AN: Well, here we are again. Sorry for the late chapter. And to answer a few questions: Amanya will not join the Grey Wardens. Her pride wouldn't allow herself to be tainted. The plot will not follow that of Origins. In fact, this chapter is where it starts veering into what I've been planning.
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Bethesda Game Studios or its parent companies, nor with BioWare and its parent companies. Also I totally cribbed stuff from the 36 Lessons and From the Many-Headed Talos, so credit to where it's due.
Chapter 3: Last Stop Before Insanity
With a grunt, Amanya slid her blade out of the darkspawn's chest, spitting out a mouthful of blood. She poked at the bruising forming around where it had landed a lucky punch.
"This doesn't look so bad," shee commented, looking around. "I was expecting more darkspawn."
"'Expecting more darkspawn,' she says," Alistair mimicked, prodding a charred body with his toe. "What, are these ones not enough?"
"They're stragglers, Alistair," Amell replied. "I think she's referring to the main horde."
"Main horde or no, they can't all just disappear when the sun rises. Where would they go?"
"Underground." Alistair pointed somewhere roughly ahead of them. "Into the old dwarven ruins."
Well, rubbish. Amanya sheathed her swords and looked around. Something wasn't right. "Not much of a challenge, then."
"Let's just find the scouts and go," Amell urged. "I don't like this."
"A reasonable idea," Wynne agreed.
Amanya spotted the problem. "That hawk," she said quietly. "It's been following us ever since we left the gates. It hasn't flown off once. I don't think it's a hawk."
"Morrigan!" Amell bellowed. "Show yourself!"
The hawk launched itself into the air, flipped into a roll, and turned into a young woman. Amanya was impressed.
"Oh, 'tis the Grey Wardens again," Morrigan sighed. "And here I thought I could simply watch you as you passed along, but no, someone had to notice me and rat me out. Is this the part where we converse now? I am not overfond of conversing with strangers."
"An apostate mage, still hiding in these woods?" Wynne asked disapprovingly. "I would have thought your kind would have run off at the first sign of trouble."
"Run off? And go where? Ferelden isn't so kind to apostate mages as you think." Morrigan's gaze sharpened. "And in any case, Mother would not leave. In fact, she told me to speak with you, if I could find you again."
"Your mother? What, does she tell you everything you can do now?" Alistair sniped. "Did you lose what little spine you had when the darkspawn invaded?"
"Not now, Alistair," Amell chided.
"Don't insult her filial piety," Amanya agreed. "It becomes her."
"Filial piety? Do not make me laugh. And so, now we come to the crux of it. Who is this new recruit? She certainly doesn't seem like an average recruit to me."
"I am not a recruit," Amanya denied. "And enough of this. Either tell us where our scouts went or be gone."
"Ah, yes, that." Morrigan pointed south. "I do believe we are headed towards the same destination, then. The scouts you seek were taken, not by the darkspawn, but by a band of apostate mages, some distance away. I was going to speak with them."
"More apostates?" Alistair complained.
"I think you'll find them quite interesting," Morrigan said, and transformed back into a hawk.
"Quite interesting?" Amanya echoed. "That doesn't sound too good. Let's get back to camp."
The camp was in an uproar when they arrived. Amanya noticed a pillar of smoke rising from the area of the mages' encampment.
"We always miss the fun stuff, it seems," Amell said blandly. "Was that Uldred's tent?"
"Oh dear. It does seem to be, doesn't it?" Wynne agreed. "I wonder what could have happened."
"He didn't by any chance try to read my books, did he?" Most of her texts were harmless enough, but she had picked up a few… oddities the last time she had visited the Thalmor Embassy. Among them had been a mystic text of some importance, judging by the fancy embossing on its cover, but little relevance, given it had been stashed away under one of the beds in the main barracks.
"Your books set people on fire when they read them?" Alistair asked morbidly. What kind of people would do that sort of thing went unspoken.
"Only if you read them improperly," Amanya replied, searching for Duncan. He wasn't by the bonfire. "Otherwise they're perfectly safe."
They found Duncan by the smoldering remains of Uldred's tent. He explained how the mage had been in charge of examining Amanya's effects; she was impressed by the former mage's tenacity.
"Normally you'd have to be able to at least read the book before you hit the self-immolation stage," she commented. "This Uldred must have been one talented mage."
"Was a talented mage," Wynne muttered dubiously.
"Not helping," Alistair muttered.
"So, those scouts of yours? They were taken by apostate mages deep in the Wilds." Might as well get this over and done with.
"Morrigan told us," Amell added.
The shapeshifter's name elicited a response. Duncan sighed and facepalmed as they told him of Morrigan's visit in turns. None of the Fereldens looked pleased at the witch's interference; Amanya wondered why they hadn't done something about her already. Unless…
"Is she trouble?"
"She is an apostate mage living in land overrun by darkspawn. Of course she is trouble." That was almost certainly disdain for the other mage in Wynne's voice.
"Enough," Duncan interrupted. "We still need to find those scouts. Head out again tomorrow. IN the meantime, get some rest. Alistair, Amell, you have tower duty tonight. Wynne, I suppose Amanya is your charge?"
"Just as soon as soon as I retrieve my book," Amanya promised dryly, heading toward the mages' enclave. "Wouldn't want any other spontaneous combustions tonight."
There wasn't much left of Uldred's tent. A few of the remaining half-burned supports were already crumbling. And – there.
The book. Her book. A book she had borrowed, once, from a hidden library in Alinor, and then taken once again from an unsuspecting Thalmor. She sighed in contempt. "It appears that this Uldred didn't even bother to try to avoid triggering the set-traps."
"You put traps in your books?" another mage asked, shocked. "But why?"
"Because knowledge is best preserved in the minds of those clever enough to utilize it properly, of course," Amanya scolded. She pulled the book toward herself, a sliver of effort that took more out of herself than she expected, and examined the fine, spidery writing on it. "Why was he trying to read this? It's a treatise on sunbirds."
"We have company," the other mage muttered nervously. Now that the dangerous explosion-prone magefires were out, people were starting to drift over and gawk. "I think it's time to get our guest out of sight before people come to the wrong – or, in this case, absolutely correct – conclusions."
"I do believe you're right," Wynne agreed, cheerfully cutting Amanya's protests off.
Amanya dreamed. She stood in a brilliant silver city. The breeze carried a faint scent of roses and the soft susurrus of finely-webbed wings. The sky was lit from two separate directions, dawn and dusk, and the familiar twin moons hung, unmoving, in the sky.
"I would like some answers, please," she said. "If it would please my Lady."
"It would please your lady." A violet, bat-winged daedroth landed beside her. The Winged Twilight's stinger-tipped tail whipped around Amanya's legs lightly. "We have been waiting for you."
"Waiting how?" Amanya asked, when an angry shrieking roar echoed around her. Reality rippled under the force of that sound. The world dropped out from under her, and she fell through a grey nothingness.
There was dirt under her fingers. Little stones poked at her cheek. She scrambled to her knees, and then fell backwards when she looked up.
There was a dragon. An enormous, clawed, vicious beast of a thing in the shape of a god eyed her malevolently. Or perhaps it did not see her at all. She could hear it, a thin chiming not-song drawing her attention to itself.
High above her head, Urthemiel screamed savagely, and around his feet swarmed great masses of darkspawn, hateful and infinite. The profanity of the Blight, the corruption itself, hissed and gurgled malevolently around its victims.
Words came unbidden to her mind.
IT IS NOT A BLIGHT.
Creation of the profane from the sacred. A punishment for the overstepping of bounds, for the discovery of the truth, hidden in a golden city in the center of dreams.
IT IS MY HOUSE.
The core of this world was a rotten poison. Had the Golden City of Wynne's tales ever existed, or had it been a mere pipe dream, to wither away in the shadow of cold reality?
I AM THE SHARMAT.
It was not the Sharmat. The Sharmat was the dreaming echo of a dead god. This… this was something else entirely. This was strength, and beauty, and blood, bound together and become real and corrupted by the Blight of a vanished god. The Maker was foul. The Maker was a deceitful lie. The Maker was not the Maker.
Rebel and the Ruling King. One and One. Could you ever tell if they switched places? What did it matter? The Maker was the Maker, the One God lost, mirror to Lorkhan, deceiver of Et'Ada, the other ancestor-gods who had been bound up and locked away from their own creation. Witness the home of the Creator once-shining.
The implications were astounding.
This dream made no sense.
Amanya woke up.
A dream. It had been a dream.
A psychic dream? A sign, then, or prophecy, from Auriel or Azura. Or neither. Azura was known for sending prophetic dreams, but Her influence here was not strong. Auriel… Auriel was bound to Nirn.
Amanya snorted quietly to herself. What rubbish. How arrogant of her, to presume that the idle fancies her sleeping mind dreamt up were actually messages from her patrons.
The encampment was quiet; Wynne was still on the battelfield. Amanya chanced a quick peek outside. It was several hours to dawn yet. She returned to her bed and tried to sleep again.
"I think the men are supposed to be somewhere over here?" Amell pointed uncertainly, glancing at his map.
They rounded a short cliff and walked straight into the half-ruined bulk of what appeared to be a miniature battlespire cradled in a the cratered remains of a small valley.
"Where did this come from?" Amanya wondered, trying to piece together an image of the 'spire before its crash. If she could find its slipstream navigators…
"Wouldn't we all like to know." Alistair prodded at a twisted piece of metal and crystal half-embedded into the ground, keeping an eye on his surroundings. Wynne dodged as a half-melted globule of metal catapulted itself off. They all kept their hands off the wreckage after that.
"Welcome. This is the place of the Ash Lady you've invaded." They all jumped at the sound of Morrigan's voice.
"Ash Lady?" Amell sounded fascinated, like a farmboy on his first trip to the local market. "Another Witch of the Wilds? Is she associated with the Chasind?"
Morrigan laughed. "Now there's a boy with a mind of his own, unlike-"
"Get to the point," Amanya interrupted crossly. "Who is the Ash Lady, where is she, and what is this 'spire of hers?"
"You've seen things like these before?" Alistair asked incredulously.
"The men you have been searching for are certainly around here," Morrigan continued blithely. "As to how soon you'll find them – well, you could use some help there."
"Excellent. Lead on," Amell agreed. There wasn't much talking after that.
As they walked on, the pieces of wreckage grew bigger. Large scraps of twisted struts of some unknown Dwemer metal laced with ebony cables dominated the view. They passed by a few half-destroyed teleport platforms, and once the remains of an enchanting laboratory.
In the center of the wreckage, cradled by great exposed wires and twisted tubing, sat the core of the ship, a pair of mostly-intact engines lying in their cradles trailing off behind. A tiny fire burned in a brazier in front of the only door Amanya could see. And beside it, her back to the company, sat the Ash Lady, swathed in several enormous, formless swathes of cloth.
"Are you the Ash Lady?" Alistair asked, cementing his status as Ser Obvious.
"One would certainly think so, little knight," a harsh voice added. The cloaked figure picked its way through the battered exposed pipes towards them, face hidden behind a fibrous cephalopod helm. "But experience is often a far cry from expectation."
Wynne was the first to speak. "I must apologize for our sudden interruption. We were only searching for our lost scouts."
The Ash Lady waved a gloved hand in dismissal. "No need," she murmured. "Your interruption was bound to happen sooner or later. No, I would rather ask what one of the Altmer is doing here, so far away from the starry-heart."
"Starry-heart," Amanya echoed, a sinking feeling in her gut. "You're from Tamriel."
The Ash Lady chuckled. "I am. You stand in the presence of the Ash Lady, Dwemer expert and tinkerer extraordinaire. Come, sit. We have much to discuss."