Reviewer Response:

Poison1234: Yes, I am a fan of Lord of the Rings (more so the movies rather than the books.) Those names seemed to fit with the high-fantasy of the Arlathani elves, so I used them. Thanks for the review.

jaffa3: Sorry this takes so long, I've been having the quarter from hell at school, so it took some time. Hope you're still willing to put up with the long waits.

david9999: They think they have the loophole: go get Branka to force the Assembly (of course, we know how that's going, but they don't.) Of course, Will's going to have to do some quick thinking when he realizes Branka's gone off the deep end.

TeninChwang: Will knows without a doubt that the Carta had to be stopped, that's why he wiped them out. That doesn't mean he has to take pleasure in it, especially since there are some parallels between the casteless and mages. However, just because he recognizes those similarities doesn't mean that he won't do what has to be done. Still, I understand what you're saying, and I hope this won't completely sour your enjoyment of the rest of the story.

Disclaimer: Neither Dragon Age Origins, nor the characters therein, belong to me. I am in no way profiting from this story.

Chapter 23: Road to the Void

No one dared to approach Will and the others as they left Dust Town, for which the Warden was grateful. He knew that what he had done was necessary, even what was right. Still, he couldn't shake the knowledge that he had just carved his way through a group of people who had never been given a chance, had merely been trying to survive in a world that had turned its back on them. The way they had gone about it was reprehensible and they'd needed to be stopped, but Will couldn't help but draw parallels between the Carta and those mages that turned to the forbidden in order to survive.

So deep was he in thought that he almost didn't notice the dirt and grim of the slums turning back into the meticulously carved stones of the Orzammar commons, Shaking his head, he gestured the others to follow him to a quiet corner.

"Alright," he said, gesturing to Zelda and Wynne. "We're going to be heading out into the Deep Roads soon, so we're going to need supplies. Go see if Bodahn has enough; and if he doesn't then we'll need to get provisions here. Once you do, we'll meet you at the entrance to the Diamond Quarter. Will you do that?" Wynne nodded, and the mage and Templar made their way back towards the entrance to the city. "Jowan, Thunder" Will continued as the remaining party members continued walking. "Once we get back to the Diamond Quarter, go tell the others back at the Shaperate to get ready to move out. The rest of us will go get the maps."

"I'll do it," Jowan said before cocking his head. "William… are you alright?"

"Will," the Warden said quietly. "I forgive you, Jowan. And yes, I'm fine."

Jowan blinked before smiling hopefully. "I won't disappoint you again, Will," he said. "Well, I'll go get the others," he continued after the group reentered the Diamond Quarter. Will nodded, and the older mage quickly jogged down the street, followed by the massive mabari.

"Will, you have been very quiet," Leliana said, placing a hand on Will's shoulder. "If something's bothering you…"

"Later," Will said quietly, nodding to a pair of Royal Guard who were listening intently while trying to pretend they weren't. "I'll tell you later." Leliana glanced at the eavesdroppers before nodding herself, though her eyes told Will that she would hold him to his promise to talk when they had the time.

Several minutes later, Will, Leliana, and Oghren were once again standing outside the doors of the Caridin estate. "Don't worry, Warden," Oghren said. "Lady Caridin's one of them Deshyrs that'll keep her word most of the time. She'll come through."

"She'd better," Will said as they were admitted and made their way to the same parlor as before.

"Sir Warden!" Lady Caridin said, rising to her feet with a smile. "I just heard from one of my agents that you were successful in your mission, well done!" Her smile turned brittle. "Now my son can finally rest in peace. But enough of that, you're here for your maps, aren't you?" Will simply nodded, and Lady Caridin gestured to her butler, who was standing surreptitiously in a corner, trying not to be noticed. He bowed before scurrying away through another door. "It will just be a moment," the dwarf noble said. "There were no problems, I presume?"

"Nothing you'd be concerned with," Will said quietly. "Thank you for your assistance."

"You're welcome, honorable Warden," Lady Caridin said. "I do still believe your quest is a doomed one, but let it not be said that the House of Caridin goes back on its word," At that moment, the butler returned, several rolls of parchment in his arms, which he gave to Will. "You'll find everything to be in order, those are the exact same maps that I gave to the Paragon Branka two years ago. Along with it is a bonus: my seal supporting your right to leave the city. You shouldn't need it, but with the way the city is now…" she sighed before nodding. "Stone protect you, Warden,"

"Same to you, Lady Caridin," Will said, inclining his head slightly. After a moment, the group turned to leave.

"Oh, wait, one last thing," Lady Caridin said. "Your companions, are they all Wardens?"

"No…" Will said, his eyes widening as he realized what Lady Caridin was getting at.

"Then you'll need something too keep the Blight at bay. Nothing can cure it once it has taken hold, but to keep it from entering your system, there's a special potion you can take. There's an alchemist in the Commons, Figor, who makes it and owes me some favors. Tell him I sent you, and he'll give a discount."

"Thank you again, Lady Caridin," Will said.

"You avenged my son, Sir Warden," Lady Caridin said simply. "Truthfully, what I've done is only a small portion of what I owe you. Should you need anything else, come and speak with me." Will nodded with a tight smile and made his way out of the house.

"Ah, Sir Warden!" Will suppressed a groan as he stepped out Lady Caridin's door only to be accosted by a group of Harrowmont dwarves, led by Dulin Forenden. "We've been looking for you, none of your companions could tell us where you went, and we were worried that Bhelen's rogues may have done something to you."

'More likely you were worried I'd thrown in with him,' Will thought sourly before forcing a smile on his face, not even bothering to make it seem legitimate. "I'm sorry to have worried you," he said sweetly. "I just had some business that I needed to take care of, nothing major. Now, if you'll excuse me…"

"Well," Forenden said, moving to block Will's way. "There is a matter of some importance that needs to be discussed,"

"Sir Warden!" another voice shouted, and Will glanced up to see Bhelen's man Vartag Gavorn marching over at the head of some Royal Guard. "Sir Warden, are you well?" he asked, forcing his way through the Harrowmont supporters and bowing to Will. "Your guide lost track of you and we feared the worst. It would be shameful if something were to happen to an honored guest of Orzammar…"

"I'm fine," Will said sharply. "Now, if you don't mind, I have somewhere I need to be soon, and I'll get there faster without an entourage."

"The city is a dangerous place right now, Warden," Forenden said, glowering at Gavorn out of the corner of his eye. "Because of Bhelen's mad ambition, there have been some regrettable battles in the streets, and it would not do if you or your companions were to be caught up in one."

"You mean because of Harrowmont's coup, don't you," Gavorn said icily, glaring back. "If he would simply support the true king…"

"Enough." Will said simply. "I am a Grey Warden. I survived Ostagar. I killed a High Dragon. I've defeated assassins of all kinds. I can handle a civil brawl long enough to make it to the Deep Roads."

Both dwarfs abandoned their glaring match to gape at Will. "The Deep Roads, Warden?" Forenden said.

"Why in Stone's name would you be going there now?" Gavorn asked, his eyes wide.

"A Warden has his reasons," Will said, not willing to tell these vultures anything he didn't have to; they'd find a way to make his life more difficult. "Suffice it to say that I have need to go to the Deep Roads, and you are both preventing me from going. So, please, get out of my way." At that moment, thankfully, Jowan arrived with the others, all packed and ready to go as soon as Wynne and Zelda returned with provisions.

Forenden and Gavorn glanced at each other again, though this time they both seemed to be trying to figure out what to do. Finally, Gavorn spoke. "Sir Warden… regretfully, the Deep Roads are closed at this time," he said. "Due to the tense nature of the city, we couldn't risk anyone being… accidently… locked out." Will guessed that someone had tried to do just that at some point, but didn't say anything. "So, I'm afraid that, until the rightful ruler of Orzammar says otherwise, no one may leave the city. Now, if you were to speak with him…"

"I am the Warden Commander," Will said, allowing a measure of his annoyance to enter his voice. "I will not stand by and be extorted in this way. I am leaving Orzammar, and you will not stop me. I have the support of Lady Caridin to back up my own authority. Now, I will be going." Ignoring the stunned look on Gavorn's face, Will stalked past, noticing with some amusement how the other dwarves tripped over themselves to give him space as he made his way to the others.

"It did quite well," Shale said. "Is it sure that I cannot squash some heads?"

"Yes, I'm sure, Shale," Will said simply. "Let's go, the others will be back soon with supplies." Everyone nodded and the group made their way to the meeting point. Once there, Leliana and Thunder volunteered to go get the anti-Blight draught from the alchemist, and Will agreed. She returned several tense minutes later just as Wynne and Zelda arrived, leading several dwarves they must have hired to help carry the supplies.

"Everything going well, William?" Wynne asked. Will simply nodded before glancing at Shale, who sighed.

"Oh, very well, if it makes it happy," the golem muttered, stepping forward and gathering up half the bags as the others grabbed the rest.

"Alright," Will said. "Let's get out of here before…"

"Sir Warden!"

Will cursed in Elvish as he turned to see two groups of armed and armored dwarves making their way towards him, each clearly supporting the two major factions.

The Harrowmont team made it first. "Sir Warden," the leader said (Not Forenden this time). "I am Olanak Harrowmont, a warrior of House Harrowmont, and my lord has bid me to ensure your safe return…"

"Or to slay him when he's away from the city!" Bhelen's soldier growled, his eyes narrowed. "My name is Piotin Aeducan, Sir Warden and…"

"You want to go with me into the Deep Roads to ensure that nothing befalls me," Will said, glaring at both the dwarves. "I have been more than patient with both Harrowmont and Bhelen, but my patience is reaching its end. Let me be very clear to you both, so be sure to take my words to your lords: I am not interested in making either of them king. My only concern is for Orzammar to fulfill its promises, and I believe that the best way to do that is to leave the city for reasons of my own. I have complete faith in my team to be able to survive the Deep Roads without either of you, especially since I don't trust you. Now, go away and leave us alone." With that, he turned and stalked away, followed by the others.

The guards at the gate to the Deep Roads took one look at Will marching towards him before turning and ordering his men to open the gates. "Stone protect you, Warden," he said. Will nodded and led the way out into the blighted Deep Roads.

Prince Bhelen, deep within the Royal Palace, slammed his fists on the table with a growl. "Damn it, what is that Warden up to?" he muttered.

"He'll probably die, there's no way the could…" Vartag said before being interrupted.

"Fool! Grey Wardens enter the Deep Roads all the time, this one will survive, I'm sure of it! The only question is what he's scheming." The prince rubbed his forehead in frustration. "How is the rest of the campaign going?"

"The Proving ended in your favor, thanks to some… pressure," Vartag said, a tight smile crossing his face. "That will silence some of the more traditionalist dissenters…"

"And your plan to cut Harrowmont's support with those false promises?" Bhelen asked, causing Vartag's smile to fade.

"That… didn't go as well, my lord," he said slowly. "Without a third party perceived as neutral, the Deshyrs were… skeptical. It's only a matter of time before they inquire of the Shaperate…"

"So all you've done is drive them more firmly into Harrowmont's camp." Bhelen shook his head. "No matter, none of this matters if we don't figure out what Harrowmont has convinced the Warden to do for him in the Deep Roads."

Vartag took a deep breath. "My lord Prince… the Warden did say that he wasn't aligned with any group, and he seemed as annoyed with Forenden as he was with me…"

"If he's not with us, then we must assume he's against us," Bhelen snapped. "Now, what is there in the Deep Roads that Harrowmont would be…" His eyes widened. "You said the Warden was at the Caridin house and had Oghren with him?" he said, looking at Vartag, who nodded. "Dammit all, they're going after the Paragon!"

"That's foolish, she's dead by now, it's been two years." Vartag said.

"That's true, but if the Warden finds her body, Harrowmont could probably spin a tale of her spirit guiding him through the Stone, convincing all those traditional fools to support him on the wish of a dead woman! Damn, damn, damn," the prince slumped into a chair and put his face in his hands, thinking deeply. "Right, here's what we'll do. Get two squads of warriors that don't openly support us, the best you can. Send them all out to ensure that the Warden does not return."

Vartag's eyes widened in horror. "You're… my lord, you can't possibly… They're Wardens…"

"And they've aligned with our enemy," Bhelen said sharply. "They must be stopped, at all costs. Do as I command."

After a long moment, Vartag bowed. "As you wish, my lord," he said before spinning on his heel and leaving the Prince to brood.

Meanwhile, across the Diamond Quarter in the Harrowmont estate, Lord Harrowmont stood, staring into his fire as Dulin finished his report. "This is most troubling," Harrowmont murmured. "You're certain that the Warden holds no sympathy for us?"

"I'm afraid so, my lord," Dulin said. "I fear I pushed him too hard, I accept full responsibility."

"No, I agreed to the plan," Harrowmont said. "Now, we must decide what to do next. The Warden has a plan, that much is clear. But does he work for Bhelen or not, that's the important question."

"I don't believe so," Dulin said. "Gavorn was being just as insistent as I was that the Warden listen to us, so it stands to reason that he's just as annoyed with Bhelen as he is with us."

"Hmmm…" Harrowmont murmured. "Don't be so quick to underestimate Bhelen, he is cunning, deceitful, and ruthless. We learned that all to well with the death and banishment of his elder brothers. It is possible he was simply pretending to pester the Warden… who disappeared into Dust Town for more than an hour for unknown reasons." A long silence filled the room before Lord Harrowmont turned. "Gather some of our agents; quiet, discreet ones. Send them out into the Deep Roads to keep an eye on the Warden. If he is honest in being unaligned, then all is well and good. If he's not…"

Dulin straightened slightly. "My lord… do they have permission to kill if necessary?" he asked. After a long moment, Harrowmont nodded.

"I pray that it does not come to that, but Endrin made me promise that Bhelen would not succeed him, and I will fulfill that promise. Give the orders, Dulin."

An hour later, unknown to each other, two groups of dwarves left the city, making their way along the same trails as the Wardens towards Aeducan Thaig.

Will growled as he turned the map over again, still trying to properly decipher the thing. Apparently, dwarves had a much different way of writing and organizing maps than the surface, which made navigation a challenge. To make matters worse, it seemed every other passage they were supposed to take had collapsed, forcing them to detour. Fortunately, there were many of these detours; otherwise no one would have gotten anywhere. Unfortunately, this meant that he was rapidly getting confused as to exactly where they were in this labyrinth.

He was also coming to realize just how much he disliked caverns. The Circle Tower, though confined, had allowed for plenty of natural light, and thus had allowed for a smooth transition between night and day. Whenever he'd been in a place without that transition, it had only been for a few hours at most with a fairly obvious path to take; which made it easy for him to keep his cool. Now… now, he had no clue if it was night or day, had trouble distinguishing up from down, and had no clue if the group was still going in the right direction. It wasn't helping that every few minutes, they were ambushed by packs of deepstalkers. While he no longer considered the creatures to be truly dangerous, they were still incredibly annoying, especially when no one figured out they were there before the attack. Thankfully, the Darkspawn seemed to have abandoned this area for the time being.

"William," Wynne said, jerking the elf out of his thoughts. "You don't always have to be the one with the map," As she said this, the Senior Enchanter gently prying the parchment from Will's hands for the fifth time. "Now, where are we… here," she said, pointing to a seemingly random place. "So we take this left turn up here, then a right, and we should be back to the main Deep Road to Aeducan Thaig."

"Thanks," Will said, rubbing his forehead. "Could you…" Wynne nodded, smiling, and stepped forward to lead the way. "I really don't like caves."

"Yes, I can see why it would be frustrated," Shale said.

"So, do you remember anything?" Will asked, grateful for the distraction. "You were found around here, weren't you."

"Not quite," Shale said. "My sadly deceased master was searching a different part of the Deep Roads when it discovered me. But to answer its question, no, I don't remember anything."

"Well, if you do, be sure to tell us," Will said. "Any knowledge you might have could be useful."

"I will do that," Shale said.

Silence fell over the group as they continued on, moving more quickly now that Wynne had taken over navigation. They were walking in a careful group, with Shale and most of the provisions near the center. Zelda was with Wynne at the front, and Will, Leliana, Oghren and Thunder were right behind them. On Shale's other side were Morrigan, Jowan, Sten, with Alistair guarding the rear. Normally, Will would have put Shale back there since he was almost indestructible; but since the cargo the golem was carrying was vital to their mission, so he had to stick to the middle.

Will's eyes flashed up a moment later as a soft scraping noise was heard, barely audible even to his enhanced sense. "More deepstalkers," he muttered, drawing Spellweaver and looking around for anything suspicious. A cluster of rocks looked out of place, and he was rewarded when the Arcane Bolt he threw killed one of the predators rather than shattering stone.

Once again, almost twenty of the beasts unfolded from their hiding spots with eerie screeches, spewing acid at the group. Will, Jowan and Wynne immediately brought up Arcane Shields while Alistair and Zelda raised their physical ones. Half of the Deepstalkers remained at range while the rest closed the distance, trying to attack with their teeth and claws. Two were shot by Leliana while three more were frozen or electrocuted by Morrigan, leaving the remaining five to be slaughtered by Oghren's axe and Sten's Asala. The ranged attackers, meanwhile, were being picked off by jets of fire and hunks of stone launched by the other three mages. The last two Deepstalkers tried to retreat, but were killed before they could get reinforcements.

"Good fight," Oghren growled. "You surfaces sure know what you're doing."

"We've had a lot of practice," Leliana said, putting her bow back over her shoulder as she looked around.

"Yeah, well don't get cocky, these critters are just the beginning. The further we get from Orzammar, the worse it'll get." Oghren took another swig from his flask. "Been ages since I was out here."

"Tell me about yourself, Oghren," Will said, glancing around to make sure that there weren't any more threats.

The dwarf snorted. "Nothing to talk about," he growled. "I'm just an old, washed-up warrior left behind by his wife. If we can find her, then maybe I'll be something more, but until then, let's go." With that, he started marching again, leaving Will to ponder.

Now that Wynne was in charge of the map, the group made much faster progress, and finally reached a large opening on the side of the main road. "The entrance to Aeducan Thaig," Oghren said. "The last of the Thaigs to fall. The dusters in the Assembly make noise about reclaiming it every few years, but everyone knows we don't have the warriors to do it, so we're content with sending some people in to poke around and posture. Then the Darkspawn take it back within a week every time." He sighed. "There are probably some here now, even though most have gone to the surface for the Blight."

"You're right," Will said quietly, his eyes distant. "Several clusters, spread throughout the area. I don't think they've noticed us, though."

"Will, perhaps we should stay here for a time," Wynne said. "We're all tired, and ruined though it is, a Thaig will at least provide some shelter." The Warden Commander nodded.

"You're probably right. Stay on your toes, the Darkspawn will notice us soon." Everyone nodded before stepping gingerly into the hole.

As expected, the nearest group of Darkspawn quickly sensed Will and Alistair, and charged recklessly towards them. Six Genlocks and four Hurlocks, no Alphas of Emissaries, were quickly brushed aside. Their cries must have alerted the others, however, as Will sensed them beginning to shift and gather.

"The other's are going to be coming together," Will said quietly. "We need to get to some sort of choke-point to cancel out their numbers."

"Over there!" Zelda called, pointing to something that had been a mansion at one point and was still mostly intact. "That seems like a good spot."

Will nodded quickly. "Right. Shale, Jowan, Leliana and I will hold the entrance. The rest of you split up into two groups and search the rest of the area, make sure there aren't any other ways in!"

"Yes, kadan!" Sten said. "You two," he pointed at Morrigan and Alistair, who were closest. "Come with me!" The cry of a Shriek cut of any disagreements either of them may have had with the arrangement.

Zelda, meanwhile, had stepped near Wynne, followed by Oghren. "We'll go the other way."

Will nodded "Thunder, go scout, but do not engage. If you find something, go get someone, alright?" The mabari barked and darted into the door and out of sight. Will then looked over his shoulder, letting his Warden sense reach out and find the Darkspawn. Most of them had gathered into two large groups that were making their way towards the makeshift fortress from different angles. "Go!" he called to the other groups.

A tense minute passed as a golem, Warden and archer prepared for the assault. The gate to the old mansion was still mostly intact, and Shale could fill it while Jowan covered his back. However, there was also a hole in the wall a short distance away, which Will was covering. Leliana had climbed to one top of one of the old watchtowers, one that still had cover and a commanding view. They were as ready as they were ever going to be, and the first group of Darkspawn was almost upon them. The other group seemed to be circling around, looking for another entrance.

The first group of Hurlocks entered the area in front of the mansion, their shields raised in a crude wall. Behind them was a single Emissary, its staff raised and entropic magic crawling along it. Leliana's first arrow struck it in the shoulder, causing it to stumble before a second pierced its head. The others, meanwhile, were sent reeling by a boulder thrown by Shale, most dead on impact.

These were just a distraction, however, as Will sensed several Shrieks entering the area, too spread out for any single attack to stop them. Several went towards Shale, while another few came at him. "Shrieks!" Will called as he used a fireball to kill.

Jowan closed his eyes for a moment before pulling out a knife. "I'll deal with them," he said quietly, slashing his palm open and opening his eyes as they flared red. "Blood Wound!" A wave of dark blood flowed from Jowan, filling the area around Shale just as the Shrieks arrived. Being a golem, Shale wasn't affected by boiling blood, but the blighted creatures were, and they fell out of stealth as their pained howls echoed around the cavern. Shale took the opportunity to walk around and stomp on each of their heads, laughing as he did.

Will, meanwhile, had lit several fires to force the remaining Shrieks to come directly towards him. As a bonus, the light of the flames also drove back the shadows and allowed Will to see the Shrieks, and thus fight them more effectively than swinging blindly. Shrieks were strong, just like all Darkspawn were, but their lack of armor made them more frail than Hurlocks. The first came at Will with a double overhead slash with its claw-like blades, but they were blocked by an Arcane Shield as Will ran it through. A second shrieked loudly enough that it would have stunned Will had ne not dampened his hearing down to manageable levels a moment before, allowing him to take its head off. A third tried to leap on him, but stumbled as one of Leliana's arrows struck it, giving Will time to punch it hard enough to smash its skull.

More and more Darkspawn were pouring into the area, mostly Genlocks shepherded by Hurlocks. A cluster of archers tried to shoot Leliana down from her perch, but another bolder from Shale split them up as another of Will's fireball burned a pair of Emissaries. An Ogre tried to break through Shale's defenses, but Jowan boiled its blood long enough for the golem to pull the massive beast to the ground and squash its head with a pair of fists. With most of their heavy hitters gone, the remaining Darkspawn, bolstered by only a few Alphas, smashed themselves against the two living walls and their ranged supports. There were no survivors.

With that done, Will turned his Blight sense to find the other group. His blood chilled as he realized they were likely within the mansion. He couldn't tell where Wynne, Zelda, and Oghren were, but Alistair was nowhere near, though they were going in the right direction. He quickly glanced back into the caverns, there weren't very many Darkspawn left out that way. "I'm going to help the others," he said. "There are Darkspawn in there." Without waiting for a response, he turned and dashed inside.

He quickly realized that the others must have already engaged the Darkspawn if the clashing weapons meant anything. Turning, he sprinted towards the sound of the battle, aware that Alistair, Sten, and Morrigan were also coming. He was closer, though, and would get there faster. Skidding around the last corner, he took everything in at a glance.

Zelda was slowly backing down the corridor, keeping the small horde of Darkspawn back through sheer determination. Any that slipped by were hacked open by Oghren or mauled by Thunder. Wynne, meanwhile, was further slowing the monsters with various glyphs, stone walls, and spells. Still, without any powerful area of effect attacks, they could only delay.

Thankfully, Will had plenty of fire to spare.

The first fireball burned over Oghren's head and exploded against the wall about halfway back the Darkspawn group, sending them sprawling and burning. Zelda took the opportunity to shove the Alpha at the head of the group back before stepping to the side and letting Oghren come forward to take the beast's legs out with a well-placed chop.

At this moment, Alistair and his group arrived from another corridor, driving into the disorganized flank of the Darkspawn. Waves of ice flowed from Morrigan's staff, freezing several standing enemies solid for Sten to shatter with heavy blows. Alistair, meanwhile, had cut through the Darkspawn ranks to join Zelda in pushing them back.

Before anyone could get too comfortable, however, a roar filled the corridor, followed by the sound of smashing stone. An Ogre rounded the corner, but this one was different. While most Ogres only wore some lose cloth, this one had somehow gathered several massive plates of armor and connected them, forming a simplistic but formidable defense. A moment later, he lowered his head and charged, smashing through the lesser Darkspawn without a care, heading right for Will.

"Back!" Will shouted, slamming Spellweaver's blade into the ground and focusing his power into a shield, one slanted to hopefully redirect the armored Ogre's momentum into a nearby wall. Heeding his orders, most of the others dashed back down the corridor.

Wynne, however, moved behind Will and planted her own staff, forming another shield right behind his. "You'll never be able to stop that much momentum," she said. "Not alone." Before Will could retort, the beast was upon them.

It turned out that Wynne was right, Will's shield shattered upon impact. It was a close thing, though, as the ogre did slow enough that the second shield directed him as desired, smashing him into the wall hard enough to crack it and shake the ceiling.

Will blinked the stars out of his eyes as he looked down the corridor. Most of the Darkspawn that had already been attacking were dead or wounded, but a new wave was behind them, preparing to charge. Will's companions would never reform in time to halt their advance. The elf's eyes then flicked up to the damaged ceiling. "Back!" he called again, reaching up with his telekinesis, dinging his power into the cracks, widening, pushing, and preparing to bring the whole thing down. Wynne agreed, creating one last Glyph of Repulsion before falling back.

The Darkspawn slammed into the barrier, forcing their way past through sheer weight of numbers. The delay, however, was enough, and as Will turned and sprinted back after the elder mage, the ceiling caved in, crushing the majority of the advancing enemies beneath it.

Sten looked up from stabbing the armored Ogre to nod. "Well done, kadan," he said simply, carefully wiping Asala clean.

"Yeah, ruddy good fight," Oghren said. "Would've taken several squads to do that, and there would have been casualties!" He leaned against his axe. "You know, most dwarves believe you lot on Calling only make it as far as here, but from what I've seen, I'm betting that you make it a lot farther."

Will nodded slowly. He'd heard of the Calling from Alistair. When a Warden's Taint started overwhelming them, threatening to make them a Ghoul, they went to the Deep Roads to go out in a blaze of glory, killing as many Darkspawn as they could in a final push. He wondered if he'd survive long enough to see his own through. "You did well too, Oghren," he said, waving a hand to clear some of the dust from the air. His ability to sense the Taint did nothing to tell him if the Darkspawn were still alive, so he had to check with his eyes and ears.

Almost twenty of the beasts were still moving, though only two were in any shape to try and fight back as he finished them off. "The other group's gone as well," he said as he rammed Spellweaver through the last one's torso and twisted. "I don't think there are any more living Darkspawn in the Thaig." He nodded to the mabari nudging him. "Go let Leliana and the others know that everything's alright." The dog barked happily and ran off. "Did any of you find someplace less likely to collapse on our heads as we sleep?"

"I'll do you one better," Oghren said, grinning. "I found an old camp, looks like Branka's. We're on the right trail."

"You're sure?" Alistair asked. "I mean, it would have to be about two years old…"

"I know her style, boy," Oghren said. "It was hers, I'm sure of it. Too big to be scavengers or a war party, too well organized to be Darkspawn, and covered in grime from the years. Branka stayed here."

"Then we should too," Will said. "Show us the place."

An hour and a half later, Will was sitting in the middle of a ruined room in the center of an old basement, putting the finishing touches a thaumaturgic circle on the floor. He wanted to make sure that Branka was still alive, wherever she was. This expedition was useless if she died. A tense minute later, he activated the circle and picked up the piece of stone he was using. "She's still going," he said.

"Course she is," Oghren said. "She's lasted this long, she's probably built a fort somewhere in the Deep Roads, to repel any Darkspawn from whatever she's doing. Probably recruited some of the Legion to help her out as well, if she ran into them."

"The Legion?" Will asked.

"The Legion of the Dead," Oghren said. "Toughest warriors in the world. They don't live in the cities; they live out here, fighting the Darkspawn every minute of every day. They coordinate with Orzammar forces on occasion, but for the most part they're autonomous." The red-bearded dwarf took another swig of his seemingly endless supply of alcohol. "The reason they're called the Legion of the Dead is that ever one of them's had a funeral before heading out. As far as anyone's concerned, they're walking corpses, simply waiting to die. Means they're not afraid anymore."

Will nodded. "Think we'll see any? It might give us a clue to Branka's whereabouts," he said.

"Probably see some of them, if we go deep enough. A few groups stay near the city to keep open lines of communication, but most try to fight further out, keep the Darkspawn focused on them rather than Orzammar. Do a damn good job of it as well, the city'd have been overrun a hundred times without them."

"Then I hope we can find some," Will said, rising to his feet. "You know where you are on the watch cycle?"

"Yep, with that stick-in-the-mud qunari. Sure I can't…"

"No," Will said. "Not after what happened with Morrigan."

Oghren snorted. "How was I supposed to know she'd…" He huffed. "Never mind," he muttered, walking away. Will simply shook his head before leaning back against a nearby wall and closing his eyes.

"Is now a good time, Will?" Will opened one eye to see Leliana gently settling next to him.

The Warden didn't even bother pretending not to know what she was talking about. "I was just thinking about parallels," he said. "You were in the Tower, you know what I mean. What the Carta did was wrong, no one denies that, but I can't help but wonder what would have happened if the other casts had made any effort to help them rather than condemn them for an accident of birth."

Leliana nodded as she took Will's hand. "I don't know, Will," she said quietly. "Dwarven culture has always been insular, no one on the surface dares to try to suggest that they're wrong because they control the lyrium trade. Still, what the Carta was doing… it was wrong, Will, and you did the right thing in stopping them. Don't forget that." She smiled slightly. "Besides, a very wise elf once told me that the difference between good and evil is that good doesn't worry about not being evil."

Will chuckled for a moment before sighing. "I'm tired, Leliana," he admitted quietly. "We've been all over Ferelden, and it's been the same everywhere: those that we were relying on to help us against the Darkspawn have needed us to save them. I always have to worry if they'll even be in any shape to help us afterwards, or if they'll fulfill their end of the treaty. I'm just… tired."

"I know, Will," Leliana said, leaning over and pressing her forehead against his. "But it'll just be a while longer. The dwarves are the last of the treaties, and once we find Branka they'll have to listen to us. Arl Eamon will have crafted a plan to remove Loghain, and then all we have to do is finish off the Darkspawn."

"You say that like it's going to be easy," Will said.

"It won't be, but then nothing truly worth doing ever is. The best thing I can think to do is get some rest and remember all the people you've already saved, how many have pledged to carry on the fight. We can win this, Will, please don't lose hope."

Will smiled and gently kissed Leliana on the cheek. "Thank you, Leliana," he whispered.

"Glad to help," the redhead smiled, returning the affection.

The tender moment was interrupted, however, by a sudden cacophony of noise from outside the room.

Legnar, assassin in the service of House Harrowmont, stepped back from the corner he had been peering around and faded into view again. His team had been pursuing the Wardens for the past few hours, and had yet to find any evidence of support for Behlen. Still, he had his orders to keep watch, especially since the Wardens seemed to have settled down for a rest… or perhaps a meeting.

Now, Legnar did not rightly claim to understand the games of politicians and Deshyrs. He didn't even know what house he had come from: he'd been taken as a baby and trained to become an assassin. However, he also didn't particularly care about any of that. All he needed to know was who was his master and how to do his job, and right now, that job was to be ready to strike the moment the Warden showed his allegiance against his Lord.

Stone crunched slightly behind Legnar, and he turned to see one of his fellows. The dwarf made a few quick hand signs. Like all assassins, both Legnar and his subordinate had their tongues cut out when they were finished with training, since they didn't need them anymore. Just another thing Legnar didn't care about, hand signals were just as efficient and much easier to hide.

'Two squads, coming up the road,' he translated in his head. 'Not ours, not official. Must be Bhelen's.' Legnar nodded, and the other assassin faded back, leaving his leader to think. After a long moment, he waved the other six assassins closer and started signing.

'Spread out and engage stealth. We'll see what Bhelen's warriors want, and if they're here to form an alliance, we'll kill them all in their sleep.' The assassins all nodded and faded away, disappearing into the shadows of the crevices and cracks.

Several minutes later, four armored dwarves entered the corridor Legnar was in and made their way forward. They were less heavily armored than a real assault team, and what protection they did have was muffled by cloths. They were likely trying to be quiet, by assassin standards they were like rampaging brontos.

"You sure the Wardens are down here?" one warrior muttered.

"They have to be, did you see all those bodies?" another growled back as he moved to the very corner Legnar had been at before. If he looked around, then he'd see the golem that followed the Warden, though if he wasn't careful he'd be spotted as well.

It seemed the leading warrior was at least somewhat competent, however, as he pulled out a small stone rod with a mirror attached to the end and used it to peer around the corner. "Yep, the golem's here," he muttered, pulling back. "You, go get the rest of the force, we'll take them by surprise."

"Shouldn't we prepare an ambush for them outside?" another warrior asked, glancing around warily. "You saw what they did to those Darkspawn…"

"I've been in the Deep Roads with Wardens before," the leader said. "They always know when Darkspawn are around, so it's easy to defend against them. They won't know that we're here, though, so we can run them over before they're ready. Now go get the others, Prince Bhelen wants this done with fast." The younger warrior nodded and quickly left.

'How interesting,' Legnar thought, watching Bhelen's fighters peek around the corner again. 'Are they not allied?' If that wasn't the case, then his mission was dramatically different than he had suspected. Whereas before he had been tasked to spy on and potentially kill the Wardens, if they were in fact opposed to Bhelen, then he would need to protect them… preferably in a way that put them in Lord Harrowmont's debt.

Gently gripping a small stone he kept for just this purpose, he tapped it lightly against the wall in a pattern that would be incomprehensible to anyone outside of the Harrowmont Assassins, but would convey simple instructions to his team. The warriors, not paying attention to their flanks (a stupid move in and of itself) didn't notice, allowing Legnar and his assassins to make their way to a different corridor and unstealth.

'Prepare to engage, acid flasks,' Legnar signed quickly. 'Wait for my order.' The others all nodded before reactivating their stealth amulets and returning to their previous hiding places, ready to strike at the right moment.

Several minutes passed before the rest of Bhelen's men arrived, two squads in all. Unless the Wardens were far stronger than expected, they'd be overrun without assistance.

"Right," the leader of the warriors muttered. "We're going to do this hard and fast. No mercy. They may be Wardens, but orders are orders. They made the choice to oppose Prince Bhelen, and now they pay for that choice." A murmur of agreement was heard, and both squads drew their weapons. "Ready? Three, two, one…"

Legnar tapped his signal stone against the wall three times, hard.

Cries of pain echoed throughout the hall as seven flasks of acid shattered, coating the warriors' legs with the stuff. While not powerful enough to disintegrate flesh and metal, it was more than strong enough to be incredibly painful. Most of the warriors collapsed, howling in pain.

"What's going on?" a voice shouted, likely the golem. Legnar ignored it, he was too focus on his mission. There were still some warriors standing, and they knew that there were assassins about. Stepping forward, he drew his twin blades and drove them into the skull of the nearest enemy, killing him instantly. Meanwhile, his team was picking off the other survivors with the kind of grim efficiency that made assassins feared.

"Who's there!?" That was the Warden Commander himself, and from the sound of it he was coming this way fast. Legnar immediately stomped his foot to give the retreat order, and he and his assassins faded into the shadows and dashed away, leaving the remaining Bhelen fighters strewn around the corridor. Legnar stopped at the end of the corridor and waited to see what the Wardens would do.

Lightning crackled along the Commander's curved blade as he wheeled around the corner, a magical shield already up as he scanned the scene before him. "What the…" he muttered as the rest of his team started arriving, all prepared for a fight. "Oghren, what's this?"

"Looks like someone was planning to try and attack us, but got beat to the punch," a dwarf that Legnar identified as Oghren, a disgraced member of House Branka, said. "This lot, looks like House Vollney. Officially neutral, but everyone knows they're with Bhelen." Leaning down, Oghren grabbed the nearest survivor. "What's going on?" he growled into the unfortunate dwarf's face. "Better answer quick, 'cause there's no shortage of sods to interrogate."

"I… We were here to make sure nothing happened…"

Oghren dropped the warrior before kicking him in the gut. "You're lying, try again."

"Oghren," The Warden Commander said quietly. "Let me handle this." With that, he crouched down next to the moaning dwarf. "Why are you really here?"

"I told you," the dwarf coughed. "We were sent to try and help you…"

"I have to agree with Oghren that that's not true. Whoever attacked you was only here for a few seconds, but you all have your weapons drawn, even those that were clearly incapacitated in the first attack." The commander's voice sharpened. "You were sent to kill us, weren't you?"

"No! No, we…" The commander must have made some expression, as the injured warrior's voice spluttered to a halt for a long moment before he sighed. "Yes, we were. We didn't want to, but orders are orders, especially when they come from the dwarf who'll be King of Orzammar. If we'd refused, our House would have been ruined once everything was over."

One of the armored men behind the Commander snorted, "So, you lot aren't content with simply breaking your word, now you're trying to kill us too?" he said. "Remind me to never come to Orzammar on vacation, Maker only knows what happens to people who do."

"Alistair," the commander said simply. "Is this all of you?" he asked the dwarf.

"Yeah, two squads, should have been easy. Then those damn assassins had to mess everything up."

"I doubt it would have been as easy as you think," the Warden said before standing and looking in the direction the assassin's had retreated. "You lot that attacked, come out. I know you're still there."

'Orders?' someone tapped with a signal stone. Legnar remained silent, his thoughts racing. On the one hand, the Warden Commander didn't seem angry, so it was possible he was grateful. Still, Legnar's orders were clear that he should avoid contact if at all possible.

It seemed the Warden was impatient, as he gestured to one of the robed mages behind him. "Jowan, get them out here." The stringy-haired man glanced at another of the armored human warriors. After a long moment, he got a nod and slowly pulled a knife from his belt. "Look," the Warden continued. "If you don't show yourselves in the next ten seconds, I'm going to assume you're hostile and act accordingly. Come out now."

Legnar bit back a huff of frustration. He'd hoped to avoid this. 'Stay back,' he signaled before stepping out and releasing his stealth amulet, fading into view.

"There, that wasn't so hard, was it?" the Warden Commander said, stepping over several of the prone forms of several Bhelen warriors. "Harrowmont's crew, I suppose." Legnar simply nodded. "So, were you lot sent to kill, or simply to keep an eye on us to make sure we weren't working for Bhelen?"

'Watch,' Legnar scratched into the nearest wall. 'When you were threatened, we attacked.'

The commander rolled his eyes. "Well, thanks. Now, go away and leave us alone. I think I've made it clear to you both that I'm not plotting for either side, I'm too busy trying to save the world from people to stubborn to save it themselves. If you continue to follow us, I'll take it as a sign that you're hostile and must be eliminated. Do you understand me?" Legnar nodded. "Good, now go."

Legnar backed up obediently, though he had no intentions of actually following the Warden's wishes. His orders were clear, and he would not disobey them. Hopefully, the Warden would think he had, never suspecting that the assassins were following from a distance.

"They're still following us?" Leliana asked as Will came back to the front of the group several "days" later.

"Yes, they're still there. Persistent, aren't they?" Will said. Ever since he and his companions had left Aeducan Thaig, the assassins had been shadowing them. They were really good at remaining quiet, but now that Will knew what to listen for, he could pick them out. He had considered making good on his promise to fight them, but the group had decided to let them be so long as they stayed back. Not only were they useful for keeping any further attacks from sneaking up on the party, it was possible that they might prove useful at some point. This hadn't stopped them from trying to lose the assassins as they passed through Caridin's Cross on the way to Ortan Thaig, the Paragon's birth home and the place where Oghren believed Branka would go to hunt for clues, but for the most part Will was willing to pretend he didn't know they were there.

Fortunately, it seemed Bhelen's men had gotten the hint. After some debate, Will had decided to allow Wynne to heal some of their wounds, enough to allow the survivors to limp back to Orzammar but not enough to remain a serious threat. Will had also told them to tell Bhelen that any future groups would not receive this mercy. Will didn't want to kill too many dwarven warriors, he'd need them to save Ferelden after he found Branka, so he hoped the crazy prince would take his advice, or at least it would take too long for any further attackers to make it.

"How long until we reach Ortan?" Will asked Wynne, who was still holding the map.

"It should only be a few minutes longer, William," Wynne said.

"There are some Darkspawn ahead," Alistair said. "There are also some… some strange senses. They're not Darkspawn, but they feel like them." Will blinked before focusing his own senses to find what Alistair meant.

"Yeah," he said slowly. "That's strange… Maybe something's been eating Darkspawn and contracted the Taint, but not a pure version."

"Ghouls of some sort, then," Alistair said. "That'd make sense. Wonder what'd be brave enough to attack Darkspawn."

"Plenty of things," Oghren said. "Even before the 'spawn showed up, there were plenty of nasty things living in the Deep Roads: spiders, deepstalkers, wraiths, the lot. If I had to guess, the spiders'd be the ones eating Darkspawn if they're numerous enough. They generally fight each other, but there have been some records of them teaming up if they feel threatened by the same enemy."

"As if we hadn't seen enough of those in the Brecilian Forest," Leliana muttered.

"Scared?" Will asked gently, causing the former bard to laugh.

"Not really. I'm with you, after all. I just wish it wasn't spiders."

Will nodded. "I'm sure we all think the same, spiders are nasty under the best of circumstances, Blighted ones are going to be a pain."

"Let's focus on that when we see them," Wynne said. "We're almost at the Thaig." Everyone fell silent as a distant Shriek was heard squealing in pain, followed by a strange chittering noise. "Sounds like they're fighting, maybe we can avoid them."

"And with any luck, they'll distract those assassins while they're at it." Will muttered, making his way forward.

The first group of Darkspawn was battling a large hive of spiders in a massive cavern that marked the entrance to the old Thaig. Most of them seemed willing to let the party pass unchallenged, though several Genlocks at the edge of the fight turned after they finished off one of the larger spiders. Not wanting to attract the ire of more of the combatants, Will didn't use his fire to kill them, instead allowing Leliana, Jowan, and Morrigan to use more quiet methods of killing the beasts. Aside from this brief distraction, the group reached the other end of the cavern without trouble.

"Let's see if the assassin's are daring enough to follow," Will muttered as he looked out at the Thaig proper. Like Caridin's Cross, it was much more ruined than Aeducan Thaig, and there were signs that the Darkspawn occasionally lived here. Will sensed several groups of Blighted creatures spread over the Thaig, both Darkspawn and spiders, though the latter seemed more numerous. "Most of the Darkspawn seem to have pulled out of the area."

"Yeah, they're preparing for their full attack on the surface, if they aren't there already," Oghren said. "But we need to focus. Branka wouldn't be stupid enough to use any of these buildings for her base, too much Blight around. No, she'd have used one of the side caverns, close enough to send scout parties in but far enough to avoid attention."

Wynne glanced at the map. "If this is correct, then there may be several places that match that description on the other side of the Thaig. We should start there." Everyone agreed, and Will took the lead.

Almost immediately, a cluster of Darkspawn, including an Armored Ogre, two Genlock Alphas, and a group of lesser Genlocks turned and made their way towards the group. Since this was an open area, Will was able to divert the massive Ogre from the rest of the group with a few well-aimed Arcane Bolts, leaving the smaller Darkspawn it had been with to be slaughtered. Meanwhile, he easily dodged its clumsy charges, finally getting into position to hamstring it before leaping onto its shoulders to ram his blade into its neck. After several attacks, he finished severing the beast's head from its shoulders.

The sound of the battle attracted some of the other groups around the Thaig, though it seemed they were almost as interested in fighting each other as finding the Wardens. Will sensed groups of spiders and Darkspawn meeting as they made their way towards him, and the situation began to descend into a frenzy. Wishing to avoid the worst of the fighting, Will directed the party towards the closer of the two bridges across the river that cut through the Thaig. Still, they couldn't hope to avoid all the enemies, as a cluster of spiders intercepted them.

Even more massive than most giant spiders, these corrupted monsters crawled across the bridge in a fury, their pincers clicking excitedly. Despite this, they shared many of the weaknesses of their smaller cousins. Several were frozen by a wave of ice and shattered by a boulder from Shale, and the poison they spit in retaliation was blocked by Will's Arcane Shield. Another cluster squealed as Jowan boiled their blood, while one suddenly lunged and tackled two of its companions into the river on the blood mage's orders. Those few that made it were met by a cluster of warriors and quickly squashed.

"Over the bridge!" Will called, leading the way and telekinetically crushing a single Hurlock Emissary that had somehow made its way through the raging battle to attack them. A moment later, he sensed a pair of Shrieks and was able to intercept one, briefly dueling it before cutting off its arms and ramming Spellweaver through its gut. Meanwhile, the second had been overwhelmed by Thunder and obliterated by Wynne and Morrigan.

"Will, I think they're starting to mark us as the greater threat!" Alistair called, and Will couldn't help but agree. Several of the smaller battles were breaking up, and survivors from both groups were turning towards the party.

"Hurry, let's get out of the Thaig before we get overrun!" he said, leading the way towards the edge of the war zone. Several small groups, both spider and Darkspawn, tried to get in their way, but they were dispatched quickly and quietly, keeping the majority of the enemies from intervening. By the time the party made it to the caverns, those spiders and Darkspawn that had been showing an interest in a temporary alliance seemed to be going back to killing each other. "Right, now we just have to find out which of these Branka stayed in and look for any clues as to where she went."

Oghren nodded. "Knowing Branka, she'll have left a strongbox, something to let any reinforcements know where to look." He looked around at the visible entrances. "She'd have also chosen something difficult to get into, she knows how dangerous the Deep Roads are. We should…"

"Wait, look!" Leliana said, pointing to one of the openings. Will's head turned just in time to see something retreating deeper. He immediately focused his senses and was surprised to find a faint Taint, not nearly enough to be a Darkspawn or even a Blighted spider, but certainly something on the way to ghouldom.

"Let's check it out," he said after he told everyone else what he'd sensed. "Whatever, or whoever, it is, they may have important information." With that, he led the way to the opening, Spellweaver drawn and ready.

Several twists later, the party came out into a wide-open area, one still bearing the signs of inhabitation. "Branka was here," Oghren said, pointing to a nearby wall. "She liked to take samples of stone, check their composition. That's her work right there. Besides, this is exactly the kind of cave."
"And those aren't natural," Zelda said quietly, nodding to a cluster of rough fortifications just inside the cavern. "Something like that would have taken weeks to make."

Oghren snorted. "For surfacers, maybe. Dwarves? Day or two, tops, especially with Darkspawn howling outside. Great motivator, that."

Sten ignored the byplay, instead taking several steps forward and peering into the darkness. "Come out, creature," he rumbled. "We know you're here." Will blinked, he'd almost forgotten why they'd come into this cave. Concentrating, he brought his Warden Sense back and found what Sten was looking at.

A dwarf slowly crawled from the small hole he'd hidden himself in, his stance hunched and animalistic. His hair and beard were rough, stringy and uneven and in desperate need of a wash. His armor was a patchwork combination of rusty chain mail, plates, and leather. What Will noticed most, though, was the wild look in his eyes. This was a dwarf that had lost all but the most tenuous grip on sanity long ago, and Will instinctively tensed.

"There's nothing for you here!" the dwarf called, twitching as his gaze jerked between the various people before him. "It's mine! I claim it!"

"Calm down," Will said, waving the others back as he took a step closer. "We're just taking cover from the Darkspawn."

"No! No, you're a surfacer! You've come to take what is mine! Ruck won't let you! Crunch your bones!"

Shale snickered. "Not likely," he said. "In fact…"

"Shale," Will said simply, not taking his eyes off the dwarf. "Not now."

The dwarf, however, was staring wide-eyed at Shale. "Golem? Sacred guardian? But how… this is my treasure, why would you take it?"

"We're not here to hurt you," Wynne said gently. "We're just looking for someone. Do you know where Branka is?"

"I doubt it," Oghren snorted. "Branka'd never let a Blighted scavenger like this anywhere near her camp. Poor bastard could snap at any time, I'm surprised he's as lucid as he is."

"Is there anything we can do to help him?" Jowan asked, looking decidedly uncomfortable. "Those potions we got…"

"There's no cure for the Blight," Alistair said sadly. "Not at this point. All those potions do is keep the Taint from taking hold, it can't do anything for someone who's already this bad off."

"Well, there's one thing we can do," Oghren said, patting his axe.

Leliana gasped. "You can't be suggesting that we kill him," she hissed. "He's no threat to us…"

"Never said he was," Oghren said. "Nah, we'd be doing him a favor at this point. He's not really alive anymore, not in any way anyone would want to live. He'll probably die soon anyways. I'd take a quick axe blow over a slow, wasting death any day."

Will, meanwhile, had taken another step forward. "Ruck? You've been here for some time, right?" the dwarf nodded slowly, his glazed eyes meeting Will's for a moment before widening.

"You… you're one of the Dark Masters foes… I see the darkness in you. Grey like the stone…"

"Yes, I'm a Grey Warden," Will said. "Please, Ruck, if you know something, you have to help me."

Finally, Ruck beckoned Will forward. "Many treasures… all Ruck's," he said, showing Will to a rock near the back of the old camp. When he pushed it aside, Will saw a large pile of old and broken equipment: armor and weapons of both dwarven and Darkspawn make, remains of many subterranean creatures. "All Ruck has, these treasures… but Ruck is willing to trade for them, yes?"

"Is there a box?" Will asked. "Something small, seemingly useless…"

"Yes, yes! Box," Ruck fell to his knees beside the pile and started digging, finally coming up with a small silverite lockbox. "It doesn't open, but it is a box!"

"Can I see it?" Will asked. "It may be very important."

Ruck looked at Will, a slight glint in his eyes. "What are you willing to give for it?" he asked. "What treasure will you replace it with?"

Will's eyes drifted over the dwarf's horde, looking for something that he might need. "You're blade's looking rusted," he said finally. "Would you accept a replacement?"

"Yes! Weapons good down here, great treasure!" Ruck said eagerly.

"Here, take one of mine," Zelda said, holding out a short blade. "I can get another one."

Oghren snorted "I still think it'd be best if we killed him, he's no use to anyone like this."

"No!" Ruck shouted, his eyes blazing. "No, you won't hurt Ruck!" Will warily watched the crazed dwarf brandish his new blade. He was still absolutely no threat, but best to be careful.

"If he doesn't want to die and he's not threatening us, then we won't hurt him," Will said before turning back to the dwarf. "Well, Ruck, thank you for the box." With that, he retreated to a different part of the cave with his party. "Do you think this is what we're looking for, Oghren?"

"Here, let me see it a moment." Will handed the box over, and Oghren studied it for a long moment. "Yeah, no doubt about it. Now we just need to get it open."

"I'll get it," Leliana said, pulling out a set of picks. A minute later, she had managed to get the box open and pulled out a pair of small books. "Look like journals of some sort," she said as she handed them to Will, who started flipping through them.

"Looks like she was here for a while," he muttered. "Found quite a bit of stuff, old family records, maps, the works."

Oghren rolled his eyes. "She'll have put anything you want to see at the back of the second one," he said, grabbing the book from Will's hand and turning to the end. "Yep, this is it, listen to this. 'We found evidence today that the Anvil of the Void was not built in Ortan Thaig. We will go south, to the Dead Trenches. My soldiers tell me that I am mad, that the Dead Trenches are crawling with Darkspawn, that we will surely die before we find the Anvil… if we find it. I leave this here in case they are right. If I die in the Trenches, then perhaps some can yet walk past my corpse and retrieve the Anvil, for if it remains lost, then so do we all. If I have not returned and Oghren yet lives…'" Oghren shook his head. "That's all you need to know, we have a direction now, at least, and a recent one. This was dated only six months ago."

"What are the Dead Trenches?" Will asked.

"Used to be called Bownammar, the City of the Dead," Oghren explained. "Caridin built it, so it makes sense that the Anvil would be nearby. Nowadays, thought, it's Darkspawn territory, though the Legion's still contesting parts of it. Branka'll have found plenty of help there."

Will nodded slowly. "Good. We'll rest here for a while, and be ready to go. How far are the Trenches?"

"About a day's walk, if we're fast." Will was about to ask another question when he was interrupted.

"Warden, we may have a problem," Morrigan said quietly. "Listen."

Alistair snorted. "What do you mean, I don't hear… anything…"

Ever since the battle between the spiders and the Darkspawn had begun, the sound of their struggle had always been in the background, so much so that Will had started to tune it out. Now, now there was nothing. "Who won?" Will muttered as he once again reached out with his Warden senses and found only spiders. Unfortunately, many of those spiders were heading towards the cave.

"Get ready!" Will called as the first of the beasts began to crawl in. Fortunately, Shale was close enough to block the initial charge, allowing the others to get ready. Ruck had vanished into some hole, and didn't seem like he was going to come out anytime soon.

Still, the chokepoint served the party well, as did the old fortifications. Dozens of spiders charged, but were shot, burned, electrocuted, frozen, and chopped to pieces before they could hope to hurt the party. Still, they came, especially after a rumbling began filling the cavern.

"What's that?" Zelda called as she ducked under a glob of acid while simultaneously ramming her sword through a spider's chitin.

"Queen!" Morrigan shouted back.

She was right. A moment later, the thick, clawed, hairy legs of a massive spider queen began forcing heir way through the opening. Will tossed a fireball at it, but the spider was undaunted, breaking the small passage to force its way into the old camp.

This queen was even more massive than the one Will had killed in the Brecilian ruins, and from the spikes coming out of its abdomen it had been Blighted for quite some time. Its fangs were clearly jagged, dripping deadly black poison as it charged towards Sten, who was nearest. The qunari snarled, Asala swatting two lesser spiders aside as he dodged away from their massive parent. "Hold on, Sten!" Will shouted, darting forward and swinging Spellweaver at the monster. It hissed in pain as lighting arched across its wounds, and one of its bladed legs lashed out at Will, knocking him away. However, the distraction gave Sten time to prepare a massive blow, taking one of the beasts other legs off. This didn't seem to bother it much as it lunged forward and knocked the qunari over, baring its massive fangs for a deathblow. Fortunately, Will had been able to recover and cast a Force Field, keeping his companion safe before moving in to attack again.

Meanwhile, the others were holding off the remaining spiders. Shale, Oghren, Zelda and Alistair had formed a line at the entrance and were deflecting any attempts by the spiders to breach it. Meanwhile, the other mages and Leliana were picking off an spiders that tried to crawl along the walls or ceiling while, Thunder carefully gnawed on one that had made it through. Will wasn't paying a huge amount of attention, but it seemed that there were fewer spiders making it through than there had been before. Still, he didn't have time to waste as the queen turned its full attention on him, its multitude of eyes flashing as it hissed.

He was able to dodge the first attack from its fangs, but when he tried to drive Spellweaver into the skull it swatted him aside again. Turning his tumble into a roll, Will brought his blade up and cast another wave of fire, keeping its attention focused firmly on him. Darting aside from a poke of its leg, Will carefully lopped the spike off, causing the queen to let out another hiss of pain as lighting coursed through its body. It lunged at him with its fangs again, but this time Will jumped, landing on the joint between its head and thorax. As the queen hissed and thrashed, trying to throw him loose, he grabbed one of the spines and used it to lean out and drive Spellweaver right between the beast's two largest eyes. After a long moment, it finally fell flat and started twitching.

Carefully, Will jumped off and quickly turned to face the queen, making sure that it was in fact dead. When it did nothing more but continue to twitch its legs, Will nodded and turned to see if the others needed help. As it turned out, they were just finishing off the last of them as he raised Spellweaver, and after a moment everyone gasped and leaned against the nearest surface. "We're lucky so many of them were killed by Darkspawn," Alistair gasped. "We barely survived as it is… especially when that… thing… burst in. I hope we never see anything like it again."

Will chuckled. "Alistair, that was nothing compared to a High Dragon, and we know we're going to have to fight one of those, or at least something like it."

"Don't remind me," the other Warden whined.

"Are there any more coming?" Oghren asked, taking a swig from his flask. Will shook his head; there were more spiders in the Thaig, but it seemed they had realized that they couldn't win anymore and were willing to let the party rest. Still, they would have to be on guard.

"Everyone, be sure to take another dose of the potion, we don't want anyone getting infected. Let's rest here an hour or so before moving on to the Dead Trenches." Everyone was too tired to disagree, and instead settled along the wall opposite the entrance.

"Is it over?" Ruck asked, poking his head out of the hole he'd been hiding in.

"Yeah, your treasure's safe now," Will said. "There's…" His head jerked up at the small sound near the cave entrance.

"What is it?" Leliana whispered.

"I think our assassin friends are back," Will hissed back, rising to his feet. "Are you there?" he called.

A long moment later, the assassin leader he'd seen before appeared. His armor was covered in blood, both spider, Darkspawn, and what looked like his own. His eyes, finally visible because of his missing helmet, were wide. "What happened?" Will asked, his eyes flicking around the cavern to make sure the others weren't sneaking up on him.

Slowly, the assassin leader scratched a series of words on the ground. Glancing at the others, Will slowly stepped forward to read what was written.

"So many… others all dead…" he whispered. "I did tell you to leave," he said, glancing up at the dwarf. "You should get out of here, now. You won't be any use to anyone if you die to. Go back to Orzammar and report to Harrowmont what happened." The assassin nodded dumbly before turning and walking away, fading back into the shadows.

"Poor sod," Oghren said. "Assassins don't leave the city, they're targets are all other dwarves. Out here, the enemies don't care how well you blend in, how quietly you can poison a noble. If you can't fight them off, you die, simple as that. I'm actually amazed that one survived."

No one had an answer for that, and after a long hour filled with nothing but planning, the party left on the next step of their journey, leaving countless bodies behind.

They knew that it would only grow worse from here.

The Vanguard hissed in annoyance as it smashed a passing Genlock with its shield, killing it instantly. The Vanguard was bored!

Since the slaughter of the Surfacers, the Archdemon had forbid the Vanguard from joining the bands of its fellow Darkspawn in sowing fear among the surfacers, reminding them of the cost of defeat. No, the Vanguard had to wait, had to oversee the lesser Darkspawn and ghouls in preparation for the Blight to begin in earnest. True, it had been able to sense the various assaults from its place at the ruined fortress, but simply observing a battle was not the same as fighting in it, feeling flesh give way under its blade, blood splattering its face, fear filling its nostrils… yes, that was what the Vanguard had been born to do, not stand idle.

Growling, the Vanguard pulled its new blade from over its shoulder and studied it. The blade was of good make, befitting of its former wielder. The Vanguard had rather wished that it had been able to face the Commander of the Wardens in true battle rather than simply butcher the warrior as he knelt, dying by an ogre's attack, but wielding the new weapon would have to satisfy it, along with the memories of the other four Wardens it had personally killed that wonderful night. Remembering, and dreaming of future battles, future slaughters.

Reaching the top of the tower that the surfacers had tried to use to send some sort of signal, the Vanguard looked at the rotted corpse of the ogre that had been sent to take the place. It knew that the Wardens that had done this still lived, and it had seen flashes of other battles, and it was eager to face them itself. One of them, the one in green, especially excited the Vanguard. That one was fast, strong, and would be a worthy opponent one day. 'Soon, soon,' it consoled itself, staring out at the world, feeling the cold winter air on its flesh.


The Vanguard stiffened instinctively as the Archdemon spoke. "You're will?" it asked eagerly. "Is now the moment?"

"Soon. The Horde moves this hour, and will reach you within the week. Then, the Blight shall spread and destroy all in its path. Prepare for my arrival."

"At once!" the Vanguard thought. Soon… blood would once more be spilled, and the Vanguard couldn't wait. Throwing back its head, it let out a roar that echoed throughout the blighted fortress, a roar that was soon joined by the cries of its fellows. Soon, they would finally have their fill of blood.

AN: After far too long, I have posted another chapter, and I hope you like it.