“What is that smell?” Anders complained.
“Ugh. I think I stepped in mud.”
Ignoring their complaints, Arabelle scanned the body again and shook her head. “Nathaniel, can you check for signs or tracks or something leading away from the body? I’m pretty sure it was darkspawn, but…”
“Your wish is my command.”
“Your wish is my what?” Anders edged up beside where she’d knelt to search the body of the dead Grey Warden. “I think someone’s been drinking, someone other than Oghren. It’s the only way I can explain the pleasantries. There’s nothing pleasant about Howe, or this place. It’s scary and evil, and did I mention it was scary? It might be a good idea to find this Baroness person. Or we could just go. That would be good too…”
“Don’t wet your robes, Mage,” Oghren growled. “You’re like a little girl over there. Oh it’s so dark and scary. I want my blanky. I want my mummy.”
“Don’t you ever talk about my mother, you ale-swilling son of a nug-herder.”
“And I think I’ve found another sore spot. There are so many of them. Deciding which one to poke next could take me a while.”
“Good, then perhaps you’ll both be a little quieter while you determine how best to drive me crazy,” Arabelle rolled her eyes.
“You hear that, Dwarf? You’re bothering the Commander. Driving her crazy with your incessant belching and farting.”
“You’ll know when I’ve been farting, Mage. Trust me,” he answered with a low belch that made her roll her eyes.
“It’s quite a picturesque little place, isn’t it? Aside from being ruined and haunted,” Anders decided, skillfully ignoring Oghren, who was working up to a mighty belch, judging from the redness of his face.
“Darkspawn,” Nathaniel returned, his bow still slack in his hands. “Judging from the pattern of movement, not unlike the ones we encountered back there. Where are these new darkspawn coming from?”
“It’s not even a Blight,” Anders murmured, a hitch of fear in his tone.
“This is curious.”
“Very curious,” Nathaniel agreed. “Have you learned anything about this man? Is it him? The fallen Warden?”
“It’s definitely Kristoff,” she nodded. “Maker watch over him.”
“Maker watch over him,” Nathaniel nodded respectful agreement.
“But what happened to him?” Oghren asked, but before she had chance to answer, they were alerted to the rustling sound of a horde closing in on them.
Arabelle drew her bow off her back as she rose, Anders his staff. Oghren never stopped clutching his axe, so he was well prepared, but the darkspawn leading them held up a hand, as if in a gesture of temporary peace. The Warden Commander moved past the body, positioned herself in front and studied the ugly creature that approached.
“Yes,” he growled. It was so weird, talking to darkspawn, something she couldn’t imagine herself ever getting used to. “That is your Grey Warden. The Mother told it to me that if he was lured to this place and slain, that in time you would come.”
“This was a trap,” Nathaniel scowled and shook his head.
“Son of a bi…”
“And the Mother, she was right. The Mother is always right.”
“Did this Mother also tell you you would pay for killing a Grey Warden?” Arabelle took another step toward him, they were practically face to face, the foul stench of the creature emanating toward her. There it was, she thought, the source of Anders’s smell. For once, it wasn’t Oghren.
“The Mother, she is no prophet, but she is most clever. Oh yes, that she is. I, here before you, is the First. And I am bringing to you a message. The Mother, she is not permitting you to further his plan.”
“Whose plan would that be?” Nathaniel challenged.
Ignoring him, The First went on, “Whether this you know, or not, so she is sending you a gift.” It held out its hand, whirls of black smoke balling in its palm. Before there was time to react, the smoke spread, discoloring, glowing green and blue as the air around them faltered and wavered, the sounds clawing at their ears as the ground beneath them shook.
“Commander?” Anders shook her. His tone frantic and alarmed, she shook the haze from her mind as she blinked open her eyes. “Commander?”
Arabelle lifted her head, shoulders pushing off the cold ground to allow her to scan their surroundings. Nathaniel was just feet away, rolling onto his side, arms pressing into the ground to help him upright. Oghren’s eyes blinked behind his helmet, she could see the brilliant color of them disappear and reappear behind his lids. She turned her eyes up to meet with Anders and knew as well as he did exactly where they were.
Maker no. Anywhere but the Fade.
Rustling movement alerted her gaze, and when she sat up she saw The First, rising with her, looking around in a state near panic.
“No!” the thing protested.
She didn’t feel right noting he took the word right out of her mouth. They were in the Fade. He’d brought them to the bloody Fade. One of the most awful, wretched places she’d ever been, and there she was again. A den of temptation and darkness, a place mages rarely came back from unscathed and unpossessed. She was no mage, but somehow she thought that only made her that much weaker. She’d been stronger during her last foray into the Fade, more determined, but she wasn’t so sure she could say the same about herself in her present frame of mind.
“We have come to the Fade as well,” it threw up its arms. “It cannot be this!”
“What have you done?” she demanded, drawing her bow and stepping into a draw. “I want answers!”
“The Mother… She has deceived me. I am… betrayed. Now I am being trapped in the Fade with you. I am the fool.”
“Looks like someone was considered expendable,” Anders noted in that charming, quirky way of his. At least he wasn’t panicking, not outwardly, anyway.
“I am thinking The Mother, she cares not what happens to The First, so long as the Grey Warden is defeated. I will be leaving you to the children.” More of the slimy, ground-crawling darkspawn they’d encountered just before coming upon Kristoff’s body sidled up beside The First, hissing and clacking and sending shivers rolling through her. “I will be finding my own path back into the world. Back to the Mother.”
The ones he called the children attacked, swarming in, overwhelming them and giving him plenty of time to escape. By the time they freed themselves from the swarm, they stood out of breath, anxious and worried, everyone looking to her for guidance and explanation.
“We’re in the Fade,” Anders declared, his hand itching through his mussed blonde hair. The panic that had been missing before was suddenly evident in his tone. “The Fade, Commander. That is not a good place for a mage to be, in case you didn’t know.”
“I know, Anders. It’ll be all right.”
“Dwarves don’t belong here either. We don’t even dream!”
“Nobody panic,” she commanded, though how she was going to keep herself from doing just that, she had no idea. Think. She needed to think. To find a way to get them out before the darkness of that place began to seep in, clinging to their wants and desires, twisting and perverting them. “I’ve been in the Fade before.”
Alone. Her friends trapped in a sloth demon’s placating dreams. Zevran suffering torture, refusing to crack because he wanted so desperately to become a Crow. Wynne enduring the horror of so much death, believing herself responsible and arguing with Arabelle right up until the end that it was her fault, that she should have been there to stop it from happening. Alistair trapped in the bliss of a family that wanted him, placated by a kind sister that wanted nothing more than to care for her little brother. Alistair had been the toughest one to break free, to convince it wasn’t real because he wanted it so much. If only his actual sister had turned out to be even half as kind as the perversion of that nightmare.
Maker, what if there were desire demons there? Sloth demons? What if they could taste the things she wanted more than anything in that stifling air and they longed to hungrily corrupt her, drawing her in with promises of Alistair? Could she resist that kind of temptation? Convince herself that the Alistair in front of her wasn’t real, that her Alistair was gone? Or would she give in simply because she would take Alistair any way she could get him?
No… There was no replacing Alistair. Not with an abomination or a facsimile so real she couldn’t tell the difference. But still, she was scared.
“There’s a way out,” she muttered, more to herself than anyone else. “There’s always a way out.”
“The Commander is right,” Nathaniel spoke up. The charge of his voice grounded her, drew her back to a level of confidence she needed to take charge of the situation. “We have to keep our wits about us. We needn’t panic.”
“The Commander is right,” Anders mocked him. “I’ve got my crooked nose so far up her backside, I’d say just about anything to stay in her good graces. How many times have you been in the Fade, Howe?”
“That’s right, you’ve never. You have no idea what hideous and monstrous things await us here.”
“Regardless, we have to place our trust the Commander,” Nathaniel reaffirmed. “If she says she as been to the Fade before…”
“She is not a mage…”
“Neither am I, and yet here we are.”
“You smug, arrogant bastard…”
“Anders!” she snapped. “Enough!”
She was panicked as it was, their constant bickering and banter would only make it harder for her to concentrate. She hated the Fade. It was warped and confusing, and there was danger lurking around every corner, hungry spirits, demons in wait for a feast of fresh souls in need of corruption. In a state of panic, they’d be a banquet. She’d be a banquet all by herself if she let them tempt her.
“Nathaniel is right. We have to keep our wits about us, and we have to stay on task here, but most importantly, we have to work together. If we stick together, undivided, they can’t hurt us.” It had worked when she’d been in the Fade at the Circle of Magi. Surely, it would work again. “We’ll find a way out of this. Trust me.”
“I trust you, Commander,” Nathaniel told her. The sincerity of his trust was touching, and for a moment she didn’t know what to say.
Anders begrudgingly shifted his weight and crossed his arms, drawing her back to the moment. “Fine, I trust you too.”
“Just get me the hell out of here, Commander. I don’t belong here.”
“None of us do, but I’ll get us out of this. I promise.”
Only that was easier said than done. They ran around that hideous and confusing place for hours, fighting off demons, evading malicious spirits, arguing. One of the demons finally led them into a crypt that brought them to the heart of the estate, where the people who once inhabited Blackmarsh were imprisoned by the spell of corrupted bloodmage who’d maintained her power with the blood of their children. By the time they got to that place, Anders wasn’t talking to her at all anymore, a point he made well known when she chose to make a deal with a spirit of the Fade who called himself Justice.
“This spirit knows the Fade,” Nathaniel pointed out. “If we help him, he might help us in turn.”
“That is true,” she agreed.
“Are you serious right now?” Anders balked. “You’re going to trust this…this… abomination?”
“Over the demented bloodmage whose imprisoned these people here, yes, I am.”
His sigh was so dispelling, she felt guilty, but she was the commander. They were her men, and as much as she hated pulling rank, her decision was final. She wasn’t surprised when The First joined his forces with the baroness. After that, it was chaos. People fighting, demons everywhere, blades clashing and lightning pulsing through the masses as Anders swallowed his pride and fought beside her.
After battling and slaying The First, the bloodthirsty Baroness of Blackmarsh shifted them all back to the real world, and gasping relief, Belle didn’t even care that they had woken up next to a dead Warden’s body, reanimated involuntarily by the embodiment of Justice, or that they were tasked with closing all the tears in the veil before finally coming face to face with the Bloody Baroness.
She almost didn’t care that Anders was mad at her, or that Oghren hadn’t even so much as grumbled at her in more than an hour. She was just grateful to be out of the Fade, unscarred and untempted by sloth and desire’s delightful promises of something she could never have again.
Justice, unsure what else to do with himself now that he inhabited an earthly vessel, decided to return to Vigil’s Keep with them to avenge Kristoff’s death and help eradicate the darkspawn.
Accepting Justice into their party only seemed to irritate Anders more, but by that point she was done trying to figure out what had crawled into his robes and made him itch. The Blackmarsh was a dark, foreboding place, the atmosphere heavy with curse and torment. It unnerved her too, but she didn’t know how to placate her men, and after they were safe she wasn’t sure she should have to keep trying.
She began ignoring him, not paying attention when he added sarcastic commentary to everything Justice said during conversation as they ambled toward the edge of Blackmarsh. She just wanted to get back to the keep, strip out of her armor and bathe the stench and shame from her skin, but somehow she feared no amount of soap or water would ever wash her clean.
They ambled through the mud, making their way toward the cavernous exit leading away from Blackmarsh. For a time, the only sound was Oghren’s armor and Justice lecturing on any topic he could latch onto. For a while it was on the nature of thievery, a topic which rubbed Nathaniel so raw he stalked ahead of the group for a time, only stopping when they arrived at the trees just near the edge of the Blackmarsh.
As she caught up, he surprised her with a rare smile and a bit of nostalgia. “You know, when I was a little boy, my father used to tell me stories of this place. He said evil magic killed everyone here. This was just before the rebellion—a great mystery at the time.”
“Well, it’s not a mystery now,” she mused, glancing over at him.
It was an odd, but wonderful thing, how often she found his grin waiting for her when their eyes met. Ever since they’d shared a bottle of wine and a few heartfelt secrets, she couldn’t help thinking something between them had changed, but what that something was, she couldn’t say. It was a warm and thoughtful smile that stirred a jellied feeling in the pit of her stomach every time he did it, but she didn’t want him to stop.
Or maybe she did. She didn’t know. It was all so confusing and frightening and…
“I used to dream of coming to Blackmarsh and making things right. Little boy dreams.”
“You wanted to be a hero?” she grinned. “That’s cute.”
A sheepish grin found his lips, and even though it was dark, she could tell he was blushing. “I think all little boys want to be the heroes in the stories their fathers tell them.”
“Little girls too,” she agreed. “My father used to tell me stories about the rebellion, how he fought beside your father at the Battle of White River. They were… such good friends.”
“They were,” he lamented. “Sometimes I don’t understand what happened between the Couslands and the Howes. None of it makes sense at all.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“But I suppose it’s up to us now,” he went on, lifting a tentative glace to her face, “to make things right. To reforge that bond between our families.”
“I suppose it is,” she agreed. “I’m glad we have this opportunity.”
“As am I, my lady.”
Somewhere over her shoulder, Anders made a gagging sound. Ser Pounce-a-lot meowed inquisitively, to which the mage responded, “I know, Kitty. It’s making me ill too.”
“As for being a hero, now here I am, a Grey Warden and fighting both darkspawn and demons. Interesting.”
“Stick around,” she lifted an eyebrow at him, “This sort of thing happens all the time.”
“How very thrilling.”
“Oh for the love of Andraste,” the mage groaned. “Can we just go home, already?”
It has been some time since I last received a letter from you, and at first I chalked it up to my having spent so much time in the Bannorn trying to keep peace. Returning to Redcliffe and finding no word from you has me worried.
Rumors have reached us here, via Denerim, that the situation in Amaranthine is most dire. I’ve heard a variety of stories, ranging from talking darkspawn to the rise of another archdemon and another Blight. People are in a panic, and I know not what to believe. The closing of the trade routes incited panic, but I have since learned they were reopened, no small thanks, in part, to you and yours, I am certain.
And then Wynne took rest in the castle on her way to the Circle Tower, though how it was on her way I’m still not sure, since she confessed to having seen you not long ago, while she herself was in Amaranthine. Unless mages have some other method of travel that requires backward direction, I cannot help but wonder if she did not come here seeking Eamon’s council in regards to you. What they spoke of, I do not know, as I was not privy to their meeting, but she did make time to say hello to me before she parted, and I asked after you. She told me you looked well, on the outside, but that one look into your eyes was all she needed to see how troubled your spirit is. Much of your lightness of being was gone, along with your steadfast determination, and this worries me a great deal.
Your letters, though often filled with what ifs and self-blame, have maintained my hope that you will not only bounce back, but that you will be stronger than before. But it has been weeks since your last letter, so now I grow concerned.
I know you’ve mentioned in the past that Wynne can be a bit on the meddlesome side, sticking her nose into things it doesn’t always belong, but it seems to me she only does this with people she cares deeply about. If she is worried about you, I cannot help but wonder if my own worries aren’t unfounded.
If you are in need of me, say the word and I will come. No matter what the circumstances, I will be there for you. It is my duty as a friend and I will gladly do it.
Do write soon. Even if it is only to tell me you are fine and I am a fool for getting so worried over nothing.