A/N: Woah. Heavy stuff implied here. Thanks as ever to Crisium, who approved of my madness. One chapter to go.. AND THEN IT'S SEQUEL TIME!
"You're kidding." The look on the king's face is almost hysterical, if it were not for their friend lying nearly-comatose by their elbows. Therrin shakes her head adamantly.
"It was the plant."
"You do realise you sound like a crazy person, right?"
"They'll never believe it."
"No, Alistair." Exasperation now.
"But you want me to go in there and.. and tell the Bannorn.. that a plant just tried to kill Teagan."
"Well, come on!" He's on his feet now, pacing again out of a lack of anything else to do. "They're going to want some sort of explanation, and I'm out of ideas."
She folds her arms, sitting back in her chair and watching him with narrowed eyes. "Then don't say anything. Until Stephen comes back with some sort of news, we don't have to hold court. You're king," she reminds him, the hint of a smile on her face for a moment. He opens his mouth to argue, to point out that the Bannorn would never just stop because he tells them to – and then he laughs, a slightly hysterical sound that has Therrin reaching for his arm as his knees buckle and he slumps back in his seat, shaking with laughter still.
"Sorry, my love," he chuckles. "Just the idea of me telling all those nobles to wait five minutes whilst we sort ourselves out.. I can just about handle the decision of what to have for dinner."
"Alistair.. like it or not, you are king. I didn't put you on the throne just because I didn't agree with Anora, you know. I did it because the country needs someone who cares, and who can make the big decisions on behalf of the people. You can be that person, if you start believing it as much as I do. So let's start with this one, okay?" She smiles gently. "Given that we have no information on this plant, a dear friend still asleep, a handmaiden in hysterics and a gardener who is quite obviously not himself.. what should we do, my king?"
He drags her into the garden, and she pales at the sight of the plant – taller than the king now, and swaying despite the lack of breeze, the bud almost looks as if it is smiling. Tendrils curled in lazy piles around the garden glisten in the moonlight, their spikes dark. Audrey shakes her head.
"M-Mister Cullen, I d-don't think we sh-should go n-near that.."
The man smiles that dangerous smile. "Audrey, it's alright. It won't attack me."
"It's n-not n-natural.. Arl T-Teagan.."
"He was not wanted here. But you, sweet divine Audrey.." He sweeps her up in a tight embrace, leaving her slightly breathless with his sudden closeness. "You are perfection, you know. Honest and true." Fingers glide deftly over her cheek, following the blush down to her neck with the lightest of touches. "Your heart is pure, your mind unfettered by worry and stress.. no traumas, no nightmares.." She opens her mouth to ask him how he would even begin to know this sort of information, but he leans in, lips barely an inch away from hers. Her breath catches in her throat. "You would make a wonderful bride," he whispers, and a thrill runs down her spine despite the warmth of his body. A vision, unbidden, springs into her mind – her and him, blessed by the elders and the royals, a garden filled with roses and his laughter.. and more, a child..
"Audrey." The king's voice cuts across the night like a blade. "Step away from him." She turns her head to look at him – he is in simple splintmail, sword and shield in hand and the queen behind him looking like stone and ice and strength. The tension rises. Cullen laughs, and she has never heard a more terrifying sound.
"Grey Wardens." But the voice is not Cullen's. She turns, horrified, to stare at the plant – the bud acting as a mouth, the vines whipping up around them. "So you have come to me at last." Struggling against the man holding her still, her voice starting to raise in a cry for help, she is silenced by Cullen's lips, Cullen's tongue, a strange sensation creeping down her throat -
She staggers as the man is wrenched from her, pushed back by a sledgehammer of ice.
"Leave her alone," growls Therrin. Cullen reels, but the smile on his face is not moved.
Alistair directs his attention to the plant. "Why can't we sense you?"
"It is not blood." Audrey has no idea what that means, but the opportunity to dash behind Therrin is not wasted. She stumbles slightly as the queen pulls her from the line of fire, shaking in her arms. "That which you would call the taint is not easily detected by hot-blooded creations when it is not housed within similar circumstances. I have no blood for you to sense, therefore I have grown unnoticed."
"What is th-that.. thing?" she whispers, and Therrin freezes above her, eyes fixed on the gardener. In front of them, Alistair swears under his breath.
"Ah, you have noticed my effect on your.. friend," calls the plant, its sickly grin widening. "His lady friend seemed to enjoy herself at any rate."
"Shut up." The queen's voice is like a hard line as she straightens up. "What did you do to Cullen?" As she speaks, his body becomes rigid, jerky, like a puppet controlled by an inept master. A vine whips around his leg, ripping into flesh with ease as his eyes roll into the back of his head and his limbs shake. "What are you doing to Cullen?" she shouts. Audrey can only watch in horror as his mouth opens and a wordless cry rips forth from his throat.
Alistair roars, launching forward with his shield as he slams into Cullen, sword coming down on the spiked vine with all the force he could muster. He stumbles as the plant shrieks, its grip on Cullen slack as the man flies into the wall and lies still. Therrin shoots off a fireball straight at the bulbous bud, deflected by a mesh of thick leaves.
"How dare you!" it rasps, but already the king is rallying, his mage at his back with a rush of ice and flame. "My master will not forgive you lightly!" It deflects another fireball, leaves dropping in a pile of cinders. "The Architect sent me with a message!" And that gives Therrin pause – pause enough to stop Alistair for a moment with a barked command. He pulls back, sword still raised.
Audrey watches from the sidelines, having crawled to Cullen's side. He breathes, which is a relief, but she cannot shake her ill-feeling. And then she hears it – a chant of some sort, a drone of noise that rings in her ears and makes her head fuzzy. She looks up to the queen, whose head turns sharply to stare at her, the look of horror clear. Reaching up a hand to claw at her robes, she stumbles forward, sharp pains in her throat and head preventing her from crying out as she trembles.
She can hear them, faintly. The king and queen, calling her name – but there is nothing around her, no ground beneath her, no air above.. and soon, silence falls around her like a curtain. She floats, the sound of the call teasing through her. She understands with a strange clarity now what the enchanting voice is. An Old God, divine and yet impure, slumbering in the dark since the dawn of man and He is so cold and alone..
She follows it. Flowing through the nothingness, she somehow finds a direction. The call pulls at her, gently coaxing her into the darkness. Was it fair, it reasoned, that Man could be forgiven his transgresses, but a God, greater than all, could not be? Was it fair to be left alone in the dark? Audrey knew about these things, it pointed out. She had been alone so many times, in the shadowy corners of the Alienage. She was still alone in the castle of stone and humans, even in the garden with her human love so simply unrequited..
It hurts her chest, this toxin in her veins, and she is reminded of the roses with their blight-spattered leaves. She wonders if Cullen is here in this empty space, following the call. She hopes he is not as lonely as she is.
She turns around. That voice is one she knows, though she cannot place it. There is nothing here, the call reminds her insistently. But her memory is tugged, the face of a young mage.. what was his name?
"Audrey, can you hear us?"
That was an important voice. Royalty. Female.
The call turns her head back, almost angry now. Alone, it reminds her. Completely alone. Forward into the darkness, on and on until we are one..
Everything lurches. She falls forward.