Part Fourteen: A Strike at the Heart


 
Night. The darkness thrummed with the subterranean pulse of the darkspawn. Trapped in the Tainted nightmare, Valorien’s bones shook in time with the tramping march of ten thousand feet. The arch-demon’s roar echoed inside his head, followed by its low, rumbling growl as it drove its horde relentlessly. The twisted dragon turned its head and looked down at him. Suddenly, there was silence. Valorien struggled to move, to escape, but he was parlyzed. The arch-demon lowered its head, fixing him with one baleful eye. It peered close, like a man studying a curious insect that happened to catch his eye. The greenish-white glow filled Valorien’s vision.

Suddenly, the connection snapped, and the elf flung off his bedroll and leapt into a crouch. Across the embers of the fire, he met Alistair’s wide gaze. The human was panting with sudden fear as well. “Did you see that?” Alistair said. “The arch-demon — it’s like it saw us. Wait — did you hear something?”

Valorien’s head snapped around. “We are under attack!” he yelled, to awaken his comrades. He snatched up his bow as Alistair unsheathed his sword and stood. A scant moment later, shrieks were upon them, appearing out of a dark magical cloud. Two leapt on Alistair’s back. One seized Valorien’s bow arm.

With a snarl, Tarroth leapt upon the creature attacking his beloved companion. He knocked it down, and began tearing at its sinewy limbs. Shale seized the two on Alistair, one in each mighty stone fist, and ripped them off his back. He smashed them together, then threw one down, pinning it under one heavy foot. The other he began crushing in both hands.

Freed, Alistair rose and cut at more of the monsters as they appeared before him. Some fell back, wounded or dying, some simply disappeared before his blade could touch them. He backed towards the women’s tents, Valorien beside him, firing point blank at the black creatures. They held the vicous attack off until Liliana and Wynne could clamber out of their tents. Liliana’s state of dress and hair were certainly not any she’d appear in public with, but she got busy with her long knives. Wynne cast an entrapment rune between them just as another wave of shrieks appeared in a black cloud. Their ear-piercing wails took on a note of frustration.

“Morrigan!” Valorien shouted.

A blue-white arc of lightning jumped across the line of attacking beasts, felling them with the acrid smell of burnt flesh. “Present, and accounted for,” Morrigan called back.

“Very good,” the elf said. “Split, and push them back!”

The company moved into position, and quickly and methodically dispatched their foes. They spread out in a circle, looking for stragglers and catching their breaths. The night resettled back to silence. Valorien said, “I will go check on Bodhan.”

“Alistair, Wynne scolded, yanking at his arm, “sit down by the fire so I can see this head wound.”

“I’m fine,” he protested, but sat anyway before she grabbed him by the ear instead.

“That is one place a would would do him no noticeable harm,” Morrigan commented dryly.

Liliana shook her head at the witch and stoked the fire to bring up the light. Wynne gently parted Alistairs hair around the gash in his scalp.

ALISTAIR” The desperate cry shot through the darkness.

Alistair leapt to his feet, unceremoniously dumping Wynne on her backside. Heart hammering, sword drawn, he ran to Valorien, fearing the worst. The elf never cried out with such pain, not even when wounded.

Valorien stood, long knives drawn in a combat stance. Alistair almost didn’t see the figure facing him, it was so black in the darkness.

“Stay away,” the creature hissed. “I’m sick!”

The others stopped behind Alistair, but he had no need to fear the Taint. He moved forward. He could make out more details, now. The being’s skin was blackened, but it was not a Shriek. Not yet. Valorien looked as if he’d seen a ghost. Alistair’s throat went dry. “Sweet Andraste,” he breathed. “It can’t be.”

The Tainted elf’s next words confirmed the unthinkable. “I don’t want to hurt you, lethallin,” Tamlen cried. “Please — kill me!”

“We can help you,” Valorien insisted. He shot a desperate look at Alistair. “We have to help him.”

“We can’t.” Alistair swallowed dryly. “There’s nothing we can do.”

“No!” Valorien shouted vehemently. “He knows me! He knows himself! We can save him!”

“Look at him! He’s too far gone!” Alistair shouted back. “Even if we had a full legion of Grey Wardens, we couldn’t bring him back. No one can.” He strained to keep his voice level. “There’s only one thing we can do, Valorien. End his suffering.”

Tamlen shrieked, clutching his skull. “She sings to me,” he crooned. “I cannot reisist her song… no longer….” He started chewing on his own hands. “Stop me…!”

Valorien levelled his blades at his former comrade. His hands shook. For a long moment, he stood paralyzed. “Alistair…,” he whispered, tears welling up in his eyes. “Help me.”

Alistair drew a long breath. He gripped his sword more tightly. Jaw clenched, he stepped forward and drove the blade through Tamlen’s body. The Tainted elf collapsed with a hollow cry. Alistair pulled his sword free. He tried to sheath it, but his hand was shaking too badly. He turned to Valorien. The elf had fallen to his knees. “I- I’m–”

“Thank you, Alistair.” Valorien bowed his head, eyes closed. “Please, I need to be alone a little while.”

“I understand.”

 

Alistair moved away, carefully sheathing his sword. Tarroth trotted past him with a sad whine, and went to the elf. Feeling as if his feet were encased in lead, Alistair walked back to his companions. “I’m sorry, Wynne,” he said, taking her elbow. “Are you all right?”

“I’m not that delicate, Alistair,” she said, though she accepted his arm gracefully. “I’ll probably feel bruised in the morning, but not right now. I’m too shaken.”

The group returned to their places by the fire. Morrigan used her magic to turn the shriek corpses to ash while Alistair took a minute to double-check on the dwarven merchants. They were huddled in their wagon, barricaded amongst the crates. Alistair assured them that all was well, but they were not coming out til morning.

He returned to let Wynne finish her ministrations, again apologizing sheepishly.

“Never mind that,” Morrigan said. “Tell us what is going on. Who or what was that thing?”

They all looked expectantly at him. Even Shale hovered behind him. He squirmed uncomfortably. “Look, it’s a personal matter. All I can tell you is… this wasn’t some random attack. The Archdemon sent those things here, specifically after Valorien.”

Leliana said, “Alistair, if you know, you must tell us.”

“I don’t think it’s my place,” he insisted.

Morrigan said, “Why don’t we just ask Valorien?”

“He’s gone,” said Shale.

Everyone looked over back at the dark spot in the grass where the Tainted blood had been spilled. The body, Valorien, and the dog were all gone from sight.

“Shouldn’t you go after him?” Wynne asked Alistair.

“He’ll be fine,” the knight replied, biting his lip uncertainly. “Tarroth is with him.”

Morrigan wouldn’t leave it alone. “I don’t think you should be keeping secrets from us. What if something like this happens again?”

“It won’t. It’s over.”

“How can you know that?”

“I just do, all right?” he snapped at her.

Leliana tried to placate them. “Alistair, we are all companions in the same company. If you know something, surely the rest of us could know this as well, yes?”

Alistair looked around at their concerned faces, feeling the pressure to give in. It wasn’t as if anything Valorien told him that night was said in confidence, strictly speaking. But wasn’t it implicit in their friendship? The elf was not very trusting, especially of humans. Then again, he wasn’t here, and this situation could impact his capabilities at leadership. Alistair remembered why he hated making decisions. “Um…,” he said, temporizing.

Then he looked up, and Valorien was there, silently entering the circle of light. Alistair startled, mouth opening slightly, and the others turned to see what he was looking at. Leiliana and Wynne flinched guiltily, at least. Morrigan just narrowed her catlike eyes.

Valorien did not look at them. “It is all right, Alistair,” he said quietly. “You may tell them.”

Concerned, Alistair said, “Wouldn’t it be better if you did?”

The elf shook his head. “Please. I do not wish to speak of it. I wish to be alone.”

“You shouldn’t,” the knight said quickly. “It’s not safe.”

“Tarroth will stay with me,” the elf replied, resting one hand on the dog’s head. “Shale, if you please, could you keep watch at the perimeter of the camp tonight?”

“I will,” said the stone giant.

Valorien nodded, then turned away, head low, and walked off into the darkness with the mabari at his side.

“It… he asked me,” Shale said to himself in wonderment. “He said ‘please.'”

“Yeah, but he has no problem ordering me around,” Alistair griped mildly.

You like it,” Morrigan pointed out.

“Shut up, witch.”

“That’s enough,” Wynne scolded. “Alistair,” she added more mildly, “would you please tell us now?”

“All right. But keep in mind I’m not much of a story-teller.” He rubbed his hands slowly over the fire, gathering his thoughts. “That ghoul… his name was Tamlen. He was a close friend of Valorien’s.”

“Were they lovers?” Morrigan asked.

Alistair’s face wrinkled in distaste. “What? What kind of question is that?”

“A simple one, really,” the witch replied. “Apparently they were close, they might have been lovers. It seems civilized folk place great value on that.”

“No! I don’t th– no!” Alistair frowned at her. “You know, the next time you feel the need to say something, just stifle it, would you?” Morrigan bit her tongue, and Alistair shook himself to regain the track of his story. “They were close. They grew up together, and they were partners — hunting partners. And… one day not long ago, they discovered some underground ruins. There was some sort of artifact there, a mirror, I think.” He paused to rub his chin, realizing this next bit could be a bit thorny. But Valorien never shied from the truth. “It entranced Tamlen, and nearly killed Valorien…. It was the Taint. The elf clan thought Tamlen might be dead, and Valorien searched but never found a body. And then Duncan came and took him away, back to Ostagar. The joining cured him of the Taint, but….” Alistair rubbed his face. “He never knew what really happened to Tamlen. He suspected…. Feared, I guess, that Tamlen wasn’t dead.” He shuddered. “I guess that fear is settled now.”

“What a terrible thing to have to face,” Leilana said sorrowfully, looking off where Valorien had disappeared into the darkness.

“I promised him that I would help him,” Alistair said quietly, “if we ever met Tamlen again. I–” His voice broke and he didn’t finish. Wynne put her hand on his shoulder comfortingly.

“Well, you did a good job,” Morrigan said coldly. “When I need one of my friends killed, I’ll know whom to ask.”

“I thought I told you to stifle it, Morrigan,” Alistair snarled.

“You only said the next time I felt the need to say something. Which I did, right after you told me that,” she snapped back.

“Then let me make this quite clear: Shut the hell up, bitch!” He surged to his feet, then paused momentarily to hold his head. He shook off Wynne’s concerned hand, then went to take a walk around the perimeter.

Wynne looked pointedly at Morrigan. “Perhaps it is time for us to try to settle back down to sleep. We will need our strength in the morning.”

“Fine.” Morrigan sniffed haughtily, then went to her own corner of the camp.

The old mage shook her head. “Honestly, sometimes I just want to turn her over to a squad of Templars. Someone should teach her some manners.”

Leliana replied, “I do not think the Templars would fare so well against her. But sometimes I do wonder why she is the way she is.”

“I suppose I should try to be more understanding,” Wynne confessed. “She makes it so hard, sometimes.”

“I think that is her defense.” Leliana patted Wynne’s hand. “Do not let her trouble you. You should try to get some rest, yes?”

Wynne nodded, and the bard helped her to settle into her tent. Alistair returned and silently retired as well. But Leliana remained sitting by the fire, staring off into the darkness, waiting for the elf to return to them.

 


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