Jun 302015

[ Master Post ]
Title: Rhapsody In Ass Major – Chapter 115
Co-Conspirator: TumblrMaverikLoki
Fandom: Dragon Age
Characters:  Merrill , Bethany Hawke , Cormac Hawke , Artemis Hawke , Anders , Fenris
Rating: M (L2 N0 S0 V3 D0)
Warnings: A trail of corpses, a near-death experience, a death experience (minor character)
Notes: A varterral, a great deal of grieving, a disagreement turned angry.

Inside, the cavern was surprisingly well-lit, lanterns lining the walls in regular intervals, like the cave had been seeing regular use. The lanterns, themselves, looked old, but not as old as the ruins above. Definitely after the Dales, maybe not even a century. But, they were lit, which suggested someone had been through quite recently, despite the keeper's warnings.

"Funny how the stone here is white, but down at the coast, it's black. I wonder where it changes," Cormac murmured, looking at the way the light reflected off the walls, making the caverns seem brighter.

From ahead of them, Anders cursed, swatting at something around his head. Webbing. "Shit! Actual spiders!" he yelped, swinging his staff around as they descended from above. Actually very large actual spiders, in fact, but still smaller than an aravel.

Artemis made a face, swatting at a bit of webbing that caught on his arm. At least these spiders were the squishy kind, a fact he demonstrated by launching one into the wall. It splattered, most of the spider-gunk hitting Anders. "Oh ew. Sorry!"

Anders threw him a resigned look before icing the next spider. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to get spider guts out of feathers? Let me freeze them first. Then smash them."

"Oh! Good plan." Anders caught two more spiders in a blast of cold, and Artie smacked all three of them into the wall. It rained frozen spider-bits instead. "For the record, let it be known that I prefer to fight creatures with four legs or fewer," Artemis muttered. "Wyverns. Wyverns are less disgusting than this."

By the end of the battle, the room was a mess of spider webs, vines, and various frozen and not-frozen spider-bits. Fenris had spider-gunk in his hair and a pissy look on his face.

Easing past the rest of them, Merrill made straight for the corpse that lay a little further into the room. "Falon'Din guide you, lethallan," she murmured, kneeling beside the body to remove an amulet from it. "If you see the others, let me know. Keeper Marethari didn't ask, but it would be wrong to leave them untended."

Cormac and Anders nodded, Anders stepping up to rest a hand on her shoulder. "Whatever you need, Merrill. That's what we're here for."

"I'm still not sure what the hunters were doing in here," Cormac muttered, looking around. "Unless you've got more uses for spider-guts than I'm aware of…"

"No, we… Fenris was right about the artefacts. The keeper would have sent them in to check, before we had to leave again. Any time we find ruins, we check. Anything we can recover…" Merrill sighed, twisting her staff in her hands.

"But, varterrals are supposed to allow elves to pass…" Cormac went on, looking up the walls to check for more spiders, as they made their way through the room.

"They usually do!" Merrill protested. "I don't know what would make one do this!"

"Maybe you're the wrong kind of elf," Fenris suggested. "Not… you, but your clan. I know there were Tevinter magics that could recognise more subtle features than race. Members of a family, priests of the Old Gods… Maybe this is more complicated than it seems."

"Alternately, the thing's a couple thousand years old, and it might finally be starting to break down. If it's effectively gone mad, it may not be able to distinguish between elves and everyone else, any more," Cormac speculated, holding his hand out to Anders. "Come away. We need to burn the body before the demons take it."

Anders looked ill. "I don't … I don't know elven custom," he said, squeezing his hands as if to work the feeling back into them. "I'll ward it. Him. Them, I suppose. Wards, and then the clan can do what needs to be done."

Cormac saw it happen and just kept holding out his hand. "Of course, it's for the keeper to attend to. I wouldn't want to step on any toes. You're right."

"Liar," Anders whispered, as he stepped in closer and Cormac's arm wrapped around him.

They paused long enough for Anders to ward the body, the rest of them keeping respectfully silent. After, Merrill laid a hand on Anders's shoulder and offered him a watery smile.

"Thank you," she murmured. Anders nodded.

There were fewer lanterns deeper in, the tunnels narrowing, and when they came to a set of rickety stairs, Fenris tested it first, bare feet gauging the sturdiness of each step. The ageing wood held their weight but gave Fenris's feet a few splinters.

"Fasta vass!"

At the bottom of the stairs, he swore and hopped on one foot while Merrill bent over a second body.

"Oh, Harshal," Merrill sighed, rubbing at her eye with the heel of her hand. "Why did this happen?" She unclasped his amulet and slipped it into the pouch with Radha's. "I'm so sorry. I'll tell Irena for you."

Anders stepped away from Cormac, to put his arm around Merrill's shoulders. "No one could have expected this," he said, quietly. "Come on, we'll do what needs to be done. Won't bring back your friend, but it'll keep it from happening again."

"Thank you, Anders," Merrill said, because it seemed to be the thing to say, and she let herself be led away from the corpse.

"I'm really starting to hate spiders," Cormac shouted, from somewhere ahead of them, as another colony descended from the ceiling. This time, he froze as many as he could reach, as quickly as possible. There was no sense in wearing any more spider than strictly necessary. It was over soon enough. Frozen spiders did not withstand the beating dealt out, and shortly, the floor was decorated with melting chunks of spider.

More rickety stairs led them deeper into the cave, and Anders glanced around, nervously.

"There's nothing dwarven for miles," Cormac reassured him. "It's just a cave. A cave full of angry spiders and an elven construct, sure, but it's not the Deep Roads."

"As long as there's an exit," Anders said, eyes too wide for his laugh to be genuine. "No one has slammed a door shut behind us, have they? No crazy dwarves locking us in?"

"No crazy dwarves," Bethany assured him. "We left Varric back in Kirkwall."

Artemis was about to suggest Anders and Fenris start singing again when Merrill wailed the name, "Chandan!" and fell to her knees at another corpse. This time, her fingers shook as she took his amulet, and Artie wondered if she'd been closer to him. "Tread carefully, lethallin," she said, voice choked. "May the Trickster never find you in the beyond."

This time it was Bethany who wrapped an arm around Merrill's shoulders. Anders hoped this was the last body he'd have to ward.

Fenris's ears twitched, hand reaching for his sword as he squinted deeper into the cave. "Footsteps," he said. He called out, "Is someone there? Show yourself!"

A blond elf stepped out of a doorway, ahead of them, looking relieved to find they weren't giant spiders. "Praise Andraste— I mean, the Creators. I thought I'd never get out of—" His eyes darted to the side and settled on Merrill. "Merrill?" he sounded amazed.

"Aneth ara, Pol. Are you hurt?" Merrill seemed pleased to have found someone still living.

"Stay back!" Pol warned, backing away from her. "What do you want from me?"

"Pol, what's wrong? I'm here to help!" Merrill looked confused, holding out her hands, palms up.

"Stay back!" Pol snarled, making for the door again. "Don't touch me!"

"Don't touch you? Merrill couldn't hurt you if she tried! At worst, she'd make frowny faces." Cormac squinted at Pol, utterly baffled at this turn of events.

"Don't be a fool," Bethany sighed. "There's a varterral in here, somewhere, and it's not behind us, which means it's behind you. If you're going to run screaming from the little scholar, go the other way. At least out is that way."

"She'll do worse than hurt me," Pol insisted, talking over Bethany. "Don't you know what she is?"

"Yes, I do, and I still think your chances are better with us than with the varterral," Fenris offered. He knew how to kill a blood mage. He wasn't sure he knew how to kill a giant spider construct.

"Creators help me! Someone, please!" Pol shrieked, bolting back through the door he'd arrived from.

"Idiot," Bethany sighed.

"Pol, no!" Merrill called, eyes round. To the Hawkes, she said, "We have to catch him. Hurry!" She darted off after the shrieking elf without waiting for them to follow.

"The fool deserves what happens," Fenris said. But he still winced when the shrieking came to an abrupt stop.

The tunnel opened in front of them. They felt it before they saw it, the ground trembling under their feet, and then a massive… something slammed into the ground in front of them, a massive something that turned out to be a leg. More specifically, one of five legs and seven limbs, all belonging to a varterral.

Anders looked up, up at the construct and said, "I think I'd much rather fight those spiders."

"Don't say stuff like that," Artemis hissed. "We'll just end up fighting spiders and a varterral." Artie drew his staff and threw a wall of force at the creature. It barely moved. "Well fuck."

"Andraste's highly-polished ass," Cormac grumbled, laying a crushing prison on the thing's head. It was much too big for that, really, but maybe if he crushed the head, it would stop moving — or at least stop being able to tell where it was going. He'd meant to try to negotiate with the thing — they were servants of the same god — but opening with force never really led to negotiations, in his experience.

Anders promptly failed to stick the varterral to the ground, but Merrill's vines did the job just as quickly.

Fenris just stared up at the thing for a long moment, eyes wide and terrified. This wasn't how the world was supposed to work; he was sure of it. Bigger than an aravel, Cormac had said, and it was. But, there had been no mention of how much bigger. The thing was the size of a high dragon. Dragons were bigger than aravels. He'd fought dragons before. But, this…?

"Mages," he groused, drawing his sword and lighting himself up. He leapt at the thing, hacking at one leg, as he tried to maintain his footing on its foot.

The varterral let out a screech that made Fenris cringe, his ears flattening against his head, and tugged at the vines snaring its legs. The mages pummelled it with lightning and ice, and Fenris kept hacking away, growling whenever a spell would wash over him.

Shadows danced across the floor, and Merrill looked up. "Spiders!" she called out in warning, just as the varterral broke one of its legs free.

"Dammit, Anders!" Artie cursed. "I told you!"

Bethany laughed, and with a wave of her hand, the spiders froze above their heads, paralysed. Artemis made a face and launched them back towards the ceiling. Which he realised was a terrible idea when it started raining spider goo.

Fenris finally succeeded in hacking off a leg, and the varterral spasmed and shrieked, two more legs snapping free of Merrill's vines. With a kick, it launched Fenris back into the wall. When he didn't immediately get back up, Artemis grabbed a fistful of Anders's jacket, his eyes wide.

"Anders. Elf down. My elf. Anders."

Anders threw a hand to the side. When the first wave of blue didn't get Fenris back on his feet, a faint panic clutched at Anders's chest and he tried again, tried something else. "Don't get hit," he called to Artemis, as he checked the way the varterral was moving, before dashing around a leg that was suddenly much closer, to drag Fenris to his feet.

"Come on, Fenris. Move," Anders muttered, healing with both hands, as he half-carried Fenris back behind the line of mages.

"Put me down, abomination." Fenris sounded drunk, and the world was still a little spotty.

"Don't look at me, Artie," Anders insisted, pointing at the varterral. "I can only get one of you off the ground at a time, and that thing still has four more legs."

"Put me down," Fenris demanded, sounding a little less thick, as the healing continued to wash over him.

"Ah, Fenris? You are down. Any leaning on me you're doing is on you," Anders pointed out.

"… Shit."

Anders handed a healing potion to Fenris as he staggered free and lunged back toward where he'd dropped his sword. "Don't get killed! I can't actually fix that!" Anders called after him, tossing a lyrium potion to Merrill, as the vines faltered.

Artemis still felt like there was a hand clutching his chest — and not in the fun way Fenris did — but at least now he could breathe. "Thank you," he said, to both Anders and the Maker.

The varterral stomped its feet, and the ground shook, raining rock and more spider guts down on them.

"Thank me by killing this thing," Anders replied, launching ice at the construct's feet. What feet he missed Merrill caught in more vines, giving Fenris a chance to lop off one of its great forelegs, the one on its already hobbled side.

The varterral screeched and flailed, listing heavily to one side as they continued to bombard it, until eventually, battered and sundered its legs gave out beneath it. The ground shuddered when it collapsed, and Fenris continued hacking at it until it stopped twitching.

"I'm good!" Cormac yelled, from the far side of the mass of wood and … whatever that thing had been. Almost hadn't been good. It nearly came down on his head.

Merrill looked around frantically. "Pol? Pol, can you hear me?"

There was no answer, and after a minute or two, Anders grabbed her around the waist, so she'd stop running back and forth. He's had enough of the spiders, and she was going to attract something with the way she kept going on. "I think he's under it. And if he is, there's no way…"

"Oh, Pol, why did you run? You shouldn't have run!" Merrill buried her face in Anders's chest and Bethany picked her way across the broken shards of varterral and spider guts to lay a reassuring hand on the back of Merrill's neck.

"He ran because he was more afraid of you than of certain death," Fenris said, checking himself for cuts and loose buckles. "And, for the record, I think that makes him an idiot."

"Well, you are the expert on idiots," Artemis said, crossing to Fenris and checking him over for injuries as well. His brows pulled together in concern at the drying blood in Fenris's hair, but the elf swatted his hands away.

"I'm fine," Fenris assured him. "That's why we have a healer."

Artie nodded and took a breath. Fenris was fine. Fenris was alive. He could panic about all that later. He turned back to the other elf to see her shoulders shaking with sobs. "I'm sorry, Merrill," he said softly, wishing he had something more concrete to offer her.

Merrill finally pulled away from Anders's chest. She sniffled and wiped at her eyes with the edge of her sleeve. "Pol wasn't like the others," she said, voice shaking. "He was city-born. Worldly. He ran away from Denerim and found us. I thought if anyone would understand, he could. This…" She sniffled again and straightened, gathering herself. "Something is very wrong. I want to see the Keeper."

"We should see the keeper," Cormac muttered, clambering over the gigantic heap of dead construct between him and everyone else. "I want to know what city-boy, there, was doing in this cave, if three hunters had already been taken down by this thing. That doesn't sound sane or reasonable, at all."

"Perhaps he was trying to prove himself. To solve this problem for the clan and earn a place for himself. I understand that to be common behaviour for people who wish to belong," Fenris said, easily separating himself from those he spoke of. He had no need for anyone but himself, and his mage knew him with no demonstrations of his excellence.

Cormac knelt and spoke quietly to the varterral, apologising and drawing Dirthamen's eye back to the creature, or so he hoped. He wished he'd seen one working properly. Varterrals had been a part of the elven story he'd never been certain of — they were legendary, who would have imagined them to be real? But, here, he'd just destroyed one, because it had malfunctioned and attacked Merrill's clan. He expected nightmares, after this. Merrill was right. Something was very wrong.

They started back out of the cave, Anders and Bethany supporting Merrill, as she grieved, sobbing, one minute, and yelling, the next. "Pol… what was he thinking? He acted like I was a monster!"

"He was Andrastian, Merrill," Anders pointed out. "The Chantry tells ugly stories, and he hadn't been out here long enough to learn differently. You are the monster, in those stories. Just like me."

"I would never harm the clan," Merrill said. "They had no reason to be afraid of me! None of this makes any sense."

Bethany rubbed her back consolingly. She wondered what the Keeper had told the clan about Merrill and why she left, knew Merrill was probably wondering the same thing.

Skeletons sprang out of the ground here and there as they made their way back, but they made short work of them. Artemis watched the ground for any shifting, and he smacked down any skeleton-sized clump of earth that moved. Fenris stomped on them for good measure.

As they left the cave and squinted into the sunlight, Merrill drew away from Anders and Bethany with a watery smile. She wiped at her eyes and nose, dried them as best she could, and straightened her back, chin held high as she led them back into camp. Stares dogged their backs as they made their way back to Marethari.

"The varterral is dead," Merrill announced, not bothering with a greeting.

"Ma serannas. I'll breathe easier knowing we will lose no more people to it." Marethari looked relieved.

Merrill held out the amulets recovered from the bodies of the hunters. "We found these…"

What appeared to be genuine sadness touched Marethari's face. "I'll return them to their families."

"We… We lost Pol." Merrill backed into Bethany, who wrapped an arm around her and stroked her shoulder. "In the cave, he… he fled at the sight of me, straight into the varterral."

"He shouldn't have been in the cave, at all," Bethany reassured her.

But, Marethari declined to address what Pol had been doing in the cave. "Many of the clan fear you'll bring back the corruption — or worse — from the mirror."

"And where would they get that idea?" Merrill's eyes snapped up, suddenly clear and dry.

"I am their keeper, da'len. It was my duty to warn them." Marethari looked so sure of herself. "It's not too late for you to return to us. Reconsider — there's no need for you to live alone."

"Must we go over this again?" Merrill crossed her arms, eyes sharp. "You'll never accept what I'm doing."

"The eluvian is a trap," Marethari said, gesturing desperately. "It cost us Tamlen. It led you to blood magic." She shook her head. "Will you let it twist you further from who you really are?"

"And who am I?" Merrill bit back. "We've done as you asked. Honour our bargain. Give me the arulin'holm."

Marethari sighed, shoulders sagging as the fight left her. She drew the arulin'holm from where she'd tucked it into her sash and held it out in front of her. She looked first to Merrill, then to each Hawke in turn as though considering her options and crossing them off a list one by one. She bypassed Anders and handed the artefact to Fenris.

"Because Merrill won't listen, I give this heirloom of my clan to you for safekeeping."

Fenris's face twisted, ears flattening. He looked behind him, but there was no one there. She was looking at him. The Keeper. "What." Was she near-sighted?

When Fenris made no move to take the knife, Marethari took his hand and wrapped it around the handle. "Please… don't let her do this."

"Er…" Fenris said, intelligently, blinking at the weight of the tool in his hand. He fumbled for an appropriate answer. "We'll be sure it gets back to you, unharmed," he promised, hoping that was reasonable, but the keeper had already walked away.

Cormac looked amused and Anders rubbed his face, irritatedly.

"It's not right," Anders insisted.

"Thank the Creators!" Merrill breathed, the colour starting to return to her face. "I thought… maybe she'd go back on her word."

"I have a nasty feeling she might have, if Fenris hadn't been with us," Cormac admitted, leaning down to study the blade. He didn't mention that he was fairly sure the keeper had just tried to kill them all.

"So, what did the keeper mean the mirror led you to blood magic?" Anders asked, finally having gotten past the keeper's decision not to fulfil the bargain with the one of them who'd made it.

"The shard I found was corrupted. I couldn't cleanse it, without help," Merrill explained, looking down. "The keeper refused. She said it belonged to another time, and should be left there. So, I found a … spirit. It gave me the power to purify the mirror through blood magic."

"Because the blood would increase the power of the spell." Anders snapped his fingers, as he got it. "That's what blood magic is. That's what it's for. It just… there's a lot of really shitty things you can do with it, too, and that's what people remember. Still not something I'm jumping into."

"I might have been able to do it with lyrium, if I had piles of it laying around, but I didn't. I used what I had. Myself. My blood."

Fenris fidgeted with the knife in his hand, unsure what to do with it.

"Is it worth restoring this mirror if it turns your clan against you?" Bethany asked, squeezing Merrill's arm.

Merrill bowed her head and looked down at her feet, at the furrows her toes dug in the earth. "You know what it's like to lose everything," she said. "Not just our land and freedom, but history, stories, language, magic, rituals. Even our gods are gone." She glanced at Cormac, at the tattoos on his cheeks before turning back to Bethany. "You are a scholar. You understand the need to know. It is a sacrifice, but if the mirror restores even one fragment of the past, it is worth it."

Bethany nodded, her smile sad. She looked at Fenris expectantly, and one by one the others followed suit. Fenris stared back at them, eyes wide and ears twitching. "What? Oh." He looked down at the arulin'holm and shuffled his feet.

Anders held his breath, waiting for Fenris to refuse Merrill, to keep the arulin'holm away from her and her blood-magic-stained hands. Instead he handed it to her as though it touching it burned.

"Artemis, my hands." Fenris held them out as if he'd burned them, spread and stiff-fingered.

Anders was quicker, reaching over Merrill's shoulder to press a sparking fingertip to one of Fenris's fingers. "So, it's actually magic, then?" he asked. "Not just ancient?"

"Yes, it's magic. But, we don't know what kind of magic or how it was made," Merrill explained, watching Fenris's hands, curiously, as the lyrium lines on his fingers flickered. "What—?"

"Allergies," Anders said. "Don't worry about it."

"Yes. Allergies." That was as good an explanation as any, Fenris decided.

"Let's get back to town, before anything more unpleasant besets us, hmm?" Bethany suggested. "Unless Artie's going to extend his education in the joys of elven culture."

Cormac flicked a hand at his brother, freezing the spider guts still covering his robe. "Crush it and shake it off," he said, quietly. "It'll get the worst of it out."

Artemis nodded and did as instructed. He'd been scratching at his arms and trying not to think about the mess. The sticky mess. The sticky, spidery mess that was sticking to everything and— Breathe. Yes. Cormac was right. Freezing it got out the worst.

"I don't think I'll be experiencing much, ah, elf culture covered in spider guts, Bethany," Artie said, his smile a bit manic as he continued to pick spider-bits off his clothing. "I would, however, like to experience a bath and a change of clothes. And then possibly Fenris's brand of elf culture."

Anders chuffed, earning him a flat look from Fenris. Glancing in that direction gave Fenris a good view of Mahariel standing by Master Ilen's shop and eyeing Artie's backside, and Fenris growled and curled his hands into fists.

"We're going," he said. "I've had my fill of hearing about elf culture for the day."

"I'm still curious, but about the actual, er, history. Not my brother's history with elves. I'm sure I know most of that, already." Cormac laughed and waved to Mahariel, as they left the camp. "Come visit!" he called.

"This is going to be scandalous," Bethany reminded him, her eyes sparkling with amusement. "Dalish elves in Hightown!"

"Hightown seems to have adjusted well enough to Tevinter elves holding land. Dalish visitors shouldn't be much more the scandal," Fenris pointed out. "Of course, I'm not sure if they've adjusted to me, or just adjusted to the idea I will murder anyone fool enough to vandalise my home."

"It's likely the murder part," Cormac agreed. "But, does it matter? We've brought elves to Hightown, and people are still coming to our parties. I think that's a sign the city's ready to see change."

"Speaking of change, I can't wait to see this eluvian start working. I wonder if there are others that still work!" Anders leaned over Merrill's shoulder to look at the arulin'holm. "I wonder who's still out there…"

"We'll find out," Merrill declared, a hint of a smile on her face. "Thank you. All of you. And you, Fenris. Especially thank you."

"I wash my hands of it, one way or another," Fenris replied, crossing his arms. "But do not make me regret it."

Merrill's smile was beatific. "I won't! I promise." She looked like she was about to hug Fenris, until he took a cautious step away.

They were still in earshot of the camp when Anders started up that bawdy Tevinter song again, singing at the top of his lungs.

Fenris shook his head. "Mages," he muttered before joining in.

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