A/N: Last time on Life on Thedas; resolving to defeat Flemeth and save Morrigan, our party finds themselves betrayed from within.
Music (just add to the end of the Youtube address); /watch?v=iIy85KLfOVU Play right as you start reading.
/watch?v=EaAq7X-q-6E Play from 'I help the wounded traveller up'
/watch?v=X4-Y9Fjvdbk Play from "That's not good."
/watch?v=4yAVPny6Q10 Play from 'except for Malcom, of course'.
"Move and he dies," Malcolm commanded. I couldn't turn my head to look, but I could feel the others freeze in place. Malcolm's spear lay light across my throat, the heavy blade poised to strike. Its wielder stood just off to my left. It felt like the slightest movement would mean my death.
"Why?" I managed to ask, my throat scraping dangerously against the blade as I spoke. Malcolm remained silent. He wasn't looking at me. He couldn't bring himself to look me in the eye.
"Come now Malcolm, do not be rude," Flemeth said with a smirk. "Your friend asked you a question."
"Not this," the Chasind man said quietly. "Anything but this."
"The betrayer has standards!" Flemeth exclaimed mockingly. "Then allow me to explain."
The witch strolled towards us, not even giving Malcolm a sideways glance. Her gold eyes fixed on us all in turn, and as her gaze passed over me I felt as if my heart would stop.
"Let me tell you a tale," the old sorceress announced theatrically. "The tale of an unassuming man that once lived not far from here. This man lived a hard life, but he was content, for he had a wife and a daughter that he loved with all his heart."
"Please, no," I heard Malcolm whisper. If Flemeth heard him, she pretended not to.
"And yet this life was not meant to be," the Witch went on. "For one day this man came across a traveller attempting to defend himself from darkspawn. He chose to aid the traveller, and slew five darkspawn with ease. The traveller was impressed by the hunter's skill, and would have perished before his fellows arrived to save him had he not been helped. And what reward did he bestow upon this honourable hunter?"
She fixed Malcolm with a lingering look, "Conscription."
"This man was taken forcibly by the Wardens. He drank of darkspawn blood and survived. Yet he defied his fate and escaped, returning to his family. How long was it, Malcolm?"
"... Three months," the Chasind Warden replied hesitantly.
"No. How long until you agreed to betray your comrades for me?" Flemeth asked with a mocking smile.
"They were not my comrades," Malcolm's voice wavered.
"Of course," Flemeth said. "Does this extend to those soldiers you deserted at Ostagar?"
The clearing went very quiet.
"You... you..." Malcolm was struggling for words, the warring emotions clear on his face.
"Your comrades, slaughtered in the field at Ostagar. Are they worthless compared to the family you failed to save-"
"Be silent, witch!" Malcolm yelled.
"Know your place, Malcolm!" Flemeth snapped back. Malcolm recoiled like a scolded dog. Flemeth's gaze returned to us.
"Kill them," she said. "Kill them and your debt is paid."
"Malcolm, wait-" I started.
My armoured hand shot up of its own accord and batted the blade aside. He recovered quickly, but I drew my bastard sword faster than he could react and blocked his retaliatory swing. The traitor Warden flicked my sword aside with the crossguard of his spear and struck with the spiked butt of the weapon. Again I deflected it with my armoured hand.
None of this I did consciously.
I felt pain sear my arm, and dropped my sword. The same inner pressure, threatening to burst from within. I clutched my arm and fell to my knees, feeling power radiate from it. Just like in the Deep Roads.
"Stay back!" I managed to order. The party listened.
Malcolm thrust his spear towards my face. My head jerked aside, and I grabbed the spear by the shaft just behind the crossguard. The wide blade had cut me along the cheek bone, but not seriously. Malcolm pulled, but he couldn't wrench the weapon free.
I could see the glow building around my arm again. A bright green light flickered in and out in the centre of my palm, growing stronger. She was coming back. I tried to force my arm to move, take even a finger off the spear. Nothing. My armoured hand slowly rose and brushed against the cut on my cheek. I brought it in front of my face, and stared at the drops of blood clinging to the metal. I knew the power Malcolm had just let me unleash.
My mouth smiled. My hand rose. I felt the power, just as I had so long ago. Malcolm stiffened, able to let out only a strangled grunt of pain. With a flick of my wrist I forced him to withdraw his spear. I saw Flemeth look on, curious.
"An abomination. My my, today is full of surprises," the Witch remarked.
I was going to do it again. Just like with Zathrian – only this time... I don't know if I can stop it.
But you don't want to stop it, do you?
I do! Blood magic is evil.
Malcolm betrayed you, betrayed everyone for his own gain. He deserves to be punished.
No. Never... I could never control someone like that again-
But you liked it. Oh, how it excited you. To have them dance for you, to pull their strings. You desire to see all kneel before you.
Malcolm's mind lay before my eyes like an open book. There was nothing I could do but watch as memories flooded into me.
I help the wounded traveller up. I take his cloak to check his injuries, and recognize his armour. It bears the heraldry of the Grey Wardens. This is a good development – how would a mighty and powerful Warden reward his saviour. If only I had known. Had I known, I would have slit his throat there and then, left him to die with the rest of the monsters.
Ferelden has need of Grey Wardens, he says. It needs men of skill, like me. A Warden bears the Right of Conscription. With but a single word he takes my home, my family, everything I have ever held dear.
Memories fluttered past, like turning pages.
I am a Grey Warden. The Maker lets me survive their Joining, survive to serve penance for a crime I cannot fathom. Their comforts, their excuses, ring hollow. I leave that night. For all their legendary renown, these Wardens do not even notice my absence until I am halfway to Lothering.
What a fool I was. What a fool to think they would not pursue me, let go of their prize. A Warden must give all for their duty. I could never see them again. Never.
Another rush of thoughts, feelings, regrets.
I kill again, and again, and again. The darkspawn come at their hated enemy the 'Warden' without a thought for those he protects. I fight until the Wilds themselves are soaked with their tainted blood – blood that now lives within me. Every thrust of my spear allows my family one step further away. Further from danger. Further from me.
"He is in so much pain."
Time seemed to halt in its tracks. A figure appeared behind Malcolm, wreathed in shadow. She stood close, staring at me.
"He is a husk of a man, twisted by hate and bitterness. Why do you recoil at the thought of killing such a mindless puppet?"
She stroked the frozen Warden's face. "He would thank you for it."
My hand twitched. It would be so easy. Make him place the spear point at his throat and push. So simple. So quick. He would be free of his burden, free of his duty.
The figure seemed confused.
"No? You obey me, boy. This is who he is, and I command you to kill him!"
"No. There's more, buried deep. I just have to find it."
I forced my way deeper into Malcolm's mind. Layers upon layers of bitter regret surrounded it, like a wall. I dug through. There had to be more. Something strong. Something that couldn't be erased.
Claire hasn't been eating enough. She looks so small, lying there in her bed. The flickering firelight accentuates every shadow on her face, making her seem like a shrunken skeleton. I look away. Katrina doesn't fare any better. She is thin and tired. The meal was barely enough for one, much less the three of us. It has been a hard season.
We can't live like this, she says.
I know, I say. I look at little Claire for a long time. She is too young, too innocent to suffer such a fate. I go to the door and throw on my cloak.
Where are you going?
At night? With winter approaching?
I will be fine.
But what if you aren't? What if-
The cold cuts to the bone and the night is dark, but the Wilds were my cradle. Despite the crunch of snow beneath my boots, the first signs of winter, I press on. I have my javelins. I have my spear. I have everything I need.
I find tracks. Large tracks. A bear, preparing to hibernate for the winter. I follow the tracks to its lair. The cave is large, and extends deep into the side of a cliff, but the bear is not there. I wait, lying in the snow, motionless, soundless. The cold is irrelevant. Only one thing is important.
I hear the heavy tread as the beast returns. I remain calm. I let it pass me by so close I could reach out and touch its bristly hide. When the time is right, I strike. My spear sinks into the folds of its throat. A good strike. The bear roars, berserk with anger and fear as its blood drains away. It catches me in the shoulder, and I stumble. The beast rises on its hind legs, bellows its challenge. I feel no fear. I lunge forward and drive my spear into its heart.
The bear's carcass is fat and heavy. Perfect. Tying it to my chilled and battered body, I make the journey home. It is an anvil on my back, each step a struggle. I forge on.
The sun is rising above the horizon when I return. Katrina is there at the entrance, waiting for me. Her face, clouded with concern, brightens with delight when she discovers my safe return. I feel her warm embrace, and return it gladly. She helps me take the carcass in, and sets about preparing a breakfast.
Claire is awake. She rushes to me the moment I set foot in the house, nearly knocking me over. She hugs me tight, and I wince at fresh pain from the wound left by the bear. She chatters about how worried she was about me, how she didn't want me to put myself in danger like that. She actually apologises for being sick. I tell her not to worry. Katrina and I make breakfast.
It's another long day, and we all have our jobs to do. I have not slept since the previous night, but I don't complain. I don't want her to see me like that.
At last the day is over and Claire goes to bed. Katrina and I sit quietly, waiting for her to finally fall asleep.
My kill won't be enough. Katrina realizes I will have to go searching for food again many times this winter. It will be hard. It is always hard.
"So, what have you discovered?"
And suddenly I'm back in my body. I'm standing inside Malcolm's memory, in his home in the Wilds. I'm close enough to reach out and touch his past self, but he can't see me. The demon stands beside me.
"You have changed nothing," she says triumphantly. "You see the pain and suffering he has to endure daily? Forcing himself through exhaustion and pain simply to keep himself alive?"
Malcolm is slumped over the table, fighting off sleep. His wife is talking to him, but I can't hear the words anymore.
"So, tell me. Was it worth it?" the demon sneers at my side.
Malcolm slowly struggles to his feet and I follow him to Claire's bedroom. I see him stop in the doorway and look inside at his sleeping daughter. It's the first time I have ever seen Malcolm smile. It's a smile that extends to his entire face, erasing the lines of his exhaustion and age. It's then I realize that this memory feets different. The others were cold, and empty. This feels warm, like the sun on my face. It seems to pulse with a life of its own. Like a heartbeat, keeping him alive.
"It was to him," I say.
And with that, I was back in the real world. The demon was gone. The pain in my arm was gone. I slowly lowered my hand and released my control over Malcolm. He shook his head, dazed and confused. Flemeth raised an eyebrow.
"You don't have to do this, Malcolm," I said, new strength in my voice. "We can help you."
"No. You cannot!" Malcolm raised his voice in helpless anger. "You are nothing! I will return to my family, and you will stand aside or be cut down!"
"And what would Claire think of that?" I demanded. There was a deathly silence.
"Wha... how..." he struggled to speak. "How do you know that name!"
"Look at yourself!" I yelled. "Doing this is as much a betrayal to Claire and Katrina as it is to us!"
Malcolm's spear wavered.
"I promise, Malcolm. We'll help you find them," I pleaded.
I looked at Malcolm. Malcolm looked at Flemeth. Flemeth looked at me.
Malcolm lowered the spear.
"I... I cannot..." he said, backing away. "You cannot make me do this."
"As you wish," Flemeth said dismissively. "We shall have words later, Malcolm. For now, I will deal with our guests."
"Malcolm!" I called. The Warden didn't turn. He walked away.
"Well then," Flemeth said. "It appears I am left to deal with you. Let us finish this, then. It is a dance old Flemeth knows well."
She casually walked towards a clearing beside her hut. I didn't know what she was about to do, but I knew it couldn't be good. I snatched up my sword and charged towards her, despite shouted warnings from Wynne. There was a sudden rush of air and intense heat, and I was bowled over. I rolled over on the grass and stood up to see Flemeth change. No longer a harmless old woman, a great horned dragon rose in a whirlwind of flame.
"That's not good," I said.
"Now THIS is what I'm talking about!" Oghren exclaimed happily from behind me.
"Scatter!" Zevran's order didn't come a moment too soon. We all charged off in separate directions as a stream of fiery breath scorched the ground where we had stood. The dragon leaped, and landed with a bone-shattering thud in the middle of us. I darted back, away from the slashing talons and the swinging tail. Zevran threw knives at the monster, one after another, but could find no weak point on her scales.
"Wynne, see if you can pin her down!" I called as a fruitless strike bounced off an armoured hind leg. Wynne raised her staff, glowing with magical energy. Flemeth's tail whipped out, and Wynne would have been killed if Oghren hadn't knocked her to the ground. The dragon raised a foreleg to crush the dwarf, but he jumped backwards at the last second. His hammer came down with earth-shattering power, cracking Flemeth's scales.
"Does anybody have a plan?" I asked.
"You're huge!" Oghren roared in the throes of his berserker rage. "That means you have HUGE guts! Rip and tear, RIP AND TEAR YOUR GUTS!"
"Thanks for that."
Flemeth reared back, calling up her fire again. I was ready to run again when Wynne stepped forward. She swung her staff sharply upwards, and a wall of stone ripped itself out of the ground in front of us. The stone glowed from the sheer heat of the flame, nearly unbearable even behind cover, but it protected us from the worst of it. When Flemeth's breath had exhausted itself Wynne retaliated. A few vicious jabs with her staff and pieces broke from the barrier to shoot towards the dragon like spears. Flemeth recoiled in pain. More fractures appeared in her tough scales.
"Yes, it's working!" I exclaimed.
Flemeth took flight. The massive downblast of air from those great leathery wings was enough to bowl me over. The dragon let out an ear-splitting roar as it passed, and flew on. I scrambled to my feet.
"Cowardly lizard's running away!" Oghren shouted, disappointed. Then Flemeth banked sharply and flew back towards us. As she drew closer, I could see her breathing in deeply. This wouldn't end well.
"Wynne, hold up your staff!" I ordered. I don't know if Wynne knew what I was planning, but she did it all the same. I beckoned Zevran and Oghren closer, and waited. Flemeth was about to let loose her flame breath. I grasped Wynne's staff and closed my eyes.
It was there, just as I'd expected. Even with my eyes closed I could 'see' Wynne there, feel the magic inside her. I sensed the spirit of Faith, felt its power. With difficulty, I sent my power flowing down my arm like a current, into Wynne's staff. It touched the mage's, and the connection felt like electricity. I opened my eyes to see bright orange flame spew from the dragon's toothy maw, but I was ready.
The fire never reached us. It looked like it was simply rolling over an invisible sphere, spilling harmlessly across the grass. A shield made of wind surrounded us, spinning faster than the eye could see. Where they touched, the flames simply vanished. The sky darkened as Flemeth passed over us, and the shield dissipated. My knees buckled, but Wynne helped me stay upright.
"I think you'll have to do most of the work next time," I said weakly.
"I do not think there will be a next time," Wynne said gravely. I turned. Flemeth was coming around for another pass, but far lower. She was flying close enough to the ground for me to reach out and touch her. Which was the point. The group scattered again, and there was a terrifying rush of air as the dragon swooped past. Luckily, it seemed we'd escaped her claws. Well... Wynne and Oghren seemed to be ok.
"Wait, where's Zevran?" I turned, and answered my own question.
Zevran was hanging from Flemeth's tail. Even as the dragon flew higher the Antivan assassin clung to her barbed tail, fighting slipstream to climb up.
"What's the crazy bastard doing now?" I asked.
Flemeth rolled in mid-air, attempting to dislodge the elf. His grip was tight, and he stayed on. He climbed, slowly but surely, and wound up astride the dragon just between her wings. It was difficult to follow the action from where I was, but he appeared to be trying to find a weak point to stab. Flemeth didn't take kindly to this and rolled over again. The dragon stopped mid-roll, one wing pointed at the ground, one pointed skyward. Zevran couldn't hold on anymore. The elf tumbled off Flemeth's back and rolled down her leathery wing. There was a ripping noise and Flemeth roared in pain. A bloody tear in her wing grew longer and longer. Zevran managed to split the wing almost completely in two before falling off completely. Luckily, he was over Flemeth's hut at the time, and hit the thatched roof. Which collapsed, dropping him inside. Meanwhile Flemeth flapped her ruined wing uselessly, and crashed with enough force to make us stumble. She dug a gouge into the ground with her impact, and struggled to rise again.
Zevran opened the door of the hut and stepped out, bruised and battered. He cracked a grin and took a bow.
"I am ridiculously awesome," he announced. "Not the worst thing I've ridden, either."
Flemeth let out an enraged roar and rose, spewing fire. The flame spurted from her nostrils in a V shape. Her fire passed either side of me, cutting me off from the others. She snarled, and charged. Frozen in terror, I couldn't move in time. Bone-crushing weight bore down on me, and I screamed in pain. I was flat on my back, unable to even breathe under the dragon's weight. Flemeth's maw edged closer, and I saw the first flickers of her fire breath in the back of her throat. She reared back to attack.
There was a piercing scream and the crushing pressure on my chest was relieved. I coughed and choked, desperate to draw air. I looked up, and saw a spear thrust into Flemeth's foreleg through a gap in her scales. My spirits rose. Malcolm had come back.
Suddenly, Flemeth's voice began to echo around me. Clearly it was the dragon speaking, but the voice appeared to be coming from nowhere.
"The hound strays. Betrayal carries a price," the wounded dragon said.
"One that I will pay," Malcolm replied, viciously twisting the spear. Flemeth snatched up the Warden with her other claw, squeezing him with unearthly strength. Malcolm cried out in pain and let go of his spear. Flemeth raised the Warden to eye level and glared at him. Malcolm managed to free an arm from her bone-crushing grip, but he was too weak to pull himself free.
"Tell me, what could make a stray abandon all he worked for?" Flemeth's voice asked mockingly even as fire welled in her maw.
"Even a stray has pride," Malcolm snarled. His hand went to his belt.
Flemeth screamed in agony. Malcolm's axe was buried in her left eye. Her breath was diverted at the last second, missing Malcolm narrowly. Despite this I heard the sizzle of burning flesh, and heard Malcolm scream. He was tossed aside like a ragdoll. Flemeth thrashed and convulsed in agony, clawing at her own face to remove the axe.
"Now!" Wynne called.
Zevran ducked beneath the dragon, deftly evading her thrashing limbs to strike at her exposed underbelly. Flemeth let out fresh roars of pain. I charged forward and drew the Green Blade with my left hand. I brought both blades down on the dragon's snout, and they bit deep. Zevran ducked back out from underneath her just before she slammed into the ground, almost crushing him. Flemeth gathered her strength for one last burst of flame. Oghren was charging, and I darted in front of him. I raised my swords, and a translucent shield appeared in an arc in front of me. Distracted by me diverting her fire, Flemeth didn't see Oghren until it was too late.
The dwarf's hammer smashed through her scales with the first strike. The second broke a few teeth loose. The third knocked Malcolm's axe out of her eye. The fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh... I lost count. When Oghren had finally tired himself out the dragon's skull was a putrid mess of bone, scale and blood. He leaned his hammer against the carcass and panted.
"Let's see 'em do THAT back at Orzammar!" he shouted, exhilarated. I didn't comment. I raced over to where I had seen Malcolm fall. I stopped briefly when I saw him. He was a mess. He wasn't moving much, and he was covered in bruises and cuts. But worst of all, his face... His good side was facing towards me, but I could still tell it was bad. I raced to his side.
"Malcolm, can you hear me?" I asked.
"Aye..." he wheezed. "Is that bitch dead?"
"Y... yeah. She's dead."
"Good. The world is better off without her kind..." the Warden trailed off into a wet gurgle. He struggled to compose himself.
"I... I think I am dying..." Malcolm said to himself.
"No you're not."
Malcolm managed a chuckle. "Naïve to the end, lad. Leave a bitter man to die in peace."
"No," I repeated, louder. "You're not going to die. I won't let you!"
I pressed my hand against his chest and screwed my eyes up tight. I felt the magic in me. I could call it myself. I knew I could. I didn't need her help. I could feel every last injury in the Chasind man's body, from the shattered bones to the burns. He was close to the end.
The power flowed. I thought of the memories I'd experienced. Thought of the way Katrina's face lit up when she'd seen him coming home safe. Saw the love and admiration etched on Claire's face when she saw him. Most importantly, I thought of that bright spark in him that had burned through the darkest times, never flickering, never wavering.
My breath caught. I felt fatigue draping over me like a lead blanket. His injuries were too severe, too extensive. I pushed harder, forced the magic to flow. I started feeling light-headed. My fingers and toes went numb. I felt like I was about to pass out.
I felt another hand on mine, and the exhaustion vanished. I opened my eyes. Wynne looked at me reassuringly.
"Come Ventus, we have work to do," she said. "Follow my lead."
I concentrated again. I felt Wynne and Faith there with me. I had the power, but I was too imprecise, too unskilled. The healing needed focus that I lacked. Wynne took over. I felt her exploring the injuries, pulling flesh together, moving bone fragments back into line. I gave her free reign over my power, and she used it with all the precision and expertise of a master surgeon. We knelt over Malcolm's body for what seemed like forever, but at last we were spent. I slumped back, panting and sweating like I had run a marathon. Wynne sat nearby, holding her head.
"How is he?" I asked.
"He will live," she replied. "He requires much more healing, though. I know not how long it will take for him to recover.
I breathed a sigh of relief.
Wynne couldn't shut us up that night at camp. We were talking excitedly about our roles in the fight, Oghren punctuating his ever more ridiculous accounts with a swig of his ale. By the end of the night there had been three dragons and he'd fought them without any pants. When I asked Zevran why he'd thought to jump on Flemeth, he replied that his career often required him to mount dangerous things. I changed the subject after that. Meanwhile I was praised for the quick work with the shield. All in all, a good night.
Except for Malcolm, of course. After dinner I went to his tent. If it weren't for the laboured rise and fall of his chest I would have thought he was dead. His head was swathed in bandages that only left the damage beneath up to the imagination. His uncovered eye slowly opened and looked at me.
"Come to... bother me... again?" he wheezed.
"Don't talk," I said. I crouched over him and cracked my knuckles. Wynne had begun to teach me what she knew about healing, so I felt I had a better handle on it. I concentrated, and a nimbus of gentle blue light flared around my hands. I passed them over his chest, trying to free up his breathing.
"Is this helping?" I asked. He nodded, but started coughing explosively. My hands moved up to his throat, and I felt a slight sizzle as the magic encountered a more serious problem. I pushed harder, trying to fix whatever it was, but just ended up tiring myself out. The light winked out.
"Sorry I can't do more," I said.
"No... I feel much better now," Malcolm replied, his voice still hoarse. "More than a traitor deserves."
"You're not a traitor," I said sharply.
"What makes you so sure?" he asked.
"I'm sorry, but when I used blood magic on you I looked into your mind," I admitted. "While I was there, I saw your memories."
His expression was unreadable. "Go on."
"I saw the one with the bear in winter."
"Shoulder wasn't right for a week. Almost cost me my life," the Warden replied. "And?"
"I... well..." I said awkwardly. "I saw how you were with them. Saw how happy you were. When I do something like that I feel the emotions that go with the memory, and what I felt there was the kind of happiness people can go their whole lives searching for. They were your world. I can't blame you for wanting them back."
"... she would have removed the taint," he said. "She was going to make me normal again."
"Malcolm... I don't know if that's even possible," I said, "Even for someone as powerful as Flemeth."
"But what am I to do?" A helpless tone crept back into the normally stoic Warden's voice. "They could be anywhere. And I am to remain a Warden forever."
"We'll find a way," I said. "I promise."
Thou art I, and I am thou.
The bond thou hast nurtured hath finally matured.
The innermost power of the Tower Arcana has been set free.
You have forged a bond that cannot be broken.
When I left Malcolm's tent I found Wynne waiting near mine.
"Impressive work with the healing today," she said. "I look forward to helping your studies in that area."
"Thank you," I replied, "But I need to ask you something."
"Of course, Ventus. Anything."
"I... I've lost my memory."
"What?" Wynne was confused. "How could this happen?"
"I don't know," I admitted. "The last thing I remember is waking up at Ostagar. Everything else is this... blur. Like fog. But at the Circle, you recognized me. You met me at Ostagar. What did I tell you?"
Wynne cast her mind back. "You said you joined the king's army for a chance at a new life. I asked you why. You told me that your family lived a very hard life, and that you were going to help them any way you could. You also mentioned atoning for a past mistake."
"Where?" I asked. "Where am I from?"
Wynne looked at me oddly. "From the Denerim Alienage."