"Only the foolish mourn the loss of innocence. It is inevitable. The galaxy has never rewarded the naive."
—Javik, 2186 CE
Shepard sensed an impending migraine in her near future.
"So you're saying that your Grey Wardens," she said, gesturing to Duncan, "will be bait for the darkspawn horde."
Duncan nodded. "Yes."
"And your troop," she continued, waving a hand towards Loghain, "would flank the horde as soon as Alistair and I got to the top of the tower and light the signal beacon?"
"Correct," said Loghain.
She pinched the bridge of her nose. "That's a desperate plan." Not that she was not unfamiliar with all sorts of desperate plans. Had London not been one?
"It is. With the size of the coming horde, however, I am afraid it is the only viable plan. A large group of Grey Wardens should attract the darkspawn, leaving Loghain's troops free to launch a surprise attack."
"You'll get flattened," Shepard responded.
"Our numbers may not be great ever since Garahel vanquished the Fourth Blight, but we have trained and we are the most experienced when it comes to holding the line against darkspawn," said Duncan. "We would hold long enough to wait for the flanking attack."
"And the flanking attack would be massive enough to overwhelm the horde," Loghain added.
"Yes," said the King, "I will rely on you, Loghain."
"Of course, Your Majesty."
And there was the migraine. Shepard ground her teeth. "You got to be kidding me. You're going to be part of the bait troop?"
"Ferelden does not need a cowardly king." Pompous. Naïve. Very naïve. At best, blindly optimistic.
"With all due respect, Your Majesty," which means kiss my ass, "I'm sure Ferelden needs a dead king even less." Faintly, she could hear Alistair trying to stifle a cough. Or a chuckle. It was hard to tell.
"Is that a threat?" the young king asked her, thoroughly insulted with a sprinkle of bravado.
Shepard thought she hated politicians. As it turned out, she hated royalties more. In reply, she let her eyes rake down his stupid, glimmering golden armor and all the swirling ornate patterns and embedded jewels. She honestly hoped the gold was just a coating, not an actual part of the metal alloy, or his life expectancy would drop deeper into the pit it was already in.
The discussion only went downhill from there, and any further show concern for Cailan's survival expressed by the Warden-Commander or the General was denied, despite having been worded more delicately than her attempt. Not for a lack of trying, though. At one point, Duncan shot her a look that made her feel like she was bound to be stuck in latrine duty. The thought terrified her beyond reason, considering they did not even have proper latrines.
Shepard sighed. Not having command stinks.
The meeting continued.
Alistair positively sulked. He wanted action; that much was obvious to Shepard. It was an all too familiar scene to her. "You know, I used to have a soldier like you under my command. Damn good, damn talented, eager for action."
"Yep. Name's Jenkins. About your age, too."
He seemed to sense where the conversation was going. Eyes narrowed, head slightly tilted in suspicion, he asked, "I'm not going to like where this is going, am I?"
Shepard shrugged. "Guess not. He died, day one. Gunned down because he was too eager to jump in and not look for cover."
Shepard took out her Predator, unfolded it, and turned it in her hand. "This is a gun. It's a common weapon where I came from. It shoots out a projectile, hm, like a crossbow, I guess, only the bolts are smaller, faster, and definitely deadlier." She shrugged. "I'd give you a demo, but I only have nine shots left." In theory, the heat sink mechanism could somehow be rigged so as to not require thermal clips any more, in the expense of projectile force. She was no tech specialist, however, and would rather attempt that after than before she spent all nine shots.
Alistair's gaze followed the pistol's shape in interest, mouth half-open as if he was about to ask something, most likely about the pistol and definitely not about Jenkins. She folded the pistol and returned it to the small of her back. "But point is, he died."
He did not lose a beat. "Soldiers die in war."
"Sure. I'm not saying you would, or wouldn't. I'm saying you could. But that's not what your commanding officer needs from you right now. From us. He gave us a responsibility to climb that damn tower and actually be the key in the plan, and we're going to do it. Ours is not to reason why, soldier." Ashley would have been proud. She actually quoted poetry.
Alistair stiffened at her words. "Yet you also protested at the plan. To the king's face, no less."
Ah. He caught her there. "He was dumb. Worse, he was ignorant. Usually my commanding officers are better in making decisions." Not entirely true, of course, but then none of her commanding officers were actually spoiled royalty in jeweled armor. "But I accept the role they assign me."
"I understand that, you know. But I do not have to like the fact that Duncan tries his best to distance me from battles."
Shepard frowned, a thin line between her eyebrows. "Why would he do that? You're a damn good fighter. I thought he picked you for the beacon run because you're reliable, not—"
Shepard blinked. Speak of the devil. "Commander."
"A word, please." Then, to Alistair, "We have a long night ahead of us, Alistair. It is best you prepare."
Shepard gave Alistair a pat on the shoulder before following Duncan to his tent. He poured her the same wine from the same flagon from two days before, and this time Shepard was wise enough to merely sip. The thing was still vile.
"So," she said, tilting her cup and watching the wine swish inside, "what's this about?"
Duncan gave her that look again—the one that screamed latrine duty if placed on an Alliance Officer's face—and Shepard straightened in her seat. "I am not aware of how things are conducted in your homeland—"
And here we go.
"—but in Ferelden, a king's word is law. Even Loghain, his general, father-in-law, and most trusted advisor, could never be so forward to him. In which case, I thank you."
"If you had been a Fereldan, you would not have gotten away with your insult. Yet, what you said needs to be said. The king would be insulted, as we have seen, but that means he at least listened. Unlike the advices and please Loghain and I have tried to make him think about."
She frowns, swishes the wine again like a nervous tic. "You're welcome, I guess. Just don't see what's the difference. He still goes to the frontline."
"Still, you have tried to make him see reason. You are an outsider, but you cared."
At this, Shepard stood up, the wine sloshing from her cup and dripping to her leggings, but she could not care less. "I have seen war, Commander," she said, calm and cold and furious, "fought in war, bigger and more terrible than this. We lost a lot. Many could have been saved had we presented a united front at the beginning, but it took homeworlds—no, not homelands, homeworlds—to be taken away before some of them saw reason and start working with each other." She started to pace, now. Earth. Palaven. Thessia. Even Irune and Dekuuna. "And I don't know how things are conducted in this land," she echoed him, "but I know enough that in monarchies, in kingdoms, about the only thing uniting the people is the king. And if we lost him, then we lose the stabilizing element of the people, and we might as well lose the damn war. I have seen crumbling worlds and lost battles. I don't wish that on anyone."
Great, now she needed a drink. She took a generous gulp before sitting down again. Her knuckles were white, fingers clutching the cup like a lifeline.
Duncan was watching her with hawk-like eyes. It was not obvious, but she could see how her little speech had affected him in the small ripples of murky wine in his own cup. He sighed. "You told me of this war before, but not like this."
"No," Shepard agreed, "not like this." She had marked the odds up, downplayed the losses, skimmed through the struggles. The bare essentials. No more than what she wanted to remember. This time was different. "What I told you two days ago were the facts. That just now was the truth."
He nodded. Shepard stood, ready to excuse herself.
"Two things, before you leave and prepare for tonight." Duncan pulled out a chain from under his tunic. Dangling from the chain were two identical keys. He took one and gave it to Shepard. "This is the key to that chest at the corner. In it are the treaties you brought to us. Hold on to the key, just in case.
He hesitated. "The second thing is about Alistair."
Shepard frowned. "Alistair?"
"Yes. I place him away from the thick of battle for a reason. Keep him alive, no matter what. Should Cailan fall, you must go to Redcliffe with him."
That made less and less sense, except that Alistair was right: Duncan was deliberately protecting him. "Redcliffe?"
"It is a city northwest from here. Alistair will know the way. It will not be easy, but take him there. Maker help us, it might be the only way to win this war if it comes to that."
"Alright. Does he know about this plan?"
Duncan actually looked guilty for a split-second. "It would be better that he does not, for now."
Shepard nodded, and left the Warden-Commander's tent.
It was supposed to be a simple mission: run up the tower and light the beacon to signal the flanking forces.
Shepard should have known that was never the case.
When they approached the tower, a guard and a mage greeted them with the news that yes, the Tower of Ishal was overrun with darkspawn and no, no one could help them clean the damn tower because everyone else was in the field.
So now, they were climbing the tower with painstaking speed because every step of the way, the ugly things would greet them. At least Alistair got the action he wanted. Duncan would not be pleased, but Shepard was not too worried. The kid actually packed some serious strength, and when needed, was an excellent team player. They fell into a pattern quite easily. After the tower guard made the mistake of entering a room and nearly got skewered by darkspawn using the doorway as a choke point, they reached an agreement that for every door in their way, Shepard would blast it open with a shockwave. Then they would wait for the darkspawn to come to them and turn the choke point in their advantage. Alistair took point, Shepard stabbed around when she could while also providing biotic support, and the tower guard protected the mage, who proved to be very useful with his incineration and cryo blasts, or whatever he called it.
"Loghain better be ready to charge as soon as we light the signal. The king is depending on us!" Alistair exclaimed in between swings and parries.
Shepard laughed humorlessly, side-stepping a darkspawn and slitting its throat open. "Maybe he shouldn't be in the frontlines, then. Should have stuck with practicing swings at radishes."
The guard just looked at them in horror. "That's the king you're talking about," he scolded.
Lift. Slam down. "A dumb one," Shepard replied.
"I have to agree with the Warden," said the mage. "It is reckless for him to endanger himself."
The guard sputtered in protests, but was soon busied by another wave of darkspawn.
They reached the top floor battered and bruised and cut, breathing hard. The stairs were old and stone and steep, and climbing it was not something Shepard would want a repeat of—especially if they had to battle darkspawn while doing so.
Shepard looked at the pile of firewood waiting to be lit, then at the mage. "You do it?"
"Yes, I can—"
Rumbling footsteps halted his words. Darkspawn came storming in the chamber, and leading them was a huge lumbering monster that vaguely reminded Shepard of a yahg, only with less eyes, or something else, something that she remembered in passing.
"Ogre!" yelled Alistair in warning.
An ogre. Not a yahg. The way it charged with brutality and abandon, however, she could almost believe that it was a yahg or a brute. She was not sure which creature she would prefer. None, she supposed—all were ugly and tough as nails. She rolled to her side—an instinctive move—before realizing that she did not have cover here. Nor did she have a loaded Claymore shotgun to blow the ogre's head off.
She was most definitely screwed.
"Mage!" she bellowed. "Try to fry its head for me, will you?"
The answer was a bolt of lightning, catching the ogre and enveloping it in a burst of light. For a moment, it seemed like it worked. The next, it returned growling and charging, and very much angrier. It lunged towards the mage, and he tried to dodge.
Not fast enough.
It grabbed the mage, holding his body in its big, clawed hand, and then squeezed.
Shepard looked around the room. Utter chaos; Alistair and the guard had felled a significant number of the darkspawn foot soldier, but the ogre was still there and they had lost their only ranged attacker. Their only chance—her only chance—was by tackling it head-on.
"So," Shepard said, "what do I do?"
"When you lift or throw your enemies with biotics, you do it without gentleness, with no calm," Samara started, serene as she stood still with her in the shuttle bay. They had about six hours before they hit Omega, and Shepard had roped the justicar in to help her learn new biotic tricks.
Shepard frowned. "I'm supposed to kill them, not be gentle with them."
"You are right," Samara agreed, inclining her head a bit, "but you need to be gentle with yourself. The technique is the same. The finesse is not." She demonstrated it then, wrapping dark energy around her own figure and then glided like an asari goddess.
"Alright," said Shepard. "Let's try."
Deep breath. Calm. Think the starboard observation deck, with the abyss of space facing her, enveloping her. Shepard channeled her energy through the nodes in her body, coating herself in the blue glow of biotics. Then, she lifted.
She floated for in the middle of the room, and for a moment she gained a tactical view of the situation. The guard was overwhelmed, but holding. Alistair was in his element, hacking and slashing and parrying and Shepard knew he would survive.
The moment passed, and Shepard focused her energy again, this time to launch her like a bullet towards the ogre's head, her blade drawn. The ogre turned in time, and Shepard aimed to stab its eye and—
Her dagger made a long slash across the ogre's face and it howled, mad, and then his fist was clutching her torso too and there was no time. She struggled, hand inching towards the small of her back—the ogre's hand in the way, it was hard—and after an agonizing second she pulled out her Predator.
Her hand was at an awkward angle and she knew the recoil would sprain her wrist. She aimed—point-blank and easy—and shot the ogre in the eye.
The spurt of blood was something worth watching, if only she did not feel pain all over her body.
She dropped to her knees, the ogre's body collapsing behind her. The tower guard was hurt badly, she noticed, but he lived. Alistair was battling two darkspawns at the same time in the far corner—the only one left.
"The beacon!" she yelled to the guard and he fumbled with his pocket before he hobbled towards the firewood, spark rocks in his hand. His hands were shaking but he managed to make a spark and it caught the wood, and then the fire was lit.
It was over. Mission accomplished, and she saw that Alistair had finished the last darkspawns.
A pain shot up her and she turned to the archway leading to the stairwell and she saw reinforcements with an archer grinning up to her, all yellow teeth, its crossbow unloaded. Shepard looked down and the feathered end of a crossbow bolt stuck out her side. It looked out of place and wrong and she had an odd urge to laugh.
When she collapsed—face-to-face with the dead ogre—she thought of a marble statue in Donovan Hock's vault.
"You are crazy," Garrus accused as they limped back to the shuttle.
"Crazy? No. Out of ammo? Yes," Shepard retorted.
Tali giggled a little bit deliriously—Shepard suspected she was high on antibiotics—as she nursed the suit rupture on her waist. "I think," she said, voice echoing through her mask, "it was pretty awesome."
"Tali, she just killed a brute by charging towards it and biotic punching it. Repeatedly." said Garrus dryly.
"Like I said. Awesome."
Liara looked up from her omni-tool and turned to them. "I think you worry too much, Garrus. She did win a hand-to-hand with a yahg before."
"And the Shadow Broker was smarter," Shepard added. "I really had to stretch my flexibility that one time."
"Keelah, get a room."
"You are crazy," said a voice—too female and too human—as Shepard gained consciousness and sat up.
She turned towards the source of the voice. Morrigan. Somehow, Shepard was in Flemeth's hut, again, while her last memory was an ogre and a bolt through her gut. Maybe that was all a dream? Maybe she never actually left the hut and be a Grey Warden and climb up a darkspawn-infested tower at the whim of a stupid king. "Funny," said Shepard as she rubbed sleep off her eyes, "people tend to say that."
"I am not surprised."
"Why am I here, Morrigan?" She looked around the hut and noticed another person in the next bed out cold—Alistair, her mind supplied. The other Grey Warden that came with her to light the beacon. "Why are we here?"
Morrigan snorted. "Mother rescued you from the tower. You collapsed after you killed an ogre by tackling it head-on. He fell after trying to protect you."
"This a hobby of hers, rescuing people?" She wondered fleetingly how in the world Flemeth managed the rescue, but decided she did not want to know. As an afterthought, Shepard added, "And pretty sure it was the crossbow that did me in. The ogre was quite civil, all things considered."
"I do not understand why mother would rescue someone who stubbornly tries to kill herself."
"Maybe she has more brilliant ideas. Like making me fight the Blight on my own." The Blight. Darkspawn. Ogres that looked a lot like a certain statue in a vault in Bekenstein. "The battle…?"
"Lost. That Loghain ordered his men to retreat."
"Is the concept of betrayal a foreign one to you?"
A weight sunk somewhere in her and she remembered a dead turian Spectre killed by another with silvery skin and cybernetic jaw, pipes and metal, and she remembered a gun pointed to her as the summery wind of Virmire ruffled her hair. "No." She swallowed. "I just hoped I wouldn't have to go through it again." Her hand went to her neck, an attempt to erase the lingering feeling of a turian's talons against her pulse. "How many survived?"
Morrigan's gaze was pointed. "Two."
The first time Shepard navigated the Korcari Wilds, she believed she had done so in terrible company, considering Morrigan was clearly not the best conversationalist in Ferelden.
The second time Shepard navigated the Korcari Wilds, she realized that Morrigan's unaffected nature was much, much preferable to the hanging cloud of gloom that followed them in Alistair's wake. By no means was Shepard blaming Alistair for this—he had, after all, just lost each and every one of his Warden comrades, including Duncan who probably was something like a father to him—but it did not mean the journey was any less pleasant.
Grief was easier to deal with, in the Normandy, mainly because everyone had a job to fill, work to do, and so the crew grieved by busying themselves. Sometimes, a crew member might be too shaken to work—this happened once when a tech heard of her entire family being taken by the Collectors—and she would allow said crew member to grieve for one day before they had to return to duty. The worst was probably Liara, after Thessia's fall. The asari had holed herself in her little Broker den for a couple of days, but she was unfit for ground mission anyway with the injuries she got in the Temple of Athame. Shepard found out later that those few days had been extremely productive, as shown by the reports of mysterious movements of resources and intel tips.
This, however, was not the Normandy. There was no privacy to be had if you travel in a three-person team by foot. Nor was there much to do except to let your feet do the job and your mind to wander elsewhere. Between a sulking taciturn mage with mommy issues and a soldier grieving for his squad, Shepard almost wished something attacked them just so her two travelling companions—and fine, maybe she, too—could release the pent-up whatever it is they had right now.
She still had not told them about Duncan's last orders to her. Not that it mattered. Morrigan suggested they went to Lothering to stock up on supplies, and after Shepard consulted the map she had agreed, provided they made a stop by Ostagar to collect the traties. They did need supplies, and from Lothering they could just follow the bank of Lake Calenhad to reach Redcliffe. She would just tell her about Redcliffe after they were all set and rested in Lothering. With any luck, her fellow Warden would already feel a little better by then.
For now, though… Shepard had to endure.
She had stopped trying to make sense of their route hours ago. Now she was just distracting herself by the scenery as Morrigan led them between trees and around bodies of water. She noticed that the witch was picking flowers—white with a red center, just like the one she picked for the poisoned war hound. "Morrigan, why are you collecting the herb?"
The woman seemed amused with this question. "What other purpose does an herb have? Surely you do not suggest I pick the flowers because I find them pretty."
"Looking at the way you just toss them into that pouch, nah. But I thought it's used to cure darkspawn blood poisoning. You don't look like you're poisoned."
Morrigan smiled faintly. "'Tis not as powerful a cure as 'tis a protection. Consumed regularly, the brew prevents the taint from corrupting one into a ghoul. As I am no Grey Warden, I require this if I were to survive our quest."
"Oh." It had not even occurred to Shepard that Morrigan might be inflicted with darkspawn poisoning sometime in the future. Somehow, she still half-expected her to turn into a crow again and left the two of them to their own devices, instead of staying with them as a permanent member of their little team. "Do you need help?"
"You may, if you wish. 'Tis not necessary, though. I have collected enough in the days your Templar boy was sleeping."
"I'm a Grey Warden, not a Templar, apostate," ground Alistair.
"Oh! Has the foolish Templar ceased his crying to lecture us with the virtues of the Chantry again? How delightful."
And Shepard thought the silence was bad. Thedas just loved to prove her wrong, did it not? She opened her mouth to tell the both of them to shut up, but then she felt it: a feeling, a tug in her pulse. The thrum of the taint in her veins intensified. She raised her fist, halting her companions.
"Yeah, I can sense them."
Shepard frowned. "Four…?" She was not sure. She could feel their presence closing in, but it was still hard to pinpoint each creature out.
"Six. Closing in fast."
They drew their weapons, readied their stance. As soon as the first darkspawn appeared in their sight, its head was promptly blasted off by a well-timed fireball. The other five charged forward. Shepard threw a shockwave, throwing the vanguards off-course and staggering the one archer in the back, its arrow prematurely released and instead hitting one of its own. Alistair closed in the one wounded by the friendly arrow, while Morrigan sent bolts of light to the three other creatures, chipping their strength little by little.
Shepard side-stepped from between trees around their little conflict, bringing herself closer and closer to the archer's flank. One strong stab through the gap between its armor collar and helmet brought it down, and—
—nearly brushing her thigh, in a swift graceful leap punctuated with a sharp bark, a huge dog threw itself to a darkspawn, tackled its stout armored figure to the ground, and viciously ripped the creature's face off. Then the dog jumped and bit the ankle of another one, distracting it enough so Shepard could stab the darkspawn with both her daggers.
"Got the last one," called Alistair right when she pulled her daggers out the stinking corpse, and just like that it was over.
The dog—no, not just a dog, she belatedly realized, a Mabari war hound—circled her legs once before sitting in front of her, face tilted upwards inquisitively.
"Huh. I think that's the one you helped, Shepard," said Alistair with a half-smile.
Oh. It was the one she helped. Shepard grinned. "Hey there, boy. Good work with those things."
It wagged its tail.
She could barely hold herself from cooing. She forced herself to look away to prevent the baby-talk from escaping her and instead looked at Morrigan's half-bewildered, half-disgusted face. "Guess you were wrong, Morrigan."
"What do you mean?"
"There are three survivors, not two. Alistair," she pointed at him, "me," at herself, "and Urz."
Morrigan rolled her eyes. "Urgh. Do as you wish with it, Shepard, just keep it from drooling all over my pack."
"Pfffft. C'mon, Urz. Let's go leave the mean lady behind."
Alistair snorted. Urz barked in affirmation. Morrigan rolled her eyes again.
And they pushed on through the Wilds.
A/N: Holy hells, 72 followers? I... I... thank you. For reading. It makes me happy. And guilty, for being slow with the updates. But mostly happy. By the way, frozendude, yes the line "stick them with the pointy end" was a reference to Game of Thrones. I love GoT and ASOIAF to bits, I can't help it. To Blackholelord (and anyone else who might be wondering), I plan to end this with just Origins, although who knows, right? This is still in the beginning as it is. Tell me what you think, as always!
p.s. anyone wants to beta this? Job description includes Nazi-ing the hell out of my English-as-a-second-language grammar, as well as helping me keep the story in check. Curbing unecessary parts, and the likes. If not, that's okay too. I still love y'all.