Chapter 1: The Thing With Feathers
Gabriel Marlowe comes to Skyhold to make a name for himself, never dreaming what will befall him there
For everything that's lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.
O never give the heart outright,
For they, for all smooth lips can say,
Have given their hearts up to the play.
And who could play it well enough If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.
-Never Give All the Heart, the Chieftains
"Did you have the dream again, lethallin?"
Aeron followed her brother Aled deeper in to the ruins, further than they'd ever gone before. As they ventured past, she recognized the passages twisted off to the right, like the roots of an ancient tree. They'd explored each thoroughly, sometimes with Andra and Aoife, sometimes just the two of them. When they did so she liked to tell Aled stories of werewolves, trapped here for an eternity, that would surely leap out and tear them to shreds at any moment.
The fact that such a thing had already happened to their Clan might have made the tales cruel, but since that night the wolf had held a special power for them both. It was a creature that could destroy and a creature that could open new paths, the hulking shapes of the werewolves in the fire light offset by the white creature from their dreams. So often, the white wolf had come, leading her deeper and deeper in to this very structure. Here, it seemed to say, here is your salvation.
"I did, lethallan," she returned the favor, picking her way over a toppled stone column, the dust puffing up around her in a cloud that smelled of ancient magics. At least Aled called her by the proper title, despite her body. Thinking about her form made misery come alive in her very skin, as if her own flesh were some alien thing improperly stitched to her bones, something that ached and bled without surcease. She stopped there in the main chamber, the same place where Witherfang and Zathrian had faced one another. Now the light from above spilled over one miserable girl instead of a pact that would change the destiny of her Clan forever. She clutched her shawl close as if she could hide her breasts beneath it and stood there, frozen.
Aled came over and touched her arm.
"I can't live this way, Aled. I can't."
"Creators willing, you won't have to. Neither of us will."
She looked up at him, studying his face. He had a stubborn look, his lip curled and his posture set. Normally he would have been against this, would have cautioned her not to take risks. But what she had seen had given them both courage, though daring to hope made her eyes sting with bitter tears.
Could it truly free us?
The thought made her want to scream. If it wasn't true, if it was just a dream, she didn't think she could bear it. She thought of all the times she'd held the knife blade to her body, knowing that all she had to do was let it slope downwards and she would be rid of at least some of her most hated parts...
"If this doesn't work I will go to Falon'din and let him carry me away," she whispered. "You have heard of the Conclave the shems are planning. The Keeper will send me, or you, or the both of us. Could you face the world in the wrong body? Could you? For even one day, with all their eyes on you?"
"Don't think that way," Aled said, grabbing her and giving her a little shake. The ferocity the Keeper had always criticized her for flooded her then, and she lifted her head. Her emotions felt like distant faery lights over a bog at nighttime, glimpsed, perhaps, but always from afar. She could think then, the cold and calculating self that thought nothing of splitting shem heads when they dared come too close to camp, that took joy in the gurgle a dying man made when her dagger found his throat.
"I will do this," she said, deliberately choosing the proper words for Aled, "sister. I swear to you, I will wrench power from the hands of Mythal herself if doing so would change us."
"When you speak like that, I can't help but believe you, brother." His faith in her shimmered forth, transforming his face. She would do it for him--for her--for them both.
"Then follow me, and we will find this eluvian. I have seen it." She said, marching down the tunnel that lead in to the heart of the ruins. "I know the spell to open it. It will be done."
The approach to Skyhold wore a cloak of snow, embroidered with hoarfrost. The bridge to the main gates seemed to go on forever, his footsteps covered over with new flurries before they’d had a chance to truly leave an imprint. Gabriel could feel eyes on him; the battlements hid what had to be a full compliment of guards, bows ready.
He wondered if he would be shot down before he even made it to the gate. He couldn’t claim an impressive title or special circumstances, beyond the heavy, engraved Knight Enchanter’s blade slung across his back. He doubted wielding it would give the impression he hoped, though its presence filled him with more confidence than he would have had otherwise. Keeper Mairead's blessings went with him, even so far from home.
Someone did come out to greet him in the end, but he didn’t yet feel any relief; the man looked as if he was always faintly put out by something, and at the moment that something was him. The man moved with an air of confidence, and by his plate armor and the blade at his hip he at the very least could call himself a soldier.
By the Creators, they knew him? Could this be the Inquisitor himself? As soon as the thought came, he dismissed it. The stories said the Inquisitor belonged to a Dalish clan out of Brecilian Forest. He certainly couldn’t be called human, and Gabriel felt ashamed for making that assumption.
“Sir,” Gabriel said by way of confirmation.
The man’s manner eased, a rather endearing look softening his features. Crow’s feet crinkled at the edges of his amber eyes, his lips curving in a faint smile. The scar across his mouth hardly marred his appearance; if anything it added to it.
“I am Commander Cullen. I lead the Inquisition forces. You’re welcome to come inside.”
As if on cue the gates slid open, and Gabriel marveled at the fact that the massive structure moved without so much as a creak. Some fine engineers and craftsmen at Skyhold, then.
He could hardly believe he’d been welcomed so readily, and he said as much as Cullen lead him inside. He didn’t miss the men falling in behind him, perhaps in case he proved a danger, but nonetheless this had gone much better than he’d imagined.
“You were expecting me?”
“We were. Knight Enchanters are rare, competent ones even moreso. I believe the Inquisitor would like to test whether or not you were truly Elf trained, as well.”
Gabriel could hardly take in all of Skyhold at once. It was so much more than he had expected. A tavern carried the scent of dark ale out in to the practice ring, where even now soldiers sparred. He could smell an herb garden from here, royal elfroot, blood lotus, prophet’s laurel. The main hall pierced the grey sky, its warmly lit windows in contrast. Merchants in fancy Orlesian dress had their best blades, fabrics, and delicacies on display, their stands adding splashes of color and fragrance wherever they could fit. He could hear singing and the whinny of horses and harts.
But above it all, his eyes were drawn as by magnet to the mage tower. It stood proud and festooned in banners, the symbol of the free mages picked out in gold and red.
It’s true. There is no Circle here.
Heart full, Gabriel heard the gate close behind him, sealing him in to his new home.
Chapter 2: The Dragon's Daughter
Gabriel explores his new home and gets more than he bargained for
“Dragons and legends...It would have been difficult for any man not to want to fight beside a dragon.”
-Patricia Briggs, Dragon Blood
Gabriel stood at the closed door of the quarters the Inquisition had been kind enough to give him, trying to visualize leaving his room and crossing the courtyard with confidence. Since he'd come here, he'd only managed such a feat two times out of five. He pushed forward, hand splayed on the weathered wood, but once again the door wouldn’t budge.
You’re being ridiculous.
And he knew it. The Inquisition had welcomed him. The Commander himself had come to the gates to usher him in, expressing warm sentiments about extending shelter to yet another talented mage. Gabriel remembered looking up at the mage tower for the first time, its banners flying proudly in the winter air. Even now when he thought of it his chest tightened; the mages here weren’t caged. They weren’t even ashamed.
He leaned against the door, his ear to the wood. From the practice area he heard shouts, but these weren’t the shouts of frustration that often split the air when new recruits sparred. Instead a female voice, high, clear, rose above the others. A laugh bubbled forth even as swords crashed and ground against each other. What woman was this, that she could laugh so joyously in the middle of a fight?
More than anything, curiosity drew him out of his den. He would have preferred that his own courage had been enough of a goad, but he’d take whatever came along.
The sun poured forth in rivulets, the pale fingers of a fine lady stretched across the landscape as if to pluck a particularly lush flower. For a moment he couldn’t see beyond its dazzle. He wondered if the woman he’d heard would be as fine as the light, noble like him maybe? Her voice certainly made him think of that, a little doll-like creature in a flowing dress, sounds of battle notwithstanding.
When his eyes cleared he walked over to the practice ring. He saw several human soldiers gathered around a fight between two Qunari, hooting and hollering as if they were betting on the outcome. The male he knew of, if only because a creature such as he couldn't go unnoticed. He called himself Iron Bull, a massive hulking monster of a man with horns such that he could barely fit through the tavern door. The other was a female Qunari, almost as massive as Iron Bull, that he didn’t recognize. She had long auburn hair pinned up in two messy buns on the top of her head, a gentle wave to the skeins still free. She had skin as white as the snow that capped the mountains nearby, and her horns curved back in to two magnificent points, decorated in gold. Where the Iron Bull eschewed armor to leave his impressive chest bare the woman at least wore something to cover her breasts, though just barely. Wherever she could get away with showing skin, though, she did, muscles rippling under a soft layer of fat. She had a pair of green stylized wings tattooed on her back, left bare by the plunging backline of her silk shirt, and a profile smudged black and gold with vitaar.
Both Qunari hefted two-handed swords so heavy no other race could have hoped to wield them, glittering with enchantments. When they clashed, testing each other, it was like two dragons locked in a battle to the death. In fact, the smell that came off a dragon rampant pushed itself rudely in to his nostrils as the two combatants churned the ground under their feet. It was mating musk and fire, the dusty smell of scales and the primal electricity a mage felt whenever blood spattered on stone.
When neither could best the other they finally wrenched themselves away, both having trouble coming back to themselves. Clearly some force had come over them both, a bloodrage that normally had to be sated before the fight could end. Gabriel had heard of Reavers though he’d never met one. Now he wondered if he had met two.
“Good one, Bull,” the woman said, and Gabriel thought he’d misheard at first; a thick Orlesian accent came from her lips as naturally as the Amarinthine drawl came from his. “You bastard. We’ll do it again sometime soon.” It was especially odd considering she spoke in the broad, crude way he associated with Fereldan mercenaries.
“You got it, Vashoth bitch.”
She grinned at him, showing perfect teeth and sharp canines.
“Heh. See you later.”
“You know it.”
Iron Bull walked off, though Gabriel saw him stumble with weariness, a fact Bull did his best to hide. The woman turned towards him and he flushed; she had a beautiful face that shone despite the war paint. While he’d been completely wrong about her voice belonging to some tiny human woman, her features were doll-like and delicate. She had huge beaten-silver eyes and a full cupid’s bow mouth, now quirked in an inquiring smile.
“Hey there.” She said to him, walking over as the spectators dispersed. His heart promptly threw itself off a cliff; she made some new desire stir within him. “Enjoy the show?”
Despite the fact that one good breath would have pushed her ample breasts out of her shirt he could detect nothing overtly flirtatious about her tone, just an appealing friendliness that set him at ease despite himself. Her skin sparkled, sheened with sweat, and he could smell the good clean scent of a battle hard done.
“Oh, well. Yes. Are you a Reaver, my lady?”
She giggled behind her hand, an incongruous reaction for a woman three times as big as he was, a woman who had just fought like a demon-possessed bear.
“My lady? I could get used to being addressed like that. Most people just say “hey you” or “hey horn-head.” And yeah, I’m a Reaver. What about you, m'lord?”
“I am a Knight Enchanter.” The words felt odd in his mouth, shaped imperfectly for his tongue. Admitting outright that he was a mage felt dangerous, events in the world at large aside. His father had always thought highly of mages--no surprise, as he was one--and gone on and on about how Tevinter had the right idea. And yet they had always lived under the shadow of possible discovery, fearing that every time a stranger came to the manor door it would be a contingent of templars hellbent on imprisoning them.
“What, with the glowy sword?"
"The same," he said, doing her the favor of drawing his blade so she could inspect it. "Though mine is not summoned by magic alone." She whistled low and reached for it before she thought better of it and pulled her hand back.
"Nice," she said, drawing the word out.
"The Qun makes blades specific to the wielder, don't they?" His was clearly personal, as attuned to him as it was possible to be.
"Yeah except I've never lived under the Qun. My parents are Tal Vashoth. My father is a sarabaas. My mother rescued him and they fled together until the Qun gave up on recapturing them. Under the Qun mages are leashed and muzzled like rabid dogs. They do everything as their arvaarad bids them. My parents are free and they raised me to be free." She said, defiance giving her words a noticeable tang.
Purple energy crackled over the runes on his blade as he bid it.
"I was also raised to be free. I am an apostate and always have been. I learned what I know without bowing to templars."
"No Circle, huh? Well, maybe you'll spar with me sometime. See how a free mage does it."
"Oh...ahem. Of course."
He wondered if she'd break both his arms in the first five minutes or if she'd go easy on him and leave him with at least one working limb.
"You're new, aren't you?" She asked, leaning forward with her arms crossed on the railing that described the border of the practice ring. He studied her face for any sign of guile, but could find nothing. He felt his spine stiffen and he sheathed his sword, his hands wringing together in front of him despite his efforts to the contrary. Friendliness...simple friendliness. How long had it been?
"Yes, I suppose I am."
"Well, hell. Let's go get a drink then and I'll show you around."
"I...a drink? With you?"
She giggled, but Gabriel had to admit he could detect no edge of mockery in it.
"Sure, why not? Don't tell me you're afraid to be seen with an ox."
"N..no!" He spluttered. "I would never..."
She laughed, straightened, and clapped him on the shoulder hard enough to make him stagger sideways.
"I'm just messing with you. What's your name?"
"I...ahem. It's Gabriel, my lady. If you don't mind me asking..." He searched for a way to phrase his question that wouldn't insult her. "Your accent..."
"I know, right." She said without a hint of offense. She opened the gate to the practice ring and came out, crossing over to him as she wiped at her brow with the back of her hand. "Born and raised in Val Royeaux; I never knew a life anywhere else. My parents are tailors. Oh, I'm Shandi by the way. I guess I should have said already."
He fell in to step with her as she headed for the Herald's Rest as if he had always done so, as if going drinking with a massive Qunari Reaver had always been how he spent his afternoons. "Can you speak Orlesian, Shandi?"
"Better'n I speak Common, messere," she told him, shouldering the tavern door open. "You?"
"Some Elvish," he managed, though his mind whirled with all the new stimuli, especially when the music-ale-shouting hit him in one swirling mass, as if it were a tangible thing homing in on his solar plexus.
"Really? Didn't think they taught that to shems," she said, voice still light but...there existed the slightest shadow, of a sudden. Gabriel could feel it, the way a Fereldan hound could sense the smallest of movements in the underbrush.
"It is not a matter of course, no." He said, careful. Upsetting her could be dire, though he reminded himself not for the first time that this was not home, and that not everyone he met would emulate his brothers and their treatment of him.
He took a seat at one of the biggest tables, a wide bench paired with it sturdy enough to support Shandi's weight. She called for ale and when the serving girl plunked a full, frosty tankard down in front of her, she lit up with joyful anticipation. After she'd put away two of them in as many minutes, Gabriel had sipped enough of his own drink that he felt brave enough to ask her about herself.
"What brings you to Skyhold, my lady?"
"Well, m'lord...I figure it's time to make a name for myself. I'm going to ask the Inquisitor to test me on the battlefield. Have you seen Lady Pentaghast? I've been sparring with her. Great woman. She fights like a lioness. Not many humans could stand against a horn-head Reaver. Plus, I hear there's a High Dragon out there somewhere and I mean to hunt it. I've killed a dragon before but I've never stood against a High Dragon. Andrastae, just imagine it!"
"I saw a dragon once from afar, out on the Storm Coast. It was magnificent. You've killed one before?"
"I had help, other Reavers who offered to break me. Slew the beast and had my first taste of dragon's blood."
"Then...you will ask the Inquisitor himself if he will take you adventuring?" The very thought of being so bold made him taste iron, nervousness sitting on his tongue as surely as the cheap ale.
She shrugged, as if petitioning the leader of the free world for the right to fight at his side was no more challenging than a brisk walk through Skyhold's gardens.
"You won't get anywhere if you never take risks, my friend. Worst thing he can do is say no. Don't know if some random Vashoth will make the cut but I'm not going to just sit around here on my ass and hope for better."
"I...you are very brave. And not many have faced a dragon and lived."
She snorted, setting her tankard down. The tavern girl filled it without being asked.
"I just know my skills. And the Inquisitor has a lot of powerful friends, but they aren't all Reavers, and they can't all go with him on every mission."
"Would you mind sometime if I...I mean to say, I am interested in your abilities and I'd welcome a demonstration..."
He realized how awkward he sounded and how suggestive besides, and stumbled to a stop.
"Uh huh. Just what kind of demonstration are you hoping for?" She asked, while Gabriel desperately tried to look anywhere but at her chest.
"I walked right in to that one, didn't I?"
"Yeah m'lord, face first."
"Well, I will just say I am not sure what kind of demonstration would be most appropriate. How is that?"
"If you spar with me sometime you'll see it soon enough. What about you? Why come here?"
It took him a moment to respond. Why had he come here? The ability to practice magic freely? To get out from under his brothers' thumbs?
"I suppose I want to be part of something good, something important."
"You'll get your wish! The people here make the whole world shake." Shandi said, straightening in her chair. Her eyes cleared and her lips quirked. Pride, Gabriel thought. She believes in the cause, in the Inquisitor. Even as he thought such, the bard launched in to a song about bravery and the swath the Inquisition was currently cutting through Corypheus' forces.
"You should ask for the same." She continued. "Get out there and show your stuff."
"Ask the Inquisitor? To take me in to the field?"
"Why not? You're a Knight Enchanter. So is Madame de Fer, but I think m'lord Inquisitor would rather throw himself off the battlements than take her along."
He grimaced. He knew something of Lady Vivienne, and what he knew he most assuredly did not approve of.
"She would see us all in cages, and the only key clasped in her fingers."
"Yeah, sure. That. And m'lord doesn't approve of anyone who wants to cage mages. So, see? You have plenty of things to recommend you. Like not being Vivienne." She chortled and Gabriel found himself smiling in response, gazing at her sparkling silver eyes, so full of good cheer. "You should come with me tomorrow."
"I...I don't know." The last fight he'd had with his sister came unbidden to his mind.
You're using the Inquisition as another excuse to run away from your problems.
Defiance made him grit his teeth, and he jumped on the courage it afforded before it could squirm out of his grasp.
"All right, Shandi. I'll do it."
"That's the spirit! I'll meet you tomorrow and we'll go to Lady Montilyet's office together."
"Of course, my lady." He rose, not wanting to overstay his welcome. She waved at him.
"Don't be late, m'lord."
"I wouldn't dream of it."
He headed to the battlements. His heart felt too full to be confined; he wanted to be where the birds were.
Chapter 3: The Slow Knife
Gabriel and Shandi go to meet the Inquisitor
As promised, Gabriel went looking for Shandi early the next morning. This time leaving his quarters proved to be less of an obstacle than before; perhaps her straightforward manner had helped bolster his confidence. He found her at the training dummies, and as he watched she hit one of them so hard the stuffing came out. She wore only knee length breeches and a scrap of cloth tied precariously to her limbs with the barest of strings, her body heaving and uncoiling as she swung that nigh-impossible broadsword of hers.
A sight to behold, he thought, blushing for reasons he couldn't yet determine. Certainly one of the best warriors I've ever seen.
His brother Spence had always fancied himself an expert with the blade, though in reality he could hardly be counted amongst the greenest rank and file. Not that Gabriel would have ever told him so; sparing himself some extra kicks and punches factored high on his list of priorities, or it had when he'd still lived at home.
Creators willing, I will never set eyes on Marlowe Manor again.
He came up to watch, though not close enough to trigger Shandi's combat reflexes. He knew better than to sneak up on a trained warrior. A woman stood nearby with her sword drawn, and by the Seeker symbol painted on her breastplate he assumed he'd just laid eyes on Cassandra Pentaghast. She held herself with the kind of gravitas one expected from a woman of her rank, her naked blade in hand as she waited to take her turn with the dummies. The blade had seen use, but the care lavished on it had kept it sharp and ready.
"The Inquisitor will have to increase the training budget," she said, her thick Nevarran accent cementing her identity.
Shandi laughed and dropped out of fighting stance, sheathing her sword in the baldric strapped to her back.
"You wreck at least as many as I do."
Cassandra's face twitched as if she were trying to repress a smile.
"Well, it would do no one any good if I held back."
He cleared his throat, and Shandi turned to him. She brightened and waved, then came closer, bringing the fresh aroma of grass crushed underfoot with her. His heart felt more alive in his chest than usual, whirling and jumping. Seeker Pentaghast followed, which dampened his spirits somewhat; he didn't know her, and her narrowed eyes told him she felt suspicious of his presence. His hackles rose; would she try to exert some authority over him, try and force him to bow and scrape as mages had always been made to do?
"Ready to go meet our lord Inquisitor?" Shandi asked. "Cass here has vouched for us."
"For you," Seeker Pentaghast corrected her.
"Oh come on now Cass. You know we need a Knight Enchanter. Or do you want Vivienne to get her hooks in any deeper around here?"
Seeker Pentaghast's made a sound that communicated her disgust quite clearly.
A Seeker that disapproves of collaring and imprisoning mages? That disapproves of Madame de Fer's methods?
Perhaps he'd been too quick to think of her as no better than a templar thug.
"Well, I suppose it is up to the Inquisitor to decide." Seeker Pentaghast allowed.
Gabriel bowed, trying to acknowledge her rarefied place at the Inquisitor's side.
"I will endeavor to be worthy, my lady. Thank you."
"Come on," Shandi said, coming over to pat him on the chest. "Got to go by my room first. And you should go put on your best armor. Need to look the part!"
They went their separate ways, and when they met again in the courtyard Shandi had strapped on her full battle kit. Golden dragon bone arched across her front, fearsome against the mithril plate and thick tanned leather that made up the rest of her outfit. She looked resplendent, horn caps shining as they picked up the light from her chestpiece. She carried herself with the utmost confidence and the armor impeded her not at all; he could see elaborate enchantments carved in to the metal.
"My lady," he said as he drew close, "where did you acquire such a fine set of armor?"
"Lots of scrimping and saving. Used to be a merc," she told him, the smell of dragon hanging around her. Perhaps whenever she girded herself for battle, the bloodrage couldn't help but lift its head and test the air. "Before I came to Skyhold. Paid well, too. Lots of people want to hire a horn-head just for how we look. We scare people."
"If you don't mind me saying so, I...don't find you intimidating." He coughed, blushing, suddenly unsure how he should hold himself or what he ought to do with his hands. "I...not that you aren't a fearsome warrior. I...oh dear."
She smiled at him indulgently. He could sense something different in her demeanor but he couldn't place what it might be, only that--thankfully--it wasn't offense.
"Well thank you, m'lord Gabriel. Nice coat, by the way."
"I feel like a pompous ass, truth be told, but it is the nicest thing I own as of coming here." The soft nugskin garment that Lily had given him for that last Satinalia together, before their parents had shipped her off to be married to some doddering fool for the sake of political power, had the air of the nobility about it. Surely nothing so fine would be found on a soldier's back, or a merc's, and he wondered whether the Inquisitor would take it amiss, think it an attempt at reinforcing Gabriel's authority. "Do you think the shirt is too much?"
Crafted from silk the color of the Waking Sea at early morning, it had cost an embarrassing amount of coin. He wondered now how many provisions that money could have been traded for, how much good it would have done the refugees even now huddling around campfires down at the Crossroads.
"Nope." Shandi told him, shrugging. "You look great. Don't worry so much."
He smoothed his clothing with trembling hands, and fell in behind her to head for Lady Montilyet's office.
Lady Montilyet radiated sweetness and light, and when Shandi announced herself and referenced Seeker Pentaghast's sponsorship, the ambassador found it in her heart to let both of them request an audience with the Inquisitor instead of admitting Shandi only. The Inquisitor chose to meet them on the battlements and as he and Shandi climbed the steps, Gabriel felt very aware of the blade on his back. Would the Inquisitor approve? Would it matter to him that a Keeper had helped forge it?
As they crested the stairway, he could see the Inquisitor clearly outlined against the grey sky. The elf stood with his hands clasped behind his back, hands as dark as a hunk of rich amber. He wore a coat more lovely than even Gabriel's own, buttery, chocolate-brown leather and deep teal velvet, cinched at the waist with a wrap of that same fine cloth. A dagger's handle could be seen there, sheathed against the small of the Inquisitor's back.
Which means he has at least one other secreted on his person, Gabriel thought. The Inquisitor turned towards them, his face lovely but inscrutable, the way a falcon's countenance was inscrutable. Indeed, his strong, sharp nose only added to the comparison. His large amethyst eyes were narrowed much as Seeker Pentaghast's had been; the Inquisitor certainly didn't trust easily, or so that look said, and Gabriel knew he would have to fight to prove his worth to this man. Longish black hair obscured the base of his ears, hair darker than even Gabriel's own, but one couldn't mistake the pointed tips that rose up beyond. A scar had cut deeply in to his cheek and across his brow, though much like the Commander's scar it detracted not a whit from the man's appearance.
Imagine the battles the Inquisitor has participated in, Gabriel thought, feeling rather silly at the fawning quality inherent in his own inner voice. Battles that shake the world, indeed.
"You come to me with an Elvhen blade on your back, shemlen?"
The Inquisitor knew his weapons; all he'd needed was a glimpse of the hilt to correctly place the weapon's origins. He spoke with an accent Gabriel thought of as cultured, and instantly he felt shame for being surprised by it.
"I do, hahren." The Inquisitor fixed him with a dark look. Gabriel pressed ahead, knowing that showing how flustered he was wouldn't do anything to impress a man such as this. "The Keeper of Clan Shallan bid me craft it."
"A Keeper helped you make one of our blades?"
The Inquisitor all but growled; this was a Dalish devoted to his culture. The golden tree of Mythal that arched over his lovingly sculpted brows, down his strong nose and across his high cheekbones said as much. Mythal the protector, Mythal the greatest of her kind.
"She did, my lord. I promise you, I claim no special access to Dalish culture or Dalish artifacts. Her and her clan winter on my family's lands, and she was kind enough to take a curious child under her wing."
"We do not have artifacts, shemlen. We are a living people."
Shandi hung back, frowning at the sudden hostility. Still, Gabriel felt gratitude that she had decided not to interfere; this was for him to resolve, if it could be resolved. It was not the Qunari who had ordered an Exalted March on the Dales, not the Qunari who even now strode the halls of Halimshiral with blood on their embroidered, bejeweled slippers.
"I apologize, my lord." He said, bowing a little so the Inquisitor could see him in relative subservience. Creators, but the man's presence could be felt like a lowering storm, ready at any moment to spit forth lightning. The Mark crackled in response to the Inquisitor's emotions, and the sheer force within it prickled at Gabriel's nerve endings. "Of course."
"Why have you come to me?" The Inquisitor asked. This man had no time for nonsense or faffing about, and afforded little energy to pleasantries. His attitude made Gabriel cringe, though he tried not to show it. Would the Inquisitor go so far as to strike him? If it hadn't been for Spence and Landan perhaps he would find hostility coming from such a beautiful face incongruous, but he knew too well that even the most angelic countenance could hide a serpent's fangs.
"M'lord," Shandi interjected, "we want the opportunity to adventure with you." Gabriel sighed inwardly, relieved that she'd taken the thread of the conversation from him at the most useful time.
The Inquisitor raised his eyebrows, brows that added to his heart-stopping loveliness, though that loveliness spoke more of a finely crafted knife than it did to gossamer and violets. Gabriel could well imagine those eyes in tender moments even so, soulful and depthless, fingers deft and clever...he stopped that line of thought before it could grow legs.
"You realize I have many capable companions already, and I know nothing about either of you."
Gabriel felt that same defiance he had earlier in the tavern. He would make something out of his time at Skyhold, his fears notwithstanding. He would not waste this opportunity.
"My lord, I am a Knight Enchanter, and--"
"You mean you strive to be dirth'ena enasalin." The Inquisitor didn't snap like a bratty child or turn his voice in to a fiery lash. Rather he spoke with such authority and hardness that Gabriel could see how he had managed to create a force as powerful and far reaching as the Inquisition. "The way of the Arcane Warrior is ours, as so many things your people have stolen."
"I apologize for offending. I would never claim to be as proficient as the Dalish, or claim any rights above my station as a human."
That finally made some of the starch come out of the Inquisitor's posture.
"If you say a Keeper approves of your actions then...perhaps I have been too hasty."
The relative softness made the gold flecks in the depths of his eyes glitter and gleam, and Gabriel swallowed hard. It felt sometimes that everyone at Skyhold could claim a special loveliness not afforded to those outside its walls.
"I understand your hesitation," Gabriel said, feeling rather like an imposter himself after the Inquisitor had tested him so. He had expected it, but it still left him shaking in its wake.
"As well you should," The Inquisitor told him. Gabriel wondered what it must be like to be so utterly unafraid of conflict, to have such force of character. "That said, it is true that I seek someone with your particular skills. And you?" He asked, shifting his attention to Shandi.
"I'm a Reaver, my lord," Shandi told him, puffing up with pride. "I know you have the Iron Bull at your beck and call but he can't go on every mission, right? I was a mercenary for a long time. I know my business and I can help you."
"Hm. I understand Cassandra agrees." When modulated by thoughtfulness, his voice felt as velvety and rare as the clothing the Inquisitor had so carefully chosen to adorn himself with, likely fashioned by the finest Val Royeaux tailors. Who was this man, who at once could be so confronting and in the next breath admit to his own anger, and its tendency to boil over besides?
"She does." Shandi said, squaring her shoulders. "We've been sparring together for awhile now. She thinks I'm ready."
The Inquisitor paced in a tight circle for a moment, thinking, the tips of his ears twitching. His vallaslin underscored both rage and warmth as the Inquisitor showed them in turn, the rich color drawing an ale-dark glow from his skin and a hard, cut gemstone quality from his eyes.
"All right," he said, and Gabriel knew then that the Inquisitor knowing nothing about either of them was a half truth at best. He never would have agreed without full reports from the Spymaster and the Ambassador, Gabriel felt sure of that. "I have heard rumors of red lyrium in the Western Approach. Accompany me there if you have the courage."
"Thank you, my lord." Gabriel said, trying to communicate deference at every point possible.
"It is Amjad," the Inquisitor said, "you might as well speak my name if we are to travel together."
The Inquisitor's tone couldn't be called friendly, but at the least he had settled on neutral now.
"I appreciate that," Gabriel told him, "when will we depart?"
"A few days time. Fortify yourself and ready your weapons and armor. The Western Approach is difficult country and lousy with Venatori and bandits, to say nothing of the wildlife."
"Of course," Shandi said. As he and Shandi turned to go back down the stairs, her face split in the widest, brightest grin he'd yet seen from her. "I told you!" She crowed, as soon as they were out of earshot.
The stress hit him then, the anxiety he'd ignored long enough to get through the meeting with Amjad. Then, the exhilaration swept in like a warm front, tangling up with the nervousness to form a typhoon of feeling.
"You were right. I feel like I am going to be saying that a lot in the days to come."
Shandi laughed, and her expression of emotion came so effortlessly that it made his spirit soar.
Fighting at the Inquisitor's side.
He thought again of his sister and their parting words, so harsh.
I will prove it to you, Lily, he promised, I will show you this isn't just a fine place to bury my head in the sand.
Chapter 4: The Sun and the Moon
Gabriel crossed the threshold of the Herald's Rest.The tavern stood packed to the seams, moreso than he'd ever before witnessed. Tension knotted between his shoulders as surely as a buntline hitch, tightening with every step. Making an entrance wasn't his strong suit, even if most of the other patrons ignored him. .
Despite his noble status he'd never taken to the Game or any of its variants practiced in noble courts across Thedas, but he knew enough to realize that boredom and disinterest often served as confounds for darker motives. In moments like this--on high alert in a room full of strangers--he felt preternaturally aware of his every blink and gesture, the position of each finger and the way his hair laid across his brow; knowing he was being watched, no matter the outward behavior of those around him, often caused such a state to befall him. The awareness filled him with an awful doubt that undermined even the short, simple path he had to walk to keep the meeting he'd agreed to, the weight of those gazes he fancied he could feel making his gait clumsy and his mind slow.
Isn't that ridiculous? You're the one who suggested this place. You've been coming here for a week. What will Shandi think if you can't even make your way through a full bar?
He found Shandi at their usual table after what seemed like eons and took a seat, relieved to be near a familiar person. She'd set her sword down propped against the bench as if she'd just been out sparring or otherwise practicing, though as usual she hadn't bothered with armor or anything more modest than her green and gold jacket. She pushed a full tankard over to him and Gabriel inhaled the sweet, crisp scent of apples; fine cider from Honnleath. Her demeanor had taken on a new quality, different from the last couple of days when they'd made this meeting in to a little ritual, more wound up than she'd ever been in his presence. She had her arms folded on the tabletop and sat leaned in to them as if trying to keep herself from climbing over the furniture.
"Are you all right?" With Shandi he had the sense that these two aspects of her personality were not affectations or posturing, but rather a tendency that ran as inherent to her being as his own talent for magery. Rather than deciding whether to be sweet and friendly or frightening and imposing she flowed between each as if she could change shape on a whim, as if she were a babbling, sun-dappled river transforming in to a roaring waterfall.
"Huh? Oh. I want to get out there and fight. When I know there's going to be a battle I get restless if I have to sit around too long. It's the dragon's blood."
Indeed, she smelled the way she had in the courtyard that first day, like a rutting animal. He flushed, heat suffusing him. He tried to hide it by taking a drink of the cider, but it helped not a whit; its warmth rolled down his throat and in to his gut. At the least, though, it dampened his lingering anxiety.
"I am sure it will be soon, my lady. Our lord Inquisitor doesn't seem like the type to indulge in unnecessary delays."
She grumbled, but nodded agreement.
"Hey," she said after a moment of silence, fixing him with the kind of look that made him very aware of her power and greater physical ability. "Want to get out of here?"
She had a hunger writ large across her face that had nothing to do with food, and he froze seeing such need directed at him.
"I mean do you want to you know, come back to my room?"
"Are...are you propositioning me, my lady?"
"Sure trying to. What, never blown off steam before a big fight?"
"I can't say that I've had the opportunity."
He'd never been with a woman before, not that he was about to tell her so. Only men, and that only fleetingly. Amongst the nobility flings of that nature were tolerated but they could never become anything more. There had been Anders even so, but...he put the thought out of his mind.
"Well if you're not interested..."
"I am," he said, too quickly. Why not her? She had been nothing but kind to him and, now that the subject was out in the open, he had to admit he thought her very striking.
"Great," she said, standing. She came over, took his hand, and practically hauled him to his feet. He gave an undignified squeak, but he didn't pull away. If anything it added to the thrill, and he gladly let her drag him across the courtyard to her quarters. He'd never had the chance to be truly dominated as he'd often wished for, and he wondered if maybe she would be the one to do it.
His hand trembled in hers as she opened the door and brought him within. The room had an endearing clutter to it, tea cups on the sideboard, armor pieces stacked in the corner, the camphor and oranges smell of muscle liniment. Her bed stood unmade, quilts in the Fereldan style folded over from when she'd tossed them off that morning. A single mage light flickered over the fireplace.
"You okay?" She asked him, holding him at arm's length for a moment.
"I'm just nervous," he said, even then having trouble drawing a full breath.
"I won't hurt you, if that's what you're worried about."
He wanted to laugh. Not at her, but at the notion that he wouldn't want to be hurt.
"All right well, if I'm going too quick you let me know."
All he could do was nod, mute. She reached in to undo the buttons on his coat and shirt, and though he felt much diminished in front of her he couldn't mistake the approval in her expression when she first saw his bare torso. His heart leapt in to his throat; he'd never been wanted like that, not since Anders.
She backed him towards the bed, putting her arm around him such that he never worried about tripping over his own feet. She smiled at him and his heart fluttered; this was really happening. He felt intoxicated beyond what the cider could have done, hot and trembling, his heart soaring. She reached down to fondle him before nudging him on to the bed, and all he could do was gasp as he pitched over flat on his back. The dragon scent hung around him in a wreath and its primal nature made him aware of how hard his cock was, how much he wanted this woman where before he'd never had the inclination or the opportunity for such a coupling.
Shandi stepped out of her breeches and crawled up to straddle his hips, careful not to put too much weight on him as she stripped her jacket and shirt off. He'd never seen a more impressive pair of breasts in his life and he froze, caught between desire and inexperience.
"Give me your hand," she said, and he obeyed before he'd consciously made the decision to do so. She showed him how to touch her, flattening his palm over the swell of one breast before squeezing his fingers, urging him to grab her a little more ardently. He felt like an idiot, a bumbling virgin who didn't know the most basic of sexual skills, but he felt too wrapped up in her to give in to nerves that might have otherwise ruined the moment.
"I...I'm sorry," he found himself saying anyway, "I'm not very practiced at this."
"Never been with a woman?"
"No," he whispered, sure she would kick him out of bed for that. He wanted to crawl beneath the floorboards and hide for the rest of his natural life, and a deep blush made his cheeks hurt.
"Well shit," she said, letting his hand go and sitting back to look at him, full mouth slightly parted in surprise, a pale worry line etched across her forehead. "I mean, are you sure you want it to be like this? You barely know me."
The way she was pressed against him, he could feel the warmth between her legs against his tenderest spots and some urge within him as primal as the dragon blood flowing through Shandi's veins made him want to enter her right then and there, inexperience be damned.
"I want it," he said, averting his gaze. Creators, it was embarrassing to speak to her like that, but at the same time he appreciated her concern. Not everyone would have focused so on his feelings or wants. "I think I could do much, much worse." he turned his attention to her again, those big silver eyes of hers full of worry despite her obvious urge to have him as soon as possible. "My lady," he added, shy but as earnest as he had ever been in his life.
Thankfully, she took him at his word. Whatever she saw in his expression was good enough for her. She reached between them and guided his cock in to her as if she'd done it a hundred times before. He was grateful for that, that she knew what she was doing and could help him. She felt different from every man he'd ever been with, slick with juices. He could feel every inch of her as she clenched around him, and by her face she already enjoyed the kind of pleasure that preceded orgasm.
Don't let me spend myself too quickly and ruin this, he prayed, his whole body tense with the effort to keep control. He'd never been with anyone as orgasmic as her, and he wondered if he'd even be able to stand by the time she felt satisfied. She seemed like the sort of woman who could keep this up for a long time and he prayed he might be up to the task, as it were.
She dipped her head to kiss him and he dared to put his hands on her horns, the smooth texture of the unadorned places giving him yet another new sensation to savor. When he dropped his hands to her hips her body felt so vital, the bloodlust turned to a kind of lust that really wasn't so different, though the outcome...
"You can come," she told him, bracing herself on her hands so she could slowly sink down on him, taking his cock to the hilt. "I'm just going to work you up again anyway."
He'd never heard anything so erotic in his life, and he couldn't possibly hope to hold back after that. He spent himself inside her and the sensation made her draw a sharp breath as she rode him. She trembled on the edge of orgasm, and a moment later it broke over her, making her cry out and pulse around him such that he thought he might go mad from sheer pleasure.
"You do that so quickly," he found himself saying.
"Mhm," she told him as she moved off of him, leaving him twitching in the aftermath of it all. "My clit's pierced."
She giggled, stretching out beside him. She felt no need to hide her nakedness, as so many of the men he'd had sex with did.
"Women have a little...I don't know what you would call it. Here..." she took his hand again and guided his fingers to the portion of her anatomy she was currently describing. He rolled the pad of his thumb carefully over it, feeling the ring she'd had placed there. She moaned softly, lifting her hips and arching her back.
"Let me know when you're ready and I'll suck your cock," she told him, as conversationally as if she were asking him what type of fighting stance he preferred. He must have looked as gobsmacked as he felt, because she laughed. "What, if you don't say it plain then no one knows what's going on."
"I...you have a point," he said, feeling faint. "Are...are you sure?"
"What, am I supposed to be weird about it?"
"No. It's just most men are. Well, in my experience. They don't want to...I don't know. Debase themselves that way." It had almost always been him on his knees instead of the other way around.
"There's nothing shameful about it. Who cares who does what? I don't get you nobles."
"Sometimes neither do I, believe me."
"I mean, how the hell do you even get laid? Do you have to say like, code words? Excuse me, my lord, have you ever had a flowering staff planted in your moist garden? If you're looking for such a thing, I might have one...that kind of stuff?"
He spluttered, protesting, but ultimately he had to admit that it did at least feel that way at times. She laughed as she had the first day he'd met her, an uncomplicated, unfettered sound that did his soul good to hear.
"Sorry, m'lord, I'm no lady no matter what you might think."
He turned on his side, towards her, and let his fingertips brush her cheek in a tender gesture.
"You're the right sort of lady for me."
By Mythal, that was silly.
But Shandi smiled, the kind of smile she reserved for intimate moments; she hadn't shown her canines the way she had when trying to intimidate the Iron Bull.
"You're sweet. I like that about you." She said, the soft glow from the mage light drawing a feminine loveliness from features that could already be described so even in the full glare of the harsh winter sun. "So, are you going to let me suck you, or....?"
By the time he woke the next morning he felt he'd said that word a thousand times. Shandi had proved as insatiable as he imagined, leaving him wrung out and spent in a way he'd never felt before. She finally took pity on him in the small hours, leaving him with tears in his eyes; he'd never been made to experience that much pleasure for so long, and his emotions felt raw and open at the end. And that was besides being ravenously hungry and absolutely exhausted, as well.
She did him the favor of letting him sleep in her bed, instead of showing him the door now that they'd taken their mutual enjoyment. He drifted off curled against the warmth of her, cuddled up to the curve of her belly. She slept like a rock when left undisturbed, though the slightest noise or movement would rouse her long enough to at least assess the possible threat.
A runner's approaching footsteps brought her up out of bed, her hand reaching out to grasp the sword leaning against the sideboard. She left it in the scabbard, but Gabriel could see the tension in her hand; any improper behavior on behalf of the person currently coming towards them and said stranger would leave one head lighter.
"Shandi Adaar, the--" The messenger started in when she opened the door. He looked up at her scowling face, then at the blade, and paled. It wasn't often a naked Quanri holding a hefty two hander responded to his news, apparently.
"Get on with it," she growled. Not much of a morning person, Gabriel thought.
"Ahem. Our lord Inquisitor would see you and Lord Marlowe at the tavern this morning."
"Ugh. Is he buying breakfast?" She groused, turning from the messenger to toss the sword on the mattress. Gabriel sat up, and only then did he realize how compromising a position they were in.
"I...couldn't say," the messenger tried.
"All right, I get the message. We'll be there soon."
Shandi told him, rummaging around as she looked for clothes. The messenger backed away slowly, still looking as if he'd been hit with a board as he faded from sight.
"Well, let's go see what our fearless leader wants," she said once she'd found something to keep her at least moderately decent.
"Let's," he said, daring to take her hand once more.
Chapter 5: Allegiance
"You sure you want to be seen with me?" Shandi asked, digging her heels in just before the Herald's Rest. The raven perched on the open door cawed at them as if communicating the rules patrons were expected to follow. He didn't think the comment had to do with her skimpy clothing or anything to do with her manner. No, it ran deeper than that.
"What?" Gabriel asked, incredulous. "My lord Inquisitor has already seen us together."
He looked up at her only to see her mouth drawn in a frown and her head tilted down and away. Over the course of their admittedly short friendship, this was the only time he'd seen her be anything less than bubbly and confident.
"In front of whoever else we're going to meet, I mean. Bet you he has the rest of his team with him. We're going to have to fight together. Might as well be on a first name basis, right?"
"Of course I don't mind. If anything I worry you wouldn't want to be seen with a human."
"I'm not under the Qun. I'm lesser in most people's eyes than even an apostate mage, sometimes even to other Qunari. If that big brute thinks I don't see the contempt on his face..."
She muttered the last part as if she had forgotten he could hear her. The rumors said that the Iron Bull still adhered to the tenets of the Qun despite his membership in the Inquisitor's inner circle, and he apparently wasn't shy about showing the general prejudice towards the Vashoth and Tal Vashoth no matter what he claimed to be himself.
"Hmph. He plays like he's Tal Vashoth, but I don't buy it. Well, if he thinks he's stealing a dragon kill out from under me, he's got another thing coming."
Thankfully, Shandi let him lead her in to the tavern. He couldn't call himself an accomplished spirit healer compared to some, but what awareness he did possess rippled like a pond with a rock skipped artfully across its surface as soon as they entered. A Fade being dwelt here, somewhere. So subtle was the vibration that he hadn't detected it when the place stood full to bursting, but now in the relative quiet of the early morning he could. His instincts--they couldn't truly be called combat instincts, as untested as he was--shrilled, but he sensed no malice and resolved only to keep his wits about him.
The Inquisitor sat at the biggest table available, right in the middle of the main space. Drawing attention, and purposefully? An attempt to reassure the soldiers, craftsman, and laborers that took their leisure here? A show of power intended to intimidate followers and spies alike? From what Gabriel had experienced during that first meeting, he guessed the Inquisitor's motives drew a little water from each of those potential wellsprings.
Next to the Inquisitor sat an unfamiliar Elvhen woman. Her form caused a spindly white birch to flash across Gabriel's mind's eye, or perhaps a spider with long, clever legs. She and the Inquisitor were both thin, and tall for their race, though this woman especially so with her delicate wrists, huge, luminous eyes and ethereal bearing.
Those eyes were the same color as the Inquisitor's, deep purple with gold flecks. As white as the Inquisitor was dark, she nonetheless had the same delicately chiseled features, the same sharp nose as if drawn forth by the lathe of a master. Where the Inquisitor once again had clothed himself in leather and velvet practically painted on to his whipcord and bone form, she had chosen traditional Elvhen robes in leaf green and magenta, and where the Inquisitor's black hair brushed his collar, she wore her red tresses braided to one side with the other shaved clean.
His sister? A cousin? She's too young to be his mother.
So taken was he with this new face that he started when Shandi grabbed his arm.
"The magister," she hissed, and he turned his attention to the man in question. His heart thudded in his chest at first glimpse; by the Creators, another gorgeous man. Broad and muscular, he wore the asymmetrical shirt collars and bold draping that Gabriel associated with Minrathous fashions, a snake motif picked out in black curling around his flawless body, buckles and gold fasteners as much an adornment as functional. When the magister noticed the two of them lingering at the tavern door, he turned huge, owl-grey eyes on them. Gabriel held tight to Shandi's hand then, breathless. While he'd never held with his father's tendency to idolize Tevinter and its Magisterium, seeing this magister made him admit--albeit grudgingly--that perhaps Father had a point.
"Well, come over," the Inquisitor said, rising to his feet. "Surely we aren't so intimidating that you can't share bread and ale with us."
Still cool, the Inquisitor at least didn't evidence the overt hostility he had on the battlements. It took Gabriel a couple of steps to realize how strange it was to see an Elf like the Inquisitor share his breakfast with anyone from Tevinter, let alone a magister, of all things. He expected barely restrained hatred between them, or simmering tension, but as he came in to their orbit he sensed neither.
"I am Aislinn," the woman said, rising to clasp his free hand in both of hers. "of Clan Brangwen."
"My sister," the Inquisitor said as they all readjusted to let him and Shandi sit. "My mirror."
"Sweet of you to say, my shadow," Aislinn told him, sparing a fond look for him.
"And I am Dorian Pavus," the man said as if at any moment he would break out in to a dramatic sweeping gesture to underscore how taken he was with his own exceptionalism. "An altus from Tevinter. Don't worry, I won't be requiring a blood sacrifice today. Though, it does add a certain tang to the house red."
The Inquisitor sighed a long suffering sigh. "Ignore him. I always do."
"Dorian," Aislinn scolded, though Gabriel could tell that her annoyance had no real side to it. Shandi, for her part, flagged down the serving wench and ordered a Qunari Reaver sized meal that made the table groan when it arrived. She went to work on a whole loaf of bread as Gabriel tried to make sense of all the relationships currently in play, the steam from within enveloping him in a puff of sweet wholesomeness.
"Well," Dorian said, with an easy attitude to him that said he wasn't in the least bit sorry, "after awhile one must joke about it. It wouldn't do to waste all my precious time on anger. Plus, it would get me nowhere. I have my incredible and endless charm instead."
"And Southern heads are as dense as ironbark," Aislinn added, as if quoting.
"My dear, we spend far too much time together," Dorian told her, affection rounding out his brash tone.
Lovers, maybe? The Inquisitor's sister with an altus?
Gabriel couldn't help but try and discern who held what power; the pressures of nobility had changed him whether he wanted them to or not.
"Gabriel, Shandi," the Inquisitor started, "I thought it wise to introduce you to at least Dorian and Aislinn before we go to the Western Approach. You may not be aware, but an adventuring group can become quite close and familiar, if only because we are all enchanted and otherwise bespelled in a way that compliments one another."
"So I don't singe your perfect hair with an errant fireball, you mean," Dorian said, cheerful.
"If anyone is concerned about the state of their hair, it is you, you insufferable peacock."
Gabriel thought Amjad had the right of it, with how well cared for Dorian's mustache was.
"The great altus admits to conjuring less than perfect fireballs?" Aislinn said, leaning forward to grin at him. "I never thought I would hear such a thing."
"Oh no, my dear. You see, it keeps my enemies off balance. When they underestimate me, that is for the best." Dorian told her, leaning back in his chair and smirking as if he'd just revealed a great and powerful secret. Gabriel tried to keep a neutral countenance, though he badly wanted to roll his eyes.
"Ahem," he tried, as Shandi started in on a bowl of stew bigger than his head, "enchantments should be no problem. My blade and my robes are already bespelled. If...if you like, I could perhaps add some of them to your arms and armor as well, if that would help with magical synergy."
Dorian lit up as if he'd promised Dorian a storehouse of gold and jewels, and for the next while their discussion on magery drove the conversation. Aislinn proved to be as competent as the both of them, interjecting with a number of astute observations. Slowly, Gabriel got the impression that she had yet held something back regarding her skills. The whisps that often cavorted about him whispered in dark, low tones, but would not reveal anything concrete, and he wasn't about to push a woman he'd just met.
"My lords, my lady Aislinn," he said when he'd divined a lull that seemed appropriate, "can you tell me anything about the spirit that dwells here?"
Shandi perked up at that, curious. She had all the magical talent of a brick, but Gabriel appreciated that her mind remained quite sharp and quick even about subjects that didn't directly pertain to her.
"Ah," the Inquisitor said, "that would be Cole. He came to aid us in Haven, when Corypheus attacked."
"He was once a Compassion spirit," Aislinn added, taking a swig of her beer, "and now, he's...perhaps it would be best to say that he has a foot in each world, the Fade, and that of the mundane."
"He's come through in to this world? Did he possess someone?" He knew that the Inquisition could boast all types of members, some more questionable than the last, but this he would have never imagined.
"No. He is unique," Aislinn said, "you will understand when you meet him."
"He will surely put in an appearance when he feels compelled to," the Inquisitor said, nodding at the servants coming over to clear all the empty dishes and refill empty tankards. "Gabriel, I would see your blade."
Gabriel found himself blushing; from another noble that could be construed as a proposition. He doubted a Dalish would have the same intent in mind, though, and he took the sword from his back, unsheathed it, and laid it on the table. The Elvhen script down the blade glimmered at his touch. Aislinn and the Inquisitor looked at one another in a way that showed they were communicating quite a bit without even having to speak.
"That is the blade of the Arcane Warrior," Aislinn said, "crafted with a Keeper's touch. You must be a unique man, to have been gifted such a thing."
"We shall see," Amjad interjected, that suspicion back, his eyes serpent-bright and as menacing.
Gabriel felt the sudden and insistent urge to extricate himself from the situation, jangling nerves making sweat bead on his brow.
"My lord, if it pleases you I will ready myself for travel," he said, rising to his feet. He hoped the Inquisitor couldn't see through him, but one look at the man's expression told him otherwise. Plainly confused, Shandi stood as well, a fact he could have kissed her for.
"Yes, there is no sense in delaying further," the Inquisitor told him, though he and his companions stayed seated for the moment. "I will meet you at the stables in a half a candlemark."
Once outside Gabriel took several full lungfuls of crisp, cold air. Shandi put her hand on his shoulder, and he shook his head; he couldn't look at her yet.
"Come on," she said, "let's go get outfitted. You'll feel better when you have something to do."
He had to concede her point, and once he'd gone back to his room for his gear the sense of purpose did blunt his panic some. Ser Pounce came out from under the bed, mewling and waving his fluffy tail.
"Hello, Ser Pounce," he had to smile at that, anyway. He changed in to his finest mage robes, a light, white affair with silver embroidery and blue lining. A belt crafted from august ram's leather went on next, slung low on his hips, potions, a grimoire, and a knife appropriate for use in the wilderness supported by it. "I expect you to guard the place while I'm gone."
"Mrr," the cat told him as if complaining about his assigned duties, leaping up on to the bed and immediately shedding an impressive amount of buff colored fur all over the dark blue coverlet.
"You've scored a hit on a Darkspawn but you can't guard one room in the safest place in Thedas? What kind of cat are you?"
He could have sworn Pounce smirked at him.
At least I got something good from Anders.
He put the bitterness out of his mind as he turned to leave, adding a cloak the same color as the bedspread to his outfit. The enchantments would keep him appropriately cool in the desert, and clean besides. What harm was there in adding a bit of flair to his attire? Should he do any less he would be woefully underdressed relative to the rest of them.
When he reached the stables he saw Shandi waiting there, once more encased in her dragon-bone armor, her broadsword on her back, a long knife at her hip, and vitaar once more painted under her eyes and across her cheeks. She'd darkened her lips nigh-black with the stuff, and the gold and black pattern on her face drew a fierce cast from her features, even features as feminine and delicate as hers. He approached, but before he could say anything a creature that shouldn't exist poked its head out of the nearest stall.
The thing--he hesitated to call it a halla--tossed its head and pawed at the ground, its broken horn and rent hide underscoring the fact that it was very, very dead, despite whatever questionable magic could be blamed for animating it.
"What is that?"
He sputtered. Shandi threw her head back and laughed, though the voice that answered didn't belong to her:
"That," the Inquisitor said as he walked up, Dorian and Aislinn in tow, "is Orala. She fell in battle and a friend of mine was kind enough to resurrect her for me."
Gabriel tried to compose himself; it wouldn't do to disapprove of a gift the Inquisitor cherished so.
"I see," Gabriel tried, straightening his clothes as if doing so could also straighten out his mind, "I mean no disrespect, Inquisitor."
"Amjad," the Inquisitor corrected him, though the man portrayed such aloofness that switching over to his given name seemed an insurmountable challenge.
"Amjad," he tried, for the sake of respecting the Inq--Amjad's --wishes. And those wishes were generous, a fact that Gabriel wouldn't let himself forget. "My lord," he continued as Amjad opened the stable and lead Orala out by her hackamore, "perhaps you will allow me to guard you when we are out in the field."
Amjad turned that suspicious gaze on him again.
Wondering if I'm a spy?
"Oh?" Amjad said, his voice neutral but nonetheless full of potential, for anger, for judgement, for rejection.
"Of course Dorian and Aislinn are some of the most capable people in all of Thedas," he said in a rush, even as the people in question were leading their mounts from the stables and girding themselves for battle, "but surely you could use someone whose job it is to specifically guard you."
"They are also two of the most protective people in all of Thedas," Amjad said, faint affection bringing life to his generous mouth and the tips of his ears. "But perhaps it would be wise to test you in such a fashion. Just know that if your motives are any less than pure, they will strike you down without hesitation."
Gabriel bowed in acknowledgment. "Of course. I would expect no less."
Only then did he take in Amjad's armaments and the potions hanging from his belt. The usual healing potions were in evidence, but the rest of his flasks were full of iridescent liquids that swirled, thick, in their containers. The crystal vials had the soap-bubble quality that Gabriel often associated with enchantment.
Dorian and Aislinn, their mounts readied, came over to lay further enchantments on them all, a process that made Shandi grumble and shift from foot to foot. As if reading his thoughts Amjad said,
"These enchantments will help keep us all safe from friendly fire, but there are few spells that will protect you from a Tempest's flasks. Be on your guard and ready for chaos. I am no patient assassin or careful bow master."
"I understand, my lo--Amjad." Gabriel said as Aislinn brought a horse over to him. A beautiful roan mare with a curly forelock and the shape of a star picked out in white hairs down her delicate face, he fell in love with her immediately, and she stood like a rock as he mounted.
Once Amjad found his saddle, the others fell in behind him and that...thing. At least Aislinn and Dorian had chosen plain horses. The finest in all of Thedas, perhaps, but warm. Living.
For the first time, as he watched Amjad pet Orala's neck lovingly, he realized that he may have gotten himself in deeper than he had first imagined.
Chapter 6: Certain Dark Things
Amjad and Dorian get intimate
this chapter includes explicit sex
Dorian waited until night had fallen over the camp to approach Amjad’s tent. The trek to the desert and finding a suitable place to camp had taken most of the light already, and Gabriel and Shandi had already retreated to their tents. Aislinn still sat by the banked fire, but her regard, he didn't fret over. Still, he paused every couple of steps, listening for the snores and groans of the others as they turned over in their sleep. Gabriel especially, he didn’t want to confront. Not when his goal was to spend quality time with the Inquisitor. He could only imagine how insufferable another noble would be, Southern or not, if Gabriel knew what was going on between him and the leader of the free world.
He found the tent opening, with no ties to bind it down. He released a held breath; he was never quite sure if Amjad would welcome him or not. He shrugged out of his coat and crawled inside, pulling the garment in after him; it wouldn’t do to leave it draped outside like a flag.
The gloom was such that he couldn’t see much of anything, but he could feel Amjad’s presence; the elf had a spark of magical talent, never fully realized, and his essence glimmered in Dorian’s mage-sight. The warm air inside was redolent of leather and herbs, a combination that aroused his senses in a way he found entirely primal. Maybe, he had to admit, it played in to what he expected elves to be like, wild and base.
He found Amjad in the darkness, lying on top of the bedroll still in his shirt and breeches. He was awake, but Dorian expected that; Amjad had spent so many hard scrabble years being his clan’s First (though Dorian had the impression that First often truly meant spy and assassin, in this case) that he could barely sleep through his halla snuffling at the ground outside. Dorian felt a selfish little burst of relief; every time Amjad dreamnt, that little spark of magery brought spirits and demons like a flock of starving jays, cawing and clawing. Sometimes it was all Dorian could do to brush them off before they found purchase, cracking through the oh so delicate shell around Amjad’s soul. Who had placed it there, Dorian would dearly love to know.
“Dorian.” His lover’s whisper came just as they pressed their bodies together, Amjad’s thin arms winding around his neck.
“Well, you left your door open like a savage.” It was a measure of their relationship that Amjad only laughed; he’d gotten offended for less before, and certainly everything a Tevinter noble had to say was fraught with danger when it was said to a proud Dalish elf.
“Aren’t you a savage for taking advantage of it?”
Amjad teased, shifting under him so that they were touching at every point possible. The little elf was well endowed and he could feel the truth of that quite easily, completely hard and pressed against him. Dorian had certainly been the object of desire before, but that desire had always seemed to burn hot and fast, intense for a few moments but ultimately short lived. Amjad wanted him every time they had a few moments to themselves, and they’d been around each other enough that surely contempt would have settled in by now if it was going to. Or so he told himself when he needed reassurance, which was also quite frequent.
Normally he would have been a bit more suave about it all, at least hard to get, but he didn’t have time for such games this time. He fumbled, not sure whether to go for his own clothes or what little Amjad had on first, until Amjad batted his hands away and found his belt buckle. Amjad’s hands in contrast were as deft as always and all the fastenings were undone before Dorian could blink. The rest of his outfit soon followed.
Amjad seemed to grasp his meaning, though Amjad drew him down for a kiss before answering.
“In my belt pouch, over to the left. Don’t pick the wrong flask or you’ll burn your hands off.”
Dorian wished, not for the first time, that Amjad had picked something more…sedate than learning to be a Tempest. The deep scent of a cedar fire coiled up from the pile of clothes Amjad had indicated as he rifled through, the jacket still stiff with a thick coating of some potion or another. The remnants were now inert, thank the Maker. He was a very good mage but he’d lost control before, and he hated to think what a single errant flame could do if those concoctions were still live.
The soft perfume of blood lotus pulsed underneath the stronger scents, a gentle heartbeat that warmed the back of his throat and brought a pleasant blur to his vision. The jar of oil felt warm in his hand too, the glass reinforced with magic. It had the same amethyst light Amjad’s eyes did, a certain otherworldly sheen. He went back over to the bedroll, setting the jar to the side. He was past his initial nervousness, enough to crawl back up to straddle the little elf’s hips. Amjad grinned at him in the darkness, white teeth in a dark face, his golden vallaslin drawing the same color from the depths of the elf’s eyes. Normally Dorian would have been the first one to take charge, get things over with because he needed the release and he couldn’t stand locking his heart away for longer than was necessary; best to satisfy the physical and make a quick retreat before he could get too attached to whoever had deigned to couple with him. But he often felt silly and ineffective when Amjad was involved, though the mockery he expected never came. This time was no different, where he couldn’t quite decide what to do next, mesmerized by Amjad’s gaze. He’d been so terribly sure of himself that first time and then feelings had crept in, leaving him a bumbling idiot.
“You’re sweet.” Amjad’s voice always had a smooth, intoxicating quality, like a glass of good brandy. Embarrassment made Dorian’s cheeks flush hot.
“I’m not sure if that’s a compliment.”
Amjad levered himself up on his elbows, reaching over for the jar of oil and unscrewing it with a confidence Dorian wished he felt. Amjad’s firm hand on him came as a shock though he could hardly startle; he was too frozen with sudden sensation for that. He looked down to see where hand met cock and saw Amjad working a thick coating of lube over his own with his free hand. He usually expected Dorian to be the one to take it, not that Dorian minded. He loved it, really, but he still couldn’t imagine putting forth his darkest desires. Their connection already felt so fragile, like if Dorian breathed wrong it would float away on the wind like autumn leaves.
“Come here and take me, emma lath.”
Of course he obeyed, craved such commands, shifting his weight on his knees so he could sit back on Amjad’s cock. He didn’t need much preparation to do it; he knew his body, knew how to relax and breathe so he could take it without hurting either of them. Amjad gasped and lifted his hips, the thick head of his cock pressing deep.
“Is it true?”
Dorian was too lost in what was happening to understand the words right away, trembling.
“Hm? You’re not going to ask me philosophical questions now are you? Whether or not the Maker is real? Whether the Black City was already black when Corypheus entered? Because I’m not sure I’m properly armed for a battle of wits at a moment like this.”
Amjad sighed a long suffering sigh.
“What Cole said.”
Amjad started to thrust and Dorian moved with him. Now that things were happening, he felt more confident and had less energy to spend on worrying about whether the others could hear. He took his time, savoring every moment, every inch of Amjad’s cock. It wasn’t often he got the chance to spend time on a lover like this. The last he’d had was back in Tevinter, in Alexius’ library, the only place besides the Pavus grounds he'd been allowed to go after that fiasco with his previous partner. Hiding back in the stacks with another young mage like common servants, their hands all over each other, mouths meeting with the kind of hunger only living out a lie could inspire.
“Hm? What did he say?”
“Oh, you know.” Amjad said, breathless himself. “Wondering and worrying, wild and wanting.” Amjad propped himself up on his elbows again so Dorian couldn’t avoid his gaze, serpent-bright in the darkness. “The Iron Bull would do it, he knew that, but that was a fruit he was no longer allowed to crave.”
Dorian went very still. When had this happened? Amjad continued, as merciless in this as he was in most things.
“Submission and sensation,” Amjad continued in a purr, his hands going to Dorian’s hips, urging Dorian back down on to him. Dorian was too shocked to resist, even if he had wanted to. “Silk cords and silky underthings…”
“I’ll…thank you to stop that.” He found his voice though unfortunately it came out more like an undignified squeak than a forceful command.
“Don’t you think it’s Cole that deserves your ire?”
Amjad wrapped his hand tight around Dorian’s cock, which had the unfortunate side effect of wiping all thoughts clean from Dorian’s head.
“Damnable demon,” Dorian growled, the little jolt of pleasure at least allowing him to focus on something other than his complete mortification.
“What’s wrong with it, emma lath?” Amjad could be absolutely ruthless and most of the time he was confident to the point of arrogance, but Dorian knew he was the one who got the biggest share of what tenderness and love Amjad had to give. It was evident now, his face transformed by affection. “I can give you all that.”
Part of him wanted to get up and walk out, leave Amjad there unsatisfied and unanswered. Instead he sat back, taking Amjad’s cock all the way to the base. His toes curled and he pressed in to Amjad’s grip, his own cock aching in Amjad’s sure fingers. Maybe it was the sex distracting him, but the idea was starting to lose its attendant embarrassment. He still had to fight to say the words, though, and when he did they came in a hushed whisper.
“You would do that?”
He was aware of how the subject had stripped him of his usual humor and brashness, knew how vulnerable he was, in a way that had nothing to do with being nude. Amjad reached up to touch his hair, the kind of touch meant to soothe and comfort. It affected him even though he wished it wouldn’t; it would be easier if he could just hold on to that exasperation instead.
“Of course I would.” Amjad smiled then, though Dorian had to admit that despite his fears to the contrary there was no mockery there. “Is that why you were looking at Bull like he was a full meal at the end of a forced march?” It was no secret that the Iron Bull had a penchant for the forbidden.
“I…I never…” Dorian spluttered, wondering if he was that terrible at hiding his motivations. No wonder he’d never fit in back home. He couldn’t play the Game with a set of one word instructions written in crayon.
“You did.” Amjad said, reaching up to wind his arms around Dorian’s neck. He stayed buried deep, until Dorian relaxed enough to take him without anxiety or discomfort. Dorian sighed, some tension draining away, finally. “Not that I blame you. All that…” Amjad trailed off as if he couldn’t decide which part of Bull to compliment first. Dorian tightened up on Amjad’s cock, taking a little control away when Amjad shivered and arched under him. Amjad had a way of undoing him, stripping him bare, but occasionally he won some pride back for himself.
“Yes, well. Hm.”
“So tell me what you want.” Amjad whispered. “Little silk ribbons? Sea farer’s twine?” He was back to stroking Dorian as he talked, the sex taking on a more primal, desperate quality as Dorian rolled his hips and gripped hard. Damn the cruel little elf, knowing how to embarrass and arouse at the same time. Amjad laughed, breathless. “The cart whip?”
Dorian felt like he ought to be the one who wanted to control things, shamed that even in this he couldn’t take the lead. But the conversation made his heart hammer in a way nothing else could, and he chased that bright flicker of desire, unwilling to let it sputter and go out. As long as they were already talking about it, well, why not continue?
“You’d see me done up like some fancy pony, I suppose.”
Dorian reached for his usual flippancy but he knew Amjad wasn’t buying it this time.
“Well, I…” Amjad’s breath caught and Dorian knew he wouldn’t last much longer. In a way he was pitifully glad for that impending release, because it meant Amjad might forget this conversation, or so Dorian hoped.
“Oh yes,” he breathed, watching Amjad’s face, to the point where he almost didn’t notice his own rising desire. Amjad was too fearless to look away, even at such a vulnerable moment, and Dorian saw his expression change from amusement to helpless pleasure in an instant. He could feel Amjad come inside him, and Amjad’s hand tightened on his cock to the point where he had no choice but to come himself. Amjad moaned and arched as the orgasm washed through him, lost in it in a way Dorian envied. He still felt lingering dismay, even shame, once the pleasure of orgasm had passed. Amjad had no such limitations.
Amjad made a dismayed noise when Dorian got off of him, always reluctant to part after sex. He sat up and found a rag that he normally used to polish his flasks, cleaning come from his chest and belly as matter of factly as someone completing a totally mundane task. Andraste’s pyre, Dorian envied that. His mixed feelings must have shown in his body language, because Amjad focused that strange gaze on him again. He set the rag aside, then reached for Dorian’s hand.
“Come here.” There was a softness to Amjad’s words that Dorian was sure only he and Aislinn had ever heard. It gentled him, enough that he settled on the bedroll next to Amjad, let Amjad cuddle and soothe him. “I love you. That was good.”
The simple reassurance did wonders, and Dorian finally unwound enough to lie down, drowsiness dragging at his limbs and eyelids. “And I’ll treat you like a pampered slave, if that’s what you want.” Amjad told him, a wicked tone to his whisper. Dorian’s heart fluttered, something between panic and need. “Yes.” He managed to say, before sleep took him.
Chapter 7: Running Red
Gabriel hadn't slept well, too tormented by visions of all the mistakes he could yet make in the Inquisitor's presence. And Shandi's, for that matter, though whatever tendency for judgement she may have had lay dormant still. When he finally admitted he wouldn't be getting any more rest he wriggled in to his breeches and stumbled from the tent naked from the waist up, blinking against the morning light. With the enchantments binding their group together they needn't wait till nightfall to travel, as mundanes would have had to do. Their magics would keep them cool, and at least somewhat clean besides.
Amjad stood by his tent, a brioche roll in one hand and a mug of tea in the other. He hadn't bothered with a shirt either, and Gabriel saw that the scars on his face weren't his only ones. Other than those old wounds, however, his skin was without blemish, his body hairless and adorned with the curling ends of his vallaslin. Gabriel realized he'd likely gazed on the Inquisitor for too long to be considered seemly, and he hurriedly looked up only to find Amjad outright appreciating him, in return. When their eyes met the elf smirked, not in the least bit ashamed.
Before he could open his mouth and say something awkward Shandi crawled out of her tent, muttering. Bleary-eyed, she stomped over to the campfire and peered in to the pot suspended above it, apparently mollified by its contents. Aislinn ladled out one bowl of porridge for Shandi and one for herself, and the two women sat together in silence as they ate.
"Where is Lord Pavus?" Gabriel asked. Amjad shrugged.
"Lounging around on his silken bedroll eating chilled grapes, no doubt. Once the peacock decides each one of his feathers is perfectly groomed, we'll head for the closest camp and get an idea of where to go next." Such words could have easily sounded contemptuous from a man such as Amjad but instead they sounded...familiar, at the very least. Gabriel hesitated to think of it as affectionate; he just couldn't wrap his mind around Amjad and Dorian being friends. "Go and have something to eat, why don't you?"
Gabriel nodded, still blushing. He took a seat next to Shandi, his back to the tents, and at some point in the course of breakfast Dorian appeared. As predicted he looked immaculate, hair artfully mussed, mustache waxed and shaped with a precise and careful hand. Once they'd all mounted once more and were headed out in to the desert proper, Aislinn brought her mount beside Dorian's, the two pale horses looking quite fetching side by side.
"Hello Aislinn. Staying close so you can see a master necromancer at work? You might learn a thing or two."
Shandi, astride her massive warhorse, shot a look of pure annoyance at Dorian's back. Perhaps she had taken Dorian's bluster for the whole of his personality; Gabriel thought it--in part, at least--an affectation.
"I thought you might need a minder," Aislinn told him, her voice light and easy, "you know, to keep you from getting distracted by any shiny objects you can see your reflection in."
Gabriel couldn't resist: "I'm sure I could learn something from you, Lord Pavus," he said, all but fluttering his eyelashes.
"Ah," Dorian said, turning to look over his shoulder. Gabriel moved his little mare up to the other side of Dorian's silver gelding. "You wish to avail yourself of all this Tevinter majesty? I can't say I blame you." Gabriel could tell by the subtle aspects of Dorian's expression that Dorian was too savvy to fully accept his fawning facade, but he seemed wiling to play along to a certain degree. "You see, your Worship?" Dorian continued, speaking pointedly to Amjad's back, "some people here know how to show the proper respect!"
"I suppose you'd have me in chains if you had your way, hm?" Amjad said, not even bothering to glance back at them. "Yes master this, no master that?"
Gabriel tensed up and his horse sensed it, sidling somewhat in response. Dorian grinned unrepentantly at Amjad's back, and Gabriel could only sit stunned by such brazen familiarity.
"Are they always like this, your Worship?" He found himself asking.
"I am afraid so," Amjad told him as he lead the group down the winding cliffside between them and the Inquisition's forward camp. "You learn to roundly ignore them both."
Gabriel relaxed; by Amjad's tone he hadn't taken Dorian's jab to heart. Gabriel fell back and reached for Shandi's hand. She sat stiffly, her gaze fixed at some point ahead, her brow creased with determination. He marveled at the fact that he'd had an easier time of settling in with these people than she, but then again he wasn't a Qunari. He could only imagine what it must be like to bear the weight of all those stereotypes, though he could empathize to a certain degree.
A Dwarven woman came out to meet them once they found the camp, a sturdy girl with braids piled neatly on her head, her pale skin dusted with freckles. She wore Inquisition scout's armor, and a raven perched on her shoulder, a messenger's tube attached to one leg.
"Scout Harding," Amjad greeted her, dismounting and letting the soldiers take Orala over to the hitching post.
"Your worship," she said, as the rest of them followed suit and handed their mounts off, "bad news."
"Is there any other kind?"
"Well...it could be raining." Amjad just sighed. She continued, "there was a settlement in an arroyo southwest of here--"
"My scouts can't get close enough to confirm the cause, because red lyrium dust is suddenly so thick in the air they can't protect themselves through normal means. It would take a skilled mage or some really rare potions and enchantments to bypass the danger. Hence...why you're here."
"Red lyrium?" Gabriel said, baffled; he'd heard of it, of course, but he never would have imagined it all the way out in the desert. Dorian paled and Aislinn frowned; for a mage the thought of such a thing held a special terror. "How could it spread so quickly? It can't have appeared all across Thedas at once."
Creators, I hope not.
"He seems to have an endless supply of corrupted templars," Amjad muttered, "I wish I knew where they were coming from. There were the forces at Therinfal Redoubt, but even then..."
"They press the common folk in to doing their dirty work, too, and often enslave the most vulnerable," Dorian said, a tight quality to the words; thinking of his countrymen and their propensity towards oppressing others, perhaps? "Alexius did manage to make time magic function for a time, as well; they could come from anywhere or any when, in theory."
Every moment spent with this group involved a new revelation, the kind that made Gabriel reassess everything he thought he knew about the world.
"We've lost too many to their raids," Harding said, pressing her lips in to a thin line. "We try to counter them, but we don't have enough agents for standing about in farmer's fields in case there's an attack."
Amjad made a cutting gesture with his hand and said, "enough of this. We will see what we can do in the here and now."
He spent a couple more minutes conferring with Harding, then turned to them once more.
"We leave the horses here from now on. We're going in to territory that I won't risk them in."
"Well, let's get out there," Shandi agreed, rolling her shoulders and cracking her neck, "if anything needs killing, I think we've got that part covered."
Amjad spared a faint smile for her, then turned to lead them towards the village in question. As they ranged across the dunes it became clear that Amjad had a well developed sense of direction, though Gabriel wasn't surprised; it was simply one of the many skills a Dalish had to cultivate to survive.
Gabriel's mind kept worrying at the problem of red lyrium and how it had spread so far so fast, which thankfully saved him from obsessing about any number of other trivial details and concerns. The dry air chapped his lips and whipped at his cheeks, taking the moisture from his tear ducts and nostrils, but even those annoyances couldn't distract him from such a bothersome problem.
"I would like to study this red lyrium, Amjad," he mused, coming up beside the Inquisitor as would be necessary if he were to be an effective bodyguard, "is there someone at Skyhold who keeps records on such things?"
"Dagna, our Arcanist," Amjad confirmed, "she is the only one who can safely handle it. I am no expert myself, but I could tell you what I know."
"I would like that. Maybe I could come up with some sort of countermeasure."
"Red lyrium is corrupted by the Blight," Amjad told him, pausing to avoid a compliment of raiders, "or at least, that is what Varric tells me. Red templars use it to enhance their abilities just as normal templars do, but the red lyrium makes them...especially depraved."
"Speaking of samples," Dorian said, the words thrumming with tension, "you might get one in a moment."
At first Gabriel couldn't discern what Dorian was talking about, but as they followed the spiraling path down in to the arroyo it became clear just as darkness fell on them; red lyrium dust had thickened the air, making it sit heavy and wet in Gabriel's lungs. He took a length of bandage from his belt pouch and fixed it over his mouth and nose, the others doing the same. Shandi unsheathed her sword, her grip tight; even though she was no mage, she was as unsettled as all of them. Red lyrium infected indiscriminately and would take a warrior as readily as it would a mage.
"A wellspring," Amjad whispered, only half visible as he slipped from shadow to shadow. "The inhabitants must have set up here for that reason." Dorian and Aislinn reached for each other's hands, their magic melding and sweeping over and around their little party. Gabriel could draw a full breath then without feeling as though he might drown, but he kept his makeshift mask on all the same. Amjad took a potion from his belt and they all drank a generous draught, passing the flask from trembling hand to trembling hand. Creators willing, its contents would keep them free of corruption for the next little while.
The sight of the first body took Gabriel aback; certainly he'd seen a corpse before on his way to Skyhold, but this...it floated in the befouled spring, its fleshy parts swollen to grotesque proportions, while the rest of the body had been ravaged by jagged crystal formations as red as everything here. When the group turned the corner a ramshackle settlement of lean tos greeted them, the dry desert wind sighing through the bare windows and the doors, stood ajar.
"Creators," Gabriel heard himself murmur, "the crystals..."
Shandi eased out of battle stance; with her honed instincts to guide her, she'd already determined that if anyone remained, they would be little threat to their band. Watching that, Gabriel allowed himself a moment of relative relaxation, though their surroundings would never permit him to truly drop his guard.
"Imbibe enough red lyrium," Amjad said, voice as dark as the spring before them, "and it eventually eats you alive."
"And they desecrate the bodies further," Aislinn added, voice muffled by the cloth pressed against her nose and mouth, "mining them for yet more."
"Spread out and search the shelters," Amjad said, his gaze following the river that fed the spring. It poured from the other side of the arroyo, smoothing the rock there over many years. Amjad didn't need to say it; the red lyrium hadn't originated here, but from wherever the mouth of the river could be found.
Gabriel turned his back on the floating body and stumbled over his feet on his way to the nearest--he hesitated to call it a home. He took the less than sturdy steps two at a time, though the stench from within made his gorge rise. He faltered, swallowing hard, wishing desperately for a lungful of sweet air.
Inside an entire family lay dead, the child still clasped in its father's arms. He turned and braced himself against the wall with his arm, pillowing his forehead against it so that the cool silk of his robe could counteract the nausea making his brow bead with sweat. He shook it off as best he could a moment later when he thought he could trust his stomach, rifling through their meager belongings.
The next shelter proved fruitless as well, but the third contained remnants of knowledge, the pages of the water-logged diary scattered across the floor.
Emille came back from the Keep last night. There's something wrong with his eyes. I can't sleep for the singing. No one else seems to hear.
Shandi came to the door and he said, "singing?" He brushed his fingers over the pages, lightly.
"What?" She asked, blocking what little light there was with her bulk.
"This entry. It says the writer could hear singing that no one else could."
"That's the lyrium talking. Varric said it sings to people."
"When did Varric tell you that?"
"When we were drinking in the Great Hall one night. Says that's how it starts. Then people go bloody mad."
"We ought to find this Keep," he said, heading for the door. She stood aside to let him pass. When he came out in to the settlement proper, he saw Aislinn with her hands upraised, the unquiet spirits here gathered around her fingers like the softest yarn. As they flocked to her, their wailing ceased. Much like her brother's tendency towards cool, aloof behavior, her face remained inscrutable even as wisps mussed her hair and pulled at her robes. Dorian lifted his staff, gesturing in an elaborate manner Gabriel hadn't seen performed before in his own magery studies. The veil thinned, and the spirits departed. The unmistakeable glitter of necromancy sparked down his arms and described a faint sigil in the boggy earth underfoot.
At least we can send them to the Fade, where they belong.
Cold comfort, Gabriel thought.
Amjad stood in a circle of corpses with their throats cut. Gabriel couldn't breathe for a moment; that mean Amjad had found living people, but too far gone to be rescued.
"Gabriel," Amjad said, cleaning his daggers methodically with a rag taken from the pouch at his hip. "Did you find anything?"
"A diary. It mentions a man named Emille, and says he came from the Keep nearby. Perhaps it was he who poisoned the spring."
"It must refer to Griffon Wing Keep." Amjad told him. "It is the source of this wellspring, or rather, the river running through its grounds is the source. We haven't tried retaking it yet."
"Then let's do it," Shandi said, a growly quality to her voice. "Maybe there will be something normal there to fight, like a giant or a dragon."
Before Amjad could reply Aislinn and Dorian came over. Dorian's emotions were easier to read, a liquid quality to his gaze, a dismayed frown pulling at his mouth.
"We've done what we can, my mirror," Aislinn said to Amjad.
"Very well, my shadow. Let's head for the Keep."
Gabriel fell in beside Amjad, dread gnawing at his guts. He didn't share Shandi's optimism. Whatever had set up residence in the Keep would surely test the very limits of their sanity, to say nothing of their battle prowess.
Chapter 8: Decadence
Amjad took point and lead them up and out of the makeshift village and, blessedly, away from its corrupted spring. Red lyrium dust had crept past Gabriel's makeshift mask, wrenching a cough from his chest and coating his hair. The damnable stuff threatened to suffocate him as he followed along in Amjad's footsteps. He discarded the bandage and wiped at his face, disgusted.
Thank the Creators for that potion, he thought, though despite its protective effects he still felt a low level, constant panic, his skin crawling as if the dust had revealed itself to be a swarm of crawling, biting insects. And why not? It burrowed in to a person's soft places as readily as a swarm of maggots. Aislinn looked similarly afflicted; she walked as if fighting a stiff breeze, her arms wrapped tightly around herself, her head bent. Even Dorian had run out of things to say, any jokes he might have made or bluster he might have indulged in stolen by the grasping hands of the newly dead.
The Keep loomed before them soon enough, closed up tight like a mausoleum. Indeed, Gabriel realized he couldn't hear anything as they drew closer, no animal calls, no rustling dust or gusting wind. He felt a certain pregnant malevolence emanating from within, so much so that he drew his sword. Shandi did the same, practically pawing at the earth like a bull about to charge.
"I'm afraid the front door is the only way in," Amjad said, shimmering in to view at Gabriel's side. "All the other entrances have been filled in."
"I can help with that," Shandi said.
"Let us soften up for you a touch, hm?" Dorian told her, "no sense breaking your horns."
Amjad gave the go ahead. Dorian and Aislinn lifted their left hands in sync, staffs twirling effortlessly in their right; Aislinn didn't have as athletic a style as Dorian, but she had presence and grace, the bird of prey quality her brother had. Purple lightning met over their heads and arched towards the door, making the wood warp and groan in its frame. When they'd done all they could Shandi rushed it like a lion let free of its cage, her bulk and the strength behind it drawing a satisfying cracking sound from the abused wood as it buckled in its metal fastenings.
No sooner had she forced it open then a river of demons poured forth over and around her. Even knowing Shandi as he did, Gabriel expected a cry of fear; her exultant shout reminded him that Reavers weren't just particularly strong warriors. They had dragon's blood in their veins, empowering their strikes and bolstering their souls.
Shandi cut a brutal swath through the shades and rage demons, sparks of rent magic blinding Gabriel's eyes. Still, he knew the movements of his staff, the gestures for his spells, and he didn't need sight to make them function. With but a thought frost coated the ground as he bid. Even here in the desert it persisted, empowered by his will. Several shades froze solid, their claws raised to attack. It couldn't be said that Amjad danced between them, shattering them; his style of fighting had too much brutality, too much savagery for that. Yet, he moved from target to target effortlessly, in and out of sight, leaving only shards in his wake. It was if they had fought together for years, Amjad reacting to his spells without pausing. Dorian and Aislinn pushed forward, and Gabriel felt their joint barrier before he even noted its green shimmer, as warm as freshly drawn bathwater. Never had he felt such a strong, clean spell, drawn from the Veil itself and washing over him the way the spring they'd left behind should have washed over the villagers; it cleared his mind and banished the clammy horror that often came when demons haunted a place.
Soon, the forces diminished. He lashed out with his sword, felling the last rage demon. Again, the eerie silence descended.
"Well," Dorian said, his voice terribly loud in the sepulchral setting, "that's not a very auspicious beginning, is it?"
Amjad appeared, jacket stiff from whatever potion he'd broken over himself, the rough bloom of stewed rashvine and crushed prophet's laurel wafting from his hair and clothes. Gabriel opened his mouth to speak, but a thrill went through him as if someone had put an ice cube down the back of his shirt. But instead of a childish prank, this felt suddenly, deathly serious; wild magic. And a lot of it.
"Creators...you must feel that," he said, bracing himself by planting his sword point in the sand. Dorian and Aislinn glanced at one another, then at the path in to the Keep. Shandi grumbled, wariness tightening the skin around her blazing eyes and frowning mouth. She couldn't feel it directly, but in a heightened state as she was Gabriel imagined she could sense their moods quite readily, even without his words to cue her in.
"It's almost too powerful," Dorian said, rubbing at his arms as if he were cold, "....pure."
"Could there be a lyrium deposit here?" Gabriel wondered. He could hardly imagine such a thing in the middle of this Creators-forsaken desert expanse, but certainly stranger things had happened.
"If that is so, it isn't red," Aislinn said, "the song is different."
Amjad cut them off with a gesture of his hand. He nodded at Shandi, who took point. She still looked ready to come out of her skin; a pack of demons certainly wasn't enough to sate her. Between the two of them they checked the stairs for traps, then took them slowly, anticipating threats.
Yet, none came. As they crested the stairs and found themselves on the pathway towards the heart of the Keep, the stink of sun-baked human effluviam came strong enough to make Dorian gag, pressing his hand to his mouth. Aislinn paled and stepped back a pace as it were tangible. Amjad bared his teeth, the hand gripping his dagger going white around the knuckles. Shandi pushed ahead; she would react later, once the bloodrage had left her.
The bodies down at the spring had been a sobering sight, surely, but this...corpses littered the halls, shoved in to nooks and crannies, draped over the walls. It was if they'd been indulging in some devilish orgy when their doom had descended upon them, ripping limps and spilling bowels. Some corpses still had erect members and wide, glazed eyes, bare breasts and swollen, spread open sexes.
"Desire," Dorian choked, hacking as if he could spit out the taste.
Gabriel turned his attention to the Fade, hoping for some respite, but none came; instead vulgar power burst across his eyes, red as a burst open heart, as purple as a bone-deep wound. He staggered, then went to his knees, barely keeping his breakfast rations down. Shandi came over to touch his shoulder, then helped him up when he felt he could stand again.
"If there is a demon present," Amjad said, head up as if he were a snake scenting the air, "then Shandi and I should scout ahead."
"Brother--" Aislinn said, already forming a protest.
"No. You are mages. If there is pure lyrium here...."
Dorian squared his shoulders and his face twisted as if he wanted to argue, but one look at his face told Gabriel that he too comprehended what all three mages felt; pure lyrium would kill them all.
Amjad took their silence for agreement, no matter how reluctant, and kept talking,
"I suspect we will find out one way or another in the main courtyard. Accompany us as long as it is safe for you, then fall back and wait."
What could they do but go along? Amjad was the Inquisitor, after all, and more than that, he had a point that couldn't be argued.
All too soon, they came to the passage that would lead them to the courtyard. Amjad and Shandi fell in beside each other without speaking, and headed out of sight. Gabriel took to inspecting the rest of the fortress in the meantime, desperate for an outlet for his worry. He'd never seen a defensible position as open to the sky as this, the sun beating down on him, though the griffon statues perched in the corners told him why that might be. Long dead as a species, their presence yet lingered; Gabriel could easily imagine their paws on the dusty stones, heads held high, wings as proud as unfurled sails.
A moan of pain shook him from his reverie, and after a moment's assessment he saw a woman sprawled on her back amidst a shaky oblong described in corpses. At first he thought she wore a red dress, but as he drew near he saw that it had been so stained with blood the original color had been lost. Aislinn and Dorian's presence at his back faded, leaving only concern for this poor woman. Even the sun seemed to lose some of its power.
"Please," she said, coughing up blood, "help me."
He knelt and took her hand.
"I will do my best, my lady. What is your name? How did you come to be here?"
"Cerise," she whispered, and Gabriel could readily see the knife wound that should have killed her, splitting her pale throat. It had gone wide, missing her jugular and leaving her vocal cords intact. "It is Cerise. I came to--"
She gurgled, a fresh welling up of blood stealing whatever answer she might have given him. The fear on her face made his heart ache; she had delicate, almost innocent features, like Shandi did. He set his weapon down, and he'd already forgotten it as soon as it touched the ground. Surely he could help this poor creature, summon up some spirits to save her. The thought gave him hope powerful enough that it shielded him from the merciless heat, filling him with the kind of well being that came after imbibing a good, strong ale.
"Let me help you," he said, as their eyes met. He'd never felt such a sense of safety, of rightness, and she gazed at him with something akin to hero worship evident on her face. He called up the spirits to tend to her, already half in love, yet they wouldn't come. Why now? Why would they refuse to answer now, when he could rescue her so easily, pluck something lush and living from this bloody, barren garden?
Dorian's hand on his shoulder felt like an iron clamp, the kind that immobilized a sword blade so it could be safely tempered.
"That's quite enough of that," Dorian said, his tone alive with false lightness, as if he were scolding a naughty pet. "Begone, demon. You'll find no easy victims here."
Horror brought him crashing back to reality. He bolted to his feet, stumbling back. Only Dorian's hasty embrace kept him from falling. The corpse rose jerkily, its head lolling, hands moving in unnatural opposition to one another. Where before he'd seen a full life still poised on the edge of rescue, now he saw that this body had been as dead as long as the others. Its eyes were lambent with a sinister purple energy, and a moment later the demon emerged as if shedding a filthy overcoat worn too long. The body crumpled to the ground, its ruined head oozing grey matter.
He went for his blade, shame that he had so carelessly abandoned it like a lash across his shoulders. Before he could do more, Amjad came running full tilt from the direction of the courtyard. The demon laughed and disappeared before he could truly get its measure, though Gabriel knew from the heaviness in the air that she remained still. It reminded him of the coarse, oppressive aroma that brothels often emitted when packs of drunken soldiers came pouring out at two in the morning, cheap perfume, the rank of poorly, hastily wiped down flesh, spilled, musty ale.
"We have to leave," Amjad said, panic humanizing him, taking the aloof, cat-like quality from his features as surely as if some rude Orlesian noble had snatched a mask from his countenance in a fit of pique, "there's raw lyrium in the courtyard."
After what seemed like an eternity Gabriel put his hand on his blade's handle, the magic in it merging with the magic in his body. His mind cleared, though primal terror took the place of the malaise brought on by the demon's spells.
"Where's Shandi?" He said, straightening. She hadn't followed after Amjad.
"She was right behind me," Amjad said, frantic, clearly torn between trying to herd all the mages out and away immediately and going back for Shandi without hesitation.
"We have to help her," Aislinn said before Gabriel could say the same around the knot in his throat. Amjad nodded, cleaved to her opinion though it pained him to do so; Gabriel could see the worry in his very posture as if it were as obvious as a shout in an empty room.
"Come no closer than absolutely necessary," he gritted, giving them all a stern, serious look. "If you feel the lyrium about to overwhelm you, run and don't look back."
Dorian had a stubborn cast to him, as if he expected Amjad to demand he promise to do as bid. Amjad appeared to know better, though, and didn't demand a promise Dorian clearly wasn't about to agree to. Gabriel found himself striding ahead, blindly heading for the courtyard and Shandi. He knew something awful had happened. She would have done something, anything, otherwise. She would never have just waited around without acting in a situation as dire as this.
The courtyard opened up before him. The hunk of raw lyrium glimmered at the far end, and atop it the Desire demon languished as it it were her personal throne. Her black hair and horns shone in its light, the gleam picking strands of deepest purple out from the inky tresses spilling over her slim shoulders. It pulled sparks from the depths of her white, pupil-less eyes, and the bone she worried between her teeth seemed especially stark in her beclawed hand. All around her the dead lay, as if they'd fallen on one another unsure whether they would copulate or tear each other open; in the end, they had done both.
And before her, Shandi knelt, wrapped in chains crafted whole from infernal powers beyond Gabriel's ken.
"You're not the one I hoped for," the demon purred, leaning in to gaze at Shandi, "but you'll do."
Shandi tested the bonds as if they were mundane chains she could break with physical prowess alone. "Coward," she spat, "come and fight me, demon."
Gabriel wanted nothing more than to sprint across the courtyard and bring his blade low and across, taking the demon's head neatly from its shoulders, but the raw lyrium precluded such actions. The helplessness made him feel small, as if he were about to feel his brother's fists raining down on his vulnerable head and neck. The sudden rage that followed made him shake, his sword blade sparking.
"I am not a demon," the creature said, smug, "you mortals think in such rigid ways. I gave these people what they wanted. They indulged in nothing they hadn't already thought of, in their secret hearts."
Gabriel caught a flicker out of the corner of his eye; Amjad, creeping up as close as he dared. Desperate to do something himself, he glanced at Dorian and Aislinn, each as helpless and as angry about that fact as he.
"A disruption field," he said, though he knew he was grasping at straws, "would that work on it? It might be enough to break Shandi's chains."
Dorian opened his mouth to answer, but no sound came out. Aislinn turned in slow motion, her hair fanning out one strand at a time. Gabriel tried to call out but the scene changed before he could. No longer did he find himself in the courtyard, but in a small alpine village covered in snow. Though the cold felt as oppressive as the sun had only a moment before, the place bustled with people. As he moved forward, down the steps and past a row of houses, those people paused and oriented on him as though they were bespelled. They knelt as he walked through the place, his feet finding a path up to the Chantry on the hill as if he knew the way. Some part of him realized that he'd never seen this, any of this, before, but it felt small and quiet compared to the part of him that felt at home here.
Shandi waited there, in an intricate, ice-blue gown and a white fur cloak, face expertly painted with rich, pigmented cosmetics instead of the harsh lines and dotwork common to vitaar. He came and took her hand.
"What is happening here?"
"What, have you no memory of your accomplishments, Herald of Andrastae?"
"But...I'm not the Herald," he protested, even as people whispered of his heroic deeds as they went by, giving him and Shandi a respectful berth.
"But you could be," Shandi told him, and the look on her face was so full of belief that he felt himself swayed despite intentions otherwise. "Why not? I have seen your heart and I know you believe. Don't let the name Andrastae cloud your vision; it is the Creators that have chosen you."
Gabriel imagined the hand of Mythal reaching down to him from whatever airy realm she called hers, lifting him up and validating his worth, dispelling the suspicion the Elvhen often showed him. It invigorated him in a way little else had. Spence and Landan were wrong. Lily had been wrong about him, too. He'd proven himself. He deserved the regard of the Creators and deserved to lead the people (and The People, for that matter) to victory. Shandi smiled and his heart skipped a beat; she was so lovely, and she loved him so much. Why, with her at his side all seemed possible.
"You have no need to fear me or my gifts," she cooed, "the Circle creates such fear and distrust, and for what? All I want is to give you everything you've ever desired." It felt right. It was just what he wanted to hear. Too much so, his mind shrilled, but he stood frozen to the spot. "You see? I can be your greatest ally, spirit healer, if you but recognize my true nature."
I am not a demon. You mortals think in such rigid ways.
The words cut through his daze and he tore his hand from hers, spitting in her face.
"There is nothing for you here, Desire. I will fight for what I want. I am no pup to be bottle fed."
Desire revealed her true form, Shandi's borrowed one dispersing as a cloud of feathers on the wind would have.
"You will fight for it, when I am offering to give it to you? You will always stand in someone else's shadow, mage, without me to help you. You don't even know what I would ask in return. How do you know the arrangement would not please you?"
"Any price you name is too high, monster. I'll not stand in your shadow either. Begone."
He gasped as reality fell in on him in a cacophony of sensory details, though the first thing that registered to his battered sense of sight was Shandi. She had managed to rise to her feet, but there the bindings held fast. Dorian marched forward, heedless, but Aislinn dragged him back before he could put himself in danger.
"Your name, creature!" Dorian demanded.
"Why don't you come to me, lover, and I'll whisper it to you," she teased, tossing the bone she'd been gnawing aside. She levitated above the raw lyrium, making a vulgar beckoning motion at him.
"Hrmph, some Desire demon you are," Dorian grumbled, contempt giving his words an acidic quality. "Could you have chosen a less effective form, I wonder?"
"You haven't seen even the least of my many selves. I could be anything or anyone you wished, and the price I would extract in return would be as nothing compared to the ecstasy I could bestow on you."
"The disruption field," Aislinn murmured, "we might be able to force it in to another form, a form we could fight. Rage or Pride could hardly resist coming to us."
Gabriel took her hand. "Use the sword. We can focus through it."
She grabbed Dorian's hand as well, and after only a moment's confusion he added his magic and skill to theirs. The blade flared with power and for the first time, Desire looked worried. She showed them a mouth full of fangs and turned as if to flee. Amjad came out of the shadows and a moment later his potion hit her directly in the chest, spectral fire that clung to its victim, burning all the while. She shrieked and stumbled, and in that moment they snapped the field in to place around her. The chains binding Shandi disappeared and Shandi surged forward, roaring, just as Desire became Pride.
The next few moments whirled past. Amjad burst the thing's eyes with expertly placed dagger strikes, one, two, three. Its spells burst against Shandi's breast plate, corrosive ichor splattering her face as her broadsword bit deep. The pain only enraged her further and she and it traded blows faster than Gabriel could keep up with. He and the other mages sealed off its escape as best they could, ringing it with nullification spells. Shandi brought it to its knees with a mighty blow that shook the ground beneath their feet. Pride dispersed, leaving Desire only. Its form flickered and Shandi pulled her arm back to land the killing strike. With the last of its power Desire froze Shandi in place and evaded certain doom, but she had surely been beaten.
"Your name, beast," Dorian demanded.
She hissed, but the command couldn't be ignored; she had been defeated, and a mage knew the importance of holding a demon's true name, knew that she would be compelled to reveal it.
"I am Decadence," it said, before slipping its chains and fleeing in to the Fade.
Gabriel watched the place she had last stood, dread piercing him through the heart. It would not be the last time he'd see her, her visage already imprinted on his nightmares.
Chapter 9: Wither and Wane
Gabriel knew better than to approach Shandi right away, the pain from the burns on her face rendering her as dangerous and unpredictable as a hungry wolverine. She still held her naked sword, the handle clutched tightly in her fist. Surely if the blade hadn't been enchanted, she might have left an imprint in the metal; such was her strength and anger.
"Will you sheathe your blade that I might tend to you?"
He asked, giving her space even as he suggested that he might come and lay hands on her. She turned towards him like a bull about to charge, nostrils flaring, mouth set in a scowl. A moment later she let the weapon clatter to the stones, grunting; she didn't have the presence of mind to disarm herself any other way. He took it as agreement and edged a little closer, raising his hands to hover close to the wounds. He knew her vitaar was dry and wouldn't poison him if he touched it, but the cautious or even timid part of him resisting taking the chance even so.
He coaxed spirits to him, gathering at the border between the Veil and the mundane world. They gamboled around him, as energetic and eager as spring fawns. With but a whisper, he directed them to smooth the injuries from Shandi's face and to bring vigor to her limbs. She softened and her stance eased, a look coming to her features akin to the one she had when she felt particularly sexually satiated. Battle wasn't so different, not for her. He went so far as to retrieve her sword, buffing it to a shine with a handkerchief plucked from his robe pocket. He'd already sacrificed his first to the red lyrium dust, he might as well consign its twin to the proverbial flames. He gave her the blade and she sheathed it, rolling her shoulders and popping her neck.
He could have sworn, as he turned, that he glimpsed Amjad brushing dust from Dorian's coat, Amjad's hand lingering on Dorian's chest just a few moments longer than necessary. He dismissed the moment almost as soon as he'd taken it in; surely it was nothing. He could hardly accept that they were friendly let alone...whatever that might have implied. Aislinn passed her fingers through her hair, trying to get it to lay flat. After conjuring so much lightning, however, it remained a fool's errand. Amjad put his hand on her shoulder, looking her over. Satisfied that she wasn't injured, he nodded, though his expression remained grim.
Amjad said nothing about how they would surely see Decadence again; they all knew the truth of the matter and voicing it would have been redundant. Once more, the group followed him, out of the Keep and back to the camp. As they gathered their mounts and rode back towards Skyhold, Gabriel heard the full throated howl of the Inquisition horns. Forces had moved in to hold Griffon Wing, and with luck it would once again be a bastion against the darkness.
Somehow, even though they had defeated Decadence and taken her stronghold, Gabriel could feel only the kind of cold that forced him to contemplate the inevitability of the grave, no matter the health and youth he currently enjoyed.
Skyhold unfolded like a flower so fine Gabriel might have given it as a sign of his affection, bee pollen and grain mash winding him round like its attendant ribbon. He took a deep breath in to his belly, as if the very air here could brush aside the spider's web that had bound up his body and mind. He'd never been so glad to make it past the gates, not even on that very first day when he'd come alone, half convinced he'd receive a chest full of arrows for his trouble.
Amjad left them almost immediately, though he had little choice; his men wanted to know the details of what they had discovered, no less a person than Commander Cullen himself listening intently to Amjad's report. By the sharp, tight way Amjad was gesturing, he hadn't gone unmarked by recent events and he wouldn't have Decadence catch him unawares if he had anything to say about it. Cullen's handsome face looked drawn and haggard, his gaze troubled. Though Gabriel sensed that he was a man who took a deep, personal interest in his office and in the soldiers he commanded, this seemed designed to bite deep.
It seemed natural enough to head to the bar, falling in beside Shandi. He could hear her stomach growl and he knew she'd want at least one cold ale before bothering to strip off her armor, besides. It was a measure of how tired he was that he nearly walked right in to the boy that had appeared before him, blocking his path. Before he could barge past, a gust of Fade energy passed over him as strong as a winter wind.
He studied the boy closer then, a pale face and blond hair partially obscured by the brim of a patched up hat. The mere fact that he stood there i in a human form shocked Gabriel to the soles of his feet, electrifying his mind that had thus far been sluggish and dark in the wake of all that had happened. Never in all his studying nor in any of his training had he ever heard of a spirit who could do such a thing. The spirits always in attendance around him--normal ones who would never dream of coming in to the mundane world--whispered to him the way a child would tell a secret, hands cupped around his ear: this was the being he'd sensed earlier, haunting the bar. Shandi had stopped too, plainly unsure of what to make of this new arrival. It was a measure of her weariness that she hadn't already fallen in to fighting stance, ready to square off against this potential threat.
"Four children have gone before her, each with a name but no face," the boy said, looking up at Shandi, who had frozen in place as soon as he'd started speaking. "Dreams wither and wane in the womb. But this one, this one is different. This one will live."
"Wh...what?" Shandi spluttered, "how could you possibly know that?"
"Your mother's pain touches yours," he said, as if that were the most obvious thing in the world. Something so odd happened then that Gabriel felt the world tilt; Shandi's eyes welled up with tears.
"Spirits sense things we cannot," Gabriel heard himself murmur, though his breath hitched in his chest. He ached for Shandi, his rib cage laboring to keep itself together as if he were being stretched on a rack.
Aislinn came pushing her way between him and Shandi before either of them could muster a response.
"Cole," she said, folding her arms over her chest, "that is quite enough for right now, thank you."
Cole looked at Aislinn, considering, then turned to Shandi again. "I could make you forget. I'm sorry. I did it wrong."
"Don't come near me, demon," Shandi snarled, "you've done more than enough."
Cole's expression crumbled; Shandi's response had scored a hit, that much was obvious. What kind if spirit was this, with emotions and responses as nuanced and as readable as a human's? Even as he wondered, Cole disappeared. Aislinn shook her head and uncrossed her arms, looking for a moment as lost and upset as Shandi.
"I think we've all earned a drink," he said, hoping they would allow him to turn their energies towards something else, something more pleasant. Creators, his heart suffered for Shandi, but he didn't think showing it would win him any accolades. Aislinn stepped back.
"No, but thank you. I should find my brother."
He understood, too, that Aislinn was gracefully allowing him and Shandi some time alone, after a revelation like that. She disappeared almost as readily as Cole, slipping away in to the bustle that was the Skyhold courtyard. Shandi stumbled blindly in to the bar, making her way to their table by memory. He didn't dare take her hand, but he guided her by crooking his fingers under her belt, where it met her hip.
She didn't speak, not even after three ales. Eventually Gabriel tried, though his stomach was roiling too much to accept any liquor himself.
"Did you know?"
She shook her head and set her tankard down with such force the table shook.
"No," she said, her face screwed up in concentration as if the word were a particularly heavy stone she was trying to roll uphill. "I...they kept so much of their story from me. I know that they fled the Qun, that my mother was a tamassaren and my father a saarebas...his magic developed late. I always got the impression that she rescued him and they escaped together. That she knew him before they sewed his mouth shut."
Gabriel gulped against the sudden urge to vomit. The way the Qun treated their mages ranked high on his list of atrocities, just under Tranquility.
"Ugh. Don't." She grimaced. "I'm sorry. I can't." She couldn't accept his sympathy. He understood, and said nothing. "Come back to my room with me, if you want. I'm sick of looking at this piss hole tavern." She stood all at once, nearly sending the bench over on its side. She left as if her emotions had described a trail of fire in her wake, but he stepped in to those flames without hesitating.
Later, Gabriel would find himself analyzing and re-analyzing where it all went wrong. He had spent the night helping Shandi work through all her desperate, pain fueled energy with another sex session designed to wring him dry and somewhere in there, looking in to her eyes, the declaration of love had crossed his lips. She happened to be in the middle of an orgasm when it happened, and he had to keep from laughing at her expression, somewhere between ecstasy and utter bafflement. Confusion, he understood. It wasn't the most proper time, after all.
But then he went from buried in her warmth to all but kicked out of bed, cold, naked, and utterly confused. He barely caught the bundle of his clothes when she tossed them at him as if they were one of Amjad's flasks.
He had never seen her that angry. Even in battle, what she usually seemed to feel wasn't anger, but a kind of savage exultation. But as she knelt there on the bed, she looked as if at any moment her hair might catch fire from sheer rage.
"What?" He sounded stupid in his own ears, and he clutched the ball of fabric to his chest as if it could protect him.
"You heard me." she snapped, standing and tugging her tunic over her head. She stood amid the mess they'd made when they'd first arrived and tumbled in to bed, sweeping pillows and vials of urgent and the bits of leather Shandi had been working on repairing to the floor. It felt painfully incongruous now, with her mood so out of keeping with that initial, passionate embrace. "Leave."
"Don't make me repeat myself."
Suddenly, he was afraid of her. Never had she turned such rage on him, but now it beat down on him the way the desert sun had earlier. His hands shook as he pulled on his clothing, and he was painfully aware of how long it was taking him and how awkward he must appear. He felt as if he'd been locked in a cell with a weaving rattler, regarding hime balefully while it tried to decide whether to strike out his eyes. He made it out in to the courtyard with his shoes still off, tucked in the crook of his arm. He heard the lock fall in to place behind him, as if Shandi had wacked the board in to its holders with all of her might.
What have you done, you stupid boy?
He wondered, and it was only blind luck that he found his own quarters through the tears that came, hot and full, the moment he found himself alone.
Gabriel heard Amjad and Dorian before he saw them, the pair coming in to the tavern already engaged in a friendly argument.
"Of course you would read de Fleur that way," Dorian was saying, with that tone of voice that let all and sundry know he was holding forth and enjoying it.
"Can you blame me? The man had an Alienage purged and ordered it while bedecked with ribbons. His wig was so powdered he could hardly hold his neck up and yet he thought himself fit to decide the fate of a whole people."
"My friend, I'm afraid if you curated your library by such standards, you would have very few Orlesian texts left."
"Hm, do you promise? That sounds like a lovely gift. I expect you to start work on that this afternoon."
They rounded the corner, and Gabriel squinted so as to see them through the haze; he'd decided to put the old adage of drowning one's sorrows to the test. Sadly, they had turned out to be very gifted swimmers.
Amjad had a little half smile on his face, a look that made Gabriel think of Ser Pounce when the damned animal was looking for something to destroy. Yet it wore endearingly nonetheless, and by Dorian's look he thought so, too.
"Well..." Dorian began. "Oh. Oh dear."
So they'd seen him. He must look even worse than he'd imagined.
"Gabriel," Amjad said, raising his eyebrows and coming closer. "By Mythal, what the hell happened to you?"
Gabriel groaned and pawed at his face, as if he could physically pluck the offending memory from his mind and crush it. Amjad and Dorian came over and took the seat across from him, glancing at one another, then back at him.
"I...might have told Shandi...something I shouldn't have," he said, proud of himself for indulging in a minimum of drunken slurring.
"Oh dear," Dorian said, leaning back a little and fixing Gabriel with a look as if he'd already sensed the particulars of what had happened. Gabriel felt tears clog his throat, not for the first time, and the mortification that came immediately after made him feel even lower than he had standing nude in front of a furious and implacable Shandi.
"You didn't," Amjad said. Amjad peered at him in a way designed to force him to make eye contact, and in his current state he couldn't resist. Whatever Amjad read there made him curse under his breath. "Oh, Gabriel."
"I didn't mean to!" He protested, louder than was strictly necessary, he was sure. He gesticulated with his tankard, slopping ale on to the sleeve of his robe. "It just...the worst part is, I meant it."
Amjad and Dorian sat in tense silence, frowning in a way that was almost identical despite the vast differences in their features.
"And she...didn't take it well?" Dorian hazarded. At least Dorian hadn't questioned the sincerity of his feelings. Perversely, the conflict had only made him more sure of his love, not less.
He swallowed around the lump in his throat, but despite his efforts when he spoke his voice sounded like a bald thread. "Threw me out. Didn't say she never wanted to see me again, but she might as well have."
He could hardly consider that, that she might not want to be around him at all anymore. He wouldn't be able to go adventuring with them, he'd have to leave Skyhold...
"Maybe she's not used to hearing such things," Dorian said. Something about his tone made Gabriel look up. Dorian's eyes were particularly beautiful at the moment, as full of empathy as they were. Quickly enough Gabriel had realized that Dorian was a man with no shortage of defenses; this was the most open, honest look he'd ever seen on Dorian's face. "Maybe she wasn't ready to hear it."
Amjad had gone very still and silent, his face inscrutable again, as it so often was.
"I...can hardly imagine that." When he thought of Shandi he thought of nothing but her beauty, her fearsome courage, her ready laugh. He struggled to imagine a world where Shandi hadn't charmed a legion of lovers in to swooning at her feet.
"Gabriel, she's a Qunari. A Qunari mercenary. Do you really think she's had that many people profess love to her?" Dorian said gently, and though Gabriel had the sense that Dorian was trying to keep his advice theoretical, his tone was such that Gabriel knew there was some personal truth in the words.
"But...to be so angry..."
Amjad looked down, his brows furrowed in thought. He studied his hands for a long moment, unwilling to speak if he were unsure of the point he wished to make. Gabriel found himself reading Amjad more readily now; being in combat together tended to have that effect.
"You must speak with her again. There is...sometimes people can't return your love for reasons beyond you and what you have to offer."
Since they had come back to Skyhold the unspoken had hovered over them all like a storm cloud, bringing ill portents as if they were all lost at sea together. From Cullen's demeanor to Shandi's reaction, Gabriel felt beset by sharks, or torpor demons dimming the vital flame that might have lead them back to shore. He knew now that his initial relief on coming home had been a mirage.
"I...I don't know." He said, trying to cover his inadequacies with a drink of ale. "She made her feelings quite clear."
"She might not be ready to return your love," Dorian said, and for the first time Gabriel heard the slightest note of uncertainty in proud Dorian's voice, "but I doubt she's ready to discard you."
"Give her time," Amjad added, though even as he showed genuine empathy a certain tension had come over him, and he held himself apart from Dorian. "Then go and see her. Trust me."
Gabriel felt himself give over. How could he do less? The Inquisitor of all people had taken the time to advise him on his foolish matters of the heart, and he wouldn't squander such a gift. He let Dorian and Amjad lead him back to his room, since after a sleepless night and far more ale than he should have had he wasn't in any shape to make it on his own. As he fell face first in to bed, he thought,
Tomorrow then, Shandi. Creators, I hope Amjad is right.
Chapter 10: Hex
Gabriel's ever present anxiety hadn't budged a bit when he woke that next morning, but his desire to make things right with Shandi spurred him to put on his clothes, wash his face, and otherwise attend to his needs. The infernal part of him that made him question his every decision gibbered about how it would be better to just stay in bed and ignore the outside world, but the same stubbornness he'd shown Decadence gave him the strength to overrule its objections.
He'd spent the night in the room they'd first given him when he'd come to Skyhold, and while it had been an oasis of comfort for him at first it now seemed cold and unwelcoming compared to being tucked in to that big Qunari-sized bed with Shandi beside him. Even Pounce had taken his leave, no doubt exploring Skyhold's every nook and cranny and claiming everything he could rub against or piss on. By Sylaise's sweet bosom, what the hell would he do if Shandi rejected him a second time? It was foolish to love her so quickly, but...
You should guard your heart more carefully, brother, Lily had told him so several times, especially after Anders. Of course he'd thought it true love and Anders had thought it little more than a mutually enjoyable fling. Realizing how different their perspectives and expectations were had...stung. He snatched his coat from the peg by the door, face burning with shame and teeth clenched.
For once, his mind obliged and he could put thoughts of his unrequited teenaged infatuation aside. He didn't know where he might find Shandi, but the training dummies would serve as a likely starting place. He marched across the courtyard, trying to muster up as much courage as possible, though he thought he probably looked like a right fool to anyone watching.
Shandi was there, and so was Cass. Shandi had taken a seat on the stump near the dummies and she was bowed over, rubbing at her face as if exasperated. Cass was speaking to her, though Gabriel couldn't make out what she might be saying. Why did Cassandra of all people have to be in attendance? Surely this was difficult enough without the blasted Seeker of Truth shooting daggers at him.
Cassandra noticed him first. She looked up to catch him with that hard gaze, and that made Shandi stand and turn. She dropped her gaze and for once, she didn't present herself with her head held high and her shoulders squared. She dug at the earth with the toe of her boot, rubbing at the back of her neck with an unsure hand.
"Oh. Gabriel." She said, and Cass backed away, then turned to leave.
Mythal bless you, Cassandra, he thought, her absence giving him the wherewithal to approach.
"Look--" Shandi started, right as he said,
"No, it is I who should--"
They both dissolved in to giggles, and Gabriel felt a little seedling of hope put out its first leaves.
"Look, Gabriel," Shandi tried again, and this time he let her speak. "I could have handled that better. A lot better, and I'm sorry. But I don't do love, okay? It's not...bloody hell. I just don't."
"I...don't understand." To him, love wasn't something one chose, it just happened, often when you weren't looking. She made a frustrated sound and shook her head.
"What good is it?" She demanded, sudden heat in her voice. She looked defensive then, her back ramrod straight, her head up and her eyes defiant. "What's the blasted point? So you can take total leave of your fucking senses?"
He blinked and recoiled, taken aback by the sudden display of passion.
"Is that all you think love is? Your parents..."
"And look how much they suffered!" She practically shouted, though her voice had a rough, shrill quality, in opposition to how she sounded when roaring on the battlefield. "Just to be together. Just to be free. They never recovered, Gabriel. They own one of the finest tailor's shops in all Val Royeaux and even then they barely scrap by because those goddamn cheese eaters don't want to buy from a pair of ox heads. They slink around their own home as if they have no right to it. I won't condemn myself to a life like that, a bond like that."
She shook her head, realizing, perhaps, how strong her feelings were and how loudly she was expressing them. She sat on the stump once more as if she were wearing her full battle kit after a long, pitched conflict, exhausted and heavy. She hid her face in her hands for a moment, and Gabriel could only stand there with his heart bound round with icy chains.
Her pain touches yours.
Cole had certainly hit that particular nail on the head. The link between Shandi and her mother in particular seemed almost tangible, something he could see and touch. It pulsed in the space between them, perhaps even moreso now that Shandi knew she was the only child to live to adulthood.
"Her name was Deirdre," Shandi said, without looking at him. Creators, but there was more. She sounded...broken, in a way he'd never discerned from her speech before. "She was a member of my merc company. An elf, with hair like a sheaf of wheat and eyes like spring grass. Had June's vallaslin but always joked she couldn't even craft her own weapons. It was a lie, of course. I saw her make knapped knives and fletched arrows all the time. Fell for her hard in the way only a merc can, where you're facing death together every day and winning out over it. When your nights are all ale and songs and sex. She died in my arms. Poisoned arrow. And you know the worst part is, I don't even remember what job we were on. She died for nothing. There was no cause in what we did, and no one remembered her after she was gone. Except for me."
"Oh Shandi...I'm so sorry. I didn't know. I didn't confess love to you because I wanted to hurt you." He understood now why he'd found her here, as part of the Inquisition. It was the biggest cause, with the biggest stakes. Something that would be remembered when they were all dead.
"I know that. I just don't know if I can care for you the way you want me to." She looked up, her eyes red and bright with unshed tears. "Love is great right until it isn't. Then it's the worst thing in the whole blasted universe."
He went to her and took her hands. She clung to him out of instinct, her expression one of extreme ambivalence.
"I won't push you. I swear to you." He wanted to weep on her behalf, the agony piercing him deep. He didn't, knowing it would be self indulgent, but there was something about seeing a woman as powerful as Shandi brought so low, so vulnerable, that made him internalize all the anguish clinging to her like a miasma. "Just...know that I care for you, and I would be bereft without your presence in my life."
"I can't promise you anything, Gabriel. I can't."
"Do you want to be rid of me?" He asked softly. He could hardly blame her for an affirmative answer, given what he knew now.
There was fear in her eyes when she answered: "No. I don't."
Mythal, but he wanted her to return his feelings, but to see such quiet terror on her face made him question everything he thought he knew about love and its worth.
"Come and have a drink with me, my lady. Surely you will allow me to, to...court you, if nothing else?"
A little light came back in to her at that and she smiled faintly. Whatever else Shandi was, she wanted to be treated like a lady, and Gabriel was all but falling all over himself to oblige her.
"Courting a Qunari, nobleman?" She teased.
"I am of the Inquisition. The Inquisition knows no such prejudices."
She stood, looking down at him with a certain fondness. "All right, m'lord. Let's drink."
It wasn't what he'd hoped for in his heart of hearts, but nonetheless he felt so happy as to be weightless as they headed for the Herald's Rest.
The summons had come at an inopportune time, as Amjad's requests had a tendency to do. Gabriel had clambered out of bed and in to his clothes, leaving Shandi softly snoring, curled up on her side and wrapped in all the blankets she'd stolen from him in the middle of the night. He crossed the courtyard and then through the Great Hall, the doll-bright eyes of the Orlesian nobles as weighty and hot as a rage demon's talons, hooked in to the fabric of his collar as he passed.
He hesitated at Amjad's door. It felt like there should have been some special protocol, a ritualized way of calling upon the Inquisitor himself. When none was forthcoming, however, he pushed his way in through the heavy door. The unmistakable ripple of warding spells passed through his hair and down his back as readily as a lover's touch, though this contact could turn fatal if he but breathed wrong.
The room smelled of crisp mountain air and herbs, with a slight undertone of furs and hides expertly cured. He could well imagine halla musk and aravel oil over top, and a scene straight from his imagination caught him up, showed him what perhaps Amjad's childhood could have been like. The sound of laughing children, the feel of the sunlight through the trees...
So taken was he with his vision that it took him a moment to focus in on the man in question, and when he did it became quickly apparent that the Inquisitor was deeply troubled. Pacing in a tight circle, he came to a jerky halt when he caught sight of Gabriel. Gabriel tried not to focus overmuch on the huge erotic painting over the fireplace, depicting a licentious bisexual orgy taking place on rumpled silk, spilled wine jugs in the foreground.
"Oh. You came."
"Did you expect otherwise?"
Amjad shook his head as if to clear it, annoyed with himself if his scowl was anything to go by. Despite having almost no fat on his frame, Amjad acted as if he couldn't feel the breeze; perhaps he was too preoccupied for such mundane concerns.
"No no, of course not. I need your help. It's important. More important than usual."
"You need but ask it of me." Gabriel said, finding even as the words left his tongue that it was so. Amjad had a way of drawing people into his orbit, and he was no exception. He wanted to be near this man, absorb his presence, protect him in the field. And...whatever else Amjad might require of him.
His statement made Amjad let out a long-held breath, a flicker of relief evident before that cool mask dropped into place once more.
"When Aislinn and I were young, the Tevinter slaver caravans came to our forest. They captured several of us, but Aislinn and I managed to free ourselves before they could take us far. We tried to save the others...we couldn't."
"Surely the Clan..."
Amjad bared his teeth.
"No. Keeper Lenaya wouldn't spare anyone. Said that after...after what had befallen us, we couldn't take the risk."
He said the word Keeper so grudgingly, were it food it would be nothing more than a handful of crumbs. He wanted to ask how in all the hells Amjad and Dorian had ended up friends after a life event such as that, but he kept his curiosity to himself.
"Gabriel," Amjad said, breathless with agonizing, fearful hope, "I think I found my clan mate. He's been a Magister's slave these past years. He's the only one left that I could find. We must rescue him. I should have rescued him long ago."
"I have never heard a task so pure. It will be done. When and where?"
Amjad regarded him and Gabriel saw surprise, then relief, then grudging respect. It made him stand up straighter, hold himself with a little more pride. Having the Inquisitor's approval was a heady thing, to be sure.
"The Hissing Wastes. It is a hard country, shrouded in perpetual darkness and littered with the broken glories of a past age. Perfect for a pack of rabid Venatori animals."
"Another bloody desert, hm?"
"Your choice of words is more apt than you know," Amjad told him, voice a dry grumble. "Wait a moment, did you speak to Shandi?"
Gabriel was so touched his eyes stung with unshed tears; all of this and the Inquisitor--the Inquisitor--had thought to ask him about his silly romantic mishap.
"I did. I think we've made up. Though I don't know what exactly we are."
Amjad nodded as if he were familiar with the feeling.
"I pray that your love will flourish and grow. You are not afflicted as we of Clan Brangwen are afflicted, and have nothing to fear. Relatively speaking."
"What do you refer to?"
"The story of Clan Brangwen. Our origin tale. It says we are all cursed to experience love and madness as the same emotion; we are the product of a spirit and an elf that fell in love even across the Veil. Some versions say they both died consumed by the insanity they wrought in one another. Regardless, there is no one of Clan Brangwen that takes a mate casually. We would die for those our beloveds. Even commit...questionable deeds for their sake. It is a curse, a heavy one. An all encompassing one."
"That is a terrible burden." Gabriel's first instinct was to deny the reality of such a thing, but then in the span of a moment, he could feel the lowering power of the geas in the room, its tendrils clinging to him like seaweed. The expansive space felt close and electric then, the ancient magic boiling the blood in his veins. Amjad had fixed him with that stare, the one that made him think of a hunting cat, unblinking.
"You feel it." Amjad said. "You are not Elvhen, but you understand us enough, perhaps. Your spirit healing also makes you a rarity, gives you a certain sensitivity."
Amjad said the word rarity almost reverently, and Gabriel's heart jumped into his throat; not only could he feel the geas but the heat of simply being near such a beautiful, intense person as Amjad was. He remembered the way Amjad had been so shamelessly appreciating him in camp that morning in the Western Approach and he blushed hot enough that he knew it would not go unseen.
Whatever Amjad saw there made him raise his eyebrows, his full lips curving in a slight smirk. He stepped back, and Gabriel felt as if he could breathe again.
"I thank you for aiding me with this task. Go back to your lady. I will call on you when it is time."
Gabriel all but fled, though had Amjad but asked him he would have stayed forever.
Chapter 11: Lost and Found
Aislinn willed herself in to the Fade as if she were stepping through a silken curtain and in to a grand ballroom, though instead of bowing attendants demons lined her path. Decadence hadn't joined their ranks, though Aislinn almost wished it were so. She would show the proud, smirking whore who ruled here, if not now then soon.
She walked between the damned with her head up, knowing that they couldn't touch her. She never made deals she couldn't manipulate in her favor. As she made her way down the winding path and through the snow, blood welled up in her footprints.
Soon enough she found the wolf tracks. Solas had been teasing her the past little while, taking elaborate forms and calling on his knowledge of the Fade's ins and outs to try and hide himself. She always discovered him, and preferred to think it had more to do with her skill than Solas desiring to be caught after all. With but a thought she burst apart in to a murder of crows, flying in ragged formation, harsh cries scraping the grey sky.
You may do anything your heart desires, provided your will is equal to your whim.
Solas had advised her such, when they had first begun this little game. There! With her borrowed bird's eyes she spotted him, a snake in the long grass. The setting changed as quickly as they changed forms, the snow bank becoming a forest as he became a flash of light and she a halla. She cantered through the undergrowth, clever, milk-white legs sending her bounding over fallen branches and through the rich loam. The fox's skin let her leap and burrow through obstacles and warrens, though Solas was quick and didn't shy away from becoming a rat or an insect. When they were finally satisfied by their little adventure, they made love as they would have in old Arlathan, their forms twisting, changing, laughter and bird calls and the musk of wolf fur.
They came back to their given flesh, she laying against him amid a field of flowers. He gave her a look of adoration and her heart nigh-stopped; so few had seen such openness from Solas, a man most felt free to dismiss as an apostate not worth speaking to.
"You are a skilled sorceress," Solas told her, his voice hushed so that it brushed against her skin as velvety and soft as an ermine pelt. "In old Arlathan, spells were of such intricacy and beauty that their construction could span the ages. When death holds no power, what is there but pushing the bounds of creation?"
"And I wouldn't be exiled for my blood magic?" Aislinn asked, though she had asked him before. She still loved to hear the answer.
"A Dalish superstition only, vhenan. Those with access to history know that some things require blood."
"I think I would have liked Arlathan, then," Aislinn told him, touching their foreheads together before pressing a kiss to his lips.
He would have said more, she thought, but a tremble in the Fade's pattern caught her attention. Aislinn stood, sorry to leave Solas and his warmth. She looked at the horizon as she would have in the real world, as if waiting to glimpse a ship or a dragon on the wing. The shell around her brother's potential for magic was easily divined, still intact. But then beside him, Gabriel's signature. She walked towards it, the words she managed to snatch from the void jerking her awake: I think I've found my clanmate.
This time, their task required a full compliment of skilled interceptors, warriors, and archers, such that Gabriel stood amidst a swirling eddy of preparations at the stable yard. No less a personage than the Lady Seeker herself had been chosen to accompany them, with Varric at her side. Now that he thought of it, Varric often installed himself thusly, though he couldn't say that Cassandra appreciated it, per se. Gabriel had noted her nod of acknowledgment when she passed by, a small thing but sorely appreciated nonetheless. If he wanted to impress Shandi, making a good impression on Cassandra couldn't hurt. He could hear Shandi even now, annoying Cassandra with puns.
Meeting Sera had been...a singular event. He couldn't understand half of what she had to say, and so just nodded dumbly until she seemed satisfied. When Amjad arrived, Sera headed over as if she and Amjad had some kind of magnetic properties; another odd friendship. He supposed without the ability to forge odd friendships, the Inquisition would have been much less impressive.
Dorian walked up, adjusting his resplendent cloak. Before he could open his mouth Aislinn came running up at speed, practically in to Gabriel's arms. If the Fade were a garment, she wore it bundled tight against her flesh; what lost hallways and eldritch swamps had she explored just mere hours ago?
"Is it so? You've found Calledan?" She clung to his forearms, and not for the first time he felt how slight of frame she was.
"It would seem that way, my lady," he told her, grappling with the urge to pull her in to an embrace. She made up his mind for him, hugging him tightly for a fleeting moment.
"You don't know what this means," she said, her voice thick with tears. "After so long..."
"Don't fret my dove," Dorian said to her in a quiet tone, "if it is even the slightest bit possible, we will free him."
"I know, I know," Aislinn said, turning to Dorian. Dorian drew her against his chest and smoothed her hair, as if he'd somehow charmed a wild swan and was even now stroking its feathers. For a man who blustered so, his expression could hardly have been easier to read if he'd provided a synopsis and a cartographer's compass; the fact that his countrymen would behave such deeply shamed him, and moreso thanks to knowing these scions of Clan Brangwen as personally as he did. Gabriel had the thought that his eyes were particularly lovely when he felt sorrow, though Creators knew he would never wish suffering on the man.
"Will you join us, my lady?" Gabriel wanted to know. Amjad came loping over then, a ground eating stride he'd certainly picked up swiftly in the woodland environment of his youth. Aislinn turned to face him and the both of them fell silent, a certain tension coming over the scene, the source of which Gabriel could not place.
"I would have you at my side, my shadow," Amjad told her.
"Then so it shall be, my mirror." Aislinn told him, though the pinched look hadn't left her face. "I will outfit myself for battle. Excuse me."
As she turned, Gabriel caught sight of the cord around her neck. Even though it was tucked beneath her shirt, he knew its origin.
Solas' jawbone necklace. Curious.
He half expected Solas to accompany her when she returned, but she returned alone, one more in her Elvhen raiment. Amjad, now seated atop Orala, lead their party out of Skyhold and down the mountains. He knew every twist and turn, every hidden shortcut and every switchback trail. Their mounts could keep up, too, truly the finest horses (and other) in all of Thedas. Gabriel found himself once again glad of Star and her sure feet, picking her way through brush and rock alike with equal grace.
Their journey lasted roughly five days, in which time they handily dealt with several rifts. With such an august company as they were, only the largest, most robust rifts could test them. One such had Shandi all smiles after it was finally closed, with even the Lady Seeker breaking in to a grin as she cut down the last terror. It died with Varric's quarrels describing a neat dinner plate shape in its face, one of Sera's arrows lodged fletching-deep in its chest. They all fought in a manner striking to behold, like a well-oiled mechanism.
I will never get used to so much mastery in one place.
Gabriel thought as he checked himself for injuries. Thankfully, there were none, and any cuts and scrapes the others had managed to receive were easily cleared up with a mere flicker of spirit magic. The group's high mood immediately dampened, however, when they crossed the border in to the Hissing Wastes. A smothering blanket of darkness pressed down on them, extinguishing the sun and leaving only bare starlight to navigate by. The first Inquisition camp was a blessing, and from his covert looks at his traveling companions, they were all happy to see lamps burning.
"Harding," Amjad said by way of greeting. Harding's sharp gaze took them all in, and she smiled. The expression was meant to buoy their spirits, Gabriel thought, but it held little mirth. "Give me your report."
"Twelve wagons," Harding said, and every member of their band leaned in, listening intently. All knew the value of a scout as skilled as she. "Couldn't tell you which hold slaves and which hold 'vints, though. Can't get close enough for that."
"Barriers?" Amjad hazarded.
"Like you wouldn't believe," Harding said, "and they've got blood magic on their side."
Aislinn made a little sound. Amjad glanced back at her, then looked at Harding once more.
"We have enough magical talent to deal with them, I'm sure." Amjad conferred with Harding a moment more, then turned to the party. "I'll go in and mark which caravans hold slaves, and which the masters. That said, there will certainly be some who prefer to keep their slaves close, so mind the unmarked wagons."
"Then what?" Sera asked, sighting down her knocked arrow as if she could hardly wait to let it fly.
"Kill the Venatori before they get desperate and murder their slaves for the extra power," Amjad said matter of factly. "Make it a slaughter worthy of the Inquisition."
"Oh one more thing," Harding said, as a scout handed her what was presumably a report. "They have a...rock...thing. Guarding the caravan."
"A rock thing?" Amjad said, incredulous. The planes of his face, highlighted by ambient light, made him appear otherworldly. It were as if Harding were trying to brief a basilisk or a sphinx.
"Yeah. Rocks, red lyrium, and a real nasty attitude. Hell if I know what it is."
"Thank you, Harding."
Gabriel tapped Shandi on the wrist; he couldn't reach her shoulder without standing on his tip toes. "That sounds like it has your name on it, mon sucre." The term of endearment was out before he could consider otherwise, but luckily she didn't seem to mind. She looked down at him, brimming over with life force and good cheer as she generally did when she'd been promised a big fight.
"Bet on it, my lord."
It took an eternity of creeping over the dunes before they found the caravan. The Venatori had hit a point in the path where they were forced in to single file, making their way through a dried up river bed just below the ridge they were all positioned on, bellies to the ground.
"Wankers," Sera whispered, a frown on her generous mouth. They had a fair compliment of sell swords protecting them, and her contempt furrowed her brows and hardened her gaze. No one here had any love for slavers, but mercenaries willing to work for them was insult to injury. Gabriel would have put money on everyone here feeling the same as Sera, on this at the very least.
"You have your arrows ready?" Amjad asked her, looking at Varric to encompass him in the question.
"Aye, you'll have a big mess of 'vints trying to put out their fancy robes as soon as you say. You got the bees, high n'mighty?" Sera said.
Amjad patted his belt pouch, which jumped and emitted a faint buzzing sound.
"I wouldn't dream of forgetting them. Not at a time like this."
"You have a means of getting past the barriers?" Gabriel wanted to know, curious what Amjad had up his sleeve this time.
"My daggers are enchanted. It should be enough."
"You'll have to move quickly," Gabriel said, fretting, "the second they feel the barrier come down..."
"I know. Wait for the red mark and then loose your arrows." And with that, Amjad disappeared. Gabriel could barely draw breath as it was, fretting as he did over Amjad without a bodyguard, but when the rock wraith came in to view the sight all but deflated his lungs. A massive beast from some abhorrent Deep Roads fissure, it moved in a cloud of red lyrium dust. It had a facsimile of a naked skull affixed to the front of its body as if its creator had tired of trying to make it appear humanoid, limbs of hewn stone sending vibrations through the ground with every step.
What horrors will the Venatori conjure next? Pet darkspawn?
There, the first flask shattered, a lurid red plume staining the white wagon covering. Then another, and another. Gabriel could already feel the faint stain of blood magic, and he could only hope that none of the slaves had met their end at the point of a Venatori's knife. Sera and Varric reared to their feet, arrows blazing to life in their deft hands. The scent of pitch and kindling flame clung to Gabriel as he ran for the path that would take him down to the caravan, Aislinn and Dorian on his heels. The air crackled as the fire found its target, the wagons going up with such sudden ferocity that he realized Amjad had brewed his dyes to not only indicate who was in which wagon, but to catch fire even more readily than plain canvas would have on its own.
Shandi and the Lady Seeker had chosen the opposite path, and even as Gabriel skidded to a stop in the dirt they were engaging the rock wraith in combat. People came boiling out of the wagons in a tangle; they had no choice, lest they burnt to death. The ragged threads of a rent barrier slapped Gabriel in the face; he'd have to ask Amjad about how he'd crafted those daggers. A man in smoldering Venatori robes came stumbling towards him, screaming and trying to put out the flames with his hands, but before Gabriel could act an arrow went straight through the man's head. Not content to merely cause chaos, Sera and Varric picked off the less powerful stragglers with incomparable accuracy.
The more skilled mages found themselves locked in to combat with Dorian, all three of them doing their level best to kill him. As much as Gabriel wanted to join in, the Magister had yet to make an appearance and someone would have to stand against him. This wasn't just about killing Venatori; if they didn't rescue Calledan, all their efforts were for naught.
Gabriel made his way through the chaos--noting at least one group fleeing from the cloud of angry bees gathered about their heads--snapping up a barrier to spare him from the spell runoff lighting up the night. The rock wraith was stretching the Lady Seeker and Shandi to their limits, difficult to get a handle on since it was half in and half out of the Fade as it willed. He saw Amjad in brief flashes, reveling in the madness he was causing thanks to his flasks and Sera's grenades. Several wagons stood torn open like the bellies of fresh caught fish, scattering drinking cups and grimoire pages and fine linens everywhere. Dead Venatori and their hired thugs littered the area, but several of them--too many of them--were still up and fighting.
Blood magic bit in to him, as surely as an enraged Mabari going for the jugular. It pooled at the base of his spine like an impending orgasm, but this brought no such simple pleasure; it made him think of--feel--all the things he could do, the greatness he could yet work, if he but gave in and drew upon it. It's bouquet filled his nostrils with a reek like funeral flowers left too long in their vases, the urge to use its pulsing power like the urge to reach out and touch a bloated corpse despite knowing the horror that waited there.
The Magister stepped in to view, not even glancing downward at the bodies of his fellows. Behind him, Gabriel could hear the pitched battle between Dorian and the three lesser mages, Dorian's necromancy a cold hand on his back; at least Dorian hadn't fallen. A cry, then a gurgle; Amjad's daggers ensured Dorian faced only two opponents now. He could hear it all, sense it all, the vital force from so much blood and combat giving him preternatural awareness he normally didn't enjoy. When he raised his hand, intent on ripping through the barrier obscuring the Magister's features, he felt as if he could see every micro gesture, each individual spell thread as he wove them painstakingly together.
It was the slave's scream that woke him from his reverie. Slight and starved, the boy was on his knees next to the Magister, a chain around his neck. The blood had come from his arm, flayed open and gushing. Now Gabriel could see the foul maleficar's features; a blur made up of red hair, deep set golden eyes, and a sickening, self-satisfied smirk behind a veil of reddish-green magic. Normally, Gabriel would have tried to draw his enemy out, maybe make the other mage underestimate him before striking. But the sight of that helpless child on the end of a lead like a common cur made him rush the Magister, bringing his sword up to carve through the barrier. The Magister stepped back in shock, and Gabriel froze the chain so that when the slave pitched forward in to the sand, it snapped.
Unfortunately that was all the headway his enemy was going to allow. They battled over the churned earth, staff meeting blade in a shower of sparks. Never had Gabriel cast so fiercely, or so quickly, the rage at the crimes this man had committed making his sword flare up like a beacon. He could see Dorian now, the pitched conflict having brought them around such that he could view the other side of the battlefield. He could hear the fight with the rock wraith, and feel it in the soles of his feet; each time it clashed with Shandi and the Lady Seeker, the whole area shook fit to knock him off balance. He knew then that as long as the Magister drew breath, the rock wraith would continue to fight.
He saw Dorian down and exhausted, having killed the last enemy mage. The razor sharp tip of the Magister's staff came at his eyes, forcing him to throw up his arm to block it. Mythal, but he saw the Tempest come out of the shadows, flask up, dagger poised, and Dorian helpless. He whipped his sword around out of desperation, felt the pommel connect with the Magister's temple--he still had time, he could still do something--but the truth was he had nothing, no time, no energy...
Amjad came out of the darkness like a lightning bolt, hatred distorting his features, bristling with daggers. He and the other Tempest met in a flurry of blades so fast it was a blur, flasks ripped from their holsters and shattered with such speed that it put Gabriel's battle with the Magister to shame. The Magister in question reeled back, not expecting such a crude, physical blow, and Gabriel cut his throat with one fluid motion. Dorian, desperate to do something, levered himself on to his hands and knees. Yet there he remained, utterly spent, his hair dripping sweat, chest heaving as he fought to breathe. The utter savagery of two Tempests trying to kill each other rooted Gabriel to the spot as they traded blows, visible one second, obscured the next. Amjad cried out--he's hurt, oh Falon'din pass him over--and then the death rattle, but not from him; his foe fell to the sand with a dagger buried through his eye and in to his brain.
Silence echoed; the rock wraith had dissipated with the Magister's death. Inquisition soldiers rushed to aid Amjad, down on the ground with his hands pressed to his belly.
"No! See to Calledan! If he dies I swear I'll make every one of you sorry!"
The shout, so full of fury and agony, jolted Gabriel back to action. He went to the boy, still face down in the sand. He was certain Calledan--if this was indeed him--was dead, but when he put his hand on Calledan's neck, the boy coughed. Before he could think further Gabriel knelt, drawing Calledan in to his arms. The boy mewled in terror and tried to pull away, but Gabriel could ill afford to let go; the gash that had so empowered the Magister was still pumping blood. He was too tired himself to do much spirit healing, but he sacrificed one of his most powerful potions to close the wound.
"Dammit, elfy-welfy! If you don't drink this friggin' potion I'll make yer arse look like a pincushion!" Sera said, her finger in Amjad's face. He bared his teeth at her, but he apparently--thankfully--didn't have the energy to fight her. He took the vial, pulled the cork with his teeth, and downed the contents. "That's right, just like sucking Andrastae's tit, all touched Lord Herald." He sputtered in response, apparently amused, but panic just as quickly took the mirth from him.
"Dorian..." He looked around frantically, and seeing Dorian once more laid out in the sand clearly didn't do much for his state of mind. He tried to get up and Sera pushed him over without a thought, as if he weren't the leader of the free world.
"Goddamn it, sparkles-out-of-his-arsehole is fine. Takes a little more than a fight like that to singe his tail feathers."
"All right, Sera," Amjad said, not bothering to pick himself up again. "All right."
"Amjad," Gabriel tried, "I've got Calledan and for the moment, he's alive. But he needs more help than I can give him here."
"Bring him," Amjad said, cajoling Sera in to helping him sit up, which she did with bad grace. Stiff with fear, Calledan was difficult to carry. He had a drawn, pale face, scrunched up in discomfort so that it was hard to know what he might look like under normal circumstances. He had long delicate ears and flaxen, straight hair, messily braided. He had no vallaslin and he wore mere scraps. His arms were crossed with raised, ugly scars from past bleedings. Gabriel laid him down gently, near enough to see Amjad if he decided to open his eyes.
"You're hurt..." Gabriel tried.
"I'm fine." Amjad snapped, though Gabriel knew it was a lie; he'd taken a knife to the guts and a couple of healing potions weren't enough to address it. Still, Calledan was Amjad's priority and Gabriel knew better than to push it. The potions would give him a couple of hours at least, before he needed more intense healing. "Calledan," Amjad asked, slipping in to Elvish, "it's me, your clanmate. Do you remember the names Aled and Aeron?"
Gabriel of course could understand the conversation. The names of Calledan's parents, perhaps? Whatever they referenced it had the intended effect; Calledan's eyes flew open and he sat up. Gabriel waved the other hangers on away, sensing this was about to become rather personal. He took over from Sera, helping Amjad stay seated. When Amjad spoke next, he wouldn't look at any of them. Not Gabriel, not Dorian, now being helped up by Inquisition forces. Out of the corner of his eye Gabriel could see the Lady Seeker, partially blocking his view of Shandi, but they were both clearly alive. The relief made him feel faint, but he pushed it aside. He couldn't fall flat on his face too.
"Aled?" Calledan said, leaf-green eyes huge and disbelieving. Amjad tensed, but didn't comment on the name.
"Oh Cal, I'm sorry I couldn't free you earlier." Amjad told him, choked up and faint from pain.
"This..." when the boy spoke his voice was rusty with disuse. Gabriel doubted the Venatori cared for the opinions of slaves. "This is a dream." The Elvish came slow and unsure, as well it might after hearing only Tevene for so long. "How did you...?"
"I am real and so are you," Amjad told him, dismay writ large on his features; it must be difficult to see the ravages the Venatori had visited on his friend. "Have you heard of the Inquisition?"
"You're with them?" Calledan asked, his gaze laser focused on Amjad's eyes; they were so distinctive that he must have thought either this was indeed real, or it was at the least a very accurate dream.
"I'm the Inquisitor."
"You're not." Cal protested, and by his expression he clearly still thought this was likely a product of wishful thinking. Aislinn came up on silent feet and Gabriel realized that he hadn't seen her throughout the entire battle. Suspicion plucked at his nerves, but now was clearly not the time.
"Cal? Oh, Cal," she said, dropping to her knees and bursting in to tears. Calledan flung himself in to her arms, clinging to her as hard as she clung to him.
"Aeron, oh Aeron. I thought...I thought..."
"Shh, it's all right now," Aislinn told him, and all Gabriel could do was sit back in silence, despite the fact that he had a thousand questions for all of them. "We'll explain everything. Let's take you back to camp, all right?"
"Take me away from here," Cal said, shaking. The horror could be easily heard when he spoke.
"We will," Amjad said, firm. "You will never again be bound and leashed. I swear it to you."
Calledan looked as if he might faint and Gabriel rushed to help. This time Calledan didn't protest when Gabriel took him in his arms, and only then did he see the rough impression of the collar against his skin. Horror and anger gave him the strength to carry the boy back to the camp.
I hope we can help you, poor little lostling.
Chapter 12: Much Loved
This chapter includes explicit m/f sex
The field medics took Calledan from Gabriel as soon as he'd crested the bluff; the boy had passed out, his limp little body as fragile as if he were just a bundle of dry kindling tied haphazardly together. Only then did Gabriel allow himself to indulge his own weariness, stumbling half blind to the tent the soldiers had erected for him. The image of the Magister smirking behind his barrier, a starving, beaten slave on the end of that cruel chain as if he were worth nothing, would not leave him. He knew nothing about Calledan in specific, but he did know that Calledan had once enjoyed freedom, that he'd run through Brecilian forest with his fellows, maybe learned to wield a bow and skin a rabbit and tend to an aravel. He deserved better. Mythal willing, they'd be able to offer him some kind of life at Skyhold.
He found Shandi past the door flap, lying on a pile of pillows. He noted her eyes first, shining in the lamp light. Though, some of that sheen came from drugs; freshly stewed elfroot made the interior humid . Only then did he realize that her arm was braced and wrapped in bandages, stretched out stiffly at her side. She wore only a light chemise, and he could see that the cotton dressing wrapped around her chest and opposite shoulder; how badly injured was she?
"Fenedhis, Shandi," he exclaimed, dropping to his knees. "You're hurt." Panic whirled through him, and in mere moments he'd already imagined the worst, Shandi getting some awful infection he couldn't treat, losing her fingers or full range of motion, something that would keep her from wielding her sword. And where would Shandi be without that? He had trouble imagining Shandi retiring with grace.
"Gabriel," she said. She hadn't snapped at him, but her voice held a power, a commanding edge, that made him freeze. "I'm all right. I promise. The rock wraith tried to take my arm off, but it's going to heal up fine. And don't you dare offer to use magic on me. You're about to fall on your face as it is."
To his extreme mortification he burst in to tears, weeping in to his hands. Shandi coaxed him in to joining her amidst all the pillows, where he curled up at her side like a beaten dog. Worse than that as was his wont when upset, sexual desire gripped him, winding around him as if he'd run afoul of a bramble patch. He balled up even tighter, hoping to hide it from Shandi. Surely she would be repulsed, or offended; she'd been badly hurt! How could he think of anything but the seriousness of such a situation, let alone...that.
"You're the only guy I know who could have a hard cock at a time like this," she said, and at first he felt as if his chest might cave in. A moment later, though, and he realized he'd heard nothing but gentle affection in her voice, a voice made low and silken by the painkillers she's surely been liberally plyed with.
"It...I...it just happens sometimes when I'm frightened or upset." He mumbled, embarrassed even if she hadn't yet shown signs of disgust. "I apologize, my lady. You are wounded. I should be thinking of that only."
She snorted. "You're not a merc so I'll let you in on a little secret: I've had sex covered in gore more times than I can count. When you win a good fight, damn....the rush! You want all good things, food, drink, fucking. I'm just mad I didn't strike the killing blow." She gave him a look, thoughtfulness bringing a slight downturn to her mouth. "I guess you did. It went down when you killed the Magister."
It was a singular experience to hear Shandi swear so openly in such a thick Orlesian accent, an experience Gabirel found himself cherishing.
"It...doesn't bother you? My...my arousal, I mean."
"No. Do you want to? Fuck?." She waved her hand, affecting an expansive arrogance as if she were a princess on an ornate litter that at any moment would be hosted aloft by a compliment of muscle bound men. "You'll have to do most of the work, you know."
"Will you allow it?" He wondered, since usually she was on him like a starving leopard on a lame ram. Not that he was complaining, mind, but he liked the thought of taking his time. He hadn't really explored her and her body to the degree he might have preferred, especially considering he had little experience in these matters. There was, after all, only one way to learn.
"Sure," she told him, curiosity making her tilt her head. In the low light, her horns glittered like a king's hoard, and her gaze held his. Despite her overall cheery agreement, he could sense a little trepidation; the sex they'd had up until this point...maybe she could dismiss it as mutual enjoyment only. Allowing him access to her in this manner, though...It was different, and by the little furrow to her brows and the slight tension in her shoulders, she knew it as well as he did.
Before he realized he'd chosen to act his hands were up under her shift and on her bare skin, skin that was smooth except for the raised scar puckered just under her left breast and down to the swell of her hip. He knew he was mistaken a moment later as he found several more scars; his hand traveled over the length of her body, marking out the healed over claw marks on her belly and the old axe blows that had left deep hack marks in her upper back, thankfully missing her spine. He'd seen them before of course, but never had he dared touch them on purpose. He was careful not to jostle her wounded arm, though she gasped and arched up in to his touch when he dared pinch her nipple between his fingertips. If it pained her, she didn't show it.
Under the elfroot and the lavender soap the healers had washed her off with he caught the scent of amber and honey, an olfactory caress only afforded him when he pressed his lips to the curve of her neck.
She would never cease to surprise him, velvet and steel.
He pushed her chemise up, exposing her breasts and the soft pad of fat rounding out her muscular belly and thighs. She squirmed out of the garment the rest of the way, though they both had to work to get it over her shoulder and down her arm without causing undue pain. She was laughing at the awkwardness when it was finally off, her head thrown back, hair messy against the pillows, eyes closed. He thought that mirth looked especially fetching on her girlish mouth, a mouth he couldn't resist kissing. She held him to her and raked her nails up his back, drawing a helpless moan from him. If she only knew what pain could do to him...though now he felt a little more confident about telling her, someday.
Her name was on his lips, a soft, reverent whisper as if he were some Chantry idiot murmuring prayers to Andrastae. Perhaps if the Chantry hadn't twisted Her, made her bloodless and filed down her eyeteeth, he might have spent his coppers in the tithe bowl.
"You suck dick, don't you?" Shandi asked him, and though their eye contact had become intense, intimate, she didn't break it. His breath wound up tight in his throat, threatening to choke him, but he nodded. He'd been on his knees more often than not, truth be told. "How do you feel about eating pussy?" She added, when he answered in the affirmative.
"I...can't say I've ever had the opportunity, my lady, but if it's anything like what I've already done I'm hopeful I won't completely embarrass myself in the attempt."
She flashed a grin and chuckled. "I'll help you. How's that?"
"Anything you desire," he told her, and he found himself wanting to fulfill every last one of her wishes and needs, sexual and otherwise. "If you don't mind me going slowly." As much as he wanted to start in on the task she had named, he wanted still more of her. He worked his way down when she agreed, trying to find and tease all of her secret, tender spots. He found one on the sensitive skin stretched over her elegant, finely carved collarbone, another under the scar on her hip. She made little sounds of satisfaction whenever he found his mark, and the encouragement emboldened him enough that he felt comfortable appreciating the place between her legs. She drew her knees apart to let him in that much easier, and he found himself hungry for the task at hand. Her warmth, the musk of arousal, how wet she already was...despite having never done any of this before, he felt none of his usual nervousness. His anticipation was too all encompassing for that.
She gave her consent in a whimper of anticipation, her fingers tangling in his hair as he dared to use his mouth on her. She was so wet, and had so many hidden, soft places; he thought it entirely different from servicing a cock until he found her clit, hard and suckable just as he was used to. She cried out loud enough that he wondered in the back of his mind whether they could be heard out in the camp, though he cared not a whit. She murmured directions to him, and he knew he'd followed them properly when the muscles in her thighs were all clenched and tight and her juices were all over his face. A moment later and she nigh screamed through her first orgasm fit to wake the neighbors. The drugs had loosened her tongue, he thought, making her even less concerned about showing her appreciation than usual. He wasn't about to stop savoring this new delight-already he knew there must be a hundred ways to bring her pleasure in this way-but she dragged him up to eye level by his hair.
"Put your cock in me," she growled, reaching down to wrap her hand around the body part in question. It was then he realized he was rock hard, and he thrust involuntarily in to her grip. She guided him inside and he groaned as she let him go so he could bury himself in her those last couple of inches, her warm, willing body opening for him as readily as a river accepting moonlight. Mindful of her injured arm, he reached up to touch her horns. He asked without speaking, and she agreed the same way. He tightened his grip, using her horns to brace himself as he thrust in to her again and again. She moved with him, all those hard won muscles reminding him that she could break him in half if she so wished. Luckily she had much more pleasant things on her mind, and instead of using all that physical prowess to wield a weapon or grapple an enemy, she turned it to their mutual pleasure instead.
He found himself on the edge of orgasm all too soon thereby, and when she arched up to capture his mouth in a kiss it was too much to resist. The fact that she didn't shy away from tasting herself on his lips made him give in, hips twitching as he came, groaning in something akin to pain as he buried himself in her to the hilt.
He thought she might keep him there, locking him in place until he could manage another erection despite the agony he'd have to endure, but she took pity on him. He hated to pull out, but he did so if only because he couldn't manage the strength to stay in proper position. She was panting by the end, satisfied if her flushed cheeks and sweat sheened form were anything to go by.
"Feel better?" She asked, teasing him. He could accept teasing from her, since he knew it hid no icy malice the way it had when his brothers had started in on him.
"I feel I have missed out on many years of pleasure," he told her, flopping down beside her on the pillow pile. "I didn't know being with a woman could be so...so powerful. Though," he said, turning on his side to look at her, "the fact that it is you I am learning this with...that matters." He reached out to take her good hand, kissing her fingers.
"You're too kind, m'lord," she told him, her laugh weary but pleased. He got up to use the washbasin, then came back with some damp cloths to gently wash Shandi off with. "I could get used to this," she said, though he thought it was half a lie. She didn't enjoy being laid up like an invalid, not one bit, though he liked to think his care made it a little more bearable.
He brought her watered down wine and a couple of potions, fretting over whether she had everything she needed.
"Come and lie down, nurse Marlowe," she told him once she'd downed the medicines, affixing him with a sweet look. Satisfied that she had everything, he curled up against her once more. Soon enough, he dozed off. His dreams were blessedly mundane.
When he woke, Calledan knew immediately he wasn't in Magister Regulus' caravan. Though he had at times woken up in the tent of a favored underling (often, his body had been offered up as a reward for those who pleased the master), this felt different. Things smelled wrong; he couldn't detect the spiced wine Regulus preferred, the wine he'd been made to pour for Regulus' allies, nude and in chains. Gone was the creak of canvas and the sound of horse's hooves struggling through the sand. He lay on a plush bed, a feeling unfamiliar after years spent sleeping on the floor with little more than a single threadbare blanket. The voices nearby were unfamiliar and spoke Common, not Tevene. Even so he was too cagey to feel relief, despite realizing his master's hold had been broken. Whoever had taken him could have motivations as depraved. Assuming this wasn't some cruel dream.
Seeing Aled's face a moment later didn't settle the dream or reality debate. How many times had he fantasized about this very thing? Aeron and Aled finally coming for him? And then he and Aeron would become bondmates as the Clan had always thought they would. They would one day guide the Clan as Keeper and lead hunter, and whatever strange curse had fallen on Aeron would be cured and no longer would she want to die. He imagined taking the blade from her, cajoling her out of her miserable posture as she clutched at the dagger as if it had the power to cut away her torment. He'd found her like that several times, angry, red furrows marring her skin; once he had only barely talked her out of cutting her own throat. Now, he would tell her how important she was, how beautiful, how the clan needed her, and she would be free, as if he had the power to break whatever foul magic had taken her with the power of his love. It was a good fantasy, warm and full in a way nothing else in his existence was.
"Cal?" Aled peered at him, worry making his features look drawn, even more sharp than they usually were.
"Go away," he managed, coughing. He couldn't remember the last time he'd spoken of his own accord. If this were a stupid delusion about being rescued, there was no point indulging in it. Fantasizing was one thing. An outright hallucination was just cruel.
"Cal, this is real. I promise you."
Aeron came up beside Aled, her pale fists scrunched tight in her skirts. That made him struggle to sit up, and he reached for her hands. He worried that at his touch she would disappear, but no. He felt her cool skin on his, like the pages of a much loved book. Appropriate, as he could remember her poring over such precious knowledge as First. Kaffas, how long had it been since he'd even let himself think about home?
"Aeron? Aeron, you came for me?"
"Cal...yes, we've rescued you. Your master and all of his lackeys are dead on the ground outside."
He hugged her so tight he heard the breath leave her lungs in one heavy pulse, but he couldn't let go, wouldn't ever let go.
Aled gently pried him free after a long moment, then sat on the side of the bed. He was a vision, wearing shem clothes that had to have come at a price that could have bought and sold the Magister Regulus' entire caravan. He knew then that Aled wasn't lying about being the Inquisitor; the Anchor's magic felt like a fourth person in their little space, pushing its way in between them as they looked at each other, really looked at each other, for the first time in years. It made hot pins and needles dig in to Cal's hands and feet, and he wondered at the thing's power even when it wasn't actively being used. Magister Regulus had spoken of it, of course, but being right next to it was a different thing from hearing.
"Cal, I'm going to try to keep this simple for right now because you're in shock. Aled and I...we switched bodies."
A laugh clawed free of his throat, an ugly thing like a hyena chewing through carrion.
"I knew it. This can't be real."
"It is," Aeron told him. Or was she Aled? Or...?
"We found a great power," Aled? told him. "That power allowed us to take the other's form. You...you remember the way things were for us."
He did. How could he forget? Aeron had been the most obvious in her misery, but Aled had suffered no less, though private, nervous Aled would never let Cal see the extent of his pain.
"And now? Who are you now?" His head spun, and it wasn't all from the shock.
"I was once Aeron," the person wearing Aled's face told him, "and now I am Amjad. The Inquisitor, by some cruel twist of fate."
"And I was once Aled," the person wearing Aeron's face added, "now I am Aislinn. And I am free. I have the right body. I needn't obsess over ancient rituals and forgotten magics to change us anymore; we found what we needed."
"Then...what will happen to me?" Would this new person, this Amjad, care for him? Would he have Aeron's qualities and personality, even wearing Aled's skin?
"Oh Cal, we will take you back to our stronghold and care for you, of course," Aislinn told him. He studied every inch of her, those long slender fingers, her lambent amethyst eyes with the gold flecks that would always pick out a child of Riona. Now that he had found himself in friendly hands, memories of the clan bubbled up inside him whether he wanted them or not. Riona, with her thick, black hair, her clever hands, her musical voice that could effortlessly tell even the most obscure of their clan stories. Riona, a werewolf, dead on the ground filled with arrows. He with the other children hiding under the aravel, Aeron with her little herb knife out ready to defend them, even though she had been only eight winters old then.
"I'm so sorry we didn't come for you sooner, ma vhenan," Amjad told him, and he felt Amjad's soothing hand on his forehead. "But we never forgot you. I promise you that."
The sobs came then, even uglier than his laugh. Amjad and Aislinn crawled in to the bed with him, pressing their bodies against his, wrapping their arms around him, and he wept until he had nothing left. Sleep took him then, Aislinn's lullaby soft in his ear.
Chapter 13: Rarity
Cal comes to Skyhold and Amjad deals with being hurt.
There's some brief sexy times at the end.
They bore Cal through the gates on a stretcher snatched from the last Inquisition camp they'd passed on their way back to the fortress--Skyhold, as he'd heard them say as they spoke over his prone body--and the mountain air cleared his nose and lungs of that foul desert smell. The chill air coiled around him; If he never again felt the merciless heat roll over those endless dunes, it would be too soon.
A healer bent over him as soon as they stepped inside--he knew by the way she smelled, as if Sylaise's hand had reached down from the heavens to bless her--a woman with pale skin and a thick black braid. Riona? No, that name belonged in the past, like a toppled cairn made illegible by winter weather. Regina, that was it. He heard Aer--Amjad say it, Amjad's voice tight with concern as he gave Regina the bare details of what they knew about the abuses Magister Regulus had considered a matter of course. They'd forced Amjad on to the other stretcher, or more accurately the human mage in the fancy robe had made hound dog eyes at him until Amjad had given up and laid down.
Out of the noxious soup that was people's words, and smells, and bustling around, he got the idea that they were going to take him somewhere for treatment. He had little strength but he used what he did have to sit up.
"No! Don't take me away!"
He couldn't stand the idea of being alone with all these shems, not without Amjad or Aislinn to protect him. Aislinn came to his side a moment later, taking his hand.
"It's all right, da'len," she said, "lie back down and I'll come with you."
At first he thought she had Aeron's voice (what other voice would it be?), but with her controlling the body her tone had changed. She spoke to him in a soothing stream of soft Elvish, her statements laden with emotion even when her words were simple. She held herself differently too. When Amjad had controlled the body, he'd often raised his head in defiance, his back as straight and unbreakable as a Keeper's staff, gaze blazing. Aislinn instead glided across the courtyard, her gestures fairy-like, light yet with a strange, otherworldly quality. She was the rabbit to Amjad's wolf, the halla to his hawk.
"What are they going to do to me?"
He gritted, sick with suspicion even though Aislinn had kept her promise, keeping pace with his stretcher as they entered the place of healing. Though it smelled passingly familiar thanks to some of the herbs they were using, nothing else seemed right. To go in to some covered over, cramped shem building instead of lying in a healing circle with the clan dancing around him felt wrong, and he doubted that he would recover here. How could he without the clan spirits to help him? (He hardly thought the crude attention Magister Regulus had given him after bleeding him counted, either). Maybe these people would take what they wanted from him as soon as Amjad and Aislinn weren't looking. He glanced over; Amjad looked in no shape to intervene, curled up on one of the beds, hugging himself tightly.The other healers, people he guessed were under Regina, were trying to get him to relax enough that they could figure out how bad things were. He'd been hurt in the fight, Cal knew that much. Over the several days and nights it had taken to travel back to Skyhold, at least a couple of mages had done little else but heal. He wondered who in all the hells the shem mage primarily responsible was; tall and thin, he had a certain grace to the way he moved, but Cal didn't miss the tightness to his slightly rounded shoulders or the troubled look in his big sea-green eyes. He had a dark beauty to him, pale skin and true-black hair. That very beauty made Cal shy away; magisters were often beautiful. Nor did he miss the way the man stayed practically glued to Amjad's side, wringing his delicate hands, his mussed hair against his wan skin making him look even more tired and anxious than he likely was.
Which is saying something. He's slinking around like a beaten animal.
"Help you," Aislinn said firmly. "This isn't like..." She made a small, guttural noise, as if forcing her statements past a stone lodged against her vocal cords, "we're different from the Magister and his lackeys. I promise you. No one here will harm even a single hair on your head."
He considered that and found he could accept it, for now. Amjad would never let that kind of violation stand, gut wound or no gut wound; he should never have doubted. Still, he couldn't calm down and he was so stiff from fear when they tried to shift him from the stretcher the attendants just grabbed his limbs and set him on the bed like a starfish.
Regina bent over him and he found himself turning to her, praying that she would be kind.
"Hello, Calledan. You're in a bad way, my dear."
Her voice held no guile, but then again Magister Regulus could also make himself seem harmless when it suited him. He thought he could hear angry Tevene in the background, but he dismissed it as little more than a left over torment, visited on him by his already taxed mind. He chose to focus on this agent of Sylaise instead, hoping she would anchor him to what was real. Whatever that was.
"Water?" He asked, just now realizing how dry he was. They brought it to him, and he couldn't detect any drugs in it. He took the risk and drank it. Kaffas, how long had it been since he'd had a full, cool drink of water, water with no sedatives, water with no tricks in it?
The relief the water afforded him also made him aware of how utterly exhausted he was. That and he'd long left mere hunger behind and had entered the realm of starvation, where he no longer felt the simple urge to eat. Instead he felt a kind of dangerous euphoria, the kind that could kill. At a certain point the only thing an abused body could do in response was try to make the process of enduring and perhaps dying a little less awful. He feared he'd crossed that threshold some time ago.
"I'd like to give you some elixirs," Regina said, and he scuttled away from her and balled up near the head of the cot. Not her too!
"No! No potions." He'd spent so much time drugged with Magister Regulus. It was only luck that he wasn't a mage; mages weren't just drugged, but turned in to mindless pets. Aislinn knelt beside the bed, showing her palms as if to reassure him that she wasn't hiding anything from him.
"Please, Cal. You're sick. I'll stay right beside you."
He heard, but he couldn't accept it. He wept through the process, too weary to protest, the taste of the brew at least palatable. That familiar lassitude came in to his limbs and he uncurled some, his head too heavy to hold up. Aislinn crawled in to the cot with him, and huddled against her he found enough peace that he could drift off to something resembling sleep.
When he woke, he found Amjad at his bedside. Aislinn had gone, probably trading off with her brother so that he needn't go without a familiar face. He found it difficult to focus on Amjad, what with the Mark so close. Body switching aside, it was all that old, wild magic that made understanding what had become of his friend so hard.
"Cal, you're awake. How do you feel? Do you need anything?"
"I'm fine, lethallin." His voice still came out in a croak half the time, and when he devolved in to a coughing fit Amjad supplied him with more water until it passed. He let Amjad convince him to drink some hearty broth, too. The potions had done something to ease his hunger, but he knew he needed real food.
"Fine, he says." Amjad snorted.
"What about you? You took a blade in the guts."
"I'll be all right. Gabriel's healing plus a flight of some of the best brewed potions available have done wonders." An awkward silence stretched between them, and Cal wasn't about to break it. It was Amjad that spoke first, finally: "I...da'len, I'm so sorry we didn't come for you sooner. The Keeper wouldn't spare the hunters for it. I raged at her, Creators, the things I said. She would not be moved. Andra and the others, we wanted to find you anyway. But the Keeper declared that our aravels were to move on that night. It was agree or be left behind."
"You escaped." Cal could remember it now, the way he was starting to remember many things from his life before now that he found himself in Amjad and Aislinn's care. "I remember, Al--Aislinn had a rope around h--her neck, and you cut her free."
"As the slaver was dragging her away. I remember it. Indeed, I think I shall never forget it. To this day I am sorry my dagger missed that shem bastard's eye." Amjad's face twisted up in a scowl; how odd seeing Aeron's expression on what had been Aled's face.
"They...they..." Cal said, trying to explain to Amjad what he had experienced being tied and subdued, loaded in to a slaver's wagon, blindfolded, gagged. He couldn't, as if he had a geas preventing him from speaking. Amjad took his hand. Amjad had knife calluses that rubbed against Cal's skin, and the Mark prickled along his nerve endings. But still, Cal's heart fluttered at that touch, and the gorge that had risen along with the memories eased.
"It's all right, Cal. You don't have to explain it. If at some point you wish to speak on it I will listen, but you don't owe it to me. Just know that we will keep you safe here."
"I still can't believe it," he whispered, studying the featureless ceiling. He felt glad it wasn't the wagon, but he wished for an aravel. "And you the Inquisitor. They spoke of you. The Magister and his underlings."
"I hope I strike abject terror in to their black hearts," Amjad snarled, his face like a rabid wolf's, all teeth and deadly promise.
"You did. You do. No one would ever say as much, but...I knew. I learned to hear their joys, their slightest annoyances. Their fear." All could mean danger for him, if he reacted incorrectly. Survival had made him cagey, if nothing else could be said for him.
Amjad's fingers were in his hair then, gently combing it back from his face. Cal felt an unfamiliar expression cross his lips, looking up at his clanmate; a smile.
"When I am done, all of Tevinter, every slaver from here to the Waking Sea and beyond, will fear me and mine." Amjad said. Amjad had a way of speaking where it was impossible to disagree when he felt strongly about something. When truly serious, his voice lowered and intensity made him still and quiet. If anyone knew the dangers of such conviction, it was Cal. Of course Magister Regulus had his angry moments--shouting, the little table tipping and sending rumpled scrolls in to every corner, a cruel hand on his neck--but worse were the times that began in cold silence.
"I believe you." He whispered. He found himself distracted by Amjad's presence, maybe because he was trying to find some spark of Aeron's still alive and burning in there somewhere. "I...I missed you."
Amjad winced. That wasn't the reaction Cal expected and definitely not what he hoped for.
"I...of course I missed you, Cal." Amjad said, and the carefulness in his tone made Cal want to lash out in a sudden fit of jealousy and rage at what had been taken from him. He knew right then, Amjad had given his heart to someone else, or had at the very least outgrown their old life, outgrown him. For a moment, he felt hatred; Amjad and Aislinn hadn't spent the years they'd all been apart as worthless slaves, good only for blood and as a warm place to spend one's lust. How dare they move on?
The Mark leapt under his palm and the anger evaporated. To bear such a thing...he wouldn't wish it on anyone. He knew it gave Amjad terrible power, even the power to slash open the Veil to hear the Magister talk, but the burden? Knowing only he could save Thedas? And, if he knew Amjad, caring little for Thedas to being with. What after all had Thedas ever done for the Elvhen?
"Are you scared?" He found himself asking, turning Amjad's hand up to study the borders of the Anchor. It whirled like a sandstorm, kicked up by who knew what. Amjad met his eyes, and though Amjad's gaze was level he said,
"I'm terrified." Amjad told him, turning to stare at nothing. He looked his nineteen winters then, an Elvhen youth tossed amidst all of these fool shems with no guidance and little support. Again, the silence stretched between them but this time it was Cal that broke it:
"Is it Gabriel?"
Amjad turned to look at him, surprise in his expression.
"Your new love," Cal whispered, chest seizing. It hurt even to say, and an answering pain echoed in Amjad's dismayed face.
"Cal...no it's not Gabriel, though Gabriel has been good to me since he arrived at Skyhold. Let us...let us leave this conversation for when you are well. Suffice to say I didn't choose another lightly." He paused, clearly struggling. "I could never have done it before, been with you, the way I was. You remember."
He did, he found, when he turned his mind to it and dragged memories free of the black ocean his past had become. They'd been young then, kaffas, how long had he been in Magister Regulus' chains? At least two winters. He would have counted by summers, thanks to the desert climate, but summer there had no obvious end.
They'd been out in the woods alone, and their hunt had soon turned to awkward kissing, hares and deer forgotten. He could still remember the thrill that had gone through him when he'd dared to reach under her robe, his fingers on the bare skin of her thighs. It had gone no further; she'd pushed him away, disappeared in to the forest to hide.
"You weren't happy," he tried. He understood the power of whatever curse it was that had befallen Aeron and Aled, but he couldn't know its ins and outs the way they did.
"That is a massive understatement, ma falon." Amjad said, hands clasped in front of him, back bent. "It wasn't because of you. I loved you. I still love you, even if it's a different love. I was never going to be a good bondmate. I was never going to settle down with you or any other hunter, never going to make strong Elvhen babies and be the blasted Keeper. I'm sorry," Amjad said, sighing a heavy sigh. "It wasn't my destiny, I suppose."
Cal took Amjad's hand this time, ignoring the mark as much as he could.
"I just hope whoever..." he choked up, the emotions still powerful. "Whoever you're with, that they appreciate you."
"You wouldn't approve, but...yes. I would say they do." He wouldn't approve? He didn't like the sound of that but he didn't press; he didn't really want to know. "Regardless," Amjad added, "you are our clanmate and we will make sure you never want for anything. More than that..."
The shadows around the fire came to life in his mind, hulking werewolf shapes that loomed over what light the clan had cultivated to keep them safe through the night. Hiding under the aravel as the halla screamed and arrows blackened the sky. He could still see the bodies, heads severed, split open and gore everywhere. He, Aeron, Aled, and the rest of the children hiding, Aeron with her little blade in hand as if she could kill even a werewolf with it. Beyond clanmates, the bond that had been forged then bound them even tighter than being clan Brangwen.
"I know, lethallin."
"I wish I could stay at your side day and night, but my station doesn't allow for such niceties," Amjad grumbled, maybe trying to put the memory out of his head, "but Aislinn and I will try and spend as much time with you as we can. You can trust Regina, even though she's a shem. When you're feeling better, you might go and speak to Commander Cullen. I...from what I know of him, he might be able to relate."
"Commander Cullen?" He said, incredulous. A human, probably, and with a fancy title besides.
"He was involved in the Kirkwall rebellion and not always on the right side. You should ask him about it. But I have judged him to be a good man, and he has proved indispensable for the Inquisition's efforts."
Amjad always spoke like a First, with fancy words and a measured voice, and Cal had to concentrate to keep up.
"Maybe," he allowed, though he couldn't imagine going to find some big important shem on his own.
"Try to sleep, ma vhenan. I will return to you as soon as I can."
Amjad went so far as to kiss his fingers, and he tried to ignore the feelings it conjured up. Eventually, exhaustion took him.
"Kaffas, Amjad," Dorian said as Amjad emerged from the infirmary. Amjad stumbled and caught himself on the door jamb, clammy and pale. "You aren't well enough to be up and about." He went over to help keep Amjad on his feet, putting his arm around Amjad's shoulders. He thought he could safely explain that away later if anyone asked, though what he dearly wanted to do was pick Amjad up bodily and carry him all the way back to his quarters.
"Well, what was I going to do? Have you there with me?"
"Yes, well. I can imagine how that might have turned out. Evil Tevinter Magister and all that rot."
"Just so. Now help me back to my room, will you? If you can stand to."
There was a barb on Amjad's tongue, one that he certainly deserved.
"I will." He said, short. There was nothing to be gained by returning that bitterness in kind, but he wasn't so evolved as to do otherwise.
"Dorian." Amjad's tone made him look down, to find the elf watching him with unblinking eyes. They were alone, Dorian realized, a rare moment of privacy. Dorian felt rooted to the spot as Amjad's arms wound gently around his neck, so aware of their closeness, Amjad's warmth despite the wound sapping the vitality from Amjad's body. Kaffas, when things like this happened, his wits went right out the window. All he could do was hold Amjad tight in return, his cheeks flushing as he realized his arousal was a little more ardent than was acceptable in polite company. The kiss was inevitable, soft, yet hot enough to burn.
"You shouldn't have done it," Dorian whispered when they parted.
"Emma lath, you would have died. You know that I must protect you."
Amjad let him go and Dorian turned his attention once again to helping Amjad back to the room. They made it through the courtyard without being accosted--Dorian was doing his best arrogant Tevinter noble impression, which tended to put people off in a variety of hilarious ways (he particularly enjoyed it when Mother Giselle made that face as if she'd just tasted gone off milk)--and then in to the Great Hall. Varric looked as if he would come over to them, his lips pursed in a sour look. He thought better of it, apparently, and let them go without comment. Merciful Andrastae, but Dorian didn't want to speak to anyone at a time like this.
The blast of winter air that hit him in the face when they made it past the door and in to the room proper helped clear his thoughts; Maker, but Amjad could have died. Died, while he was face down in the blasted sand without a drop of mana to his name. The sense of helplessness made his guts tie up in a pert little bow of misery and anger. He wrangled Amjad on to the bed; the walk had taken most of Amjad's energy. He looked grey under his dark skin, ashy with pain and weariness.
"Let me see it," Dorian said, crawling up on to the bed with him. He started to take Amjad's clothes off with shaking hands. Amjad laughed, but there was little sexual motivation in it. He wanted to see the wound, reassure himself that Amjad was going to be all right. Amjad obliged and wriggled out of what little he had on. Dorian ran his fingers over the white bandage, red at its edges. Damn, still bleeding. He could scarcely think through the panic. Him, a battle mage of incomparable skill (if he did say so himself) and here he was on the verge of blubbering like a child.
He started when Amjad took his hand, drawing it away from the wound.
"I will be all right. Some bleeding is normal. Regina said so."
"You...I thought...for a moment. Kaffas!" He couldn't speak, blast it all.
"I know." Amjad reached up to caress the line of his jaw, those hands so rough from killing over and over again, the dagger hilt wielded in such a sure grip it was an extension of Amjad's arm. "I'm sorry for worrying you."
Dorian frowned. "You enjoyed it, didn't you?" He accused, seeing that subtle quality to Amjad's expression that reminded him of a young mage who had just mastered a difficult spell.
"Well, not the blade in the guts, no. But it's rare to find another Tempest as skilled as I am. The chance to match wits, technique...Mythal, so thrilling! And I won. That dirty bastard is hyena food and I'm here to fight another day. To love you another day."
Dorian just shook his head. Trying to control Amjad would be as foolish as trying to tame a wyvern, he knew that, but sometimes he wished Amjad had chosen something else. A bow, maybe. (While he knew how to use one he never did in combat). At least then he wouldn't be in the thick of it, breaking flasks and going hand to hand with the enemy.
Amjad pulled him down to lie on the bed.
"Dorian, stop it. Here, help me change the dressing."
That, he could do. He followed Amjad's directions, dipping in to the bag of supplies Regina had sent. He shied away from the sight of the open wound. It was his little secret; gore made him light headed. Still, he worked through it, though he was sure he looked like he was about to pass out, much to his chagrin. First, the poultice, an herb paste that stained his fingers green-black, the smell permeating everything; he doubted Amjad would ever get the medicinal scent out of his bedclothes. Then, the bandage, clean, fresh. It did him good to see that unmarred white. He taped it down, careful not to put undue pressure on Amjad's already taxed body.
"There. You did well." Amjad told him, giving his hand a squeeze. Dorian went to the washbasin to clean off, still shivering. He came back and was about to crawl in to bed when Amjad said, "take those clothes off, emma lath. You won't want to sleep in them."
He did as told, shucking his clothing and leaving it draped over the nearest chair. He'd never quite broken the habit; his whole life, servants would have swept in silently to fold his clothing within moments. He stretched out next to Amjad, his hand resting oh so lightly on the bandage, a reminder that Amjad would heal. Amjad couldn't move much, but his hands still worked and he used them readily, one in Dorian's hair, the other trailing over the flat plane of his belly.
"What? I can't fuck you but I can still bring you some pleasure, if you want it." A moment where he couldn't manage a response, Amjad laughing. Amjad's laughter never hurt. It had joy in it, and love. Gentle teasing. Perversely, it made Dorian calm down, lose some of his shame about such an act when his amatus was badly hurt. "You look so scandalized," Amjad finished.
"I don't know if I will ever get used to your loose tongue." Happiness suffused him, blunting the shock, the little stinger of shame that pierced his soft emotions. Amjad's touch, when he reached Dorian's cock, was gentle.
"Do you want it, emma lath?" Amjad asked him, eyes lambent with emotion. Amjad could be a cold blooded killer, but whenever they were together he was sweet, the picture of compassion. Those eyes that could hold so much cold hatred were always warm, when fixed on him. He felt himself grow hard in Amjad's grip; how could he do otherwise? Here, locked away in Amjad's quarters, he could forget his fears and worries, and his body responded in kind.
"Always," Dorian told him, gazing back at him like some lovestruck idiot. It was hard to keep the smile off of his face, a thing his father certainly would have scolded him for; being too expressive was a problem in Tevinter. The kind of problem that could end with your death if you expressed your feelings to the wrong person. Soon Amjad was stroking him, all but demanding an orgasm from him. He was so good with his hands it was a crime, and he knew all the ins and outs of Dorian's desires. Again the thought of what Cole had said came unbidden, Amjad promising him he would fulfill his darkest wants. The very idea was enough to undo him and in no time he was crying out and thrusting in to Amjad's fist, the orgasm taking him over.
When it was done Amjad looked as satisfied as if he'd had an orgasm too. Offering pleasure made Amjad as happy as if he were receiving, and Dorian felt as if all his troubles had been smoothed away by something as simple as this had been. Amjad had that effect on him.
"I'm sorry I can't reciprocate, amatus." He murmured, tired already. The stress of the day and then a good orgasm were more than enough to lull him in to a doze.
"Oh, don't worry. I doubt I'd enjoy it much anyway, emma lath. Go to sleep."
And sleep he did, content. Before he'd thought his quick couplings and his first romance, aborted by his father's sellswords, were the best he could aspire to. He had learned to expect only the rush of forbidden sex. Contentment? That was new. Rare. And now that he knew it was possible, he would fight to keep the memory close to his heart.
Chapter 14: A Trail of Honey
Dorian ventures in to the Fade, Cullen and Calledan meet
Though falling asleep had been pleasant--well rather more than pleasant, thanks to Amjad's quick fingers--his dream was markedly less so. A moment's confusion only and then as certain as the moon at night: the Fade. Dorian knew it well, despite never having to endure something as backward and cruel as a Harrowing. He'd never been taught to fear the Fade, only to master it. Thanks to that mastery, he felt the familiar weight of his staff in his hand, and the surge of mana within him. His very aura repelled those lesser spirits that might have otherwise tried to beguile or bedevil him, and his barrier took care of yet more.
Slowly, Skyhold's reflection came in to being the same way blown glass took shape, molten, featureless mana gathered up and forced outward by his will. He was no somniari, not truly--if he were a mere thought would have reshaped the Fade completely. His Skyhold wasn't a perfect replica, therefore; other things in the Fade, and even the Fade itself, still held sway over certain aspects of his perception. He found himself in the courtyard, though the grass had become brittle, jagged and bright like a child's drawing. It burst apart under his feet, motes of crystal dust dancing before his eyes. A quick scan told him that none of the other mages had found themselves here alongside him; why not? Were all Southern mages so frightened of that which lay beyond?
Surely Vivienne at least wouldn't eschew the Fade. Not for those reasons.
Then again, for those who were not somniari or those who hadn't bothered with the Fade other than to avoid it, they would have little incentive to come here. For all of Madame de Fer's strengths she had a black and white view of magery, and perhaps would have considered it simple good sense to sleep restfully like a normal person.
Which you would also benefit from, you idiot.
He made his way towards the Great Hall, though its windows irised in and out, throwing kaleidoscope shapes and patterns on to the steps below. Within, he found the wraith-like impressions of the souls that dwelt here during waking hours. The vast majority of those that lived within these walls were not mages and could never be anything but passive, receiving dreams and nightmares in turn and able to do little but endure.
Chilly uncertainty settled in his belly. Where was Cole? If nothing else, the spirit should be here. Why, the boy was literally carved from Fade stuff; nothing should have kept him from coming over to say hello. And yet...no, only impressions, bare echoes of laughter or weeping, moving stiffly and enacting the habits of their daytime selves as if ordered to do then again ad again by an overbearing choreographer.
He picked up the pace, heading for Amjad's quarters. Here, branches erupted from the floor and trellised around the entrance, greenery carpeting the stones beneath his feet. He put his hand on the latch, and only then did he realize that there was a wolf's image burned in to the wood. Its jaws hung open, the teeth glittering. He came up the stairs, the delicate shell around Amjad's magery whirling in the back of his mind. He could see it, too, here in the Fade. So artfully constructed! Far beyond the skill of any Dalish Keeper, he thought, though of course he'd never voiced such an opinion to Amjad or Aislinn. Yet it was delicate, as if time had slowly peeled back its layers like a Minrathous dancer shimmying out of her veils. Inside, he could perceive all that imprisoned mana, swirling with possibility. One day, it would crack open. He could only hope he would be there when it did.
Could it be? Is that why I'm here?
What had compelled him to enter the Fade?
Amjad rose from the bed when he entered the room proper, and his questions suddenly seemed less important. Some part of him still wondered at seeing Amjad so fully realized; it wasn't impossible, but usually untrained sensitives couldn't control their Fade selves this well. His breath caught at the way the sheet slipped from Amjad's form, leaving him nude. No matter all the times they'd made love, just the sight stole Dorian's remaining senses. Well, not all of them.
He brought his staff to bear in front of him, his other hand outstretched. A spell waited there, and a moment later he cast it as easily as if he'd merely opened his hand and let a feather drift to the floor.
"Show your true nature, if you are other than you seem." It was a good invocation, a powerful one, and it had kept him from being possessed more than once. Amjad only smiled at him, an indulgent look.
"And who else would I be, in the middle of Skyhold?"
His amatus had a point. Every mage could feel the power inherent in the very foundation of the place, old conjurings atop still older. He came a little closer, entranced not only by Amjad himself but by his surroundings, as if Amjad were one of those erotic paintings found in the drawing rooms of naughty old dowagers. He'd always quite liked those--he'd helped Amjad choose the one over the fireplace--passing his interest off as the usual nattering about art styles and ahem brush strokes one often devolved in to at boring parties.
"You have an uncommon Fade self, you know."
Amjad looked down at himself, then held Dorian's gaze, grinning fit to show his canines. Dorian rolled his eyes, but he had meant to include all of Amjad's attributes.
Amjad crossed the distance between them, arms winding gently around Dorian's neck as was his wont. He had to stand on his toes to do it, and the position inherently involved their bodies pressed together. Dorian shifted his position, putting his arms around Amjad--staff forgotten--and tightening his embrace such that he almost took the little elf off his feet. It was beastly difficult to resist Amjad on a regular basis, but here in the Fade even moreso. Yet he hesitated, too well trained to completely throw caution to the wind.
"Worried I'm a demon?" Amjad teased, murmuring in to his ear. It sounded preposterous put like that, and the warm words aroused more than just his feelings.
"Can you blame me?" He kept his words light; if Amjad was indeed a demon, provoking it would do no good. Amjad's fingers tangled up in his hair, and the kiss just behind and under his ear made him shiver. A demon who knew him very well, then.
"No, of course not." Amjad said, stepping back and taking his hands. "What sort of trials would you have me complete? Questions you'd like to know the answers to? I'm afraid I don't know what a mage does to prove the presence of a demon."
Hm. Amjad did know the basics, though granted he wasn't as informed as he might have been had he taken up the official title of First, his talent for magery fully developed. The Dalish didn't obsess about and fret over demons the way humans often did, either.
Amjad led him towards the bed while he was still sorting through his thoughts, and he found himself allowing it out of long habit. Surely, if there was a threat here, it would have made itself known by now? What was the point of stringing him along like this? His higher mind whispered to him about desire demons striking at the height of orgasm, or after fully convincing a victim that their lover had rejected them (or any number of other cruelties), but the situation was too tempting, Amjad was too tempting. They'd never taken full advantage of the Fade before, and he couldn't help but wonder what lovemaking might be like here.
He wondered when he'd stopped referring to it as mere sex.
In the end, it was all too easy to give in.
Cullen looked up from the mess of scrolls on his desk, half unfurled and tossed about as if his office were a ship on the high seas. He had no one to blame for the clutter but himself, however, and once again he resolved to deal with it once he was better rested. If better rested never came to be, well, he needn't answer to anyone about the state of his quarters. It wasn't as if he was sharing them with anyone else.
His day had slowly turned to night with no respite. He had finally taken a moment for himself, standing up to relieve a cramp in his neck when the side door opened, hard enough to send a dusting of loose plaster down from the hole in the ceiling.
"Maker, what is the meaning of--"
Sergeant Riley stood there mouth agape, hand outstretched. A moment later, Cullen saw the elf child in the midst of jerking away from Riley's grip, only to discover he'd been forced deeper in to the office due to his efforts to escape. He had no vallaslin and his features were obscured by a rat's nest of flaxen hair, yet it wasn't difficult to guess who this might be: Calledan, recently liberated from some Maker forsaken slave caravan. The report had come across his desk just that morning.
At least Riley had the sense to close the door quietly; he thought that at any moment the poor thing before him would dive under his desk like a feral cat, hissing and spitting all the while. Calledan turned a pair of wide eyes on him; he was so terrified Cullen couldn't make out their color. He stammered something in a language Cullen couldn't understand, though by his posture Cullen guessed it was an apology.
"It is quite all right," he said, coming around to the front of his desk slowly, holding his hands out, palm up. "You must be frightened, being so newly rescued. No one will hurt you here."
Calledan looked here and there, assessing possible avenues of escape no doubt. Riley had closed the door and the main entrance stood barred. Apparently the elf wasn't willing to chance the ladder, either. Likely he would have been rather disappointed to find a bed, a table, and not much else, if he had.
"You're Cullen." The voice made him readjust Calledan's age. Despite his size, Calledan had to be at least sixteen. Cullen could well remember his own bumbling efforts to live up to manhood, his voice breaking and cracking the most whenever he'd been called upon to handle roll call or public prayers. Branson used to tell him he had all the grace of a newborn foal, especially after that incident where he'd tripped over the horn cleat on the family dock and ended up in the lake instead of in the boat. Cal had left those awkward strivings behind not only because of mere age, however; he had a certain steely, survivor quality about his thin frame and the cast of his face, even as upset as he was.
"I am. And you must be Calledan. The Inquisitor's clanmate."
"Amjad told me about you." Calledan said, poised on his toes as if he might need to flee at a moment's notice.
"Did he? Good things, I hope."
Calledan gave him a plainly hostile look instead of answering. Clearly some defiance had survived, despite years of suffering under a Magister's yoke. Cullen leant against his desk, trying to convey an easy manner. Showing tension would be a mistake, as a slave might well interpret any such cues as the precursor to...well. It didn't bear considering.
"Why are you out and about at these hours?" Cullen tried, "are you troubled?" A stupid question, really; of course he would be. Still he didn't have much to work with, and he only hoped he could keep Calledan from bolting out in to the night.
"Can't sleep. What about you?" He asked pointedly.
"Sleep can be...elusive, when you have my duties. Josephine would say I have "poor work-life balance." Partly a lie; nightmares had as much to do with it as work did.
He wondered if he should offer Cal some of the candy from the bowl at his elbow. He worried it might come across as a test of some kind, though when Calledan's stomach rumbled audibly he did so anyway. Calledan fixed him with a mistrustful stare, and now that the initial panic had worn off he could see that Calledan had eyes the color of a drake's scales, foiled, gleaming green.
Calledan grunted, looking between him and the bowl as if trying to decide if he could make off with the contents before a punishment came down on his head. A moment longer and he scuttled forward like a spider--hesitating for a moment only at the shock of soft carpet on his bare feet--cramming candy in to his mouth with both hands.
"You'll make yourself sick," Cullen told him, his spirits dampened by such obvious need. When was the last time Calledan had eaten a full meal? Disgust at Venatori barbarism made him suppress the urge to gag; he could imagine all those hungry nights with nothing but dust in his mouth. Calledan paused and backed away as if he'd been given an order, and there was a wary quality to his hunched posture. "Look, I was just about to go to the kitchens. Why don't you come with me?"
"You...you can just go and get food? Whenever you want it?" Calledan said, so incredulous it was as if he were being deliberately lied to.
"In Skyhold, everyone eats their fill. Including you, if you'd like."
"...this isn't a trick?"
"No," Cullen said, trying not to show how the words had hollowed out his insides. "I think you'll find Skyhold to be overall a safe place."
Calledan considered him for a long moment and Cullen stood solid under the scrutiny; he figured he owed Calledan that much. Calledan nodded then, apparently deciding he liked whatever he had divined. Cullen came forward to open the main door, throwing the bar and hauling on the knob; the door liked to stick in the frame every time the weather changed. He walked out in to the night air, and thankfully Calledan followed without protest.
"You write?" Calledan said as they negotiated the staircase.
"What?" He asked, then realized Cal must have seen the missives littering his workspace. "Oh, I do. The Chantry teaches its templars letters and numbers, at least the basics. And you?"
"No. Why would I?"
"I apologize. I wasn't sure..."
"I wasn't that kind of slave," Cal said, his voice hard. "They didn't care for anything but my blood and my body."
Something about the phrasing made Cullen stumble, then come to a shaky halt. Sweet Andrastae, not now. He could hardly let himself panic in front of Calledan of all people, so newly freed. Certainly Calledan hadn't enjoyed all the benefits he had, time to heal, a new role he could be proud of....a shudder went through him and he blinked, looking around as if just now realizing they were on their way to the kitchens. He felt Calledan's gaze on him, was too aware of it, in fact. Could those keen Elvhen eyes see the tremble in his hands, the harsh flush to his cheeks? Certainly he didn't look equal to his title; he couldn't have.
"Amjad told me to talk to you," Calledan said, a repeat of what he'd offered by way of explanation back in the office. But this was different, the tone was different, as if Calledan was just now understanding the why.
"I'm sure he did," Cullen heard himself say, lifting his hand to wipe at his brow. "I...don't know what it is to be a slave, but I...empathize. Let us leave it at that for now."
He set his feet on the path again and blessedly Calledan followed without question. He'd already intended to spend his night tucked up beside the ovens, letting the warmth sink in to his joints, joints that were more and more stiff, more and more painful, with every passing day, with every swallow of lyrium. Why not let Calledan enjoy it too? He wasn't so private as to exclude someone in need from his little rituals. With the lightest of hands, he guided Calledan through the Great Hall and down the passageway to the baker's station.
Chapter 15: Their Plain Bread
There was no greater pleasure than Solas buried to the hilt inside her, reminding her that every inch of her new body could feel, that it belonged to her and only her. Aislinn arched under him, those uncommon eyes --the color of the rain-slick cliffs of the Storm Coast--gazing in to hers, her finger describing the curve of his delicate ear. She loved to make studious, reserved Solas lose control, and she knew all of his tender places, all of his fantasies, needs, wants. She drew her knees up so that every thrust pierced her deep enough to ache, Solas drawing an audible breath; he always preferred to take her as if they were mating animals rutting together, once she'd stripped away his defenses and offered herself up so utterly that he couldn't help but give in to her, claim her.
They'd all but tumbled in to bed as soon as they'd reached her little room in the mage tower, the drowsiness that had overcome them while studying together in the rotunda--her fingers still stained with ink--quickly fading as if it had never been. Her little bed, covered in the lovingly crafted Dalish blanket she'd taken from home, barely accommodated them. Yet they found space, limbs intertwined, curled in to each other as if they were one being like they sometimes were in the Fade. She all but purred as an orgasm built within her, clenching tight around Solas' cock such that she could tell he had little control left, too.
"Don't hold back," she whispered, trying to communicate so much in just one silly understatement of an expression; the expressions available to her all seemed paltry and sketchy, banal and superficial compared to the depths of her love for him. At times in their relationship, at moments of great intimacy, Solas had retreated, his gaze shuttering over, his posture subtly conveying distance. She tried to hold him to this moment, doing whatever she could to keep him with her. "Stay with me."
"I am sorry, for ever making you doubt," he murmured, and a moment later he filled her with come, arching his back and thrusting into her with a silent growl on his lips. Creators, but it felt like life, no matter the precautions she'd taken, as if he were filling her up with light.
So close to her own release...unbidden, sudden horror burst open in her brain like a cluster headache, making her scream for an entirely different reason than the one of only a moment before. To her disgust the orgasm happened anyway but the cold magic writhing inside her made it a thing she didn't want, wrenched from her unwilling body by a force she couldn't yet understand. Solas pulled away, pulled out, and she sobbed at what felt like a blade pulled from her guts. She shot bolt upright in bed, vision obscured by the Fade, pouring over her in a flood. She sensed Solas' hand on hers, the only anchor to sanity. He grabbed, pulled, and through the Veil they went, like being born.
Aislinn came through in to the Fade howling, half in her body, half in every form she'd ever taken in lighter moments. She felt her muzzle elongate, her hands crimp in to paws. Only being a Dreamer kept her from transforming completely; with a swelling of pure will, she fought down all the things she could have become.
She stood, using the groundswell of resolve to bring her staff to her hand. She leant in to it, panting. She wore only a simple dress the color of bruised blackberries, though the lack of armor did not concern her; having no blade did. A moment later and one rested in its sheath on her hip, close to her hand. She drew it, the halla horn handle sending a vital thrum through her wrist and arm. She looked around for Solas and a moment later he appeared beside her, equally wary, pursing his lips in disapproval.
Aislinn could sense her brother here, his caged magery gleaming. She reached for it, for him, and a black web of foul magic tried to catch and consume her. She knew then.
The knife sunk in to her forearm. She had labored under a similar restriction as Amjad, until blood had split it open and her magery had surged in to her. It was of such strength she had raised an army of skeletons from the forest loam without a thought, the bones from hundreds of conflicts between the Elvhen and the shems. They had turned towards her, blank and ready for whatever command she might have given. But what could she do? They were useless. They had come too late.
She thought often about that moment, knowing that a fighting force such as that could have easily stood against Zathrian's folly. Why, only after so much had passed? No, fenedhis. She thought instead of what she had made possible; how many things had she accomplished with blood? Taking control of her own abilities, no small feat in itself, cracking and prying at that strange, old shell around her magic until it had disintegrated in a cloud of dust as old and as faded as Arlathan.
And even then, it couldn't change you. Either of you.
She shoved the thought aside. Now was not the time. Instead she let that twinge of remembered helplessness enrage her, enough to apply her will to the featureless Fade. She gave what she had felt context, surrounded it with shape and bound it with resolve. Solas raised his hands to his line of sight as if he held a tangible object, supporting her magic. The Fade was almost as biddable in his hands as hers, Veilfire unfolding the way his sketches took shape under his pen.
Her Skyhold lay blanketed in snow, imprisoned in ice as if this were a storybook tale about a castle frozen in time. Blood dripped from her fingertips, staining the virgin white under her feet. Solas came with her, silent; he knew as well as she that their new adversary had come for them again. As she climbed the steps to the Great Hall, he finally spoke:
"This...should not be possible. The magic here is old, powerful, the likes of which I have not seen even deep in the Fade. No demon should be able to overcome it, no matter her powers." His voice struck like flint against steel, iron bark arrowhead against bone.
"I will drive the worthless bitch from our stronghold, ma vhenan." Aislinn snarled, drawing the blade across her chest, parting the cloth, letting the edge sink in to the tender skin of her breast. She split the nipple, gasping at the pure red agony, trembling so badly so suddenly that she almost let the blade clatter to the landing. The more pain, the worse the suffering, the stronger her spells. Her body rebelled even here, the torment punching her in the gut. Yet the sigils that described her magery came to life around her, blood magic clinging to her hair, running down her belly in rivulets of primal secrets only one willing to cut off pieces of themselves could know.
The Great Hall yawned open before them, a black maw. Shadow obscured the details here, and her battle with Decadence began in earnest before they had even glimpsed one another, each of them struggling to control and form the Fade. She ripped at her own flesh without concern, the raw power rising, her necromancy calling up ghosts from the very stones. How many had lived and died at Skyhold, hopes, dreams, fears? At her command, they crashed through Decadence's barrier, rending the protections she had erected. Decadence's answering spell poured forth like a river of ichor, thick, choking power meant to ensnare. Solas yanked her away, and with but a wave of his hand the dire substance retreated.
"Go!" He told her, and she sprinted for the door to her brother's quarters. Surely he needed her; Decadence had motives too evil to consider.
She hit the door shoulder first, shoving it open as if she had twice the strength she normally enjoyed. She came in to the room in a burst of mana, Solas' barrier as intimate as his attentions earlier in the evening, hot against her skin. Decadence had made herself comfortable on Amjad's bed, lounging between Dorian and Amjad's still forms. Decadence held the shield around Amjad's magery, made a solid thing in the Fade. It glittered harshly against her birch-white hand, so fragile that if she but breathed on it, it would shatter.
Falon'Din, make your home in another's house, she thought, looking at two of the most important people in the world to her, so lifeless.
"Silly little blood mage," Decadence hissed, her face set in malevolent lines, made harsh by the glow from the orb. "Do you think mere suffering will drive me from this place? I have feasted my fill on suffering you could only imagine."
Aislinn found and held the foul creature's gaze. She drew the knife point down her face, splitting her cheek. She didn't move, or flinch. She wouldn't give Decadence the satisfaction. The power welled up within her and with a deft flick of her hand, she drew the orb from Decadence's grip. The demon stared at her, mouth agape in shock at such spellwork. She hid the orb in a pocket of Fade stuff, away from Decadence's touch.
"Whore," Decadence spit, "you only have so much blood."
The words made her realize the truth, and only Solas' energy, shared with her, kept her on her feet.
"You do not belong here," Solas intoned, and to Aislinn's surprise the demon recoiled. "Tell me, how did you manage to haunt this stronghold? No mere insect should find purchase in this place."
Decadence hissed at the insult, then turned her attention to Dorian and Amjad. They lay as if they had been embracing before Decadence had interfered, slithering between them as if she were a third lover come to join the orgy. Aislinn could see the perverse enjoyment she took at touching them, knowing they were in no position to resist, and she thought of the orgasm Decadence had stolen from her, imagined the grotesque demon consuming it like a pig eager for slop. Decadence pressed full length against Amjad, her visage mere inches from his face. Of course, what prize greater than possessing the Inquisitor? With no more thought than that Aislinn vaulted over the side of the bed and slammed in to her, staff and blade both forgotten. She and her adversary went over the far side of the bed in a heap, claws raking at her back and shoulders. Bespelled, Amjad and Dorian didn't stir even at such a commotion, but Solas acted so quickly it could scarcely be believed. The Fade itself rippled, heaved, and a battering ram of pure energy drove Decadence off of her and away. Aislinn scrambled to her feet--fenedhis, she had forgotten the knife, she needed to banish Decadence now--she raked her fingernails down her face as hard as she could. Blood magic leapt towards Decadence as if it were a sentient force, and Aislinn lifted her hand, pushing the spell, forcing the demon to flee.
When the Fade sealed at Decadence's departure, leaving them in silence, she collapsed in to Solas' waiting arms.
Chapter 16: Sugar and Spice
Thankfully, Calledan hadn't protested, even when navigating such a cramped passageway down to what could have easily been a dungeon. Maker, but how long had the poor boy spent locked up? Kept in a cage, or collared, struggling along at the end of a leash? Still, Calledan went ahead of him, even so. Wary, yes, but no more than that. Perhaps it had something to do with the aroma wafting up from the basement, currants dotted throughout a bread made fragrant with generous pinches of the finest saffron.
Cullen came in to the bakery and shucked his heavy coat, crafted from green Avaar wool. Recently Josephine had finally worn him down on the subject of his wardrobe, and he'd taken to wearing the expensive (far too expensive for a former templar from Honnleath, not that she would listen to such a protest), admittedly very flattering pieces she'd ordered for him instead of always strapping himself in to plate armor at the start of each day. As the lyrium took more and more of his strength, regular clothing relieved some pressure off of his swollen joints, too.
The head baker turned towards him; at this hour she worked alone, her assistants having scurried off to bed. A squat dwarf woman, Jalsi never complained about having to use human sized ovens. Instead, she had constructed a system of step stools and empty beer kegs that allowed her to reach whatever she needed, and despite her appearance she moved and jumped between those platforms with all the agility and confidence of a mountain goat. Her red braids, piled atop her head, blended in with the color of the fire behind her and brought a glitter to her soil-brown eyes. Somehow, she had kept her white apron immaculate, though she had a light dusting of flour on her hair and a streak of chocolate on her cheek.
"Cullen. Come to do my job for me?" Calledan said nothing, lurking in the shadows. Jalsi spotted him immediately however, and her gaze flickered from Calledan to Cullen. "And who is this?"
Calledan fixed her with that flat, hostile look, out of keeping with the cheery scent of croissants fresh from the oven. The steamy warmth down here always helped Cullen relax, but it wasn't yet enough for Calledan.
"This is Calledan, Jalsi. I thought he might enjoy doing some baking."
Jalsi nodded as if that were the most normal thing in the world, but by the fine lines at her temples and around her mouth she had noted Calledan's odd behavior and found herself puzzled by it. Cullen could have hugged her for her efforts, trying to appear normal even though teaching a newly escaped slave to bake sounded like the punchline to a particularly insensitive joke.
"As long as you finish this batch of rolls," Jalsi told him, "don't let the damn things catch. They're worth more than I am, with all that saffron."
"Jalsi," Cullen said, trying to sound wounded. "When have I ever ruined one of your creations?"
"Oh, well, there was the time you feel asleep and let my nut loaves burn." She said, counting on her stubby fingers. "Then there was the time you were trying to bake pies for the last feast and used salt instead of sugar. Or the time where you made a Fereldan Mess pudding and put meat in with the whipped cream because the recipe book had stuck together pages..."
"All right, all right. You're right. But I swear I won't let these go for too long."
Jalsi wiped her hands off with the towel stuck through her belt, seemingly satisfied by his assurances.
"Good. Now I am going to the tavern. I've earned a beer." Jalsi hung her apron on the peg near the door and headed upstairs, grumbling about her aching feet. Cullen took one of the chairs nearest the oven and beckoned Calledan to take the other seat. Calledan obeyed, grudgingly.
"It's not an order, Calledan. I just want you to be comfortable."
Calledan's expression took on a sharp quality, perhaps he was surprised that his feelings were so obvious.
"You're a big important shem aren't you?" Calledan wanted to know, leaning forward as if he might pounce. "Give a lot of orders, right?"
"Not those kind of orders," Cullen protested, stung. "I promise you, there are no slaves here."
Calledan crossed his arms over his chest and frowned. "Maybe so." Then he said, "there sure are a lot of mages." Cullen reached for the tray of croissants, hoping he could at the very least charm Calledan with food.
"And that upsets you?" Cullen wondered, feeling then as if he'd swallowed a stone.
"Mages are dangerous," Calledan hissed, "they talk so pretty about magic not ruling over man in Tevinter, or whatever that Andrastian shit is, but then all of them--and I mean all of them--are fucking maleficars when no one is looking."
Cullen swallowed hard, looking at the pastry in his trembling hands. He handed the croissant to Calledan, buying himself a moment to sort through his response. For so long he had believed exactly as Calledan believed now, having seen so much horror at the hands of blood mages. Not only had Kinloch Hold left indelible marks on his soul, but Kirkwall had done little to soothe him. No, it had whipped his terror and paranoia into a lather, and with every possession, every murder at the hands of a maleficar, his purpose had been all but assured. By Andrastae, he could still remember the way Wilmod's face had contorted just before the demon within him had burst free of his flesh, smile stretching unnaturally wide, eyes cold and malicious, bulging in their sockets before coming apart like squashed, rotten fruit. Why would he question Meredith? She had been right, or so he had thought. Around every corner, a blood mage waited. Even Hawke, a proud apostate, had been forced to admit that he'd uncovered at least three maleficar himself, one of whom had gone so far as to murder his wife in full view of the Alienage.
He came back to himself if only because Calledan was staring at him.
"I think that is probably true, if you're with the Venatori." He said carefully, trying to keep his voice from wavering. Things were different now. He knew better than to assume every mage would one day give in to their inherently sinful nature as some in the Templar Order had taught. "Why avoid blood magic if you are mandated to accumulate as much power as possible?" He paused, seeing that Calledan hadn't made a move to eat. "You can eat that. It's not poisoned."
Calledan looked at the croissant, clearly starving, then back at Cullen. Slowly, he tore of a piece and put it in his mouth. He made a little sound and his eyes fell closed; the pleasure of a luxury food such a surprise that he couldn't keep up his hostile mask.
"It's good, isn't it?" Cullen said. He found himself smiling; it did his heart good to see Calledan enjoy something. They had just met, but he couldn't help but be concerned, protective. What could possibly arouse more sympathy than this fellow plucked from the edge of an existence marked only by violations and misery?
"I...I've never had anything like it," Calledan said, and instead of shoving it in to his mouth as he had with the candy earlier, he savored every bite. Clearly, he didn't want the pleasure to end.
"Would you like to learn how to make something that good?"
Calledan looked at him, incredulity making Cullen hastily swallow a laugh. "What? How can you make something that good without magic?"
Calledan cocked an eyebrow and his mouth became a tight line.
"Jalsi said you mess up desserts." Ouch. Calledan was nothing if not direct.
"Just trust me." Cullen said, rising from his chair and looking around for what ingredients were closest to hand. He took a moment to rescue Jalsi's rolls from the oven, just in time. "Do you know what a poundcake is?" Calledan shook his head, no. "It's delicious. Full of butter and white sugar." He took those very things down from the shelf, arranging them on the bench next to the oven.
"White sugar?" Calledan asked, and when he looked back at the elf he saw that Calledan's mouth was agape, his whole body tense. But instead of the nervousness he'd witnessed back in the office, this was more like anticipation, desire. "We've never had white sugar. Not the slaves. Once Magister Regulus was so pleased with me he let me lick up cake crumbs from the floor after a feast, but..." Calledan blinked, and for a moment he looked as lost as he must have felt. "For me? You'll give me some?"
"I will." Cullen assured him, having to push his sadness over Cal's interrupted life down deep. Calledan wouldn't thank him for showing it, he was sure of that much. "Will you come here? I can teach you."
Calledan came over like a skittish cat, his ears flattened back adding to the comparison. He clambered up on Jalsi's step stool, gaze sweeping over the floury surface of the baker's bench. Cullen reached for the salt and a juicy orange coaxed to full sweetness in a hothouse somewhere. It cost a fortune too, he was sure; the Inquisitor spared no expense. Calledan drew a sharp breath; the scent of the fruit hadn't gone unnoticed. It must have been quite the surprise after so long in the Hissing Wastes.
"What do I do first?" Calledan wanted to know, gaze roving over the pillowy block of fresh cream butter, taking in the bag full to the brim with sugar as if it were a cascade of tiny diamonds.
"Measure," Cullen told him, placing one of the smaller scales in front of him. "Do you know any numbers?"
"Only a little," Calledan said, eyeing the ingredients and the tools as if he couldn't imagine how they might go together, "the Dalish don't measure the same way, and Magister Regulus saw little need for me to learn much of anything. But I can count to ten."
"That is all you need." Cullen found a mixing bowl and set it next to the scale. "All right. One pound each of butter, sugar, and flour. And I'll worry about the eggs." Jalsi always had a huge basket of them, so many that she often bemoaned the fact that Skyhold's chickens were so productive she could barely keep up with the bounty. He cracked a full pound of them, cradling them in his palm. Thankfully his hands only shook a little as he worked, not enough to spoil his task. When he snuck a look at Calledan, he found the elf intently studying each ingredient, the tip of his tongue poking out of the side of his mouth as he thought, apparently deeply. "Are you all right?"
"I...if I were to touch something this rare..." Calledan said. Cullen could guess the rest.
"What if I were to give you permission?" He asked, trying to keep his words gentle, soft and inviting. Calledan looked up at him, shock making the tips of his ears twitch.
"You would?" Calledan looked around the room as if seeing it for the first time, all of its riches surely impossible to miss. Whole nutmeg pods sat in neat containers, right beside sultanas usually reserved for the Queen of Fereldan's tea cakes. Vanilla pods hung in bunches from the ceiling, alongside a type of red chili hand gathered from Rivani rainforests. "You are the Commander..."
"You may use those ingredients," Cullen said, setting the bowl of freshly cracked eggs on the baker's bench. "You are free now. Go on."
Calledan huffed, threw his shoulders back, and reached for the butter. So defiant was he that he left perfect finger grooves in its surface. After that, though, he needed no more prompting. When his ingredients were ready, Cullen combined them and added the eggs. He handed Calledan the rasp and the orange.
"Take the skin off. Here--in small movements--use the rasp like this and turn it...very good."
Calledan tapped the rasp over the bowl, fine zest dusted over the batter, so bright it brought to mind the parrots down in the Basin. Cullen folded it in, Calledan's interest making him look more like a curious young man and less like a newly rescued slave.
"It will make the whole thing taste of orange?" Calledan wondered.
"Yes. Here..." He took the rasp and held it up for Calledan to smell.
"Creators, so...ah, I don't have the words."
Cullen chuckled. "Sometimes words aren't quite enough, are they? Would you like to put this in the oven? It will take some time to bake."
Calledan turned that same intent determination to this new task, pouring the batter in to its pan and sliding it, ever so carefully, over the fire. That done, he scuttled back to his seat. Cullen took his as well, though changing positions had recently become more than a little difficult.
"You're in pain," Calledan said. Maker, the elf held little back once he judged himself safe enough.
"I am. The consequences of my role, I'm afraid." He found himself enjoying Calledan's company, but he was in no way ready to reveal his struggles with lyrium. That was a story for another day, far in the future, if ever.
"I always used to be in pain." Calledan said, as direct and flat about this as about anything. "I didn't really think about it until I came here and they gave me all those medicines. I'm sorry. Why can't they do anything for you?"
"It is a more complicated case. They're doing what they can." Calledan accepted that, if his silence were any indication. "I assume you haven't had much chance to explore Skyhold," he tried, never quite sure how to bridge the gap with Calledan whenever silence came upon them.
"No," Calledan said, keeping close to the oven's warmth. Maker knew he was too thin. "I saw the tower and the big room over the Great Hall, but from afar."
"I...would avoid the library if I were you."
"I don't know that word," Calledan said in a clipped tone, not quite scowling. Already he had anticipated that whatever he heard next, he wouldn't like in the least.
"A place where scrolls and books are kept. And grimoires now, I expect." A curious thing, even now in the new world order. No Circles, no apostates. No need to hide grimoires, or write them in code. Still everything the Inquisitor had done in that regard left him dizzy.
"And I should avoid it because?"
"We...there is a mage from Tevinter here, as part of the Inquisition."
"You have a Magister here? And you allow it?" Calledan demanded, voice rising. He got to his feet too, almost as if he hadn't meant to stand. Fury and terror made him look wild, as if at any moment he might trade out his elf skin for a wolf pelt.
"He's not a Magister, but yes. He has proven useful to the Inquisition and is an exile from his homeland in any case."
The last bit surprised Calledan enough that he sat down again, wringing his hands. "An exile?"
"He doesn't agree with the Magisterium's methods, to put it lightly." Dorian had the passion of a true believer, a trait that Cullen no longer saw as a purely positive quality. More than once he had become so taken up with emotion during Wicked Grace that he'd thumped the board hard enough to spill the pieces in to a meaningless jumble on the cobblestones. Of course he'd still had the gall to declare himself the winner, slurring his 'victory' with red wine on his breath.
"I don't want to see him. I don't care what he thinks."
"And you won't have to. But, Calledan...even if he were a blood thirsty ravening monster, my men and I would keep him from you."
"Why? You don't even know me." Unlike before, this time Calledan's demeanor and voice suggested...sadness. And a true, guileless confusion.
"Do I need to, to know that you deserve protection?" The aroma of cake slowly browning calmed his heart, which he only now realized had started racing in response to Calledan's upset. "I won't insult you by claiming you need it. You're strong. You must be, to have survived what you did. I won't treat you like a child, or like you're a stray animal that needs to be coddled. But you do deserve protection, when you need it. Everyone needs it, at some point."
"I'm just an elf. A slave. A nobody. I don't understand why you would bother." He meant everything he'd said about Calledan's resilience, but he knew also that Calledan would need support to find his self-worth again. He felt it; Maker knew he'd needed it after Kinloch Hold. He'd never received the kind of help that might have altered his course for the better, and the resentment still bit in to his chest, crushing his ribs.
"I know you have little reason to expect anything from me. I am not blind to what has been done to your people, or to what you have endured. Even if I was once, the Inquisitor has...changed my perspective. Some might say he never lets me forget it."
"You shouldn't," Calledan all but snapped, and Cullen wondered at how similar his expression was then to the Inquisitor's own. Calledan and Amjad weren't related by blood, but Clan Brangwen needn't rely on those ties to call themselves family. "You shouldn't forget it."
"I promise you I won't."
Before Calledan could respond the sound of boots thunking on stone interrupted their conversation, and a moment later Riley raced in to the room.
"Commander! It's urgent. The Inquisitor requires your counsel."
"Bloody--" he barely stopped himself from cursing further, "all right. I'll be there shortly. Riley!" He called before Riley could disappear again. "Will you please escort Calledan to his room when he's ready to go?" He looked over. "If you'll allow it, Calledan."
"You trust him?"
"Then I'll go. But don't touch me, shem."
Riley frowned at his back as he got up, but Cullen ignored it. When he entered the Great Hall he could readily sense what had likely caused the disturbance; though he no longer called himself a templar, his old abilities were as strong as ever. He could smell lyrium and demon spoor, thick on the ground and in the air. He went towards the Inquisitor's quarters, pausing only to furnish himself with a sword at one of the nearby weapon racks.
Chapter 17: An Infernal Key
Shandi's broad sword crashed through his barrier and Gabriel thought for sure he was a dead man; the fact that they sparred only saved him. A true battle, and he'd have aught left but a bony stump in place of his skull. He managed to keep his feet, but he stumbled and spun, driving the point of his sword in to the dirt to prevent a graceless tumble. He'd lost, clearly. She stepped back, in good spirits yes but kind enough not to mock him. He straightened, primly straightening his tunic.
"Well, I demand a rematch." He said when he'd managed to catch his breath. The injury the rock wraith had dealt her had left her with no lasting ill effects, perhaps unfortunately for him just at the moment.
"You shall have it, m'lord." She said, laughing. She stood squared up, her top stretched tight across her ample chest. It consisted of little more than two triangles of material struggling to contain her assets, and thick braided cord offering some much needed support. Her posture as always conveyed easy confidence; she knew where her skills lay and it showed. She sheathed her weapon, turning her head towards her task. The shimmering disk of the early morning sun came in to being as an Orlesian lady unfolding a fan, or Andrastae bearing the living sunburst in Her hands over a gently rolling hill. The light caught Shandi's horns, transforming them in to a crown of fire. His heart caught in his throat. Surely he had seen sights as beautiful, but at the moment he could not recall them.
"My Lord Marlowe?"
The page at his elbow sounded rather concerned, and it took him a moment to realize that it was the third time he'd been thusly hailed.
"Yes, my good man, what is it?"
"The Inquisitor requires your presence, and that of um..."
The boy turned to Shandi, blushing straight to his hairline. The poor callow youth had hardly seen thirteen summers, though Gabriel could wager the sight of a muscular, curvaceous Qunari woman in little more than scraps of taut silk was single handedly helping him onwards toward manhood. He could nigh hear the boy's balls drop as Shandi straightened and faced them, rippling muscle shifting under the cord criss crossing her back and knotted around her neck.
"The lady Shandi Adaar," Gabriel finished for him, pointedly. Shandi grinned, unrepentant. She cared not a whit if men found her pleasing to look at. She dressed as she did for herself, not for the idle gaze of males with more urges than sense.
"Of...of course!" The page squeaked. "In...the war room! Quickly! If it pleases you?"
He bowed. Too low; Gabriel had to snag him by the collar to keep him from falling on his face. As quickly as he could, he ran for it.
"You do that on purpose," Gabriel said.
"I do not. I like to dress this way. It's not my fault he's thinking with his cock. The men practice with their chests bare always and no one says a word. I am at least covered." Shandi pointed out, chuckling. She left her sword locked up in the special armory where those with enchanted and otherwise unique weapons kept their battle kit, then went to fetch the rest of her clothing. The wings tattooed on her back undulated and jumped as she shrugged into her jacket, the deep forest green and gold velvet affair she loved so. Truly it could not be matched for loveliness, though it did nothing much for modesty as it buttoned too low on her torso to cover that impressive cleavage of hers. "And it's not my fault if I think it's funny, either. Ha, idiots."
Gabriel tried to keep back the laugh, but snorted on it instead.
"I wonder what sort of trouble we're getting in to this time," Gabriel said as they headed towards the Great Hall, and he found that even though a summons from the Inquisitor could only mean something serious had taken place, his spirits were yet light.
"Something worth doing, mon sucre," Shandi told him, outlined in a pale glow as they ambled up the stairs. She wore the sunlight like a veil of gossamer, only to have it gone on the breeze as readily as dandelion fluff, blown away by the gloom of the Great Hall. Gabriel followed her shadow in to the War Room only to find Amjad poring over the maps, Dorian at his left, Morrigan at his right. Cullen stood in his usual position at the far end of the War Table, but his usual easy, confident stance was nowhere in evidence; he stood ramrod straight, gaze faraway, pupils dilated, grip too tight on his sword handle. Even his coat of Avvar wool couldn't bring warmth to his complexion.
"My Lord Inquisitor," Gabriel said, a bracing concern taking the lighthearted intoxication brought on by the morning's events from him. Amjad looked up, his features drawn and inscrutable. The hammered gold shade of the scarf loosely tied around his neck brought out the cool undertones in his dark skin, and his eyes appeared as those belonging to a funeral mask befitting a Nevarran king.
"Gabriel. Shandi. I welcome your presence. I'm afraid we have a serious situation on our hands."
He hardly need say it; the mood in the room felt sepulchral at best.
Only then did Gabriel realize that the entire inner circle was in attendance, minus Aislinn.
Creators, is she...? No. Certainly not. Amjad would hardly be so composed if...
He scanned the crowd, trying to ascertain some clue as to what had transpired to warrant such a meeting. Cole stood near Lady Vivienne--she as perfectly put together as always, in a silver gown and a white fur cloak--hugging himself tightly and rubbing at his upper arms. His muttering could barely be heard, though once discerned its panicked quality couldn't be missed: "pinned and pinioned, helpless and horrified...I will twist and turn you, little spirit..."
"No matter the issue, Shandi and I are at your disposal."
"Aye," Shandi agreed. Gabriel had come to know her well enough to recognize her less obvious cues; she subtly shifted her weight, one foot went slightly back, one shoulder jerked a bit higher than the other. She twitched as if she wanted to cross her arms, and she tilted her head ever so slightly. She felt uncomfortable here, in front of such exalted personages as these were. Still, beyond body language only he and perhaps Lady Vivienne might read, she would hardly show it.
"Last night," Amjad said, looking up from the map and sweeping his gaze across those gathered, "a demon gained access to Skyhold. And not just any demon."
"Oh no," Gabriel blurted.
"Decadence," Amjad finished.
Gabriel felt himself drawn to Solas then, perhaps because of the uncharacteristic rage on the man's face. Normally Solas tried to cultivate a calm, almost sage-like demeanor that honestly grated on Gabriel's nerves the few brief times they'd encountered one another, but now he looked carved from stone by an artist with a particularly harsh hand, even his ears chiseled precisely as if every movement of the sculptor's tool had been chosen to convey spite.
"This should not be possible," he said, "this fortress is nigh impenetrable."
He's taking this awfully personally.
"No fortress is impenetrable," Morrigan said, a subtle bouquet of contempt to her words, like the notes in an expensive wine. "Those who hunt you will always find a way to violate even your dearest sanctuary. And you must be prepared for it."
"This is Corypheus' doing," Leiliana said, her upper lip curling in a little snarl of distaste, "if he cannot destroy you with fear, he will send desire."
"Well," Amjad interjected, "she's doing a poor job seducing me."
"And yet she entered your bed chamber, over powered you, and did the same to Dorian when he came to your aid," Leliana pointed out, "no seduction needed. She is no lesser desire demon come to tempt you with silks and frozen grapes. She has such things in her arsenal as to turn your hair white, or so I imagine."
"A vile creature," Lady Vivienne agreed, her cultured tone curdled with disgust, "and you must agree that to penetrate Skyhold's defenses, she needs a connection to someone or something here. It is obvious, my dear," she said, addressing Amjad directly. "Something personal. Every mage in Skyhold can feel the magics in this keep, layers upon layers of defenses and wards over thousands of years. Yes, she is powerful. More powerful even than the Fear demon the Inquisitor faced in the Fade. But to penetrate the very heart of Skyhold? No. She has some special knowledge. A key. But what?" She asked, the question encompassing everyone in attendance.
"I...cannot say," Amjad admitted, though by his expression he hated to do it. "The only connection I have to a demon is Fear, and Fear lies dead in the Fade."
Shandi shook her head. "Only the rock wraith, and it dissipated after we killed the Magister."
"There were demons at Kinloch Hold," Cullen said. His voice had no color or strength, and he wouldn't look at any of them. "But they were all destroyed."
Lady Vivienne held up her hand. "It is not necessarily a connection to just any random demon. It could well be a connection to a desire, a want, a deal made. It could be a connection to Decadence herself, in another guise. Perhaps one amongst us encountered her before and unknowingly gave of ourselves, creating a vulnerability."
Iron Bull shuddered, and Gabriel found himself silently agreeing; the idea of a demon such as Decadence being so cunning and so powerful as to disguise herself so was a sobering thought to say the least. By Blackwall's frown and Josephine's furrowed brows, they agreed.
"Well, get her to show herself and I'll fill 'er arse full of arrows. That'll fix 'er," Sera said. One didn't have to have Lady Vivienne's skill at the Game to tell that Sera felt fear; her usual bravado had fled to the same place as Cullen's confidence and Iron Bull's easy manner. No one would leave this meeting completely sure of themselves.
"I certainly hope the solution to this matter will be that simple." Amjad said, managing a little smile for his friend. He turned his attention again to Lady Vivienne. "We will think on what this key might be," He said, planting his hands on the table and leveling his gaze at his three advisors. "In the meantime we will have the mages do what they can to strengthen the Veil here."
"There are Elvhen artifacts that can do such things," Solas said, "perhaps you can retrieve some of them."
"Some ancient Qaranis scholars were known to study the Veil," Dorian added, rubbing his chin as he mused, "I will see about acquiring the relevant tomes. Not from this library, obviously..."
Amjad shot him an exasperated look.
"I'll take a group out to look for these artifacts," Amjad continued, "Solas, you'd be valuable in the field, but stay with Aislinn while she recovers."
Solas gave a little bow of acknowledgment.
"I am grateful, Inquisitor."
"Dismissed," Amjad said, "Oh Solas, look after Cole, please. I take it Vivienne rescued him from Decadence."
"She'd locked him away in the Fade," Vivienne said, "some silly little prison. I take it she intended to come back later to consume him at her leisure."
"Helpless, caught and captured, compassion, so tender, soft and delicious..."
"Come here, Cole," Solas said, gathering the trembling spirit to his side. "I will aid you; I know of a Rivaini amulet that might help protect you against such attacks in the future."
Amjad turned. "Gabriel, Shandi, Cassandra, Varric. Dorian. Let us prepare."
"I'll put in the order for the sources I'll need and then I'll join you," Dorian said, heading for the library. The rest of them followed Amjad out of the War Room and down to the courtyard. Another day, another adventure. Gabriel wished he could approach it with Shandi's unfailing optimism, but he couldn't shake the feeling that, with Decadence involved, the worse was yet to come.
Chapter 18: This Side of the Sea
Aislinn and Amjad talk about what they know so far. Aislinn worries that she's the key to Decadence's ability to get past Skyhold's wards.
Well readers as we crash right through 50k, I have a big favor to ask you. As I watch the hit count rise I often wonder who you are and what you're thinking. Of course every author hopes for comments but as I hit this milestone I hope you'll take the time to tell me how you feel about this tale so far. I'm not even close to done and I wonder what this novel --because let's face it, it's a novel at this point -- has evoked in you thus far. What are your hopes, dreams, fears? When you look towards the horizon, what do you imagine? Thanks for sticking with me, everyone.
Thanks to A Elbereth Gilthoniel for inspiring the blessing
A wolf can act but like a wolf, lethalin.
The old proverb fell, stern, from Keeper Zathrian's lips, but the words became tangible things, flowers, then gems. She bent down to retrieve a glittering sapphire nestled amongst the leaves on the forest floor, only to have it transform in to a striking snake.
She jerked awake, right in to Amjad's grip. Instead of the serpent's countenance she saw her brother's face, his eyes boring in to hers. He'd crawled into her narrow bed with her, doubtless to try and shake her out of her foul dream. Her bed. The tower. She smelt the fresh ink in the pot on her desk, the vellum sheets stacked neatly beside. She put her hands out to brace herself, and the worn embroidery of her cradle blanket rubbed against her palms.
Ah, Falon'din. You have seen fit to spare me.
"Oh, brother. I..."
"Shh, you are safe," he soothed, laying her with the utmost gentleness against her pillows. He stood and found another quilt to cover her with. The shuffle and murmur of mages at their task above helped her breathe easier. This felt real. "Your wounds are healing quickly, thanks to Regina. Do you feel any pain?"
She took a moment to assess her physical state, the remnants of the dream making it difficult; Creators, but the shock yet lingered.
"Only a dull ache. It is nothing. Surely I have felt worse during my moon cycles."
"Heh. A thing I do not miss." He came to sit on the edge of her bed, his deft fingers combing through her hair. Those hands that had killed so many, now so gentle, tender for her. His profile revealed his secrets, as if drawn with the quill pen. A stroke here, long and thin. Pensive. A quick swipe, up and tight, the line bold. Tightly controlled anger. Around the eyes, the artist had come in close, subtle, carefully indicating frustration and worry for those who knew to look.
"Brother, why have you come?"
"Other than my love for you?"
"Decadence has breeched our stronghold as you well know, and to do so..."
In that moment, it needn't even be said.
A key. Of course she would need some weakness, some way to open the door.
"Fenedhis." She whispered.
"I'm afraid so." Amjad confirmed. "In a candlemark's time, I will lead a party out in to the wilderness in the hopes of finding an artifact that will strengthen the Veil here all the more. Hopefully it will keep her out for awhile. You and Solas dealt her a serious blow as well; she'll lick her wounds for some time."
"She won't attack mindlessly. She might not think the way you or I do, but she's cunning if nothing else. She will wait and watch for what she considers to be a worthwhile opening and then she will strike, and only then."
"She'll make our lives a living hell is what she'll do," Amjad muttered, gritting his teeth. "if Corypheus can't attack us directly here, he'll send minions such as she is. There are things much worse than a direct assault and we must be prepared." He fell silent for a long moment. Aislinn waited without filling the space between them. By his hunched, tense shoulders and stormy expression, he needed the time to wrestle with his thoughts. If she interrupted, he would retreat into himself and never reveal what was on his mind. "But...I am not sure it's possible to prepare for something like this, sister. And they all look to me to protect them. Their sanctuary has been violated, and they are terrified. Even Cullen, the commander of my forces. He is my stalwart shield, my unbreakable sword. I've never seen him like that. And it is I who must restore him. And not just him. Everyone in Skyhold. Everyone in the inner circle."
She put her hand on his wrist. He turned to look at her and she met his gaze.
"My brave brother," she said softly, "with the whole world on his shoulders. They trust you, and with good reason. Look to Mythal to guide you, the best of Her kind. If Decadence should challenge you, become as terrible as she; remember the story of Mythal and Andruil." Sometimes she truly did think Amjad so powerful he could mimic the tale; an insane Andruil subdued by Mythal in serpent form, Andruil finally defeated after three days and nights of unceasing battle.
"If she goes mad, become a serpent and fight her?" Amjad laughed. It did Aislinn's heart good to hear something so simple and good as a laugh from him. Creators, but it felt like a rare thing in such trying times as these.
"Aye, if it pleases you. You are the Inquisitor, who holds mastery over the Fade itself. Who knows the limits of your powers?"
"Still curious?" He said. They never spoke about it directly -- well, only under very specific circumstances, in the witching hours, if they'd had enough to drink, if they were mimicking childhood, hidden away in a blanket fort or cuddled up in bed together -- but they needn't. They knew.
"Always." She wondered if she should tell him about the Fade, how easy it was to take the wolf's form there. Did it mean something? Did it speak to some quality deep within her, a curled up wolf-self dormant yet like a pup waiting to be born? Or was it simply a superficial affinity because of what had happened to the clan?
"A question for another day," he said, shaking off the gloom and lowering magic that often came along with the subject at hand. "I must go. Bless my path, sister."
She reached up to embrace him.
"Oh, Mythal. Born of the ocean, glittering in the moonlight like a jewel, beneath the shadow of death. Look towards Amjad Brangwen, oh dragon-headed, on this side of the sea. Mythal'enaste."
He sighed, and clasped her tightly to him for a moment.
"Thank you. Sylaise heal you quickly."
Then he was gone, only the soft whisper of his scent to remind her that he'd been there at all.
She looked down at her hands, folded in her lap. She wore only a light shift, and she could see the outline of her legs and stomach through it. She could recall the thick scars on her thighs as she moved and the fabric shifted, reminders of all the failed spells she'd tried, desperate to change herself and escape her old body, Aled's prison. The demons she'd encountered in the course of so much forbidden magic whirled past her mind's eye, the beautiful ones the most terrible of all.
Creators, what if I'm the key?
Chapter 19: Censer and Sword
The group heads out to find the Elvhen artifact Solas has tasked them with discovering. Shandi has a reading lesson and Dorian's past comes back to bite him.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Gabriel came up beside Amjad as their mounts crested the hill just beyond the first Inquisition camp they'd come across, the Storm Coast spiraling out before them in the valley below like the ridges on a snail shell. Treacherous terrain funneled down towards the battered coastline, the Waking Sea that so often aroused his imagination --what lost treasure might lay in its depths? what creatures, never before seen?--high on the shore at this hour. Amjad spared him a glance, but only that; since leaving Skyhold he'd kept his counsel even closer than was usual. Dorian's silver mare picked her way up the trail just then, bringing him up on Amjad's other side. The look he got from the necromancer was confusing at best; he wondered what he'd possibly done to offend Dorian so. His stomach instantly balled in to a fist at the thought of having displeased, especially someone so trusted, so close to the Inquisitor who, after all, Gabriel had sworn to protect.
Amjad, about to speak, found himself cut off by the cry of a great beast. The three of them lifted their heads as one and looked out as far as they could, spotting the dragon at the same time. Gabriel's anxiety subsided if only because such an arresting sight left little room for anything else. The creature dipped and rolled, battling a giant big even for its kind. It brought a little smile to Amjad's face; Gabriel could guess that Amjad appreciated such displays of primal nature. He wondered if this was the same dragon he'd once glimpsed, when an ill plotted route had taken him through the hidden hills and caves native to the area, those that had bedeviled many a traveler before him. Pure luck had kept him from withering away in to a skeleton in one of those caverns, lost and forgotten. He'd found more than one such unfortunate adventurer. The flowers he'd left hardly seemed enough.
"A dragon, m'lord!" Shandi said, her warhorse struggling with the terrain. Larger and more cumbersome than the mounts the humans and elves rode (and one rather loquacious dwarf, spinning story after story), the proud stallion nonetheless fought hard to rise to the challenge. "Are we going hunting?"
"I hate to disappoint you, Shandi," Amjad said, his voice warm as if he were charmed by her eagerness, "but we do have a mission to focus on."
"Oh, oh. Of course." Shandi said. She coughed self consciously and straightened up in her saddle, trying to school her features in to something more professional. "Serious business."
"Well, not too serious," Varric said cheerfully from the back, his little pony making quick work of the pitfalls inherent to this region and looking proud of it, no less, its nostrils flared, its mane blowing in the breeze. "Or Shandi might come apart at the seams trying."
"Nothing with you is ever serious, dwarf," Cassandra grumbled.
"Hey that's not fair," Varric protested, holding his hands up as if to say see, I'm harmless. A big grin bloomed as if he were about to launch in to another one of his tales. At the very least ]he stood poised on the edge of another quip, but instead his expression softened and he said, "I take some things very seriously indeed."
Gabriel turned just in time to catch Cassandra blushing right up to her hair. It took everything in him to not gape in shock. He never thought he would see the Lady Seeker so readily undone, but then no one could claim true immunity to Varric's charms. Amjad cleared his throat and Gabriel could see him hiding an amused smile behind his hand. Shandi beamed outright, but-probably wisely-said nothing.
"Let's find a place to make camp," Amjad suggested, and Cassandra sighed softly. Relieved, or so Gabriel thought.
Amjad lead them through the twists and turns, the only major path through the mountains a treacherous, switch backed thing. Amjad clung to Orala like a burr on a sheep, she without any of the fear that might have hobbled a living creature. Gabriel felt gratitude once they found a level clearing, the smell of crushed grass tickling his nose as the mounts filed in. A few ramshackle buildings remained, though clearly they had gone without owners or upkeep for some time. They lay defenseless before the elements, doors and even walls having succumbed to the weather.
They elected to make camp in the lee of one of the houses; what remained of the interior felt too much like a grave. Amjad helped set up the tents, and he was fast at it too. No wonder, with how often the Dalish changed location. Each new spot of temporary respite would require work such as this. Even Dorian pitched in, though he did so gingerly so as to not ruin his polished nails. For a mage Dorian enjoyed a sturdy, muscular body and he had physical strength to augment his magic; never had Gabriel seen someone as athletic with staff forms as Dorian. He prayed whatever had upset the man would pass; he respected Dorian such that he would never want to offend him, especially after watching him take on three enemy mages and prevail.
If only we had an aravel, Gabriel thought, gathering stones for a firepit. Shandi took the axe from their bags of supplies and went to find wood, coming back a little while later with a huge log balanced effortlessly on her shoulder. Her armor impeded her not at all. Though it functioned as plate, the enchantments on it made it move like cloth. She set the log down and split it in to manageable pieces, all without breaking a sweat, and a mere flick of Dorian's wrist ensured that they had a healthy fire once she'd finished. Shandi set up the cooking pot, then went off to gather ingredients; she'd made such an ersatz stew many times as a mercenary. When she came back, her helm full of herbs and mushrooms, a brace of rabbits dangling from her other hand, he had to admit that the result tasted good no matter its method of transportation.
Amjad sat near the fire and pulled a map from his pack, smoothing it out on his knees.
"This artifact is either in Red templar hands, or is likely hidden away in one of the caves, forgotten," he said, his finger describing the route as he spoke. "There are no Dalish here just now, and certainly no one of the People who would take the time to seek out such a thing as a matter of course, if they even knew of its existence at all."
Sadly so many Dalish had been forced to think only of survival; many would have forsaken such a relic if transporting it would have burdened them overmuch.
"There's a red lyrium smuggling ring set up here," Varric said, peering over at the map. He jabbed his finger down at the spot in question as if personally offended. Perhaps the thought of corrupted lyrium sent a special fear through a dwarf's heart, as it did a mage's. "We should go there and see. Even if they don't have the artifact, they need to be cleaned out."
"True," Amjad agreed, frowning at the place Varric had indicated. Dorian added, "one of my former associates is overseeing red lyrium smuggling." His usual bluster was nowhere to be seen. He sat stiffly, jaw tight. The cut of his silver-green coat made him look imposing instead of affable, an unexpected change. "If he is here...I would take pleasure in relieving him of his duties."
"Aye, and maybe they'll have a behemoth for me to fight!" Shandi said, as animated as if it were her birthday and she'd just been presented with one of those grand Orlesian cakes in the shape of a swan. Shandi never approached a battle with fear in her, and Gabriel wondered if the dragon blood had something to do with it. The few tales he'd heard about Reavers surely presented them as hungry, even ravening, with fighting their only food.
Cassandra-when had he started thinking of her as Cassandra, instead of the Lady Seeker?-compressed her lips in to a thin line, thinking over possible strategies, no doubt. She had a certain reputation for being brash, but in battle she became more cerebral than she perhaps realized. She had both mind and body on her side, when she willed it.
"It will take us the better part of a day to reach the cave," Cassandra said. "We can head out at dawn."
Amjad nodded. "Very well." He paused for a moment, then a rather wicked look brought life to his features, his outfit of golden scale mail and deep hyacinth leather underscoring the light in his gaze. "Cassandra, do you happen to have any books with you?"
Cassandra blushed for the second time that day. What miraculous air had settled around them, such that Cassandra evinced emotions other than steely confidence and the occasional snort of disgust? For the first time, Gabriel realized that perhaps Cassandra was in her own way uncomfortable with being around this group in particular; Gabriel himself might as well count as a stranger still. Dorian had the dubious honor of being affiliated with Tevinter. She must enjoy Varric's company, but then again any hint of their relationship whilst anyone else loitered in hearing distance seemed to discomfit her greatly. Only Shandi remained, and indeed it was Shandi's exclamation that made Cassandra relent:
"Are you going to teach me to read, Cass?" She asked, setting her now empty bowl aside. In her thick Orlesian accent, the words sent a shiver down Gabriel's spine. He shifted, suddenly uncomfortable in mixed company; Shandi's voice could do things to him that certainly weren't appropriate for casual viewing.
"I could," Cassandra allowed. "I have been fortunate; letters were part of my training as a Seeker. And it wouldn't do to have a Hand of the Divine be illiterate."
"What about Swords and Shields?" Varric suggested. Cassandra opened one of her saddle bags and Gabriel saw several books tucked neatly inside. One caught his eye the way a gem would stand out in a pile of plain rocks; it had a homemade cover, with a handwritten title, Varric's full name described along the bottom in lazy calligraphy. A personal story then? One he'd written especially for his love?
"Does it have any dirty parts?" Shandi wanted to know, wiggling her eyebrows suggestively.
"Really Goldie?" Varric teased, pretending to be rather put out by the question. "I warn you, they aren't the best thing I've ever written."
Cassandra handing Shandi the copy of Swords and Shields, and she opened it on her knees. She followed the sentences with her fingertip, no doubt trying to find any familiar words. She couldn't read or write anything complex, but Gabriel figured she must know enough to understand orders and missives.
"The guard captain..." Shandi said haltingly. Of course she would recognize ranks, but directly after she fell silent, brows furrowed. Cassandra leaned in to see where Shandi was. Between the two of them they deciphered the next sentence. "...had r...rippling muscles--oh I like her already," Shandi declared before going back to the book. "And had a b..bosom so...huge!" Shandi threw her head back and crowed with laughter. "Varric! What kind of book is this?"
Varric grimaced. "Well, I did warn you. Hardly made any money."
"Are you kidding? I love it." Shandi told him, wiping at her eyes. "So...so huge, that she had to have special armor made. Her hair...was...was..."
"A halo of fire," Cassandra supplied.
"A halo of fire," Shandi repeated. "As beautiful...as the..." She sounded out the rest and settled on, "as beautiful as a griffon in flight under a red sun."
Gabriel couldn't help but laugh at that. Never had he heard anything so purple as this. Varric looked rather mortified, a little self deprecating half grin on his face.
"Cass," Shandi said looking up. "What's the dirtiest page in this book?"
"Page 176, paragraph two," Cassandra admitted, pointedly looking at the scenery instead of at any of her companions. Shandi flipped to the page indicated.
"His...his flowering rod? Flowering rod! Was tu-me-scent... What does that mean?"
"It, well," Gabriel tried, "it means he's ready for love making."
"His cock is hard?" Shandi clarified, peering at the page incredulously. "Why doesn't he just say that then?"
"Hey I was trying to be romantic," Varric said, protesting.
"As...as hard as the gift she'd given him," Shandi said, Cass having gone back to helping her. "a metal plate depicting golden magnolias. What he's as hard as the picture? Is he as hard as arithmetic? I was never good at numbers."
"Shandi," Gabriel said, and now it was his turn to blush. "My goodness."
"He entered..." Shandi continued, "he entered her flowering cavern...I hope there's no roses in there, he might get thorns in his dick." She grinned. "I've never met a pussy that smelled like violets."
Cassandra snatched the book away as Shandi laughed, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes.
Dorian stayed close to the fire as the evening sun descended. Blazing rays of orange and pink unfurled across a rapidly darkening sky, and the scent of the ocean came to his nostrils, muted like a perfume worn on pulse points. Shandi had gotten Cassandra to laugh along with her--for awhile, anyway, until the embarrassment became too much--as she did her best to read the bawdiest passages of Varric's romance novel, nigh squealing in delight whenever she found a particularly flowery passage describing some sex act or another. After awhile they all blurred together so that all Dorian could imagine was a knot of sweating bodies squirming and writhing, the men with engorged staves of alabaster instead of cocks, the women with hidden grottos stuffed full of jewels instead of...well, it didn't bear thinking about.
But it wasn't some sort of offense that made him leave the warmth, both the emotional kind generated by his august company and by the fire he'd easily kept crackling and dancing for hours with but a wisp of mana. No, Amjad had left the camp, and Dorian felt the pull to follow after.
He found Amjad on the very edge of the cliff, legs dangling over the side as if Amjad felt little to no fear of falling to his death. Amjad heard him approach long before he reached the spot in question; despite not following the vir'tanadhal much as a youth, Amjad's survival instincts made him an adroit tracker and hunter anyway. He stood, brushing grass from his clothes. His eyes were lambent in the gloom, the violet, gold flecked light also illuminating in some small part the Anchor, wisps of Fade energy emanating from it. Dorian's heart seized; with such power at their disposal perhaps they would be able to clear out the Venatori here. And more importantly, to him at least, the possible presence of one Marius Octavious. The mere thought of the man made him well up with bile, the memory of clashing swords and a door being kicked in took up residence in his mind whether he had invited it or not.
"Amatus, what in the world are you doing?" Dorian knew well enough that trying to keep Amjad from doing risky things was an impossible task, yet fear gripped his heart the same whether Amjad performed a risky task once or a hundred times. Losing another lover...he didn't think he could survive it. And yet he loved the Inquisitor, a man who had to fight life or death battles almost daily, a man so certain of himself that even petty dangers such as where he'd chosen to sit worried him not at all.
Amjad came over to him on soundless feet. A little smile curved his full mouth, and the light in his eyes could not be completely explained by Elvhen physiology. The touch of Amjad's hands on his chest made his cup overflow with complex emotions, fear, love, want. He covered Amjad's hands with his own, wondering if Amjad could feel him trembling.
"Something troubles you, emma lath," Amjad said, in that gentle, velvety tone he reserved for Dorian alone. Well, there was his answer.
"This red lyrium smuggling ring...I think we might find one of the Venatori we are hunting. Blasted fools; every one of them used to answer to the Black Divine instead of...of this."
He wouldn't admit, not even to Amjad, but the thought of red lyrium took the strength from him so great was his fear. He had encountered it before, once at the spring they'd investigated in the Western Approach, and many times in battle as corrupted creatures surrounded them.
Amjad's brow creased, a sure sign of his concern.
"This is personal, isn't it? That list of names...it's not just Tevinter pride that motivates you to end their lives."
"Amjad," he started, trying to explain what had happened, why the potential to find Octavious mattered so. Amjad looked up at him, his expression a study in sympathy before Dorian had even begun the tale. "When I still lived in Tevinter, in my old life, I found something with another man. I hesitate to call it love--what do those with my preferences know of love in such a place?--but it was...it was important."
It felt as if he were under a compulsion, heart whirling in his chest, a bloody awful tremor in his hands. He swayed and for a moment, he actually thought he might collapse. Amjad hugged him tightly, and it kept him on his feet.
"Tell me more," Amjad prompted softly, his head against Dorian's chest as if were trying to hear Dorian's heartbeat.
Dorian felt hot tears sting the back of his eyes, and the accompanying rage made him grind his teeth.
"My father sent thugs to recover me, as if I was a lost bauble to put on his shelf and admire from afar. As if I were a fine piece of furniture or a carriage pillow, to be collected from its maker." And without information, passed to Halward through the whisperings of a little bird named Octavious?
His throat closed and he didn't know how in all the hells he could finish the story. The scent of blood and incense filled his nostrils, a memory that went deeper than anything he could only picture.
"Emma lath, I wish dearly that I had been there to protect you." Amjad's tone hit the ear in a level, almost placid purr, but Dorian could hear the unspoken.
"Is that why you're out here by yourself?"
Amjad pulled back enough to turn his gaze to Dorian's face, his own so very solemn.
"I...I couldn't protect you, Dorian." He stepped back, wrapping his arms around himself as if he could ward off the shame he so clearly felt. Well, it was clear to Dorian, anyway.
"What? From Decadence?"
"She came in to my quarters," Amjad practically shouted, a sudden burst of fury that spoke to how violated he felt. "in to my home. And nearly possessed us both. And I could do nothing to aid you."
"I don't need you to protect me," Dorian protested, though he remembered how he would be dead, his corpse littering the Hissing Wastes, if it hadn't been for Amjad's quick blades. "Surely you don't think my magery as poor as that practiced in the South," he said, with an artful little sniff of half-meant disdain.
"Don't," Amjad growled. "Don't you dare try to wriggle out of this through making light of it. I won't abide it."
"What would you have me do?" Dorian said, his own voice a little fire that could readily burn hotter. Amjad couldn't know it, but he felt stretched thin, the pull of his memories and the anxiety about whether they would find Octavious like two dragons battling within him. And as much as Amjad had been torturing himself over not protecting Dorian, Amjad hadn't realized how much that same torment lived in Dorian's heart and mind. Taken in so readily by a demon! By temptation.
"You know full well that I have nothing but respect for you and your magery," Amjad said, some of the anger draining out of him. Dorian thought that was a bad sign; normally Amjad's rages, no matter how strange, at the very least imparted some passion and energy. Now? He seemed diminished somehow, small and thin. When had Amjad gotten so thin? Maker, had he forgotten to care for himself in the midst of so much? Dorian felt like an ass for not realizing before now, and him the one that loved Amjad the most. "And you also well know that it is not the point. It is my charge to protect you, to love you, to hold you in the highest esteem. And she took that from me."
Dorian found himself about to protest again, a haughty quip dancing on his lips, but then he felt his memory more than mere seeing.
The Abrexis estate lay quiet, the scion, his wife, and a generous compliment of servants having taken their leave just that morning. The heavy ceremonial incense they'd burned in Andrastae's name that morning hung thick still, even creeping in under Quintus' bedroom door. Dorian rather fancied it; it gave their coupling an appealing forbidden quality, as if they were doing so in the middle of some long forgotten barbarian temple. Maker, but he had rarely felt so involved in--was it lovemaking?--his world narrowing down to Quintus' shining silver eyes, the way a skein of rich sable hair described a loose comma on Quintus' forehead. Yes of course their bodies had come together, too, while they both laughed easily, without mockery. Only moments later such mirth had been replaced by moans and cries--what point was there to hiding their enjoyment, with everyone having left or retreated to servant's quarters?--never had Dorian experienced such freedom.
Their involvement in one another made the scent of fresh blood come slowly to his nostrils, far too slowly...
"What is it?" Amjad asked, appearing suddenly as terrified as Dorian felt. Amjad had an uncanny ability to experience his emotions right alongside him; if Amjad were cold to others, it was only in part because so much of his warmth he made available for Dorian's comfort. Amjad approached him slowly, as if trying to keep an injured animal from lashing out with hoof or claw. Part of him wanted to push Amjad away and run, run as he'd fled the blasted Quaranis estate and the imprisonment it represented. And yet he felt bound to the earth, as surely as if an entanglement spell had wound furtively around his ankles. "Please, Dorian--"
The door shuddered, then gave way. He separated from Quintus, a spell ready. He barely felt the magebane dart.
He found himself on his knees, the shock of wet grass through his breeches not enough to wrest him fully free of the past. Amjad knelt and caught him up in an embrace so hard it made his ribs creak. All he could do was cling to his amatus --Maker! If Amjad felt as if he couldn't protect Dorian, then how much greater in return...!
The sell swords were on him then as the flames sputtered and died in his hands. A scream--and then his own cry: Quintus! The man gripping his wrist--too hard, too hard--told him to shut up as he struggled, managing to dislodge one or two would be jailers through pure physical strength. The rag went over his face and he took two heaving breaths, struggling even as the smell of the ether clogged his throat. As if he were drowning, he passed out.
It was Amjad's hands in his hair that brought him back, slowly, as if each lessening of that awful memory represented a turn of the earth, sunlight in to nighttime and back once more. He had wept hot tears in to the collar of Amjad's shirt, and he trembled as if he were the smaller out of the two of them. He pulled back far enough to search Amjad's expression, hoping for some kind of anchor point. Amjad had fixed him with that utterly solemn look Amjad got sometimes, where whatever he was about to say would be intoned like an oath.
"I swear to you, I will find this Venatori and make him pay for whatever he has done to you," Amjad said, that killer's light back in his eyes such that he looked strange, as if he were a darker version of himself most appropriate to how full the night had become over the course of this sad little mess. "You needn't speak of it to me if you don't want to, emma lath. Just know you will see this deed done." Amjad's look softened and he said, "and one day, I will slay that dragon out near the ocean, and I'll present you its hide. I'll be the best hunter my clan has ever seen. And then I will ask you to be my bondmate forever."
"What, only one dragon?" He said, managing a grin as it surfaced, pulled free by Amjad's words. Amjad laughed, one of those lovely unfettered laughs.
"You are an ass," Amjad declared, but any mock annoyance he might have felt lost out to a soft warmth that Dorian knew was love, though it had taken him a solid year to fully believe it. "Luckily I know how to put up with you. Now come back to the camp and dry off. If you're ready."
"All right," Dorian agreed, and when he stood he kept his feet. "Did Shandi finish her book?"
"I think she skipped right to the dirtiest parts," Amjad said, only just remembering not to reach for his hand. It made Dorian ill with guilt and defiant too; he wanted to announce their relationship to everyone, or at least part of him did. But then? The danger would follow, and he knew it. The fact was that loving Dorian Pavus was a dangerous thing to do indeed, and he wouldn't subject Amjad to its consequences if he had anything to say about it.
"I knew I liked her for a reason," Dorian said, letting his more confident, irreverent side come forth. No need to worry Amjad more than he already had.
Don't you sometimes feel that the whole Halward abducted Dorian from "some vulgati lord's estate" to be a bit too bloodless in canon? Well, you're welcome.
Chapter 20: But A Slave Never
"A dog might slink back to the hand it has bitten
And be forgiven, but a slave never.
If you would live, and live without fear, you must fight."
--The Canticle of Shartan
Cal crept down the stairs to the bakery as if he'd been assigned a task suitable for an assassin. He paused each time a stair creaked under his weight, as if the slightest transgression would draw a group of sell swords down on his head.
This is ridiculous. You're just going to pick up a cake. A cake you helped bake!
He'd chosen one of the rare times the place stood empty, and he slipped inside on silent feet. All the loaves, rolls, pies and Creators knew what else were baked and either safely stored away for the evening meal or scattered haphazardly across tavern tables for hungry soldiers and laborers to cram in their mouths. Never had he seen so much food or of so fine a quality -- available even to common folk! -- when he had occasion to observe Magister Regulus' feasts it had been only for the most elite. No mere laetan would ever be seen at such a table, unless the evening ended with a poisoned blade for some transgression or another. Magister Regulus liked to combine his pleasures, indulging in violence as easily and as readily as he ate berry scones, always with a coffee at his elbow. Two doses of sugar, two of cream, a drink Cal had occasion to prepare when slaves more suited had been at some other task. He'd always wondered at the taste, one he would never dare ask for. All those delicacies, just out of his reach...
Before he realized it he'd crammed a handful of sultanas in his mouth, the kind reserved for visiting dignitaries. The container clattered to the floor, spilling the rest. He looked around the bakery wildly, half expecting Magister Regulus to descend from above, floating by way of dirty magic, ready to make him pay.
Persimmions came next, cracked open with trembling fingers, sections on his tongue with the peel still attached. Then butter, the big, soft blocks ready for the baking done in the small hours. He dug furrows in it, licking what he took away. Andruil, it was no halla milk, but it tasted pure and grassy to his underused palette, like tasting a sunlit meadow. He clambered up on one of Jalsi's barrels and found a tray of rolls, the soft, sweet ones served at dinner in the Great Hall. Servants would carry dozens to the head table where Amjad would gorge himself on them in between mouthfuls of roast duck, when Amjad could be coaxed in to such an affair at all. The thought of that feast food made ravenous hunger claw at his belly, as if he hadn't already filled it with everything he could find. The choux pastry for eclairs --he'd seen such delights when Magister Regulus had been wooing one of his many women -- and in under a minute he'd torn through three of them. What was this? Ah, hidden away behind the neat rows of spice jars, a little packet of figs. Flesh and seeds exploded on his tongue, sweet but also dark, secret, a thing one might forage for and steal for one's self before taking the rest back to camp.
Maybe it was the little scones that finally did him in. One lemon, one with bergamot and what he thought might be tea. His stomach rolled and flipped, and before he knew what was happening he was sick in to the rubbish bin. He stayed there on his knees until he'd vomited up every last luxury, grateful at least that it hadn't made him shit himself too.
Worth it. So worth it. He thought, as he lay twitching on the cool stones.
When he finally picked himself up off the floor he washed his mouth out in the water basin, marveling at the plumbing that carried away the evidence of his transgressions. He washed his hands thoroughly, too; it wouldn't do to bring Cullen a cake clutched in filthy fingers. Satisfied that he wouldn't make anyone gag as he walked past he looked around for the dessert, praying it hadn't been forgotten and allowed to burn. When he found it he wrapped it gently in layers and layers of parchment paper, as if it would break apart like a fine china plate if he jostled it. The scent of oranges, mellowed by the oven, rose up even so. Creators, he would never take that aroma for granted.
Being ignored by the guards as he emerged from the basement rankled but at the same time, he recognized it as an advantage. With a parcel in hand he looked like just another knife ear errand boy. He entertained himself with fantasies of revenge until he came to Cullen's office. He paused; he found the tower intimidating, especially shrouded in twilight as it was, and didn't know how to approach getting access to it. The stars took his attention, as bright as the stars in the desert and yet...pure somehow. He turned his face up as if they could offer him the same light and warmth as the sun, but he craved softness instead of that punishing burn. And though he had experienced too much chill to truly crave it, at least here the breeze came with a frigid snap, snow and ice instead of endless unbroken cold that settled in to the bones.
"Hullo Calledan." Cal startled and ducked low as if to scurry away, but a moment later he recognized Riley coming his way. The man had a smile on his face, and for the first time Cal allowed himself to study Riley's features. Cullen's right hand man looked like a Fereldan farmer's son, broad, expressive features, a dusting of freckles across the bridge of his nose; that was exactly what he was. Ginger colored hair peaked out from under his helm, and his hazel eyes -- more green than brown -- had kindness in them. Suspicious as he was, he had to admit that Riley seemed utterly without guile, the same way the big, sad mage in the fancy coat did.
Gabriel, he reminded himself. A pang of jealousy made his lips curl up in a snarl, and Riley stepped back. Belatedly Cal realized the man must have taken the response as meant for him.
"No, I was thinking of something else," he managed, trying to firm up his tone in front of this shem. Friendly or no, he was still a human. Even the nicest humans could justify throwing Elvhen lives away under the right circumstances.
"Understood," Riley said, shrugging as if it had already ceased to bother him. "Wondering if the Commander is in?"
"Yeah," Cal said, stopping himself from toeing the stones. "Is he busy?"
"Well, he's always got something to do, but between me and you he could use a break."
Cal had already identified Cullen as someone who could easily drive himself in to the ground, if allowed. Cullen had a certain intensity about him despite his gentle manner, and though his strength and warmth were real as far as Cal could tell, a brittle quality could be detected. Maybe the clues lay in the scrolls spread across his desk, the candle stubs burnt down to nothing, fastened to the bookshelves and desk by night after night of dripping wax.
Something to prove.
Riley knocked and hailed Cullen. The affirmative came back and Riley shouldered the door open, grunting as it stuck in the frame. "You've got a visitor, Commander."
"Is it Lord and Lady Dubois again? You may tell them I've had quite enough of their whittling on," Cullen said, voice tense with annoyance. Cal stepped around Riley, feeling silly then. He didn't even know Cullen, not really. But before he could start fretting about being turned away, Cullen brightened and rose from his desk.
"Oh, Cal. I'm relieved to see you. I can't take any more Orlesians today." He said while rubbing at a crick in his neck, a small sigh of discomfort escaping as he did so.
Orlesian nobles were thick on the ground at Skyhold. Their riches and snobby manner made Cal sick to his stomach, and even despite all that blessed fortune they still found something to complain about and still played their stupid Game. They took pleasure in flaunting it, prancing around like they owned the place. For a moment the rage swelled in his belly. Even here, with an elf leading the best hope for a future, those squawking vultures pushed and shoved to be the first to claim they were the true power behind the throne.
He edged in to the office and Riley took his leave after a crisp salute.
"I, um." Cal said, kicking himself at his own cleverness. "I brought you a cake."
"Truly? The one we made? I was worried it had been left to burn." He came around the desk, a little smile on his mouth and a light in his eyes. "Come on, let's go and sit in the garden while we eat far too much of it."
Cal's heart leapt and he nodded, mute. He had been a slave until what, a couple of weeks ago? And now he found himself free in every way, even free to go and waste idle time in a garden so lovely Sylaise herself would weep over it, if the aroma was anything to go by. Free to eat cake and maybe make a friend.
He didn't speak as they made their way through the courtyard, having to remind himself not to squash the cake in nervous fingers. The path to the garden was confusing and long, requiring them to go through unused parts of Skyhold piled high with rubble. He wove through it without hesitation; his Elvhen instincts had never fully faded. Cullen held doors for him, a kindness that he'd only seen afforded to those with the highest status. So shocked was he that he stumbled in to the garden, tripping over his own feet.
So much for Elvhen grace.
He stepped on to the grass, as plush as the carpet in a well paid courtesan's chamber. For a moment, he couldn't move, he could only take in the entirety of the garden laid out before him. The ornamental flowers didn't catch his eye the way the herbs did, pots of...Creators, he couldn't remember their proper name.
For a moment, he thought he might start crying, ugly racking sobs. Instead he drifted away from Cullen as if in a dream, towards the...the...
Gahlidahlis, growing wild from soil so rich he'd only seen it's like deep in Brecillian forest. The shems spoke of Brecillian as if it were filled with horrors, the galidahlis supposedly giving off an aura of magic and darkness. He sank to his knees to smell them. They had power to them, but the kind only the Elvhen could understand. The Chantry made people meek and afraid. The Elvhen had stayed free, walking the lonely road.
Aeron ran ahead of him, laughing so hard that she might have fallen on the uneven path if she weren't so nimble, amused by his efforts to outpace her. He raced after, as if she were a hart he could catch with a single well placed arrow, their voices heard only by the living forest. She stopped at the edge of a clearing, and Cal realized as he came to stand beside her that they'd gone deeper in to the trees than ever before. He lifted his head as if he could scent the air the way a beast could. A beast...were they near that cursed place, the ruins? Aeron raised her hand to silence him, then turned around, smiling. She lowered her hand and took his, leading him in to the clearing. Galidahlis flowers filled it, growing thick and lush around them. Their scent cleared his lungs, and dusted the cobwebs from his mind. He dared to kiss her, and this time she didn't push him away.
Before he knew it he'd doubled over like someone had landed a punch to his gut, sobbing his eyes out like he'd been worried about doing just minutes before. The herbalist closest to him jumped back, startled, but he only noticed because of his survival instincts; the rest of him had given over to the sorrow. Not just that; the knowledge that he wasn't a slave anymore brought a joy like he'd never felt, and yet he felt bereft, having to come back in to a world so changed and unfamiliar.
He recognized Cullen's arm around his shoulders and while normally he would have cursed and spit at any shem trying to touch him, he couldn't find the strength or, even, the desire. He turned in to the embrace, weeping against the thick, well-carded wool of Cullen's coat. Even through it, Cal could feel a feverish warmth. While Cullen's hold had strength to it, when Cal slipped his hand past the closures on that lovingly crafted coat he swore he could feel how swollen Cullen's joints were, his fingers jerking awkwardly over the curve of Cullen's shoulder and collarbone. He froze; it had been an accident, and he felt sure Cullen would pull away at something so forward, unintentionally or not. Instead Cullen practically bore him in those strong arms back to the shade, to a table set with a chessboard. Settled in the stuffed velvet chair, Cal sagged against the cushions.
"Will you be all right there?" Cullen asked, and even though he could barely think he didn't miss the slight limp that hampered Cullen's steps.
"I'm okay," he managed, grateful he hadn't started blubbering again. Like magic the cake appeared before them on the table; it was only his keen eye that spotted the servant responsible.
"Here," Cullen said, cutting a slice with his belt knife. "I think you'll feel better after some of this."
His heartache mellowed, the garden suffusing him with its warm, simple aura. The taste of what Cullen had given him burst over his tongue, creamy butter and plump, ripe oranges.
Chapter 21: The Lying Dark
The wretched cold woke Gabriel from a fitful slumber, bringing with it an oppressive wet quality that seeped in to his skin despite the fur blankets they'd brought along. It made getting up feel like an impossible task, and he turned on his side with the intention of snuggling up to Shandi's slumbering-dragon heat.
Except, she wasn't there.
Alarm made him throw the bedclothes aside, searching for his raiment in the gloom. His teeth chattered and he trembled such that he had to make three attempts at putting his boots on before he managed to shove his feet in. The laces felt as though they would take an eternity to properly tie, slipping through his numb fingertips. Of course Shandi could more than handle herself if danger came their way, but trying to soothe himself by way of that line of thought never seemed to offer him much calm. Even a Reaver could be overcome.
When he emerged in to the velvety pre-dawn the camp lay safe and silent, tent openings done up tight against the chill. Only Cassandra had stirred, on watch with her sword across her knees and steel in her eyes. She gave him a nod of acknowledgment, and a little warm front swept some of the ice from his fretting heart.
"Your lady has gone over the ridge," Cassandra said, pointing up towards the ramshackle houses on the hill. "For what purpose, I can't say."
"Thank you, Seeker," he said, bowing with his hand over his heart. "I will go to her."
He found Shandi on the highest point, overlooking a steep drop down to the water. She knelt there in the grass, a handful of crystal grace blossoms in her hands. An aura of uncharacteristic seriousness hung around her, as if she wore a heavy cloak of vulture feathers.
"Shandi?" He ventured, as quiet as possible so as to avoid alarming her. She stood up and had her blade half drawn in mere seconds even so, but when she recognized him she sighed and relaxed. Well, it was more that she went limp, as if exhausted after a long fight where she had come out the loser.
"Gabriel. What are you doing awake?"
"The blasted chill," he said, something about the scene stealing the power from his voice, so that he spoke in a funerary whisper. She grunted and nodded, then turned away. She held herself stiffly then, tense, her shoulders pinned back and her neck twisted at an uncomfortable angle. "What are you doing out here?"
She didn't answer him at first. She went back to the little bouquet of flowers she'd accumulated, getting back on her knees and bowing her head.
"There's death in this place," she said. The hairs on the back of Gabriel's neck stood up; normally Shandi didn't deal in metaphysical feelings and impressions, but as she spoke he could feel the truth of what even she had sensed. Necromancy had been absorbed in to the stones, and he felt as though each scattered skeleton left here to weather away in the rain had become visible to his third eye.
"Yes," he agreed, daring to come closer. When Shandi looked up at him, her cheeks were stained with tears.
"I...wanted to do something. For Dierdre." Shandi said, sitting back on her haunches and gazing at the grey sky. "It's stupid. She's dead. She doesn't care if I bring her flowers. I tried to pray but..."
"You don't think she can hear you?"
Shandi snorted. "What am I, Andrastian? No. It's better to think she's gone forever. Not believe in the kind of stories you tell a pup."
Yet she sounded almost as wistful as she did bitter, and though Gabriel had no love for the Maker or the Chantry himself, he did believe in some kind of afterlife if pressed. He wanted Shandi to have that kind of peace, a certainty that Dierdre's spirit hadn't met with uncaring oblivion.
"Then do it for you," he said, sitting beside her heedless of the damp. "You should remember her."
"Can't forget her," Shandi said. It was as if she had to push each word out with all her strength, each a burden such that a lesser person than she would have buckled under the first one. "And I think sometimes I should."
Gabriel felt the kind of sadness that coiled around one's soul the way the bight of a rope could suddenly pull taut around a sailor's ankle, dragging the unfortunate out to the Waking Sea's indifferent depths.
"Creators, Shandi. Why?"
"She's never coming back." Shandi gritted, staring at the middle distance as if that could keep her from weeping. "And when I think of her it just hurts. I can't think about the good times. There's a stinger in it, because I already know how our story ends."
He felt impelled to move, despite knowing that intense emotion could trigger Shandi's bloodrage. But the character of her sadness felt different, a void that swallowed not only light but will. He took her hand, and he knew he'd guessed right when she barely twitched, her fingers entwining with his out of habit.
He looked out over the waves below. A scarlet mist had risen from somewhere near their destination, clothing the sun in a smothering veil.
Chapter 22: Shadows Settle
Shadows settle on the place, that you left
Our minds are troubled by the emptiness
Destroy the middle, it's a waste of time
From the perfect start to the finish line
It took Dorian awhile to wake, as was his habit when his worries offered him some respite; he treated the restful hours as if they were a resource he could stockpile like firewood against a Hinterlands winter. He knew there would be nights -- had been nights-- too many to count, where he'd be up time and again to assure himself that all the locks and windows were tight in their tumblers and firmly in their sills. That he and Amjad roomed at the highest point in Skyhold (whenever he could slip in under cover of darkness) did little to calm his fears, the damnable smell of incense and blood goading him from bed, making him frantic as he described shaky circles around the room with his constant checking and rechecking. But this night Amjad had curled tightly around him, those dexterous fingers in his hair. How such a slight elf could take up so much space, he couldn't say, how Amjad could make him feel watched over despite being so much smaller than him. And Amjad's embrace to go along with it, hard and protective and warm even as Amjad slept. Easy for a man to stay firmly in one's bedroll then.
Still, the sound of someone stirring outside made him open his eyes. He found Amjad already awake as well, only his focused gaze to give him away. Unlike him Amjad woke all at once, and enjoyed immediate sense and reason.
"How long have you been awake? How in all the hells do you do that?" Dorian demanded in a whisper.
"I am Dalish," Amjad said, as if that explained everything. To Dorian Amjad felt less Dalish and more wild animal, a dozing mountain cat that for the moment had indulged in deceptive quiescence. "You should leave."
They frowned at each other in the dark. The words had come out harsh, dismissive. Yet the anger Dorian felt quickly gave way to shame; his unwillingness to be open about their relationship stood between them, a wall he both hated and reinforced, brick by brick, every day when he had to creep from Amjad's tent as if he didn't want to be seen visiting a whore.
"You're right," Dorian said stiffly, unwinding from his lover and turning away. The warmth he'd so enjoyed moments before dissipated and he shivered as he pulled on his shirt and breeches. Even his heavy coat couldn't replace that tender comfort. When he crept from the tent at the proper moment to avoid detection, the snake embroidered on it felt like the real thing, a heavy, constricting coil that squeezed the air from his chest.
Gabriel looked about as miserable as Dorian felt, that hangdog look Gabriel often wore such that he could have easily been accused of some crime by those who didn't know better; Gabriel sometimes took on guilt he had no stake in, as if his very existence were a sin at worst and an annoyance at best. Dorian's reaction often vacillated from disgust to empathy and back again, as if perhaps spending time with Gabriel could have infected him, reveling all of his shame by association.
Still, he tried to be if not friendly, kind enough.
"Good morning, Gabriel. Has someone died in the night?" He asked in an arch tone. Gabriel recoiled. Shit.
Well done, Dorian. Where is all your vaunted charm? That was as clumsy as Iron Bull lumbering about after a whole flight of rotgut.
"Well, you look so morose..." He tried. He added in a smile, showing off his white, straight teeth. As a child he'd often been told that his smile was his best feature, out of a face full of best features, if he did say so himself.
"No, thank you," Gabriel said stiffly, unmoved. The silvery color of his tunic made his gaze all the more hard, diamond-bright. "And I'll hope the same can be said about today."
Maybe he looked more like a wolf showing its fangs; Maker willing, they'd smoke Octavious out of whatever foul nest he had built for himself. Even Dorian couldn't keep all his inner turmoil bottled up, with that thought driving its thorns in to his brain. Would Octavious even remember him? What would be more insulting, being mocked, his past laid out bare before his friends? Or the cold indifference that only truly cruel people could cultivate? How many more innocent pairings had been violently ended by the blades at Octavious' command?
He realized he'd stood there silent too long when Gabriel's expression changed, from put off, to shocked, to sad.
"Dorian," Gabriel said, words soft now instead of stiff. "Why don't you sit beside me and share my breakfast?"
Dorian obliged. Honestly, he craved the company. He thought of Octavious again, out there in the middle distance somewhere. Then, he remembered Amjad's hurt, so evident in Amjad's expression as Dorian once more went through his elaborate rituals, all designed to hide one of the best things to ever happen to him. When Gabriel passed him a bowl of porridge, he gripped the spoon so hard it stamped its outline in to his flesh.
Shandi's warm bulk became apparent a moment later; sensing his hurt, maybe, she had moved over as if on instinct to offer him comfort. He turned grateful eyes on her, only to see her own drawn, raw countenance. What had this trip invoked for Shandi, then? He felt the entire venture hang around them like noxious mist, the kind that accompanied an ancient grave opening under a master necromancer's command. And oh Maker, had he thought of that more than once, that his magic could part funeral soil and command Quintus stand up from within like a sapling pushing at the sky, imbued with new life. So much power lived in the stones here that he couldn't help but consider it all over again, an idea that was sometimes cherished fantasy, at other times intrusive terror. Either way, his fingerprints were all over it, as indelible as blood on stone.
He did his best to eat, but unbidden the image of Felix rose up to steal away his appetite. Not Felix as he had been in life, no. Felix from the dark future, a putrid shell that could do little more than blink and twitch. And yet the true horror wasn't what had become of his friend. It was that he could understand Alexius, the kind of love that might make a man sign over his very soul for the barest hope.
Amjad appeared across the camp, a dark and troubled spirit in a group already full of them. Dorian realized that even Varric had remained silent, and though his lady hardly needed protecting he stayed close, crossbow ready. She did the same for him, her gaze darting from shadow to shadow, her sword still unsheathed across her knees.
So. Like Skyhold, old magics yet glittered away in the loam here. Except here, necromancy reigned.
With but a movement of his hand, Amjad commanded them to rise, break camp, and follow.
Amjad and Varric took point, with Gabriel following close behind. Cassandra and Shandi brought up the rear, scanning the area again and then again for even the slightest threat. They'd left the mounts, untethered so that if by some awful stroke of misfortune their riders didn't return they could find their way back to the Inquisition camp up on the ridge. While Dorian didn't relish dragging the hems of his coat and breeches in the mud (inevitable when struggling along on foot), secretly he approved. He'd grown fond of his mare, and didn't want to risk her.
Dorian watched as Varric stopped, tilting his head. Varric cupped his hand around his ear, as though he hoped to catch a sound just below hearing. Dorian and Varric had shared several drinks together over their time in Skyhold; more than once Varric, deep in his cups, had scoffed at the idea of having any Stone sense, when asked by parties eager to learn all they could about the author of Tale of the Champion. He'd never even set foot in Orzammar. But Dorian knew the tales from Kirkwall, and wondered if Varric had developed another sense all together. One that might let him perceive and decode the insanity-inducing song emanating from red lyrium, one that could even now be describing pathways under Varric's feet.
The thought made sudden rage bloom in Dorian's chest, a plume of dragon's fire. Red lyrium. Could Octavious stoop any lower? The faces of the lost in Emprise Du Lion swam before him, their broken corpses scattered around makeshift slave transports better suited to housing farm animals on their way to slaughter. Some had stretched their arms through the bars, perhaps to plead with their captors. Others were curled up in the corners, trying to escape if not their masters, then the cold, which killed even more capriciously than red templars. And Octavious dealt in it as casually as if he were peddling potion reagents or hawking stuffed rolls.
"I've ordered the tunnel opened." Amjad's voice brought Dorian out of his thoughts, somewhat. A sea breeze played over his face as if he'd drawn a ribbon from his hair, a rustle like finest silk reminding him of his surroundings. The softness of the moment deceived, as right afterwards a heavy wind dragged its hands down his back and plucked at the fringe of his coat. "We shouldn't have trouble with that aspect. Cullen told me there was a red templar force there, but it seemed suspiciously bare bones and was easily dispatched. The real resistance will be found deep within, under the waters."
Maker, did their tunnels reach so that they could exist even under the Waking Sea? He knew under his skin, in the seams of his skull and in the vital organs caged in his chest, that lives had been thrown away to create such a fantastical thing. Often he had criticized the cavalier way the Magisterium dealt in sacrifices, but the Venatori had no need to follow social norms and had sunk in to a depravity that often left him breathless at its cruelty.
The group paused high on the bluff, and Amjad crouched low with a hand shading his eyes. He had the eyesight of an eagle, and his irises glowed even in the daylight as he peered down at the area in question. Their destination loomed large, a jagged formation of slick rock that rose from the sea just beyond the shore.
Gabriel and Varric came up to flank Amjad. Shandi and Cassandra fanned out, protecting the group and ranging far enough away to catch any movement or other threatening stimuli. Dorian leaned on his staff. He had the physical prowess of any warrior --the way he wielded his staff had always been athletic, not to mention quite lovely to look at -- but the emotion twisting his stomach and penetrating in to his heart exhausted him.
"They'll be dug in," Shandi said as she came back over. "That's how Venatori do things. Build a nest and try to protect their leaders with traps and foot soldiers. And most groups are working on some kind of experimental magic for Coryphytit, so we'll have to be twice again as cautious."
Dorian looked over at her, rather impressed. Too easy to think of her as stupid, thanks to her size and profession, but she watched and analyzed and responded as readily as a scholar. Her books and papers just happened to be swords and battle strategies, instead.
"Yes," Dorian found himself agreeing. "When we first cleared the Hinterlands, the mages and templars chose a similar course of action. Of course the mages in particular couldn't stand against us." He said, lifting his head in a haughty manner and brushing invisible dirt from his front. Normally his bluster could make his friends at the very least smile, but this time Shandi fixed him with a flat look that told him in no uncertain terms that his preening was unwelcome.
This day is going poorly, he thought, inner voice as dry as a riverbed in the Western Approach. It wasn't often he couldn't charm those around him, and he decided he disliked it immensely.
"Careful you don't cause a rockslide," Amjad said, before leaping down to the path below. The path could hardly be called such, a furrowed, tiny thing only appropriate for mountain goats. Of course Amjad had no trouble with it and annoyance made Dorian scowl. All well and good when you happen to be an elf!
Through some miracle they all made it down without tragedy, though at one point Shandi had to rescue Varric from a fall by grabbing the collar of his coat at the last second.
"Thanks," Varric said once he had his footing again. "An act like that, you deserve a title!"
"A title?" Shandi asked, negotiating a particularly steep part of the trail. She sounded incredulous. No surprise there.
"Sure. When I write about you in All This Shit is Weird, I have to capture your best traits. Goldie the Great? Goldie the Lionhearted?"
Finally they made it to the beach. Shandi looked out across the water, then turned to Varric with her face scrunched up.
Varric shrugged and grinned an unrepentant grin.
"What do you call Amjad?" Shandi wondered. At the mention of his name Amjad turned to look at the group. Dorian's gaze magnetized to Amjad, as it often did. The elf's expression was inscrutable, remote.
"I don't have a nickname for our fearless leader," Varric said. "All I can think of is Stabby or Wolfy, neither of which I think he would appreciate," he added, wincing.
Amjad smiled, showing his teeth in a way that made it look more like a grimace.
"I approve," Amjad said. He turned away again, watching the waves break on the shore. "Let's get moving. There may be a rift inside. Stay alert."
Indeed a rift waited for them, and a strong one at that. The first round of Rage demons existed as an honor guard for the Pride demon in their midst, a scion Cassandra blunted her sword on so tough its hide. Shandi's quick actions saved Cassandra's sword arm, as she snarled and roared and shoved the demon back with all her strength. Amjad dispatched what Rage demons he could, setting up the rest for either his and Gabriel's spells or Varric's quarrels.
They were an accomplished adventuring party, full to the brim with the kind of greatness that made bards swoon, but even so they were already worse for the wear when the second wave of infernal beasts issued forth to test them. Cassandra stood strong against Despair in a way Dorian had never seen anyone else manage; feeling sorrow only made her more determined. The fact that she kept Despair from him he felt pitifully grateful for; he didn't think he could have withstood the onslaught. Another Pride demon scored a hit with its energy whip, the scream torn from his throat before he even realized it. Gabriel's barrier washed over him as if he were being enveloped in a particularly indulgent tub of hot bathwater, dried flower petals scattered on top and fine oils teasing his nostrils with fine fragrance. Amjad's flask hit the ground at Pride's feet and shattered, thick flaming oil coating the demon's craggy hide. It bellowed and stumbled, its skeleton showing where the substance had scored direct hits.
He managed to fell it with a burst of lightning, so primal that it arced through the antechamber and did unspeakable things to everyone's hair. Thankfully they weren't in the habit of bringing a talekeeper on their journeys, and he doubted Varric would want to capture such an inglorious event...he hoped. At least their embarrassment wouldn't be captured for posterity.
"Dorian," Gabriel said, grinning. "This isn't how I would have liked to meet the Venatori."
Varric laughed, and even though the Venatori surely knew they were here and the confrontation with Octavious drew ever closer, Dorian couldn't help but laugh along. He waited for the sting of being laughed at, but it never came. Even Amjad spared a chuckle, and Cassandra managed to crack a smirk. Shandi still seemed too downtrodden to express anything approaching mirth, and it made his mood dampen again.
As they crept further in the scent of seawater swept over them. They came upon a tiny dock within the stone, a boat still lashed to it, bobbing in the waves. Even without spying the red dust coating the inside, Dorian would have known it had been used to smuggle blighted lyrium. The substance added a discordant, electric note to the area. Varric could feel it too; his face had turned ashen and grim, and his trigger finger twitched across Bianca's lovingly polished body.
"Here," Amjad said, crouching down and swiping dust away from the spot that had caught his attention. A trapdoor. So, it was true. Tunnels that extended even beneath the sea. Varric went over to check it for traps, spending several long minutes disarming several particularly nasty discouragements. Varric beckoned him over to deal with the magical protection glyphs, and with him and Gabriel working together they managed to unravel the set spells without --hopefully -- tripping any alarms.
The tunnels themselves made a deep seated anxiety set in. Being so close to a red lyrium vein did that to a person. Shandi moved with her naked sword blade in her hand, her face set in a permanent scowl. Cassandra mirrored her, her Seeker abilities surely communicating danger to her in no uncertain terms. When he sensed a trap, Varric would bid everyone stop while he worked away at it, tongue stuck out of the side of his mouth when he happened to be fiddling with a very intricate piece of whatever killing apparatus the Venatori had thought to set.
A patrol of guards comprised their first encounter with the Venatori themselves. Once the majority were dispatched Amjad hauled the only man whose life they had spared up by his shirt. The man had sustained significant injury and couldn't or wouldn't stand, but Amjad made the guard look him in the face.
"Where is your leader?" Amjad growled. "Speak, or I will make your death a torment even your descendants will feel."
"You want Octavious?" The guard spat. "You can bloody well have him. He makes his home in the center of our stronghold."
"What is he working on? For Corypheus?" Amjad demanded.
"I'm not --" the guard began coughing up blood, his mask torn aside, hood rumpled and soiled. Amjad did him the courtesy of baring his head, so he could vomit. "I'm not sure," he continued when he was done. "I'm no mage. But I figure it has something to do with mind control. Making slaves who obey without question."
"Thank you. I'll kill you quickly. Without my knife to free you, it will take you a long time to bleed out." Amjad told him matter of factly, letting go and letting him slump back to the ground. His knife flashed before the guard could react to Amjad's words, and a gush of blood from the guard's throat served as evidence of a quick demise.
Dorian wanted to make a quip about the guard's livery and Venatori ideas of style, but he remembered his earlier attempts at humor and kept his mouth shut.
The man had been truthful. As they went deeper they found the bodies of slaves scattered everywhere, pale and drained of life. Some had cracked skulls, but it didn't indicate the messy business of a bludgeoning. Instead it had an almost surgical feel, the holes semi-uniform as if they were made on purpose, to gain access to the brain. Some of the corpses didn't even have recognizable brains anymore. Instead their skulls housed a green-black sludge that stunk of chemicals. He thought of the Tranquil who had died to make all of those ocularum, and shuddered.
"What the hell are they doing to these people?" Varric said in a hushed, horrified whisper. Amjad crouched down to peer at one of the bodies.
"Experiments?" Amjad hazarded. "Look at the brain. An attempt to change their behavior? It seems our friend back there spoke true."
"Likely," Cassandra added in a growl. "The Venatori will stop at nothing to secure victory for their lord. This atrocity matters not at all to them."
"Even animals don't shit where they eat," Varric added, pointedly looking at a bare spot on the wall.
Shandi didn't speak, but dragon scent started to pour off of her; her bloodrage aroused by the crimes committed in these Maker forsaken tunnels.
"Perhaps we'll join their ranks," Dorian found himself saying. "Do you think the holes they'll drill in my skull will muss my hair?"
"You mean you don't magic it in to place?" Shandi grunted as she looked around, nervous. Her fingers twitched, skittering over her sword handle.
"Dorian," Amjad said before he could retort. "Can you raise them?"
He quailed for a moment, considering further desecrating these corpses. But he saw the truth of it. There were at least ten bodies here, and likely more ahead. If he could raise and control them, they would have a decent fighting force and would breach Octavious' protections with much less risk to life and limb.
He let his staff go, commanding it to hover in mid air. The jewels suspended in the branches at the top glittered and spun, the length curled round with tendrils of magic the color of spilled wine. Necromancy rose around them like the first winds of winter, murmuring secrets. Dorian could smell the anointing oil that blessed the newly dead, the hard, bright whiff of obol coins. Ashes...had they burned Quintus? He could never bring himself to verify it. What was worse, blazing away to nothing on a pyre, or interned in the suffocating earth?
No, dammit. Focus.
The corpses left forgotten rattled, and the inhalation of breath where before there had been none echoed as loud as a royal decree read from a mountain top. Coagulated blood and brain matter oozed and dripped to the dust as a few of the walking dead stood, shambling aimlessly until Dorian's fine control drew them in and forced them to obey. Cassandra couldn't keep her expression of quiet horror from her face --she had never appreciated the necropoli of her homeland -- and it made Dorian lift his head with pride; Southern Chantry guard dogs couldn't truly appreciate magical mastery. The prejudice rankled even as the grisly evidence of his countrymen's crimes stared him, quite literally, in the face.
Amjad's expression turned to one of regard, a small smile, his intent gaze.
"Impressive," he murmured, and Dorian couldn't help but preen.
"I am, aren't I?" He said, selling it quite well, he thought. Amjad had to keep from laughing; he could never quite fool Amjad completely. His own amusement always came through and ruined the whole effect.
He caught sight of Gabriel's face, and his mood tumbled from its lofty perch. Gabriel had turned as pale as a fresh sheet of parchment, and his hands were tightly fisted around his staff.
"I apologize..." Dorian felt compelled to say.
"No no," Gabriel said, "it's just that the last time I saw a walking corpse, the outcome was...not favorable."
Amjad looked at Gabriel and frowned, troubled if Dorian had to guess.
"They won't be in our company long," Amjad said, and as if the Venatori had been waiting for just such a comment to make a grand entrance, a fighting force swept in bent on killing them all.
The tunnel both afforded advantages and snatched them away. He and the rest of the party fell back to a narrow place a few steps behind, forcing the Ventatori to come at them only two or three at a time. The downside being that spells fired in to such a constrictive space became especially deadly; the power had nowhere to go but in to their soft flesh.
Gabriel bid the veil open and a rush of healing spirits poured in, blinding Dorian with their light. He didn't need his eyes to cast, however, knowing where the enemy mages were through their presence in the Fade. Smoke filled the room beyond as Amjad threw his flasks, rewarded with the shouts of confused sell swords and the mages the leadership felt they could risk in a pitched battle. With but a thought his complement of corpse soldiers lurched in to fight, tearing and biting.
The last scream cut the air as Cassandra brought her sword down. Shandi stood nearby, her blade thick with black gore, but she had yet to unleash true dragon's fury. Perhaps she was saving it for Octavious.
They pressed on, and if it weren't for Amjad's tracking skills they surely would have become hopelessly lost. Dorian felt little tendrils of magic spreading over the walls and ceiling, and he thought perhaps that one of the spells here had been designed to mislead any unfamiliar persons who happened to get this far. Red lyrium pulsed in his consciousness, blackening his mage-sight with corruption. The deeper they went the more the stuff grew out of the walls and coated the ground in killing dust. He and Gabriel had to be feeling the same dread, but it was Varric who struggled most. Shandi walked beside him, murmuring to him from time to time. Cassandra stood on his other side, keeping pace with him. It eased Dorian's worries a little; Varric couldn't ask for a better guard detail.
The corpses that remained shuffled along beside him, caring not a whit for red lyrium, Venatori, or the ghastly business ahead. He preferred corpses to real people at times. Corpses did not judge.
Torches burned as they went still deeper, Veil fire. Amjad took one without hesitating, holding it high. The blaze revealed runes used to protect the inner sanctum. Dorian and Gabriel spent several minutes studying them, and then several more rendering them useless. It occured to Dorian that perhaps Octavious was even now making his escape. The Venatori were cowards, after all. He rose, smoothing his clothing with hands that, thankfully, didn't tremble.
A few more paces and Amjad broke in to a run. He must have sensed something, something terribly important or he wouldn't have risked traps, runes, and sell swords like that. Shandi barreled after and everyone else followed.
The door to Octavious' foul nest stood ajar, and by the smell he knew it would be full of broken bodies. Amjad disappeared, likely going through undetected. Shandi hit the door at a run and tore it from its hinges as if it weighed nothing. Dorian pushed past Varric and Cassandra --battle strategy be damned -- just in time to see Octavious and several of his idiot knuckle breakers trying to escape through a back passage.
Before he could react, Amjad had summarily murdered all of Octavious' men. Octavious turned white and stumbled, just enough for Shandi to grab him by the collar of his robe. She picked him bodily off the ground, his hands scrabbling at the point where the fabric cut in to his skin.
"What would you have me do with him?" Shandi asked Amjad, giving Octavious a little shake. In his position he couldn't cast, and Dorian felt spiteful laughter bubble up from somewhere within him. Amjad turned to look at him, eyebrows artfully raised.
"That is for Dorian to decide," he said. Dorian could feel Cassandra and Varric behind him, and without even having to look he could feel the crossbow quarrel aimed at Octavious' heart, the naked steel in Cassandra's hand. Shandi put Octavious on his feet but kept her hold. With her free hand she snatched his hood from his head, forcing Octavious to look at them. Octavious had pale skin for a person born in Tevinter, and hair closer to red than brown. He, like most Venatori, had attractive features. At the moment those features happened to be pinched with mockery; as soon as Octavious laid eyes on him an unholy glee had been evident in his expression.
"Octavious." He said, trying to sound just the right side of arrogant. "A pity we must meet like this."
"Is it, discinctus?" He said, and Dorian couldn't keep a scowl from twisting his mouth.
"Do you think insults are going to work in your favor at the moment?" He asked. Amjad stood to the side of Shandi and her prize, and Dorian knew that if he didn't do it Amjad would surely murder Octavious for that alone.
"Hm. I see you've brought a pet ox-head to subdue me," Octavious spat. He raised his hands to cast, but the flame he called flickered and died before it could become a blaze. Then and only then did Octavious look afraid.
Amjad held up his dagger, and Dorian understood by the sheen on the blade; magebane. Amjad must have used it to drive Octavious in to Shandi's grip.
Octavious realized he had no hope of struggling free of Shandi's hold, and turned his head so he wouldn't have to see those who would most probably take his life. Amjad stepped up and hissed,
"Look at him, or I'll cut your fingers off one by one and feed them to you."
Octavious did as told.
"Lord Pavus, I had to do it." He babbled. Maker, it felt good to watch Octavious' terror. "It was nothing personal. You understand. You've played the Game yourself!"
"The Game! The bloody Game?" He heard himself shout. "You expect to sway me by referencing that fucking abomination? Oh no offense Dorian, I know I killed the only man who has ever loved you, but you should understand because it's just business?"
Damn it all to hell. Fuck the fact that the rest of his party could hear him. Shit on it all.
"Your father..." Octavious tried, but Shandi in her anger had twisted the hem of his robe so tightly around his neck that he couldn't speak. He gave her a look and she grudgingly loosened her hold. "Your father," Octavious tried again after a coughing fit, "he demanded it. I am subservient to him; he is the better mage. And he enjoys a seat in the Magisterium. I could never hope to achieve that status."
Suddenly, Dorian understood why Corypheus enjoyed so many willing converts. Power. Blood magic. All the slaves a person could want. No pesky ethics to get in the way of their depraved experiments.
"You disgust me," he whispered, looking at Octavious the way he'd look at a blighted cadaver wriggling and jumping, so ravenous and numerous were the maggots inside.
"If you kill me, there will be consequences," Octavious said. "The Venatori will make you pay for my life."
"Do you think you're really so important?" Amjad said between clenched teeth. "The Venatori care little for their members. If you cease to be useful they won't even remember your name."
"Strike me down and see," Octavious said.
"Gladly," Dorian said. "Shandi, let him go."
Shandi did as he asked and Octavious ran for it, stumbling over the evidence of his own experiments, broken bodies, spilled potions. Dorian called forth a great pillar of pure necromancy, and the animated dead still at his beck and call rushed forward.
It took them a long time to finish eating Octavious. He screamed, even missing all his limbs. He screamed even when the walking dead tore in to his belly and started eating the soft parts inside. Only when they tore his head from his body, did he stop.
The sudden need to be violently ill possessed Dorian. He made it to the hallway before he vomited.
Later, when they had climbed free of that wretched little nest, Dorian finally felt as though he could take a full breath. Varric and Amjad had set the tunnels ablaze, and the warmth settled against his back like a cloak of phoenix feathers. Maker, what had he done? Octavious deserved that death, but...
"Come on," Shandi said, putting her huge hand on his shoulder. Despite her great strength, the touch was gentle, kind. "Let's get back to camp."
"Going to make more of that stew, Goldie?" Varric asked, his voice jovial enough though by his ashen face he hadn't forgotten red lyrium's song.
"Yeah, sure. I'll go get us some rabbits or something. Maybe a deer, if we're lucky."
The day mellowed in to twilight. Shandi made stew. Cassandra read. Amjad...lurked, still on guard, Dorian thought, after that messy business from before.
At first, he didn't notice that Shandi had left camp. Truth be told he was exhausted, having channeled and refined so much power in such a short span of time. But, just as earlier he had been compelled to follow Amjad, he found himself rising and going after her.
She knelt at the spot Amjad had chosen to sit earlier, looking out over the Waking Sea as the sun went down. It burned a shade he'd never seen before, a molten orb of scarlet and gold. A bouquet of crystal grace lay beside her, glowing in the gloom.
She didn't even turn her head.
"Dorian," she said, and her voice pitched so low and quiet made her sound like a funerary priest. "Come and sit if you've a mind to."
He did. His clothes were already disgusting. What was a little dew? Why not some grass stains to round it all out?
For a long time they sat in silence. The Waking Sea swallowed the sun, and stars came. The cries of birds gave way to a cricket symphony. Finally, he spoke.
"Who was he?"
She looked at him then.
"What do you mean?"
"Who was it that you lost?"
"How can you...?" She said, lips parted and brows furrowed in surprise.
"How can I tell?" He asked. "I know what loss is. Since we came here, all losses are closer to the surface. Aren't they? The necromancy is in the land, the sea, the sky."
Shandi was silent for a long moment.
"She," she admitted. "She. Her name was Deirdre. A Dalish elf who left her clan and became a mercenary. In my company. Fate maybe. That sounds stupid."
"It doesn't." Dorian offered. He had trouble breathing just then; Shandi had been with someone who shared her gender, too. "Some things must be preordained, hm?"
"What about you?" She said, and it had a note of demand in it; she had shared. She expected the same from him.
"His name was Quintus. The son of a minor noble. We...fell in love, the way naive young people do. My father sent hired thugs to...recover me, from the estate. In the course of doing so, Quintus was murdered. I am sure for some political end. It was a convenient excuse to eliminate him. I don't know why and I don't care to know. Petty striving. The bloody Game. I don't want to know."
"I think I understand," Shandi said, speaking slowly as if she had thought carefully about each word before expressing it. "One of the things I couldn't bear about Deirdre's death was that it didn't matter. Not to anyone but me, and her friends in the company. We buried her, and then everyone felt it was over and done. But I couldn't put it down. I still can't."
"It's a shame when people become disposable," he said, and something about the dark ocean out there at the edge of the world made him wonder whether Quintus' soul had found some kind of respite beyond the veil.
Again, the silence stretched until Shandi reached to her left and plucked a bloom from her careful collection of flowers. She handed it to him.
"For Quintus," she told him, and in the span it took to blink he choked up to the point where he couldn't speak.
"For Deirdre," he finally said, voice hoarse.
"For Deirdre," she agreed, and when he leaned against her it felt natural and right. She put her arm around him, and some raw place within him drank in the simple, platonic affection like a draught made by the hands of a master.
Maker willing, their spirits were at rest.
Chapter 23: Glitter and Gleam
The quest to find the artifact Solas suggested they acquire continues, and deep within a forgotten thaig the group encounters consequences that aren't so easily resolved.
Hey if you like my work, why not buy me a coffee? Go to this link:
Ko-fi.com/tigergray Thanks for looking :)
THIS WAS WEEKS OF WORK and I can only hope it paid off.
Sometimes I use italics for emphasis and sometimes to denote a word that isn't in Common. I'm sorry if this is confusing. I hope context is enough to distinguish the two uses.
Yes, it actually is called a pie lifter (among other things)
A bereskarn is a bear corrupted by the Blight.
CN: self-injury, gore.
Great bear dog bull flying fish
Scorpion peacock make your wish
Case/Lang/Veirs, Georgia Stars
“So,” Shandi said over breakfast the next morning, “where in the bloody hell is this artifact, if we couldn’t find it in the tunnels?” Dorian blinked, trying to clear the cobwebs from his thoughts. It had been awhile since he’d had such a rough waking, the kind that left his mouth stuffed full of cotton, his vision washed out, head pounding. What cruel world had he found himself in where the Maker had seen fit to punish him with a hangover when for once not a drop of alcohol had passed his lips? Oh, woe.
Amjad looked up from his food, using a healing potion to wash it down. His gut wound had mostly healed, but Regina had impressed upon him the importance of staying as hale as possible lest it burst open again. “I am wondering that myself. I still think they were the likely owners at one time, but perhaps another took it from them. The Venatori are not the only people to stake their claim to the Storm Coast.”
“I’ve got an idea about that,” Varric said. “Let me see a map.”
Shandi obliged, getting up to rifle through their piled up belongings. She found the map roll and uncapped it, drawing forth a map done in Cullen’s neat pen. Cullen was no master cartographer, but he knew enough thanks to his duties regarding troop deployment.
Varric took the map from Shandi, opening it on his knees. Cassandra leaned over to peer at it.
“The dock we found? It’s part of a thaig. But the tunnels we explored weren’t part of its original structure,” he said. “They were made by magic, blood magic, as an extension. Maybe Octavious did it as a show of power, or he might have had no choice, considering there are probably Darkspawn lurking just past his nest.”
“You think they knew it was there, but couldn’t get to it?” Shandi asked.
“Yeah. The artifact, and Maker knows what else. They were probably holed up there trying to get inside,” Varric said, “if I remember rightly the thaig used to be a trading post between Orzammar and Tevinter. Hell, there could be a thousand pieces of treasure inside, for all I know.”
“Something the Venatori couldn’t resist,” Dorian added. So, he could safely add greed to the list of sins the Venatori were so ardently courting. Andrastae’s sword, he wanted to wipe all traces of them and their dark works from the face of the earth. If he could look impossibly handsome at the same time, all the better. One for the history books, indeed. He could only hope that any artists attempting to capture their journeys would depict his good side, preferably in ultramarine and soft ochre garments that brought out his eyes.
“Darkspawn, huh?” Shandi grunted, sword hand twitching. “Haven’t had much chance to face them.”
Varric paled. “I have, Goldie. Not something I want to repeat.”
“I’m sorry, Varric.” Amjad said, in a tone that said he felt so sincerely. “If you wish to return to Skyhold, it would be no blight on your character.”
“Oh very well and good,” Dorian said, “Varric, go off home. But you Dorian, you stay. Since you love mud and rain and Darkspawn so much.”
“If you’re worried about your mustache turning frizzy you may make your way home as well,” Amjad told him in a tone that could have stripped paint from the walls at a hundred paces. Sometimes Amjad’s patience for his brand of humor ran dry, and quickly. “But I will recover this artifact, with or without you.”
“Hmph. I’ll stay. Someone has to be the devastatingly charming one.”
“Then who’s the comic relief?” Shandi asked, grinning a broad grin as she lounged back on her elbows. She looked pointedly at Varric.
“It’s certainly not me,” Gabriel added, looking vaguely affronted.
“Hey don’t look at me,” Varric protested, lifting his hands. “I am a respectable story teller. I’m published, you know.”
“Anyway Varric, don’t worry about it,” Shandi said, “if it bleeds, it can die. Even Darkspawn.”
“You’re actually excited, aren’t you?” Varric shook his head in consternation.
“Yeah!” Shandi sat up and started strapping on her armor. “Don’t you get bored fighting demons and bears and stuff? I’m a Reaver. I want to test myself. Wasn’t that rock wraith from the Deep Roads? That was a good fight.”
Dorian felt sorry for poor Gabriel; it was obvious how much anxiety Shandi’s attitude caused him, though Gabriel wisely kept his mouth shut. He could empathize; he’d thought they were free of skulking around underground. Or undersea, as the case may be.
They all got up to follow Shandi’s example. At least he could exchange his base layer for a clean set, even if his precious coat wasn’t about to receive the starch laundering it deserved any time soon. Bathing with nothing but a soft cloth and a little pot of water was quite far from ideal, but he supposed it did do something for his hygiene. The delicate aroma of rose water rose from the rag and settled in to his skin. A small comfort only, but one he wouldn’t take for granted.
The others, having washed and changed, came together in a huddle.
“We’ll be okay,” Shandi said. Her optimism certainly hadn’t flagged a whit.
“Let’s make a great story,” Varric said.
They filed out and down, walking the path they’d already used before. Dorian felt his stomach twist and catch. It felt like a pouch of his most treasured belongings had caught on a length of barbed wire and ripped open, spilling its contents in to the mire.
What would they find within?
Gabriel despaired of even finding an alternate entrance to the thaig, but he shouldn’t have doubted; Varric located another tunnel as if he’d been here before. That red lyrium idol must have done something to him, furnished him with a kind of Stone sense before being passed off and driving Meredith mad. Well, moreso than she already was.
The thought made a discordant shiver go up his spine, but he ignored it as best he could. Varric’s instincts were helping them now, no matter their origin.
He stayed close to Amjad as Shandi and Cassandra tried to open the huge double doors impeding their passage. They grunted and groaned, boots scraping the earth as if they were a pair of druffalo fording a river whipped in to a froth by a gale wind. Eventually it shifted, and Shandi was able to lean in to to her half of the door and shove it open the rest of the way.
Gabriel expected a puff of dust as they disturbed halls that hadn’t known the gait of a living being for years. Instead a faint whisper of ozone came to him, and when he stepped on the polished stone floor, something akin to an electric shock arched through his boots and in to his skin.
“What in — “ He gasped. Amjad turned to him, and he knew that somehow Amjad had felt it too, though he felt sure it had a magical origin.
“Not surprising, for a trading house with Tevinter,” Amjad pointed out, already scanning the area with his keen eyes. “I suspect the magic here will make more than a single appearance. Stay alert.”
Gabriel vacillated over whether to pull his sword; perhaps the magic tempered in to the blade would react badly with whatever yet lingered here. But then again, being caught flat footed when an attack came sounded even less pleasant.
He drew the blade. He could feel Shandi and Cassandra behind him and to each side, a certain tension telling him that they were already checking and rechecking the area for threats. Luckily his weapon did not do anything harmful, though it lit up with an intense silver light. The runes sparked and crackled before settling in to a steady, pulsing glow.
The thaig oriented around this great hall they had found themselves in, storage rooms and sprawling meeting spaces spiraling away in to the stone. Some of those doors stood open, as if at any moment a brace of traders would issue forth, arguing prices.
A half eaten wheel of cheese and a loaf of bread sat on the sideboard inside the room Gabriel walked past next, the pie lifter half dug in to the forgotten vittles as if someone had left mid-serve.
Shandi sucked in a sharp breath. He turned, worried, but it wasn’t an expression of concern on her part; she’d caught sight of a pile of treasure in one of the storehouses. It looked like a dragon’s horde, so fantastical Gabriel wondered if he were imagining it. Gold sovereigns lay scattered on the floor as if someone so wealthy it mattered not had let them fall where they may. Pieces of jewelry glittered; there too, a broach in the shape of a spider clutching a ruby the size of his thumb, next to a necklace formed from strand after strand of spun silverite, and each strand with dawnstone chips that caught the light from his sword.
“Look at that!” Shandi exclaimed, taking a couple of steps towards it before realizing what she was doing and coming to a jerky halt.
“We’ll take it with us, if it’s not cursed,” Amjad said. His tone had a distant quality, as if he stood a greater distance away from them than he actually did. Often he walked as if he had a purpose to urgently attend to, or with the ground eating lope of a wolf or a mountain cat. Now, he…wandered, with little rhyme or reason Gabriel could discern. Amjad’s hands, usually tense and ready to pull both dagger and flask, hung limp at his sides.
Gabriel felt a pang of fear. Something seemed off, yet he could perceive nothing that would fully explain such an instinct. Perhaps it could be chalked up to the eerie feeling of entering a place caught at a particular moment in time; he still expected the owners of the thaig to appear somehow, so indelible was their presence. It wasn’t like opening a tomb, not really. It felt as though everyone had simply left in the middle of dinner. And the Darkspawn? Nowhere to be found. He’d been prepared for hordes of ravening genlocks, not such pregnant silence as this.
Dorian came up beside him. Dorian’s lovely face had a dark cast, as if dread had poured its inky essence in to the shadows here, deepening them far beyond the natural. They all itched to fight whatever lingered, yet there was nothing they could put to the sword.
Shandi found an old, withered torch still in its sconce. She took it, and Dorian lit it with but a thought. It pushed the gloom back some, but only so they stood in a narrow oval of light. The air had a thick quality, sticking in Gabriel’s throat and shrouding his gaze.
He could barely see Amjad and something in him made him split from the group and break in to a run.
“Amjad!” Dorian shouted. “Stop. You don’t know what you might trip over.”
For a long, heart-stopping moment, only silence greeted Dorian’s words. But then Amjad said, slurring as if he were drunk, “can’t you see it?”
They rounded the corner. The floor gave way before them, cracked down to the bedrock. Amjad dropped out of sight.
Dorian lurched forward, barely feeling Shandi twisting his arm, trying to keep him from leaping in to the crevasse himself. He’d gone wild in that moment, somehow, a fear overtaking him such that it felt like standing on the gallows with a rope around his neck. Instead of the kind of despair that plunged its sufferer in to catatonia it galvanized him, made him fight Shandi as if he had any hope of shaking her off. She growled his name struggling, no doubt, to restrain him without breaking his arm.
He could perceive the others talking, trying to figure out what to do, maybe. He couldn’t have said for sure; it might as well have been a swarm of bees for all the sense it made.
“Dorian!” It was Cassandra, yelling at him like he was a Seeker recruit. “Get ahold of yourself!” He thought she might actually slap him, and it brought him some measure of clarity. Still…nothing from Amjad. Nothing more than a gasp, and a grunt as he hit the ground. That certainly wasn’t normal. The drop was at least the height of Skyhold’s scaffolding, enough to easily break the limbs of whoever tumbled over the side.
And it explains the lack of Darkspawn. Did the traders do this to protect themselves?
“Dorian,” Gabriel said, and the way he tendered the name felt much different from Cassandra. “I think I have found a way to climb down. But only you and I should go.” Gabriel looked at Cassandra and Varric, then Shandi. “Too heavy a person and it might crumble. Even though your armor is enchanted, Shandi.” He said anticipating her protest before she could get the words out. “I might be able to hold the path together with magic, but it takes more fine control than you might imagine.”
“Yes, fine,” he snapped, “blasted hells, woman, let me go!” Shandi let her hand fall away without comment. “Vishantae kaffas, could we get on with it?”
Gabriel didn’t flinch. The other mage simply turned away and started clambering over the jagged edge of what had once been solid ground.
As soon as he touched the craggy stone teeth jutting up from the remnants of the hallway, he knew for sure that it had been done with magic. It might have been a last measure against the Darkspawn as he’d thought before, though he doubted it went deep enough to keep them back. Darkspawn didn't need to eat, drink, or sleep, and perhaps could have climbed the divide since they had no consideration for any injuries they might incur. An accident then, perhaps, someone meddling with an incantation they had no business reading aloud. Could that explain the state of the thaig? Had this possible mishap had other, less obvious effects, no less serious for their subtlety? Something that had commanded the inhabitants to leave?
Amjad’s anguished howl, though belated, sounded no less serious for all that it had come late. It scrambled his brains and it was only through the Maker’s intervention that he didn’t tumble to the earth himself trying to get to his amatus, clearly in trouble. When they did find their footing at the bottom, he smacked face first in to a wall of magic.
He fell hard, his ribs creaking. Breath became a distant memory in a single instant and he struggled to force air in to his lungs for what seemed an eternity. Gabriel’s hands were cool on his brow then, and the spirit healer’s power washed away his pains.
“I won’t go back,” he heard Amjad snarl. He sat up and could barely perceive Amjad through the haze of whatever noxious spell they’d tripped over. Amjad sat with one leg out in front of him at an unnatural angle. That was worry enough but Amjad had his head bowed; a slave’s pose. Amjad bowed his head to no one. Sickness born of fear stirred his stomach like a roiling pot of maleficar’s potion ingredients, overflowing with acid. “I’ll die first.”
“A demon,” Dorian said, and he knew then the truth of the matter. Somehow, he knew.
“I see nothing,” Gabriel said, though certainly any mage could perceive the forcefield.
Dorian forced himself to stand. The scent of fresh blood hit him; Amjad had to be gravely hurt. He found himself with his hands up against the barrier as if he could push it out of the way. He knew he had to unravel it, needed to delve in to whatever had made it and pick it apart, but Maker, it was hard to think.
Amjad made a high-pitched, inhuman sound and Dorian saw: he was doing it to himself, one of his blades clenched in his hand, biting into his opposite wrist with a desperation that made Dorian break out in a cold sweat. It was as if he were trying to remove the anchor, but why? Dorian saw it then, albeit only in flashes: it was a demon. He could hardly perceive it, but because of influences he didn’t yet understand he could find its outline while Gabriel couldn’t. Even that outline…changed in a grotesque fashion, the same revulsion filling him as if he’d seen a neck slowly twisted until it broke.
“Step back,” Gabriel commanded and Dorian obeyed as if in a nightmare; he could barely control his body, as if he’d become a spirit floating above it instead of its rightful master. Gabriel raised his blade high overhead and brought it crashing down on the barrier. It exploded in a shower of shimmering magic, a demonic shriek barely heard as it ripped in two and suffocated his senses.
“Amjad!” Dorian called, hoping it would at least distract him from trying to sever his own hand. Amjad paused, the blade seated deep in his flesh. Dorian practically fell on him, grabbing for the knife. Amjad’s face was a rictus of suffering of such power and tenor that Dorian could compare it to nothing he’d ever encountered before, and Amjad fought with a strength and desperation beyond all ken. “Let go!”
Amjad babbled incoherently, but after a moment he could make out some of the words: “no no no, you can’t make me, I’ll cut my own throat before you can have me!”
Eventually Dorian won out. He was bigger, if nothing else. He tore the dagger from Amjad’s grip and threw it in to the furthest corner he could manage. He gripped Amjad’s wrist, trying somehow to stop the bleeding despite having nothing to aid him. He cursed himself for being such a poor spirit healer.
“Gabriel! Fasta vass, I need your help!”
“Kill me, please,” Amjad looked at him with such an imploring plea that had the request been anything else he would have fulfilled it without question. “I can’t…she’ll turn me — “
Rage burned through Dorian next, like a brush fire. Like the fires he’d seen and even set himself during war, the kind that consumed both the living and the dead without prejudice.
“Into what? What could be so awful that you — “
He looked up. Gabriel stood there, staring straight ahead as if he could finally see the demon responsible for this mess. Gabriel appeared as if he’d been caught in a trance, back straight, shoulders back, gaze with a laser focus. Gabriel hadn’t heard his call, and Dorian tore the scarf from his throat and wrapped it tight around Amjad’s wrist. The everknit wool turned from a delicate ivory to deep burgundy, the blood soon overflowing and staining Dorian’s hands.
“Take off your guise,” Gabriel said, his voice grave, “I know your true name.”
Dorian freed a healing potion from his belt in a couple of awkward motions and poured it directly over the wounds, the scarf forgotten as soon as it had failed to help. His fingers sunk into the cuts no matter what he did, so deep and extensive were they. He knew in a distant fashion that he was weeping. Amjad too, keening as if he’d been utterly undone.
Amjad couldn’t resist him anymore. Energy wasn’t infinite, not even for someone trained and healthy. He lay lengthwise against Amjad, Amjad’s chest heaving as he fought to breathe through the tears and whatever awful emotion had gripped him. Andrastae’s ass, what sort of thing could make someone maim themselves like this?
Decadence stepped out of the demon’s skin as if she were taking off a grand fur lined cloak. An image of her at Halimshiral filled him; she thought herself as grand as an Empress. Such loathing pooled in Dorian’s head that he felt like one of the shambling corpses from the tunnel, instead of the necromancer that had commanded them. He focused on Amjad, shielding him from Decadence, with his body if he had to.
“Amatus,” he murmured in Amjad’s ear, “it’s me. Please, emma lath,” he said, tripping over the Elvhen as he always did.
“What’s happening?” He heard Shandi’s panicked shriek from above, but for all he cared she was a world away.
“You will never be free of me,” Decadence said. He could see the conflict at least a little from where he and Amjad lay. The demon’s face looked harsh in the light from Gabriel’s blade, picking out purple highlights in her hair and eyes such that Dorian could readily call forth the memory of her reclining on a throne of pure lyirum in the Western Approach, gorging herself on human flesh. Her bone-white face looked gaunt, and her teeth were wicked little fangs. “I can take the form of any demon I choose. What will you do against me? You can’t predict me, or cage me, or destroy me. I will harry you even in Skyhold. Your measures against me mean nothing.”
Amjad whimpered, the abject terror on his face evident. Dorian steeled himself; he would to protect Amjad, and to do that he had to be ready for anything Decadence might visit on them next. Mana came in to him from the soles of his feet and the tips of his fingers, coiling around his ribs like a creeping vine before sending its tendrils to entrap his heart as well. It burned in a way it never had; he’d called it with the wrong emotions, and it bit in to him with all the venomous ferocity of a bereskarn’s jaws.
He felt the ground shake as Shandi’s boots hit the earth. Somehow she’d made it down and the path be damned. Gabriel raised his weapon just as Shandi charged past. Decadence roared and Shandi screamed; the demon’s claws had carved right through her armor, leaving huge, red wounds on her chest and belly. The scream was one of savagery, however, and Shandi leapt like a tiger, sword forgotten. It caught Decadence off guard and the two struggled against each other like the pythons sometimes glimpsed in the Par Vollen rainforest, serpents big enough to devour a man whole.
Shandi roared, her armor in tatters. Her gauntleted fingers sunk in to Decadence’s throat, drawing a welter of black ichor that burned and smoked where it hit. Shandi had…transformed, claws instead of fingertips, her legs bent the wrong way as she became something entirely other.
Shandi’s usual manner had fled the scene, along with his sanity and Amjad’s sense of self. No laughter and no joy at being able to test her skills, no. She had given over completely to the bloodrage, in a way he’d never seen before. Not even the corrosive nature of Decadence’s blood could stop her; she bore the pitted, smoking wounds with no sign of disengaging from the bloodbath. Her spine ridged up and swelled, as if a dragon’s spines would burst forth at any moment. She raked her claws down Decadence’s chest, no hesitation as she tried to shatter bone and rend cartilage. If she got to the heart, Dorian truly thought she would eat it, still beating.
Decadence reached up to pluck Shandi’s eye from its socket and only a last minute turn of Shandi’s head saved it; still blinded by the gush of blood, she lunged, biting and chewing at the demon’s throat. Her teeth had changed, too, a mouthful of fangs that would surely have spelled death for any mortal thing that found itself between them. Decadence’s talons in turn had punctured Shandi’s chest so deeply, a spurt of fresh blood colored Decadence’s face cardinal red.
He found himself cowering, curling up around Amjad. He turned his back to Shandi and Decadence, the oppressive heat of spilled blood and dragon rage pressed up against his face like the ether-dipped cloth Halward’s sell swords had visited upon him. He would have welcomed the blackness this time, and therefore, it did not come.
Gabriel took advantage and struck, but perhaps the blood from Shandi’s wounds had empowered Decadence; she disappeared in a flash of lightning, leaving Shandi crouched on all fours, breath heaving in and out of her, blood spurting out of her chest wound, her skin sizzling where the ichor had splattered her bare flesh. Glittering scales rimmed her eyes and described the path of her neck, dipping down past the ripped neckline of her base layer. Her claws flexed in to the earth, the line of her body coiled up as if she would charge at the slightest provocation. Her armor lay in tatters, only rent remnants clinging to her form.
Faintly he realized Decadence had hit an artery; Shandi’s blood came out of her in violent pulses, staining the earth.
“Shandi,” Gabriel said, voice as heavy and desolate as a murdered body concealed in the ocean, its limbs weighted, “Creators. Let me help you.”
Dorian closed his eyes tight. He knew Shandi would kill Gabriel if Gabriel was fool enough to approach.
The carnage didn’t come. He felt a healing spell of such strength that the wisps covered him and Amjad as if a caring soul had tenderly tucked the both of them in under a favorite quilt; the warmth nearly undid him. A thing mothers did in stories, a thing his mother would have never so lowered herself to do.
Amjad sobbed uncontrollably as if all the joys in his life had been extinguished before his eyes, one by one. Dorian whispered whatever he could think of that might be calming, trying to impress his caring and love even through their closeness, the way their bodies felt pressed together.
Shandi came over, crouching down. Healed, at least. Gabriel too, and Gabriel’s calming, warm-seawater magic washed over them and closed the rest of Amjad’s wounds.
“Give him to me,” Shandi said, sounding barely coherent. She looked a fright, her face still caught in a grimace that made him think about how she’d tried to tear Decadence’s throat out with her teeth.
Every fiber within him wanted to tell her to…well, it didn’t bear thinking about. To be parted from Amjad at a time like this…! To give Amjad to a brute. But he was not big enough or strong enough to bear Amjad out of this Maker-forsaken hole.
“His leg is going to need attention,” Dorian managed, forcing himself to sit up. If it had been healed along with the cuts he feared the agony Amjad would have to bear to truly fix it.
At least Amjad had gone limp and quiescent at the touch of magic, and Shandi slung him over her shoulder without incident. Dorian did his best to hold the path, such as it was, together with magic. It was all he could think to do, though it had become an even more difficult task thanks to Shandi scrabbling over it to get to them.
Cassandra and Varric waited at the edge and pulled them up by limbs and shirt collars and whatever else they could grab. Gabriel all but fainted when he was once again on solid ground, exhausted from all the magery, yes, but the situation…not something that eased their blasted hearts., now was it?
Dorian took his coat off and spread it on the floor. Shandi laid Amjad down on it where he promptly passed out, covered in his own blood. Dorian felt a little burst of mana from Gabriel; something to keep Amjad sleeping. The anchor whirled drunkenly, as if it knew it had come within moments of being severed from its host.
“What happened?” Cassandra demanded, her voice rising. She stood fast at the sight of Shandi, but her hand went to her sword’s pommel nonetheless.
“Not sure,” Shandi grunted, taking deep breaths as if she could purge the bloodrage that way. She felt uncomfortable to stand next to, her body smoldering with dragon’s ferocity. She smelled like electricity and the punishing sun reflected off of snake scales, felt like standing next to a pillar of fire.“Met that fucking…”
She went off on a little tirade that could have withered forests by the acre and warped steel on the blacksmith’s anvil. She crouched down, hanging her head and rubbing her fingers through her hair.
“I’m sorry,” she said, heat bleeding from her voice as the bloodrage eased.
“Will we never be free of her?” Cassandra spat. “I truly hope our artifact can be found —“ Just then, she spared a look for Amjad. “Inquisitor…”
Gabriel bit his lower lip as if to keep from crying, himself. He had his shoulders hunched in that way that made him look like a beaten cur.
“He’ll be all right,” Gabriel forced out, his voice hoarse and barely there. “Physically, anyway.”
“Why could I see her, but you couldn’t?” Dorian wondered, troubled. He had to be vigilant against demons at every moment; their promises were all too easy to give in to. Decadence had already deceived him once, as well, a stupid apprentice’s mistake.
“I couldn’t say,” Gabriel offered. “It might have been a guise that doesn’t pertain to me. If it were an embodiment of an emotion or situation I’ve never encountered or experienced.”
Dorian knew that, of course, but he didn’t snap at Gabriel for stating the obvious. The man couldn’t have borne his ire in such a state.
“But what would bring out that urge in Amjad so strongly?” Dorian asked. If he could dissect it, study it, all to the good. Anything to keep him from feeling it.
Before anyone could answer, Shandi collapsed. Gabriel went to her, fearless. Dorian winced, hoping she wouldn’t come to life and twist Gabriel’s arms off. Instead Gabriel touched her face with such tenderness, it broke something open in Dorian such that tears started to track down his face again.
Varric knelt at Amjad’s side, peering down at him as if he could read the why of everything that had happened in Amjad’s face.
“Damn, Wolfy,” Varric muttered, taking Amjad’s hand. His thumb rubbed over the underside of Amjad’s wrist; an ugly mark yet remained. “Why?”
“A curse, perhaps,” Cassandra said, terse. “This is a demon far beyond the mindless things that issue forth from rifts.”
Thankfully she didn’t continue in to the inevitable speech about mages being inherently dangerous, though Dorian felt so uncharitable that he could readily imagine that the implication had the same power as if it had been voiced.
“This isn’t the story I was hoping for.”
Dorian watched Gabriel as he dug in his pack for a rag — a small miracle that he still had a clean one — the water he’d brought along to sustain him while they were in the thaig, and the multi-purpose cleaning potion that could do everything from cleanse skin to keep a saddle supple. Not all miracles of advancement involved grand towers and intricate spells.
“Dorian,” Cassandra said. Her voice took a long while to reach him, and when he turned his head he felt as if it might come free of his neck and roll lazily down the hall. “You are in shock.”
“That is ridiculous, my lady Seeker,” he said, as if he’d had just enough wine. “I’m hardly running around screaming.”
He had the faint sense that he would have liked to do just that, but damned if he would tell Cassandra so. He caught Gabriel painstakingly cleansing the dirt and gore from Shandi’s horns and hair. He twitched; he wanted, needed to tend to Amjad the same way, but he found moving his body quite impossible.
“She’s right, Sparkler,” Varric told him, folding Amjad’s hand carefully before standing to come over to him. It sent a chill through him; it made it look as if Amjad were lying in state, fingers threaded together over his heart. “Look, you won’t do anyone any good — “
“I’ll thank you to keep your opinions to yourself,” he snapped. He knew under normal circumstances he wouldn’t have been particularly in love with himself just then, but he couldn’t feel…well much of anything, frankly. Everyone had the strangest quality to them, an indistinct nature that made them look like figures through a thick pane of glass, moving as amorphous as dream-forms. He didn’t see why he should take the advice of mere phantoms.
Cassandra opened her mouth to dress him down, surely, but Gabriel cut her off.
“Here,” he said, his hand empty one moment, a vial in it the next. “Drink this and you’ll be able to help me with Amjad.”
He was no fool. The emotional manipulation stung. And yet…
“Fine,” he gritted, feeling then as if he could understand Shandi’s fury, the kind that made a perfectly normal person take complete leave of their senses.
The potion tasted of felendaris, and for one insane moment he thought Gabriel might be trying to poison him, before the Arbor Blessing and Elfroot pirouetted across his tongue, mellowing and taming the negative qualities that would have otherwise put him in danger.
“We’ll have to stay here,” Gabriel said.
Dorian’s head started to swim, but at least the wicked brew had brought some life and movement back into him, impetus he used to go over to where Amjad lay. Out of a room full of shades, Amjad shone through. Amjad’s hair felt real when he touched it, as if he’d passed his hand over a raven’s feathers, freshly preened. The hollow of Amjad’s throat drew his eye, as if he could see Amjad’s pulse. Though Amjad’s armor was splattered with blood, the gold scale shirt had a radiance that dazzled his eyes. He touched it, too, so addled he thought it might burn. Instead he could sense each of Amjad’s breaths as if he had taken them himself.
He’d quite forgotten the others, as if an elf lost in his own mind could yet bewitch from beyond the line that separated sleep and waking.
It is a curse, emma lath.
He heard it as if Amjad had spoken it aloud, words from when they’d first started thinking of what was between them as more than a mutually agreeable sexual arrangement. Could the Brangwen curse affect him, too? It surely felt like it, just then.
Suddenly he couldn’t bear the sight of all that blood. He looked around wildly, trying to make sense of what was taking place around him, hoping to somehow get help from all the faded spirits here.
“Here,” a ghost said, and it took him an eternity to remember that the ghost’s name was Gabriel. The rough texture of the rag pressed in to his grip brought him around a little, and Gabriel’s outline firmed up. Gabriel squeezed his shoulder and met his eyes, and with a sharp inhale the world crashed in on him. Only the potion he’d drunk before kept him from panicking as the gravity of the situation broke over him. “Dorian, listen. It’s all right. Amjad’s all right. I promise you.”
“All that blood,” he heard himself whisper, cursing himself for weakness. He was well used to blood. He’d spilled plenty of it himself, and seen horrors even beyond it, corpses digging free of their maggot-lined coffins at his command. Some of that conflict must have been apparent because Gabriel said,
“We’ve seen our share. But it’s different when someone does it to themselves.” Maker, Gabriel could be so gentle. Shandi was lucky. “Let’s see if we can clean him up a little. We’ll have to camp here, at least until Amjad and Shandi wake up.”
Shandi! Bloody hells.
“Is she —?”
“She’s fine,” Gabriel told him. He had the impression he was wandering around witless, as if old age had taken his memory, but Gabriel repeated it all to him with unfailing patience. “The bloodrage took its toll. She’s exhausted.”
Dorian sat back on his haunches and gazed up at Gabriel, searching Gabriel’s expression. Gabriel met his eyes and it felt like a lifeline; he wouldn’t question it, when he was in such danger of being lost at sea.
“We don’t have much,” Cassandra said. “Not enough for a proper camp.”
“Well, let’s go and search for something to help us,” Varric suggested. “Dorian and Gabriel can come and keep me from being incinerated by any magical traps. Cassandra, will you stay and guard our illustrious leader and our good friend the…dragon…monster?”
Cassandra grunted in acknowledgment, though the tight vein in her neck showed she wasn’t particularly happy about it. Dorian could relate; he didn’t want to split up the group, and he certainly didn’t want to leave Amjad. But whatever tension there sometimes was between him and the Lady Seeker, he trusted her with not just his life, but his love’s life as well.
Dorian made himself stand, brushing at his shirt as if it would have any effect on the gore and grime.
“Let’s start with the treasure room,” he suggested. “The one Shandi saw.”
“Fine,” Varric said, but his tone didn’t match his posture. “As long as we’re sure nothing in there is cursed.” He hefted Bianca, sighting down her length with a hard eye, narrowed as if he’d already picked a target.
“We shall find out,” Gabriel said, firm. Dorian retrieved his staff, foolishly left behind when he’d jumped in to the rift. He had to lean on it as he, Gabriel, and Varric walked back down the hallway. In shock, and exhausted besides. He hated it when Cassandra won out.
Gabriel paused just outside of the treasure room. He lifted his hand, and tendrils of mana described a symbol suspended in the air. Dorian could read it as quickly and as well as Ancient Tevene, in which he’d been the most proficient all through his days in the Circle. An ice glyph, designed to kill whoever walked over it, unless that person had the proper spell-marker on them.
Normally dispelling such glyphs were a moment’s work for any skilled mage, but this had an intricacy uncommon to the world above. Between him and Gabriel, however, it came apart and fell away. His style and Gabriel’s had major differences — some of which he attributed to the fact that Gabriel hadn’t had as much formal training as he — but they’d been adventuring together long enough that complimenting one another’s strengths came easily enough.
A tingle of Elvhen magic began at the base of his neck and wrapped around like a collar of filigree and vines. A leftover tremor of Gabriel’s signature, so much like the character of Aislinn’s magic that he would have thought Gabriel an elf himself if he didn’t know better.
Gabriel called up a protective shield as they entered the treasure room, rendering the sigils on the floor useless. The piles of gold, artifacts, and jewelry yet had a certain thrum below hearing, the way lyrium did, but it was no wonder considering how much magic everything here must have been exposed to over the years.
“Well,” Varric said, glancing up at Gabriel. “you’re the Elvhen expert, with Amjad down for the count.”
Gabriel’s mouth compressed into a thin line, but he nodded.
“Take what you like,” he said, clambering over the piles of gold. “It shouldn’t pose you any difficulties now.”
Maker, where to begin? He had the faint notion of finding some lover’s token for Amjad, and he started rifling through the riches nearest him. Glittering sovereigns slipped through his fingers, as plentiful as texts in the Minrathous Circle archive. If they could send Inquisition soldiers in here to collect all this, the Inquisition could run itself for years yet.
There, gleaming even amongst other things crafted from light, he found it. A pendant, a jade leaf lovingly chipped and carved in a bezel setting, wrapped in golden wire worth a fortune by itself, let alone the chain and the gem. He clasped it in his hand, and only then did he notice how badly he was trembling. He pressed it to his lips for a moment, closing his eyes, then slipped it into one of his pockets for safe keeping. He also plucked the spider brooch he'd seen earlier from its place, and nestled it next to the pendant. It would look handsome on Aislinn's mage robes, a gift for his swan, the halla-woman he'd come to regard as a sister. Maker, at least she was safe, home behind Skyhold's walls.
“Dorian,” Varric said. He looked over, only to see Varric staring at the corner of the room as if he were staring into the Black City itself. Dread bid him stand, as if he were compelled to join Varric there whether he wanted to or not. “Look.”
At first he couldn’t see it behind a little hill of treasure. When he saw it, he dropped like a sack of rocks. The sovereigns cut in to his knees. Varric shook uncontrollably, as if he’d seen Cassandra’s lifelesss body there.
A magrallen. Well, no. The massive focus stone that functioned as an essential component. The blood that had been shed over it shouted in his ears and made him dizzy and weak with disgust and fear.
Gabriel joined them, and while he could surely sense the power by the heavy cast to his brows he didn’t recognize it for what it was.
“What is that?” He said, with an audible swallow to punctuate his sentence.
“It is a magrallen, Dorian heard himself say. “A Tevinter invention of great power. It has been used before, empowered by blood. Another fool trying to restore Tevinter, bring back a past that is better left there.”
“I’ve seen one,” Varric said. “Maker. I’ve seen what it can do. Don’t touch it. Hell, don’t even look at it. And definitely don’t bring it with us.”
“It’s not complete,” Dorian said, picking himself up.
Think about this logically, Dorian. Don’t lose your head again.
“Dagna could study it for us,” he pressed on. He also knew Amjad would want them to take it back to Skyhold, if only so they could figure out exactly what it could do and whether they needed to be ready for it to make an appearance in the battle against Corypheus.
“Are you kidding?” Varric said, as if Dorian were about to betray him to Venatori forces. “After you let her study the Fade? She hasn’t been right since! And now this…thing? It’s blood magic, Dorian. It’s too powerful and too damn corrupt.”
Gabriel stayed silent, though Dorian knew him well enough to know that his mind had to be going at a swift sprint.
“Yes and if we leave it here, what do you think are the odds Corypheus will eventually find it?” Dorian said, though he couldn’t quite believe he was arguing in favor of the blasted thing.
Varric cursed him and turned away. Gabriel perked up and scrabbled over a particularly rich pile of relics.
“Here! The artifact Solas bid us find,” he called, pushing aside other items to uncover a green orb that wasn’t all that dissimilar from the red orb that helped make up the margallen, not that he would mention that aloud. The artifact felt dormant for the moment, but he felt sure if nothing else Solas and Dagna could bring it whirring back to life.
“Choose something for your lady Gabriel, Varric,” Dorian suggested, “and then I’ll ward this room until our forces can come and clear it out.”
His wards would be vastly superior to the ones they had undone, of course.
As he worked on his glyphs, Gabriel found an elaborate bracelet in the shape of a dragon, its eyes emeralds that could have easily bought a stable, its body silver and gold patterned, the cuff itself of white gold. Varric took longer to choose; Cassandra didn’t like to flaunt her not-so-secret love of fripperies. Eventually he found a heavy gold necklace in the Antivan link style, the stylized pattern dusted with tiny, perfect diamonds. It made quite a statement, yes, but with armor on no one would see it. It could sit flush against Cassandra’s skin without causing discomfort, and whether she chose to expose it or not she could feel its weight and know that Varric had found it especially for her.
Spells finished, Dorian turned for the door.
“Can we get out of here?” He said. No dammit, that wouldn’t do. He had to appear at least somewhat together. “I find myself terribly excited by the thought of moldy cheese for dinner.”
Varric spared a chuckle and filed out along with him and Gabriel. They quickly ransacked the living spaces, scraping together enough blankets and hardtack to weather the night. Andrastae willing they wouldn’t have to spend any longer than that.
Chapter 24: Violets
In her dreams, Aislinn found herself stumbling through the forest, a baby bundled into her arms. Somehow she understood that the child lingered near death, she its only hope. Unlike the forest she knew so well, this version existed to torment her. Branches whipped at her face, and the thick undergrowth deceived her feet, causing her to trip and turn her ankles every few steps. She had to keep upright if she wanted to save the baby, and she fought to pick her way through the obstacles in her path.
She could feel the heartbeat through the thin swaddling, thready and irregular.
The sounds of a Dalish camp filled her with hope. Surely their Keeper could intervene, could snatch the infant back from the jaws of Falon'din.
But when she found her way to the aravels, no one would speak to her no matter how piteously she begged. Won't anyone help the child? It's an innocent! There is life in it still. Why won't you help? Even the halla turned their heads.
Finally, one of the elves turned and pointed. She looked down. The child was no child at all, but a giant wasp that stared at her with its beady, incomprehensible eyes.
It struggled free of its wrappings, and the stinger sunk in to her arm. She shot bolt upright in bed, chest heaving.
The urge to puke silenced anything she might have said to her bedmate, and she emptied her stomach in to a nearby basin one, twice, then dry heaved for an eternity. Normally she wasn't so tender about her belly. She'd cut deeply in to her own flesh too often to have so little mastery of her reactions; nausea often came along with the pain. But this...!
Solas' deft fingers, gently combing through her hair, drawing it back as she retched.
"Thank you," she muttered once her episode had finally ended. She pressed the back of her hand to her mouth, and trembled through the aftershocks.
"You must see the healer, vhenan," he said, his voice a pool of pure, undisturbed water that she longed to sink into. "Again," he added, his tone a tease. She had been risking herself lately, more than usual. But Creators, what else could she do? She had to stand against Decadence, keep the demon from using whatever weakness sat deep within her, whatever trap the foul beast had constructed. She couldn't even think of when and how it might have happened, and that thought caused her such frustration sometimes her skin broke out in angry hives that tormented her no matter what she did to try and relieve them.
She stood on unsteady legs and realized that the chill had seeped in through her thin nightdress. As if Solas could sense her needs he padded over to the bed and retrieved her fur cloak, settling it around her shoulders. A grand thing, heavy black velvet trimmed with the fur of a silver alpha wolf, a king's ransom. At the moment she felt so weak it taxed her to even bear the weight of the garment, beloved though it was. Her wounds had healed over, certainly, but she still felt the ache, and it taxed her more than she liked to admit.
"I...would prefer to commune with the Creators first," she said. The moonlight coming in through the window of her tower room told her she and Solas had awoken at the witching hour, a perfect time to speak to her gods.
"Aislinn..." Solas said, tone conveying a protest before he'd even spoken the words. She turned to look at him and, for one horrifying moment, she saw the wasp's eyes where his should have been.
"I swear to you, I will go to the healer afterward," she managed. It was as though she had reached the bank of an ocean and, diving deep, had encountered some eldritch horror at the bottom. "But...my soul is tilting on its axis. I need Falon'din's guidance."
Solas gave a little bow. "I will respect your wishes. However, if you become ill again..."
"There are always people in the gardens," she pointed out, wrapping her cloak a little tighter. Of a sudden, she didn't want him to look at her body, so vulnerable in just a flimsy nightgown. "They would not hesitate to call for help, if it became necessary."
Solas sighed, but to his credit she could see him try to stifle it, to avoid burdening her with his concerns.
"Ar lath ma. Be safe."
She nodded, then turned and let herself out into the crisp nighttime.
The leaves and flowers on display in the herb garden shone with the pallid glow afforded by the moon. Aislinn slipped off her shoes and let her toes curl in the plush grass, so sensitive she could distinguish individual blades, the crunch of a dandelion folded over and buried. She reached down and plucked some mint to chew; the sour taste in her mouth unbearable. She found a seat on the stone bench, the one under the oak tree near the center of the garden. She might as well have been alone, so few souls had found their way here as she had, but she felt her center again and her worry ebbed. The dream became something done in watercolors, hazy and indistinct.
"Ah. So another finds their way to the oak tree, when there is much on their mind."
Morrigan's voice didn't make her jump. Somehow it seemed appropriate, fitting in neatly with this lush nighttime paradise.
"You have the right of it, witch," Aislinn said, the word tendered kindly enough. Morrigan took a seat beside her. Morrigan smelled of the herbs here, and under it a scent like the fur of a wandering cat. Her magic felt the way ozone did, after a lightning storm. "And what thoughts bring you here, this night?"
"Shall I demand you speak first?" She said, and Aislinn could readily picture her arch expression without having to look. Something unwound in Aislinn's chest, and the words came as readily as a spring rain.
"I had an...unsettling dream. And then I was sick. I spent much to chase Decadence away."
"And you are worried you are the key, are you not?"
"Oh come, tis apparent. Surely you jest that it is otherwise."
Aislinn fisted her hands tight in the fluttering fabric of her skirt, her cloak whispering open like a set of curtains drawn in a quiet reading room. She let the night embrace her, caring not about shielding herself now.
"It...is so," she said, bowing her head.
"And why would Decadence be drawn to you, I wonder?"
"Spare me your games," Aislinn gritted. "You know perfectly well that I am a blood mage."
She could hide it readily from those who had no mana within them, and even from lesser mages. Morrigan, however, was neither of those things.
"Aye, tis true. But I care not for the prejudices of templars and nobles," Morrigan said, firm. Support? From the Witch of the Wilds? Aislinn accepted it with little protest; despite having Solas nearby, she felt alone.
"I fear I may have given too much of myself, trying to keep her back. Perhaps...perhaps my spells, all the blood I've spilled...what if it gave her a weakness to exploit, and me all unknowing?" She curled her toes in the grass again, hoping it would anchor her to the earth, to sanity.
"You cannot know the true machinations of demons," Morrigan pointed out. She hadn't shifted her weight at all; perhaps she truly didn't feel even the slightest discomfort around a maleficar. "You are clever, and a talented sorceress, so you have avoided the consequences visited on so many of our kind. But you cannot divine everything. That is the price you pay when you draw on blood."
"You are correct," she allowed, not voicing the bitter of course that she would have liked to append to her statement.
"Mayhap we could come up with a plan, instead of sitting around waiting for this hellish bitch to attack us," Morrigan said, her words as bold as a war banner. "Seek out her nest, and destroy her where she least expects it."
"When my brother returns, we should speak to him about it. Decadence is haunting him even when she's not present, haunting all of them."
"They are not the only ones. You carry the weight of all this on your shoulders. Wings may allow you to fly, but feathers sit heavy."
Images of her mother welled up in her mind's eye, her pale face, her black braid and black eyes. Riona the Crow Woman, a shapeshifter. Like Morrigan. She wished she had more than just fragments, feelings, spare images. The hole in her heart pulsed with want, yawning open.
Something sunk leaden into her belly as she fidgeted with the embroidered edges of her sleeve.
"I..." She had not the words, to describe the unease she'd felt as of late. She knew Amjad had never fully trusted Solas, but until recently she had always fully believed whatever he'd told her. She'd believed in him. Could this confusion be Decadence's work? An attempt to muddle her thoughts, weaken her, so the demon could creep in and possess her? The wasp from her dream appeared unbidden, sinking its stinger into her arm all over again. Solas, standing there with its eyes like holes bored into the abyss. Where had the Solas from even a scant few days ago gone, the one who could undo her utterly, the one who was her stability, her calm center?
She must have given away her feelings in some way, because she felt Morrigan put a steady hand on her shoulder.
"Breathe," Morrigan whispered. Aislinn obeyed, drawing in long, deep lungfuls of honeysuckle and prophet's laurel.
"Is it something to do with your love, Aislinn?" She looked at Morrigan as if Morrigan were the one stinging her.
Morrigan snorted, her yellow beast's eyes shimmering.
"It is easily deduced," she said, lifting her head as haughty as a queen. If Aislinn were in a less vulnerable state, she might have stood up and walked away without another word. As it was, she saw the behavior for what it was, a defense. Not so unlike the pride her brother cultivated and wore like a garland, forced to be as unyielding as the oak she and Morrigan sat under; a Dalish could never be truly free, if they chose to be polite. Shems, the kind that called for Exalted Marches and Alienage purges, only understood violence. The Inquisitor must in every way conduct himself as rightful king, ready to wield the executioner's sword. Perhaps Morrigan felt the same, in her own peculiar way.
"He...I am not sure if he is my beloved," she said in a rush. She clapped a hand to her mouth as if she could stop the words from coming out, as horrified as if hissing serpents had dropped from her lips instead. The memory of Decadence stealing that orgasm from her when she'd lain with Solas, what felt like an Age ago...was that the source of all this anxious idiocy that had so overtaken her?
"Ah. The Brangwen curse." Morrigan said, unruffled. "The Inquisitor has mentioned it, in my hearing." Whether or not Morrigan had eavesdropped, she conveniently failed to mention.
"Aye." Creators, was it true? Did she doubt so? Again she wondered about Decadence and the influence the demon could wield from afar.
"Is it truly a geas? I know of such things." Morrigan told her. Aislinn looked over at the witch again, noting that even though Morrigan had chosen to dress in rather skimpy clothing, she did not shiver despite the chill in the air. She had her raven's feather-hair twisted up in a bun, pinned with a long, sharp pin that glittered when she turned her head. She looked nigh on too thin, her shoulders and wrists delicate; was she not eating? What kept Morrigan up at night?
"It is. Many clans believe that when they are formed, certain traits are imparted. Usually, we are named after our progenitor, and the story of that progenitor shapes us. It can guide us, or drive us mad. The Brangwen curse...does both."
"A curse, and yet you are concerned that you are not under its thumb?" Morrigan scoffed. Aislinn studied Morrigan's face and saw a depth of emotion that surprised her. The conversation must have touched on something personal; it wasn't just shem prejudice that made Morrigan push back against the notion.
Still, how could she explain such a thing to an outsider? Shemlen thought in such black and white ways, even witches. The geas was the Brangwens to bear. And, it imparted more than just insanity and sorrow. Look at how Amjad felt about Dorian, the way Amjad would do nigh anything to protect his beloved. How happy they could be, in the rare moments when they had no pressing concerns. The certainty that someone out there in the world was meant for you, that even the slim possibility of finding your beloved could impart such strength, such faith.
"It...there is more to it than that," she said, lamely enough.
"I think you should revel in your freedom," Morrigan told her in no uncertain terms.
"If Solas is not your beloved, then you are free. You may do as you like with him, and the universe may mind its own business."
"It is not so simple. If he is not, it means I don't love him."
"Not all love is a grand ball. Some loves are hearth fires that you may rest beside for a time, or humble parties held at the village green."
"And you would know this because...?" She couldn't keep all the venom from her voice, but Morrigan appeared unmoved.
"At one time I cared little for others and even less for their feelings. But...having traveled the world, I...think differently. I have seen many loves and lovers, those that end in tragedy. In joy. And perhaps worst of all, in mediocrity. Cherish your freedom, while you have it." The silence stretched between them for a moment, a lady unfurling a silken sail. Morrigan gestured at the ground before them, and for the first time Aislinn noticed the wild violets there. "Do you see those flowers?" She asked, her breath filling that sail with a robust tailwind. They grew as they preferred, without tending. Yet they are as beautiful as some carefully manicured patch of earth. Perhaps moerso, when viewed with the proper eyes."
Aislinn knew a little about Morrigan. Like all of them, Sister Nightengale had screened her as much as possible and was Morrigan's old traveling companion, besides. She knew that Morrigan was fleeing some power greater than herself, and for the first time she wondered at what Morrigan must have felt, being stalked in such a manner, over the surface of the earth and even through the ephemera of the Fade.
"Thank you," she said as she stood. "I should return to my bed."
"As you will," Morrigan said, with a wave of her hand.
Aislinn retreated, and only afterwards did she realize she'd left her shoes behind.
Freedom. Yet it feels empty. What I would give, to be shackled.
Chapter 25: The Serpent's Heart
The gloom in the thaig kept the party from truly knowing when night had fallen, but Gabriel guessed it anyway; somehow the shadows here seemed even longer, the heavy nigh-sentience in the darkness beyond their camp pressing close like the weight of a thousand eyes gazing at them. He found himself polishing and re-polishing Shandi's horns, until they shone like a shooting star. Still, she did not stir, though she breathed heavy and low like a sleeping lion. It was a good sound, a soft rumble that began deep in her chest, and it brought him a peace he otherwise would have had no hope of courting.
"Really, amatus," he heard Dorian whisper, the mage trying to affect an arch tone though the tremble in his voice gave away his true feelings, "you won't wake up even for a poem as terrible as that? You always did hate that one the most."
Gabriel had missed the verse, but he smiled in spite of himself. Amjad and Dorian enjoyed arguing about literature, at least if what he'd heard an Age ago in the tavern was any indication. Though, he still had trouble trying to adjust to this new Dorian, who had apparently dropped all pretense after what had befallen Amjad. Gabriel could tell, too, that Cassandra and Varric had always known the depth of the romance taking place just under his wholly unobservant nose, a fact that made him feel terribly wool-headed.
His heart ached, watching Dorian practically plead with Amjad for any sign, anything to reassure them all that he'd be all right, that he'd wake, that after some healing would be up and about leading them all once more.
"Dorian," he spoke quietly, not wanting to disturb Cassandra and Varric, who, similarly, had dispensed with propriety and lay curled tightly around one another in sleep. "Dorian," he said again, the other man so focused on Amjad that Gabriel didn't think he'd even heard the first time. Dorian startled and whipped around, hand up, mana crackling at the tips of his fingers. Luckily he calmed down nearly as quickly, and Gabriel was spared the horror of having to defend himself against someone he'd come to think of as a friend.
"Share a drink with me," Gabriel suggested, guessing that little else would coax Dorian over to him. He did have a little flask of spirits with him, secreted in his pack, and he figured no time like the present; they all could stand to blunt the edges of their misery, with liquor as the tool. Dorian, predictably, looked deeply conflicted, glancing from Amjad to him and back again. "He won't wake for awhile yet. It's best for him if he's allowed some time to recover, without having to think or fret."
"I wouldn't mind that either, to be honest," the mage said, words as bracing as the astringent taste of chokeberries, shoved inelegantly into a hungry mouth.
"Well, drink enough of this -- " Gabriel said, fishing out the flask and sloshing it about for emphasis -- "and maybe you'll get your wish."
Dorian surely knew what the real purpose of this was, but allowed himself to be seduced anyway. Moving away from Amjad looked as though it caused the mage physical hurt, his brows creasing and the corners of his mouth turning down. He chose a seat at enough of a distance that told Gabriel he still felt wary, but close enough that they could pass the drink back and forth easily enough.
Dorian took a healthy swallow, holding on the flask a moment longer than could be considered proper. Gabriel could guess he just wanted to down the whole thing in a gulp or two, but felt beholden enough to politeness that he handed it back. Silence stretched between them, a tense sort that made Gabriel squirm in his seat.
"Well, go on then." Dorian said. He had a tight cast to his features as he tried to control his voice, and perversely it only emphasized the kind of little inflections and cadences Gabriel had grown adept at sensing. "Clearly you have something to say."
"I..." He had been about to protest, to say of course he didn't, but he found otherwise halfway through forming the sentence. "I didn't realize."
"Whatever do you mean, dear boy?" Dorian told him, raising his eyebrow. Though Dorian had fallen back on his usual attempts to make light, the hard set of his jaw and the chipped stone quality to his gaze spoke louder than his actual words.
"Peace, please. Dorian...I'm not trying to mock you."
"Perhaps not. It is a lucky thing that you still have disdain, misplaced concern, and faint disgust to fall back on then, isn't it?"
Seeing Dorian of all people lash out like a cornered rat made his heart rap a staccato, rhythm-less beat against his ribcage.
"No! I don't, I don't feel any of those things."
Slowly, Dorian's hackles smoothed flat again. Those silver-grey eyes bored into his, as if searching for even the slightest sign of guile. Gabriel did his best to meet the scrutiny, willing Dorian to see the truth. Eventually, it must have been enough, since Dorian broke the contact and bowed his head.
"It's what I always worried about most," Dorian said, defeated. "I couldn't stop what happened. I don't even know why...Maker, I've never seen..."
"Decadence has ways of finding our deepest hurts," Gabriel said, his grip on the flask turning white. He looked up, scanning the suffocating darkness that, since he'd last looked, seemed to have crept in even closer around their camp.
"There's so much about him I still don't know," Dorian admitted, sounding rather forlorn as he studied the pattern inlaid into the stone beneath their boots. "I couldn't say what she showed him. The night the werewolves came, maybe. But that...I've never seen him react to that with anything but defiance and rage, outwardly turned."
Of course Gabriel knew of Zathrian's curse. Keeper Mairead had spoken to him of it, on late nights when the night crept too close, like this one. But the reality, the blood, the death, and how it might have impacted Amjad hadn't fully come home to him until now, until he heard Dorian say it.
"What else do you know of him?" Gabriel found himself saying. He felt it a very bold question, but nonetheless he'd felt a gnawing concern since facing down Decadence, some puzzle piece he knew he'd missed.
"Amjad was a hunter, until nascent magery made him a candidate for First. Keeper Lenaya chose him over Aislinn, though they both had the talent. Only when they neared their adulthood ceremonies did it become apparent that some outside force had locked their powers away. Of such skill were the locks made that it hadn't been obvious earlier. Amjad and the Keeper have never gotten on anyway, in part because the Keeper wouldn't give leave for Amjad, Aislinn, and their friends to go after Calledan when he was taken by slavers. I got the impression that the Keeper sent Amjad to the Conclave to get rid of him, at least for a time. The fact that he never developed into a mage surely made things all the more bitter between them."
A fair enough summary, but Gabriel knew well how much information could hide in a story like that. He'd told such a summarized version of his own tale enough times to understand that the demon--as it were--was in the details.
"Is that all?"
"Well, he is only nineteen," Dorian pointed out. "That is rather a lot for nineteen Wintersends, isn't it?"
Only a couple of calendar turns from his vallaslin ceremony, then. He knew Amjad was hardly middle aged, but his true years had Gabriel reeling. Though his own family had considered him a man earlier than that, he couldn't help but feel it had come too soon in both of their cases.
Creators, I can’t just casually mention it, can I? Excuse me Dorian, I noticed that you and the Inquisitor…
Then again he could see so much pain in Dorian that it nigh weighed the man down like a pack mule’s burden. If he said nothing, wouldn’t he just reinforce the notion that Dorian was alone? That he couldn't reach out for help and support? No matter how kind one's friends, telling them a preference such as he thought Dorian had would always feel fraught with danger.
“Dorian, I…I mean to say…”
Dorian fixed him with a stare that made the hairs on Gabriel’s arms and the nape of his neck stand up. He read it clearly, in Dorian’s full mouth thinned into a venomous line, the big beautiful eyes at once hard and so full of pain it made Gabriel think of the tumult of the sea at high tide, a cruel wind whipping across the surface; don’t speak unless you are willing to accept the answer, accept Dorian, accept Dorian and Amjad.
Gabriel swallowed, cleared his throat, and tried again.
“It’s all right to love him, you know,” he said, and even as the words issued from his lips he drew himself up, defiant. His own sexuality hadn’t been entirely appreciated, either, as a matter of course. The Inquisition had given him the freedom to be who he truly was. He only hoped that Dorian could feel the same comfort in time.
Dorian laughed, a humorless bark like a hammer against the anvil that was the creeping darkness trying to steal the vitality from their limbs and the heart from their breasts.
“Oh well, thank you very much,” Dorian snapped, and Gabriel felt the words like crossbow quarrels. Dorian could be so spiteful when roused. “I’m sure your approval will handily dispatch all obstacles.”
“Dorian,” Gabriel said, trying to face up to the sizzle and snap in Dorian’s manner, “please. You needn’t strike at me. I am your ally. And -or so I hope- your friend.”
Dorian deflated as if Gabriel had punctured his lungs. Dorian hid his face in his hands, and while he likely couldn’t unbend enough to weep in front of someone else, Gabriel saw his shoulders tremble with the effort of holding back his tears.
“In Amaranthine, I…it was always spoken about with derision. I knew my dalliances with men could never become anything more, no matter how I yearned for it.” Gabriel tried. He pulled his snowy nugskin coat tighter over his chest, as if he could use tangible armor against an intangible hurt.
Dorian looked up at him, shock written all over that expressive face. Without his outerwear he looked fragile, despite his burly frame.
“Shandi told me she’d been with women,” Dorian said slowly, as if it had never really occurred to him that those around him might have similar proclivities to his own.
Perhaps it hasn’t. And why should it, when everyone in Tevinter is trying to maintain an acceptable image?
“Yes. She cares little what —ahem—parts, someone has. Nor do I. Care about that, I mean to say.”
“It’s not the same, Gabriel,” Dorian all but whispered. “Amaranthine is one thing. Tevinter is entirely another.”
“I’m not trying to compare them so closely. But, I know a little of how it must feel. I can imagine how seriously you take your relationship. How much you must love each other. It’s so apparent to me now that I am embarrassed I didn’t notice before.”
“Well, why would you? A proud Dalish and the Tevinter altus? It doesn’t exactly fit, does it? You’d think he’d be more likely to stick me full of arrows than anything. Surely you wouldn’t imagine anything…kinder between us.”
Gabriel allowed himself a chuckle at that.
“You will have to tell me that story, as I admit…I am surprised.”
“It started with us arguing fit to bring the Great Hall down on everyone’s heads,” Dorian said, and finally his gaze shone with something a whit more positive. “About slavery, at first. I admit…my eyes weren’t always so open to the depths of such depravity.”
Gabriel tried to keep from grinning. He could easily imagine Amjad demanding that Dorian see the reality, thumping his finger into Dorian’s chest, blazing eyes meeting Dorian’s without flinching, mouth twisted up in a wolf's snarl. He tried not to think about the here and now, Amjad so still and quiet.
“Then,” Dorian continued, “we fought about literature, and its relative merit. Those arguments drove Solas nearly mad; his room is below the library, and we were not secretive about our differing opinions.” The corner of Dorian's mouth quirked, and Gabriel wondered if he took some special pleasure in annoying Aislinn’s love. “He’s quite well read, our Inquisitor. He came to Haven literate, though he’d had limited access to written works. Once Josephine got her hands on him, he became voracious; devoured every text in Skyhold.”
“I can well imagine that,” Gabriel said, charmed. No wonder, he thought. Amjad had demanded in no uncertain terms to be treated as an equal, and to Dorian’s credit, Dorian had risen to the occasion.
“Eventually, I…suppose he softened towards me,” Dorian said, unable to keep the fondness out of his countenance. “And he made little secret of finding me — at least — pleasing to the eye.” Dorian paused for a long moment, until Gabriel wondered if he’d become lost in some mental quagmire. Then he said, “did you know my father came to Redcliffe? Trying to somehow make up for our poor relationship, as if such a thing were possible.”
Gabriel hardly dared shift in his seat, lest he keep Dorian from finishing this new part of the tale. He well knew that poor relationship didn't even begin to cover it. He didn't know the details of Dorian's story, but he well remembered his brother's fists raining down on his unprotected head, their looming forms presaging another beating, another round of how worthless he was, how he shouldn't believe even the faintest praise, how they'd all be better off if he were dead. Yet if he were asked? Surely he would say the same. A poor relationship, the emotional equivalent of breaking a tea cup, forgotten after the shards were swept to the side.
“Oh, of course the great and mighty Magister Halward could never apologize,” Dorian continued, voice both haughty and burning with vitriol. “How Amjad raged at him! I’ve never seen anyone speak to Father that way. The grand Magister Pavus, told exactly where he could go by an elf. So satisfying! How could I do anything but love him after that? And we’ve traveled all over Thedas, saved each other too many times to count. Once in the Fallow Mire I was terribly injured. I kept fading in and out. I was so tired. Every few steps, I would go to my knees in that foul water. I could hear skeletons, and demons from the nearest Rift. But it all seemed so very inconsequential. I was dying, and I knew it. All I wanted to do was swoon into the arms of the afterlife. Amjad dragged me out by my shirt collar, shouting and cursing me the whole way, cajoling, shaking me, anything to get me out of there. I still see the Anchor sometimes in dreams, Amjad with his hand out, demanding the Rift close. So much power, so much passion.”
Gabriel’s amusement gave way to wonder. The Brangwen geas could be a terrible burden, he felt sure, but it also seemed a blessing just then, hearing Dorian’s words pour out of him in such a sweet torrent.
“And why then should I judge a love that one day a bard will surely sing about?” If they haven’t already, Gabriel thought, though he imagined Dorian’s need for privacy had kept a lid on that.
“Oh dear,” Dorian actually laughed, and paired with Shandi’s steady breathing it helped sweep the cobwebs from Gabriel’s heart and mind. “I am sure the songs will be positively dreadful.”
“One can only hope. The more famous you become, the worse the songs.”
“And the titles! Andraste’s sword, the titles.”
“Enjoy the florid rewards of your service, my friend,” Gabriel said, finally allowing himself a full, broad smile. Dorian made for a good friend. Amjad had made a grand choice. “Now come. Let us wake Cassandra and Varric and get some sleep.”
Getting out of the thaig presented its own problems, but once Shandi woke things became much easier thanks to her strength; she could bear the artifact out into the light, albeit one piece at a time. She looked like her usual self now, the changes the bloodrage had afforded having melted away like snow under the first pale rays of a spring sun. Still, she spoke hardly at all, and a faint mortified expression clung to her face like an Orlesian mask.
Gabriel resolved to speak to her about it, but he knew she wouldn’t welcome such an advance while working. She’d fastened the relic to her warhorse’s saddle, and Gabriel couldn't help but thank the Creators for a beast big and strong enough to bear a Qunari of Shandi’s stature. Otherwise, they would have had to leave it for their soldiers to retrieve, as they would the magrallen focus stone. That, even the warhorse couldn't bear.
"Come on, Amande," Shandi said, slapping her horse's neck in a companionable fashion. "You can do it, yes?" The beast snorted and stamped his massive feather-feet, as if agreeing. "Good horse."
Everyone took their mounts, Gabriel handing Amjad up to Dorian. The Inquisitor still slept, a blessing, and Dorian held him in place in the saddle with a firm yet gentle touch. Dorian's clever silver mare picked her way through the terrain with all the grace of an accomplished ballet dancer, gliding fit to bring to mind a boat on a sea of glass. Gabriel's spirits lifted the closer they came to the Inquisition camp on the bluff; soon, they would be home, and even if Skyhold no longer represented the safety it had before Decadence, he couldn't wait to be within its walls once more.
Chapter 26: Candlemark
The adventuring party returns to Skyhold. Cullen endeavors to distract Cal from his worries, while Dorian receives the explanation he craves.
Discussion of severe gender dysphoria. Self harm references.
Thank you to FenxShiral for the Elvhen word for gender dysphoria.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The sound of hoofbeats woke Calledan from his doze. He'd found his way to Aislinn's little tower room the night before, and, thankfully, she'd been working alone. When he'd entered, a fat sheaf of vellum had sat in a neat pile next to her elbow, her curly, effortlessly ornamental handwriting in neat rows across its surface. For a moment he'd felt like an intruder, but she'd happily put her task aside for his sake. Nightmares had a harder time tormenting him when he could curl up with a clanmate and slip into sleep, as black as a moonless night. He had the sense that the narrow bed she had would be considered spare by humans who had never known the utterly bereft lives slaves lived, but to him it was fit for an Empress.
Aislinn was more queen to him than any shem, anyway.
He rose and smoothed out his tunic, as tawny as a lion's pelt. Next came the trousers that went with it, the color of the dainty chocolate cakes he'd seen lined up in the bakery in neat rows, waiting for fondant and frosting. He wrapped his belt, gold and green, tight against his belly, made flat by starvation, and stepped into the sturdy leather boots he'd set near the door. He'd been gifted several sets of clothes; Amjad seemed to have enough to outfit a whole army, and in finery besides. Some of the nicer things he hadn't yet found the courage to wear. This relatively simple livery he could manage, though it still represented more coin than he'd ever seen, let alone earned.
The tunic had the Inquisition insignia picked out in embroidery over his heart, the flames surrounding the sword intertwined with climbing vines. A Dalish symbol.
He left Aislinn sleeping, slipping away on silent feet.
In a few moments, he'd reached a vantage whereby he could see the main gate. Shandi's massive warhorse cleared the portal first, its shaggy head tossing, its feather-feet eating ground; although he and Shandi hadn't properly met, he'd seen the animal in passing and it had been patently obvious that only a Qunari could handle such a beast. Shandi rode astride with an easy confidence Cal ached to feel, though what remained of her armor hung off of her in strips. The flesh beneath looked newly scarred, deep furrows still an angry red. Her auburn hair smoldered under the sun's touch, bright like a signal fire, her horns shining like a wick newly caught. Gabriel stuck near her as if a spell bound them, his horse as close beside as either it or Shandi would tolerate. Varric came through next, then Cassandra. Cassandra rode tall, that overcast sky-gaze missing nothing. He expected that from the Seeker. But Varric? The first discordant note thrummed through his body. Varric had a hard cast to his eyes, his jaw set tight like a tripwire.
Something was wrong.
He raced across the courtyard. Dorian came inside last. He'd never seen the 'Vint scum in person, but who could mistake him? Everything about him filled Cal with poisonous hatred, down to his fancy silver mare and the arrogant cant of his dark head.
That hate blinded him for a moment, but when he truly looked --
"Amjad!" He shouted, flinging himself at Dorian. What had the 'Vint bastard done to his friend? His clanmate? Amjad wasn't moving, and his eyes were closed, face slack, tipped over in Dorian's arms like a doll. Creators, was he dead?
Cal realized he had no weapon, but to hells with it. He'd strangle the mage with his bare hands. He'd do it and enjoy it. Dorian's beauty only made him angrier, those big storm-grey eyes registering him, shock slashing down like lightning bolts. Just a few steps --
The hand on his collar pulled him round so that he would have lost his footing if it weren't for the hold. He hissed and spat like a badger in a trap. By all the spirits and gods, he would murder whoever had dared --
The voice hit him like a dive into a freezing river. Cullen. He went limp, still panting with rage.
"What did they do to him? Cullen, Cullen...you have to help me! Don't let this worthless --"
"Calledan." Cullen said a second time, the way he'd let the name roll from his tongue different than the first. Trying to communicate stability and calm, Cal thought. "He's all right. He's just had a sleeping draught. He was hurt on the mission, but it's not serious. Fixed easily enough."
Cal found himself facing Cullen then, Cullen's pale forehead lined with worry, mouth thinly pressed into a tight horizon of concern as if someone had sliced into his face with the edge of a ritual dagger.
"What happened?" He had the strangest desire to fall weeping into Cullen's arms, a foolish and stupid thing one only read in one of Varric's books.
"We're not entirely sure yet," Cullen told him, gripping his forearms gently in those broad hands, stained with ink from drawing maps and writing orders. "Regina will have more to say after we give her time to work."
Cal looked over his shoulder. Dorian had wrapped his embrace all the tighter around Amjad, as if to shelter Amjad from whatever Cal might do next. What absolute fool had given such a responsibility to the 'Vint bastard? Before anything else could pass between them, Gabriel took the silver mare's hackamore in hand and lead the animal towards the infirmary. Cal's hands balled up into fists; being forced to stand here and do nothing as some dirty maleficar slaver left with his clanmate made him want to rage as much as any werewolf.
"Come on," Cullen suggested, and he let himself be towed along towards Cullen's tower. He could feel Shandi's eyes on him, and wondered as to her thoughts.
"He's all right?" He said when he felt sure no one would overhear, faintly aware that he'd started to babble hysterically like a child. "You're sure?" Shapes crept around the edges of his vision, shapes that threatened to sprout claws and fangs. He started to tremble, and found he couldn't stop.
Cullen shouldered the door open. Cal went inside, glad of the relative gloom. He could breathe then. Darkness offered safety. Comfort, for those who knew its secrets. It could conceal horrors, yes--he knew that all too well--but very few things had but a single side or aspect. Cullen guided him to one of the only chairs, and he thumped into it, numb.
"I didn't get the whole story out of Varric --Maker, who thought I'd ever say that sentence? -- but from what I did glean, they went after the artifact in the thaig, the one out by the Waking Sea? They found it, and more, but Decadence didn't seem to appreciate them digging around down there."
Cal beat his fist against his thigh.
"I can't stand her one more moment," he snarled, a tangled knot of fury and helplessness. "The day I tear her head from her shoulders..."
"You mean to be the one to do it?" Cullen asked him. He looked up. Cullen leaned against the desk, a casual pose. Or it would have been, without the tremor Cal could read the way he had once read the barest of trails whilst hunting. Cullen wasn't looking at him, either. His gaze had the faraway look that told Cal it was fixed on some point in the past.
"Creators, I want to. Who knows what else she's done? What she's responsible for?" He gulped as nausea rose; he knew she'd orchestrated and schemed even more than they could yet see. Cullen turned pale, his already tired features drawing in all the more until his profile became something sharp and world-weary.
"I...have seen the depredations of demons," he said, voice deceptively mild. "I can understand your desire."
Cal had the oddest urge to apologize. The subject had wakened something in Cullen, something that had to be writhing around in his guts as if he'd swallowed a live animal, a live animal trying its damnedest to rip its way free. Cal shivered. He knew something of demons himself. The sound of the rock wraith stomping along next to the caravan stopped up his ears. The depredations of demons, indeed.
Cullen's touch once again oriented him to the here and now. He looked up only to find Cullen gazing down at him, that worry line etched on his pale forehead.
"Will you help me with something?" Cullen asked.
"What?" He didn't know what he thought Cullen might say, but probably not that. Cullen moved away and went to his desk, leaving Cal feeling curiously cold without that big hand on his shoulder. After a moment Cal got up and followed. Cullen sat and unrolled a map, weighting down its edges with a handful of mismatched items, a candle stub here, an ugly bronze paperweight in the shape of an anchor there. The map itself dazzled Cal; a very good cartographer must have made it. The names stood out in bold black, the water, described in glossy blue. He reached out to touch a spot where the artist had bothered to draw a spray of intricate flowers, ringing the base of an oak tree. The name caught his eye, simple enough that even he could read it: the Emerald Graves.
"You were a hunter," Cullen said, as Cal pulled the chair over so he could sit and still look at what Cullen felt like showing him. "And I am sure that skill did not fade away entirely, even when you were enslaved."
He liked that about Cullen, how Cullen would just plainly say words like slave. What was the point of avoiding it? Calling it something else didn't make it something else.
"Don't think so."
"Then maybe you can help me plot some routes through the Western Approach. I admit, the country there is...very odd, in places."
"The big doors."
"Yes, and other strange happenings. There are places there so befouled we've had a beastly time trying to explore them."
"I can help." Cal heard himself say it as if the words had come from someone else. "I know what you're doing," he added after a few moments.
"And what might that be?" Cullen asked him, all soft innocence.
"Trying to distract me from being upset," he said, even as he let his finger describe a new path across the surface of Cullen's map.
"Well...is it working?" Cullen's eyes gleamed when Cal glanced over, the candlelight drawing amber brilliance from their depths.
"Yeah," Cal grumbled, trying to affect annoyance and returning his attention to the task at hand.
They spent who knew how long on the project, with Cal talking Cullen through all the little paths he'd learned, all the Venatori markings etched into metal and stone, and even a trail that, while dangerous, could lead someone up and past one of the big doors that blocked passage in the middle of the endless desert. Whenever Cal did so, Cullen marked it down in ink, without hesitating. By the time they were developing cricks in their necks, Cal stretched, finding that his stomach had calmed and the knots in his shoulders had untangled.
"Thank you," Cal said, though it was still hard to say thank you to a shem, even if that shem was Cullen. "I guess that really did work."
Cullen smiled. The smile was as nice as always, but Cal couldn't help but notice how Cullen's features hovered near gaunt, his cheeks drawn in, creases brought on by weariness around his mouth and faintly describing the length of his forehead. While Cullen had no magical powers as such, lately Cal could feel something akin to mana around him; the electricity-and-ozone snap of lyrium.
He was a Templar. They say eventually lyrium kills you, if you're lucky.
Otherwise, you went mad first.
"You're welcome. I'm sorry for hauling you away like that."
The words made Cal remember the 'Vint bastard, and his lips curled back in a snarl. "You should have let me kill him," he muttered.
"The Inquisition is...a challenge sometimes. Sometimes victim and victimizer are asked to work shoulder to shoulder, for the sake of Thedas. I can empathize with how you must feel, but I can't know. Still, I hope you realize that our Lord Inquisitor has his reasons for allowing Dorian to remain among us."
Cal's heart thudded painfully in his chest. His reasons? Could it be...?
The conversation he'd had with Amjad after being rescued rose up in his memory.
You wouldn't approve.
Cal tried to stem the tide of horror threatening to wash over him.
No. Amjad wouldn't betray us like that. Would he?
"Cal...would you like to stay here tonight?" Cullen must have realized how that sounded, since he lifted his hands in a warding gesture and blushed. "I...mean, you seem upset and I wouldn't mind giving you my bed, if it would help."
"Usually I sleep in Aislinn's room," Cal said slowly, shocked by the offer. Yet, he had to admit that it sounded comforting, staying in Cullen's room. He felt fairly sure Cullen wouldn't try to rape him, and if anything went amiss, he thought Cullen would even stand against it for him.
"Ahem. I think Solas might be visiting her?"
Ah. Cullen must have seen them together before, when Amjad had been taken to the infirmary.
"All right, then," Cal found himself agreeing. "I...have nightmares sometimes."
"Well, so do I. I have some medicines brewed that help, if you'd like some."
Regina had given him those types of treatments, but he hadn't exactly stuck to taking them. Maybe he couldn't accept it from a shem he barely knew. Could he accept them from Cullen?
"Maybe," he said. Cullen glanced at the candle clock in its wood-and-horn encasement, though when Cal looked up it was easy enough to see the night sky through the hole in the ceiling.
"Come up, then," Cullen offered, gesturing to the ladder. "Would you prefer to go first...?"
He hesitated. Going first, with a big shem following close behind? Or last, where he couldn't see Cullen or Cullen's intentions until he'd breached the opening that lead to Cullen's room?
"I'll go," he decided. He'd rather have Cullen follow him than accept the extra vulnerability that came with having to climb up into an unfamiliar place, with someone waiting for him.
He scrambled up the ladder, not wanting to draw out the experience. A chill swept in and tapped him on the cheeks the way a doddering old elder would have done, enough to bring a little pink flush to his skin but not enough to be a reprimand. He turned slowly as Cullen made his way up, taking in the room. Creators, it was almost austere, though the plush comforter on the generously sized bed blurred the edges a little.
"Don't you own anything?" He asked, as Cullen entered and shrugged out of his coat. A wry mood curled Cullen's lip.
"Very little. Perhaps I am too used to living in a barracks." He felt Cullen might have added, or a Circle, had he been more comfortable. The unspoken hung there as sure as smoke, but Cal didn't press. "Though Josephine is trying to drown me in clothing."
"No one can wear armor all the time." An awkward heaviness weighted down his shoulders. How had he ended up in this shem's bedroom? Still, that luxurious blanket called to him. He ached for comfort, for cozy and gentle things, as if he were a child again.
Cullen sat at the little rickety table off to the side, stifling a sigh of relief. Cal dared to go over to the bed and sit on the edge, studying the slope of Cullen's shoulders, the way he held his head just a little bit to the side, as if he had a pinched nerve that wouldn't stop bothering him.
Cullen sighed audibly then, and propped his chin in his hand. He didn't turn towards Cal, but Cal didn't need to see his face to understand the truth.
"It...is the lyrium, I am afraid," he said. He sounded so resigned. Cal repressed a shudder. He knew what lyrium addiction could do, had seen more than one of Regulus' mage pets hollowed out into a pathetic mewling husk, willing to do anything and everything for one drop more.
"Cullen..." The horror of it hit him then, making his heart gulp and thrash like a rabbit caught in a wire. Cullen waved his free hand, as if trying to stave off the truth of the matter.
"It is nothing. The consequences of my choices. Others have suffered far worse."
Cal was no fool. He could feel the unspoken, like the pulse of the earth beneath bare feet, communicating secrets that only an elf could interpret. Amjad had told him that Cullen's past had been...checkered, also, and Cal wondered what Cullen had done that would cause the guilt he could clearly hear.
Before he could muster up the nerve to ask, Cullen rose and went to the chest in the corner, tucked away under the rack of clothes Josephine had sent. Kneeling made a little huff of discomfort come from Cullen's lips, but otherwise he didn't complain. He stood with his hands full of potion vials; the medicines he'd talked of before, surely.
"Here,' Cullen said, setting the vials on the bedside table, near the half-shuttered lantern. "If you decide to take them, they are here for you."
Cal looked up at him, wordlessly. He couldn't think of a single thing to say, with Cullen so close. What in all the hells was wrong with him?
Thankfully, Cullen moved away before he could make a fool of himself.
"You're sure about this?" Cal asked, as Cullen took some spare blankets and fashioned a makeshift bed on the floor. All he could think about were Cullen's aching joints.
"I've slept in much worse places," Cullen told him, smiling such that his eyes lit up with humor. Cullen didn't hesitate to strip in front of him; he supposed being a Templar was a little like being an elf, in the sense that modesty was usually quickly dispensed with. Why be shy, when you were constantly surrounded by clanmates anyway?
Cal wasn't above watching him do it, either, though he quickly found something else to focus his attention on when Cullen turned towards him.
Cullen got as comfortable as he could on the floor, and Cal took that as a cue to do the same with the bed, leaving his clothes scattered around just as he could see Cullen also loved to do. Thank goodness they were both slobs, or so he could readily hear Amjad calling him. Amjad, with his obsessively neat quarters, all his clothes arranged by color and material. His weapons meticulously kept and ordered, bedding always freshly laundered and made. Though, Cullen thought, mouth quirking in an affectionate half-smile, he knew one of Amjad's vices was to nick rolls from the kitchen and get crumbs all over himself while eating them.
"Good night, Calledan," Cullen said, and it prompted Cal to blow out the lantern.
"Good night. I hope you don't dream."
"And the same to you," Cullen returned, and Cal could almost hear the fond look on Cullen's face.
He thought it would have taken him ages to fall asleep in a strange room, but he fell asleep almost immediately.
His dreams circled at the borders of his understanding, howling, snapping entities that did their best to breach his defenses, but none of them could penetrate.
Dorian paced. He swore he'd just about worn a track in the floor near the fireplace, a quirk he shared with Amjad. Amjad, who still lay unconscious in the bed, dwarfed by it. At least Regina had let him take Amjad back to the tower room, a much more welcome sight than the inside of the infirmary.
Hours had slipped by, silk through one's fingers, a dress pooling on the floor and leaving its owner shamefully nude. He'd promised himself he wouldn't beg and plead anymore, that he wouldn't behave like some hired mourner draping themselves over a body in state and wailing. Instead he forced himself to approach the bed, though Maker...Amjad looked dead. Enough to make Dorian smell that rank ceremonial incense, the fresh blood spattered on the expensive Rivaini travertine.
Andrastae's ass, you can't do this every time he's injured. You'll go mad.
It wouldn't be the last time. He understood that. But he didn't have to like it.
"A copper for your thoughts."
The voice nearly made Dorian yelp in surprise, though thankfully he kept it back for dignity's sake.
"You're awake. Thank the Maker," Dorian said, rubbing his hands over his face as if the gesture might order his thoughts.
"Is everyone all right? I...Shandi?" Amjad's words came slowly; still drugged to the gills, Dorian assumed.
"Yes. Everyone returned safely to Skyhold. Well." Dorian said, close to snapping. "Safely might be a bit generous."
He met Amjad's eyes then, the elf's gaze burning in an ashen face.
"I'm sorry, Dorian. I promise you, I don't do this on purpose."
Retorts rushed through Dorian's mind, a veritable stampede of bitterness and fear. He wasn't sure what he would say when he opened his mouth, but what issued forth was:
"What in all the hells happened down there?" He didn't add, you owe me an explanation. Telling Amjad he owed something wouldn't get Dorian much beyond his lovers ire, which he couldn't truly bear at the moment. But an explanation would at the very least be most appreciated.
Amjad turned his head and closed his eyes, but it wasn't a dismissal. What...? Only then did Dorian realize Amjad was trying not to cry. Usually, Amjad's tears were as rare as a Southern cleric's silence.
"I...haven't been honest with you, Dorian." Amjad said, moving to sit up. He didn't realize his leg was braced and bandaged at first, and Dorian reached out to help him automatically. Amjad settled against the pile of pillows set against the headboard, embroidered gold and purple. Dorian's stomach felt like a catacomb, riddled with bones.
"Why, whatever do you mean?" Dorian muttered, folding his arms over his chest. Any number of scenarios tormented him. Another lover? An admission that this relationship couldn't last, that ultimately he'd once more been nothing but a port in someone else's storm? Amjad regarded him with a direct, heavy regard, and as he watched the light from the elf's eyes refract, he thought Amjad looked so very young in their glow.
"I...I'm not..." Amjad twisted his hands together in his lap. Stuttering? Stumbling over words? What had happened to his amatus? Just then he realized he might--just might--be acting like an ass. Maybe this secret wasn't about him at all.
He reached for Amjad's hands, patiently, gently unweaving Amjad's fingers. The expression he wore, so unsure, so pained. Why? It was so easy to forget that Amjad was only nineteen, that he'd been no one special a few short years ago. All he'd had to learn, all the burdens he'd been forced to carry, all that imposed on some poor Elvhen youth fresh out of the forest.
"What is it, amatus?" Dorian said, as soft as down. "There is very little you could tell me that would make me judge even a single hair on that pretty head," he teased, the silly tone making Amjad at the least smile for a moment.
"irnusilathe. It is Elvhen. Do you know it?"
He'd picked up some of the language, of course. How could it pass him by, with Amjad and Aislinn as his companions? But this word...
"I don't recognize it."
Amjad bowed his head, as if he'd been struck by a sudden wave of disgust and discomposure.
"It is a curse. No, not like the Brangwen curse. It is a suffering I could not ever fully explain, not in words. So primal is its origin, I think of it as more animal than Elvhen, the way it must feel to be caught in a trap, half dead. It is so excessive a pain, that it weighs down your tongue, lives under your skin. Even the beds of your teeth ache. Decadence...reminded me of it. It...comes from being misborn."
Amjad looked up at him, that gaze, heavy as lead, that he'd shown since he'd awakened.
"What...are you saying?"
"Dorian. I was born female. I'm like Krem. Born wrong."
Amjad pushed away from him, as much as he could manage with one useless leg. Through the utter stupefaction the revelation had called down upon him, that penetrated. He caught Amjad's hand again, and when he spoke it came out more growl than clear statement.
"There is nothing wrong with you," he hissed, and Amjad stared at him as if he were the werewolf, just beginning to shift forms. "The accident of your birth is of no consequence."
"Dorian..." Amjad managed, a hoarse whisper. "It...afflicted Aislinn, too. We were so miserable. We tried everything. Magics that you..." Amjad stumbled to a stop for a moment, hindered by a rough sob clawing its way to freedom from somewhere deep in his chest. "You...wouldn't approve of."
He knew that Aislinn had dabbled in such things, but this implied so much more. Perhaps instead of an over eager apprentice, she'd achieved a mastery she'd kept hidden even from him. He thought of the dark plans Halward had put in motion, to ensnare him, to turn him inside out with the hope that the other side of the cloth might be cleaner.
"And if you hadn't delved into those magics?"
"It was the few moments before the sun dies. That was what Decadence showed me, made me believe. That I was back there, with no escape but death." Amjad answered, the misery caught up in the telling making him seem more skeleton than man, animated by a careless necromancer. "It was all I had left to me. We risked everything, and on so little. A dream, come to Aislinn at the witching hour. A white wolf. A mirror. A pool. It was all we had."
"Then it wasn't blood that helped you?" Dorian said, trying to keep up through the twister of emotion blowing reckless through his being like a storm howling down a wind tunnel.
"No, though Aislinn nigh on carved herself into pieces trying. Sometimes...I think it was Fen'harel." He said, voice pitched so low Dorian almost missed it. He could just imagine a Keeper's response to a statement like that. "It was a white wolf. It taught Aislinn the key to open eluvians. Fen'harel enansal. The Dread Wolf's blessing. When we went through, a Well waited for us, a Well of Truth. We used it and it switched us, traded our bodies, made us what we really were. Are." He paused, gulping for air as if some invisible force were squeezing his ribs. "I...would understand if you felt differently about me, if you thought I was less of a--" Amjad started, and Dorian squeezed Amjad's hands hard enough to hurt. Yes, the news had hit hard. Yes, he would want, need more details in the future. But leaving? Never.
"Don't be daft, you bloody fool," Dorian snarled. "If you think you can be rid of me that easily..."
"I wouldn't dare presume," Amjad said, casting him a sideways look that could almost be called shy. It made Dorian laugh, and a weight lifted from his heart. Amjad must have felt the same, because he turned his head to gaze directly into Dorian's eyes.
"Of course, if you need more convincing..." Dorian said, underscoring his suggestive tone with an artfully arched eyebrow.
"Well, I can hardly get up and leave, now can I?"
"Oh, is that the only reason you put up with my trying company?"
Amjad smirked. "Let me consider your argument, then," he said, and after that first meeting of lips, little else was said.
The way Amjad feels about being transgender is his unique experience and is not meant to reflect the breadth and depth of identities and experiences in the transgender community as a whole.