The party reached the edge of the forest, the darkness ahead of them seeming to swallow the world beyond the first few trees.
Alistair drew his sword, ready to take on any foes that were lying in wait. He took a step forward before he felt a hand reach out and grab his arm.
He turned around. It was Leliana.
“What if…what if he’s there? Are you ready to face him?”
“Do I have much of a choice? If he has become the Guardian, then he must be stopped at all costs.”
“But is there not any other way?”
Alistair put his hand on her shoulder. “I am afraid not. Do I still have your support? If I should…”
Leliana stepped towards him, reaching up to caress his cheek. “I would do anything for you and you know that.”
He slid his hand down to her waist and pulled her to him, his plate mail preventing any sort of intimate embrace. He gave her a small smile, kissing the top of her forehead. “I know. Now let’s go.”
The party made their way into the forest, Alistair leading them well beyond the point of having the security of the clearing from where they entered within their line of sight.
Suddenly and without warning, a pair of red eyes appeared before them, and a creature stepped into view, a low growl emanating from its throat. The orb hung around its neck, the object of their quest.
At once, Alistair recognized the chainmail, the gauntlets, the faded mark of the Grey Warden upon his upper chest plate. He lowered his sword ever so slightly.
“Duncan? What has happened to you?”
The creature just growled, its face emaciated and shriveled, its teeth yellowed and pointed. Its hair was long and unruly, but the scar—the scar on its left eye was clearly visible.
This was indeed Duncan.
The creature raised its sword, swinging it at Alistair who had deflected the blow just in time.
“Duncan! It’s me—Alistair! I know you’re in there. We can get you help! Just give us the orb and come with us. We can find you a healer powerful enough to bring you back! We can—“
The creature swung at him again, this time with more force. Alistair grunted.
“Alistair—it’s no use. Kill it!” A fireball came from the hands of his mage.
The creature deflected it easily, now irritated. It roared, lifting its sword at the mage. In the nick of time, Alistair stepped in, knocking the mage out of the way, the two of them narrowly missing the blade.
“Leave them alone!” Alistair yelled. “Come for me. It’s me you want. Let’s see what you’ve got!”
Their swords clashed, Alistair managing to wound the creature in the arm. It howled, but came at him once more with an even greater vengeance.
Alistair at first did not notice Leliana disappear from the party, sneaking around to the back of the creature. Before it could strike again, she impaled it with a kidney strike, and Alistair locked eyes with her but for a moment before he ran it through with his sword.
The creature fell to the ground, dying. As its life was leaving him, its face changed back that of their beloved Grey Warden leader, Duncan.
His breath ragged, he turned his head towards Alistair and whispered, each word labored and painful. “Alistair…you must…the orb…”
“Duncan, no—don’t leave us! We can heal you!”
“Let me be. You have released me…go…save us all.”
Duncan breathed his last breath, and Leliana unclasped the orb from around his neck, handing it to Alistair. “You wouldn’t have been able to save him,” she said. “You did the right thing.”
Without a word, Alistair nodded sadly and began to head back towards the clearing, the others quick to follow.
Leliana took his hand as they walked, and he squeezed it tightly. He did not wish to lose anyone else close to him. They might have acquired the orb, but they had a long, long way to go.