To dream and see stars was something Missa was glad of. She saw darkspawn running along a corrupted field -of course she would- but to see them under a clear winter's night sky was somehow comforting, a starkly foreign image compared to the putridness and tainted, fractured mess that made the Deep Roads.
The dragon she saw leave the Trenches was flying, the landscape below moving rapidly. As it descended through cloud and mist, the tips of its wings touched water, almost for the joy of it.
Darkspawn waited on the shoreline, eyes as enraptured as she at the beauty of flight. Slowly it descended and landed elegantly, wings folding as primly as a lady's fan against its back as the horde roared. A horned, spiked head tilted to one side slowly, knowing Missa watched.
The Archdemon screamed in her head and she finally woke up, sweat dripped down her face. She had fallen asleep by the cooking fire of the Legion's camp, no one having the heart to move her. Wiping her mouth she rose, only to be scrutinized by Morrigan, her golden eyes curious.
"What do you dream of?" The witch asked, tilting her head slowly to one side, a mimic of what Missa had seen in her dream.
She rinsed her face with her precious drinking water before speaking, throat still tight at what she had seen, unsure how to answer the question without seeming weak. "The Archdemon, always. It's outside now. By water… maybe Lake Calenhad?" As an afterthought, she muttered: "and yet, here we are."
"And this Archdemon," Morrigan said, not quite looking at her now. "What is it like?"
"You seriously want to know?" Missa snapped in reply, voice rough. "You saw it yourself, surely. When we saw it fly out of the Trenches earlier."
"I am… curious of your connection. 'Tis an unusual situation you must find yourself in, to dream so vividly of the thing your order is vowed to kill."
She snorted at that, an eyebrow quirked. "Not really. I'd dream about cows if I were farmer, I'm sure. It's the way it is."
Morrigan rose quietly, righting a fold of her robes. "Perhaps. Perhaps not."
"It was… joyful," Missa said quietly, answering her question finally. "I couldn't look away. The Archdemon was-" she paused suddenly, embarrassed. "Well. You could say it was beautiful, in a sick, twisted way."
"Beautiful, you say? Interesting." Morrigan shouldered her backpack and looked at her thoughtfully before speaking again. "Do you know why Blights happen?"
Missa shook herself before rising, ignoring the strange twist in her gut. "Alistair spoke a little of it, but I think he knows about as much as I know. We're both fumbling our way through this," she replied curtly, unsure what her friend was aiming for. "Chop off the head and it's over, pretty much. Kill the Archdemon and it ends."
"As simple of that? Of course."
She frowned at the witch, mind slowly waking up. "Why do you ask?"
Morrigan smiled, an eyebrow raised. "'Tis no matter. I was… curious, of course. You were talking in your sleep."
With an awkward gesture Missa rubbed the back of her neck, embarrassed at being caught doing such a thing. "Right. Of course. Anyway," she replied, finding her backpack and shouldering it, "let's go find the others before they pine away without our presence."
The witch chuckled and walked with her. "Indeed, considering. I saw Alistair talk to this Legion's leader to explain how your cause overlaps with theirs and it is of vital importance that they join."
"Oh, Stone," Missa said in a groan, knowing no good would come of it. "Really? That's going to be… urgh."
"See you're up, then, sleeping beauty," a voice said to her right. Turning she saw it was Battleaxe, who Missa knew had been watching her interaction with Morrigan quietly.
"Thanks for your hospitality, if the ingrates I call friends haven't already done so," Missa replied to the Legionnaire.
"We used the best silver too," Poet added, putting his gloves on with a grin to stand next to his friend.
"Legion! Legion salute," Battleaxe called. The surrounded Legionnaires lifted their weapons up then, trilling a warcry, the sound loud enough to wake the ancestors themselves. "Good fight, Warden," Battleaxe offered, her hand open in a warrior's salute. Missa mirrored the older woman's gesture and grinned.
"It always is," and promptly left the Legion even more determined to find her people's Paragon; if they could do what they do away from the stalker's nest of city politics, then so could she.
Missa knew Kardol was watching them file along the bridge of Bownammar with impassive, stony eyes, well aware of her tired acceptance of his refusal. Alistair was angry still at Kardol's denial to bolster their effort, but knew enough of Missa to know that voicing his grievances with her would get him nowhere.
Even Zevran was beginning to let the grimness of the Deep Roads effect him. Missa was more unsettled by his words about choice and options previously then concerned of his quietness, and was trying to find a way to work out what to say to him to push the matter further. His opinion sat uncomfortably heavy on her chest still, unsure behind the intent of his reasoning.
Missa cleared her throat to speak and he smiled slightly, knowing she was fumbling to speak to him about something. "Oubliettes," she said finally. "I remember what you said to me, before we came to Orzammar. A dark hole where you're sent to be forgotten about. You remember, we spoke of them. We're in one now and we're surviving, and you said, you told me-"
"That I lived, signorina." Zevran replied quickly, cutting her off before she threw his words back in his face. "That is what I said."
"We're not Legion," she said. "We're not dead. We're here out of choice, no one has forced us. We walked into our oubliette out of free will, you see."
"This again?" Zevran said in a smile. "Ah, the circles we talk ourselves into. Do you really believe that?" He asked, looking sideways at her.
"Yes," she replied. "I'm here for a reason."
"No doubt," he said wryly. They walked in silence, Zevran picking his words over carefully before he spoke again. "Tell me something, my Warden. You spoke so profoundly over my bleeding body that you would defend the weak and give them a chance, no? Where is it in this hole?"
"I never said that exactly," she said, rolling her aching shoulders suddenly.
"You told me you could 'speak for the voiceless' now, if I remember correctly. That you could give them a choice where others could not."
Missa frowned at her lover, mouth tight with anger. She exhaled a breath once before speaking, refusing to snap at him. "Look, I'm not going to go out and feed and clothe every beggar I come across or give my worldly goods away, but if I stand back and do nothing, what kind of person am I? I may as well be back in my hovel in Dust Town cracking skulls for a living again, fighting for my right to breathe. That the Grey Wardens pulled me out of my shithole for nothing. "
Zevran stretched suddenly. "This Bhelen, who sent you here… what decisions do you think you get to make in his name, hmm?"
"I don't understand what you mean," she replied frankly.
"What choice is there here, if I may be frank enough to ask you? Here you are, dancing for a corrupt politician so beautifully under his strings, dirtying your hands so he doe not to have to. And yet, the Blight moves on without us on the surface. Tell me, how is that different to your life as a Carta associate, how does it differ from mine as a Crow? Where is your power to speak for others, when it seems you barely have the choice to yourself?"
She looked around carefully before she replied, finally understanding his reticence. "That's what you think? That's the reason I'm here, because Bhelen is playing me?"
Zevran's face was firmly masked, refusing to show his emotions. He bowed slightly, movements elegant still despite the filth of the Trenches that clung to his armour. "Forgive me for speaking out of turn, I see I have offended you. Believe me, that was not my intention. We can go back to talking about forgotten dark holes, if you like. I've seen a few in my time."
"Oh please," Missa said curtly, dismissing his flirty duplicity instantly. "Has it occurred to you that I'm here not out of obligation or duty, but because I want to be? That I believe I'm making the right decisions and sticking to them? Do you think so little of me that you think I allow myself to be manipulated and used still? That's as bad as Alistair assuming I'm only here because my sister is Bhelen's whore, and I let my connection to her shape my views."
Her voice was loud enough for everyone to notice now. Alistair turned round at the mention of his name and frowned. "I never said, ah, that exactly," her salroka said carefully, aware of her sudden anger. "Just that you might be swayed by Rica's new found, um, position.."
Missa scowled up at him, eyes dark. "What?" She snapped. "You got something to add too?"
Alistair held out his hands in contrition. "You know I trust you," he replied defensively. "I stand by your decisions, even if my opinion on Lord Aeducan's obviously stellar reputation doesn't match yours."
"He's a greasy cave tick, I won't deny that. But a needed one, as I've told you over and fucking over again."
"Enough," Sten said loudly. "The Warden has spoken, we will follow."
Missa was too irate to acknowledge the Qunari's reply, stopping now. Their entire group blocked the bridge to the crumbling gates of Bownammar, the other companions gathering around the tight, angry form of their leader out of curiosity.
The ever-present flask, now topped up with Stone-knows brew the Legion cooked up flashed by the light of the lava and Oghren drank from it noisily. "We done pissing about? Not even out of the Trenches yet."
"Anyone else got anything to say about my political discourse while I'm here?" Missa replied in a snap, making sure she looked into everyone's eyes. "Perhaps you don't like the temperature of the Roads and need another blanket. Possibly the company is shitty and you want to complain about the food. Well? Do you?" Slowly she rounded on them all, voice tight with fury. When silence greeted her, she itched her nose roughly, trying not to sneeze. "Nothing? Good. Then move out."
No one spoke -not even Leliana- for awhile after that.
There was more darkspawn to kill, more traps and puzzles left by the dead to decipher. Missa refused to disturb the graves of the Legion, figuring that if there was anything that was sacred down here, it was that.
Sometimes when it was her turn at guard duty and everyone was sleeping, she was convinced she heard voices. Rationally Missa told herself it was the wind through the air vents or the chattering of darkspawn, but a small, tiny part of her was too frightened to listen, just in case it was the very thing she was taught she would never be.
If the Stone existed, if really she was surrounded by ancestors of her people down here so deep and forgotten, then they were just echoes repeating themselves, too dead and too distant for her to reply. Besides, even as a Grey Warden -as Missa was constantly reminded by Lady Dace and her ilk- she would always be a duster, too weak to settle on stone.
What unnerved her the most was not the whispering dead so far down, but how intelligent the darkspawn now seemed. On the surface the attacks had been easy to fight and plan for, as the snarling rage of her enemy was easy to counteract, no worse then the rabid animals crazed with the taint she came across.
They were laying complex traps now, the crumbling tunnels and thaigs used against them in ambushes and skirmishes were suddenly Missa felt she had no control over, frightened of the dark as a child would be.
There was a sentient intelligence now present in her enemy. Usually a corrupted mage or a darkspawn that seemed to hold better armour and weapons then their band gave orders, and as Missa watched out of the corner of her eye amidst the fighting and snarling she could see a pecking order, a line of communication. It made her realise how fragile she seemed, how their ragtag group could be overwhelmed down here where the armies above could not hear them scream. How could they stop a Blight? How could she? She was only one person versus the horde, after all.
After stumbling into a tripwire set even she could not see, they came across more wily darkspawn to kill. They did not attack right away but waited, watching, searching for weaknesses before they were revealed themselves. It was a close fight, and if it wasn't for Alistair fending off a flanking attacker to her side, she would've been dead.
"Thinking darkspawn," Alistair muttered, shakily setting his shield to right again. "That's new."
"But not smart enough," Zevran murmured. "The mabari is still smarter, I say." Dog wagged his tail at the words, too tired to bark a response at having done two men's worth of work in fighting.
Missa leant against the wall, Wynne's cooling hands searching for injuries on her bare arm. "It's unnerving, is all," she replied, watching the mage work on her wounds. "Is this because of the Blight?"
Alistair shrugged, tiredness framing his movement. "I don't know. Probably?" Was his only answer, to the disgust of Sten.
It was through tiredness she heard the whispering of the Stone again, convinced it was in her head. Could elves and humans hear it?
First day they come and catch everyone.
As she looked up, shock registered on her face that they could not only hear the echoes of the Stone but see it too. "Missa, what-" Leliana started to say, as startled as her, watching the figure of a woman seemingly disappear into the shadows of the tunnel.
Before she knew what she was doing, Missa ran, unsure what she was chasing. "Did you all see that?" She asked roughly, feet stopping finally as she tried to work out what exactly it was she saw.
"Yes," Sten replied shortly. "A small dwarven woman who looked ill."
"It was more of a wraith," Leliana murmured. "Perhaps a lost soul, no? Like the stories they tell here of the Stone."
"Whatever she was she needed a good meal and a bath. I could smell her from here, even above this filth," Zevran added. "Or a ghost, of course, as the bard says. I hope a naughty kind, naturally."
"Oh, delightful. So we're looking for a hungry ghost. What nonsense," Morrigan replied, voice cutting and sharp.
"It was a small dwarven woman," Sten reiterated. "In need of nourishment, as the elf said."
"Ah, you see? The Qunari agrees with me. Well then, moving on, shall we?"
"That is not what I said," 'the Qunari' in question replied.
"Branka," Oghren said, looking at Missa. For once, the ever-present flask of booze wasn't in his hand. "I mean, not Branka herself but... we're getting close, right? We must be. Must be one of her people."
If he thought that, then Missa thought he was more stupidly optimistic then he was letting on. "An odd way to treat one of your people if that's the case, Oghren," she said. "Come on, let's go. I want to move out of this area as soon as possible, something is not right."
The whispering woman, as the group had labeled her, greeted them again, not finished yet. Missa tried to speak, to get something out of her, but it appeared she knew the tunnels and always lingered just out of reach, refusing to interact with their group.
"I'm going to give up soon," Missa replied. "She's too half-smelted to get anything sensible out of her."
"We can't leave her, Warden," Wynne said sternly. "Something must be done." Missa felt a stab of annoyance at the mage's words and let it go, refusing to comment.
"She's crazy," Oghren stated blankly. "But then, down here is enough for crazy."
"Did you know her?" Missa asked, curious now, watching as Wynne tried to talk to the bedraggled woman this time, talking to her as she would a cornered animal, with gentle words and open arms.
"Your name, child," Wynne asked her, voice soothing.
Startled, the visibly tainted woman jerked suddenly, finally aware of her audience. "I have not heard- are you dream friends? Are you real?" Thinking the question over, she rocked slightly. "Hespith. That is my name. That is what I was called. It has been so long since I have heard that.."
"Hespith," Wynne repeated gently. "It's a lovely name."
"Where are the others?" Missa asked brusquely, trying to dig out more information.
"Branka, Branka, Branka," and Hespith smiled, itching at the black patches of her arms.
"We need to find her," Wynne replied, tone still calm. "It is why we are here."
"Does the Stone punish you too, dream friend?" Hespith asked. "I was her captain, and I did not stop her. Her lover, and I could not turn her. Forgive her, I cannot."
Finally she disappeared again, running from them all. "Leave her be," Missa said to Wynne, refusing to waste energy in a game of chase. Unlike Ruck, Missa was too tired to deal with the situation there, her heart too heavy for mercy.
Oghren took a wider swig of his flask, disturbed by the words said to them. "I didn't recognize her under all that. She was Branka's Second, you see. They always did everything together."
Something in his obviously distressed tone made her question him, but Missa was too reluctant to voice it. "We're getting close, then. Let's move on."
"This is getting creepy," Alistair muttered, poking the flesh-covered walls with his sword as they started to walk again. "More so then usual."
There had no choice where to go. The corruption was getting worse, the heat and stench enough to make her cough. More walking down an uneven tunnel and Hespith appeared again, not quite running away.
"I am sorry," she said to them, rocking slightly. "Branka, Branka led you here, led us here. She became obsessed, that is the word but it is not strong enough. Blessed Stone, there was nothing left in her but the Anvil. We tried to escape, but they found us. They took us all, turned us. The men, they kill... they're merciful. But the women, they want."
Missa's gut twisted. "Why women, Hespith?"
But Hespith did not respond, lost in her own explanation. "They want tto change until you are filled with them. They took Laryn. They made her eat the others, our friends. She tore off her husband's face and drank his blood. And while she ate, she grew. She swelled and turned gray and she smelled like them. They remade her in their image. Then she made more of them. Broodmother..."
Hespith ran off again, and this time Missa chased. As the tainted, crazed woman ran into the shadows away from her, she finally realised what it was they being led to, what it was Hespith was frightened of.
Of all the things that would stay with her, of all the things she wish she would never see, never imagine, this was it.
And it -the thing, the monster, did not want them there, as vicious and angry as the darkspawn she was used to. It attacked instantly, calling for more help to wipe their presence clean from this seemingly scared place.
So they attacked, images slowing down like a dream. Sten, Oghren, Zevran and Alistair worked on the fleshy body, as shocked as Missa at what they were attacking, thankful that her friends and followers knew enough at how they worked together to fight in instinct.
Leliana's scream filled her above the squealing of the broodmother. Missa ducked and rolled as veiny tentacles aimed for her feet swept her over, deceptively fast moving. "Shale, help me," she yelled, Dog on her heels, and the golem moved as quickly as a thing made of stone could to free Morrigan and Wynne of the constrictors that choked them.
It wasn't fast enough. Leliana was picked up and thrown across the cave, the broodmother screaming in pain as Zevran found a place to dig his daggers into flesh. Oghren was knocked back suddenly, too woozy to stand up and fight again.
The screams cries the attention of the darkspawn nearby, a macabre siren calling her kin closer. Missa dealt with them as much as she could, protecting Morrigan and Wynne alike so they could focus on their magic, despite the tentacles attacking them still.
A pitiful scream, high and sharp sounded in the chamber and finally the Broodmother died. The strange, vine-like tentacles that choked Wynne and Leliana stopped and dropped them, free of their hold.
Hespith, aware that she led them here, sobbed once. She edged forward above the chamber they were in, staring down impassively at the lip of a wall she stood on. Missa knew she was there when it started, flinching and twitching from above as they tore into the very monster she led them to.
With a final half-sob, half laugh, the tainted woman left them, and Missa found herself following.
Without thinking, Missa clambered up sticky, skin-covered walls. Finally she saw her again, tattered clothing barely covering her body, toes touching the edge of the deep ravine that was there, waiting. Missa thought she understood what just happened, but her mind could not process it fully. She wanted the abomination explained, the sickness dissected.
"That is why they take us. I loved her, dream friend," Hespith said, not quite looking her in the face. "I loved her, only her, and stood by and did nothing. Forgive her, please. No no no no no no, do not forgive her. Not what she did but what she has become. She betrayed us."
"Who?" Missa asked roughly.
"Branka, Branka, my love my only love, forgive her, don't forgive her, damn her. Stone damn her, like it has me. I did nothing, I stood by and let her, aided her."
"I will try," Missa replied quietly. "If it will give you peace."
Hespith smiled, rotten, blackened teeth showing. "I am not dying anymore. Good bye, dream friend."
Too little, too late. What remained of the woman fell, tumbling down the ravine. Missa heard the thudding of her body hitting the walls, the only sound Hespith allowed herself to make.
Missa didn't know how long she stood there, staring into the abyss where a woman took her life. She did not begrudge Hespith that, what kind of person would she be if she did? But she was angry, too inarticulate to work out the how and the why of her rage.
Somehow she stumbled on her feet, propelled by her own fury, a familiar burning that kept her going. Her party was in shambles, but all she could focus on was the visceral remains of the Broodmother -Laryn, her name- a bloated corpse spewing gangrenous blood, the stench permeating everything in hot, small cave.
Sten poked the balloon-like, bulbous sack near the remains,seemingly unperturbed by the odour and the gore. Suddenly the membrane split and fluid gushed out, the blade point marking a trail down the veined cocoon. The remains of a fleshy lump spilled onto the ground, as dead as the Broodmother. Missa edged closely, despite her revulsion and a fretful suspicion at what it was, not quite looking away.
To call it a child would be wrong, a contempt of the word. But there were small, tiny hands, closed eyelids, formed limbs she could see through the mucus, a body still despite the bloating and the distortion.
Missa put a gloved hand over her mouth, refusing to throw up, unsure how she found her feet. She moved past Sten, stumbling through the mess of the chamber to try and find a way out.
The walls narrowed, her feet stumbling along a dusty, shadowed path. She had no idea how long she walked for, aware distantly of voices calling her after her heart had finally slowed down and her senses were returning.
She ignored it until finally Zevran pulled her arm and pushed her against the wall. "We have to stop." Missa glared up at him, jaw tight with anger.
Looking behind her finally she saw only a few followed; Shale and Sten looked at her impassively, faces of stone. "Right."
"Alistair is injured, so is Leliana. Oghren somehow survives, but I believe Wynne will patch him up quickly."
Oghren. Some distant reasoning stirred and she headed back quickly, anger again propelling her feet forward. Finally she stopped by the prone form of the warrior out of his armour and covered in bandages, and of course he was drinking. "You look how I feel Warden," Oghren said after a gulp. "But the old lady there did her sparkle fingers and I ain't so holey now."
Leaning down she grabbed him by his grubby shirt and pulled him up, her shoulder muscles twinging in protest. "What are we looking for, Oghren?" Missa shouted, face obviously livid with anger even by the gloom of the Roads. "What else aren't you telling me?"
"Warden!" She was dragged from her hold of Oghren bodily by both Wynne and Leliana, the Bard's arm still in a sling from her fall. Shaking them off irritably she started to pace, aware she had to calm down.
"I've never heard of a Broodmother," Alistair said quietly. "None of the other Wardens said anything."
"They had to have come from somewhere. No wonder the Legion kept their women close to hand," Morrigan said, her magic illuminating the dirty passageway.
Missa refused to think of the taint in her blood, at the corruption slowing killing her. Shakily she wiped a dirty hand over her mouth and swallowed her revulsion once more. "Laryn. That was her name, Oghren. That thing we just killed. She was dwarva. She was us. She was-" Missa stopped her walking, but her anger was still there. "I saw Hespith kill herself. These women, you must've known them. Hespith, the one we saw, she… said they were betrayed."
"Hespith was Branka's captain," he said quietly. "I didn't know they were… comfortin' each other down here. I know as much as you."
"Branka might be dead, but her fate wasn't Laryn's," Missa replied. "Lucky her. Tell me, how many of your House do you think she killed to get this far? But it doesn't matter, right? They were only darkspawn fodder. For an Anvil."
The warrior didn't reply straight away, and refused to look at her. "I told you she was obsessed."
Finally it was enough, seeing her party like this. Something that was keeping Missa tightly wound up snapped and she slid down the cave of the wall in a crumpled heap, dirty gloves digging into her hair. Slowly she breathed, thinking things through. "Nearly at the heart of it," she murmured. "Almost there. And then we go home."
Home. What was that, anyway? She looked sideways at Alistair, past the shadows where Zevran and her mabari clung to, unsure what else to say.
"Being fleshy certainly isn't useful," Shale added pithily, having observed Missa's shouting with barely concealed contempt. "You seem to fall apart and drip ...extremities everywhere."
"We've killed enough golems this week to show your kind aren't as mortal as you like to think, Shale. Don't test me," Missa replied, voice low, trying to ignore the sounds of Oghren drinking himself into another stupor.
"Ha," was the only reply, stone feet stomping a little too loudly in the cave away from them.
She sat staring into space, finally exhausted. Sten looked down at her, arms crossed. Missa was too tired and sore to look up at the Qunari, but was very much aware of his gaze. "What?" she asked, voice rough, staring at her spot on the cave wall still.
"You should rest. It is foolish to tire yourself. Your body is a weapon, and requires maintenance. Too much work and the blade dulls. Too little and it rusts, useless in a sheath."
Coming from the Qunari it was practically a hug and an offering of warm stew. "Right, thanks Sten. Perhaps you should take that advice yourself, hmm?"
"Even the lowliest of plants need nourishment and inaction to function. Children know this. Evidently you do not." he replied neutrally, though Missa was convinces she heard a hint of irritation in his voice. Her mabari looked between them both and limped over, obviously hurt in the fight. Gently the animal leant his support against her slumped form, solid body warm and reassuring.
Finally she snapped her head up to look at the Qunari, rubbing Dog's ears distantly. "Yeah? Funny thing. There's moss that grows here in these Roads on nothing. Literally, nothing. Doesn't even need stone or light or water. It just ...exists. Never assume things are as they are just because you assume they should be."
"You are no moss, Warden. My point is still valid."
"Well spotted Sten." Missa returned to staring back at her wall, voice dry. "I'm foiled again."
The rest had avoided her, mindful of their leader's fraying temper and lost in their own thoughts and injuries, trying to make some kind of shelter as far away from the corruption as best they could. Zevran sat quietly beside her and fretted with his poisons regardless, Dog wagging his stumpy tail at his approach.
Unaware how, she had drifted off to sleep. Perhaps it was her mabari's warming presence, perhaps it was finally being left alone to sit and snap herself together, but Missa slept briefly. She drowsed only slightly, aware of a blanket draped over her. Hazily she recognised the scent of Zevran as he lingered over her briefly, her hair tucked behind her ear with a soft touch.
"Don't wake her," she heard him mutter to her mabari. "I'm watching you." Dog's reply was to sigh and shift slightly, not bothering to even dignify the exchange with a look at the assassin.
The respite did not last long, and the nightmares found her again. Lost in endless, visceral imagery of darkspawn and broodmothers she startled herself awake, Dog still asleep by her side. With a stretch Missa sat up and winced as her back protested at the movement, trying not to wake up the mabari.
She stumbled over to Alistair, the only occupant visible in their makeshift camp. "Is it bad, Miss?" he asked suddenly, drinking slowly from his canteen, miserably waving his rations at her. "All I can think of is a hot meal. I'd really, really like something to eat that isn't dried meat, exactly how can I think of food down here? I want roast potatoes, beef and gravy, and possibly spotted dick with custard for after."
"Spotted dick?" Alistair made a noise of such longing that Missa laughed until she choked. "With or without cream, Alistair? I'm curious."
"No one could do it like the cooks at the Chantry where I was taught," he replied dreamily, unaware of the real source of her amusement. "It was the only thing to look forward to on Tuesdays. It was spotted dick day then, you see. Well, if you'd been good, obviously. Meals were taken away from you if you weren't the good little Chantry boy expected of you."
"No dick if you were naughty. Right. Very cruel."
The conversation finally caught up with Alistair and he blushed furiously. "I meant the pudding. The pudding! Not- urgh, your mind is constantly in the gutter, do you know that?"
Missa ignored his protests. "Why don't we ask the others? I'm sure they can think of something to say. Zevran especially would be candid enough to offer his opinion, I'm sure. About spotted dick, I mean."
"It's a pudding! A traditional Ferelden pudding!" He cried indignantly, pointing a finger at her. "I am aware that it can mean ...something else too. Don't you dare tell the others. They already think-"
She held her fingers up in contrition and smiled, thankful that her friend could drag her miles away from even the rawest of visceral memories they both had seen. "All right, salroka, I'll spare your dignity. Only this once, though."
They sat in companionable silence and watched as a still limping Dog padded over to their location, stretching in a yawn in front of them. Finally the events of what happened caught up emotionally, both grimly reminded where they were once again. Missa kept on returning to the bodies inside the pods near the broodmother, images of half-formed bodies in mucus, as dead as the thing that bred them. If she could separate the thoughts of how they were created, she could cope.
Missa did not want to think of the woman raped and tortured to become that, the dwarven woman forced and abused and changed into a monster. Oddly the image of Rica kept on coming back to her, beaming at her little sister with such pride and love at what she had created, little Endrin happy and gurgling in her arms. It sickened Missa that her mind connected the dots in such a way, ashamed she associated her family by default with monsters.
They both startled at a sound at the end of the tunnel, hands reaching for weapons in instinct. "We shouldn't linger," she added, too worried of the after effects of staying in one place for too long, feeling the scream of the darkspawn in her head still.
Slowly she rose and began to rouse the group, pushing herself forward once more. A job was not done, and she intended to finish it.
One week later...
The armour her sister had made for her was too tight and too shiny, and Missa felt a fraud wearing it, sitting in the rooms of the royal palace gifted to her by her sister. Her posessions from the Grey Warden headquarters were shifted without questions, Rica insisting her sibling be close "to the family" during the ceremony, determined to spend time with Missa until she left her again.
It had barely been days since they left the Deep Roads, finally stumbling back to civilisation via the gates of Orzammar. Their armour, packs and tents were taken from them and burnt, deemed tainted and corrupt by the guards. She faced the Assembly with a newly forged crown in her hands in a borrowed chainmail too big for her, feeling like a child in her father's armour.
With the fresh blood of the disputing deshyrs barely scrubbed from the floor of the Assembly, Lord Bhelen Aeducan was made King of her city, Paragon-made crown resting on his brow. He had yet to speak to her about the troops needed for the surface; there was coronation politics to deal with, but a brief promise was made that their deal was still solid.
"You look very fancy," Alistair said, leaning against the door frame, watching her clean her greaves. Missa knew he was there, and found his presence comforting. "Almost respectable, even. Missa Brosca, Grey Warden."
She looked up from her work and smiled. "Hah. I must be doing something wrong, then."
"Well, I wouldn't go that far." He sat on a too small chair opposite her in a thud, new armour squeaking in protest. He wasn't happy his favourite battleplate was thrown into the lava thanks to the city's contamination rules, but seemed to be pleased with the best dwarven smiths had to offer him, shining metal gleaming and untarnished.
"I always do," Missa muttered, rubbing the polishing cloth into the joints of her boots some more.
That sat in silence until Alistair spoke again, watching his friend with concern. "You all right, Miss? I mean, I know you're not completely, you'd have to be made of stone to not be affected from what we saw."
It was too easy, and she replied lightning quick with a grin. "Good job I'm a duster, then."
"Oh, of course."
She lifted the armour up to check for spots, aware there was none. "Well then, I suppose we should be paraded about until His Royal Highness deems it proper to speak to us."
"Exciting, I can tell you're enthused with that thought as I am."
"I want to get away as quickly as I can," and finally she put the rest of her armour on, covering her too new boots with the perfectly polished greaves. "We need to get to the surface. I'm already annoyed at the fussing."
"No disagreement here. Maybe if we head back to Redcliffe, reconvene with what we have? Lands Meet isn't until another month or so... I think. I mean, it's been awhile down here. And the Blight is moving on without us."
"That's what I thought too," and she finally stood up, shaking slightly under the alien weight of the armour on her body. "I speak to the newly minted King, I get my troops, we go see daylight again. Sounds like a plan."
Whatever showed on her obviously tired face was enough for him to want to blurt out platitudes and sympathy, but Alistair knew it wouldn't get him far. Missa, however, could see he was working himself up to say something, and ignored it.
"For what it's worth," he said, making a pretence of fiddling with his gauntlets as she sighed at his outburst, "I think you made the right decisions. Down there, I mean. I've been thinking about it, what we did. It wasn't right, but-"
"Enough, Alistair," she replied wearily, exhausted of thinking about every little thing she said and did in the past week.
"I know you're upset about it all, still. What with Shale now not being here, for one. That doesn't help."
The golem, now missing from their group, was a sore point. "Enough, Alistair."
"No," he replied quietly. "You need to hear it, I think. Whatever poison Zevran dripped in your ear about Branka, it doesn't help. I know what you feel about him-"
"I feel shit about him," she snarled. "He was just a fuckin' tumble. I am aware I have better things to do then screw around when I'm meant to be killing darkspawn, but I'm only dwarva. I fuck things up occasionally. He is one."
Alistair held up his hands in defence. "I, um, wasn't exactly aiming for that but anyway. The point I was trying to make, the thing I am trying to say... urgh, I'm no good with words. I know it's probably not enough for me to say it, but. As your salroka," and the word sounded so funny in his accent, the vowels blunt and dull, "I got your back."
Missa stopped her walking and refused to look at him, biting her lip. Rather then brush him off awkwardly, she gently punched his arm, making a show of her action. "Thanks, Alistair," she said softly.
"Ah hah! See? I'm good for some things. That and witty one-liners during highly inappropriate moments, obviously. All part of the Alistair charm."
She leant in and headbutted his shoulder gently. Awkwardly Alistair shoved her back, unsure if he could hug her not. As he put his arm in to do so, Rica entered the rooms she gave her sister, baby Endrin resting on her hip. "Oh, I'm sorry!" She said, looking at the scene, unsure what was going on.
Missa sighed, knowing her sister's imagination was in all sorts of awkward to explain places. "It's okay Rica," she said dully. "Come in."
"That's my cue to leave, I think. I'll see you at the feast-coronation-party thing. Well, whatever it is." Alistair said. Quickly he bowed to her sister, every inch the gentleman. "Lovely to see you again, Rica. That dress is very fine indeed." As he straightened, he wriggled his fingers at Endrin goofily, entire face lighting up in a smile. "Hi there little guy, how you doing?"
Endrin's reaction to the big shiny man frantically waving at him was to push his face into his Mother's neck, shy at the attention. "Oh, Stone bless him, sorry Alistair! He's nervous with strangers. I had to change a few hours back, but thanks for noticing. That's babies for you, I don't know why I bother sometimes, everything ends up in dribble or sick. Oh, I'm sorry! I'm chattering on again, you don't want to hear about this."
"I wouldn't know about that, not much babies in our line of work."
Rica patted her hair nervously with her free hand and Missa rolled her eyes. "Stop it, salroka," she warned. "Before I punch you where it hurts."
Unsure what he did to incur the wrath of his friend and oblivious to the effect of his charms, Alistair frowned. "Riiiiight then. I'll be going now. See you both later, I hope," and left the two women to it in a final bow.
Rica shifted her son in her arms slightly, looking over her sister as carefully as Alistair had. "I'm glad you're home," she said. "And in one piece."
Missa snorted with laughter, ignoring the implication of the word home. "It was close."
"But you're safe now. And looking very very impressive in that armour. My sister, the Grey Warden," Rica smiled, obviously proud. "Hold your nephew for a second, I have something to give you."
Endrin grumbled slightly at being transferred, grasping for his Mother once more. "You've done enough, Rica," Missa said, embarrassed at the thought of more gifts.
"Oh, it's not much- don't worry."
Endrin wriggled more and Missa tried not to move, paranoid her armour would hurt him. As his big, trusting eyes looked for his Mother again, she smiled. "They let you have Endrin full time now?"
Rica stood up straight, her head back. "Yes," she replied quietly. "I made sure of that. Bhelen made sure of that. I took on the palace nursery staff, that was quite a fight. As fearsome as genlocks, believe me."
"Good." Her nephew began to fuss a little more and Missa jiggled him on her hip slightly. It did more harm then good and Endrin began to cry, little face screwed up tightly as he wailed for his Mother again.
As Rica made to take her son back, a wrapped package was slipped in to Missa's hands, small enough to fit in one palm. "Here, please take this. I know armour changes, but this won't, I hope."
Missa looked at her sister cautiously and opened the waxed paper. A silver necklace with a stylised bronto pendant lay there, made in delicate filigree despite the study lines of the art. It was almost a replica of the tattoo on her lower back, something Zevran put his hands on and laughed, pleased at the way the design curved her buttocks. Look, cara. They're guidelines.
She squashed down her confusion with the Antivan, unable to de-tangle her thoughts to what they were, what they should be- despite her strong words to Alistair previously about her lover. Instead she held the necklace up, Endrin grasping for the shiny thing just out of his reach. "Brosca the Bronto," she replied quietly. "It's nice."
As a child, it was an insult used against her, the equivalent of bitch or slag. Missa turned it into something to be proud of, however. A charging bronto was not something you would mock. Rather, it was something you feared. "It's how I'll always see you," Rica said.
Missa did not do confrontations well. Instead she slipped the silver chain over her head and tucked it under her armour, aware of the symbol. "I got something for you too. Well, Endrin, anyway."
"Oh, you don't have to do that. You being here is more then enough. I know you have things to do."
She walked over slowly to her belongings, hoping it would still be there. As she looked through the bags she left at the Grey Warden headquarters, she finally found it at the bottom of the canvas rucksack.
As soon as she opened her hand, her sister knew what it was. "Oh, Missa," and the chipped soapstone toy Missa's wayward father made her as a child lay there, a bronto in another form.
"Our family don't have much in the way of heirlooms. I figured this would be one, even though the horn is broken off. Actually, considering us? That makes sense, heh."
"I can't believe you took it with you," Rica said, taking it from her to show Endrin. Her son took one look at it and promptly shoved it in his mouth, already coating it in dribble.
Missa shrugged at that awkwardly. She did not want to tell her sister she returned to their Dust Town hovel during her return, crawling on her hands and knees in the dust and dirt to find it. "Well, it's Endrin's now. I know he'll have diamonds to play skimstone with and a gold-plated spoon to feed himself, but I figured it'll be nice to have a reminder of what Brosca is. Or was."
Rica held her head up again. "Definately was, Missa. I'll teach him that, don't worry." As she jiggled Endrin in her arms she sighed. "I should get back, as nice as this has been. I'm meant to be mingling. As should you be, actually. The nobles are asking after you, how exciting is that?"
"Thrilling," Missa dead-panned.
"You better make sure you come," Rica warned, voice suddenly steely. "No hiding either."
"I'll do my best."
As Rica made to leave, she half turned. Endrin styill had the bronto toy in his mouth, tiny fists holding onto it tightly. "Could you... could you look in on mother for me? She was too unwell to make the coronation," her sister said quietly. "I have to get back, Lady Thend is waiting for me, you see, and-"
"It's fine," Missa replied quickly, aware of the subtle guilt her sister was currently ladling on her. "Near your rooms, right?"
"Yes, just down the hall. I'll see you soon, little sister."
As Rica walked out, Missa sat down heavily. The last thing she wanted was to see her Mam, but she was aware she was avoiding her.
While she knew she had changed, she was unsure her Mother had, and selfishly she wanted no reminders of her old life. She joked and said she was a duster and casteless with her friends, but the reality was subtly different, neither one or the other. She could no more return to Dust Town to live then she could not be a Grey Warden, the taint in her blood changing her body still.
Missa Brosca put on her gloves and walked out of the rooms given to her by a King's mistress, finally facing the one thing she needed to do to kill the last of the duster in her. It wasn't quite as pretty as wearing expensive, heavy armour, or as easy as slipping on a necklace, but it had to be done.
The dead duster was not quite dead, but a few more nails into the coffin and she would be.
Author's Note: Overdue update is overdue! During that time I've done a lot of painting and drawing, taken up combat classes (channelling my inner Missa is fun) and still kept up with the fandom, never quite leaving.
This is the second to last chapter of Dead Duster Walking before the sequel comes out.