Big time kudos and thanks to my wonderful beta and friend, Suilven. You are the best and I appreciate everything you do for me!
Readers: heads up; there is violence in this chapter, quite a bit of it, actually. Though it is throughout the chapter, the most intense parts are in the second half.
There was something wrong with her eyes.
Loghain watched as Lhiannon's eyes blinked once, and then twice, seemingly fixed on a single point in the air above her. They captivated his attention with a strange ethereal glow, the dark brown that they ordinarily held now almost black next to the bright white. Was she trying to work some magic that had been previously unknown to him? Was she channeling her mana into strength? He had never seen her like this before: not during the Landsmeet, nor fighting darkspawn, nor fighting the archdemon itself. This was something different and it made him very uneasy.
That was when he realized that the air around them was changing.
It wasn't just the hairs on the back of his neck that had suddenly risen. His skin crawled with a prickling sensation, like it was breaking out in gooseflesh. The air itself seemed to get heavier and he could have sworn that there was a humming noise, one just barely within range of hearing. It even tasted strange; an almost bitter taste above and beyond what the taint normally put into the air.
Movement from the corner of his eye drew Loghain's gaze to his right. The Architect had grabbed his staff from nearby and was moving off. He quickly left Loghain's field of vision, but not before Loghain caught a glimpse of the creature's face.
The Architect seemed... alarmed. Whatever it was that was happening around them, it had given the Architect pause, had spooked the creature enough to want to flee. Loghain felt the pit in his stomach grow deeper. What was happening, and what was the depth of Lhiannon's involvement?
"Where are you going?"
Loghain could not see Velanna's expression, but the shrillness in her voice was unmistakable. She repeated the question after a moment of silence, but the Architect still did not answer. As Velanna had spoken to the Architect, Loghain had felt the air around them grow even more charged. The hairs on his arms began to rise, joining those that had risen on the back of his neck. It was eerily reminiscent of the air before a summer storm, one that would cause the wind to break trees and the lightning to spark fires wherever it touched the ground.
He was no mage, but his instincts told him that some sort of magic was at work.
A snapping sound from where Lhiannon lay captive quickly drew Loghain's eyes back to her. The vines and roots holding her in place were quivering precariously, as if the spell creating them was somehow failing. Loghain heard Velanna speak sharply in the elven tongue from nearby; a curse, more than likely, judging by how venomous the words had sounded. She would likely have to decide within seconds where to focus her magical energies: onto Loghain, in the hope of completing what the Architect had originally planned; or, onto the vines keeping Lhiannon immobilized. Even the most powerful of mages could only keep two spells going for a limited period of time. It was a theory he was suddenly anxious to test.
He didn't want to draw Velanna's attention to himself just yet, so he would need to do something small, something that she was unlikely to notice. It came to him almost immediately. Focusing his will, he pushed it downward toward his feet, picturing his toes nestled inside his woolen socks. He imagined them curling; however, nothing happened. Undeterred, he once again turned his mind's eye onto his toes and imagined them moving; first, his largest toe, and then the others in unison. He did it again. Then again. Just as he felt the first seeds of doubt worm their way into his gut, Loghain felt the slightest movement inside his boot. Encouraged, he tried moving them again and found that it was a bit easier to command them this time. Velanna's attention was surely divided; now, he would need to think of a way to overpower the hold on him and move against her before she could react.
Loghain turned his attention to Lhiannon; it had been her voice that had filled the room, but it had been almost too loud. Bright rivulets of color raced along her skin as if the light that was in her eyes had suddenly spread throughout her body and was trying to break free. The charge in the air reached a crescendo, and the vines that had covered her fell away with a sharp snapping sound. Her arms and legs flexed, and the bonds that had held them in place ripped away from the table to dangle from her extremities. How had that been possible?
"You will not flee, not this time," Lhiannon said as she sat up on the table. She swung her legs off the side, no doubt preparing to pursue the Architect. Loghain watched her as she set her feet on the floor and stood, her strangely glowing eyes focused on the door the Architect had fled through moments before.
Her voice had sounded odd to Loghain's ears; it was Lhiannon's voice to be sure, but there was a strange sibilant quality in it as well. Her voice was her own, yet it almost sounded as if she was trying to speak deeply at the same time. Loghain's instincts screamed at him; there was something very, very wrong here.
Before he could further consider the wrongness around her, Loghain felt himself lurch forward. His right hand reached out and snatched a handful of Lhiannon's long hair, the grip so tight that he could see the muscles of his forearm flex with his strength. His arm pulled on the clump of hair in his hand, and he watched as Lhiannon yelped in pain and surprise, one of her hands instinctively reaching toward her head and the section of scalp that had pained her.
Her hand never completed the journey; it froze as Lhiannon's head whirled about to look at Loghain with those strangely glowing eyes. He had only a split second to register her movement before he felt himself being hurled backwards through the air, where his back struck the rock wall behind him. Bright stars filled his vision as he slumped down the wall, the rough texture scraping at his skin and his breath coming in short, shallow gasps as the world began to grow dark around him.
She saw the world through the eyes of a stranger.
The world was familiar, yet strangely alien to her as she gazed ahead. A sense of awe and wonder filled her as Justice saw and began to experience the mortal realm through her. He seemed to study everything at once; the rough rock of the ceiling above them; the straps that circled her wrists; the vines that stretched across her body and held her in place. He felt the pumping of the tainted blood through her veins, felt her heart beating inside her chest. He was omnipotent and everywhere.
As they both thought about the vines, Lhiannon could suddenly feel the raw power of Justice thrum through her. Her muscles felt as taut as a bowstring, her nerves tingling as if all the mana in the world had suddenly filled her with potential. She had never felt this powerful before. It was frightening, yet strangely intoxicating. Once more, Lhiannon and Justice thought about the magical vines covering their shared existence; inside her head, Justice's voice rang out with its strong and deep timbre: "Be gone."
Bright lines of color raced across her skin as the mana and power inside her seemingly burst free of her physical shell; her skin stung madly where the power had split her skin. A heated, flushed sensation filled her body, as if the room had suddenly grown much warmer. The resonance of the power inside her grew and crossed the physical barrier of her body and into the magical essence of the vines that covered her. She felt them begin to resonate in tune with the power coursing through her body.
From the corner of her eye, she saw that the Architect had moved. The creature had grabbed his staff from where it stood propped against the wall nearby; to Lhiannon's dismay, the creature was preparing to flee. In an instant, her horror at the Architect's potential escape turned to anger. She could not—would not—allow it to flee again and continue whatever mad experiments it had in mind. With the archdemon gone, this creature was, perhaps, the most dangerous being in Thedas; not the Chantry, not the warmongering of humans, elves, and dwarves; not even the Tevinters or the Qun. It was this being and the chaos it would once more unleash if given the chance. The Grey Wardens could not afford to fail again.
Justice picked up on Lhiannon's anger, instantly knowing what she knew about the Architect. He shared her sense of failure at the creature's earlier escape with his minion, Utha; he shared her anger and revulsion at what the Architect had planned for her, Loghain, and the other Wardens; he shared her fear at what the Architect could do if allowed to escape again. He knew everything she did, felt everything she did; Justice had easily entered her mind to find what knowledge she possessed. With that knowledge, she knew the moment when Justice had decided that this madness could no longer continue. The righteous anger and rage rose within her, unstoppable and unrelenting as Justice joined her.
The voice of Justice spoke within her again, even stronger than before. "Be gone!"
A sharp crack filled her ears and Velanna's spell broke. Justice and his power surged through Lhiannon; she took what he possessed and channeled it much like she could channel her mana into strength. Her body felt incredibly powerful with this newfound strength. Justice both encouraged and compelled her to use his power; it was irresistible. She flexed her muscles, feeling the last of the bonds holding her in place fall away.
"You will not flee, not this time," Lhiannon said, her voice booming within her as Justice spoke the words as well. She swung her legs off of the table and began to stand, ready to chase after the Architect and give him the death he so richly deserved. Loghain was still standing nearby, his face streaked with blood and his expression slack; he watched her with wide eyes, but made no move to assist her. He was, apparently, still under Velanna's spell. She would be dealt with later.
Lhiannon's legs were slightly wobbly as she balanced her weight on them. Before she could move forward, she felt Loghain grab her hair and yank it, hard. She cried out in surprise and pain, her hand moving to rub her scalp. Instinctively, Justice surged forward and turned her head to glare at Loghain and the lock of her hair that he had in his bloodied hand. Justice lashed out with her arm, a burst of power from within her hitting Loghain squarely in his chest. The lock of hair he held slipped through his hand as the spell threw him away and into the nearby wall. From inside her shared mind, Lhiannon screamed in anguish as she watched Loghain's body crumple to the ground like a child's discarded toy.
Despair turned to relief when she saw Loghain move slightly. That relief quickly turned to rage as Lhiannon's head turned and her shared gaze locked onto Velanna. She had been forced to turn against Loghain because of the other woman's spell. Velanna had also knowingly and unabashedly aided the Architect in his endeavors; Lhiannon had begun to feel a degree of guilt at her role in Velanna's defection, but it was quickly quashed by Justice. He had easily picked up on her anger and anguish, and he surged through Lhiannon's body once more. It was almost too easy to forget the guilt with the righteous anger of Justice filling her.
Her own voice sounded strange as she gathered what felt like only a fraction of the mana that had built inside her and recited the words to a spell. Her hand thrust out toward where Velanna, Seranni, and the thralls stood, a wave of energy bursting forth to crash into them. Bodies left the ground and flew backward under the force of the spell. As Velanna struck the wall behind her and staggered, still on her feet, Seranni collided with a thrall standing just behind her. The thrall's body wasn't enough to stop her momentum, but instead threw Seranni off center enough so that she struck the stone wall head first with a crack and a thud. Her body landed in a heap on the ground, her head resting at a strange angle and open, unseeing eyes staring out into the center of the chamber. As Velanna gathered her wits around her, she spotted her sister's lifeless body and howled in rage. "Shemlen," Velanna said, the word spat at Lhiannon with a venom she had never heard before. "Emma shem'nan. Ar tu na'din."
Lhiannon took a cautious step forward, unsteady with her footing from being prone on the table, as well as unsure of the power of Justice thrumming through her. There was a perception of pain throughout her body, but it was hard to tell with all of the different sensations and thoughts that Justice was experiencing through her. From nearby, Lhiannon saw Loghain slowly move again; relieved, she returned her attention to Velanna, who was once more casting a spell. She slashed at the thralls near her, gathering more of their blood for whatever she was going to conjure. The red miasma that had been hanging in the air grew thicker as the blood gathered.
Warden, Justice's voice boomed from within her, it is time to bring justice to this betrayer. I see within you what this person has done. I see what the creature you call the Architect has done. No more. This, here, must end so that we can pursue the Architect.
It was almost too easy to agree with Justice; the spirit's influence was so strong. Lhiannon admired his conviction and sense of purpose. Justice did not balk or waiver. He seemed to have no doubts, unlike her; she seemed to doubt everything. Every fiber of her being—or was it his?—screamed that this was the right thing to do. He understood. No one else could.
In a small, far away part of her mind, Lhiannon began to wonder if the thoughts were truly hers.
Her legs finally remembered their strength and purpose. She stepped toward Velanna, the anger and unwavering resolve of Justice swelling within her to smother any doubts she might have had. The force of their shared voice filled the air around them as they took another steadier step toward Velanna. "Desertion, betrayal, usurpation … you are guilty of all. Justice is demanded of you in this world and the next."
Confident in her growing strength and conviction, the distance between her and Velanna closed rapidly. Lhiannon watched her right hand stretch out toward the still-casting elf and pierce some of the blood red tendrils swirling about her; they prickled against her skin as if she were being stung by a horde of mosquitoes. "Go, now, to your gods and let justice be done upon you."
Lhiannon watched as her hand grasped Velanna's throat; the feel of the elf's skin was a distant sensation, almost as if she were feeling it through Justice and not the other way around. Justice focused on her hand, assisting as it began to squeeze. Velanna's eyes went wide as Lhiannon's grip tightened. The elf was still for only a moment—likely due to surprise or shock at Lhiannon's attack—before she started to fight back.
From the corner of her vision, Lhiannon saw a flash of metal in the dim light as Velanna brought up the knife she had slashed the thralls with to defend herself. Velanna had raised the weapon up and back, and thrust it toward Lhiannon's neck. Anticipating the blow, Lhiannon raised her free hand up to try and block the weapon. She succeeded in deflecting the blow, but the blade ran across the flesh of her fingers. Strangely, the wound did not hurt at first but, as Velanna drew the blade back for another attack, her fingers began to throb in unison with her heartbeat and became sluggish in movement. The second blow from Velanna was weaker than the first—likely due to the choke hold on her throat—but the blade was able to slice deeply across the outside of Lhiannon's upper arm before she could completely deflect it. It immediately began to throb as it bled; the arm would soon be useless if the fight continued.
Justice began to move her body before Lhiannon could consider a new plan of attack. She felt one of her knees bend up and back behind her and, in an instant, it rushed forward and impacted Velanna's stomach with a dull thud. Lhiannon heard the clatter of the knife as it fell from Velanna's hand and landed on the floor nearby. Her hand released Velanna's throat and the elf dropped down onto her hands and knees. Lhiannon felt her weight shift to one foot as the other leg bent back and made ready to kick Velanna in the ribs while she kneeled on the ground. This battle would soon be over.
Without warning, something meaty and hard impacted the place where Lhiannon's neck met her shoulder. She lost her footing and stumbled as the ankle supporting her weight rolled beneath her. Ignoring the pain, Lhiannon scrambled to her feet and whirled around to face her new attacker. Loghain had been moving toward her again, his hands clasped together into a single fist that was already in motion. She moved to dodge the incoming blow, but his hands still landed on her injured shoulder. A wave of nausea rolled through her and she hissed sharply, her arm now doing little more than hang at her side. She stumbled again and limped back a few steps, seeking to put some distance between her and the attacking Loghain.
Velanna's breathing had turned from raspy gulps of air into a loud wheeze. The words to the spell controlling Loghain had first been in little more than a harsh whisper but soon became a louder, albeit it gruff, voice. She paused briefly and her hoarse chuckle filled the air between them. "I've made a decision, shemlen. I think death will be too good for you. I want you to suffer, as I have suffered the loss of my sister. We always need females here and it would be unfortunate to waste one, even one such as yourself."
Loghain was once more encroaching on her, his hands raised before him in tightly balled fists. Hand-to-hand combat was out of the question; his superior size, strength, and soldier's knowledge were an overwhelming advantage in close quarters. She was unarmored; the shift she wore would not protect her in such a physical assault. Lhiannon could feel Justice clawing his way through her mind, looking for knowledge on Loghain and what could be done to counteract him. She felt her hands grow warm, as Justice found the knowledge to a spell of fire and began to speak the words to cast it.
Justice, no! Lhiannon cried out, her voice audible only to her and the entity within. Don't kill him!
He and the elf are a threat to us, Warden. They attacked you. They mean to further harm you. I will not allow it.
Lhiannon fought against the pit forming in her stomach. She knew that Justice would make good on his word, especially now that Velanna had made her newest threat. He knew what she did, knew what Velanna meant by 'making her suffer.' It was the greatest fear of a female Warden.
He attacks only because Velanna is using blood magic to control him! Stop her, and Loghain won't be a threat any longer. Her threats will die with her.
Warden, Justice said, his booming voice maddeningly cool and detached, if we turn our back on one, the other will still be a threat. Both must be neutralized. Lhiannon saw her good hand rise up before her, a hazy swirl of power bending the space around it. Before the power could be released, Loghain's arm swung in an arc, the back of his hand cracking against the side of Lhiannon's face. Her body stumbled once more, reeling from the hit. The coppery taste of blood filled her mouth.
A blinding rage filled Lhiannon, coming from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. She came up from her crouch with her hands up in front of her. Loghain was close enough to touch; she thrust her arms out as if to push him away, channeling her mana through them and into the palms of her hands. She shouted out the words to a spell as her hands impacted Loghain's chest, its power flowing through her and augmenting the strength of her push. He was thrust toward the slab upon which she had been bound earlier, the impact knocking him onto, and then over, the top. He disappeared into the darkness on the other side.
Seconds passed... and he did not rise from the shadows. Sorrow welled within her once again; what had she done? What had she done?
Without warning, Lhiannon felt something strike her thigh, something both sharp and hard that would likely leave a deep bruise behind. As she looked down, another object struck her near the top of her head, hard enough so that a few streaks of light appeared in her vision. This time, she saw the object as it fell at her feet.
Suddenly, she felt more of them striking her, and she instinctively raised her left arm up to protect her face while her injured right arm bent at the elbow to protect her stomach. For every rock that whizzed by without hitting her, another struck her. The sharp edge of one grazed the cheek that Loghain had struck moments before, slicing the already tender flesh open. Drops of blood landed on her shift and spread along the fabric. Other rocks hit her raised arm, her legs, her side, each one carrying with it a stinging sensation, bruises, or blood.
She could barely hear her own voice above the cacophony of the stoning as her mana was focused into a spell. Energy coalesced into her left hand and she thrust it out, releasing a bolt of power toward Velanna. The spell wasn't powerful; she hoped it would be enough to disrupt the elf and stop the stoning long enough to try and heal her limp arm and sluggish fingers. The bolt hit Velanna in the shoulder and set her off balance, where she fell to one knee with a sharp hiss. Stones that were meant for Lhiannon suddenly veered off into the shadows as they followed Velanna's momentum.
With that reprieve, Lhiannon quickly brushed her fingers over her injured shoulder and down to her fingertips, imparting a small amount of healing magic into her flesh. She couldn't afford much more than a surface healing, as Velanna was regaining her footing and wits, her voice and hands once more weaving a spell.
"You shall speak no more," Lhiannon heard herself say as she quickly rushed toward Velanna. The voice was hers, yet it wasn't her using it. From within her mind, she watched her left hand reach out and grasp Velanna's neck again. She felt her fingers flex of their own accord, pressing into the mottled and corrupted flesh.
Ever defiant, Velanna glared into Lhiannon's eyes as her lips and hands still wove the spell. Even as Lhiannon leaned her weight into the smaller woman and forced her down toward the ground, even with Justice's strength fueling her, the lips and hands still moved. As they sank down, one of Velanna's hands began to skitter along the ground as if searching for something while the other began to scrabble at Lhiannon's forearm. Even still, Velanna never broke eye contact; the hate in them was clear.
It took only a second for Lhiannon to feel calloused hands circle her own throat and begin to squeeze.
The shout of disbelief and resistance rang through Loghain's mind as he watched his own hands grasp Lhiannon's throat. He could feel the ridges under the skin as his fingers dug into her flesh. An excruciating wave of pain washed over him as he railed against Velanna's spell. It had been considerably difficult to resist her before, but the new blood fueling the spell had increased its hold over him significantly.
Loghain focused his will, seeking a way to either release his hold on Lhiannon or force Velanna to break the spell. Whatever it was that he had witnessed earlier—Lhiannon's strange mannerisms and power—he hoped it would be enough to stop Velanna before Loghain throttled her. As hard as he tried to narrow his focus, the spell's hold thwarted him. He could barely move his eyes of his own will, let alone move something more substantial as his hands. The grip on her throat threatened to become tighter despite his efforts.
Dark spots appeared in his vision; they swirled and morphed before his eyes, blocking out large expanses of the room before him. A crushing, pounding sensation filled his chest as his heart beat frantically inside. Loghain knew that he had to push through the pain, to ignore all else in order to buy time: time for Lhiannon to disable Velanna, or time for Velanna to decide whether to hold the spell or save herself.
It was a matter of time, but time was also quickly running out.
The grip on her throat was crushing and relentless. Panic had flared to life within her, making her already racing heart beat even faster as her chest burned and demanded air. Lhiannon felt her left hand squeeze Velanna's neck harder, while her right hand came up to grab at the hands circling her own throat. Her fingers felt the warm band of a ring—one that she herself had given to the hand that was now fighting her—and followed the digit to a point where she could worm her own fingers around it. She grasped it and pulled the finger back and away. There was a cracking noise and, almost at once, she felt a small measure of relief from the hold on her throat, which allowed her to take a small gasp of air. She kept her grip on the finger, fighting to keep him from choking her once more. Her injured fingers started to throb again; she wouldn't be able to hold Loghain's finger back for long.
A sharp pain suddenly caught her under her arm, running from the hollow below the joint to the bottom of her ribs. Her skin felt even warmer under the gash and she could feel the wetness of blood. Velanna pulled her arm back, knife in hand, preparing to stab at Lhiannon again. Terror rose within Lhiannon at the precariousness of her situation; if she let go of Loghain's hand, the spell controlling him would compel him to choke her again. If she didn't let go, Velanna would continue stabbing at her in an attempt to free herself. It was rapidly becoming a no-win situation.
From inside, Justice felt the rising desperation within Lhiannon. It was a curious feeling, one that he had not experienced from a mortal before. There was a part of him that wished to explore this new sensation but, as he was a part of her, it would be of negligible benefit. After all, if she died while he inhabited her body, he would only be able to exist in it for so long before likely disappearing into oblivion. His own sense of self-preservation took hold; he knew that this battle would need to end quickly; if the human couldn't do it on her own, he would do it for her.
Justice searched Lhiannon's mind, sifting through it for more knowledge on both adversaries. He then compelled Lhiannon's hand to let go of Loghain, as the slashing knife was the greater threat in his assessment. He made that hand grab at the attacking elf and snatch the wrist holding the weapon. Justice used his strength to crush the elf's wrist; as he squeezed, he felt the bones inside grind together for a moment before they gave way under the pressure and snapped. Velanna's mouth opened wide as if to scream and she bucked wildly beneath them. He dropped Velanna's broken wrist and, using Lhiannon's free hand, picked up the bloody dagger that had fallen from the attacker's hand. Justice took the dagger and plunged it into the side of Velanna's neck, severing the artery that ran just below the skin. Blood spurted from the wound with every beat of Velanna's heart until, moments later, she went still, the knife protruding from her neck with Lhiannon's hand wrapped around the hilt. Human and elf blood mingled on the ground beneath them, one indistinguishable from the other.
Velanna's wide, unseeing eyes seemed to stare into Lhiannon's soul and accuse her of their path ending where it had. Lhiannon was horrified; horrified at how Velanna had turned so vengeful, and horrified at her own part in her downfall. When Velanna had abandoned the Wardens to find Seranni, Lhiannon had imagined… well, she wasn't exactly sure what she had imagined, but nearly strangling Velanna to death with her bare hands and then stabbing her like a savage wasn't the ending she had pictured. She was also horrified at the creature inside her and how easily he had taken over her body to do the deed. What had she done?
Lhiannon's grip on the knife subsided once the life ran out of Velanna. She let the dead woman go, pulling her hand away sharply. Sickened, Lhiannon retched what little was in her stomach, the contents burning her throat as she vomited. After the heaving subsided, she slumped to the side and landed on the ground next to the dead woman, her arms and hands shaking violently. Her breath came in rasping gulps, sweet despite the stench of taint and blood around her; sweet despite the guilt and dismay filling her.
Translation for Velanna's phrase "Emma shem'nan. Ar tu na'din:" "My revenge is swift. I will kill you."
Well, here comes the part where I apologize for the insanely long delay in both writing and replying to reviews. Real life just took hold and didn't want to let go. If I've missed your review and haven't replied, I sincerely apologize. I'm working to get back on track with writing and replying in a more expedient manner. Thanks so much for your support and patience.
Lately, I've been taking inspiration for my chapters and titles from songs on my MP3 player. This chapter's title, and much of Lhiannon's point of view, was inspired by Queensryche's "Eyes of a Stranger." While the subject matter of the song is different, the lyrics can be applied here. "And I raise my head and stare / into the eyes of a stranger. / I've always known that the mirror never lies. / People always turn away / from the eyes of a stranger / afraid to know what lies behind the stare."
Wow... I have never written a chapter quite like this. My muse went very, vary dark here. I was actually ready to send this off to Suilven several weeks ago, but then it went through a major rewrite, especially the hand-to-hand parts with Velanna. For those of you that play Star Wars: The Old Republic, you might recognize the spell Velanna used when flinging stones at Lhiannon. It's an ability used by Jedi Consulars, "Telekinetic Throw." The Jedi hurls small stones at an opponent and reduces their movement speed. Since Velanna used nature based spells, I thought it would transition over nicely.
Shameless self promotion: in the lag between chapters, "Retribution" celebrated its third birthday (holy cow!). Cake and ice cream were had by all. :p
Many thanks to reviewers Arsinoe, Suilven, Oleander's One, and Ventisquear. Thank you so much for your support; it is very much appreciated. To you quiet readers, many thanks to you as well. Your support has meant the world to me, especially when my writing resolve has flagged.