longer knew. She didn't recognize the frightened girl's little cry. The echoes that swirled around her gnawed at the tatters of her mind. Had she come here to die, to end their accusing, harsh crescendo? Was it fate that she would fall to become progenitor of that which she had fought so hard, so hard to overcome?
"Will not happen." said Alistair, his voice hoarse but firm. "I promise. Will. Not. Happen."
She did not know if he was real, but his words soothed her like a summer's breath in winter. She took the hand that he offered her, as he pulled her up and supported her weight on his arm.
"I can't run," she said, clinging to him, trying to suppress the sobbing, the hysteria rising within. "What now?"
His hand touched upon her head, her cheeks, her lips. "We stay together," he told her, "no matter what." He turned her face to look at him, cradling her chin in both hands.
She nodded, her face flushed and stained.
The howls of the darkspawn raced towards them, the dark-forged army surging towards the light. Voices rose in rage and anguish at the sight of their prey about to slip through their fingers. Beside her, Alistair readied his sword.
His fingers touched upon her neck, the calluses of his hand warm and rough against her skin. She felt his breath draw near and close with the heat of a kiss. "I love you," he said, and wrapped his arms around her. He held her tightly as his sword plunged through both their bodies. Warmth poured from her heart and into his. Warm. So warm.
And finally silence.