Author's Note: Originally submitted for the Fine Dwarven Crafts competition. The Mature rating is due to the golem-making process, which some may consider disturbing. Check out Caridin's Journal on the Dragon Age wiki if you're unsure.
The hall was huge and…and fantastic. Shayle had no other word for it. Fiery rivers of magma fell from upper galleries in a constant amber flow, adding to the lake that half-circled Caridin's grand cavern. Structures of polished stone, sculpted and lovingly kept free of dirt, gleamed in the sullen glow provided by the lava. To one side there was a monument bearing a tablet with some few etchings marring the smooth surface, but there was far too much wonder to behold for her to focus on a mere statue just yet. Massive veins of lyrium ore, carved from the very earth, twined up and around suspended platforms like tapered blue fingers. It was more lyrium in one place, more wealth, than she had ever beheld, and she could hear the unrefined crystals singing.
This sound was carried all the way up to a walkway that jutted over the lava flow, where an anvil of stone and lyrium had been cut from the ground beneath it. Even at a distance there was no doubt that this was the Anvil of the Void.
There were golems. She'd expected them of course. Some were metal, some were stone. They were amazing and shining and huge, as large as the statues of the Paragons in Orzammar's Hall of Heroes, if not bigger.
And then there was the Paragon himself. Caridin. For a renowned smith and genius who had purportedly discovered the means to creating an invincible army that would guard the dwarven empire for all time, she had expected a grander figure than the dwarf who came to meet her, dressed in practical work clothes and a leather apron. She had expected some noble-looking personage or shining hero, clean-faced and well-groomed with hair and beard elaborately braided, not marked with flecks of ash and streaks of sweat. But she wasn't disappointed. It just made her inwardly roll her eyes at herself for getting so caught up in her excitement that she'd thought a genuine work-smith in a super-heated cavern would look like he'd just stepped out of a Diamond Quarter parlour.
Caridin, the real Caridin, looked like a normal dwarf who lived over a forge, albeit a larger forge than was typical for smiths. His hair and beard were black, tightly braided in a fashion that was more practical than fancy, and his eyes were a dark, warm brown. He didn't seem old, but there was something about those eyes that looked beyond his years.
Maybe it was because he was a Paragon, Shayle told herself, and she bowed when he approached.
"Atrast Vala, Honoured Caridin," she said, "I am Shayle of the House Cadash, come to volunteer to join the Legion of Steel."
"Atrast Vala, Shayle Cadash," Caridin replied, his voice deep and resonant, and his brow furrowed for a moment as he studied her. "You may stand straight before me. Paragon I may be, but not royalty…I don't require such displays."
"I know you've only had male volunteers until now, Paragon," Shayle said quickly as Caridin continued to frown at her, "at least, that's what I've heard, but I'm strong and I can fight as well as any. I brought my maul, so if you need some sort of demonstration—"
"Dear child, how well you fight or how strong you are is truly no matter. Nor…" he hesitated. "…nor does your gender make a difference, I suspect. Those who have come to me so far are brave warriors or young men with no prospects, no inheritance or hopes for marriage. Why have you come, Shayle Cadash?"
"Maybe I'm a brave warrior, Paragon," she said stoutly, but he smiled.
"I know the Houses; I have one of my own, you know. Comes with being a Paragon." Caridin folded his arms and cocked his head, watching her narrowly. "House Cadash is Noble Caste, not Warrior. If I were to contact your family and inquire about your presence here, what answer would I receive, hm?"
"I didn't run away from home like a child to do this," Shayle said, a touch indignantly but trying to maintain respect. "I am the youngest daughter of my family and, like some of your male volunteers, I have no prospects or dreams for marriage."
Caridin's bushy brows lifted and his eyes did a noticeable up-down sweep of her armoured body. Shayle managed not to blush, though in the stifling warmth of the cavern her face was probably red enough it wouldn't have mattered if she did. Sweat was already trickling down the back of her neck and clogging her hair.
"My House doesn't need me to secure any political alliances," Shayle went on, feeling she was being waited upon to elaborate. "I have older and prettier sisters yet unclaimed, and tamer than me." She made a motion to the huge weapon strapped to her back. "I enjoy fighting, Paragon Caridin. I'm good at it, but no one seems to want a woman who can do battle as a wife. I'm too highborn to be a soldier, and I don't want to cut out my tongue to become a Silent Sister."
"So you want to be a golem."
"Why not?" Shayle laughed suddenly. "Look at them! Your work, it's…magnificent! I saw one of those things in a fight once, and by the Ancestors, it was amazing. Hurling boulders across caverns, slamming fists into the rock so hard it leaves tremor-cracks…why not?"
She drew herself up, trying to look dignified. "I said I'm a brave warrior, and I didn't lie. I want to fight for our people. You're asking for volunteers, and one stands before you. Take me."
Caridin flung an arm out to point at one of his creations, a towering construct of stone, but his eyes never left hers as he said, "You will look like that. You won't be a woman or a dwarf, but that. What beauty you have will be gone, maybe forever, exchanged for immortal stone."
"Your work is art," Shayle said firmly. "I would be proud to be carved into one of your masterpieces for all to see and marvel at. That beauty will last longer than what little I currently possess."
"You will never again know the taste of food or drink, nor know the dreamless rest of sleep, nor even feel the soft caress of flesh."
Was he trying to talk her out of this? It felt like it. Her eyes narrowed. Before she could think better of questioning a Paragon, she asked, "Do you say these things to all your volunteers?"
He actually blinked. "Uh. No. I just…wanted to make sure." Turning away, he glanced towards the distant, shimmering shadow of the Anvil and she thought she heard him sigh, fancied she saw his powerful shoulders slump a little.
"I'm sure," Shayle assured him. "There is nothing else I want."
"You have approval from your House, I assume?" he asked quietly.
Wondering why he hadn't simply asked for that in the first place, Shayle dug the missive out of her pack and handed it over. She watched as Caridin broke the seal and read her father's signature before tucking it away in his protective leathers.
"Then if you are decided on this course—"
"—we can proceed." Not looking directly at her, Caridin said, "You will no longer need your possessions, weapons, armour or clothes. Leave them all by the monument over there"—he waved a calloused hand—"and join me by the Anvil."
The Paragon nodded once, not a single muscle betraying smile or smirk. "Aye," he confirmed in a strangely quiet tone, then he left her.
Shayle stared after him, looked at the monument and then, briefly, at the entrance to the cavern. She could change her mind. She hadn't the faintest idea what Caridin intended to do with her, but being naked in front of him before the Anvil of the Void definitely hadn't figured in her imaginings of this moment.
Maybe…maybe…maybe the golems were like a big stone/steel suit of armour. So you had to strip, get dressed in this new material, and Caridin forged it shut. That couldn't be all of it, but she supposed it could make sense?
Ancestors…that doesn't make this any easier.
Trying to steel herself, Shayle went to the monument and put down her pack. Her huge maul she leaned carefully against the statue, and then she removed the pieces of her armour. It was fine dwarven steel folded with lyrium, gifted to her by her father before he had died of age, not long before her departure from home. He, at least, had been proud of her. Mother thought fighting was unbecoming of ladies; even though Astyth the Grey had won the right for women to join the army, that was all very well for Warrior Caste but well-bred noble girls had no business bearing arms.
Shayle stripped herself of the padded leather clothes and silken tezpadam-skin undergarments, piling them all on the floor until she stood bare.
Even with the heat, she felt a desire to shiver. Some of the golems were looking at her. They had no expressions but it was…impolite. That's what it was. Rude. Shayle glared haughtily at the nearest construct and lifted her chin, then strode as confidently as she could manage across the large cavern and up the lyrium-twined outcrop that led to the Anvil.
Caridin was not the only dwarf up there. Three other men, younger than the Paragon, were busily arranging a large stone shell atop the Anvil with the aid of a golem's strength. Upon nearing them, and attracting covert stares from the apprentices, Shayle had to fight the instinct to try and cover herself with her hands.
Get used to it, she told herself firmly. I mean, after becoming a golem you'll be naked forever.
Her eyes roved over the stone bulk of her future body. It was a masculine-looking thing, like all the golems, with massive shoulders, arms, and a muscular chest that was literally chiselled. There was a large cavity where the abdomen should have been, big enough for a dwarf to crawl within the shell…
"Go now," Caridin told his apprentices and the golem. "Prepare the lyrium."
Shayle stood erect as they passed her. She could feel their eyes on her backside once they had left.
"Forgive them," Caridin said, his gaze intent on a hammer he was toying with. "As you noted, you are the first female to undergo this transformation. I don't think they were expecting to see a pretty young woman so…uh…completely."
Now she knew she was blushing.
"Do you mind telling me what I should do, Paragon?" she asked, fighting against nerves. "I'd rather not stand around like this any longer than necessary, if it's all the same to you."
The Paragon's fingers stilled around his hammer and he seemed about to speak, but then he merely nodded and strode to the Anvil with the golem arched backwards atop it. "Climb within. Lying on your back and orienting yourself so your head is as close as possible to the golem's will result in the least…discomfort. I will seal the depression behind you and then begin the process that will bind you to the stone."
He didn't watch or offer to help as she clambered up the slope of one rocky arm to stand atop the broad chest. From this height an updraught of hot air from the lava lake swept her hair above her head and made her eyes tear, but she kept her balance easily. For some reason she found herself looking up at her loose blonde tresses as they swayed and twisted, stained sultry orange but highlighted with blue glints from the lyrium. It might be the last time she had hair.
She glanced down once at the bald, grey head of the golem. There were hollows for the eyes and mouth. There was a nose, but the nostrils were mere indents in the stone rather than holes. Runic carvings encircled the neck, and one large sigil branded the boulder-like brow. Unlike the other stone golems she'd seen, the runes on this one were dark, inert. Light did not spill from the gaping eyes and mouth.
But it would, soon. It would shine.
Feeling her way to the hole, Shayle quickly crawled within the shell and wriggled around to get a comfortable position in the cramped and hard quarters. It wasn't as roomy as she'd hoped. She'd expected to be able to crawl all the way up to the head so she could peer out the golem's eyes, but the gap was too narrow to proceed that far.
"Shayle Cadash. Can you hear me?"
"I am about to seal the shell. Are you ready?"
"What do I do?"
There was a brief pause before Caridin answered: "Be strong."
There was a sound down near her ankles, and there was just enough room to lift her head and watch the aperture she'd entered through disappear. The only light now come from above her head, though the golem's eyes and mouth.
Shayle took a few calming breaths, aware of how loud it sounded with solid rock less than a hand span from her face, trying to still her pounding heart as she waited for something else to happen. Her mind flitted from thought to thought, guessing at the process that would be used. Would enchantments bring the runes to life and merge her being with the stone surrounding it? Would some mystical power shoot from the Anvil and through her body?
Indistinct sounds and voices came from outside, muffled by the shell. She shifted a bit and tilted her head back towards the light in an attempt to listen, but couldn't catch any words.
Why the Anvil? she found herself wondering. Surely the Anvil is used to forge and carve the golem shells, so why are they still on the Anvil when the time comes for a dwarf to enter the picture?
Not all dwarves were smiths and metalworkers, but she knew a little about the craft. You didn't use an anvil unless you were planning on shaping and hammering something, burning hot metal for preference, and no matter how warm the cavern outside was this golem was nowhere near heated enough for any kind of traditional shaping. So what trick did Caridin use? Did the lyrium that veined the Anvil have anything to d—
There was a clanking noise. Shayle tilted her head back again and watched the vague play of shadows as something moved above the golem's eye-and-mouth holes, and then a substance blue and brilliant and liquid dripped against the inside of the construct's hollow skull.
Shayle twisted around a bit, trying to get a better look, but suddenly there were more drips. Then a steady flow. Thick. Shining. Gleaming. Ebbing towards her with the deceptive speed of molten rock.
The crystalline singing she'd heard before in the cavern returned in full force, the volume increased and tune twisted to a horrific discord as she stared in horrified realisation.
Lyrium. Melted lyrium. Being poured into the golem like metal into a mould…while I'm inside!
Blind terror seized her and she thrust downwards towards the sealed exit, away from the sudden blazing heat, even as the acrid smell of burnt hair assailed her nostrils.
"No, Ancestors, no, no, please NOOO…!"
Caridin had heard the screams many times before, but never from a female throat. She was mercifully silent after only a few seconds, they always were, but the echoes lingered, the smell of cooked flesh overpowered the stench of sulphur, and he found himself having to exert all his self-control to keep his hands from shaking as he worked quickly with hammer and tongs. The golem's flesh, the stone, was malleable while the lyrium remained hot within, and he owed it to every dwarf who sacrificed himself…herself…to make their new bodies perfect.
Joints were tended to ensure they could move as smoothly as any connection of bone and sinew—fingers, hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, waist, knees, ankles…so many places that needed flexibility and movement. The circumferences of the eyes, glowing with lyrium, were chipped at and smoothed so that nothing would obstruct vision. Stone lips were caressed so the golem's voice would not be impeded when she spoke.
All the while, the blazing light of cooling lyrium seared from what had once been holes and chinks in the shell, glowing blue in the sullen, lava-lit cavern. As the hammer continued to rise and fall, as other tools smoothed and shaped, the stone limbs began to writhe and twitch and low moans of agony issued from the mouth.
Caridin finally stepped back and wiped sweat from his brow with the back of one glove. His shoulders and neck ached from having been bent over for so long, his eyes burned and something in his soul cringed at what he had wrought.
The control rod rested against the Anvil below the golem. The blue crystal was streaked with Shayle's blood that had streamed across stone and lyrium veins. He picked it up, wiped the grisly reminder of what had happened from the etched runes, touched it to the golem's arm.
"Shayle Cadash. Stand before me."
The golem's voice reverberated through the stone. Vast limbs moved under Caridin's careful gaze, shifting and twisting with smooth ease.
When the golem's feet rested against solid ground and it stood, towering above the dwarven smith, the glow of pride at the sight of his work, his craft, his art, almost chased away the memory of her dying screams.
Shayle inspected a column-thick arm, clenched a stone fist, turned her head to gaze upon the cluster of crystals sprouting from a shoulder, then tilted her head down, down to look upon the dwarf beneath her, her eyes the piercing white-blue of the lyrium that had killed her mortal form.
There was a flicker of notice given to the control rod; Caridin's fingers tightened around it.
"It is done," Caridin confirmed. He pointed past her, using the rod to prompt her to turn, and indicated the steel and stone golems in the cavern that had gathered in a loose crowd to observe.
Or to remember…
"Welcome to the Legion of Steel."