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Lemniscate

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   A shadow slipped along the highest ramparts, obscured by a heavy cloak and moonless night. Fingers clutched the fur lined fabric desperately as it snapped furiously in the wintry gale. The mountains loomed around the keep, glowing white sentinels illuminating the unforgivably cold night. Her gaze crept lower to the edge of the stones, looking into the expanse below, seeing nothing but desolate crags. Though sparse, the snow continued to fall, the white specks zooming by and dissipating into the cold abyss. Taunting her. Everything was so still, so serene about her… Yet her body ached, her mind roiled with worries and responsibility. Her hands trembled ever so slightly, their shaking chipping away at her sanity. Lavellan’s shoulders slouched, and for the first time she felt as though her appearance matched her spirit.

They deemed me the Inquisitor… The mere sound of the word terrified her. It was a mistake. Etain had given a proud, rallying speech, hundreds of eyes hungry for guidance and a glimmer of hope watching her every move. It took all her strength to keep herself from running - to stand tall, to grasp the dragon sword with purpose and let the puppet show go on… Only to flee as soon as the chance arrived to the isolated corners of the keep, double over the stone walls and retch, her body wrecked with anxiety, needles on her skin. They - the people, had bestowed the title on her as fervently if it was some magnificent birthright, as if it would make her more than who she was; more divine, more indestructible, infallible. As if it would cleanse her of her sins and create what they all needed. A newfound beacon of authority and power that was seemingly spewed forth from the Fade to stare unflinchingly into the fire and brimstone and able to walk away - yet there she was: a mere mortal, hunched over, cold, lost, alone, afraid and sleepless, shaking to the bones under the weight of expectations she'd never meet, never mind the freezing wind.
    

   Every now and then, faint banter and laughter carried on the wind from the tavern. She had half a thought to go down there and drink her sorrows and guilt away. To find some sort of comfort, to share a laugh, to bond with another soul over a cup of something strong enough to warm her blood. Humans did it. Elves. Some among her own Dalish. Qunari. Dwarves… instead there she was: left hand outstretched beyond the stone into the howling night. Her cursed hand. Flecks of ice and snow stung her skin, yet all she felt was cleansing. Her thoughts stilled, and she lingered in the moment, praying it wouldn't end. But whom to pray to?   

   Somewhere in the wailing a door opened and slammed shut, pulling her back in to her empty shell. Her fingers had numbed, her hand no longer shook. The wind. So far it was the only thing to answer prayers and make the pain go away. It was a struggle to withdraw her hand. She had to trick her mind into pulling it back to her body, convincing herself frostbite wasn't her answer. Her self-control resurfaced. Her shoulders pulled back and her frozen hand fumbled clumsily at her cloak to pull it tighter around herself.
    

   Fabric and metal whispered closer to her, the pace steady. More death. Assassins? Demons? Why else seek me out in the middle of the night? Politics can wait ’til dawn. She finally turned toward the intruder, trying to remember the name of the guard on night shift.
  

  There was no need.
    

  The mage leaned against the stone, inspecting her with his perpetually inquisitive eyes.
    

   “Solas.” Her greeting came out much more curt than she had expected, surprised to see the reclusive apostate. It seemed he had grown to tolerate her company, and never refused to answer her endless questions. His solemn and ruminative demeanor seemed slightly off-putting at first, as he tended to make Lavellan feel a naive child in comparison. Yet his knowledge proved invaluable and hours of travels revealed the apostate indeed had a sense of humor within, sarcastic as it was. Etain waited for him to speak, biting her tongue back for fear of saying what she would later regret.
    

   “Inquisitor.” He mirrored her, getting deeper under her skin. For another short moment he watched her stand still as the stone around her. “What are you attempting to accomplish?”
    

   “I couldn’t sleep.”


    “Hm…” He looked out into the blowing snow, scanning the landscape as if he could see anything through the wall of dark gray. “Naturally, you ventured out into the blustering winds at the highest battlement in the castle.”


    “It cleared my mind.” She muttered, brushing the snapping strands of dark honey hued hair back under the hood with icy fingers. “Now the question is… what are you doing here?”


    He smirked slyly, his hands moving into an open palmed gesture. “I saw a lone figure standing still amidst the wind and snow. I was simply curious as to who would have such a strange idea… I did not entirely expect to find the Inquisitor herself… Especially considering your recent promotion.”


    Etain’s brows pulled into a fleeting frown. But you knew you’d find me here, didn’t you? She brought herself to look him in the eye.
    “Not entirely?”


    “Though everyone here has their fair share of troubles, you, Inquisitor, are under scrutiny of all of Thedas… And the guards keep to the towers, venturing out only to make the necessary rounds, not stand in the cold. Who else might be out here?”


    Etain’s enigmatic orbs surveyed the apostate, both envying and despising the aura of calmness about him. “You.”


    “I was merely making my way to my quarters when I caught sight of you… Perhaps you should get indoors, Inquisitor… Skyhold is not in need of an ice sculpture of its master just yet.”


    Etain’s eyes instinctively glimpsed down at her ice block of a hand. It had begun to burn and tingle as her body temperature thawed it.


    “You need not call me Inquisitor every chance you get. I know the title… It makes me feel as if I am no longer a person. I am still who I was…” Her voice trailed off, leaving the  ‘I hope’ to her own thoughts. As much as she tried downplaying its effects, having a pulsating mark of otherworldly power tended to turn things upside down and inside out.


    “Lethallan… It is sleep and warmth you need to quiet your unremitting doubts… Not the numbing of the wind. Your nightmares will stop if you do not focus so much on your worries.” He reiterated, pushing himself away from the stone.

A shiver slipped down her back and Etain pulled the cloak tighter, though not due to the cold. Perceptive bastard aren’t you? Or am I so transparent?


    He stepped closer to her, his hand gently pressing between her shoulder blades, urging her away from the rampart walls. Reluctantly, she walked away, back toward the main hall. She was irked to find her heart speeding at his presence. She had wandered in the wind so long, his touch seemed warmer than natural for a living being, as if his fingers radiated heat to chase the chill clutching her spine. For a fleeting moment, she considered risking an embrace: just to feel the warmth of another, a reminder she could still afford to be a mere mortal. Lavellan turned her thoughts elsewhere, knowing no use came from searching for something that wasn't there.


    “The anchor… I’ve been meaning to ask you about-“


    “Lavellan, if you cannot sleep as it is, perhaps such heavy thoughts are better suited for the morning. Come find me then.” Solas dipped his head and left her with a warm smile. He turned on his heel and went his separate way.


    Etain tightened the cloak about her even further. What was that about? Why come to me? What did he think I would do?


    She walked slowly back to her quarters, her thoughts turning to what had transgressed at Haven. The mere name left her insides roiling. So many lives shattered because of where circumstance had left her. Had the mark - had she been elsewhere, they could have all lived a while longer. But what did it matter? They would have died regardless. Her skin yet crawled with the memory of Corypheus. How safe are we from him now? How long until he puts this place to ruin? How can anyone think I am to be enough of a challenge against a corrupted god-like creature?


    Etain laid in her bed, tossing and turning from one side to the other. Gods save me… She grew frustrated, unable to shut her thoughts off, unable to find the sweet refuge of sleep. She twisted from her back to her stomach. With a huff she slapped her hand on the feather pillow, fluffing it for the hundredth time as she shoved it beneath her head. Another grueling hour dripped by before sleep closed her lids. The night was rarely so kind, allowing her to slumber without dreams.


    Morning came too soon, waking Inquisitor Lavellan to going through another day with a head full of bricks. She bathed, mountain vistas surrounding her. Fully dressed and weary, she descended into the depths of her keep, completing her morning rounds and checking in with Josephine.


    She stumbled onto the first floor of the rotunda. She had expected it to be empty, and thus walked through the inner door yawning audibly. Her heart dropped into her stomach realizing she was not alone and her moment of impolite behavior was witnessed. By Solas, no less. His gaze drifted up from the parchments strewn across a heavy table at the center of the room and he uncrossed his arms.


    “Inquisitor… You should improve your sleeping habits.” He said, not unkindly.


    “I… apologize for that.” Etain regained her composure, pulling her shoulders back and fighting the rush of red to her cheeks. “Would you have a moment?… I’m interested in what you told me of yourself and your studies. If you have time, I’d like to hear more.”


    He glanced to the upper stories of the tower. The level above was alive with chatter and the scraping of book shelves against the stone floors; work on the library was in full swing. Up above, darkened silhouettes peered down over the railings and messenger birds fluttered about in their cages.


    “You continue to surprise me… All right, let us talk…preferably somewhere more interesting than this.” His hand gestured toward the door behind him.


    The corner of Lavellan’s right eye brow discreetly pinched upwards, as it normally did whenever she was confused by something. You told me to find you… and yet I surprise you? Perhaps he thought she wouldn’t listen to him. His experience with the Dalish was, afterall, fruitless. Or maybe her endless inquiries were something difficult to get used to. Her discerning eyes glanced him over momentarily and she nodded, walking across the room toward the door.

 


 


    The sun bathed the familiar landscape in warmth, despite the lingering flurries and the snow drifts on the ground. The town was completely abandoned, the only sound was the wind rustling the pines and snapping the banners above the stone chantry.


    Solas ascended the steps past the main gates, wondering how long it would take for Lavellan to piece things together. She had remained silent so far, making him hope she would speak up soon. His mind began to question whether this farce was worth the trouble.


    “Why here?” She called from behind him as if on queue, her eyes glancing about her.


    “Haven is familiar. It will always be important to you.” He answered, not yet indulging in a sense of relief; she appeared to buy into the illusion, all he had to do was make her believe a little longer.


    “We talked about that already.” Her voice betrayed a tinge of suspicion, or so it seemed to him. He simply wished to speak, away from prying eyes and ears. He had to be sure…


    She followed him into the chantry, down into the cells, her soft footfalls mirroring his own but keeping her distance. She had a talent for subduing the coolness of her constraint and  analytic approach with her perpetually attentive expression. She was always willing to listen patiently, though never without her own questions. As they faced the damp darkness of the cell she was imprisoned in not so long ago, she kept quiet yet exuded a sense of comfort, ease and familiarity between them.

Then again, accomplished illusionists always do. 


    “I sat beside you while you slept, studying the anchor.” He muttered, recalling the night she was brought in. The lone survivor: an unconscious Dalish mage, her left palm marred with a luminous mark. The sight drenched Solas in a cold sweat, the extent of his horror upon seeing the scintillating lesion incomprehensible to the rest of the world. She would groan and whimper in her slumber each time the mark pulsed and spread. You were not meant to be there…


    “How long could it take to look at a mark on my hand?”


    You have not the slightest idea. You held a relic not meant for mortals… You don’t know what you have done. The truth wouldn’t make much difference now. “A magical mark of unknown origin, tied to a unique breach in the veil? Longer than you might think. I ran every test I could imagine, searched the Fade, yet found nothing. Cassandra expected duplicity. She threatened to have me executed as an apostate if I didn’t produce results.”


    “Cassandra’s like that with everyone.”


    “Yes.” He couldn't help but chuckle, she had the truth of it. His thoughts distracted him. Her tone seemed genuinely calm and warm whenever she spoke, unless she intended otherwise. She seemed a pure and radiant spirit, though her eyes began to betray her. Those strange eyes; a color he had chanced to glimpse more often in his ancient kin. They reminded him of the last, fleeting whispers of light before darkness of night swept in. Something lurked in their celestial depths, occasionally revealing itself whenever threat presented, or whenever she thought no one was looking. An abyss able to strike fear into those unfortunate to incur her anger - or mesmerize the soul of one fortunate enough to befriend her. Solas was drawn to studying her more and more. She seemed nothing special, nothing surprising at first: a lithe creature with ivory skin, fire in her hair, a velveteen tone. Another secretive Dalish spy, sent to keep a watchful eye on the far reaching proceedings of the shemlen.

In other words - a walking cliché.

Though she seemed open-minded than he had encountered among the Dalish, he had lived through enough to piece together her game before she even had a chance to play it long. Even as Istimaethoriel Lavellan’s First, the woman wasn’t sent to the Conclave simply for her status. Solas was beginning to see the workings beneath that clean façade, a manipulator attempting to master his own game.

That or the outright expectation of deceit, rejection and his inherent mistrust of the Dalish had primed him for constant disappointment. It was too improbable to come across a luminous soul like hers. Not after all of his years dealing with the last surviving remnants of his kin. The most kind and gentle are the ones that often reveal themselves to be the most dangerous.


    He walked out, his stride casual, seeing no point lingering in the darkness.


    “You were never going to wake up. How could you, a mortal sent physically through the Fade?” His eyes skimmed the humble structures surrounding the chantry. A fire still burned in the small pit across from the chantry doors. How is it possible you survived where no one else did, that you simply walked in on the ritual? Is this truly just the result of chance?


    Solas paused in the clearing, facing Lavellan. She listened to him intently, no expression revealing her thoughts. Such precaution and planning to complete the ritual, and yet there she was, a Dalish mage who was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time… Or was it at the right place, at the right time? However it happened, she managed to unknowingly interrupt Corypheus’ plan and buy the world some time.


    “I was frustrated, frightened. The spirits I might have consulted had been driven away by The Breach. Although I wished to help, I had no faith in Cassandra… or she in me. I was ready to flee.”


    Finally, the mask cracked and her brows knit into a frown. “The Breach threatened the whole world. Where did you plan to go?”


    He repressed a smile. Ever inquisitive, never accepting an open ended answer without elaboration… And yet she mentioned nothing about the improbability of their location.


    “Someplace far away where I might research a way to repair the Breach before its effects reached me.” His eyes narrowed as his thoughts fluttered between his plans and the snowflakes melting on her golden streaked braids. Lavellan didn’t seem to understand his line of reasoning.


    “I never said it was a good plan.” Solas pivoted around, away from the way her skin was bathed with warmth in the sunlight, away from her soul burrowing gaze. The Breach still dominated the skies above the Frostback Mountains, spewing plumes of green light into the crags below. She should know… The Breach was closed by her own hand…


    “I told myself: one more attempt to seal the rifts. I tried and failed. No ordinary magic would affect them. I watched the rifts expand and grow, resigned myself to flee, and then…” He paused, the memory replaying in his mind; noticing the intensified pulsing of her left hand, going on a whim and thrashing her open palm toward the rift.


    “It seems you hold the key to our salvation. You sealed it with a gesture…and right then, I felt the whole world change.” His lifeline - everyone’s lifeline - emerged from a foolish misstep on the part of a murder suspect. The mark was a sigh of relief; a fighting chance against the chaos threatening to swallow the world of the living and uproot the Beyond.


    Something glimmered in her eyes, as if she caught him unveiling a secret. “Felt the whole world change?” She spoke the words carefully, her head tilted coyly. A smile pulled at his lips, but for a cursory moment he felt anxiety claw at his stomach.


    “A figure of speech.” There was no need to entangle sentiments into the pandemonium of their lives. Yet she refused to overlook his stumble of words.


    “I’m aware of the metaphor.” She spoke softly, drifting a few steps closer to him. “I’m more interested in felt.” Those hyacinth orbs latched on to his gaze, full of hope and fear.


    It was a few misplaced words, not meant to signify anything other than what it would to anyone else… I simply meant too few would have done what you have. His mind raced with thoughts, reasoning away the fluttering in his gut, the flush he felt creeping along his skin, unable to look away. An old silvery straight scar angled down from her bottom lip to her jawbone, more slender than the recently healed gash sloping diagonally down from her hairline to her temple. The afternoon light highlighted the pale pink of her sharp cupid’s bow. Her eyes were entrancingly peculiar; the dark blue rim of her iris gave way to a silvery lavender streaked with smoke gray. The vallaslin bore the favor of June, marring her face in a color mimicking the gray in her eyes.


    “You change… everything.” It wasn’t what he should have ever uttered. He should have reiterated the superficial meaning of his words. No attachment. No emotion. Lavellan shook her head once, her gaze breaking and briefly drifting to the ground.


    “Sweet talker.” She muttered, her tone barely louder than a low whisper.


    Leave it at that, Lavellan. Solas escaped the unexplainable grip she seemed to have on him by looking away.


    Her fingers brushed against his jawline and she hastily drew him back to face her. Her palm was warm and her touch gentle, albeit a bit clammy and scarred by magic and blades. Her eyes burned with the thrill of an impulse act as she pressed her lips against his own. A wave of sudden uncertainty ended her brief kiss and she pulled away, embarrassed and panicked at his surprised expression. His gray eyes must have signaled disbelief or shock, for Lavellan turned away promptly, ready to make a run for it. Let her go. His mind bellowed in protest while his hands acted by their own bidding. Solas shook his head, knowing he aught to restrain himself. But every fiber of his being ached and reached out for her warmth, her light. He pivoted her back around, pulling her in for an ardent kiss. His arms desperately coiled around her waist, locking her into an embrace. He savored the warmth and taste of her lips, indulging in the rush of heat and exhilaration he had not felt in ages. A surge of elation filled him as she yielded to his grasp, mirroring his passion. Her fingers snaked up his side to his back, threading a current of electricity all the way through to his skin.


    Even when he managed to pull away for several seconds, the flush in the apples of her cheeks, the glimmer of want and surprise in her eyes, and the sheen of melted snowflakes on her skin beckoned him close once more. He could not deny the subtle call of her soft lips again, greedily kissing her one last time. Too long had his path been walked in solitude, shunned by his own kin.  He wandered in a darkened world, full of solemn regret, never expecting to stumble upon the brilliant light she provided, even if it was only there because he wanted it to be. He was loathe to let go of the burst of life in his chest, losing himself in the warm, wet heaven of her lips.


    “We shouldn’t. It isn’t right… Not even here.” He forced himself to back away, unsure of whether he would be able to refrain from kissing her until he was out of breath had he remained so close.


    “What do you mean ‘even here’?” Her face was tarnished by a scowl. Solas cold not help but smirk. For as observant as you tend to be, I’m surprised you still haven't figured it out, Lavellan… You need not look that close to know this isn’t what it seems.


    “Where did you think we were?” He watched the thoughts cross her face as she scanned her surroundings. Her eyes caught the still burning torches and campfires, the unlikely intact structures of the buildings around her, the Breach in the sky… a memory of the Haven now entombed in avalanche snow until summer.


    “This isn’t real…” Her voice trailed off and her eyes filled with incredulity. A complacent smile curled his lips and Solas’s hands opened in a thoughtful gesture.
    “That is a matter of debate… probably best discussed after you wake up.”


    No azure skies, no wispy clouds. Centuries old, formidable stone arches, grand and immovable, glared down at her. A dream… It was a damned dream. Lavellan groaned and pressed a pillow into her own face, partially from embarrassment, partially from despair. It surprised her how much she had wished it weren’t a dream. It had all felt so real… he felt real, sending her heartbeat aflutter. Her hand pulled the feather pillow away, strands of her hair holding on to the fabric. Etain sat up and inhaled the biting morning air. Anxiety wracked her muscles and a fire burned inside her. Her mind raced, scolding her for dropping guard and letting feelings develop for anyone; particularly a lofty, apostate elf who talks in circles and prefers dreams to reality. She felt the prickle of guilt for hardly acknowledging the town her presence brought destruction to. Sentiments will only blind you… You don’t have such a luxury. You hardly survived the last encounter, Corypheus will not underestimate you next time. The more attachments, the greater the pain, the greater the loss… Leverage for the enemy. Run like the Dread Wolf is at your heels, Lavellan, run while you can. You stretch your luck too thin. Focus on Corypheus. Nothing else should matter.


    But there was no use. The game was not worth the candle. If she was trying to convince herself, it was already far too late.

 



  

 The night was still and silent, the clear skies deceptively beautiful. The less clouds that drifted up above, the colder the darkness grew. Yet a storm brewed in the distance, threatening to roll in on Skyhold by dawn. The keep slept, save for the muffled laughter and singing coming from the tavern; the recently returned entourage was quaffing the chill of the long ascent with spiced wine and ale. A wintry breeze slipped into the Inquisitor’s quarters through the open stained glass doors, high enough to be removed from the world of mortals below. The bed was unruffled, the fire pit full of slowly dying embers. The chamber was cloaked in darkness, the only light reflected by the snow peaks and a handful of candles. The Inquisitor sat on the couch in solemn silence, listening to the glacial howl moaning outside her windows. A meagre candle cast its last, desperate flickers of light across the table adjacent to the armrest, glinting off of the dark bottle by the woman’s hand. Tendrils of icy air caressed her cheeks as Lavellan’s finger traced the rim of her glass, her eyes glazed over with memories.


    That was the night it had all started; the Haven dream and kiss that quickened the hopeful kernel of affection and longing that only proliferated into regret and madness. He was a quiet, depthless mystery that had eternally seized Etain’s soul. With each day after she grew to crave his company, to listen to his musings and prattling, no matter how convoluted and occasionally irritating they grew; to see his lips curl into that damned smile of his. His odd curiosity of the fade, the sarcasm and occasional witticisms became charming. Some part of her adored the way he would draw back his shoulders, interlocking his hands behind him, a silhouette of pride, standing still and vigilant. She saw the way his eyes adored her every chance they got; she would feel as if everything melted into the shadows when his gaze locked onto her. He saw Etain, while all else saw the Herald. He had learned her subtle shows - when she was angry or distraught, or simply lost and overwhelmed - and had been a steadfast haven for her. He was her only escape, her only shelter, and her only reminder that she was still only one person. Solas reminded her she still had a heart that yet beat with life and emotion and yearning. She had grown so accustomed to trying to be a calculating, unbiased beacon of hope, justice and strength to those who chose to follow her; repressing absolutely everything personal and ‘human’ was the only way to cope with the pressure. And with each new expectation, she felt herself grow cold, and her thoughts turned ruthless and dismal in the loneliness of night. Her only outlet had been his affection, in a way that none of her growing friendships with her inner circle could compare with.


    Lavellan’s stomach turned at the thought of never again feeling the warmth of his embrace as they slept, his arm always beneath her neck, his hand always grasping her shoulder. Her spirit screamed at the thought of his lips, the roughness of his calloused hands while he held onto her, as if fearing she would slip away into thin air. Every kiss he breathed her in, as if she was a wisp of fresh air amidst dense smoke. Yet what happened in Crestwood left her feeling as if those rough hands she grew to love had reached deep within and twisted her heart backwards. The yowling of the wind failed to drown out the scathing memory of their last words to each other.


    “Tell me you don’t care.” She was drowning in panic, in despair. Hating him was her only lifeline.


    “I can’t do that.” It mattered not how genuine his sorrow may have been. She saw none of it then.


    “Tell me I was some casual dalliance so I can call you a cold-hearted son of a bitch and move on!” She knew his decision was carved in stone. She left, unable to face him a second longer, her thoughts and emotions an indiscernible, ruinous whirlwind raging within her.


    “I’m sorry…” His whisper flayed her as if a blade glowing red from flame.


    Her eyes burned with tears, yet she refused to let them show. Instead her hand grasped the stem of her glass and she drank down the burgundy elixir within. It was impossible to determine which was more unbearable: the despondency of the breakup or her self loathing. I knew this was bound happen. How many times have my instincts forewarned and haven’t failed me? Yet I ignored it all for one more kiss, one more touch, one more fascinating recollection, one more smirk, one more chance to feel joy and warmth… and… just to be completely, wholeheartedly lost in another… An utter fool to play such games…

Slender fingers reached for the dark bottle, pouring semisweet escape into her goblet. Lavellan downed a sizable gulp, fighting the brimming tears. A pitiful smile crossed her wine stained lips before her thumb wiped them dry. I knew I had to avoid all entanglement, yet here I am, sulking in misery, shaking in fury, all because of him… How could he do this? Why? Why do everything to earn my trust and win my… It hurt unreasonably to even think the small, four letter word; the mere sound of it was accompanied with a caustic burn in her throat … only to turn it, to turn me away? Have my decisions gone beyond justification? Beyond understanding? Has he lost faith in me?   


    Lavellan’s eyes fell on the ornate silver mirror resting on the couch beside the table. She glared at it as if it were a monstrous spider about to suddenly scamper over to sink its fangs into her skin. Reluctantly, she reached for it, the metal icy in her hands. She knew she would look different, but she didn’t expect for the reflection to feel so foreign. Her fingers brushed her brow and cheek, where the marks should have been. No scars, no trace that the blood writing had ever existed. Had she known that Solas was going to leave her broken, she would have kept the vallaslin… Better to have been oblivious to the error of their so treasured knowledge than to carry the pain of it alone. I have enough to bear. Now this… She couldn’t stand looking into the mirror a moment longer, unable to face the shame and the pain. She was to be clan Lavellan’s next keeper. Keeper of forgotten memories, muddled into lies. Nothing more than an injudicious child stumbling in the dark, blindly groping around for any way into the light. In one night, the apostate managed to leave her life in ruins, doing greater damage than anything inflicted in the field. There was no healing this… no poultice nor potion to ease the pain, to make the body heal faster. Only the numbing of the wind and the chance of a dreamless night at the bottom of her glass.

 

ArLasaMalaRevas

Chapter Text

The dwindle of candle light was more noticeable each time his tired eyes had to reread the reports. More often than not Cullen found himself lost in the feel of the parchment on his fingertips, his thoughts drifting away from the matter at hand. The night was growing late enough to silence the ruckus from the tavern, the wintry gale lulling the residents of the keep to sleep. Reading through the document a third time without any registration was sign enough for Cullen to retire for the night. His fingers dropped the reports and he sighed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Almost reluctantly, he blew out the candles and departed from his office.


    A faint light glimmered weakly from the Inquisitor’s tower, a dying star amidst the dense snow clouds that swiftly enclosed the keep. His steps slowed as he wondered what she was doing, if she was hiding from yet another misstep or simply sleeping. She fled to her quarters without so much a word to anyone. The guards said they could hardly catch a glimpse of her. Cullen had grown to know Lavellan well enough to sense something was amiss.


    When she was first brought in, after the explosion at the Conclave, Lavellan had his senses of self-preservation on edge: a Dalish mage, next in line to hold the title of Keeper, the lone survivor? The destruction at the Temple of Sacred Ashes was so thorough, it seemed impossible for anyone to survive, lest they orchestrated it all. It was anyone’s guess what sort of power and knowledge she held. She aught to have been kept in that cell until judgement was due, especially with that cut spewing magic on her palm.


    As if the situation wasn't dire enough, the Herald played a perilous card and recruited the rebel mages as allies. A stranger mistrusted, feared to a point, with an unpredictable weapon of destruction decides to pour even more magic into the mark? To allow freedom and hand their fates over to the rebel mages, responsible for so much chaos, inciting their revolution only to break into factions and infight? How could that bode well for anyone in Thedas? How could that possibly have been the solution? Whatever her reasoning was, he assumed she allowed her own being a mage to be a crippling bias. When word of the elf’s actions reached Cullen, it was all he could do but not tear her apart on sight. But what help would that be? They needed the mark on her hand. Otherwise all their efforts would be in vain. They would all be buried alive and attempting to lift their own gravestone.


    Full of doubt, his heart was in his throat as he watched the woman, slighted to a sliver of a mortal by the oppressive and terrifying glow of the Breach. She approached it steadily, unflinchingly though not without a palpable sense of fear. Energy crackled around her left hand, intensifying as her feet carried her closer to the rift. There was no going back now. Mana thrummed from the mages, each one summoning every last bit of power they could manage. His skin crawled instinctively. Looking back on it, he was almost shamed to admit he summoned his own deflective energy, just in case the mages turned. Yet the Herald’s judgement proved sound. Staves thrust into the ground, they imparted their energy to the Dalish mage, her left hand outstretched and glowing with unearthly power. How she was able to withstand such a surge was a mystery. Armored fingers channeled a blinding, writhing bolt of magic into the Breach, the rift pulsing and contorting in protest.


    Fear and anxiety knit his guts and his body reflexively postured for combat, his sword cemented in his grasp. Just when he was about to dismiss the whole spectacle, everything screamed white. An explosion sent them all hurling backwards, heads hitting the stone with thuds silenced by the scraping of armor and clatter of swords and staves.


    The ringing in his ears was interfering with his vision, but he managed to see Cassandra stumble up, her body still reeling from the force of the blast. Cullen pushed himself up with haste, stepping past those who have brought themselves up to their feet. He found himself praying they were not about to scour the temple for pieces of the Herald for a proper burial.


    Amidst crumbling stone, she kneeled, unscathed. A tendril of gilded hair fluttered with each of her desperate, deep breaths. She raised her head, glancing around as if to see whether or not her do-or-die maneuver had worked. He still held on to the suspicion that she was hoping she'd have died that day.


    The Breach was sealed. The shouts and whoops of joy and relief were more deafening than the explosion itself. In the celebrations that followed, it seemed as if it no longer mattered who was a mage and who wasn’t. Every mortal soul in Haven was simply grateful to be alive, to hell with the social stigmas for a night. Yet the festivities only served to be salt on the wound when Corypheus laid siege to the town. Cullen knew it was fool’s hope to survive Corypheus’s wrath a second time. No one has such bountiful luck. When Etain offered up to face the Elder One alone and trigger the avalanche while the rest of Haven escaped, Cullen was taken aback.  Here was a Dalish foreigner, accused of murder, offering up her strength and life in an effort to save the people of Haven; complete strangers, who all but sneered and avoided her for weeks upon her arrival. It was no secret Corypheus was after her mark, and the night would end in either her blood or his. Why she did it, he still did not know. For admiration? Fame? For her name to live on in history? Because of an altruistic nature and the want to do the right thing? Or to atone for whatever terrible misdeeds she may have been hiding? Whatever it was, she pulled through. They lived while Corypheus had received a devastating blow.


    The shocking, if not unnerving surprise was her survival against all odds, against all reason. Again. He would never forget the forlorn feeling of going on another futile scout behind the main refugee line. It was a waste of time and effort. But it seemed death itself did not want the mage, and she shuffled toward them blindly, bruised, broken and frozen from head to toe. Sheer will kept her feet plowing clumsily through the snow drifts. Now the question of whether she was truly sent by a divine power seemed less senseless. Although she became a beacon of hope, an unsettling thought took hold in Cullen’s mind as he carried the battered, unconscious elf back to the camp. What was she capable of? How far would she take this? How could she possibly be alive? Of one thing he was certain of; she was the thorn in the Elder One’s side, morphing into a poisoned dagger, and as of yet, he could not reach far enough to yank it out.


    It gave him a rotten feeling to think of what their lives would have come to had the mage been left to answer to her false accusations. There would be no fighting chance. Without the mark, it would have all ended with the Breach outside Haven. The world as they knew would plunge into chaos, easy pickings for Corypheus.


    His stomach twisted and turned when he thought of the lyrium… had he not stopped … or worse yet, of having to go through hell alone. The mere thought made his skin crawl and teeth clench; the blinding headaches, intense enough to blur his vision; the mornings his limbs would refuse to listen, every joint and muscle protesting in pain against his command to move; sunlight so bright he thought his eyes would melt out of his sockets. And the nightmares… No. He feared the mere thoughts of the pains would bring them out again.


    What if Etain had not made the choice to support his decision? Had she not stood there near him, sternly yet kindly guiding him through his weakest moments? Had she not been the closest thing he had to a true friend? Countless times Lavellan had dragged him out of his dread and fury onto the battlements into the fresh air, urging him to walk the long walls and speak of his concerns, his worries. She would distract him with questions on templar techniques and swordsmanship, forcing him to answer her in detail and forget about the pain. When talking would not suffice, she’d haul him down into the spacious yard and coerce him into training her, claiming it necessary if she were to be a true knight enchanter. He apologized for the nights she spent perched in his chair, feet on his desk, reading into the early hours of morning, waiting for him to wake in terror, shouting, drenched in a cold sweat, heart pounding, only to rush over to hold his hand and calm his soul. Nor had she turned away from him each time he lashed out in anger, shouting things uncalled for, insulting her in ways that made his skin crawl from revulsion. Despite all, Lavellan remained, his unwavering guiding hand.


    A lone figure drifting in his periphery drew his attention out the memories; the last of the party to return to Skyhold, his staff slung across his back. The man’s pace was slow, his feet trudging through the snow as he hesitatingly approached the main stairs. He stopped at the first landing, his hands curling into fists as his gaze drifted up to the lonely light high in the tower. Cullen was too far away to glimpse his face to guess what he was thinking, but the apostate remained still for a while - long enough for Cullen to make his way across the battlements to the rotunda doors. Cullen’s brow furrowed as Solas continued to stand still at the stairs, pelted by the snow. He glared up at the fortress with a look of utmost pain and dread, as if the walls would suddenly close in on him and crush his bones to powder.


    Cullen left the man to his brooding and proceeded indoors, across the keep to his new chambers. With his nightmares less frequent and the nights growing colder, he had moved to the main quarters of the castle.


    Judging by the forlorn expression on the elf’s face and the odd behavior of Lavellan, Cullen knew there must have been an argument, and not of the mild sort. He pushed aside the inkling to check on her, to see what had gone so wrong, locking himself in his chambers with a heavy heart.


    Off-putting and disconcerting as it was at first, Lavellan’s being a mage dwindled in importance as their friendship grew. She understood him and guided him though the lyrium addiction, and he remained her rock as she shook in terror and anxiety behind closed doors and away from scrutinizing eyes. Lavellan hid the price of her decisions, verdicts and actions well, sustaining a mask of grace and valor convincingly enough. Yet each judgement, each mission took a toll on her spirit; her enigmatic eyes grew even more somber, she hardly slept, more often seen haunting the ramparts than in her chambers. Only when Solas’ company grew more frequent did her troubles relent.


    Cullen was by far not oblivious to Solas’s fascination with the Inquisitor’s mark, and even less so to his growing preoccupation with the woman herself. The solemn man was drawn to her like a moth to the light and heat of a flame. Theirs was a quiet, slow burning bond, the kind that sunk in deep and pained that much more once it was gone. Several times Cullen’s protective instincts screamed in protest at how glowing Lavellan’s smile grew, how bright her eyes gleamed with joy and naive surrender to affection. They were in no place for such distractions. He feared she would grow too inattentive to focus on the matter at hand, to remain efficient and safe on her expeditions. This was a foolish misstep on a leader's part.

And what he saw in Solas was no less disconcerting: the melancholy way in which his eyes dimmed after she left, or whenever he was out of her sight. Numerous times Cullen was perplexed to see the man look on at Etain with a crestfallen smile and remorseful eyes. Why would he look at a woman he loved with such ruefulness unless there was something to hide, something to regret? But Lavellan never saw it, and Cullen had not the heart to tell her.


    The hearth spilled blessed warmth and light into Cullen’s darkened chamber, the night cold enough to force the shadows to shiver in every corner. Throwing more firewood into the pit, the Commander turned to shedding his heavy armor. His bones still ached nominally from the endeavor at the elven temple, bringing an uncomfortable scowl to his face as he stretched.


    The temple. He was yet uncertain as to what happened and what it meant, save for apprehending Samson. As soon as the snows permit visibility enough to descend from the mountain, Samson will be in his hands.


    Cullen yet reeled at what had Samson had become. Prior to all this, to Corypheus, he had been a good man at heart. He was banished from the Templar order for a charitable gesture, delivering messages between two lovestruck mages. Sympathetic to the mages, Samson knew Meredith was twisting the Templar Order from its purpose, and he had aided Cullen in bringing her down. But where Cullen was able to turn his talents over to the Inquisition, having at least that to atone for his misgivings, Samson was left to his own devices. Facing him would be as looking into a crooked mirror; a reflection of what he could have become himself - left without purpose and succumbing to the lyrium.


    Cullen rolled the tension from his shoulders, perishing the spine tingling thoughts from his head. The Commander sat on his bed, glaring into the fire. He would deal with Samson when the time came. It served no purpose to dwell on his fears now. Samson was apprehended, but he was a mere pawn in Corypheus’s game. Whatever he was meant to bring to the Elder One, Lavellan had found it before he could claim it. Cullen only prayed that what she retrieved was worth the damage to her reputation once word got out. And if fate truly favored them, if Corypheus could be defeated, the Herald of Andraste’s delving into the realm of elven worship would be forgotten. If not, he feared even Josephine’s extraordinary talent of twisting rumor and noble favor to purpose would not be enough.


    One step at a time. Sleep slowly weighed down his lids, and Cullen’s amber eyes tired of glaring at the fire. He lowered himself to the bed with a sigh, the feeling in his gut warning him of the trying days to come.

Chapter Text

    The wooden cup slammed onto the bar table along with Sera’s triumphant roar.


    “Keep up, or fall arse over tit!”


    What the hell… How is she still even ALIVE… Bull’s eyes narrowed as he glowered at the rogue elf. Her hair was a tousled mess as usual. She glared back at him with drunken determination, brows furrowed and cheeks flushed. She lightly swayed from side to side, attempting to balance herself against the bar. He presumed their drinking game would be short lived. She was tiny enough for him to snap like a twig with one arm, yet she had downed three full pints. And there was no telling how much she had drank before she suggested the challenge. Or perhaps that was why she challenged Bull, her judgement clouded by ale.


    “You said you wanted to drink ’til you forgot the crazy shite at what’s-her-name’s temple. Drink!”


    A lopsided smirk emerged on Bull’s face. That I do. He downed his pint with ease, groaning from the sweet burn in his throat. The air was thick with the smell of crackling fires, stale ale and a whiff of roasted meat. Bull wiped his mouth dry and glanced again at Sera.


    “Why are you trying to forget?” He knew well enough why she was drinking. She practically foamed at the mouth once Lavellan’s report got out to her inner circle. It was a good thing the Inquisitor didn’t bother seeking out her companions upon her return and holed up in her tower.


    “Don’t be a twit. I wasn’t there but I know a crock of shite when I smell it. I thought she was different. Smarter. But no, her head’s too far up her arse with useless stories-“


    “Drink!” Bull saw her blood was still boiling, and knew well enough there was no point in arguing with her over what happened at the temple. Nor did it make any difference bickering about it; they all held different beliefs, nor did Sera hold the same priorities and responsibilities as Lavellan. What was done was done. So instead, he elected to distract her before drunken rage led to something everyone would later regret. She’ll be out soon enough. Sera’s focus turned to the full mug in her hands, and she brought it to her mouth, drinking the liquid within in a rush.


    Bull smirked and took his turn. The heat was now spreading with a tingle to his limbs. Sera lowered herself onto the bar stool with difficulty, as if the motion required a contortionist’s agility. He poured another share to Sera and did not bother to downplay his smugness.


    “Keep up, halfpint.”


    Her lips curled up into a snarl, and her hand grasped the mug tightly. She could hardly see straight but emptied the cup regardless. The elf slammed the mug down, her eyes half open, wiping the ale dribbling from her chin.


    Three… two…


    Sera’s hand attempted to support her jaw as she leaned against the bar top. That was all it took, and she poured over the bar with a sigh, cheek pressed against the ale stained wood, asleep and without a care in the world.


    Aaaand one. Iron Bull stifled a laugh and looked down at his drink.


    “Is it dead?” A new voice called from behind him, drawing his attention.


    The Vint leaned against a wooden column, arms crossed and eyebrow raised as he observed the spectacle.


    “Nah, but she’ll wish she was come morning.”


    Dorian pushed off the column and paced toward the bar, lowering himself  onto the empty seat beside the Qunari. Bull eyed the mage suspiciously, curious as to what would possibly bring him to the tavern so late at night.


    “Does no one sleep in this place?” Bull muttered, sipping from his mug.


    “I was reading up on these ancient temples, thinking either I could find something or it would bore me to sleep… But I couldn’t stand our resident apostate’s incessant pacing. And the storm cloud wafting over him threatened to choke out the entire tower… My head’s already a squeezed lemon, I don’t quite feel I can handle the sound of his shuffling back and forth on the floor below. Everything echoes in that place. So really there’s no better excuse to go drink myself to sleep.”


    “Fair enough.”


    “Sera doesn’t seem much a match for you. It’s safe to assume this competition was an afterthought.”


    “Yeah… just figured I could use a drink to shake off what happened in those damn woods.”


    “It’s as if there’s a surprise each time our dear Inquisitor ventures out.” There was a bitter note to his tone as his eyes searched for the disinterested bartender. The dwarf had seemingly turned in for the night, leaving the few remaining patrons to the pitchers already out.


    “Not happy with her decision?” Bull asked, reaching past Sera for a jug of pale ale.


    “Of course not. What was she thinking? Oh look - a mysterious well of supposed cryptic knowledge in a secret temple full of beings long thought extinct - how lovely! Let’s go for a dip and take a sip!” Dorian’s face pulled into a scowl, his voice choleric. “What gave her the idea that the leader of the only organization keeping the world from crumbling in a darkspawn magister’s grasp has the luxury to meddle in fanatical, dangerous, unknown elven magic? What if it had killed her? What if it turned her from our cause, or -“


    “What do you think the alternative would have brought? None of us knows this Witch of the Wilds. You should have heard how desperately she wanted whatever power that well held. She wouldn’t shut up about it. No one without an ulterior motive seeks a mysterious thing like that with such zeal. You think Etain should have trusted her word? What did we have guaranteeing she wouldn’t have fled after drinking from the well? Nah, to hell with that… There would be nowhere to run if Corypheus wins… But what will she do with that knowledge after Corypheus is dealt with? Now the Inquisition would have a Witch with unknown power on the loose. It doesn't take two eyes to see she’ll be gone the second she no longer deems us necessary of her help. Who would you trust better to hold the well’s power?”


    Dorian watched Bull closely, clearly not expecting such a reaction. The warrior’s demeanor was more pensive and serious than normal. Dorian drank his ale and folded his arms on the table thoughtfully. “Valid point. However, I still believe she should have simply destroyed the well. Avoid it all.”


    “Perhaps that may have been the best solution. But I get where she is coming from. All that fancy elven crap about to be lost like everything else her people have created - of course she couldn’t let it be destroyed. It was a risk, and it was her decision. I think that’s why she did it. None of us hold the responsibility she does. If it was her command, it was her price to pay. Something every good leader should know. Perhaps there will be something useful from that… puddle of weirdass magic… If it gives us a leg up against Corypheus, it would be worth it.”  Bull’s fingers shuffled the mug back and forth between his hands. “I guess we will know next time we face him.”   

 
    “It will make fools or legends of us all. Either way, history will hold on to our names. At least for a little while. For even if Corypheus succeeds… I plan on dragging him through piss and pain before I die. He will not forget us easily.” Dorian paused, swallowing the sour taste the name brought with a mouthful of ale. “And if we are triumphant… well… then I just hope the sculptors get my bone structure right.”


    “You might as well ask them to draw water with a fishnet.”


    Dorian turned toward Bull with an exaggerated look of surprise. Warm light from the torches flickered playfully in his hazel eyes, complementing the mischievous way his lips pulled into a smirk. He set down his cup and his chin pulled forward as his eyes scrutinized the Qunari.


    “My, my… was that a compliment? Are you truly capable of such a thing?” His tone was rich with sarcasm, eliciting a crooked grin from Bull. The warrior brought the cup to his lips and took another sizable gulp.


    “Hm… Progress… Though I’ll have you know… you’re past simple compliments to redeem yourself.” Dorian straightened his back and his eyebrow pulled upwards.


    “The tougher the challenge, the sweeter the prize…”


    “Oh, you have not the slightest clue.” The tavern grew warmer with every moment, the fires bathing the walls with a warm glow, the abundant spirits flushing the few remaining patrons’ faces with life and chasing away the night chill. Bull wordlessly filled both their cups to the brim, a triumphant smile still adorning his face. He caught a tangle of wheat blonde hair moving in his periphery, followed by a hardly comprehensible mutter as Sera clutched onto the bar, sitting herself up with a dangerous sway backwards. The elf stood, shaking the drunken haze from her eyes and glared at Bull and Dorian.


    “Sera… are you alright?” Dorian asked, repressing a chuckle at the sight of the disheveled archer. “You may have gotten ahead of yourself challenging Bull. He drinks your weight of that awful Qunari tar ale for breakfast.”


    “Shut it.” She grumbled and turned to leave, but paused. Her eyes narrowed and she angrily grabbed Bull’s mug, offering him one last vengeful glare. Her feet stumbled a short distance, walking across the wooden floors as if through snow drifts, her balance precariously poor. She stopped and chugged the entire mug before launching it at Bull, though it clattered to the floor several feet away from her target. The huge Qunari roared with laughter, and Sera stumbled out of sight, a string of curses rattling off her lips.


    Dorian pushed his cup down the bar toward Bull, filling a new one for himself.


    “She did have me worried for a bit. I expected her to be out two pints in, scrawny as she is. But she just kept going. MY vision was starting to blur when she finally passed out.”


    “What, the Qunari don’t have an equivalent of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’?”


    “My job requires me to judge books by their cover, and to do it accurately… But that’s not to say that I’m not thrown for a loop occasionally.”


    Dorian allowed a subtle narrowing of his eyes as he pondered the man’s words. Was the alcohol making Bull insinuate notice, perhaps even appeal? Or was it all misplaced speculation on his part? Maybe he was simply speaking of his experience in the Ben-hassrath and not implying anything about Dorian and his Tevinter background. Where are the jokes? The “Vint” comments? Is he warming up to me or is his snide side dulled by all that ale? Never breaking eye contact, the mage brought the mug to his lips as a chance to gather a proper response.


    “I’m sure those loops have recently been limited to our fascinating bevy of do-gooders and well-wishers.”


    The Iron Bull followed Dorian’s suit and drank his ale without so much as blinking, his gaze locked onto the Tevinter mage.  For a fleeting moment, his scars twisted as a devilish smile crossed his lips, more expressive than anything Dorian had chanced to see from him.


    “Now what makes you think I’d tell you such sensitive information about our men?”


    “My charm and wit is not convincing enough?”


    “Ha. No, not for that.” Bull said, not unkindly, and twisted to face Dorian.


    And there it is. My answer. The mage’s eyebrow pinched upwards and he downed his drink. The tavern had grown too warm for comfort, or rather… too warm for good sense and precaution. The biting wind outside only intensified the heat radiating from the torches and braziers, quickening the effects of the alcohol in the patrons’ cups. Lighthearted laughter seeped out from the floor above, the sound contagious, refusing to let the smiles wash away from Dorian and Bull’s faces. For a few sheltered, silent moments, the only words spoken were through their eyes. The same question buzzed around between them; to walk through the door just opened, or reserve the decision for a leveled head? Dorian inhaled deeply and lengthened his back, raising himself from the bar stool.


    “Well, my favorite beast of burden, I believe it is time for my beauty rest, otherwise I will end up drinking myself into a stupor and pay for it come morning.” Better not to jump without looking. Besides, if the mood lasted when sober, a little anticipation never hurt anyone. He pulled the wool cloak over his shoulders, a smirk still on his face.


    Bull fought the urge to say something raunchy, to make a salacious comment about the sort of tension building between them. Instead, he opted for a simple nod and did not downplay the genuine sheen of magnetism in his eye. Dorian’s brows pulled into a surprised, albeit satisfied arch; he was clearly expecting some sort of snide retort. He departed in silence, his heart thumping a bit more excitedly than when he came in. The bluster of the storm outside seemed to swirl past him, his poised frame impervious to the chill. A hushed chuckle slid from his lips. My, my, what my father would say now. The irony is practically unbearable. The Qunari is developing a soft spot for the Vint. That is most definitely the last thing I had expected from signing up with the Inquisition… Then again, the Inquisition is THE definition of unexpected. May as well live up to the reputation.


    The snow bombarded the few souls still out and about, blanketing the keep in a forewarning, forlorn cold. It was nigh impossible to see, much less walk with the calm stride Dorian exhibited. In the midst of the nightmare of awaiting Corypheus’s next desperate move, Dorian held on to the one sliver of light and joy fluttering in his chest. For no matter what the days to come bring, no matter the horror, the fear, the sadness and angst - there would be one fond memory, one beacon of delight and happiness in the dooming abyss. It would be nothing if sadistic to resign oneself into miserable anticipation of death, refusing a chance at affection and amity. So Dorian continued to smile, his elation a clear act of defiance in light of the feeling of dread permeating every fighting soul of the Inquisition.

Chapter Text

    The morning was just as grim as the clouds had threatened, the storm drowning out the skies and plunging the fortress into a white out. Snow drifts had risen in the early hours of morning, eliciting grumbling curses from the half frozen sentries on the walls. Fires burned incessantly in every pit, brazier and hearth of the castle, desperately and slowly warming the ancient stones. The hustle and bustle of the Inquisition was limited to the indoors, no one braving the storm unless necessary.


    Cullen stepped into the main hall, brushing the snowflakes from his hair and pauldrons as his eyes scanned the heads crowding the tables by the fires. Several Orlesian dignitaries exchanged passive aggressive complaints about the weather over breakfast. Three young Chantry sisters giggled away, steaming cups of tea in their slender fingers. Varric’s usual corner was occupied by two youths slicing freshly baked bread.  


    The fire blazed brightly in the Ambassador’s office, the room filled with a warm glow and the smell of firewood. Josephine scribbled away at her desk, softly muttering her writings to herself. Her smooth olive skin was flushed from a recent trek through the cold outside, and a finger twirled a loose strand of raven hair behind her ear. She glanced up at Cullen and pulled her ornate wool shawl tighter around her shoulders.


    “Commander.” She smiled her usual politically charming smile as he approached the desk.


    “Josephine… You’re up and at it early this morning.”


    “With the gale outside, there is no leaving the keep… though that also means there are no new envoys or noble guests to parade around to. I could use this time to catch up on all the…” She sighed, motioning to the pile of scrolls, reports and messages spilling across her desk.  “More tedious duties of the Inquisition, though none less important.”


    Josephine stood from her chair and walked to the front of her massive, wooden instrument of influence, leaning against it and crossing her arms thoughtfully. “What news from the Arbor Wilds?”


    Cullen’s eyes darted briefly to the fire before returning to Ambassador Montilyet. “The temple is destroyed, with no trace of these so called Sentinels within. There were casualties, but not a living soul in sight. It seems the alliance had served its purpose and they fled. Or perished. Reports claim these elves are… different from the ones we know of. Physically, they are larger, taller. Their skill with weapons was astounding and their speed unearthly.”


    Josephine knit her brows, her lips parted slightly in confusion and surprise. “Do you think they fled to safety deeper into the woods? Could Corypheus and Samson have killed them all?”


    “Perhaps, though I suppose this can be spared for a later investigation. Scouts have located this Altar of Mythal, deep in the wilds. They will be able to lead the Inquisitor in safely as soon as weather permits her descent. And Samson’s ascent. I mean to update the maps and plan out the quickest route.”


    Josephine’s smoldering eyes darkened for a brief instant and she turned her head to her side, searching for the right words.


    “Is he yet a danger, even in custody? Are our soldiers… well equipped to deal with him?”


    “I’ve assigned our most skilled retinue, with double the numbers. Even so, word is he has offered not the slightest resistance.”


    “Smart man. Perhaps he has accepted his fate. Perhaps he does not wish to die. What do you suppose the Inquisitor will decree?”


    Cullen frowned and shook his head. “I do not know… Though, I have been meaning to request my presence at the judgement, in your stead.”


    “Of course…” Josephine caught on to the hesitation in Cullen’s voice while he spoke of Samson and elected to reserve her questions for later.


    “Inquisitor Lavellan has been in the war room for over an hour, though she called for none of us. A fair warning. She is a bit more… withdrawn today.”


    Cullen uncrossed his arms and glanced at the flames again, ignoring the throbbing in his skull. “I suspected as much.”


    His comment drew Josephine’s eyebrows upward in curiosity. He uncrossed his arms and took a step closer to the ambassador, as if ensuring their whispers would not be overheard in the empty room.


    “The Inquisitor fled from sight, without so much as her usual request for a status update upon her return. The men mentioned her behaving oddly and heading straight to her chambers. She had arrived ahead of the rest, with the apostate trailing in last in the dead of night.”


    “Whatever the issue… we cannot spare the luxury of a distracted Inquisitor… I do sympathize… The position does require the sacrifice of personal entanglements - but the smallest weakness could be her downfall. Let us hope this will pass soon.” Josephine returned to her scrolls. “Let me know if she decides or requests anything.”


    Cullen nodded, a nervous prickle in his palms, and headed through to the war room.


    The stones were bleached a glum white by the gray light seeping in through the windows. The stillness within was interrupted only by the sizzling pops of the fire in the braziers, releasing wispy puffs of intoxicating, musky smoke.


    Etain loomed over the vast map, her back to the door, though she turned swiftly enough upon Cullen’s entrance. The commander’s movement slowed to a crawl as his gaze fell on the Inquisition’s leader, the massive oaken door slithering to a close behind him. Lavellan’s arms were crossed, holding her gray fur lined cloak tight to her frame.


    “Maker’s breath…”


    He gaped at her, his jaw hanging open slightly. It was a rare occasion to see the woman with her hair unbound: sparsely curled, her golden-red locks hung to her waist, duller and more limp than when she had first arrived to Haven. Her skin was pale and drawn, dark circles beneath her eyes. But everything different about her was eclipsed by her skin, unmarred. The blood writing was gone, without a trace it ever existed. The prominent face of the Inquisition was now stripped of its Dalish flair, which had obscured her features and camouflaged her scars. Defined, wide cheekbones and neatly pointed tips of her elven ears were tinted the lightest pink by the chill in the room. Thin slivers of white streaked down across her skin from her hair to her brow, another slashed across her cheek and one transversed the right corner of her mouth. Her lips now seemed softer, more inviting without the vallaslin running down their middle. Nothing could draw focus away from her astral hued eyes; enthralling pools of silver, blue and violet that took ruthless hold of their audience each time, reaching to the very soul. The Maker had not denied the woman beauty, though Cullen had never allowed much thought on it. Lavellan was the Inquisitor, and as such she belonged to Thedas. It was foolish to think anything other than the goal at hand.


    His stupefied glare caused her arms to weave tighter around herself, as if she felt naked enough as it was without his scrutiny. The melancholy in her eyes entranced Cullen’s focus into a death grip, rendering him unable to look away.


    “Who would have thought I could have made myself even more of a spectacle?” Lavellan’s caustic tone slipped past a slight smile. Her gaze crept down to the floor, freeing Cullen from her grasp.


    He cleared his throat and shuffled forward uncomfortably, as if in a room with a stranger rather than a close friend; a close friend repressing hurt and fear behind a tense smile. Cullen knew how to train his men for any confrontation, how to prepare each one for battle, to ingeniously strategize and find advantages in every situation, minimizing loss and injury and ensuring success, progress and the utter obliteration of the opposition- but this he did not know. Cullen had not the slightest idea as to how he should approach his broken friend. What was he supposed to say? To do? Etain was not one of his understudies, one of his soldiers, his officers or just fellow Inquisition followers. She was the Inquisition.


    “Inquisitor. I … was not aware your Dalish markings could be removed…”


    “Nor was I, until last night. They… represent yet another misunderstanding … another failed attempt at salvaging long lost knowledge. They were slave markings… of no purpose to me any longer…” She sat against the war table, her expression sorrowfully contemplative.  “I thought it would be too shameful to keep them and yet I did not realize how pained and alone I would feel without them… I almost wish I could remain in ignorant bliss as to what the vallaslin was, to keep believing we Dalish were defiantly, rightly keeping our ancient culture alive… when we are only stumbling over broken rocks of ruins in the midst of pitch black night.”


    Cullen seemed unable to shake himself of the stupor he was in. His mind scurried around for the proper words. “You don’t have to stumble about… Search for the light to guide your feet in the right direction. Nothing is lost unless you accept it as such.”


    Her dark blonde eyebrows pinched upwards and a smile crossed her lips. “Cullen… I was unaware you moonlighted as as such an inspirational poet.”


    “I… no…” He cleared his throat once more and folded his arms over his chest, assuming his usual position of comfort. “I only meant you should look on this as a step forward.”


    “Thank you. I will most certainly try.” Her answer was proper and political. Cullen could not determine if she truly meant it, or if she was simply saying what was expected of her. But before he had another moment to ponder it, the Inquisitor inhaled deeply and turned back toward the map.


    “I must move to the Altar, before Corypheus can know what I aim to do… have the scouts pinpointed its location?” Her tone returned to the authoritative nature it took one whenever missions were laid before her. Cullen wiped the pensive expression from his face and marched up to the war table as usual.


    “Yes, Inquisitor. They have secured a path to the ruins of the altar and are keeping guard. They await your arrival.”


    The snow slowed its maddening assault on the keep as Etain and Cullen mapped out her route, determining stops, areas of suspected resistance, resupply camps. They had also tediously prepared an escape route with Leliana’s help, once the redheaded spymaster descended into the war room. The Nightingale had also unearthed vague information regarding a high dragon sighting near the forward camps in the Arbor Wilds. She had continued on about references to the altar she and her spies had scoured up from libraries all over, though Etain heard nothing of what Leliana had said. The voices she heard were those of none present in the room with her. They spoke in whispers, never one at a time, their messages intertwined like streams converging into a waterfall.  


    Etain desperately tried to keep her expression calm and collected, to focus on her breathing to drown out the voices crescendoing into a cacophony of jumbled whispers in her ears. Leliana looked on to her, awaiting a response, but saw nothing but a detached stare.


    “Inquisitor?” She asked for a third time, her voice louder and more stern. Etain’s eyes flooded with alertness and she turned to her spymaster.


    “I’m sorry… I need a minute to think everything through…” Lavellan uncrossed her arms and turned toward the door.


    “Is it happening again?” Leliana gracefully glided across the room, blocking Etain’s exit route.


    “Yes.” Etain nodded, the rush in her ears not yet diminishing. She had never realized how difficult it was to speak without hearing oneself. She could hardly make out what Leliana was saying if she hadn’t paid close attention to the subtle movements her mouth made. “I cannot control it yet. Or understand.”


    “Do they respond to you? To your questions?”


    “I… haven’t tried.”


    “Perhaps it is worthy of an attempt.”


    “Leliana, I need a moment.” Etain’s tone took on the dark, steely quality it obtained when she felt she wasn’t heard. She took another breath as Sister Nightingale offered up a subtle nod of understanding.


    “Please… you and Cullen continue on without me… I shall return shortly.”


Etain fled the war room, her feet flying her out of the nearest door to winter swirling outside. Her chest rose up and down rhythmically as she turned her face up toward the gray skies, the cold air burning her throat each time she inhaled. Her ears desperately clung to the sound of the snow… that dull, nearly silent hum that required enough focus to find in order to drown out every other thought.


    Her soul struggled with coping at how much had changed within the last few days. Etain had accomplished becoming a power-hungry, impetuous fool in the eyes of her friends and arcane advisor, obliterating any amity and familiarity she had built up with them. No matter how justified and reasoned her decision may have been from her standpoint, the decision’s worldly repercussions among the Inquisition seemed worse than the price of the well’s power itself. Her head now swam with voices of spirits long gone, serving a goddess she had long decided was nothing but myth.


    Etain chewed her bottom lip, lost in thought. As painful as those reflections were, they distracted her from the whispers, and they began to subside.


    Her entire worldview had been torn to pieces; myth had become reality, every story about the Elvhen pantheon she had resigned to legends chock full of metaphors and cultural remnants of ancient superstition were now plausible truths. Even more so, she had bound herself to one of these powerful legends, and only Mythal knew how her story would be etched in history.


    Her only comfort was a somewhat sadistic, solemn realization. Etain Lavellan, First to Deshanna of Clan Lavellan, had perished alongside Haven. The woman that emerged was the Inquisitor, justice incarnate at the price of her own freedom and free will. The blood on her hands was enough to drown in, no matter how just the killings may have been. Reason it away anyway she could, blood is still blood, death is still death. Simple as that. Life was but a fleeting notion in her fingers, taken away as easily as a flick of her wrist. A notion perhaps more terrifying than facing Corypheus and that lyrium dragon of his. But her path was set, and no matter what could possibly happen, Etain could never go back to being simply Etain of Clan Lavellan. Thus there was no sense in fearing more sacrifice, more heartbreak, more death, more damning action and mistakes. Her only option was to become an instrument of protection and perceived salvation; to give all she could possibly give and more to the Inquisition, to Thedas, and never look back - for there was nothing to look back to. As such her pressures seemed a bit more bearable, her decisions more assured, her lethality less self-destructive to her soul. There was no point in fearing pain and death if one was already dead.


    Or so she thought, if not hoped. One last minute Etain spent as if in a trance, listening to the silent roar of falling snow and wind, the lingering whispers from beyond growing quiet. Her breath steadied, a perfect rhythm of a gentle inhale and controlled exhale. Time’s up. She tightened her fur lined cloak about her straightened shoulders, and trekked across the snow back indoors.

 


 


    “Boss, you uh… decided to go for a new look?” The massive qunari picked at his fingers with a dagger, scrutinizing the Inquistion’s leader with a baffled stare.


    Etain sighed, cursing her decision the previous night. She knew she would have to repeat the story over and over until her tongue went numb.


    “Turns out the vallaslin were remnants of slave markings of ancient Arlathan. Solas removed them.” The seething way she spoke the apostate’s name was involuntary. Lavellan crossed her arms and stopped in front of Bull, reclining in his usual chair. He skimmed her from head to toe and grunted. There was no hiding the lack of sleep that was chalking her skin and swelling her eyes, dark circles beneath them. At least the headache the wine had given her had finally subsided… though it persevered all day, relenting only now that it was past sunset.


    Bull made a mental note of pulling out that juicy bit of knowledge about slaves in Arlathan next time Solas chided the Qun.


    “Solas eh? Yeah… I see what’s going on. Explains why you look like a half frozen sack of shit on a warm day.”


    “Please, you’re too kind…” Lavellan would have laughed, if it hadn't felt so unnatural for her to indulge in such levity.


    “The prettiest sort of shit.”


    “Too late, the damage is done.”


    “I’m just trying to get a laugh out of you, boss.” He hauled himself up out of the chair and twisted his neck with a disconcertingly loud crack. Lavellan’s face twisted in revulsion and she shook her head, ridding her ears of the sound, her own neck suddenly tight.


    “Didn’t go so well, huh?” He referred to the previous night. Lavellan avoided making eye contact and let her facial expression do the talking. The Qunari reached out for her, his palm was massive enough to span the width of her shoulders. Yet before he could say much else, Lavellan straightened up and cleared her throat.


    “I would prefer we not speak of it here… I came here to ask if you’d come with me to the Arbor Wilds…” She looked at Bull with earnest eyes. “I could use your company.  Lay on the jokes as heavy as you please and lend me your skills… Whatever this will be… it’ll be a dicey one.”


    That trademark crooked smile. That bold glint in his green eye. “You point, I annihilate.”


    “Thanks, Bull. We leave tomorrow at dawn.” Etain managed some semblance of a genuine smile, before turning to depart from the tavern. “You owe me for that, by the way.” She called from behind her shoulder, referring to his earlier choice of words.


    “Which is why your drinks are on me anytime, starting tonight.”


    This time Lavellan let out a short chuckle. “Bull… So to make it up to me for your impressively specific descriptor… you will promote a drinking habit that will only serve to turn me into said sack of shit?”


    “Nah… I won’t let it go that far. Just sit down, and drink with a friend. You need it.”


    “What I need is sleep, Bull… Besides, the wine wasn’t particularly agreeable with me last night.”


    “See, exactly my point. It’s when you’re drinking alone that you need to worry. Drink with a friend, release some of that tension and go to bed without a care for a night.”


    An hour and three drinks later, Lavellan barely escaped the Qunari’s absurd idea of light drinking, a slight dizziness beginning to tickle her mind. She shuffled along through the snow, not even bothering to tighten her cloak about her. Her fingers brushed long, gilded strands of hair over her shoulder as she took her time ascending the back stairs to the living quarters. The last thing she needed was to parade through a hall full of nobles and other dignitaries half-drunk.


    The hulking wooden door creaked in dissent once Etain pushed it open, the cold night air dragging in stray snowflakes as it rushed inside. She shrugged off the chill and slipped off her coat as she slammed the door shut with her boot, nearly losing her balance. She turned to see Solas roaming across the entry chamber toward the stairs leading to private rooms.  


    Etain reeled in the scowl that unintentionally crossed her face and proceeded toward the same stairs. The effort to walk in a perfectly natural straight line was more of a challenge than she had expected. Her mind seemed fairly sharp and clear, yet her limbs were in a complete disconnect.


    “Hello, Inquisitor.” Gray eyes watched her over a shoulder as she ventured into the entry chamber. “I hope you have stayed warm and had a good evening.”


    So it was no longer ‘vhenan’. Was he hinting at her sobriety, or simply being polite? Lavellan folded her jacket over her forearm and crossed her arms over her chest, her face a vision of perfect neutrality. “Hello, Solas. It’s been… lovely.”


    Her tone was not as neutral as her face. Was it really necessary to be so sarcastic? Calm, you foolish child.


    She hated the way he looked at her; a cold, lost soul gazing upon a blazing fire for the first time all winter. Her scathing tone was not overlooked, as she had hoped. Instead he watched for her next move, the muscles of his jaw tensing as he chewed over the proper response while avoiding the elephant in the room.


    “Then, unless you require immediate assistance, I should wish you an equally lovely and resting night, free of ill dreams.”


    Always the polite response. Though now he spoke to her as if she were a stranger, as if he had not caressed her skin and kissed her breathlessly, as if his fingers had not wound themselves in her long hair, as if his arms had not crushed her feverish form close to his body in the quiet of night only several days prior.


    Etain took one cautious step forward, biting her lower lip nearly to blood. “How thoughtful of you.” She knew she was being uncharacteristically bitter. Had she been completely sober, her choice affect would have been of a gracious and tactful ice queen, unfazed by the whims of the heart.


    Thank you, Bull…  the thought was neither an accusation, nor a thanks. “Quite the change from earlier.”


    They had grown accustomed to each other to not need many words for their points to come across. He knew precisely what she hinted at and what she sought.


    “I’m afraid discussing such matters would not be appropriate at this time. We must focus on what truly matters.” His voice was a solemn chant, monotone and lifeless, as though he had been rehearsing his response for quite some time. “Harden your heart to a cutting edge, and put that pain to good use against Corypheus.”


    She had to practically call on the will of Mythal herself not to attack him. Dread Wolf take you, Solas. What would you know of pain? Inside, her blood boiled and power screamed to be unleashed in a raging torrent. Outside, her face remained a stoic mask, save for a darkening storm in her eyes - vengeful and hurt. The dreaded abyss that tore at his soul with no intention of quick destruction, but a slow torture; ever present but never in the utmost, as if a cat playing havoc with its prey. Solas had seen this side of her before - her eyes would rip her adversaries to ribbons all while she smiled and spoke in a honeyed tone, they none the wiser to know she had already crushed them to dust. Perhaps she should have been born a noble human in Orlais.


     She struggled with which point to push forward first. It did not add up… He must have had a good reason for his actions, and he was hiding it. “Have I not earned at least an explanation?”


     “The answers would only lead to more questions, an emotional entanglement that would benefit neither of us… The blame is mine, not yours. It was irresponsible and selfish of me… Let that be enough.” Solas’s voice resonated in a low hum between the cold stone walls, his words somehow both a pleading and a warning.


    “You really don’t let anybody see under that polite mask you wear, do you?” There was no point trying to pry answers from the man. The bridge was burned, and Lavellan was not fool enough to dare to cross it.


    “You saw more than most. Let me know if I can be of any more help planning our final fight.” Something menacing glinted in his gunmetal eyes as his tone steeled and his temples tensed.


    Final. In more than one way, it seems… Lavellan shifted weight from one foot to the other as gracefully as the wine would allow, sidestepping the man to approach the stairs.


    “I’ll manage. Have a lovely night, Solas.” Her tone was aloof, and she had not bothered to look his way as she made her way up the stairs to the first landing of her tower. By the time she made it to the narrow staircase of her private room, her semi-graceful sashay turned into a flustered stomp; four stairs in, one boot came off, followed by the second. They tumbled over themselves as they sailed through the air back to the bottom of the stairs. The jacket barely made it to the couch. Lavellan herself, sauntered over to her bed, stripping as she went.

Her heart was in her throat, her palms clammy. But none of that deserved her attention. Every fiber of her being focused on the softness of the pillow and her breathing, frantically refusing to heed the myriad of thoughts and memories in her head. Breathe in. Breathe out.
    


 


    The fire flickered a wild orange, blazing bright against the white winter night. The flames lapped at the logs with a desperation, lighting the small, makeshift camp of a Dalish family deep in the woods.  They were merely two days travel from a nearby village, on their return journey from a trade with a fellow clan. A bundled mother cradled her swollen belly as she hobbled into her aravel. Her lips muttered softly as the child within protested the arduous movement, her vallaslin shifting subtly with the faint light of the fire streaming in from outside. Her calloused fingers brushed a stray lock of copper blonde hair behind her ear as she lowered herself with a heavy exhale onto a bedroll. Golden eyes drifted tiredly over her few remaining wares before her lids grew heavy with sleep. The blood writing adorning her face favored June, as did her own handiwork; one intricately forged sword, a spear, two bows and several armors of leather - all in high esteem among both the Dalish and the Shemlen. Everything else was picked out and traded within the first day of arrival to a lakeside Dalish camp.


    A father remained near the fire, his features outlined by the glow; a stern face of a hunter with deep blue eyes, wise and old. A claw shaped scar traversed his forehead, above the worry lines between his nut brown eyebrows. The tips of his short hair were speckled with snowflakes. A low, sweet lullaby hummed from his throat as he deftly braided a young girl’s tresses. A child of no more than eight, she sat cocooned in a winter coat and blanket, hardly awake.


    A crackle of a twig broke the serenity of the calm winter night. The slightest sound amidst the trees, but it was enough to draw the hunter’s attention. His gaze pivoted to the shadowy trunks, awaiting any further sign of an animal, drawn by the fire and smell of warm bodies.


    A thrum of an arrow followed instead. Instinctively the Dalish man shoved his daughter to the side, shouting ‘run’. The arrow grazed his tapered ear, drawing a stream of bright red. The child rolled away, nothing but a mound of blanket scuffling behind the aravel.


    A father’s raging instinct to protect drove his daggers with incredible speed as five cloaked shadows withdrew from the forest. Two nocked and aimed arrows at the elf, three drew their swords.


    There was no chance. The realization of having no way out, no way to protect one’s family sent the hunter’s heart pounding in his throat. Every regret flashed across his blue eyes, his skin beading with sweat in the biting chill of winter.


    A flaming arrow zipped through the air into one of the assailants’ throat, sending him stumbling back with a spray of crimson drenching his clothing. Golden eyes picked her next target as deft fingers prepared a second shot. The craftswoman’s shot created a brief moment of chaos and surprise, a fleeting chance the father did not pass up. He kicked into the fire, sending embers flying into the swordsman’s face as he lunged through the flames, daggers skewering ruthlessly into his throat, ruby droplets splattering onto the hunter’s fingers, the heat of the blood fueling his rage.


    “RUN!” He bellowed once more, both to his child and wife, as he parried madly with the remaining two thieves. The third was preoccupied with the expecting mother, sending another shaft, this one lodging itself in the wood as the woman barely managed to duck for safety.


    Crisp footsteps sounded from behind the aravel, armored boots crunching on the frozen snow. Cold sweat drenched the Dalish child, and she whirled around in time to see another crude armored bandit prowl toward her aravel. Her feet had acted before she even realized it; she darted into the trees to the side of their camp, running as fast as her little heart could pump lifeblood into her limbs. She disappeared, nothing but a fleeting shade in the moonless night, bolting through the skeletal trees. Fading, desperate screams of pain chased her, the terror of the sound biting at her heels. Tears gleamed down her cheeks, but she did not spare a moment to stop and look. She understood well enough she would make no difference against a gang of armed thieves; she would only die in vain, even if she were with her family. She would not live to warn her village, she would not live to see her people avenge them. All that was left for her to do was run. Run until her limbs gave out from under her.


    Her throat burned, gasping for breath, as she hid on a rock ledge deep in the woods. She could no longer hear the screams. The night grew still and painfully silent. Her own heartbeat sounded as thunder, about to give away her hiding spot to an unseen menace.


    After several minutes in hiding, she slithered down the frosted rock. Drawing a small, training dagger from her belt she prowled from tree trunk to tree trunk, back toward her camp. Her going was slow, as she surveyed every step she took, careful not to snap a twig or shuffle aside a rock.


    Hushed, angered voices muttered amongst themselves as the thieves inspected their loot. The Dalish child stole away toward the back of the aravel in the shadows, holding her breath and crouching low. What drove her to come back, she wasn’t sure. She knew she had walked into the deathtrap, but she had to know. She had to be certain that her parents were no longer. That her unborn sibling would not live to see the light of day.


    Small, willowy fingers curled over the edge of the aravel and she hoisted herself up enough to steal a glimpse within. Long golden hair splayed across the floor as amber eyes no longer gleamed with life and stared listlessly upward. The woman’s clothes were sheared and torn, exposing her paling body. The girl’s fingers lost all their strength and she fell into the snow in utter terror, the dagger clattering against the wood as it slipped from her grip. From under the caravan, she saw her father’s body lie still; deep gashes tore his leather armor to shreds, two arrows protruded from his chest, a pool of blood seeped into the frozen ground around him.


    “What was that?” The muffled thud drew a brown eyed swordsman’s attention to the aravel. Another thief stopped cleaning his dagger and glanced over to his companion.


    “What was what?”


    “You didn’t hear that?” The swordsman wheeled around to face the rogue.


    “Why would I ask if I did? Dipshit.”


    “Shut up both of you. Look.” The last living thief, fully clad in mismatched armor, growled and gestured back toward the aravel.


    Her body acted on its own; an unseen force driving her forward into the camp. The elven child stepped into the light, energy crackling around her fingers, weaving up her limbs, crisscrossing her entire body with a pale blue glow. She dropped to her knees by her father’s side, her gaze locked onto the dead man. Her tears steamed away from her flushed cheeks and the glow continued to envelop her.


    The rogue set down his dagger and reached for the bow of his fallen comrade. The child’s hands moved from her father’s face to the ground, her fingers fluidly spreading flat. Within a moment, the entire perimeter of the camp and everything within grew quiet and uncomfortably still. Electricity seemed to surge dangerously through every particle in the air around them, raising the hair on their skin, prickling their senses. Sparks snapped at the rogue’s fingers as he reached for the bow.


    Mana surged around her as she glared on at the marauders, a face carved in marble, a face of pure vengeance. The vision was even more terrifying considering she was merely a child, wielding power reserved for seasoned mages. The tips of her ears were red and nearly frostbitten. Her breath fluttered in the frigid air. Mana and electricity crackled down her slender arms into the ground, her fingers curling into the dirt.


    Guttural screams were cut short by the shock ravaging each of their bodies from within. Their own fingers clawed at their skin, as if trying to brush away the magic assaulting them. Flames burst from within, licking at crinkling skin, the smell of burning flesh filled the air and bodies dropped to the ground, charred inside out.


    The child raised herself from the blood soaked ground and turned away, her body shaking from exhaustion. Her mind yet reeled from the death of her family, the thought still surreal despite the reality of the bodies around her. Nor did she understand what had just occurred, what dreadful power welled within her bones and how it had managed to make its presence known.


    Her steps slowly carried her from the camp, her gait unsure and wavering.


    The memory slowly withered, the vision fading from the dream, save for the slender shadow of a girl with tapered ears, gliding to the safety of the Dalish village in the arctic darkness.


    A girl with hyacinth eyes.


    Solas woke with a sharp inhale, his own skin tingling in the cold night. Darkness cloaked his small sleeping chamber, the winter chill nipping at even the walls, frost scurrying across the windowsill. His hands covered his face, trying to calm his mind from the memory he had just intruded on.


    A girl with hyacinth eyes.


    A girl with a soul luminous enough to blind, born of darkness and blood, of all things. He thought he knew Lavellan, knew her spirit. It only served to leave him shaken, realizing how little he understood of her at all; realizing how much more addicting her mystery would now become to him.


    She would not leave his thoughts, haunting his peripheral, half awakened vision. His eyes were closed and yet he saw her in clear detail. A girl with hyacinth eyes.

Chapter Text

    Yet again Etain found it looking back at her through eons old obscurity; a towering statue of a woman, her face always shielded by an angled helm, her stance invoking a sense of authority and grace. Wreaths of flowering purple crowned her head and wound their way up her poised frame. Time had forgotten this place; leafy green fingers clutched at the silent sentries, the forest poured over the walls into the arena, and the air was filled with a sense of ageless anonymity. Lavellan lowered her cowl, her pace slowing as if not to intrude on the tranquility of the altar.


    They never look at you… they do not see, nor do they hear, why should their idols not do the same? Lavellan’s head tilted by a slight angle, her eyes trying to find a way to glimpse the face beneath the mask. They’re all gone. How could this work? I am to plead to a crumbling statue of a being long disinterested in our world. A rush of hushed whispers scratched at the back of her mind like a nagging headache - not bad enough to be debilitating nor mild enough to be easily ignored. She took in a deep breath, filling her lungs with the musky air of the ancient forest around her. Her arms uncrossed and she ambled up the altar steps, sparing but a passing glance at the wolf statues to either side. Lets hope I do not falter and summon the wrong god, she thought bitterly before turning her focus back to the statue of Mythal.
  

 “This is all that is left of the altar.” Etain muttered, knowing her companions were trailing into the arena behind her.


    The words flowed from her lips, and she was unsure whether they were her own, or a projection from the voices of the Well. “We few who travel far, call to me, and I will come, without mercy, without fear.”


    “Cry havoc in the moonlight, let the fire of vengeance burn, the cause is clear.” His voice resonated with an eerie power across the still ruin, as Solas stepped into the clearing. “A very old invocation, perfectly translated.”


    Etain’s skin tingled with apprehension as she dismissed his comment. The man was a vessel of boundless knowledge, and it never failed to amaze, if not unnerve her that he always had something to impart wherever they went. Ever since he had withdrawn from her, his voice and presence sent her heart clenching into a ball within her chest. A dull pain, ever-present and relentless.


    “Strange that there wasn’t an altar like this at Mythal’s temple. The temple was a place of justice but this…is different.” Her eyes never left the statue.


    “No shit.” Iron Bull grumbled to himself, hardly audible to the Inquisitor.


    “This is where the elves called to her. Spoke to her… Then one day she disappeared.” Even to herself, Etain sounded like a believer, yet the doubt lingered in the back of her mind. A small tingle, skeptical and alert at whatever misconception this all may be.


    “And they had no one to speak to.” The only words that seemed to be truly hers, for her own experience had not shown her otherwise.


    “You want us to piss off so you can get to it?” Bull interceded, downplaying the eagerness with which he and Dorian wanted to avoid more cryptic elven reminiscing. Smashing foes to pulp was his forte, not interpretation of lost legend.


    “Don’t go too far, I may need your help if there is trouble.” Etain hadn't so much turned back to her companions, her gaze transfixed on the statue.



    Dorian watched his footing as they made their way out of the nature-reclaimed arena, avoiding any loose stones and tangled vegetation. They paced the perimeter, all three curious about the same thing and yet not voicing their thoughts.


    “Why is it always ruins?” Dorian finally broke the silence among the three of them.


    “Because humans cannot culminate what they conquer, what they create, into much else.” Solas’s solemn tone sounded from several paces ahead.


    “My, my, is waking up alone in your bedroll finally getting to you?” Dorian brushed a stray leaf from his shoulder, frowning at the vines growing all around him. Bull’s eyebrow raised, his eye widening briefly at Dorian’s spiteful remark. Solas’s back immediately straightened, every muscle tensing.


    “No better defense than impertinent insults, Tevinter? How expected.”


    “A defense against what? Just because you’re wallowing in self-loathing and melodramatic pursuit of things long gone, doesn’t mean you need to drag all the rest of us cheery souls down with you into that …” Dorian waved his hand in a circular motion, gesturing to all of Solas’s stature. “… abysmal grouchiness.”


    The apostate stopped and turned his head, gunmetal eyes swirling with icy indignation.


    Bull whistled loudly and stepped past Dorian, closer to Solas.


    “Do I need to leave so you two can get it out of your system? At this rate I’d rather see what sort of cryptic lunacy Boss is up to.”


    “Oh hush. A friendly tiff, is all.” Dorian’s tone carried such air of nonchalance, as if they were simply speaking of something as mundane as the weather.


    “Indeed.” Solas seethed and stalked off ahead, into the forest. Dorian finished ceremoniously straightening his armor, a disgusted look distorting his features as he surveyed the area about him.


    “What do you suppose our dear Lavellan is doing?” The mage glanced back toward the arena, his arms crossed.


    Only when Bull hadn’t answered within a reasonable time frame did Dorian turn his attention back to the massive warrior. The Qunari was squinting at the blinding afternoon sky, his colossal, muscle bound arms tensing at his sides.


    “What?” Dorian furrowed his brow, following his line of sight. The canopy was so lush and dense, it nearly blocked out a clear view of the skies above. Yet something lurked between the branches, or rather, above. They could hear gusts of wind, too rhythmic to be natural, growing too loud too soon.


    “My dear Bull… is that what I think it is?” His throat felt drier than desert sand in the heat of a summer day. And the grin wiping itself across the Qunari’s face only made him crawl in his own skin.


    “Don’t get your panties in a bunch.” Bull shot Dorian a wicked glance and began to walk. “I’ll protect you.”


    “Your accuracy with reality is impeccable. Especially considering I have to ward your vast ass every time you barrel blindly into the battlefield.” The mage scolded, following in the warrior’s steps.


    “You’d only do it if this vast brawny ass was worth something to you.”


    A conceding sigh followed as Dorian delved deep into his mana pool, preparing for whatever hell was about to be unleashed next. “Naturally.”

 



    The sunlight filtering through the trees danced along the beast’s emerald scales, rendering it nearly incandescent. It crouched, its ruthless attack suddenly halted.


    A bellow tore through the musky air of the ancient arena, and the Qunari rolled his shoulders, preparing to swing his monstrous battle-axe forward.


    “STOP.” The command was thunderous and clear. Etain lowered her imposing staff, the sunlight glinting off of the razor sharp blades at its back end. “Leave her, Bull!”


    The look of incredulity on his face was only intensified by the trickle of blood making its way down his forehead and nose.


    The glimmering blade in her left hand faded away, leaving a simple, dark hilt clenched in her fingers. Slipping it to her hip, she took a cautious but assured step forward.


    “Etain…” Dorian muttered breathlessly, his voice a warning, his dark skin dotted with sweat from exertion. The dragon put up quite a fight. He had no knowledge of what Lavellan would do next, especially since her actions have grown more bold of late.


    The proud creature raised its scaled head, its beautifully twisted horns reaching high into the canopy. It watched the elven woman approach, her limber, lightly armored form taking heedful, fluid steps until she stood before it.


    Etain could practically smell the fear and apprehension welling in her companions behind her. She felt their eyes bore holes into her back, watching, waiting, and hoping they wouldn’t witness the prompt crisping of their leader.


    Sheathing energy slithered up her limbs, shimmering lightly in the sun. Solas. Not letting her gaze break with the dragon, her fingers dispelled the magic cloaking her. The Guardian had relented, striking a delicate balance of equal vulnerability and equal danger between them. She was not about to offend it.


    Her heart pounded furiously, sweat glistening at the back of her neck as Lavellan continued to lock eyes with the great beast looming over her. Slowly, the dragon lowered its head, its neck elongating as the great maw opened.


    Whether her heart stopped beating or it had pounded so fast she could not even discern a single beat, Etain was unsure. The roar enveloped her, her jaw clenching painfully as she fought to remain immobile. It spoke to her. Not in words, yet she could understand it.


    A tendril of power tingled across Lavellan’s skin, voices talking one over another in the back of her mind, urging her to submit to the flow of energy. An ethereal blue glow swirled in her eyes, gliding off her skin to surge toward the dragon. The same blue glow filled its eyes, spreading as a colored drop in a glass of water.


    Immense, powerful wings elongated with a gust of air, and the colossal dragon nimbly pulled itself back into the sun bleached skies. Lavellan stood still for a moment, eyes following the great beast. Suddenly her stern gaze splintered and her chest rose up and down frantically. A weak laugh trickled from her lips. She turned back to her dumbfounded companions, their expressions erasing the smile from her lips and dulling the twinkle of an adrenaline fueled rush in her eyes. She straightened up, and fastened her staff to her back.


    The formidable warrior raised his hand, his green eye scolding her, and pointed to her, momentarily at a loss for words. Lavellan’s eyebrows arced upwards in surprise.


    “How about a heads up next time?” He grumbled, shifting the battleaxe in his other hand before slinging it over his back.


    “If only I had a ‘heads up’ myself.” Lavellan retorted and brushed the dirt and sweat from her brow. For all of this. Perhaps I would have never gotten on that ship to come to the Conclave… and would have been scurrying around with my clan, hiding from demons and Corypheus’s reach. It would have only been a matter of time until I would be dead, along with the rest of my clan. Perhaps we would all have been dead already. Or worse… Either way, my life is forfeit as my own.


    Lavellan nearly felt the cold draft as Solas stalked past them out of the ancient arena. For a transient moment, her own eyes dared meet the apostate’s gray gaze. Blame, fear, anger, longing, sorrow and cautious regard all intertwined themselves into one fleeting look. Etain’s focus fled to her gauntlets, suddenly too heavy and too hot for her hands. He detests me now. He was adamant against letting Morrigan drink from the well and yet now he damns me for it. Was that truly all it took to push him away?  


    “Back to camp. We set out for Skyhold in the morning.” Etain muttered, her throat too clammed up to allow anything louder. She proceeded to peel the gauntlets from her fingers, ignoring the bruises welling alongside her legs. Although she managed to avoid most of the dragon’s strikes, its tail caught her well and hard across her legs, sweeping her up into the air and slamming her into the ground, speckles of bursting light in her eyes.


    She welcomed the pain. It was simple, physical ache of groaning bones and taut muscle and it distracted from the gnawing confusion and shock looming at the periphery of her thoughts. A moment of simplicity was refreshing, false as it was. Her brain had not yet begun to dissect everything Flemeth had said, nor who Flemeth was, nor how her body was bent to her will.


    She offered one last glance at the altar’s statue. “So long as the music plays, we dance…” And then what? To what end will you have me dance? What will you make of me by the time this is all over? A transient thought crossed Lavellan’s mind as she turned and departed from the ruins: the thought of whether this was a mistake, whether they will soon have to protect the world from whatever reckoning intended to shake the very heavens that Flemeth had planned; from whatever weapon she had turned herself into, unknowingly handed over to Mythal.

 



    They sighed and swayed with every gentle stroke of the wind; emerald ghosts moved by a force invisible until the rustle of foliage makes its presence known. The snow capped pinnacles looming over the woods cast a faint light into the skies. The air swelled with the scent of damp earth and crackling firewood. The sound soothed and lulled the small camp into a drowsy tempo. Words mumbled lazily in the predawn breeze as the few Inquisition soldiers prepared for the last leg of the trek up to Skyhold.


    Etain mindlessly rubbed a scratch in one of the shoulders of her drakeskin coat, eyes listlessly following her soldiers as they scrambled about the camp, tearing down tents. She stretched the sleep from her shoulders with as drawn out of a sigh her reinforced bodice allowed and shrugged into the rest of her enchanter armor. Fingers deftly twisted and tightened the sash across her waist, grasping a moment to feel the cool, matte smoothness of the fabric. She turned to the silverite pauldrons, a bit more clumsy with their weight so early in the pre-dawn hours. How - why does Cullen do this every morning? The first time he aided her in properly fitting her custom pauldrons, she didn’t see the merit in their use. Heavy, clunky, limiting. Shiny.


    “You are the one who chose the knight-enchanter path, Inquisitor. This is necessary for close combat. Come complain to me the next time you have to deflect a blow or drive your shoulder into an opponent.” He lectured and tightened the straps to fit her form before running a finger along the sharp protrusion of the cop protecting the shoulder.


    She hadn’t returned to complain. Annoying as they seemed this morning, they had been beyond useful in the field. Lost in her aimless thoughts, she didn’t notice the apostate looming in her periphery.


    “Inquisitor.” His greeting was curt and official, devoid of any familiarity. Etain’s jaw set reflexively.


    “Yes, Solas?” She made it a point to mimic the same formal tone he now preferred with her.


    He handed her a small satchel of food and water supplies for the ascent. She could see the questions held back on his lips. Worry had pulled his brows into a frown ever since they had left the altar, and hasn’t dissipated for the last few days.


    “Yes… Solas?” She reiterated, nudging him to ask already.


    “At the altar. What happened? What did you see?”


    What does it matter now? He had seen what he needed to. The Guardian will aid us. He has been silent and lost in some forlorn thought for days now. Lavellan sensed his preoccupation with whatever she had awakened in the Well.


    “Another servant of Mythal. Instructing me to defeat the Guardian and earn its aid or to die in the process. Nothing else.” A curt, vague response. She was in no particular mood to discuss at length all Flemeth had revealed, especially with the man that changed seemingly overnight. He relinquished her for her actions at the Well; discussing the consequences at length would be as reopening a freshly scabbed wound. She had just began to lick her injuries clean.


    He looked her over thoughtfully, and a glimpse of subtle relief softened his eyes.


    “Well. I suppose it is fortunate we were able to accomplish that task.” He smiled politely, his gaze still gloomy whenever he faced her.


    How Lavellan despised that look. There was hardly any pity and commiseration left in her bones. You made the choice yourself. This was your doing. Don’t you dare look at me with such cavernous anguish.


    “Indeed.” She pulled the last strap of her armor in place, a bit more rough than she intended. I am too far away to feel you any longer, Solas. She bit back her immediate after thought - let’s see if I feel the same way when I go to sleep tonight. If I feel this way tomorrow. Or the next day. She reverted to the Inquisitor, locking away Etain and her host of doubts and pains.


    “Move out. The sooner this is over with, the better.” Fastening her staff to her back and her blade to her hip, she set out without a wayward glance at her companions.

    Hours drifted by in a daze as Lavellan made every effort only to think of one foot moving ahead of the other. The more she avoided replaying Flemeth’s words, the easier they found their way into her ears.


    “A reckoning that will shake the very heavens… I will see her avenged.”


    This was more than just Corypheus. Lavellan shuddered at the thought that perhaps he was merely the start. How long would they - her companions, advisors, soldiers, and herself- have to tear themselves apart? Defeat or victory, she doubted she’d be able to live past whatever her confrontation with the magister entailed. She could not ignore her instincts, buzzing with apprehension and warning. Avenge Mythal? Through me? Or am I simply the convenient pawn to rid the world of Corypheus so that Flemeth can go on with her schemes? Avenge her… for what? Her murder? Abelas made it clear Fen’Harel had naught to do with it, as our legends have taught for ages. Who, then? If she was truly murdered… though her spirit remains. No. Revenge for the gods being locked away in the Beyond? Does that mean there is yet another deity among the living? Fen’Harel in the flesh? What a terror that would be. Lurking in the shadows and reveling in the chaos he created? Too bad you’ve been outdone, Fen’Harel. Lavellan practically snorted in derision at her thoughts. Realizing she was smiling to herself acerbically, she wiped her face clean of any expression. Some superstitious inkling nagged at her for her sarcastic comments. Yes, the last thing I need to add to my repertoire of bullshit to deal with is the wrath of the Dread Wolf himself.


    She shook the foolish thoughts from her head. What have I unleashed? What sort of madwoman have I called upon myself?


    Etain’s feet carried her higher and higher up the chilly mountain path, every rock and outcropping ingrained in her memory. What sort of madwoman will I turn myself into, if I survive Corypheus? Perhaps, ages ago, Flemeth was just as I was, wondering the same thing. “One day, someone will summarize the terrible events of your life so quickly.” Out of everything Flemeth had said, those words stung the most.


    The imposing silhouette of Skyhold emerged ahead of the winding path, the heart of the Inquisition perched at the roof of the world; everything Lavellan had brought upon Thedas made physical. Hyacinth eyes took in the massive keep, and the faint rumble of life within. It may well be the last time she will be offered such a sight, for next time her feet followed this same path, she’d be venturing to her death or that of Corypheus.


    By all means, make that summary quick for your own sake.

Chapter Text

     “Did you find what you need, Inquisitor?” Leliana strolled up to the war table, her movements confident and fluid as ever. The room was awash with the warm glow of the early afternoon sun, intermingling with the smell of fresh parchment and dusky brazier smoke. Etain stopped next to her arcane adviser. The raven haired woman glanced the Inquisitor over with a degree of curiosity, exuding a modicum of newfound trust as Lavellan met her gaze.


    “Let’s just say I have what we need…”


    Cullen’s hand moved to its usual spot, resting on the pommel of his sword. “Then all that remains is to find Corypheus before he comes to us.”


    “We’ve been looking for his base since all this began, with no success.” Frustration plaited itself in Leliana’s voice and her stance as she glared at the Inquisition’s Commander. “As you well know.”


    “His dragon must come and go from somewhere.” He went on, ignoring the spymaster’s simmering.


    Ambassador Montilyet cocked her head to the side in thought, fingers drumming against her wooden letter-board. “What about the Deep Roads? We could send word to Orzammar, hire envoys to-“


    Josephine was cut short by a sizzling crackle that wreathed in Lavellan’s palm. A second later, the war room was washed in sinister green light. It streamed through the paned windows, as if a spotlight shed on the Inquisition’s hiding place.


    The bewilderment on Etain’s face was accompanied by the gut wrenching icy needles scuttling over her skin. Dread and apprehension wound their claws into her spine, grinding her teeth together. She could feel her blood rush faster through her veins.


    “Too late.” Her voice seethed, eyes fixed on the swirling glow in the skies beyond the massive windows. “Corypheus -“


    “He did that? But why?” Leliana intruded, alarm and panic written clearly on her face. She thought they had more time. They all thought they had more time.


    “Either I close the Breach again, or it swallows the whole world… He’s desperate.”


    “But that’s madness! Wouldn’t it kill him as well?” Josephine’s feet could not remain still as she gaped out the window, her entire body in the grips of fear and confusion.


    It’s exactly what he wants. If he cannot have our realm, he will destroy it and claim the Fade. Etain began tightening the straps of her armor across her arms, eyes gauging the expanse of the chasm in the skies.


    “Inquisitor. We have no forces to send with you - we must wait for them to return from the Arbor Wilds.” The Commander rounded the table, stopping in front of Lavellan.


    “Just as Corypheus expects, I suppose… This is no coincidence. He had eyes on us and it paid off. While we chased after him, he waited patiently for his opportunity to strike.” Lavellan felt the rush across her skin, rage and panic energizing the mana in her limbs. Worst divine luck, indeed.


    Etain’s jaw ached from the force her anxiety exerted on it. She turned, aiming for the door. Sturdy fingers curled around her arm.


    “Inquisitor…” Cullen’s face tensed with disquiet, the faintest flicker of fear lurking in his amber eyes. He collected his thoughts, refusing to let his next words sound like a goodbye. Though, that perhaps was the most fitting thing to say given the circumstances. Should they all perish, this would have been their last chance to say farewell to anyone.


    “Etain.” His voice dropped an octave, barely a whisper. “Keep your head level. Choose a defensive approach. Rely on all your allies. Shield yourself, even if that is all you can spare to do. A sustained, slow attack will throw him into a fury and he will wear himself out quicker, dropping his guard… And…” His jaw flexed as he chewed over whatever was on the tip of his tongue. “Come back.”


    Etain had to practically strain to hear his mumble. Here stood a mass of a man, fully clad in armor, the essence of militaristic authority and power - shrinking in the face of a few tender words to a close friend. A nervous smile twisted the corner of his mouth upwards.


    “I will lose my mind trying to keep them all in line if you’re gone…” He dismissed his nervous moment of weakness.


    Her eyes flittered over all of her advisers, silently expressing apologetic gratitude. A contingency plan had been prepared in case Lavellan perished at any point, which more than likely would be in several short hours. She spared one last glance at her Commander. If I don’t come back, you won’t have to keep anyone in line for long.


    All she could do was smile. A good bye, a thank you - she didn’t know. All together, she supposed. She wouldn't promise what she could not uphold. It was better not to say anything, to simply connect silently in an ephemeral moment, to feel the secure grip of his fingers. One last taste of safety and comfort. Her palm rested in the hollow of his chest plate for a brief second, wordlessly asking what ever deity listened to spare their feeble mortal lives.


    Etain whirled around and rushed out of the room, securing her armor and donning her gauntlets. She fled before any one of them could see the doubt welling in the depths of her eyes. How the hell am I going to do this? If Mythal’s Guardian does not aid us, I may as well slit my own throat now. How am I to live through this? Lavellan swallowed the burn at the back of her throat. Do I want to live through this?


    The entire keep was in utter chaos. She heard Cullen break off and roar orders at the remaining soldiers, Leliana trailing next to him, calling to her spies. Josephine herded all the nobility and noncombatants into the depths of the keep, remarkably maintaining her resolve and grace.


    Etain cursed the now seemingly ridiculous amount of stairs leading from the throne room, rushing as fast as her feet could carry her without tripping over themselves. She saw Bull charge out of the tavern, slamming the door open hard enough to knock the young scout behind it to the ground. The great Qunari mouthed a convenient swear and picked the young man up like a ragdoll, brushing off the dust before clapping him on the shoulders, yet again staggering the poor fellow.


    “Boss!” He bellowed as the rest of the Chargers filed out from behind him. All of their eyes were drawn upwards to the oppressive glow of the reopened Breach.


    Lavellan spared only the smallest of warm glances and her hurried pace did not skip a beat. Bull nodded once, understanding perfectly well that there was no longer any time. It wasn’t as if the massive rift in the sky could bode for anything other than Corypheus’s last, do or die maneuver.


    “Ah, shit… Get my axe. Chargers, fall in. We’re tearing this bastard a new one if it’s the last thing we do.”
   


 


    Her vision nearly blurred with each booming beat of her heart as Lavellan regained consciousness. For a few brief moments she could not remember where she was, nor how she got there, nor who was alongside her. The ringing in her ears left her jaw clenching painfully, blood staining her skin. The sky roiled black and green, the smell of sulfur, fire and, oddly enough, rain filled the air. Slowly, faint moans and groans and curses drifted into her scope of hearing. With more effort than she would have expected, Etain rolled and propped herself up on her knees.


    Iron Bull was the first to rise, shaking his head as if to clear it. His massive, bloodied hands gripped the battle-axe as his eye regained the dimensions of their new battleground. Behind him, Dorian sat himself up with a struggle, and proceeded to mend a rather horrifying laceration across his shoulder. He cursed and groaned as his flesh threaded itself together, but if he had enough strength to heal himself, he would be alright.


    Solas stood still in front of her, crouched, staff at the ready and a scintillating light flowing from his other hand. Crimson trickled from several small gashes on his skull, but otherwise, he seemed unfazed. Lavellan felt the cool slither of the barrier surrounding the four of them.


    “Are you alright, Inquisitor?” He called back to her, without so much as a rearward glance. Lavellan raised herself to her feet, gauging how high of a fall they had all suffered. Her memories gradually resurfaced. A twisting mass of black and jade dragon scales plummeting down to the ground, the rush of foul air as the four of them leapt to lower ground, avoiding the massive beasts.


    Corypheus’s lyrium dragon. The blighted magister’s back up plan. His energy fled the body they had seemingly brought down moments ago, seeking refuge and a second form within the dragon. The Guardian of Mythal may have failed against the beast.


    “Fine. Stay on your guard.” She took a brief moment to regain her breath and stared into the thick fog of dirt and smoke before them.


    A rumble and thud, followed by another. A deafening roar screeched like metal scraping against stone, and the dust cloud cleared in its wake. The horned black beast crouched, bellowing its challenge, stretching its wings in threat. Etain’s jaw protested in pain and she realized just how hard her teeth were grinding. Her mind roiled with the sudden awareness that she wasn’t ready to die, much as she thought she was. The hours spent trekking up to confront the nightmare that was Corypheus were filled with thoughts of dying valiantly, dying for the sake of others, putting an end to this torture… A then comforting thought. Yet now, faced with certain death and obliteration, she had never felt so alive, and so desperate to stay so.


    Bull answered the call with a blood boiling roar and charged forward. In one fluid motion, Solas summoned a ruthless firestorm before pummeling the beast with whatever he could. The staff danced through the air effortlessly, each cannonade of energy a choreographed step in a deadly dance. True to their usual dragon hunting strategy, Dorian strafed to the side of the apostate, forcing the beast’s attention to be torn in different directions.


    Lavellan had less than a heartbeat to make her decision. Cassandra was left behind when the castle was violently thrust into the air. She had no other warrior to attack the dragon close range. The dragon had to die and quickly, Corypheus along with it.


    She could taste the blood on her tongue, and feel the mana surge within her muscles. Kill or be killed. She channeled her power into a hurtling barrage, aimed at the same leg Bull was attacking. Drawing her blade pushed aside the memories of the blood and charred dead left in Corypheus’s wake. And in turn, Lavellan’s wake.


    Breathe in. The movements were nothing if reflexive; back straight and a shade forward, knees slightly bent, lead foot forward, back at an angle, both shoulder distance apart. Her hand gripped the staff at a better one handed angle. Maximize agility, balance and allow for sudden motion, Commander Helaine had drilled it all into her mind relentlessly. Simple, tedious work. But in the split second Etain’s body prepared itself for combat, it was her cursory state of focus, of peace, of one controlled breath that slowed time before the world would come screaming full of blood and bruises and broken bones.


    Breathe out. Letting the rage channel power into her limbs, she snaked her way toward the beast, having gone through too much to allow the dragon be the end of her now. Instinct, fear and fury drove her blows at break neck speed. Hit after hit for a brief period of time before going on the defense as the beast turned to deal with her, only to be distracted again by the brutal assaults of the mages. It all became a ruthless, rhythmic dance between the four doomed souls desperately clinging to life: avoid the tail, stay below her or stay out of wingspan range, use her own limbs to their advantage. Blow by blow, the beast grew livid and disoriented.


    Eternity dragged on and zoomed by all in one: a blur of dragon scales, lyrium gas, hot, wet crimson and magic sizzling through the smoke filled air. The pain was irrelevant, the fear for life all consuming as Etain chanced the perfect opportunity. A duck and roll to avoid the maw, a clean, deep slash to the throat. Lavellan continued striking, sword and staff blades nothing but flashes of silverite and light, not even aware of whether any of it had worked until the spray of hissing black rained down on her as the beast lurched upwards with a shriek.


    With a final flap of its wings, the mass of corrupted dragon flesh collapsed to the ground with an earth shaking thump.


    No sooner had it appeared dead when a glow of red thrashed inside its empty, black eyes. It crackled and darted away from the carcass, bounding upwards into the castle tower to seek its original host.


    “Let it end here! Let the skies boil! Let the world be rent asunder!” The gutteral, low voice the world had come to easily recognize thundered over the ruins. Lavellan exhaled deeply and flicked the thick black liquid from the blades of her staff before setting back toward the stairs. She had no patience left for this torment, and was more than eager to be done with it.


    An irritated growl rolled from the Iron Bull as he yanked a shard of lyrium from the armor below his right shoulder.


    “Fucker sure loves his tirades, waiting for us to come to him. What’s he buying time for?” He rumbled as Dorian strode up next to him, wiping the sweat from his brow.


    “I don’t care but I do hope this is all over soon. My patience is running quite thin. Either kill us all already or die and let me at one of those vintages stashed away in the crevasses of the dinning hall.” The Tevinter mage stretched his neck and proceeded to limber up his arms as they ascended the crumbling stairs.


    Only Solas seemed to have paid close attention to Corypheus’s echoing rants, silently following the group up the stairs. His eyes scanned the woman leading the pack, lingering on the shear through her silvery dragon scale jacket. That should have been a lethal blow, yet her crafted armor proved worthy enough to spare her life with nothing but a bruise on her back to remind her.The favor of June indeed, he thought back to her vallaslin, to the golden haired mother murdered on a winter's night.  Cuts stained burgundy marred Etain's shapely, long legs, though she hardly seemed to notice. Strands of gilded hair began to loosen and fall from underneath her helm, and he could only guess at the damage to her face from the dents in the metal. He continued to watch her closely, taking in every little movement, until she disappeared from sight.


    She leapt from the ledge to Corypheus’s playing field below. The ground trembled and shook the balance from all of their limbs as the rest of them jumped to meet their foe. Chaotic flashes and crackling of red tore through the dense air as the Breach wreathed and expanded, urged on by the darkspawn magister. The creature lashed out with desperate fury, a sphere of fire knocking back everything around him. Bull reached out in time to wrap a huge arm around Lavellan, rolling her behind him, guarding them with his back turned toward the blow.


    “Use the pillars!” The Qunari warned before rushing Corypheus with a blood curdling bellow of pure fury.


    Silencing a small voice crying out in despair and exhaustion, urging her to simply lay down and let it all end, Etain took up a defensive stance. Her eyes watched her target’s every movement and nuance as she stole away between the pillars. Dorian had warded Bull, and proceeded to barrage the Elder One with all his might. Solas had rushed the field and taken up position across the plaza from Dorian, seemingly aware of the magister’s ability to shift his location with breakneck speed. Etain watched the wretched, clawed digits form shafts of furious flame as Corypheus attempted to burn them all.


    Sweat beaded at Lavellan’s back, her palms feverish and clammy beneath the armored gauntlets. The next few minutes were a fog of chaos assaulting her senses. She felt the sharpness and rigidity of the stone beneath her boots as she bolted into the field, randomly zigzagging her way to avoid the lyrium spikes; heard Bull booming taunts at the magister as he shot across the field; felt the chilled slither of the barrier the three mages continuously maintained to avoid the brunt of the danger; heard the crackle of the orb as it writhed in blood red; felt the rush of mana coursing faster through her blood the more adrenaline pumped though her.


    Fury and frustration frenzied their nerves as the darkspawn magister reverted to dashing across the plaza, summoning barrier after barrier to slow their attack. Bull had ceased chasing him across the field, catching his breath and instead waiting for the other mages to force the creature in his direction. Sears and burns blotched his arms, threads of vermillion forming along his temples and fingers. Dorian’s armor singed and smoked in places, soot smeared across his face and freshly healed wounds. Solas was none the better, darting from one corner of the plaza to the other, mimicking Corypheus. Fresh, cardinal red blood creeped from the gashes and scrapes along his skull and hands, evidence of his waning strength and power. It was only a matter of time before they all succumbed to exhausted death.


    Yet Bull had never appreciated the usefulness of the knight enchanter as he did then: she hacked away at the Magister the moment he was in her corner, the incandescent blade ringing with the clarity of some fine metallic instrument, each strike sending a scintillating shiver across the glow of the barrier about her, strengthening it. Blocking, slashing, ducking, lunging, slashing again. She was a blur of pale drakeskin armor and mana fueled rage. Knowing he couldn’t withstand her ruthless onslaught, Corypheus fled to another end of the courtyard. Not missing a second, Lavellan’s staff twisted cleanly through the air and let fly bolt after bolt of blinding energy, the crackle of it standing the hair up on the back of all their necks.


    She seemed at her breaking point, utterly fed up with the games. Drawing too much on her remaining strength, she unleashed all hell she could summon. Blow after brutal blow, she continued her assault, power surging and blasting through the air in a whirlwind of wild light. Blood sped its trickle down her lip, from her ears, as her body grappled with the demands it faced as she fought to her dying breath, if need be. If she was doomed to die there, Corypheus would go down with her, or in the very least be maimed enough for her companions to take care of him.


    Whether some jaded deity had heard their prayers and decided to intervene, or simply as a result of pure fortune, Corypheus abandoned his attack with one last sweep of crimson fire, reaching for the orb. It seemed to fight his grisly grip, thrashing around with random jolts of force.


    “Not like this! I have walked the halls of the Golden City, crossed the ages…” He growled, pouring every bit of his will into controlling the orb.


    Lavellan’s palm glowed brilliant green, the Anchor beckoning its creator power back into her grasp.


    “Dumat! Ancient ones! I beseech you! If you exist - if you ever truly existed - aid me now!” He cried wretchedly, his gaze glowing red and flittering in maddening movements, waiting for some sign from his gods. Talons clicked and slashed against the orb, hoping to somehow elicit every last drop of power.  


    With hardly a strain, the orb hurtled over to Lavellan, guided by the mark. The force of it knocked Corypheus’s jaw from its anchor points, the lower half of his face grotesquely lopsided. It was impossible to discern which of them was more shocked; the elf defying death or the magister about to taste mortality.


    The orb pulsed and breathed terrible power into the Anchor, Etain’s fingers prickling with sizzling energy. Blood trickled down from her nose and lip, the metal taste permeating her every labored and angry breath. Adrenaline furiously numbed the pain of her injuries, and only fueled the rage simmering in every fiber of her being.


    He was on his knees: the savage, vile, odious, megalomaniac mass of a corrupted magister, the cause of every strife, the cause of so much death. The thing that poisoned her very blood, that turned her entire life, everyone’s lives, inside and out. The death, the bloodshed, the corruption, the rotting bodies, the harrowing screams, the seared skin, the families crippled, lovers torn apart and hope drained from every corner of Thedas. All of it in one monstrous creature now finally brought to its knees.


    Corypheus glared forlornly at the orb, the artifact finding its way back into Lavellan’s hold for the second time. The unearthly power coursed into her blood, the green luminescence shimmering beneath her skin. The light weaved and flickered faintly between her fingertips, as if reveling in the life it felt. The Inquisitor’s eyes shredded the blighted creature to ribbons, summoning every last sliver of mana still welling in her weary bones.


    Her focus turned to the orb of destruction in her grasp, an object of such immense beauty and terror; the key to ending it all. Her eyes drifted up towards the expanding Breach above. What if it backfires? What if this doesn’t work? Her hand thrust the orb upwards, a pillar of flailing power shooting into the depths of the gaping tear in the sky. The Breach pulsed, a shockwave of light spreading rapidly amongst the churning black clouds. The green light flared thrice, as if the flutter of a heart, before the rift yielded.


    The orb dropped to the ground at her feet with a shrill slunk, nothing more than a metal sphere with intricate carvings.


    The blades of the staff slid into the blackened ground as Lavellan stuck her weapon by her side. Her hand reached upwards, pulling the helm from her face before letting it drop to the charred stone floor. The tightly plaited honey hair was slicked with sweat and dusted with dirt, her face bloodied and dirtied and ferocious. Of the myriad of things she had to say, to shout at this creature every moment of days prior, none mattered now. Her tongue would not form the words. All she wanted was for him to suffer. To pay. To bleed.


    Electricity snaked in her gauntleted right hand as she continued to stare down the malevolent monster before her. She tilted her head by a miniature degree, flicked her fingers to the side, a bolt careening furiously at its target. His jaw popped and screeched at a gut churning angle, now pointing in the opposite direction. Only a groan indicative of pain and nuisance sounded from the creature. She wanted screams.


    Lavellan took a step closer. Her hands mimicked a spreading motion, energy hissing and snapping around Corypheus before shocking him. Whatever muscles he had left spasmed violently, dislocating joints from their sockets. His shoulders popped and arms dangled far too low to be intact, his back and neck twisted at awkward angles. Bolts skid across the patches of skin yet left on the creature, scorching and charring.


    “You wanted into the Fade?” Her hand stretched toward the magister. His body convulsed with a green light, something reminiscent of a shriek tearing from his throat. The rift swallowed him whole, from the inside out. With one last yowl, he was gone.


    Etain glared at the spot for a moment, muscles tensed and ready to fight for her life, as if this was all nothing but a dream. Any second now, Corypheus would reappear in another corner of the plaza, hurtling red lyrium at her once more. Could it all truly be over?


    The transient silence and calm broke with the crashing of stone around them as the grounds began to plummet down to the earth once more. Boulders the size of small rooms bombarded the ruined plaza, sending everyone running for cover on shaky feet. Except Etain. She remained still and transfixed on the spot where Corypheus perished.


    “Lavellan!” Dorian bellowed from somewhere behind her.


    She shook from her daze, snatched her staff and twisted around to find cover. Her feet carried her furiously across the stone toward the stairs. The feeling of weightlessness overtook her and she felt her gut thrust upward to her throat as her feet left the ground. Long fingers clutched her ankle, swiftly switching their grip higher up her leg, to her belt, before pulling her in behind the column. Her knees scraped against the stone and pebbles as she pressed against the pillar, leaving a bloody imprint of her cheek on the slab as an arm held her in place. She opened her eyes and found herself facing the fur pelt of Solas’s armor. The mage loomed over her, bracing them both against the stalwart balustrade with his staff stuck into the ground, smoldering with whatever magic he had left.


    It felt strange feeling him pressed so close against her, her ear flush against his breast, heart steadily thumping within - strange enough to match the feel of the downward plunge of the ruins. Everything made an odd groaning noise, as if the stone itself wailed in the wind.


    The ground roared and quaked with ferocity and then it was over. The ruins continued to grumble and complain against the impact, falling apart brick by brick. Etain’s world spun, her ears rang and yet heard nothing. She was suddenly aware of the warm blood trickling from her face, the metal taste on her tongue. She smelled Solas’s fur pelt, the woods he traveled in, smoke, his blood and a faint distinct scent of him that she had emblazoned in her mind some time ago. Yet before she could gain her bearings, the man stood up silently. His feet rushed him back out into the plaza, eyes searching back and forth, desperately seeking something.


    Lavellan peeled herself away from the pillar, her whole body shuddering and trying to get into grips with gravity once more. The fall lasted only seconds, yet compounded with the hammering her body and mind took in the last few hours, it was enough to leave her weak and trembling. Her eyes followed Solas, not knowing if he’d even hear her if she thanked him.


    He dropped into a crouch amidst charred boulders, his hands gathering up metallic fragments. His fingers cradled the broken orb as if it were a treasured, living being, the despondency radiating from him as bitter as the smoke around them.


    Etain lifted herself up unsteadily, wincing at the tightness in her chest and the sudden soreness of her limbs. Rather, the sudden awareness of it. Almost mechanically, her eyes scanned the area for any threats, her hand hovering behind her back, ready to snatch her staff. She spotted Iron Bull and Dorian a short distance away,  sheltered within the meager remains of the ruins behind the plaza. Her feet shambled between the debris, heading toward Solas.


    “The orb…” His voice was hardly a whisper.


    The object was shattered to bits, looking much less magnificent and terrifying; practically unnoticeable amidst the strewn about rocks and stone. At the moment, Lavellan could care less if the orb had been obliterated, with all the devastation it was able to bring forth. Neither had reality dawned on her, that the threat of Corypheus and the doom of all the world was gone. The thought was present, yet it tasted of nothing but a dream. How could it be possible? She had grown so accustomed to the chasing, the constant battle of wills and wit and strength. What did a moment of carelessness even feel like? What would her life be like now? What of the Inquisition?


    Her heart began to speed up with the mere thought, so she turned her attention back to Solas, his back still to her. “Are you sure it’s beyond repair? We could take the pieces, try to…”


    “That would not recover what was lost.” His tone was so cold, so perturbed. Etain could not understand. It is done, Solas. We live. We survived. Thedas lives, intact. How many lives have been spared? At the price of an ancient artifact of outright destruction? How is this a loss? How -


    “What are you not telling me?” She blurted out, brows furrowed with incredulity. Solas set down the fragments of the orb and raised himself up. The man that turned to face her was hardly recognizable. Even though Solas had always tended to be cool and aloof, there was something in his expression, in his eyes that was different. Bone-chilling and heartbreaking. Pure misery. Perhaps even regret?


    “There’s more isn’t there?” Lavellan’s curiosity and suspicion piqued. Gray eyes flickered like cold starlight and a sardonic smirk flashed across his lips. He glanced down and shook his head once before returning his heart wrenching gaze back to Etain. Some sort of unfathomable sorrow slightly twisted his features.  


    “It was not supposed to happen this way…”He paused, as if he had more to say, but he held it all back, unwilling to elaborate his strange remarks further. The apostate’s eyes drifted away briefly, searching for his words among the rubble at his feet. Lavellan continued to glare at him, patiently waiting for something to make sense.


    “Solas… what do you mean? I do not understand.”


    “As you shouldn’t.” He muttered, the anguish in his voice a prickle in Etain’s ears. He looked at her with those ageless, wise eyes,  wandering over every feature, every scar, every blood and dirt stain on her skin. Imprinting an image of her into the depths of his mind, he wished he could brush the stray strands of her hair behind her ear, to whisper all of his secrets, his fears and desires and regrets to her.


    “You were right to be angry…. I hope, in time, you will understand.”


     It wasn't anything that helped Etain in the moment. If anything, he was beginning to frighten her. Nothing made sense. Why was he so upset and preoccupied with the orb?  Did he truly have a debilitating obsession with the arcane? He mentioned nothing of the safety of their fragile, mortal world, nor a mention of the soldiers’ survival, nor of the now permanent scar in the sky. No question of whether it was all truly over, of what other rippling effects the events of the night will bring. He said nothing that would have been normal for any one of them to say. She continued to glower at him in stupefied confusion, the hair on the back of her neck prickling up. What is happening to you?


    “Inquisitor!” Cassandra’s familiar voice trumpeted from deep in the ruins, nearly making Lavellan jump. “Are you alive?”


    The elven woman could hardly tear her eyes away from the silently forlorn apostate, his misery a woeful void sucking her in. She gingerly wiped the blood from her stinging lip and turned back toward the stairs, aiming to find the rest of the survivors and step into her new reality.


    Solas watched her walk away, ignoring the streak of blood making its way down from the gash across the side of his skull. His temples pulsed as his jaw clenched. He glanced down at his hands once she was out of sight, knuckles white as his hands crushed themselves into fists. He fought with whether he wished he had never met her, for then he wouldn’t feel as if everything within him was disintegrating in a caustic vat of regret and dejection. But where would they all be had she not become a victim of circumstance? How could any of this this have happened?


    Solas drifted over to the edge of the plaza, observing the way Lavellan was received by the enervated survivors. She was as a light to them, the first ray of sunshine after a bitter night. All while she silently trembled and crumbled. He saw it in her back, too straight and elongated for comfort, especially with her injuries. It was one of her subtle tells anytime she was holding everything within, shutting herself down for the rest of the mortal world. She had often said just how much she loathed being referred to as “Your worship”, but how could they not call her in such praising ways? She had survived everything she by all rights shouldn’t have.


    He looked on at her, seeing Etain, seeing the Herald, seeing the young girl with hyacinth eyes… His own eyes nearly burned, his throat caught fire, the metallic bitterness and salt on his tongue only reflecting how watching her for the last time felt.


    I am sorry, Etain… it was not supposed to happen this way… Ar lasa mala revas, ma vhenan.

Chapter Text

    The dam of propriety and strength had burst, the flood of pain and emotion spilling over with a vengeance. Fingers trembling, Etain brushed away the tears in frustration, attempting to arrest the maddening flow of sorrow and grief spilling from her. Salty gems continued to glitter down her cheeks, her lungs gasping for air amidst tormented whimpers. The hollow in her chest wreathed with stinging flame, the cost of the Inquisition all too apparent all at once. Time faded away along with the last glimpses of light, lost to her in her unabating grief. Everything stood still while the abyss had her in its grasp, unable to stop the tears and the unbearable pain skewering her ribs into her heart.


    How to keep holding on through everything? And that was it - everything happened to her. To them all. Relentless, silent suffering, seeping through every cell of her weary body. Survival against insurmountable odds again, again and again. Torture. Thrashed against stone, thrown off of mountains, pummeled by demons, singed by dragons. Break a bone, heal it, break it again. Stop the bleeding only to be able to bleed again the next day. Not to mention responsibility of half of Thedas’s welfare on her shoulders - or rather in her marred palm. Hero, Herald, Your Worship they called her. Murderer, psychopath, liar, she felt.  

But she had done her part, she held it all together flawlessly; never allowing the luxury of tears. Yet now, safe and sound on her balcony, with only the quicksilver freckles of the night sky as witnesses, she sobbed. The pressure holding her together, maintaining her iron will, was lifted, along with all self control. She shook violently, bitter tears streaming down her cheeks to splatter on the stone beneath her.


    The hands she felt were not of the man who brought the tears to her eyes; they were warmer, stronger, closer. Most of all, they were there, in place of the hands of the man who stole her soul from her. Solas had seemingly abandoned her. No explanation. Instead, he left her with nothing but a few nonsensical comments and the last memory of the fear slithering across her skin. He was gone come morning, and she knew well enough he would never return, nor would he ever seek her out, no matter what comforting niceties Leliana fed her.


    Doubled over her own knees, she wept as though to make up for every moment any other mortal could have shed tears. Quiet, harrowing, despairing sounds emerged from her, each a thorn scraping across Cullen’s skin. She was finally broken, and in the utmost - shattered to pieces like a porcelain cup against granite. The Herald of Andraste, arguably the most powerful individual in all of Thedas, looked entirely pitiful in front of him. All the dressings of power stripped away, she was merely a woman, shredded to pieces by the demands of her position, by the sacrifices she made to ensure the safety of them all. For all she had done, she sat alone in her tower, trembling to her bones in agony and hopelessness, defeated by her own pain - with no one below the wiser. They had all sacrificed too much, but at least they had the luxury of being seen as mere mortals.


    His fingers rested gently, if not reluctantly on her back as she quaked with salty tears. Perhaps it was the most he could do in return for all she had done for him. He would stay by her side while she mourned, grieved and hurt, providing whatever comfort he could. Etain was alone, as he was… It had been so long, and with all that happened to Cullen in the Tower, then at Kirkwall, the memory of her was fading away, washed out by the terrors of his past. They were both on their own.


    “I… I can’t…” A meek, hoarse voice manifested from Lavellan, completely uncharacteristic. A few strained inhales later, she finally found her words, if only for a moment. “What am I to do? I can’t take this. What am I to hold on to?”


    “Breathe.” It was all he could say. It was all she could do, for he knew there was absolutely nothing else in the world that would take away the hurt and alleviate the despair she felt. Etain needed to let it all out, and to get through it. He lowered himself to the ground next to her with a sigh.


    “Breathe. And live in this moment. Hold on to your breath. Your heartbeat. Nothing else.” He muttered as he unbuckled the pauldrons and chest plate. Etain’s eyes followed him in confusion, her skin flushed and swollen with bruises and scratches. She was a mess, put politely: one eye red with tears, the other squinted and dark blue with a growing bruise that radiated outward from her cheekbone, freshly healed scrapes along her cheeks and forehead, a busted lip. The healers have done all they could, but the bruises were just part of the healing process. They would be gone this time tomorrow. Her tresses were tired as the rest of her, limp and dull cascades over her shoulders, the small braids on her crown slowly disheveling themselves.


    Dismal eyes watched him closely, partially befuddled as to why he was there in the first place. She simply didn’t understand; this was her own plight, he had gone through enough himself, and he should be down with the rest of the Inquisition - celebrating, reveling, living. Nor was he one of the servants or guards, he was the Commander, a prominent figure. His absence would be duly noted.


    “You should not be here. People will notice. I’ll only sully your reputation.” She whimpered softly, folding her hands in her lap, hiding their nerve-wracked tremble.


    I know what you’re doing, Etain. She was pushing him away, perhaps thinking she would spare him the trouble, or not intending to wound her pride. He chuckled. “There will always be talk. How else will the nobility keep themselves entertained? It makes no matter. The Inquisition is the talk of the Empire, there will be plenty of opportunities to meddle in that wretched Game of theirs. I doubt they took notice tonight though. Everyone is simply glad to be alive. Do not fret about it.”


    In fact, if the rumors existed, they would have started long ago, with Lavellan’s frequent visits and late nights during the worst bouts of his withdrawals. And with her delving into the elven pantheon, being the Herald of Andraste, she had more damning rumors to worry about. Cullen set the heavy armor aside, the food and wine and overall exultation of the feast below unwinding his body enough to be glad to be rid of its weight for the night. He closed his eyes and inhaled the crisp air deeply, tasting the fresh night as if for the first time in his life. Etain still sniffled next to him, baffled and distraught all in one.


    Cullen’s cognac orbs turned to Lavellan, glancing her over. Maker, you are a mess. He reached over and brushed the tears from her cheek with his thumb, tracing the line of a fresh scratch to the massive bruise on her jaw.


    “You’re forgetting you’re not a warrior, Inquisitor. Your face is not a practical weapon on the battlefield.”


    She smiled, albeit weakly. But she smiled. It had always been infectious, and Cullen’s mouth pulled into a lopsided smirk in response.  A complete mess. And still you’re… well, somehow beautiful. It wasn’t a physical beauty he marveled at, for Maker knew she was far from a pretty sight at the moment. But she was stripped of her stoic resolve and her intimidating aura. She was free of her power and her authority. A meek and humble being like the rest of them. A fragile thing, for once. She suddenly seemed so small, so inconsequential. So human. It mattered not how tapered her ears may have been. His thumb lingered on her chin, long enough for her smile to fade and self consciousness to emerge as she attempted to gauge his thoughts.


    “You’ll survive, Etain. It may not seem like it now, but you will. You may hurt for a while. A long while, perhaps, but you will make it through. No one expects this all to have come easy for you.” The last bit, conceivably, was a lie. Of course so many saw her only as the Herald of Andraste, beyond mortal pain and consequences - blessed, indestructible and impervious to any evil thrown at her. Lavellan was a construct of power and hope, not a mere mortal in the clutches of fate. She faced down demons, darkspawn, dragons and Corypheus himself. To most, she was incapable of feelings and faults; if she was able to withstand all she had and come out with her chin held high, she was nigh immortal.


    Cullen’s smile faded as she continued to stare at him. Panic poked at his temples as he feared he had said something he shouldn’t have; or perhaps he should not have touched her. His hand hastily pulled back to loosen the straps of his armored boots.


    “I - ahem…”


    She still remained silent, her gaze on him, lost in thought. He swallowed the knot in his throat, letting his hands dangle limply from his knees, hoping he didn't just push away his closest friend.


    Lavellan awakened from her daze and brushed the moisture from her eyes. Her hand carefully reached for him, weaving her fingers into his to subdue her shaking. Taking his advice, she turned her eyes toward the endless night on the horizon, inhaling a shaky gulp of cool air. The tears still rolled down her bruised cheekbone, though they were slowing their fury.


    “Maker’s omnipotent balls. So she does have tear ducts.” Dorian’s clarion, genteel voice called from somewhere behind her. “Oh lovely, our oh so eloquent Lion of Skyhold is here to console you.” The Tevinter mage spoke as he strolled through the Inquisitor’s chambers, eyeing the various furnishings and adornments. Finally his eyes stopped on the two souls sulking on the balcony. “Clearly… that is helping. Paws off. Leave this to the professional.”


    Indulging in the urge to roll his eyes, Cullen let go of Lavellan’s battered hand and turned to gather up his armor. “I suppose I should turn in for the night. Now that Dorian is here, you're most certainly in good hands, Inquisitor.”


    There was a tinge of sarcasm laced into Cullen’s tone, though not enough to be blatantly obvious. Lavellan’s eyes briefly followed the Commander as he straightened up.


    “Thank you, Cullen.”


    Some sort of noise of acknowledgement came out of the man and he walked through the chambers to the door. Dorian hobbled up next to Etain and lowered himself to the ground with a graceful plop, setting a warm, fur lined cloak down beside him. His arm draped around her shoulders and he took a deep breath, as she continued to brush away the tears and pull her face into an expression of at least some calm.


    “My, my… This is depressing.” Dorian inspected the balcony around them. Lavellan  cleared her throat and fruitlessly fumbled around for the first thing to say.
    “Just look at all this snow. And to think it will only get worse now. How do you Southerners stand it? No wonder literacy - ahem, never mind that.” He smiled charmingly, hiding his almost insulting remark. “I’m sure I’ll complain about the climate again later. Don’t mind me.”


    “Wouldn’t be you if you didn’t.” Etain mumbled, trying to lift her spirits, but the dark thoughts continued to scamper about in her head.


    “Now… You do realize all those Orlesian scoundrels will drink the keep dry of that marvelous red vintage, don’t you?” His other arm groped around in the folds of his cloak. “Well, even if you didn’t…” He pulled out a dark glass bottle, a satisfied grin wrinkling the corners of his eyes.


    “You’re fostering a terrible habit, Dorian.”


    “The mere fact that you categorize this as a terrible habit tells me it is not so. At least not just yet.” His thumb brushed over the smooth, old glass. Seeing her somber expression, he knew he had to try harder, and it had nothing to do with the wine. He set down the bottle and sighed.


    “How are you feeling? Truly?”


    “Sore and I ache all over but I will be fine.” She refused to look him in the eye, instead staring off somewhere into the dark horizon.


    “I know that. Don’t play dumb with me.”


    Her mouth creaked open, adding nothing but more silence into the night. The Tevinter mage patiently waited for her to collect her thoughts. For several minutes they sat in speechless stillness, watching the pinpricks of starlight ascend across the skies.


    “Am I a monster?” Lavellan’s voice finally croaked. Dorian could not quite understand the meaning of her words.


    “I tore him apart, Dorian. Limb from limb. And I enjoyed it.” Her tear filled, utterly disturbed eyes looked to him for desperate guidance. “He was defeated. Corypheus was done. I could have simply dealt a clean death blow. You saw it… Instead I relished in the fact that I could torture him, that I could peel away pieces of him… Everything he had done, everything he was the cause of… I wanted him to pay. I wanted him to feel, to know exactly what he had done to me. What he had done to those at Haven, at the Conclave, to our soldiers. To the people of Thedas left without family. I…” Her eyes welled with fear, her bottom lip quivering in chagrin before she continued. She stopped retrospectively rationalizing the emotions she had felt during that moment, divulging instead her true thoughts.  


    “I finally had him in my control. He saw me as a rival… I wanted him to know it, to feel it. He dared make himself a false god, to give himself the right to shatter this world… I wanted him to know he failed, that he was nothing but a pest in my hands. I wanted justice.”


    Dorian scrutinized her face, taking note of every little motion as she revealed her fear and worry.


    “What is a monster?” He straightened up, waving his hand absently, the air of an intellectual about him. “Usually something rather large, hideous and frightening.”


    Lavellan’s eyes widened unevenly, impeded by the swelling. She had swallowed all her pride to disclose her torment and this was his response?


    “Now let’s see… A Dalish elf, a knife-eared savage to many, rising from the status of a prisoner - though you supposedly killed the Divine… quite the bold choice, if it were true - to the most powerful authority figure across Thedas. Your influence now reaches every court in the land, and beyond. They’re already lining up to throw themselves at the Inquisition’s feet. Quite the sizable accomplishment, don’t you think? Now, sprinkle in some divine patronage and a formidable army, a pinch of unsettling magical talent, a specialization as an arcane warrior - now you’re truly becoming a frightening foe. That, or an invaluable ally, and quite possibly a legend in these elven alienages of your Southern cities. In any case - a formidable force, and intimidating creature able to survive practically any sort of bullshit thrown at you, both in this realm and the Fade.” He waited for Lavellan to look like anything other than annoyed and dismissive. Seeing nothing of the sort, he tsk-ed and shook his head, as if irked about explaining the obvious to a stubborn child.


    “Yes, Inquisitor, you are a monster. Precisely because you are unstoppable. You outmaneuvered every foe you faced. You didn’t shrink away from any duty, any ugly decision. You wield your power with wisdom and grace and swift action. You’ve managed to inspire and yet strike fear into thousands.”


    “And drink just so I can sleep, shake like a withered leaf with anxiety, flush with fear at every loud sound, mistrust every soul around me…” She interjected, disgusted with herself.


    “Don’t we all? The mistrust is necessary and fear keeps you alive.” He chuckled. “No one is perfect… You hide it well.”


    “And how long will I be able to do that? I have nothing. I have no one. Aside from the Inquisitor, I am no one. It wasn’t all me, in fact far from it. I shouldn't be the Inquisitor. I would have made no difference had I not had the Inquisition and all of you. Or the Mark.”


    Dorian nodded once, as if acknowledging her line of reasoning. “It may seem like that now. But it is also a matter of perception, and how you choose to see your fate. The stars shine the brightest in the darkest of skies.”


    Etain turned to Dorian with a look of such thorough revulsion, she had wished she could mimic Cassandra’s characteristic disgusted sigh.


    “Oh, don’t even dare. You’re just in a huff because -“ Dorian slammed his lips tight against each other, stopping himself just short of a snarky comment he would regret immediately. “You’re looking worse than the training dummies out in the yard.”


    “Bring Cullen back, you’re not helping.”


    “Ha. And let you two wallow in your cynicism? I’m not about to bring the results of that onto Skyhold. You need to relax, he needs -“ Dorian glanced behind him through the windows.  “well, there are a lot of things that man needs.”


    “What do you mean?” Lavellan watched the human before her absently.


    “Nothing…” He waved his hand and scrunched his nose dismissively. “We’ve established you’re a monster. Now, what else? Get it all out, for I know well enough you won’t talk about any of this ever again.”


    “You’re not making me want to say anything more.”


    Dorian’s hand squeezed her shoulder. “You know I quip only to lighten the mood. I’m trying to help. Shocking as it may be, I’ve grown quite fond of you.”


    “Shocking indeed.”


    “I’m sorry. I understand everything came at great cost… But whatever you do, don’t push any of us away. Well, mostly me, anyway.”


    She surrendered to his oddly comforting words and smiled.


    “I am glad you’re going to grace us with your presence a bit longer, Dorian. I do not know what comes next for the Inquisition, but I can imagine we will see the courts no less often than forward camps. This is only a breath of air before yet another grueling race elsewhere.”


    “Ah, yes, I am curious as to just how long this shaky little truce you forced the rulers of Orlais into will hold.  Now that there is no preeminent threat to all of Thedas, they can freely resume their power struggles, each vying to either win or take down the Inquisition… Or in the very least, throw some more fêtes to brandish all the opulence and intrigue of the Imperial courts in their favor.” Dorian spoke of the Game with a shade of homesickness, reveling in the thought of partaking in the political and social dances of the upper classes.


    Lavellan was not so fond of it all, but she knew well enough that everything revolving around even the slightest shred of power was a game, full of stratagems, stalemates, victors and failures. “Let’s just hope there’s no demons in the gardens next time.”


    “And less atrocious regalia.”


    A metal latch clinked in the distance, followed by the creaking of hinges.


    Clearly there is nothing private about my quarters. Lavellan lengthened her back and inhaled calm resolve into her chest, awaiting the next uninvited guest. She glanced over to the foreigner next to her. A minute flicker of anxiety followed by embarrassed excitement danced across Dorian’s eyes before he turned back to the elf, though he spoke to the intruder.


    “The Iron Bull... now that you’re here, how should we lift our dear friend’s spirits? I’m afraid she’ll conjure a storm to drench the keep if we do nothing.”


    The Qunari lumbered onto the balcony, arms bandaged up. Etain faced the horizon, cleared her throat and began straightening her gown, suddenly realizing how rarely she had even worn a dress.


    A massive arm wreathed around her waist as she was thrown over a bulging gray shoulder.


    “Fenedhis-“


    “Boss, with all due respect, shut up. This is for your own good.” Bull mumbled, uncorking Dorian’s dark wine bottle with his teeth before handing it back to the mage. He dropped Lavellan unceremoniously onto the edge of the bed and proceeded to pull the end table, followed by the couch, in front of her, the scraping echoing off the walls.


    She glared at the Qunari with indignation through bleary, red eyes. Brushing her hair out of her face, she raised herself up to sit straight, patiently waiting to hear an explanation for the sudden rearrangement of furnishings in her quarters. Satisfied with his work, Iron Bull seated himself surprisingly gracefully on the couch, eyeing Lavellan silently.


    “Hmm.” The noise rumbled out of him like a purr out of an overgrown kitten. He stretched out with a sigh, his massive figure turned the loveseat into an armchair. “Mmm.”


    Etain pushed herself closer to the edge of the bed, fingers gouging the velvety fabric in frustration. Her bruises whined from the seemingly harmless tumble to her bed. The practically comical influx of well wishing companions attempting to enliven her dampened spirit only irked her further.


    Dorian latched the balcony doors closed behind him. With a nonchalant motion of his hand, the fireplace roared to life, spilling radiant warmth into the spacious room. He proceeded to light the candles, chasing away the gloomy shadows keeping Etain company.


    The Qunari shuffled from side to side, as if furrowing himself into a nest, thoroughly enjoying the comfort of the couch.


    Etain shook her head, a bit more irritated than she aught to have been. “Don’t say it.”


    “I need one of these…” Bull smiled. “I’m enjoying the moment, Boss. Because it is perfect.”


    Incredulous, Etain inhaled and plunked her arms onto the table, resting her head in one of her hands. “We have different perspectives on what makes perfect.”


    Bull shook his head and poured the wine into three goblets Dorian had set down before him. The mage seated himself on the bed next to her, draping his fur cloak over her shoulders.


    The Qunari inspected the color of the vintage he just distributed. “Corypheus is rotting to pieces. No one’s breathing down our necks or shooting shit at us just yet. Even the weather let up.” He looked up, back at Lavellan and Dorian. “Perfect, for what it’s all worth.”


    Etain’s desire to argue fizzled, not wanting to ruin the Qunari’s mood because her own was foul. So she wrapped her fingers around the cup placed before her, surrendering to whatever spiels they had in store for her. The bottle would not last long before they would go in search of more food and drink, and she would be free to crawl back into her shadowy misery for the rest of the night.



    Unbearable heat lingered on Lavellan’s skin as she abruptly became aware of the tightness in her chest, hardly able to breathe. Her mouth felt full of sand, in urgent need of water to free her tongue. Her eyes opened, finding herself face down on a pillow, the room spinning around her. Her limbs pushed her body upwards but she couldn’t budge. Panicked, dry eyes looked down at her own body for the terror that kept her immobile.


    A tangle of sheared wheat hair peeked out from under a blanket at the edge of the bed as a spindly body splayed itself horizontally across Lavellan, bony hips and ribs jabbing at her.


    Etain glared at the elf in horror, not remembering how the rogue archer even got into her chambers. After a few paralyzed moments of fear, she pushed the skinny creature off herself and slithered clumsily out of bed. She was yet fully dressed, though her feet were bare. The floor tilted to trip her as she shambled forward to the water pitcher at the end table in the corner of the room. Her depth perception failed her limbs and the edge caught her right in the thigh, eliciting a very charming expletive. Rubbing her new forming bruise, she greedily downed the water directly from the vessel, the coolness spreading to her tingling limbs. Setting the ewer down, she turned slowly and carefully, trying her best to alleviate the spinning of her surroundings.


    The moonlight filtered in through the windows, revealing the destruction of her chambers. A chair was tipped over to the floor in front of her bed. The fireplace was aglow with ruby red embers, along with various bits of deformed glass. Various articles of clothing were strewn around the room, along with goblets, bottles, fur pelts, weaponry and gods knew what else. Her left boot was on the fire place mantle, amidst ancient, invaluable vases. Her right was nowhere to be seen.


    Two pairs of differently sized limbs extended from the balcony doorway, along with an entire stockpile of blankets and furs. Her eyes strained to make out a tightly cocooned Dorian snoring against the massive Qunari. Bull seemed entirely content to sleep on top of the mismatched pile of bedding out on the balcony under the crisp night air.


    Lavellan shook her head, as if to clear her vision, though immediately regretted the action as the room went into a pirouette around her and her stomach heaved. She reached out an arm to grab onto the nearest piece of furniture for balance, her heart pounding. A shuffle and groan drew her attention back to the center of the chamber.


    A large foot protruded above the distant arm of the sofa, while a forearm folded over the edge of the other, closest to the bed. The table was littered with playing cards, a knife cantilevered in a partially eaten pie, and two empty bottles. As she slowly rounded the table and the fallen chair, she found Cullen stretched out on the couch, his frame hardly fitting on the furniture. His hair was disheveled, his shirt halfway undone, his face and chest covered with what looked to be Sera’s obscene doodles. He muttered in his sleep, his frown curling the comical, evil eyebrows someone decided to adorn him with.


    Lavellan glared long and hard at the man before her, eyes narrowing as if that would help her remember better, not recalling his return to her chambers either. What the hell happened? A stuffed nug bore his lion helm and was shoved under his arm: most likely one of Bull’s drunken doings, for she found it hard to believe Cullen would even so much as drink himself into the stupor he was in now.


    Etain benevolently slapped the top of his foot, drawing out a mumbled grunt of discontent, though the man continued to sleep. Whatever had gone on, he clearly lost.


    She lumbered along to the other side of the bed, crawling back in heedfully, gingerly lowering her head onto the pillow. The room spun regardless of her caution. Her body felt as drained and exhausted as if the past five minutes have been an endeavor equal to a hard afternoon of training. She yanked a corner of the blanket away from Sera, the elf surrendering the covering willingly. Lids pressed shut, she begged sleep to return before her thoughts sobered up and turned to the chains cinching around her heart. Her spirit already thrashed against her ribs with memories, darkness flooding her at once. What she wouldn’t have given to feel familiar, long fingers curve along her waist, pulling her into an everlasting embrace, to feel him bury his face in her hair, kissing the edge of her ear.


    Etain forced her eyes shut, as if that would keep her from thinking about Solas any further. Instead she turned her focus on begging sleep to return, listening intently to her own breathing.  


    The sunlight streamed in to aggravate the merciless pounding in Lavellan’s head as soon as consciousness awakened. With a groan, she pulled the blanket over her face, trying to hide from the light. Her eyes felt as if they were shriveling in their own sockets as claws continued to scratch against the inside of her skull. The blanket suddenly snapped out of her grasp. Hair tangled in every direction, Lavellan propped herself up on her elbows, squinting down to where the covering disappeared.


    Sera furrowed herself deep beneath the blanket, skinny legs sticking out from under the edge of the cloth. Something along the lines of “sod off” rumbled from beneath as the beast went back to its hungover slumber.


    Lavellan exhaled painfully, ears throbbing and fingers tingling with dehydration. By the Dread Wolf, you all aught to have killed me instead. I will never look at another cup ever again. With the grace of crooked legged nug, she crawled out of her bed and shambled over to the end table.


    Had she not faced a multitude of demons in her line of duty, she would have sworn one was looking back at her through the mirror: hair unkempt and frizzled, eyes dry and red, bruises turning yellow, the rest of her skin pasty and clammy. Sylaise save me, what the hell happened last night? What did we drink? Her next thought whispered a small thanks for the fact that no one else was awake to see her such as she was that moment. Fingers desperately smoothed her hair down into a more agreeable mess and she splashed water onto her face, the coolness felt like the very breath of life. Grabbing clean clothes, she tottered out of the room to her bathing quarters across the hall, careful not to wake the commiserators scattered about her chambers.


    By the grace of some good fortune, the day went on uneventfully as half the Inquisition recovered from the previous night’s festivities. Looking at least half as human, or rather elven, as she could, Lavellan forced herself to eat at least something, in Varric’s company. With as much dignity as she could muster, she swallowed her food along with the variety of glib remarks the dwarf storyteller had cooked up.


    Cullen stalked the keep in shadows, shrinking away from eyes and sunlight alike. He locked himself within his office, hardly making an appearance anywhere else. Sera and Bull returned to the tavern, trying to eat and sleep away the hang over. Dorian was nowhere to be found, equally reluctant to face the bright autumn sun as the rest of them.


    Eventually Etain found herself stepping into the silent first floor of the rotunda, her stomach in knots. She hadn’t entered it since before Corypheus’s final attack. Though knowing full well the room would be without a living soul within, it seemed unreal to find it so. Some small, naive, foolish little girl within her hoped she would see her pensive apostate looming over another ancient tome, arms folded over his chest, the corner of his lips pulled up in his subtle, devious simper. Yet all that loomed over the time-worn tome abandoned on the table was dust. Her eyes drifted upwards to the frescoes on the walls, the last panel only partially completed, painted hastily.


    She could do nothing but gape at it in befuddlement, a shiver slipping into her bones. Had he lost it? Had he been insane this entire time, and was simply too good at hiding it from Lavellan? Or had she been so ignorant? She swallowed the knot of uneasiness at the back of her throat. What does that mean? A wolf over a dragon with a knife in its back?


    She felt panic flush her skin, sidling up the back of her neck as she stared at the towering walls of the now perpetually empty first level of the rotunda. Her intuition bristled like a cornered animal, sensing something awry yet not being able to define it. Question after question crammed her mind until she could hardly keep track of her thoughts: why did he leave? Why now? Where did he go? Why in such a secretive manner? If he truly cared about her why leave now that the threat was gone? What was he telling her in the fresco? What did he mean “it was not supposed to happen this way”? Why, why, why -


    A tome was unlucky enough to be by her hand, and was succinctly launched with exceptional force at the recently painted wall. The thud reverberated against the stone and echoed through the tower. Lavellan shut her eyes and pulled her hands back into fists, regretting her outburst. She inhaled deeply and rushed over to the leather bound scapegoat and gathered it up.


    All she could think of was him; of wanting to hear his voice echo through the tower, no matter what he was saying. Yet his name only brought guilt and ire to her mind. She was to blame, after all, as she had pushed him away with her decisions. And yet Lavellan never would have guessed he was so easily swayed by the demands of her title, her responsibility. Aside from Morrigan, he was the only of her companions so livid with what transgressed at the temple of Mythal. And even she withdrew her objections once Flemeth revealed herself. What gave him the right to feel so offended? What was his tie to all of this? He was an intellectual to a fault, completely anti-theistic… he saw this as enslavement to a non-existent goddess?


    Lavellan slumped down into the chair behind the desk, uncertain eyes hypnotized by the final fresco. I can no longer think that way, can I? Mythal, whatever, whoever she is, exists. The Well’s power was real… the fool I was to think otherwise… What - who have I resigned myself to?


    Nothing had changed about her aside from the voices and the knowledge they brought. But what if it were only a matter of time until this deity, this otherworldly being called upon her? Would she bring danger to the Inquisition and all those in her power? Would she lose her mind, lose any ability to control her actions? Perhaps he escaped just in time, before she brought about their deaths. Perhaps he never intended to stay past the resolution of Corypheus’s threat - as was his original plan.


    There was no point in throwing a fit and submitting to fury now. Whatever his musings were, the man was gone. Her nails dragged across the edge of the desk, brows weighed down by endless thoughts.


    “He didn’t want to… But it was his only way. Alone. He wanted to fix it.” Cole’s nervous voice bounced off the walls, echoing all around her. She heard his feet shuffle forward softly, to stand beside the desk. “Too… too… I can’t see him anymore. I tried…”


    “Who? Solas?” Lavellan watched the young man’s pallid face contort with concentration and worry. His hands wreathed around each other as his pale eyes stared vacantly at the fresco.


    “Fix what, Cole?”


    The room fell silent for a brief moment, save for the scuffling in the library above and the distant calls of the crows above in the rookery. Lavellan waited impatiently for the youth to finish his thought process. He stilled and quieted for a long moment, Etain’s frown glued onto him.


    “I’m sorry, Cole.” He spoke abruptly, with a voice that sounded as his, yet somehow different. “But with your gift, I fear that you might see the path I now must walk in solitude forever.”


    Etain held her breath as her skin crawled. He spoke without his usual timidity and occasional stutter. Cole’s mouth and voice uttered the words, yet it wasn’t him speaking.


    “This fate is mine alone. Indeed, I would not wish it on my enemy, much less someone that I once cared for. Though you reach out in compassion, I must now insist that you forget…” Cole jerked back as if suddenly woken up. Lavellan finally allowed the air to return to her lungs, pushing herself up and out of the chair. Her palms were slicked with sweat, uncertainty breathing down her neck.


    “Cole?” She whimpered when she meant to ask.


    “I’m… what … what… what were we talking about? I’m ready to help people when you are.” The wide-eyed youth was back, completely oblivious to what had just transgressed. Etain fought back the iota of terror scampering up her limbs into her chest. She smiled uneasily, placing both hands on the lad’s shoulders.


    “Come along, Cole. I’m feeling a bit peckish. Let’s get some supper. We may even just skip to dessert.” She did her best to sound lighthearted, despite the panic flushing through her veins. She may as well have seen a ghost, it would make little difference to how she felt. That… wasn’t Cole. How… Solas. What did you mean? If her heart could bleed acid, surely it did so then.  She had the unbearable impulse to pound her fists at the wall and scream and cry and melt away in the corner. Instead she weaved her arm through Cole’s and smiled, leading him out of the room.


    “Besides, I hear Varric has a surprise for you.”


    “A… a surprise?” A small light danced in the youth’s eyes.


    “Shall we find out?” Lavellan gave him her warmest grin.


    The door closed behind them with an echo, sealing off the room and its too many memories inside until it was opened again. For Etain, the proud shouldered ghost still roamed within those walls, the wisdom and magnetism of his sonorous voice seeped into the plaster. She could feel, she could almost see his tall and agile frame lean against the desk, sinewy arms crossed pensively over his chest, eyes of an apex predator fixated on her. As much of an unassuming apostate he seemed, he was revealing himself to be something more. Something dangerous. Something poisonous.

Etain avoided the first level of the rotunda ever since.
   

Chapter Text

Three Months Later

    The sunset light filtered through the stained glass window, speckling the parchment rich air. The serenity of the quiet library nook was shattered with the echoing smack of a hefty tome against stone floor.


    “Monotonous drivel.” Dorian grumbled, settled comfortably in the arm chair. His hand reached for the next book from the stack to his right, while several discarded novels now established a new pile to his left.


    Fingers impatiently drummed the inside of his right foot, resting on his knee. Several pages in, Dorian found himself investigating the slight crumpling of the page beneath his left hand. His brow perched upwards as he lost interest in the book and examined his hand, now clammy.


    Ridiculous. Never thought I’d succumb to such ruinous moods. Inhaling a lung-full of air, his fingers gripped the book tighter, as if that would help his focus. His eyes read the words swiftly, yet his mind registered nothing. All he could hear was a repeat of Bull’s suggestive comments and casual invitations, thrown out completely without subtlety. They have increased in frequency, while his own ability to retort with a clever remark had plummeted to abysmal depths.


    Worst of all, Dorian knew Bull had the truth of it. It started with an inkling, a little buzz of attraction whenever the Qunari was near. He had elected to suppress this pull and dismiss it as a nuisance. Yet the last few months, it only strengthened the more he ignored it.


    With horror, he recalled for the hundredth time his awakening after the night of unrestrained drinking and merriment in Etain’s quarters. His head was full of thrashing and squealing deepstalkers, tearing their way out of his skull. His limbs were numb from sleeping on the ground, despite the multitude of fur throws wrapped about him. Even more terrifying still, was the fact that he was cozied up against the bare-chested Qunari. His heart jumped to his mouth, along with the remnants of the copious amounts of wine in his belly. Dorian shuffled away in a panic, stumbling and hardly holding his heaving stomach at bay. His only blessing was that everyone else in the room was out cold, allowing for a quick and stealthy, albeit maladroit escape.


    Clearly the appeal is there, considering my drunken self had no reservations about cuddling up to that hulking beast… Nor can I stop thinking about it all. Absorbed in a whirlwind of thoughts, he fought hard against what seemed to be quite a difficult decision. He turned the page roughly, his foot now twitching back and forth atop his knee.


    Don’t be absurd. You’re only homesick… Missing the warmth and luxuries of home, the intrigues, the showboating, the food, the wine… the company. There had hardly been any attention and affection for you in over a year, and this horned behemoth is the first to make an attempt. A lack of choice is all.


    “Dorian?” A woman’s voice pulled him from his thoughts.


    “Andraste’s tits!” The book jolted in his hands, nearly crashing to the floor as the mage shuddered from surprise in his chair.


    The Inquisitor stood nearest the first bookshelf from the staircase, staring at him with a degree of bafflement. Her eyes wide, she stepped closer to the Tevinter mage, her arms crossed.


    “Didn’t quite expect that one from you.”


    “Well don’t come sneaking up so unexpectedly!” He looked a complete grouch, sulking in his chair. Lavellan leaned against the bookshelf across from the man, eyeing him thoughtfully. She was dressed in a simple but flattering burgundy gown, stitching lines following the graceful curves of her body. A gray cloak of wolf fur was draped over her shoulders. A few months of relative downtime did wonders to her; her figure filled out a bit more to do justice to her bone structure, her coppery gold hair reclaimed its long lost luster, her skin seemed flushed with life for once.


    “Greetings aside, something troubling you?” She asked softly, her eyes drifting out to the window. Dorian glared death at her, ready to reveal several uncouth thoughts about what was troubling him, beginning with her presence.


    He sucked in a deep breath and chucked the book down to the pile of other disappointing tomes. He steeled his glare and turned back to the woman. She still looked out the window, the light setting her eyes seemingly ablaze, mimicking the tones of the winter sunset outside.


    Really, Lavellan, you’re disgusting with those big beautiful eyes of yours. Consider yourself lucky to have been born in the south. Those eyes would have fetched a lofty price in the slave markets back home, along with an unmentionable fate. He thought resentfully, unsure why he was so cross and taking out his frustrations on everyone in sight.


    “You don’t have to tell me, I’ve just wanted you to know you could. You’ve been a bit beside yourself lately.” She mumbled kindly, the priceless orbs now focused on him.


    “I… I’m fine. Just a little distracted and homesick.” His elbows rested on the arms of the chair while he made the conscious effort not to bounce his foot up and down.


    “I know how you feel. You’ve been away from home for a long time. And our foray into the south hasn’t exactly been pleasant.”


    “The understatement of the century.” He remarked. “Spare but a few moments.”


    She smiled and shifted her weight to one foot, thoughtfully looking the mage over.


    “Didn’t your mother tell you it is impolite to gawk?” Dorian snapped, cocking his head to the side.


    There are many things she had never gotten a chance to teach me. Lavellan uncrossed her arms and pushed off the bookcase. “Fine. I’ll come back later.”


    With an exasperated exhale, Dorian shook his head and dropped his forearms against the chair. “Sorry. Do stay.”


    The sarcasm was not entirely gone from his tone, though Lavellan turned back around.


    “I…” Dorian began, his eyes scanning the surroundings for any eavesdroppers. Most souls were down in the hall for supper, eager not to pass up the hot meal on a cold day. “I just do not know how to go about this.”


    “About what?” Lavellan perched herself on the windowsill, the last rays of the sun warming her back before night settled in.


    “About… Bull.” He practically choked on the two little words, his temples flexing.


    “Ah. I see.” Etain glanced down at her outstretched legs, crossing them before looking back up at her fellow mage. “May I ask what your thoughts on the matter are? Bull has clearly made his opinion known.”


    “It’s absurdity, considering who I am, and who he is… Tevinter and Tal’Vashoth.” He chuckled acerbically. “I can already see the magisterium’s heads collectively imploding, along with my father’s heart attack. I enjoy scandals, but not when I am the subject.”


    “I thought you said you already were a pariah?”


    “And because I am, I may as well capitalize on the reputation?”


    “That is not what I meant. No matter what you do, you’ll always be frowned upon… Once fallen from grace, it is nearly impossible to redeem yourself. People have a tendency to hold on to the bad things or the ‘out-of-line’ things someone does. Its useful to have a scapegoat, useful to have a demon to focus all your negative proclivities on.  Perhaps I’m wrong… but first, answer one simple question. What do you want?”


    “Simple? You must be joking. There is nothing simple about this.”


    Lavellan sighed but remained silent, waiting for his answer. Dorian’s mouth grew dry, lips scratching against each other.


     “I’ve let him cross the line, not realizing how far from harmless that would be. Before I even knew it, he was under my skin.” His eyes nervously shot out to the rest of the library, unwilling to divulge his thoughts to anyone else.


    Their brief heart-to-heart was interrupted by the muffled sounds of armored boots thundering down the length of the throne room and startled exclamations. The two mages exchanged confused glances before rushing the stairs to the floor below. Lavellan made a conscious effort not to acknowledge the rotunda room she was running through, forcing her eyes to ignore the frescos.


    Being so far into bitter mountain winter, the keep was nearly devoid of members of the top echelons of human society. The throne room was occupied by sparse groups of Inquisition soldiers, recruits, and noncombatants. They all stood and communally stared with stark curiosity at the charge of guards and soldiers rushing the door to the private quarters. Dorian and Lavellan rushed down the length of the hall, not the slightest clue as to what was occurring. They entered the tower, following the armored serpent of soldiers winding up the stairs as fast as their legs could carry.


    Faint cries sounded from the second floor, along with the clanking of pottery against stone. To their alarm, the commotion appeared to be coming from Leliana’s chambers. Lavellan bounded across the wood inlaid floors into the brightly lit room. A fresh fire was burning in the hearth, candles flickered orange light across the walls. The copper haired spymaster was on all fours, her supper platter knocked to the floor, all of its contents strewn about the Antivan rug. Half of her armor was off, save her boots and chainmail. She was in the process of winding down for the night when whatever happened, happened. Her body shuddered as she coughed and gasped.


    Pushing past the momentarily stumped soldiers, Lavellan dropped to her knees next to Leliana. Her hands on the woman’s back, Etain thought she may have choked on her supper and prepared to lock her arms around her ribcage. Leliana shook her head stiffly and her hand stretched out, shaky finger pointing at the tipped over wine goblet.


    Her skin was pallid and dewy with sweat as she clutched clumsily at her remaining armor and turned toward Etain, desperation in her eyes. Her limbs had begun to move awkwardly, as if she was losing control of their motions. The raspy, labored breaths rattled around in Lavellan’s ears, drowning out the tumultuous sound of curious bystanders from the tower stairs.


    Dorian gingerly picked up the wine goblet, inspecting the object carefully; the shape of the metal, the carvings. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. The color and smell of the wine did not betray any foul play either. He ran a cautious index finger along the inside of the glass, collecting a minuscule droplet on his finger tip.


    “Dorian?” Lavellan asked insistingly, hands hastily undoing the chainmail so Leliana could breathe a bit easier. The man sniffed the wine once more before tasting it heedfully. His eyes widened in shocked recognition. He dropped the goblet with complete disregard and went on to fumble about his own attire.


    Etain glanced at the guards looming over them in bewilderment.


    “What are you- Why hasn’t anyone gone to get healers, alchemists?!” She growled angrily, glaring fearsomely at the nearest guards. “You! Go find Cullen! The rest start a sweep of the perimeter and if a healer isn’t here within three minutes there will be hell to pay!”


    As if shaken from a dream, the group disassembled and scattered in different directions, obeying the orders.


    “Dorian, what are you doing?” Etain demanded once more. The man continued to dig deep into the folds of his armor and clothing, grumbling to himself. With sudden urgency, he launched himself over to Leliana, a tiny glass vial pinched in his fingers.


    “An antidote.” He pressed the open vial to her trembling lips. “Drink it all.”


    Leliana did as bid and downed the contents of the little bottle, the effort to swallow requiring an inordinate amount of concentration and strength. Dorian collapsed back on his rump with a sigh. Etain held on to Leliana, the woman leaning back against her chest, and brushed away damp strands of scarlet hair from her pale face. Her breathing was raspy and her body appeared cumbersome, if not numb.


    Lavellan gaped at Dorian in confusion, the chaos of the last few minutes winding her nerves up into a ball. Her mind fumbled with the necromancer’s hurried actions.


    “An antidote?” She asked in a strained voice, not hiding her panic and terror.


    Picking up the goblet once more, Dorian proceeded to glare at it quizzically, as if hoping to uncover something he missed.


    “That was a Tevinter poison in your cup, Lady Nightingale. A deadly mixture of a substance from the monkshood plant and hemlock, for extra measure. Your limbs may have begun to feel heavy and numb. The hemlock causes paralysis of the body, though not the mind. The aconite sends your heart racing until it cannot any longer, and also accounts for the nausea… A very difficult combination of effects. Not an easy poison to craft. A favorite of a particular guild at home.” Dorian shook his head and clung to a shaky breath, his skin growing dewy with sweat from shock and sudden stress of the situation. “By all that’s holy, I was intending to throw this out, update the recipe, I simply kept forgetting. You must be in the Maker’s good graces, Leliana.”


    With eyes wide and petrified, Leliana merely twitched an arm, the effects of the poison struggling against the antidote.


    “Will she be alright?” Lavellan propped the redheaded spymaster more comfortably up against her own frame so as to ensure a clear airway.


    “Yes, though had we arrived any later, we would be as useless as nipples on ceremonial armor.” Dorian abandoned the goblet beside him once more, reaching out for Leliana’s hand instead. Inspecting the state of her skin and muscles, he meticulously pinched and probed her fingers.


    “Do you feel that?” He would ask after each prick, trying to determine how far the poison had spread.


    “Her cup may not have been the only one poisoned. We need to shut down the kitchens, warn the others, no one drinks nor eats anything-“ Lavellan shook her head at her own suggestion, knowing it was most likely far too late, not to mention impractical and time consuming and much too easy for the assassin to evade. Her eyes were glued to Leliana, her horror permeating everyone in the room.


    “How long will she be like this?”


    “A few more minutes, hopefully no longer.”


    “How could this have happened?” Lavellan’s mind raced with questions, skin prickling with unease at the realization that Skyhold was now much less safe and secure than she had thought. “Who was the last servant in here? When? What have the guards seen?”


    “It has been relatively calm and quiet here since Corypheus’s demise. It seems we all breathe a little too easy, our security loosened too far.” Dorian suggested, listening for returning soldiers. “Perhaps our soldiers, and all of us alike, have grown too comfortable. We weren’t expecting an attack from within.”


    “This should never have happened. We cannot allow another attempt…” Lavellan shook her head thoughtfully, glancing one more at Leliana. “Why Tevinter poison?”


    “Please, do not look so surprised. Orlais is a thorn in Tevinter’s pampered behind, Ferelden is full of decrepit villages and rabid dogs, and the great Inquisition is led by a creature they would only see worthy enough to serve in their pleasure houses or scrubbing their marble floors.”


    Had Lavellan’s eyes gotten any larger, they may have been in danger of rolling out of their sockets. It was not so much the notion itself, but rather the blasé way Dorian said it.


    “Would they truly be so straightforward? Tevinter poison for a Tevinter agenda?”


    “Why not? Why hide behind someone else? It sent quite the clear message that we aren’t out of their reach, did it not?”


    “Why aggravate the South? Their hands aren’t full fighting the Qunari?”


    “It isn’t a full on war. Isolated battles have occurred on the borders, but the Qunari have been in a holding pattern for almost a century. Given that, and the current chaotic state of Orlais, squabbling for power amongst themselves… the only obstacle left is the Inquisition. Spark disarray in said organization - murdering our most invaluable Spymaster aught to do that - and send its efficiency rolling downhill, and the South will be quite the attainable conquest.”


    Lavellan felt the knots tighten in her gut, tying over themselves again and again. “Let’s hope you’re wrong and this was an atrocious flop on behalf of some disgruntled lord.”


    “Yes, but you and I both know you’re not that optimistic, nor that lucky.”


    A sliver of an elven woman appeared in the doorway, reddish brown tresses speckled with melting snowflakes. The apothecary Elan stepped into the warm room, heading straight for Leliana. She was followed by two healers, each carrying an assortment of vials and herbs in their hands.


    “Please step aside.” Elan commanded in a clear voice, gliding over to Leliana. She pinched at her skin, checked her pulse, inspected her eyes. Dorian proceeded to describe in detail what he had learned of the poison, and inform the apothecary of the antidote’s administration.     

Lavellan dismissed herself in order to contain the chaos this was no doubt brining to the ranks. Steadying her breath and the now consistent thrum of thoughts in her mind, she descended down the stairs. She realized her eyes now scrutinized every face she saw, leeriness lacing itself in her nerves.


    The thunder of Cullen’s voice rushed the steps of the soldiers scurrying to every corner of the keep. The man himself had recently returned from a brief venture into the Emprise du Lion regarding Suledin keep and Samson’s state. The journey must have been arduous, for he was hardly seen the three days since he returned. Armored as ever, he ascended the stairs, a storm personified.


    “What the hell happened?” He asked Lavellan, his tone forthright. His face seemed drawn and the man was more on edge than expected.


    “Leliana was poisoned. Though she will be alright.”


    Cullen’s metallic sorrel eyes were tired, if not bloodshot, and furious all together as he approached Lavellan, who paused on the stairs. He had hardly spoken to anyone since he returned, kindling her suspicions as to something being amiss, never mind the situation upstairs. She averted her gaze briefly, shrugging off that investigation for later.


    “It was a Tevinter poison. We are fortunate Dorian had the antidote… Elan and the healers are attending to Leliana now. According to Dorian she should regain herself shortly.” Lavellan’s fingers rubbed her forehead.


    “We have no way of knowing what else may be poisoned. The gates are locked, every exit and entrance patrolled. I have my men scouring the keep for any threats.” Cullen stopped a step short of Lavellan, their eyes in line. “We must locate-“


    A wail echoed off the walls of the tower, followed by the flash of dark blue as one of the young kitchen girls shot into the entrance to the first floor. She sobbed and shoved herself past the three guards, pointing to the back door she had just come through. Grasping her firmly by the shoulders, one of the guards sat the hysterical girl down to the floor. His compatriots rushed out the door to investigate. Cullen turned and followed suit, Lavellan trailing behind him, burgundy fabric brushing away her footsteps.


    A pile of grey woolen skirts lay motionless on the frigid stone walkway circling the outside of the tower. A pool of garnet seeped into the cooling stone path, the ewer shattered to bits, a bread basket tipped upside down beside it. Empty eyes stared listlessly at the twilight skies, young skin growing gray. A girl of no more than fifteen lay sprawled on the ground, not a breath of life left in her.


    Cullen ran a nervous hand through his hair, wondering how many more bodies would turn up before the night was done.


    “Maker, she’s just a child…” He mumbled, before glancing back behind him. But Lavellan was no longer there.


    She had stormed back into the tower and was now kneeling in front of the hysterical kitchen girl.


    “I - I swear! I swear, Mistress Lavellan, I told her not to! But she drank some of Mistress Leliana’s wine… I didn’t want to get caught so I left to finish bringing food and- and…when she didn’t catch up to me…” The young girl rambled on through incessant tears, her coppery skin flushed with cold and panic. Lavellan held her firmly by the shoulders, squeezing reassuringly.


    As Cullen stepped back into the tower, she glanced at him with something strange in her eyes - perhaps a blend of suspicion and anxiety. He turned to the soldiers at the door.


    “Take her away.” He muttered, referring to the dead youth on the walkway, and marched up to the elf and the witness.


    Lavellan murmured a few words of comfort to the sobbing girl and stood to face Cullen. He held her gaze only briefly, before inspecting the kitchen helper.


    “A brash act of a child. A tragic accident, it seems.” Lavellan reiterated, absently. Her eyes, though, were scrutinizing her Commander. He felt his teeth grind together in discomfort, sensing her perusal. She awarded him one last assessing glance.


    Ignoring her glares, he took hold of her elbow and pulled her out of the young girl’s earshot.


    “What are your thoughts on this, Inquisitor?” He mumbled uncomfortably. She retained that look in her eyes and sighed.


    “I do not know. We have no leads as of yet. We shouldn’t rule out anyone.” Lavellan cast a wayward glance at the weeping girl guarded by a towering Inquisition soldier. Cullen felt a knot in his throat.


    “She’s hardly more than a child. Do you think she’d be capable of such?”


    Lavellan’s eyes blackened so briefly, a blink may have obscured it, though it had not escaped Cullen’s notice. “A child is as capable as a man grown, given proper circumstance… The wine was poisoned, their hands have been the last to touch it before Leliana fell ill.”


    The Commander’s brows furled into a frown. This was a side of his leader he had not seen. There was such a penetrating coldness in her remark, something more than casual inference, something likened to a confession.  


    “Inquisitor.” His back lengthened, towering  by a head over Lavellan. “Though I may doubt she had done anything, I’ll assign a guard over her and all the kitchen staff, for their protection and our own.”


    “Good. I want patrols doubled, guards all over the residential areas. The rest I defer to you.”


    “Understood.” Cullen rumbled low, instinctively drawing up orders to hand out to his officers.


    “And send me someone who kept record of guests, migrants, new comers and anyone who left the keep. I will be in Josephine’s office.”


    “Right away, Inquisitor.” He muttered in assurance, turning to fulfill the commands.


    “And Cullen…” Etain stopped him before his back was to her, granting him a calculated gander. “Next time it happens, find me.”


    A shiver scuttled down the length of his neck at her words, and he watched her as she turned away, sweeping out of the tower with her straight backed stride. Whether she spoke of another murder or of his current condition, he wasn't sure. He forcefully swallowed his disquietude, knuckles turning white as he clenched his fists.


    Perhaps it was worse than he thought.
    
________


    As the tips of his fingers brushed the door latch to his chambers, Cullen’s stomach churned ice at the thought of what waited for him on the other side. Another night spent avoiding sleep, evading the nightmares, rubbing the sudden ache from his limbs. Add to it the events of the evening: an attempted assassination, a murder of a young girl, the ensuing guarded chaos permeating the keep.


    The dreams had grown worse of late. Even more so during the night, when there were hours of darkness and nothing but his thoughts and fears to keep him company. He was thrown once again into this maddening, ruthless whirlwind of doubts, terrors, old memories intermingled with new; an all consuming need for it all to end, even if it were through lyrium.


    The last week, he began to see nightmares in the day: glimpses of ghosts of his past, sometimes visions of some twisted future. These were a different breed of monster, one he actually feared to face, unable to take sword and shield to his defense.


    The sight of Samson was his own waking nightmare made uncomfortably real. A twisted mirror into what could have been. The red lyrium took an even more turbulent, vicious toll on the man. He shuddered in waking hallucinations, his limbs disobeyed his mind completely, often falling utterly numb and paralyzed at various times in the day. He rambled on in nonsensical phrases, then a half hour later he would return to normal and sulk in misery and embarrassment. He was the feuding of his red lyrium tainted body and whatever remained of Samson as a man - a sight enough to still Cullen’s blood.


    He shut the door behind him with caution, instinctively glancing over every corner and shadow of his room, as if expecting some lurker to pounce off the walls. He shook his head clear of the foolish thoughts and pushed off the door. He stripped off the gauntlets, launching them across the room into the armchair. He hastily stripped out of the rest of his armor, its weight growing drastically heavier with each second, intent on remaining on his body and crushing him to the floor. The discarded garb left a trail to the lone window, the glass panes frosted over in mesmerizing patterns. His hands pressed flat against the chilled stone of the window sill, his vision obscured by the ice flowers. Temples throbbed from lack of sleep, but he feared where his slumber would take him. He feared the darkest recesses of his mind.


    And so it went the last three nights, fighting to stay awake for hours on end, unknowingly worsening his situation. The less he rested, the worse the symptoms got, the stronger his fears grew each night. He read every book in his chamber, sat in every chair, paced in a hundred circles, punched at the air, did more push ups than he had done since he had an elder templar shouting into his ear. Everything and anything to keep his mind off the poisons thoughts. Everything to keep the blood flowing through his muscles.


    “Maker. End this… please.” He muttered over and over, until he succumbed to sleep, sitting on the floor, his head against the wall.



    Hands twitched erratically, liquid fire oozing slowly through the veins. Skin cracked with a sharp pop as crystals of red pushed past the muscle beneath, the blood only accentuating the sinister glow of the brilliant kernel. It was not the pain that was terrifying; there was hardly any pain at all once the lyrium emerged. It was the relief. The feeling and shearing sound of skin tearing was nothing compared to how the lyrium felt. It breathed, it lived through the flesh it had arisen from. It was as much a part of the body as every muscle fiber, every blood cell was. The lyrium covered his left hand like scales, his body slowly losing its humanity.


    And the power. The madness. It erupted with each breath, bringing the strength to fell nations to his fingers. What was to stop him? There was no Maker. No Andraste. No gods. No Creators. No Ancient Ones. Nothing divine, nothing holy, nothing sacred, nothing pure, nothing innocent, no justice, no vengeance, no hope, no righteousness, no hate, no love.


    Nothing.


    NOTHING.


    Just the power. The blazing red darkness. The singing of the red… It sings, it screeches, it whispers, it growls, it roars. Every thought no longer his own. What was him, what was it? He could no longer tell what his own voice sounded like.


    The lyrium peeled away his skin, indestructible armor taking its place. The waves of searing pain was briefly replaced by flashes of complete relief, the cycle never-ending. It wreathed around his heart, controlling its beats, never killing the life within, instead urging it to fuel its own. It gave the flesh strength, only to engorge itself, and give it strength again before melding into one.


    Pain. Followed by euphoria. Drowned out by pain again. A vicious circle.


    The red was everywhere, seeping through every nook and cranny of the throne room. The drapery was disintegrating into derelict rags, the wood rotting away, the black rain dripping into the room from the crumbling roof above. The stench of decrepit death. It made no matter. A new fortress would arise from the bones of the old.


    And there on the Inquisition throne was she. Or what was left of her. Chained by his own hands to the very throne she ruled from, the lyrium had devoured her greedily. A pulsating mass of red, alive but with no soul. No trace of the being she once was. It gorged itself on her power, her soul. The screams echoed in his ears as the lyrium clawed its way out of her chest, her legs, her arms… her eyes. The astral orbs recognizable by all, melted away by the lyrium. At her feet, what had been Josephine - was that her name? Or was it Leliana? No matter. Clumps of lyrium corrupted flesh, indistinguishable from the mass that used to be their leader.  Countless such piles littered the floor, blood pools crystallized with specks of the red gemstones. Quite the atmospheric centerpiece.


    He laughed. A baleful cackle enough to send shivers down a Horror’s spine.


    This was survival. Derangement. Power. Why fight it? What was the point? There is no Maker. No one to hear his pleas. A life dedicated to lies. Fighting against the inevitable. There was only the red.


    It sings. A screeching melody. Steel against steel. Stone against stone. It stings, hornets tearing out through his lungs. Red everywhere. Blood and red lyrium. Kernels struggling through his veins and arteries, tearing the thin flesh as they went.


    It consumed the world. It united it. No feuding nations. No political rivalries. Everything was as one. Suffering, death and red lyrium.


    The laugh continued to roll from him in hysterical waves, bouncing off the walls and ringing in his ears. There were no thoughts, nothing that made sense. Just the bloodcurdling guffaw, so persistent and all consuming he thought he might fall unconscious for lack of breath.


 


    Cullen woke in a cold sweat, head smacking backwards against the stone. With a groan, his fingers carefully inspected the back of his skull. Grumbling a curse under his frantic breath, he pushed himself off the floor, starting on another circling pace across his room. Yet halfway through his first round, he snatched the heavy, worn in woolen cloak draped across the back of the chair.


    I will drive myself into madness if I spend another moment in here. He threw the cloak onto his shoulders, strapped his sword to his hip and fled the chamber. Shutting the door behind him, he paused on the walkway, glancing at the darkened stairs on the opposite side of the tower, leading to the Inquisitor’s chambers. For several heartbeats, he considered Lavellan’s words. Find me.


    Body aching from the tortured slumber on the stone floor, he pushed away from his chamber, his fears lurking behind the closed door. This couldn’t go on, he couldn’t stomach it any longer. He was not about to succumb to this self-fulfilling terror, a self-perpetuating nightmare. Disregarding the quizzical looks from the guards, he headed down the hallway, growling a command to remain alert.

Chapter Text

Dismal streaks of predawn light sieved themselves into the chilled shadows of the minimal prayer room. Hands outstretched, Andraste maintained her eternal vigil, the lingering wisps of candles offering up their last light before dawn set in. Nearly cold as the stone of the Maker’s Bride herself, a lone soul hunched itself beneath a cloak at her feet. The silence in the room was deafening, the cold of the twilight ruthless.  


    Lids heavy with sleep, Cullen’s eyes adjusted to the blue tinted darkness of morning. His nightmares relented only when he sought out solace in the modest chapel. Exhausted and sore, his body pleaded for rest, yet there was none to find for yet another day. Cullen was walking dangerously close to his breaking point, spirit and body too tired to cope with his struggle much longer.


    Tilting his head back against Andraste’s indifferent effigy, he mouthed one last half-hearted prayer. Perhaps the Maker would grant him a sliver of mercy.


    Not today. Samson was being brought up the mountain pass, drifting in and out of consciousness and heavily guarded, expected to arrive sometime past noon. Four months after his capture, he was definitively on Skyhold’s doorstep, forever to remain in its resolute walls to serve out his sentence. Corypheus’s last attack set everything back, and Samson was transferred to Suledin keep two months past. He may as well have been put to use in breaking down the red lyrium supply network and Venatori funded research while in waiting.


    The corrupted lyrium permeated everything in those cliffs. The mere sight drove the man to madness. Perhaps it was a mistake to keep him alive, and certainly it was a dangerous venture to send him to Suledin. Without a doubt, it was a mistake for Cullen to go anywhere near that keep so soon… He assured Etain he was up to the task of managing the various duties of reorganizing and re-establishing control of the area, despite the lyrium infestation. He had overestimated his own strength and willpower when it came to being surrounded by the very thing that could kill him slowly, with no defense. It would be an understatement to say the same of Samson.


    But, there is no disobeying the Inquisitor. Her Judgement is Law. Samson is under my jurisdiction. He thought bitterly. The torturous nights were taking their toll on his psyche, and his rotten mood only fouled further. Every familiar face brought an irritated buzz into his skull, Lavellan’s by far the worst.


    She seemed to be a staple of his nightmares these past nights, appearing in one grotesque form or another. It seemed as if his repressed notions were shown light during his withdrawal. She had invaded his thoughts with increasing frequency since the night they had all drank themselves into a stupor in her chambers, after the possibility of her death was once again made too real by Corypheus’s attack. Trifle flirtations that passed between them ever since she was brought into Haven had somehow gained a degree of importance. Yet he shoved those musings away, knowing they were pointless, temporary fancies. But he could do little in his nightmares. Memories would replay, twisted into a morbid version of themselves: her ringing laughter as she sat next to him in the warm tavern, the tips of her ears and nose flushed with evanescent joy and the effects of her cup, eyes wickedly brilliant, skin smooth as candle wax - until her white teeth began falling out one by one, lips crackling with tiny red crystals, hyacinth eyes growing blood shot until they burst into a spray of red.


    Stop. Cullen rubbed his palms over his forehead. There was far too much to worry about and deal with than this. And yet, it seemed he could not bury the thoughts deep enough in the back of his mind.


    He reflected bitterly on his tendency to be drawn to that which he aught to have avoided. Beyond being the Inquisitor (as if that weren’t warning enough), Lavellan was Dalish, and a mage, a very powerful mage, at that. He would have chuckled resentfully at the irony had it not been so miserable of a morning; the soft-spoken, Stygian haired Amell at the circle tower had also grown from mage apprentice to a beaming source of hope and power - the infamous Grey Warden, the Hero of Ferelden. And she was forever beyond his reach, his only chance slipped by ages ago. Her memory resurfaced occasionally with a tinge of regret. Yet the turmoil of his life in the past decade made it difficult to even remember what she looked like.


    Not that any of it matters. Cullen’s fingers flexed into numbed fists and slowly curled back out, coaxing his blood to heat his flesh.


    “Next time it happens, find me.” Maker’s breath, she knows. Surely she wasn’t speaking of the murders. She would find out as soon as I would, and defer whatever actions were needed to me. With a strained grunt, he raised himself up off the floor, his limbs awkward and stiff. Don’t be a fool. Of course she knows. She pulled you out of the red fog last time. She knows the signs. And you just returned from Suledin.


    Part of him wished he could sequester himself in the frigid chamber and fall back into the restless sleep at Andraste’s feet. He did not want to face Lavellan, to feel her scrutinize him with those eyes of hers, he could not stand to answer her questions. All he wanted was silence. But silence never arrived unaccompanied. Memories would intrude on his slumber, thoughts of the lyrium… the scent, the harrowing need for it, no matter the price.


    But another part of him scolded himself for succumbing to such weakness, considering the assassinations and brewing dangers on his hands. Defiantly, he rolled his shoulders straight, drinking in the still winter air. There was no sense in hiding behind a silent statue, as peaceful and calming she seemed at the moment. Questions would be asked regardless. With a heavy sigh and a sleep induced limp in his step, Cullen threw open the door and made his way to the throne room.


“COLE!!” Iron Bull bellowed, disgust and terror widening his eye as he sat frozen in his chair. His heart fluttered like a startled bird in a cage. The biscuit in his hand dropped back into his plate and he growled. The creature continued to run its muzzle along his leg, salivating in goopy droplets that smacked against the leather of his boot. “Get IT away or I will punt it into the damn fade!”


    Varric’s rich chuckle rolled along the length of the table as the pale faced youth shuffled over to his newfound pet. The square jawed dwarf leaned his elbows on the table, tearing the fresh baked loaf in his hands.


    “Oh come on now, Tiny… It’s only a puppy.”


    “It is a shit smelling, puke eating flea bag. GET IT AWAY.” The Qunari rumbled, attempting to maintain whatever dignity he had left. His eye did not miss a single thing as he watched Cole coo and call the clumsy mabari over. The pup trotted over to the youth with a hop in its step, tongue hanging out sideways and pure happiness gleaming in its beady brown eyes. Bull huffed in annoyance and grabbed the fallen biscuit from his plate, unwilling to share his breakfast as Cole was currently doing.


    “Throw him into a high dragon lair and he has a field day. Let a pup sniff his leg and he shits his smallclothes.” Krem, ever the master of effortless smartassery, mumbled absently, continuing to braid Lavellan’s hair into a thick strand down the center of her head, smaller plaits running along the line of her elven ears. The woman herself simply smiled and picked at the food in her plate, too many troubles running through her mind.


    “Shove it, Krem. Or you’ll sleep with the mongrels.” Bull’s fingers gripped the fork tighter.


    “Won’t make that much of a difference when it comes to sounds and smells of our spritely lot, Chief.”


    A half eaten biscuit soared through the air to swat against Krem’s cheek.


    “Real mature, Chief. Your bosoms bound a bit too tight this morning?”


    “Alright, stop!” Lavellan’s voice rang across the empty throne room, too early in the morning to be occupied by anyone else. The dog was already making good work of the biscuit beneath the table. Bull scowled at the pup and turned back to his plate, disappointed. Bastard ended up getting it anyway.


    Varric cleared his throat and went on with a recollection of his first encounter with a Mabari. Iron Bull continued clearing his massive plate, listening to the story with a grimace plastered on his face. The events of the previous night have left the keep tense enough, and it was a blessing to have a moment of joviality amidst the stress.


    “Maker. Relieved she isn’t red anymore. Blood trickling from torn lips. Not yet. Her lips curled by that smile. Skin like satin. Maker this can’t happen. Don’t look at me. Don’t look at me! Every time you do, my dreams take the life from you. Anger like nails under his skin,” Cole whispered under his breath as he scratched the Mabari’s ear, eyes following the sullen sulk of Commander Cullen on the far side of the room. The man’s gaze was glued to the floor, dark circles dulling his eyes. He must have felt the stolen glances directed at him as his hand went up in an abstracted gesture of acknowledgement.


    Etain abandoned her food, folding her arms across the table, her head bobbing in different directions as Krem's fingers tightened the fiery pleats of her hair into a knot at the back of her skull. Outwardly, Lavellan’s attention was tied to Varric’s fable, though she watched Cullen out of her periphery until he disappeared behind the door of the residential tower. She ignored the pulsating in her chest, sped up by uninvited thoughts. I shouldn’t have let him leave to Suledin. Etain stopped her pondering at that, refusing to acknowledge everything else rising in her mind. She wondered who else overheard Cole’s cryptic commentary. If any one had, they certainly were not showing evidence of it.


    “Well. As eventful as this has been, I’ve got to go ruin a particular someone’s beauty sleep. Call on me if you need me, Boss.” The Qunari shoved the last bits of his breakfast into his mouth and raised his gargantuan frame from the table.


    “Tell that particular someone to come down to Josephine’s within the hour.” Lavellan muttered, a devious gleam in her eyes as she sized up Bull’s revealing admission.

Satisfied with the finishing touches, Krem patted Lavellan’s shoulder and dismissed himself to go about the day. Etain ran her fork aimlessly over her food, her appetite completely lost. Her mind lacked sleep, the night spent pouring over reports and attempting to piece together any sort of explanation for recent events and corresponding plan of action. As if that were not enough, Cole’s insight into Cullen’s morose demeanor sent her back muscles clenching her spine straight.


    “Well then…” Varric just about read her mind as he leaned back in the chair, a mug of pitch black coffee in his hand. “Seeing as how we were all there to hear that, discretion is pretty much pointless. Kid’s been going on like that the last three days. Damn near churned my stomach this morning with his revelations. Which leads me to my next question, though it is probably on both our minds… What’s with Curly?”


    She swiftly elected to do what seemed best given the situation. Her inner circle knew well enough Cullen was not taking lyrium, though it was anyone’s guess exactly how well he was dealing with that. Nor did they know just how often Lavellan served as a ballast for him, or so she thought.  


    “I wouldn’t know.”


    Something between a snort and a chuckle rumbled from the dwarf’s throat and he awarded her with a look of dubiousness.


    “You did hear me, didn’t you?” He asked sardonically. “Cole hasn’t mastered the concept of a filter just yet.”


    Lavellan sucked in a lung full of air and looked absently around the room, arms still folded over the table. Her blood stilled with anxiety, denying the more personal realization awkwardly forced upon her: a shemlen Templar, her Commander, may have yet seen her as something more than a close companion. Somehow she had crossed the friendship line into something more all-consuming. All the while the elven man she once yearned for deeply had turned any such feeling into a phobia. Enough. This is all irrelevant. It’ll pass.


    “Then you may know more than I.” She glanced down briefly at the youth still fawning over the slobbering, overjoyed Mabari sprawled out on the floor. “Let’s keep this between us, shall we?”


The water trickled down in icy strings, chasing away sleep from Dorian’s uncharacteristically haggard face. This morning would be a long one.


    Now you’ve done it. He admonished himself, seething through the teeth as he hastily washed his face clean, as if hoping to cleanse the sparse memories of the previous night. His fingers buzzed. Completely unhinged.


    Only a few minutes past midnight, the stone hallway in the residential tower was quite too muggy and constricting, the silent walls creating a sanctum for the blackness of deep night.


    Dorian stole along the length of the corridor with something between a tiptoe and a casual stomp. One hand occasionally shot out to the wall to steady himself, his balance compromised by exhaustion and a considerable dose of brandy. With carefree abandon of all his caution and the confidence of a prideful tiger, he marched straight up to the oaken door of the Qunari and rapped on it.


    Dorian growled from the memory and shook his head, perishing the thoughts. Snatching a towel, he rubbed his face just short of raw, mortification tickling his skin. Damned Antivan brandy always leaves me wishing for death. When will I learn?


    The door to his chambers swung open with a shrill creak, and a massive horned beast of a man ducked to step inside. Dorian’s eyes widened in terror, his guts shriveling against his spine. He stood frozen in place, the towel dangling from his fingers as he watched the Qunari plop himself down with a heavy sigh on the bed. His one jade eye glimmered with amusement at the Tevinter’s misery and fluster.


    Dorian mentally slapped sense back into himself and turned back toward the water basin. “Please, do come in,” he grumbled sarcastically, rinsing his hands. Inside, everything trembled and twisted, threatening to drench him in a nervous sweat worthy of a shy teenager. He gave his most noble effort to remain unperturbed.


    Long did that last. The Qunari leaned back on his elbow and inspected the mage in silence, a mischievous smirk plastered across his scarred visage.


    “You are a wellspring of thrilling conversation, as usual.” Dorian added sheepishly while turning on his heel, arms crossed defensively.


    “Someone’s grumpy this morning. Indulged a bit too much last night?” Bull taunted, ruthless impishness lingering on his face.


    Black, hard angled brows pulled into a vicious frown and Dorian made for the door.


    “Whoa, slow down Big Guy. I’m just teasing.” Bull made no effort to move from his comfortable position.


    Dorian’s knuckles stretched his skin as his hands nervously balled into fists. He frantically searched for whatever courage remained in his bones and inhaled fresh resolve into his lungs.


    “Whatever happened last night…”


    “Nothing happened last night. Relax.” The Qunari murmured as he folded his burly arms behind his head, clearly not intending to take leave anytime soon. Dorian’s frown only deepened the worry lines on his forehead. There was no graceful way to broach the subject.


    “So I didn’t …”


    “Nope. You shuffled around outside my door, stumbled in drunk, chastised me mercilessly on just how atrocious I am, then practically threw yourself at me… Only to pass out as soon as you hit the bed.”


    Maker, smite me now. Take that smug fiend while you’re at it. Let me watch if you’re feeling quite generous. Dorian would have melted into a puddle and seeped through the cracks in the wood flooring if he had but the chance. Instead, a healthy flush of red crept up his neck to his cheeks and he muttered under his breath, unable to even look in Bull’s direction.


    An amused snort sounded from Bull, feet hanging off the edge of the bed. “Saved by duty… Boss summons you to Scribbles’s office… I’ll be taking a nap.”


    Unbelievable. The temerity on this one. Dorian straightened up, pulling his dignity out of his shoes.


    “And next time, find me while you’re sober… I’m not one for taking advantage of unresponsive admirers. Either you’re there one hundred percent, or not at all.” The warrior closed his eye, signaling the end of the conversation.


    Not that Dorian felt too upset about that. Face scarlet with chagrin, he rushed out the door, the Qunari’s words humming around in his ears. There was a lively thundering in his chest, the result of infatuation, excitement and complete discomposure. Dorian may not have expected Bull to have the effect he did on him, but it was far too late to deny the tethering attraction between the two of them. Bull had left him with an invitation; enough hemming and hawing and let’s get down to business, or forget all about it. And there in was the issue. With the aid of alcohol in his system, Dorian moved past social stigmas and expectations to do what he wanted, but as soon as sobering sunlight shined in his eyes he would shrink back. The decision had to come form a leveled mind, not out of drunken impulse. Otherwise it was practically an insult.


    What have I to feel so guilty of? Truly… It’s not as if it’s a mockery of hundreds of years of war and strife between our peoples, not as if the mere word of whatever THIS is would definitively destroy the Pavus family reputation, and tough shit getting anywhere then… Damn it all to hell. Dorian shook his head clear of the thoughts and straightened the leather and wool tunic tied haphazardly to keep out the morning chill. Slowly regaining his composure, his steps reverted to their typical assured stride as he delayed making any further decisions. There are slightly more pressing matters at hand, anyway.


Josephine twisted the quill thoughtfully between her thin fingers, brows lowered as she gathered her thoughts. “It does not add up. Why would Tevinter send an assassin for our spymaster? We secured a shaky alliance with Archon Radonis after aiding him with the Venatori cult... He yet rules the Imperium.”


    “So I thought as well.” Lavellan muttered, crossing her legs in the wooden chair near the fireplace. The room still harbored the early morning chill, the fire bringing only a breath of warmth. “Perhaps that had served its purpose? But assaulting the Inquisition… If it were to spark a war, they would have to go through Nevarra into Orlais. Surely that’s a troublesome obstacle?”


    “Not to mention no nation could have an easy time fighting wars on all fronts - the Qun to the north, potentially Nevarra to the south before they even step foot in Orlais. The main question is, could Tevinter bring down Orlais? And how far would they go to do so?”


    “Corypheus may have failed in gaining entrance to the Black City, but he had done more than enough damage to Thedas. Our efforts may have been successful and far reaching, but we cannot repair and bolster the strength of Ferelden and Orlais both. It’s a complex, orchestrated effort to aid one without offending the other… And the civil war may be over, but Orlais yet suffers from its effects. Its military force had been divided, rivalries yet run in the ranks... not to mention how many lives were lost... Leliana thinks the power balance forced by the Inquisition is perhaps the only reason Celene yet clings to power. The failed attempt on her life three weeks past aught to be sign enough. How she interprets that inconvenient notion is what should concern us.”


    Josephine had all but forgotten the reports of yet another attempt on the Empress’s life earlier in the month. Rumors were running rampant, no less accurate than the deficient reports from spies in the palace: some claimed the work of Gaspard, others favored Briala’s hand in the proceedings, and the rest pointed fingers at Tevinter. In short, nothing out of the ordinary in the imperial courts. Josephine sighed, setting her quill down.


    “We are grasping at straws. This could mean anything. With Corypheus gone, all of Thedas need not remain a unified front. We must tread carefully, Inquisitor. Our organization remains a formidable stabilizing power for now, especially with our Cassandra named the new Divine. As you well know, that makes us both a target and a contested ally.”


    Lavellan inhaled deeply, biting her lower lip in concentrated thought. “Seems Corypheus was only the beginning. At least he was a simpler enemy. A clear and obvious evil.”  


    “I hear she is recovering well. Leliana, I mean.” Josephine swaddled herself in her ornately embroidered, navy blue woolen cloak, eyes gleaming with concern. She elected to change the subject for the time being.


    “She is. Thank the Creat - ahem,” Etain shook her head once, catching her habitual phrase. “Thankfully, yes, she is alright… Any word on our assassin hunt?”


    “No, Inquisitor. Not as of yet. I’m gathering the remaining logs on visitors, recruits - anything I can get my hands on.”


    Dorian entered the office gallant as always, accompanied by the smell of freshly baked bread from the hall beyond.


    “Dorian. I would say a good morning to you if it were not for the circumstances.” Josephine retained a sunny note in her voice, despite her words, and leaned forward in her chair.


    “My dear Josie, it seems even unfortunate events do not dampen your loveliness.” Dorian weaved his way down to the chair adjacent to Lavellan. His brows pulled into an appraising frown as he brushed a finger along the multi-stranded braids in her gilded hair.


    “I like this. Do it more often.” He remarked and lowered himself into his seat.


    “The Inquisitor and I had just been discussing the state of affairs and pondering the possibility of war between Orlais and Tevinter.” Josephine caught the newcomer up on the brief conversation.


    In the end, Dorian had shed little light on the situation and instead suggested a careful correspondence with a few remaining connections in Tevinter: a cautious inquiry as to what the political outlook held, where the Inquisition sat in the eyes of the magisterium now that the Venatori had been obliterated. Etain left Josephine and Dorian to sort out the details and put their plan forward into action. The day was still young and she had been given plenty more puzzle pieces to look into before the picture would get clearer.


It was an hour before sundown when the Skyhold gates bellowed open, granting admittance to the armed escort of a taciturn, debilitated Samson and Inquisition contacts from Emprise du Lion.


    Cullen’s neck strained from all the tension in his muscles as the former Templar was brought down to his scarcely furnished holding cell - complete with a rickety bed, a chamber pot and, more recently, a small table with parchment and quill. The uncomfortably troubling thought crossed Cullen's mind that perhaps this was to be his future as well, if he did not get a grip on himself.


    The dejected Samson shuffled into his cell and sat on his bed, bloodshot eyes reluctantly drifting up toward the Commander, fully clad in armor and glaring fearsomely back at him.


    “Go on then. Don’t just stare at me like some exhibition animal.” He mumbled, hardly audible. The foray into Suledin, and his exposure to the dreaded red lyrium mines had nearly utterly unhinged the man. Inquisition troops were still fighting off an occasional renegade red Templar or shadow, or would find yet another corrupted corpse consumed by the red mass. Forced to face the crumbling of all he had helped to bring to life, Samson’s insanity deepened. He lived in a waking nightmare, hardly able to complete his assigned tasks and provide his overseers with the needed information. He would begin a report on how exactly the mines were set up, only to ramble on in seemingly nonsensical sentences, punctuated by hysterical shrieks of laughter or cries of pain.


    Yet Cullen wasn’t convinced these episodes were all completely the result of his red lyrium addiction. The man was suffering from a complete breakdown, realizing he was at the very depths of his life’s downward spiral into madness and regret. At his judgement, he claimed to know the Templars were being used, aiming to make the best of his situation. Locked into damnation, he candy-coated and organized their downfall into Corypheus’s will as something slightly more bearable to the men and women who could no longer turn back. But it makes no matter, Cullen thought. Samson had made the choice to do his job well, to masterfully manipulate and brainwash his men in order to aid Corypheus in destruction.

No matter how he may have reasoned it away, Samson was still a party to the atrocities committed in Emprise du Lion - anywhere in Thedas that red lyrium lurked in, for that matter. He knew innocents were captured and corrupted for their needs, countless Templars turned from their true purpose for Corypheus' agenda. The irony was brutal, considering Samson helped bring about the end of Knight Commander Meredith's ruthless rule of Kirkwall's circle. A man who once stood for good, turned monster by the very thing that had initially granted him his power. He had gone insane, as had the rest of the Red Templars; hardly human monsters who deserved no better than the deaths they got. Now Samson was faced with precisely that which he had feared and aimed to prevent. Try as he might have to make the Templars perish in a blaze of glory, tainted as it was, they only fell to dust and ruin beneath the crushing boot of the Inquisition forces.


    The Commander slammed shut the menacing gate to the cell. “Full report by sun up,” he growled through his teeth and departed back toward his tower.  


    Samson’s bleary and woebegone eyes turned to the papers on the table and he let his body topple over on the meagre bedding, his limbs curled up close to his body for warmth.


    The keep buzzed as a beehive with hearsay and speculation as arrivals caught up with inhabitants. The Inquisition settled in for another long winter night, and Cullen had heard the majority of such sullying speculations within the hour, the predominant of which questioned the Inquisitor’s political prowess. It seems Gaspard would have been the more logical choice to bring stability to Orlais; Celene’s golden reign had passed, it was far past time for her to step down. Yet others construed the events of the Winter Palace Ball as an ambitious ploy by the Inquisition to weave its influence into the ruling elite of Orlais - an empress owing the safety of her throne would indubitably be considered irrefutable leverage.


    Now the Inquisition would be forced to choose sides, each ruling faction vying to push their interests forward. Yet again Lavellan would have to dance on egg shells in Halamshiral, and this time there was no forcing everyone into coercion.


    Consequences of her own decisions. I warned her... The voice in his head was rancorous, his discontent stewing alongside everything else fermenting on his mind.


    The door to the Commander’s office grated open, preceded by the clink of the metal handle. A hooded and cloaked figure stepped into the room, hastily closing the door behind it. Cullen’s cognac eyes, dim beneath heavy lids, were only momentarily drawn toward the intruder. He evaded Lavellan’s nervous and solicitous gaze like a cat avoiding water, lingering on the fresh collection of reports haphazardly spread across his desk.


    “Commander.” Lavellan brought the chill of winter twilight alongside with her, lingering long after the door was shut.


    Eyes of molten gold flashed up at her, cold as the metal itself. “Inquisitor.”


    “May I skip the formalities and speak frankly with you, Cullen?” She drifted closer to his desk, crossing her arms over her fitted leather jerkin.


    “If that is what you wish, Inquisitor.”


    “When did it start again?” She watched him with eyes of a reticent owl. Snowflakes began to melt on her merlot hued tunic and black woolen pants.


    Cullen glared at her, his skin crawling. “What do you mean?”


    “You’ve been beside yourself… Avoiding everyone since you returned. In addition, you look exhausted, bags under your eyes-“


    “Everything is fine, Inquisitor.”


    “Cullen…” Her arms unfolded and her tone softened to a feathery lightness. “Please. Tell me what is happening. With everything going on, I cannot lose my Commander.”


    Her lips hardly moved as she spoke, quiet and calm. She could see the last thing he wanted was to speak, yet this could not go on. He was withering away, succumbing to the nightmares and the pain. How will I help him this time? She scolded herself, feeling guilty for the mere thought of the terrible timing of his illness. Whatever had just befallen the Inquisition, she knew well enough it was not limited to one incident.


    “A lack of sleep is all, Inquisitor.” Cullen remained unfazed, steering clear of direct eye contact with his gentle interrogator.


    “Lack of sleep had never made you so draconian before.”


    “Have you ever considered I may object to your actions, your judgement? Or is that too difficult of a thing to comprehend? You assume my decision to abandon the lyrium interferes with my ability to reason? That’s why I believe against your verdicts?”


    “Cullen, I understand you do not approve of all my decisions… That is not what I speak of. It is your disappearances, your reticence, the sleeplessness.” She maintained her calm resolve, while his slowly crumbled to pieces. “And it’s not only my notice you need to worry about. You lead the Inquisition army…”


    Maker, have mercy… I’m losing it. His head pounded ruthlessly, ears humming. His body was a blast furnace, heat surging in his blood.


    “I’ve had my hands beyond full lately.” He said hoarsely, raking through the paperwork. 

   
    She firmly remained, gliding around the desk, closer to him. His heart hammered in his chest for no apparent reason. Irrationally he feared her, loathed her. He stole a glance at Etain, his mind conjuring her lyrium twisted mirror image: eyes empty pits of hell, satin lips turned to raw flesh, skin torn by red shards. His teeth crushed together, spurned by senseless fear and anger.


    "Why must you always interfere? Always dictate? You may be in charge of the Inquisition, but that gives you little right over my thoughts, my actions! I can manage without your oh-so-righteous tutelage!"


    "What brought this on, Cullen?" Her voice hardened alarmingly, resorting to her cold, calculating demeanor when she was about to ruthlessly get to the bottom of a dilemma. His anger was disproportionate to the situation, his complaints hardly applicable. "You and I both know what this is. Why now? What happened in Suledin? You have grown dark again."


    “You are the one who elected to shove Samson off to me to avoid passing the justice he deserved -“ He grumbled, shoving his cramping body up out of the chair.


    “Stop.” Her voice was dark and threatening. “Do not speak to me as if I do not know the price of life and the cost of that man's actions. Not I, not with the immeasurable blood on my hands for the sake of someone's justice somewhere!”


    He shortened the distance between them with one hostile stride. ”Spare me! Shocking as it may be to you, you don't know it all, you aren't the only one with blood on your hands!” He flicked his fingers angrily in her face, towering over her by almost a head. He was drowning in a rage, unable to resist as it washed over him. “You aren't the only one to bear the consequences of your judgement and decisions! Your mouth speaks the word and we, like puppeteered lackeys, carry out your will-“


    The light was gone from her eyes, and her head lowered by the smallest degree, giving her a predatory look. Derision weaved itself into her hiss. “As if I forced you all under my will. As if any of you lacked the option to leave me to my fate. As if-”


    “Why must you always inspect and analyze and control?!" He growled, fists clenched at his sides, skin ablaze with heat, completely ignoring her retort. His mind was fixated on her ever present observations, her constant scrutiny.


    "Because it is my duty.” She braced herself against the desk behind her.


    "Corypheus is gone. You've filled your purpose, your power and magnetism has run its course! No one needs you now, Lavellan. The dire need for your mark gone, you’re just another knife eared little bitch that must be wiped off the power map!"


    "I've known it longer than you! Than any of you!” Her voice was a hurricane, rage energizing the air around her. You don't need to remind me of just how unneeded I am, shemlen. I know who I am, what I am and what I've done. A tool of order and organization and defense, to be discarded the moment my use was deemed unnecessary, as soon as a more malleable replacement could be installed. None of you ever needed me for anything but the mark, for anything other than to be a figure head to carry out all the verdicts and judgments of the Inquisition as a whole.


    “You think this was an honor?! To be bequeathed Inquisitor? It was a fucking death sentence. Though a true, immediate death would have been kinder. Drained of everything I possibly had, everything I could possibly give, I'm now a broken instrument tainted with blood and rumor.” Her voice may have dropped decibels, but the clash of steel was still apparent enough.


    “How long until I'm chased out with ceremonial grace and outward niceties? And to where? Clan Lavellan? Barely able to keep Wycome at bay? You truly think that will be allowed? How soon until someone shouts Elvhen rebellion again? Celine yet needs the Inquisition. Gaspard needs it. Tevinter may threaten war. I am a pawn. Either I serve the white queen or the black king, or I am thrown off the board, replaced by a more useful piece. I can only be owned and manipulated or destroyed. I know this game, either way, I have a feeling my time is up soon. So don’t remind me of my usefulness.” Etain reeled in her snarl, knuckles white against the edge of the desk. Had she been less keyed up, she would have known and realized she overreacted, much as he had.


    “Have you ever thought of me as anything else? Has it occurred to you that I am here as your friend, not the Inquisitor?” Her tone softened by a hair.


    Cullen bristled, clearly in a blind outrage. “How thoughtful and convenient of you to care so much, now that that sullen apostate of yours is gone.”


    The snap of skin against skin reverberated through the room. Cullen's cheek blazed red, an outline of Etain's stinging hand growing vivid. The rage and masochism fled out of his sorrel eyes, pupils readjusting to the light of his wakened state.


    Cullen glared at her, confounded, his body slowly flushing out the red hot anger still lingering in his limbs.


    His silence was her answer. “Get some sleep and gather your senses, General.”


    The damage was done. He had taken her goodwill too far, pressed too many buttons even for her to ignore. In his sour state, he spoke things he would have never dared, things he hardly acknowledged he thought. Etain Lavellan stormed out of the office, the ground freezing at her feet.

 

Chapter Text

    The breath returned to her lungs with a raspy gasp that tore through the night. Etain’s hands frantically fought off an unseen menace, an unintended burst of crackling electricity sheathing her fingers. Bewildered, horrified eyes snapped open, seeing nothing but the darkened recesses of her bedchamber. A second more and she may have set the canopy of her bed ablaze.


    She sucked in the smoke filled air in desperate gulps, skin crawling and limbs shaking as if from climbing a mountain. Her guts twisted in anxiety, her spirit shaken to the core.


    Not again. Her forehead dropped into her palms, fingers raking into her tousled hair. Her skin was dewy with a fear induced sweat, her nightgown sticking to her back.


    It seemed the Well of Sorrows came with yet another unpredictable side effect; strange dreams of varying frequency and effect would play out while she slept. Visions from eons apart would manifest in her dream state. Hardly were they her own memories, as if those were not enough. Some were simple glimpses of everyday life in some long gone hub of civilization, others were - in essence - lessons in forgotten arts, and the worst of them were haunting memories.


    Etain could recall most of the vision that had wakened her. Like the rest, it came in a patchwork of memories stitched together with no demarkation of  a timeline. She saw it all as if through her own eyes, never seeing who she was in the dream.


    A balmy summer night… the glow of lanterns sparsely lighting a secluded, silent courtyard. The sweet fragrance of the violet blooms speckled across the shrubbery permeated though to her soul, the soothing sounds of night lulling her into a trance. Mythal’s marble statue stood vigilant, incense dissipating around her dragon form.


    The serenity of the night shattered with a delay as she rounded the statue, fingers brushing the smooth marble. The glow of moonbeam hair, adorned with gold and jewels, cascaded over deep emerald silks, the color mimicking the hue of the most enrapturing green eyes any living being could have. She was nonpareil perfection, painfully beautiful. And she was dying, her own statue casting angled shadows over her gown.


    Etain’s throat seemed to clench shut with the mere memory. The distant sibilations had not let up in her ears. She swallowed hard, her mind venturing to the next scene she could recall.


    Screams of terror toppled sudden battle cries in the nearest halls, Mythal’s elven servants darting into the entrance courtyard in flashes of silken robes, their feminine silhouettes soon followed by armored human intruders. Bolts of energy careened through the warm air and bathed the stone walkways in sprays of red.  Shadows glinted gold and silver as Sentinels rushed the piazza to meet the attackers. Snippets of Tevene stood out above the din of blades and staves, shouts and cries. Etain watched her dream body act out its memory; crouched, hands flew up behind her, drawing arcane daggers - versions of her own knight enchanter blade.


    The fog of war twisted time and wreaked havoc on senses: shouts, screams, explosions, the crumbling of stone, the crackling groan of toppling trees, the reek of burning flesh and hair, blood, gore, the filth of death. Adrenaline pumped through blood like wild horses thundering across open fields.


     Those who still could fled into the bowels of the temple, colossal doors yowling to a close. A few intruders filtered in, odds against them within the temple’s sacred walls. Those left on the outside resigned to their fate. Drawing on the last drops of mana, willpower, and invoking the name of every god that came to their lips, the remaining Sentinels redoubled their efforts to kill every last invader.


    Indescribable fury, desperation, and fear subdued the overwhelming exhaustion weakening limbs, numbed what aught to have been excruciating and crippling injuries. The gods demanded a price for every lingering, wrathful breath, and every last sentinel paid the price with Tevinter blood. Years of expertise kept the guardians’ minds clear in the bloody tempest, rendering each sentinel a sinister mechanism of swift death. But for all their talents, they were only a few, outnumbered past their best abilities.


    Her ‘own’ body moved with ferocity, disregarding the gashes across her ribs, burns along her armor, salty sweat and bitter blood on her lips. Slash after sure-handed slash, stab after stab, kick, duck - an endless, tireless onslaught of offensive and defensive maneuvers.


    The chaos was so overwhelming, Etain could hardly recall any of the fighting, though her muscles seemed to have disagreed. Her mind lingered and reeled from the last few seconds of her nightmare.


    No words existed in any language, dead or not, to describe with even half decent accuracy the chaos of it all: of the outright desperation, the whirlwind of emotions and thoughts when faced with certain death. Nothing ever truly prepares one for the end, no matter how noble or resolute or fearless a warrior is.


    The smell of her own flesh - at least in the dream - singed and burning, still tarried in her nose, blood fizzing, the salty metallic taste curling her tongue. Eyes watered and stung from the smoke and heat, electricity and fire ravaged her body, flickers lingering in the laceration across her stomach. She dared not look down, but she could feel what exactly was protruding from the open gash each time she inhaled. Her ultimate breaths fueled the last whispers of mana in her limbs, her blood was her only source of power for a last ditch effort to save their legacy.


    With a final inhale and a thousand thoughts and fears swirling in her mind, beginning to muddle with the unbearable pain, her fingers soaked themselves into the crimson spilling  from the deep rent in her thigh. Lips muttered in a frantic, desperate wrath as she backed against the door. Hands slapped against the portal, formidable energy slithered along the blood that began to crawl along the enchanted stone. Her life left her limbs, drop by cardinal drop following the ridges of the designs in the stone beneath her fingers. With an ear splitting burst, her vision faded, the barrier guarded the temple entrance, the resulting shockwave knocked back the intruders.


    Etain did not know what to make of her nightly visions. Sometimes the voices spoke, other times it was erratic memories such as the one that now had her hair standing on end, leaving her feeling emotions she had not brought onto herself.


    Those dying viridescent eyes. Mythal. The ancient power that had made its presence all the more personal within the last few months. She was real. What - who - was she? If she had been slain, who could have possibly done such a thing? What manner of being was able to slay a goddess? What is she now? Is Flemeth merely a vessel for her spirit? Or simply an aspect of her? A memory? Flemeth had called her a wisp of an ancient being… how am I to know if that was a literal description?


    She could scarcely finish one thought before another question over took it, followed by another, and another, until she seemed incapable of a single cohesive thought. Etain brushed the moisture beading at her eyes and pushed herself out of bed with a sniffle. Adding more fuel to the dwindling flames in the fire place, she turned to the endtable. Reluctant fingers pulled a small cup toward herself, the scraping echoed in the silence of the night. The cold seeping in through the windows urged her on; there, there, it will help you sleep, it will chase the chill from your veins, calm your spirit.


    Deferring to the moonless night, her other hand popped off the top of a small, ornate crystal decanter. The port within held promises of a dreamless conclusion to the night. There aught to be a better way… She silently chided herself, discontented by the need to resort to spirits to keep herself together. But there isn’t. None can know about this. I cannot wander the castle, for I would draw attention sooner or later. I cannot write down my thoughts, nor can I voice them to another, no matter how trustworthy. None can know about the Well, much less its after effects. If word got out to the public, I will be done for. “The Inquisitor crumbled from the weight of her duties, succumbing to wanderings of the mind, claiming to hear voices and see visions from servants to a heathen elven goddess…” I would be imprisoned, exiled, burned at the stake… if I am fortunate. More than likely the Chantry would make me Tranquil, and there would be naught Cassandra could do about it lest she ruin her rule as Divine.


    With a sigh, Etain’s hand tipped the decanter, pouring a generous ration into her glass. Josephine’s favorite variety, the Nevarran port was strong and sweet, drawing heat into her limbs, the color lingering on her lips.


    That is if there won’t be more accomplished assassins sent to crumble the Inquisition from within. Perhaps add a bit of poison to my own cup. Useless as it was, she squinted at the wine in her cup as she tilted it to and fro. With a roll of her eyes, she downed the port and refilled the glass.  


    She was left to deal with it all on her own. After several months of regulating her musings and emotions, she reflexively ignored and pushed aside any semblance of a thought of Solas. Her initial despair at his rejection and his departure had morphed into something born of anger and the stubborn preservation of her own pride. She would not let herself wallow in grief over a man who left her so readily, without warning. She was not one to put any faith in an everlasting notion of the dangerous thing called love. To her, it was another adaptation of the mind, necessary for survival, of the individual, of the people as a whole. This was an infatuation that would pass, surely…


    There was hardly anything of substance to appeal to Etain when she had first met the apostate. At first glance, he was completely unremarkable, if not for his being tall and slightly more built for an elf, though certainly no human warrior. It had been fascinating for her; she had seen many humans in her life, though not so many soldiers in one place. Brawny, enormous beasts swinging weapons matching her height, smashing everything into submission, they were a curious sight to see. Perhaps standing next to one such sturdy specimen, Solas may not have looked very formidable, especially considering he would always shave his head clean and wear that plain, worn in ensemble. She had grown accustomed to the long tresses of her Dalish clan, it seemed he would deliberately remain practically the only unassuming bald man around. It did not slip past Lavellan that the servants at Mythal’s temple had done so as well, women and men both. Perhaps it was a sign of devotion to the gods? Truly not, considering he did not seem to be one for worship and faith. Or he simply prefers it considering he’s a wandering apostate who lingers in the wilds and has little care for the nuisances of hair.


    Foolishly, Etain expected a shy, stuttering book-worm of a man. Instead he turned her cheeks red with embarrassment, quickly shutting down her conniving and charm with a mentor-like tone and that trademark smile of a discerning, shrewd man. He truly was an odd creature: soft spoken, with a quiet air of a wizened predator, hiding behind the guise of subtlety and disinterest, yet seeing every little move, every little breath, waiting to strike at his will. Whatever nuances and wiles Lavellan had pulled to subtly twist the odds in her favor, he saw straight through them.


    And strike he did, for before she knew it, he had gotten under her skin; perhaps it was his mystery, perhaps because he seemed to see Etain for who she was, for what she was capable of, perhaps it was the way he saw the world. Perhaps it was because he did not throw himself at her. Nor did she. It was a competition of luring the other closer, seeing who would falter and yield to desire first. Yet he forfeited the game almost as soon as it began. Now all that was left was emptiness. Nothing.


    Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad to be tranquil. Free from the whims of my heart, free from the burdens of the Inquisitor, free from the Well, free from it all.


    Lavellan could hardly believe her own thoughts. You are losing it, Etain. You are doing exactly what you are trying to prevent. Another desperate drink. Cup filled to the brim, she ambled over to her bed, climbing back onto the tangled blankets.


    Unrestrained and urged on by the sweet burn of the port in her blood, her thoughts drifted to her heated argument with the Commander earlier that night. She wondered whether he was awake now, tormented by his own dreams. Perchance she was in his nightmares.


    At least he doesn’t dream in centuries old memories, looking through the eyes of a being he’d never know or see.


    Etain was still indignant over his outburst, uncharacteristic and uncalled for. Or perhaps it was? Had she intruded too far? But neither could she have let herself stand by in silence, until it was far too late. Nor could she silence her fear of what the future held. I’m the last person you need to remind, Cullen.


    “Knife-eared bitch” would have almost been a twisted compliment had it come out of anyone else’s mouth. All Etain gleaned from such phrases was the fear that spurned them on. The fear that could grant her an advantage in a battle of wits or strength. Coming from Cullen - who only cared for efficiency and ability, to hell with race or nationality - it was a sign of just how far gone his state was. She had never heard him so livid. She had never seen such dark fires blazing behind his amber eyes. Like looking into the eyes of a madman.


    Cole’s muddled insight picked at her mind. Thinking back on it, she had misconstrued Cullen’s understated lingering looks as something of a protective instinct from a military Commander, ensuring she was in no immediate danger. Besides, it was sheer insanity to think of anything else.


    Play with fire, and get burned. Etain felt a newfound sense of reprimand for her actions, particularly the first: catching the man off guard, seeing him fluster when she inquired about his templar life and its requirements, especially on a personal level. Her position was yet on shaky ground - a prisoner and murder suspect suddenly turned to vital cog in the Inquisition machine. She wasn’t above using everything at her disposal to save her skin and secure some sort of meagre livelihood that went past the temporary tolerance of her existence in the little town of Haven. Gaining this fetching shemlen’s trust seemed like an important stepping stone, considering his control of the armed forces. She succeeded in fostering a close friendship, and had quickly grown fond of the human. Etain fought with whether she regretted it all, for she cared for his wellbeing and sympathized with his plight. He deserved some sort of happiness and peace in this life. What her place in his mind was, she did not wish to think of.


    Blood and torn lips. Lavellan shuddered involuntarily.


    She hadn’t intended many things that happened on their own accord, it seemed. She had aimed to make a run for it the moment the opportunity presented itself, but the fact that the mark bestowed the welfare of half of Thedas on her stopped that thought before it even moved past prudent planning. She reminded herself to play the game well, play the caring, amiable do-gooder, all while keeping tabs on the shemlen, the foreigners - all while remaining unattached, remaining level headed and equitable; manipulating for the greater good. That turned out well. Lying to yourself is still lying, no matter how small the deception.


    Her eyes drifted around the room, a spirit induced glint to their unfathomable depths. She didn’t wish for company, she didn’t wish for affection, nor for a trustworthy soul to listen to her. For a brief moment she wished the walls would be gone, to be back beneath open skies, in the solitude of untamed forests, to be… her jaw tensed at the realization that she no longer knew where home was. With whom home was. How right was she in her own outburst? How much longer would the Inquisition need her? And what then? Would she be sent to the new Circles? The College of Magi? What would life be like for the infamous Inquisitor upon her return to Clan Lavellan, if that were even permissible? How would the power balance shift among the Dalish, now apparently more or less settled around Wycome? Would they still treat her as Etain or as this estranged Inquisitor Lavellan, the “Herald of Andraste”? 


    She brought the cup to her lips for another swig. A weak smile twitched the corners of her mouth upwards. Only the gods could have guessed who and what I would have become. By all rights I should have died a thousand times over, I should have died alongside my parents… Yet here I am… What would they say if they were alive?

 
    Etain swirled the port in her cup appraisingly. If it is luck keeping me alive and fighting, it has to run out sooner or later, does it not? I just pray to the gods that whenever it does, let it be quick. Preferably before I lose my mind and go off chasing ghosts.


    By the time her glass was drained, the warm embrace of alcohol induced calm leadened her eyes. Her lids heavy, she set the glass on the bedside table and slithered down under her blankets, curling into a dead sleep brought on by mental exhaustion and the vintage port.


    Run. A shadowy whisper cooed to her sleeping soul from the folds of time, lost to the world around her.

 



    “How are you feeling, sweet Nightingale?” Dorian asked, lazily strolling toward the spymaster brooding in the murky rookery. Inquisitor Lavellan arrived at the top of the stairs behind him, thick hair gathered into a simple knot at the back of her head, her typically expressive eyes temporarily lackluster.


    Leliana glanced past a stray coppery thread of hair at her guests. She sat in her usual garb, fully recovered from her ordeal. Physically recovered, at least. Eyes blue as crashing ocean waves instinctively scrutinized the newcomers. A soul of a sergeant dwelled inside the songbird of a woman, and she dropped the parchment in her fingers.


    “Surprised. Angry. Embarrassed. Ashamed.” She leaned back in her chair, legs crossed, tone strict and harboring a chill. “A bit of it all, I suppose.”


    “This was a threat that slipped by the Inquisition as a whole.” Etain stopped alongside the Tevinter mage.


    Leliana sighed, curbing the urge to dispute her fault as the spymaster further. “Be it a little luck sent by Blessed Andraste… or some fortunate fluke, I yet live, wise to the threat. And no such attempt shall happen again.”


    “I do not think we can very well afford relying on luck or divine intervention.” Etain leaned against the balustrade, hands gripping the railing. “All the more reason to be stringent and meticulous. Have your agents found anything?”


    “No one had left the keep within three days of the incident. Either the wine had been poisoned and stored beforehand, or the perpetrators are one of our own, or our guests… I have narrowed down the suspects, and my agents are clandestinely apprehending them as we speak. I shall have an answer shortly.”


    Etain nodded thoughtfully, the corners of her mouth pulled taut. “I have a nagging suspicion that this is tied to whatever is happening in the royal palace in Orlais…”


    “You and I both, Inquisitor. Seems only logical…” Leliana’s coppery brow pinched ever so slightly upwards as she ran her index finger along the line of her lower lip. She waited for Lavellan to delineate her thoughts, eager to compare theories.


    “If it is the Magisterium behind this all, not some disgruntled noble… it is a brash move. We had brokered a peace treaty between Ferelden and Orlais… Wouldn’t they want a divided front?”


    Dorian caught on to what Etain was thinking. “Why not frame the Orlesians? Well… What would be the point of such toilsome effort to create a convincing farce? They would face the armies of the Inquisition and Orlais regardless. We could not stand idly by, they know that as well as anyone else. There is no other option aside from cooperation against a common threat.”


    “Perhaps. Or it would sow the seeds of dissent and all they have to do is wait for the disbanding of the Inquisition or open confrontation between our forces. A far stretch, yes, considering all that would require - breaking our fresh ties with the Chantry, the trade agreements, the intelligence network, political alliances across half of Thedas… Not to mention we are no nation of our own. It isn’t if that would spark war, per se. More likely there would be endless proceedings leading to the consolidation of Inquisition power as part of the Orlesian empire. Or Ferelden. Or the Chantry for that matter, considering it’s happened before… But we cannot rule out anything as of now. I suppose the smart thing to do for them would be to wait until the Inquisition was no more; our forces spread throughout Thedas, rather than be an organized military force. Who knows when that will be.”


    “And the smart thing for us to do would be to remain unaffected. Feign ignorance. Word cannot return to Tevinter about the extent of our knowledge - let them think the assassination was a failed attempt. The maidservant drank the wine instead of me. No one knows the poison was of Tevinter origin. We shall see whether or not another attempt will be made, giving us all the confirmation we need.”


    “Surely you don’t assume the magisterium to be daft enough to send more poison? They’re slightly more creative than that.” Dorian denigrated, arms folded and head cocked to the side like a the crows in the cages behind him.


    Leliana’s quelled irritation was only revealed by a subtle acrimonious glint in her eyes. “In which case, we will be prepared for anything, and will be surveilling threats of every nature we possibly can.”


    “Which brings me to my next suggestion, Inquisitor. You may want to consider expediting your sortie into the Frostback Basin. Set out within a day or so. If the assassins have escaped, they would know nothing of your plans to set out so much sooner than planned. And they would logically head the opposite direction, instead of into the primeval wilds of the Basin. Either way, they would be forced to confront you head on if they catch wind of your venture. In which case you would have the advantage.”


    “And if they are still within our walls?” Lavellan’s balance switched to her other foot.


    “They would not risk sending word now, with the severe restrictions and patrol of the castle. No bird leaves without my consent. Only my crows are to be used for communication. Any stray messenger birds leaving the keep will be shot down… poor things. Though we cannot allow for any slip-ups.” Blue eyes turned on Dorian, yet she continued to speak to Lavellan. “I trust you see the virtue of keeping our dear Altus by your side?”


    “I don’t think I’d be much of a cultural safety cushion there…” The mage in question showed a paltry degree of enthusiasm about the inevitable excursion. He sighed as if facing a walk to the gallows. “Would it at least be balmier in this Basin? I’d love a chance to thaw my wits out.”


    “May as well bring silk summer robes.” Lavellan murmured with inattentive sarcasm, watching Leliana’s eyes drift back towards the formidable pile of reports and various paperwork before her.


    “If there is nothing else to discuss at the moment…” Etain pushed herself off the railing.


    “I believe that was all I could think of for now, Inquisitor. I shall send for you once I have more information.” The spymaster nodded in affirmation. “Consider my suggestions… Set out in a day or two. Do what you must in the Basin, return safely to Skyhold. Perhaps, by then this little quandary will be cleared up.”


    “I most certainly hope so… I’ll let you get back to it then. Stay warm. I’ll make the proper arrangements to set out.”


    Lavellan’s light steps echoed in the winding stairwell, trailed by Dorian’s more assured and planted stride. Etain felt a warm hand grip her elbow and pull her aside into one of the darkened library nook.


    “Hope you’re not in a hurry.” He muttered, turning Lavellan to face him in the dimly lit alcove. The torchlight caressed his striking, amiable features, lighting his hazel eyes ablaze. “But there’s something that has been eating away at me.”


    She glanced him over, as if gauging his emotional state and just how ‘eaten away’ he was. Seeing little amiss, she nodded. “Alright, I’m listening.”


    “Perhaps you remember our little chat a few months ago-“ He paused, eyes skimming over the shelves and structural attributes of the meditatively quiet alcove. “In an eerily similar location and situation - by the Maker, do we always whisper secretively in the library? How… cliche…”


    Etain’s eyebrow tugged upwards simultaneously with the curve of her mouth. “Oh? Dim corners of the library not to your liking? Well perhaps we can whisper our damning secrets in the prayer room…”


    “Yes, and perhaps you can leave me with a hesitant touch, a forlorn look in your eye and a heart heavy sigh.” He crossed his arms and murmured sarcastically. “I can gaze upon you with the look of a lost puppy plastered on my face, for I hate to see you go, but enjoy watching you leave.”


    Lavellan stifled a snort of laughter and her fingers wiped the frown from her brows. “I’ll make sure to drag you to the chantry with all too many over-the-shoulder glances and batting eye lashes when it’s my turn to reveal some dark secret of mine. Now, quit stalling and spill it already.”


    “Yes, well… I’ve thought more on what I said - on returning to Tevinter. Trekking into the depths of all those elven ruins with you had sparked some sort of flame in me. A hope that my homeland can atone for the past, help restore what was, to change their ways.”


    The levity lighting up Lavellan’s cheeks dimmed slightly, her mind once again brought to more serious matters, and to the possibility of saying goodbye to her best friend.


    “Oh.” It was all she had managed to say, her mind processing all that those short few sentences foreshadowed.


    Dorian shook his head once, catching the slight worry flashing across her eyes. “I won’t leave just yet, I don’t really even have a plan… Where would I even start? What would I use as proof, as part of my argument, what will change minds that are unwilling to do so?”


    He didn’t expect Lavellan to have an answer for him, all he wanted was her support. “But it’s a step. If anyone could incite a change, who better than I? With everything I’ve learned with you, from you, who is better armed for such an undertaking?”


    “There would be no one better… And with your impeccable charm, they wouldn’t stand a chance.” Lavellan’s tone may have been cordial, but with a bittersweet note. “And you can always hire Bull as your body guard.”


    Oddly enough, Dorian didn’t find her joke all that humorous. A tense, taut smile lingered on his face,  accompanied by a flush in the apples of his cheeks.


    “Aah…” A knowing hushed voice didn’t say anything else as Etain realized she found a sore spot in his spirit. Curiosity egged her to inquire further, but she elected against it. “Well, perhaps once we return from the Basin, we can come up with a more concrete plan, assign an Inquisition escort, ensure a safe passage home for you, set up a supply and resource network if needed.”


    “Thank you, Lavellan.” The phrase hung in the air like a reluctant goodbye. “Truly. It’s been an honor. This is the least I can do.”


    “Stop. You’re speaking as if you are leaving to the ends of the earth right this minute. I’m not done with you yet.”


    “Treat me to a lavish dinner first.” He purred playfully, arms still folded over his chest, mischief back in his eyes. Lavellan smirked in response, noting her friend’s brightened mood - despite the earlier conversation. He seemed to be dealing better with Bull’s attentions.


    “I think there is another who would rather do that.” She whispered devilishly.


    “I don’t pry into your … dalliances, Lavellan.” Indignation colored his tone.


    “Had I any.”


    “Oh? Moving on quite well I see… That’s a good sign.”


    The teasing leer grew momentarily forced across the elf’s face, yet she didn’t show any emotion. Move on from what? Constant hesitation, some stolen kisses in the night, lovers’ gazes and sweet words hiding non-commitment?  Hardly even a dalliance. Hardly… anything.


    She forced a most convincing wicked smile and turned to leave with a smoldering rearward glance. “I’ve got more important things to do with my time… Like find said lavish dinner. Coming?”


    “How could I not with you looking like that?” With a lazy step forward, Dorian followed his elven friend down into the main hall, a weight lifted from his shoulders. Whenever it would be time to depart for home, it wouldn’t be without the Inquisitor’s blessing and best wishes. He yet wavered as to what to do with the Qunari’s interests. Either way, indulge in the opportunity or shut it down, there was no avoiding it any longer.


    Vivacity aside, a darkness crept through Etain’s veins, tugging lightly at her mind. Her nerves still fizzled from the altercation with Cullen, from the incandescent look in his eyes, from the venom of his words. Then there were the nightmares, which were unsettling, to say the least. They blurred her focus from the growing issue at hand: the shaky power struggles rankling Thedas. The excursion into the Basin was a welcome escape from the stone walls of the keep and a momentary break from the Game. Yet Lavellan couldn’t shake the nagging feeling somewhere deep in her gut that this would be the calm before the storm. Whatever it was, it would await her upon her return.

Chapter Text

Four weeks later


    The air was crisp and stinging, skies blushing pink before they would burst into fiery orange and red. The keep was a living being lit from within, the glow of warmth accompanying the pre-dusk lull. The residents shuffled into the safe harbor of thick stone walls warmed by roaring fires; all but the guards on nightwatch, bundled in whatever warmth they could find. Swathed in a heavy winter cloak and donned in her dragon-scale armor, the Inquisitor made her way up the winding path to Skyhold’s threshold, hardly keeping her teeth from clattering.


    As her troupe marched past the outer gates, the frostbitten air lashed at their faces, unbound by the walls of the sky bound castle. Etain pulled her cowl over her head, burying herself in the baying of the wind and her inexhaustible thoughts: ranging from the utmost desire for a warm bath to the mission briefings and the inescapable awkward run in with Cullen that was bound to happen once he returned from Crestwood. Sera cursed without filter behind her, repeatedly questioning what she had gotten herself into and why something had to nip her in the rear to volunteer for the trip in the first place. All that was followed by references to “Andraste’s ass” and just how much mulled wine and mutton she was going to devour the moment her foot steeped into the tavern. Cocooned in enough cloaks to add considerable width to his frame, Dorian blundered on in paramount discontent. Iron Bull trailed close behind, stone faced and barely awake, though still attempting to stay alert.


    After a lengthy rest in the safety of the keep following Corypheus’s defeat, the Basin proved a merciless beast to tame; an unexpected frontier in the wild corners of Thedas, full of reclusive peoples and scores of odd creatures. Having dealt with the Avvar predicament and established a hold of the region, Lavellan was reluctant to leave the rugged, primeval beauty of the valley. Several dangers yet lurked in its depths, but they would have to wait for the next venture south, once the Inquisition handles more pressing concerns.


    Her motions were so unthinking and mechanic, she hadn’t realized she had clomped tiredly to the doors of the great hall, the rest of her group disbanded to their own haunts. She shrugged out of her winter cloak, conveniently snatched up to be dried and cleaned by a scrawny youth with a gap toothed grin.


    “Inquisitor.” Lady Nightingale’s voice drifted from the shadowed walls of the throne room as Lavellan made her way to the residential quarters, sloshing icy droplets across the floors. The spymaster stood in front of the doorway leading to Josephine’s office, her delicate features kissed with the glow of the torches.


    “It is good to have you back, my Lady… I’m afraid I have to pester you so soon upon your return. But, I have some important information regarding the incident a month ago…” She spoke in a soft lull. “It’s quite urgent. If you please…” A delicate hand gestured toward the door behind her.


    “Of course.” Etain could only guess what would be so pressing that she had not the time to even remove her armor and stow away her weapons. Her limbs were weary from several weeks of trekking through treacherous, though beautiful wilderness, unfriendly encounters with the Avvar and of course the slog back to Skyhold, paths still frozen in early spring. The smell of supper and roaring hearth had her eyes wide open and alert, though her skin prickled with the fear that there had been another assassination attempt, this time claiming more lives.


    Leliana led her into Josephine’s office, the short hallway was a silent torture as Lavellan feared the worst. Her spine straightened and tensed uncomfortably as she tried to perish the thought.


    Voices murmured from behind the second door, each reflecting off the other in a fluid din. Leliana swung the door open, sashaying with her characteristic cat-like grace into a room lit up with Josephine’s velvety laughter. Etain followed her in, resisting the urge to fiddle with her gauntlets out of anticipation.
    Josephine bridled her melodic laugh and turned her attention away from her guest.


    “Inquisitor Lavellan, how good to have you back without incident! I… trust there were no contretemps that remained unmentioned in your reports?” The Antivan Ambassador beamed at Etain, clasping her hands together atop her desk.


    Certainly no one died then. Lavellan breathed easier as she followed Leliana down the steps, the latter approaching the guest now rising from the chair before the massive desk.     

“None worth the mention. Always a pleasure to see you in such high spirits, Josephine.”  Etain positioned herself a few inches away from the priceless rug, reluctant to expose it to the last dribbles of melting snow that trickled from the creases of her armor.


    “I’m simply delighted to have caught up with a fellow Antivan… Speaking of…” Josephine gestured toward the stranger that stepped past Leliana to greet the Inquisitor.


    Garbed in unostentatious hardened leather armor, the elven man folded into a graceful bow before Etain. He may have passed for a hunter, or perhaps one of Leliana’s scouts, obscured by a tattered cloak. His hair was the color of sun bleached hazy afternoon skies, and braided neatly along either side of his tapered ears, tidily tied at the back of his skull. It only accentuated the sharp lines of his jaw and the warm glow of his olive skin as his hand reached out for her.


    “The infamous Lady Inquisitor Lavellan,” his tone was rich and deep, marked by the distinct Antivan accent. She stood momentarily taken aback at the exuberance of his greeting, then placed her gloved hand into his. Reflexively, his fingers curled around hers, his grip light yet assured. His eyebrows danced upwards briefly as he saw the angled metal clenching to her fingers. Smirking tawny orbs flashed up at her as the man straightened up.


    “I am fortunate to finally meet such a regal character. If only it were under more… lighthearted… circumstances.” He practically purred through the gleaming smile adorning his full lips, the strange yet simple tattoo on the left side of his face warping. Etain’s eyes narrowed subtly as she listened to his words. Her forays into every corner of this half of Thedas had taught her many things well; particularly that the suave, flattering, well spoken man was the most dangerous.


    “Leliana, it is truly criminal what you all have created here. A most powerful organization ran by three ravishing beauties. As if a smoldering Antivan flower deadly with her quill and tongue, and you a Fereldan belle lethal with blade and arrow as much as your secrets weren’t enough… you go and find this one.”


    Leliana read the mild annoyance splayed across Lavellan’s face and cut the man’s fawning introduction short. “I know we all could stand and listen to cajolery all day, but perhaps we should get onto business. Afterall, our Inquisitor is no doubt weary from the ascent.”


    “Of course, my dear friend.” He chuckled, the cursory smile directed toward Leliana seemed to carry more significance than a casual smile aught to have. He turned his attention back to the Inquisitor, now undoing the buckles of her bracers, her eyes no warmer than when she came in.


    “Zevran Arainai, at your service, my Lady.”


    For a brief moment, the only sound was the crackle in the fireplace. Somehow I doubt you’re here at my service. Etain’s stern expression melted exactly as she intended and she smiled warmly.


    “What do I owe the pleasure for, exactly?” The name sounded vaguely familiar, though she could not place it.


    “I have word of several contracts out for your life, Inquisitor.”


    Etain let out a small laugh. “Yes, well the title comes with several drawbacks.”


    “And on your Spymaster. All for the more chaos to ensue… Three assassins. Here in Skyhold.” He glossed over her sardonic remark. “And two of my own partners. Three Crows are due to arrive over the course of the next few weeks.”


    The smile curling Lavellan’s lips sagged into a scowl. Her eyes shifted to Leliana, who seemed to know the information already. She gave a subtle nod and nothing more.


    “Six assassins… Quite the claim… You understand my reluctance to simply accept this as truth?” Lavellan parted with the niceties and resorted to stern candidness.


    “A lifetime ago I was under the employ of the Crows. Not to occupy all of your precious time with stories of my turbulent and rich history, I went my separate way. The Crows continued their reign, I built my own.” The man made a gesture waving away his past proceedings and folded his arms across his chest, the flames gleaming light off the scratches boring into his armor.


    “I’ve heard much of the Inquisition as it bloomed into the power it is today, and had even delved into a small contract with you regarding Lord Enzo. Your winsome spymaster and I had collaborated on several minor ‘projects’ here and there… Pardon me, I digress.” His trained eyes assessed the elven woman before him, noting everything from her stance, to each of her weapons, to the way she wore her armor, how long she maintained eye contact, which foot she tended to balance more weight on. Attentive mages often made for tricky marks, ones requiring stealthy, swift and utterly lethal action, considering their healing and barrier abilities. This one, it seemed, was also capable of both range and melee attack. But, considering her occupation, she aught to have been versatile to protect her high-priced life.


    “As it so happens, the Inquisition shed the blood of a Venatori agent who happened to be of a magisterial bloodline. Long story short, my company was contracted to make up for the murder with the death of your Spymaster.”


    Lavellan’s eyes were dark as dawnstone in the frigid caverns of Emprise du Lion. Her posture tensed, and her limbs fought the urge to grab her staff, her sword, something to defend herself with. Yet all that her sense of self-preservation and doubt produced was a pause in undoing her bracers, and a steely, accusing glare locked onto her guest.


    “I wonder… If your company was contracted for the assassination of one of my advisers, why accept it, only to seek her out and tell her everything? Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose, or in the least draw suspicion?” She suddenly grew very tired of the social dancing around instead of straightforward conversation. He wanted something, and he must have some value to the Inquisition for Leliana to grant him audience.


    “The contract was accepted without my authorization. Circumventing leadership defeats the purpose of a guild, no?” The mischievous laughter in his tone did not diminish, despite the circumstances. “As such, I am here to properly deal with insubordinates, and in turn do you a courtesy.”


    Lavellan found little of his words reassuring. How do I know what is truth? What’s the catch? Perhaps I should simply lock you away in one of those particularly drafty cells.


    “Hm. No such thing as simple courtesy.” She rested her hands on her hips. “Why would the Crows be headed here? Leliana, are they not some of your contacts? I thought they were a placated threat to us?”


    “They are, Inquisitor. At least in the outright. The Crows are a large and powerful association, defectors are possible - though highly unlikely… They would not benefit from the loss of the Inquisition as a silent cooperator. And I’d like to think that losing me would prove a nuisance as well. Something is amiss… If their assassins were to succeed, it would spell the end of the cooperation between the Crows and the Inquisition, as well as create at least a temporary hindrance in the Inquisition’s and their own efficiency.”


    “They aren’t here for any of you.” The elven man intervened, a subtle mockery in his tone. “They are here for the three assassins. Myself included.”


    Leliana glided two steps toward the fire, hands clasping behind her in thought. Stark blue eyes swept over Etain and the elven assassin between them.


    “So the Crows have sent their own to deal with a threat to the Inquisition. Why not send a message?” Lavellan mused, still toying with the prison cell idea.


    Josephine stepped forward, pausing next to Leliana. “Perhaps the Crows wish to do the Inquisition a favor, in hopes of garnishing even further support, trust, perhaps brokering a further trading of information…”


    “I cannot attest to what their reasoning is. But I fear my luck has run out. My old rivals have caught wind of my whereabouts, and the lucrative contract that is assigned out to my humble team. I suppose there is no dignified way for me to beg for bit of help from the mighty Inquisition.”


    “You are correct, there is not. I’m more tempted to throw you into Skyhold’s cells and let the Crows deal with you.” Lavellan’s tone was alarmingly nonchalant, given the threat of her words. Her gaze had not faltered as she stared death at the rogue.


    “We have already covered your tracks once, Zevran. We cannot afford to have the Crows against us. There is little we can do if they already have word of your location without sabotaging our position in all of this.” Leliana added.


    “Yet that little is more than enough.” Zevran remained unfazed, arms still folded over his chest. “The three of you are more than capable of playing games. So play along. I will point your spies and guards in the proper direction, they dispatch the assassins-”


    “Including you?” Lavellan interrupted, her tone choleric.


    “Not per se.” The damned simper remained on his full lips. “Though there has to be a third body, no?”


    Lavellan’s eyebrows raised over widened eyes. She had a hard time believing what she had just heard; the absurdity of what he was suggesting rendered her momentarily speechless.


    Leliana read her expression loud and clear, motioning to Zevran to give her a moment. Her gloved fingers curled around Lavellan’s elbow and tugged past the door toward the war room.


    “Inquisitor.” She muttered, facing the elven woman. “I’m sure we agree this man is here for personal interests-”


    “Plain as day… Why should we believe him? How can we trust him?”


    “I know this man, I have spent many a month painstakingly traveling and fighting alongside him during the Fifth Blight.” Leliana’s eyes glinted with memory, a subtle smile pulling at her lips.


    Etain, on the other hand, felt strange hearing about her spymaster’s encounters ten years ago. Her mind involuntarily dug up memories of her own life a decade prior, hardly seventeen. It made her wonder how odd it must have been for Leliana, and many others, to have an Inquisitor years younger than themselves. Then again, Celene became Empress at sixteen.     


    “Besides… His company took the contract - whoever may have sent it -  to kill me a month past, and now you, Inquisitor. The other two are still in the keep. He is the only one to know what they look like, what they are doing. His guild-mates think he is yet working along with them. So in truth, Zevran is a double agent. This is a valuable opportunity. Take out the immediate threat, and he can lead us to his employer - to whom is behind all these occurrences in the Palace and Skyhold… Which in turn could be used to to our advantage with the Orlesians.”


    “And what of the Crows?”


    “You let me worry about the Crows. Josephine and I can find a way to force them into cooperation without full knowledge of our actions. For now, all I can suggest is watch your back, Inquisitor, and play along. What do you say?”


    Etain inhaled the cold draft filtering in through the freshly repaired walls and windows of the hallway. She held Leliana’s crystalline gaze, thinking, mulling over her options. She knew well enough she had little choice but let the mess play out. Refuse the man, and he has no reason not to go through with the contract and reap the rewards.


    “Not as if I have any other option now, do I?”


    “You did mention the prison cells.”


    “That is what I should do, to be safe.”


    “We are never safe, and never will be, Lady Lavellan. May as well take the risk and get two birds with one stone.” A facetious leer remained on the Spymaster’s face and a devious note danced in her tone. “Do you remember asking me about being trained as a Bard? Well, here’s a test. You’re apt at parts of it enough already, so let us refine your skills.”


    Lavellan didn’t know whether Leliana was fooling around or not. The red-headed spymaster shrugged at Lavellan’s silent assent, parting with one last word of advice.
    “If all else fails… dead men can tell no lies.”

 




    The knapsack smacked against the table hard enough to rattle the mugs and plates at the opposite end. The flaxen haired elf scrunched her small nose and glowered at the bag of loot in thought, pulling at the sleeve of her burgundy, woolen sweater in thought.


    "You're cheating."' Dire disappointment splayed itself across Sera's freckled visage as she forcefully sat herself down at the table once more, unyielding to the end. Dorian glanced over the plunders Sera would bet with and dealt the cards once more, a smug grin plastered on his face.


    “You and the ham fisted oaf.” She snarled, gathering her cards up in a huff and glaring daggers at Bull. The Qunari stopped counting the coins he had won from the elf in the previous round and mirrored the glare. Despite the chill outside, the man sat bare chested as ever.


    “Careful there, buttercup. Catchy nicknames are my thing.” Varric chortled as he gathered up his own hand, revealing no glimpse of what it held.


    “Better listen to the dwarf, toothpick.” Bull grumbled behind folded gargantuan arms, guarding his recent winnings.


    “Hey.” Varric protested as he rearranged the cards in his sturdy, sure fingers. “Be nice to the Lady.”


    Dorian snorted and immediately cleared his throat, suddenly very focused on the deck of cards.


    “Flouncy pillock.” Sera hissed through her teeth.


    “Play nice kids, or I’ll put you all in one tent when we set out. I’d like to hear what nicknames you’ll come up with after that.” Lavellan continued to slice at the remnants of the apple in her hand, feet perched on the back of Dorian’s chair. “Don’t deal me in yet, I’ll fetch the drinks.”


    “Ha. None of you would want to be in that tent with what’ll be going on at night. Unless you care to join in.” Bull announced as if discussing some harmless, innocent proposition. Dorian’s hands dropped the cards face down and he glared at Bull as if he were a bear woken in the middle of winter.


    “For a former Ben-Hassrath agent you have a shocking lack of discretion.”


    “Well it WAS a joke until you made it something else with your offense. Way to go, big guy.”


    Breaking the awkwardness, Lavellan heaved herself up off the chair with an exhale, straightening the grey thermal shirt beneath her leather bodice. “Well, I’ll be back. Behave.”


    “Grab the fancy-pants ones from upstairs.” Sera mumbled, sinking her teeth into a berry pastry, before adding farcically, “If you please, your Inquisitorialness.”


    Lavellan left the knife by Dorian’s arm and nodded before idly sauntering over to the stairs. The disagreements about the best card strategy commenced, made all the more colorful with Sera’s ever-striking choice of vocabulary. The prattling was soon overtaken by Maryden’s dulcet crooning.


    Upstairs, a young recruit and apprentice braved a private moment in the dimmed corners of the tavern. A few laughing voices drifted from across the building, somewhere out of Lavellan’s sight. She rounded the corner with a whistle, startling the youths; the two nearly tipped over their chairs, faces flushed with hot, young blood and embarrassment. Awkward and stumped, they nodded and scattered in different directions. Etain simply smiled, briefly reminded of her own risky encounters and the fear of being caught sharing a kiss, hands wandering curiously over her accomplice, somewhere in the shadows of the trees.  She continued on toward Sera’s newly acquired stash of bottles. The impulsive elf was running out of space for her loot inside her small room, and evidently took over the nearest table.


    Lavellan eyed the random assortment of bottles, casks and recently polished tavern goblets. Choosing a sealed stained glass bottle, she poured a cautious portion into one of the goblets, a little voice in the back of her head praying for it not to be poisoned. She surveyed and sniffed at the mahogany within. I was hoping for a white. Etain allowed for a careful sip, turning and leaning against the table. Her eyes drifted over the cheery and flushed patrons of the inn, in various stages of ale and wine fueled joviality and inhibition. She was suddenly glad of the lack of spirits out in the field.


    Waiting to see if she would croak and stumble to the floor in a fizzing death, Lavellan yielded to a few minutes of moderate privacy and stillness, filled with her abundance of thoughts. The wine was strong, with a semisweet burn, and thankfully no fatal side effects, so far. Her fingers drummed against the table, and her gaze made its way to the opposite landing.


    She had been spotted some time ago, as a curious patron slipped across the wooden floors toward her.


    For three days now, the elven assassin blended in seamlessly with Leliana’s spies and general throng of people buzzing about the keep. On several occasions Zevran spoke of general pleasantries and inquired as to the Inquisition’s success in defeating Corypheus and re-establishing order in chaotic Thedas. Amiable enough, he shared some of his history and travels, though nothing too revealing. He was easy to talk to - as easy as it can be to talk to an assassin -  witty and charming, as any good infiltrator should be; perhaps he was gauging her abilities and intellect much as she was appraising his.


     Lavellan leered at him venomously, taking another delicate sip from her goblet. He drifted toward her silently, light on his feet as no trustworthy man should be.
    “A lovely evening to you, Inquisitor.”


    “I trust your stay has been agreeable?” Etain remained motionless. Dressed in a simple black shirt and leather jerkin, hair tied at the back of his skull, Zevran looked unobtrusive enough from a distance. Yet up close he seemed anything but.


    “May I?” Long olive toned fingers curled around hers, plucking the glass from her grasp before she could voice her answer. Etain’s eyes followed him, tactfully only partially hiding her irritation. He appraised the designs of the goblet first, before briefly glancing at the liquid within. Then without breaking eye contact with her, the assassin tasted the contents of the goblet.


    “A flavorful Antivan red? Were you thinking - pray, even expecting me?” His accented tone was velvet against her skin, sending her sense of self preservation on edge.


    “Had that been true, I would have something much more potent in my glass.” She mirrored his trifling tone with as coy a smirk as she could manage while providing a biting retort. “Or perhaps in yours…”


    His flaxen eyebrows furled as he mimicked offense.


    “Tsk, tsk. A viper, this one.” He finished whatever remained in the carved chalice, before setting it down on the desk.


    The corner of Etain’s lip remained upturned. Oh? I must be, compared to the deftly swayed damsels you leave in your wake.


    The man brought his striking gaze back onto her, eyes reminiscent of a prowling tiger. “A small goblet, a wine carefully poured and enjoyed thoughtfully… You’ve fled the crowd for this dreary corner, sitting alone, musing in silence. Do you drink to calm your nerves, Inquisitor?”


    Lavellan uncrossed her arms, hands coming to a rest against the edge of the desk. Silently, she drew on her mana pool, though did not summon a barrier just yet. She had hoped her facade was enough to distract the man from her speeding heart.


    “It was, after all, you who warned me of infiltrators in my keep, waiting for the perfect moment to end my so-hotly-contested existence.” She braced her arms against the table and sat back, crossing her legs in the process. “Can’t blame me for the restlessness now, can you? Especially considering your purpose for being here.”


    He beamed that radiant, yet completely deceptive smile. A hand reached for Lavellan’s foot, fingers meandering along the leather of her boot. Her teeth crushed against each other, her face remaining stoic. She played off her apprehension as a reluctant curiosity, wondering as to what he was doing. The golden orbs never left her face as his fingers briskly pulled the small dagger from beneath the leather clasps. It danced in his fingers, naught but flashes of metallic light.


    “You are a mage…?”


    “A very careful mage.” She could feel the energy quiver in her muscles, ready to be released in a lethal burst. She hoped he wouldn’t push his luck enough to search the rest of her wardrobe for hidden articles of self defense. She imagined he would be a little stumped with the hilts without blades strapped to the back of her bodice, or perhaps he wouldn't be; seeing as he would likely be maimed or unconscious by then anyway.  


    “As for that, I wouldn’t be so sure.” The dagger found its way back to her boot. “Rumor has it the Herald of Andraste isn’t as devout as she aught to be, considering her status.” His hand continued to play up over the fabric covering her leg, fingers lightly tracing the contours of her knee.


    Does he know about the temple? How is that possible…? No. Her eyes smoldered a little darker, debating whether or not she aught to cut his little farce short. His aim was to get into her head, for any number of reasons. This was his game, and she wasn’t about to let him elicit any sort of reaction from her. It was an ignored notion that he may have simply implied her lack of piety and faith in the Maker. Paranoia had grown to be her best friend of late.


    “I believe whatever the people want me to believe. I think the way people believe I think. I dress, I eat, I drink, I sleep the way they wish to think I do. No matter what the truth may be. There will always be rumors, the ones most convenient and most sponsored will prevail.”


    “My, my, what an eloquent way to dance around a simple question.” A warm palm radiated heat as it spread out across her leg, the only indication of its presence. She allowed for a coy shrug of her shoulders and a reticent smile.


    “What would you have said, Zevran? What do you believe?”


    “Turn my own inquiries back to me? That seems such a simple tactic for the Inquisitor…” His voice was dark and deep.
    “My, my what an eloquent way to dance around a simple question…” She hissed.


    Etain downplayed the bristling of her nerves, sustaining the game of coy competition. Granted, she would never be able to mimic that simpering stare of his. Perhaps I’m only irritating my would be assassin. Maybe luck will be on my side and he would make it a quick death.


    “Whatever god or gods you believe in, they all represent one thing- death, something everyone fears in one way or another… Reverence, avoidance, repentance. Justice. All aspects of death- physical, social, spiritual, whatever you please.” Zevran closed the already uncomfortably small gap between them, his palm nonchalantly twisting for a firmer, more assured rest at the top of her thigh. “I believe in the Maker. I believe in Death. And most of all, I  believe in living in the moment.”


    Lavellan clung to her smile, her eyebrows arching up in a mixture of surprise and annoyance. She had seen enough of this inveigling flatterer over the last few days to piece together his gambit. Sly and intelligent. Nauseatingly charming, weaving an easy path for his blades. He hides something. Her foot gently pressed into the center of his chest, softly pushing him back to a more formal distance.


    “My hospitality can only go so far.” She cooed, crossing her legs once more. His arms unfurled to display humility, a flirtatiously apologetic expression twisting his sun kissed features.


    “My sweet Lady, I would never dare offend your honor, nor push the boundaries of your hospitality.”


    Lavellan barely curbed a sardonic leer, remaining immobile. By me, you mean the Inquisition and all the benefits it would bring your association. Either from my assassination, or from my commendation.


    “‘My’ and ‘Sweet’ are not particularly the words I would use.” Lavellan enunciated the terms in question, already internally cross with whatever flattery he would have in store for that one. But she played her part.


    That mischievous grin seemed permanent on his comely face. His tattoo warped with the smile, drawing even more focus to the burning embers of his eyes.


    “Out with the formalities, hmm? Astute, unyielding viper.” The way he said it, it was almost a compliment.


    Oh, unyielding, is it? And what exactly is it you want me to yield? She thought, but kept it to herself. Etain smiled and tilted her head to the other side, eyes swiftly gliding over the souls below. They were being watched out of the periphery, surely.


    “Which would make you…” Feigning thoughtfulness, she squinted her eyes. “A mouse wandering too close?”


    “I’d venture to say a coyote. Or perhaps even a sly fox.” His eyes were simmering with subdued malice and outward seduction.


    “Vipers are poisonous. In the end it may not make much difference.”


    He nodded once and leaned against the column, sinewy arms crossed over his chest. “Ah, but the odds are that much more in my favor, no?”


    Lavellan pushed off of the table, gracefully plucking the bottle in the process. She sauntered toward the stairs, stopping directly to his side.


    Their eyes level, her lips pulled into a sinister, bewitching smile. “Not for a lone fox in a snake pit. For I most certainly am not the only snake here.”


    He let out a soft laugh. “Well then, I must say… You’ve grown far from a little red fennec…”


    All the color flushed from her face, smile receding into a grimace. Fear and unease tickled her ribs, her breath caught in her lungs. She could do nothing but gape at him, unable to hide the astonishment from her eyes. She may as well have seen her father’s ghost, it would make no matter. The awful, inapt nickname hadn’t been uttered since the night he was murdered.


    Satisfied with her reaction, Zevran’s eyes blazed with devious triumph. “I know more about you than you realize, Inquisitor.”


    She swallowed the bile she felt rising to her throat. “As any half-decent assassin should.”


    “Yes, I’d dare to say I’m quite a bit beyond ‘half-decent’.” He cocked his head to the other side.


    “Careful, stranger… lest you bite off more than you can chew.” Not waiting for a response, she made down the steps to rejoin her company.

Chapter Text

    The darkness thrummed away, chased away like smoke by a mesmerizing glow. The aquamarine incandescence was faint at first, like a flame out of focus in the fog. Yet visibility cleared along with the darkness, and the light drifted vividly out of its amorphous glow.


    It ebbed blue and rippled blinding white, enrapturing and utterly compelling. The light carried sound - an intoxicating, subtle chant of equally ethereal and eerie whispers, reverberating around unseen walls. It caressed with the wispy breeze of a late summer night, beckoning closer, closer.


    The Eluvian sang its siren song, calling for more than simple notice and attention. It spoke with no words, sang a melody with no music. It quelled fear and instilled curious awe, demanding willing obedience. Drifting unconsciously forward, Etain wandered closer, unable to look away. It was so thoroughly mesmerizing, it convinced her she could not move, nor breathe without the light guiding her every nerve and muscle. No thought existed, no sound, no sight but that of the massive Eluvian, enveloping Lavellan in an irrefutable need to come closer, to submit to its call, to see what it desperately needed to reveal…


    Until she reached the pedestal. Lavellan found herself standing before the ancient looking glass. Silence fell upon her like a thick blanket of fresh snow as the Eluvian waited, the ripples of light weaving hypnotizing patterns across its strange, dimensionless surface. Virescent flickers reflected in the wavelets, the scintillating lesion in her left palm answering to the power before it.


    All she had to do was touch it, step through…


    Etain rubbed the sleep from her eyes and sat up in her bed, morning light streaming in, streaking the speckles in the air with gold. The daybreak was breathtaking: skies crisp and clear, the soaring, jagged peaks dressed in brilliant white and rose.


    The beauty of the scene beyond her windows only held Lavellan’s attention briefly before she turned to the odd reccurrences of the past seven nights. The same dream - the Eluvian - replayed itself over and over again, night after night. It always ended the same, with her standing before the ancient mirror, her instincts bellowing, raging for her to touch the surface. Yet she always woke before her fingers could reach the Eluvian.


    Even more strange, the voices of the well had quieted alarmingly. Nor had she had any other nightmares or dreams. Only the Eluvian, night after night. A cold sting bloomed in the pit of her stomach, fearing whatever possible meaning of these strange visions. Etain had already felt as if she was slowly slipping from sanity, millimeter by millimeter, and if this continued it would push her into madness faster. She wished vainly for a guiding hand, another mind to share her torment with.


    Morrigan. If only she hadn’t returned to the Imperial Courts. Etain sighed, curious as to what visions and whispers the Witch of the Wilds would have been subjected to. Surely they would not have been the same? Perhaps what Morrigan would have seen would have been more coherent with all her wisdom. Perhaps not.


    Who else would be able to provide her with any enlightenment? Etain had already established this was a deep dark secret she aught to keep to herself to the death, for fear of a fate worse than death itself.


    Solas. The name seared her flesh, despite the healing wounds and passing time. Would she have trusted such a revelation even to him? What would his reaction have been to her sense of succumbing to paranoia and insanity? Would he have talked her through it, imparted some counsel from his boundless knowledge, caressed and held her despite the nightmares?


    No, nothing would change. He would still leave with no coherent explanation, and leave me to my fate. I’d be exactly where I am now.


    More than eager to find relief from the buzz of endless thoughts she knew were bound to occur, Lavellan fled her bed for the comfort and revitalization of a bath. Abandoning the thoughts of the cryptic dream, she turned instead to more pressing matters.


    The enchanted tub was a gift from some or other Orlesian noble, a sign of goodwill accompanied by luxurious ottomans and opulent paintings. The scented waters always ran clean and clear at the perfect heat. Much more accommodating than a stream, she thought bitterly, as if ashamed of shirking her Dalish habits. And yet, slinking down into the warm waters, she wondered if these were mere remnants of something her ancient kin may have thought mundane, household furnishings.


    Pink toes peeked out from the water at the other end of the tub, her carelessly pinned hair curled wildly at her ears and neck from the steam. Question after question pushed her mind in different directions, anxiety tingling her fingers. Concentrating on the sensations along her skin, and grounding herself in the decorations of the bathing room, Lavellan calmed her thoughts and slowed her breath to near trance-like state. Her musings faded into the periphery - as if a distant hum of the wind. Her senses melted her limbs into the surrounding water, awarding her the few short moments she waited for the most; silence and tranquility, a chance to reset and compose oneself, a chance to forget all her shortcomings.

 



    The sunny afternoon was punctuated by the arrival of the Inquisition Commander and a retinue of soldiers on leave, reporting back to Skyhold. The traces of red lyrium trade routes had nearly all been eradicated from the coast and Crestwood area, Inquisition presence and hold of the region remained strong. Crestwood village was slowly rebuilding itself from its tragedy and its turmoiled year.


    Satisfied with the stability and precautions set in the region, Cullen returned to Skyhold with a more assured mind, if only by a small degree. The calm and peace across southern Thedas was only a fleeting pause, for without a clear and menacing threat to all of Thedas, the Inquisition could be seen as an unnecessary force by some.


    Cullen’s plaguing nightmares relented, their frequency dropping to nearly none in the past week. His thoughts calmed, his focus and mood improved, but his guilt grew. His troubled dreams offered a glimpse into the darkest pits of his spirit, egged on by sporadic withdrawals and the presence of raw red lyrium. Facing his own demons served as an unnerving experience, one he was eager to leave behind.


    Sparing no time for rest, Cullen sorted through the stacks of reports crowding his desk, mentally scheduling the reading of each category for later in the evening. As the hours went on, Cullen was brought up to date on the events in Skyhold by Leliana. He was none too happy to hear of the new guest.


    “You certainly are more venturesome than I, Leliana.” Cullen grumbled, customarily crossing his arms over his chest. “Helpful as he may have been, this wouldn’t be what I would call a favor returned in equal. Where is the guarantee he won’t decide to go through with his plan and slit your throat or Inquisitor Lavellan’s?”


    “Relax, Cullen.” Leliana chirped, a song in her voice as always. She smiled warmly, absently straightening a pile of papers at the corner of Cullen’s desk. “I have the situation under control. And our Inquisitor is more than capable to play her part. Zevran is our link to whoever is behind this all. He will lead us to the puppet master.”


    A Fereldan noise of discontent rose from Cullen’s throat as he frowned and glared at the Spymaster.


    “Oh, stop. None of that from you now.” She scolded him gently, turning toward the door. “Keep your keen and suspicious eye on him if you will, it wouldn’t hurt. But don’t cut this play short of finding the true threat. Then throw him in a cell next to Samson, for all anyone cares.”


    She sashayed out of the tower with her defining sway - allure and death mingled with Maker-fueled determination. Cullen sighed and unconsciously rubbed the back of his neck.


    No point in postponing it any further. May as well get it over with and face the gallows. Fishing the nerve out of his boots, he set out in search of the one person he had yet to report to.     



    His heart pumped acid and his fingers turned to limp sacs of flesh capable of nothing but knocking over pottery. With a gulp of courage, he pushed down the latch of the vault library door, the noise loud enough to alert the entire keep, it seemed.


    Cullen stepped into the room with the caution of a mouse trying to sneak past a hungry feline. The cat in question sat in the velvet chair, long lithe limbs outstretched and perched against the desk. The slate grey of her leather bodice blended in with her undershirt, serving as a contrasting backdrop for the long strands of hair tied back into a simple tail.  A tattered looking book was balanced in one hand, her stoic, scrutinizing face in the other.


    "Inquisitor." A meek greeting came from the mountain of the man, lingering in the shadows of the bookshelf lined hall. "I... Ahem." The door came to sliding close behind him.


    Lavellan's hand briefly dipped the book down, her eyes finding their focus on his unnerved frame. Seeing him glare at her so disconcertingly, the novel flashed back up to draw her eyes to its pages.


    I'll give you five minutes to collect your thoughts before you start blubbering. Etain inhaled the book scented air and waited. She knew she only thinned the ice he walked on, but some vain part of her enjoyed it.


    "Inquisitor... I... Do not wish to disturb you. However, there are matters to discuss and… I only want to..." He took a reluctant step forward, approaching her as if approaching a guillotine.


    "My words were out of line, uncalled for... It was ill-considerate of me… I only wish to speak with you.”


    She continued to read undisturbed as he stopped before her.


    "My mind was clouded, my judgement muddled. That is no excuse, I know. I should have stopped. I should have told you-" He cut his words short as she flipped the page. Reigning in his irritation, he fought against the urge to throw the damn book across the room and turn her chair to face him. Instead his thumb pressed into the center of the tome and slipped it out of her hand, setting it gently down on the desk. At least that brought her attention to him.


    "I may not agree entirely with your decisions, I may not always understand your reasoning, but you are our leader. My duty is to lend you my talents, my service and my advice. All I had done was irresponsibly and disrespectfully shut you out. What I called you..." He shook his head once, his expression one of sincere regret. He could have said every thought that transgressed his mind the last few days, and she would still sit there motionlessly like the marble statue she was. He had hurt her pride, wounded her intellect, spurned her trust and affection.


    "I am sorry, Inquisitor.” His fingers gripped the sword pommel painfully. “I truly am.”


    A rap of footsteps somewhere outside the door cut the brief meeting short, and Lavellan rose out of her chair without a sound. Eyes never leaving his perturbed face, she turned toward the door, silently debating what she aught to say. Her teeth nearly filed themselves down to dust out of worry and embarrassment, but she would be damned if she showed it.


    “Etain.” An armored shoulder blocked her way. He had the good sense to use her name. If she heard ‘Inquisitor’ out of his mouth one more time her ears would curl.
    She looked up at him warily, the smell of snow on his fur cloak filling her nostrils. She waited for him to continue, her body taut and terse.


    “I am sorry. I - I… overreacted, I lashed out at you…” His voice was low and timorous, his hand fighting the urge to rub the back of his neck. Worse yet, her lips remained sealed, not a sign of acknowledgement or a single response from the woman. Say something, Lavellan.


    She didn’t. She stood tense as a bowstring, breathing a little more stressful now. He watched her face for a few seconds, catching the minute grit of her jaw as she attempted to remain unperturbed, or perhaps think of what she aught to say.


    “Etain?” The name sent chills to his fingertips, as if he uttered a sacred phrase in a long lost language. In effort to quell the buzzing along his skin, his hand reached up, fingers intending to brush her cheekbone. He could see the moment her mind registered he was about to touch her, and her breath seemed to still for a fleeting second.


    His innards twisted and churned as the cold did not fade from her eyes. With horror and uncertainty, Cullen drew back his hand, directing it to his own neck and lowered his gaze to the floor.  Don’t be a fool. This is madness.


    “I am sorry too.” She finally whispered, speaking directly to him for the first time in weeks. Carrying a grudge against her Commander tended to make running the Inquisition a bit awkward. She hadn’t expected to be hurt by the comment that made her clout his face, yet the sting lingered in the pit of her stomach the entire time she had been gone. She found herself wondering what would have happened if Cullen had said something earlier, before the apostate sank his teeth into her soul with tender kisses. And if he had, what would have been her reaction?


    His eyes locked on to her with a look of surprise and disbelief, his hand slowly slipping off his neck as he searched for something to say.


    “I was only worried. You weren’t… you… and I was afraid it may have all been too much.” She looked at him with depthless eyes, speaking volumes more than her words could ever say.


    Cullen continued to stare at her with his tongue paralyzed in his mouth, fearing he would only look more the fool if he stumbled about his words. His ears burned red, remembering the biting remark that made her slap him.  Two conflicting urges fought it out in his core; one urged him to find any excuse to bury himself in solitude in his tower, the other to indulge in the impulse to pull the woman in close, caress her matte skin. It was an ignored, repressed impulse to touch her that burned in the back of his mind since they made it to Skyhold, only intensified by the lyrium, and the events of the last few months.


    But he refused himself to allow such an urge to be fulfilled, for every time he did in his dreams, she twisted in unfathomable pain and screamed with fiery agony. They were images seared so deep into his mind, he was fearful to test the reality of it all.


    “It won’t happen again, Inquisitor.” He muttered, releasing her gaze, hand returning to a rest at the pommel.


    A faint smile pulled at her lips, not revealing anything in particular. “Can… you forget about the Inquisitor for a moment and speak to me as Etain?”


    “I… suppose. Yes.” He croaked, growing even more uncomfortable.


    “How bad were they this time?” She managed to drift even closer to him, standing with less than a foot between them. “The dreams?”


    Cullen swallowed the knot in his throat, glanced down at his feet - though immediately brought his gaze back up considering how near she stood. “Worse than at first… Enough to make me avoid sleep all over again.”


    She waited for him to continue, curious for her own reasons. As if by some sudden realization her face grew apologetic, and she shook her head. “Are they still?”


    “No. It seems to have passed.”


    “For good, I hope.”  


    “So do I. It made me feel incapable of anything… As if I went night after night slowly losing my sanity, yet remaining coherent.”


    The stillness that lingered a second too long in her eyes unsettled him, as if he mentioned something personal or foreboding. She almost looked as if she yearned to divulge something to him, holding back for her own purposes. But as soon the thought manifested, her eyes had changed.


    “Don’t push me away if it happens again.” She uttered sincerely. “The Inquisition will be nowhere without you… And I might miss you.” Her smile widened.


    Cullen’s mouth reflexively curled into a lopsided smirk, and he nodded lightly. For a fleeting moment, the silence was overwrought, the words carrying more meaning than intended. Cullen regarded her with caution and a subtle curiosity. What was she thinking that moment as she contemplated him just as he was her? How many secrets were those eyes hiding? Would he ever know any of them?


    His thoughts had crossed into the unpleasant territory of an unknown future ever since their argument a month back. What will happen to her? To the Inquisition, once it is deemed to have fulfilled its purpose? What will be of all their exacting efforts? How long will Celene tolerate and take advantage of their presence and shadowing power? Where does Ferelden stand once it is all over? Was the imminent threat of outright bloodshed and war with Tevinter the only lifeline for the Inquisition?


    “Have we learned anything more of the poisoning situation?” He blurted out, stopping the building stream of unanswerable questions. Leliana had informed him of the subject, but it didn’t matter what he asked, as long as the silence was broken. “Rather, what are your thoughts on it?”


    “I know no more than Leliana. It is highly unusual that there is hardly a trace of an assassin or infiltrator. Sooner or later something shows up. But here… Nothing. No one had visited recently with connections in Tevinter. We hadn’t received nor sent any correspondence or even market items from so far north since late fall. Everyone coming in and going out has been accounted for - there had barely been any visiting dignitaries or new recruits so late in winter. We hardly have enough eyes in Tevinter, and it is hard to gauge the political situation there.” A crease formed between her brows and her shoulders shrugged dismally. “The only information we have comes from this Zevran Arainai, and I’ll be damned if I take his word for it.”


    “Leliana mentioned our new guest. He hadn’t divulged exactly who hired his company, yet he revealed himself?”


    “And that two of his accomplices are among us, without us knowing. I assume he doesn’t wish to disclose his client in the off-chance his little double-dealing gambit does not play out so well as he hopes. There’s more to his tale than he lets on, that much is clear.” Etain’s voice was barely audible. She hesitated for a moment. “For all we know we may be looking in the wrong place and this is nothing but a distraction.”


    “Perhaps you are overthinking and this is all exactly what it seems. That would be a simpler situation.” Cullen halfheartedly attempted to inject some odd optimism into the conversation. Optimism, it seemed, was not his strongest suit.


    “Since when has the Inquisition dealt with anything simple?” Lavellan tittered, apples of her cheeks rounding. Cullen’s fingertips tingled.


    “I suppose that would be like asking Sera to stop boobytrapping my office and Varric to tone it down with the embellished story telling.”


    “Oh? What has he cooked up this time?” Lavellan’s eyes squinted from amusement.


    “No. You go and discover that one on your own.” The Commander grumbled.


    “Must truly be terrible then…” She uncrossed her arms and wove her long palm into the crease of his left forearm. “Come, I can’t hide in here all night. It’ll become the first place everyone will seek me out at.”


    Cullen willed away the flush rising up his neck and hoped his feet wouldn’t stumble over themselves as he turned toward the door. The pressure from her hand only served to heighten his pulse, and he dared not look her way for fear of exposing the slightest fluster.


    The slight warmth of her hand vanished as he opened the door and she stepped through. For that cursory moment, Cullen could not determine if he had been relieved to be free of her, or if he wished she would hold onto him a moment longer - just to reassure him that she wouldn’t start writhing in agony and seeping lyrium from her skin.


    The one thing he was certain of was that he needed her alive and unharmed, if nothing else.

 



    The early spring twilight yet forewarned of merciless cold, the last few weeks of winter desperately reigning during the night. The world seemed lit from below by the yellowish glow of torches and braziers, shadow and darkness taking refuge in the barren walkways spanning the outer perimeter of the rookery.


    Indiscernible in the frigid darkness, a seemingly amorphous glob of furs and cloak pressed into the stone corner at the end of the path. The clear night sky was all that was above the top of the Inquisition’s sheltered haven.


    A soft sigh escaped from the dark mass of cloth, followed by a low rumbling whisper. A close embrace and entwined cloaks provided refuge from the nip of the wind as two forms lingered beneath the open skies. Pressed against the stone wall, Leliana’s glowing ivory skin was flushed with pink at the cheeks, short scarlet hair tucked behind a delicate ear, red lips raw from kissing.


    “Mm. I must say… you surprise me, my dear.” A mumble preceded a feathery kiss on her skin. The man’s golden fingers caressed the line of her jaw, his breath fogging at the nape of her neck.


    “Oh? How so?” She murmured, almost breathlessly.


    “You’re turning into quite the conniving puppet master.” Zevran paused and looked up at the Spymaster, her eyes icy depths of the ocean. “Ruthless. Concise… I did not think you would actually set something such as this in motion.”


    “Indeed. I do what I must.” She pressed her head back against the stone, watching the elven assassin through lowered lashes. The cold winds winding around the roof of the rotunda pinched the apples of her cheeks red. “I act to protect all we have created from utter destruction, either beneath her hands or those of her enemies. This opportunity could not have had more perfect timing.”


    “Moving past the fact that your ice queen helped create all you have today… My client fails at poisoning you, so you shall allow them another chance to wipe out your utterly paranoid leader? How twisted, Nightingale.”


    “It may have started as an afterthought, but control of the Inquisition will fall to Cullen, Josephine and I. That is my part to play. All you need to worry about is your duty in all of this. Do it well, and earn your permanent safety from the Crows, and a more lucrative, rewarding career… I’d never pass on your many talents…Right now, I need you, you need me. Do it well.”


    His thumb traced the perfectly sloping lines of her neck. A guileful grin lingered on his lips, as he contemplated the woman before him. The previous two weeks brimmed with secretive, scheming meetings. They started with exactly what occurred in the first meeting with Lavellan, then slowly progressed into an entire stratagem to eliminate a power that may soon reveal itself to be too great to control. The pawns were all in place, all that was left to do was keep the Inquisitor distracted enough and seize the opportune moment. Zevran had not inquired too deeply into what exactly Leliana intended to do with the Inquisition’s power. She could have her schemes, he had his own; a mission to complete.


    “You trust none other with this. How can I not, hmm?”


    Content with his reply, Leliana’s lips tugged upwards and she slid her fingers beneath his cloak, resting them firmly at his sides. If either knew the other was being deceitful, they were willing to take the risk regardless.


    Not wasting another second and allowing his mind to accept the likely purpose of Leliana’s uncharacteristic affection, Zevran pressed against her, trapping her in his embrace. His hand retained an assured yet gentle grip on the side of her neck, intending to take away her very breath with a slow, blood stilling kiss. Whatever she may have truly had planned for him, she was not going to walk away heartlessly.

Chapter Text

    Ages of sunlight, water and soil snapped and hissed as the flames raged on, orange fingers tearing at the firewood. Opaque strings of gray smoke dissipated into the crisp, silent night, the makeshift camp muted by slumber. The crackle of the fire was only disturbed by the occasional shearing of leather and scraping of metal against metal.


    His breath fluttered in puffs of warm air as the Qunari continued to work out the kinks in the blades and mend the leather grip of his formidable battle axe. The Frostback basin was not without its unforgiving, hardened dangers, and thus no place for anything but the sturdiest and sharpest of blades.


    Dorian hesitated before approaching the flames, watching the warrior at his work; solemnly, methodically going through the meditative process of perfecting his weapon of choice.


     The mage strode forward as if not in the least ruffled by the Qunari’s presence. His foot shoved a makeshift pan holder toward the fire, in pure ceremony rather than practicality. At the expense of a little mana, he could have the pot of clean snow melted to boiling water in a matter of a minute. But that allowed for such a small window of conversation.


    “Too cold to sleep?” Iron Bull hardly lifted his gaze toward his companion.


    “Something of the sort.” Dorian lowered himself onto the stack of firewood near Bull, waiting for the opportunity to down some hot tea. There was much that needed to be said. Yet now that he was in a place to do so, Dorian began to lose his aplomb with every passing second. He thumbed at bits of his own armor, hiding his racing heart and complete uncertainty.


    The axe slowly whirled on the ground as its wielder examined his reparations. Satisfied with the condition of his weapon, Bull turned his attention to the Tevinter mage nearby. “Must be nippy in that bedroll all on your own.”


    “How original.” Dorian adopted the irritated approach to hide the flush he felt beneath his skin. His hazel eyes focused on the fire, the pot of melting snow - on anything but his associate.


    “Ha.” The snort of laughter was followed by a shuffle and two steps through the snow.


    Dorian’s head snapped back, yanked firmly but not masochistically by fingers rough as stone. His body had barely the time to register what was happening before it was over. A warmth rivaling the fire nearby filled his limbs, heart shocked to a brief stillness as his mind registered the abrupt feel of Bull’s cold lips on his own.


    His heart had only began making up for the skipped beats when Bull pulled away, mischief and complacency glinting amongst the flames in his eye.


    “How’s that for original? No more excuses for you to be indirect and indecisive.” He rumbled before plodding back toward his tent.


    Dorian sat dumbfounded, feeling as if he had just swallowed a thunderbolt. The sudden and completely unanticipated show of hungry affection left him glaring absently at the fire, not a muscle moved from its earlier position. His heart thrashed against his throat, and he had to remind his lungs to breathe. For a few tense moments, his mind struggled with the reality of the last few minutes. My idyllic ancestors must be writhing in their graves.  


    The Tevinter mage shook his head clear of the memories, long distracted from the correspondence laid out before him. Letters arrived from his few friends in Tevinter, and remained unread for the past quarter hour. Reason and impulse fought it mercilessly out in his mind, gnawing at his rationality. He never did get the chance to speak with Bull about… well, all of it, whatever it still is. Infatuation? Attraction? The inevitable result of people forced to depend and trust each other in order to survive the hellish nightmare they were often faced with?


    Worse yet, if he was truly set on leaving for his homeland in hopes of brokering a change - what was the point of whatever was happening between him and the Qunari? Why bother venturing closer and strengthening the bond, only to break its soon? Neither was there an option for Bull to trudge through Tevinter with him. May as well just set him afire and save the Imperium the trouble.


    Twist it any way he might, this attachment was pointless. Hopeless. His throat refused to allow Dorian to breathe, legs cemented to the floor in anxiety and terror. If he knew and recognized it as foolish and hopeless, why did it pain him so? Unmitigated regret washed over him, berating himself for allowing such a weakness for another to develop without his control and acknowledgement.


    Weighing in on his priorities, he saw only one solution.


    Sweeping the slim scrolls into his arms, Dorian shuffled out of the library with an air of defeat. His decision made, he went on his way to his chambers to lock himself up for a night of dismal sleep and sorrow.
  


 
    Pacing her nerves out across the ancient floors, Etain reread relevant documents once again, discarding one or another as she went, searching for any sort of clue or confirmation. The parchment fell in slipshod manner across her desk as the Inquisitor racked her brain. Eyes red and bleary with lack of sleep, cheeks pinched by the cold of night, she shuffled about her room in a flurry of footsteps and thoughtless tugs at the tips of her full-length leather gloves. Despite the late hour, she hadn’t even changed out of her attire.


    Ensuring to never borrow tomes on the same subject at the same time, Lavellan carefully sought out any documentation of Eluvians, amongst other topics chosen at random. She attempted to maintain an inconsistent schedule of switching out her books in the Inquisition library, lest anyone catch wind of her search.


    She felt her curiosity turning to obsession. Her nights were filled with the same dream again and again, unchanging, save for the intensifying inclination to understand the vision. She would wake to clench her fingers into fists and poke at prickling fingertips, desperate to touch the surface of the Eluvian.


    An old journal slapped against the aged and polished wood of the desk, sending an inkwell rattling in place. Etain’s fingers curled around the back her neck, head tilting back with a sigh. Her skull felt as if it would burst in a violent shower of bone dust, her mind no longer thinking clearly.


    There is hardly anything. All official sources claim the Eluvians were long lost to crumbling temples and raiders. All unofficial channels only speak of rumors. Remnants north and south. Celene and Gaspard stumbling upon some ancient elven power. She glanced past her forearms back at the journal. There was one entry of note. A mention of the Empress’s former champion, Michel de Chevin, and his venture into the depths of Orlais alongside Briala, Celene and Gaspard. The entry looked to never be finished, written off as another rumor and a disgraced knight’s festooned storytelling in order to preserve what reputation he had. Lavellan made a mental note to seek the man out come morning.


    The enigmatic ancient artifact drew her attention from the puzzling developments at hand. Word arrived from Celene’s court, calling for a summit of sorts in order to solidify the Inquisition’s support of her rule. Such a cooperation would allow for a united front against the rising Tevinter threat. It appeared as though the attempt on Leliana’s life was spawned from the same source as the infiltrators in Val Royeaux. Not to mention, such a cooperation would tie up the loose end of having an Elvhen Inquisitor amidst a bubbling elven revolution. Rumor has it that Ambassador Briala was stoking the flames of another rebellion, gaining strength each day. Inquisitor Lavellan made for an obvious, important chess piece on the board of Orlesian political strife. Inevitably, that grew to be the basis of Celene’s call to a coalition.


    Despite the benefits of such an association, and the guarantee of longevity of Inquisition presence for perhaps several more years, the opportunity was more shackling than rewarding. The Inquisition would be tied to Celene’s rule, to her support, to her political agenda; not to mention the inescapable upsetting of the barely balanced relations with the Chantry and Ferelden. Once Celene fell from grace, so would the Inquisition. Was it worth the fate of thousands of unwanted Inquisition outcasts struggling to make ends meet when the rivaling nations don’t pick up all the scraps? Were a few more prosperous years worth the slandered reputation and tainted memory in the history books?


    As if it wouldn’t be tainted regardless.


    If she accepted the consortium, Lavellan would at least secure her lively-hood for a little longer, though she had began to doubt whether she even wanted to remain or not. Siding with Celene, who would have no choice but to once again crush the revolutionaries in her lands lest she wants to give up the throne - who would Lavellan become to her own kin? She would be condemned either way. It was not a matter of “if”, but a matter of “when” her life would be forfeit: something would be brought against her, tarnishing her to unsalvageable depths, until there would be nothing but the damp cold of a cell, a stake and hungry flames, or perhaps a noose, or endless running for her life into the bowels of Thedas.


    If I’m not assassinated in my own keep, first.


    Zevran had proved to be a modestly helpful guest, providing any information and intrigue requested, except that which mattered most - who hired him? He had revealed one of his accomplices, a young woman with raven black hair and strikingly warm brown eyes. She was a vision of innocence, with plump rosy cheeks and full pink lips. She was known as a serving girl of an ostentatiously wealthy merchant visiting from Val Royeaux. As soon as the guards were upon her, she took a knife to her own throat. The screaming fit thrown by the merchant’s darling daughter nearly burst Lavellan’s ear drum, though her discontent was focused on the ruined ball gown on which the assassin’s blood spilled in a fury. Apparently, the garment was a gift from a wooing noble, jeweled enough to pay for a lavish estate in the Heartlands. Sera and Zevran had found her misplaced distress utterly hilarious.


    The Black Shadow’s attentions have grown to be a nearly unbearable inconvenience. Etain wanted nothing to do with the deceitful flatterer, his very presence sending shivers down her spine. She couldn’t shake the inkling that he knew far more about her than he let on, that he was here for a reason completely different than what he claimed. He was danger and lies wrapped in a disingenuously fetching wrapper. The thought had crossed her mind that she may have been inveterately paranoid - though quickly dissipated once she recounted how many times her life was nearly extinguished.  


    More often than not, needles jabbed at her nerves as she attempted to manipulate her way around his actions and yet hide the entire encounter from snooping eyes. Though it was not always a nuisance, there was no such thing as a casual flirt in Lavellan’s life any longer. Every movement, every word, every action bore repercussions and innumerable messages, intended or not. The title of “Inquisitor” practically forced celibacy or strategic marriage upon her. And the latter was hardly an option. The Orlesian nobility had just learned to curb their gag reflex at the thought of a knife-eared savage in power. And marriage to a Fereldan noble was nigh impossible simply due to a lack of eligible, and willing, suitors. Not to mention that marrying either into Ferelden or Orlesian families would shake the delicate truce between the rivaling nations. Neither could she marry any commoner had she wanted to, nor could she turn to her Dalish kinsfolk, as that would only strain relations and muddle the Inquisition’s reputation even further. I cannot cough in public for fear of offending someone somewhere. Though truly, the mere thought of being tethered to another soul was the last thing on her mind.


    As strong as Zevran’s presence was, as much as he allowed himself to do, he did not push further. Each time, he watched for some sort of sign from her. And each time, Etain glared at him as if an animal cornered, imagining the various ways she could be rid of him. Yet she answered in kind, out of habit. Etain’s mind defiantly recalled the earlier exchange with the assassin.


    He had cut her off on the ramparts, on her return from Commander Helaine’s ruthless battering. Adhering to his norm of practically purring as he talked, he interrogated her about the recent word from Celene. With each question he slithered closer, backing her up against the balustrade.


    She awarded him a venomous look as his hands came to a rest on the stone on either side of her. “Are you sure you should risk such demanding exertions, Zevran?”


    “My dear, if you are trying to disinterest me you are only accomplishing the opposite. I’m known to have a propensity for engaging in dangerous things. And at the moment, you just may be the most dangerous thing I’ve encountered… Here, at least.”  


    “You should know by now that flattery is wasted on me. But feel free to try elsewhere.”


    “Hmmm…” The noise rumbled smoothly from his throat, the devilish smile curling his carefully shaped lips. “Stubborn viper… Why waste my skills and time on a prize easily won when I have such a challenge before me?” His hands locked on her hips, pushing her firmly against the cold bulwark. The vicious smirk was wiped from Lavellan’s face, her pulse quickening at the thought of the desolate expanse mere inches away. Her knuckles turned white, clutching the stone to anchor herself.


    “Besides, if you truly wanted me to desist, I would. Because if that were the case, you could have easily stopped me or made your opinion of me quite clear, no? You are a mage. Why not send a warning?”


    His grasp tightened, his thumbs pushing into the skin beside the bone of her hip. Etain’s jaw clenched, eyes locked onto the huntsman before her, wondering how likely the chance was that he would throw her over the fortification right then and there.


    “Why dance around my every compliment and suggestion in such a coquettish manner, hmm?” He leaned in further, close enough for her to see the separate streaks of gold within his eyes. “Why answer me in kind?”


    Etain shoved aside the sudden panic as her heart thumped in the pace of a hellbent rabbit. He knows exactly why, he knows what I am doing. Much as I know what this is. Now it’s just an impasse. She could feel the warmth of his breath brush against her skin. She couldn’t very well tell him the truth; she needed him to play out his little scheme without a doubt in his mind at her cluelessness. Neither could she say that it was simple reflex. She had grown so accustomed to answering her guests, petitioners, in kind simply because people tended to be more agreeable when presented with communication similar to their own.


    But lack of sleep and incessant stress had worn her patience thin. The fawning was all a distraction, that much was evident. He was studying her as if she were a captured beast of legend, disguising his scheming and scrutiny with unparalleled curiosity and attraction. A flirtatious whisper here, a lingering touch there; all while he memorized her innate reactions, her reflexes, her weak spots, her preferred gestures, and tested her self control and ability to strategize.


    Her fingers slithered lightly along the skin of his arm, tracing the curves of the underlying muscle. His complexion was a summer sunset, golden and warm to the touch, as if the sun itself radiated deep within him. He smelled of leather and steel, of aged oak, of the velvet darkness of night. In an odd, preposterous way he reminded her of Solas - or perhaps simply exposed her to unreliable affections- and that was another reason why he churned her stomach, why she loathed him so.


    The man did not shy away from her glare, instead relishing in it.


    Her hand found its destination alongside his neck. She dallied in silence, her undisclosed gaze unwavering, the faint thrum of his pulse reverberating through her fingertips. You try to weave a spell, you adore… Like the rest of them, and still I see nothing but lies. Sustaining the effort to not boil his blood with one touch, Etain instead pressed close enough for it to only be natural to share a kiss.


    “I suppose you’re right.” She whispered, piercing eyes refusing whatever affection he was willing to give her there and then. “So here is your warning.” Electricity hissed in feathery flickers, stinging the skin of his neck. “I do not trust you, you do not trust me. So cut the shit, and get to the point… Make your move. You will get nowhere with all this blandishment, except maybe a cell with only half its floor intact. You want my cooperation, then speak directly and show me proof. Otherwise, stay away from me, report to Leliana, and get the hell  out the first moment you can.”


    She withdrew her hand, astral hued orbs holding on to the threat of her warning. Yet he remained unmoved, his own eyes answering her burning glare.


    “As you command, my Lady.” He purred into her ear, the warmth of his breath brushing her skin. Yet before he turned to leave, his hand pressed a small object beneath her palm.


    “Watch your step, Inquisitor.” Zevran murmured and left with an ominous smirk. “Wouldn’t want you to slip and hurt yourself now, do we?”


    Etain was not certain he was speaking of the icy sheen covering the walkways. Her skin yet crawled at his bizarre departure. The tiny coin he pushed into her palm was ancient and hardly legible, inscribed with a language she could not understand. What it was, why he had it, who he had gotten it from, Lavellan had not the slightest clue. It rested between the covers of a book at the top of her shelf, waiting for her further scrutiny. She intended to mark down every minuscule detail of the coin before she handed it over to Leliana, leaving enough information for her to keep in case anyone would want to tamper with the investigation.


    Knowing my luck, it is probably nothing but some worthless chunk of metal and this is nothing but an asinine prank.


    Feeling as if she would lose all capability of coherent speech and thought, Lavellan stormed toward the stairs, wanting to seek some sort of shelter from her own mind, to feel safe from her own fears for a couple hours. She was terrified, nerve racked and at a loss of what to do; except for hiding it all, at the expanse of her health and sanity. It was a never-ending vicious circle of proliferating pressure, maintaining control over it at the cost of her own wellbeing, leading to even more stress, even less control - on and on and on.


    Her eyes were desperately disinclined to even look at the flagon that offered descent into dreamless oblivion. Her lungs sucked in air in tiny gulps as the anxiety built to greater heights. Creators help me.


    Immediately realizing the foolishness of such a plea, she resorted to her last option.
   

Chapter Text

    Sword hilt strapped to her hip, Etain slipped out of her chambers, weaving her way through the sleepy halls toward the throne room. Out of precaution, the dim glow of a barrier slithered across her body as she passed shadowed alcoves, corners and rooms.


    She found the man sitting at the foot of Andraste. Hands behind her, Etain pushed the door closed, eyes lingering on her last grip of sanity and humanity lit by the meagre candles strewn about the prayer room.


    His head was tilted back against the stone wall, deep set cognac eyes reluctantly focusing on the intruder. As if seeing a ghost, the poignant orbs widened in surprise and his hands lowered, ready to prop himself up to properly greet his leader.


    Lavellan shook her head, dismissing the need for such currently useless formalities. In the dim expanse of the prayer room, her eyes were dark sapphires latched onto the visage of Andraste.  She couldn’t help but wonder of how she would have felt had she believed in this crowned prophet. A stone statue. Like all the rest. Silent testaments to something we will never understand.


    Yet it provided comfort to souls in every corner of Thedas, be it Andraste or any other religious idol. Something about the visage of a revered figure of guidance and hope urged the soul to trudge on, to commit acts of kindness or evil, great or small, in the name of faith.


    Hypocrite, she chastised herself internally.


    Etain walked over to Cullen, defiantly staring at the statue’s humbled, obscured facial features. She never looks and never sees either.    


    “Does it help?” She murmured, sliding down to the floor next to the Commander wrapped up in his massive cloak.


    Cullen fought the urge to stare at the woman sitting all too close for ease next to him. He focused instead on the statue, every crack and crease of the stone committed to memory. He wasn’t entirely certain as to what Lavellan was asking, and if he did, he knew well enough she wasn’t one for religion.


    “My faith?” He asked, immediately feeling foolish as he over-analyzed everything down to his posture. She sat close enough for him to smell the scent of her hair, a reddish gold mass of incongruous waves frazzled by smoke and melting snow, yet not enough to feel the warmth of her body. He turned heedfully, as if fearing what he would see in her, and yet unable to not look. She had bags under irritated eyes, a telltale sign of her sleepless nights.


    “Yes… Faith. Does it help?”


    “In most moments. It may seem to falter at times, but that’s why it is faith. It does not come easy, for it must survive with you in your weakest moments.”


    Her lips curled in and pressed together in thought for a fleeting moment. “But… how do you know? How does anyone know what is truth and what is legend? Has she ever truly answered someone? Or has the Maker?”


    “You just do… If you believe the world doesn't make sense in any other way, that there must be something greater than any one of us… It is never clear cut. Sometimes they intervene and guide us. Perhaps in indirect ways… I don’t know.” Cullen’s low timbre echoed off the venerable walls. He wasn’t sure himself how to describe his faith to someone like Etain, someone that has seen all she had. “If I may ask, Inquisitor… what are you doing here? How did you find me?”     


     He felt as if her eyes unraveled him to ribbons of doubts and memories in one glance, yet he could discern nothing from hers aside from their odd beauty.


    “I can’t sleep.” Her focus returned to Andraste, “And we do have sentries, Cullen. Doesn’t take much to know where anyone is at the moment.”


    “I… just never thought you would be one to seek out a Chantry prayer room.”


    Lavellan pondered her answer for a moment, leaning her head back against the stone. Her gaze was fixed on Cullen, curious pools trapping flickers of candle light in their depths.         

The former Templar felt quite impudent, implying she sought him out, not Andraste.


    “Do you mind if I stay?” She murmured, her question more a plea than a formality.


    Cullen forced himself to look her straight in the eyes, even if it made his skin crawl from disquietude.


    “Of course… I mean, no… I don't mind.”


    Etain smiled briefly in gratitude, swallowing back the hundreds of things she wished she could tell him. The nightmares, the visions from the Well, her suspicions, her fears, her curiosities, how much she missed the smell of the earthy forest after a cool rain- all things she aught to keep to herself. For even if everything Cole would mutter at unexpected moments of the day were true, she had no right to worsen the situation by the slightest affectionate misstep.


    “Are you alright?” The humble question broke the tense silence in the darkened chamber.


    “Yes.” The answer came faster than Etain’s mind had even conjured it.


    “Yes?”


    Her long brows twitched into a momentary frown. “I believe I’m not at liberty to answer such a question with any other response.”


    “How about Etain, not the Herald or the Inquisitor… Are you alright?”


    She tilted her head to the side, inhaling air as if she were about to go on a lengthy tirade.


    “So does this mean you couldn’t sleep either?” Her hands made an absent gesture to the entire frigid chamber.


    “So it seems.” He grumbled, not pleased with the change of topic.


    “Nightmares?”


    “Perhaps.” Cullen dug up a shred of courage to provide her with a snarky remark. “It’s fairly counterproductive if you are trying to convince me you’re fine yet you’re here…and you are so desperate to change the subject.”


    All wax and no wick, Lavellan. Her face remained expressionless, the feeble candlelight highlighting the lines of her jaw and high, wide cheekbones.


    “So they haven’t stopped?” She continued, ignoring his remark. She cradled her face in her hands, elbows resting on her knees. “And you have a new habit of hiding here? Have they truly grown so unbearable?”


    “You don’t… you can’t… Maker…” Cullen exhaled forcefully, knowing he had driven himself into a corner. If he told her now, would it alleviate the stress on his shoulders? He hadn’t been at ease around her since the nightmares began.


    “Cullen…” Her hands pressed into the folds of her scarf to shelter themselves in warmth. “You know-“


    “Stop…” He muttered, still avoiding her gaze, her most powerful weapon. “Andraste save me. You don’t know how many times my hands have killed you in the last month. Night after night. Everything I know, everyone I have come to care for… I destroy it all.”


    Lavellan unconsciously froze up, hands supporting her neck. Her breath grew shallow, as if the mere sound of it would set him off. She melted into the frosty shadows of the room. As little as he may have said, the weight of it all hung heavy in the air, like oily black smoke.


    “I lay my head down to sleep, and I hear you scream, and open my eyes to see you being torn apart by the red lyrium… It’s tainting even my memories… I’d see you next to me, smiling, laughing, then…” His eyes reluctantly turned to her, fear burning brightly in their amber depths. “I can’t even look at you without seeing you as you are in my nightmares. Seeing my own weakness, my own downfall… You so much as glance at me and my stomach heaves. I physically cannot stand looking at you, no matter how much I may want to do nothing but look at you… Maker, I don’t know how much longer I can take this.”


    Etain remained an unresponsive statue, her mind processing all she was hearing at breakneck speed. Cullen’s hand sought refuge on his neck, as it often did whenever he was nervous and lost in thought. Eternity dragged on miserably as the room fell silent, save for the occasional groan of ancient stone.


    With a shuffle of clothing and scuffle of boots on the floor, his arm was forced away from his neck and the woman straddled his outstretched legs. He felt the warmth and weight of her body, the only life in the room. Hair standing on end, his breath caught in his throat as he realized he was unsure of how to feel right that moment. His eyes did not know where to look; look down and he would stare at her well-proportioned frame, look up and he’d have to face her wretched eyes. Nor could he understand what she was planning to do, filling him with both terror and excitement.


    Etain shoved her forearm against his neck, forcing him to look at her. The cold orbs now latched onto his gaze, tearing his soul to ribbons. She forced his body into fight or flight mode, and she spoke to him with a newfound reprimand.


    “Go on.” She demanded. “Show me.”


    “What are you-“ He stumbled over his words, trying to not look at her.


    “Defend yourself.” Her forearm pressed further, the other wrapping around his neck to latch onto her elbow, crushing his windpipe and sending his pulse racing. Every muscle responded in an explosive burst of power, his mind reflexively shouting commands to shove his attacker to the floor and bash her head in. Yet he restrained himself.


    “DO IT!” She snarled as he remained indifferent.


    His movements were like quicksilver, legs throwing her off-balance, powerful arms maneuvering to thrust upwards at her chest and elbows to push her away. Etain fell backwards onto her rump, catching herself with palms pressed to the gelid floor.


    His face twisted with irritation and confusion as he kneeled in front of her. “What are-?”


    She was on him again with a knee to his side, pouncing upon his back, arm wrapped around his solid neck. Cullen’s fingers wrapped around the arm crushing him, not expecting the amount of strength she carried in those lithesome limbs.


    “Maker’s breath, Lavellan!” He choked out and threw her over his shoulder to the floor with an ear-splitting thud. She wheezed as all air was forced from her lungs, sprawled beneath Andraste’s outstretched arms.


    “Don’t even think of attacking me again, or by the Maker I might actually break your arms!” Cullen growled and threaded his fingers beneath her shoulders to lift her up. “What were you trying to accomplish with that?”


    Clearly she didn’t intend to kill him, he knew what she was capable of. And here I thought she was going to go for a more affectionate display.


    “Proving… a point…” She struggled as her breathing slowly returned to normal. Cullen’s hands probed at the back of her head and neck, inspecting any unintended damage he may have inflicted.


    “I don’t think I understand-“


    “You say you fear to even look at me and see me dead, somehow by your hands… I’m breaking that innate reaction you have allowed to form because of your dreams. You fear you would lose control and somehow harm, maybe even kill me. You fear failure, you fear being brought to your knees by something out of your control. You won’t succumb to it, Cullen. You’ve come so far… I know you. You won’t hurt me even if I’m choking the life out of you. You needed to see it firsthand.”


    The Commander glared at her with dumbfounded eyes, not even realizing he was freely staring at her. Her eyebrows raised as she waited for him to come to his senses.


    “Sweet Andraste, this is my punishment isn’t it? An insane Inquisitor to throttle me in a prayer room to prove to me that I won’t fall prey to my worst fears?”


    “I do what I can.” She rubbed her sore back. “It worked didn’t it? You’ve been gaping at me for the last few minutes and I haven’t burst into flames and lyrium shards, have I? Miracle.”


    “I’m not a fool, Lavellan. I didn’t think of it in literal terms…”


    “I know. I just… think you knocked my sense of humor out of me.”


    “You brought it on yourself.”


    “It better have been worth it.”


    “You take too many risks, Inquisitor. What if I did hurt you?”


    “You wouldn’t have.”


    “How do you know? How could you possibly know?” His patience was dwindling.


    She glanced up at him before returning to fixing her bodice and scarf. “Why am I in your dreams, Cullen? Why do you not fear to look at and speak with anyone else as much as you do with me?”


    He had a feeling she knew exactly why, but was going to interrogate him until he said it. Until he acknowledged it. He continued to glare at her, cotton-mouthed and at a loss for words like a child caught doing something wrong.


    “Why do you fear to hurt me, to fail me most?” Her voice lowered to almost a whisper, fingers cold as steel brushing a defiant clutch of hair out of his face. He thought his skin may shear beneath her touch. “You never said anything… You were always there, every time I sank to the lowest. But you never said a word-”


    “How could I, Lavellan? You are the Inquisitor… And I…” He looked as if he wanted to burst into flames and disappear in a gust of ashes. His ears burned red, and his head lowered in what was almost shame. “And then I couldn’t possibly interfere.”


    “With?”


    “Your duties, responsibilities, to bias your judgement… and your attentions were drawn elsewhere. There was another in your mind.”


    Lavellan fought with the urge to roll her eyes. That wasn't enough to keep him near. He left me, why is it that I am not allowed forget and move on? Instead, she slid closer, hands pressing against his stubbled cheeks.


    “There wouldn’t have been.” She murmured, thumb itching to trace the telltale scar above his lip. Those weren't the right words. Time trickled by as she thought of something to say that would make any of it better, but there was nothing to find. She smiled bitterly. “We can’t both lose our minds.”


    The phrase was a breath louder than the lowest whisper. Cullen frowned, the furrow between his brows deepening, catching the dim light of the dying candles. “What do you mean?”


    Her hands dropped and the corners of her mouth lost the smirk. Too late to back out now. No one better to speak to. He has as much to hide as I do.


    “I … can’t sleep. When they’re not memories that haunt me - the dreams - they’re not my own. Visions from the Well of Sorrows. Centuries old knowledge, memories, secrets. Sometimes fascinating, enlightening, at other times - terrifying, heartbreaking, depressing.” She inhaled a shaky breath. “And now, I see the same dream, over and over, every single night. I close my eyes, and I see it.”


     Etain’s eyes grew distant, as if conjuring up the vision she knew though and through. “Exactly the same. Over and over.”


    “What is exactly the same? What do you see?” Some morbid curiosity consumed Cullen, wondering just what sort of dreams could have plagued her, whether they were any more demented than his were.


    “An Eluvian. The same damned mirror. It… I don’t think it’s a memory. It calls to me.” Her eyes darted over to him, knowing what expression should have been on his face. Yet there was nothing there. He simply listened, reluctantly watching her.


    “I suppose with everything that’s happened, it’s not the craziest thing to occur to me.”


    “It calls to you?”


    “Yes. No… not directly, I don’t hear anything, but I do…” She chewed her lip, unable to describe her experience coherently. “I just know, Cullen. There are no words for me to hear, but I know it beckons me closer. And so every night I walk the same fourteen steps, stand on the exact same stepping stone with a crack shaped like horns, flanked by Mythal’s dragon and a wolf, reach out to touch the Eluvian - and wake up. Nothing else. There is nothing else that happens in the dream. Nor can I see anything else, or hear anything else. Just the Eluvian.”


    “Have you seen it before?”


    “No. Not this one. Nor have I seen many that are intact and active… I’ve tried finding some sort of clue, some semblance of relevant information, but I’ve come up with hardly anything.”


    Cullen hardly knew what she wanted from him, what any of that should mean to him. “Perhaps Leliana can-“


    “No. Cullen, you mustn’t breathe a word of this to anyone… If anyone else knew, it would be the end of me. You know what will become of me, don’t you? I’ll be made tranquil. Or jailed. Or killed. No one can know.”


    Reality cuffed her sharply against her temples. What are you doing, Lavellan?! With a groan of dismay, she pushed away, preparing to leave. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything… I didn’t mean to burden you. I don’t know what came over me.”


    “Wait… wait! Etain… I’m not sure I understand all of this.”


    “Good. I made a mistake, the less you know, the better. Forget this conversation, Commander. That is an order, if I had ever given you one.” The ice wall was back, erasing out every trace of emotion from her face. “I suppose this is a good time as any to wish you a better night. Send word for a small retinue to the Storm Coast as soon as you can. I’ll make my descent tomorrow.”


    “Tomorrow? I had already sent orders. My troops will set out for Orzammar at sunup. Why not wait for their report so we are better informed and you are better prepared to deal with the issue, if need be?” Cullen raised himself up off the floor with a shuffle of cloak and armor.


    “The initial reports were urgent enough to require immediate attention. I’ll be fine.”


    The templar knight scowled. “I advise against it, Inquisitor. Especially considering how little rest you are functioning on and how little we know of the situation… Wait, what makes you think your dreams are visions of an actual Eluvian?”


    Lavellan felt her gloves stick to her skin as a cold sweat flushed her palms. Wishing she could turn back time and shut her own mouth, Etain contrived a desperate plan to mend the damage done.


    “I don’t. It is just a dream. A nuisance, but still merely a dream. It’ll pass.” An obligatory smile curved her mouth. Give him something else to think about.


    Etain turned on her heel to leave Cullen in solitude, spending the last hour of night in darkness. Frustrated but unwilling to confront his leader, he planted his hands on his hips and glanced up at Andraste.


    “Cullen?” Etain’s voice sounded closer than where he thought she aught to be. He turned to see her stepping toward to him. “It will all be alright.”


    She now stood directly in front of him, candle light clinging to her long legs. Her arms glided up and around Cullen’s shoulders, pressing her body close against him, despite the discomfort of his metal breastplate against her chest.


    Cullen’s hands hung awkwardly in the air; too close to her waist to be a clear sign of nonacceptance, yet too far away to show his submission to the warm embrace. Neither could his mind understand how she could stand to be so close to him, just a breath away - after everything he had told her earlier. Was it what he wanted? Was he absolutely abhorred or about to melt into a puddle in his boots?


    Maker have mercy… She will be the death of me. Forcing himself past irrational fears, his arms coiled around the woman who had attempted to strangle him earlier, cloaking her chilled frame in the heat radiating from within his core. Her fingers snaked onto his neck in response, into the short hair at the base of his skull as she held on to him.


    Had he not known better, he would have thought she molded herself against his chest, like candle wax in a glass. Hearth fire smoke laced itself into the subtle clean fragrance of her hair, filling his lungs.  


    Cullen’s body and mind felt in complete disarray. He wanted to hold on to her, in this rare moment of vulnerability, yet felt the tingle of aversion urging him to step away and never attempt such a hazardous encounter again. She was the Inquisitor, after all, untouchable and lacking the luxury of such distractions, especially with the risk of increasing the frailty of her reputation. Yet she knew him better than any other in their formidable organization, especially considering all he had seen her accomplish, and all she had unflinchingly stood at his side for.


    His mind could easily conjure up a list of reasons he shouldn’t have been exactly where he was at that moment. It took all he had not to picture her as she had been in his nightmares, red with blood and lyrium, shrieking and clawing at his skin as she fought him with every breath.  

 
    "I didn't mean to throw you so hard."


    "I've had much worse." She mumbled into the thickness of his cloak. Her head lowered to press against his chest, only finding the unfortunate presence of his frigid, hard chest plate. Damn it.


    She inhaled and pushed away from his embrace, unconsciously pursing her lips to one side as she turned to depart. Back to the ramparts then.


    Cullen's hands clasped down as her arms slipped past his. Surprise brought her incredulous eyes back to him. Whatever boldness overtook him, he held onto it for a little while longer. The words were on the edge of his tongue, but he didn’t know how to phrase his thoughts; how to describe the myriad of feelings rumbling in the pit of his stomach. Don’t go, Etain. Not now. Not today, not tomorrow.


    Perhaps his thoughts were written clearly on his face, for her eyes narrowed as if she was reading an indistinct poem between his furrowed brows. She watched as he grappled with his instincts for another brief second, and tried to ignore her own.


    His fingertips pressed reassuring warmth into her bones, despite his nervous eyes. Lavellan’s fingers twisted into the fabric of his cloak, holding on to the only thing that seemed an anchor in her life. She pulled him closer before her mind could object, sparks igniting down the length of her spine as his hands gripped her shoulders.


    The sizzle of the last few candles snapped like lightning in the still room, his shallow breathing like the rumble of thunder in her ears. He seemed to assault her senses simply standing so close to her. She was loathe to look away from his hazy cognac orbs, but found just as an appealing a focus on his thin, wide mouth.

 
    Kissing him was like sipping a fine whiskey; the feel and taste of his lips kindled a treacherous welling of heat deep in her core, both from the rush of suppressed feelings spilling through a burst dam, and the burn of the guilt nagging somewhere in the back of her mind. She thought to run away as fast as her feet could carry, but wanted him to press her closer even more. So she sipped her whiskey slow, surrendering herself to the warm buzz flushing across her skin. The fire reignited even brighter within her as Cullen’s large, flat palms pressed against her neck, thumbs brushing the angle of her jaw. He held her hostage in his warm embrace, unraveling both of them in the refuge of the solemn prayer room.


    Cullen’s lips stopped time, pressing against hers in candid waves of need and desire, without the sting of an ulterior motive. He returned all he took; for every moment he left her burning and breathless, he was left with the same affliction. Their arms weaved around each other in a desperate attempt to somehow get closer, closer than flesh and bone could allow.


    By the Creators, why haven’t you kissed me sooner? Etain was unsure whether she was surprised that her heart had lost its rhythm and was pitter-pattering about her chest like a child throwing a tantrum. She yearned to kiss him until her soul melted into a puddle at his feet, if only to feel like her soul could still thaw. Her fingers wanted to claw off his armor as one hand weaved itself into her hair, the other tracing her jawline as if following the angle of a priceless sculpture.


    He pulled away reluctantly, time and breath returning to them in a sudden surge. Cullen’s neck flushed the same subtle pink as his flat cheekbones, eyes backlit with something between passion, adoration and relief. His lips twitched as if he were about to say something, and Lavellan prayed it wouldn’t be anything along the lines of “I’m sorry.” Instead, all that came out was a short, nervous laugh.


    Etain smiled and pressed up on her toes to place a gentle peck on his symmetrical lips. “I should have hit you sooner.”


    He beamed a nervous smile, rubbing the back of his neck, eyes drifting to his feet.


    “I hope Andraste is one to forgive. I don’t want to be struck down for leading a Templar astray, kissing him beneath her pious vigil, heathen that I am.” Lavellan folded her arms over her chest and tilted her head up to look at the stone rendering of the prophet.


    “I think she might make an exception in your case, Herald of Andraste.” He muttered, brushing an irregularly curled sting of hair behind her elven ear. “But just in case, perhaps we should find a more fitting place than a prayer room.”


    Mischief glimmered in her eyes like candlelight against a violet-blue jewel. “Oh? No ‘never again’? Do I not make you sick to your stomach anymore?”


    “Not… in that way.” His brows lowered in light embarrassment, but the smirk lingered. “Maybe I should double check?”


    With twilight only a brief hour away, faint shuffling and creaking of doors elsewhere in the keep grew more frequent. The Inquisition was waking, to the disheartenment of both Cullen and Etain. She smiled weakly and walked backwards toward the door.


    “Save that kiss for when I come back, Commander… I fear I must make my escape.”

 



    “You couldn’t have picked a lovelier day to hastily march down the mountain, Lavellan.” Dorian groused a short distance behind her, his voice fighting the howl of the wind between the crags of the narrow pathway through the Frostbacks. It was the latter part of the afternoon, the mountain shrouded in a white fog of snow, kicked up by the cold currents snaking through the cliffs. The Inquisition camp was at the base of the mountain was a mere two hours away. Their progress was smooth, their trail to be followed by Varric and Bull the next morning.


    “And you were so eager to leave… Not to your liking?” Etain shouted back as she neared the most gut-wrenching part of the descent;  a narrow path flanked by crevices and steep drops to the valley floor below.


    “Didn’t you know I’m allergic to your southern cold?”


    “I am well aware. Unfortunately I couldn’t find anyone willing to carry a gilded palanquin down the mountain.”


    “Oh? Found your sense of humor in Cullen’s trousers, did you?”


    Lavellan nearly lost all footing and plunged face down onto the iced over path. “What gives you the impression that I would be anywhere near Cullen’s trousers?”  


    “Does a bear shit in the woods? I’ve seen how he looked at you as we made our way out. Like a cat with cream on his whiskers. And you…” Dorian’s laughter bounced off the cliffs. “Maker, are you going to shoot rainbows and rain down sugar from your staff next time we are attacked?”


    “Wouldn’t that be a spectacle… Maybe you should pay more attention to your footing than your meddling?”


    Rounding the corner formed by a barren rock wall, Lavellan could hear only the beginnings of Dorian’s retort somewhere in the distance. A blinding force bashed at the back of her neck, stars bursting in her eyes. Losing her balance, she leaned dangerously close to the path’s edge. Her sudden voyage downwards into the crevasse was arrested by hands grabbing her armor, pulling her back onto the path. Energy sheathed her arms and made its way to the rest of her frame, though she hadn’t summoned it fast enough.


    Gloved fingers clasped her jaw as the attacker pressed her stunned body to his own, a small, needle-like dagger slipping into her side with a staccato pop of the exposed leather below her breastplate.


    “I’m sorry,” his breath fluttered in the air, brushing past her tapered ear. Armored arms turned her limp body to face him, a hand holding the back of her skull in place. Hastily, while the moment lasted, the assassin pressed his lips against her cheek, in what almost seemed to be pity. Her eyes struggled to stay open, her hands clumsily grasping at Zevran’s shoulders. His warm golden orbs held no menace, nor rush of the kill. They were calm and reassuring, and utterly disturbing.


    She struggled to gather her senses and even register her most basic questions; why and how was he here? Inquisition forces cleared the path before she left. How did he know where she would be?


    All Etain could think of was the disorientation and ringing in her ears, the burning in her side. With a solid shove, her feet left the ground, the sensation of plummeting through the air sending her insides to her throat and her body into a panic.


    The ground came too fast, the summoned barrier doing little to cushion her fall. The world exploded to black with a paralyzing crack of bone against stone. A second thud sounded nearby. Time drifted by as two mages lay crumpled at the bottom of an unnamed crevasse, the attacker satisfied in assuming their deaths.


    When consciousness returned, Etain screeched in pain, her body broken and shattered, her energy and mana drained. Every fiber of her battered self protested in agony as she twisted to find her companion. Defiantly, she forced her body to turn, mustering every last whisper of mana within to heal her countless injuries, despite lacking the proper training for such an arduous task. It was too much to hope for, resulting only in another blackout.


    The long crusted snow stung Lavellan’s cheek, her limbs becoming suddenly aware of the frosty embrace enveloping her. She raised her head, the effort much too great for her to retain any hopes of surviving.


    “Dorian…” Her voice was a helpless whimper as Etain dragged herself across infinity to her Tevinter mage, inch by excruciating inch. Yet he was a mere foot away. His eyes turned and locked onto hers, reaching out his hand. He was sprawled on his back, blood seeped from his mouth and ears, and yet he smiled. His words came out slow and strained.


    “My dear Inquisitor… Looks like it’s the end for us… But ah, was it a dance for history to remember. You and I have achieved what all seek. Immortality… Our names and our actions will be everlasting legend. Concluded with a tragically heroic death… Young, powerful, devastatingly beautiful creatures dying with glory and victory in hand… For that, I have you to thank my friend. I just grieve the fact that the paintings shall never do me justice.”


    Etain’s fingers weaved tighter around Dorian’s own. She had hardly the strength to keep her head up, crimson coloring the brilliant white beneath her. Tears threatened to make themselves present as his humor laced, proud speech tore at her heart. Seeing her disheartenment, he laughed weakly.


    “No, no my sweet… This is as glorious an end as any fighting spirit could hope for… To die young and in our prime, our deeds not yet overshadowed by future mistakes and rivals. We are immortal. This is a gift… Thank…” Blood steamed as it crept from his mouth, his chest shaking with a cough. His skin paled and his eyes grew less and less lustrous. He was bleeding out, though much quicker than Etain.


    “No… no, no! Dorian! Please…!” Salty diamonds shimmered down her cheeks as she watched the life fade from her close companion. Utmost terror and desperation gripped greedily at her throat, making every breath a raspy struggle. Her fingers clutched his hand forlornly, praying madly to every known and unknown divine being for his survival.


    “Co… Come with me… my friend… Be free…” His tone was hardly audible, his eyes calm, his expression serene. Etain cried. She abandoned all self-control, all poise and heroic resolve. She screamed as the last wisps of his life struggled to escape his body. She screamed for all the world to hear. He had lost consciousness and gurgling, choking sounds replaced his last words. The last few horrifying seconds passed at a glacial pace, leaving Etain alone at the bottom of the world, in the snowy chasms far from home. Despair and fear drowned her senses. Never had she felt such dread, such terror, such sadness. In those moments, it mattered not that their lives had saved thousands. She did not regret that, though neither did she feel as much comfort from it as she had hoped.


    Her death came slow. Ages seemed to pass as her body gave up on her. Her only salvation became the cold and freezing caress of the snow below her, numbing her body as she bled out. Her outstretched right arm still reached for and held Dorian’s fingers, the flesh turning to cold stone. He seemed asleep. Her voice was hoarse from screaming and crying. It seemed as if she was surrounded by deafening, painful silence for hours on end. No living soul around her. Exhaustion and delirium began to blanket her. I’m in hell…


    Etain heard voices… whispering in the distance. She thought she glimpsed a figure in her periphery. Her left hand burned, as it did the first time she woke with the mark pulsing in her palm. She could see it burn green again, she could feel it, so bright… but her eyes deceived her. She was laying still on her right side, limbs immobile. Her head rested on her own arm, unable to even look from one side to another. It was suddenly unbearably hot, after eons spent in numbing cold. It burns… Her clothes and armor had turned to smoldering coals against her skin and her fingers fumbled at her neck.


    The metal taste. The unmistakable dank smell of blood. Death. This was the end. So many things yet to do, to accomplish, to experience… So many regrets. Too many… She yearned to feel the sun again, to smell the bread baking in the kitchens at the keep, to hear the drunken laughter in the tavern. Her fingers longed to touch the grainy, thin parchment of worn in, long loved books. Most of all she wished to wander the woods, in all their ancient, musky glory, free and wild. Every fiber of her being hungered for his touch, his voice, for one last kiss.


    “No… No… I cannot… Please… please…” Her feeble cries hardly produced a noise. Night crept up to her, awarding her a clear, star filled view. The tears steamed down her ivory skin. Blood turned the ends of her disheveled hair to copper.


    The snow crunched beneath the weight of approaching feet. Her mind was so far gone, her body paralyzed and on its last thread of life that she couldn’t discern whether the soul approaching her was real, whether it was another memory or hallucination.

 Her thoughts lingered on her one worst, most painful regret.


    The Inquisitor’s fate was sealed, and she had run out of time. Her pale lips stilled, cracked and stained red with blood, and her tanzanite eyes stared off into the skies, desperately clinging to the light of the stars, all in vain. 

Chapter Text


 

Gloved fingers trembled as Leliana brought the goblet of honeyed wine to her lips, gulping down in hopes of stalling the panic she felt growing heavy in the pit of her stomach. She sat secluded in her rookery, glaring out the window, trying to cope with the imminent fallout of her actions. She fought the nausea and needles in her veins, hand clasping over her mouth in thought.


    The Black Shadow hadn’t been seen in over four days. Inquisitor Lavellan made a hasty departure from Skyhold several hours after the last known confirmation of Zevran’s position. There hadn’t been a sign of Lavellan, or Dorian. Their trail led to a narrow winding in the mountain path, and from there all traces disappeared. No blood stains, no troubled rocks, pebbles, broken branches… Nothing but a scuffle of footprints near the edge of the cliff. They simply disappeared.


    It was foolish to hold up hope. The trek to either of the base camps took less than one day. It has been four. They would have made it, they would have sent word. They simply met their end at the bottom of the mountain. No way to recover the bodies until the thaws, if there would be anything left to recover.


    Leliana’s hand moved to cover her eyes as she let out a shaky breath, knowing exactly what happened.


    I made a mistake… I’m so sorry, Etain… It… It went out of my control before I knew it… I thought I could pull this off… Had I played it too well? Left Zevran much too eager to fulfill his purpose? Maker, what made you leave so abruptly, Lavellan? Why? We only now received reports out of Orzammar.


    Leliana frowned and lowered her hands to rest on the table whitewashed by the afternoon light. All her efforts during the past month had imploded into an uncooperative mess. She had played her cards well, done her research, her careful scheming was seemingly foolproof. Zevran was supposed to follow through with the plan he revealed, all while she gathered all she needed to stop him and eliminate his employer just in time.


    What am I missing…? Zevran had made it too obvious. A careless kill. He disappeared in the perfect time frame to catch Lavellan on the path. That is condemning in and of itself. It forfeits the offer I provided him with… No, he had something else in mind… Did he intend to manipulate me just as I tried to sway his path? Who is his Maker-cursed employer? Or is it employers? What exactly have they promised him?


    Sister Nightingale had grown accustomed to being the master of puppetry and maneuvering, able to gain invaluable information where there seemed none to be found. She did not take kindly to being outfoxed.


    I ran myself into this predicament. A lesson in humility. She thought bitterly, drumming her fingers along the wood. At the price of all I fought to protect… Blessed Andraste, forgive me. Show me what to do…


    Whatever move Leliana aimed to make, she would have to choose her footing cautiously. Her cooperation with Josephine and Cullen would undoubtedly be strained, especially once the rest of the Inquisition begins to question the absence of the Inquisitor’s correspondence, and her apparent disappearance; the advisors knew of Zevran’s identity and purpose of being anywhere near the Inquisition headquarters. She couldn’t raise the alarm and go on an all out manhunt for Zevran - that would raise the suspicions of the rest of the organization as to Leliana’s involvement. If even one notable finger was pointed at her,  such discredit for the organization’s Spymaster would blare corruption and incompetence. It would spell the end of the Inquisition, particularly with the political situation growing more and more volatile. The noose is tightening. I have to take care of this now, or flee… though that is hardly an option.


    Swallowing the remainder in her glass, Leliana rose in a swift, elegant turn, intending to float toward the shrine to Andraste. A scout had appeared on the opposite side of the landing, busy sending messages. Sister Nightingale stopped in her tracks and pretended to glance at a trifle intel report on the desk.


    Don’t attract attention. I’ve already prayed this morning… No need to seem desperate just yet. Stick to my regular schedule. Leliana inhaled deeply, mentally scheduling a thorough brush of Etain’s bedchamber. Perhaps there would be some sort of shred of information into why she left in such a hurry.


    Cullen and Josephine must be subdued first. We must keep this quiet until we know more. Feigning a calm and collected demeanor, she snatched an apple from the paltry fruit basket at the edge of her workspace. Biting into it with a sharp crunch, she meandered down the spiral staircase.

 



    The walls mockingly echoed his thoughts back at him as Cullen strode through the vacant halls toward a dreaded pass through the throne room to his office. The morning felt bitter after the unnerving meeting with Leliana the night prior. After a long and heated discourse, Josephine and Cullen reluctantly agreed to allow Leliana and her spies more time to determine what exactly happened to Dorian and Etain. Until then, they would all maintain their calm and composure, and mention nothing of the situation.


    I warned her. I told her not to go. Nearly a week past and there were still no trace or news of Lavellan. Zevran’s convenient disappearance was unquestionably suspicious. Bastard had done his job well… Maker’s breath, I knew Leliana was in over her head. No one ever listens until it’s far too late.


    Cullen’s mind refused to think of the very likely possibility that Lavellan was dead and gone. Not after everything. Not after that morning in the prayer room. His throat burned at the memory of Etain’s foolish, harmless comment about being struck down by Andraste. The irony was too agonizing for him to deal with at the moment. Nor could he think of her lips, the feel of her skin beneath his fingertips without feeling his pulse racing in yearning, and darkening concern.

  Her revelations about the eluvian perturbed his instincts, now more than they had before. Had it been nothing but an inconsequential dream, why would it haunt her every night? It’s the damned well… His skin crawled every time he thought of the ancient elven artifacts Lavellan seemed to have brought to light, his Templar upbringing protesting the mere mention of such things. None of it made sense, none of it should exist for any reason other than to harbor danger and evil. None of it belonged in the Inquisitor’s dreams. But she had made her choice, she risked the unknown effects of the cryptic well.


    Not that any of it mattered any longer.

    He stopped before the door, gathering his senses and swallowing the rising panic in his throat. It was getting harder and harder to hold up hope with each passing hour. He had watched the rookery as if it was the only thing he could see in all of Skyhold, hoping, praying for a raven to bring good news - Lavellan made it, her journey impeded by an unspotted rift, by bandits, by whatever the Maker damn well wanted, but she made it.


    And if she didn’t… What if she lies dead somewhere in these mountains? Maker, have mercy… she has to be alive. Worried brows furrowed even deeper, accentuating the agitation written on his face. His stomach churned as his sorrow vied with the rage he felt building toward Leliana and her reckless gambit. If the worst were to be confirmed, how could he bring himself to forgive her, to continue cooperating with her?


    One thing was clear, if word of Lavellan’s location and status didn’t arrive soon, the Inquisition may as well fall apart from within. Cullen was not certain the three of them would be able to sustain their influence and efforts after such a tragedy, brought on by their Spymaster. They would be forced to hide the truth, to erase all evidence of foul play, of Zevran’s presence and Leliana’s actions. It would all have to seem a tragic accident. Sister Nightingale was much too valuable and too well informed to be rid of. Her dismissal would prove a suicidal step. Not a shred of the truth, if it would ever be found, could be shown the light of day; the rest of Thedas would be all over them like a pack hungry dogs over a juicy morsel.


    And to think I feared lyrium corruption… He rolled the restlessness from his shoulders and pushed the door open, trying his hardest to look a bit less unsettled. By a stroke of good fortune, it was early enough in the morning for the throne room to be nearly empty.


    He couldn’t say the same of his office.


    “Fucking kid… COLE! If you don’t stop that I will shut you up myself!” Bull’s bellow came from within the tower.


    “Calm down, he can’t help it.” Varric’s voice of reason followed soon after.


    Cullen groaned in annoyance and braved the tower. As made evident by the shouting, the Iron Bull, Varric and Cole all congregated within. Cole was pacing back and forth and muttering to himself while the Qunari clenched his massive fists and glared death at the youth. Tethras sat himself on a chair near the Commander’s desk, arms folded over his chest.


    “Gentlemen…” Cullen began, his voice more coarse than he expected.


    “Morning, Commander.” Varric uncrossed his arms and stood from his chair.


    “Yeah, yeah, morning, how are you - all of that. What’s going on?” Bull interceded impatiently, forgoing every formality. Cullen’s brows raised briefly and he walked up to his desk, moving the fresh stack of reports and correspondence to the center.


    “What do you mean?”


    Bull let out a derisive chuckle. “Oh, come on, Cullen. You know exactly what I’m asking.”


    The templar inhaled deeply and tried not to scowl. He rested his palms on the desk and his eyes focused on the pacing young man. “Tell me all you know.”


    “Kid’s been going on like that for days.” Varric started. “Ever since we got back.”


    “Going on like what?” Cullen was failing at his task, a frown becoming permanent on his face.


    Bull threw out a brawny arm and snatched the youth by the shoulder, shoving him in front of Cullen. Varric shook his head and walked up to the young man, who was shifting from foot to foot.


    “Cole. Tell Cullen what you’ve told me.”


    “I can’t hear them anymore. Despair. Loneliness. So cold it burns, ice on skin. Regret. Broken. So broken. Heartache… She didn't wake up… He can’t hear me.”


    “Alright, slow down.” Cullen gulped back the alarm clawing at his throat. “Cole, did you see what happened?”


    “It had to be quick, sharp and cold, pop, in and out. He had almost missed his chance, a chance for them all. No, please, not yet! She wasn't ready. He thought of only his hands, strong and gentle, the warmth of the fire, paling in his heat. He-“


    “For all your blabber you haven’t said where they are. That’s all that matters.” Bull growled ominously.


    “I don’t know.”


    All three stopped and glared at Cole, at his simple and coherent response.


    “You… don’t know?”


    “No…”


    “Are they dead?” Bull demanded bluntly, tensing the atmosphere in the room even further. Cullen and Varric held on to the same worried scowl, unsure whether they wanted to hear the answer.


    The youth’s eyes skipped around as he thought for a long moment, fingers interlocking.


    “Fucking ghost whisperer doesn’t know if they're dead? I thought you were a spirit - you know that sort of crap-” Bull burst out again, nerves frayed.


    “Enough.” Cullen grumbled, pushing off the table to glare at them all. His jaw clenched tight, caught in a corner as to what to do.


    “So there has been no information on what happened to them?” Varric asked, a bit more collected than the Qunari.


    “Nothing of use…” Cullen exhaled, assuming his usual position. He was steeling himself against the dread building in his limbs. “Alright… maybe we can arrange for a search party. If they’re alive, maybe they’re stranded in the mountains.”


    “All the authorization I need.” Bull rumbled and turned to leave the office.


    Cullen made no attempt to stop him. Might do him some good to keep him busy.


    “I have reports to read, gentlemen. If you would do me the kindness of allowing me few hours to do my job… Then come back and we can arrange a search party.” He lowered himself onto his chair, shoulders feeling that much more burdened and hunched. He only hoped he sounded as authoritative as he intended, for the voice in his head was meek and hopeless.


    Varric spared a moment to look over the Commander, a man utterly worn out. “Sure thing, Curly… We’ll find them… Come on, Cole.”


    As the two left the tower, Cullen stared absently at the parchment before him. We have much bigger problems than just finding Etain and Dorian. The pressure is mounting. No matter what happens, the Inquisition will have to defend its existence soon enough. Though if Etain… He didn’t even want to think of it, but knew his luck well enough. If she’s gone, it may be sooner than later.


    He realized his mind couldn’t even comprehend what it would be like if she was dead. She had faced everything that should have by all rights taken her life, yet she always came back. Be that impressive, or unsettling, she survived everything. And now she may lie dead at the bottom of a mountain? A slip on an icy path?


    No, she didn’t simply slip… what Cole said implied someone else was there...Or Dorian. No he would never do such a thing. It doesn't make sense... Her blood is on your hands, Leliana. Maker help you if I learn your puppet’s wretched hide was behind this.



    Leliana had combed through everything of note, from the guest chambers to Zevran’s frequent haunts, saving Etain’s quarters for last. She had found nothing of import when it came to Zevran or their disappearance in Dorian’s chambers, though that was not to say the search was fruitless. She had uncovered several unread letters of correspondence. According to Pavus’s connections back home, there were no intentions to grant the Inquisition any action past casual acknowledgement. The Tevinter Imperium had much more pressing matters to contend with; the Qunari were restless, and something was brewing at their borders. Sightings of trespassing agents, small as their numbers have been, grew in frequency. The Magisterium was more concerned with a revival of their long-lived hostilities with the Qunari, and with political feuding within. The Inquisition appeared to them a minor threat, for now.


    An interesting development, Leliana had thought. Who, then, was responsible for the Tevinter poison? Was it truly a disgruntled magister? Or was that a lie as well?


    Zevran thoroughly cleaned up his tracks. Aside from sightings, there was no concrete evidence of his presence in the Inquisition: no notes, no personal effects, nothing. Not that any of that was surprising. He was no amateur, after all.


    The days have gone by, and no new personnel had arrived. One of Cullen’s recruits had fled in the dead of night, his compatriots finding a cut rope dangling from the battlements. Zevran’s accomplice. Leliana’s missives with closely trusted contacts in the Crows revealed little truth to Zevran’s claim. There was one Crow en route to Skyhold, though on a completely different assignment in cooperation with Charter. Nor were the assassins hiding their motive from Leliana as she originally thought, for they were all too eager to accept the contract for his life once Leliana offered it, proposing a number of favors in exchange for much needed leads on their man. Everything Zevran had provided her with was revealing itself to be a very convincing farce. Whatever his mission was, he had planted all the leads, evidence and support he needed well before he arrived. Where he had obtained the means to do so, and who hired him was still a conundrum.


    Lies upon lies. How could it have slipped past me?


    Leliana stopped her musings and glanced at Lavellan’s seemingly uninteresting collection of books and papers. Her fingers flipped through the parchment stacked neatly on Lavellan’s desk. Several short towers of academic novels and literary works rested comfortably in the Inquisitor’s scholarly corner. The titles varied greatly in topic, seemingly a reflection of Lavellan’s broad curiosity and penchant for knowledgeable works. She read through them all again, knowing nothing was what it seemed when it came to Lavellan.


    What were you looking for? Her eyes drifted over to a tattered book atop the shelf, an unlikely tome on the training of nugs. With a frown and a smirk, Leliana pulled the novel off the shelf. A shrill clatter bounced off the floor as she opened the cover. Her fingers plucked up an old coin, twisting it in the light.


    Her eyes narrowed as she attempted to glean the inscriptions and the discern the small etching in the center. It was worn with age, in need of a thorough cleaning. Yet her blue eyes lingered on the carvings, a tingle in the back of her mind attempting to place the odd recognition she felt. Finding no further answer, she slipped the coin into her pocket, intending to identify it as soon as opportunity allowed. Lavellan had never claimed any of her acquisitions without recording it in the archives, a note of it was bound to be found there.


    Finding little else of importance, Sister Nightingale returned everything to its place, leaving Etain’s chambers just as she had found them. Her fingers lingered in her pocket, thumbing the coin. Anticipation bloomed in her core as she was unable to shake the suspicion that she had seen the emblem elsewhere. She looked forward to the search; anything was a welcome distraction from the looming realization that Lavellan was most likely dead, and they would have their work cut out for them.


    If Cullen doesn’t snap my spine, first.


 


    The ruckus rising from the decrepit tavern slowly lowered to a dull rumble as two cloaked travelers made their way hastily out of the paltry settlement on the Orlesian border. The night aided them in their stealthy escape, the spring still too young for warmth and well lit evenings. They made their way into the dense tree line, joined by two more cloaked figures, wading through the snow. The more petite silhouette of the group lurched forward and snatched the arm of the feminine figure returning from the village.


    “Are you out of your mind?! This is your idea of being low-key?” She snarled at the bloody knuckled traveler. The tone in her voice marked her as the leader of the small party.“You’re supposed to remain hidden! Indistinguishable! You’ll draw attention to us!”


    “Well… I did run out of breadcrumbs.” The other retorted, tying the knots at the front of her jacket, warm breath escaping in plumes from below the fur lined hood.


    “Isn’t she charming?” A man’s voice chimed in, teeming with sarcasm and marked by an Antivan accent. He received no acknowledgement from the accused.


    “At least you had the common sense to not use magic.” The frazzled leader snapped, hooded head lowering to look at the woman’s hands. Her knuckles were beginning to swell.


    “It took all the brainpower I could muster.”


    “How long are you going to take this out on me?” The authority figure pulled the woman forward, leaving the two male figures to squabble amongst themselves.


    “Until there’s not a breath in me.” The other chided, wrenching her arm back, freeing herself to continue on her way forward.


    “This? This is what I’ve risked everything for? This is what the fate of the people lies in? This is their hope and answered prayer?” Gloved hands gestured toward the taller of the two, asking no one in particular.


    “What hope? Seeing as you have removed me from the only position of benefit and power that I may have made a difference from… You’ve doomed us all before I even woke.”


    “I had to do this to you, and I would apologize. There was no other way-“


    “Spare me the lectures, hahren.” She hissed mockingly. “You wouldn't have brought me this far had you not known I understood the weight and importance of it all… Just for a moment, can you not speak to me like I’m only the means to an end?” The traveler snarled, increasing the distance between her and the rest of the group. Her patience was nonexistent.


    “I don’t know what the hell I am doing! Has it ever occurred to you that I have nothing to do with this? Anything I could have done was shattered the moment you killed me!” She rattled as the shorter woman took three hurried strides to try and catch up.


    “How could it be anyone else?! You know what must happen! The Well’s knowledge lies with you… The Anchor is yours. There is no one else, and we are only wasting time! What is one life and one’s freedom in exchange of the future of an entire race?”


    “And what is my life but a convenient device for your revenge?!” The merciless freeze in Etain’s voice was enough to make the shadows shudder. “This is more your political gambit and foolhardy attempt to twist the ruling threads of Orlais into your hands… And for all you know, there is nothing but dust and broken statues lying in wait behind your eluvian. We’re all doomed to die and are fools for thinking anything more. The gods have long abandoned us.”


    “Will you not try? Will you not take a chance for your people?”


    “My people?” Lavellan scoffed, glancing over to her interrogator and to the presumptuous elf in the distance. “For you? For him?! I’d be doing the world a disservice.”


    The petite woman stilled, taking in a deep breath. There was no arguing with Etain this moment; her blood was still hot from whatever brawl occurred in the village, nor had she come to terms with everything that had occurred since she regained consciousness.


    She’ll understand soon enough. It is too late to turn back now. I have to tell her…


    “Etain.” She called, her voice more gentle as she carefully walked up to the vexed elf.


    “I am sorry… I know the situation I’ve put you in. But maybe… you’ll understand once you know more, once you see it all.”


    Lavellan paused and turned toward her regrettable companion. She looked at Etain with beautiful, intelligent dark eyes, not brown nor grey nor black but all in one, like that of a clear night sky. Etain had never guessed she would ever face the artful elf ever again, but then again her life was anything but predictable.


    “Once this is over, I promise Orlais will be a placated problem.” She pulled on Lavellan’s hand, guiding her feet forward; further into the forest on the edge of the Emprise and farther away from Skyhold. The thought crossed Etain’s mind that she could simply kill the two of them and run like hell back to the Inquisition with Dorian. It crossed her mind more often than she felt comfortable admitting. The deed wouldn’t even be so unpleasant, considering everything that had happened in the past week. With a sigh of defeat, Etain conceded, reluctantly agreeing to listen.


    “No more surprises, Briala. If you want my cooperation, I need to know everything.”

Chapter Text

One day after Dorian & Etain’s disappearance


    His slow steps carried him further among the trees, silently shadowing long gone silhouettes from a far gone time. Laughter rang, as if voicing the shafts of sunlight filtering in though the trees. Their voices echoed ahead of him, speaking in a language nearly forgotten over the centuries. His gray eyes swept over the small group weaving its way through the forest, listening in on their memories; he heard names of places that have changed since their time, someone complained of a bounty too low for their mission, another responded with an insulting but well-timed quip.


    Solas listened intently to his subjects, reliving their memory as if it were his own. His ears had muffled out the ambient sounds, his focus devoted to the scouts ahead. A fleeting shift of shadow flittered in his periphery, perhaps a deer or another woodland creature. Yet it lingered and kept pace, drawing his eyes.


    The fade-walker stopped in his tracks, halfway frozen between shock and confusion. The intruder petrified him as she continued to stroll among the towering trunks. Her face was obscured by a mask and cowl, though that hardly made a difference. The exquisite battlemage armor was unmistakable - crafted by hands seemingly blessed by June himself. Or more likely blessed with skill passed down from her gilded haired mother. Every detail of it was emblazoned in his mind from innumerable hours spent following her across every terrain imaginable; the dents at the back of her shoulder that constantly reflected light at a different angle than the rest of the plating, the cuts in the edges of the straps weaving through the pauldron on either side, the claw slash gouging the leather around the ankle of her right boot. Each flaw and scratch and dent in her armor told her story; where she tread and whom she faced as she grew stronger and learned to turn the battlefield into her ballroom. Fourteen steps the vision lasted, then she disappeared behind the vine wrapped trunk of an ancient elm.


    She had to have been conjured by his own memory, interfering with his wanderings. His brows knit in frustration as he rounded the tree to find nothing but fading trees and dew covered grass. Solas knew well enough she was only a vision, yet his eyes stubbornly and desperately searched for another glimpse of her.


    It was enough to wake him from his slumber. He sat up in his bedroll, elbows resting over his knees. A knife wrenched in his gut and guilt clawed at his throat. Gunmetal eyes focused onto the freckled night skies, trying to take his mind off of the blazing fingers of anxiety scraping in his chest.  

 
    It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. None of this was supposed to happen… I tried to outsmart the consequences of my own actions, prideful fool that I am… He knew well enough his quest had no place for selfish motives and sentiments. He fled the Inquisition, distancing himself from her, from his memories and his contrition. She was a fragment of his past, another mistake he allowed to slip by. He grew to shun every memory of her, and his mind rationalized the fleeting vision; his repressed thoughts of her finally came to light as he slept. It could not be her sleeping spirit; she had avoided him since her warranted, angry outburst in Crestwood. She feared the Fade, she grew to loathe dreaming, she could not possibly know where he wandered.


    I was ready to reveal all to you, to shed the guise I have been forced to take… but to what end, Vhenan? Would you have believed me? Or think me a madman and run me off like the rest of your kin? And had you learned the truth and accepted it as such… Could you have remained yourself through it? He truly wondered what it would have been like to be in her shoes; to learn that one of those ancient gods she had long dismissed as cautionary myth has been following her every step, brushing his fingers through her hair while she slept, stealing kisses in the quiet of night. It was not a little white lie she would need to accept. Her whole world view would be shaken and twisted inside out once more.


    May the dread wolf take you, may he never hear your steps. He was what children were taught to fear, he was the curse every elf had in their arsenal. Fen’harel meant nothing if not mistrust, warning, betrayal and danger. Even if Lavellan would ever be able to get past his true identity, she would doubt and question every word and step of his. Neither could he bear to go on lying to her, even though it meant she could have been there with him. She was gone to him either way.


    The ruthless ache ran deep, wanting nothing more than to see her step into the light of the campfire, with that guileful smile of hers; to feel the cool touch of her fingers, to smell the airy perfume of her hair, to run his thumb over the length of the silvery scar down her lip before kissing her sinfully beautiful lips. Yet all the hopeful thinking was only digging his grave deeper. I have held on to every piece of you, every glance, every touch, whisper, word, shout, curse, scream, moan, kiss… I cannot bring myself to forget you, to say goodbye forever… Vhenan.. you are always there… You haunt my every waking moment. I am not be able to bring myself to cast you away. I will grow cold without your light, but our People need me more than you do. It must be righted before it is too late. I tried to save us from ourselves, only to watch us all die. I will not allow this to be the end of everything.


    Sleep evaded him the rest of the early Spring night. He gathered his meagre collection of belongings, slinging his bedroll across his back, and trudged on through the looming leafy guardians. The foliage had regained its young verdant hue, though a chill still crept into the air as the nights began to shorten. And chilled to the bones he had resigned himself to stay. A glint of heat and light in his heart and he would fail on the path before him. The vision was his warning. Etain was his cautionary tale, an ever-present reminder of his mistake. A reminder of what - of who - he had lost forever, yet again.


    A sliver of the fiery giant peeked above the green horizon as Solas reached the top of the hill. As if hesitant, the sun slowly spilled its warm light onto the canopy rising above the morning fog; dark silhouettes breaking radiant rays of misty sunlight. He watched the sunrise for a few moments, breathing in the crisp air. Having regained his composure, he turned to look over the crumbling structure behind him: pillars toppled one upon one another, lonely arches traced with gold gleamed like portals to another world, darkened rooms harbored a millennia of dust and dirt. With one last glance at the rising sphere of muted white light, he trudged on into the depths of the forgotten complex, harboring the first stepping stone to righting all he had brought to ruin.

 



Three days after disappearance


    The last, sparse drops of rain clattered against the glass, breaking the beams of sunlight through the windows. The smell of chilled, damp earth filled the luxurious room, rustling the pale blue chiffon curtains. Emerald foliage gleamed like gems in the garden beyond the open window panes. For all its opulence, the Halamshiral guest chamber wasn’t so comforting.


    Lavellan’s fingers fumbled inattentively at the back of her bodice as she glared at the collection of exuberant oil paintings of nobility and Orlesian countryside strung up around the room. With the events of the Empress’s Ball behind them, the Inquisition invitees readied themselves for departure. Their progress could be heard down the length of the hall.


    More attentive hands pressed against her lower back, pushing her fingers away gently. Her breath stilled for a split second, as it still did with his every touch. Nor did the stresses of the previous night help her nerves.


    She felt the warmth radiate from his fingers as his thumbs pressed along the length of her spine, occasionally stopping to fasten her reinforced clothing. Lavellan forgot about the elitist faces staring down at her from gilded frames.


    His hands abated briefly, resting on the curve of her waist, as if reluctant to button the last snap. Lavellan glanced behind her shoulder, pulling her yet unbrushed tresses out of the way. Her eyes looked as far as they could down her own back, then returned to Solas.


    “What is it?” She mumbled.


    There was a strange look to him. His lips were pulled upwards in admiration, yet something doleful lingered in his reticent eyes. He smiled again and glanced down, fastening the last button on her back.


    “I was only thinking of all the things I could not tell you.” His tone was less playful than such a phrase would have intended. Lavellan turned on her heel, hands slipping to his belt. Her eyes were level with his upturned lips, making it a little difficult to think of anything else on that beautiful late summer morning.


    “Couldn’t? Or wouldn’t?” She tried to unravel the enigma in that steely gaze of his.


    “Does that matter?”


    Her shoulders shrugged, her thumb grazing back and forth on his firm side. Something in his eyes unsettled her. A small, foreboding inkling sprouted deep in her mind, suddenly accompanied by the dismay of an uncomfortable realization: she was falling for the unassuming apostate, going against every mental and emotional barrier she had set out with. And that she feared most, for she knew all too well how it felt to lose loved ones, and fought to never feel that way again.


    The beating and tightness within her chest served to prove she had failed, and miserably. She couldn’t understand how she could possibly be so elated with him near, and yet feel the prickle of distress - for attachment bloomed into need, need revealed itself to be control. But did he need her as much as she did him?


    His hand tilted her chin upwards, as if to convince her without a doubt of his idolization of her. “I get to look at you another day.”


    As if a wave dashing against the rocks, Lavellan felt her consciousness awake within her dream. It isn’t real. Another memory. He held her still, despite her mind desperately willing him and the damn orlesian bedchamber away. She couldn’t bear to see the wispy curtains guiding fresh air from the windows, couldn’t bear to see the rumpled bedsheets her fingers gripped the night before. There was never any point to dwell on what was lost. Not even in dreams.


    Her hands fell from his waist and head lowered to not see the memory of him disappear. “You don’t.”


    Dreams entwined themselves into a non coherent tapestry. When her eyes opened again, darkness held her instead. No sound, no sign of life. Then it thrummed away, chased away like smoke by a mesmerizing glow. The aquamarine incandescence was faint at first, like a flame out of focus in the fog. Yet visibility cleared along with the darkness, and the light drifted vividly out of its amorphous glow.


    Lavellan sighed, running her hands through her hair, turning away from the eluvian. It sang its siren song, ebbing blue and rippling white. Calling. Waiting.  Knowing she would turn around.


    Fourteen angry steps, and she was there. On the same stone with the horn shaped crack. The reticent dragon and wolf maintained their uninterested vigil. “What do you want?!” She screamed as loud as her lungs could muster. Her palms flew up to press against the glass.


    “What is the point if you tell me noth-“


    The second her skin brushed the cool liquid metal she was no longer there. Her ears filled with a woman’s frantic, toilsome whispers. Her vision blurred, seeing nothing but splotches of light. But the voice grew crystal clear - pleading in old elven.


    Her mother’s voice.


    Etain all but forgot to breathe, struck still by terror and bewilderment. Streaks of light and shadow gained dimension and clarity.


    Coppery gold hair stained crimson with blood splayed across the floors of the old aravel. Her lips trembled in the fury of her last words, a desperate prayer to Mythal. Her clothes were torn, shredded from her alabaster skin. There were no tears on her cheeks any longer. There was no pain left in her abused body. Only rage.


    Etain stifled a cry, her mind forced to remember all she was too young to understand that night. The prayer set fire to the scarred spots of her soul, threatening to reopen old wounds.


    When she looked again, Etain saw that unmistakable moonbeam hair, those distinct viridescent eyes in place of her mother’s. Her mind seemed to struggle to separate the two women. Swollen lips kept uttering the cryptic prayer even as the blade slipped across her throat.


    Etain's fingers dug into the dark soil soaked with her father’s blood, her lethal artistry revealing itself in the harrowing chill of that indelible night. Their faces forever etched into her memory, she watched the men cook yet again, condemning herself to the inevitable consequences of all that transgressed.


    Lavellan shut her eyes, hands trembling as they curled into fists. Her mother’s last words continued to ring in her ears.


    Wake up, wake up. WAKE UP!


    Hesitating, her eyes forced themselves to open when the prayer fell to nothing but an indiscernible whisper. Her palm was a mere inch away from the Eluvian’s surface, the emerald gleam of the mark struggling to connect with the ancient magic held within.


    Her labored gasp tore through the glacial night, the echoes rattling off the rock walls looming around her. Sensation flooded her as the rest of her body woke along side her mind. Muscles and joints locked up in confusion, sore and weakened. Her eyes struggled to adjust to the meek lighting in the dingy, stale air of the room. Trying not to flop like a fish out of water, Lavellan managed to prop herself up on her elbows and drag herself to the edge of the straw-mattress only to dry heave. Her eyes watered and nose refused to breathe in the repulsive perfume coming from elsewhere in the room.


    What in all hell is that smell?!


    Pinching her nostrils shut, she threw back the blanket, examining her body. If her memory served her well, she aught to have looked down at broken, immovable legs. I should be dead. Again.


    Aside from being stiff as tree limbs, her legs bent at the knee and swung off the bed, bare feet pressing flat against the frigid floor. Her mind processed one thing at a time, clarity still muddled by the nightmares and the rancid stink floating about the room.


    She was clothed in garments not her own: black woolen pants that itched her skin, and a simple, burgundy tunic embroidered with black string along the edges. She could see the new bruises spotting her forearms and collarbones like the skin of some wild cat. She could imagine what the rest of her must have looked like, for she felt the none-too-foreign ache and tightness of a good smack to her face. Her other hand reached up to brush the strands of her hair from her forehead.


    To her curiosity, her rose gold tresses had shortened considerably since she was last awake. She felt the soft tufts fall to her jawline as opposed to her waist. The left side of her skull felt tender to the touch, a bruise reaching to her brows.


    With a defeatist glare upwards, Lavellan’s hand abandoned the futile effort to prevent the stench from filtering into her lungs. With the determined gawk of a hawk, she pinpointed the source of the smell to a batch of dried herbs smoking from a bowl in the corner opposite the bedroll. The dried greenery burst in a spark of electricity, igniting the remainder of the dreaded concoction in a bright blaze that left nothing but foul ash in the basin.


    Etain pushed herself to her feet slowly, not caring to feel the room spin and end up facedown on the floor. The lonely candle on the floor gave barely enough light to avoid obstacles and rough patches on the ground, and Lavellan proceeded to search for some sort of blunt object to bash a skull in if need be, should she prove too weak for adequate expenditure of mana at the moment.


    The door groaned open, sending needles across her skin along with the barrier her hand cast instinctively. She froze in place almost foolishly, as if standing still would render her invisible to the predator about to show its hungry teeth.


    “Sweet Andraste!” A familiar voice groused, a gloved hand flying up press against a nose. Hazel eyes stared at her in bewilderment, a sizable bruise taking up residence across half of Dorian’s left cheekbone and jaw.


    “Death would have been a mercy! It reeks-“


    Lavellan rammed all her weight into the embrace as she threw her arms around Dorian’s neck, stifling what should have been a colorful descriptor, no doubt.


    “I thought you were dead!” She mumbled somewhere in the folds of his cloak, finding nothing better to say to her closest friend she had presumed forever lost. Her body ached with the impact, but it was a small price to pay.


    “Well, that makes two of us.” His arms curled securely around her, grasping her shoulder. They stayed coiled together for a few more silent moments, the air energized with both relief and apprehension. Etain pulled away, beginning to semi-coherently question everything about their situation.


    “How-“


    “Oh, no. I only came to a few hours before you. I need a roadmap for the insanity cooked up by our gracious hosts. They figured it’d be best if I were the first one you saw when you woke.” He reluctantly backed away a step, hands still on her waist - though whether in comfort or in preparation to stop her was unclear. “I suppose we’d keep each other from going on a killing spree… Though I haven’t decided yet.”


    Lavellan’s eyes darkened in her characteristic, threatening way. “They?”


    “Just… promise to wait for me if you’re going to roast them all alive. I’d love to partake.”


    Etain ignored the shiver that ran down her spine at his remark. If only Dorian new what had happened that night nineteen years ago. She pushed past the door into what seemed to be the atrium of the cave. A campfire splashed red heat and light onto the thawed stones above. Two humble tents were pitched nearby, one in close proximity to the tiny hut built into the back of the cavern. There was a slight rustle emanating from within, but Lavellan’s eyes were drawn to the body sleeping next to the flames.


    Her bare feet carried her silently across the stone, gaze locked onto the warm olive skin of the face outlined by the fire. His arms were interlocked behind his head, and his chest rose up and down steadily as he slept without a care for the rest of the world.


    Dorian folded his arms over his chest and leaned against the doorframe, perfectly content to observe the scene about to unfold. His eyes noted the hushed thrum of electricity enveloping Etain’s fingers, and he elected to donate some of his own mana to her cause. The cover of the nearest tent drew back, revealing the curious dark eyes of a petite elf with chestnut hair.


    Lavellan kneeled at the sleeping man’s side, face disturbingly expressionless. Her jaw tensed and everything unfolded in a crackling flash. The summoned cage of static held her prey captive while she drove her hand upwards at his nose with all force she could manage. It crunched and gave way with a splatter of red across his skin. The man propped awake with an agonizing groan, meeting clout after furious clout at the hands of the enraged Inquisitor. Her magic burned at his skin with his every move, trapping him in her tempest.


    The awoken elf shot from her tent like a full drawn arrow, tackling Lavellan to the ground and freeing the Antivan barely in time. Using the momentum and her limbs to her advantage, Lavellan rolled the smaller elf to the ground beside her. Her hand snatched the knife from the woman’s belt while her protective magic bit at her attacker. The edge of the blade stopped at the elf’s jugular.


    Etain’s eyes were wide with adrenaline and disbelief as she held the weapon still. For a few fleeting seconds, she tried to piece together all she had seen. What should have been certain death was evidently nothing of the sort, and she was now holding a dagger to the throat of Orlais’ first elven ambassador.


    The blade dropped to the ground, the metallic clink echoing through the cavern. Grunts and groans sounded from the opposite side of the room as the battered man twisted to all fours, a string of curses spilling from his lips.


    “Are we finished now?” With the tone of an irritated mother attempting to keep her rowdy children in line, a raven haired woman emerged from the shadows of the tent. She shot a death glare at Dorian for fueling Lavellan’s violent outburst, to which the mage simply shrugged his shoulders.


    The cave echoed with Etain’s laugh, bouncing off the walls with crystalline clarity. The sound was that of sheer madness, of no longer knowing what to do, nor what to expect. She pulled herself up with a struggle, attempting to fight the shock and to reign in the torrent of emotion and utter disbelief overtaking her.


    “What the fuck is happening right now?” Her dilated pupils were even more prominent in her bewilderment, tips of her ears flushing with the chill.


    Morrigan shifted the heavy cloak over her shoulders and walked over to the bleeding Antivan attempting to set his own nose.


    “Oh hush, ’tis practically an improvement.” She kneeled to address his injuries with a look of thorough annoyance.


    Briala cautiously crawled backwards from the nonplussed elf, raising herself to her feet, dagger strapped back to her belt.


    “Inquisitor…” She pronounced heedfully. She understood the distress Etain must have faced given the situation, but there was little time to lose.


    “Inquisitor? You must be joking. Last I remembered I was dead at the bottom of the damn mountain.” Lavellan hissed, breath steaming from her lips. “And seeing you lot, it’s safe to assume it’ll remain that way to the rest of the world.”


    “Yes… Lavellan. Once the searches begin, there will be nothing and no one to find. You will be dead to the world until all this ends… if you choose to help us.” Briala spoke calmly, avoiding any unnecessary motions.


    “Choice?! Ha! Choice, my dear ambassador, would imply I had a say in the matter. Perhaps after I’ve received a proposition, a letter - a meeting even… Being stabbed and thrown off a mountain doesn’t particularly offer me a choice.” As if reminding herself, Etain’s fingers fumbled at her tunic to check the dagger wound. All that was left was a small, clean incision.


    “We don’t have the luxury of time. Nor would this be anything that I could have brought to your attention without damning you as a demon worshipper. You know well enough what that would mean to you and the Inquisition.”


    Lavellan seemed too preoccupied with the healing wound on her side. Her focus turned toward the elven assassin. “Can’t be coincidence that he’s here?”


    “No. I hired him.” Briala answered in a mildly blase tone. Lavellan had to replay the phrase over in her head three times before the words sank in.


    “Flemeth is dead.” Morrigan cut in, evidently tired of the slow progression of the conversation. “Mother dearest had met a bizarre tragic end, though she didn’t fail to leave quite the puzzling parting… directive.”


    “I’m terribly sorry for your loss, Morrigan, but will someone please explain to me the necessity of my false death?” Lavellan seemed oblivious to the chill of the cavern that never sees the light of day. “Why the assassin? Why not approach me whilst I’m out in the field?”


    “Perhaps you’d like to sit down by the fire.” Briala began. Seeing Lavellan’s guarded scowl, Briala guessed she wasn’t likely to come any closer until she calmed down. She elected to keep talking and give her the most basic explanation she could. They would have an opportunity to speak more thoroughly once she regained her composure.

“Whatever Flemeth had left us with, it cannot be left to ruin, or worse - left to be found by the wrong hands. How would Orlais, Ferelden, the Chantry - even your own Inquisition - react to the news that the most powerful authority figure in this half of Thedas is off to unleash the power of an ‘ancient elven goddess’? Neither can anyone know I am here, nor that I am aiding you, nor what I have to bring to our mission... And you know well enough none of this would stay secret. Eyes will be upon you if you suddenly decide to create a mission to cover your true intentions. It is controversial enough for word to spread. Whispers behind your back would damage you as much as shouts at court. Nor could we spare the time to find an appropriate location, cover our tracks, and speak to you unseen and unnoticed. We had to find a window of opportunity when you aren’t guarded and watched, we had to create a diversion and ensure no one would search for you. Hence the mountain path and the seeming death at the bottom of the crevasse no one will be able to reach until late summer.”


    “Why stab me?” Lavellan felt more and more like she was swimming through murky waters.


    “To render you unable to fight back and kill Zevran, or raise an alarm… And to make you believe you are dead. You have this young man, Cole, in the stronghold, do you not? We couldn’t risk him figuring it out.”


    Lavellan’s face contorted in confusion. “But I live…”


    “Not to mention, the exposing of Celene’s folly and her ultimate downfall.” Morrigan chimed in, the malicious glint in her eyes directed at Briala. The elven ambassador answered in kind.


    “What?” Lavellan’s hands made a brief open palmed gesture and her brow ached from frowning.


    “Who do you think sent the ‘Tevinter’ agents to poison Sister Nightingale?” Morrigan continued, leisurely strolling up to the fire, her glowing eyes brighter than the flames themselves. “The Empress never fails to seize an opportunity to twist the odds in her favor. At least, she hadn’t failed yet. ’Tis true, there was a failed assassination attempt in the Royal Courts at Val Royeaux with ties to Tevinter. ’Tis also true her power is waning. You may be amused to hear rumors of the Inquisitor being the only reason she yet has any power and draws breath. What better way to secure her rule than to create a common cause to fight against, a common evil to face? To cement her place on the throne through the Inquisition? Offering longevity of your organization through an alliance? Or, more likely, the consolidation of its power as a branch of the Orlesian government.”


    “What did I say? A roadmap would be nice.” Dorian huffed and shifted his weight to the other side of the door-frame.


    “Even you couldn’t be such a fool… could you?” The Witch of the Wilds snapped at the disgruntled mage behind her, then returned to her recollection. “Leliana’s assassins were Orlesians, though that was to never be revealed. They were under the guise of being hired by someone out of the Magisterium, and their attempt on Leliana was supposed to reveal the threat of Tevinter to southern Thedas. The summit was meant to solidify the Inquisition’s ties to Celene’s rule, and essentially serve as her lifeline. Leliana may not have been eliminated, but the intended threat had been put forth regardless. Celene's ploy still rendered itself fruitful.”


    “Why kill the Inquisition’s Spymaster? Wouldn’t that put a rather painful dent in our efficiency and influence?” Dorian interceded once more.


    “You have to tame the beast before you bring it home.”


    “Or cripple it.”


    Briala inhaled deeply and turned once more to the stumped Inquisitor. “Celene has gone past her ability to rule the Empire. I intend to spare Orlais any further determent of her being in power… If you aid us, and if we succeed, I promise Celene and Orlais will pose no threat to the Inquisition’s existence. That is all you need to know now.”


    A tense silence filled the dim cavern, broken only by the crackle of firewood. All eyes were fixed on Lavellan, wondering whether she would turn and bolt out of the cave. She didn’t shy away from their expecting gazes, though she herself looked plenty confused. Shock left her skin pale and glistening in a cold sweat. Her hands shook and she began to pace back and forth, struggling to make sense of everything.


    “Why the hell am I here?” Her voice echoed against the cavern walls. “Can one of you please answer this one simple question?!”


    “You’re here to preserve the ancient power and knowledge of the People, Inquisitor. What’s left of it, at least.” Morrigan’s voice was dark velvet as ever, unaffected by their location or their the situation or Lavellan’s unraveling mental state. “You did drink from the Well of Sorrows. I very much doubt my mother would let its power go to waste. Have the voices stopped calling to you?”


    Lavellan closed her eyes and took a few more paces, steadying her breath. Finally she paused and glanced at Morrigan. “The Eluvian.”


    Interest sparked, Morrigan shifted closer, eyes probing into Etain.


    “I’ve been seeing nothing but an Eluvian in my dreams for weeks. The voices have fallen silent. All I hear and see is the Eluvian.” Etain muttered, lips beginning to tremble as her body shivered. Exhaustion weighed her limbs down, her body losing the fight against the shock and sudden activity after three days of false death.


    “Then you know why you are here… Deny it as you might.” Morrigan smiled and gracefully lowered herself to a comfortable seat by the fire. Lavellan held the woman’s iron grip of a gaze, thoughts all in furious flurry.


    “I suppose I do.”

Chapter Text

Eight days after disappearance


    It didn't feel right. None of it. The stronghold thawed, and with spring came lightened moods, despite the tense atmosphere. Another month, the snows will cease and Skyhold will be once more brimming with dignitaries and various Inquisition connections. Which meant Leliana, Josephine and himself had one month to find Etain - a lost hope at this point - or do some colossal damage control.


    Cullen walked along the perimeter of the sparring ring, supervising the last bout of afternoon training. Those who had been in service over the past year had been drilled into finely tuned warriors, capable of training their newer compatriots. The Commander made it a habit to be in frequent touch with his regiments, ensuring consistent, smooth operation and conditioning.


    The past week had left him worse for the wear and he felt his attention slip from the drill at hand, unable to drown out the whining in his back. Cullen had taken to training himself longer than normal, up before the break of dawn. His body was sore, but it helped keep his mind leveled and clear, especially now that sleep was scarce. Worrying about Etain left him up at all hours of the night until exhaustion overtook him, though it was keeping most of the nightmares at bay, oddly enough.  


    “Dismissed.” He ordered. The trainees dropped their weapons and held on to various bruised body parts instead, a few more than the rest. The better the soldiers got, the harder Cullen drilled them; for their own good and for his own sanity.


    He habitually rolled his right shoulder and turned to make his way to the tower. He was wondering just how long he would keep up with this stringent routine before he went mad, doing all he could to keep himself from crumbling. His mind flat out refused to even contemplate Etain’s death, yet he held no hope of her survival. He dreaded to think what would happen to the Inquisition once word got out of their leader’s demise, yet preparations had to be made for everyone’s sake. He felt trapped in a circle of avoidance and denial, all while constantly pressed against that which he feared to face.


    “Scout Harding.” He called to the dwarven woman briskly making her way across the yard.


    “Commander?” She turned with an eyebrow cocked. She had hardly ever spoken to the Commander in person, most of their correspondence consisting of reports sent by raven and crow.


    “Good day to you, Harding. Can I trouble you for a moment?”


    “O- of course, sir.”


    “What’s the word out there? Has anyone caught on?”


    “Not much, Commander. Some rumors. Nothing more. Everything is quiet for now.”


    “For now…” He sighed, unostentatiously keeping an eye out for listening ears and snooping eyes. “What about you, what’s your take on this? You’re out in the field considerably more than I. Any leads?”


    “Sir, if I may be so blunt…” Lace Harding stepped an inch closer and pulled her pack forward, pretending to ruffle through the reports. “Do you actually still have hope?”


    “I… don’t know.”


    “Ah.” Harding smiled, something of a bittersweet gesture - as if pitying him. She took to her pack again, this time with true purpose. “Here. I was on my way to deliver these to Leliana anyway. If you think it worthwhile, perhaps you two can make sense of it. Though it may be nothing.”


    She handed Cullen a scrap of parchment and sealed her satchel. “I’ll keep my eyes open, Commander.”


    “Thank you… Be safe out there.”


    “We are never safe, just shrewd and careful, sir.” With that, she departed. Thumbing the rough slip of parchment, Cullen turned back toward the far stairs leading to the parapet. Once again his attention was drawn aside by a racket deep within the tavern. Sounds of argument between a small group of people, followed by Bull’s telltale guffaw. Something about its tone signaled he found little humor in whatever was said, and was expressing a deep seated resentment.


    Bull’s temper had flared up of late. Understandable, by all means. He was just as tortured about the disappearance as anyone close could have been.


    Brushing aside the urge to calm things down a few notches in the Tavern, Cullen turned his attention back to the scroll. He unfurled it carefully, as if fearing what he may find inside, and made his way to his office.



Ten Days


    “Curly, you might be on to something here.” Varric rumbled, rereading the humble scrap of parchment.


    “Stop calling me that, I don’t see the-“ Cullen broke off, seeing no point in arguing the nickname that had stuck around for all too long now. He continued to sign on orders, hardly sparing the man a glance. Nor did he seem to acknowledge the presence of one of Leliana’s scouts fretting about the corner of his desk, waiting impatiently, almost nervously, for his finished dispatches. “What makes you think so?”


    “Two elven con-artists make off with a mercenary band’s gold and horses? In the cold asscrack of spring in the Emprise?”


    “Could be anyone, Varric.”


    “Or it could also be Lavellan. Report says one of them was a young woman, no Dalish markings. The other was a man that had a tattoo on the left side of his face. Sound familiar?”


    “Could be anyone.” Cullen’s head was pounding again, he wasn’t sure he heard his own words. The young scout was irritating him beyond measure, even though she was doing little to draw any attention.


    “Alright, fine. How many thieves are mad enough to beat down five mercenaries within an inch of their life and leave with a settled tab for both themselves and the mercs?”


    “It… just doesn’t sound like something the Inquisitor would do.” Cullen abandoned the work at hand and folded his arms with a sigh. “I don’t know. I simply don’t mean to get anyone’s hopes up.”


    “Bullshit.” Varric half-chuckled. “Come on, Cullen. You just may fear it more than anyone here. That doesn’t mean you should just give up. What if it is her? What if Dorian and Etain are still live?”


    “Then why haven’t they sent word? Why not wait it out at the nearest village? Why not find a way to alert a scout, a recruit, a soldier? Why not come back?” Cullen’s tone gained a degree of pent up anger, words hissing through his teeth. If Etain truly was alive, it made his blood boil to think that she would let them all worry themselves sleepless over her. That she would let him live in a half-waking nightmare.


    “You know they would have good reason. What if they’re not on their own, and it’s the only way they can signal us? Don’t give me that look, you and I very well know crazier shit has happened. What if they have left something, and we haven’t found it yet? Or what if this is it?”


    “Noted.” He didn’t bother to mention already dispatching the Chargers to peek into that mess, not in front of Leliana’s scout anyway. The Qunari and a select few of his team left the day prior on a contract to clear out remaining Red Templars near the destroyed lyrium mines in the Emprise. He was to head out himself at dawn.


    Varric let out a defeated exhale, setting the scroll back down on the desk. “Do with it what you will… But I’m here for another reason. I’m heading back to Kirkwall.”


    Eyes of molten gold flashed up at him, finally brought to full attention. Cullen turned toward the new scout and handed her the orders. “Deliver them to Nightingale promptly.”


    “Aye, Commander.” She squeaked nervously and hurried out of the room, nearly tripping over her feet.


    A feeble attempt to look clueless and inexperienced. Cullen grimaced, clasping his hands together atop his desk, knowing better than to take any of Spymaster’s agents at face value. I’ve put Leliana on edge. She really is watching my every move. I wonder who’s tailing Josephine.


    “So you’ve made up your mind?” He asked. Varric had been juggling the idea back and forth since before Lavellan disappeared.


    “Yeah… Place is falling apart. I’m of much better use there than I am pissing about as an ornament in the throne room.” Varric shrugged his shoulders. “Hightown is making slow progress recovering, no one really seems to be putting forth enough effort to keep the damned place on the mend.”


    With their history, Cullen knew well enough there were plenty more reasons to return, both more personal and no less pressing. “Well… I hope you don’t plan on cutting all your ties to the Inquisition. We could help with a lot of good work…”


    “I’m only going to Kirkwall, Cullen, not falling off the face of the Earth. And I know better than to think I can ever be out of earshot of one or another Inquisition spy.” Varric paused for a moment, not wanting to kick the same dead horse of a conversation around yet again.


    “Run a tight ship until Lavellan stops screwing around and comes back. After which, try not to kill her for nearly giving you a heart attack every day she’s gone.”


    Cullen glared at Varric, red creeping up his neck and cheeks. “Etain and Dorian’s disappearance has all of us on edge, fearing the worst.”


    Varric laughed, the sound friendly and in no way demeaning. “Ah, Curly… I fail to understand why you act like it’s something to deny and hide.”


    Cullen couldn’t help but scoff and shake his head. “We are the Inquisition, and much as I despise it we have to play along with the political posturing and be careful with our reputation.”


    “Josephine and Leliana trained you well! Look… Sooner or later, everything ends. Where will you be then if you let someone else’s opinions and political agendas stand in the way of your happiness? Those in power already find us a nuisance, a thorn in their overly pampered asses interfering with their never-ending powerplays… The Inquisition is on borrowed time. Don’t waste your breath on them.”


    “None of it matters if Dorian and Etain are dead.”


    The two men exchanged a thoughtful, silent moment before the Commander took a deep breath and unclasped his hands. “Well… if you’ve made your decision, I suppose it’s time to make the right preparations.”


    “Good thing Cassandra is stuck in the Grand Cathedral. I’m sure she would have had quite a few things to say to me.”


    “Careful. She still might as soon as word reaches her.”


    “Looking forward to that day.”



    The door creaked open yet again, making Cullen wonder how long it had left before it would fall off its hinges. Though instead of the usual procession of recruits, officers or randoms scouts, the Spymaster herself decided to pay him a visit. He attempted to unclench his jaw, as it now had a custom of doing reflexively.


    Leliana walked toward him with what seemed to almost be caution, though it was growing harder to tell in the darkness of the rest of the tower. The candlelight may have been playing tricks on his eyes.


    “Commander…” She murmured, stopping in front of his desk and thumbing the stack of old books. “I believe I’ve got good news.”


    “What are you on about now, Leliana?” Cullen leaned back in his chair, easing the tension in his spine from another long day, though this one seemed to be a little less pointless than the last few.


    Leliana reached into the pockets of her winter coat and handed him several scraps of parchment. Sheet music. A vocal score, by the looks of it.


    “An Orlesian ballad? What’s this have to do with anything?” Cullen glared at her with utter annoyance and his patience whittled down to that of a Qunari trying to fit into Dalish clothing.


    “It was delivered to a forward camp on the border of Emprise du Lion five days ago. I’ve had it the last three. A gift of thanks from the locals from that tavern brawl you sent the Chargers to sniff out.”


    Cullen’s throat tightened at her words. He was under the impression everything had been low key. Reading his expression loud and clear, she smiled rancorously. “The Iron Bull wasn’t subtle enough about it. I have eyes and ears in places he doesn’t think of.”


    His typical, nondescript Ferelden grunt was the only answer he could muster.


    “I know you’re less than eager to trust me right now, but you cannot let your emotions cloud your judgement. I never intended to hurt Lavellan. You knew my plan from the start, you knew the danger. We cannot fall apart from within. You and I are on the same side.”


    He blinked at her absently, registering her words. His emotions had gotten the best of him, leaving him stalking about Skyhold like a bear woken in the middle of its winter slumber.


    “It’s a coded message.” Leliana elaborated, drawing his attention back to the parchments. “The melody is slightly off. The scale is different and some of the notes are changed in places, but barely noticeable to an untrained eye. To anyone else it would seem as the work of an amateur musician still getting used to musical notation. These changes are the key to the cipher, revealing which letters from the lyrics are selected. Here’s the proper score.”


    Cullen glared at the parchment once more, the handwritten score and lyrics scribbled in the familiar slanted angle of Lavellan’s writing. Or was his mind simply seeing what he wanted to see? Was she actually alive? He reminded himself not to jump to conclusions.


    He hardly knew enough about music to notice the score was off. Chantry songs, yes, those were in his head since he was a young boy, but he couldn’t read sheet music better than the blacksmith. Thankfully having the original song on hand made it much easier to see the alterations. “Are you certain? You think it is the Inquisitor’s doing?”


    “It is. Which does make me question Inquisitor Lavellan’s background, considering such methods were a habit of few notable Orlesian bards, not to mention the fact she apparently knows the language well… All a bit too odd for a reclusive, nomadic Dalish mage, wouldn’t you say? However, that is an inquiry better suited for a later time.”


    “Get to the point, Leliana. What’s the message?”


    With an irritated sigh, the spymaster pointed out her process of deciphering of the seemingly insignificant scrap of tavern music. She then laid out a single sheet with her own writing, full of scratched out phrases and words. The final decoded message was rewritten legibly at the bottom of the page.


    “The first verses revealed the cipher she used, letters representing something they aren’t. Incredibly irritating and time consuming to crack, but a good precaution on the Inquisitor’s part considering her claims.” Leliana’s finger illustrated every part of her explanation. “Here… She says both her and Dorian are alive and unharmed, heading south. Her message gets rather cryptic, but best I can guess is she speaks of remaining elven artifacts that are yet intact and functional, and prove a threat if ensnared by someone else… or prove an invaluable weapon if brought to Inquisition hands. It’s very vague… but I’ve noticed something during my search of her chambers.”


    Cullen didn’t seem all too surprised she took the time to check everything in Lavellan’s room. Perhaps it was only logical in his eyes too.


    “As ingenious as our Lavellan is with coded messages, she’s atrocious at tactfully revealing names.”


    “Crow? Lioness’s den? Handmaiden and shapeshifter? What’s she on about?” Cullen rubbed his brow.


    “If my skills have proved my translations correct - she’s accompanied by Zevran,  and Morrigan. The other two were a bit more difficult to understand, though fairly obvious in retrospect. I found this hidden away in a book inside her room.”


    Leliana placed a small, ancient coin atop the cryptic correspondence. “I didn’t think much of it when I found it at first. I’ve seen something like it before, but couldn’t place it. Lavellan hadn’t catalogued it, and you know how scrupulous she is with retrieved artifacts. She is highly unlikely to have forgotten about it, especially since she was in Skyhold for quite sometime. So, I found it safe to assume she had procured it from someone within the keep, close to the time of her disappearance.”


    Cullen picked up the old coin and twisted in his fingers, frowning in concentration.


    “I don’t think she knew what it was, and I hadn’t uncovered the truth until we deciphered the letter.” Leliana added, a hint of excitement in her tone. “It’s no simple coin-“


    “I know what it is.” Cullen intervened, fingertips running along the emblem. “It signifies a high stakes contract between client and assassin in certain circles, dating as far back as the Exalted Age. Maybe earlier. It’s more isolated accounts and hearsay than documented procedure… If I remember correctly, the only actual binding contract was a coin such as this. Every ruling family and noble of worth had a distinct crest stamped into coins, which were made specifically for the job. There were never any of them stored like other currency. The assassin would receive one such coin upon accepting the hit, and had to return the coin upon completion for it to be melted down and full payment received.”


    Leliana smiled, pleasantly surprised. “I knew we kept you around for more than just your looks. Do you recognize the emblem?”


    “No… I can’t quite make it out.”


    Leliana hesitated for a moment, watching the coin reflect the light from the candles. Cullen’s eyes refocused on her, brows raising as he waited for her to continue.


    “A lion locked in combat with a dragon, though it’s difficult to make out… House Valmont.”


    The Commander glared at Sister Nightingale, features locked into a frown. If anyone were to hear what she was implying, the Inquisition could find themselves wading in quick sand.


    Leliana allowed a small inhale before she spoke in practically a whisper.  “According to the Inquisitor’s message, the contract for my life didn’t come from the Imperium, but from the ‘lioness’s den’.” She resisted rolling her eyes at this. “I know, the name is just… anyway. The crest of House Valmont is the Lion. It has been for centuries. I also uncovered a few unopened missives in Dorian’s room. The Magisterium seems to be too preoccupied with the Qunari on their borders and political infighting within… All of it put together… it’s the only logical answer. It can’t be mere coincidence.”


    “The Orlesian Court sent out a contract to kill the Inquisition Spymaster, under the guise of a Tevinter agenda?”


    “So claims our Inquisitor.”


    “What would be the point of that? What part does Briala have in this? Or Morrigan for that matter? And Zevran?” Cullen’s head swam with the damning information revealed in such a short amount of time.


    “First elven ambassador - Celene’s former handmaiden and secret lover,- the shapeshifting mage, and an assassin? I am not sure yet. That was all she had divulged.”


    “Maker…” The man lowered his head and interlocked his hands behind his head, elbows still on the table. His temples thrummed, the relief he felt knowing Etain was yet alive fighting for attention with the anxiety he felt from her claims.


    “Cullen…” Leliana leaned forward and placed a hand on his shoulder reassuringly. “They’re alive. Etain’s alive.”


    “For now. We still don’t know anything else. What is she doing that she cannot send word directly? Or reach an Inquisition camp? Why the secrecy?”


    “I don’t have an answer, yet. I know she was searching for something before she disappeared. She kept a careful routine of not seeming too obvious with her literary interests, but she had some books and a journal with references to ancient Elven ruins and enchanted artifacts,  as well as several tomes containing etchings and paintings of Eluvians.”


    A shiver trickled down the ridges of Cullen’s spine, and he felt his palms grow slick beneath his gloves. He kept his head down, more out of sheer immobility brought on by the disquiet within than reluctance to share what Lavellan had told him hours before she departed. Surely it meant something. It had to connect to whatever was happening now.


    “Do you know what she may have been looking for? Has she mentioned anything? Perhaps something from her clan?”


    “No.” Cullen replied, mindful of his tone and timing. Reply too soon or too late and he would raise suspicion. “Not that I am aware of.”


    “I haven’t seen anything written down, no letters, no notes or journals. Nothing. Only the books in her room.”


    “So what is our course of action?”


    Leliana shrugged her shoulders lightly. “We trust our Inquisitor. We give her time. Wait for another message. With luck, we may be able to track her and Dorian, and the others. We don’t know if they are still in one group or have split up… We wait it out.”


    “What of her claim?”


    “I don’t know yet, Cullen. I came here as soon as I cracked the message. We have little to go off of.” She stepped away from the desk. “I know what you want to do, but we must tread carefully… A month, at best, and the visits and meetings resume. We buy her that time.”


    The worry lines looked even deeper on Cullen’s face, spent and lost in thought. Leliana hadn't fared much better, her skin looking dull and eyes puffy from lack of sleep.


    “You look awful, Cullen. Get some rest. I’ll let Josephine and Varric know.”  

 



    “Morrigan, my dear, does any magic exist that can kill someone by glaring at them long enough?”  Zevran asked nonchalantly, focused on preparing the wild game he caught for the fire. His hands worked assuredly and effortlessly, moving in a rhythm that must have been quite familiar.


    The campfire was growing warmer by the minute, illuminating the small clearing amongst the trees. Morrigan clutched the winter cloak closer to her frame and settled own onto her bedroll, warming her hands by the fire.


    “Believe me, if Lavellan figures it out, I wouldn’t be too upset with the casualty. Sometimes great knowledge requires sacrifice.”


    “You are aware that you wouldn’t have food in your belly this evening if it weren’t for my gracious generosity and skill with bow?”


    “We have a week’s worth of dry rations-“ Briala began, positioning her own bedroll near the fire.


    “If I have the means to eat real food, I will.” Zevran objected, placing fresh meat to roast above the flames.


    Lavellan was mending her armor, working out the last of the dents inflicted by the fall over a week ago. She had removed the Inquisition emblems from the dragon leather coat, tethering them to the inside of her bedroll. She ignored the assassin’s comment, knowing she wouldn't get the answer to her question regardless: why the hell was he still there and helping them? He was hired to fake her death and get her to Briala, a job he had done so well that the Ambassador was stuck with two ‘ghosts’ instead of just one.


    “The ruins are only a few hours ride away. We should be there shortly after sun-up.” Briala changed the subject.


    “And pray tell, what will we find in these elven ruins this time? No chance of it actually being something charming and friendly, is there? Because I’m starting to see a pattern here.” Dorian groused, bundled in two winter cloaks and teeth all but chattering as he huddled closer to the fire and next to Lavellan.


    “Elven ruins hold powerful magic from time immemorial. No one truly understands the use and purpose of most things found in such places. Danger is just… an occupational hazard if you will.”


    “Oh I hadn’t noticed.” Dorian seethed, undoubtedly remembering the ventures into all of the crumbling complexes Lavellan tended to drag her party into. Not a single one was without multiple confrontations with powerful spirits and demons. Undoubtedly, tomorrow’s undertaking wouldn't be any different.


    “I’ve cleared most of the passages from any dangers. Though there is still a sizable portion of the Labyrinth I hadn’t even touched. Who knows what we will find in search of the one Eluvian that matters right now.”


    The group ate their dinner and settled in for the night in slightly less awkward silence than the first few days. They were all growing more accustomed to each other and less suspicious. Etain remained awake for a while longer, on watch and processing all she had learned the last few days.


    After a little stubbornness and the caper at the tavern, Lavellan had gotten Briala to disclose her none-too-simple familiarity with Eluvians. She had finally divulged everything after Etain’s angry outburst in the forests on their return from the tavern. Etain’s initial curiosity regarding that rumor mentioning Ser Michel de Chevin’s travels into forgotten parts of Orlais had proven true. Along with Briala, Celene and Gaspard, he encountered a vast network of Eluvians, unleashed a demon and lost his standing as the Empress’s champion in the process. Not to mention, he was a part of what had started the Orlesian Civil War.

(What follows is a summary of The Masked Empire, written by Patrick Weekes,denoted by ***, I own nothing).


    ***Three years ago, Celene and Gaspard’s rivalry reached new heights after a foiled attempt of the latter to arrange for a ‘hunting accident’; with Ser Michel drawn away by Gaspard’s bard, he thought Celene an open target. However the attempt was cut short by the return of the rest of the royal hunting party, leaving no one seriously injured though all the intentions were now on the table.


    Briala had been sent to find Ser Michel, who had managed to kill the bard sent after him in order to guard his secret - he was born to an elven mother, his identity a false construct. Briala offered to not reveal this secret of his in exchange for one favor that she could call upon at any point in time, and anywhere.


    Within the depths of Halamshiral’s alienages, an elven revolt was bubbling following the brutal murder of a well-liked elven trader. In order to appease the elves, Briala was dispatched to eliminate the Lord responsible for inciting the uprising. However, before the mission could be complete, Celene was forced to deal with the rebellion more directly to avoid a political backfire from the nobles for her being considered too lenient with the elves, and thus too weak to rule Orlais.


    Celene marched on Halamshiral and set fire to the slums, in a desperate attempt to prove her might enough to remain in power. As unfortunate as the city elves’ livelihood may have been, with Gaspard in power they would be in a place far worse. Celine saw her actions as the sacrifice of a few for the lives of many. However, her actions had cost her Briala’s trust and friendship. Briala escaped capture by Gaspard’s men and fled into the country side along with her friend Felassan: a Dalish mage who often shared valuable information with Briala and helped save her life on more than one occasion.


    Celene’s forces were ambushed by Gaspard before she could even order her chevaliers to move out of Halamshiral. The Empress narrowly escaped with her life, aided by Ser Michel. They ran into an infuriated Briala and were forced to cooperate by circumstance. Gaspard’s scouts blocked the Empress’s escape to any remaining loyal allies, nor could she return to the Winter Palace in Halamshiral. Her only option was a swift return to Val Royeaux.


    The route was no less dangerous and the group elected to try and garner the help of a nearby Dalish Clan. Unfortunately, though by no means surprising, the Dalish wanted nothing to do with Celene, nor her cause and plans to improve the lives of city elves. They were too preoccupied with their own lives and history, more specifically the demon they had summoned in order to unlock the secrets of the ancient Eluvians. The demon, Imshael, was bound and imprisoned in the forest nearby, though managed to lure Michel to itself. The demon, referring to itself as a spirit of choice, told the chevalier of the network of Eluvians that allowed for expedient and covert travel across Thedas, if the traveler had the proper key. Michel unwittingly released the demon, the keystone given to them as promised. Imshael disappears to massacre the Dalish clan that summoned him, though he spares the clan’s First and leaves her with a way to find Michel and Celene.


    Gaspard had followed Celene’s trail to the slaughtered clan and found the lone survivor, Mihris, who offers her help in tracking the Empress in return for the chance at revenge. Gaspard and his group agreed to her aid and set off to catch Celene and her entourage.


    As promised, the keystone granted access to the Eluvian network - a collection of portals to different ‘worlds’ and forgotten corners of southern Thedas. Being an elven construct teeming with magic, Celene and Michel (despite being half-elven) felt intensely uncomfortable in the areas between Eluvians. The chambers the arcane mirrors led to teemed with dangers - everything from undead corpses to ancient creatures created for the single purpose of protecting their territory. Eventually, Celene’s party was ambushed by Gaspard’s retinue. Celene and her challenger agreed to duel over the kingdom, with Ser Michel acting as her Champion. Gaspard’s mage compatriot and Mihris undermined the chevalier, though their efforts are rendered short lived when Briala killed the two of them. Ser Michel regained the upper hand in the duel and was on the verge of defeating the Grand Duke when Briala called in her favor, asking him to yield.


    “Why then? Why choose that as your favor?” Lavellan had interrupted her narrative, feeling as if she missed part of Briala’s reasoning. The dark haired elf walked silent for a moment.


    “I became Celene’s handmaiden when she was ten. I’ve grown so close to her, we essentially grew up together, despite the vast differences in lifestyle. I trusted her, I…” Briala’s voice grew strained, and she looked away briefly, gathering her thoughts.


     “After Celene’s parents were murdered, she had been taken under the infamous Lady Mantillon’s wing as a protege… They schemed to have the inapt Emperor Florian removed from power and succeeded by Celene.  I lived for years thinking that Lady Mantillon had ordered the slaughter of all of Celene’s servants - anyone who could possibly know and reveal the plot - to protect Celene from any suspicion. I was the only one to survive. I watched my parents bleed to death. And eventually I had my revenge, I killed Lady Mantillon in her opulent coach… Not realizing it had been Celene all along until years later.” Briala’s accent grew more pronounced the angrier her tone had become. Lavellan saw the woman's fists clenching at her sides as they walked through the forest.


    “Celene deceived me just as she had deceived everyone else in her quest for power. It was a clever ploy - in a heartless, brutal way- to prove her wit and worth. And I played the fool and won her the Empire she had. So when Michel was on the verge of winning the duel, I thought I had dealt the death blow to Celene by stopping his hand. I thought I had cost Celene her Empire. Instead I only started the Civil War…” *** She stopped in her tracks and turned toward the Inquisitor, Zevran and Dorian still trudging through the snow in the distance. “Which you managed to end through your own manipulation and coercion in one evening."


    “So yes, you are correct. This is my political gambit… If you help me, then when you return, you have Celene’s life and power in your hands. You will have all the proof of her treachery to blackmail her into your puppet. I will have her consulting you whenever she wants to do so much as have a cup of tea…” Venomous anger laced itself into Briala’s hiss as she spoke of her former lover. “You are my only hope. You are the People’s only hope.”


    Before Lavellan could muster a reply, Briala pulled her forward and continued. “We all went our separate ways after that duel, leaving the Labyrinth... Celene managed to retake Halamshiral before Gaspard could act. Michel went off to hunt Imshael. And I still hold the keystone. And I am the only one to know the passphrase, considering you had killed Imshael a year back. I have access to the surviving Eluvians. I have the means to the end, but I believe you are the end.”


    “What do you mean?” Lavellan frowned, lowering her voice to the same timbre as Briala’s.


    “I can get you to the Eluvian you seek, but I think only you can unlock it… Then you, or Morrigan have to deal with whatever it holds.” Something flickered in her eyes that signaled her objection of having the witch of the wilds involved.


    “Why is Morrigan with you? If Flemeth is truly dead, wouldn't Morrigan know everything? Wouldn’t her mother leave her with something?” It suddenly occurred to Lavellan that Briala may not know the full extent of Flemeth’s power. She thought for a few seconds, deciding it made no difference hiding Flemeth’s secret.


    “Morrigan’s mother carried-“


    “An aspect of Mythal?” Briala cut in. “Yes, I know… Morrigan had told me when we crossed paths in the ‘Crossroads,’ as she calls them.”


    “And how did that happen?” Lavellan’s head was growing heavy with the headache brought on by everything she was hearing.


    “Long story short… I noticed a strange sound while walking through the Crossroads. It took me several days of scouting different Eluvians to find the source of it. Or rather, the general direction. I chose not to risk it alone, however, and went back to the Crossroads. Once I had, I didn’t expect to see Morrigan there. She was shocked to see me at first as well, being under the assumption that she was the only one with access to the portals.” Briala rubbed her fingers together, hot breath escaping from between her lips as she breathed into her hands to warm them. “It was Morrigan’s request to find you and bring you to the Eluvian. For she knew what happened, but she could not gain passage to the corners she needed. And so our cooperation commenced, seeing as I had access to parts of the Labyrinth she did not. Though once we found the Eluvian, we could do nothing but stare at it and hear it hum. It wouldn’t reveal anything, nor open… And here you are.”


    The Inquisitor had to force herself to stop grimacing and rubbed her forehead. “So you mean to tell me that Morrigan started all of this? You’ve seen the Eluvian?”


    “Speak to her once we rejoin her at the camp.” Briala shrugged. “Though be weary. None of us know what we shall find, nor do we know her intentions.”


    Lavellan followed her elven companion in silence, boring a hole into the back of her skull. What makes you think you know my intentions?

Chapter Text

    A touch. Light enough to wonder if it was conjured by the mind or the result of some unknowingly tangled fabric.


    The warmth gave it true presence, and erased all doubt. The warmth of skin against skin, accompanied by the fleeting impulses firing off at the back of her hand.


    She turned to glimpse the perpetrator, already walking past her. Shoulders of a proud warrior in his prime. Thick, dark hair tethered by leather strips down the center of his skull, tangling itself in the fur draped over his armor.


    Only a touch. No rearward glance, no uttered words.


    Bold, brash, reckless. Arrogant.


    But it was just enough, to the same effect as a gentle caress of lovers in seclusion. Heat trickled up her arm and into her core, ears buzzing with mild excitement and the thrill of his audacious maneuver.


    Too many eyes, too many ways to slip up and call for unneeded, dangerous attention. Fool, she thought affectionately.


    Chin raised high, she proceeded through the resplendent courtyard, white and gold silk billowing at her feet. The daylight danced off of her golden armor and her fingers brushed a loose lock of moonbeam hair from her shoulders. The titanic doors swung open on her approach, the movement altering the color of the inlaid mosaic tiles.


    The familiar eyes of molten sunlight peered up at her from beneath low-set black eyebrows. The man stood from his throne-like seat, the illuminated marble columns casting a dull glow across his tawny skin. The metallic clink of his armored boots echoed across the floors as he made his way closer, the intensity of the sun personified in his intimidating form. The immaculate gold inlay of his ornate armor was practically blinding.


    She felt her own feet carry her further into the chamber, while a small brigade of heavily armored officers filed out of the rotunda as if on cue. They moved like parts of a whole; the same stern gazes peering from the same vallaslin, the same assured movements in the same beautifully sturdy armor. The hushed hum of brewing schemes and secrets filled the air around them.    


    “Ah… I am finally granted audience with my beautiful wife.” The elven sovereign’s voice rang clear and rich through the opulent chamber as he stopped before her, full lips pulling into a smile.


    Her hand reached out and pressed against his cheek dutifully, thumb brushing the high cheekbone beneath his mesmerizing, firestorm eyes. Husband.


    Etain woke from the numbness and tingle wringing the muscles of her left arm. She had fallen asleep with it wedged beneath her head as a makeshift pillow. Her eyes instinctively, albeit sleepily, inspected her surroundings. Everyone was yet asleep, the fire burning with decreasing intensity, and the skies were still pitch dark. She had been asleep maybe a few hours, at most.


    Well, she thought to herself, readjusting her body to wriggle her left arm back to life. Am I to assume that was progress?


    Since she had first awakened to her undesirable squad of companions and had been thrust into their pandemonium of a mission, her dreams had gained more clarity. Or perhaps she had somehow gained enough clarity to glean more from whatever the hell she was seeing.  Somehow things had changed since her nightmare forced her into reliving that terrible night nearly two decades ago.


    She dreamt throughout the entire night, often waking just as tired as when she’d gone to sleep. It seemed as if the Vir’Abelasan, or the Eluvian - or both, most likely - were pouring all that could possibly be poured in the course of one night into her dreaming mind. Her head pounded day and night, desperately trying to translate the visions into valuable knowledge. They still came in an erratic tapestry, though they’d grown more comprehensible to her each day.


    Tonight was the first night she had seen something so… personal. Her eyes drifted down to the back of her left hand, as though it was hers that had been touched and branded with the memory while she slept. She wondered what she aught to have made of that vision.


    She saw through the eyes of Mythal herself, in this dream. That was enough to shake all sleep from her lids in itself. That had never happened as of yet, and she wasn’t certain of how that was even possible. Surely it was not a trifle event.


    Her mark tingled, sparks briefly shooting into the tips of her fingers. Her new scars itched and she kept biting her chapped lower lip. Her mind was now wide awake and buzzing with speculation.


    Discerning the dreams was like trying to assemble a colossal mural out of thumb sized mosaics without knowing what the image was even supposed to be. And yet, the pieces slowly came together. The odd thing about the knowledge she garnered from the well, is that it had grown to be something innate and in-tune with her own experience, knowledge and musings. A follow up thought to the preliminary one. It had become almost intrinsic over time. Whispers still intruded on her slumber and thoughts, bringing new memories, and new pains.


    Elgar’nan. Etain pulled her left hand back in to her body to seek warm shelter beneath her heavy cloak, pressing it between her chin and chest. The regal, elaborately armored man with eyes like the flickers of a flame itself was none other than the All-Father, the God of Vengeance. Husband. And yet Mythal’s skin didn’t flush with heat and longing when she caressed his face, not as it did from a simple graze of rough fingers across her hand from the stranger in the dream. Lover.


    She bit back a series of unsavory expletives, finding herself once more one the verge of thinking she had completely lost her mind. The Dalish have wandered about for centuries, searching for any knowledge, any recorded account, etching, drawing of the members of the elven pantheon and their history, and here Lavellan was, seeing memories of said gods in her dreaming. She must have been the first of her kind to see any sort of semblance of their gods in generations. Even more so, she was awarded glimpses into their lives, into their trysts. At the price of knowing and feeling a servant population’s worth of heartache, mistakes, and pain, intermingled with knowledge and fleeting moments of happiness. What were her own compared to them?


    If only she had someone to speak her mind to without of fear of being branded insane. Lavellan felt the familiar prickle of torment sprout somewhere deep in her chest, and reflexively her mind denied remembering the name forever carved into her soul. Her wounds were healing… or so her mind had her spirit convinced, and she didn’t dare question it. Maybe if she denies it all long enough, she’d be free of it. A pang of guilt twisted her innards when she remembered the morning before she fell to her false death. Cullen.


    “I hate you.” The hiss made her body jolt and her clenched fist smacked against her own jaw.


    “Damn it, Dorian.” She exhaled sharply and twisted toward the voice, careful not to let an inch of her body peek out from under the sparse warmth of her blanket. Dorian’s bedroll was only inches away from hers, in hopes of trapping some sort of extra heat in the night. Her slight rustling around might have woken him, she supposed. Or he had been awake for quite some time now, which was more likely.


    “I hate the south. It is too cold to even sleep here.”


    “The others don’t seem to have a problem with it.” Etain whispered into the cloak pulled up to her chin.


    “I’m not cold-blooded like the rest of you dauntless maniacs.” He carped, cocooned in several layers of cloak and furs. His face was as sour as it could ever have been, scrapes healed into fresh scars across his skull and cheek. “One more night like this and I’m leaving for Tevinter.”


    “Probably for the better anyway, if I can guess how any of this is going to go.” She mumbled, eyes looking his direction but purposefully not seeing him. His threat may have been meant as a joke, but given the circumstances, it may have been his best option: return home before the Inquisitor manages to kill him in some strange world hidden away in elven ruins, or before Ferelden and Orlais tear the Inquisition apart if he survives and she doesn’t. Even if she does, there is no guarantee she and Briala can use the truth of Celene’s daring ploy to her advantage. Not so tactfully put, it would be a shitshow either way.


    “You can leave, Dorian.” She finally mutters, her voice much more timid than she’d expected.


    “Andraste’s ass, leave it to you to make everything depressing. I was only joking. You had a much better sense of humor when we first met.” He furrowed himself deeper beneath his covers. “If I leave you know, you’d be doomed. Who’d help you keep your sanity with this lot and protect you from Maker-knows-what in these dreaded ruins of yours? It’ll be like the good old days.”


    She smiles, despite herself. “Fond of you as I am, I’d prefer not to live through those ‘good old days’ again… Though it’s not like I have much choice.”


    “Funny. Considering your resume, I don’t see much of an obstacle in expediting their mortality and making a triumphant run for it.” His voice dropped to a whisper that would have been inaudible had they not huddled a mere foot away from each other. “And even with a harder obstacle, it wouldn’t stop you if you were bent on it. So what is it truly that’s stopping you from running back to Skyhold?”


    She knew this moment would come sooner or later. Dorian had been inadvertently pulled into this mess with her, and was little more than a tagalong in the eyes of the rest of the group. Most of the theorizing and planning was limited to Briala, Morrigan and herself. Zevran seemed as if he could care less where they went and what they did, as long as his purpose was fulfilled at the end of it all. He hardly kept an eye on Etain, leaving her ample opportunity for creating sub rosa missives. Etain had also grown so accustomed to hiding the effects of the Well and keeping her dreams to herself, it didn’t even occur to her how much more confusing the situation must have been for Dorian.


    “It’s not so different than from what happened at the Temple of Mythal.” She began, maintaining the same low pitch he had spoken in. “Either we find the Eluvian or someone else will.”


    “I’ve figured that much. But what makes them think you can find it - unlock it, whatever…? And what will happen after that?”


    How much could she reveal to him without losing his friendship? Say too much, and she may frighten and unnerve him. Say nothing, and she may offend him. Yet she was only speculating the truth herself.


    “Because you drank from the Well? Is that the reasoning behind it all? Somehow it will impart the knowledge you need to get to unlock this Eluvian?” His teeth all but chattered slightly as he folded his arm beneath his head, doubt written all over his features. There was a degree of stating the obvious in his tone, and Lavellan knew he was testing the grounds, seeing just how much he can glean from her. He had known her long enough to know she had her own opinion and strategy formed, and it would be shown light when she saw fit, even if she cooperated with what was given to her.  


    “Yes.” Not entirely. Her mildly indifferent expression didn't falter. Considering she hadn’t shared the particulars of her own dream, she had her own postulation as to why she was where she was. After several days of careful consideration, Lavellan reached a conclusion that made more logical sense to her.


    Morrigan and Briala were partially right. Drinking from the Vir’Abelasan rendered her tethered to Mythal and her servants, which let her see things the others could not - case in point, the dreams plagued by the Eluvian, the visions it showed her each night. Yet Lavellan felt more and more convinced that wasn’t nearly enough. Nothing could be so simple.


    So her mind finally recalled a detail she had paid little attention to since the dreams had started. Fourteen steps, left arm stretched out to connect with the ancient mirror, flanked by the wolf and dragon. It was always her left hand that reached out. Her mark spilled forth light and snaked with magic with increasing intensity with each step she took, eager to connect with the magic within. Such an obvious thing to give so little consideration to, and she wondered why it hadn’t clicked sooner.


    Solas - the name itself was like jabbing a finger at a sorely healing wound - had told her that the orb Corypheus intended to use had been elven, belonging to one of the gods, if the legends were to be trusted. It was ancient, potent magic that branded her with its power, foiling Corypheus’s plan and thrusting her heedlessly into a fate she would never be completely prepared for.


    By some odd miracle, she had remembered missives scribbled in a logbook kept by Samson that the Inquisition had recovered following the events at the Temple of Mythal. He speculated that the orb somehow guided the Elder One to the temple. Why specifically Mythal? Solas had said each of the pantheon had such an artifact. Was it her orb? Surely if that was the case, Flemeth would have known, and mentioned something about it. So how was it connected to Mythal? Were there no other Temples, perhaps hiding other ‘wells of knowledge’, or maybe even the foci of the gods themselves? Though it wouldn’t come as a surprise if most, if not all, of them were lost to time and Mythal’s Temple was the only attainable option.


    Regardless, Corypheus was after all that the Vir’Abelasan offered. An arrogant, if not even vengeful part of her relished in the fact that she had taken that from him as well. Though how she managed to get as far as she had was sometimes beyond her comprehension.


    She was missing some key piece of the puzzle, but her intuition suggested she was on the right track. It was all interconnected. The Orb of Destruction, as they affectionately termed it, focused the power of the elven pantheon to access the Fade. It wasn’t too far fetched of a guess that the anchor would unlock the Eluvian and lead them to whatever Flemeth - Mythal - had left in store.


    “So…” Dorian leveled her with a thoughtful glare, her voice bringing her out of her thoughts. “If that is all it takes… and we know some of this Mythal’s priests survived what happened at the temple… wouldn’t they be after the Eluvian as well? If so, are you telling me we may have to fight them again?”


    “It’s possible.” The thought had occurred to Lavellan as well. Perhaps some of those ancient elves survived, and who was to say they had no other access to the Eluvians.


    “Lovely. How is it that I come to befriend the elf that manages to drag me into the most dangerous and preposterous situations she gets herself into?”


    “Divinely terrible luck.” She grumbled bitterly, hoping she’d be able to get at least an hour or two of sound sleep before dawn. He joked, as always, though she was in no mood for humor and his comment only strengthened the twinge of guilt scuttling beneath her ribcage.


    “I’m sorry.” She whispered. “Truly.”


    “Pain in my ass that you are, you are still too close of a friend for me to blame for anything. But let’s forgo the sentimental bits, shall we? I’m much too sober and cold for that.”


    “Alright. It’s late. We should get some sleep, Dorian.”


    “Easier said than done.” He groused and furrowed himself deeper beneath his covers, which now reached up to his eyes.


    “Try.” Lavellan smiled weakly and closed her eyes.



    The morning was gray and dreary, as if the weather hadn’t decided whether it would turn more sour or not. True to the nature of the other archaic complexes Lavellan had ventured to, this one was tucked away in a place long forgotten by civilization. Nature had worked tirelessly to reclaim its land, and the only visible portion of the ruins was a set of toppled archways split into pieces by tree-roots and various stubborn foliage.


    Their small, cloaked entourage approached the inhospitable site, eyes drifting around in search of an entrance. The horses were left an hour’s hike away through the dense forest. They were traveling light anyway, so it was not much of a burden to carry all of their belongings on their backs.


    “Through here.” Briala muttered and stepped closer to the collapsed pillars. Morrigan was close behind, peering into an overgrown opening into the barely thawing earth beneath.


    Morrigan cleared her throat, a sound of utter annoyance, and watched Briala lower herself into the weedy aperture. The rest of them followed, none too thrilled about crawling through decrepit tunnels and squeezing through fallen doorways.


    Aside from the occasional rustle of a small creature scuttling across the old floors, and the irksome presence of spider webs, nothing seemed to linger in the darkened chambers. The dank stench of standing water, mold and mossy stone hung heavy in the air like acrid steam. Somewhere after the first two puddle ridden passageways, Morrigan made an offhand comment of the inevitable ‘character’ the smell was going to add to their clothing.


    Doorways and apertures in the almost non-existent walls led to a multitude of passageways and small chambers. Even with the aid of the lighting their veilfire and wisps provided, time had rendered the ruins a tangle of empty rooms, blocked passageways, crumbling walls and collapsed archways. The complex, whatever it had been before, looked to have been abandoned and fallen into irreparable dilapidation countless ages ago. Even so, Briala navigated the passageways with an iota of familiarity, straying from the correct path only once.


    They had finally reached what looked to be an atrium. In the center, the floor had given way to a cavernous blackness opening into the pits of the structure. Parts of what were once vaulted ceilings were nonexistent. The gray skies threw lonely shafts of light into the chamber, casting angled shadows across toppled statues and invading flora.


    Briala guided them across floors littered with stonework and decaying foliage, staying close to solid walls. The mosaics may have peeled away from the walls, the sculptures and stonework may have crumbled to rock and dust, but the massive framework of the atrium retained a memory of just how grandiose the chamber must have been in its time. The structure seemed to have fared better at the far end of the colossal room, where a proportionately large alcove with domed ceilings sheltered a lone Eluvian.


    As they walked, Dorian had noted several architectural differences between other ruins Lavellan had exposed him to, and seemed fascinated by some basic similarities with Tevinter counterparts. Zevran kept peering intently into the various recesses across the expanse of the chamber, eyes almost nervously drifting from shadow to shadow. His hands reached up to grasp the back of his neck and he proceeded to twist his head to and fro, stretching. He was keeping his hands near his blades without grabbing them. Something unsettled him enough to not even award the ancient portal a second glance.


    They had all been requested to remain at the foot of the stairs leading to the platform bearing the Eluvian, while Briala went forward to open the doorway. She was intent on keeping her secrets to herself, not willing to allow any of them to overhear the passphrase or the exact nature of entering the Labyrinth.


    Etain quit rubbing her gloved thumb over the pommel of her sword - her sword, not the heavy blade slung off the same hip for protection in places mages were unwelcome, in places she had to remain inconspicuous. It was easy to get accustomed to the nicer things in life - even the practice sword Cullen shoved into her hand was of finer, lighter forge than the iron club of a blade she had procured at the small village a week ago.


    “Not another step.” The threat thundered from somewhere above and behind the alcove, startling every living soul in the room. Six shadows aimed full drawn arrows, three more swordsmen emerged from the cover of darkness of nearby collapsed rooms.


    Too familiar with such threats, Lavellan’s hands moved before her head finished the turn to glance behind her shoulder. The dome of swirling veil-fire green engulfed the Eluvian platform and stairs. She was thankful Briala needed no instruction and had hastily unlocked the ancient portal behind her.


    Arrows thrummed through the air and rebounded off the shielding dome like pins thrown against rock. Their trajectory was off, if their aim was to kill them all. Dorian countered with raising an inferno, swallowing the aggressors’ legs. Briala hurriedly marshaled everyone into the illuminated gateway with a sharp shout. Lavellan let fly and arcing surge of energy before twisting back and dashing into the gleaming Eluvian.


    Several unbalanced steps in and the ancient mirror shattered to pieces behind her, courtesy of Morrigan.


    “Shit!” Briala shouted, hands firmly gripping her daggers enough for her knuckles to whiten.


    “I’m guessing this wasn’t part of the plan.” Dorian grumbled sarcastically, brushing dust off his dark hair and out of the creases of his armor as if nothing surprising had happened.


    “No. It was not.” She huffed, shaking her head. “Shit.”


    Zevran let out a dark, smug chuckle. “I knew something was off. The place was a wrong sort of quiet. Not enough spiderwebs.”


    Lavellan was still glaring at the fragmented Eluvian behind them. That was one way to put a damper in search efforts of anyone after them. And someone was after them, that much was evident by the nature of the ambush; they shot to maim, and utterly avoided Briala.


    “How shocking! More people sent to kill us… And yet again we are left with the fetid belch of their incompetence. Let’s hope they never learn.” Dorian shifted back towards Lavellan and took in the scene around him.


    Etain abandoned her interest in the shattered mirror and turned to Briala. “They weren’t out to kill us. Why else wait until you were about to unlock the Eluvian and why aim to injure only?”


    “No.” Briala sheathed her daggers and looked around. “Not kill. Capture, most like. They were after the key, and they need me alive for it.”


    “Useful little trick our viper has there. With three mages, we could have taken them, quite easily.” Zevran commented casually, eyes drifting across the surrounding area.


    “Do you know who is after you?” Etain had grown accustomed to ignoring the assassin nearly out of principle. He had something to say for everything, and it was only occasionally useful. Though she had come to the conclusion he did it mostly to annoy her.


    “No. Five knew I held control of part of the labyrinth. Someone must have let it slip.”


    “That is all very fascinating, but can we get a move on and get out of whatever this is?” Dorian seethed a frown plastered on his face and a hand rubbing at his temples. “This may be the most oppressive, depressing place you have brought me to yet, Lavellan.”


    “On the contrary… it’s actually quite beautiful.” Zevran brushed a hand against an slender tree outside the stone pathway. The entire place breathed of something ancient, something hidden away from prying eyes and substantial traffic for centuries. A fading stone walkway, flanked by strange trees, neither in the physical world, nor in the Fade.


    “Humans do not see these passages the same way the elves do.” Morrigan lowered her hood and turned toward the distant horizon, speaking to Dorian. “You and I see dead trees, glum stones, distorting fog, twisting light. We hear that insistent noise… Our bodies feel disoriented, uncomfortable.”


    “While for us, the trees are perpetually in bloom, the light is warm, the air inviting, the noise a subtle harmony.” Briala continued, drifting to the head of the small group, dropping her hood as well.


    An annoyed groan of exasperation rumbled from Dorian. “Naturally… It just all keeps getting better and better.”


    “It is bound to. Since we didn’t silence our new friends.” Zevran added, the lilt of his speech able to add color to even the most simple of tones. “Now they know where we are, and it’s a safe guess they won’t keep it to just themselves if there’s more of them. Though I can’t imagine it will be easy for them to find us, I still agree with ‘pomp and circumstance’ over there - we need to find what we came for and go.”


    Briala was already strolling along the path. “He’s right… Walking never interfered with speaking, so there is no reason for us to linger.”



    The remainder of the day was spent venturing along serpentine pathways and through seemingly random Eluvians. The initial passageway twisted along through groves frozen in time; eerie with no signs of life within, though still beautiful in their own, mysterious way. The first few connecting chambers were quiet and seemed to be as forgotten monuments to the arts; the primary had two marble statues of Harts, with jade inlay eyes, flanked by over-grown shrubbery. The next was a hall with effigies of ancient warriors standing guard beside the numerous portals, most of which seemed tainted, lifeless, or simply shattered. Thousands of years past and the hall still retained a degree of splendor and served as a glimpse into the magnificence of what once was.


    The third appeared to be connected to a mausoleum of sorts. Before they could take in much of the aesthetics of the chamber, their intrusion incited a wrathful Revenant and several corpses. Though considering the collective skill set of the living party they had proved to be little more than an inconvenience. Save a few minor wounds, the pack emerged from the short-lived fight relatively unharmed.


    Morrigan migrated toward Briala, preparing to address her wound as she was the first to stumble upon the Revenant and bear the brunt of its initial attack; its blade had caught her forearm, leaving behind a deep gash. The rest elected to use the time as an opportunity to rest before venturing on. Dorian braved glimpsing into the toppled debris that was all that remained of the crypts adjacent to the atrium they had just battled in. Lavellan remained furthest away from the group, inspecting the withering murals on the walls. Priests, maybe? She wasn’t certain, the figures cloaked and heads bowed.


    “I hadn’t had a chance to experience a fight alongside the Inquisitor until now.” Zevran’s voice drew her out of her curious scrutiny. The elf had finished cleaning his daggers and leaned against the wall with careless abandon toward the historical artwork slowly fading on the stone. His voice was low enough to keep the conversation private.


    Lavellan didn’t bother drawing her eyes away from the walls. “A trifling run-in like that and you’re giving me disproportionate praise? Thank the gods I haven’t had the misfortune of meeting you sooner. I’d fear you’d break into poem after every dragon hunt.”


    “Poems were never my strong suit. Suggest something more physical, and more intimate - that’ll be more likely. I’d only hope your endurance in bed is as impressive as in the battlefield.”


    Lavellan inhaled deeply, trying to tone down the irritation she felt. “Leliana was right, you’re absolutely insufferable.”


    The venomous smirk that pulled at his mouth gave too much depth to his response. “Oh, yes, sweet Nightingale had found me especially so.”  


    Lavellan cleared her throat, her capacity for aimless banter with the man all dried up. “What do you want?”


    He folded his hands in front of him and his eyes narrowed for a split-second. “I certainly hope that ambush at the entrance wasn’t brought on by your little caper at the tavern.”


    Razors scraped along the length of Etain’s spine, and she turned toward him. Her expression remained inscrutable but her stomach was tied in knots. She had thought she was throughly careful and discreet.


    “I had nothing to do with that. Had I wanted to be found or had I wanted to leave, I would have.”


    “Fair enough.” Zevran shrugged his shoulders. “Quite frankly, I couldn’t care less. No harm, no foul. I’m more curious as to where you learned such a sneaky trick… A Dalish mage fluent in human languages, musical notation…” The smirk widened. “You’re full of surprises, hmm?”


    “My clan traded with humans. It wasn’t all too foreign for us.” She was telling the truth, though not even close to the entirety of it.


    “Ha. You haven’t forgotten my profession and upbringing, no? I’ve always been curious as to why a young Dalish mage would be sent to the Conclave, and be able to do so well as to become the Inquisitor… How you managed so well with customs, language, social class etiquette, values, needs of several cultures not your own… All from trading with human villagers?” He chuckled, scrutiny in his eyes. She remained silent and only raised her brows, while maintaining a more or less blasé expression.


    He only smirked further. “No matter. I’m sure I’ve come to the correct conclusion. I’ve seen others like you before. Amaury was not the only one so charitable… Though he was one less once I was done with him.”


    Lavellan’s eyes fixated on the man with near savage apprehension. It was apparently all the confirmation he needed, for he pushed away from the wall with a farewell nod and strolled off. Etain turned back toward the murals, skin crawling and blood rushing all too fast for comfort. The name had unearthed a long chapter in her life, and the fact that Zevran pulled it out of nowhere left her in nearly a panic.



    “You speak out of line, da’len.” The hoarse voice creaked out of the elder man, his wise black eyes fixed on the young woman, his First. The Keeper of Clan Lavellan was an aging man, with similarly aging beliefs; he stubbornly clung to everything that made the Dalish the feared, nomadic clusters of a dying race. He avoided any contact with shemlen and shemlen artifacts as if they were the plague. He enforced strict avoidance of anything that wasn’t ‘elven’ or ‘Dalish’.


    Their numbers were dwindling, and with a harsh winter upon them, they had little choice but to seek hunters and villagers for survival; trading was a vital lifeline, though all but one other clan have migrated elsewhere. They had to make contact with humans for all to survive. The lands had offered poor hunting and foraging for the elves, and a scant harvest for the human villages near by. Their hunters had to venture further and further into the wilderness, having to share the limited bounty of the forests with the Dalish - much to the ire of the Keeper of Clan Lavellan.


    His protege of fourteen years was turning out to be more of a challenger than a successor. The russet haired, blue eyed woman may have been the clan’s First, but she had long put her authority as the leader in place amongst her clansmen. Her penchant for clever problem solving and efficient guidance was valued long before the old Keeper had named her his First. Now it was only a matter of waiting to make her more progressive leadership official - once the old man joined their ancestors in the beyond.


    Deshanna Istimaethoriel Lavellan saw opportunity and advancement where her predecessor failed and had learned to use the Dalish nomadic lifestyle to her advantage. She had long established clandestine ties and connections within shemlen towns and cities, both in the darkest corners of the slums and the higher tenets of human merchant classes. She was renowned as the rare diplomatic thread between humans and elves in the Free Marches. Ever since she was old enough to hold her own responsibilities and keeping the clan safe, the bandit raids and hostile run ins with human hunters, and Templars, had decreased steadily. All of it out of the Keeper’s sights. As her connections settled in more securely and began to pay off, she had begun to garner a reputation as an obscured information broker. She was able to relay messages across long distances between friendly, or in the very least cooperative merchants, and easily take note of shemlen proceedings anywhere between northeastern Orlais and southern Antiva.


    Perhaps it was treason in the eyes of the few hidebound elders in the clan, but times were changing much too fast for clinging to the past being harmless. Remaining isolated and misunderstood was growing increasingly more dangerous, nor were they actually recovering anything of use and worth about their long lost ancestors. The role of the Keeper had to evolve past preservation of legend and tradition. The solution was simple: adapt or steadily perish away like the rest of the elven race.


    “You know the rules, child.” The Keeper wheezed again, his withered fingers gripping the smooth wood of his staff for balance. Deshanna was twenty-five at the time. Hardly a child.


    “Hahren, please, she won’t-“


    “Enough!” He bellowed, the force of his voice deceptively clear despite his wilting shell of a body. His dark eyes glared angrily at the young woman and the child beside her.


    Three days ago, Deshanna rushed back into Clan Lavellan’s campsite, the young girl in her arms. She was no older than eight, frostbitten, hungry and with eyes devoid of any sort of life and innocence, pretty as they were. She was kept in the healer’s aravel, sleeping away the entire first day in safety. She hadn’t spoken to anyone but Deshanna, her appearance and demeanor providing a much needed explanation for the disappearance of the Clan’s chief blacksmith trader long before she revealed what had happened.


    On the second day, the Keeper dispatched Deshanna and three hunters to confirm what had happened to two of their Clan. They found the unsettling campsite by nightfall. The father - one of the clan’s hunters- was little but a slashed corpse, arrows lodged in his chest, frozen to the ground near their aravel, and their prized blacksmith was found within. Her body had turned to white marble, petrified in the moment of her horrifying death: throat opened, blood a darkened, sickly puddle staining the wood of the caravan. Her clothes were torn open, her chest and swollen belly exposed. Deshanna would never forget her terror upon glimpsing into the aravel, nor would she ever forget the agony and rage that blossomed in her core. Her only relief was the sight of the entire band of attackers frozen in the snow next to their victims. Three seemed to have been charred from the inside out, yet there were no signs of a large fire, or an explosion, and the other three were not mutilated. The damage was controlled, and directed, used as as a weapon.


    Her eyes happened upon matching grooves in the frozen, blood soaked dirt by Etain’s father’s body. Deshanna swallowed the lump in her throat, impeded by the burning feeling. Her foot shifted subtly to erase any trace of the disturbance. The girl had told the truth, and they now had a mage on their hands, and a very capable one at that.


    On the third day, the scouting party had returned to the main camp. Ceremonial prayers were arranged for that night, after which the fate of the young girl was to be determined. The ritual cloaked the center of the temporary settlement in uneasy, angry sorrow.  The members of Clan Lavellan said their prayers, offered their thoughts for the sole survivor of the respected family.


    The Keeper’s mind had been set long before the question of little Etain’s fate was even voiced. Rules were rules. There could never have more than three mages; the Keeper, the healer and Deshanna, in the case of Clan Lavellan.


    “They were our own!” A voice called in desperation from the gathered crowd.


    “She is one of ours, you cannot do this!” One of the hunters chimed in.


    “They were our brother and sister, and she is our daughter, but that does not make her exempt from the law… Tragic as this may be.” The Keeper’s voice was steady and firm.


    “Tragic?” Deshanna seethed. “My pregnant cousin lies dead and ra-“ She couldn’t finish her words, her jaw setting defiantly as she raised her head higher. “I have lost the last of my family. Etain is all I have left. She survived against at least three of the thieves - do you understand the value of her true potential?”


    “I understand the danger of her true potential. As should all of you.” The graying Keeper turned to depart toward his aravel.


    “She will be my personal responsibility!”


    “Deshanna… you cannot change the verdict. The rules are in place for our protection. Think of the rest of the Clan.”


    “Then send me away!” Deshanna stepped past the silent girl she was holding onto. “I’m capable enough to be able to survive on my own. She’s just a child! You know she will end up in the slums-“


    “Da’len! I will hear no more of this nonsense.” He hissed over his shoulder, thoroughly irritated by the insubordination. “I am sorry, Etain. But we have no other choice. You must find a new home.”


    Deshanna held her curse behind her teeth and wheeled back around. The young girl remained inscrutable, much too reserved and collected for one so young, it seemed. The shock of the last few days was more than understandable, enough to leave anyone a petrified empty shell.


    Dread wolf take your soul, old fool. Deshanna thought to herself and gripped the young girl’s shoulder, leading her away toward the edge of camp. Two other elves trailed alongside, the rest of the Clan slowly dispersing. The air was tense, the members still reeling from the brutal misfortune that had befallen them all. Even more apparent was the difference in opinion on what aught to have happened, and the direction the Clan should be moving. Some blindly blamed the shemlen, further pointing out the savagery of the humans against their kind. Others felt the Keeper would grow even more insular and force them all further away from any contact with the rest of Thedas, ultimately leading to their downfall. Arguments were bound to break out before the night was out, and it was the last thing the Clan needed.


    Safely out of the clan’s earshot, Deshanna hoisted the child into her aravel and followed  her in. One of the hunters went in as well, the First’s most trusted confidant and usual co-conspirator. The other scout remained outside, seemingly wandering the perimeter in thought, looking out for danger - or snooping bystanders.


    Deshanna directed Etain to sit on the bedroll while she rubbed her own shoulder in thought. The raven-haired scout settled herself by the entrance, plunging her hands beneath her arms for warmth.


    “Can't say I didn’t see that coming.” She said, voice low and smooth, fitting her warm, doe brown eyes.


    “His lack of foresight will be our downfall.” Deshanna grumbled, sitting down against the wooden walls. “But no, I am not in the least surprised.”


    “Have we heard from the other clans? Have we any direction we can give Etain?”


    “No. The nearest clan is three days journey and they have their hands full. We are far too close to Nevarra for the others to be viable options so far in winter. We are alone.”


    “Fenedhis lasa, this is a nightmare…” The scout mumbled and her chin pressed into the scarves wrapped about her neck and chest. They remained in tense, heavy silence for several, long minutes - the fear of the inevitable, bleak outcome of the situation lingering like an uninvited guest.


    Deshanna fiddled with her gloves, watching the young girl through saddened eyes. The child sat still, an empty shell that once held laughter and innocence. She had watched Etain grow from the swaddled bundle that crawled around clumsily to the insatiably curious spindly girl she was a few weeks ago. Now she saw her with youth seeped from her, and wondered how that bright, sinless child managed to manifest her power by killing three armored thieves with blood magic.


    The thought was invidious, as were the options. The young girl lived, possibly only because she manifested her magic. The Clan already had three mages amongst them, ignoring the fact that the Keeper was on borrowed time. No other clan nearby could foster her into their care, especially in such harsh times. Her only other option was joining the Circle; the nearest one was a few days’ trek, in Nevarra.


    No, the woman felt her muscles tense while she mused. Not after what she had lived through. She would not send her off to be locked and hidden away behind stone walls, guarded and kept on a short leash by templars. Nor could she stomach Etain becoming another city elf. She was Dalish, and so she would stay.


    “Amaury.” Deshanna finally muttered, eyes communicating everything the name apparently implied.  


    “That’s quite a gamble.” The scout’s voice lowered a pitch but something akin to optimism glimmered in her eyes.


    “It’s a gamble either way. But this is the most opportune option. Not only for her but for the Clan as a whole.” Deshanna’s shoulders shrugged. Several minutes of silence had passed uneventfully, and exhaustion had begun to leaden Etain’s lids. Her head still swam in shock and confusion as to what was happening, and all she wanted to was to fall asleep and forget about the world for a while.


    “Amaury… I suppose we should make the preparations.” The scout heaved herself up off the floor.


    “Yes. We head out at dawn.”

Chapter Text

"You couldn't tell me this earlier?!" The nettled Qunari grumbled as he gleaned the lone scrap of parchment over with his one green eye. His mercenary band had settled in to one of the further corners of the Inquisition forward operating base in the frigid depths of the Emprise.

The Commander stood in front of Iron Bull, hand resting on the pommel of his sword, his armor and winter garb dusted with snowflakes and flecks of ice. Puffs of warm breath escaped at a slow and steady pace, his sturdy Fereldan frame long adjusted to harsh climates. He patiently waited while the Bull grappled with feelings of irritation and relief upon hearing the news: Dorian and Etain are alive, though nowhere to be found, in no less danger, and there was nothing any of them could do about it.

"Seriously, you couldn't have sent a damn letter or something?" The Qunari grumbled, shoving the parchment back to Cullen, the paper crumpling against his breastplate. His free hand caught it in time and he folded it back into his pocket.

"No. She was clear about everything remaining discreet." Cullen began carefully. Bull's temper had been erratic at best the last few weeks, though he hadn't caused any trouble aside from being irritable during most conversations. Tonight, however, he had indulged in more than a good amount of ale, by the looks of it. Cullen cursed at the inconvenience of having to speak to the man while he was in such a state, but they would part ways come morning and that left little in terms of options. Had the Chargers been under his direct authority he'd remind them of the costs of drinking on the job, never mind sneaking ale into camp.

"Discreet?!" A sizable fist grabbed the leather straps of his armor in threat, and the Qunari's face lowered to a mere few inches away from the former templar. Cullen's expression did little else but harden.

"I just spent the last two weeks thinking he-they were dead!"

"Get a grip and back off." The growl that came from Cullen was clear and succinct. Bull's eye blinked and he glanced down, as if reconsidering what message his actions must have been sending to the commander. It wasn't his fault they were all in this situation. He let go of the man's armor and suppressed an irritated exhale.

Cullen continued to glare at him, jaw tensed, giving him the look of a drill sergeant pissed off and about to tear into a truculent private, even if the private was a good two heads taller. "They live. That is all that matters. From here on out, this was all another mission. Another impromptu sortie. Maker knows Lavellan finds plenty of those."

"Doesn't change the fact that you could've given me a heads up. But alright. I'll play nice. Just… give me something to do before I find trouble for myself." Bull's fists clenched closed, then open, then closed again. The tension in his arms dispersed a bit with each motion.

"You and the Chargers will move South into the Dales. Meet up with Harding… She will have more information on your assignment. Three Inquisition scouts disappeared during a patrol, following a lead Leliana thought worthy of investigating."

"Yeah, keep going down the list of things you should've told me sooner, Cullen."

"It was nothing promising. Not so much a lead as a general direction. I don't know many of the details. I'm not even sure it was a lead on Lavellan and Dorian." The commander shifted on his feet, as weighing out how much information he wanted to share. "Two returned to camp, without a clue as to what happened to their compatriots."

"How the hell does that happen? Did they split up? Maybe an ambush? Bandits?" Bull's brow furrowed, but Cullen could sense the relief of having something else to focus on than Dorian's livelihood. And seeing as tensions ran high, the prospect of bashing heads in may have had its appeal as well.

"That's what you and your crew will find out. Report to me first. I get every shred of information you provide Leliana's agents with. No more slip ups."

"Couldn't it be the usual? Turn of weather? Wild animals?" Bull's head turned a degree to the side, wondering how this incident could tie into Lavellan's disappearance, if it did. If it wasn't a fluke.

"Could be anything. Find out what, and report to me. Make no mention of Etain or Dorian in your missives. Do not speak of it within earshot of anyone. As far as the rest of the world knows, the Inquisitor's on another foray in the wilds that has nothing to do with your mission."

"Wasn't born yesterday, Commander. Ex-Ben'Hasserath, remember?"

Cullen's jaw tensed for a split second, having enough of his fill of sarcasm for the day. "I appreciate the reminder… I'll send for you when I know more."

"I'm hoping sooner rather than later." Bull's hands rested on his hips and he glanced back toward Dalish cursing colorfully at the fraying grip of her 'bow', inexplicably resembling nothing other than a staff. Grim grunted, glaring into his mug of ale as if its depths held something of interest. The rest of the Chargers drifted around their edge of the forward base in two groups.

Having little else to say, Cullen's head dipped in a brief farewell and let Bull return to his hodgepodge company. He paced a few yards toward the straggler accompanying Bull's group, lingering near the trench-fire in front of the provisions tent.

"Cole." Cullen called to the taciturn youth scratching his Mabari pup's ear. His wide open blue eyes turned up to him.

"Hello." He replied, almost cheerfully. The mere tone slightly unsettled Cullen.

"Are you… er, doing well?" He wasn't entirely sure of what to say to the youth, what would be polite and casual enough to carry him to the point of this conversation.

"Yes, I help how I can. The Iron Bull worries, but knows he can't run away from what he needs to do. The others need him. Nerves strained, limbs ache. He needs to fight."

"Have you heard anything else? Any clues as to where Dorian and Etain may be?"

"Yes." He muttered. Cullen's perplexed expression lingered for a second too long, as his mind had expected such a simple reply least of all.

"Yes?"

"They are chasing, winding trails through forgotten places. Broken, beautiful, painful, irritating. It gives Dorian headaches, like being around too many noises echoing in a small room. But I promised I would help her. So I will."

"Promised Etain? What do you mean?"

"She needs to find it, see it, glowing, gleaming, waiting, hurting. They're in a race, who finds it first. She doesn't know yet-" He shakes his head briefly, as if reminding himself of his promise. "She asked me not to follow her. Not yet. Not until she needs me to. She asked me to tell nothing."

Cullen felt the leather of his glove numb his skin, his grip growing much too firm on his sword. She told you to keep us in the dark? It was nothing different from what she had already said in her missive, yet he felt his patience with all the secrecy grow thin. He was a straightforward sort, never comfortable with unforthcoming developments.

"Can you tell me anything at all? What of the rest of the group?" He forced himself not to speak through grit teeth. Maybe the sour encounter with Bull left him feeling just as irked.

"They help. For their own reasons. Dorian protects her as much as she protects him. He thinks it may help when he goes home. Grandeur, might and power squandered away. Too many mistakes. All that was left were scraps of an empire by that time his people made their own mistakes. But it's not too late to make amends. He does miss him, though. Remembers the campfire often."

"What of the others? Who else is trying to … find this… thing Etain is after?"

"I don't know, I can't see or hear it. But the others know someone is at their heels."

The commander sighed. "I suppose that shouldn't come as a surprise. She tends to gravitate toward dangerous, sought after relics and deathraps."

"She's sorry, and getting so tired. Mind flooded with too much - memories not her own. Things no one knows. That she couldn't possibly know but it wants her to. Gives, but also takes. Pain for pain, sorrow for sorrow, joy for joy. The ones that she gives, the ones that are hers don't feel any better." Cole mutters aimlessly, almost as if speaking to himself.

If it was possible for the young man to look any more nervous, it would be a whole new level of displaying physical discomfort.

"Cole?"

"Who finds it first, and who stays a secret, a whisper in the night. Hide and seek, each one thinking they aren't the seeker, not knowing there is another."

"Who?"

His flaxen hair obscured the withdrawn gaze turned toward the flames, and the disproportionate hat proceeded to hide everything as his head dipped low toward the dog.

"I don't know. They hide from me."

Cullen saw no point in probing further, the cryptic comments would provide him with little else if the youth swore to Etain to keep quiet on the matter.

"Cole, I need to ask you to do something, if you are willing."

The hat tilted slightly upwards - you have my attention.

"I need you to go with Iron Bull and his group. Help them with their mission. Help keep Bull calm. When you get to the camp in the Dales, there will be two scouts that will need your help. They were frightened, very frightened. Three of their fellow scouts disappeared. We need to know what happened and we need to know our Inquisition soldiers are safe."

"I will do all I can to help."


It felt like being dropped into a maze that had no beginning and no end. Doorways leading to more empty rooms, leading to more halls, more doorways, more dead ends. Time seemed to stand still in the Eluvian riddled pathways, trees shifting slightly in a strange, illusory breeze. Courtyards and edifices crumbled with none to witness, structures once magnificent and pristine now decrepit in death like everything else.

The journey took its toll on the humans far quicker than the elves of the group. They wandered in passageways perpetually stuck in midday light. Hours? More? He was sure they had been walking for nearly a full day.

Dorian had tried everything he could think of to drown out that noise. That awful, persistent drone that chipped away at his composure slowly and steadily. Like wretched cats mewling in the distance. Or mother's singing after she's had four too many.

His feet scraped along the flagstone pathway, as if his boots had grown soles of lead. Arms ached, back whined, and his head pounded painfully. I swear onto Andraste's ample tits, I'll make you pay for this, Lavellan.

Not that she looked to be doing any better. Perhaps it wasn't the paths that wore her out, but something certainly was. She looked ashen, eyes somber and a little blood shot, a grimace plastered on her face. Though that could be attributed to their charming company, he was certain the true culprit was whatever she was seeing in her restless nights, whatever had made her dreams take more of a toll than they seemed to have been doing already in the last few months.

But pressing the matter would be pointless as he knew her well enough that she wouldn't divulge the smallest details. She hadn't even told him what it was she was seeing in her dreams, aside from it involving the same Eluvian they were now after.

Dorian noticed that dwelling on Lavellan and the cryptic quandary she had found herself in took his mind off of his own state of total disarray. Hurled into a danger and days spent in tedious torment, with only scraps of information thrown at him here in there - he had no idea what he was there for. Nor what he would do next, once this was all done. Leave for home, as was his intention before it all? Go back with Etain, aid the Inquisition while it still stands? What of the Iron Bull?

His palms clammed up at the mere thought, his brain impulsively conjuring up the memory of that unexpected, uncalled for, surprising kiss. And that's all it was, wasn't it? An impulse? Brash and ill-advised?

Just like everything else I delve into, apparently. Dorian's fingers fought the urge to poke and scratch at the healing scar arcing from his temple. He wondered - again - as to what Bull's reaction was once it was clear he and Lavellan had disappeared. His chest tightened at the thought; did the Qunari believe him dead, and mourn him? Drink the tavern dry? Say a few kind words? Sulk in silence?

What if he truly did accept it as truth and think Dorian dead? A disheartening thought, one that pushed Dorian closer to the decision to flee home after they left the wretched Eluvians. For he would have to leave, sooner or later. And how much more cruel would it be to return, reignite that flame only to snuff it out? But how much more uncaring was it to end something that had barely started, before it had a chance to bring forth some sort of happiness in this dismal world?

If he stayed with the Inquisition, if he fed the flame between Bull and himself, then there was practically no chance in prodding Tevinter in a better direction. Yes, he would still make a difference here - in the South. All while his homelands would drive themselves further down a road that held nothing but a downward spiral into war and further conflict.

If he left now, he could return home and put his knowledge, experience and connections to good use. He could ensure all the hardships and moments of enlightenment he had lived through in the past two years did not go to waste.

So I'm faced with the age old question of whether to sacrifice the needs and desires of one in exchange for the slim chance of saving the livelihood of thousands of others. Lovely… I suppose there's a reason it's banal and age-old. Doesn't make it any easier, no matter how many doomed souls are faced with the same question, year after year. Century after century. Dorian inhaled a lung full of air, the action less satisfying than it would have been out beneath the open - real - skies. Guess it's time I join the club.

The group arrived in yet another one of seemingly hundreds of courtyards scattered through out the Labyrinth: a circular plaza, with freestanding pergolas and overgrown garden alcoves, what used to be a market, perhaps. Gathering in one of the airier alcoves, they had finally settled in to what they deemed to be 'night'.

The company warily took in their surroundings as they slowly unpacked their meagre belongings, slinging out bedrolls, and doling out food rations. Statues similar to countless others they have seen reappeared once more - honorifics to the gods. Fading murals depicted seemingly mundane proceedings of an ancient society. These ones seemed to stray away from the other grandiose artful depictions of ancient battles.

Etain quickly abandoned her pack and proceeded to wander around the piazza, as if unable to stand or sit still. Her eyes scanned her surroundings, adding the artwork to the growing collection filed away in her mind. Her gazes grew more detached and she chewed the chapped part of her lip, pacing and musing silently.

"What of your opinion, viper?" Zevran pulled her out of her thoughts and aimless thousand yard stares. "You were your Clan's First. What is your take on the elven gods? Of their legends?"

"I am not a viper, or a halla, or a little red fennec, or whatever the hell else I'm attributed with. Is it so hard to refer to me as a person?" She snarled through her teeth, weary and strained from lack of sleep and the weight of the knowledge the dreams imparted her with. And the memories the Eluvian kept gleaning from her burned the most.

Zevran managed to glance back at her and for once not smirk. "Apologies… I'll refrain from now on."

She sucked in a gulp of air to calm herself, not intending to incite the awkward tension in their group. Neither did she know why his nickname set her off; she had grown accustomed to this tactic and it was used by everyone. It's purpose was to 'dehumanize', to make it easier to fight against fellow man, to see him as something less than oneself. A defense mechanism of the mind to lessen the internal damage of doing harm, killing or having to act against another person, of making the act more justified, in a twisted sense. It meant nothing. It wasn't personal. Pulling her shoulders back, she turned toward her companions.

"Stories are stories." She muttered. "Embezzled and over-exaggerated kernels of truth. Twisted and turned, bit by bit, with every generation, with every writer, every storyteller. Sometimes purposefully - to accommodate the truths of the time, the needs of people, the needs of those in power, those who are tasked with carrying on the story. Sometimes unwittingly - words lost in translation, lost to time. Parts go missing, parts are added to replace them. And yet it's preached as truth nonetheless."

"Ah, how did the Dalish ever produce such a nonbeliever?" Zevran's eyes smiled and he leaned against a pillar.

"Skeptic. And you're an expert on the Dalish?" Etain cocked her head to the side, almost mockingly.

Dorian shook his head and swallowed back a sigh, returning to picking his spot for a few hours of rest. Bad choice of conversation. Last time she spoke of such things, we lost her and the apostate to an hour of boring, philosophical tête-à-tête. Which left Solas pacing the camp and brooding. Then sitting in silence, staring at her sleeping. Then brooding some more. Then she became his favorite subject of study. Highly doubt she wants to be reminded of that.

"No, no my dear. You mistake my curiosity for criticism." Zevran leaned his head against the column.

"My clan was among the more progressive of the Dalish."

"I see… Oh, and yes, I almost forgot. Being protege of Amaury must have helped."

"Who is Amaury?" Dorian unfurled his bedroll, actively listening to anything that would distract him from his thoughts. If Etain was irked, she wasn't showing it directly.

"Someone who showed me kindness when I was young. I was a temporary guest and messenger. I was never anything more."

"Ha. Everyone was something more in Amaury's sphere of influence." Zevran elaborated, lazily stretching his arms. "He was a secretive, though no less notable, talented, and very much unpredictable bard. That's why I was paid enough to buy a tavern to end his meddling."

Lavellan's brows sat on the edge of being furrowed, something clicking to make more sense in the back of her mind.

"Perhaps I will pay enough to buy three taverns to have someone end your meddling." Her tone remained borderline bored. "Wouldn't that be a fine day."

"I consider that a compliment, my dear."

"You never fail to utterly annoy, Zevran." Morrigan intervened in a level tone, aiming to change the direction of the conversation away from this 'Amaury'. "Besides, you're an Andrastean."

"Ah, but she wasn't speaking of just the glorious dead Elvhen and their gods."

"If you are to be a Keeper, what would you teach your clansmen?" Briala chimed in, divulging her own curiosities. "Will you forgo retelling the legends?"

Etain wouldn't be surprised if Briala knew about Amaury as well, but she was more open to answering questions of personal philosophy rather than personal history.

"No, of course not. Someone served as inspiration for the legends. They are still part of our history, our culture. They need to be known, and remembered. But they are legends of the past, and our world is so much different. We need to adapt. Dwelling in the past keeps us tethered to it, instead of moving on and forging a future. Remember, learn and keep moving." Lavellan shrugged her shoulders. "Besides, with Keeper Deshanna as part of the city council in Wycome, I'm not sure what our Clan will become. I'm not even sure I am still even a First."

"I am interested to see how the new mixed council handles the city-state's problems and affairs." Zevran's claim seemed genuine.

"Please, for the sake of everyone - stay far away from Wycome." Dorian pitched in, eliciting a chuckle from Briala.

"Either way, Clan Lavellan will be remembered for centuries as the harbinger of change, of a new future, for elves and humans alike." Morrigan's voice held a certain knowing quality that sent a shiver down Lavellan's spine.

"I suppose only time will tell." Etain cleared her throat, glancing down at the hand that was once again grasping the sword hilt. "How much longer?"

"Not very much. A few hours journey. But we must rest, while we can."

There was little need to convince anyone of the truth of that statement. The modest dinner of dry rations was made more entertaining by an enthusiastic argument between Zevran and Dorian about which Thedosian brandy was superior. Etain had never heard anyone get so riled up over brandy, of all things. Nor did she imagine a conversation could make use of such imaginative, yet lurid, insults pertaining to whorehouses, dog shit and grape variety. Slightly disturbing but mostly entertaining, the squabble was a welcome distraction. One that ended in the two agreeing they could use a drink, no matter what variety of brandy it was.

Hidden from the perpetual light of the Crossroads, sleep crept in and took hold of them one by one, save Lavellan. She glared defiantly at the walls of the alcove around them, unsure of whether she could handle another hour of restless sleep full of dreams; visions spilling knowledge she could not quite yet piece together in entirety, a task that made her teeth ache. One thing she was growing certain of - they all knew next to nothing of their ancient kin.

There was no mention of slaves and servants in Dalish legend, yet she saw them in the periphery, sometimes forefront, of the memories given to her. Ancient Arlathan was built by hands of slaves claimed by one 'god' or another, no different from Tevinter, from Orlais. Stories are stories.

Before her mind could drift into further analyzing the gods, a soft shuffle rendered her deathly still and her ears instinctively strained to hear where and what the noise was. She turned her head back to check who had awakened.

"Well," Morrigan pushed herself up from her bedroll with a bracing inhale. "Shall we?"

Lavellan glanced around the camp at her sleeping companions, then brought her attention back to the sorceress approaching her causally. She walked with the same refined and cool confidence her mother had, appealing and unsettling all at once.

"Shall we what?" Etain whispered, planting a palm on the floor to raise her body to a sitting position.

"'Tis time we wrap up this charade. This will be the only time before we reach the Eluvian." Morrigan held out a hand to Lavellan. The Inquisitor glanced once again at the sleeping group. Morrigan gauged her thoughts and provided an answer.

"They will be asleep for a short while. All the more reason to do this now."

Etain gently gripped the hand stretched out toward her and hauled herself up to her feet. "Alright. Care to elaborate as to what exactly you intend to do?"

Morrigan smiled and walked out of the alcove, toward the distant end of the piazza. A set of three Eluvians sat beneath their slender, tiled arches. Shrubbery from the garden behind their marble stage overflowed its designated space, ropes of green and blue foliage spilling over the stone balustrades.

"I suppose Briala shared her suspicions with you? Beware the witch, who knows what she would do?" Morrigan ran a hand along the lightly faded mosaics of what looked to be a statue base. Her face turned to look at Lavellan.

"Of course. No need to even ask." Etain shot a wary glance back toward the makeshift camp.

"Suffice it to say that none of us trust each other, despite the cooperation?" It wasn't so much a question as it was the statement of the obvious.

"Nothing personal." Etain's mouth pulled into a small, borderline sarcastic smile as she surveyed the ruins around her. "But there were a few too many holes in Briala's plan for me not to see that she was rushing, and improvising. At least, right before I left the keep, something pushed Briala's plan forward, and it wasn't me leaving on a Deep Roads expedition. The plan was carefully enacted up until Zevran threw me off the mountain. She wasn't fully aware of Cole's abilities, she underestimated my skills, and she had little clue of what the Inquisition's reaction would be when it came to our disappearance."

Etain crossed her arms over her chest and turned her full attention toward Morrigan. "Nor did I believe her little tale of how you two ran into each other. Things aren't lining up. And after that ambush? Now I'm certain I'm being kept in the dark."

"I'm glad to see you haven't grown too comfortable in the safety net of your title, Inquisitor." Morrigan acknowledged her suspicions with a simple nod, then paused before the steps leading to the portals.

"Neither one of us heeded to a mysterious Eluvian call." Morrigan began, with a subtle shake of her head. Evidently that was Briala's fabrication, given Morrigan's disapproving tone. She seemed to mentally brush it aside and focus on the matter at hand, wasting no time in getting to the point.

"I was in the Crossroads for an entirely different reason than Briala was. The ambush you had seen this morning was not the first of its kind. Our dear ambassador holds the key to opening this section of the Eluvians, and several within. Someone seeks that key quite fervently… When we crossed paths, Briala had just foiled an attempt to capture her. Several passes through the crossroads revealed someone was resetting the Eluvians, one by one. With no access to the main network, they had to work their way in from an Eluvian accessible from our world. There are a limited few of those left. Our journey today confirms out suspicion. Several more had been shattered or reset than when we were here last.

"I posit whoever is after Briala also brought forth my mother's demise. I wager that was their last attempt at live capture. Next time they may aim to kill. If they cannot obtain the key, they could act to remove her ability to access it entirely. I trust you see Briala's concern in this… Flemeth was no easy prey. Which means there is someone far stronger than she on the loose, or she gave herself willingly…"

Etain wasn't sure if she had caught a tinge of sadness in Morrigan's eyes, and whether it had anything to do with losing a mother. It didn't last long enough for her to be sure she had even seen anything.

"It was shortly after Corypheus's defeat. She did indeed leave me with a puzzling directive. Secrets within secrets. My mother was certainly fond of conundrums." Morrigan's eyes practically seared through Lavellan as she thought of how to best proceed. Her hand reached into a pouch at her belt, pulling something out and keeping it clenched in her fingers for a short moment.

"There is only one way to get to the Eluvian. There are no portals leading to it. There are no doors to lead you there. Unless, of course, you create one." Morrigan's fingers unfurled, revealing a tiny stone, the size of a pebble, but with the beauty of a rare jewel, akin to a small polished moonstone.

Then she turned to Lavellan, regarding the elf thoughtfully for a moment. Her long fingers held out the artifact for Etain.

The surprise in those indigo eyes was undeniable. Her mind was unable to actually accept what was happening.

"You cannot keep denying your role in this." Morrigan's merlot colored lips pulled into a shrewd smile, highlighting her resemblance to her own mother. "Not when you've already come to terms with it… Why else would you still be here?"

Etain's expression said one thing - is that a serious question? Morrigan did not wait for an answer, and tilted her palm marginally, enough for the stone to reflect the shifting light of the Crossroads.

"'Tis a key, rendered functional with or maybe soon after my mother's death…The only key to Mythal's eluvian. It turns all doors to it."

"You've seen it?"

"Yes."

Etain's tongue twisted back on itself as she fought with how to phrase the million questions striving to be asked first. Morrigan could guess the few main ones. Her hand continued to hold the deceptively harmless looking stone out for Etain.

"Mythal's reckoning, to be guided by your hand."

"Stop." Lavellan's voice was drenched in authority she hadn't even intended. Morrigan raised an eyebrow, though obviously not offended with her tone.

"What is it that disturbs you so?" She asked, eyes drifting about Lavellan's face as if she missed something.

"We cannot use it." Etain practically blurted out, her instincts on edge. Etain's ears filled with a rush of a thousand frantic whispers. She came in with the assumption Flemeth's directive would be fulfilled by Morrigan, while her only role would have been played as gatekeeper. So much for all of her theories. And yet, if her conjectures about what was within were right, they were all better off destroying the key than using it.

The sorceress of the wild leveled her another thoughtful glance, and let out a caustic laugh. "Now you are hesitant? 'Tis a surprise, Inquisitor."

"The last time the power of a pantheon artifact was unleashed, the Veil was torn, the Fade unleashed and countless lives were lost. Nations were stripped of half their might and power within a year. Thedas will take decades to recover. What do you think this could possibly lead to? Is it worth the risk of unleashing whatever is there?" Lavellan shifted a step away, fingers tingling with apprehension.

"And lose the knowledge and history of the ancients forever? No, you fail to mention who unleashed the power of the Orb, and with what purpose. Our cause is just." Morrigan's brows lowered and she continued to offer up the small rune stone - or gem, or whatever it was.

"Isn't that all a matter of perspective?" Lavellan's tone gained a pinch of aggravation, fearing the obvious clash of intent that finally made itself present. "You cannot recover what has been lost to the passing of time."

"I had not expected you, of all people, to be so reluctant to grasp at the chance to usher forth a new era. Especially considering you are at the forefront of the shift already, whether you like it or not. It is inevitable. We cannot ignore the opportunity before us. To think our knowledge of magic and the intricacies it lends our world is so small - to think we can finally uncover its secrets through the knowledge of the ancient elves -"

Lavellan stopped listening to her speech, jaw gritting in nervous terror. What is it you think it is this artifact will unlock, Morrigan? She fought with what she now knew, what had been revealed to her.

"It is too dangerous. Too great a risk." Lavellan reiterated. Playing barehanded with fired metal and expecting not to get burned.

"The alternative is much worse, Inquisitor. By far." Determination set her features in place, and for a moment, the spark of anger flickered in the air between them. "Corypheus's actions are child's play compared to what the one seeking this will unleash."

Lavellan let out a sigh and shook her head. "Why bring me here? If you had this all along, why go through this ploy and drag us all through the network?"

"Briala didn't know that, and I would prefer it to be that way. If she knew, she would require you to use it, and now. You are the tool to her endgame, that is all. But such a step is imprudent and irrational considering what is racing us through this labyrinth."

"Who - or what - is it? Why…" Lavellan swallowed the hard knot in her throat. "It was your mother's parting directive… why didn't you unlock the Eluvian?"

The smile that curled Morrigan's shapely lips turned Etain's blood to liquid ice flowing through her veins.

"The entity seeking what that Eluvian holds is far more dangerous than Corypheus, simply because bringing forth death and danger out of good intentions is far more thorough and far more damaging than doing so out of self-gratifying purposes… It is not evil that races us, Inquisitor. It isn't simple evil you will be forced to face, sooner or later. Regret, love, longing and compassion for fellow man. And that has the potential to bring far more bloodshed than Corypheus's simpleminded agenda."

Someone groaned and rolled over back at camp. Morrigan's fingers reached out and took hold of Etain's left hand, turning it to reveal her scarred palm. "I know you wish to destroy it and be done with it. But we have not the means, nor the time for it. And if you are to ever trust anyone's council in your life, let it be mine. Keep it safe, until we are out of here, and until the time comes for you to understand its true potential. Then make your decision. Yes?"

Lavellan stood dumbstruck, a truly lost expression widening her eyes - something that rarely ever occurred. She swallowed hard, and grit her teeth. "Yes."

"Good." Her hand produced a razor sharp needle of a knife from her side and she ran its edge along Etain's palm, parallel to the mark.

"What-?!" Lavellan scowled at the pain, but held still. Morrigan pushed the tiny rune under her skin, eliciting another pained sound from the woman. Her other hand floated over the incision and warm light tickled Lavellan's sore and bloodied skin. She bit back another groan as her flesh knitted itself back together.

Before she could even finish inspecting the small bump in her skin, Morrigan pushed her left hand back down to her side.

"We shouldn't raise suspicion," she muttered. "Once we reach the Eluvian, just play along. Soon enough, we will need to leave the crossroads. You still need Briala to deal with the Empress and her ambitions. Tread carefully, Inquisitor, those two are accustomed to being the puppet masters."

"Don't they all." Etain mumbled and wiped the smear of blood off her palm with the inside of her cloak. She hadn't even begun to think of how to deal with Celene's little deceitful trick; how exactly to utilize Briala's skills and her knowledge to their advantage. Would it be the right thing to do? Would that be overstepping her bounds as Inquisitor? Yet again she was bound to tread on morally ambiguous ground, trying to make the best out of a bad situation.

Her eyes tore themselves away from her hand, trying not to be too conspicuous about the anomaly now wedged beneath her skin. The more she thought of it, the more her flesh seemed to try and wriggle itself away from the stone. The entirety of all that happened in the past few minutes left her feeling jittery.

"Try and rest. I'll take the first watch." With one last perusing gander, Morrigan left Etain to wander about idly once again.

Her left palm itched, though whether it was the mark or the newly healed welt was indiscernible.

It was terrifying. Having faced one creature seeking deification, and freeing an Avvar god-spirit bound to a dragon, there seemed to be a pattern emerging. Lavellan loathed to even dare think what could possibly be next. Her mind went there regardless of her precaution and reluctance. Asha'bellanar was no mere mage, and her death was more disquieting than reassuring. It explained why Etain stopped hearing the voices of the Well and the Eluvian plagued her dreams.

Flemeth's words sprang back into her mind, crisp and clear as if she had just spoken to her this morning. More and more of everything she had said sounded like a premonition rather than a recollection. Even worse was the thought of what that aught have made her, what that made of the Inquisition.

Her questions merged into a sludge of incomprehensible thoughts, like trying to piece together a formal speech or performing an engineering algorithm after a night of overindulgent, heavy drinking. It was all too much to deal with at once.

Etain turned back toward her bedroll, hoping and praying for the ability to lay down, close her eyes, and forget everything for an hour. She padded toward the humble bedding as softly as her boots allowed, wondering how different her life would have been had she never been sent to the Conclave. Maybe someone else would have been in her place, maybe they would have been a better fit as Inquisitor than she was. A part of her regretted being at the Temple of Sacred Ashes. But with each day, that part was dwarfed by the guilt of wishing such a fate on someone else, and a fear of just how deleterious events could have been had someone worse, someone more incompetent, more shortsighted replaced her. And had they learned the orb was Elven? Wars and genocides have been started for lesser reasons.

There was little use of pondering fruitless what-ifs at this point. She crawled cautiously into her bedroll, scanning the three sleeping companions. Her gaze locked in with Morrigan's bewitching, golden eyes. It needed no pointing out that she was withholding something.

Etain lowered herself onto the floor and looked up at the curved ceiling, Flemeth's words whispering in her ears as if carried on the Crossroads breeze. "So long as the music plays, we dance." Whose music am I dancing to, and who else is on the floor with me?

Chapter Text

    The ruins had been still and untouched for centuries, the air stale and musky. The once magnificent stone walls now crumbled and cracked with moisture and invading greenery. Further into the decaying ancient halls, absolute darkness suffocated any sign of life. The further below ground the way led, the more soundless and desolate the convoluted path seemed. Countless dead ends, crumbled walls and toppled pillars warned trespassers not to proceed, yet Solas navigated the skeletal ruins with ease, veilfire lighting his way.


    The chamber he sought was in the farthest reaches of the ancient fortress, unbeknownst to most even when the ruins yet harbored life. His heart shuddered in relief upon reaching the deserted room, the walls yet intact. His fingers emanated a dim light as he traced a long forgotten pattern on a nondescript stone within the shadowy alcove. A crackle shivered up the wall and the stone groaned in protest, reluctantly revealing a cramped passageway in the opposite corner of the room. The raven statue within the alcove turned at the same time, as if to distract those without true knowledge of the lock’s purpose. There was a hidden chest beneath the statue, beckoning to deaf ears. The secret passage across the hall was concealed behind a nondescript wall. Solas promptly took to pulling apart the bricks, a rush of musty air breathing past him.


    The forgotten room seemed even darker than the rest of the complex, if that was possible. The deafening silence was broken only by the shuffle of his feet and the whisper of the veilfire writhing in his palm. The darkness peeled away from the glow of his fire, revealing a room petrified in time, its contents untouched. His eyes peered into the shadows, searching for anything useful, or in the very least a brazier.


    In contrast to every other room in the crumbling complex, something seemed to lurk in the shadows, making his skin crawl with unease. Though he knew well enough that obscured dark rooms with secrets to hide and whispers of water eating away the crumbling ruins above tended to exert such an effect. His hands brushed past tomes, curiosity stirring and a tilted smile crossing his lips.


    The room was so silent that the smallest sound seemed amplified in his ears. Solas abandoned the books and stepped toward the back, investigating the chamber further. He turned briefly to the darkest corner of the room, his eyes pulled in different directions in anticipation. It should be here, if his memory served him right.


    For a fleeting moment, the luminous light of the veilfire seemed to reflect off of something in the shadows. Solas elected to investigate the metal artifact, suspecting a chest or a safe. Or perhaps yet another statue?


    As the fire shed light into the corner, his stomach churned with ice and his breath stalled. After a moment of stillness, his heart pounded furiously in his chest, an ear-splitting thrum in a silent room. An incredulous frown pulled at his brows as Solas glared on, trying to chase away the chills scampering up his spine. Even here you find me. He unconsciously indulged in the illusion.


    The veilfire danced off of the silvery spaulder and the battle worn, ornate bracers. Full length armor rings glinted like menacing claws, waiting for the moment to rip into his flesh and tear him to shreds. Her hair, pleated tight and neat, remained hidden beneath the cowl. The weathered leather of the jacket and smoke colored sash were lit with dim green light, the wrought iron color of the undershirt reflecting the flames. The woman did not stir, sitting cross legged on an ancient lounge. Her staff - all simple lines and sharp edged ends - hung from her fingers, touching the dust covered floor.


    Her eyes glimmered beneath a silverite mask, her gaze washing over his skin like poisoned rain. Solas felt the blood rush from his limbs to his thrumming heart as his thoughts stilled and he looked on to her in a stupor. He grit his teeth and sighed in frustration.


    His mind had taken to conjuring ghosts: his version of the woman he dreaded revealing the truth to, yet felt the death grip of guilt for not doing so. A very personal representation of who his actions were actively killing, and for whom he’d rent the world in two before.


    Or perhaps her ghost was a likeness for the small, meek part of his own soul that was finally waking up, and promising never to shut its eyes to the world again. A piece that fostered sympathy - a stubborn, defiant remnant of his old self that now sabotaged his every step. The part of him he feared would find something to grow fond of in this world, so like and unlike his own.  


    This twisted world. This twisted future. A waking nightmare. His mind reflexively shut the thought out, as it had for nearly two years now. He avoided thinking about it, knowing that would only drown him in uncertainty.


    Fool, her whisper hung in the air long after her ghost was gone. Pitying, accusing.


    He shut his eyes momentarily, temples pulsing as he grit his teeth. Scorn me all you want, vhenan. The blame is mine.


    His eyes opened, knowing what he would see - or not see, rather - and still loathing it. A metal staff set against a crumbling statue, the female figure indistinguishable.


    Nothing. No one.


    His face twisted into a frustrated scowl and a torrent of energy wreathed around his fingers briefly before crashing into the piled armor with a furious crackle. The neglected adornments shattered and scraped along the floor, tumbling along with the last pieces of the statue. Solas’s chest moved up and down rhythmically, trying to settle his pounding heart and chase away the tingling of anxiety in his limbs.


    He had failed. This was a world he created; a terrible future in which he had brought ruin to his kin, the remnants of which huddled in the forests pretending to carry on the legacies of their long lost past, or scurried around in poverty and misery in human city slums. They were far from his People, so far removed from their ancient kin; little more than shadows in this terrible future. Husks of what the elven used to be. What did that make him in this world?


    He had failed and already strayed too far from his path when he became invested in this nightmare of a world. His worldview slipped the moment Lavellan became more than just a construct of this strange reality; the moment she became someone he worried for when she was injured, when she made mistakes, someone who drew his attention even when she was doing absolutely nothing. He blindly ran in the opposite direction of his path once he began wondering what her lips tasted like, once she left him laughing until his ribs felt like splitting, once she mimicked his own gestures to entangle him completely in her grasp. Not long after that he had completely lost his way, and wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to pull through with what he set out to do.


    Because she was real. Try as he might, reason it away as best he can she was still flesh and blood and brilliant soul. And yet he had to undo her world and her reality to restore his own. What kind of monster did that make him in her eyes?


    Mine. His imaginary Etain whispered somewhere in his periphery. Perhaps his infamous name had become even more befitting.


    Solas smothered the uncomfortable realization and turned to his inspection of the chamber. His gray eyes peered into the darkness beyond a narrow arch in the back wall. The veilfire threw eerie light into the small nook, reflections dampened by a thick layer of dust over a sleeping Eluvian. Distant shuffles let him know the operatives were making progress clearing out the complex. A few cracks and the soft scuffle of boots from the hall behind him signaled the approach of his forward scout.


    Solas’s hand brushed away some of the dust on the Eluvian and he pressed his palm against its surface. The black glass shuddered once beneath his touch. And so the process began again. It would have made securing the labyrinth a lot more effective had his agents been able to secure they key. Yet there was still no word of success.


    “We have a situation.” A lightly armored woman announced without ceremony, her Orlesian accent echoing in the room. Her hair was dark and neatly cropped, the longer strands brushed behind her elven ears. Her winged longbow reflected the flickers of light that seemed to shiver through the Eluvian.


    The sound of breaking glass followed a few moments after, the mirror reshaping itself beneath his hands. Sometimes it worked without a hitch, others times it shattered the Eluvians beyond salvation. This one seemed to be withstanding the alteration.


    “We’ve tracked her into the Labyrinth. She’s not alone.” The scout continued.


    Solas hadn’t so much as glanced at his agent until the task was done and the mirror flared to life beneath his hands. He stepped aside and brushed the dust off his hands.


    “You know what to do.”

 



    ‘You are the People’s only hope.’


    It hung like iron anvils from her shoulders - an impossible weight and a problem with no solution. At least, not the solution everyone seemed to see. A responsibility none alive was fit for.


    We’re fucked. Etain thought resentfully, nearly chewing her lip to blood and trying not to stare at her own palm as she walked. She was in quite a mood, the lack of sleep and weight of the last few days finally taking their toll.


    She felt very much the cynic, the defeatist. What did everyone who knew of the elven pantheon and its artifacts think it would change? Unleashing the gods’ power would somehow right thousands of years worth of missteps of human and elven history? Undo the consequences of all of their ancestors’ and their own actions? What sort of salvation could it possibly bring to a world so changed, so different from the times of ancient Arlathan? To her, it made as much sense as bringing an outdated weapon to a modern battle. High risk, and barely any reward.


    Not to mention that they all knew next to nothing of the gods and ancient culture they so revered. Her visions revealed a complex, advanced society - yes, but a utopian society was a contradiction that could never exist. There were always the powerful, and the repressed. The dark side of every civilization’s progression. The elves’ ancestors were no exception, as far as Etain could tell.


    Not that she felt she was in any place to render accurate judgement. But she had seen slaves in her visions. She’d seen opulence, she’d seen grandeur and culture and wisdom, but not without civil war, crime, the vicious side of ambition and treachery. Arlathan was no mystical, long lost Utopia. It was no different than the empires vying for power and supremacy today. At least that much was clear.


    Something drastic happened to lead to Mythal’s murder. There must have been planning, a build up, a cause. A root in the mutiny against her rule. Was it justified? Who did it? For all they know the gods could have all turned on each other. There could have been a dispute between them all. Deities tended to do such things, if myths held any shred of truth.


    She should have felt like that was a disappointment. But in reality it only served to bring the deities to their mortal level. Was that supposed to be an advantage?


    In case of what, Lavellan? Try and not lose your mind in such a hurry.


    Knowledge comes with great sacrifice. Morrigan had casually thrown the phrase out at Zevran a few days past. Yet now it seemed more appropriate than it would ever be. At the moment, Lavellan felt certain her sanity was the sacrifice.


    Was this the plan all along? Flemeth’s plan? Mythal’s safety net? Create a well of knowledge that would tether servants to her through the ages, working its way up to a more powerful puppet each time? Until she was finally free? Did the anchor actually have any role in it?


    Her small group departed the piazza and eventually had strung themselves out along the path unconsciously, Morrigan at the front and Briala at the very back. Trudging through this in-between world without a normal day and night cycle was starting to take its toll. They were all tired, irritated, and quite frankly bored. Or overwhelmed, in case of Etain, at least.  


    She wondered if the distance between Briala and Morrigan was an unintentional representation of how they currently felt. Maybe it was paranoia from having to keep up Morrigan’s farce, but Lavellan began to think Briala was growing suspicious.


    Small wonder, that.


    It made Etain question what Morrigan’s plan actually was now that the apparent object of their search was wedged in the flesh of her palm. Even more so, she wondered whose council she should trust more.


    Neither. Listen to both and act carefully. Destroy the damned key and spare the us all the trouble. There is no other sane option. Who am I to jeopardize Thedas for a remnant of an arcane world, an ancient society that most likely carries more danger than reward? That we know next to nothing of?


    She walked back to Briala and gently touched her elbow to draw her attention. The ambassador turned toward her and forced her frown to recede. Etain’s arms wanted to cross themselves over her chest, but her mind caught the impulse before the movement and signaled her to simply let her arms rest at her sides. Crossed arms could be taken as a defensive gesture. Hiding her hands could signal anxiety. She didn’t plan on letting Briala catch onto anything.


    Her wrist balanced on the sword pommel, which probably didn’t exactly reflect comfort but it would be worse to fidget with her hands now. Etain let her hand hang limp and maintained her casual pace.


    “I’d make small talk but we both know why I’m here.” She began. Briala’s arms uncrossed. She was listening, but just as on edge as Lavellan.


    “You warn me of Morrigan’s agenda, she warns me of yours… A simple way to sway me from my own, isn’t it?” Etain continued. “If we are to play games, then at least lets make them useful. So play the devil’s advocate with me. Both of you are reluctant divulge everything you know and think, seeing only the goal at the end of the line… If Morrigan knows something further, or if she is hiding a vital piece of information about the Eluvian, why hide it from either one of us now? More importantly, what makes her reluctance justified?”


    Briala scoffed and smiled. “You are a paradox, Inquisitor. You live and breathe duality. You watch, you learn, you adapt - appearing as yourself, and yet no one really knows who that is. You alter bits and pieces of yourself, hide certain things and reveal others depending on the situation, never fully lying but never divulging the full truth. Yet you manage to sway and convince those you need that they know you, and those who pose a threat that they can predict you. You do not fear ambiguity, you embrace it. It makes you a good leader, but a bad friend… it also means it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly you aim to do. It’s why I like you, despite our past.”


    Lavellan’s expression hadn’t shifted a bit, though her mouth wanted to curve into a smile. At least someone’s been paying attention. If only you knew how many backfires and humiliations I had to live past to be able to do this, you wouldn’t be even half as impressed.


    Briala was seeing exactly what Etain wanted her to see. If they were to deal with the Celene situation properly, and not let the advantage of Briala’s skills and spy network to slip past the Inquisition, she had to see Etain as something other than just another figurehead. Pique her interest, particularly by purposefully remaining in the gray area between friend or foe. Her actions would be more careful, seeing as they could stand to benefit from aiding each other.


    So now she knew Briala was trying to get on her good side, from which she would slowly prod her in the direction she wanted in dealing with the Empress and her Elven Rebellion. All while Etain was trying to do much the same, and steer her away from questioning her mistrust of Morrigan, and of guessing that they were both up to something.


    But she also faced another dead end when considering what the mage’s role was in all this. If she truly did think of Etain in the terms Briala presented, then why hand her the key? Didn’t that only reinforce the point Lavellan had tried to make about ‘just cause’ and righteousness being a matter of perspective?


    The only logical conclusion was that there must be something else, something of import that she was keeping to herself that tied Lavellan to everything that was happening. Something that meant Morrigan - or was it Flemeth, really? - had no other choice but to rely on Lavellan. Her mind kept returning to the Anchor, not just the Well, being the missing link. The mark’s name was becoming more and more fitting, she supposed.


    “And you know my capabilities and history well enough to see why Morrigan wouldn’t trust me either.” Briala tilted her head by a slight degree. “But she is no different from us. Seems quite counterintuitive to mistrust each other, however, we are all far too wary for such things. Stay sharp, and try not to give her any reason to completely doubt you. You should probably start by heading back. We can worry about Celene once we make it out of here alive.”


    “Such a persuasive way for you to tell me to get lost.” Etain finally let herself cross her arms and smile.


    Briala smirked. “Fine. Get lost.”


    They walked for another hour, forcing absent chatter here and there to try and stay alert, or to distract themselves. They slowed their progress past the edge of a huge complex that looked more like a city block than the extensive open air plazas they have encountered earlier that day.


    Zevran had excused himself to wander off a short distance into the unkempt orchards and wooded area of the Crossroads to answer nature’s call. When he hadn’t returned in what seemed to be a normal amount of time for such things, Briala had grown worried and hung back, urging the rest of the group to keep moving. She rounded the bend behind them, trying to spot the elf through the woods without actually seeing anything she didn't want to. She muttered something under her breath and folded her arms.


    Dorian and Morrigan proceeded ahead, increasing the distance between themselves and Briala. Lavellan tried to stay in the middle, in the visual field of both ends of the group.


    A thrum whistled behind them, like a metal bird soaring through the air. Lavellan turned, curious as to what the sound could have been. A part of her wanted to see some sort of living creature for once, in the midst of the perpetually frozen Crossroads.


    It stuck out from under Briala’s collarbone like an oversize, ornate arrow: gleaming metal reflecting the shifting colors of the strange skies above them, claws springing from the bloodied tip. Briala’s fingers reached up to gingerly touch the foreign object, as if she hadn’t even realized it was there. But the edges of pain and horror twisted the corners of her lips down. Her big, startled eyes glanced up at Etain, a short distance away in the trees.


    “Fen’harel en-“ She frantically began before her body yanked backwards like a rag doll thrown by a child in the midst of a tantrum. Her last word morphed into a deafening scream.


    Shadows flittered and emerged in the distance, like statues coming to life. Three, then six, then a dozen. Several more.  Somewhere in the expanse of the Crossroads, Eluvians strummed like a guitar strings, signaling even more company.


    Instinct commanded her to act, and Etain’s hand drifted upwards to tear open the veil and wreak havoc on the attackers, or to send the air snapping with lethal charges, but that would be foolish. Not knowing what effect magic would have in the labyrinth was the least of her problems. The Inquisitor wasn’t here. She wasn’t meddling in ancient magic, scouting dangerous otherworldly ruins on a mad quest for power. Her option would be to kill every last pursuer that could identify her or run before they even had a chance to.


    How did she know they hadn’t already figured out who she was? Or that they wouldn’t glean the information from Briala?


    And what of the … thing… in her hand? If she fails and is captured or killed, what becomes of it? To what end would it be used, if it is discovered?


    Her eyes scanned the playing field, reflexively picking out weak spots and the death traps. The last two years in particular had rendered the action automatic for her, and this presented a tactical nightmare: the assailants were spread out, some in groups, others as lone operatives, with both range and melee weapons.  They were all on varying levels of ground, some in the open, some amidst the ruins, emerging from narrow halls. Not to mention sheer numbers were enough to let her know a fight would be pointless, especially if she couldn’t rely on all of her skills.


    And yet what sort of wretch was she to abandon Briala to her death, or worse?


    Two scouts approached the wooded pathway, slowly meandering closer to investigate, bows at the ready. Etain waited until they rounded the bend where Briala had stood just moments ago, slipping out of sight of their larger group for a moment just brief enough. Her hands curled into fists in the air for a moment before thrusting downward, in time with the light bend in her knees.  It wasn’t even fair, in all actuality. Etain hit them with enough power and charge to hear their teeth crack as their muscles contracted involuntarily. They dropped to the ground like contorted marionettes once she released her hold on them.


    Briala’s scream had long faded, dragged too far away for Etain to be able to get to her safely and quickly.


    How would she deal with Celene without her? Had they found Zevran t-?


    His hand grabbed her arm from behind and wretched her backward, turning her in the process. Zevran kept his eyes focused on the shadows of strangers swarming the pathway in the distance, knowing it would be seconds before someone would spot them. What seemed to be a foolish mistake on their part - spreading out along the path - was the only thing that would buy them time to escape now.


    “Go!” He hissed and pushed Etain ahead of himself, grasping the blades steadily and comfortably. She caught sight of fresh blood on the metal.


    Her feet carried her furiously forward, as far out of sight and sound as she could manage, Zevran close behind. They had caught up to the rest of their small party.


    “What happened?” Morrigan stopped picking at one of her nails and frowned, eyes bright as embers.


    “An ambush. Briala…” Etain was surprised her words had turned to cotton on her tongue. She shook her head once and swallowed hard. “They … harpooned her-“


    “How many?” Morrigan demanded and snatched the staff from her back.


    “Twenty? I don’t know, we have to-“ Etain began but was cut off once more.


    “Don’t be foolish, she is probably beyond our help already.  If we go back and fail, we lose everything. We must go!” Morrigan warned and motioned with her hand to keep going, eyes glancing back to catch any approaching threats.


    “It may be close but with all four of us we may be able to take them on-“


    “None of you are here. Neither am I. We need to disappear.”


    Lavellan could practically hear her jaw set as her morality fought it out in her head. Leave Briala and she practically would kill her herself. Go after her and they would most likely all be dead. Take the certainty of a casualty and a good chance of the four of them surviving, with whatever the hell weapon Flemeth had left them with, or gamble it all and try to save an individual who was likely already seriously injured, or worse? Her mind self-sensored the thought that she would have preferred Zevran to be the one captured. She may not have been particularly fond of either one of them - though she was beginning to warm up to Briala, but that did not give her any permission to dismiss them as people just as important to her as Dorian. Zevran would have been less detrimental. He wouldn’t lose her an elven spy network spanning all of Orlais, nor her major playing card against Celene.


    It was how quick her gut had made the decision to leave Briala that scared her most, for it was made the second she hadn’t lurched after Briala when the elf was shot.


    She pulled the hood down lower to obscure her face and her hand gripped her sword, feet carrying her forward.


    “So that’s it? We are just leaving her?” Dorian asked, hesitation mixing with the most mild of offended notes in his voice. He had his answer when no one paused.


    He reached for his own hood and hurried along the path with Etain, following Morrigan. “Why is it that nothing ever goes to plan with you?”


    Lavellan’s mind lingered on the image of Briala being vaulted away as if she weighed next to nothing. Her lips had never finished what she was going to say. What was it supposed to even mean?


    “I must be rotten luck incarnate. Or I might be cursed by the fucking dread wolf. Take your pick.” She grumbled and picked up the pace, clutching her sword hard enough to cut circulation to her fingers. It felt like her mind and body were in disarray. Like everything over the past fortnight came crashing down at once. Everything she theorized and planned ahead for kept crumbling the moment she thought she had a solution.


    “Or you just have terrible ‘friends’. Myself excluded. Or is it included?” Dorian continued, his voice punctuated with the footfalls of his run.


    “Bad time for jokes, Dorian.” Lavellan snapped, nerves frayed over Briala’s wellbeing. She felt a complete monster for not going after her. But feelings and logic did not always find common ground.


    “I wasn’t joking.”


    “Hush!” Morrigan hissed and lead them through the winding pathways. It felt like playing a game of hide and seek without ever stopping to actually hide. Being prey was an uncomfortable feeling, and being prey to a predator that could only be evaded and not fought was just sickening. Etain wasn’t used to running from a threat, mostly because she usually had little other options. And now they were running to save their skins and Lavellan may have just lost Empress Celene’s leash.


    “What is your plan, Morrigan?” Lavellan’s whisper left her lips as a dry screech. How long had they been running? She realized she had lost track of time, lost in a panic as to how she was going to even deal with the situation if she made it out alive.


    “We need to get out of the Crossroads, we must find a doorway leading out.” She didn’t turn back to speak to them. “If Briala was killed, they may be looking for us. If she was taken alive, they will be looking for us, for we don’t know if she revealed anything.”


    “Let’s hope they aren’t smart enough to keep her alive.” Dorian mumbled.


    Lavellan felt as if her teeth would break against each other if she heard the word ‘hope’ once more. Everything about it felt unnatural. She felt anger well up towards Dorian’s comment and tried to swallow it down.


    The four of them dashed out of the woods into a smaller complex, a courtyard with a long pool of emerald waters running down the center. Several Eluvians resided within an ascending canopy of elegantly carved archways, the structures reflecting in geometric patterns on the pool’s still surface. Morrigan rushed the first two flights of winding staircases to a massive portal sitting across a narrow walkway on its own tower on the opposite end of the pool. It woke abruptly, casting an iridescent blue hue onto the white stone of the bridge. It produced the illusion of walking across shimmering waters.


    Morrigan stepped into the fluid metal of the looking glass and disappeared with a ripple in its surface. Dorian followed, a mild look of reluctance pressing his lips thin.


    Another portal hummed a low note on one of the floors above them, white light spilling onto the walkways from one of the corners. From her angle, Lavellan caught a glimpse of leather armor - noting a gauntlet on a feminine hand, short black hair, a silvery longbow - and nearly slammed herself flat against the surface of the Eluvian, dragging Zevran along with her. Her skin prickled with anxiety, the encounter far too close to foiling their entire escape.


    She breathed out, her hand shaking lightly at her side before being clenched in a fist. Her mouth opened to speak but did not know what to speak first.


    “Keep going.” Morrigan muttered ahead, rushing through a mildly familiar portion of the Crossroads. The expanse of silent Eluvians loomed ahead of the steps, enclosed by tilting structures distorted by the dim fog.


    “How did you open that last Eluvian? I thought Briala had the only key?” Zevran called, his daggers still held firmly in his grip.


    “She does. Some doors hold basic passwords, like doors between hallways. I have access to a limited few of them.” Morrigan replied, leaving the ‘hence I needed Briala’ unmentioned.


    Lavellan’s skin flushed with needles at the sudden recognition of the labyrinth portion they were currently in. It looked the same as the Crossroads Morrigan lead her into seemingly ages ago.


    It seemed like a trap, or a dream too real when the woman ascended the steps to a familiar Eluvian. After the tension and stress of the last two weeks, it seemed simply improbable that beyond that portal would be safety. That it would so suddenly come to an end, that their planned course of action whipped around backwards and dissolved in the air within an hour or two. And Briala…


    Morrigan’s hands danced forward gracefully, as if sending a gust of wind that awakened the Eluvian before her. The hum of this portal seemed louder and clearer than any previous ones they've travelled through. Lavellan had to remind herself not to expect anything that wasn’t certain. She may have been mistaken, which was a likely possibility considering she knew little of this place.


    Morrigan stepped aside and directed Dorian and Lavellan to proceed, Zevran scanning their surroundings for any followers.


    Lavellan caught Morrigan’s gaze, focusing on the same tension straining the corners of her eyes. It didn’t bode well that simply finding the key to Mythal’s Eluvian - the key to it, not even actually finding the Eluvian - had cost them Briala’s life. She had to strain to keep the “I told you so” out of her eyes.


    So she inhaled a bracing gulp of air and turned toward the shimmering waves of the Eluvian, knowing full well that even if Skyhold was beyond, it wouldn’t be the same returning there, considering the ticking time bomb beneath her skin. Once she was able to stop the string of profanities bouncing between her ears, she stepped into the portal, desperately hoping she’d find a stiff drink on the other side, sitting next to Bull.

 




        The light was blinding compared to the darkness of the secret study, the air less musty and suffocating. And yet Solas felt the weight in his gut and tightness of his throat, walking through the ruins of what used to be one of the most beautiful places in Elvhenan. The Eluvian network was a nexus of trade and cultural exchange for the entire empire, and thus always bustling with travelers, merchants and artists. A rich melting pot of ideas and art, reduced to toppling ruins and lifeless, decaying pathways.


    A direct result of his actions. A chilling and accurate representation to exactly what he had done to his kin and their world. His jaw clenched, redirecting his attention to one of his scouts recounting the situation that unfolded in the last day.


    “… completed a through brush of the area. Everything hints at a possible campsite. By our counts, Briala was accompanied by four others. Our agents have tracked them through this vicinity before losing sight of them. Nera is surveying the chambers connected to this nexus.” The elven man rattled off in a heavy Ferelden accent. He had the face of a man who spent most of his years in elements, skin weathered and the same persistent dead pan glare beneath a heavy brow. It didn’t quite match his very tall and lanky frame.


    His gloved fingers held out a small piece of parchment, folded several times over. Solas unclasped his hands from behind his back and accepted the missive.


    “The forward scouts found it several hours ago, near where Briala may had set up camp for a short period of time.” He added and stood at attention, a strange habit for an elf hailing from Ferelden. But even mercenary bands held organization and order. Solas couldn’t help but let a smile pull the corner of his mouth upward. He had always held respect, and perhaps had been biased toward the discipline drilled into soldiers.


    “You are certain this was left by Briala’s retinue?” Solas’s fingers unfurled the paper and looked it over carefully before even reading it, taking into account everything from paperweight to its age.


    “Not in entirety. But it is most likely. We are not sure what it means, but it seemed too conspicuous not to be left with purpose.”


    His brow furrowed low. Up until this point, Briala and her escort had done all to evade the scouts. Why leave a crumb to follow? What was the point?


    His gray eyes glanced briefly up at the agent before falling back on the paper.


    Musical notation. A vocal score. Orlesian lyrics. Seemingly conventional sheet music, accidentally dropped by a traveler in a rush.


    In the middle of the Crossroads.


    Solas began reading through the lyrics.


    “If I may?” The operative interceded, his heavily accented speech still somehow monotone.


    “Of course.”


    “I have heard the song before. My sister often sang it. It was frequently played in Northern Orlais. The lyrics are correct. The scale and melody are not. There are wrong notes everywhere. It looked like amateur mistakes at first but there is a pattern to it.”


    It clicked in Solas’s head, his eyes narrowing upon hearing the new information. Of course. Briala had spent her life around bards from across all of Orlais. This was a rare, but not completely forgotten trick of theirs. And before Orlais had used it, the servants in the temples and palaces of Arlathan had used it to communicate amongst each other.


    Not a simple slip up and dropped sheet music, indeed. A message.


    “Show me the notes that do not belong.” He stepped to the side to stand next to his operative, who proceeded to point out the discrepancies, quietly humming the notes. The foreign notes marked the letters in the Orlesian lyrics, spelling out a message. Solas frowned as the melody began to take shape.


    An old Dalish song superimposed onto an Orlesian ballad. A song of paradise lost, never to be recovered, if he remembered correctly. His curiosity galvanized to an even higher level, wondering as to why that particular song was chosen. A message hidden within a message.


    Their progress was interrupted by the arrival of the first group of scouts he sent into the Crossroads the day prior. Behind their lead scout, a fully armored warrior carried a limp body in his arms. The grimaces plastered over their faces preceded the sight of four more bodies being carried by the rest of the group.


    Solas nodded a ‘thank you, dismissed’ to the agent, and turned toward the approaching party, folding the small scrap of parchment in his fingers. His hands customarily clasped behind his back once more.


    The warrior stepped forward, the limp body in his arms that of a petite elf with cinnamon-brown hair. Blood stained the armor at her shoulder, the wound recently treated by one of the healers. Her long black lashes fluttered meekly, her pupils struggling to focus. Her eyes briefly turned toward Solas.


    He held her gaze for the short moment she managed before slipping from consciousness. “Find her a safe and secure place to stay. Send a healer for her as well. Ensure she harms none and cannot leave. We have matters to discuss.”


    His focus turned to the casualties. His gaze asked the questions his mouth didn’t need to.


    “Four dead. Two were killed by blade, two by magic while chasing down Briala’s retinue.” The lead scout answered, her voice betraying a tinge of anger, though as to whom it was directed was uncertain.


    “Give them a proper burial. Do as you see fit.” Solas offered his condolences by softening his tone. The lead scout nodded in affirmation and departed, the warrior and rest of her troop following silently behind her. Their procession left the courtyard feeling even more morbid, every stone and tile reminiscent of death and fall from grace.


    But dwelling on the depressing energy of the place was only proving to be a nuisance. There was still a section of the Eluvians to manually reset, and until Briala woke, he may as well not waste any time.


    He turned toward the two towers of ascending levels of interlocking archways, constructed more for aesthetics than function. In its original state, it had always cast the most mesmerizing shadows onto the shimmering waters of the pool and shone like the crystalline structure of ice. Now it looked more like skeletal, bleached remains of some behemoth creature.


    His eyes lowered and fingers unfurled the parchment once again, ignoring the more obvious message in the Orlesian song -meant to throw off the trail if one only knew that ballad. He was focused on the hidden Dalish melody instead, straining to glean the intended message from the old song of paradise lost. Arlathan, Elvhenan. All of it. Society remembered through idyllic nostalgia, lost only because it never existed.


    If the purpose of the missive was to distract or confuse, it was certainly living up to its purpose already, before Solas had even decoded its secret message. It felt like a blow below the belt, considering what has been eating away at him all day; even if he was the one assigning value to things that may not have even been there. Changing the context simply because his mind dwelled on the matter.


    He had recognized the pattern by now, and caught himself before his thoughts spiraled back into the dark pit of guilt and remorse. Folding the parchment yet again, he pushed it beneath his gauntlet, saving it for a time when he could sit down and carefully interpret it.


    His feet carried him across the white marble walkway in a poised stroll, the motions bringing collected calm back into his bones. The Eluvian sang its muted note and oscillated brilliant light as he approached, its reaction unchanging no matter the traveler. He hesitated, his fingers touched the surface, ripples disseminating across its full length.


    In the maze beyond lay one Eluvian, a single door leading to the heart of where it all began; to the stronghold that bore his legacy and hid his legend for centuries, its name betraying his true actions; to where the Inquisition had created its own legend, and where Etain would still sleeplessly wander the ramparts.


    To where it will one day all end.


    He stepped through, disappearing in a calm ripple of light along the mirror’s surface. 

Chapter Text

“If you do not act, you know I will… on my own terms.” The voice was disproportionally warm to the threat of its words. “I will have no choice.”


    “I know, I should have come back sooner…” Deshanna lazily dragged her aching foot off Amaury’s knee with a sigh. “But there were some complications with the trade and it nearly threw off our entire network in Ghislain.”


    “Yes… merchants got too enthusiastic comparing cocks, I believe you said.”


    “Posturing may be necessary but not when my operatives start dying for the sake of some rich man’s ego.” She was in no mood to speak of that mess anytime soon. “I had to pull a lot of strings to buy myself time to sneak off here.”


    Her large, cerulean eyes glanced over the man sitting in the chair across from her. He sat in breeches and a simple gray tunic, undone to expose the skin of his collar bones and chest; impossibly smooth and a warm, umber brown shade that always begged her fingers to touch it.


    She had missed him. Particularly his voice, the way his lips moved with each word.


    He watched her in return, chestnut eyes always daring to go on, to tell them more. They were the tools of his trade.


    “How is she?”


    He stifled a short chuckle. “Well… your interesting word choice must run in the family.”


    “That… yes, we Lavellan women are known for that.”


    “It adds to your charm.” Amaury’s smile extended up to his eyes briefly, before it receded and was replaced by something more serious.


    For six years, Etain had lived as a secluded ward in Amaury and his sister’s care. Well, a ward in Deshanna’s arrangement, a scribe and errand girl in the eyes of everyone outside the estate. For the first few months she proved a strain, withering away, refusing to eat, or speak beyond that which was absolutely necessary. She slept for days, it seemed. Amaury had practically decided she would die.


    But when the shock passed, flickers of some angry flame awakened within her. If only she acted sooner, if only whatever she had done would have happened sooner - her family would have yet been alive. Her mother, her father, her little sibling. They would have been traveling again in their aravel, they would be with Deshanna and the rest of the clan, even if she herself wasn’t. She would have saved her family. But there was no turning back time. For a long while she dwelled in her own anger, avoiding others, irritated and frustrated and full of blame.


    Finally, she seemed to level out, seeking Amaury or his sister, Elodie, just to have someone listen to her. She returned to being something reminiscent of a normal child. Though there were times Amaury found himself fearing the intelligence behind her eyes. He feared it would grow too cold, too calculating. Unfeeling, devoid of sympathy and pity.


    Then it happened. A year past, Etain and a human girl a year older - Piper - were out to deliver a message and pick up several packages in town. Amaury didn't hear what happened until the next morning, when Etain and Piper returned bloodied and dirty.


    The merchant was murdered in his home. The girls stumbled in on the act and were attacked by the perpetrators. They went after Piper first.


    Not one, of four made it past Etain. Charred from the inside out, the city guards had mentioned. Rumors around town spread of noises like the snapping of lightning in the distance, near the merchant’s modest estate.


    If Piper had seen anything, she kept it to herself, saying next to nothing of the details of their escape.


    Looking back on it, Amaury regretted his outburst. He had been livid with the girl. Her wrathful actions were dangerous. She aught to have ran, ran for help. Everything hinged on her remaining anonymous, on no one knowing of her abilities. What if one of the assassins survived? What if someone had seen them leave the estate? Did she realize what would have happened to all of them? What if Piper was scared into talking?


    He yelled, and cursed and locked Etain up in a small room. He feared her as if she was a trained feline that reverted to a wild beast in his home.


    And so came the fire, the anger and the wrath. Etain had grasped the concept of what exactly she had done, for the second time in her short life, and what it meant: she was dangerous, she was to be feared and loathed. All of which gave her power over others, or at least some primitive semblance of it. She proved an even greater strain then, pushing the limits of Amaury’s hospitality and patience.


    Her only salvation was his own helpless, thorough devotion to Deshanna.


    That, and the brutal but necessary lesson in humility she earned herself from Amaury’s sister, Elodie. She was a circle mage in Hasmal, before becoming an arcane advisor for a wealthy cousin in Northern Nevarra. There were rumors of her being recruited into the ranks of the Mortalitasi, but little more than speculation existed.


    “Amaury…” Deshanna’s voice brought his eyes back to her. “How is she?” She reiterated,   toning down the slightest hint of anxiousness.


    “Etain…” He rubbed his forehead and his knee bounced up and back down in rapid succession. “You remember when Elodie had taken her eight months past? Training in magic, supposedly. Without the Chantry’s consent. She took her away at her worst, when she began scaring the other servants.” He paused.


    “She is smart, that girl. But she was becoming too smart for her own good. She knew what power it all granted her and she learned she could use it to her advantage, to abuse it. That is until Elodie caught wind of it. I… I am not entirely sure what her actions fully entailed. But something happened. Something to knock her back down to earth… I can guess though.” His tone was laced with a nervousness that his shifting eyes displayed.


    “I know.” Deshanna said softly, rubbing her thumb the deep slashing scar along her index finger. “I believe the Chantry calls it a Harrowing.”


    Amaury’s jaw set loud enough to make Deshanna cringe. “How do you know?”


    “She told me. In her last letter.” She knew her calm voice would set him off as soon as the words left her mouth.


    “And you’re fine with that? My sister forces a Harrowing upon a child, for Maker’s sake! Without the Templars for safety-“


    “Her templar was there. She was there.”


    “And that makes it alright? How can you not see the danger she subjected herself and the child to?!”


    “I see it. I also understand the necessity of it. Elodie knows what she’s doing.”


    “My darling, you frighten me sometimes.” His tone grew cold as he leaned back in his chair, as if to put more distance between himself and Deshanna. “And what of the consequences? If word gets out about what Elodie had done… you understand what will happen of all of us, don’t you? Of what we have worked so hard to establish?”


    “I know.” Deshanna glanced down at her feet. “I’m taking her home.”


    “What?”


    “Etain. I am taking Etain back to the Clan.”


    “How…?”


    “Our Keeper has passed on to the Beyond.” She murmured, trying not to think about her conflicting feelings of relief and shame about being relieved.


    Amaury’s gaze lingered on her face for a few moments, scrutinizing, analyzing. She saw him briefly grit his teeth. “Unaided?”


    Deshanna held his gaze firmly. “Does that matter?”


    “I suppose not.” His eye was once again drawn to the blood writing adorning her face, stark lines across her sun kissed skin - favor of Dirthamen, the Dalish god associated with secrets, knowledge and deceit. A bold statement to her determination to preserve her own, to what she was capable of. How fitting. He wondered how much of her aunt would rub off on young Etain. Already far too much.


    He wasn’t one to speak either. Being a bard did not exactly serve as an ideal role model.


    “She’s alright. Though whatever she went through left her renouncing her magic. She practically loathes it.”


    “Fantastic.” Despite the sarcasm in her tone, she breathed a sigh of relief that Amaury had moved forward in their conversation.


    “Are you sure? She would do well in a Circle. If Elodie and she could keep what happened a secret, she would be accepted, trained and taken care of.”


    “No.” The blue eyes narrowed menacingly. “No towers. She is Dalish, and so she will remain. She is my family… She belongs with her people and she will help move us forward into a better future, rather than linger in the shadows, fading away and drowning in long lost stories.”


    She hated that smile; the one that told her he had all the intentions figured out.


    “A protege, then?” He decided against  mentioning how convenient it must have been now that Etain was educated in their human ways, their languages, their gestures and practices.


    “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”


    “No. Maybe not. Possibly dangerous, though.” 
    

“Alright, Amaury. You believe the Circles are the only ones capable of dealing with mages… How have we foolish Dalish managed to survive and deal with magic for centuries without Templars? Last I heard your shemlen methods work no better than ours, if not worse. Magic is inherently powerful and dangerous because it is misunderstood or misused by the ignorant or overzealous or weak. If it comes down to it, which it won’t, she would do just as much damage in a Circle as she would in our Clan.” Her voice fluctuated in volume, irritation prickling her fingers. “But she needs us just as much as my clan needs her. No tower could ever say the same.”


    She hated that sigh, too. The soft sound that signaled he saw no point in arguing with her, and would save it for another time, while distracting her with one or another affectionate gesture. 
    

He leaned forward and took hold of each of the chair legs, dragging it closer to himself along with her. His immaculately proportioned hands gently slid up her legs to her waist.


    “You’re mad at me.” His words were light enough to pass as a quiet hum.


    “Why do you think this thing you are doing is going to work?” Deshanna raised her chin higher and lowered her brow.


    “Because it does.” His hands pulled her closer to the edge of the chair, close enough to smell her long, rain frizzled hair.


    She tried, and failed, at suppressing a smile. “That’s not playing fair.”


    “Playing fair with you? I’d never win.”


    “By the gods, sometimes I think I have a bigger dick than you do.”


    “Considering how much you enjoyed our last soiree, you and I can both attest to the inaccuracy of that statement.” Her purred into the nape of her neck.
    “That just makes it more of an insult.”


    “I don’t think I care at the moment.” He muttered between gentle sweeps of his lips across her skin.


    She let out a soft giggle and her hands found his cheeks, pushing his head away from her neck.


    “Don’t change the fucking subject, my love.” Her voice was sweetly innocent, all while her eyes retained an animalistic fierceness to them.


    He sighed and rolled his eyes. “You know how I feel about that kind of language.”


    “You love me more so you’ll chastise me for it but deal with it… Where is she? How is she doing?”


    “She’s taken up swordplay since she returned with Elodie. Because of the whole ‘I renounce my own magic’ thing. Foolish child. She’s doing anything and everything to not think about whatever happened. She’s going through my books faster than I can keep track. The other youths tell me she’s up at the break of dawn and getting yelled at by the captain of my guard. First he kept laughing and shooing her off. Now I hear he’s replaced her wooden training sword with a steel one.” The irritation in his voice was tense enough to make Deshanna uncomfortable. “She’s always doing something, reading, learning, practicing. Anything to work herself to thorough exhaustion before seeking sleep. I think she has nightmares. I fear for what she’ll do when this whole playing stone-faced breaks. When she realizes drowning out the truth and pretending to be someone else doesn’t work.”


    Deshanna rubbed her thumb gently on his jaw, thinking. “Don’t. It isn’t your burden any longer. She’ll be with me. When she breaks, I’ll keep all the pieces together and teach her to rebuild and reshape. Like the rest of her People, she’ll learn.” Her face was lit with a blind determination that made Amaury’s throat tighten.


    “I hope so, Deshanna.” Amaury’s eyes glinted with a grave light that sent shivers up her spine. “For everyone’s sake.”

 



    Coming back to Skyhold felt almost as surreal as returning to her Clan after years living as a human’s ward; home, but seen through a darkened filter. Once again, there were secrets to keep, a web of lies to spin, and guilt enough to drown in.


    Lavellan stepped through the Eluvian, feeling torn between hesitation and anticipation. She didn’t have more than a moment to dwell on it. Morrigan stepped through last, and turned to the Eluvian, deactivating it. She lingered there a moment, considering.


    Etain inhaled a lung full of air and doubled over, trying to prevent the shaking. Her thoughts were already planning out her course of action: with the help of Leliana’s best scouts and several capable soldiers they could go back, they could clear out that section of the Eluvians and find Briala… If she was still alive.


    The soft hiss of magic pulled her attention toward the raven haired witch. Energy was weaving along her skin.


    Etain took hold of her arm before her mind truly even registered the motion. “What are you doing?”


    Morrigan’s eyes narrowed menacingly, not taking kindly to the Inquisitor’s interference. “Is that a serious inquiry?”


    “If it’s what I think you’re about to do, yes.” Lavellan hissed, positioning herself in front of the Eluvian.


    The witch sighed, her lips pursing in irritation. Despite Lavellan’s efforts, the mirror began to crack behind her.


    Etain spun around and glared at the fragmented glass in absolute terror.


    Again, again, her plans were dashed to pieces. Literally. Her hands raked into her shortened hair and she groaned in frustration.


    “Briala-“


    “Is no longer your concern, Inquisitor.” Morrigan’s voice took on a heavy mentoring tone that made Lavellan’s skin crawl. Since when had she lost all say in any of these matters?


    “She IS my concern. She may not be dead, we cannot simply abandon her!”


    “We already have. You have more pressing matters at hand,” Morrigan’s arms crossed and her gaze bore through Lavellan’s skull. “This way we may have inconvenienced our opponent for a while longer. Don’t dwell on the insignificant.”


    Etain’s palm burned at the mere insinuation of what it now held, and she turned away from Morrigan. She had faced the realization a hundred times before, and yet it was sickening all the same each time. The insignificant. She struggled to find the words for her own thoughts as to just how wrong everything felt. Like knowing she was wading in a pit she had dug too deep and would never get out of.


    Having little desire to formulate her thoughts and see Morrigan for another second, she pulled the door open, stepping into a cold mountain night. Mostly she did it to escape before the irrational urge to bash the witch’s head against the glass presented itself.


    The air felt so refreshing, so cold and invigorating she thought she could stand there for hours until the sun came up. The gardens were so familiar, defiant snowdrifts lingering in corners that remained perpetually in shadow.


    “Inquisitor?” A voice called from across the open grounds. Etain turned toward the sound, straightening her shoulders and pulling her face into a mask of equanimity.


    A guard was glaring at her, doing a double take, as if doubting his own vision. She had no semblance of a clue as to how her disappearance progressed in Skyhold. Was everyone aware of the fact, or did Leliana keep it under covers?


    “We came through the Eluvian… and deactivated it.” She fought the urge to turn on Morrigan. Her face remained unreadable. “Maintain your station.”


    The soldier frowned but nodded obediently, shrugging beneath his heavy cloak. “Yes, Herald.”


    Etain nodded a farewell and marched down the walkway toward the main hall. It was hard to say, but she was inclined to guess Leliana had convinced the others to remain silent on the matter, considering her penchant for covert damage control.


    Again, the process repeated with the guards within the throne room. She said little but acted as if hardly anything was out of the ordinary. Before she headed through the door to the residential tower, she turned back and signaled to one of the soldiers.


    “Make sure our guests don’t leave Skyhold.” She commanded, gesturing toward Zevran and Morrigan. “Not that they would be dumb enough to do so.” The phrase came out hardly audible to anyone but herself.


    “Of course, Inquisitor.” He turned to a fellow soldier nearby. “Wake one of the matrons, they can help settle them into guest rooms and provide food.”


    She didn’t spare a rearward glance and stepped through the tower doors. Dorian followed her through.


    “Well,” he sighed, “that went well.”


    “Maker, the Creators - I don’t even know who’s in charge, but for fuck’s sake why couldn’t we have made it to the Deep Roads without a hitch?!” She snarled under her breath, each step of the stairwell growing too high for her feet to overcome. And she’d only gone five feet.


    “I can’t believe I am saying this with the total cockup that was the Crossroads - but I doubt the Deep Roads would have been much better.”


    “You do realize I still have to venture out to them, don’t you? And I will probably ask you to come along?”


    “I want that golden palanquin then.”


    “I’ll see what I can do.”


    Dorian’s hand reached out and grasped her wrist, stopping Etain short of the first landing in the tower. He stopped directly in front of her.


    “About Briala…”


    “Stop. I cannot do anything about her now that Morrigan completely took the reigns from my hands.” Etain muttered, loud enough for only the two of them.


    “If she yet lives… whatever we were after, she knows its location… How bad have we mishandled this if they - whoever that may be - get that information from her?”


    Etain swallowed. Again, she fought with the notion of trust, and how much she should and shouldn't reveal. Briala's words had begun to sting, only because they were mostly right.


    A compulsive liar. Manipulator. Bad friend.


    “Bad.” Etain clenched and unfurled her left hand. “Because if she is alive, and if she cracks, who ever was racing us will know I have it.”


    The frown preceded a mild tilt of Dorian’s head. “You have ‘it’? Have what?”


    “A key. To Mythal’s Eluvian.” Her hand remained down. “To whatever is left of Mythal, I think.”


    The nod was too slow to be fully understanding. “How did you get it? We were with you the entire time.”


    “Morrigan had it all along. She gave it to me while you were all sleeping.”


    “Why would she not keep it?”


    “I am the wrong person to ask. She wouldn’t tell me. But she has a reason, and it must be dire enough for her to relinquish such a thing to me.”


    His mouth opened and decided to clink shut, debating some internal thought. After a moment, he went back to her words. “What makes you think this Eluvian holds whatever is left of an ancient goddess?”


    “Call it instinct.” Etain mumbled and turned towards the stairs again. “I need to think this through carefully before I do or say anything else.”


    Then she shook her head. “No. I need a bath.”


    Dorian nodded in agreement and split off on the landing leading to his quarters, leaving Etain to make the suddenly grueling climb up to the top of the tower on her own.



    No rest for the wicked. Such a simple phrase, overused to the point of being annoying, and yet it still somehow rang true when she thought it.  The sheer amount of worries gnawing on Etain’s conscience left her feeling as if her brain was unraveling itself in her skull.


    A long bath left her limbs feeling clumsy and disobedient. A soft, warm bed left her staring wide eyed at the ceiling. A stiff drink left her feeling nauseous.


    She begged for sleep to deaf ears, wishing to be anyone else in the full expanse of the keep, slumbering in the dark of night. Was it so much to ask for one night of dreamless, dead sleep?


    So she wandered, feeling like Skyhold’s resident ghost, haunting the halls aimlessly.


    Her mind and feet were in a complete disconnect: one flying her past the rotunda doors, quickly before she would get the idea to walk in, the other urging her to do just that. Which was responsible for which urge, she wasn’t sure.


    Her palm shined, anxious sweat glistening on the skin as she reached out to touch the handle. It was foolish, what did she expect? That Solas would somehow be there? That she would open the door to see him stretched out in the chair, reading another tome until his eyes grow tired? That he would sit there, patiently, listening to her drabble on?


    She would see an empty room. Whatever memories it held, she would overlook them. It was just a room. Just stone, and plaster and furniture.


    It was eerily quiet, with the occasional rustle of feathers far up above. Not a soul lingered in the tower. The furniture hadn’t moved, though it collected a layer of dust. The frescoes on the wall still silently told the Inquisition’s story, her story, as it would until it would be scraped off the walls by the next wave of Skyhold occupants. Or until the ravages of time crumbled the stones into the mountainside.


    Etain tried not to think about all of her actions being recorded in history books and paintings across Thedas, and just how much they already deviated from the truth. How much more her name and story would twist and morph into something that never happened and someone she never was.  How much her story would parallel her predecessor, and eventually be erased from history all together. It made her feel as if she was pushed face first into a snowdrift.


    Etain’s fingers brushed the dust from the small end table at the far end of the room, the cleaned, well used brushes untouched since their master abandoned them. Her eyes drifted back up toward the frescoes, as if drawn by some magnetizing force.


    The explosion at the Conclave, as if it were someone else’s lifetime ago. The birth of the Inquisition. Everything leading up to the unfinished panel, the Elder One’s defeat.


    The sword… the lyrium dragon, Corypheus’s key to effective immortality. Why the wolf? What did that have to do with anything? Etain frowned and let her focus wander across every fresco in the room. In fact, why were there wolves in the earlier panels? A symbol for their Inquisition, rising up in defiance of all?


    The wolf in the last panel… Etain glared at it as if her eyes would make it speak. Something was strange about it. It did not look so much like a typical wolf. Or a dog. Or…


    Dragon? Her lips pursed to the side in thought. She had never noticed the oddity in the artwork. Did it have to do with Mythal? Her guardian? Was that what was truly on the walls, and not a wolf representing the Inquisition? She could almost laugh. Even here, Mythal pulled the stings.


    It was all symbolism, of course. And yet she now wondered if the Inquisition - if she, and her circle - were the weapon, the sword. The tool, not the hand that wields it.


    Yet it still didn’t clarify much. Why those symbols? What was Solas telling all who looked upon his creation?


    It bothered her - like knowing she were missing a vital piece of the puzzle but was doomed to never find it because it was taken away.


    Rather, it left. Without a word. Without explanation.


    Her thumb gently traced circles around the small lump in her scarred palm, as if consulting the silent key wedged into her skin. Coaxing some sort of answer, a shred of a hint as to what she was to do next.


    With a shudder of her shoulders, Etain twisted her cloak tighter around herself and sat down on the couch. The half-done panel loomed behind her, silently displaying its unfinished story.


    Her sigh sounded like a rush of wind circling around the walls. A pair of novels were abandoned on the opposite end of the sofa, stacked haphazardly atop one another. She reached for the top one, opening it gingerly.


    A study on Thaig architecture and infrastructure within the Deep Roads. Or so the first several pages implied. She kept reading until her eyes grew heavy and sleep finally, finally found her.



    She blew into the tent like a furious hurricane wind, the fabric ripping back with a loud slap.


    Outraged, disappointed. Pissed off.


    Hair slick with sweat stuck to the skin of her neck, her armor discolored with blood, scorch marks and filth. The golden hilt of her sword reflected the light of the red flames writhing in the lanterns. Her gauntlets clicked against the angled metal of her helmet as she slipped it off, the openings leaving soot marks on her ivory skin. It was suddenly a bit easier to breathe. And to yell.


    She didn’t, despite anger practically vibrating her bones into soup. She could have shouted loud enough to exhaust her own voice, she could have torn the woman before her to pieces.


    But she didn’t. She raised her chin high, taking in a slow breath, watching the huntress before her.


    The striking features only accentuated the predatory, sly look in her eyes… Eyes depthless and black as the night skies, set beneath feathery long lashes and thick, strong brows. Her black hair was haphazardly undone, plastered to her dewy, bronze skin like threads of ripped silk.


    As if anticipating a berating, the huntress’ wide nostrils flared and her full lips pressed together in a scowl. The armor that still remained was dark as her hair, form fitting and practical. She sat and awaited in fuming silence.


    The healer fretting over the wound in the woman’s side grew a more nervous, light blue eyes shifting between the two. His skin had a more sallow tint to it, as if he himself was injured - yet it was only the result of the awkward silence and the heat of Mythal’s gaze upon his back. His red vallaslin, bearing favor of Andruil, grew more and more prominent as his hands dithered with what to do next.


    “Leave.” The huntress commanded, her voice an airier, higher pitch than her fierce appearance implied. She watched the healer shuffle out of the room with her head tilted to the side. Crossing her legs, she turned toward Mythal, pausing to give her a hard glare.


    “I’d like to thank you for your assistance,” her fingers picked up a chalice from the table nearby. “You were swift and-“


    “I’ve seen them.” Mythal’s low timbre hung in the air, the insinuation serving as much of a purpose as an accusation.


    Andruil tasted her drink with a quiet groan of approval. “Advantageous, wouldn’t you say?”


    “For a price too high.” She kept any emphasis out of her voice. The words themselves were enough. The confidence in Andruil’s face cracked, and she looked on at Mythal with a false smile.


    Mythal had all the confirmation she needed: the subtle change in Andruil’s eyes, the increasing confusion of all the best healers, a stolen glimpse of the faint contusions on her side, the frequent treks into lands forbidden. The armor that was in early stages of forging. The screams at night.


    “Do not become your own undoing.”


    Andruil’s head tilted back with a melodic laugh and her chalice refilled itself.


    Everything came to a screeching halt and burst into darkness briefly before flashing back to what seemed to be reality. The rotunda. Exactly as Etain had seen it before she fell asleep.


    Except it wasn’t. She was still dreaming. The lighting was just a shade off, and she couldn’t smell the faint hint of paint and the flowers near the couch.


    Etain remained still, allowing her eyes to carefully inspect the room. She wasn’t a dreamer. She couldn’t reconstruct the world in her dreams. She was seeing someone else’s dream, or someone was making her see it? Why had Mythal cut her vision short so abruptly?


    It had been so long since she’d had an ordinary dream, that she didn’t even consider it a possibility. Everything had grown to have meaning and purpose behind it.
    Eyes. Faintly catching the light of the braziers in the dark of the hallway, dimly glowing silver. The door to the outer walkways was open, darkness of night still reigning beyond. Yet it let in just enough light to reveal a silhouette.


    Her teeth grit into each other and her breath hitched somewhere in her throat, eyes wide and fixed on the gray wolf in the doorway. Her heartbeat echoed off the walls, the sound fleeing into the heights of the tower. Etain felt the shiver creep across her skin as her insides seemed to fold onto themselves.


    It watched her with intelligent eyes, thinking, debating. Ears pressed back by a small degree, the wolf prowled into the tower, padding lightly to a stop directly across the room from her.


    Perhaps she shouldn’t have maintained unblinking eye contact with the beast, but she hadn’t thought about it until the creature was already across from her. How did it even get into the castle? Past the gates, past the guards, past the damn doors?


    It is a dream. The fact did little to reassure her when the massive wolf continued to glare at her from such a negligible distance. If it decided to attack, she’d have no where to hide or run in time. Magic and her own limbs will be her only defense.


    It is a dream. I would simply wake up. Etain knew she was lying to herself. She could also die. Maybe. But what was she to do? It was better to feed herself hope in that moment.


    It watched her silently, as if surprised she was there. That she could see it. The moonstone eyes burrowed into her own gaze, as if asking something.


    It was unnatural to see fear in a predator’s eyes. Etain couldn’t quite accept it, but her mind kept telling her the beast was just as frightened as she was: its head was lowered, ears folded back, tail hanging low and curling slightly between its hind legs.


    Only a dream. Etain’s hand slowly, heedfully pushed her frame a few inches forward and her leg unfolded from under her, as if preparing her body to stand up.


    The wolf shrank back. Don’t, it warned without words.


    Her leg continued to slowly move out from beneath her body and her foot touched the floor. The movement elicited a curling of its lips, sharp white teeth glinting, though its eyes remained afraid.


    She wondered what the beast thought she was going to do. She merely planned to walk out of the room, and hopefully out of the dream.


    Its eyes narrowed after some unknown thought, and something between an ear splitting howl and a thousand voices shouting shook the vision from her eyes.


    “Wake up!”


 
    Etain’s sleep had been so sound that when her eyes snapped open furiously, Leliana glared at her for a split second without realizing she had awoken. Sister Nightingale withdrew her hand and froze, unsure of whether the elf had fully regained consciousness. She had gone so pale and still, her breath shallow but rapid. There was something eerily disturbing about Lavellan now; she had the air of some creature thrown into a pit of snakes.


    And just as fast, something snapped and her eyes shifted down to her hands. Her chest heaved with a deep breath. “S-,” the words wouldn’t come out for a moment.


    “Sorry. Bad dream.” Etain tried again after a gulp of air. No more staring at wolves on the walls after that awakening.


    “It’s… quite alright.” Leliana hadn’t expected to be nervous to speak with her. What should she have said next? She had so many questions, wanted so many answers, but it all paled next to the shame she felt for being outplayed.


    “It is I who should apologize. For everything.”


    Etain sat up straight on the couch and ran her hand through her still damp hair before rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “How long was I asleep?”


    Leliana sighed, nervous and annoyed at once that her remark went unheard. “I do not know, a few hours perhaps. It is sun up. One of the guards woke me to notify me of our new guests and your sudden return… From inside the castle. How did you get back? What happened?”


    “We were in the Crossroads, Morrigan lead us out through her Eluvian.” There was no point in dancing around. The situation had moved well past discrepancies.


    “Crossroads?” Leliana frowned.


    “Yes…” Etain’s eyes shifted to Leliana. “It’s…” She paused and shook her head once. It felt as if the unfinished panel behind her was breathing down her neck. “We should go somewhere else. Somewhere with no unwanted distractions.”


    With no prying ears and eyes. Leliana wasn’t sure if Etain actually used the excuse of being in the haunt of her former lover to imply her mistrust in Skyhold inhabitants, or if she actually was distracted by the room.


    “As you wish, Inquisitor, follow me.”


    Etain pushed herself off the sofa, eyes nervously drifting into the doorways, checking for some unseen threat. They walked up the stairwell into the rookery, Lavellan briefly answering questions about her wellbeing and any injuries.


    Leliana’s lips tingled, wanting to throw every question and suspicion and theory at her, seeking answers. But for now she was limited to generic inquiries, lest anyone else hears them.


    They rounded Leliana’s preferred table and she lowered into the chair closest to the window. Etain brushed her shortened strand of hair behind her ear and sat down. The light did her no favors. Etain was never one to seem her age, a soul far too old and disillusioned in a youthful vessel. Yet now it dimmed even further. She looked older, years older than when she first arrived. She had earned more scars, and the first, faint creases formed at the corners of her eyes. The past two weeks left her cheeks a bit less full, her bone structure appearing more angled. Her long waves were cropped to just below her chin.


    “I wanted to apologize, Inquisitor. Maker knows, there are no words sufficient enough to make up for my mistake…”


    “A lesson in humility, Leliana.” Lavellan avoided fidgeting with her left hand. “For you and me both… So long as we learn from it and never overestimate our capabilities again.”


    “A lesson it certainly was… In much more than one way. ” Leliana pressed her elbows into the table and leaned forward. “I’m in desperate need of clarification. What happened?”


    Etain took a preparatory breath of morning air that smelled faintly of bird feathers and beeswax candles. Then she told Leliana everything, from the beginning - save for the nature of the Eluvian dreams and the artifact hiding beneath her skin - to their unanticipated, fumbling escape.


    Leliana tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, processing. She listened to Lavellan without interruption. She supposed it would be best to deal with Briala’s capture first.


    “So there is another way into the Eluvian network?”


    “Yes. There must be several. Though all useless to us. Briala was the only one who could unlock them, lest Morrigan is hiding yet another portal she can access.”


    “Yet your pursuers found a way in without her. Which means there have to be more access points with different keys.”


    “And none of that makes a difference for us, considering we have no way of unlocking any of them.”


    Leliana drummed her fingers on the table, lost in deep thought. Lavellan made a random observation that she’d never seen Leliana without gloves on her hands.


    The drumming stopped and Sister Nightingale’s hands went in search of something in the neat piles at the edge of her workspace. She pulled out a map and spread it out before them, turning it sideways so it was easily legible to both parties.


    “Can you show me where you were first ambushed?”


    Lavellan’s finger brushed a point she deemed most accurate for their entry - northernmost boundary of the Dales- and tried to guess where Leliana’s thoughts were heading.


    “Perhaps…” She muttered. Her blue eyes glanced out the window briefly, as if recounting a list or some scrap of information filed away in the depths of her mind. “We have had a few odd occurrences.”


    She twisted in the chair by a slight degree, hands spreading the map out almost methodically. “In the past month, there have been three reports of scouts and agents disappearing. With the first, I thought it nothing more than unfortunate accident or run-in in the wilds, something not so uncommon in the winter. Afterall, the scout disappeared in the scarcely populated regions of the Dales. But then came the second. And then three more. All peculiarly familiar in circumstance. All in the Northern Dales. Our agents are highly trained, it becomes much more than an accident when three retinues go missing.”


    Lavellan’s mind jumped to the worst case scenario. “No evidence to violence? Foul play? Bodies?”


    “None. They simply disappear… This past event occurred only several days prior. Three disappeared. Two returned without so much a hint of what could have happened. It was as if they just wandered off and never returned.”


    “This has happened on three separate occasions?” Etain crossed her arms over her chest and frowned at the map. The locations were all within a relatively short radius of where the Eluvians were hidden.


    Leliana nodded.


    “What of … you mentioned familiar circumstances? Any similarities in what happened? In who disappeared - maybe a position or rank, relations?”


    “Elves.” Leliana said, sitting back in her chair. “They have all been my elven agents. With not much else in common save for faith and duty to the Inquisition. It may have been a coincidence, of course, though I will not wait to find out.”


    Her head motioned toward the map. “And now that you have told me about your ambush, I’m finding it difficult to not connect it all together.”


    “What are we doing to deal with the disappearances? What of Briala?” Etain felt the prodding at her temples and forehead, signaling a headache coming on. She wanted to sleep, tired of always hearing something go wrong, tired of not having a restful night since she drank from the Well. Her exhaustion turned to the opposite urge to hit something. Hard.


    “Cullen had sent the Chargers to investigate the area. I will send another reinforced retinue to clear out the ruins you entered the Eluvians from. Perhaps there would be something to find. As for Briala… Until we find a way in, or this evasive entity withdraws from the network, we can only pray that she yet lives. If they have any sense and finesse in political matters, they would keep her alive.”


    “I’m not sure any of that was comforting.” Etain’s headache still nagged beneath her skull. “She would have been very useful dealing with Celene.”


    “Celene doesn’t have to know Briala isn’t with us. We have all we need.”


    “Can we actually pull that off?”


    Leliana’s lips pulled into her scheming smile. She reached into the folds of her clothing, hidden from view by the table, and brought up a small metal object.


    “Where did you get this, Inquisitor?”


    It was the strange coin Zevran had pushed into her hand before this whole Crossroads nightmare began. Her fingers reached for it, turning it to look at the symbol stamped into the metal. If Leliana had it, she knew she had gone through her chambers from top to bottom. Oddly enough, Etain felt relieved.


    “Zevran. He handed it to me the day before the bastard pushed me off the damn mountain.”


    A darkness clouded Leliana’s eyes for a brief second, her features responding to its pull. That threatening, death spelling glare that Etain had seen before, in the Chantry at Valence. That same look that left Etain’s skin crawling, seeing what price the Inquisition has extracted from her spymaster. She remembered thinking she wished she could have done more to help Leliana stay the more gentle soul she was in Haven.


    Another mistake I have unwittingly committed. Another person I have failed. Etain set the coin down hastily, as if the metal had suddenly turned white hot.


    “With Briala gone-“


    “He’s our next available advantage.” Leliana’s voice was sharp as steel. So the insult of Zevran’s scam ran deep. Which could potentially be a difficult situation with his presence in the keep. Being the only remaining link to Celene’s gambit may be the only thing keeping him alive.


    “Zevran was Briala’s work. He had nothing to do with the initial attempt… We must be careful with his presence in the Keep. It may be an advantage or quite the opposite.”


    “I will not give him much of a choice.” Leliana seethed. “Meet with Josephine and I after sundown. It will give us all a bit of time to think of how to proceed, and which strings to pull.”


    What about Cullen? The question was on the tip of her tongue, but Etain hesitated. How much did Leliana know?


    “Who are you, Etain?” Leliana asked before Lavellan could find the right words for her inquiry.


    Etain frowned. “What?”


    “Your missives. That little trick was used only by a few schools of Orlesian bards. Where did you learn it? Where did you learn musical notation? In fact, the closer I look, the more confused I become as to your origins.”


    Etain smiled. “That’s because you are expecting something that isn’t there.”


    “Perhaps, perhaps not. It still does not answer how you are so familiar with human espionage tactics.”


    The smile didn’t recede. “Human? Leliana, they're simple ‘espionage tactics’ that have been used for centuries. By everyone. When you have to deal with different races and cultures and political playing fields, people learn to adapt and adopt.”


    Leliana nodded. “I suppose that is correct. But I meant where did you learn it?”


    Etain straightened up, leaning forward to rest her elbows and hands on the table. She made a point of letting them appear relaxed, knowing Leliana would scrutinize her body language as well. “What have you found so far?”


    “Etain, of clan Lavellan. First to Deshanna. Yours was one of the more progressive clans in the Free Marches. Your people often traded with both humans and other Dalish. Not only supplies and goods… Deshanna is good at what she does, but there comes a time when one becomes too good to remain hidden. Shadows begin to emerge. Traces, hints, evidence. She was no stranger to the Game - to information brokering- was she?”


    “No. Not at all. Several of my Clan are well informed in its arts.”


    Leliana smiled. “Ah, and that is why you were sent to the Conclave.”


    “I was sent to the Conclave because her most important connection was murdered.” Etain left the reasons - both the true and the superficial - for Amaury’s death unspoken. Nor did she reveal the extent of the damage that had done, nor that she learned his murderer was here in Skyhold with them. But she did give Leliana another shred of truth to placate her curiosity. “It happened amidst the mage - templar tensions that impeded her work and threatened to destroy everything we had toiled toward. We needed an answer, we needed a back up and we needed new connections.”


    “And so you went.”


    “And so I am here.”


    “There was no trace of you leaving or arriving in the shipyards or docks. I presumed you may have traveled by land. Yet there was no trace there either. So I let go the assumption that you traveled alone, or without a cover. Upon further scrutiny, I came across information about a Nevarran arcane advisor - Elodie - and her travel party, which included an elven scribe… The name hadn’t sounded too important at the time. Even after her unfortunate death at the Conclave.”


    Etain swallowed the faint pang of pain at the back of her throat.


    “Until I linked it to a bard named Amaury, killed three years before the Conclave. No other connection to you aside from the neat little trick of altering musical scores as a way of transmitting messages.”


    “All correct. I was not hiding it. I simply didn’t advertise my connection to the Sauveterre siblings.”


    “Nor would it have been prudent to do so. As I have said, you have simply roused my curiosity… How did Clan Lavellan become acquainted with them?”


    “That you would have to ask Keeper Deshanna. I’ve known Amaury and Elodie ever since I was a child.” Etain had no intention of revealing everything. Just the bare, truthful minimum. “They frequently cooperated and traded information and support.”


    “All this time and no one knew Clan Lavellan was weaving its own threads into the fabric of the Game.”


    “To us, it’s simply survival, Leliana.”


    “It’s a bit more artful than survival, Inquisitor. More of a reawakening.” She smiled. “I must say I’ve grown quite fascinated with Deshanna’s work and your involvement. Your Clan is making ripples in history.”


    “Wycome… Have we received any word from them?” Lavellan still felt the shock scamper down her spine each time she remembered how close her Clan had come to being massacred had Cullen not suggested fortifying the city.


    “The mixed Council is holding up well… Order has been restored, along with trade, and human-elven relations are improving. Slowly and cautiously, but they are improving.” Leliana twisted the map back toward herself. “A blessing, really. A shining example of just how beneficial cooperation can be for the good of all.”


    “Let us hope it lasts.”


    “If no one gets haughty about it. So long as the Inquisition remains strong, the nobles in surrounding city-states wouldn’t be too keen on angering us with transgressions against Wycome.” She glanced at the map for a second longer. “Oh, while we are on the topic of the Free Marches… Master Tethras is returning to Kirkwall. He will set out in a few days.”


    Etain’s hands slipped off the table and into her lap. Everyone is slowly leaving. Returning home, to their previous lives. She wondered when it would be her turn, and whether it would even be voluntary. “Oh,” was all she had managed.


    “Perhaps you should go speak with him. He was as worried about your disappearance as we were.” Leliana’s gaze lingered on Etain’s face. “And perhaps get some food. You look a little drawn.”


    “How odd, I cannot imagine why.” Lavellan hadn’t paid attention to the knot in her belly and just how hungry she actually was.


    “At least you haven’t lost your awful sense of humor.”


    “Give it a few days.” She heaved herself up out of the chair and made a mental note to go change before finding Varric. She felt a shred of delight in getting a chance to speak with the storyteller.


    Anything to keep her mind off of her dream, to keep the wolf out of her thoughts, if only for a few hours.

Chapter Text

    The Ambassador’s office smelled of strong coffee and breakfast pastries with a hint of cinnamon. Josephine must be in a good mood then, Leliana thought, pushing the door closed behind her. The ambassador herself was pacing slowly in front of her desk, pastry in one hand, a report in another. She muttered something to herself in between mouthfuls.


    Leliana walked toward her, not repressing the faint smile pulling at her mouth. “Hardly the break of dawn and you’re already at it, Josie.”


    Lady Montilyet turned toward her guest and set the report down on the desk, the pastry on a delicate porcelain plate. She wiped her hands clean with a cloth napkin and smiled at Leliana.


    “The Inquisition never truly rests, Leliana. Besides, I could not sleep with my head buzzing this morning. I’ve had uplifting news from home.” She picked up the report she was pacing with and gave it a brief, contented glance over.


    “Well? Don’t keep me in such suspense.” Leliana lowered herself into the chair by the fireplace with a sigh. Her shoulders felt more tense this morning.


    “The Montilyets have secured their first major contract since the House of Repose nearly ended our existence. Finally, a leap forward. All the small shipment contracts, excursions, hours drafting up legal documents - it has finally paid off! My family name won’t sink into disregard and poverty.”


    “I don’t quite think that would be possible, considering your vital role in the Inquisition. The Courts know who you are.”


    “But what difference does that make when my family is but a fading shadow behind me?” Josephine’s brows lowered for a short second with a hard intensity, then her face returned to its normal, amiable self. “Now we have a chance to regain our foothold over Antivan trade. Reaffirm our renown to the merchant class. A substantial benefit to the Inquisition as well, wouldn’t you think?”


    “Of course it is.” Leliana smiled, genuinely elated for her best friend. But she was too distracted to remain fully focused on Josephine’s opportune news. True, the trade routes, connections and infiltration opportunities the Montilyet trade empire would provide the Inquisition with would be invaluable. And that was putting it mildly.


    Josephine nodded slowly, knowing Leliana far too well. “Yes… Something on your mind?”


    “I take it you haven’t heard?” The Spymaster found that to be highly unlikely. Possible. But it should have been unlikely. The Ambassador pursed her lips in response.
    “The Inquisitor returned in the middle of the night.”


    Josephine looked on at Leliana as if not understanding a word she was saying. She was leaning against her table, fingers toying around with the button of her wool shawl. Surprise gave her a very flattering, youthful look.


    “She came through Morrigan’s Eluvian. Oh. And of course, she was with her as well. As was Dorian. And Zevran,” Leliana continued.


    “What?” Josephine shook her head once. “Why had no one woken me?”


    “I’d wager the Inquisitor had something to do with that.”


    “Well, by sweet Andraste, was she alright? And Dorian? Were they injured in anyway?”


    “They were fine. A little worse for the wear, with a few new scars.” Leliana twisted in her chair to more easily face Josephine. “Lavellan’s hair is considerably shorter. Pity. I always admired it.”


    “Oh. As did I… But that is besides the point!” Josephine poured Leliana a cup of coffee and sat down in the adjacent chair. “Have you spoken to her yet? What happened? How did they get back through the Eluvian?”


    Leliana shortly recounted all she could from her conversation with Etain earlier that morning. Her thoughts kept darting between the disappearances and Zevran’s return, the latter nearly breaking her focus with a wrathful burn in her veins. The past year had left her feeling less merciful and forgiving than Divine Justina may have wanted her to be. Maker forgive me.


    Josephine’s index finger kept shifting back and forth over the ceramic indents of her cup as she listened, a sign that her mind was already deciphering the information into useful pieces.


    “Well…” She began, contesting what she wanted to address first. “This just became much more interesting.”


    Leliana smiled and nodded once. “Our course of action will be even more so.”


    “I…” Josephine leaned back in her chair. “I am not sure where to begin, or with whom to deal with first. Celine’s conniving little ruse is of course of obvious import… and will require very prudent maneuvering.”


    “So will dealing with this new entity, if they are revealed to be a viable threat. The wise course of action being to undermine their efforts, whatever those may be.” Leliana crossed her legs. “I think it’s not so far fetched a statement to say the scouts’ disappearances are connected to this hidden organization. And… it is an organization, not a slapped together band of treasure hunters or mercenaries. They seem to have leadership and resources enough to learn of the Eluvians, the entrance points, how to reset these ancient portals… and their agents are evidently trained enough to go unnoticed and track the Inquisition soldiers’ movements. For all we know it may only be a few dozen individuals, or several hundred. Some may even have infiltrated our own ranks.”


    Josephine grew more perturbed with Leliana’s speculations. She turned to her coffee, the mere scent of it helping restore her clarity.


    “We can use this to our advantage.” Leliana blurted out, an idea sprouting in her mind.


    “What do you mean?” 
    

“In dealing with Empress Celine. We can use her own tactics against her. She needed a new threat to cement the Inquisition’s wellbeing to her rule. We have all the means to do so now. Not only do we have Zevran and Briala’s allegations - that alone being enough to help her opponents should she prove hostile and uncooperative - we now have a true threat as well. We have all we need to tie her rule to our wellbeing and influence. Word is we are the only reason she clings to rule. Let us put that to use.”


    “Blackmail… Make Celine a marionette.”


    “A valued, compliant ally.” A sly glint shined in Leliana’s eyes, sending Josephine’s nerves on edge. She feared the direction this could send the Inquisition. It was far too easy to get in way over their heads when maneuvering on this scale. It would be far too easy to weave the threads too tight, too complex to be able to ever create the design Thedas needed.


    “Is this reaching too far?” She asked flat out. This seemed to move past diplomacy.


    Leliana glanced at Josephine and regarded her carefully for a moment. With a sigh, she brought her eyes back to the cup in her hands. “The alternative is little better, Josie. You know as well as I the Inquisition will be on borrowed time soon. Our presence will be questioned, our authority challenged. Neither Ferelden nor Orlais - not to even speak of Tevinter- will stand for a power rivaling their own to linger much longer. We are all aware of that. Yet our reach extends, our numbers grow. And while we remain, we must continue our work and pave way for Thedas to recover and stabilize. Which includes doing the best for Orlais as well. We hadn’t dethroned Celine when we had the chance, and now we must deal with the consequences. She is getting more daring, more desperate even, if she goes to such measures. But she is a gentler option than Gaspard. He shall be ruthless and possibly hostile with the Inquisition, now that we had undermined his claim to the throne. He will call for our death. He will decimate the brewing rebellion in the alienages and tighten the noose of those who remain. We had our chance to work with him, and we missed it. He would have been cooperative, yes, a better strategist. In the militaristic sense at least. But that option is no longer… So yes, Celine must become somewhat of a marionette. For her own good, for the good of Orlais, and for our own wellbeing.”


    Josephine ran her index finger over her lips in thought, considering. “Is it?”


    Leliana opened her mouth to speak, only to find herself at a loss. The concern in Josephine’s eyes wasn’t directed at their political situation, but at Leliana’s solution. At her demeanor growing more callous, and her ploys becoming more ambitious and daring with each one. Yet she had just accused Celine of the same.


    “What would you propose, then?” She finally spoke.


    “Diplomacy.” Josephine’s tone held a note of disbelief, as if that was the only obvious answer to the problem, and it was an absolute shock that Leliana didn’t see it. “We have worked too hard to make progress with Orlais and Ferelden. Let us not tarnish it with threats and extortion. We can use the situation to our advantage, but in a more tactful manner. It would end better for all if she were to be motivated to maintain the Inquisition as friends, as an ally. We provide the information of the threat, and take her up on the offer, with our own ground rules to add, of course. Make a show of good will by not seeking retribution…”


    Her voice trailed away into silence, seeing the furrow of Leliana’s brow and the downward pull of her lips. The expression spoke on its own: Have you forgotten the attempt on my life?


    “Alright. I suppose it is no use arguing over this now, when there are other equally pressing matters to address.” Leliana said after a prolonged moment of silence.


    “Y-yes. That would be for the best.” Josephine turned to her coffee again, turning cold in her cup. It wasn’t the only thing she felt was growing unsalvageable. The tension between her and the Nightingale was tangible, electrifying the air between them.


    “I will need to find a way to keep track of my agents, and recheck their backgrounds, see which individuals may be the next targets.”


    “What of Briala?”


    Leliana shrugged, “I have Scout Harding and her team investigating possible entry points into the labyrinth. Chances are slim we will succeed. Without a key or opening passphrase, we have no access to the Eluvians. Morrigan had the only other access point, which she promptly destroyed upon her return. All we can do is secure the Eluvians accessible from this side and wait, someone may come out of them sooner or later.”


    “Perhaps it would be wise to consult with Mistress Morrigan. She may be willing to impart some useful knowledge. I would rather her remain here for the time being, rather than off to fulfill her own plans.”


    “On that, we agree. Though it seems our Inquisitor has a role to play in those plans. It may not be so difficult to keep her around.”


    “I will speak with her… Zevran should remain here as well. Without infuriating the Crows.”


    “We have no shortage of jail cells.” Leliana smiled at the idea. “Allow me to deal with the Crows. I think we may be able to cooperate in this case.”


    “I certainly hope so. We cannot afford any more enemies.” There was an uncomfortable sense of distance between the two women in the room, and Josephine feared its permanence. She hoped this wouldn’t reflect on their friendship, Leliana was far too close of a friend for her to even imagine the loss. She hoped they would remain close, and move past this hardhearted routine Leliana had grown accustomed to.


    “No. We can’t.” The Nightingale added. It took a fraction of a second for Josephine remind herself that Leliana wasn’t answering her thoughts.


    “I have asked the Inquisitor to join us at sun-down for a meeting in the War Room, so that we can more thoroughly discuss our course of action. I just wanted to inform you…” Leliana stood from the chair, cup still in hand. She must have felt the tension in the room as well. Josephine’s eyebrows , a bit surprised to have their conversation cut so short.


    “And I am truly delighted for you, Josie. Yours is a good name, one that Antiva would do well to restore to its former glory.” Leliana gave the Ambassador a light peck on her cheek, thanked her for the coffee and departed.


    Josephine drummed her index finger on her cup, sitting immobile for a few minutes. Her mood had fouled, and she felt a nervous tingle in her fingertips. Much as she despised it, she feared Leliana’s plan may be more effective than any diplomatic solution she may have been able to come up with for Empress Celine. She feared the Inquisitor would come to the same conclusion, and they would all become the dreaded, sleeping bear in the south that Orlais and Ferelden were beginning to fear.


    She would have to find a different route and hope to pull the Inquisition back from the dangerous edge they walked now. Easier said than done.

 



    The incomplete war council had accomplished about as much as their situation allowed. Orders and missives were sent, and reports from the field wouldn’t arrive for a few more days at a minimum. The head of their armed forces was still in Suledin Keep, and wouldn’t be back to impart his judgement and skills for several days. They needed more information on what was happening in Orlais: in court, in the markets at heart of the cities, in the alienages. Acting on so high of a level would require scrupulous planning, and the more information they had to go on, the better they could maneuver.


    All of it would take time. But at least the gears were now in motion. And while they waited, Lavellan would set out to the Deep Roads as originally planned. The upside to her disappearance was that the delay bought time for Inquisition contacts and agents to report more thoroughly on what was occurring in Orzammar. Earthquakes were crumbling the lyrium mines, much of which were the Inquisition’s main source of lyrium, as well as that of many Circles around Ferelden. And now, reports claimed multiple broken tunnel seals and collapses that have allowed darkspawn to pour through, threatening more than Orzammar’s lyrium trades. A massive quake had opened up a fissure deep underground, allowing access into the afflicted area below. The proper preparations were underway, and construction of an entry lift was in full swing, to be completed by the time the Inquisitor arrived.


    “Inquisitor,” Leliana called after Lavellan as they walked out into the throne room. “If I could keep you for a moment longer?” Leliana turned and stepped aside, nearing an empty table at the end of the great hall.


    Etain nodded and joined her. “Of course.”


    “There was one matter we had not discussed in the war room. There is little we can do about Briala, vital as she was to us. We yet have Morrigan, and her input may be valuable if anything. Whatever her plans may be, Josephine hadn’t needed to strain herself too hard to convince her to remain for the time being. Though I fear that time won’t be too long.” She paused, eyes instinctively checking every shift of shadow in her periphery and listening for any living being within ear shot. “As for Zevran…”


    “Yes?” Lavellan leaned a hip against the table. Drafty cell, drafty cell, please say drafty cell.


    “I do not plan on hiding him from the Crows. I will tell them he is here, in our custody. But the information he holds is crucial for us… The trick is keeping him alive and not offending - well, infuriating - the Crows. They hunt him out of principles and honor codes of their organization that his actions have disobeyed. Revealing his presence would mean we may have no other choice but to turn him over to the Crows once this all is done.”


    Etain remained silent for a moment, listening as Leliana laid out her thought process. Her eyes were hard, and it was all the more reason Lavellan began to suspect this was as much a personal matter as it was strategic for Leliana. 
    

“The plan is to strike a cooperative alliance if you will. I have information they desperately seek. They shall know nothing of Celene, though it may be of benefit to share what we know about this new development with the Eluvians. A friendly warning about the disappearances will be appreciated, assuming they haven’t had some of their own already.” She glanced over Etain’s shoulder, at whoever had just entered the massive room. “And if they had, all the better for us.”


    Lavellan dragged her fingertips along the grain in the wood of the table. “Make it happen.”


    “Yes, Inquisitor.” It wasn’t obvious, but there was a hint of pleasant surprise in Leliana’s expression. She had expected at least some resistance. Some call for mercy.


    “Though we cannot let him suspect anything. He must be under the impression that we we are hiding him from the Crows, while we still need him. The longer he believes his usefulness is all that keeps him a secret, the better.” She continued.


    “Which isn’t far from the truth.” Lavellan glanced at the various bowls and ewers aligned on the tables, completely unfazed by what they were both planning. “I understand.”


    “Alright. Then we are in agreement. No objections?”
    Etain looked up at her Spymaster, catching the little bit of confirmation she needed for her thoughts. She smiled, the gesture ruthless despite the rounding of her cheeks. “None.”


    Leliana gave a slight nod, but before she could say anything further, Etain spoke again.


    “And you?”


    “Hm?”


    “Do you have any objections?” Etain asked. Seeing as how Leliana sought her opinion, and effectively inquired twice for any reasonable objections - she may have been looking for a reason not to go through with her plan. Some small part of her maybe wanted to take a kinder route. “Are you alright with this? You know the man better than I. You’ve fought alongside him during the Fifth Blight. Undoubtedly you’ve looked after each others’ backs, must have saved each other’s lives at least once. That’s not something easily ignored.”


    “It’s not. But we do not have the luxury of sentimentality.” Leliana’s brows furrowed, as if taking offense to the questions Lavellan posed, to what it implied. Definitely personal, Etain thought.


     “Sometimes even good deeds cannot undo the mistakes a person has made. He has to face the consequences of his actions. He made the choice to take on Briala’s contract, he acknowledged the repercussions and risks. The Inquisition had covered his tracks once more, and he betrayed our trust. His actions do not deserve our leniency.” Nightingale defended her position, though Etain wasn't sure why. She wasn’t challenging her decision, merely checking that she was sure of it. Afterall, Lavellan had her own biased reasons for despising the man. We all have our secrets to keep.


    “Alright… you will have no quarry from me.” Lavellan crossed her arms and pushed off the table. “I’ll play my part.”


    “You always do.” Leliana replied with a farewell nod. “Good night, Inquisitor.”


    Kinder souls would have dealt with the matter differently. The two of them would have probably dealt with it differently before - well, before whatever points of no return they had crossed and hardened themselves against the world. They would face their own consequences eventually, if they weren't already.


    Following that impromptu encounter, Lavellan dragged herself into the tavern in search of Dorian and Varric. It was the only thing, the only place, that didn’t ever seem to change in the Keep. Always warm, always full of patrons, and always smelling of firewood, ale, and roasting poultry. She found her friends sitting at the bar, laughing at whatever the bartender told them. Etain felt the corners of her mouth tug upwards involuntarily. She had been looking forward to this one happy ray of sunshine in her stressed, sleepless state of existence since their last encounter earlier that afternoon.


    The smile sagged minutely once her eyes fell on the Antivan on the other end of the bar. The man had his arm around one of the recruits, whispering things into her ear as she blushed and slapped his chest. Lavellan approached her friends at the bar and sat down.


    “I’ve been working on your part of the tale while you were gone. ‘All This Shit is Weird: the Inquisitor Lavellan Story.’ I would have finished it with your unexpected demise. It would have been a bestseller! Everyone loves a hero tragedy.” The storyteller announced after a few minutes of small talk.


    Lavellan suppressed a chuckle through a mouthful of ale. “Thanks, Varric. Sorry to let you down and survive, again.”


    “Hey, I can still publish and you can disappear on purpose. Call it an early retirement. Though… come back to Clan Lavellan and you’d be recognized. I’m not sure how you played invisible - wait, speaking of… Settle a question for me. Was that you that beat the living shit out of that merc band on that border town in the Emprise a week and a half ago?”


    Etain frowned and pressed her lips together. “Why should that matter?”


    “Andraste’s ass, Herald.” He laughed, a hearty, rich noise Lavellan had missed more than she had ever realized.


    “Oh, don’t act like you’re surprised, Varric. I needed to leave a trail, just in case I didn’t make it back… Also they really pissed me off, and I was already in a very bad mood.”


    “And wiping the floor with a bunch of bandits was a proportionate response?”


    “No. But it had to be something indirect but loud enough to draw Leliana’s attention. And I couldn’t use magic.”


    “As if you needed to.” He scoffed. “I’ve heard the reports. Usually Bull is the one to take down thugs built like brick shit houses. He’s trained for that. But you? With no weapons or magic? Why’d you do it? Wouldn’t that have been too big a risk?”


    Etain shrugged, glancing at Dorian, who just shook his head and turned to his drink, don’t look at me, this is all yours.


    “I get the feeling you’re doing this to put it in your book, and it’s going to come back and bite my ass. It’s not like you’re not aware that our duties tend to make us very efficient at-“ Varric’s face contorted into one of boredom, signaling her to just get on with her answer. To what he really was looking for in this conversation - the juicy details. She rocked back once on the stool and sighed. “Find all the weak spots in all the right places. Then you don’t need weapons or magic.”


    “Common sense. Won’t get much from putting that in my book.” Varric chuckled with a slight shake of his head.


    Lavellan’s jaw subtly moved forward, her teeth nipping at her own lower lip in mild annoyance. “You’re not actually writing this book, are you?”


    He waited, a little impatient, his facial expression providing the answer - are you seriously asking?


    She brushed a finger lazily against the skin between the thumb and index finger of her other hand. “Here. Squeeze to loosen a grip.” The finger slipped up to the length of the nerves following the thumb side of her inner forearm. “Then hit here and break it.”


    Her eyes drifted back up to Varric, and then Zevran. The Antivan had his usual snide smirk wiped across his face and was watching her intently. He was there when it all happened, though he had only seen the results, not the action. “Kick hard and fast up at the kneecap, dislocate that little bone… or kick at the inside of the knee and he’ll go down like a sack of potatoes.”


    Her finger moved to the collection of veins and arteries in her neck, just below the jaw. The gesture was light, as if a lady brushing aside a stray lock of hair that was obscuring the lovely lines of her neck, not discussing knockout tactics. “Then hit hard or squeeze steadily enough here and lights out.” To her throat. “A fist, your first two knuckles, an elbow can do some substantial damage here, and render your opponent unable to breathe, vulnerable to your next attack.”To her eyes. “Jab here.” To her jaw. “Hard one, but a forceful enough punch, elbow or knee - lights out again.”


    To her temple. “If all else fails, find something hard and heavy and hit here like you don’t know how to do anything else. Or use the floor. Or a bench corner. He won’t ever wake up after that headache.” She shrugged again and returned to eating the warm braided bread in front of her. “I can keep going.”


    “Monster.” Varric breathed out, though Etain wasn’t sure it was meant as an insult. Sera wandered past Zevran, grabbing his mug of ale.


    “You forgot to kick ‘em in the squishy bits.” She muttered and continued past the group, oblivious to the foreign grumble that came from the Antivan.


    Since the events at the Temple of Mythal, she had been justifiably cold toward the Inquisitor. It was a high risk maneuver on Lavellan’s part, one that Sera deemed highly irresponsible and very contradictory, given her title. Despite a few genuinely warm and kind words passed between them during the celebrations following Corypheus’ demise, they had hardly spoken.


    Sera ignored Etain’s glance and smile, continuing on through the tavern to her own destination. Lavellan made a mental note to try and patch up whatever was left of their familiarity on the trek to Orzammar. Or better yet, while they wait for Bull to return. She sighed and turned back to the storyteller.


    “Glad I can play muse for whatever terrible, dramatic endeavor you’re planning to unleash onto Thedas.” Etain frowned and shook her head once, backtracking. “I do not see the logic or efficiency in limiting yourself to one mode of combat. If you can handle a sword or staff you damn sure should be able to throw a punch.”


    Dorian nodded and held out a hand, signaling to Varric his take on Lavellan’s little performance. “Quite correct, and you would be a fool to do so, considering your position and propensity to find danger in even the most boring of places. We are all aware of that. The Inquisition tends to make efficient… operatives of us all. But, the truth of the matter is…” He paused, the alcohol induced flush to his cheeks becoming more pronounced with his devilish smile. “All that anger and frustration? All that stress? All the need to beat things bloody? You’re in dire need of a good tumble in the sheets, my darling.”


    Varric burst out laughing, drawing the attention of the rest of the tavern to their little gathering. They glanced over briefly before turning back to their own cups and conversations.


    “Yes, well, most of Thedas thinks there’s a high dragon in my pants, so no chance of that happening.” Etain retorted and took another sip of her poison. Had she not been drinking, she might have thought about blushing.


    The drunken guffaw that rolled from Dorian only earned him a slap on the shoulder from a disgruntled Lavellan.


    “On second thought, I aught to say that again around Bull - I’m sure he’d jump at the opportunity to check.” She snapped. She missed the Qunari. He’d surely have a smartass comment to impart on this tasteful conversation.


    “Don’t you think there might be a more suitable, present candidate?” Zevran chimed in, setting his newly acquired mug down on the table, mischief in his eyes.


    “Ha! I doubt that.” Lavellan snorted back a laugh, making an effort to remain indifferent around the man. It was hard to look at him and not think of what happened to Amaury, but she needed the assassin on her side for the time being. “Besides, I’m not your type.”


    “Once you get past the self-righteousness and venom-spitting, you’re not so bad. I’m actually starting to like you.” He grinned deviously. It was always a competition with him: which could get the other more flustered and pissed off. Lavellan suspected that all the flirtation and inappropriate banter was a coping mechanism for him. A way to make light of every situation and interaction.


    Lavellan’s face contorted in pity. “That’s too bad-”


    The bartender grunted in what seemed to be agreement, his face unreadable as to who he was actually agreeing with. He set down another small cask in front of them and retreated almost disinterestedly.


    “And I’m not-“ Lavellan closed her mouth and frowned lopsidedly. “Fuck the dread wolf, I am a self righteous, poisonous bitch aren’t I?” She exclaimed with a modicum of disgust and the look of drunken revelation in her eyes.


    “We’d all be dead or slaves to Corypheus if you weren’t. So keep spitting.” Dorian glanced back at the creaking of the door, as another patron entered the establishment. Oddly enough, Zevran nodded and offered up the side of his mug for a toast with Dorian. The mage frowned in surprise but accepted, taking a drawn sip of his drink before turning back to Lavellan.


    “In the mean time, why don't you take Cullen dragon hunting?” He added casually.


    Lavellan’s cup stopped halfway to her lips and she glared at Dorian. The man was smug. Unbearably so.


    “What? Two birds with one stone. He might need that tumble more than you do.”


    “Since when have you taken up matchmaking?” Etain’s head tilted to the side by a degree.


    “It's not matchmaking if I had nothing to do with from the beginning, is it?” Dorian shrugged and his head tilted once to the side, almost mockingly. “A mage and a former Templar. Kirkwall Templar. Hm. How deliciously scandalous.”


    “You’re one to talk.” Lavellan scoffed, narrowing her eyes at him before taking a sip of her ale. The ‘scandalous’ part wasn’t lost on her; she didn’t know the details, but she knew enough of what happened to Cullen in the Circle Tower, then Kirkwall. And given her personal history… We all have our secrets to keep, the words repeated in her head. Her nerves fired off in erratic sparks, thoughts drifting past their background to the Commander himself, and all Dorian was implying.


    Varric cleared his throat, more out of maintaining a modicum of intimacy between companions than anything; it felt wrong to let the Antivan in on the trash talking between very close friends, especially when it came to such personal matters. The false, drunken scowling contest that Lavellan and Pavus were currently in made him think of siblings, never mind that they looked nothing alike.


    “So… Just got back, and already making preparations to leave.” He changed the subject, after downing his drink.


    “What a shame, you were just getting to the good part.” Zevran interjected, crossing his arms on the bar top, and turned back toward the recruit and her friend at the other end of the bar. It was a farce, no doubt, as Lavellan was sure the man had one ear attuned to their conversation regardless of what he was pretending to do.


    “I was supposed make the trek out weeks ago. From the reports and correspondence, something drastic is happening beneath Orzammar. They’re desperate for any aid. Once Bull gets back, we set out.” Lavellan glanced at Dorian, catching the minute clench of his jaw at the mention of the Qunari.


    “So I keep hearing… Darkspawn hordes pouring out of the tunnels, lyrium mines collapsing… I couldn’t have picked a better time to leave.” Varric leaned back slightly, feeling thankful for not having to be the one to make the descent into the Deep Roads. Not counting the Fade, he could think of no other place in Thedas he would rather never see again.


    “Thank you, for the encouragement.” Dorian scowled, shuddering at the thought of the upcoming expedition. “Why do I do this to myself? Take Vivienne instead.”


    Varric laughed again. “Now that, I might stick around longer to see.”


    “I wouldn’t…” Lavellan quietly mumbled into her mug. She frankly found Vivienne’s demeanor off-putting half the time, and flat out despised her calling everyone ‘dear’ and ‘darling’ all the time. Mostly it was because she saw straight through the act, and it was the last thing she wanted to deal with when out in the field. Besides, she was busy preparing for her duty as the newly elected Grand Enchanter.


    “But you are still leaving us…” Lavellan didn’t know how else to phrase her disappointment. But she also knew Varric had his own life to rebuild, along with Kirkwall. Corypheus was gone, and in all reality the rest of her companions were free to linger or depart as they pleased. She wasn’t about to hold him back because she wanted a friendly face around. She smothered the thought before it fully formed, not wanting to be reminded that soon Dorian would leave too.


    “Yeah, I’ve done all I could here. Kirkwall will take decades to recover from the last few years. I’ve already funded some reconstruction projects there, might as well continue on with it and return home.” Varric’s voice lost its cheerful note, the weight of what awaited him back home already sinking in.


    “Just don’t forget you have friends here. I would help how I can.”


    “I’ve got a feeling the Inquisition will always have its hands full. Don’t worry about me, Inquisitor. I’ll manage.” The man looked into his empty mug. “Agh. I’m not leaving right this minute. Besides, some one promised me one more game of Wicked Grace. I’ve got to give Curly a chance to redeem himself.”


    “Indeed. My bet’s on Lavellan losing all of her clothes.” Dorian grit his teeth and flinched the second the words were out of his mouth, expecting a hit from the elf staring daggers at him.


    “Are you done?” She asked, as Dorian cautiously returned to a normal sitting position.


    “During or after the game? I’m in on this.” Varric laughed, creases forming around his eyes.


    Her glare shifted to Varric. “Where is this even coming from?”


    “Please. I called it in Haven, before the man even knew it himself.” The dwarf smirked. “There rest is in the little things. You’re oblivious to half of it.”


    For the first time in far too long, Etain felt a blush coming on, fighting with how to proceed; to deny everything or act indifferent and go with it? Deny it all and that may be even more incriminating.


    “Maybe I’ll just sit in on the game and watch this time.”


    “Doesn’t change the bet.” Varric winked, reaching for the cask of ale. “And you’d be breaking that promise.”


    Lavellan groaned and shook her head, handing her empty mug to Varric for a refill. “Get it all out of your system now. I don’t want either of you to blow a gasket holding all of that in.”


    It was going to be a long night, but she would much rather suffer through all the teasing rather than have to leave a moment sooner to try and sleep. Anything to delay the dreams, lest she sees the wolf again. She wasn’t ready to even try and discern what Mythal was attempting to show her with it. Or worse yet, finding out that the wolf may not have been Mythal’s doing at all, but and entity all its own.


    She had barely come to grips with the Well’s voices and memories when Mythal decided to impart her own. There wasn’t enough room in Lavellan’s head for yet another cryptic stranger. Insanity seemed one dream away.


    Maybe if she drank enough she wouldn’t dream. For at least one night.

 




    His hands couldn’t stop the maddening clack of training swords hitting shields from entering his sleep deprived head. Outside the window, the early morning light and gruff shouting of the soldiers signaled training was well past the warm up. Cullen groaned, facedown against the pillow, and his hands ruffled his hair. Pushing himself off of the cot seemed like tedious work. For just a moment, tried not to think of all he would need to do today. But his mind was attuned to living and breathing duty and work. It was his lifeline.


    The red lyrium tainting the lands still held a small modicum of sway over him, worsening his sleep and leaving him going about the day with an irritating headache. He had dreamt of Kinloch again. Those nightmares always left him terrified and repulsed. He may have survived the torture and resisted the Desire Demon at the Circle Tower, but it left him traumatized for the rest of his life.


    As if the chilling memory of the dream weren’t enough of a brutal reliving of all that happened, the ache in his jaw from grinding his teeth was there to remind him as well. He woke later than usual only because he hadn’t been able to sleep most of the night. The joints of his fingers whined, and he wondered if he’d been balling his fists through the nightmare.


    He wandered over to the wash basin, careful not to trip over the leather bound journals and books he’d left on the floor the night prior. He’d taken to researching the ruins catalogued in this corner of Thedas, between the Emprise and the Northern Dales. Mostly, he was looking for any information about the Eluvians Etain may have searched for. It seemed as good a place as any to start in order to find her.


    The location and safety offered by Inquisition presence within Suledin Keep had lead to a surge of scholars, archeologists and archivists making the journey to the Emprise from every corner of Thedas. The slowly reconstructed keep offered them the perfect hub to go about their research, provided that the Inquisition would keep a copy of all records and findings in the fast growing repository and library allocated within the restored wing of the fortress. It also provided Cullen with all the access he needed to the information he could not gather by venturing out himself. His rank gave him free reign of where he could go and what he could do in the Keep, and he went about his research under the guise of finding any useful information on where the scout patrols went missing. Not that that wasn’t also true.


    The reading had kept him up late during the nights; the more he found, the more his curiosity piqued. The elven ruins were everywhere. How massive, how powerful of an Empire theirs must have been, to rule all of Thedas with such grandeur? All that remained were bones, and yet they often seemed more magnificent than much of the modern architecture he saw in his travels. He hadn’t offered it all much more than passing thought, given everything he was taught by the Chantry.


    Though he was no longer a Templar, he couldn’t help but feel at odds with himself. He was a devout Andrastean, raised by the military arm of the Chantry, drilled into unquestioning obedience of doctrine and law. Was. Now, it wasn’t so clear-cut, no longer black and white. Everything had turned grey. His faith may still be steadfast, but he had been questioning everything else since Kirkwall.


    All that Etain had told him of her odd dreams should have sent alarms ringing in his ears, it should have made him evaluate her risk of possession and take precautionary action. Yet he remained silent, and kept her secret. He gave her the benefit of the doubt, and meant to leave it at that. But the literary works piled around his small room said otherwise.


    The cold water felt like a slap against his cheeks, chasing the drowsiness from his eyes. He could ponder everything that changed, everything that this could all mean for hours, to no one else’s use. He washed up, dressed and made his way out to go about his duties.


    It was well past midday when the scout called him by his title a third time, drawing him out of the steady stream of commands he was dishing out to his officers: resource allocation, reinforced patrols, where threats still lingered and had to be dealt with so that spring trade routes could resume peacefully.


    “It’s urgent, Ser.” The scout reiterated, holding out a scrap of parchment.


    “Thank you.” He took the paper from the scout and nodded, turning back to the map and pieces spread out on the massive table in what was best termed the command post for Suledin.


    “Clear the thieves out from the northern roads first. The rest I defer to your judgement. Dismissed.”


    The three Knight-Captains snapped their salutes and retreated out of the room, along with the scout. Cullen made a few quick notes regarding the meeting, then turned his attention toward the missive, resting atop a small stack of reports from throughout the day. He broke the wax seal and unrolled the parchment.


    It held a few short and concise sentences, written in Leliana’s hand. Words he prayed to the Maker he would see, written so nonchalantly, no one would know something was ever amiss. A simple phrase, that left him leaning over the table with a heavy sigh of relief.


    “Return to Skyhold as soon as you are able. The reports out of Orzammar are becoming much more unsettling. Their infrastructure has suffered a great deal, and the situation is dire. We may need to send several units to help with the crisis. Lift construction will complete on time. I’ve sent word to the Iron Bull as well. He is to accompany the Inquisitor on her upcoming expedition to the Deep Roads. She departs in ten days, and no later than a fortnight. Make haste.”


    His mind completely glossed over the urgency of Orzammar’s circumstance, paling in importance of the simple implication in the rest of the message. His immediate reaction may have been to bolt out the door straight to Skyhold, to yell at the top of his lungs at Lavellan for everything she’d put him through the past few weeks, to beat the living breath out of Zevran, to throw the other two into the prison-


    “Maker…” he exhaled, stopping the thought process. Something lurched in his chest and seemed to sit uncomfortably in his throat. Thank Andraste, she is alright. The unprompted image of pressing her against himself, arms wrapped in a vice around each other, brought a tingle to his fingertips.


    But that was all based on the assumption that she would allow him to do so. What if what happened in the prayer room was a mistake? A slip up Lavellan would rather forget?


    In all honesty, he wasn’t sure he didn’t want to forget about it. Not that he could, that much was evident. But it would have been simpler, easier, more responsible, wiser to keep everything professional.


    He was afraid of it. Whatever ‘it’ was that he felt toward her, and whatever it was that she felt toward him.


    As if Amell wasn’t a lesson enough to stay away from such things. Perhaps that was why he avoided these thoughts, because too much of that was broken in him years ago.


    Time passed without a care, and many of the wounds turned to scars. Slowly, painstakingly the Inquisition was helping him get a grip on all of it. Cullen’s work gave him something to pour himself into, to distract him from himself. But the pressure always mounted, and the memories always resurfaced, to remind him who they made him. Who he had become.


    But in this moment, even that wasn’t enough to keep the anticipation in check. He wanted to see Etain, even if it would never again be more than war room meetings and official consultations. The prospect of standing in the same room left him staring absently at the table before him, hearing her voice in his periphery, fighting with the implications of all he was feeling.


    He folded the parchment and threw it into the flames of the brazier, watching it burn.

Chapter Text

    The memories had lost the authenticity of blood pooling on the floors of the mansion: the color was too dark, the viscosity too thick, too slow. Like syrup. Her mind replaced details as best it could from experience.


    Briala dreamt of her parents’ murder often. Sometimes she saw the blood pool around Celene’s delicate, alabaster feet. She was, after all, to blame. This time it was no different.


    “Let’s go.” The same sandpaper-rough voice coughed from somewhere to the side. The elf to whom it belonged was oddly the most amiable captor - guard? - in existence. The man made her think of a gruff gentle giant of a guard dog. Though she was sure that if he were pushed to it, the ‘guard’ aspect of his character would be just as harsh as his voice. Briala nodded in acknowledgement and pushed herself up from the very sparse bedroll.


    They were finally moving out of the massive complex, on to search the ruined Labyrinth further. From what she could gather, they were painstakingingly clearing out the ruins and resetting the Eluvians. She was to far removed to see who the lead scouts were, or who had such arcane knowledge to rework the Eluvians. As to why? Well, she had long held the same plan: swift, discrete access to every corner of Thedas. A remarkable advantage to any spy network or armed force.


    So what were these elves planning? Whose orders did they follow? Where did their ranks fill from? None bore vallaslin - so no Dalish. However, the Dalish Inquisitor was now stripped of her tattoos… Perhaps an amalgam of elves who had never found their place among the others, or were lucky enough to escape lives of poverty and servitude.


    Oddly enough, she was not mistreated, aside from the initial capture. That was brutal, but effective. The wound would take some time yet to fully heal. She was spoken to curtly, but not unkindly. She was respected, but not trusted. Briala felt as if she remained on some weird, unlikely cusp of prisoner and initiate.


    When she had woken, they spoke to her about who they were. People just like her, taking the reigns into their own hands to bring Thedas to a proper place, to right the wrongs of history. The usual vague bullshit that she would expect from rebels. They all always thought they were bringing about a better future.


    They told her everything they knew about her. With unnerving clarity. Things no one should have known, considering the only other witness had long disappeared from her life. Felassan had vanished without a trace. Had he joined these rebels? No, the guard clarified once she asked, not unless he came back from the dead. She cried softly into her forearm that night.


    They also told her what they sought. The key and the passphrase. Nothing more.


    She refused, preparing for the wooden needles that would be pushed beneath her nails, or to be shoved in a box too small for days on end. She got a freshly cooked meal instead. Clean clothes. A bath.


    Her suspicions raised, she took none of what was offered, ravenously hungry as she was. The extent of her supervision was limited to ensuring she wouldn’t leave camp. She sat quietly, or slept away the pain in her shoulder.


    The next morning, one of the guards asked again. The key, he said monotonously. Clinging to her defiant nature, she remained silent. The guard nodded and left her in peace. Perplexingly, she was fed well again, talked to, offered a drink. As if she were another scout. As if they hadn’t harpooned her two days prior.


    And so it went on over the course of a week. All smiles, polite demeanor, good food and a clean bedroll. Briala wasn’t sure if this was worse than physical torture. It did not make sense, she was hunted down like an animal, only to be practically pampered? She was asked one question, and asked once a day. No demands, no torture.


    Yet it drove her mad just as well. Because on the seventh day it finally occurred to her what they were doing. How to make someone talk? Give up their secrets? Inflict pain? Threaten their families, loved ones? Pain wasn’t anything she wasn’t familiar with, neither did she have loved ones to fear for. But she had one thing in this world she desperately clung to, that she toiled all of her life for: her revolution.


    If the Inquisitor had made it out - she must have at least avoided capture, and judging by her and her group’s notorious skill set it’s doubtful any of them perished in the Labyrinth - she wouldn't sit idle. The heads of the Inquisition were likely already hatching a plot, and she had not the slightest clue as to what Leliana and Etain would come up with. Josephine, ever the mediator, would try the least disruptive, diplomatic route. Alliance with the proper channels - perhaps tie the Inquisition wellbeing to Celine. That would be the obvious choice. Cullen would grumble something of Gaspard, a more direct flexing of power. Leliana would suggest the artful course, one that Briala would have liked to hear. The Inquisitor herself… she wasn’t sure. The woman would listen. After that, it was hard to tell.


    Yet she wouldn’t hear any of it, if she stayed captive for much longer. Mistakes could be made, bad decisions and imprudent directives already in motion. Briala’s revolution needed her at the helm; her efforts, her coordination, her guile. Her networks were just beginning to settle in and function where they should. The war had disrupted too much. But it was all still in its relative infancy. And so her captors took the one thing she could never spare: her time. Her freedom. Each day she spent with them was one more day lost for her spies, for the city elves.


    Each day she spent tethered to these strangers was a day lost to leashing Celine, and a day further from the justice she wanted. Needed.


    It left her with the taste of bile in her mouth, and a newfound dread for her captors. Patient bastards that would wait it out, until she was no longer useful, all while speaking to her as some acquaintance.


    She gathered her bedroll in silence. Her shoulder rendered the action more difficult than it aught to have been, and it bought her some time to debate internally as to what she would do, what her priorities were and what the consequences would be.


    This… Other leader was knowledgeable enough to reset the Eluvians by hand. She or he may well be able to reset them all without the key, yet here she was, captured and held until she yielded the keystone. It would save him - her - whoever - time, all while taking the very same thing away from her. So in essence, this was all a trade. Time for time.


    Her fingers straightened her clothing, and she donned her leather armor. The space where the hole inflicted by the weapon aught to have been was patched up masterfully. Somehow that made it worse.


    She found what she searched for in the supportive inner layer of her chest piece. Surely it was noticed by whoever mended her armor, yet they left it be. It would be useless without the passphrase anyway.


    Ready to depart, Briala left the small side room of the abandoned premises her contingent had spent a few hours sleeping in. What it’s original use could have been was lost to her. So many of the structures they had traveled through looked similar in their comparable disarray.


    “Sarris.” She called to her gentle-giant guard. Even seated the man’s stature was impressive. His large brown eyes were some of the gentlest she had ever seen, set in a face marred by scars and a burn on his right cheek and jaw. He smiled a greeting and motioned for her to sit nearby.


    Briala inhaled the strange Crossroads air and stepped up to him. Time for time. A revolution for revolution. Her hand stretched out toward him steadily, though  reluctantly.


    “Fen’harel enansal.”

 



A whimper, hushed at first like the whisper of the wind through the leaves. The red fabric of the aravel shifted lightly in the icy breeze. A cry, louder. Pain. Pain that stroke horror into the ears that would hear its sound. Terror at the prospect of living through it.


    One step forward. She was barefoot, toes crunching the thin crust of day-old snow.


    A guttural wail, sending her heartbeat fluttering madly enough to blur her vision.


    A mother. Writhing in her slowly cooling pool of crimson. Clothes torn by hands not her own. Hands eager, careless, greedy. His fingers had scratched deep into her skin. His teeth left bite marks.


    He lay dead beside her. The thief. The murderer. The Shem.


    The mother screamed, golden eyes wild with desperation and anger. The blood writing marring her sweat slicked skin cast ferocious angles to her face.


    The smell. The gore. The slap of her palm and fingers into the red pooling beneath her.


    She reached for a baby, born into a world full of death, blood and hatred. Innocence born of atrocity.


    “Take her.” She pleaded.


    Lavellan’s eyes refused to leave her mother’s face. She wouldn’t allow herself to look at her sibling. The one that was killed before ever drawing its first breath. Before it even left her womb.


    But after the murderer had taken all he needed from her mother. Etain felt the familiar sting of fury-fueled adrenaline in her veins. She should have acted sooner. Should have come back. Should have stayed. The savage revenge her mind conjured both sickened and thrilled her.


    “Please.” The woman moaned. The baby was silent, her first worldly sensation would have been that of filth and blood and the hard aravel floor. “Take her. She has no one.”


    Lavellan felt the burn of tears. The baby was stillborn, but the mother didn’t know.


    “You have no one, my sweet. You never will, if you do not take your sister.”


    The tears burst through, and she choked back a sob, trying hard not to look at the small, pale child held by shaking hands. Trying not to look at her dying mother.


    The howl of a wolf pierced the dream. The sound was so unexpected and haunting that Etain shuddered and let out a gasp. It was everywhere and nowhere at once, enveloping her completely. Lavellan tore her eyes away from the horror before her and turned toward the entryway. She blinked through the tears, trying to see the blurry world around her. The aravel melted into the snow around her.


    Silver eyes were watching the tears course down her own cheeks. Silver eyes of the wolf from the rotunda. It sat a short distance away, an uninvited onlooker to her darkest memories.


    She could no longer hear the cries of her mother, no longer stand barefoot in blood and bodily fluids. She stood in undisturbed, pristine white snow, moonlit flakes falling silently in the still forest. Etain heard herself cry, surprised at the sound. Her fingers wiped away the tears, and she stared at the wolf.


    It watched her with an uncanny intelligence. The beast was beautiful, in that unmistakable way predators were beautiful. Raw power and instinct. It nearly glowed in the snow and moonlight, as much part of the dreamscape as the woods around it.


    The disconcerting thing was that it did not watch her like a predator would watch its prey. That, at least, would have been natural, predictable. Simple.


    It watched her with apprehension, as if she posed a threat equal to its own. A wolf watching a venomous snake, not a rabbit.


    It wanted her attention. Why else would it reveal itself? How much of her visions did it see? Etain was not all that familiar with the machinations of the Fade, especially with the Anchor eliminating anything and everything that would have been normal for dreams. Perhaps that was the reason behind the gray wolf’s fear.


    But she was certain of one thing; if the wolf was able to control its presence and if it had stopped her nightmare, it was either a spirit, or a dreamer. That thought was far from comforting.


    Etain turned her back to the animal. The polar opposite of a self-preserving action. She would never even think of doing such a thing in the waking world. She did not bother trying to gauge the wolf’s reaction and continued to walk through the increasing darkness until she woke up.

 



Clack, clack, clack.


    The drumming of her nails took on a rhythm of its own; a long forgotten Dalish song she had heard Deshanna hum whenever she was blissfully lost in her work - a song of paradise lost.


    Etain’s thoughts fizzled out, accompanied by a thousand yard stare as she sat in her chambers, watching the dawn’s light reflect vivid colors through the stained glass windows.


    Clack, clack, clack.


    She let her fingers spread out against the desk, eyes blinking the dryness away as she shook herself out of her daze. The parchment before her was full of scribbled names and events, written in her own hand shortly after she had woken up.


    Theories, based on muddled memories and tainted stories. She sighed, intentionally ignoring all thought of the nightmare and the wolf. She had started losing even more sleep, bent on figuring out what her visions were telling her, on who the gods of her ancestors really were. Now this outsider was intruding on that as well.


    The legends spoke of brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, an all mother and an all father. The dreams showed rulers, and out of those she had seen, each was different from the rest; save for Sylaise and Andruil, who carried some resemblance. She had not seen the infamous Fen’Harel. Nor had she seen June, the god whose favor she had once believed was etched into her skin. In reality, belief in the gods was one of Etain’s oldest lies. She chose the favor of June because it reminded her of her mother. The guilt isn’t too unbearable, considering the very markings we so revered turned out to be symbols of ownership and slavery.


    She knew the legends by heart, she spoke the proper prayers, knew all the right songs. As Clan Lavellan’s First, she held steadfast to their traditions. She learned, she meditated, she searched, she studied. She understood what every god, every ritual represented. She understood the need for it, the necessity of preserving their culture. And so she lied.


    She did not believe in locked away gods, awaiting their return. No matter what her reasoning was, beneath all her knowledge and reverence, she was a mockery of their customs, of their history. Etain had tried, over and over again to believe, to find her faith. But maybe she was too weak, or too narrow minded, or far too wary of the world to place her trust in deities. Maybe she was wrong. Maybe she wasn’t.


    Cause and effect are your gods, Elodie had once told her, consequence is your faith. She wondered what the gods themselves believed, in their time, beneath their divine masks.


    So far, Etain could only speculate that Mythal and Elgar’nan were the foremost of the gods - the ‘sovereigns’ as she began to think of them - granting land and title to the rest. The “mother” and “father” of the gods’ political power. Or perhaps it all started as city states that bound together to become one empire.


    A domain spanning all, a society with a hierarchy more alike to Tevinter than any elf would be comfortable acknowledging. The higher tenets played the same Game the Orlesians claim their own in the present. Oh what a surprise, the machinations of power and politics never change. Nor was it Tevinter that brought down the Elvhen, but the feuding, infighting, treachery and the blind ambition of their own gods. Their quarrels trickled down to their followers, their officers, their priests, their nobles, their slaves. That much she had already learned from the Well itself, and the priests at Mythal’s temple.


    The last few nights, her dreams were filled with war. As if Etain hadn’t seen enough of it in her own life, the memories forced onto her left her waking with aching bones and a tear drenched pillow. They were almost as terrible as the nightmare she had woken from. It was difficult to discern who was fighting who when watching battle play out on the ground, firsthand. War was war. Blood was blood, no matter whose.


    It wouldn’t be a far fetched guess that some of those battles were waged by the feuding gods. Andruil and Mythal seemed displeased with each other: clashes of politics and personality, and Andruil’s delving into something powerful and destructive. It was also no secret Falon’Din’s unquenchable thirst for adulation started brutal wars. And then the Stranger… The warrior who flustered Mythal in the visions, the one who may have been a lover. If that were true, if Elgar’nan found out, hell would have been unleashed. But she doubted Mythal would have been so foolish, so crass.


     Andruil and Mythal’s cryptic dispute was the last vision the Eluvian had offered her. It had grown quiet, almost timid after the strange dream of the wolf in the library tower. It made it that much more frightening, and the unease brought on by the mere memory was more invasive that it should have been. It was just a dream, wasn’t it?


    Yet it returned. It intruded and cut the nightmare short. It left Etain wondering what its intentions were. Why she struck fear and apprehension into it as much as it did in her. What had it witnessed that left it curious yet guarded?


    Avoiding any further thought of the wolf, Etain began rereading all her notes. Not knowing where else to start, Etain had documented all she knew of the gods; possible relationships, known stories of rivalries, features. Anything. It felt so foolish, so inadequate to ridiculously write their names all over the parchment, and play connect the dots with obscure theology and history.


    Lavellan rubbed her eyes and crumbled the parchment, before standing up and approaching the fireplace. So went every morning the last three days. Up at the break of dawn, scribbling away, only to burn the papers.


    She hesitated. Was it really necessary to do it? Only to have to waste time at some point again to write everything again? Maybe she’d save herself some time to rest come next morning…


    I spend hours torturing myself over cryptic visions. Every waking hour, my thoughts are drowned out by memories of strangers… All while I have to keep a clear mind and help the Inquisition deal with Celene, and Briala, Morrigan, Zevran, and these… furtive bastards in the Crossroads. And the disaster in the Deep Roads. Why, why did I accept? Why did I go to the Conclave? Why did I drink from the fucking Well?


    Having berated herself enough, Lavellan slipped the papers into the middle of a leather-bound folder full of clean parchment, shoved it into the drawer full of folders just like it and slammed the drawer shut. If all else failed, she would just burn them in the morning.


    She buried herself in work, flitting between the blacksmith and the undercroft for the better part of the day. Dagna kept her more than busy to free her mind of Andruil and Mythal, preparing weapons and armor for the descent beneath the surface of Thedas. Etain forced herself to talk amicably and smile, empty as it felt.


    They worked tirelessly through the day, bouncing ideas and techniques off of each other. They had gotten into such enthusiastic discussions on the nature of spirit-bound weapons that Harrit demanded they leave before his ears began to bleed. They were far too disruptive as it was, considering that smithing should be a “silent art.”


    Etain stripped off the gloves and leather apron, wiping her hands as clean as she could with the wash rag by the door before heading up the stairs. As the door closed behind Lavellan, Dagna was still hashing out requests to Harrit, who responded with a grunt.


    Etain stepped out of the doorway to the undercroft, her clothes stained and dirty, sticking to her sweat slicked skin. Her fingers left soot smudges along her neck, some on her jaw and wiped across her forehead - thoughtless gestures while she worked. Her dirtied shirt was tucked into her leather breeches, shifting lightly with her movements, cleaner where it was protected by the apron. The gray light coming in through the stained glass windows clung to the angles of her bones, trapped in the dewy moisture dotting her skin. She looked audaciously out of place in the massive, fully restored throne room.


    “Inquisitor!” One of Leliana’s couriers called to her from a few paces away, hand in the air. The girl was hardly more than a teenager, so full of energy and drive, Etain wasn’t aware it was possible for a person.


    “Lady Morrigan is requesting your audience.” She sputtered out, words spoken so swiftly they all but tied together. Etain chuckled.


    “Thank you. I shall find her shortly. She’ll have to forgive me for being…” she looked down at her clothing, “out of sorts at the moment.”


    “Yes, mil -shit- no, milady,” the young woman shook her head once, staring at the Inquisitor. “Pardon my language, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say you’re-“


    “I know, don’t worry about it.” Etain waved it off, a little amused by how eager to please the young agent was.  She wondered how long the luster of her new career would last for the girl. “Go on ahead.”


    The scout snapped off the Inquisition salute and marched down the hall.


    She heard him before she saw him, trudging through the main hall and speaking quietly with a guard. Rain drenched, and a little road weary, Cullen had a tired look on his face that floored Lavellan in her place.


    Her insides clenched, nerves firing off in every direction, forcing her to process everything from indiscriminate joy at the sight of the man to guilt to annoyance. The latter directed toward whatever entity felt cruel enough to make her unable to repress the pang in her chest she felt seeing Cullen. She’d been able to disregard it entirely for as long as… she wasn’t sure. She didn’t know what to make of it. It wasn’t anything she allowed much thought on, it wasn’t anything alike to what she had felt during any of her prior romances, it wasn’t anything she had felt with Solas…  That was like standing all too close to a bonfire in the summer, this was like sitting by a well stoked fire in early autumn.


    She mentally backhanded herself for even thinking in those terms, cringing at the mere thought of what happened the last time she saw Cullen. Cringing, only in an attempt to ignore the traitorous swelling of something in her chest. Liar, manipulator.


    He was a former templar, a human and… this was absurd.


    The Commander nodded to the soldier beside him, and continued on through the hall. His eyes lowered again, watching his own hands as he took off the gloves. Free of the garment, one hand went up to run through his rain- soaked hair, curling erratically. He looked up just in time to catch the door to the residential tower close, the far end of the throne room empty of whoever had been there a moment before.

 



    The spring rain pelted the ancient stones of the garden, the sound and the smell of earth and wet stone utterly intoxicating, despite the cold. Lavellan listened to the rap of soft footfalls approach as she tried to drown herself in the tranquility of the garden.     


    “’Tis a lovely evening, Inquisitor.” Morrigan drifted closer, her voice all velvet and danger.


    “Yes. It is.” Etain turned and nodded a brief but polite greeting to the sorceress. “At least for those of us in the comforts of our keep. I hope your stay has been agreeable.”


    “For now.” The woman leaned against the column, crossing her arms over her chest.


    “I apologize for being so brusque with you when we returned.” Lavellan said, eyes tracking across the courtyard.


    Morrigan tilted her head to the side a small degree, as if surprised by the Inquisitor. They dwelled in stillness for a moment, the rain the only noise between them. “No need. It was a difficult choice for myself as well.”


    “She may yet be alive.”


    “If the adversaries are clever enough. And my assumption is that they very much are.”


    “They could torture her, glean information from her. It may be obvious to say they - whoever they are- know we were with her. Even if Briala doesn’t reveal a thing, they could know where we escaped from the Labyrinth. They could have seen us and searched the exits where we disappeared. Even if they hadn’t, you destroyed an Eluvian that was active. What if someone notices that? What if they know it leads to Skyhold?”


    Morrigan studied her with piercing scrutiny. “You are growing ever more suspicious, Inquisitor. Must be exhausting.”


    “And you wouldn’t be, had you been in my place?” It was an uncomfortable topic for either of them, considering Morrigan would have been in Etain’s place, had the elf not made a steadfast choice to drink from the Well.


    “Perhaps.”


    The tension grew far too noticeable, and Etain reminded herself not to fiddle with her left hand.


    Morrigan noticed the brief twitch. “Does it pain you?”


    “No.”


    “Have you come to a decision?”


    “Isn’t this a decision itself?” Etain turned and leaned against the opposite column, instinctively folding her arms and hiding her left hand.


    “’Tis true.” Morrigan glanced out toward the gardens, periodically checking for any unwanted onlookers. “You have this irritating habit of skirting around questions just to avoid committing to an action or judgement.”


    “I know. How did anyone ever think I would make a good Inquisitor?”


    “Shall we move past the word games while we have the privacy?”


    Etain’s expression steeled. “No, I have not come to a decision. Because I do not know how to destroy it, and do it safely. I do not know the consequences of either destroying it or using it. And you expect me to make a sound judgement?”


    Morrigan smiled. The gesture often looked dangerous on her. “Mythal whispers her secrets into your ear. Have you not been listening?”


    “More like digs through my memories and drowns me in her own.” Etain felt her body suddenly grow tired. She had so many questions, she desperately wanted to speak with someone on the matter. But that wasn’t an option. “I can hardly make sense of it. It’s as if she jumbles puzzle pieces in a bowl and throws a random one out for me every whim she gets.”


    “The gods are fickle. If they are even gods at all.”


    “They certainly aren’t the gods of legend.”


    “I suspect you had come to that conclusion long before Mythal had found you.”


    Etain smirked amiably, hiding her discomfort. “Couldn’t be so rare of an opinion, could it?”


    “Not rare, no. Incendiary…” Morrigan subtly shrugged her shoulders with a sigh. “Care to elaborate?”


    “It all looks like… monarchs and feuding nations. Or, city states. My guess is the gods were raised to power by the primary rulers - Mythal and Elgar’nan, following a gruesome war that destroyed infrastructure and shattered trade for themselves and neighboring elven city-states. They dissolved borders and formed one empire. Maybe it wasn’t by choice. Maybe it was. But it seemed to flourish for ages. Yet with time, Andruil, Dirthamen and Falon’Din grew disgruntled with Mythal and her politics. Elgar’nan loved her dearly. I have yet to see anything of June, or Fen’Harel. Andruil held a grudge over Mythal, over the use of something powerful and maddening that wasn’t of their lands. Sylaise wanted nothing to do with her sister, and tended to stay to her duties and interests.” Etain rattled off her hypotheses in a tone suggesting overwhelm. She paused, pursed her lips, then added. “I think Mythal may have had a lover. Or at least an unrequited lover.”


    “Now why would Mythal show you that?”


    “Maybe someone took notice, maybe they jumped to conclusions. All the more reason to hate Mythal?”


    “Would she be so brash?”


    “My thoughts exactly.” Etain shrugged. “I have yet to see anything more than his shadow, his back or a glimpse of his hands. If that is to mean anything, they kept it a close guarded secret.”


    Morrigan’s brow furrowed slightly and she thought for a few moments. Lavellan waited patiently for the woman to share her musings, but was left disappointed.


    “I do not understand the message she is attempting to send me. What purpose, what value could this possibly hold for us now? Knowing the truth about our so-revered gods? As if anyone would actually accept it after centuries of learning and fervently believing otherwise. It would take much more than my lifetime to change anything. That cannot be it, that cannot be her one and only reason.”


    “Do not search for a reason. Do not try to gauge her intentions, or glean a message. You will miss far too much information that way… you look but do not see. Observe. You are a spectator. Act like one.” Morrigan tilted her head to the side by the slightest of degrees. To her, radiating peril and shrewdness was as effortless as wearing a fine perfume. Lavellan found herself wondering what Morrigan wasn’t sharing with her.


    “Morrigan… I know we have our differences. And with what happened at the Vir Abelasan… Why didn't you keep it? The key? Why haven’t you opened it?”


    It was a rare occurrence to see the woman uncomfortable, yet there she stood. Somehow slighted and a fraction less intimidating now that fear and anxiety churned in her chest. She was silent for a long minute.


    “Because my mother left me with a choice.” Morrigan’s merlot lips pulled into a bittersweet smile. “I’ve hated that woman for years. I’ve felt threatened and feared for my life-“ She straightened up, as if defending herself against the mere whisper of emotion.


    She turned to Lavellan again, defiant and hard. “I did not want it. I did not want to be anything like my mother. I refuse to be forced into any direction. Her parting gift was a choice. And I chose my own path.”


    And so you threw me to the wolves. A trace of horror stiffened Etain’s posture, remembering her one brief encounter with Flemeth. “So long as the music plays, we dance… I dance,” those words were practically etched into the back of her eye lids.


    “Never again to your own tune,” Morrigan added, tone ominous without actually sounding so.  Her eyes motioned to something behind Etain. “I believe you are needed elsewhere.”


    Etain threw a glance over her shoulder, catching a glimpse of a one of Josephine’s assistants heading their way. When she turned back, Morrigan nodded a farewell and turned to leave. Etain’s hand reached out to brush the woman’s arm, stopping her in her steps.


    She seemed a bit perplexed by the gesture, maybe even slightly offended, but she paused regardless.


    “Thank you.” The elf withdrew her hand. “For the counsel. It was much needed,” she elaborated, then turned away to meet the assistant halfway down the walkway.


    Morrigan’s jaw shifted slightly in thought, wondering as to what exactly that could have meant about Lavellan’s character. “Curious creature,” she mumbled and walked back towards her quarters.

 



Etain considered changing before speaking with Josephine, but then again it was nearing sunset, and there was no mention of visiting dignitaries. She’d met with her in far worse conditions.


    Josephine wasn’t in her office when she walked through the doorways, and Lavellan assumed she would be in the war room along with Leliana. The massive doors stood open, the entire room visible from well across the hall.


    Cullen paced around the table discerning the movements of Inquisition troops, deployed agents, upcoming missions from the numerous jumble of pieces on the map. The man hadn’t been back two hours and was already back to work.


    A lead ball manifested and dropped in her gut. She wasn’t prepared to face him, though she wasn't sure why. Maybe it was the guilt. She had mislead him, in an attempt to distract him from her own slip-up. Etain wasn't sure with which realization she was more appalled with; the fact that she didn’t trust him enough to understand her plight and not deem her possessed or unstable, or that she felt no compunction about it until days later considering somewhere, deep down, she cared.


    Maybe it was wounded pride from not coming out of the endeavor unaffected.


    Lavellan chewed her lower lip briefly before reverting to her stoic shell. Back straight, shoulders relaxed, chin parallel to ground, expression neutral. It was as reflexive as breathing, and that in itself was disheartening. She inhaled and stepped into the room.


    “Inquisitor,” Josephine chimed, eyes already scanning Etain’s soot-stained attire. “Oh my.”


    Etain offered up a closed-lip smile and a light shrug in apology. “I was not aware this would be a formal meeting.”


    “It isn’t.” Leliana flipped through the collection of parchment in her hand before looking up. “We simply wished to get everyone on the same page and set a schedule before turning in for the night. The Commander has had a long journey up and I am positive he would like some rest,” she paused, then shook her head. “Needs rest. Despite what he says.”


    Lavellan’s attention reluctantly anchored on the man in question as she walked toward the empty spot on the opposite side of the table. He stood still at the head of the table to her right, his posture rigid, wrist resting on the pommel of his sword. His facial features were a degree more prominent, his cheeks a bit more sunk in. Light blonde hair curled disproportionately from the rain, and there was a bruise that was fading along the line of his jaw.


    Amber eyes stared fixedly at her, as if guarded and unsure of whether she was actually there. Yet there was a warmth to them, a faint glimmer of relief. They perused her face, taking in the new scars, the shorter hair.


    “I don’t believe our dear Commander knows the meaning of the word.” Lavellan said with a casual smile, as if she hadn't disappeared for several weeks and left them all biting their nails in anxiety over her - and their- wellbeing.


    It didn’t slip by unnoticed by the others. Cullen ground his teeth together, eyes burning a little brighter with irritation. Josephine looked nervous, and Leliana, on the other hand, seemed amused.


    “Good evening to you, Inquisitor.” The man strained out the words, actively searching for whatever sounded casual and wasn’t you have no idea what you’ve put me through. “I am pleased to see you have made it back to us safely.”


    Lavellan kept her smile in response and her gaze fell to the table as she folded her hands behind her. She hoped no one caught her forcing herself to breathe regularly.


    “Well. Perhaps we should start by clearing the air.” Josephine interceded, setting her own paperwork and quill down on the table.


    Etain’s thumb slipped over the bump in her left palm as she listened.


    “The past few weeks have been trying for us all. What is important is that everyone returned safe and sound, and the information gleaned from the endeavor is undeniably valuable.”


    “And this incident remained obscure.” Leliana added, folding her hands behind her as well. The stance looked more natural on her than anyone in the room.


    “Perhaps we should be concerned about this never happening again.” The Commander rumbled, the anger seeping from him like the rain on the fur of his mantle.
    “Understood.” Etain shot him a glance, devoid of much meaning.


    “We have briefed Cullen on the situation, on your return. On Briala’s unfortunate capture. No doubt he has questions, as we all do, but perhaps you will allow us each some time out of your day to speak of it later. There are more pressing matters that require our attention.” Leliana separated out three letters and returned her hands to where they were a moment ago.


    “I have received preliminary reports from my agents. It seems Ferelden is growing uneasy with our presence as well. Nothing drastic yet, however their stance toward us is slowly heading into hostile territory. Dealing with the Deep Roads incident will buy us favor and some time, however the lords will revert to their unease with time.” Leliana summarized the content of the three letters. “None of which is a surprise. But we must take this into consideration as well, and not falter by focusing only on Celine.”


    “Speaking of whom, she yet awaits word on the gathering. The peace is holding, and reconstruction efforts are underway. While her power holds, she will try to cement it anyway she can, by securing alliances and derailing all she sees as enemies or potential threats. We cannot remain idle.” Josephine drifted closer to Leliana.


    “Even if we do no one will see it so.” Lavellan spoke, her voice muffled by the finger she kept on her lip.


    “Pardon?”


    “Celine expects one of two things. Either we found out about her plot, and we will use it to black mail her or derail her rule - or she thinks it slipped past us and we still believe her plot. Playing at the level we all are now, I highly doubt Celine thinks we are still unaware. So our retaliation will be expected.” She paused, glancing around the room. “Even complete inaction will be perceived as scheming. They’ll always draw up their expectations in whatever we do.”


    “So why not remain unexpected? If we remain in the grey, if Celine isn’t sure how to read us, wouldn’t that work out in our favor?” Leliana finished Lavellan’s train of thought.


    Josephine shot both women a wary glare, a little unsettled by just how similar Leliana and Lavellan thought of the situation. She had feared it would come this. She shook her head. “No. An alliance would work in our favor. Unfortunately we are a formidable presence whether we remain neutral or allied to anyone. Someone will always believe themselves pressured.”


    “Understandable, wouldn’t you say? A very capable military organization pops up in the mountains between Orlais and Ferelden; an organization with a disputed namesake and a growing presence even after the main threat to Thedas is gone. We need our presence linked to a throne. A steadfast throne… Not Celine.” Lavellan continued. “How do we make ourselves look to have less of a political motive? How do we remain formidable but not powerhungry?”


    “It is far too late for that. We have been twisting the power strands for two years now. You cannot undo that.” Josephine scoffed, setting her pen and paper down.


    “So what do we do?” Cullen imparted, arms crossed while he somberly glared at the war table.


    “I say we let her crumble her own rule. Remain neutral. Remain neither opposing nor supportive of her rule.” Lavellan shrugged.“We don’t blackmail. We simply notify her that the immediate threat isn’t necessarily Tevinter, but something far closer to home… All the while, beneath the covers we use everything and everyone we can. The nobles, her friends, her enemies… Perhaps even Gaspard.”


    The momentary silence in the room was heavy with apprehension and consideration.


    “Gaspard? Hadn’t we established he is no longer an option?” Cullen frowned, glancing up from the war table.


    “He is no saint, but he is a man of honor. He may at least hear us. All we have to do is make the argument - the offer - very enticing, and very convincing. The trouble is controlling him. It would be a very difficult, if not impossible move.” The spymaster glided along the length of the table, closer to Lavellan. It was as if they were all subconsciously separating themselves into groups.  


    “No, not undeniably certain. But it is quite evident he is not pleased with our decision at the Winter Palace.” Josephine momentarily leaned against the table before collecting herself and returning to a composed posture. “No…It will be far too difficult to do this unnoticed.”


    “It does not necessarily have to be obscure. Just impossible for Celine to derail without painting herself as no longer apt or tactful in the Game. What about Marquise-“ Leliana’s eyes drifted over the map, picking out potential targets.


    “Oh Andraste, why hadn’t I thought of it sooner?” Josephine burst out. She began pacing her corner of the table, eyes darting over the map and her scrolls.


    “Josie, to hear you exclaim like that is about as unnatural as Sera socializing in Court. Would you please enlighten us?”


    “A steadfast throne… The sunburst throne. We do not need Celine, nor Gaspard. We have Cassandra.” Josephine’s face was lit with enthusiasm and revelation. By the looks of it, she had already outlined an entire course of action.


    Etain had her hands on her hips while she watched Josephine intently. The gears were turning, yet she wasn’t entirely sure of what Josephine meant.


    “Oh it is obvious, how did we not- nevermind. We must reach out to the Divine, let her call for a council, to determine the fate of the Inquisition. There, we pledge our existence to the Chantry. It is the only way to remain untethered to the whims of Celene or King Alistair, and maintain our presence and power.”


    “And tie us to the motives of the Chantry instead?” Leliana frowned. “It is in tatters after everything that has happened. The reform isn’t as widely accepted as we could hope for. Cassandra will not be Divine forever. Who knows what will happen to the Inquisition once we are all gone?”


    “The same could be said of our organization now. The same should be said no matter what we do. Presently, for the sake of Thedas, this is the best option.” Josephine’s voice grew wrought with determination. This was the only solution. The only way to stop the Inquisition from being the bloody dagger for Orlais or Ferelden. “Madame de Fer once said a leash can be pulled from either end. We must hand our leash to a more pliable master, one who could be pulled in any direction and look as if that was his intention all along.”


    “Wouldn’t everyone expect this course of action?” Lavellan’s arms now folded over her chest.


    “Would they though?” Josephine’s expression grew more sly.


    “She’s right.” Cullen imparted, eyes remaining on Josephine while he answered Lavellan. “The Chantry is in disarray, completely unstable, and clinging to the last, frail bits of power it has. Cassandra is, at best, trying to steer a carriage with missing wheels. The sheer amount of gripes and misgivings we have had with the organization put us at irrefutable odds. Orlais sees us as the sleeping bear, waiting to throw our power behind the highest bidder, which would seem to be themselves. Ferelden wants us gone. This would come off as a foolish, if not desperate option. If you are aiming for the unnerving, it is this.” The man shrugged, eyes gliding over the pieces on the table before finding their focus on Lavellan. “I’ll be damned if we become Celene’s attack dogs. Remaining unchained would be in our best interest.”


    “It may no longer an option. We put the sleeping bear behind the weakest pawn. This way the chantry will keep us, and we it, out of the ambitions of Celene or Gaspard and Alistair. Yet we would remain in power and maintain the authority to intervene when needed. It will fortify Cassandra’s rule as Divine, and render us practically untouchable.” Josephine shrugged. “So long as her reforms last.”


    A moment of thoughtful stillness descended upon the small assembly, each debating the option internally.


    “We make this discrete. Inform Cassandra, seek out her perspective on this. If she is receptive to the idea, then she can inform Celene of the call to a council. Divine Victoria knows of Celene’s call to an alliance. She would be well within her rights to question the validity of that invitation, does she not? Instead she can offer to  arrange a proper summit and vote. This would take the reigns away from Celene but not appear a direct threat.” Josephine outlined her strategy, still in its inception.


    “I must admit, Josie. I rather prefer this route to wrangling Gaspard.” Leliana’s lips pulled into an approving smile.


    “And what shall we do in the meantime? You’ve said Celene is waiting for an answer. She will not wait around forever.” The Commander showed a drop more evidence he was fighting the onset of exhaustion; his posture was stiff, but not the military stance of authority drilled into him since childhood. He was shifting more frequently, restlessly keeping himself at attention.


    “We distract her.” Lavellan tapped her fingers against her waist. “We act helpful, but moderately guarded. If we cannot make Orlais trust us, we must keep it, and Celene, unsure about us.”


    “And before we can do that, we still need to gather more information. We need to know where exactly every player sits and what move they plan to make next. We need to find out what is whispered at Court, what is hotly debated and what is avoided in the Grand Cathedral, what is making the Ferelden lords’s furs stand on edge.” Leliana bent over the table and scribbled a note to herself on a scrap of clean parchment. Names, along with a few words reminding her of her objective. “We also await word from my scouts regarding the disappearance of our elven agents.”


    “The Iron Bull was only a few hours behind me, he should be arriving soon. He may have more information for us.”


    “Good, I shall call for a briefing tomorrow.” Leliana nodded and rolled up her notes.


    “We should receive correspondence from Northern Orlais tomorrow. The Marquis is concerned with the movement of troops out of the area. We will also receive missives from my contacts in Val Royeaux. We have several attaches scheduled to visit during the summer months.” The Antivan ambassador scratched something out in her notes and skimmed her coworkers. “We can discuss that further with more clarity once we receive a bit more insight. What of the expedition? We would benefit from resolving the Orzammar situation as best we can before the dignitaries begin making their ascents. That should be our main focus for the time being.”


    Culled pulled his shoulders back and pried his eyes off the table, braving direct eye contact with the Inquisitor. “I have an accompanying team fully prepared and ready to set out day after tomorrow, Inquisitor. Our engineering squadron positioned in the Storm Coast will have everything else you and your party will need to make the descent. We have a detachment aiding in the rescue and containment of the darkspawn near the most impacted areas.”


    “Alright. I will let the others know.” Etain nodded, holding his gaze as long as she could.


    Cullen cleared his throat and his thumb brushed against the pommel. “I will accompany you and the support team to the Coast. There we will work in coordination with the regiments sent out of Orzammar to do damage control and seal as many breaks in the tunnels as possible.”


    Etain fought to keep her fixed look from turning into a glare. She was hardly ready to face the man that evening, let alone travel with him. The turn of events felt almost ironic given her current predicament.


    “This will be an extensive effort and we would do well to control as much of it as we can to ensure efficiency.”


    “And win us a sturdy foothold with Orzammar.” Josephine added. “Please be safe, be cautious. The reports are… grim. The quakes have started soon after we lost Haven, but they have increased in intensity and frequency over the course of the last two months. Several mines are terribly damaged, perhaps unsalvageable. It is already hindering the lyrium trade and prices have surged. Our primary source of lyrium comes from Orzammar. We have to alleviate this situation in anyway we can. If we succeed, we win the most preferential trade agreements with the merchants and, if we are fortunate, win favor with the noble castes.”


    “I understand. We will do all we can.”


    “Good. And with that, my friends, I believe it is time to turn in for the night. There will be substantial preparations to make come morning. Get some rest. That is more specifically directed at you, Ser Rutherford.” Josephine gathered up several parchments and cocked her brows at the Commander.


    “She means that’s a threat. Maker forbid anyone sees you come near your desk.” Leliana’s voice was rich with amusement. “I suggest you leave the official business until morning.” The seneschal glided across the floor and placed a hand on Cullen’s shoulder with a gentle smile and asked, “will you finally relax now?”


    A flush of red burst to the man’s cheeks. “We may not be leaderless but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a plethora of concerns-“


    “Tsk!” Josephine interrupted and pointed an accusing finger at Cullen. “Inquisitor, if there are no more questions, shall we all call it a day?”


    Etain nodded, trying to hide the smile pulling at the corners of her lips and failing. Watching the two women berate their stalwart Commander was heartwarming. It also made her feel that much more conflicted.


    Josephine nodded and smiled in return, and left the chamber. Leliana lingered for a second longer, her sky blue eyes held contact with Cullen for a swift moment. He averted his gaze, accepting whatever warning or message they relayed to each other.


    “Goodnight, Inquisitor.” Leliana followed Josephine’s steps and departed into the Ambassador’s office.


    The war room suddenly felt too stifling, the silence uncomfortable. The snap of the burning braziers and the musky smell of rain-damp earth wafting in from Josephine’s window increased in intensity as Cullen waffled about speaking to the Inquisitor, alone.


    He looked up just in time to catch Lavellan gaping at him and nervously massaging her thumb against the palm of her dirtied left hand.


    “In- Inquisitor-” The word came out more as a question than anything else. He swallowed, hard, fighting the rising tension. He tried to keep his perusal of her covert, but feared he failed. Just as he failed in keeping the unwelcome image of grabbing her and kissing her out of his thoughts. He was still fuming, the opposing whirlwind of emotion leaving him uncertain of his actions. So his hand reached out, awkwardly, to pat her shoulder.


    Etain glared at it and brought her eyes to his. He could tell she was fighting with what the gesture might have meant, and it made him feel both ashamed and a tinge more confident. She was as unsure about this, just as he was. The brazier snapped again. The sound was more amplified by his fraying nerves.


    After a tense, anxious moment she closed the small distance between them. Her arms reached out and wrapped around his neck before he could say anything else, pressing her body firmly against his. Cullen hesitated briefly, before his arms wound around her, fingers acutely aware of the light roughness of her shirt.


    The world smelled of rain, smoke, leather and sweat, the faintest minty hint of Lavellan’s hair drifting into the mix. The trapped moisture on his cloak and armor seeped into her clothing, smearing soot on both of them. His armor prevented them from embracing in a way that wasn’t uncomfortable and a bit awkward for either of them. He chose to focus only on the sudden stillness he felt, the anger and torments of the last few weeks peeling away, leaving only the tranquility of being in each others arms.


    The primal beast slumbering at the back of his skull woke, assuring him she was never more safe than she was now, in his arms, that she cared for him, that she was beautiful and he wanted- No. Afraid to indulge in the thoughts for even a second longer, Cullen smothered them all. He felt guilt, knowing this was wrong, a direct offense to sensibility. She’d never be safe. No matter where. None of us will, as long as we are the Inquisition. Get a grip of yourself.


    “You had m- us all so worried.” He mumbled, thumb brushing against her shoulder blade. He had a terrible urge to run his fingers into her hair and kiss the new scar arcing from her temple, or that neatly pointed ear that pressed against his jaw.


    “I am sorry. I…” Her voice was quiet, timid almost. “I did what I could.”


    He inhaled the heady mix of smells, thinking back to all the anger he felt toward her, toward why she kept them all in the dark. Something inside urged him to ask her if she had the slightest idea how much he worried, how much he cared. How much it all confused him, given their upbringings may as well have been worlds apart, given the atrocities it brought him to commit. He couldn’t bring himself to speak to her.


    Reluctantly, as if forcing herself to leave warm shelter to go out into blistering winds and snow, she pulled away. The mere warmth of the embrace was a simple, mortal gesture she desperately craved; such things were too much of a rarity in her life. Yet his guarded reaction and wariness was palpable, and she regretted even touching him.


    Cullen felt as if opportunity slipped away with her fingertips as they trailed down his arms and back to her sides. He should have said something, should have spoken openly with her. He should have done a lot of things in his life, but just like now, he shied away from a split second decision because of one or another scruple, another fear.


    The mantle had wiped half the soot clean off of her, and smeared the rest. Her eyes lit up with amusement once she looked at him again, and she let out a quiet chuckle.


    “Creators. I am so sorry…” She said through her smile, grasping at the chance to lessen the awkwardness of the encounter. Cullen didn’t even register the words, eyes locked on the movements of her lips. “No denying it now, Commander.”


    “What?” He nearly stuttered, too preoccupied with once more noting the scars and considerably shorter hair - reaching just to the nape of her neck, where it once hung down to her waist - to track with her thoughts.


    She pointed at the side of his face and neck, where her own skin stamped his with black dust. “I’ve certainly left my mark.”


    He smiled and glanced back down to his feet, unsure of whether the relief was making him dizzy, or the hunger. “Small price to pay for your safe return, Inquisitor,” he managed to not fumble all over his words.


    Her soot spotted cheeks remained rounded, her right hand back to wringing her left. Her indigo eyes briefly flashed behind her shoulder, at the opening of the door. Josephine’s assistant appeared through it and the wooden door clicked shut behind her. Her voice joined the quiet bantering of the other two.


    “I… there are so many questions…” Cullen’s hand was rubbing his neck, his weary gaze drawn back down to the stone floors. “What happened? How were you not-“


    “It’s… a long story.” Lavellan interjected, watching his exhausted face as he pieced together his many inquiries. She desperately felt the need to remove herself from the room, but the subtle shift in his expression kept her still. She was only making it worse, if not borderline offending him. “One I’d prefer to tell you once you've at least rested. And I’m not covered in soot.”


    The disappointment remained evident. His hand was back to the sword, his brows low over his deep set eyes. The Commander nodded his farewell and turned toward the door, ready to make his escape. “Of course, Inquisitor.”


    He was soon out of sight, and Lavellan shook her head and exhaled forcefully. Her fingers raked into her hair.


    Would he still care for her if he had known her past, the things she had done, the things she was seeing while she slept? Or would locking her in a cell to await the right of tranquility seem the only option if he knew? Even if he never found out - and he never will - would he accept her for who she is?


    Etain wasn’t even sure who she would be by the end of Flemeth’s - or Mythal’s - plans. This should be the last of her worries. It shouldn't matter. But somehow it did.


    She remembered the man who braved touching Mythal in the dreams, and wondered if this is what the Queen had felt in her time; being precariously perched on the thin line between one mistake and another, having gone too far to avoid either.

Chapter Text

   

Breathing was turning into an arduous effort, lungs burning from running through the twisting dark of the old mining tunnels. It was even more scalding having to abandon months of labor and cautious maneuvering in order to survive. Finally sucking in a gulp of cold night air wasn’t as liberating as Deshanna hoped.


    Her arms reached down into the opening of the caved in tunnel and hauled out the unconscious body of a youth. Skin an ashy brown, covered in sweat and dirt and blood, the boy was a lost cause. She buckled to the ground with a raspy sigh, pulling the adolescent into her lap. His breathing was more a gurgling groan, bubbling in his throat. The dull gray of his subpar clothing was stained and soaked with blood on his right; the result of a precise sword strike that pierced his lung and severed several nerves in his spine.


    Deshanna’s second accomplice pulled herself out of the tunnel, clothes just as torn and dirtied as the boy’s. The only difference was that the blood was not her own. An elven girl, no older than sixteen, threw down the pathetic semblance of a spear to the ground and bolted to the body of the youth.


    “Taren!” She called, bloodied fingers gingerly touching his face. His eyes were able to focus, if only barely.


    “Can’t you heal him, hahren?”


    “Do not speak,” Deshanna snapped, glowering at the elven girl with disdain, “unless you are going to say a prayer to Falon’Din.”


    Horror began to displace the defiance and adrenaline, contorting the girl’s features. Deshanna brought her focus back down to the dying boy.


    “Ir abelas.”  She whispered, placing a gentle peck on his forehead. Mana welled in her fingertips, coaxing the boy’s last breath, bringing him death.


    She should have felt disgust, maybe abhorrence toward herself. They boy could have been saved. Though she could fail to heal him, which was a likely scenario considering the amount of time that has passed. Not to mention her relatively limited abilities in that particular craft. He was a breath away from death, and she did not have to proper technique to reverse that. The clan healers were too far away. With her efforts, he would be in excruciating pain, and he would hinder their escape and put them all in danger. And even if they would make it to the clans, he may end up forced to live a wretched life in an unforgiving world as a broken child. His death would serve a greater purpose.


    It was vicious pragmatism. He was dead the moment he couldn’t out maneuver his pursuers, be it Etain’s fault that started it in the first place. Such was the Grand Game. Espionage was unforgiving of the slightest mistake or weakness. Etain had over estimated her manipulation skills and blown her cover, but she managed to escape. She dragged along a mortally wounded accomplice without leaving an easy trail. She was sensible enough to use the underground to her advantage: lead the pursuers to the bandits, and let the underground enforcers defend their turf from official powers, buying herself the chance to escape.


    Deshanna couldn’t afford to lose Etain. Not for the simple fact that she was her only remaining family, but she was a vessel of untold, unpredictable potential. Capable, and willing. Deshanna had already spent years grooming her for a future as Keeper of a Clan that would live in a world far different than it has been for centuries. Biases of family apart, Etain was a much more valuable asset to the Clan than Taren. He was a pliable youth. Of kinder nature but weaker disposition than Etain. The Dalish didn’t need another halla, striving to avoid the predator. They needed a viper, able to slip anywhere unseen and patiently wait to strike a fatal blow cleanly and efficiently.


    Deshanna whispered a pleading to the gods, for the boy and her own fell soul. Her thoughts seemed louder than the girl beside her. Had she not seen her, Deshanna would have thought she stopped breathing.


    Etain’s lips quivered before she nearly bit them raw, and tears were smearing someone else’s blood down her cheeks. Her indigo eyes caught Deshanna’s gaze and the wall burst. She let out a heart wrenching sob, her knuckles white from gripping Taren’s hand.


    The woman’s palm slapped against Etain’s wet cheek, the sound overtaken by the waves below. Her fingers gripped the girl’s jaw, smearing Taren’s blood across her youthful skin.


    “Know your limits and your abilities, little girl. Do not underestimate your inexperience. Your foolishness killed him. Carry that guilt to Mythal herself. Until then, let this be your one and only lesson.” She seethed, every word raking through Etain’s conscience.


    Yes, the girl was capable, and her potential was undeniable. Yet she was young, she was presumptuous and uninformed to all the dangers of the city, of people, of the social classes and the world of information brokering. She was doing well, she was excelling and she let it get to her head. Until one fumbled lie was all it took to get the city guard and Templars chasing them through the alleyways, into Dark Town.


    Which was everything Deshanna should have anticipated. Perhaps she was too presumptuous as well. Too confident in her protege. Too eager to set her plans in motion. Etain was not ready. And it cost them greatly. Taren was lost, as was their foothold in Kirkwall. Amaury had spent no small expense to get Deshanna and her apprentices into the city, all in hopes of furthering their trade connections, of establishing a network of informants. Kirkwall was one of Starkhaven’s most notable trade partners. A gold mine. And it was brewing with secrets, full of shadows betraying each shift of power.


    All of Amaury’s maneuvering resulted in the need to postpone and try again. How Deshanna would salvage anything was beyond her at the moment, considering the Clan would have to depart soon. Sharing ground so close to the shemlen city with Clan Sabrae was pushing the limits of everyone’s safety. They would have to flee, back into the wilds. Back to pulling the strings of Starkhaven’s underground.


    “Learn.” She hissed at the girl still in her grip. “Save the tears for solitude and darkness. I will not see any more of them.”


    “Yes, Keeper.” Etain whimpered, straining to not shed another tear. Deshanna let her go and straightened up, looking down at her apprentice through half lidded eyes. There was sorrow in them, and pity. But it all paled in comparison to her grit and composure.


    She backed away from the girl and turned toward the body of the boy. The Wounded Coast was hardly a safe refuge, but it offered better chance of escape than lingering in the underbelly of Kirkwall. They had to move.



    Etain stared fixedly at the fire, fingers lacing up her boots mechanically. Mountain spring brought a cold rain that morning. The walls echoed the staccato drumming of the droplets against stained glass windows.


    She had long come to the conclusion that ghosts were real. Mementos of the past that linger in one’s soul, forever seared into the psyche like scars. Permanent remnants that shaped a person. Like Taren.

 
    Lavellan saw them in her dreams sometimes, or in a mundane action she may have done in an odd way, reminiscent of those she had long lost. Or those whose lives her survival, or victory, had cost.


    What would have happened to Taren had he survived, had they escaped safely? Or if she hadn’t over-stepped her bounds by trying to emulate her aunt without knowing what she was doing? If pride and ambition hadn’t gotten the best of her? Would they still be in the Marches? Would they have been in Kirkwall when the war erupted? What role would they have played in that mess? Would he be here with her?


    But Taren didn’t survive. He couldn’t control his panic and lost his senses in the pursuit.  He turned on the man chasing him, forgetting the true extent of a seasoned Templar’s abilities against a novice assassin. The Templar’s sword ran him through as though he were a ripe peach.


    And she herself learned, well enough to never make the same mistakes twice. In retrospect, it was humiliating to think she was good enough to take advantage of a rich boy’s infatuation with a servant girl to get into his father’s vaults. Stupid. Brash. Predictable. It was bad enough it resulted in the alerting of the guard, but they had to use her archaic abilities to escape the household. The guards became the least of their problems as soon as the Templars were set loose.


    Had she not found Deshanna in time, she would have been dead or dragged to the Kirkwall Circle. She wasn’t sure which would have been worse. Best not to think of such things. It didn’t matter any longer, and filling her head with useless questions served no purpose.


    Etain grabbed her hooded jacket off of the balustrade and slipped it over her shoulders. She thumbed the buttons closed and rounded the railing to the stairs with a sigh. She felt a pang of longing sprout within, a shred of homesickness. I should send a letter to Keeper. I haven't heard word in too long.


    As cruel as some of Deshanna’s actions and lessons may have been, Etain loved her aunt unconditionally. She wouldn't have survived the Inquisition had she grown up under the tutelage of anyone else. Etain was insatiably curious as to what Deshanna’s counsel would be had she known about the Well, about the visions, the dreams, the Eluvian. She was curious enough to maybe risk speaking of the key in person. Maybe.


    With just two days left before departure, Etain was relieved to make preparations to go out on a sortie. It offered some semblance of normality, and a chance to focus on something else other than how to prepare for numerous official meetings with politicians.


    The wind beyond the walls filled the residential tower with a low, dull hum. The door creaked faintly as she left her room, revealing the empty landing. Empty save for the small bundle that rested by the archway. 


    A few books and a journal, stacked and tied with a simple knot to keep them all together. A folded scrap of parchment was secured beneath the string. There was no signed name, but the handwriting was familiar enough.


    “I thought these may interest you. They are borrowed from the Archives of Suledin Keep, and will have to be returned. I do not want to face the wrath of the scholars.”


    Etain inspected the stack: old tomes, mostly on Elven architecture in the Emprise, a catalogue of obscure digs whose speculated purposes would forever be disagreed upon, and a more recent study of stylistic and functional differences in structures across the regions of what used to be the Elvhenan.


    Etain’s smile wavered once or twice, trying to stop herself from grinning but unable to. She did not want to deny the sprouting of warmth from her chest to her fingertips, only what it meant. A fleeting pulse of delight, nerve-wracking only because it was by all standards and sense ill-considered. She knew it, and she had told herself so a thousand times since she thought herself too good to fall for her own ploy. Too proud to admit it became less a ploy and more a seized opportunity to act on a repressed … curiosity.


    Act on it, and she could all but hear the cruel words behind her back: aiming to bed another ally, is she? Flat-ear, traitor. The things they would say about Cullen would be no better. The fallen templar dallying with a heathen mage. The hypocrites.


    As if that weren’t enough, I was too audacious to think of a human being as an asset, to take advantage of his position to cover my own ass. She had done it since Haven and had written it off as harmless.


    Not so harmless now that it got out of hand for both of us. It was the fuckup in Kirkwall all over again.


    Her mood sank and she brought the books into her chamber, leaving them to await her attention on the nearest windowsill. The ghost of Taren kept her company in the way her feet dragged across the floor, heading into the depths of the Keep in search of breakfast.

 




    The morning showers have subsided around noon and allowed the team at the base camp to finally make their ascent. The delay provided more than half a day’s worth of prep work for the advisors and Inquisition retinues setting out the day after next. Supplies were packed, last minute instructions and remaining official messages dispatched. Though the work never stopped, Leliana found a spare bit of time to unwind.


    The bathing chamber smelled of lavender and candles, light filtering in through the stained glass windows. The massive room was in the lowest section of the residential tower, and was in itself a luxury any palace or castle wouldn’t be without. With the sheer size of Skyhold, finding the baths wasn’t much of a surprise. They required an arduous effort to restore, but the results were well worth it. As if personal hygiene wasn’t important enough, a warm soak did wonders to morale.


    The back of the chamber had four alcoves, each converted into private bathing rooms. Within each stood an enchanted tub, though smaller, simpler and certainly less ornate than the one gifted to the Inquisitor. They served their purpose well enough, however.


    Leliana sipped her honeyed wine and sank deeper into the enchanted tub, the steam rising to dot her skin with tiny droplets. It had been nearly a month since she had taken a long, luxurious soak like this. The bubbles tickled her neck and Leliana leaned her head back, closing her eyes.


    Her thoughts drifted in a steady stream, shifting between the upcoming dignitary visits to using their trading contacts to twist the flow of coin, and thus the flow of power from certain regions of Orlais and Ferelden.


    Her heart sank into her gut when she heard her wine glass refill. Leliana’s eyes snapped open to see Zevran pouring her another sizeable serving. She had let go of the chalice in her momentary panic and Zevran’s grip replaced hers on the stem.


    “Your guards were slacking this evening.” He answered her unspoken question with a troublesome glimmer in his eyes. “Or I am far too stealthy for even them to notice. Which is more likely.”


    “You are pushing my tolerance of-“ The panic and irritation in her voice was apparent, to her annoyance.


    “Shh, shh, shh…” Zevran shook his head slowly, withdrawing the goblet. “Relax, my dear. I only wish to speak with you. Alone and unseen.”


    Leliana accepted the goblet from the man but ignored the wine within. She wasn’t risking another bout of poisoning, even if she knew Zevran wasn’t that stupid.


    “Good.” He murmured, taking the washcloth from the side of the tub and slowly dunking it into the warm water. He trailed it softly, gently along her arm and wrist.


    Leliana was no stranger to taking advantage of physical attractiveness, but being intruded upon while bathing was beyond all boundaries. She was thankful for the layer of bubbles and relative darkness of the alcove concealing her form, for the time being.


    “You have been avoiding me, Sweet Nightingale. I linger here, neither chained as prisoner, nor welcomed as guest. Somewhat of a surprise, I’d say.”


    “A decision I highly regret at the moment. I do believe there is an empty cell singing your name on the wind.” She seethed, sinking ever lower into the water.


    “What is it with you and Lavellan with the prison cells?” Zevran slowly rubbed the cloth along her skin in circles. The room remained in tense silence for a moment, Leliana feeling uncomfortably vulnerable but concealing it with a grim stare.


    “They are quite effective.”


    “I’ve always been useful, my dear,” he lowered the cloth back into the water, toying with it for a brief moment. “Not that I need to remind you… afterall, you’ve said yourself you would ‘never pass on my many talents.’ That is why I yet breathe, no?”


    “Your involvement in Briala’s farce is what keeps you alive, for now.”


    “How much do you know of your precious Inquisitor?”


    Leliana locked eyes with the elf, brows lowering into a frown. The fingers of his other hand ran idly along the inside of her wrist, sending her fingertips tingling.


    “If you presume to save your skin by attempting to slander the Inquisitor’s name-“


    “No, no, not slander. I have no such intentions. The woman is remarkable, make no mistake. I simply offer to inform you of just what - who you have unconventionally enthroned, and what it means.”


    “I know what is relevant.”


    “Not all of it.”


    Leliana set out a slow breath and her eyes narrowed.“Why would you do such a thing? What would you accomplish with ‘informing’ me?”


    “Should be obvious, no?”


    “How have you come across this information, hmm? How can I possibly trust you?”


    “My sweet Nightingale, I’ve never lied to you. I was hired by Briala, who was acting on behalf of Celene. Or so the Empress thought. I promised to kill the Inquisitor and I have. For a short time.” Zevran’s eyebrows danced upward with a smile, amused by his play on words. “Well, no I lied about the assassins coming after me. But besides that…”


    “You lie as often as you drink and flirt, Zevran. Enough.”


    His eyes fell onto the water surrounding his arm. His fingers unintentionally grazed her knee beneath the water. “Amaury and Elodie Sauveterre,” he pronounced each name carefully. 


    Leliana’s teeth grit and she shifted her leg away from his touch. “I am aware of her connection to them.”


    “There was a young girl who lived in the Sauveterre estate… Twenty some years ago. An errand girl, who was groomed to be a bard. She became a Crow while I still served with them. Piper. Pretty little thing.” Zevran moved his arm back to the surface, draping the washcloth on the tub, while the other hand continued softly dragging its fingertips along her wrist. “Piper once spoke of a harbored apostate that had saved her life on one occasion. She wanted to find her. Piper claimed this young apostate was only eight when Amaury took her in. An elven girl, from a Dalish clan in the Marches. Your secretive Etain.”


    Leliana’s attention fought with whether his claims were more interesting or his hands more infuriating. She thought he would have realized the affections they had shared were all a farce, and would drop the act. Yet he retained his irritating tactics: distraction on a subconscious, physical level, giving him ample room to maneuver. It was a good thing it did not work on her.


    “She lived with Amaury? Are you certain your Crow spoke of Etain?”


    “The Sauveterres had connections across the region, playing with the strings of wealth and influence as far as Starkhaven. Minute tugs here and there and the tapestry slowly changed. A wealthy and distinguished bard from an old merchant family himself, a sister gifted with magic, highly trained and accepted into the Mortalitasi… No surprise how much they could accomplish. HAD accomplished… They had help of course. Notably from a Dalish Keeper. Clan Lavellan wasn’t a name publicly known by any means. Which provided Keeper Deshanna and Amaury a huge advantage. They collaborated for decades. That is until Amaury’s unfortunate, though very lucrative, death.”


    Tired of feeling so exposed without truly being so, Leliana withdrew her arm from the man and set the glass on the side-table. She pulled her knees to her chest and grabbed the washcloth.


    “If you so irritatingly insist on being here, be useful,” she handed him the cloth and motioned with her chin to her back. “And skip to the supposed secret parts. She had told me of Amaury and his dealings with Deshanna. My agents are gathering more information from the woman herself. So tell me what you know she will not disclose.”


    “Etain was Amaury’s ward. For whatever reason, I do not know, neither does Piper. Elodie’s precious little doll, whom she groomed along side her brother and the girl’s aunt into the formidable thing you have unleashed upon Thedas.”


    “Though I find that to explain a lot of uncertainties I have had about our Inquisitor, it is nothing damning in my eyes…” Leliana glanced over her shoulder, suddenly catching wind of what Zevran was planning. Why he was revealing this to her.


    “Though it is something I would not allow to be revealed to anyone else,” she threatened. Zevran maintained eye contact, his expression revealing nothing.


    “I know who hunts her from her past,” he spoke slowly, matching the pace of his hand scrubbing Leliana’s back.


    “I think it is safe to say more than a handful wish to hunt the Inquisitor down and end her. Rather, to end the Inquisition.”


    Zevran draped the washcloth on the tub and pulled his hand back, dripping water onto the floors. “Hire me.”


    “What?”


    “Hire me. Recruit me. Whatever it is you do here. You know my worth, Leliana.”


    “I also know I would bring the wrath of the Crows upon us should I do such a thing,” she bluffed. Although mildly displeased, her Crow contacts have agreed to suspend their manhunt for Zevran until the Inquisition saw no further use for him - in exchange for several lucrative, sought after leads and the agreement to not interfere with the House of Crows’ affairs and dealings. The deal was brokered weeks ago. But Zevran did not need to know that.


    “We can protect Etain. You said you know who hunts her from her past. Does that extend to Deshanna and the Clan at Wycome?”


    “Am I to take that as a yes?”


    “You may take that as a maybe.”


    Zevran’s chin lifted, eyes narrowing in suspicion. “Indirectly, but I suppose so. “


    Leliana turned to face Zevran. “Hm.”


    “That’s it?” He asked with an upward turn of his palms and a frown.


    “Go away. I need to think.”


    “Fine…” He exhaled a lengthy breath and hoisted himself up into a crouching position before the tub. His fingers swiftly reached out to cup her chin and plant a peck on her cheek. “Enjoy your bath, sweet Nightingale.”


    Leliana watched him casually depart the secluded alcove. Her hand wiped off her cheek with water and she sank back into the tub. She made a mental note to order guards to stand inside the bathing chamber, and to somehow figure out a way to tie a bell to Zevran’s ankles. Not that his stealthiness was the only thing making her job that much more difficult. The man just practically blackmailed her while she bathed. Which leaves me only two choices, and he knows it.



    Surely it couldn’t be so difficult to write something, anything, to his sister. And yet his fingers wouldn’t move, the quill wouldn’t put words to paper. Cullen scratched at his temple and glared at the parchment.


    Dear Mia, was all he had managed in a quarter of an hour. He wasn’t sure where to start, or what to say. It had been months since he had written his sister; not since the defeat of Corypheus. He often wondered about his family, and he should have written to them more often. But, there were a lot of things he should have done and there was little sense to listing them.


    “Dear Mia, all is well-“ No that would be a blatant lie. He started writing.  “All is alright, for now. I should have written sooner. No need to tell me. There have been too many distractions, so much work to do. The Inquisition does not rest, only grows in power and requires more and more of my time and attention.”


    The quill paused. So does the Inquisitor, and her cryptic pursuits. And I keep following suit.


    He dreamt of Etain the night prior. Of the voices whispering to her while she slumbered, slowly chipping away at who she was, steering her into crushing the Inquisition from within. Not the voices of long lost elven spirits but of demons, and he tried desperately to wake her, to warn her - but she remained in a tormented sleep and withered away. She would only wake to push him away when he reached for her; and each time she did, there was less of Etain and more of the terrible creatures that controlled her. Then she would softly collapse back into bed to sleep. Cullen woke when he had a knife at her throat.


    The thought had occurred to him more than once; what if they were ancient, powerful demons that whispered Maker knew what to her from the Fade? What if the Inquisitor was slowly being tainted, coaxed closer and closer into giving herself to possession? Would he be able to do anything about it?


    Should he have done something about it already? Had he still been a Templar… I wouldn’t be fetching books for the woman, much less reading them too.


    “Curly, I’m starting to think your letter is harder than mine,” Varric interrupted the man’s frustrated, futile scribbling. He sat down and placed his own stack of parchments at the same table.


    Cullen glanced up and greeted the man with a smile. “It does not matter what I write, I will be chastised nonetheless.”


    Varric chuckled. “We aren’t writing to the same person, are we?”


    “I hope to the Maker you haven't been writing to my elder sister,” the Commander shook his head at the mere thought. “No offense.”


    “What, afraid I’ll tell her taller tales than what she already hears?”


    “Yes. Exactly that.”


    “Well, don’t worry about it. I can’t even finish the letter to the Seeker.”


    Cullen frowned and leaned back in the chair. “You? Writing a letter to Cassandra?”


    “Not a day goes by that I don’t think how things have changed since Kirkwall… Hell, I would have reckoned I’d sooner befriend the Arishok than share food and drink and get bloodied in battle battle with you. Had some fortune teller told me I’d be friends with that overzealous, straight-laced Templar asshole-” Varric choked back a nervous chuckle, watching for Cullen’s reaction. The Fereldan pressed his lips tight but said nothing.


    “What I’m trying to say is you’ve gone a long way. And I don’t need to point it out. You know who you are and who you aren’t… We’ve all gone a long way. Made mistakes and tried to do something with our short, feeble little lives to make things, I don’t know - better?” Varric shrugged. “Too simple of a word. More like tried to steer a burning cart toward a lake instead of dry brush.”


    Cullen smiled thoughtfully. “It’s not over yet.”


    “I won’t be here to see it first hand anymore. And I’m not even the first to leave, as I thought I would be. Andraste’s tits, to think I actually miss Cassandra’s clomping around-“ Varric shook his head.


    “A word of advice, stay away from using ‘clomping’ in ANY reference to Cassandra in your book.”


    “She would get over it once she sees the first printed copy of the next Swords and Shields.”


    The Commander’s face contorted in a surprised frown. “What?”


    “My worst work, and yet Cassandra loves it. I was going to scrap it all together but…”


    Their corner of the great hall filled with Cullen’s laugh. “Varric…”


    “I figure if I stay on her good side- if that’s even possible - the better it will be for my health and wellbeing.”


    “Good luck,” the Commander was still stifling a chuckle.


    “Oh I think I have that covered… better you wish me luck  when my ass shows up in Kirkwall.” Varric rubbed his temples and leaned forward to rest his elbows on the table.


    “Are you ready to set out day after tomorrow?”


    “Ready as I’ll ever be.”


    “Sometimes I wonder what Kirkwall is like now. Will it ever recover?”


    “I need to be drunk to even think about that.” Varric gathered up his papers and signaled Cullen to stand up. “Speaking of which, you owe me a game, and a drink. Afterall, I’m leaving soon. I better be nursing  furious hangover tomorrow or we aren’t friends.”


    “That’s what you want to measure a friendship on?” Cullen remained seated.


    “You’re much more fun when you’re drunk Curly. Let me leave me with a fond memory.”


    “You’re being overly dramatic.”


    “Have a heart, Commander,” Varric took a step back from the table. “Come on, let’s go.”


    “The ascending team should be arriving within the hour. Perhaps we should wait?” Cullen shrugged. “Besides, I should finish this before I drop it and forget to write my sister for another month. Won’t bode well for me.”


    “My last few days in Skyhold and this is what I get… Fine, I’ll go find Lavellan. I’m sure she’d love to hear some drunken confessions of how you all but shit lead worrying over her-“


    “Alright, let’s go,” Cullen growled, gathering up his papers. “You’re a pain in the ass, dwarf.”


    “One drink, Cullen. The rest we’ll save for when Tiny gets up here. I promise I’ll remind you to finish that letter tomorrow.”


    “How thoughtful of you.”


    “Besides, Dorian and I have a bet to settle.”


    “Maker preserve me…” Cullen sighed, trying to convince himself he didn’t want to partake and failing. It was annoying to think they had been making bets on Cullen’s horrible card playing abilities. The last game was embarrassing enough. Perhaps he should challenge them to a game of chess instead.


    But there was no telling when he would see Varric again, and he could stomach another loss for the sake of a warm farewell before departing.



   
    The maw of Skyhold yawned open, allowing the arrivals to slowly march through into the open space beyond the formidable walls. A small party gathered near the entryway, greeting and aiding the incoming with their burdens.


    Dorian stood next to Lavellan, arms crossed and face failing to hide his anxiety. Etain watched him briefly, wondering if he would take the first step and meet Iron Bull. Seeing him frozen in his place, she elected to walk toward the incoming party first. After all, she was the cause of the Chargers’ unplanned descent by Cullen’s order.


    Dorian shifted his weight around, unable to stand still. He was so sure, so certain he would be able to remain level-headed. He had spent days convincing himself it would be more prudent to just end whatever he and Bull had before it really even started. It was decided in his mind, and he had steeled himself for the conversation.


    Until his resolve crumbled and was blown away at the sight of the man. “Kaffas,” he mumbled to himself as he remained too nervous to even approach. He waited for the Inquisitor to initiate the conversation, buying some time to collect himself. And to appear less eager.


    Lavellan strolled toward the entry way, having no issue finding the towering Qunari amidst the group. Etain pressed her lips together in anticipation; the warrior looked onto her with a mix of irritation and relief. No doubt he was mentally preparing a thorough tongue lashing.


    “You. You’re a fucking nightmare, Boss,” Bull growled. “I want a raise.”


    Etain glanced down at her feet and smiled. “Welcome back, Bull.”


    “Seriously? You’re welcoming me back?” The warrior caught himself before blurting out too much. As far as the Inquisition knew, Lavellan hadn’t disappeared. His grimace held for a few moments before he groaned and shook his head.


    “Agh, can’t stay pissed at you,” Bull stretched out an arm, motioning her to come closer.


    Etain stepped forward into the crushing hug. The smile on her face widened to round her cheeks, even as he nearly knocked the wind out of her with a pat on the back once she withdrew from the embrace.


    “It’s good to see you, Boss.” He exhaled and fixed the slipping shoulder strap of his bag.


    “You too, Bull,” Etain turned alongside the warrior.


    “What’d you do to your face?” Bull began to walk toward the stairs leading to the upper terrace. The group behind him split into various directions; most to the same stairway, some to the stables, others to the kitchens, to the residences inside the walls.


    “Found the side of a cliff with it,” Etain mumbled, smile fading as she walked beside him. She saw him flinch, knowing what her response implied and where his thoughts ventured. “Dorian’s fine too. Annoyed, mostly… but I’ll tell you everything after you settle in.”


    “Ha! You think you had a choice in that?”


    Lavellan knew he was joking, and yet the question irritated her just the same. The last few months had left her feeling as if her ability to make choices was barely anything more than  an illusion.


    “Come find me when you are ready,” she muttered with a forced smile. They were almost to Dorian, and she wanted to give them the space they needed. She touched the space between his elbow and wrist.


    “I’ll see you later.”


     “Sure. I’ll find you,” Bull responded only half absently, his attention drawn by the obviously worked-up Tevinter mage.


    Etain continued on her way up the stairs to the upper terrace, slowing to chat with Inquisition soldiers along her path.


    Dorian held up his confident glare, refraining from tapping his foot or wringing his hands. Or fleeing the terrace all together.


    Bull shook his head once, nose crinkling with his grimace.


    “I knew that smug little shit was trouble,” he grumbled as his hand reached out to turn Dorian’s face to get a better look at the new scars.


    “You’re not referring to me, are you?” Dorian smothered his edginess as best he could to seem unfazed. Yet he felt a prickle along his skin nonetheless.


    Bull’s fingers brushed against Dorian’s jaw to bring his gaze back to him.  “Funny.”


    “It was a genuine question.” Dorian shrugged and caught the stares of a few passing onlookers.


    Oddly enough, Bull was in no mood to jest. His expression was still sour, even if there was a mild hint of tenderness in his gaze. He remained silent, mulling over whatever it was in his mind.


    And I thought his blathering was worse… Dorian subconsciously drew his body back a bit to create a more formal distance between the two of them. Eyes were watching, and undoubtedly minds were jumping to conclusions. He cleared his throat and brought his attention back to the Qunari.


    “You better tell me the little prick got what he deserved,” Bull broke his ruminating silence and cocked his head to the side.


    “In… a sense?” Dorian squinted an eye as he thought back to Lavellan’s violent outburst upon waking from the fall. He lowered his voice as he spoke again. “It’s a bit more complicated than that…”


    “Always is in this place.” Bull let out an irritated exhale. “So… not even a welcome back kiss?”


    The twisting of Dorian’s features was instantaneous. Maker, the brute has no tact.


    “Not with you smelling like a wildebeest that slumped out of a swamp.”


    “Ouch. That hurt my feelings.” Bull’s answer was monotonous as he turned toward the stairs. In truth, the comment only confirmed Bull’s suspicion that everything would go back to Dorian skirting around their attraction without fully denying it. He would go back to comfortably hiding behind sarcasm and snide remarks.


    “I’ll be in the tavern later.” He mumbled and continued up the staircase without waiting for Dorian. The man looked exhausted, not to mention irritated and seemingly overworked. Dorian hadn’t seen him so dismal in months.


    He felt the prickle of anxiety and shame along his spine. He went too far, trying to hide the flustering and the treacherous pull at his heartstrings. What a memorable last venture with the Inquisition this will be… I did not think it would be this hard.


    He skimmed over the crowd one last time before taking an uncertain step backwards. Deciding not to follow the same path as Bull, Dorian chose to skirt around the back way to the library. He’d bury himself in responding to unfinished and unread missives from home, probably until either boredom or homesickness drives him out in search of dinner.

Chapter Text

Bull inhaled the cinnamon and clove scented air in Josephine's office and stopped to look at the flames for a brief moment. The last few weeks had worn his nerves down enough to leave him feeling perpetually tired. But now, knowing that at least everyone was in relative safety - or that he was close enough to gouge the eyeballs out of one particular threat's skull - he finally felt his tension unwind. And Josie's office always smelled so damn good.

He continued on his way down the hall to the war room, sipping the strong ale from the mug in his hand. He walked in on Leliana and Lavellan plotting over the map. It looked as if the two red-heads circled the war-table like they were stalking prey; all of Thedas, ripe for the machinations of well positioned, well informed schemers. Bitter well informed schemers.

"The Iron Bull," Leliana welcomed the Qunari. "Pleasure to see you again, particularly when you bring news."

"Yeah, you too, Red." He lifted his giant mug of ale, accompanying it with a tired nod, "don't mind me, finish up."

"If you say so…" Leliana obliged and continued on.

They've been at it for days, it seemed; fleshing out ways to leash the Orlesian throne without being direct or obvious while they waited for Cassandra's word. Buying out foreign trade agreements that would leave merchants relying on Inquisition protection and routes; Inquisition sanctioned research expeditions to garner the support of the Universities and scholarly elite; funding and aid in reconstruction efforts; anywhere they could gain a foothold in the sidelines, the Inquisition seized the opportunity. No obvious power plays and display of military might, no outright presence in the Courts. It wasn't needed, when the Inquisition slowly weaved its control and influence into the source of wealth and power of Orlais.

It wasn't nearly as boring to watch as he thought it'd be.

"And now I believe it is your turn," Leliana's blue eyes fixed on Bull, who was beginning to feel the fuzzy edges of the mild inebriation. He was hungrier and more tired than he realized. He set the mug down and leaned over the table.

"Not yet. First, I want answers. The fuck happened, Boss?"

Leliana raised her brows at Bull's casual use of profanity. She sunk her hands beneath her belted tunic into the pockets of her trousers and stared at Lavellan.

The elven woman hadn't expected anything less out of the warrior. "And I promised them to you."

"How'd you disappear?"

"Well, I got shoved off a mountain for starters."

Bull frowned. "And yet you're walking around with nothing but a couple new scars? Better yet you were well enough to get into a tavern brawl days after?"

"Believe me I was no less confused. What I thought was a tumble off a mountain was hardly more than two stories into a huge snow drift. Zevran stabbed me with a poisoned blade and evidently I hallucinated my own fall and death and was out cold for three days. Same for Dorian. We were badly bruised, obtained a few new scars, broken arms and a couple strains, but it beats death."

"And why are you keeping that asshole around?" Bull practically spat at the mention of Zevran. "At least tell me you were leaving him for me to beat into pulp?"

"Tempting offer… but…" Lavellan placed the heels of her hands on the edge of the table so she could lean forward with a sigh.

"We need him." Leliana answered for her.

"You're shitting me. For what?"

Leliana reached into her pocket and pulled out a small coin. "Perhaps you've seen, or at least heard of one of these before, yes? A high stakes contract from the court. The assassin freely handed this over to our Inquisitor the night before his ruse. Had she known what it was right away, this may have gone a little differently."

"Or not." Lavellan muttered.

"A contract with who?"

"The Lioness herself. Empress Celene Valmont. She turned to her Ambassador and former lover, Briala to complete the task. Even if she acknowledged the risk of her plans being twisted, I doubt she could have imagined what had transpired."

Bull snorted back a laugh and shook his head. "I'll say it again, you're shitting me."

"No, dear Bull. I am not shitting you." Leliana grumbled in annoyance.

"There's no telling what exactly Celene sought through Briala. What did end up happening wasn't even in Briala's plan." Etain briefly recalled the events of the weeks she and Dorian had been gone, being careful not to deviate from what she had told Leliana and the others.

"You're giving me whiplash." Bull said dryly once Etain had finished her swift and unembellished recollection.

"Then how about we switch gears and you lead the way for a little while." Leliana suggested, tired of his lack of input and reaction beyond disbelief.

He answered her with a mildly irritated scowl but obliged nonetheless. "The Chargers found where you went in, right before Red's scouts caught up to us. Cleared out that old ruin with little to find. The mirrors were nothing but that. Mirrors. There were four of them, but only two intact. That would explain how they got back in so quickly to catch up to you in the Labyrinth. But without a key they're just hunks of fancy glass. We did see that they were amassing stores before moving on. Supplies, weapons, armor, maybe artifacts. Maybe looking for something. Whoever was chasing you is part of a larger contingent. With several forward scouting groups."

"Well, at least that confirms what we presumed." Leliana shrugged, unimpressed. "What else have you got?"

"Don't be so quick to think I would leave you disappointed, little Red." Bull smiled wryly.

"Don't you have eating and drinking to get to? Don't drag it out."

"We caught two of the bastards."

Etain and Leliana both stared at the Qunari suspiciously, as if they had both misheard what he said.

"One of them succeeded in killing herself before we could even properly restrain her. The other failed and only ended up making himself a withered lump of flesh for my boys to try and mend up on his way here."

Leliana's gaze was glued to Bull and she approached him eagerly. "You caught one? He's alive and heading here? When will they arrive? Where did you find them?"

"See, and you were so sour faced just a minute ago." Bull chuckled.

"Tell me already or I'll lock you out of the tavern."

"Oh, playing harsh are you now? Buy me dinner first."

"I swear to Andraste, if you don't quit-"

"Bull, just tell us." Etain raised her voice, cutting their spat short.

"I left a few days ahead of them, so end of the week? We got them by accident. Stepping right out of one of the mirrors on the other edge of the ruin."

"Convenient."

"Easy for you to say," he rumbled and held up his forearm, displaying a freshly stitched gash.

"Hardly more than a scratch," Leliana waved him off and cocked her head to the side. "I am more interested in what you were able to get out of them."

"Like I said," he raised his arm a little higher to motion at the injury once more, "they weren't exactly cooperative. The surviving one was still barely breathing when I left. Getting him to talk will be your job once he gets here."

Leliana tapped her fingers impatiently while she thought. "What did you do with the body? And were they the only ones that came through? Have your men run into trouble with agents chasing after the captives?"

"Nothing, yes and not yet. Don't waste your breath, Red. My team will be here soon enough. Til then, all I know I've told you the gist of. They're agents of whoever is playing hide and seek with the fucked up mirrors; they operate in small, quick moving teams and regroup somewhere we can't go without the key. Whether they kill our men or abduct them, we don't know. We haven't gotten any ransom demands. No threats."

"Which begs the question whether they want us to know or not? Or whether they know we now have one of their own…"

"Yeah, well. Can't solve that one tonight, so won't." Bull picked up the ale mug and twisted it, emphasizing its emptiness. "Time's up, ladies. I've got drinking to get to."

Leliana's upper lip twitched into an annoyed snarl, but she didn't press the issue. There wasn't anything more she'd get out of him or be able to do about it tonight. Not with Varric leaving and the festivities.

"Consider yourself lucky that I agree. Enjoy your night." Leliana dismissed a man who didn't much care for dismissal or permission. He winked at her just to annoy her a little more. Maybe that'd get her to drink a little more that night.

"Let me know when you want to throw that shifty little fucker out of Skyhold," Bull turned his attention to Etain. "Or I can… Over the wall."

Lavellan frowned but smiled, "Don't ask me that if I'm drunk…"

Bull laughed heartily and walked out of the war room in search of a refill.

"Well… too bad you won't be here when my present arrives." Leliana turned and leaned against the table, crossing her arms and letting her guard down. Etain had noticed the woman had gotten more comfortable around her, and actually found it comforting in return. Not that she ever imagined the Left Hand of the Divine would ever become a… friend?

"You'll handle the dilemma better than I would." Lavellan subtly mimicked Leliana's relaxed stance.

"Either I get information out of him or I don't and he becomes useless. And I'm sure he knows that."

"And if he doesn't say anything?"

Leliana held her gaze and inhaled. "Not a lot of options there, then. Maybe I'll wait for you to decide the hard part. Keep him in suspense. Might get me an answer or two."

"Wait for me?" It was an uncomfortable thought.

"Mmhm. Because I handle interrogations… differently. An asset that doesn't provide information can still be an asset. Or puppet."

Deshanna's long lost human sister. Etain was sure Leliana and her aunt would get along too well. She swallowed, thoughts shifting to what she would do with such a prisoner.

"Someone who had resigned himself to dying for his cause won't provide information easily."

Leliana seemed to be on the same thought track. "And won't be afraid of death, so that could be a useless threat, if he is truly committed to his cause. There is no leverage if he has no family, no loved ones. What then?"

Ah, she's trying to get me to say what she aims to do. To agree with her. To see if she could handle these ugly, cruel aspects of their power and influence. Etain straightened up and turned to face Leliana. "Then threaten him with the one thing that would be worse. Especially for a spy… Send him back to his own."

Something glinted in Leliana's eyes and she tilted her head. "Send him back?"

"The organization would probably have found the other body and the ambush scene by now, and know that the other member of the patrol was captured. A liability more than an asset at that point. The agent tried taking his own life, but was stopped by Bull's men. Means he is committed to their mysterious cause… or fears the consequence of his capture more than he fears death. Threatening him with death will do little. Family and loved ones? Maybe. But if not… Look at how tightly knit and secretive they are keeping the operation. Who ever is in charge probably won't risk any leaks, tolerate any fumbles, to keep their objective and their organization veiled and protected. Especially with us running into their operations in the Labyrinth."

"We do not know that for a fact."

"Even if we do not, it is likely. Besides, what are the chances they would expect us to send back a captive? Without demands. With nothing but a show that we had him."

"Headgames."

"Precisely."

"Then we agree, and I have your cooperation. No matter what may be necessary."

"Of course."

Leliana nodded and pushed off the table, the racket in the throne room growing louder as Josephine set up the festivities. "Let's keep this between you and I for now. And… sneak out of here before Josie ropes us into arranging table decorations."

How much must Etain's world have twisted if the two of them could casually have a conversation about impending interrogation tactics and not wanting to be pressured into helping setting tables in the span of one minute.

Unsettling. Or it should have been, but in truth, Lavellan didn't feel anything of the sort. Even more unsettling.

She headed toward the door with Leliana. "Let's hope it's not too late for that."


The dust was thick against his fingertips as Dorian perused the collection in the Skyhold cellar. He frowned and grimaced at some of the home-brewed varieties, nodded at the growing collection of northern reds.

"I suppose this'll just have to do," he murmured. Didn't really matter what he chose, so long as it helped him numb the sinking feeling he felt.

Reality seemed especially cruel that day; he was fool enough to fall for someone he could never even acknowledge back home. His own people would deem it the darkest betrayal to his bloodline, and to his nation. Pariah status would be an understatement.

Were that the least of his problems. The Magisterium was roiling within, partly because of his friend Tilani's doing. She and her compatriots sought reform and control, neither of which would come easily even if she were able to garner overwhelming support. Which Maevaris wouldn't, given how adherent to appearances and propriety and tradition the Magisterium was.

She needed his help, and her urgency was less than subtle in her missive. He had to go home, there was no more time for him to give to the Inquisition. He would have to leave, sooner than Lavellan would like to know. A month, at most, he could spare. Then he would have to leave his closest friends, and his attention would return to his home, to trying to change the Magisterium from within.

Hopeless feat, that. Dorian snatched another bottle. One wasn't going to be nearly enough. Especially if Etain was in a foul mood alongside him.

He sighed and rounded back to the door to make his way through the fortress. His thoughts remained on his homeland.

The Magesterium is busy squabbling, all while the Imperium is barely standing on its own feet. I hate to even think it, but it doesn't make it any less true - Tevinter is weakened. Couldn't have gone unnoticed by the Qun.

He'd heard little on the matter from his contacts lately. They all had focused on the internal shifts of the Empire, another scruple with a trading contract in Antiva, a secured agreement out of Kal-Sharok. They needed more; exclusive contracts, more open trade, a stronger economy to build and maintain the power and grandeur of their empire. Armies needed funding, be they brute-force soldiers or mages, and everything in between.

Wrapping his mind around just how he was going to help accomplish that left a painful buzzing in his ears. So instead he sighed and plodded the long way up the stairs to his dearest friend's haunt.

The door was unlocked, and the grand bed chamber seemingly empty. The fire was blazing in full, and candles were lit all across the room. Etain walked in from the balcony and shut the doors. Dorian glimpsed a messenger falcon pass by the windows and glide lower into the valley.

Lavellan turned to him with a smile as her greeting. He made a face and motioned with his chin toward the windows.

"Tsk, tsk, tsk. Sending secrets now are we?"

The crafty smirk reached all the way up to the corners of her eyes as Lavellan shrugged her shoulders. "I'm keeping in touch with home by my own means..."

"Can't say that isn't just plain common sense." Dorian approached her, looking at the late afternoon skies behind her. He held up the hand carrying the bottle.

"We're drinking again?" Lavellan's words weren't so much a question as they were a statement. Dorian set the bottle down on the table and retrieved two cups from a nearby shelf.

"We have good reason." Dorian poured himself a cup. "It's perfectly justifiable. Not that I care…" He handed her the other one.

"For the drinking or the reason?" Lavellan accepted and slumped back on her sofa, propping her feet up on the cushion empty and adjacent to her.

"Does it matter?"

"Guess not."

"Mm-hmm." He glanced through the stacks of books on her desk and the collection of architectural doodles Etain had created. The places he had seen with her, the things his eyes had been opened to on their journeys was, well mind-boggling, considering his upbringing. Considering the building implications of having a best friend with effective access to the history and knowledge of one of the world's most ancient civilizations.

His gaze fell on a small shred of parchment, marked with handwriting belonging to someone else.

"I thought these may interest you…" He read outloud, amused by Etain pressing her lips together tightly enough to hide them. He couldn't help but chuckle. He thought about tearing into to her about that little development, but remembered he wasn't in a place where he wanted to talk about his own.

"You and I… are idiots." Dorian shook his head and leaned against the desk.

Etain fought the chagrin making its way to her face and fell flat. So instead she raised her glass in acknowledgement.

"They're idiots too." Dorian added before swallowing the contents of his cup.

"I don't know if that makes it better or worse." Most likely Dorian would interpret that phrase differently than what Lavellan had in mind; after all he didn't use someone's affection and kindness so selfishly and inconsiderately as she had, only to end up failing so miserably. But it didn't matter at the moment.

Dorian refilled his glass and turned back toward Etain, looking a little more solemn.

Etain's eyebrows inclined upwards, seeing as her goblet was still mostly full. "It is Varric's last night here. You may want to keep your wits about you…"

"A prudent choice, yes. But it's also precisely the thing I wish I could care less about."

The elf nodded lopsidedly and took another sip of her wine. "Rough day?"

Dorian didn't answer for a few moments, hanging his head low in thought. He smiled. "I don't like feeling tired before the real fun even starts. I get the feeling there's a heaping mess stewing back at home, and the magisters are doing everything to mask it with opulence and arrogance."

"Politics. Not sure that's much different from what is happening in Orlais as we speak."

"Orlais isn't poised for another war, and isn't run by power-hungry megalomaniac mages greedily eyeing the rest of Thedas, ready to tear their own apart as soon as everyone else. They're a threat to the rest of Tevinter, and to the rest of the continent."

"Aside from the mage part - I still do not see how that is any different from Orlais; it's still a nation ravaged by civil war, all ruling powers bitter and still ready to jump at each others' throats. Celene is desperate to shackle the Inquisition to her own rule and turn attention to Tevinter; Ferelden is shitting themselves over our presence and where our alliances lie. They fear for their own independence. Orlais had almost been unraveled by the war and events of the last two years, and everyone else sees a chance to keep it in a weakened state."

"In other words, Corypheus may have tried, and failed in leveling Thedas to the ground for his own empire; only to leave the door open for all of us Thedosians to do it for him. Question is, who will be left standing?"

Lavellan sunk lower on the couch. "The way we are starting, I barely know if I'll survive tonight, let alone leave the Deep Roads and you're asking about the grand future?"

"You're right, no need to start waxing philosophical so early in the night." Dorian sighed deeply. "There will be plenty of time to do so here in a short day or two. And figuring out the answer to that exact question is pretty much our job description… Fuck all of that for a night."

Etain squinted at the mage. "Really rough day."

"Month. S." He corrected. "I still don't know what to do with everything we've seen in the Eluvian Labyrinth."

"You and me both." Lavellan glanced at the goblet in her hands and deliberated internally. She sighed and shrugged.

"You know, I'll take your advice…" She finished off the contents of her glass. "Fuck it all for a night…"

"Don't say that around Zevran."

Her lip curled into a grimace and she leveled her friend with a glacial glare. "We should head down. Josephine has been planning Varric's farewell dinner for weeks, and I barely escaped helping her set the centerpieces."

"We can't stay up here in denial and seclusion forever? How unfortunate."

"Creators, you're lively company tonight." Etain mumbled as she pushed herself off the couch. "Let's go, we can mope around when Varric leaves."


The official gathering to bid him farewell lasted a good portion of two hours, the inhabitants of Skyhold sharing in the hearty meal and loading up the back table with gifts, however small. It was all small talk and polite, idle chatter without much meaningfulness. Varric couldn't say it was uncomfortable or awkward, but he wasn't thrilled by all the formality either. Especially after a head start on the drinking with Cullen. Didn't start hard enough. Should have made him drink more.

That was the other thing. The whole affair was still too courtly for him, even if it wasn't by Josephine's standards. It was his last night here and everyone, even people he'd barely seen around Skyhold, were invited to be there. That meant that he wasn't left to banter freely with his friends, and they were dispersed through the throne room and busy with answering questions themselves. Not the start he wanted. Dorian and Bull had barely said two words to each other before being separated by side conversations. Etain never even made it past the first table, leaving Cullen visibly tense trying not to look or run into her, but wanting to. Yeah… not exactly how I pictured tonight going… but I shouldn't complain.

Slowly, finally, the guests trickled out once they had their fill. Some headed for the tavern, others for bed. As if on queue, Varric's colleagues drifted closer, bringing their cups with them to sit at one table together. Josie was shepherding out a few drunken dignitaries and swearing to Varric that she would be back soon, just in time for a long awaited card game.

Etain had stepped out for a while to speak with one of the resident merchants about possibly procuring a new contract sent by Wycome. Eventhough nothing was decided that night, it was good news to hear the shift of power in the city state didn't impede on its ability to trade too much. It would come in handy when he returned to Kirkwall.

Varric sunk down into the chair at the head of the table, the rest of the group falling in beside him and brining whatever caught their eye from the other tables. Sera claimed a spiced apple pie all to herself and Bull brought the casks of mead.

"You know the rules. If I cry, I'm punching someone." Sera warned before tearing into the pie.

"As long as it's not me," Dorian smiled and leaned on his table, accepting a glass of honeyed wine from Leliana, who sat down next to him.

"Or me." She added.

Varric was surprised to see the Nightingale alongside everyone in the group. She didn't seem to be one for the run-of-the-mill bullshitting and drinking they were used to doing. But, it was his last day - Maker, it gets worse every time I think it - so he welcomed the challenge of getting her to unwind.

Sera made a face at Leliana, "Pfftt. I'm daring, not stupid."

Cullen brought the extra cups, sitting down across from Leliana. "Should be enough," he muttered as he spread them out along the table.

"Give it enough time and we won't need them at all." Varric handed his empty cup over to Bull to fill. The Qunari filled it, and his own, then proceeded to steal bite of Sera's pie. The elf grumbled in protest through the food in her own mouth, trying to wrestle back her fork.

Bull relinquished the eating utensil and wiped his mouth,"Too sweet for me anyway."

After the brief clamor and soft chuckles, they sat quietly for a moment, the bitter feeling of saying goodbye too heavy to ignore but too hard to acknowledge. For Varric it was a sore spot; an experience he wasn't prepared to go through yet again. At least last time, he'd left Kirkwall with his best friend.

Maybe if luck turned its tides he'd see Hawke again, home.

"Can we not do this… thing?" Varric finally shook his head. "This whole serious farewell shit? I'm not falling off the damn planet, just going home. No big deal. Let's just have a good night and drink."

"Yeah I'm useless with goodbyes too." Bull agreed.

"Alright. I have an idea then." Leliana spoke up, looking at the people gathered for a moment. She smiled and finished her drink.


It took a good hour to make her way back to the throne room with Josephine. Lavellan had rescued her from the inebriated, half-philosophical, half-diplomatic and all nonsensical bumblings of their Orlesian guests just in time. Even Josie's patience was wearing thin, and her diplomatic manners.

"That was the last time I offer the Orlesians our aged Antivan brandy." She grumbled, straightening her hair as they walked through the gardens back to the throne room.

The closer they got to the door, the louder the ruckus was from within. Lavellan and Josephine exchanged worried looks. It sounded like the drinking had gotten well under way while they were gone, and considering the company, it was a dangerous game to play walking in on them sober.

"Blessed Andraste, this is going to hurt, isn't it?" Josephine pressed her lips and entered the hallway.

"Yes. Tomorrow it will. Definitely Maybe even the day after."

The ambassador raised her chin and inhaled deeply. "We've faced far worse odds… right? Let's not go down easy, shall we?"

Lavellan frowned but laughed. "Josie, we're just drinking, not going to battle."

"With Bull and Varric? One and the same." She pushed open the door and they walked through.

They stopped in the doorway, wide-eyed, and observed for a moment. The whole lot of them were definitely past their first cups. Cards were strewn about on the table, evidence to an unfinished game. Cullen was actually laughing, for Creators' sake. Laughing. An occurrence about as rare as sunshine in the Fallow Mire. What they were laughing about was even more unexpected. Bull, Varric, and Cullen had just finished some sort of game of rattling off a mildly uncivil tongue twister dug up from the barracks and taverns of Kirkwall. One mistake, and a drink was due. The shocking part was Cullen's triumph over the other two. Leliana toasted him and took a long drink, cheeks pink and rounded from smiling.

Cullen's eyes sobered up for a split second, recognizing the Inquisitor's attention on him and the entire spectacle. Even drunk, his self-control forced his shoulders to tense and his posture to straighten. Though it looked less subtle than he may have hoped, alerting the others to the arrival. Bull shoved him to stop staring and get the two newcomers to the table already.

Josephine approached the table hesitatingly, eyeing the seat next to Leliana. Cullen hadn't gotten to the edge of the table before Lavellan started walking, saving him the needless trip. She childishly didn't feel too thrilled on having to sit next to the human, but that was the suppressed guilt and indecisiveness. She tried on a smile, but it felt strained, so she poured herself a drink instead. That seemed to be the only thing on anyone's agenda for the rest of the night anyway.

"Josie," Leliana grinned and leaned her head briefly against the diplomat's shoulder. "What took you so long?"

"Sweet Andraste, I leave you all for one hour…" She shook her head and accepted the glass from Leliana. "At least you all had the smarts enough to wait until after the guests all left…" She sighed and glanced at the cards and small glasses of liquor awaiting the losers. "They don't have to watch you all fumble up the oldest drinking game this side of Thedas."

Sera threw her head back and practically cackled. "Knew she wasn't prim and proper as she puts on!"

Leliana tsk-ed and playfully glared at the ambassador. "There are variants, Josie. Just because it isn't the original doesn't make it wrong."

Josephine took a preliminary sip of her wine and stretched out an open palm to collect the cards. "Let me show you all how it is done. Properly."

While she explained the differences and instructed Bull to rearrange the drinkware on the table, Lavellan used the opportunity to check on the man sitting uncomfortably next to her. Cullen was deliberately avoiding looking her direction and giving all too much attention to gathering the cards around him.

She bumped her knee against his, secretly enjoying the faint nervous twitch it elicited from him. He handed off the cards to Bull and turned to Etain.

"Thank you…" She kept her voice low, "for the books."

"Of course, Inquisitor. Just… trying to help how I can." He matched her volume. He seemed uncomfortable with the fact, or maybe with talking to her. Though Lavellan was inclined to believe the former had a large impact on the latter. For someone who grew up in the Chantry, helping a Dalish Inquisitor research relics and ruins considered heathen would be - by no stretch of imagination - leaping out of the comfort zone. Out of what he knew and grew up with. Add to that her sudden disappearance and their lack of communication on the matter, they were indeed in a strange place. She understood that. And the fact that he still tried was endearing. She wondered if she could still say the same of herself.

"I don't know how to play this one," she whispered, trying to get foothold on getting back on his good side. He looked at her for a quick moment and glanced at the Ambassador.

"Then it might be a good idea to listen to Josephine… and no, I will not take it easy on you."

Lavellan leaned forward, folding her arms on the table. "Still upset with me?"

He smiled, though it wasn't warm or playful, mostly because it didn't reach his eyes. "No, Inquisitor."

He turned to the game instead of talking further, leaving Lavellan stuck somewhere between slightly ashamed and mildly irritated. Mostly with herself. She turned to her glass and gulped down half of it, mentally preparing herself to put her thoughts aside and endure Varric's farewell party with a smile on her face.

The intensive scowling had left his face aching, so much so that Solas had to remind himself to relax his muscles. He closed his eyes and leaned back in the chair. He'd grown less forgiving with time. And now, with a chance to sit and ruminate over the quandary that was the Crossroads, his temper flared.

Progress was slower than he would have liked in clearing the ancient pathways. And every ruin he rediscovered was hardly more than that; a ruin. Another brutal gouge at a wound that refused to heal.

Time hadn't been kind to all the knowledge and treasure the forgotten fortresses once harbored. Without the intrinsic magic of the Fade, half of the bones of the old world were unrecognizable and completely devoid of their original purpose.

It felt as if he was breaking into a grave robbed tomb with each Eluvian he reset. All while the present world around him kept shifting and advancing along its own path without a second thought toward him.

His forward scouts continued reporting on what Inquisition was weaving and where they sent their spies. And they seemed to be everywhere. Had it not been for the Eluvian network, they would have actually put a significant damper in the efficiency of his own operatives. They were exceeding his expectations, and it made planning the future that much harder.

Spending over a year within the Inquisition gave Solas more than an unfair advantage of outplaying the organization. Not that his sheer experience in matters of politics and war wasn't enough to completely eclipse that of the Advisors and Etain combined. Even so, they had resources and influence that he yet lacked.

Then there was Briala, a nuisance from the start. But no longer. It was all the more irritating that someone was with her in the network. Reports ranged from just two people to five. Humans and elves. The mere fact that they were able to evade his agents and leave the coded score reeked of trained operatives. The trick with the music wasn't one he had run into very often.

And they were able to escape without a key. They found an Eluvian to lead them to the outside world without Briala. She wasn't the only one with access to the network.

Morrigan.

He had ventured to the Crossroads, as she called them, and found her Eluvian shattered. He may as well have caught her red-handed, breaking the one way into Skyhold she knew of. Then the question turned to how much the witch had revealed to the Inquisition. And whether she had Inquisition agents alongside her.

Did Etain hear of it yet?

Undeniably, some gut instinct whispered to him. His agents would have to get much more covert about their recruiting tactics, considering how quickly the Nightingale had sent her own investigators to their outposts. More than that, he would have to reevaluate the situation inside of Skyhold and the moles within the Inquisition.

Someone wasn't doing their job. So they became expendable, and served as a distraction for Bull and his Chargers, while the rest of his agents regrouped. Offer up the spymaster the weakest links and let her think she stumbled upon a lead. It wouldn't change anything in the long run.

The incident in the crossroads, and in the Fade, had left him inattentive. That was the other advantage the Inquisition held over him. Etain.

Lavellan sees me in her dreaming, where she hadn't before. She is listening to the servants of Mythal, and she is learning. It was an unnerving thought. Or perhaps an overreaction. She did not understand what she was seeing, or who. To her, their run-ins were merely odd dreams, blunders of the Fade.

He picked at his fingers, listening to the rustle of the trees beyond the arches. She was his favorite riddle, ever growing more complex. She was reaching far beyond anything he could have imagined, and her renown was becoming a little too familiar for comfort.

Solas thought about checking on her, visiting her in her dreams tonight. To see what the infamous Inquisitor was up to, to track her movements and the direction she would lead her ever-growing organization.

He needed to plan with Inquisition movements in mind, but that did not mean keeping tabs on Lavellan directly. Though that would be the more expedient route. So why not pick any of the other mages in their ranks? The rational side of his psyche questioned.

Because I am weaker than I care to admit… He wanted to read her memories like an open book, to see what twists of fate had turned her into the creature she was today. To see who she would become tomorrow. All so he wouldn't ever underestimate her again.

Knowing she had the Well, and the direct link to Mythal left him feeling like she was pulling the rug right out from under him. Another loose end he let slip, and will have to take into account sooner or later.

But maybe not now. Not tonight. There were still too many strategic technicalities to flesh out before he could turn to dreams. Those could wait. Replacing infiltrators, coordinating efforts in Orlais and securing the last few regions of the network did not allow for wasted time, or careless planning.

Chapter Text

To say the next morning was painful was the understatement of the century. It was almost as bad the night up in the Inquisitor's tower. In a way, it may have even been worse; they weren't saying goodbye that time.

On three occasions Varric felt as if he would twist his insides out he was so ill. He went so far as to risk Sera's miracle hangover concoction that smelled too much like bad pickles. Disgusting, but helped fractionally; at least enough to get him up, washed, clothed, fed and heading down to the gates.

At least it was overcast and cool. Thank you, merciful Andraste, for hiding the damn sun today.

By the gates, Josephine was trying desperately hard to sound spry and professional as ever as she directed the departing escort. Varric was not going to travel light; his return to Kirkwall offered the Inquisition a good opportunity to sow some seeds in the Marcher city states too. He was going to be accompanied by merchants and Leliana's spies, posing as various helpful personnel.

The Spymaster herself was giving last minute instructions to the lead scout. Once she finished that, she briskly made her way to the Inquisitor's side, and both sat against the makeshift table by the stairs, looking a little green and weary of daylight itself.

If the three of them were able to at least modestly hide their misery, Cullen was less so preoccupied with hiding it. He resembled a sour statue, lingering by the assembled escort troops, angrily staring at them. Though that was most likely just him trying to keep his breakfast down.

Sera was close behind Varric, along with Bull and Dorian. They'd all finished their breakfast together, with few words. It was a bitter morning, even more so with how hungover they all were.

As soon as the thought occurred to him that last night was a horrible idea, Varric remembered his own words to Cullen with a bad taste in his mouth - he'd asked for a furious hangover and he sure as hell got one.

"Well…" Varric said once he reached Etain at the bottom of the stairs. "This is weird. It's usually you who's leaving… Or us both."

She smiled weakly, trying to downplay the gloom - and possibly dread? - in her eyes. "It was bound to be my turn eventually."

"Yeah… this ain't goodbye you know. Let's not act like we'll never hear or speak to each other again. Give me a little while to settle into Kirkwall again and you better get your ass out there. Don't let them swamp you with too many meetings… Hell, retire and come to Kirkwall. The place is a fucking mess, you won't be short of a job."

"I'll make sure I keep that in mind, Varric. Thank you… for everything you've done for the Inquisition. And for me… Keeping me alive and sane… for being my friend." Etain threw her arms around him and held on for a moment. Varric returned the gesture in earnest, knowing full well this was the last time he'd see Etain for at least a few years.

"Varric, anything you need, you just send me word." Leliana added in. "I know we had all started on fragile ground, especially with our past with Hawke and Kirkwall… But know that I respect you and your efforts, and I shall like to see us continue this partnership for years to come."

"Maker's balls Leliana, you chugged the wine from my cup last night, you'd think we'd be on a less formal basis by now."

Leliana balked a little at the memory of her drunken antics, but smiled nonetheless. "Formal or not, you have my aid when you need it."

"I'll hold you to that, Red."

Sera, Bull and Dorian joined the small circle and added their own 'thank you's to the conversation. The usual things people said when it was difficult to say anything at all. Varric forced himself to part with the small group, saying something about them trying to drag out the process unnecessarily. He detached himself from the small semicircle and headed toward the last two people he had to say good bye to.

Josephine showered him with gracious appreciation and offered a similar statement as Leliana: whatever you need, we are here for you.

As he approached Cullen, the gruff ex-Templar stepped forward and reached out his hand for a firm handshake, followed by a clap on the shoulder.

"It's been a pleasure working with you, Master Tethras."

"You too, Curly? Shit. First name basis, come on now."

Cullen smiled and looked down briefly. "Good luck to you, Varric. Stay safe out there."

Adding anything else would have just made the farewell forced, drawn out. So Varric smiled and kept his end short and simple. "You too, Cullen. Take care of yourself. You've always got a place to stay, food and drink to share with me, should you ever brave that corner of the world again." He did not need to remind him of anything he hadn't the night prior. What had needed to be said, he had told him in the cups last night. It was up to Cullen to do with those words what he wanted.

"Thank you, Varric. 'Til next time."

Varric nodded and stepped toward the gates with a final wave to those he was leaving behind. He trudged on along the imposing stone walkway, perched high in the biting mountain air. He hated goodbyes, for more often than not in this day and age, they were permanent.

 


 

Perhaps it was the Well's doing. Or Mythal's. Or both. The memories, the visions felt nothing short of her own. It was disorienting - even after so many months - waking up with more memories, more pains, more joys, more tragedies and mysteries than she went to sleep with.

This was the price Abelas spoke of. No trifle consequence, that. It certainly wasn't anything Lavellan had imagined.

When she dreamed, the fade engulfed her in entirety. It twisted her world in ways that made her think of ancient times when magic was as part of her kind as their own senses. It made her think of legends Solas had filled her head with.

When she observed, there was no need for the constraints of language. Nor of context. The Fade provided all. It shifted subtly, like a seaside breeze, to spell out emotions wordlessly. The world felt around her; as if her mind and soul were a mere extension of the air - of the fade - surrounding her insignificant self.

But she wasn't a dreamer. The world wasn't hers to control. Influence, in some small way, yes. But never control. She was an observer. And she took Morrigan's words to heart. You're a spectator. Act like one.

And so she wandered, feet carrying her aimlessly through the surreal landscape of the Fade. Waiting to be taught or manipulated by the servants once more.

There was a soft tapping behind her, somewhere. Then a sound of parchment rustling. Etain turned to see an ornate, mammoth table of polished wood and inlaid gold. Something reminiscent of map sprawled out along the surface; waters shimmered and flowed, broken up by life like hills and mountain ranges, punctuated by gemstone cities and villages. It was remarkable.

Almost as remarkable as seeing the All-Father and the All-Mother wearily pacing the table, a scene so mundane and familiar it was spine-tingling. It didn't seem right to see the ancient gods brought to such a mortal level. Mythal had a woven shawl wrapped around her shoulders, beautiful and surreal in the way the fabric reflected light - as if she'd wrapped sunset lit clouds around herself. There was an ornate mug in her hand, steaming with something hot. Elgar'nan leaned over the table, dressed in garb much less majestic and ostentatious than the armor she'd seen him in before.

"Go, vhenan. You need to rest. I shall join you shortly." Mythal uttered, waving a hand over a miniature rendering of a city, shifting the figures to display the underbelly of the metropolis. Dissatisfied with what she saw, she adjusted her gaze to the surrounding wilderness, and the earth beneath it.

"You've scoured every inch of that map thrice over this evening. There isn't anything else you will find-" The man with eyes of dim gold stood up, shifting his attention to Mythal. He cut his objection short upon seeing that look on her face, the one that signaled his input was being ignored and she was stubbornly going to do what she was already doing.

He sighed and walked over to the goddess-queen, his hand gliding along the back of her waist. He nuzzled against the back of her neck and against the pale tresses loosely pinned with jewels. Mythal turned her face briskly to kiss the man dismissively before immediately turning back to the map.

Elgar'nan nodded once in mild displeasure and departed.

Etain walked closer, some irrational part of her consciousness fearing the Mythal in her dream was real enough to notice, and aware enough to speak to her. She wasn't, though.

Lavellan tried to follow the woman's gaze, trying to understand what had her so perplexed. But without much frame of reference, it was difficult to even guess at what was going on. So she resorted to just observing, to feeling Mythal's confusion and headache of trying to solve a problem growing more complex with every step she took.

She watched Mythal shift a few steps to and fro, glaring less intently at the map than she had done before, and looking more and more disinterested. Finally, she abandoned her mug on the table and left the room.

Etain followed her steps, drifting like a shadow behind the All-Mother. Her eyes were drawn by the immense arches and the beautiful architectural splendor of the palace - or wherever she was. In her wanderings, she'd fallen a good distance behind Mythal, who had turned into a courtyard grand enough to put the one in the ruins of her temple to shame.

The long flowing fabrics of her attire fanned out behind her, catching alternating rays of brazier light and the moon above. A little flickering light floating through the unreasonable expanse of the courtyard.

An armor clad man walked up to Mythal, his movements quiet and effortless. Though also ornate, his silver, fur lined armor was much simpler than that of the All-Father, and much lighter. The hood was raised, obscuring the stranger from sight yet again.

She had seen him before, lingering in the periphery of Mythal's visions. Frequently there whenever Mythal was alone, when she was plotting. A shadow, never in full view or acknowledgement. A guardian perhaps, an advisor, a companion, a friend?

Or maybe there's a reason he always lingered in obscurity. An unrequited lover?

They spoke for a little while, about something that left Mythal even more agitated than she was. His hand reached out, brushing his fingertips along her forearm. Her back straightened and chin raised high as she turned to him.

Lavellan watched attentively, keeping a sharp eye on every bit of body language she could catch a glimpse of, as she could not hear the words being exchanged.

They stood close, shrouded by shadows of trees and towering sculptures. It finally occurred to Etain that she had seen the same gardens before, or more accurately a small portion of it… with Mythal dying among its delicate flowers.

The man's fingers curled around Mythal's, squeezing them and rubbing a thumb along her knuckles. Her expression was betraying worry. Etain approached closer, hoping to catch at least some part of the hushed conversation between them.

But Mythal pulled back her hand and nodded a thank you, or maybe a solemn word of reassurance, and departed promptly.

The man watched her walk away for a moment, her silhouette growing more and more obscure until she had left the vision completely.

The night chirped on for a brief second, a memory immortalized in another dream. He stood still, the moonlight and flames glinting faintly across the armor; a magnificent statue amidst the others in the courtyard.

He looked over the shoulder, to somewhere in Lavellan's general direction. Rather, to whatever used to be where she stood now. She could only make out the general planes of the helm beneath the gray hood.

Wolf.

His body turned, movements fluid and reminiscent of the creature this man was emulating. The eyes glinted, liquid quicksilver piercing through the shadows, eerie and mesmerizing at once.

Eyes of the wolf that prowled her dreams.

The instincts of prey flooded Etain's veins with fear and adrenaline, while her mind reigned in the urge to run - it was only a dream.

The shadows obscured him from her sight for a fleeting moment, leaving but a whisper of movement. The world flickered between the long forgotten courtyard, and the dark expanse of emptiness. Etain waited for relief to replace the tension she felt prickling her muscles, the vision ending.

Her gaze drifted around, and she gave in to the compulsion to look behind her: empty fields of night, lit only by the ambient light of the Fade. A blank canvas for spirits and dreamers to mold to their will. A sign for her to wake up.

Etain had turned back with a soft sigh.

There was an animalistic beauty to how he walked, a predator well aware of the power of his presence. The wolf helm watched silently, the unearthly gaze peering through and shattering all of her thoughts to shards of glass.

He had stopped before her, hands clasped behind his back. Etain took in a shallow breath, mirroring the man's stillness. Her heart was trying to leap out of her throat, knowing this must have been another part of a memory, misunderstood and twisted from her vantage point.

Yet he remained, eyes wavering over her face, as if curious to her existence. Watching her with a tilt of his head as if beholding an uninvited visitor in his domain.

The pieces finally fit together, if only to flash briefly in her mind. The stranger's identity was hiding in plain sight, if her assumption held any truth.

She shut her eyes and breathed deep, willing herself to wake up. Her eyes opened to the dimness and wavering shadows of the lavish, basecamp tent.

Etain lurched out of the bed and scrambled over to the table. She aimed to write down all pertinent details and most certainly that of the stranger who seemed to be aware of her presence.

She stopped by the candles, lighting their wicks. She couldn't smell the smoke of the matches as she blew them out.

Lavellan's body instinctively tensed, senses on edge. Now she was sure something or someone else was playing with her dreams and her mind. Something other than Mythal's servants.

Something was interfering with her waking, leaving her to slip only into a rendition of where she was in reality. And not for the first time.

She swallowed hard and her eyes frantically skimmed the inside of the tent, peering nervously into shadows.

Etain turned in time to catch the silhouette of a wolf prowling outside, past the edge of the canvas, and beyond her tent.

Lavellan burst out past the entrance and rounded the corner of her tent, searching for the animal. She found nothing but smaller, dark tents dotting the landscape until their shapes melted into the black of night.

She clenched her hands to stop their shaking and kept walking until she truly woke up, her dawning realization making the task easier than before.

 


 

Cullen's jaw ached, fingers numb from clenching the reigns far too tightly to be necessary. They had gotten on their way early that morning, aiming to cover as much distance as they could while the weather was agreeable; the birds sang, the air smelled of new blooms and morning dew, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky.

Lavellan's black Dalish All-bred trotted happily, barely a head in front of his own, the woman herself a vision of sleepy contentment in being amidst the wilds in spring. She swayed lightly with the movements of her mount, her chin raised high, the morning sunlight trapped in the coppery gold of her hair. Her lids loomed low over her eyes ever so slightly so that she looked to be in a hazy state of thoughtlessness. Maybe she was still waking up. She seemed to be perpetually tired of late.

He was still sour over the course of the last few days. Lavellan hadn't told him much more than she had told the others about the Labyrinth. The only piece he had the others of their inner circle hadn't was the knowledge of her dreams. Visions of the Eluvian. At least, he thought he was the only one to know. She seemed so horrified of her own admission, it was hard to believe she'd fight through that more than once.

They had drunkenly joked and laughed among friends the night Varric left, pretending everything was fine, but the subtle undercurrent of uncertainty was still there. It was all contradictions with her. What had happened to make her go back on her own claims of friendship, her insistence on him sharing his troubles when the withdrawals were especially fierce. She was upset when he wouldn't speak to her, yet turned around and did the exact same thing. Even after everything, did Lavellan still not trust him, did she fear him?

And if she felt that way, Cullen worried how it would reflect on how they worked together. Would it be for the better or for worse? Would he have to constantly guess what else she was hiding from him, from them? Had nothing truly changed since they had found her at the Temple of Sacred Ashes?

The realization that that could be true hurt, deeply. Made him feel somehow betrayed, or a fool. Thinking, believing they trusted each other, that they had all grown so much closer. But it could all have been an illusion; he had noticed the minute cracks in trust between himself and Leliana, Leliana and Josephine, Lavellan and all of them. Or it could be just the price of power and authority. Or the onset of paranoia…

His head was roiling with doubts, questioning what it was that was actually going on with Lavellan. For he was certain she was hiding something more.

And he was bothered by what he saw that morning. The harder he tried not to look at her, the longer he ended up staring. He had chanced a glimpse of the amulet she put on before they set out; the thin leather was embossed with a design so unnervingly familiar… It took him a while to recognize it, but the style hailed from his own birthplace - Honnleath.

Something had squeezed in his chest, seeing such a simple reminder of home draped on the Inquisitor's neck, without her even knowing it. It was far worse to realize it wasn't simple jewelry or a defensive enchantment. It held… power, some sort of it at least. She caught him watching her then, eyes lingering on her neck.

"Something wrong?" She'd asked.

"No, Inquisitor. I simply thought I saw something." He'd mumbled and turned to fixing his own armor in place. She nodded, tucking the leather strap beneath her clothing.

And yet now he was staring at her again, unsure of what to make of the feeling in the pit of his stomach. Use of arcane trinkets always unnerved him, especially ones the Inquisition seemed to find. They now tended to be far more powerful and far more dangerous than what he came across inside the Circles or facing off apostate mages. They'd seen what the Elven orb was capable of. He'd be lying if it didn't make him worry a little. Nearly two decades of Templar training were hard to ignore.

But then there was also the part of his imagination that ran wild, wondering what she would think had she seen where he came from. What would capture her curiosity, what would make her scrunch her nose and frown. What would the Dalish Inquisitor make of his humble Fereldan beginnings? What she would make of his family- not that they were in Honnleath. Thank the merciful Maker for that. The mere thought of his siblings and Etain in the same room was enough for him to nearly sweat through his gloves.

His musings shifted to his family. He had sent a small contingent to South Reach and the surrounding area, to help with clearing out any dangers brought on by the War, the Breach and subsequent chaos. They were safe, for now. At least that much he knew.

He forced his gaze away from the way her eyes lazily blinked, and stared ahead at the hills instead. Shifting slightly and inhaling a lungful of cold morning air, Cullen turned his thoughts to what was likely to happen once they reached the Deep Roads entrypoint.

After a long while, the silence was broken by Bull's sharp, obscene shout. Both Cullen and Etain turned their heads back toward the commotion. Sera was red in the face and clutching her saddle, laughing breathlessly. Bull was glaring at Sera and readjusting himself in the saddle. Dorian was shaking his head and motioning his caramel colored mare to move him out in front of Bull, lining up closer to Cullen.

"Bull left his mount and saddle unattended. Sera seized the opportunity. Behold the results." Dorian explained, disinterested and groggy with sleep. Several of the Inquisition soldiers directly behind Bull and Sera remained stonefaced, though Cullen wondered if that was because he was still facing their direction.

The Commander turned forward again, catching Etain gazing at him. It could have meant anything, or nothing at all. It was never clear with her.

He cleared his throat and readjusted his grip on the reigns.

Etain shifted her focus forward, urging her mount to keep going. "Better she gets it out of her system now than pull this sort of thing when we enter the Deep Roads."

"I don't think she will have time to think of humor by then. It'll all just be… don't catch the blighty eh? Or… something." Dorian said behind her.

"Well… also do try and avoid that." Cullen commented.

"You do not have to ask me twice, Commander. What will you do without my charming company?"

"Maker," the former Templar sighed, "I'll try to fight through my devastation."

"That you will… But don't get your hopes up, I still believe we have a rematch to play." Dorian referred to their chess match habits.

"Don't catch the Blight and survive the Deep Roads and you have yourself a game."

"Deal. You hear that, Inquisitor? You had better get me back in one piece, safe and charming as ever. Our stalwart Commander and I have a score to settle."

"I'll do my best," Etain muttered, riding a little further and faster than the rest of them. She didn't look amused, or interested, lost in her own thoughts again.

"Well, I was hoping for something a little more chipper out of her." Dorian lowered his voice to something just himself and Cullen could hear. Bull and Sera were arguing in the background, so it was likely Etain wouldn't hear any of it.

Cullen hesitated for a moment, but decided to ask his questions while he could. "What happened in the Labyrinth?"

Dorian frowned, and Cullen immediately guessed what he was thinking; after all she had retold the events again for them the night before Varric left.

"I mean what happened that she left unsaid?" He clarified his inquiry. "Being left in the dark only makes it harder for me to do my job and help her, and keep the Inquisition forces safe and efficient."

"Such a prim and proper way to say she's making you worry."

That and a way to say I know she doesn't trust me. How am I to trust her? Cullen glanced at Dorian. "When has she not made everyone around her worry? In one way or another."

"Ha, Commander, I have to say you are getting good at deflecting."

"I'm learning from those around me," Cullen was growing tired of the back and forth and had considered it a hint that Dorian wouldn't say a thing.

"I'm still trying to make sense of it myself." The mage finally answered, looking ahead. "I think she feels as if she'd only just realized how far the ripple in the pond is going. And I think it is starting to get heavier."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, in addition to the more apparent ripples - an elven Inquisitor and organization with power rivaling that of kingdoms flexing its influence across all of Thedas and the sort - there's the cryptic powers of these ancient ruins and someone pulling the advantage out from under all of us without the rest of the world knowing. Then there's the We-" Dorian cut his thought short, looking at Cullen and perhaps realizing maybe Etain hadn't told anyone else about the extent of the Well's price.

"The Well of Sorrows." Cullen finished the sentence for him. "I suppose it wouldn't be surprising if it is connected to the Eluvians… Have the dreams gotten worse?"

"So she told you," there was mild surprise in his voice, and that bothered Cullen more than he would have thought it would.

"Little, but yes. She told me, right before you two disappeared."

"Hmm. Then, I'm not sure about worse. But more frequent, more… intrusive? Yes."

"Intrusive?" The word left a foul taste in his mouth, rekindling memories of Kinloch. Of the lyrium withdrawals. He looked toward Etain, seeing her tiredness from a new angle. It made him uncomfortable knowing they were heading into arguably some of the most dangerous locales in Thedas, with an Inquisitor who wasn't quite rested up and functioning at full capacity.

"You know she would have much better answers than I ever will."

"I know." There was no point in discussing it further. Lavellan didn't want him to know those answers. Maybe not yet, or maybe not ever. And from the looks of it, he would have plenty of time to internally debate what that meant, and what he should do about it.