It was a long journey from Antiva City to the place where the plains grew wild and tall, but it had been easy travelling and worth the time. There were no roads or paths where Sten walked; just the soft green grass that reached almost to his chest. Impressive, given the Qunari's notable height. It yielded to his steps gently, moving aside to let him through and then closing behind him as though he had never been there. Like a verdant blanket over the land, it stretched towards the rolling hills in the distance before him.
To the east was an Elven forest, so far away that he could only see the very tops of the trees at the line of the horizon. To the west were lakes he could not see at all, and would never visit. In the far south was the past, the scars of the Blight, the city where the Archdemon fell. He made his way towards the north, where his home awaited him. Though many things had changed greatly in his time away, Sten knew that the place where he had begun his journey, so many months ago, would be as he left it. He was now only two days from the shore and the boat that would take him back to Seheron - the place he longed for. To return to it would be to complete a circle.
This was a satisfying idea.
Before Sten had left the companionship of the Grey Wardens, the Antivan elf had presented him with a list of relevant landmarks and notations for his journey. They were written on an embroidered dinner napkin from a restaurant that served spicy dishes in small portions. Several tiny silhouettes in comprising positions were printed across the borders. Nevertheless, the suggestions had proven useful on several occasions; so he had consulted the napkin that morning, before embarking on his trek through the grasslands. It indicated a lodge of some kind was nearby, which would no doubt be a more comfortable place to spend the night than a makeshift camp on the overgrown ground. Early in the day, he had spied the framed shadow of a building on top of the tallest hill, and was making his way towards it.
Asala, sheathed and strapped to his back, clattered lightly against him with every step he took. The grass gave way to his long strides with a soft swish of a sound. The sky above him was a pure and perfect blue, full of wispy white clouds and soaring birds with black claws. The afternoon sun was bright and yellow. There was no wind or breeze.
The lodge was a wide building, of some three of four levels, made from round brown timbers and white cast walls. It looked as though it had always been there. From the front door, which faced towards the north, was a very narrow dirt path that led towards the coast. It was almost impossible to see, since the long green blades arched over it like palm fronds, but was no doubt used by merchants and travellers who made their way across the plains. There was a second path, one that curved in a winding route towards the lodge, and twisted along the side of the building to meet the door. It was not dug out like the majority of roads in Antiva, but was instead a flat track where the grass had been pressed down against the earth. This track was wide enough for Sten to walk along comfortably, and preferable to staying in the thick of the field.
It was when he came to the front of the lodge that Sten first realized something was amiss. The doors were ajar and crooked on their hinges. A foreboding darkness waited behind them, and marked the entryway with a sliver of shadow. Slowly, Sten pushed the broken door open. It gave an almost inaudible creak. He did not bother to call out, as the place had the silent aura of death about it, and he knew intuitively that he would find no one alive within.
Inside, the air would have been cool and welcoming if not for the troubling emptiness. The building's windows were narrow and well placed, letting in only a limited amount of light. Stepping in from the bright afternoon made the large front room look dim and hazy. At first, there seemed to be no signs of a struggle. He could see no bodies and no blood. If a raiding party had attacked, they would have looted the place and likely burned it to the ground. If it had been a wild cat or a wolf, there would have been unmistakable signs of the attack and corpses still on the floor. It was very obvious that the culprits could not have been Darkspawn. The disarray was too subtle, and the usual tell-tale odour was absent.
The more he studied the place, the more he saw. Walking slowly into the living area, full of soft cushions on wooden chairs, he noticed that many things were askance. The large rug on the floor was rumpled, and it looked as though someone had been trying to drag or push the furniture towards the outside edges of the room. Faint scratches marked the floor, indicating the short journey which the tables and chairs had taken. It was odd that they had been moved less than a few feet. Odder still that none of the pieces had simply been lifted, since they weren't particularly heavy or cumbersome looking things.
At the back of the room was an ornate wooden mantle, above an ash filled fireplace that had not been used in this warm season. On it sat an armed crossbow, the tip of the loaded bolt glinting in the soft light. Dust on the trigger suggested that it had not been fired recently. Another oddity.
A glass lantern had fallen off of one of the tables, and lay in pieces on the floor in the furthest corner of the room. There were no burn marks around it, or anything to indicate that it had been lit when it fell. Whatever had happened, it had happened during daylight hours.
Sten looked over his shoulder at the front doors, and returned to examine them more closely. Somewhere, in the distant sky, a hawk shrieked. Apart from that, all was silent. He twisted the knob, and it did not stick or rattle. It had not been locked from either side. It did not make sense, then, that someone should have entered by blunt force. But the bottom hinges were broken - twisted and cracked - and the wood was warped towards the inside of the room. As though someone had smashed their way in with a battering ram. An uncommonly smooth battering ram.
With a deep and contemplative sigh, Sten shook his head. Nothing was in order.
He next made his way to the wooden desk that sat right across from the doors, with an inkwell on one side and a pile of sealed letters on the other. A large, leather-bound book sat open in the middle of it. Inside were names, dates and amounts. A registry. It looked to have been a few weeks since the last guest, but that did not seem indicative of anything strange. Indeed, as he flipped backwards through the crisp white pages, Sten noticed that there was more than one solid month with no visitors. Business appeared to have been sporadic, at best.
He closed the book with a loud thump, and gently tapped his fingers on the cover. The golden sunlight streamed softly through the narrow windows, shining in thin rectangles on the finely polished wooden floor. No answers came. No voices spoke. The emptiness of the lodge continued, and he stood in the thick of it and pondered awhile, before making his way into the rest of the building.
There were no places set on the dining room table, just a brightly coloured cloth and a vase of cut flowers that were still very much alive. They couldn't have been more than three or four days old, and given that there were no flowers growing within sight of the lodge, someone must have brought them very recently.
Continuing on to the kitchen offered little in the way of answers. A loaf of bread sat on a counter, its crust dry and hard. But, Sten recalled that some foreigners enjoyed breads that seemed stale to him. It offered him no clues. He placed his large hand upon the top of the black metal stove. It was cold. In the corner of the room, stretching across most of one wall, was a wooden cupboard with tall slatted doors. Opening it revealed an impressive collection of smoked fish, hanging down from hooks. Sten grabbed one, put it on the counter and cut himself a slice of it. He ate it standing, looking around the room with contemplative eyes.
He could not say that he approved of the situation.
There was a second door in the kitchen, which obviously led to a cellar or basement. If there was only one lesson that Sten would return from Fereldan with, it would be that basements often housed demons. Evil and dangerous things liked to be either underground or in the room furthest from the main entrance. When he had finished his snack, he drew Asala and carefully pushed the door open.
A small, basic staircase with no rail led into the lower level. It was dark, but Sten could see no nearby candles or torches, and the light that poured down from the kitchen would likely be sufficient to see by. As he made his way down, the thin wooden steps curved beneath his weight. The air was cool and smelled of old soil, not surprising given that the floor was made only of bare earth.
It was a small room that didn't seem large enough to house any kind of malevolent spirit. There were no chests of treasure, or levers to open secret passages. Just a few kegs of beer and some pickled vegetables. An angled door led up and out of the cellar, and a few rays of light peeked through the cracks. Across the door was a heavy metal bar that had rusted in place and must have been over a hundred pounds in weight.
Having determined the cellar to be fairly secure, Sten made his way to the upper levels of the lodge. There he found neatly made beds, empty wardrobes, and nothing of any use to him in his quest to solve the riddle of the place. In one room, a merchant's pack was carelessly tossed on top of a wooden chest at the foot of the bed. The way it slumped gave it a sombre look, for it was plain somehow that its owner had met an unexpected death. Sten placed his own pack on the floor, and began to sort through the two bags. He took the best of each and left the things that did not interest him in a neat bundle.
From the window of the merchant's room, he could see the outline of the track he had come across in the grasslands. Looking at it from above recalled an image to his memory, and he knit his brow and frowned slightly in contemplation. A theory was forming, whispering to him from the back of his mind, but he disliked it. Not only for its implications, but for its sheer absurdity. Perhaps his time in Fereldan had affected his reasoning more greatly than he'd realized.
In the north of Seheron were wide rivers that ran through the untamed wilderness of the island, creating a terrain that was not quite marsh and not quite jungle. Where there was land, it was not unlike anywhere else in the region - spotted cats stalked between the trees, bright beaked birds whistled from their throats, hairy-legged spiders wove intricate webs in between high branches. But in the rivers lived fish that moved so quickly and attacked so fiercely that they could tear the flesh from a man's arm in moments; and the snapping reptiles that hid among the dark green plants which grew on the surface of the water, and watched the world with long golden eyes. And the serpents. The slithering, limbless creatures that cut through the river like a blade, and could eat a man whole.
Sten had seen them, sitting coiled on dry banks as they slept. He had watched them move across the land with striking precision and bared fangs. They were swift and deadly - and they left tracks not unlike the trail in the grass below.
It was impossible that such a serpent could have swum its way to Antiva, and then slithered so far inland without notice. Particularly since the track suggested a very large creature, and though Sten knew that they could grow to incredible sizes, he had never heard of one so broad in width. He decided that it must be a similar creature of some unknown origin. Likely to have preyed on those who lived in the lodge for some time, picking them off as necessary. The river serpents of home needed to eat only once in a day, and then found a quiet place to coil themselves up and digest their meal. All signs pointed to the merchant having been consumed either sometime that morning or the day before.
Reluctantly, Sten nodded to himself and returned downstairs. He readjusted the front doors, so that they sat more securely on their broken hinges, and stacked the sturdiest furniture into a barricade behind them. When he was satisfied with his fortifications, he made his way around to all of the windows and closed the thin shutters woven from dried blades of the long grass outside.
If he had still been travelling with Kadan, they most likely would have searched the drawers of the bedrooms for abandoned journals or old notes. This had often been a pointless exercise, and Sten would not be indulging in it. Instead, he removed the most cumbersome pieces of his armour and sat, with his legs crossed under him, in the middle of the dishevelled drawing room. Asala waited with him, the flat of the blade across his knees, and his hand resting lightly on the hilt.
He closed his eyes, and began to gather all of the loose threads of his thoughts.
Before his time in Fereldan, before he had lost his sword and then lost himself, a place like the lodge would have been of no consequence to him. Its mysteries irrelevant. That which concerned him was in Seheron, was of the Qun, or was relevant only to his mission. Sten would have seen no necessity in investigating the circumstances that led to the building's emptiness, nor would he have felt obligated to dispatch any potential dangers in the area.
Many things had changed since that time. He had changed.
The world had become smaller to him. He remained a warrior of the Beresaad, and devoted to his path. But his notion of how best to execute his duties and obligations to the Qun had become… broader. No longer was he tied only to the service of one place, but instead he felt obligated to serve all places as he passed through them. If he was in the vicinity of danger, it had fallen to him to be responsible not only for the resolution of the immediate problem, but also to exterminate the root of whatever chaos brought it forth. The Grey Warden who was not Kadan had once tried to explain it in terms of Sten having an unspoken duty to bas and stranger. But he was incorrect. Sten had duty only to the Qun, as before and as always. It was the geography of his duty that was being altered - the borders of his involvement were no longer the same as borders on a map.
As all other thoughts cleared away, this was what remained in his mind. His body was in full restfulness, rejuvenating itself with the thoroughness of sleep, whilst he sat upon the rug. And a word they had used in Fereldan came to him like an epiphany.
To be such a thing and remain faithful to his path; was it even possible?
The question startled him, and he jolted away from his thoughts. He took a deep, steadying breath and glanced around the room. Nothing seemed to present itself in a new way, except for the light behind the shutters. It now looked red from the setting sun.
Sten waited a moment before returning to his meditation. He focused no longer on questions of self, and instead opted to quietly repeat the mantras and teachings of his youth as he rested.
A moonless night fell.
The sky over the wild country was black as ink, but the stars twinkled brightly. A soft breeze had finally come, so the top of the grass trembled slightly towards the south. At first there was no sound. An absolute silence had fallen over the land. And then, from a distance, the noises began.
Something was moving through the soft and sinuous grass. Winding its way towards the lodge.
Sten opened his eyes to the darkness, and listened.
He could hear the creature drawing nearer and nearer, the sounds growing loudest as it passed beneath the windows. He felt as though he would have been able to sense its presence, even it had approached the place noiselessly. There was a potency to it. An unmistakable sense of predatory danger. Ancient instincts in his blood came forth, and warned him of its lethal proximity and its cold, primeval mind.
The noises stopped.
He stood cautiously, readying his blade. He cursed himself for not having lit a lantern at dusk, but considered also that it would have made him a more attractive target. Serpents longed for heat, or so he recalled.
The hinges of the front doors creaked slowly and loudly. The wood bulged towards the barricade, starlight pouring through the cracks at the bottom. Sten caught a glimpse of silvery scale. For a moment, the doors pushed against the assortment of furniture that held them closed. A low hiss seemed to crawl along the floor like mist, floating up to echo from the high ceilings.
Then, the wood of the doors ceased to strain. The creature moved away, swishing through the grass once more.
Sten relaxed his muscles, and lowered Asala to his side. He listened to the sounds move along the opposite side of the house, and frowned. The soft rustling did not carry on into the distance as was expected, but instead stopped somewhere else along the building.
A dull, muffled thud sounded from the kitchen. Sten realized that the creature was trying to break in through the cellar, and he tore into the other room as quickly as he could. He wondered what kind of strength the serpent had, and if the rusted bar would hold against it. He had not anticipated that it would attempt to find another entrance. A large snake was unlikely, but possible. An intelligent one defied his experiences.
As he opened the door that led into the lower level, he could hear a low and long creak of wood. The darkness of the cellar was overwhelming, and he would have been foolish to venture down. If the creature did manage to break through, it would no doubt overwhelm him immediately. But if he stayed at the top of the stairs, Sten would have the upper hand; and perhaps a chance to behead the thing.
The creaking groans became more insistent. Louder and louder, as the old doors were forced to their limits.
A light piece of metal - a pin or a nail - dropped onto the soft dirt of the ground below. Sten twisted his grip on Asala, and stared down into the pitch black shadows.
More creaking, this time with the sound of steel that refused to bend. A slat of wood snapped in two, and thudded against the earthen floor. The opening was nowhere near wide enough to accommodate the creature, but it gave another hiss. A sinister sound that filled Sten's ears and prickled the back of his neck. He waited.
It seemed like hours that he stood there, listening to the doors fighting not to collapse. Every inch of him was ready for battle. Ready to strike the creature when it broke through and came cracking through the darkness like a bolt of lightning. He held his blade tightly, his stance firm, his gaze watchful.
He knew that he would either kill the serpent or meet his death.
The bar held.
The door did not break. The creature grew bored with its efforts, or disinterested with its prize, and stopped. There was a moment of tense stillness, where Sten wondered if it would strike fiercely at door, and shatter through the old wood with a sudden burst of might.
But it did not.
Eventually, he could hear it swish against the grass again. This time not around the lodge, but away from it.
When it seemed obvious that the creature would not be back, Sten relaxed his form and exhaled sharply. Moving carefully in the dim light, he made his way up the stairs and to one of the bedroom windows on the third floor. He could see only the vaguest outline of his enemy, glistening by the stars and slithering along the grasslands. It was more shade than serpent in the heavy night, and Sten could not see its head. The sound moved away with it, further and further across the low hills.
Sten slept lightly in a guest bed until dawn broke. He dreamed of strange things, and woke often to listen for sounds that never came. And when the sky was barely light enough to travel by, he washed his face and changed his shirt and set about moving his barricade.
Outside, a heavy dew had settled. The serpent's trail that he had walked along the day before had almost disappeared, as the grass had slowly brought itself back to standing. The tops of some blades were still bent, but overall there was little to suggest anything had passed through that part of the field. A new track waited, though. One that wound around the building and headed back towards the south, where no doubt the serpent made its nest.
A hawk sat perched on the place where the roof hung over the windows. It watched Sten with a curious and yellow gaze, tilting its head from one side to another. The Qunari noticed the bird almost at once, and glanced at it from the corner of his eye as he made his decision. If he continued on to the north, he likely would not find any delay or danger, and he would return to Seheron as planned. If he returned towards the south, and fought the strange creature that had caused such unsettling chaos to fall upon the small region, it would delay him at least an entire day.
He nodded at the hawk, determination hardening his features, and set out towards the south. The bird seemed to be disappointed in the choice, fluttered up into the air, and soared through the early morning sky towards the Ventorus Straights.
The track was simple enough to follow. It wound through the flattest parts of the land, never cresting the hills. The morning sun was on Sten's back soon enough, burning even more fiercely than the day before; casting a golden lustre upon the waving grass. There were no clouds. Ever more southward he went, veering towards the east where the ground was softer and the land dotted with reeds that hinted at marshland to come. A serpent would no doubt seek such a place to make its nest.
He recalled something he had been told once; that the snakes of Seheron grew so large because they lived in the rivers. The water allowed them to move quickly despite their girth. For a moment, he worried that he would have to follow the monster all the way to the eastern lakes; but he quickly pushed the notion aside. Antiva was warm, but no so warm as Seheron, and the lakes would be too cold for the serpent to survive in. He would find it here, among the reeds, if he found it at all.
As he pressed towards the monster's lair, his mind was flooded with images and sounds from his past. A time when he was a boy, grown no taller than an Elf, when the villages on the coastlands of Seheron were beset upon by a snapping reptile that moved along the beaches at night. In the temple with the other children, he watched the band of karasten prepare nets and spears. Another day, when he had been appointed karasten himself, and his role was illuminated. A question he had once asked of Kadan: Do you intend to keep travelling north until it becomes south? An answer he had not understood, but one that he had accepted.
Small thin trees began to dot the landscape around him, with flat green leaves as soft as feathers. The grass was shorter here, only as high as the Qunari's knee. Sten knew that the creature would be near, for any further and the terrain could not accommodate it.
It was nearer than he thought.
He rounded the base of a wide hill, and was suddenly upon it. He stopped at once, his heartbeat seeming to freeze with him. It was waiting beneath the overhang of the hill, it's massive body - the colour of tarnished silver - coiled beneath it. The sight reminded Sten of the stone ziggurats in Par Vollen. Only inside of being crowned with a temple, the coils were crowned with a triangular head. A set of jade coloured eyes with thin, almost imperceptible black lines for pupils stared out at Sten, but the serpent did not stir.
Had it died from starvation, after failing to find food the night before?
Carefully, and with less confidence than he would admit to himself, Sten stepped towards his foe. He very slowly reached to draw Asala, as his foot rolled forward on the soft earth.
A twig no bigger than his finger, hidden beneath the soil, snapped beneath his weight.
The eyes of the serpent changed then. The slit of the pupil widened and flooded the iris around it with darkness. It had merely been sleeping, and now it was awake. Awake and gazing directly at its next meal.
Slowly, the head began to rise, uncoiling the length beneath it. The narrow muscles of its neck began to flex, tightening and positioning the body to strike. The tail trailed languidly along the ground, so that it was placed in such a way that if Sten made a lunge for the monster with Asala, the tail would snap towards him and flick him across the ground. With the ease that a man might flick away a fly.
Sten readjusted his grip on the hilt, readying himself to counterattack the creature's strike.
The head surged forward, without so much as a hiss of warning, and the mouth closed. It had not been what Sten had expected, and the skull of the serpent slammed against his body with tremendous speed and power.
He was knocked backwards into the air, his left arm throbbing instantly with shattering pain. Asala nearly slipped from the loose grasp of his right hand, but he held tight as he skidded along the ground.
It became impossible to breathe for a moment. The hard and unforgiving landing had knocked all of the air out of him, and his mind was dizzy and slow. He tried to push himself up to a standing position, but it was too late. The serpent was weaving towards him as quick as lightning, just as one of its smaller brethren might make its way towards a field mouse.
With little more than ancient instinct in its mind, it began to pull the legs of its prey into its widening jaw. Sten struggled, trying to grasp at the ground with his weakened arm and gain enough leverage to prevent himself from being swallowed whole.
When it became apparent that this was a fool's errand, he steadied his grip on Asala and began slashing at the serpent's face. This annoyed the creature, but it did not stop it.
Sten could feel the metal of his armour tightening around him, crumpling towards the joints. He could feel the dent of two large fangs near to his chest, almost piercing straight through and into his body. But this was the armour that had survived the Darkspawn, and seen the siege of Denerim. It had been forged from the bones of dragons.
His cuirass held.
Swiftly, his senses coming back into order, he tilted his body so that he could angle his good arm. With all that he had, he stabbed forward and drove his blade into the serpent's eye.
The creature released him at once, recoiling backwards and thrashing the entirety of its enormous body in an agonized frenzy. Blood ran from the wound and stained the ground, as the animal flailed before him. For several long, tense moments he waited to see if it would recover. Perhaps it might flee, or resume the fight. But the currents of blood streaming from its head were dark and never-ending, and as one moment stretched into another, the monster grew still.
So simple a manoeuvre had killed it, and it would have been just as easy for Sten to have been denied his life in its place.
The clarity of words came to him as he stared upon its corpse. Struggle is an illusion. The tide rises, the tide falls, but the sea is changeless. There is nothing to struggle against.
With careful awareness of his injuries, he removed his damaged armour and lay it upon the ground beside the dead serpent. He did not take the monster's fangs as souvenir or proof of his victory. It was of no consequence who had slain it, and little glory. It had merely been a thing, unknowing of its chaos, chained to its purpose as all life must be. And Sten, chained as well to his own purpose, had been obligated to slay it.
In his white linen shirt and plain brown trousers, with Asala strapped to his back and his pack of supplies over his shoulder, he resumed his journey home.
The currents of the sea do not seem simple to the eye of the geometer or mapmaker; their route is not always quick or efficient. He had not known of his own frustrations with the flow of life until that moment, and in that moment he had released them. Though his purpose had never changed, and he had never failed it.
He was Sten, of the beresaad.
He was Sten, the Hero.
And he remained Qunari.