“Explain this to me again.” Hawke pressed her shoulders into the back of the chair behind her and ground her teeth together against the faint nausea that should have passed well after losing her breakfast on the way to the very meeting she was enduring now. Thank the Maker for Varric, and the pouch of little mint candies he produced, promising they would settle her stomach a little, and help get the bad taste out of her mouth. She drew in breath through her nose, both nostrils flaring slightly, and then exhaled as she turned eyes around the table at all three Grey Wardens before them.
Varric sat beside her, absently rolling small shreds of parchment from his notebook into obscure little balls and lining them up in front of him. Definitely one of his nervous quirks, though she guessed it was better than that thing he did with his knuckles from time to time. She didn’t think she could stand the sound of them cracking as he stretched each finger back and popped it one by aggravating one.
Despite the Warden-Commander’s presence, Warden Stroud did most of the talking, explaining far more about archdemons and darkspawn than Hawke ever would have guessed there was to tell. She killed her fair share over the years: during the blight, fleeing the blight, later on in Kirkwall, but to say she knew much about them would be comical. She stuck her blades in and pulled them out again when the body stopped twitching. She made sure her daggers were thoroughly cleaned after any such encounters because of all she’d learned during that trying time escaping the Primeval Thaig. Blight sickness killed her sister. It was a hard lesson.
Kyleah stretched her neck and let loose a long breath. “It is a little known fact that only a Grey Warden can kill an archdemon. It is one of the reasons we, and only we, can fight the blight. Do you understand what an archdemon is?”
“A big ass dragon I hope to never see in my lifetime.” Varric dropped another ball of paper into his formation then went about arranging it in perfect sequence with the others.
“Archdemons are the corrupted souls of the old gods. Tainted by blight, and, as some have suggested throughout the years, quite mad because of that taint,” Nathaniel explained. “Because darkspawn themselves are soulless, when an archdemon dies the corrupted soul seeks out the nearest blighted vessel, beginning the cycle again unless we stop it.”
“So… what does all that have to do with Grey Wardens? Or me, for that matter?” She knew she shouldn’t be thinking about anything but the conversation at hand, but she was getting hungry again. Thanks a lot, breakfast, for not staying down. Didn’t her body know food was very serious business? She didn’t have time for second breakfast just because the first one didn’t know its place, and there was an entire other body depending on her sustenance for survival. At the rate this conversation seemed to be going, she wasn’t going to get to eat again until she met up with Sebastian, who’d summoned her to dinner in his apartment promptly at seven. He’d actually written that into the note: promptly. It was like he didn’t even know her. Regardless, seven (though it would be more like twenty after, knowing her,) was so very far away.
“Grey Wardens have the taint,” Kyleah said, “sort of. When a Warden kills the archdemon the soul is drawn to our taint. That soul enters the Warden’s body and is destroyed by the presence of a pure soul already inhabiting the vessel.”
Lifting a curious head from his concentrated effort to align the perfect rows of paper balls, Varric bobbed back and forth. “If that’s true, why aren’t you dead? Didn’t you kill an archdemon?”
“I did,” she nodded, her gaze dropping dismally to her hands resting atop the table. Nathaniel reached over and laid a hand atop hers, fingers curling around to offer her strength as he squeezed.
“It’s all right, Ky,” he whispered. “You don’t have to explain yourself to anyone.”
“I know I don’t, but we are asking for their help. The least we can do is be forthright with them.” Drawing in a breath to steady herself, she didn’t raise her head or make eye contact as she spoke. “During the Blight, King Alistair and I traveled with a witch of the wilds. She performed a ritual that redirected that old god’s soul into a new vessel, a child conceived on the eve battle.” Hawke didn’t have to look over at Varric to know his eyebrow cocked with intrigue. “By all rights, I should have died that day, but her ritual worked. The archdemon was slain, Alistair and I both survived, and for a short time we believed the darkspawn would return to ground and leave us in peace as they wandered in search of another old god. I shouldn’t even be telling you any of this, and if it’s ever discovered I shared precious secrets all three of us could be brought up on charges. Master Tethras, I know it is in your nature to spin stories, but the promises you made to us when we sat down at the table… you must honor them. What has been spoken in this room today cannot leave these walls.”
“As I said when we sat down at this table, I can’t not tell my husband, especially if you’re asking something of me.”
“If you must tell him, then so be it. I would not ask a wife to hold such a grave secret from her husband. We knew the risks when we sought you out. The Wardens guard their rites and their knowledge very carefully, and we take oaths to hold those secrets, but the three of us agreed that despite the peril to our positions and our lives, we need your help making sense of what happened in the Vinnmark Mountains with Corypheus so we might compare your experience to our own dealings with The Architect after the Fifth Blight.”
“Nathaniel mentioned the Architect when we encountered him in the Deep Roads, but I’m still not sure I understand what this architect actually is. Is it a darkspawn?”
“An educated darkspawn emissary,” Nathaniel nodded. “Self-aware and capable of intricate thought and design, it was he who began the Fifth Blight while attempting to break Urthemiel’s hold over the darkspawn.”
“When Kyleah and Nathaniel came to Weisshaupt after restoring order to Amaranthine, the First Warden refused to heed their warnings. Gossip spread through the keep, as it does in such places, and I found myself intrigued by the story that began circulating the fortress. I sought them out and asked to hear the tale firsthand. A world without the Blight, it seemed too good to be true, so I began to do some research on my own after they returned to the Deep Roads on orders.”
“Warden Stroud discovered records within our hold dating back more than thirty years ago of a Grey Warden encounter with The Architect shortly after my mentor, Duncan was conscripted. Duncan and a group of wardens ventured with King Maric through the Deep Roads, following the paths he carved before he reclaimed the throne. According to Duncan’s notes and later reflections by a warden named Fiona, the Architect attempted even then to assert his mad plan to taint the people of Thedas in order to create a strange race of human/darkspawn hybrids able to think on their own. He believes sentience would break the darkspawn compulsion to seek out the Old God’s call, creating a world in which we would never again have to worry about the Blight.”
“That’s…insane!” Varric declared.
“As Grey Wardens, it is our duty to approach any and all opportunities to free Thedas of the Blight, Master Tethras. Knowing this, knowing the duties I am sworn to carry out, the oaths I’ve taken to protect this land from the Blight, I allied myself with the Architect during events in Amaranthine in hopes of gaining deeper insight into his plans. Unfortunately, the promises he made were false, and wherever he may be, we fear the worst.”
“I fear the worst, and I’m just sitting here listening to you talk about it.”
“I agree, Varric, but I still don’t understand what any of this has to do with us, or Corypheus for that matter.”
Kyleah nodded when Stroud looked to her for guidance, then he cleared his throat. Stroking fingers through his long, black mustache, it was only a few seconds before he found the courage to speak, but it felt like a lifetime.
“In my research I found troubling accounts of other encounters with this Architect, several of them in fact. Many instances saw Wardens reacting violently, eradicating the threat he posed, others thought, like Kyleah, to search for hope in his offerings. On more than one occasion, the Wardens who chose to attack recorded their experiences and claimed him dead, but he resurfaced again several years later with an even more intricate and involved plan, and either not remembering his previous encounters, or choosing to ignore them entirely.”
“Is it possible these other encounters were with a similar being?” Hawke wondered.
“That was my suspicion as well, Hawke,” Stroud nodded, “but the similarities in the descriptions recorded in each encounter suggested otherwise. It would seem the Architect possesses a unique ability, not unlike an archdemon, to transpose his essence into a nearby vessel upon death.”
“Wait, you’re saying he’s… unkillable?”
“We’re not exactly sure, but it seems that way. Which brings us to Corypheus. I know you were asked to give a full report to the Wardens, but that report has not been made available to us.”
“Oh, that would be because I didn’t write one. After our encounter with that madwoman, Janeka, after the things I learned about what the wardens did to exploit my father, I wanted nothing to do with them.”
“I understand,” she sympathized, “and if you still feel that way, I suppose there is nothing I can do, but if I could persuade you to share your story, to tell us about the magic used to confine him and your actual encounter with the magister darkspawn it could prove very useful to our investigation.”
She looked to Varric, the two of them sharing unique facial expression only readable by one another. The half-roll of his eyes and quirk of his mouth said it couldn’t hurt, they seemed like nice enough people, and besides, it would be a good thing to keep something like Corypheus from respawning. She agreed with a short nod.
Hawke told them everything she could remember, Varric chiming in from time to time to fill in the gaps, but she still wasn’t sure how any of it was related. When she wrapped up the tale, Stroud sat stroking his mustaches thoughtfully. He leaned forward in the chair at last and asked, “And you are quite sure he was dead?”
“Body parts everywhere, if that’s what you mean.”
“Hmm,” he nodded and turned his head toward Kyleah again. “I don’t know what to make of it then, Warden-Commander.”
“Thank you, Hawke. I appreciate your candor.”
“That’s it? That’s all you wanted from me? Information about Corypheus and the magic of the prison?”
“I didn’t come to conscript you, if that’s what you were worried about, though we could use a team like you and Varric in the Deep Roads, now that I think on it.”
“I’m afraid I don’t go anywhere without Hawke, and Hawke being in the family way would make conscription downright criminal.”
“Varric!” She drove her fist into his shoulder, forcing him to suck in air through his teeth and duck further back to avoid another blow.
“What? I probably just saved your life. And theirs. Choir Boy would have declared all-out war on the only people in Thedas who actually know how to handle the Blight, and no one wants that.”
“Have no fear, we don’t actively conscript when there isn’t a Blight, unless the act itself would save a life worth saving. Fortunately you appear to be in good health, and you’re not on trial for a crime there’s no escaping. And since you’re guarding our secret, you have our word that yours will be safe as well, at least until you’re ready for it to be known.” Kyleah’s smile waned a little, and Hawke spied Nathaniel’s hand tighten around hers once more. “Congratulations, by the way. You’re very lucky.”
“I keep telling her that, but she rarely listens to me,” Varric moaned, rubbing the spot on his shoulder where she hit him. “Maker’s breath, Hawke, I’m gonna have a bruise.”
“Better there than your face, I suspect.”
“Bullshit. Facial bruises provoke interesting conversations. This one’s just going to make it hard for me to write later.”
“I’ll remember to punch you in the face next time.”
“Thank you. I appreciate that.”
“The two of you sound as much like an old married couple as the day I met you in the Deep Roads,” Nathaniel noted with a smirk. “Does your husband mind?”
“My husband knew long before he fell in love with me that I was a packaged deal. I don’t go anywhere without my trusty dwarf.” Well, that used to be true, but times were changing. She wondered how long she could convince him to stay in Starkhaven and already knew she wouldn’t like the answer. He may have had one of the biggest mouths in all of Thedas, but he was her big mouth. Whatever was she going to do without him?
“Normally I’d hit her back,” Varric brought his left shoulder up casually, “but I don’t want to hurt the baby.” Pinning him with another glare, he drew back a little for fear she was about to hit him again.
“That being said, I fear we have taken up far more of your time than we should have. Again, thank you for the information, Hawke. I do hope we have your discretion on this matter. If word got back to the First Warden we were digging a trench where we’d been forbidden it could be very bad for us. We were here for the coronation, and nothing more.”
“You have my word, though I can’t speak for Varric. Seems he doesn’t know when to keep his teeth together.”
“We could always take him with us,” Nathaniel suggested. “It might be nice to have chapters of Hard in Hightown as they’re written, instead of having to wait until we surface again.”
“I’m going to respectfully decline on that offer. Not all dwarves are fond of caves and Deep Roads.”
“Pity, I bet you and that legendary crossbow of yours would make a fine mess of the darkspawn,” Kyleah nodded respectfully toward Bianca propped on the floor beside him at the table.
“Say, before you take off,” Varric began, “I don’t suppose you know anything about the whole red lyrium thing?”
“Red… lyrium?” Warden Stroud repeated skeptically. Nearly everyone they consulted about that stuff wore the same confused and disbelieving look. “I have not personally come across any red lyrium in the Deep Roads.”
“Neither have I,” Kyleah said.
“However, I can look through the archives at Weisshaupt and see if there is mention there. What would you like to know about it? I can tailor my results to your questions and write with my findings.”
“Everything you can find,” Hawke said. “We have reason to believe the problems in Kirkwall, though already festering beneath the surface, were exacerbated by a single piece of red lyrium Varric and I found in the Deep Roads. It drove his brother, Bartrand, mad, and later on Knight-Commander Meredith, as well. It… turned her to red lyrium. She became… a sort of statue in the Gallows. A red lyrium statue.”
“And it keeps spreading,” Varric added.
“That is… most disconcerting,” Stroud agreed. “I have spent decades serving the order, delving deep through darkspawn-infested thaigs and deep roads, and in my experience I have never encountered red lyrium. It sounds dangerous.”
“It is dangerous,” Varric said matter-of-factly.
“Then I will investigate.”
“We appreciate it, Warden Stroud. Our city has been through enough as it is. The last thing we need is for this red lyrium to spread.”
“Thank you again for meeting with us, both of you. I’m not sure yet what the information you’ve provided will mean to our investigation, but I do believe it will prove useful. We will be in touch if we have any further questions.”
“Safe travels,” Hawke bid them as she watched them leave. She waited until she and Varric were alone before shaking her head at him. “I can’t believe you.”
“I genuinely thought I was doing you a favor.”
“You just can’t keep a secret. You never could. You knew, and it was killing you not to have someone else to tell.”
“That’s not true. I’ve talked in depth about it all with Bianca. She also thinks you’re being ridiculous, by the way. She said to tell you if she was in your shoes she’d be overjoyed.”
“Yes, well, tell her to mind her own business, or I’ll tell the Carta everything I know about your beloved crossbow.”
“Wouldn’t I?” she sneered.
He groaned as he dropped his feet to the floor and stretched the muscles of his back into an arch. “Look at it this way,” he mused, “now you have to tell Choir Boy. Imagine how pissed he’s going to be when he finds out half of the Free Marches and a huge block of the Deep Roads already knew and he didn’t have a clue.”
“You’re a terrible person. And I’m starving. Should we go fetch some lunch before someone else tracks us down and expects us to be responsible people?”
“I could eat,” he agreed, “so long as it doesn’t have fish in it. I think I’m finally starting to hate fish.”
“I know, right? Fenris would die of starvation here.”