Manifested into the Fade
Merry Christmas ye glorious fools who still bother to follow this story, this is for you. A special shout to my friend JMB Fictional Writing for continuing to work with me on this, as well as loyal reader SomethingAncient for reminding me to hurry the hell up. Read, review and enjoy!
Chapter 10: No Choices Left
It is only getting worse.
Ichigo scowled as he swung hard at the Darkspawn, his arm burning from fatigue as his lungs struggle to take in each breath. He had been able to dispatch this one enemy, but like the aches in his body they never were truly gone, three more were on him. He reached out and sized one by the throat, stabbed the second and kicked back the third. Twisting both his wrists, twisting the sword in the Darkspawn's chest, his hand snapped the other's neck, ending them both.
Throwing them aside he leaped forward and brought his boot down on the grounded Darkspawn's neck.
Four down in only a few seconds, but they were only a handful compared to the seemingly never-ending horde of these things still on their heels. They were coming in from nearly all sides, and he was pressed for time to deal with them all, luckily Marian and Carver were there to pick up the slack. They helped a great deal, but even so the Darkspawn were getting more numerous and it wouldn't be long before they were overwhelmed.
"Where the hell are they all coming from!" Marian yelled, her daggers in the chest of a Darkspawn, blood splattered all over her arms and face. "There are too many of these bastards!"
"We need to run!" Carver yelled.
No shit, everyone knew that.
Another wave of them were coming, he rushed forward, bathing his blade in spiritual power he released a Getsuga Tenshō. He nearly collapsed when it flew free, barely keeping himself upright as the wave of force bowled over the Darkspawn down the path. But for the moment he was given a chance to take a breath, and with a shudder of pain he sucked it down and spat it out.
"Run! Run now!" Ichigo yelled, taking in deep breaths as he tried to keep himself from suffocating.
His cry was heard, and they were running, Marian taking the lead as she finished off anything that was in their way. With Carver and Bethany on the rear, protecting their mother and keeping any stragglers off their tails. Ichigo fought to get his legs moving, and when he did he fought some more to keep pushing one in front of the other.
For all his complaining that things were getting worse with the Darkspawn, the real issue was his deteriorating condition. His symptoms were advancing with vengeance, breathing, pulse and his own reaction to pain was not as they should be. To say things were bad would be an understatement. He was standing on the edge of a cliff, and he had no one to blame but himself. He didn't know how long he had before he was over the edge, but it wouldn't take long.
"Keep going. Don't give up. Always move forwards. Ain't that right Zangetsu? Ain't that right?" Ichigo muttered, sucking in breath after breath and not allowing himself to stop.
"We need to get out of here!" Marian yelled.
"And go where? There are Darkspawn everywhere!" Carver yelled, his stoicism starting to slip as they realized how bad things were.
Ichigo was wracking his brain for an idea, trying to figure something out. He was looking everywhere, and as they climbed up a slope he found something they could use, and despite the risk he came to a halt. The rest followed suite, and in a moment, he took in every detail and tried to figure out how staying here was going to be how they survived.
It was a plateau, not exactly isolated from the ground but it only had three ways up to it. Steep drops that prevented anything from climbing up easily, and a large mountainous hill on one side that made sure nothing would come over it. This place was easily defendable, only three narrow paths in and if they sealed the way they came it would only be two. They could fight the Darkspawn a few at a time and not have to worry about being overwhelmed.
"We fight here." Ichigo rasped, sword hanging by his side as he made the declaration. "We can't outrun them, but here we can hold them off on the high ground."
"You sure about that?" Marian asked. "We can't run if we are surrounded."
"We won't make it far anyway, they're coming in too fast, and from every direction, here they only got three ways to get to us. We protect two and seal off the way we came." Ichigo said, he had it all planned out in his head.
But he also sensed these things, they were coming in hot and in all directions, he knew that if they ran they would be taking on hundreds of these things. If they could take out a good chunk of them here from one path they could retreat down there. Hopefully that would allow them to slip away, it was their only chance.
"Bethany, could you create walls of fire along all three paths?" Ichigo asked.
"I can, but it will take some time to make them stay." Bethany said.
"No, not stay, just a few minutes on those two, we draw some Darkspawn in, kill them, and lure in some more. Rinse and repeat. We kill them by taking out big meaty chunks." Ichigo said, and it didn't take long before Bethany gave a firm nod.
"Good, I'll take the furthest down there, Marian, Carver, you take that one. Get ready, they will be coming in fast and hard." Ichigo said, making his way down to the path he was going to be protecting.
He could sense them before they arrived, there were a lot of them coming up this path, but he was sure he could take them. A few were already peaking over the edge of the slope, howling at the top of their lungs as they came barreling towards him. Taking one last breath he waited for the first to come, as it came within reach he swung.
It fell before its sword could be swung, head and arms coming off. Stepping forward he stabbed another through the chest, kicking the limp body back into the crowd of Darkspawn. The burning through his limbs intensified as he continued to hack and slash his way through these monsters, just as he felt the urge to collapse Bethany created a reprieve by summoning up a wall of fire.
Ichigo sagged backwards, he grasped his chest as he felt his lungs burn and breath come in short. That was a big one, a shudder ran through his body and everything was going numb, Ichigo had felt something like this before. Death throws, he was dying, just like when Ulquiorra had stabbed him through the chest, it was just like that.
"Ichigo, are you well?!" Bethany called.
Ichigo turned to her, taking a moment to compose himself and fight off the weariness that wracked his body. He wasn't getting better, the more he fought the worse this got, and he could also feel the presence of something else. When he crossed blades with the Darkspawn he sensed something there, something calling to him and trying to put pressure down on his mind. His own will and spirit were now contending with the source behind this Blight, whatever monster was behind it had taken an interest in him and was forcing its entire might down onto him.
"I'm fine!" Ichigo shouted in reply. "Just winded."
He couldn't tell them, not the time and too late anyhow, they were already in trouble and he didn't need to drag them down any further. He just needs to get them through this and open an actual path for them to escape, and he can worry about that later, the flames were starting the die and he had more Darkspawn to kill.
They came at him slowly, a few brave ones leaping through the dying flame to get a piece of him. He was glad that there were a few of those, meant that they wouldn't rush him like a freaking tidal wave.
He swung, punched, kicked and used anything and everything in his arsenal to fight, resisting all the cries his body made to give up, all those whispers that told him to give up. He ignored it all, he'd fight, and he wouldn't stop.
He cast several glances back towards Carver and Marian, both were handling their section well enough. Thankfully Darkspawn were beginning to thin, their numbers fading as he felt their presence diminish. Just a little while longer, a few more swings of his sword and they would have a way to escape, he just had to hold on for a little longer.
They would be safe then, they would be able to escape.
He kept swinging, everything that he saw he met with a sword swing, no form or finesse, just pure instinct guiding him to kill and survive. His mind was fuzzy, he was hearing a ringing in his ears along with defeating shouts, but he just didn't feel like he was there anymore. He felt tired, and with every swing he felt that oblivion draw closer.
The shout woke him, that fatigue was gone as he turned to the call and saw as Carver and Marian were thrown aside by one of those massive beasts. The damn thing reminded him a little of that big ass Espada, Yammy, although maybe not as big, dumb or ugly. But more importantly it was going straight for Bethany and Leandra, and there was nothing between it and them.
Bethany tried to put up a defense, but he knew there was little she could do against something like that, and he was proven true when the thing snagged her off the ground. Letting out a roar as it brought her close to its face, Ichigo reacted after that. Knowing that no one else would be able to save her.
He threw his blade, hard as he could and with all the strength he had behind it. And as the thing lifted Bethany up to smash he down his blade went right through its arm, forcing it to drop the mage with a pained bellow, to look at the blade sticking through its limb.
That small moment to revel in saving Bethany cost him, and he felt something smash into his back and cut him, his Fullbring giving enough protection to ensure that the damage was superficial. That cut was only the start, he felt those Darkspawn launch onto him, jumping onto his back and attempting to all but to tear him to pieces.
Ichigo felt them claw at his face and body, he tried to punch them off and free himself from this coffin of bodies, but they did not budge.
"Succumb… become one with the Blight… One with the Dark…"
Ignoring the voice in his head, Ichigo fought back, punching through one and was able to get some fresh air as they continued to grapple with him. He looked to the ogre, it was back on the warpath now, looming over Bethany and Leandra as Carver and Marian were cut off by more Darkspawn.
They swarmed him again, more latching onto his back and pushing him down back into the pile.
"Nothing will survive… give up and submit… you will never save them…"
"Yes… I… Will!" Ichigo yelled, balling his fist and for the first time in a long time felt actual power surge through him.
He felt the spiritual power in the air, the ground and even in the monsters around him. With a roar of defiance, he pushed them all aside, forcing them back with all his might and control he threw them away. Their bodies flailed through the air and he had his sights set on the Ogre, and with three strong strides he ran towards the monster and leaped up.
Upon his descent his fist connected with its jaw, sending teeth and slobber flying from its mouth as it buckled down to a knee. It was stunned, almost as much as Bethany and Leandra were at seeing his arrival, but he wanted to make sure it wasn't going to be getting back up. On the ground at his feet was a nice thick log, about as long as he was tall and still hardy, and Ichigo was going to use it like a club.
Just like he had all those hours he had spent playing baseball after school he swung hard and fast, hitting ogre's squat nose and his aim was perfect as the ogre's head cracked to the side as it fell on its back in a daze. Determined to finish it, Ichigo leaped onto its chest and marched up to its head and as its hand weakly came up to stop him, he halted the slow clumsy limb with his own and yanked his blade from the beast's wrist. Weapon in hand and his heart pumping hard in his chest, he felt a surge of actual adrenaline course through his veins, the pain was dulled, and he felt more alive in that moment than he had in the last week.
He leaped down and buried the blade into the ogre's neck, and with a hard tug he nearly decapitated the thing. Leaving only a few bits of sinew and flesh to keep its ugly mug attached to its body, and as he looked up to Mariam and Carver, both looking on shocked, eyes wide and mouths agape as they just stared, he was still seeing red and there were more Darkspawn coming up behind them.
A cruel idea formed in his mind, and before he could even really think about the implications he reached for the antler on the ogre's head. It almost reminded him of pulling weeds, grip the base of the plant and pull it out at the root, but in this case... He wasn't pulling out the antler, but just finishing what his sword didn't cut off.
The sound of meat tearing was not pleasant, but he was too focused on the charging Darkspawn to really care. He held onto that oversized head and then threw it right at the oncoming horde like a baseball, and with some sickening crunches, he watched with somewhat twisted satisfaction as the head knocked them over like bowling pins. However, he was not out of the woods.
His vision became hazy and he couldn't hear so well anymore, and the world seemed to spin as he lost his balance. Ichigo glanced towards Leandra who was trying to shout something, but he didn't hear anything but a low whistle as the world seemed to turn on its side and then everything going black.
No words could describe what she was feeling right now, in the last ten seconds she had seen probably three of the most incredible things in her entire life. And all of it done by Ichigo just now.
From knocking away a dozen Darkspawn piled on his back and sending them flying like they were nothing.
To bringing down a damn ogre with a single punch.
And just now, ripping off said ogres head and using it as a rock to bowl over some Darkspawn.
Sure, she could mention how he leaped ten feet in the air to charge the ogre, picked up a fallen tree trunk and used it as a club, or nearly decapitated an ogre. But the previous three? Top of the list, definitely.
Then there were his eyes, that pulsing blue light burning within them, as if he was surging with great power.
Not great enough it seems, as that light faded Ichigo stumbled back and dropped his sword. He looked around in a daze, like a drunken man who was fighting to stay on his feet, Marian heard her mother shout at them to help him.
Then he collapsed, falling back onto the ground and remaining unmoving.
"Oh Adraste's' Tit!" Marian shouted, rushing over to him and checking on him.
All manliness and strength and he goes and faints on her?! Had this been any other time she would have a joke on the tip of her tongue, but right now she was terrified that he may have killed himself doing all that, used up all his power and magic just to save them.
"We got more Darkspawn!" Carver yelled out.
Marian looked up, and true to his words they were closing in on them, from every path they rushed up. Bethany was still rising back to her feet after her near death experience with the ogre, there was no way she would be able to stop them from getting to them now.
They howled as they pressed them back into a corner, they were trapped with the Darkspawn ahead of them and the mountain slope behind. With the amount of bodies, they had piled up it was probably why they weren't all attacking at once, only circling them like a pack of wolves. It was the one thing keeping them alive, for how much longer she had no idea.
But as she dragged Ichigo back and away she realized that without him there, even if he was still awake, they wouldn't likely survive this.
"There's just no end to them." Carver said, his sword sagging to the ground as he came to realize it himself.
"Don't give up just yet." Marian said, for now they were still far from dead and they could take these bastards on, they just needed to keep fighting.
Then there was a roar.
A loud one at that, right above them.
Turning Marian felt her heart sink into her stomach, on the very peak of the mountain behind them was a Dragon. A great scaly beast that was looking down at them with murderous eyes and a belly full of fire ready to be belched up.
'Oh, fuck me.'
They were done for.
It leaped from its roost and glided down towards them, and then released a stream of fire. Marian hit the deck as fast as she could and waited for the inevitable fiery wave of death to consume her, but all she heard with the howling of Darkspawn and a gust of wind that blew over their battleground.
Marian looked up, seeing the Darkspawn were all burning, and a significant portion of them were still alive to suffer through it. The dragon circled around and was burning the area around them, likely killing off any remaining Darkspawn still down there. But then it came back, before any of them could get back to their feet, smashing into the ground. Claws, tail and wings flinging in every direction, bashing, smashing and clobbering anything around them with reckless abandon.
"Maker's Breath!" Bethany cried, watching is shock as the dragon decimated the Darkspawn around it with little effort, as a man would crush ants.
Then as the last of the creatures burned, the massive behemoth was bathed in a golden light, and soon its form shrank and changed. Stepping through the flames was a woman, in her clutch a burning corpse that was already turning to ash between her fingers. She strolled up to them casually, tossing the burnt body aside, her expression neutral as she regarded them.
"Well, well, well. What do we have here?" She said, her wizened tone showing some mirth as she looked them all over.
Marian was on guard; this woman had come from nowhere and had just decimated a bunch of Darkspawn and had somehow turned herself into a dragon… Or is a dragon that can turn into a human? Either case was cause for worry.
She looked back to her brother and sister, both looking anxious, and her mother was cradling the unconscious Ichigo and trying to wake him.
"Not very often that people come through these hills, much too treacherous and dangerous, who knows? Bandits might be about." She said, and Marian had no idea if she was truly interested in them or not.
"Ah, don't forget the Darkspawn and conversational shapeshifting Dragons." Marian immediately said and wondering if maybe she should get someone else to talk.
"Oh! A clever one, I am most certainly not going to pass up talking with you." The She-Dragon said, smirking slightly as she looked Marian right in the eye, enjoying the opportunity to speak, or just enjoying how much she was making her uncomfortable.
"Thank you… for saving us." Bethany said, although shrunk back when that woman's amber gaze fell on her.
"How polite, another rarity, but your thanks are wasted. I may have saved you from this Horde, but there are many more on the way you go. You are far from safe right now." She said, turning back to her as she spoke.
"I guess this act of kindness isn't going to be reciprocated down the road I guess." Marian asked, getting a laugh from the she-dragon.
"No, I am afraid not." The She-dragon said. "I didn't come here to save you, I was hoping to get some answers."
"What are you talking about?" Carver said.
"I am sure you are curious as well, about your companion there." The She-Dragon said.
Marian turned and looked at the sleeping face of Ichigo, pale and sickly, and instinctually she stepped between him and this woman. The action seemed to amuse her more than dissuade her.
"Truly incredible power, I sensed it as well as saw, fighting off Darkspawn like that, and even able to manhandle an ogre. That is power I have never seen before, you must admit, you are curious as well." She said, eyes seemingly passing through Marian as she looked in Ichigo's general direction.
"Only thing I am curious about is where you learned that trick of yours." Marian replied.
"Funny, and while I would like to jest some clever rhetoric I am more interested in the boy and what power he possesses. It's all quite intriguing." She said.
"Sorry, he's not going anywhere but with us to Gwaren." Marian said, tightening her hold on her daggers.
"Gwaren? Intending to flee across the sea I suspect?" She asked. "From Lothering, Gwaren and Denerim are the same leagues apart, why choose there?"
"There are ships there, ships that can evacuate us to Kirkwall." Carver said, and Marian didn't know if telling her was a good idea, although she clearly was more interested in Ichigo than them, at least until Carver said 'Kirkwall'.
"Very far, and why not to Denerim? Easy to get a ship there."
"Not when Loghain is killing everyone who survived Ostagar, we go north we might as well fall on our own swords." Marian replied, and then she noticed the woman go silent for a moment.
"Such a chaotic world we live in, where friends become enemies and enemies stay that way, only adding to the cycle of destruction that tears the world apart." The She-Dragon said, contemplating something as she seemed to be in deep thought. "I sometimes wonder if this is fate or coincidence, I can never decide."
Marian was worried, they had no idea what this woman was going to, and if she was curious about Ichigo likely she won't let him leave of his own accord.
"Perhaps there is a chance for us to help each other here but let us introduce one another first. You may call me Flemeth." The She-Dragon introduced, Marian was expecting something with a little more flair.
"Marian Hawke, this is my family." She said, deciding to end the introductions there. "If you want Ichigo then I can't help you."
"Such devotion to protecting your friend, you are quite the admirable rogue, usually your sort is more interested valuables than dead men." Flemeth said.
"He's not dead, and we rogues don't like it when someone tries to steal from us." Marian said, narrowing her eyes.
"Fair point, but I have no interest in taking him, in fact I would very much like to help him." Flemeth replied. "And that won't cost you anything, although instead of him being stolen, he will have to leave of his own accord."
Marian was about to retort, before someone beat her to it.
"Like hell… I am not going anywhere."
Marian turned, watching as Ichigo sit up and then stand back onto his own two feet. His scowl was back, and he seemed to be sagging, he was tired and weary.
"Not with how miserable you look." Flemeth remarked.
"Whatever you say lady." Ichigo replied.
"You should listen to your elders and listen close when I say you will be dead soon." Flemeth said.
"I'll probably last till old age finally takes a bite out of your ass." Ichigo said, clearly aggravated as he seemed to be struggling to stay upright.
Marian was concerned that he might aggravate the woman, this was a dragon after all and Ichigo likely doesn't know it. However, Flemeth laughed at him, amused with the banter.
"Well, while not as sly as that Warden you certainly know how to make an impression." Flemeth said. "I suppose that sharp tongue of yours has its uses."
"Cuts through the bullshit quickly, and I don't have time to waste on that, why are you here?" Ichigo said, looking her in the eye.
Marian was going to tell Ichigo she was a dragon, but she doubted he would give a damn about something like that. So instead she chose to stay out of the conversation and make sure she wasn't noticed.
"Why you of course, your little stunt with the ogre caught my interest. So, I came to sate my curiosity." Flemeth replied.
"Bullshit, you could have confronted me about anything I did long before we got here." Ichigo replied. "Since you have been following us since Ostagar."
Marian turned towards the Dragon, eyes widened when the woman smirked knowingly as if pleased with his quick deduction. This woman had been following them from Ostagar? How the hell did she manage that?
"Half dead yet very observant, truly an interesting individual you are." Flemeth replied. "But have you also noticed your own condition? The Taint is spreading, you don't have much time left."
Marian turned, looking to Ichigo and examining his features. It took her a moment to realize what was being said, his eyes were bloodshot, and his pupils were losing their color, and most of all his skin was pale and his veins were turning dark.
He was infected with the Darkspawn Taint.
"Oh no. Ichigo you idiot why didn't you tell us you were infected?!" Marian said, having seen the symptoms from many people on the trip to Lothering after escaping Ostagar.
"Yes, been infected a while now, surviving this long, you must have phenomenal power within you." Flemeth said, and she saw Ichigo scowl before he looked away. "But that power will protect you no longer, you have no choice but to turn back."
"I'll be fine, I have to get them to Gwaren." Ichigo said.
"No, you won't make it. Gwaren is still four days from here, and you won't survive the next few hours." Flemeth said, blunt and brutal with her statement. "You have no choice, but to turn back and take the Joining."
Marian knew she meant, there was only one way to help someone who was infected by the Taint, it was his only chance.
"She's right, if you can get back to Lothering the Wardens can help you. If you become one of them, you can survive this." Marian said, that was his only hope now, but she didn't know if he would survive till then, the Taint infects and kill fast.
"Right. Back into the wolf's den, ready for them to chew me up and spit me out." Ichigo snarled, baring his teeth at the mention of the Grey Wardens.
"Don't be a fool and should listen to reason boy, you have no other options left." Flemeth said, her tone sharp as a dagger and as dangerous as one. "You will die if you keep heading to the East, West is the only path that has a hope where you survive."
Marian could understand why he didn't want to go back, he had a certain dislike towards the King and Duncan. He didn't feel inclined to helping them, as if he thought poorly of them for some misdeed, although since he was foreign she had no idea what the King could have done to warrant such hate.
"Ichigo please, if you don't go you will die here." Bethany said, coming up and taking his arm, she was definitely worried now, the implications dawned on them all what kind of danger Ichigo is in.
"Tell me boy, what do you know about the Grey Wardens?" Flemeth inquired.
"Bunch of heroes who want to stop the Darkspawn, work for the King, got big plans for me. Pretty much sums it up and I don't feel like playing along." Ichigo said, giving little more than that.
"So, you know little to nothing about them." Flemeth replied, shaking her head. "Figuring out who I am and that I have been following you and yet two weeks with them and you know nothing. Barely anything at all."
"I know enough, what they want and how I fit into that little plan of theirs." Ichigo replied. "I don't doubt they can help, I've seen people on the verge of dying and coming back from being infected. But I have no idea what I am getting into with them, what they want is easy enough, but their methods of recruitment are something I am not very keen on experiencing. Apart from the obvious, I really do not feel inclined to help them."
There were a few moments of silence between them.
"The Grey Wardens are an independent Order of warriors that's sole purpose is to fight against the Blight. They do not serve Kings, Nations or in some instances their own Order." Flemeth said. "Grey Warden recruits put their duty and mission ahead of all things, they do what they feel is needed to accomplish their mission in stopping the Blight, no matter the cost."
Marian looked to Ichigo and she could see he was listening.
"They choose people of any background, from criminal to noble, of good morals or bad, and they choose them because they have what it takes to fight the enemy. They are not forced to give up their lives, their families and the things they hold dear, they are allowed to keep what they wish so that they can fight knowing that they have something to protect." Flemeth continued. "I can tell you are a good man, intelligent and steadfast, but the only glaring flaw you have is that you don't trust these people for a single reason. Because the last time you trusted someone, they betrayed you, they turned on you and used you. But I think that they weren't the first ones, were they?"
Marian could see Ichigo's expression harden, she was certainly digging through his personal life without a care. And she was doing a good job at it.
"But can you actually say that the King and the Grey Wardens are anything like the people who betrayed you? Or are you just angry and have no choice but to blame someone else for their actions against you?" Flemeth finished, crossing her arms and waiting for a response.
Marian looked to Ichigo, he had bowed his head and was silent for a good few moments before he looked back up to her.
"So… they don't chain you down huh?" Ichigo asked.
"All up to you. But I get the feeling that you won't be running off as soon as you are in the clear." Flemeth said.
"I don't run." Ichigo replied, scoffing at her claim but then sighing. "I'll hear them out at least and see what they want, if I don't like it. I walk."
"That's the spirit." Flemeth replied. "But best make sure that you get back to them, you are far from Lothering and don't have much time left."
"I'll make it." Ichigo replied. "But are you guys going to be alright?"
"They will be fine, I intend to escort them the rest of the way." Flemeth replied. "I am deciding to take a page out of your book and do something charitable."
"Like hell, you are probably going to make them do something for you." Ichigo replied with his usual snark.
"True, but what do you care, you have more important things to concern yourself with." Flemeth replied, before making a shooing motion with her hand. "Best not dally, you have a long way to go and very little time."
Marian didn't like the idea of Ichigo going off on his own, there was no way Ichigo would make it back to Lothering as he was. He could barely walk, and fighting was out of the question, how did he expect to make up thirty kilometers in only a few hours?
"He won't make it back, it is too far and there are Darkspawn between you and there." Carver said.
"Can you take him?" Marian said, looking to Flemeth and hoping she would be willing to help.
"I won't need to, I can sense others coming, it seems your departure has drawn some attention, lucky you. Some of them may even be Grey Wardens." Flemeth said.
"Lucky me." Ichigo muttered. "If that is the case I can meet up with them and do whatever that Joining thing is."
Marian supposed that it was settled then, although him going off on his own while they had a dragon protecting them didn't seem fair. He would never survive out there, not on his own without help, and it seemed like someone agreed with her.
"I'll go with you." Bethany said, stepping forward and receiving a very queer look from everyone present.
Marian knew for a fact that Bethany was not the most direct and rambunctious of people, she was quite the opposite actually. So, seeing her volunteering to take Ichigo to safety was out of the norm, Marian would definitely be making a joke out of this later.
"Absolutely not, I am not letting you go out on your own!" Her mother said, she looked nearly in tears at the prospect of Bethany going off on her own.
"Please, Ichigo has no way to protect himself, without someone to guard him he will die." Bethany said.
"I am right here you know." Ichigo muttered, giving her a bland look.
"But what about you? You will be alone out there!" Carver said.
"Don't worry, I will have Ichigo to protect me if it gets dangerous." Bethany said.
"You just said I couldn't protect myself, so how the hell will I protect you? Try to remember the previous sentence before you change your story." Ichigo grumbled, giving her a light glare.
"'Tis probably for the best she not leave for Kirkwall immediately, the city is known for having low opinions of its own Circle let alone Apostates." Flemeth put in her two pence. "The City of Chains is mostly run by the Chantry, who are enforced by the Templar, I would advise not going there unprepared."
Marian did not know that, she had chosen Kirkwall because it was the easiest place to go, was outside of Ferelden and far away from the Blight and according to mother they had an estate. But she had no idea about the political climate there, politically or socially what the people were like.
"I don't know…" Mother said, clearly distraught at the prospect, Marian felt the same.
"What are the chances she would be in danger if we took her there?" Mariam asked.
"Unknown, she may be safe or not, too many possibilities to truly be certain. But you know the Chantry and the Templar well enough, isn't that why you live out here?" Flemeth replied, and Marian had a sinking feeling she knew a little too much about them.
But it left them with a bit of a conundrum.
Leaving her sister here to the dangers of the Blight, which was likely going to be spreading far and wide or take her to a city where she was in just as much danger of being killed by zealous Templar. It was a choice that neither of them wanted to make, but they weren't the ones making it.
"I want to stay here, at least until I am certain Ichigo is safe." Bethany said.
"This may sound stupid coming from me, but I have to ask: Why do you want to volunteer for this?" Marian asked.
"He saved my life, how can I let him walk off back the way we came without at least being there to make sure he is safe. I could never live with myself knowing the one who brought us this far and kept us alive was going to walk off alone with no one to be by his side." Bethany said, looking at them all.
Now Mariam felt like dirt, she had endorsed he go back but never considered going with him. Sure, she was worried he would be in danger, but did she readily volunteer to get him to safety? No, her little baby sister had to be the one to show them all up. To help the guy that had done more for them than anyone else had was almost expected, and they botched it.
"Well then that is settled." Flemeth said, smirking as she redirected the conversation looking to Ichigo. "By the way boy, be wary of that coin, there is more to it than you know."
Mariam looked to the golden coin he hung around his neck, before it was hidden by a clenched fist.
"I know where it came from, and the person who gave it to me I trusted more than anyone else." Ichigo retorted firmly, before saying more politely and sincerely. "While I don't really know your reasons, you saved us and more than that this is the second time you've come to my rescue… I owe you for that and I'll make sure there isn't a third time."
"So, you remember then? While appreciated your gratitude isn't necessary and my warning still stands." Flemeth replied with bit of a smile. "Now you two best be on your way, a lot of ground to cover and little time to do it. Make sure to live so I won't have wasted my time."
Marian knew that they did and delaying Ichigo was a death sentence for him. But seeing off her sister and a family friend was not something she could just do on a whim, not at least without saying goodbye, and she felt her family felt the same.
Her mother giving a hug to Bethany and Ichigo, telling them both to be safe. The gesture nearly had her younger sister in tears, this would be the first time Bethany would be away from her family in their entirety. Ichigo seemed to have noticed, patting her on the shoulder and giving her mother the assurance that Bethany would be alright with him.
"I'll keep her safe." Ichigo assured. "Nothing is going to happen to her."
"Thank you." Mother said, trying to compose herself as she had to fight to let her daughter go.
"I'll be fine mother, I promise when Ichigo is safe I will go right for Gwaren." Bethany said, still trying to build up the strength to depart.
Carver stepped forward, looking uneasily towards Bethany and then back to Ichigo. Marian leaned in and listened, he was obviously wanting to ask something.
"You can protect her right?" Carver whispered, looking sheepish as he asked as if worried he would offend. "I don't want to offend but I just…"
"Oi, speak up." Ichigo said. "Don't whisper or try to be nice, this is your sister man, you should be threatening to kill me to make sure nothing happens to her."
That didn't seem to add any wind to Carver's sails, as he seemed to deflate, she rolled her eyes. Why was he not taking the advice instead of taking it as a criticism on how he wasn't doing well?
"I was just making sure, you are sick and if she is in danger I want to know if she is going to be alright." Carver said. "If you need anyone to help you I can do it."
Ichigo was silent for a moment, giving Carver a look that Mariam had no idea how to describe. It could be contemplative or even scrutinizing, but whatever it was Ichigo was focusing all that on Carver right now.
"Carver, I don't know you well enough, but I think I have gotten the gist of what kind of guy you are." Ichigo said, he took in a deep breath that sounded like a rasp. "You really need to stop idolizing people and trying to be like them."
Marian was a little alarmed, Ichigo was certainly stepping into some very sensitive waters right now and she was almost tempted to step in and stop him from speaking up.
"You shouldn't be anything more than what you need to be." Ichigo continued. "If there is anything you should be, it is better than me when it comes to protecting my family. You don't need to follow someone or be something you're not just to fit in. So here is some quick advice, step up and fight and tooth and nail to protect what you cherish and become someone you can respect, rather than what others respect."
Carver seemed to be struck silent by his declaration. Marian was also surprised but the pep talk, but she decided to end it there, quickly coming over and snaking an arm around Carver's shoulder.
"Hey little brother, why don't you go and say goodbye to Beth, and also try to get mother to let her little baby go." Marian said, giving faux merriment as she nudged her big lug of a brother towards his sister.
He seemed to take her words to heart, but he likely didn't register as he staggered off. Marian turned back to Ichigo and gave him an annoyed look.
"Bit harsh don't you think?" Marian asked.
"Sometimes you need to be mean to be nice, I know I wouldn't be where I am now if people didn't force me out of my comfort zone." Ichigo replied, brushing it off. "You going to be alright without me?"
"Should be, Flemeth over there says she can guide us to Gwaren." Marian replied, silence followed there, and she was having a little trouble saying goodbye.
Not her way to just say goodbye, especially in circumstances like this, she might not see him again.
"Hey," Ichigo said, gaining her attentions, he extended his hand. "Remember what I told you on the road."
Oddly enough, that resonated with her a bit, and she smiled before taking his hand and giving it a firm shake.
"See you later Ichigo, stop by Kirkwall when you stop the Blight." Marian said.
"Such faith guess I'll have to make sure I won't disappoint." Ichigo replied, giving a smirk.
"You better." Marian replied, a smirk forming on her own lips.
There was an understanding there, one that didn't need to be spoken on. Ichigo was confident they would meet again, and she shared that same feeling. All that was left now was to say goodbye to her sister, and to do that she needed to pry her mother of Beth.
Doing so was not easy, her mother was a strong one and had a strong pair of arms, but when Bethany was freed Marian had her chance to say goodbye. A few words were said, reassuring ones, but Bethany was strong, she would be alright. Not a minute later she was walking away, Ichigo at her side, and still casting glanced back at her family.
Marian silently watched as her sister walked away, down the path they had fought through to reach this point. Then she was gone, down the road and out of sight, and that made it all the harder to know she was gone. But she steeled herself, kept her burden to herself so not to worry her brother and mother, they didn't deserve that.
She wasn't one for prayer, but she was silently asking the Maker to ensure her safe journey and to return to them soon.
"With that bit of business concluded let us discuss our arrangement." Flemeth said, looking at them. "If you are going to Kirkwall than I need you to do something when you get there."
Marian turned to the dragon, composing herself. This was their only option, help her and they got to where they needed to, don't do it and they will never get out of here.
"What do you want us to do?" Marian asked.
"Just a simple delivery, nothing more." Flemeth replied, presenting a small amulet to her.
This is a nightmare. That had been the thought that had run through her mind for the thousandth time, this entire venture was a disaster waiting to happen. She looked around at the group of ten that had been sent out to find the so-called savior, Ichigo.
Most of them were Grey Wardens, all had been sent out and were jogging through this morbid landscape to locate the boy that had fled. The mountains were known as the Southron Hills, and they were perilous and had many diverging pathways. Also, another problem was that the path was going towards the Kocari Wilds, as the path through it towards Gwaren was exactly South East from Lothering.
They were going towards the location where the Darkspawn were coming from. Not exactly something that sounded smart. Especially in the middle of a Blight and when the entire horde was marching on mass.
"I cannot believe we are doing this?" Morrigan said, looking to Alistair. "Of all the people here, I expected you to actually put up a fight."
"What do you expect, the King made a good point." Alistair replied, giving her an annoyed frown.
"That he did." Morrigan conceded, Cailan had made a good point in why they should rescue Ichigo and bring him into the fold.
But there was a single problem that she found about this mission, and while there were many things about this that were troubling, only one stood out. It wasn't the ten-person team sent to bring him back, through Darkspawn infested mountains, with her being a part of that team. No, the real problem she had with this was the person leading this little hunt.
These mountains were treacherous and difficult to navigate due to the fact the path diverged at many turns and it was hard to truly know which way to go. Some led to dead ends, some made you backtrack several kilometers, and some just made going in the same direction longer. But it so happens there was an individual that had traversed the mountains several times in the last few weeks. Someone who had been leading people from Lothering and towards Gwaren so that they could escape.
A person that she had absolutely no trust in whatsoever.
"But what excuse did he give when he put her in charge?" Morrigan said, jerking her staff toward their guide.
The red-haired lay sister, the same lay sister that they had the unfortunate circumstance to meet back in Lothering. Her name was Leliana, and she was the one that had been given the important mission to lead them through the mountains to find the Hawkes.
"How am I supposed to know, she's obviously mad." Alistair said, agreeing with her. "Hell, when I heard she was actually a damn Bard I was even more against this."
Oh yes, further proof that following this madwoman who heard voices into the mountains was a bad idea.
It turns out she was actually an Orlesian Bard, not one that sings songs, but one that cuts throats and murders people for money. She was an assassin, but what really sold it was that she was she was clearly mad and leading this party. An assassin was leading them into the mountains, did anyone consider what that meant?
"What did the King say about that? Make another good point?" Morrigan asked, clearly annoyed.
"Said we have no choice, she was the only one that knew which path the Hawkes would be travelling along." Alistair sighed. "Don't know why we couldn't just be given a map, I mean the Hawkes somehow figured it out and apparently it wasn't written down on a piece of paper."
Morrigan really hated that they had no choice, as much as she hated this they had no idea where they could go. But apparently Leliana knew, from what they had learned she had been approached by Leandra Hawke about leaving Lothering and escaping. More than that she had provided them with information and the route they should take.
Leliana had been a major driving force that had gotten people to flee towards Gwaren, even members of the army. It had earned some enmity, but as she knew where Ichigo was they were withholding judgement so that she could help them.
"You would think that they would have interrogated her to get the information." Morrigan said.
"We didn't have time." Alistair said.
"Damn shame though, being trapped up here with a psychotic assassin that hears voices, what else could go wrong." Morrigan said. "Not like anyone's judgement here is impaired for not realizing that sooner."
"Are you two still arguing?" Elissa asked, and Morrigan could find the queerly raised eyebrow from the former noble girl. "You are both agreeing with one another, but from the sounds of it you just want to bicker with one another. It is actually kind of… strange."
Morrigan felt a little offended by her comment, as if there was some kind of hidden meaning behind it. If she had to guess what kind of meaning she would have to surmise it was something completely opposite to what she usually felt for the auburn-haired Warden. Considering she felt irritation and revulsion by looking at him she suspected that the opposite would make her throw up.
"How does the King expect us to find him quickly?" Morrigan asked, deciding to change the line of questioning to something else.
"We follow the bodies." Leliana said, and Morrigan realized that the crazy woman had been able to hear them the entire time. Oh well.
True to her word they saw a few Darkspawn bodies ahead of them, not the first they had seen since they left Lothering. But the sight of the many bodies only helps them know they were travelling in the right direction, and it was only a matter of time before they caught up to Ichigo. Or whatever was eating him.
Stepping through the remains of a skirmish there were a few that admired the work that had been done on them. It had been reinforced that the larger clusters of dead Darkspawn meant that was where Ichigo had been. If that was not a dead giveaway you could tell from how deep the slashes were and the punctures penetrated the entire body. He was strong, especially to skewer someone right through armor and flesh.
"Fifteen dead Darkspawn, that boy knows how to fight." A Dwarven Grey Warden said, she had not bothered to remember the other members of their parties' names, kneeling next to a body. "Most of these things had been cut down by him."
"The way they fell shows that he was in the thick of their ranks when attacking, and he dispatched them quickly." A Dalish Warden said, bow in hand and examining the bodies as she passed. "No blood on their swords, they didn't land a single blow."
"Let's keep moving." Leliana said, moving on ahead, not even deigning to look at the dead Darkspawn.
Morrigan had wondered many things about coming on this little jaunt, even about joining the Grey Wardens in their quest. It was not a choice she made on her own, because deep down as much as she didn't want to be here she knew that it was important. Besides the idea of seeing the world outside the Kocari Wilds was too much to pass up.
But she knew that she never would have been given this chance unless her mother had agreed to it.
Ichigo, whoever he may be, was someone that her mother was deeply interested in. Morrigan knows that Flemeth was planning something, a scheme that involved the entire world, and Ichigo had somehow become a part of it. Because out of all the advice she had given her before her departure, this one stood out the most, because it was said with such conviction and seriousness that it broke a façade Morrigan never knew her mother had.
'Make sure you keep an eye on that boy, I want to know everything there is about him.'
Ichigo was something else, and that is what she wanted to know. Because if it could make her mother act like that, then he warranted watching.
"We got something coming towards us!" The Dalish woman said, drawing an arrow and notching it.
Everyone came to a halt, they had yet to encounter any Darkspawn since heading out, more than likely in no small thanks because of Ichigo and the Hawkes. But now they had something to test their mettle against, at least they thought they did until it came into sight.
"It's him." Elissa said, her weapon sagging to her side as she saw the boy come forward, beside him was an Apostate mage.
He came to a halt in front of them, clearly infected by the Taint and looking weary, there was no way he would survive the next hour. How he was still standing was a miracle in of itself, but like all things connected to him they defied all expectations.
"So, you did come looking for me huh?" Ichigo asked, and before any of them could speak he continued. "Alright, I am not going to lie and say I am going to be good after a night's rest. So, let's get on with it and start this little Joining thing of yours."
That was certainly unexpected, they had thought he would resist them as they came and maybe even flee. But they did not expect him to be so receptive, the description given by Cailan and Duncan showed that he obviously had a low opinion of them and had no desire to join the order.
"Well, that's great." Alistair said, giving a small laugh and shrug as if it was dumb luck.
"But just to be clear, I am joining your crappy band of merry men yet." Ichigo snarked, and Morrigan could almost feel the actual offence some of the Gray Wardens had for that little comment.
"Well that is too bad, a new Grey Warden who doesn't want to be one? All the maidens will be so disappointed." Alistair said, words heavy with sarcasm.
"I imagine they already are when they get a look at you." Ichigo responded, his tired almost monotone delivery making it difficult to tell if he was being serious or not.
But Morrigan knew one thing, she knew for certain that out of all these people she was going to be dealing with over the next few weeks. Ichigo was going to be the one she liked the most.
Ichigo sighed as he waited, he was feeling uneasy.
It wasn't the taint that was passing through him and the high fever that was slowly killing him, it was the fact this "Joining" had forced him into seclusion. He looked around at the Grey Wardens, only the Grey Wardens, he knew that this Joining was a secret affair, but he had some concerns now.
"I get the feeling that I am not going to like this." Ichigo muttered.
"Stay calm boy, you came here seeking this, don't doubt yourself now." A Dwarf said, he thought his name was Duran, he wasn't so sure.
"Why is this being kept from the others?" Ichigo asked.
"The nature of the Joining is secret, what we ask you to do doesn't always end well. You may still die." The auburn-haired Warden said, called himself Alistair. "So, try not to focus on that too much yeah?"
"What's in the cup?" Ichigo asked, looking at the chalice with dark liquid in it.
"Various things, but primarily its Darkspawn blood, mixed in with the blood of High Dragon. Closest substitute for Archdemon blood." Alistair replied, and Ichigo immediately recoiled from the cup, did these guys expect him to drink that shit? "I know this sounds bad but trust me you don't have much choice left right now."
Ichigo looked down at the foul liquid and growled.
"Does this stop this Taint from killing me?" Ichigo asked.
"Yes, but not forever, most Warden's only last twenty years, some might last anywhere to a decade more." Alistair replied, and Ichigo was grateful for the honesty, but right now he had either the choice with surviving the next twenty years or the next twenty minutes.
"Let's get this over with." Ichigo said, receiving a nod from the senior warden.
Alistair looked around and then raised the cup, his head bowed as he began to recite some sort of hymn. Ichigo took the cup in hand and examined the liquid, steeling himself for the likely horrid taste and the whatever backlash he was about to receive from drinking this.
"Join us Brothers and Sisters. Join us in the Shadows where we stand Vigilant. Join us as we carry the duty that cannot be forsworn. And should you perish, know that your sacrifice shall not be forgotten. And that one day…" Ichigo heard him speak, and he took the cup to his mouth and swallowed the blood.
"…we shall join you." The rest of the Grey Wardens said together.
Ichigo felt an almost immediate reaction, his hands went slack as the cup fell from his grasp and he felt every muscle lock up. His vision blurred and whatever sickness had taken hold of him before had increased tenfold, he felt his body begin the boil and his lungs seize as he tried to breath. He was dying… he knew it.
He collapsed, hands shoot forward to stop his fall, and as they hit the ground he heard a crack. Ichigo finally realized he was looking at his own reflection, seen through the spiderweb cracks along the glass surface beneath him. He felt his breath come in with gasps, looking around he found a place he had not seen in so long.
But it was wholly unfamiliar to him, for this was not the world he remembered when he had his Shinigami Powers. His inner world did not look like the hell it was now.
Once great bright skyscrapers that pierced the sky had become broken ruins that housed nothing within, overtaken by black mold they crumbled away. The once blue sky was gone, blood red and smothered with dark shadows that roamed through it like flocks of birds, searching for any scrap of his inner world that had yet to be touched by the inky blackness.
"Your soul will be ours… your body will be ours…" The haunting whispered spoke into his ear, yet he turned and found nothing there.
Thunder reverberated through his ears, lines of blackness fell from the sky, striking anything within reach, consuming all and spreading over all that it touched. Buildings fell into a black abyss behind him, an ocean of black that swallowed everything and never allowed anything to escape.
He had once felt many things when he stepped into his inner world, Hope, Strength, Fear, despair… But this was beyond such things, a dark corruptive malignant rot that was consuming all that was him and leaving nothing behind but a decayed husk of who he used. His own soul was tainted, being consumed slowly by this foul growth.
"It is done… there is nothing left…"
"I can't do this anymore… I just can't."
"Become one with the whole… death is a release you shall never know…"
Ichigo knew this was his last hope, and it had failed, he had nothing left to fight with anymore. He could not beat this thing, it had a hold of him now, its grip firm. He was done for.
"I'm so sorry… I'm so sorry…" He wouldn't see his family again, his friends were gone, everything he cared about would be out of reach.
He would never be able to save them from Tsukishima or Ginjo.
Something latched onto his arms and legs, he only gave the dark mass a glance. He didn't feel the need to fight anymore, he knew he was finished, this was the end and he couldn't change it. Dying would be a blessing, to be freed from all this pain, but to leave so much unfinished and so many suffering. He could only regret he wasn't stronger.
"Yes… embrace it… become one with it… one with me…"
It crawled over him, it was almost welcoming the darkness, as if he was drifting away and there was nothing left to fear. Maybe this was right, maybe this was where he was meant to go, and as he felt it snake over his face he saw the thing that had tormented him.
Large elongated face and with rotten teeth, it glared at him with hollow sockets for eyes as a chuckle reverberated through its long neck.
"Become part of us Ichigo… and we shall sit upon a throne… made from this world…"
Ichigo closed his eyes, he didn't feel afraid, and if he did wish to survive this and not be taken he did not choose to acknowledge it. For he felt the embrace of nothingness, it was best he not feel anything anymore.
But suddenly he was ripped from that feeling, it all came rushing back as he felt all that warring emotion overtake him and the slowly quieting roar of the thing that sought to take him. He looked down to see it bellowing towards him, he flew away from it, soaring between the many dilapidated buildings of his inner world before he crashed through a window.
Rolling to a stop he tried to regain his bearings, only to stop when he saw a pair of feet right in front of him. He looked up in alarm, he was momentarily caught off guard by the thing standing before him. Feminine in features, but all similarities to human form ended there, for it was a being that held only three colors. One half of its body was gleaming white and the other pitch black, separated right down the middle, with red markings flowing up her arms and over her face. Her head tilted quizzically.
"Don't give in, not yet… not when there is so much more you can do…so much I've yet to see" She whispered, her words soothing and providing strength.
For a moment he was assaulted by a familiar feeling, this being was not be one he recognized but he felt something about her that made him want to listen. Before he could speak, ask who she was and why she gave off an aura so familiar she embraced him. He felt light, his heart no longer burdened under the crushing weight of failure, and for the first time in what may have been an eternity he knew peace.
Even as he heard the crashing of glass, the furious roar of a distant dragon, and the darkness surrounding him and this unknown woman. He didn't feel afraid. Not as the darkness came and swallowed him whole did he feel that light touch and the feeling of warmth it gave leave him. He was in the abyss, but he was not alone.
Elissa watched as Ichigo lay there, unmoving and unresponsive. Nothing seems to have changed when he took the cup and swallowed the blood, she recalled seeing something similar before when she undertook the joining. When Daveth had taken the blood, he did not wake and died on the spot, he had laid unmoving just as Ichigo does now.
"Dammit." Alistair said, kneeling next to Ichigo and laying a hand over his chest, likely to check for a heartbeat. "I though you would survive this… you of all people."
But then Alistair jerked his hand away, letting out a small gasp as he shook his hand. Looking at his gloved hand in surprised, before looking back towards Ichigo.
"What… that burnt…?" Alistair said, before he fell away as a strange spectacle unfolded.
Black flames shoot from the small medallion hanging from his neck, bursting forth and shooting high into the air. They spread across his body, his bone armor dissolving into the fire and feeding its blistering touch. Soon Ichigo was consumed by the black fire, and seemed to spread further, lashing out like a viper towards anything that was threatening it.
Everyone was on their feet, unable to understand what was happening. Then, as quick as it was to appear, the flames receded, dying down to embers that lingered over him. But he had changed, the flames had done something to him.
His skin was unburnt, nothing seemed to have been consumed by the strange fire, even his clothes remained untouched and free of damage. But he had been affected, all color had drained from him, his hair once a fiery orange was now pure white, matching his now pale ash grey skin. Beyond his armor there was nothing that had been burned and only the flickering black embers the lingered on his body prevented any from touching to confirm.
But then again, another astounding thing occurred, color returned to him. His hair turning back to the fiery shade it once was and his skin returning to the less pale peachy color. All signs of the taint were gone, as if the dark flames had seemingly burnt them away and left him untouched.
Then he bolted upright, startling all present as they took a step or two back, his eyes were wide open. Golden disks upon fields of black, it was a terrifying thing to look upon, but they too receded as he blinked and the darkness within his orbs vanished. He took in a breath or two, coughing and spitting out whatever he had hacked up from his throat.
A groan followed, before there was complete silence amongst all present. Elissa didn't need to know what had just happened was far from normal, everyone standing there was gobsmacked and unable to process what had just transpired. Any answers they had hope to receive would have to come from Ichigo himself, but that would need to wait.
"That…was fucking awful." Ichigo had said, before he looked around with a scowl. "Can someone help me up?"