Malan stood up and put the map where Eshara had marked the agents destination in his bag. He was about to leave the room where the hunter was resting.
- Wait, Malan… – she said in Elven language.
He turned at her with his hand at the doorknob.
She looked away and blushed. She took some seconds to talk again.
- Why did you save me? I mean… I’m Dalish, and you’re a city elf. I thought that those of your kind were…
- Those of my kind were what? You were injured and on your own, I couldn’t just leave you there. In times like this, we have to help each other, no matter where you come from.
Eshara then looked at him, surprised by his answer. Malan gave her a tender smile, and she smiled him back.
- You remind me to our Keeper. I hope you can… – her face started to taint with sadness thinking about her clan. - I hope you can meet him someday.
- I will, Eshara. I promise you that you’ll see them all again.
With a confident smile, he left the room, leaving her praying silently for him to come back safely.
When Malan went downstairs, he found the main inn room filled with the morning light, and a delicious smell of breakfast floating in the air. His comrades where all sat down around the big table that was just in front of the fireplace, discussing something with Gaia. Malan realised that she had a shadow of concern on her face.
- How’s our young friend doing, Malan? – Oerik asked when the elf sat down with a sigh.
- It was hard to convince her about staying here and rest. She’s a fighter, but she can’t come with us in her current situation.
- I’ll stay with her. – Gaia seriously stated.
The agents looked at her surprised.
- But… – the dwarf tried to reply.
- Eshara needs constant treatment. You’ve all seen her side wound, and she mentioned darkspawn chasing her. If she’s infected by the Blight… - she had her eyes on her plate, clearly remembering something with true concern. – I know what needs to be done, but I still don’t know for certain how bad it is.
- What kind of relation have you had with the Blight? – Malan asked.
Oerik and Keaton looked at him now. That was the last thing they both would think about after Gaia’s words. During a few seconds, both mages stare to each other suspiciously.
- You don’t need to know that. – Gaia answered with bitterness in her voice.
- As we didn’t need to know that you are the Heroine of Ferelden? – Malan said with sarcasm.
On that moment, the stress was so dense that could be cut with a knife. Gaia’s face was ice, completely inexpressive. Malan had his elvows at the table, with his fingers crossed in front of his mouth, hiding his subtle smile.
- C-C’mon Malan, that’s not funny… – Oerik tried to calm the situation.
- You might not know the true story, but we apostates keep her legend alive. Many consider her an inspiration. A mage conscripted by the Grey Wardens at the Calenhad Circle of Magi, powerful enough to beat down an archdemon. Born in Lothering, who never went back to the Cirle after the Blight because she was trying to rebuild the Order. And where’s the most important Warden’s fortress? Guess what: at the Anderfels. The Chantry tried to spread another story, about her being a man, and a warrior, not a mage. Because if everyone knew such a powerful mage was travelling freely around Thedas with no Templar supervision, it would have generated more unrest between the Circles. In the end, the lie was not necessary, as the civil war exploded anyway. And now there’s again a deadly thread on her homeland, and she comes back and heads to Denerim, probably going to offer her help to her friend and Grey Warden comrade: King Alistair. So… Am I wrong, Warden-Commander Amell, Heroine of Ferelden?
Keaton and Oerik were literally holding their breath. They were waiting for Gaia’s answer after that accusation. However, she just stood up holding his cold expression on her face.
- You are the ones who have on your hands the faith of this people. It doesn’t matter who am I. The question is: are you ready to risk your own lives in order to save other’s? Are you prepared to be their heroes?
The triumphant smile on Malan’s face disappeared with her last question. She was about to go silently upstairs, when she stopped and added.
- Make sure the three of you come back safe and sound. You’re the last hope for that young elf.
None of them made any comments about Gaia’s possible true identity. They just got ready to depart in silence. According to Eshara’s information, the place they were looking for was only two days’ travel on foot from the village, assuming they could keep a reasonable pace. Although they had a dwarf on the group, Oerik was more than used to that kind of journeys, so he didn’t delay the agents.
They were entering a path into the woods, already outside Vintiver, when they suddenly heard some evil laughs. Coalan, the blacksmith’s town that leaded the mob the night before, was cutting their way with another five armed men. Two more appeared from behind the agents: they were surrounded.
- Well, well, well… The elf accomplices are leaving to look for reinforcements, isn’t it? – the bald blacksmith said.
- You’re wrong, good man. We’re not pretending any harm to your village. – the dwarf talked as polite as he could.
- Lies and more lies. You’ll probably get paid if you help those knife-ears to attack the town and get their revenge, won’t you? Then listen carefully: we’re not going to allow that. We won’t let you go any further. Wish your little friend to have the same quick death as yours, because we’re going to have a lot of fun with her.
After the blacksmith’s words, the rest of the men laughed again. Oerik was about to reply, but Malan extended his arm in front of the dwarf, in order to stop him. Oerik looked up to the elf, to find the most angered expression he never saw on Malan. The dwarf had to take a step behind, as sparks of energy started to crack on the mage’s hand. Keaton heard them too, and he smiled with his mace and shield ready.
When the villagers saw Malan’s power, some of them started to pull back. Coalan, however, spur them on.
- Charge, cowards! We have the advantage of numbers, let none survive! FOR VINTIVER!
It all happened on a heartbeat. Malan rose his staff and made it spin on his hand. Then, he smashed the ground with the staff’s end. At the very moment the wooden magical artifact touched the forest soil, hundreds of lightning sparks appeared both on the staff and on Malan’s left hand. He extended his charged arm to the big group of men at the front, and all of them received an electric shock. Then, with the agility and grace that only elfs had, he twirled around and sent more charges with the staff to the couple of villagers from behind. Only four seconds were needed for Malan to knock them all down. After that, however, he started to breath heavily. When Oerik approached to see if he was doing alright, Malan almost felt down on him. He’d used too much magical energy.
- We could fight them all together with no problem at all. Don’t force yourself again like this: we don’t know which dangers are we going to face today, and we need you to be ready for them. – Keaton said with no aim to offend him, but truly worried about the mage state.
Malan was with a knee on the ground and holding on his staff and Oerik itself. The elf was sweating as he had just made an important physical effort.
- I… I’m sorry… I’ve just… – he was trying to explain himself.
- Aye, we know. You couldn’t let them hurt Eshara, right? – Oerik made a point, as the elf smiled. - I know you care about her, but don’t push yourself so hard again, sparky-hands.
The other two agents laughed at the nickname the dwarf made up for the mage. Then, they could hear the blacksmith trying to stand up.
- You… monsters…
- If you think this one is a monster, then try to touch a single hair on the young lady’s head. There’s a mage there three times more powerful than the one here taking care of her, so it’s totally up to you. – Oerik answered with sarcasm.
Slowly, the villagers recovered their consciousness. However, they were scared, and ran away as soon as they could. Coalan was left alone, so in the end he left too. Once Malan was feeling better, they went on with their journey.
They entered the Brecilian Forest without encountering any other problems. The forest was oddly in silence, and no animal could be heard. After travelling for most of the day, they could see what seemed to be the remains of an encampment, not far off the track in the forest. There were colourful wagons circled around the rests of a campfire in a shallow pit, long since turned to cold ashes. The carcass of a carthorse lied outside the circle of wagons, picked over by forest scavengers, and the wagons themselves as well as the debris scattered around the camp showed signs of a struggle.
- This is a Dalish camp. It seems there was a fight here… - Malan stated.
Keaton looked around. He could see overturned camp-stools, broken mugs and crockery, and an overturned iron cauldron that once hung from a tripod over the fire. A small amount of spoiled stew still sat in the bottom, but most of it was spilled and consumed by scavengers.
- An it happened just a few days ago. Here must be where Eshara’s people got ambushed. – the warrior said while looking for tracks.
The agents split to search for any clues about the Dalish whereabouts. Oerik saw that some of the wagons showed signs of being broken into, such as smashed or kicked in doors. Hoof prints could tell him that most of the carthorses ran off at some point, probably panicked by the attack. Between those prints, he found traces of dried blood in spots, indicating there were at least some wounded. From the size of some of the spots, there were probably at least a few deaths, but not a wholesale slaughter. In spite of that, there were no elven bodies or remains at the campsite, so he followed the blood tracks. He found footprints and drag marks on the ground which indicated that a large number, probably over twenty, were marched or carried away from the site, including some that were dragged over the ground. It was likely any dead bodies were carried away as well. The tracks leaded off towards the south-southeast.
Think I’ve got something ’ere, guys. he announced.
After a close examination of the tracks, Malan added:
- In that direction is where Eshara marked the location of the creature’s lair.
Interestingly, all the footprints appeared to belong to the elfs. There was no sign of which, if any, were made by their attackers. It was a fairly easy matter to follow the tracks. With a clear path ahead, the agents resumed their journey.
As the sun started to go down, the forest became more sinister with every step the agents made. The shadows darkened towards night and faint, wheezing and mocking laughter seemed to drift out of the trees. Keaton pulled his mace out, and that was enough to make Oerik and Malan get ready for a possible fight.
- I think we’re being observed.
As the warrior said those words, the laughter got louder as the agents felt something surrounding them before emerging from the forest to attack. They could only see creatures with jackal-like appearance and their glowing reddish eyes just as they rushed to the fray.
Keaton was the first to act. With his shield, he pushed back one of the creatures, while he could sense a crack of a lightning flying near his ear. Malan’s spell crashed into the creature that the warrior had unbalanced, knocking it out of battle. Meanwhile, on their backs, Oerik jumped, with one axe on each hand, into another creature. Keaton was pretty surprised of the dwarf’s battle skills. Although Oerik didn’t manage to put it down with his blow, the agents only had two enemies ahead. “Easy peasy”, Keaton thought.
After some minutes, they bit down another of the creatures, and the remaining one ran away. Malan tried to catch it with a lightning, but he missed. Keaton knelt down to examine one of their attackers. It had a sickly grey color, his flesh tough and leathery, drawn tight on his bones. Its lips were drawn back in a rictus parody of a grin, and its teeth and nails grown sharp and predatory. Malan got closer to the body, too.
- I feel magic in this. Something had made this… whatever it was before, change.
- Like the wolves? – Oerik asked.
- Yes, and no. They’re mutated, like the wolves, but the magical source is different. – Malan put out the bracelet Eshara gave him. - It has resemblance with this… blood magic?
Oerik and Keaton were worried, a bit scared too, about Malan’s words. The elf kept on thinking, so the warrior suggested to find a place to rest during the night. The forest was already quite dark, and they didn’t want to be ambushed again.
- It’ll be easier if we set ward turns and try to defend a single emplacement. We don’t know this Forest, and probably these creatures do. They have advantage on us. – he added.
The rest of the agents agreed, so they looked for a place to rest, ate something and cleaned their scratches from the fight. None of them could really rest properly, as the shadows where hiding all kind of dangers.
The following morning they carried on with their exploration. They walked for a couple of hours, until they came to a massive tree that had fall across a deep chasm in the forest, forming a natural bridge to the far side. The chasm was nearly a hundred meters deep, with a river rushing across tumbled rocks below. Finding their way around meant looking for another place to cross the chasm and the river, and there was no such place for kilometres.
- We can secure the way with this…
While Malan was putting a rope out of his bag, they began to hear crow cries. The sound of multiple wings could be sensed around them, when a flock of black creatures came out of the forest towards them. The black carrion birds looked thirsty for the blood of the living. They were larger than mundane crows, with a dark reddish sheen to their black feathers and blood-red eyes. They had sharp beaks and snake-like tails with small spines along them. The agents didn’t have time to secure the rope to cross fast the tree. Keaton and Malan prepared their weapons, but Oerik knew they couldn’t fight such number of beasts. Then, he had an idea.
- Hey you bastards! Here, here!
The dwarf had silver coins on his hand and was waving them in the air for the crows to notice, while he was running away from the rest of the agents. Seeing the shiny pieces, the creatures flied towards Oerik. When he was far enough from the tree, and the crows where close enough, he throw the coins away into the river.
- Go for them, you stupid birds!
As it was in their nature, the crows chased the coins down the chasm. Then, Oerik ran back to the agents, urging them to cross the tree-bridge while the creatures were busy. And so they did.
Following Eshara’s indications, they made their way down into a narrow valley, at the far end of which were the ruins of an ancient stone keep. The agents looked for enemies around. According to the young Dalish, inside those ruins they were to face the creature called Mythallen. However, they couldn’t see or hear anything suspicious, so they decided to got closer. Only the first floor was intact, and it was lacking a roof. It was largely filled with rubble, some of which had been cleared away to reveal a stone staircase leading down into darkness. After getting their weapons ready, they moved down the stairs into the basement of the ancient keep. They found smashed and broken furniture, and decaying weapons littered the floor. There was a battle there long ago, that much was clear. In the darkness they could just make out the bones of the dead, but they did not rest quietly. The agents could see three skeletons staring at them, their sockets empty but their hate palpable. The keep had guardians still, and they seemed willing to defend it.
The fight was long and hard. Although the agents didn’t get any serious injury in the end, the skeletons were tough and seemed to keep great battle skills from older times. They even resisted Malan’s magic much better than any other creature so far. After defeating the skeletons, they heard voices coming from down one corridor off the main chamber, calling out for help, in both Trade and Elven languages.
- Those are Eshara’s friends! – Oerik said while running to the corridor.
- Oerik, wait! – Malan shouted.
A thin cord was stretched across the doorway leading into the dungeon, at about ankle height, covered with soot and lampblack, and nearly invisible in the gloom. It was tied to a jury-rigged deadfall trap over the door, piled with some of the rusted but still dangerous blades and other debris gathered up from the ruins. Oerik triggered it, but due to Malan’s warning, the dwarf could jump back enough to avoid being smashed by the trap. Oerik felt down the floor, and one of the blades almost cut down his right leg. Keaton and Malan rushed to aid his friend, who was uttering some sort of curses in Dwarven tongue.
Thanks to Malan’s healing magic, Oerik could stand back again in a few minutes, so they could go on. The corridor beyond the deadfall trap leaded to the rest of the keep’s basement. The voices where quiet now, so they didn’t know where they came from. The agents started by the door at the far end. There was a smaller circular chamber with an arcane circle inscribed on its floor, with a dead man sat down the wall.
- This is where Eshara took the bracelet… – Malan concluded, as the body missed one hand, and it was upon a stone pillar at the middle of the room.
There were no elfs there, so they moved to another room. The door on the left side of the corridor was ruined, its original function indiscernible in the wreckage. However, there was a man hanged by his wrists to the wall. He had only his trousers, and he was badly injured: clearly a prisoner. His head with long silvery hair was hanging over his chest. When the agents got closer, they could appreciate his pointy elven ears. Malan checked him, and made a sign to Keaton to force the shackles as the elf was still alive.
- Hold on, friend. – Malan said when the warrior freed the elf, who felt over the mage with no strength at all.
He whispered some words in Elven language. Malan answered him back, and then told the agents to move to the next room. There were to be the rest of the members of the Dalish clan.
- I’ll heal him, just go and free the others. – the mage stated.
The other room was the keep’s dungeon. There were the remaining members of Eshara’s clan, primarily women and children. They looked tired, dirty, hungry, and frightened.
- Don’t worry, mates, the cavalry is here! – Oerik said in order to calm them down, but he didn’t seem to make it.
Mothers hugged their children, and most of the younger just felt back. Oerik and Keaton ignored their reaction and started to force the cell’s doors. Just a single Dalish came closer to the iron bars to talk with the agents.
- Who are you? – he was an old man who talked.
- We came here to stop Mythallen. Eshara is worried about you all. - Oerik answered.
- Is my sister with you?
Malan just entered the room with the injured elf, who was asking about Eshara. He was almost recovered, although he hobbled while keeping a hand on his left side.
- So, you’re Fenrraor. – Malan said with a triumphal smile. When the elf was about to answer, the mage added. – She’s safe by now, don’t worry. We left her resting with a friend of us in Vintiver.
- Then you have to hurry! - the old man exclaimed. – Mythallen is going to attack the town with his minions!
Keaton managed to open on of the cells in that very moment.
- Are you sure about that, Keeper Orellis? – Fenrraor asked with concern to the old elf.
- Yes… after he imprisoned you, he told us. He’s Harralan, our lost hunter that fought the blacksmith at the festival. Mythallen kept us alive to continue proving to himself that everything he is doing is “for his people” and that we will eventually come to understand and respect him and his power.
- But how did he gain such power? - the dwarf asked while opening the last cell’s door.
- He found a man that offered him power… – the Keeper explained.
- The Tevinter mage. – Malan confirmed.
The old elf nodded.
- He made some sort of ritual on Harralan, with the promise of giving him power to take his revenge. However, Harraland told us that the demon the mage summoned was on his side, and together they defeated the mage.
- So your friend became an abomination. Adorable. – Malan said with sarcasm.
- Whatever it is now, you have to stop him! – the Keeper desperately asked the agents. – Go now, we know how to get back to the town, but right now we’re too week and we’ll only slow you down through the forest.
- I’ll go with them, Keeper. I’ll guide them and we’ll get to Vintiver before Mythallen does. – Eshara’s brother said.
- Are you sure about that? – Oerik asked, worried about him.
The Keeper got closer to Fenrraor, and put his hands over his head. A healing glow of magic went across his injuries. Malan was stunned about the Keeper’s power. After the spell, however, the old elf almost fell down to the ground. Some other Dalish helped him.
- Ma serannas, Oerllis. – Fenrraor said with a bow of his head, now completely recovered.
- Our weapons are within the main chamber. Your daggers will be there, too. – the Keeper whispered, exhausted, while another elf lent Fenrraor some hunting clothes. – Go now, you must stop Mythallen!