Whelp, I told myself I'd try to get back to this story, and after Snafu1000's mass repost of Moments in Time and her continuing chapters I felt like I was out of excuses! I'm hoping to dedicate more time to it now. This one was difficult for me to write and probably not my best chapter, as the main voice in it was really difficult for me to latch into. Thank you for all the reviewers who have stuck around and PM'd me to ask about updates. Usual disclaimer applies.
Whether in human form or clad in the skins of beasts, these creatures were no less bent on violence than they had been hundreds of years ago. But at least for centuries it had been the animal savagery natural to their current forms. They were easy to predict, easy to avoid, and while the occasional bold hunter paid for his over-confidence with his life, the clan had barely been effected by them in their beast form. At least nowhere near as much as they had when the monsters had been human. But from the moment Zathrian had led his people into the forest this year, he had noticed the difference in the attacks. Brutality had pared with human cunning and every day for weeks a patrol had been lost or come back crippled with wounds that eventually claimed their lives or turned them.
He should have expected it. For the past few years, he had been receiving messages in his dreams, and through the tug of his connection to the curse. He had even been sent chunks of bark and stone, crude letters scored with claws spelling out pleas for release. That had troubled him. The werewolves had been mindless for so long, and there was no reason why they should have suddenly remembered how to communicate with more sentient beings. It didn't take him long to work out the source of their new abilities, and after that he had staunchly ignored all attempts to get his attention. This wound had bled so long he knew it would never heal, and he would never release the monsters from their curse. The world could turn into dust around him and he would still bind them to it as animals.
He owed his children that much, for his failure in saving them.
The arrival of the Grey Wardens had seemed like providence. His clan, who had held him in such reverence for so long, was starting to blame anybody they could for the attacks, and the fables of his power were beginning to let him down. He could see the resentment in the eyes of men and women he'd dandled on his knee as children, blaming him for not being able to do enough to stop this, and the guilt that followed. Being able to send somebody else to finally claim Witherfang's heart had been a relief, even if he did not truly expect them to succeed.
Jaiden. What a strange flat-ear she was. She had ordered about the human man and the kosslith without a hint of the nervousness most city-born elves would have shown. She had gathered to her side a creature of living rock, assassins, mages, warriors, almost all her companions human. And every single one of them had deferred to her. He knew he couldn't tell her the truth about Witherfang. She had too much sympathy with humans for that. Given how aggressive the werewolves had been, it seemed likely that they would all try to carve her up for being an elf, and she could cut her way through to Witherfang without learning of the details that might turn her against her current cause.
But still. She was an unpredictable woman and he couldn't possibly know how she might decide to proceed if she learned the truth. As he walked through the forest he was shocked by the trail of violence he followed; werewolf corpses, of course, but also darkspawn, mages, and there were areas where the Veil was torn wide open, the sensation of powerful and evil magic like brushing against a raw nerve. Whatever had come through those openings had been put down as brutally as everything else, and Zathrian was able to walk through the forest unchallenged.
It gave him too much time to dwell. Being the Keeper kept him busy, distracted him, stopped him from thinking about his children. The grief and horror of finding his son's body eclipsed by the realisation of what they'd done to his daughter. The flatness of his beautiful girl's gaze when he'd told her what the humans had left her with should have warned him. If he'd known, he could have done something, could have talked her out of it – to what end? To live with the memory of what the humans had done to her, maybe to forever resent the half-breed child she would have borne? Death had been a mercy for her, but it had only steeled Zathrian's resolve. Hate for the monsters burned in him as fresh as it had the day he cast the curse, but now he reflected on it he felt a weariness with it. He'd been holding this grief and anger for so long. He wanted Witherfang dead, and an end to all of this. The werewolves would die, and so would everybody infected. It was an enormous sacrifice for some measure of peace. But he ached for it.
So he wasn't leaving things to chance. Jaiden and her group had cleared most of the way for him. He was old, but he was yet powerful, and if he could get close enough he could claim Witherfang's heart for himself. It might even be better this way. He would have the satisfaction of watching the descendants of those scum die around him. Perhaps on some other plane, the bastards who had caused all this pain in the first place would look down and see the slaughter of their sons and daughters, and at last know the pain that Zathrian had carried all these years.
He met them coming the other way. Every member of the group looked haggard and heavy with the blood drying on their armour. He didn't even begin slightly to hope. Down here, close to the source, the connection to the curse was stronger than ever and he knew that Witherfang still lived. Still, he feigned surprise to see them and asked if Jaiden had the heart.
She didn't try to lie to him, at least. The elven Warden looked as though she had gained twenty years in the last three days, and as Zathrian looked over the group he noted that one of their number was missing. Dead, he hoped. Jaidan's voice was harsh as she explained what she'd seen, and Zathrian came to understand. So. Rather than presenting as a wolf as he'd expected, the spirit he'd summoned had taken the guise of a lady and learned to control the werewolves. Which meant she was the one responsible for the vicious and clever attacks on his clan.
Dalish lore taught that there were not good and spirits as the humans thought. All spirits required a wary approach and a careful hand, and Zathrian had not been careful enough. He'd thought that by bounding the spirit to the body of a wolf, it would have the mind of one. Instead he'd created a powerful and ultimately angry entity. It had to die today. And it seemed like the Wardens would have to die with it. If the clan found out about him, curse broken or not, he would be turned out like a common murderer.
As expected, Jaiden tried to persuade him to side with the werewolves. She claimed they were in full possession of their own minds, and simply wanted to be allowed to change back.
"And then what? Do you think they'll just return to the human lands and leave us alone?" Zathrian appealed to her directly. "You've lived in their cities. You'll know the cruelties of which they are capable. If they don't starve to death while learning how to be human again, they'll find other humans and lead them against us. My clan will be hunted and attacked like animals and the cycle of revenge will continue unabated. The only way for an end to this is for me to cut out Witherfang's heart. Then there will be peace and you will have the troops you need for the Blight."
And she needed them desperately. Zathrian had sensed the swell of the great horde. Entire armies would be needed to beat back the Blight, and every day wasted on this curse was another day when the darkspawn spread their pestilence further across Ferelden. And he could see that she knew it.
The human woman with the bow on her back spoke up, her expression challenging. "The Lady suggested that there is a way to end the curse without killing all afflicted by it. Our companion has been turned and we need him as he was."
He affected sympathy. "I am sorry to hear that. Truly. But your friend is gone. If anything of his mind remains, it is as a thrall of the Lady, and if he strays too far from her side he will become a mindless beast. Would it not be better to release him from the agony of his new existence?"
"Not if there's another way." The elder mage's voice was stern. "Is it really worth continuing this curse? These wolves are the descendants of the ones who hurt your family. They offered you no harm until you ignored their pleas for forgiveness."
So the Lady had been honest about that, at least. It did not stop the bitterness welling up in him anew, and snapping at her. "You were not there! You did not see what they did to my son – my daughter! So many fell to them as humans and as beasts they have begun again. There is no difference one way or another. They have to die." He turned to Jaiden. "You will have seen your people suffer at the hands of humans. Did you not wish pain unending on them?"
He felt the mood shift as every face stiffened, and the red-headed human laid her hand on Jaiden's shoulder. Jaiden locked eyes with him. "I tore apart the man who violated my cousin. He was so bloodied that he was barely recognisable anymore. I cut him and every person there responsible for taking her to pieces. But I didn't find their families and punish their children for their crimes."
Further reason would be useless. He had to get to Witherfang. Zathrian lifted his hands in a gesture of defeat. "Very well. I fail to see the use, but I will speak with the beasts, and their spirit."
He would have to act quickly. Once he turned on the wolves, Jaidan might stand against him, and given how she and her companions had fought their way through the forest she might actually be a greater threat than all of the beasts. But for that, she was nowhere near his equal in power. Neither were the two mages that accompanied her. His centuries had not been spent on mourning alone.
The stench of a hundred werewolves living together underground pressed in on him. Further proof, if it were needed, that these creatures really were animals, only responding to their so-called Lady like the mimicking birds that lived in the hotter parts of Thedas. There would be no intelligence behind their words. There was certainly none to be discerned as they reached the bowels of the ruins and stepped in amongst a mass of huge, hairy bodies. The air was thick with the heat of so many packed into one space, and the rumbling growls from a hundred throats rose to a roar as he walked amongst them. Savage, and animal, and thoroughly deserving of their fate. And standing directly in the one beam of light in this dank place, the spirit.
She had chosen a human form, or close enough to it, showing just where her allegiances lay. The Veil seemed to shimmer around her, and Zathrian heard things beyond it, whispering and tempting. He had not been a green apprentice Keeper in many centuries now, and paid the sounds no mind. "So you've taken a name, spirit. And named your pets."
One spoke to him, barely coherent around the growls that chased every word. Zathrian did not give the creature the satisfaction of looking at it. Instead he met the spirit's eyes, narrowing his own as it claimed that the wolves had in fact been the ones to name her. Perhaps so, but without the spirit they would not have been able to do even that. Looking around, he could certainly see now that he'd made a mistake. He should have wiped out all these beasts long ago. What he had created was too dangerous to be allowed to continue. At least he could maybe finish it here.
He could not disguise his intent with his words, and had no desire to do so further. He knew how this would end, but the spirit seemed determined to believe otherwise. "There is room in your heart for compassion, Zathrian. Surely your retribution is spent."
How could anyone or anything believe that? He only had to close his eyes to see his daughter's face, her once light eyes dimmed with pain as he informed her in a voice that had shaken with rage that the humans had left her with child. His son's throat, slashed. And then his daughter, again, sprawled on the floor of the aravel, blood-tinged froth gathering at the corners of her mouth and the black hue of her lips betraying the deathroot that she had used to take her life. Pain on pain on pain, and he had carried his failure to save them all this time. The monsters should bear the weight of it as long as he did, but clearly now an end had come. He resolved it would not be to their advantage. "My retribution is eternal, spirit. As is my pain. This is justice, no more."
Perhaps the spirit realised that persuading him would come to nothing. Instead she sought to undermine his would-be allies, and revealed the truth of what would happen to him if the curse was ended without bloodshed. Jaiden's gaze slid to him as he angrily denied it, her expression shrewd. "So would Zathrian's death end the curse?"
She would do it, there was no question. Her ears might be pointed but there was nothing else in common they shared, nothing at all that would stop her from trying to slay him if she felt it would be the best course of action. Zathrian's lips curled upwards, his smile mirthless. It would not be so easy as that for her. The so-called Lady said as much, but her werewolves took no heed; their alpha demanded that they rip Zathrian to shreds on the spot. Beasts.They had no more understanding than the pretty mimicking birds that lived in the northern reaches of Thedas. "What would you gain from killing me? Only I know how the ritual ends, and I will never do it!"
The beasts roared around them, clawing at the air, and the alpha lowered his head, half-crouched to charge. The Warden had gone out of her way to help these creatures and now there were demands for her entire company to be torn apart along with Zathrian, despite the fact it would do nothing at all. For the last time, he demanded that she see sense. He'd seen so many like her pass through his clan over the years – willful young women and men who felt that they knew the best course of action, and they usually paid the price for not listening. She'd allowed him to get this far into the ruins, so he gave her one last chance to help her. "Do what you have come here to do, Grey Warden, or get out of my way."
Jaiden looked away from him, turning about to face her companions. The witch seemed supremely unbothered by what was happening, but the others all met her gaze with the same set look, and Jaiden nodded before turning back to him. "You will end the curse, Zathrian. I won't let you punish these people for what their ancestors did any longer."
And how do you propose on doing that? Sorrow pinched at him as he looked at Jaiden. So many of his kin had died already because of this, and in killing her he would be robbing Ferelden of its last Grey Warden, now that Jaiden's companion had become one with the beasts. But the alternative – letting these creatures walk free – could not be contemplated. He would not do it. "Then you will die with them."
The magic of this place was already strong, the Veil thin enough for him to draw the magic through in seconds. Great limbs of wood burst up through the paving and started to swat the attacking wolves away like flies, and the spirit was forced to take its true form. The white wolf howled as it was trapped, easy prey for when he would take the heart.
He had only taken a step towards it when a chunk of stone caught him in the stomach, sending him staggering back. He barely managed to raise an arcane shield to protect himself from the lightning that followed, and then turned about as Jaiden's other friends descended on him. The kosslith cleaved his way through the thick tree limbs in his way, and the two elves had dodged nimbly around them, blades out. Zathrian spun his staff and vines snagged around ankles and wrists, trying to hold them, but the sweat beaded on his forehead with the effort of managing so many different spells at once.
Age had not left him completely untouched, and while he could guard against magic and blades, he did not account for the fleet feet of the red-headed human. Somehow between the gaps of two writhing branches she found her mark, and a dull thud preceded the pain that welled up in his shoulder, and the blood that seeped around the arrow. It was nowhere near a mortal wound, and neither was it intended to be. Somehow in the chaos of the fight the woman had remembered the imperative of keeping him alive, and he had long enough to acknowledge the thought before Jaiden and the kosslith seized each of his arms, tearing his staff from his grip and throwing it away with a clatter.
He could still send lightning charging through both of them, enough to kill them, and then focus on picking off the others one by one. But the werewolves were still trying to get through to him and the arrow in his shoulder and the effort of caging the spirit was too much. And with a sinking feeling he knew he could not defeat them.
But he didn't haven't to show them mercy. He didn't have to give in to their demands.
"Enough. I yield." The words tasted bitter. He had never succumbed to an enemy in his life, and to have to surrender before these particular enemies was the worst kind of pain. One of the werewolves growled.
"Finish it! Kill him now!"
Yes. Kill me. Trap yourselves like this forever. And I will maybe see my son and daughter again.
The spirit was not that merciful, and it bade the wolf to stand down. It preached mercy, but mercy was an easy thing to preach when it served the ulterior motive. The spirit wanted freedom from its form, and had made the werewolves believe they wanted the same. Without it, they probably would have been content to spend their days fighting and rutting and occasionally attacking the unlucky traveller who crossed their paths.
He looked down at the ground. The patterned dais was cracked and almost overgrown by vines, but he could still see some of the imagery beneath. Elves who had lived even before he had done had made their home here, beneath the ground. Now animals squatted in the ruins, with no thought for what had come before. "I cannot do as you ask, spirit. I am too old to know mercy. All I see are the faces of my children, my people. I...I cannot do it."
"Yes you can." Jaiden's voice was blunt, and he turned his head to study her. Scratches covered her face and she was obviously exhausted from the trials of the last few days, but she was still upright, still willing to defy him rather than searching for the easiest end to this. She could murder him and use the werewolves as her allies instead. She chose differently. "Enough is enough, Zathrian."
The elder mage nodded. "Your vengeance will be the undoing of your clan. What is all your effort worth if this feud only costs more of your people's lives?"
They'd made the point before. Only now did it come to settle on him properly. He still wanted every last one of these monsters to suffer for what they'd done over the last few months, but if he'd acquiesced to their request for release earlier...he'd have been dead, but so many would have been spared. He had allowed himself to be blinded and he realised, for the first time, that his children would have been ashamed of him.
"Perhaps I have...lived too long. This hatred in me is like an ancient, gnarled root...it has consumed my soul." He could not get rid of it, but he felt the weight of it like he had never done before. He felt so tired, so old. His gaze drifted towards the spirit. Fear of his own end had played some part in his refusal to end the curse. The Lady seemed to have no such qualms.
"I have known pain and love, hope and fear, all the joy that is life. Yet of all things I desire nothing more than an end. I beg you, maker...put an end to me. We beg you...show mercy."
An end...would be good. Not to have to live with the pain of his failure any longer, to wake up in the night with his son and daughter's bloodied faces dancing before his eyes. He had thought it a strength not to succumb to the urge to end it before. Now he wondered if it might not have been a weakness after all. He could feel his heart thudding around the arrow still buried in his shoulder and a weariness that went down to his bones. "It is time, I think. Jaiden." The Warden tilted her head at him. "Hand me my staff, please."
Jaiden looked warily at him, but the Lady nodded and she went to pick it up, before placing it carefully in his hands. He managed a brief smile for her. "Would that you had been born a Dalish, child." She would have been pride of the clan lucky enough to have her. He turned back to to the Lady. "Let us put an end to it all."
He straightened, as much as he was able. The magic that bound him to the spirit was strong, and he felt it so keenly here, the line between it and himself. He could see the thread, and lifted his staff, preparing to severe it.
The faces of everyone he'd known passed through his mind. His wife, his children. The many he had helped rear and train and lead over the centuries. The people he'd loved and lost. The pain he'd endured, the joy he had felt. He said goodbye to it all, and brought his staff sharply against the ground.
He felt himself falling, felt the soft hands that caught him, and saw the light streaming through the broken ceiling. He let out his last breath, the sweet sound of his children's voices in his ears, and was gone.
In death, Zathrian looked smaller, as though his soul had been filling out his skin and now there was nothing left to do that. Jaiden shut his eyes and looked up as the werewolves gathered around the Lady. There was something in the beastly faces that looked tender, sorrowful even, and Jaiden willingly leaned into Leliana as the bard crouched beside her and put an arm around her shoulders, swallowing back the lump in her throat.
White light filled the room, so intense that Jaiden had to cover her eyes. When the light stopped seeping through her fingers and the strange, otherworldly breeze had died away, she dropped her hands again. The spirit was gone. Where there had been werewolves were now dozens of completely unclothed people, apparently giving no thought to their state of undress. Swiftrunner had turned into a man not that different from the wolf, tall and burly with thick hair on his chest. Jaiden tried to keep her focus on his eyes as he spoke. The curse had left a mark; the irises were the golden of the wolves. He held his hands out before him, studying them in wonder as he worked the digits. All around the others affected by the curse prodded and poked at themselves and each other, marvelling at their new forms. Jaiden looked around for Alistair, but did not immediately spot him, and had to return her attention to the – was it right to still call him an alpha? - to Swiftrunner, as he straightened up.
"You broke the curse."
Jaiden shook her head. "I didn't really have much to do with it." Without the others Zathrian would have flattened her like a bug during the fight, assuming she could even have got that far on her own. And she had nearly driven her companions to dangerous levels of exhaustion chasing after Alistair. Where is he?
"You and your companions guided Zathrian here, and allowed an end to all of this." He put a foot back and bowed his head, an animal gesture of submission. Many of the others followed suit.
Once again Jaiden experienced a sensation of the uncanny. She had certainly never imagined herself to be in a position with dozens of naked humans bowing to her. It felt uncomfortable. "Stand. I had selfish reasons for it. I needed an end one way or another."
Swiftrunner stood upright again and nodded. "The Blight. We felt the taint creeping across the land. More than one of the pack was lost to the sickness after fighting with the darkspawn. Should you have need of us in your fight, send word and we will come." The smile that pulled at his mouth looked uncomfortable, as though he wasn't used to making shapes with it. "Once we are ready, of course. It will take...time, to adjust to being like this."
"There are pieces of armour scattered all over the ruins." Zevran had been looking very much at home surrounded by all the unclothed people, but now he spoke practically. "That will be enough to ensure modesty, as unnecessary as I wish that measure was." He grinned easily, but his gaze was flitting around in a slightly wary fashion. There was still no sign of Alistair.
"Will you be able to find your way out of the forest?" Leliana addressed Swiftrunner, and Jaiden turned her gaze on the bard. They hadn't had more than a few seconds alone here and there since entering the forest. Jaiden wanted to lean in to her and fall asleep. Anger had managed to sustain her a considerable way but she was no beserker. As if picking up on her thoughts, Leliana's fingers wove with hers, and Jaiden leaned against her shoulder.
Swiftrunner indicated that they would, and that they would find their way to the nearest village to begin their new lives. "After that, you may wish to travel to Redcliffe," Sten contributed. "The arl will welcome new recruits."
That was a good idea, and the plan agreed upon. Jaiden was still uncertain as to how well normal humans would react to these yellow-eyed giants – every one of them was very tall – but as long as they worked hard and made an effort to integrate, it should be fine. Besides, she was too distracted to give it much further thought. "Where is Alistair?"
Swiftrunner bowed his head. "Forgive me." Jaiden's heart lurched for a moment. "He had to be contained. Some come under the curse with more difficulty than others." He left the dais and walked to a door on the far side of the room, his unsteady gait indicating how unused he was to his new feet. He wrapped his hands around the bolt securing the door and pulled it free.
Alistair half-fell out, having apparently been pressed against the door on the other side, and he quickly pulled up sharply, hands covering himself as his face turned crimson. The curse had left its touch on him as well, and hazel eyes were now lit gold. It would have been eerie, if Jaiden had not been so relieved to see him alive. She darted forward and flung her arms around her fellow Warden.
In that moment it really sunk in how desperately she'd wanted him to be alive. He was her brother by dint of the taint in their blood, and the knowledge that he could have been lost if she had gone along with Zathrian's original plan made her feel sick to her stomach. Alistair wound his arms around her as well, and they stood there, swaying for a moment until Alistair cleared his throat.
"Not that I'm not pleased to see you, but this is really uncomfortable." Jaiden let out a hiccoughing laugh as she pulled away from Alistair, allowing the others to crowd around and express relief that he was all right (except for Morrigan, who stayed in the background actually looking mildly amused for once). Alistair's cheeks pinked further at all the attention. "Has anybody got some trousers?"
And there we go, eight months of brainpain later, this chapter is done. Filler chapter next then it's onto Orzammar!