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The Rising Mist

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Ashe sat in her office, an uneaten plate of lunch at her elbow, a growing stack of papers under her motionless hand. There were many affairs of state to attend to, but they would just have to keep waiting while she focused on getting these darkspawn under control.

A knock came at the door: Alistair, senior Grey Warden, and future commander of the new airship that sat in the aerodrome, awaiting its final touches of flightworthiness. "Good afternoon," he said.

Ashe smiled and motioned him in, where he moved to stand at attention. "I wish to thank you for staying." She rested her hands on her desk, one over the other. "I recognize that you would not be here, if you had your way." No one had come out and said that Alistair and the Warden Commander, Elissa Cousland, were lovers, but Ashe had seen the clear fact of it in the way he looked at her, and the way she accepted his attention. No woman in command would let a man dote on her like that, were it unreciprocated.

Alistair shrugged, hands clasped behind his back. "The Warden Commander has her reasons for leaving me behind. And she's right -- you need an experienced Warden to aid in planning the city's defenses, and to coordinate all the various teams." He leaned forward to the speaker on her desk and squinted at it. "You can really use that thing to communicate with far-away airships?"

"Indeed." Ashe picked up the microphone and held it up. "You could even call the Strahl, if you wished."

Alistair looked at the microphone as if it were covered in both ambrosia and poison. "Ahh... thank you, your majesty, but no. Not-- just now. Perhaps another time."

Ashe nodded. "If you have need, simply ask. There are communication devices here and in the aerodrome." She gestured at the closest chair, and Alistair took a seat. "You have full run of the palace, ser, and of the aerodrome should you wish it." He acknowledged the boon with a nod. "Let us speak frankly. I am queen here, but know nothing of darkspawn or Blights. Your knowledge of both is vital, but you are operating blind on our geographic challenges, technological capabilities, and political situation. We will have to work together, and communicate honestly, if our partnership is to succeed. Agreed?"

"Entirely," Alistair said. "And even if I didn't, I'm not much good at subterfuge." He cracked half a grin, and Ashe had to smile back. "We have a lot to teach one another, I think. Especially about that technology bit."

Ashe leaned back. "Am I right in suspecting that we have more advanced ships and weapons than your homeland?"

Alistair chuckled. "To put it mildly," he said. "I feel like I'm in a fairy story. Lights that burn without fire and ships that fly? If someone back home told me about it, I'd never believe them."

"I'll schedule briefings with the arms master and the shipwright." Ashe checked her notes. "You might also have a long chat with Wickham and Izidre."

"Believe me, that's next on my agenda. And we should also have a larger strategy meeting, soon, with whichever of your generals are left." Alistair leaned forward. "Make no mistake, your majesty, the goal is to stop the darkspawn before they reach your city, but I can't guarantee anything. The city walls will help, but we'll need to secure every entrance and resource. Fresh water, trade routes, anyone who lives in the countryside: all are at risk."

Ashe responded with a grim nod. "Preparations are already underway for a siege." She rolled out a map of the city. "Here, let me show you what work has already been done."

-x-

Balthier could not remember ever carrying so many first-time airship passengers in a single trip, and he found himself paying more attention to their reactions than the details of the flight. Most of them seemed excited, even eager; the small dark-haired woman, the dwarf, Sigrun, had popped out of her seat as soon as he had given permission, and now she knelt by the window, nose literally pressed to the glass, pointing out sights and exclaiming her delight to anyone who would listen. He glanced around the crew and attempted to commit their names to memory: Sigrun. Carver, the big man with an even bigger sword, pressed back in his chair with arms crossed. Alim, the elf mage, who after only one flight already looked comfortable, watching the new terrain with rapt attention. His new commander, Elissa, deep in conference with Basch and pretending to ignore her surroundings... but he saw her glance out the window at every spare moment, eyes widening in surprise. And Zevran, the blond elf, his erstwhile drinking companion, who caught him watching and rose from his seat with a smile. He made his way down the aisle, holding the seat backs for balance, then plopped down between Balthier and Fran to look out the front.

"This is amazing!" He shook his head. "No, amazing is not a strong enough word. For this, I have no words. Who would have expected that I would ever fly through the air, like a bird or a dragon?"

"Believe it." Balthier gripped the console against a sudden shudder. "Hold on," he called back, then turned into the rough air current before banking upward to catch the draft, lifting them above the turbulence.

Zevran grabbed the back of Balthier's seat to keep from tumbling away. "My word!" He looked up, as though reciting a prayer. "Is it always like this?"

Balthier shrugged. "The wind can be a harsh mistress, but she takes you anywhere you want to go." He glanced at Fran, who nodded and took the helm. "If you'll excuse me, I need to speak with the Commander." He brushed past Zevran, who took the seat next to Fran, and joined Basch and Elissa at the back of the cabin. "Sorry about the moment of turbulence," he said as he perched on the windowsill next to them. "It should be smooth flying for the next while."

Elissa nodded. "How long until we get to Giruvegan?"

"Tomorrow noon, if we can fly the entire distance." Balthier gestured down to the ground. "Right now we pace the Alexander across the Giza Plains, then the Ozmone. We part ways with the Alexander there and cross the mountains overnight. Morning will show us the other side and the Feywood, where we must land to pass into Giruvegan."

"Very well." Elissa rose awkwardly to her feet. "Give me a tour of the ship?"

Balthier bowed. "Such as it is. Follow me."

-x-

The Leviathan sped north to Archades.

Nathaniel had spent the entire flight so far standing at the window, hands tight on the railing, facing straight forward. This airship was larger than the Strahl, and so he noticed its movements less. Still, he felt unsteady walking around, as though he might crash to the floor at any moment. Balthier had advised him to look straight ahead and out the windows as much as he could, and so far it seemed to be working. He glanced down at his stomach, which remained calm for the moment. Dinner might be the true test. He hoped for a passing grade -- the flight to Archades would last today and tomorrow and through the morning after, and two days without food was an eternity to a Grey Warden.

"Warden Captain Howe?" It was Emperor Larsa, come up behind him, and Nathaniel risked turning his head to greet him with a bowing nod.

"Your majesty," he replied. "But please, just Nathaniel, or Warden if you feel a first-name basis is inappropriate. I may be in command of the Grey Wardens here, but we rarely use titles, beyond the Warden Commander."

"Very well, Nathaniel." The emperor walked up to the window and stared outward. His skin was pale, brow furrowed, and he vibrated with nervous energy. "And you must call me Larsa."

"All right," Nathaniel said. "Do you have news, then? You seem troubled."

"No word yet." The young man -- he could not be more than fifteen, Nathaniel thought; how had a boy come to rule an empire at such a tender age? -- leaned against the rail with a sigh, shoulders drooping. "And without word, I imagine only horrors. I fear the situation has worsened since I left the capital. I worry, too, that without my direct orders to hold the line, Old Archades has been left to be overrun -- sacrificing the poor and disadvantaged to save the upper classes."

"It would not be the first time," Nathaniel said. "I commend you for preferring a different path."

"I am emperor of all Archadia, not merely its nobility. My predecessors did not always remember that fact; I have endeavored to rule differently." He lowered his head over his crossed hands. "I will not let all my progress be lost to an invasion of mindless creatures! We saved this world once. We can do it again."

"That's the spirit." Nathaniel looked out the window over the dense jungle beneath them. "Where are we, my lord?"

"This is the south edge of the Salikawood," Larsa replied. "The boundary between the old country of Nabradia -- now part of Dalmasca, united when Queen Ashe became the sole heir to both nations' royal lines -- and Archadia. Do you see the mountains to your left?"

Nathaniel turned. "Those barren hills? With the fog rising over them?" As he watched them slowly pan by, the back of his neck pricked, as though tickled by darkspawn at a great distance. Almost like. Not quite.

"Not fog," Larsa said. "Mist. It never dissipates, but chokes a land overrun by monsters and ghouls. It is the legacy of the last war, a reminder of what must never happen again."

"We have such places in Thedas." Nathaniel faced front again, the more peaceful vista of trees and a sliver of blue ocean at the horizon. "Given enough time, the land can heal from a darkspawn invasion, but a few badly ravaged areas have not: the Blighted mountains of the Anderfels, parts of my homeland, the lost byways of the Deep Roads. And as yet, we have found no way to eradicate darkspawn entirely. We can end Blights when they come, and the threat is well-contained in between, but the next Blight always looms."

"And so you have Grey Wardens?"

"Precisely," Nathaniel said. "It is not an easy calling, and we do not always take the most noble path to our ends. But the ends themselves are noble. At least I believe they are."

"It seems so unlikely," Larsa murmured. "Not to cast aspersions on your abilities -- I pray you do not take my doubts as such. But that only five of you could hold against a horde of such creatures as my commanders describe--"

Nathaniel smiled. "The Warden Commander and Alistair alone, with no other Wardens at hand, gathered armies enough to end a full-scale Blight, in the face of political opposition and civil war. Our force numbers more than twice as many, and we have your support. There is hope, my lord. Please hold to it."

Larsa looked up at him. "I pray you are right." He turned to the window again, his knuckles turning white. "Pray you are right," he repeated, voice dropped to a near whisper, "to whatever gods your people hold dear."

-x-

The next morning dawned bright, and Ashe greeted the sun by taking an early breakfast with Alistair. It seemed oddly intimate, sitting in the corner of her office with a cup of tea, a full repast spread over the table, and a man sitting across from her, wolfing it all down. She raised her tea and arched an eyebrow at him. "Hungry already?"

Alistair set down his second biscuit, already half-eaten, with a guilty grin. "It's one of the curses of being a Grey Warden: a hearty appetite. You didn't receive Elissa's request to increase the usual food ration?"

Ashe shrugged. "I have no doubt my steward will see you well-provisioned. He is creative and talented; you need only to ask for what you require." She blew the steam off her tea and took a sip. "So. You may ask why I summoned you so early?"

"I did wonder," he said. "But if it were an emergency, I figured we wouldn't have taken time for breakfast. And I didn't want to ask before we ate."

Ashe chuckled. "Nothing so dire that we must put off our morning repast, no. But I thought this task best undertaken early, before the bustle of today's sky traffic begins. The Griffon is ready for a preliminary test flight, and I thought you'd like to be along."

"Oh!" Alistair's eyes lit up, and he pushed back from the table. "Oh, of course! Should I call our pilot?"

"I summoned her to the aerodrome an hour past," Ashe said. "No rush," she added as he pushed away from the table. "It should be another half hour or thereabouts before the Griffon is ready for flight. So, please, finish your breakfast."

Alistair grinned like a little boy on his birthday, anticipating gifts and cake. "Leisurely breakfast and an airship? This must be my lucky day."

His smile was infectious, and Ashe returned it. "Let us hope the luck continues," she said, then turned her attention to her own plate.

When the time came, Ashe stood, and Alistair jumped to his feet, setting down his empty teacup. "Shall we?" she said and gestured toward the door. Alistair left first, then let her pass by, falling into step just behind her as she strode down the hall and into the garden. "I think you'll be pleased," she said. "The Griffon is a fine ship, a worthy start to a Grey Warden fleet."

"It's so odd to think of Wardens having a fleet of those things." Alistair glanced at the sky -- it was a clear day, and already warm. "Too bad we can't take one back with us. I'm not looking forward to that trek back through the Deep Roads."

"I am not confident that skystones would carry you so far over the ocean. But we could look into it, certainly." Ashe made a note to inquire with Draklor regarding the limits of their Jagd-capable skystones. "In the meantime, I would formally introduce you to your flagship." They walked through the door into the aerodrome, and there she was: the Griffon, all the scaffolding removed, gleaming in the sunlight that streamed through the open ceiling, falling on a Grey Warden insignia that was painted on the side in a darker silver than the metal siding. Taking it all in, Alistair's eyes went round as dinner plates.

"Maker, it's huge!" he said. "I know it flies, because I've seen even bigger ships in the sky, but I still can't really believe it. It's even bigger than a dragon!" He walked up to the gangway, where Izidre stood waiting, hands behind her back. "So, are you going to take us up into the air?"

"That's the plan, ser," said Izidre. "All systems are ready. Your majesty?" She looked up and addressed Ashe. "Will you be joining us?"

"If you don't mind having me along," she replied.

Alistair turned to her with a smile and an outstretched hand. "Please."

Without really thinking, Ashe took it, and he helped her up the stairs as though he'd been boarding airships all his life. He really was adjusting quite nicely.

-x-

The company had only just finished breakfast when the Strahl began to descend. Basch checked his map with a frown, then glanced out the window. The Feywood spread out before them, dark with Mist; the hills of Giruvegan were but a distant smudge on the horizon. He rose from his seat at the back and went forward to Balthier, already taken over from Fran's turn on the night shift. "You outfitted the Strahl with the new skystone years ago," he murmured. "Why, then, are we landing nearly a day's journey from the Giruvegan gates?"

Balthier shook his head. "Jagd, she can handle. I'm not so certain about this." He indicated the Mist-choked valleys of the Feywood with a flick of his fingers. "I've not seen it this thick, not even during the worst of the storms after we destroyed the Sun-Cryst." Basch looked at the swirls below and before him, noting the red-tinged shades and shadows that flitted throughout, and found he could not argue. "Besides," Balthier continued, "a walk will do us good. My legs grow restless."

Basch had to concur with that assessment -- the morning after his Joining, he had awakened flush with energy and needed to spend a good hour in the practice yards working it off before he felt ready to sit still in council, and his stamina had only increased in the days since. He felt, in fact, like a teenager again, ready to fight from dawn to dusk with barely a break in momentum, and he found himself eager to test the notion in battle.

The Strahl settled down on the ground with a soft bump, and the gangway dropped. Basch finished buckling himself into his new armor, worked in the style and colors of the Grey Wardens, then led the way out. This area should be fairly safe from monsters, and they had not tracked darkspawn to this area -- it seemed they were ahead of the pack. The air was bracing, but the Mist was not yet too thick.

Behind him, Elissa took a few steps forward, then froze. "Do you feel that?" Her voice was hushed, but in the stillness of the Feywood, it carried and everyone turned to look at her.

Carver frowned. "I feel... something. Like darkspawn, but very far away. And yet not far away." He lifted his chin and sniffed the air. "As though it's surrounding us. Sigrun?"

"Yeah, I feel it, too." She shuddered. "It's crawling on my skin, almost like being back in the broodmother's den. Weird."

"It is the Mist you feel." Fran spoke from her perch at the top of the stairway.

Elissa wrinkled her nose. "Mist? You mean this fog?"

Fran nodded. "The essence of magick, set free and wandering the air. Somehow the darkspawn are attuned to it, as are you, through the taint you carry."

Basch took a deep breath, tried to reach out with his senses, but he felt nothing, just the usual unease of walking in unfriendly terrain. A look at Balthier confirmed that he was in the same position. "Strange," Basch said, "that we do not feel it."

"You're still developing your darkspawn sense," Elissa said. "It will take a few more days, even weeks, before it's fully honed." She looked over her shoulder at Zevran, who stood next to Fran. "I don't suppose you feel anything."

Zevran shrugged. "Only a bit of a chill."

At the back of the group, Alim emerged from the Strahl and took a deep breath, cold air whistling through his nose. "Ahhhh." He closed his eyes and held out his hands, walking slowly down the stairs, and spun in a slow circle when he reached the ground. "I sense corruption, too, but so much more besides," he said, opening his blue eyes and turning them on Elissa. "I feel power. Pure, rich, magical power. You can't sense it?"

He turned around, took in the blank stares, and his face fell a little. "I suppose you wouldn't. But I assure you, that's what it is. It's like bathing in a pool of lyrium."

Basch looked at Balthier, then back at Elissa. "Lyrium?"

"It's a mineral that gives spells more power," Elissa said. "Toxic in its pure form and in large amounts, except to dwarves who are resistant."

"Ah." Balthier nodded at Fran. "Like magicite, then. Mist comes from magicite, which provides the source of magickal power. So that explains friend Alim's reaction to the stuff. Not the taint, however. Unless this Mist comes from magicite that is somehow tainted?" He raised an eyebrow at Fran. "Is that even possible?"

"Certainly," Fran said. "Though I have not experienced such corruption myself. But remember the Mists of Nabudis, and the burn of nethicite." She turned to Elissa. "Magicite that absorbs the Mist rather than producing it. Manufacted nethicite brought us to the brink of destruction once. Perhaps the darkspawn bring us the risk of it happening again."

"All right." Elissa raised up her arm in the gesture that would gather them all together. "We seem to be ahead of the darkspawn band that was heading here through the mines. The small group in the Westersand is likely still threatening Rabanastre, and it would have further to travel regardless; the same is even more true of the horde outside Archades. That leaves the Rozarrian contingent unaccounted for, and there's no telling if still other groups have broken out elsewhere. And I don't know if I could pick out individual darkspawn signatures with this Mist around. So be on your guard at all times."

"Other unsavory creatures wander these lands, as well," Basch said. "Magical beasts, mandragora, elementals. Such beings are drawn to the Mist, so you will find them wherever the fog lies this thick."

"Lovely." Carver made a face. "Just when we thought we were out of the woods."

Alim grinned at him. "Are we ever out of the woods?" He pulled his staff out into his hands. "Come, let's see what awaits us."

"Easy for you to say, you'll be in the back." Sigrun tipped her head and met Zevran's eyes. "Take point with me?"

Zevran bowed to her. "As you say, my lady. Assuming our commander concurs?"

"Yes, yes, usual formation." Elissa turned to Basch. "Probably one of you should be on lead as well, since you know the area and we don't. Are either of you particularly skilled at scouting?"

Basch looked at Balthier, who raised an eyebrow slightly, then nodded. "I'm the likely choice, Commander," Balthier said.

"Go on, then." Elissa waved them forward. "Carver, you guard the rear, and Fran too, if you would. Basch, Alim, with me. Let's get a good walk in before lunch."

-x-

Alistair tried not to bounce as he walked up the metal walkway to the airship, but it was difficult. He was going to fly! Apparently he had flown once before, if that witch was to be believed, when Flemeth had rescued them from the top of the tower at Ostagar. But he didn't remember any of it, and he wasn't sure he bought that story, anyway. Never in a million years had he imagined that he might someday have this opportunity.

And not only was he going to fly on a airship, very soon he'd be in charge of it. He followed Vaan down the hallway, doing his best to listen as Vaan pointed out different things and explained what they were for, but he barely understood one word in three. He'd sit down with Izidre afterwards and find out what he actually needed to know, given that she was the person who would actually be at the... rudder? Reins? What was it called here? He didn't even know much about sailing ships; how could he command this thing?

Well, he'd find a way; almost the last thing Elissa had said to him was a request to learn air tactics. If she needed him to captain a flying ship, then that's what he'd do. Whatever she asked, whatever she needed -- he owed her nothing less.

"And this is the bridge," Vaan said as he walked through an open doorway. "Where all the controls are located, and also where you'll sit." Alistair followed him through and took in a sharp breath as the hall opened out into a semi-circular room. The front wall was all curving glass, a window that looked out onto the aerodrome. Behind that was three seats with panels in front of them, and then, closest to the door, a larger chair with armrests, raised up on a dais. Izidre took the middle seat at the panels, and Vaan the one on the right. Then he turned back to Alistair and pointed at the raised seat. "That one's yours."

Alistair looked at Ashe, who nodded to him with a small smile. "Maker," he murmured to himself as he walked up the ramp that led to the chair, then took a seat. He leaned forward, craning around to take in the view of the ground: ships scattered across the floor, people the size of figurines scurrying between them. "I can see the whole aerodrome from up here."

Vaan grinned at him. "Just you wait." He faced forward again, then leaned over Izidre's console, pointing out particular buttons and dials. Alistair supposed he would have to learn what it all meant, eventually, but for now he concentrated on the panel in front of him.

It wasn't long before he felt out of his depth. Alistair squinted at the first dial, which looked something like a clock with only one hand, then looked at Ashe. "Do I, uh, need to do anything with these?"

She smiled, shaking her head. "Only if you wish to. Trust in your crew -- they will inform you if any systems are not working properly. They will carry out your orders, and ensure proper running of the ship. After this flight, we should introduce you to Gipsum, the moogle who leads the Griffon's maintenance team."

"Moogle?" Alistair glanced over his shoulder and around. "Are they the small ones with the big ears?" As opposed to the big ones with the big ears.

"Correct. They are natural engineers, and every ship has a crew of them. Most of them stay in the aerodrome, but there will be a small group along as well, in case repairs are ever needed en route."

"Repairs?" Alistair frowned. "But this ship is new; it can't be breaking down already."

Ashe laughed, lightly. "A newly built ship will have many issues, I'm afraid. It takes a few voyages to shake all the kinks out. But we shan't go far."

"Whatever you say." Alistair leaned back in his seat. "This trip, I'm just along for the ride."

"And a fine ride it shall be." Ashe rested her hand on the back of the captain's chair. "Vaan, status report."

"All systems normal," Vaan said. "Ready for takeoff on your command." He craned his head around to grin at Alistair. "That would be your command, Captain Alistair."

"Ah, um, ah. Right." Alistair cleared his throat and leaned forward again. "Let's go!"

He thought he heard a giggle from Penelo, over by the windows. "Aye aye, ser."

The soft humming from beneath Alistair's feet -- a noise he had barely noticed until now -- jumped into a loud rumble, then rose into a roar as the ship started moving forward. Lumbering out of its spot, the airship pulled into the circle of light in the middle of the room. The circle grew wider; Alistair looked up and shielded his eyes from the sun that poured into the dark aerodrome as the oculus expanded.

"Power to take off engines at ready levels," said Izidre. "Ready for take off on your mark."

Alistair looked at Vaan, then Ashe, who nodded. "Mark," he said, and then the ship lurched under his feet, tossing him almost out of his chair. He gripped the armrests harder and snapped up his chin, staring forward as the Griffon started to rise, the walls of the aerodrome giving way to the walls of the palace and then the pale blue skies over Rabanastre. Before long, the entire city lay before him, glittering in the empty desert. It was like looking over Denerim from the top of Fort Drakon, if the fort had been a hundred stories taller -- the streets and houses and people like toys and insects, the river flowing past the city walls and toward the sea, which he could see shining in the distance.

"Maker's breath," he murmured. "It's beautiful."

"Indeed it is," Ashe replied. "We're just doing a turn over the desert at low speed; it should be safe to walk around."

He stood, slowly; the floor rumbled beneath him, but it wasn't that different from standing on a ship deck at sea. Smoother, if anything. Still, he took slow and careful steps toward the window, where he had to stop himself from mashing his face against the glass. Now they were over the plains to the south of the city -- the ones where the darkspawn had been found, he remembered with a frown. But he saw no signs of darkspawn corruption here, only a swath of green grass, cut through by the river, winding its way past the city.

Turning toward the ocean, he noticed an oddly-shaped metal tower, built with an alarming right-ward lean. "What's that?"

Ashe joined him at the window and followed his pointing gesture. "The Bahamut," she replied. "An airship, the largest ever built."

Alistair raised an eyebrow at her. "That thing... is an airship?"

"Of sorts." Ashe crossed her arms, and her voice hardened. "Vayne Solidor, erstwhile emperor of Archadia, built it to be the engine of our destruction. It was stopped here, and thus it stands, a monument to the limits of mortal hubris."

"Huh." Alistair peered at the derelict more closely. He had no idea how a ship of that size and shape could stay aloft, but maybe that was just a sign of how little he knew about ships. Stepping back from the window, he turned in a small circle, taking in the view. "It's so beautiful up here. I'm not sure I ever want to come down."

Ashe's expression softened into a half smile. "There are some who would not, given their preference. But alas, other matters will eventually demand our attention."

"Aww." He grinned at her. "But I guess you're right." He walked back to the seat and buckled himself back in. "Vaan, show me how you land this thing."

-x-

Light glimmered over the placid blue waters, and the dark cliffs rose in the background, green in the noonday sun. Archades looked pristine from the sea, as though nothing and no one could ever make any trouble or disturb the inhabitants of the white houses with red roofs that dotted the distant landscape.

But to his great sorrow, Larsa Solidor knew differently.

If the reports he had received over their past day in the air were correct, the darkspawn and the Blight they carried were spreading through this rural area far faster than they could be contained. Perhaps the Grey Wardens would find a way, but he hoped Nathaniel Howe would forgive him his doubts.

"Your majesty?"

Larsa turned to Captain Willamer, who stood attentive at his elbow. "Thank you for answering my summons," he said. "If I might ask, why do we approach Archades from the sea?"

"I concede that it did add time to our journey," the captain said, placing his hands behind his back. "But it was felt safer with the reports out of the city. There is a new Mist, your majesty, rising from the Sochen Cave Palace."

"Mist," Larsa repeated softly. "I wonder if there is a connection to the Blight."

"Perhaps." Nathaniel, who had waited in back of the lounge since breakfast, stood up and joined them at the rail. "We do not have this Mist in Thedas, so I cannot say."

The captain shrugged. "Regardless of its meaning, it poses a danger. This ship is equipped with a Jagd-capable skystone, of course, but we felt it safer not to risk it."

"Understood," Larsa replied. "Do try to raise the Strahl and the Alexander. It would be well to know if other areas infested by darkspawn have seen increased Mist activity."

The captain bowed. "It will be done, your majesty."

"Dismissed." Willamer bowed again, nodded to Nathaniel, and left, stepping quickly out the door. Larsa leaned against the window, hands gripping the rail. If they were too late, if the Wardens could not save the city...

"Mist," Nathaniel said, stepping up to join him. "That is what you showed me as we flew past Nabudis, is it not?"

"It is," Larsa said. "Mist is everywhere -- it powers magick, as well as our airships. Too little and ships cannot fly; too much, and it becomes overwhelming."

"Not darkspawn corruption then," Nathaniel said. "And yet, the increased levels do seem to be following the darkspawn invasion. I hope we can learn more soon."

"Soon enough." Larsa gestured to the Imperial Aerodrome, rising in the distance. "We land in fifteen minutes. Ready the troops, if you would? I would like to hold a briefing as quickly as possible upon our arrival."

Nathaniel bowed. "Your majesty. We will be prepared."

-x-

The marketplace was crowded, filled with the smells of food stalls, the clamor of merchants hawking their wares, and an undercurrent of nerves -- people looking at one another sidelong, speaking in hushed tones, glancing at the sky. It felt much as the city had during the Archadian occupation, except with less resentment and more uncertainty.

Penelo kept looking skyward, too, even though she'd been told that no threat was likely to come from that direction. According to the Grey Wardens, no darkspawn besides an archdemon could fly, and even if they came across an airship, the Wardens were pretty sure that the darkspawn wouldn't have a clue how to operate one. "Not long on original thinking, darkspawn," Alistair had explained. "Even their leaders have a hard time coming up with tactics, much less learning how to operate a sophisticated piece of equipment. Maybe if they had an archdemon leading them, but even an archdemon probably has about as much ability to fly an airship as I do."

She had laughed, but considering how well his first flight had gone, she wondered how long that would be true. Alistair wouldn't fly the Griffon himself -- good luck that a pilot had been among the Grey Wardens recruited from Rozarria -- but as commander he still wanted to know the basics. Going up in the air with him this morning had been a delight. Alistair was almost like a little boy, eager and not ashamed to show it, in easy laughter and bright eyes. He was cute, too. Too bad he and the Warden Commander seemed to be an item.

But she had a different task laid on her now, by Ashe: she was headed to the Sandsea, to meet with the woman Leliana, where they would talk about the new mission they'd been assigned. Seemed odd, really, to be sent out to the Golmore Jungle, almost the only place in Ivalice where no darkspawn had been seen. But Ashe seemed convinced that a trip was necessary, and Penelo was happy to oblige. She liked the Viera, and the Wood. It was a pretty place as long as you were well armed.

Penelo stepped into the tavern, which had a more festive atmosphere than the street, or at least a less worried one. Adventurers surrounded the tables, most likely swapping outrageous tales about darkspawn. She looked around the room and spotted the shock of red hair close to the hunter's board. It was Leliana, all right, looking perfectly at home with a mug in one hand and a mark notice in the other. She looked up and waved Penelo over.

"An interesting way to communicate," she said, flipping the sheet over and looking at the back. "We have similar notice boards in Thedas, but they are mostly run by the Chantry -- our religious order. The sisters only post requests from the patrons they believe to have worthy causes. This seems more... unregulated."

"Pretty much," Penelo said with a smile. "You have the money or treasure to pay the hunter, you can ask for a hunt. But it's good, honest work. Mostly. A great way for an adventurer to fill in the gaps."

Leliana placed the notice back on the board. "Intriguing. But I suppose we don't have time to pursue any of the leads."

Penelo scanned the list, then shook her head. "Nothing's on our way. Not surprising, I guess, since we'll be behind the darkspawn horde. Speaking of which..."

"Yes." Leliana gestured toward an empty table, and they both took a seat. "So, we are to visit Fran's people in the jungle?"

"The Viera, yeah. They live in a hidden section of the Golmore Jungle that they call The Wood." Penelo waved at a barmaid, who brought over two more pints. "Ashe wants us to find out what they can tell us about the darkspawn. You heard that Fran is sort of allergic to them?" Leliana nodded. "Well, it's up to us to discover whether it works both ways."

"Intriguing." Leliana leaned forward on her elbows, drink balanced between her hands. "And why did she ask me to come?"

"Because you're the only Thedosian in Rabanastre who isn't a Grey Warden," Penelo said. "If the Wood won't let the darkspawn into the Jungle, it might not let Grey Wardens through, either. Normally, no one who isn't a Viera can get into the Wood, tainted or no. But Fran advised Ashe to send word ahead."

"So, just the two of us then?" Leliana smiled, her eyes sparkling, and Penelo found a flush rising up the back of her neck.

"Uh, no, um." She covered her sudden fluster with a drink of ale. "My partner Vaan will be coming, too. It's sort of his airship, so--"

Leliana leaned back in her seat, smile widening. "Ah! I confess, I look forward to traveling on an airship. Such stories this trip will leave me with!" She pulled a copper from her purse and left it on the table. "I will confirm with Alistair, and meet you in the... Aerodrome, is that the word?"

Penelo nodded. "Berth seven. Be there tomorrow at dawn."

-x-

Nathaniel had thought Rabanastre the grandest place he had ever seen, but in comparison to the towering structures of Archades, it seemed like a weather-beaten hamlet. He looked up-- and up, and up, past the enormous buildings that seemed to touch the sky. How were their tops not nestled in the clouds? And yet he knew that the airship had flown even higher than that. He thought of the recent flight, and shuddered. Disorienting as these tall buildings were, he still preferred the feel of solid ground beneath his feet. Small airships soared by, passing closer to the towers than he thought advisable, and throngs of people walked through market below, as if today were like any other and a darkspawn invasion did not perch on their doorstep.

One of his Wardens pulled up next to him. It was Garron, a former member of the Denerim guard who had joined in the second wave of new recruits after the Blight. "Maker!" He whistled under his breath. "Did you ever think there were such places as these?"

Nathaniel shook his head. "My mother once visited the Grand Cathedral in Val Royeaux," he said. "From her stories, I thought that there could be no building more beautiful or overwhelming. It seems I was wrong."

Restimon, the one Ivalice native who had been assigned to Nathaniel's team, came to his other shoulder. "Rather intimidating, isn't it?" He pointed over to the building that hulked over them all, resplendent in dark stones. "The Senate building. That monstrosity next door is the Imperial Palace. And the tower to the left? Draklor Laboratories, where they dream up the technology that makes all this work. The Solidors, and their architects, wanted no illusions about who is really in charge." He looked around. "I grew up in a seaport town to the southeast. Balfonheim. The first time I came to the city, I found it overwhelming, too." He shrugged. "But you get used to it."

"I suppose." Nathaniel gestured down to the busy market square below them. "Do you grow used to imminent invasion, too? I did not expect to see the populace out, with such reports as we have heard of the threat to the city."

Restimon followed his gesture, then snorted. "The worthy of Archades, or so they would consider themselves. Like as not they have paid no heed to the reports, or they presume that the invasion will be stopped in the lesser quarters of the city and so see no need to curtail their daily marketing. Or rounds of gossip; it comes to much the same thing, here."

Nathaniel took a careful look over Restimon. They had spoken on the flight, mostly of the new Warden's past service in the Archadian army. He had been a judge, which Nathaniel took to mean a sort of captain or lieutenant, and his early showing in the field, before the Joining, had been promising, as he had taken out three genlocks with his gun and a fourth using a dagger. From their conversation, he learned that Balthier, too, had trained with the judges, before taking his leave some years before. But he had learned precious little of Restimon's history or personal feelings, toward the gentry or any other of his fellow citizens. It seemed that Larsa had chosen well.

"Well, perhaps they'll be right," Restimon said, pulling back from the rail. "With luck, we halt the invasion before Oldtown is completely overrun, and New Archades can continue in its state of ignorant bliss."

"The Warden's job is a thankless one, in that respect," Nathaniel said. "If we do our job well, our success will never be noticed; if we try our best and still fail, blame falls squarely on our shoulders."

Restimon shrugged. "In any branch of service, it was ever thus." He tossed a quick grin to Nathaniel. "Pay me no mind, ser. I serve the people of Archadia, and I am honored that His Majesty and the Judge Magis-- er, Captain Basch, I mean, selected me to join your august band of warriors."

"Not every new Warden has felt so." Nathaniel allowed himself a wry smile as he remembered his own, unwilling, induction into the order. And yet looking back now, he would have suffered no other fate than to be a Grey Warden. "So I am glad to hear it, and welcome you again." He clapped a hand on Restimon's shoulder. "Now, we take conference with the Emperor and his generals, if you would join me?"

-x-

The walk passed slowly, the thick bog sucking at Elissa's feet as they passed by giant trees, scattered boulders, and the occasional stone ruin. Elissa had once led an expedition to clear out a small darkspawn incursion into Ferelden's Fallow Mire, and the feel of this place was much the same. Except instead of an endless slog through rain, the Mist swirled around them, tantalizing her vision with odd colors and false images. Phantoms accompanied them on this trip, mostly twisted reflections of herself and the other Wardens, but sometimes she thought she saw a darkspawn, or one of the enemies native to this place -- the mandragora, the preying mantis, the mirrorknight. So far they had defeated all their opposition without incident, but the ever-present feel of corruption made Elissa uneasy. She was used to being able to feel them from a distance. This false flag was dulling her senses, and she feared a potential ambush.

The marching order had shifted over the morning, and Elissa walked next to Carver now, his sword resting on his shoulder. "This Mist, that feels like darkspawn," he said, abruptly, as though he'd read her most recent thoughts. "I wonder if it's like the red lyrium."

Elissa turned to him, eyebrow raised. "You mean, like the idol you found in the Deep Roads?"

Carver nodded. "I wasn't a Grey Warden then, so I wouldn't have been sensitive to it. And Anderrrr--- no one else said anything about it either." He gulped, and Elissa shot him a look. Did they really think she would snap if they mentioned his name? True, she didn't particularly want to talk about him. But that didn't mean everyone had to pretend he'd never existed. Oblivious, Carver continued. "Well, the idol wasn't producing Mist anyway. So maybe no one would have noticed regardless. I don't think we know enough to say."

"I wish we knew more about all of this," Elissa muttered. "I hate working with so little information." She looked up at him. "Since we arrived, have you tried using the Templar skills that Alistair taught you?"

Carver shook his head. "We haven't come up against any emissaries yet, fortunately. I admit, after what Alim said about the natives using magic without tapping the Fade, I'm curious to try." He grinned at his commander. "Maybe I could try blocking Balthier, the next time he casts a fire spell."

"Don't you dare," Elissa said, her glare considerably sharper this time. "At least not without asking."

-x-

It had taken most of the day to reach the gate to Giruvegan, and Balthier approached the entry with no little trepidation, pulling Fran and Basch aside as the mountain wall loomed before them. "I had not wished to raise concern with the Commander," he murmured, "but how do we plan to get in without the Queen and her command of Belias?"

Basch reached into his pouch and pulled out the crystal holding the esper's essence. "Her Majesty prepared me for this contingency," he replied. "If the lock holds fast, I can summon Belias to open it. She believes that my possession of the stone, and her permission to use it, will be sufficient to unleash the esper's power."

"If not, we made this journey for naught." Balthier stepped back as Elissa approached them. She appraised the giant door in the Mist, walls of piled stone to either side: glancing up, down, and at the pavilion behind them.

"So," she said. "This is the entry to Giruvegan?" She glanced behind again, at a small fleet of approaching basilisk, and drew her sword. "Perhaps we ought to clear a perimeter first."

"Good thought." Balthier pulled out his gun, sighted one basilisk dead between the eyes, and pulled the trigger. It collapsed, hissing and thrashing. He picked off two more, then withdrew his fire as Sigrun, Zevran, and Carver closed with the rest, making short work of them with blades large and small.

"A fine piece of shooting," Basch commented.

Balthier holstered the pistol. "I think my aim has become truer of late. Some side effect of the Joining, perhaps?"

Elissa shrugged. "It's possible. Pieter reported something similar, though Nathaniel never said anything about it." She raised an eyebrow at him. "Either way, take the gift. That was a hell of a shot."

He acknowledged the compliment with a nod, then turned to Basch. "All right, then. Good enough?"

"Good enough," Basch repeated. "Now, the gate." He stepped closer to the door and rested his hand on the round knob. Even in under the dim, Mist-choked skies of the Feywood, Balthier thought he cut a fine figure in his new armor, the silver catching the light and contrasting with the blue. Basch leaned forward and read the inscription on the gate aloud:

Gigas summoner, gate's power is yours to claim.
Beyond the One gate lies sacred Giruvegan.
Over the One gate the Gigas holds sway.

As he finished speaking, he turned the knob and pushed, but the door didn't budge. "There's nothing else for it," he said. "I must summon the esper." He planted himself before the door, hand upraised in a fist before his bowed head. The sigil of the esper etched itself into the ground below his feet, glowing with unearthly light. And then, within the shower of sparks, Belias appeared, ready for Basch's command.

-x-

The creature appeared almost without warning, only a few glowing sigils rising from the ground before an enormous beast stood before them, covered in armor like a pride demon, but burning with the fires of rage, and carrying a gigantic weapon unlike anything Carver had ever seen before.

Carver didn't think; he only reacted. Basch was summoning a demon, and Grey Warden brother or no, he needed to be stopped. He closed his eyes and set his hand into a fist between his brows, leaning forward, murmuring the words of prayer and power that Alistair had taught him. Pulling from his inner strength, he opened his hand and his eyes at the same time to unleash the cleanse across the entire plain.

He could see the shockwave spreading out from him as the Mist dissipated before its power. Alim stumbled, then Fran, then finally Basch, all of them losing their footing. The creature let out a gurgling cry, then fell, crashing to the earth with such force that it rumbled. And then it vanished, leaving behind only a large crystal, bigger than Carver's palm, dark with scorch marks and smoke.

Basch had also landed on the ground, balanced on one knee and an open palm, and he looked at Carver, eyes flashing. "What in blazes was that?"

"That's the question I should be asking you." Carver strode toward Basch, sword still raised. "You summoned a demon! Without so much as a warning."

"Demon?" Basch rose slowly to his feet, holding a palm to his forehead with a wince. Alim also looked shaken as he stood and helped Fran to her feet. "Belias the Gigas is no demon; he is an esper, the great guardian of the Dynast Kings. Only he can open this gate. If you have slain him..."

Balthier lifted the crystal with care and leaned close to it, then shook his head. "It buzzes with energy still, if muted from its usual state. You should be able to try again. But not, I think, until tomorrow." He looked Basch up and down, and Fran. "And you should rest as well." He handed the crystal to Basch before turning on Carver, eyebrow raised. "Now, if you would kindly tell us what you did, and promise never to do it again?"

Carver looked to the Warden Commander, who gestured for him to answer the question. "I can't make any promises, but I'll tell you what it was: a Cleanse. It breaks a mage's connection with the Fade and interrupts all effects of magic, including the summoning of demons." He shuffled his feet. "To be honest, I wasn't even sure it would work here."

"So, at least we've answered that question," Alim mused. "I may not feel the people of Ivalice connecting with the Fade when they do magic, but the Fade is still the source of your power."

"I do not know this Fade," Fran said. "Perhaps we have a different name for it."

Basch nodded to Carver. "I thought Alim was the only mage among your people."

"A Cleanse isn't magic," Carver said. "It's a Templar ability, taught to the soldiers who guard mages. I'm not a Templar either, but Alistair was, and he taught me the basic skills."

Basch looked at Fran. "More like a Technick, perhaps," he said, and she tipped her chin in agreement.

Carver finally put away his sword, but glared pointedly at the scar in the ground. "Now, explain to me what makes this 'esper' different from a demon. Because I have to say, it sure looked like one."

"I know naught of your demons," said Basch. "Espers are guardian spirits created by the ancient gods of Ivalice, bound to crystals, and summoned to defend the crystal-bearers."

"Ancient gods?" Carver exchanged an uneasy glance with Sigrun. "You mean, the Occuria? Aren't they who we've come here to fight?"

Basch spread his arms. "We don't know that. We came here to gather information, no more. And regardless of the manner of his creation, Belias has been a servant to the line of the Dynast King since its founding. He will be true."

Finally, Elissa stepped into the middle of the crowd, placing herself between the factions. "Friend or foe, we won't be calling him again until morning. So we might as well set up camp. In that pavilion, over there? Is it safe?"

Balthier shrugged. "Safe as any other."

Elissa nodded. "I don't suppose there's any hunting around here."

"No creatures that you would wish to eat," Fran replied. "The beasts have soaked in too much Mist, become ruined and deadly. Even the plants are beyond help."

Elissa sighed. "Rations it is. I hope we brought enough. Well, see to it, then." The group broke up, and Elissa quietly took Carver by the wrist. He leaned down, and she lowered her voice. "I understand why you did it. I might've been tempted to do the same. But take more care in the future. For all that they're Grey Wardens now, we still know very little of them, or their world. We need to work together, and keep them in the brotherhood -- if we don't manage that, this whole land could be lost. Got it?"

"Yes ma'am."

"Good." She let go of his wrist, and Carver rubbed the skin below his gauntlet. Not a lesson he would be forgetting any time soon.

-x-

Ashe entered the council room -- the last to arrive, as was her custom -- and took a seat at the head of the table, General Adelbert pushing her chair in behind her. Everyone else sat as she did. "Gentlemen," she said, nodding around the room, catching the eye of a newcomer as she did so. "Greetings, Marquis Ondore. I appreciate your coming on such short notice."

Halim Ondore, Marquis of Bhujerba, returned her salutation with a regal nod. "As ever, you only need call, and I shall respond as I can."

"Then I wish to start with you." Ashe lifted a hand in query. "Tell me of the mines. Have you seen these darkspawn?"

"Not at all," Ondore replied. "Your message was the first I heard of the vile beasts. The mines of Bhujerba are quiet as ever -- the usual fiends stalk the byways, of course, but no darkspawn or any other menaces out of the ordinary."

"I am not surprised," Al-Cid said. "Given that the mines of Bhujerba and the other sky islands are not connected to the cavern network beneath the rest of Ivalice."

Alistair raised a hand, and Ashe acknowledged him with a nod. "Which suggests that you aren't producing native darkspawn. They've all come from Thedas." His statement triggered thoughtful nods around the table. "That's good," he continued. "I hope we can keep it that way."

"So." Ashe looked around the room again. "Any other reports?"

A Judge seated at the far end of the table nodded. "We have received word from the Alexander. They landed at the entrance to the Henne Mines without incident, and a party of soldiers led by the Grey Wardens Oghren and Lucius have made their first venture inside. The only item of note is a dense Mist which comes out of the mines, thicker than one would expect for that region." He glanced down at his notes. "Captain Willamer of the Leviathan sent a similar report, about a choking Mist issuing from the Sochen Cave Palace. The airship swung out to sea to avoid the worst of it."

"Noteworthy, indeed," Adelbert said. "The Strahl contacted our command this morning. The Mist in the Feywood was thick enough that Balthier felt it unwise to continue flying. They put down about halfway in and continued the rest of the way on foot." He glanced at Ashe. "That was our last communication from him."

"Understood," she replied, avoiding his eye. "A pattern of concern, but no solid information yet. Please keep me updated as new reports come in." She glanced at Ondore again. "No unusual Mists in Bhujerba?"

Ondore shook his head. "None whatsoever."

"Well." Ashe leaned back in her seat. "We shall have to keep an eye on it. In the meantime, we should focus on the issue at immediate hand: preparing for a potential siege in Rabanastre, should the darkspawn in the Westersand make their move or any from the mines turn back, then mustering any remaining troops that can be spared to the defense of Archades. Tell me, First Minister, the status of our food stores."

-x-

Within the hour, the Wardens and their companions had settled in, resting on the stone plinth and facing the fire. Basch and Zevran had drawn first watch, and Fran and Elissa slept in anticipation of the early morning shift, so Balthier took his place at the fire, gnawing on the jerky that Sigrun had handed out, in hopes of calming his belly. He had never been the heartiest eater, and it was odd to be driven to such lengths to sate this ravening hunger.

As though reading his mind, Sigrun tapped him on the knee. "So, Balthier. How do you like being a Warden so far?"

He shook his head. "I do not know, in truth. It is never a path I would have chosen, had it not been necessary to survive." He lowered his eyes and his voice. "Perhaps I am not yet ready to think about the changes my circumstances have wrought."

"You're not the only one here who became a Grey Warden to save his life." Carver kicked his heels out toward the campfire. "My story's a lot like yours: fought some darkspawn, got a little too close, contracted the taint, got sick. If there hadn't been an ex-Grey Warden on that expedition, and Warden party nearby in the Deep Roads, I'd be long dead now."

Balthier arched a brow. "I didn't think they allowed ex-Grey Wardens."

Carver shrugged. "The taint is for life, so on that level you can't quit. But if you really want to stop serving, you can. So a few people do, and Anders was one of them." He lowered his voice. "You might not want to mention that name again, though. The Warden Commander recruited him, and the way he left is still a sore spot."

Sigrun cleared her throat, and Carver glanced at her; after their silent communication was finished, he looked back to Balthier. "Anyway, just wanted to say, however you're feeling about your conscription, I might know something about it. And if you ever want to talk..." He spread his hands. "Just making sure you knew." He leaned forward. "It happens more often than you might think. Nathaniel Howe was conscripted, too."

Sigrun whacked Carver on the knee, and he flinched. "Hey," she said. "None of that." Balthier looked at her, and she shook her head. "It's the rule: every Warden's past is his or her own. Their choice to talk about, or not. If you want to hear Nathaniel's story, ask him. He'll probably tell you. But it's not our place."

"Right, sorry." Carver ducked sheepishly.

"So, you did not choose to become a Warden -- your recruitment was inscribed by fate." Balthier cocked his head. "Do you regret it?"

"Not even a little." There was no hesitation whatsoever in Carver's answer. "My old life was fine, I guess, but I didn't have much in the way of a purpose. Here, with the Grey Wardens, I have all the purpose I could ever want. That was something I didn't know I needed, until I found it here. And, well." He shrugged. "I'm good at it. I was never really able to say that about anything else I did."

"He fits right in," said Sigrun, punching Carver's leg again, playfully this time, "and so will you."

"I thank you for your faith," Balthier replied. "Perhaps eventually I will share it." He settled back on his hands. "So, Sigrun. What is your tale, if you wish to tell it?"

She grinned at him. "Oh, I'm dead." Carver sighed and rolled his eyes, in the manner of someone who has heard the same story a thousand times, and Sigrun elbowed him in the ribs before continuing. "A long time ago, I joined the Legion of the Dead -- sort of like the dwarf version of the Grey Wardens. Then my squad was wiped out in a battle with darkspawn. I was the only survivor, and they were about to drag me off when the Warden Commander rescued me. She offered me a place with the Wardens, and I accepted." She shrugged. "I was already dead, symbolically, so why not make it official?"

Balthier nodded, then looked up at Alim, who had joined them at the fire. "Are we telling recruitment stories?" Balthier nodded, and Alim stretched out a hand, warming it over the flames. "I fought with the mages who aided the Wardens at the Battle of Denerim, the battle that ended the Fifth Blight. The Warden Commander impressed me, so when she came by the Circle Tower last year to seek out mage recruits, I volunteered. It seemed a noble calling, and I was itching to see more of the world. Joining the Wardens seemed the best way to do it."

"Even if your travels come with an expiration date?"

Alim shrugged. "We all die, eventually. Better to have lived a little bit first, no?"

Balthier could find no flaw in that argument, and said so. Then he settled back against his hands, turning his own gaze on the fire, ignoring the tendrils of Mist that crept down the back of his neck.

-x-

The war council in Archades had begun discussions at lunchtime that continued throughout the day. Now the supper plates were being cleared away, and the representatives of the Imperial Senate, the city government, and the military seemed no closer to reaching a resolution. For the most part, Nathaniel sat and listened, commenting only when someone had a question particular to the tactics and capabilities of darkspawn. It was his accustomed role, given the Grey Warden ban on political involvement, but he found it more and more difficult to hold his tongue as the evening progressed into night. He had stated, several times, that the only way to stop the darkspawn was to plug up the source in the cavern, and eventually they had to come around to his way of thinking; all he could do now was wait out the debate.

The crowd gathered around a war table, the surface of which was covered with a glowing map of the city and its environs. City guard, Imperial forces, and airships were marked by glowing shapes of different colors. The Grey Wardens were represented by small blue circles, and different officials had moved them this way and that, trying out various potential formations; currently, they stood along the line that separated the old city from the new. "If we fortify the line," said one of the two Judges Magister -- a dark-haired woman; Nathaniel had not caught her name -- "then we can buy time to regroup and keep the darkspawn out of the city proper."

"The city proper?" A short, balding man who seemed to be a city councilor shook his head with a snort. "Please do not forget that Old Archades is still a part of the city, with thousands of citizens. How can we turn our backs on them?"

"Not to mention what a poor idea that is, strategically," another, younger judge added. "If the people of Old Archades believe they have been abandoned, they will flee, and spread the darkspawn plague as they go."

The city councilor nodded vigorously. "Yes! We still have not had any serious discussion of what to do for the victims of this dread corruption, soldiers and civilians alike."

"That is even more of an argument for maintaining a blockade Old Archades," the Judge Magister said, straightening up and crossing her arms. "If the plague is contagious…"

"I assure you, it is not," Nathaniel said. "At least, not in the usual way of spreading through the air or by touch. I know of no case of any person contracting Blight sickness from another human, only directly from darkspawn. There is no need to quarantine the victims."

"And it is always fatal?" The city councilor turned toward Nathaniel. He carried a whiff of desperation, as though much depended on the answer. A friend? A family member?

Nathaniel felt a stab of sympathy, but he steeled himself against it as he answered with the long-accustomed half-truth. "I'm afraid so. There's nothing to do but make them comfortable, and end it before the Blight progresses too far. If left unchecked too long, it becomes a sort of living death. Best not to allow the corruption to reach that point."

A hush fell over the room; the councilor lowered his eyes and shuddered, but the Judge Magister was the next to speak. "Then we must redouble our efforts to contain these darkspawn at all costs."

The junior judge cleared her throat. "If we did commit our forces to an invasion of the old town, going house to house…"

"Preposterous!" One of the senators, an older man who had up to this point mostly sat quietly in a corner, stood up, head shaking. "And if we commit our entire treasury and the lives of countless city guard to this effort, how are we supposed to explain such great expense to the citizenry? Can you imagine how it will play in the next election?"

Nathaniel took in a sharp breath, then gritted his teeth to prevent an even sharper retort. He had not been in Ferelden during the Fifth Blight, but he thought the Landsmeet might have been host to scenes very much like this one: soldiers and banns arguing, debating, playing politics while the countryside burned. He generally avoided thinking of his father's role in the disaster, but it was impossible not to see Rendon Howe in the face of this senator and his willingness to throw away lives for personal gain.

For the first time in some hours, Larsa spoke, turning his gaze toward the senator. "I imagine it will play better if there is still a populace left to cast their votes," he said, more mildly than Nathaniel thought possible. The senator had the grace to look ashamed as he returned to his seat. Larsa then stood, leaning his hands against the table. "We will not come to any conclusions tonight. It is late, and we must rest. Keep the current rotations on the darkspawn line for now. Councilor Bastari?" He looked toward the balding councilor. "Please speak with the city healers about setting up a hospice for anyone afflicted with Blight sickness."

Bastari lowered his head and placed a hand on his heart. "It will be done, your majesty."

"Good," Larsa said. "At least we can speak of one true accomplishment today. Perhaps we will have more of which to be proud tomorrow."

-x-

The night had passed quietly, the Mists blowing across the dark sky, light returning so gradually that Elissa almost thought she had to be imagining it. She walked past the pavilion, piled with sleeping Wardens, and approached Fran. "So," she asked softly, looking up at what might have been a pink smudge in the eastern sky, "is this dawn?"

"As much as dawn ever breaks in the Mistlands." Fran stretched her arms over her head. "We should wake the others within the hour. I feel the esper stirring in his stone; soon, he will be ready to emerge."

"Good." Elissa paused; she had not discussed the events of the previous evening with anyone yet, and they weighed on her. "I apologize for Carver's overzealous behavior yesterday. The fear of demons is pretty ingrained in us, but that's no excuse." She lowered her head. "You've recovered, I hope?"

Fran nodded. "Time and sleep have restored me. But I appreciate your concern."

"I spoke to Carver, and he won't make that mistake again," Elissa said. Though it was good to know that Templar abilities still worked in this place. Perhaps these hadn't been the best conditions for the experiment, but the results were undeniable. "So, these espers -- do you have more of them?"

"Yes. We each keep one in our arsenal, for great need." Fran pulled a crystal out of her pouch, bigger than the span of her long fingers. A sigil was etched in its depths, an intricate design. "Shemhazai, the Whisperer. She is difficult to control for long, and not always as well targeted a weapon as one might prefer. So I call on her but sparingly. Still, she has served me well." She slid the crystal back in its hiding place and patted it gently. "Perhaps you will tell me of your demons?"

Elissa shrugged. "Alim would be a better choice, but I'll do my best. As we understand them, demons are Fade spirits, creatures of pure magic. They embody our weaknesses: greed, anger, pride, desire. There are benevolent spirits, too, who embody our virtues. Those leave us alone, for the most part. But the demons can possess us, giving power at a great price, invariably leaving death and destruction in their wake. Mages, in particular, are at risk of possession, but it's a risk that none of us can take lightly. So you might understand why Carver reacted as he did."

"I can." Fran flexed her fingers, then looked at the sky. "He has apologized, and I have accepted. We will not speak of it again."

"Good." Elissa considered clapping her collegially on the shoulder, then thought better of it. "Now let's see about some breakfast."

-x-

The trio had left Rabanastre before dawn, and Vaan landed the Valefor in the valley between the ruins of Jahara and Golmore Jungle, just north of the entrance to the Henne Mines. The flight over Giza and Ozmone had been sobering; Penelo had been unable to keep her eyes off the blackened grass, the twisted trees, the ribbons of soil tossed up and ground back down. And Mist floated over everything, far heavier than usual for this region, growing denser as they approached the entrance to the mines. The landscape reminded her of Nabudis. You could see it here, too, she thought as she exited the ship, in the pathway of dead and trampled plants that lead from the plains westward into Jahara and south into the mines -- and then the bright green line that showed the limits of the darkspawn incursion in the direction of the jungle. "It really is like an invisible wall," she said. "Look, even the Mist won't drift over it."

"I have never seen its like," said Leliana. She knelt to the ground and touched the green meadow, resting her palm flat on the ground. "I feel nothing out of the ordinary, but then I likely would not. A Warden would have a better sense, or perhaps a mage." She rose and looked up at the sky. "My word," she murmured. "Such wonders you have in this place."

It was the Alexander, moored by the mines and floating high above the Mist, with a small retinue of Imperial soldiers standing guard just outside the mine's entrance. Penelo raised a hand in greeting, and a guard half-heartedly waved back. After a glance at Vaan, she approached the edge of the canyon. "How's it going in there?" she called down.

The soldier who had waved responded with a shrug. "The Wardens and the Judge Magister went in yesterday and haven't come back yet. But I suppose it's going well. They haven't called for reinforcements, anyway."

"That's good, I guess," Penelo said. "Not bad news at least. Say, before the Wardens went into the mines, did they say anything about the jungle? Like, did they notice a difference?"

"Oh, thanks for the reminder." The guard ruffled through his pack and pulled out a sheaf of paper. "The leader of the Wardens, that dwarf fellow, he left a note for any other Thedosians who might come by. Suppose that means you, ma'am." He tipped a hand to Leliana, who acknowledged him with a nod. He trotted over to the rim of the canyon and held the note up.

"My thanks," Leliana said, taking the paper with a smile.

The man saluted. "Good luck Lady Penelo, Lord Vaan."

"Thanks, you too!" Penelo waved again, then led the group though the rest of the plain, gathering Vaan and Leliana up in the shade from the last bluff before the trees. "Breakfast," she said, pulling out the provisions that Ashe had sent them.

"Is it so far to the Wood then?" Leliana asked, before taking a bite of her sandwich.

"Not far," Penelo replied, with a glance at Vaan, who lowered his eyes. "It's not the distance I'm worried about. It's the reception."

"The Viera aren't big fans of outsiders," Vaan explained. "You can't even find their village if one of them doesn't take you there. So this is kind of a long shot."

Penelo rummaged in her pack and pulled out Lente's Tear. She had worked the amulet onto a leather thong so that she could wear it around her neck. Holding it up to the sky, she turned it around slowly, letting the whirls in the blue resin catch the high noon sunlight. Then she handed it to Leliana, who weighed it in her free hand. "Fran gave us this talisman to get us through the jungle. And we do know the way to the village -- the only reason to even think this might work is that Fran took us there once before." She shrugged as Leliana gave the Tear back to her. "Jote, the leader of the Viera, has a good relationship with Queen Ashe, but from a distance. Even Fran is an exile. And we're a couple of steps removed from them both."

Leliana licked the crumbs off her fingers. "And so you are not certain they will let even you in, much less a total outsider such as myself." She sat up straight with a smile. "Well. Let us say that getting into places where I am not allowed is something of a specialty of mine. I look forward to the challenge. And to discovering what secrets the jungle holds." She looked down the path, examining the canopy of trees. "It seems a lovely place."

"Beautiful and deadly," said Penelo. She put the amulet over her head and slipped it under her shirt. "At least we don't have to worry about darkspawn."

"Always my preference as well." Leliana got to her feet. "Well. Are we ready to move on? As exciting as I found our airship flight, I confess I am looking forward to getting back on foot."

Vaan was already putting away the rest of the food, so Penelo stood as well, brushing the dust from her leggings. "Might as well. Most of the creatures in this forest have some magic, so be prepared for that."

"I confess, I am curious to see some of your magical creatures." Leliana rubbed her fingers together. "Do I understand correctly that anyone here can learn to do magic?"

"Almost anyone." Penelo shoved an elbow into Vaan's ribs.

He poked her back with a scowl. "Hey, I do pretty well. Just because I haven't licensed for Curaja yet..."

She chuckled, then looked at Leliana. "I guess that's not true where you're from?"

"Not at all." Leliana looked at her hands, then curled them into fists. "It is seen as a curse by many of my people. Mages are feared, kept under guard, locked away, even separated from their magic. I confess that I have long wondered if there might be a better way." She glanced up at them with a smile. "Well, enough of this. I should not, I think, take the time to learn spells now, but perhaps if there is time later, you could show me a few things?"

"Sure," Penelo said. "Everyone should at least know the basic healing and elemental spells. Maybe at camp tonight we can get started." She swung her staff around from her back, and flipped it from hand to hand. "But right now, let's see how many panthers are between us and the Viera."

-x-

The Grey Wardens and their companions gathered as before, Basch taking his place in front of the gate, Fran and Alim buttressing him on either side, the rest of the party a safe distance back. Elissa stood next to Carver; she could feel him fidgeting, and she stilled him with a touch on his shoulder. "Let it play out," she murmured. "You know what to do if things get out of hand."

Basch walked up to the gate and rested his hand on the giant stone door. Then he stepped away and lifted a hand in front of his bowed head, as if in supplication. Clouds of Mist swirled around him, sparking orange and red, the colors of sunset, of flames. A glyph burned itself into the ground at his feet, and the Mists congealed over it, forming once again into the giant figure that had appeared before: Belias, a creature of magic and fire.

The esper heaved its giant weapon into the air and stood at attention, his eyes on Basch, as though awaiting orders from his general. Basch gestured to the gate, and Belias looked at it, then nodded in understanding. He heaved his weapon to the holster on his back before lifting his giant arms -- two pairs, Elissa noticed -- into a motion of prayer before him, bowing his head, voice rumbling an incantation in a language Elissa could not even guess. Then Belias lifted his chin and opened his arms; at the same time, the giant doors swung open, and a beam of pure white light erupted over all of them. Elissa threw an arm up and over her eyes to keep from being blinded, her other hand grasping for Carver's to hold him back -- she could hear him, the incantation beginning, but they couldn't interrupt this, not now, not while she could feel herself being dragged into a new world...

Finally the light subsided. Elissa lowered her arm, opened her eyes, and found herself in a different place. No Mist, no swamp, no weathered pavilion. Instead, she and her Wardens stood on a stone causeway, blue sky overhead, large gates behind and before them. Basch now stood at the back of the party, Belias at his side; with a nod of Basch's head, the esper lowered his arms and dissipated, his form fading into translucent light, then gone.

Elissa took a moment to count noses -- all were present and accounted for, thankfully -- and turned to Basch. "Where are we?"

"Giruvegan," he replied. "As to the precise location in relation to the rest of the world, in truth we do not know. Is Giruvegan an isolated place in the floating islands of the Purvama, somehow hidden from mortal eyes and ships' instruments? Or are we on another plane entirely? This secret, our greatest scholars have been unable to unlock. All we know is that the gate is the only route to this place."

She turned to Alim. "Could it be the Fade?"

"I don't think so." Alim glanced at the sky, the placid waters beneath their feet. "We're all awake, and it feels too real." Elissa nodded; she was all too familiar with the dreamlike quality of the Fade. "And there's no Black City. If it is a mystical plane, it's not one I'm familiar with."

"Another mystery." Elissa sighed. She was getting a little tired of mysteries. "Well, as long as it's safe enough, I won't be too concerned."

"No more dangerous than the Feywood, at any rate." Balthier wrinkled his nose. "I... feel odd. As though someone is watching me, but if I were to turn around, I would see no one there." He looked to Elissa. "Is this what you mean by sensing the Mist, or the darkspawn?"

"It is rather like that," Elissa said. "Your sensitivity is kicking in. Like in the Feywood, there are no darkspawn near, but--"

She paused, and Sigrun finished the sentence. "But there's something that reads as the taint to those who can sense it. Whether it's something in the Mist, or something else." She looked around. "But there's no Mist here."

"Mist surrounds us still," Fran said. "More so, if anything. But it suffuses the air at a deeper level, permeates everything we see. You cannot see it, but I can feel it. Sharper, burning. It is how we know nethicite is near."

"At last, I understand what you mean by that," Balthier commented, turning slowly around to take in the surrounding area. "I must say, Fran, this knowledge, I could have-- what?!"

He stopped, stock still, facing down the causeway, staring hard at nothing Elissa could see. Stepping forward, his eyes wide, he lifted a hand, as though he reached out involuntarily.

"Who... How?" he breathed. "Old man.... What are you doing here?"

-x-

If he had not been in company, Balthier would have rubbed his eyes, in hopes of banishing the figure that stood before him. Cidolphus Bunansa-- Dr. Cid-- Father. The old man, but changed, a translucent shade of white and grey and sparkling like Mist. The apparition cocked his head sideways, looking at Balthier as he had a thousand times before, conveying simultaneous pride and disdain in a single glance, the eternally dashed hopes for a son who should have followed in his footsteps.

"No," Balthier whispered. "You're dead, old man. I know, because I killed you myself. You can't be here." He tore his eyes away long enough to look at Fran. "You see him?" She shook her head, and he turned to Elissa, then Basch. "Does anyone see him? Or am I madman, poking at ghosts and shadows?"

"I see him." It was the last voice Balthier expected to hear, as Zevran stepped forward, a dagger out, eyes narrowed. "A middle aged man, yes? With a shadow of beard, spectacles, a gleam in his eye?" He caught Balthier's eye. "A resemblance to his son, perhaps."

Balthier acknowledged the insight with a tip of his head. "My father. A madman, a dead man. Dead by my hand, some years past." He turned back to the apparition. "And yet, you are here. Like the shade of Rasler that appeared to the Queen, when last we passed this way." He pulled his gun and took a step forward. "Venat! What game are you playing at? Show yourself, wicked renegade!"

But there was nothing, only Cid, who shook his head with what Balthier knew to be a sardonic chuckle, though he remained silent. The apparition beckoned him forward, and Balthier was compelled to follow him, down the causeway and through the first gate. He passed through, and the figure vanished, the Mist dissipating into the air.

-x-

Elissa had motioned the party to follow Balthier; once he stopped, she took a place at his side. "Tell me what happened."

"Would that I could," Balthier replied. "But we never truly understood the phenomenon. I had thought such things impossible, with the nethicite destroyed. The Occuria have their ways, I suppose."

She considered pressing the question, but Balthier seemed shaken -- it could wait. Instead, she looked to Basch, who approached a large orange crystal that stood behind the gate, taller than Basch himself. He touched the crystal with his palm, and it began to glow, its light flaring around him, warm and bright. "Ahh, good." He looked to Balthier. "If you are recovered, may I prevail on you to return to Rabanastre for provisions?"

Balthier glanced over his shoulder one more time, in the direction of the vanished apparition. "Hmm? Oh. Yes, of course."

Elissa frowned and tapped the crystal with her fingernail, listened to its soft ring, then ran her hand along the cool, smooth surface. "What is this?"

"A Gate Crystal." Basch pulled something out of his pocket, then opened his hand to show her a smooth green stone in his hand. "With this teleport stone, it allows instant transport between any two active crystals. But if a crystal is left unused for too long, it loses its power. Hence, we could not use it to travel here. Now that we have revived the crystal, we can go back and forth, provided we have enough stones."

"Brilliant," Elissa said. "Meat, ale, maybe some poultices. Anything else?"

Basch nodded. "It would be wise to check in with the queen, if she is available."

"Right." Balthier took the teleport stone from Basch. "Teleport stones are costly; we should conserve them, but I would like to bring along one other, to speed the errand."

"Agreed," Elissa said. "Sigrun?"

Sigrun dumped the contents of her pack out on the ground and slung it back on, empty. Then she stepped up and accepted Basch's offer of another teleport stone. "You got it, boss. Any messages to pass to Alistair?"

"Please." And she pulled Sigrun aside, considering how best to word everything she needed to say.

-x-

Golmore Jungle was unlike any place Leliana had ever seen. There were rumors of such forests in Seheron, but she had never been so far north in Thedas. The path wound through dense stands of trees, and many bridges and walkways were covered with vines. At the front of their party, Vaan carried two blades -- one for fighting the occasional beasts or magical creatures, the other a machete for hacking his way through the overgrowth.

Now that she was finally above ground, Leliana could better appreciate the wild beauty of Ivalice. She sent a brief prayer of thanks to the Maker that she had been sent on this errand rather than off to fight more darkspawn, in caves or crystals or whatever it was Penelo had attempted to describe. Even had there been a thousand more hellhounds and malboros, this wood was far preferable.

Still, this malboro was foul enough, she thought as another one broke out of the undergrowth. She stopped admiring the scenery and let loose the arrow kept taut on her bowstring, aiming for one of its many eyes. The arrow flew true, and the malboro drew back with a roar before spitting out a glob of venom. Leliana whirled out of the way, drawing its fire as Vaan charged in, swords raised. Soon enough the creature died, then fell off the walkway, crashing its way through the undergrowth below.

"Ugh." A few droplets of the sticky, dark liquid had landed on Leliana's arm, and she brushed them off with a shudder. "I hope the village is not much further."

"No, it's just around that bend." Penelo pointed at the trail that ran beside the wooden structure they'd been traversing. "Go down those stairs and then follow the path."

Leliana obliged, hanging her bow on her back as she went down the steps, hand training on the smooth wooden railing. "Did the Viera build these?" she asked. "They seem quite ancient."

"I assume so," Penelo said. "But I don't really know. We don't know much about the Viera of the Wood, since they mostly keep to themselves. And they live a long time. I don't know exactly how old Fran is, but she left the Wood over fifty years ago."

"Truly?" Leliana raised an eyebrow. She would have taken that lovely woman for thirty at most. "I do hope they will treat with us. I'm most curious to learn more of their people."

Vaan snorted. "Not likely, with that bunch. We'll be lucky if they just tell us what we want to know and then send us on our way."

Penelo sighed. "They're not that bad," she said. "Just be polite." They had reached the bottom of the stairs, and Penelo turned around to poke Vaan in the stomach. "If you even know how."

"Hey, I know how!" Vaan held up his hands. "I've had a lot more experience with diplomacy since the last time we came."

She shook her head and poked him again, but Leliana could see the fondness behind her exasperation. Her original thought, that the two were lovers, had since been replaced by a conviction that the affection between them was more like sibling rivalry in its nature.

"Anyway, this is it." Penelo walked out onto the green path and turned into a dead end. Leliana looked forward, up, down, but she saw nothing other than bottomless trees, stretching to an unseeable forest floor. She glanced down at Penelo, who looked up at her with a smile. "Yes, really," she said, in answer to Leliana's unspoken question. "The Viera shield the entrance from view with magic. But this should open the way." She pulled Lente's Tear out from beneath her shirt and grasped it in her left hand. Then she lifted her right hand and, with her outstretched index finger, drew a complicated series of signs in the air, green sparks trailing patterns behind as she went. As she completed the motions and dropped her hand, a glyph flashed before them, and then cut a doorway in space, revealing a latticework hallway hanging in midair, the walls glowing white.

Penelo let out a breath of relief and let the amulet fall back to her chest. "It worked!"

Leliana could only stare in wonder. "Astonishing," she murmured.

"Just wait until you see the rest of Eruyt Village," Penelo replied. "The Viera's connection with nature lets them do amazing things to the trees. But you'll see it soon enough. Follow me!"

-x-

Traveling by crystal was weird. Possibly the weirdest thing that had happened to Sigrun in a whole world full of weird things. One second, she had been reaching out to touch the orange crystal, a smooth green pebble in her hand. And then everything had faded out into rainbow colors; before she even had time to think, the colors were gone and she stood in a whole new place, grey tiles under her feet and walls surrounding her. She opened her hand, and the pebble was gone, replaced by a fine green dust that drifted into the wind, then disappeared. "Whoa." She looked up the tall walls, shading her eyes from the suddenly brilliant sun. "Are we really in Rabanastre already?"

Next to her, Balthier chuckled. "A bit faster than the airship, would you say?"

"Yeah." She caught his eye and grinned. "Not as much fun, though."

"I am in thorough agreement." Balthier pulled her to the side, out of the way of more travelers that might arrive, pulled a map from his pocket, and unfolded it into Sigrun's hands. "Now. We will need to shop, and request an audience with the queen. For the latter, we can pay a courier, but it will take time. I suggest we send the message along, then begin our first errand."

"Sounds like a plan." Sigrun looked over the map. "So, we're at the southern gate?"

"Yes." Balthier raised an eye at her. "How do you know?"

She pointed at the sky. "Position of the sun tells me where south is, and the view of the plains -- not to mention the giant door behind me -- tells me we're at a gate. It's not that hard." She nudged him with an elbow. "I'm a scout, yeah? Observant, keen to my surroundings. That's my job." She took a deep breath, caught the air rich with the taste of cooked meat, then let out a pleased sigh. "And that keen sense of my surroundings is telling me that there's food somewhere nearby. Am I wrong?"

"You are most assuredly not wrong. I happen to know of a decent kebab stall right behind that gate." Balthier checked the sky. "A bite will not come amiss, once this message is off. Come, the runners and the food are both in that direction. Let's satiate those Warden appetites, shall we?"

-x-

"I still can't quite believe they were able to get here in an instant," Alistair remarked, leaning over the coffee table in Ashe's office to look again at the map of Ivalice that she'd given him. He traced his finger along the route that he'd been told the Strahl would fly on the way to Giruvegan. "I have a hard enough time imagining that an airship could take them so far in just two days."

Ashe looked up from the papers on her desk and shared a smile with him. "And when I had to traverse the same distance afoot, I could not fathom how anyone traveled before airships."

"Everything's a matter of perspective." Alistair drummed his fingers against the parchment. "When did the message say they'd be coming?"

"It did not," Ashe replied. "Balthier asked me to send a page when we were available, and I dispatched a response as I contacted you. So they ought to be along-- ah." She stood, and Alistair followed her lead, jumping up and turning around just in time to see the page leading Balthier and Sigrun into the study. "There you are."

"Here we are," Balthier drawled. "More quickly than I had planned -- we'd barely got through our lunch before the runner returned."

"Sigrun!" Alistair stepped forward and took her hands; she grinned up at him. "How go your travels?"

"Well enough," Sigrun replied. "Balthier can probably report on that better than I."

She glanced at him, and he picked up the thread. "The Strahl took us perhaps halfway through the Feywood. Then the Mist became uncommonly thick, and I felt it more prudent to take the rest of the journey by foot."

"Your last transmission said as much, and similar conditions have been reported near Sochen Cave Palace and the Henne Mines." Ashe sat back down behind her desk. "The gate?"

"Was opened, after a spot of difficulty." Balthier sent an odd look at Sigrun, who made no response. Alistair wondered at that; he'd have to get the full story from Sigrun later. "We got into Giruvegan this morning. Basch activated the crystal, then bade me return here, to check in with you and resupply."

"Good." Ashe tapped her desk. "Unfortunately, I have nothing of note to report. Leliana, Vaan, and Penelo left for Golmore in the early morning. The Alexander checked in from the Mines, and while there are some darkspawn there, the bulk of the horde had already passed. Oghren was planning to chase them deeper in, see if he could cut them off at the source. Except for the increase in Mist, the Leviathan returned to Archades without incident; at last word, Larsa is still in council."

"Ah." Balthier glanced at Sigrun, then looked hard at Ashe. "There is... one other matter. When we arrived at Giruvegan, I saw an apparition. A dead face, long gone, beckoning me more deeply into the city." He looked at his feet, then back up. "Cidolphus Bunansa."

Ashe lifted a hand to her throat. "Your father? Like--" she lowered his eyes. "Like before," she murmured.

"Yes." Balthier shook his head. "I know not the meaning of this, and like it not at all."

"Ghosts?" Alistair swallowed hard. "Ah, you have ghosts?"

"Not exactly," Ashe replied. "We believe they are apparitions, sculpted in Mist and shaped from our memories by the Occuria. Not the spirits of the dead truly returned. I-- I saw my late husband, on our previous adventures. And Vaan saw his brother, lost to the war. If they are calling to Balthier in some way, they might take the form of his father."

Given what Alistair knew of his charges' darkspawn dreams, he wasn't surprised. "What does it mean?"

"We do not know," Ashe replied. "It was not a phenomenon we truly understood before, and it seems even more unlikely now."

"I will follow the lead, with caution," said Balthier.

"Good." Ashe nodded to Sigrun. "Thank you for coming."

"Sure thing," Sigrun said. She tugged at Alistair's arm. "I have a private message for you, from the Commander?"

Alistair let out a breath. "Yes, this way." He led Sigrun out into the hallway, closing the door behind him -- surely this was as much to give the queen and her pirate some privacy as to share a true message, although he had hoped Elissa might have a word for him. When they were alone in a side room, they each took a chair. "Tell me," he said.

"It's about the magic," Sigrun said. "You know how Alim said that he didn't think the Ivalice Wardens were drawing magic from the Fade?"

"Yes, I remember." Alistair relaxed under a small wave of disappointment. He supposed a more personal message had been too much to expect.

"Well, Carver used a Cleanse on Basch, sort of by accident. And it worked."

"By accident?" Alistair raised an eyebrow.

Sigrun nodded. "It was a misunderstanding. Long story. You should probably chat with Ashe about espers before you go into battle with her. Anyway, so now we know: whether or not local magic comes from the Fade, Templar skills do work here."

"Good to know." He paused, fighting to keep his voice light. "Anything else?"

She smiled, a playful light coming into her eyes. "Not in so many words. But she misses you. I can tell."

Alistair sighed. "Well, you can return the sentiment to her. And tell her that I said so. In so many words."

Sigrun chuckled. "After all this time, does she really have to tell you?"

"I suppose not." Alistair turned his gaze out the window. "Just-- keep her safe, all right?"

"She can take care of herself, y'know." Sigrun leaned forward, covered a hand with hers. "But, of course. You know I always do."

-x-

As soon as Alistair closed the door behind him, Ashe stood up, leaned her hands on the desk, and silently cursed the wave of awkwardness that came over her. She had never been the sort to swoon into her lover's arms, and was not about to start now; still, she longed for Balthier, had been fighting the urge to touch him since the moment he stepped into the room. And she thought, from look in his eyes, that he wished for the same, stopped only by his pride.

To hell with pride. She marched around the side of the desk and grasped Balthier by the shoulders, pulling him in for a fierce kiss. There was no hesitation in his response as he wrapped his arms around her waist. He pushed her into the desk, tipping her backwards with kisses caressing her neck. A tiny gasp escaped her lips; she pursed them together, holding back any further noise on the small chance that the Wardens waited just outside the door. Instead, she straightened herself, hopping up to sit on the edge of the desk. "You seem well, for two days flight and a rough campsite in the Feywood," she murmured, lips brushing the top of his ear. "Grey Warden stamina at work?"

Balthier raised an insouciant eyebrow. "If I could but stay the night, you would see just how far my stamina might take us." He kissed her again, lifting her off the desk with both arms, and balanced her in the air, letting her face tip forward, her hair falling to curtain them both from the world. "But given that time is short, I will content myself with one last kiss for the road." And he took her mouth with his, robbing her of breath as they clung together, sharing the life they had almost lost to the Blight, that still might be stolen in pitched battle or desperate siege.

-x-

Elissa checked the sky, but no sun had yet appeared. The shadows, such as they were, hadn't moved either. Time seemed to hang still in the air, here. She wondered if a dwarf could reckon the passage of hours, or if they were too far distant from the Stone. Not that either Sigrun or Oghren had much Stone sense left after so many years on the surface.

"Four hours, is my guess," Basch answered, when she asked. "But 'tis only a guess. Fran might know better, but the Viera keep a different sense of time than the rest of us."

"Does night ever fall here?" Carver asked.

Basch shook his head. "We know not. I have been here only once, and we pressed straight on to the city beyond. Once inside, we will be divorced from the outer reaches entirely."

"Hmm." Elissa glanced at the gate crystal. "Is there another of these inside?"

"Yes, Commander," Basch said. "Deep within the city. Assuming our errand is successful, we should only need to press one way."

"Well at least there's that," Elissa murmured. As she spoke, the crystal began to pulse with an internal light, the glow growing, encompassing all her vision; then she blinked and it was gone, Balthier and Sigrun in place of the eerie light, their arms filled with bundles, and a full pack on Sigrun's back.

"Supplies for today, and two days more," Sigrun said cheerfully. "And a little news, though not much. Oghren is behind the darkspawn in the mines, so he was planning to push forward and to catch up. Rabanastre is digging in for a siege, and seems well prepared so far. The team heading for the Viera only left this morning, and no real word from Archades yet. The extra-thick Mist has appeared there and near the mines where Oghren went. The one good piece of news is that the horde seems to have turned away from the populated areas of Rozarria. They're all headed for Giruvegan now." She frowned. "I wonder, now, how they were planning to get in? They can't really expect to break through that the gate. And there's only one gigas, right?"

"Correct," Basch agreed. "It is a puzzle. Perhaps we were wrong about where they are heading."

"Perhaps," Elissa said. "Or perhaps their Occuria ally or allies has found them another way through. Either way, I'd rather get moving than stand around talking about it. If we could pass out the supplies and begin?"

-x-

Nathaniel stepped back from the war table and rubbed his eyes, blinking back the images of red, yellow, and blue circles that had dotted the field in various permutations. Well into the second day of negotiations, and Larsa's councilors had presented him with no clearer idea of how to proceed than before. Even the wonder of the map with its glowing lights no longer served to engage Nathaniel's interest, as his fingers itched to draw the bowstring and get to work.

The overly-cautious dark-haired woman, whom Nathaniel had finally determined was Judge Magister Casullia, shook her head furiously as she spoke. "Committing a force of that size to Sochen is suicide," she said, for what seemed like the tenth time. "We need to leave enough to defend the city if the barricades fall."

"We have the airships," the junior judge argued, just as she had argued ten times before. "Those can't go into the caves regardless, and a skeleton crew is more than adequate for bombardment--"

"Bombardment that will level Archades in the process!" Judge Magister Casullia banged a fist on the table. "Maybe you find those to be acceptable losses, but I don't. Nor will the Senate."

Nathaniel held back a weary sigh as he returned to his place at the table's edge. "If the barricades fall, the city is lost regardless." He stared hard at the Judge Magister. "I tell you, taking a substantial force underground and blocking off the flow of darkspawn at its source is the only path to success."

Larsa cleared his throat, and every head turned to face him. "May I remind you all that Warden Captain Howe is the only person at this table who has ever successfully defeated a darkspawn invasion? I wonder why you seem to grant his word so little weight." His gaze fell on the Judge Magister, who shrank further back from his placid eyes than she had been carried by Nathaniel's glare. "'Twould be risky, true. But at some point we will have to start taking risks, and perhaps sooner than we would like."

"A fair point," she replied, regaining some of her fire as she drew her shoulders back and stood straighter. "So, Your Majesty. Are you ordering me to send an invading force into the Sochen Cave Palace?"

He stared back at her, then shook his head. "No. Not yet, at any rate. I selected you to lead the ground forces of Ivalice because I trust your judgment. I hear your reservations, and those of Senator Mevarius. But time grows short. I will give you until daybreak tomorrow to come up with something better." Standing, he swept his gaze over the room. "For now, I'll leave you all to it. Commander Howe, with me?"

With that stern order, he walked out of the room, and Nathaniel followed, down the hallway and into a large office, with a desk that faced through a window into a lovely garden. Larsa sat behind the desk and motioned Nathaniel to take a chair. "My apologies," he said. "Debate is a grand tradition of the Empire, and often it is to the good; but it has been a long time since my people have dealt with an emergency."

"Emergencies rarely bring out the best in people," Nathaniel replied. "It was much the same in Ferelden, during the Fifth Blight."

Larsa sighed. "Your Warden Commander tried to warn us. It must be difficult to watch us repeat your mistakes."

"At least you are taking it seriously." Nathaniel once again felt the familiar twinge of shame at the memory of his father's behavior. "No one minimizing the danger, or taking advantage of the chaos to grasp for personal power -- though you might want to keep an eye on that senator."

"Hmpf!" Larsa leaned back in his seat with a shake of his head. "Believe me, I have long been aware of Mevarius and his opportunism. He will see no gain from his participation in these councils."

Nathaniel nodded. "Still, I do not look forward to telling my Wardens that we'll be cooling their heels for another night while darkspawn mass within our reach."

"I imagine not." Larsa leaned forward. "You may rejoin the council, if you wish, but I suspect they will come to a decision more quickly if they feel less like they are being watched by outsiders."

"I appreciate the advice, and in truth I could use a break." Nathaniel stood and bowed his head to the governor. "I will be with the other Wardens, if you would send word."

"The moment there is an answer," Larsa said, "you will know it."

-x-

The walk through the daylight sections of Giruvegan had been easy, with no darkspawn or other creatures to harry them, but Basch felt more trepidations with every step. An itching had begun in the back of his skull, much like Balthier had described -- a sense of being watched, and yet not, a feeling of not being alone despite all evidence to the contrary. Once inside the dead city, the feeling intensified, and then suddenly developed a direction: down and to the left, in the direction of the crystal.

He stopped short, holding up a hand to call the company to gather round, and caught Balthier's eye. "Do you feel it?"

"If you mean this blasted crawling all across my skin, then yes." He looked down into the deep dark. "And if you mean the congregation of darkspawn in the distance, likely within the crystal, then also yes. I assume we are all feeling it?"

Basch noted the nods all around. "So, this is it, then," he mused. "Whenever darkspawn are near, this is how I will know it."

"More or less," Elissa said. "Eventually you'll be able to sense other Wardens, too, even tell the difference between individuals if you know them well." She wrinkled her nose. "Not here, though. There's too much Mist -- or whatever it is -- muddying the waters. It's odd, not being about to sort out you lot from the background noise."

Carver snorted. "Enjoy it while it lasts."

Elissa shot him a look that was half-amused, half-irritated. "Believe me, I will." She unhooked her shield and used it to gesture down the ramp. "So, darkspawn that way?"

"Not just darkspawn." Basch pulled his blade free of its scabbard and rested it on his shoulder. "Many vile creatures live in these depths. Be prepared for anything, but especially the malboro and behemoth. Keep your distance if you can; dispatch them quickly if you can't."

"Aye." Elissa raised her sword, then pointed it down the first ramp. "Lead the way, Warden Captain Basch."

-x-

Penelo took the lead down the pathway into Eruyt Village, Lente's Tear resting on top of her shirt. She didn't think anyone would question her right to pass, but best to be safe, so she displayed the amulet prominently. Leliana walked behind her, eyes wide, and Vaan quietly brought up the rear. It had taken a few years of missteps, but he'd finally learned when to take a backseat and let Penelo lead negotiations, and so she resolved to stop worrying. She would convince the Viera to let her meet with Jote, and Jote would tell them what they needed to know.

As she approached the Viera closest to the doorway, she let her shoulders fall in obedience and curtsied lightly. "Good afternoon," she said. "I'm an emissary from Queen Ashe, and I must speak with Jote as soon as possible. It's about the recent invasion, if you know of it."

The Viera regarded Penelo with a cool eye, looking over the entire party, then shook her head. "Jote is away from the Wood," she said. "An emergency matter, one I may not discuss. But I shall arrange a meeting with Mjrn. Wait in the amphitheater, please."

Penelo bowed her head. "My thanks," she replied. She held the pose until the Viera had disappeared from sight, turned around a tree trunk, and then she motioned Leliana toward the steps down to the amphitheater.

Leliana followed, her gaze firmly planted on the trees above. "A place of such beauty and grace, carved out from the wilds of the jungle. How remarkable!" She settled down on a bench and smiled up at Penelo. "Truly, this is a world of magic and beauty."

"It's pretty impressive isn't it?" Penelo sat next to her. "But I'm sure there are things that would amaze us in your Thedas, too."

"Oh, certainly," Leliana said. "The Grand Cathedral in Val Royeaux is a wonder I would put up against any building in Rabanastre." She turned a warm look on Penelo. "Perhaps, once all this is over, I will have the opportunity to show you."

Penelo grinned. "If the skystone works to take us that far, and I can get away for awhile? Sure, I'd love to see that." The idea of a whole continent to explore would thrill any sky pirate. The chance of a lifetime.

Leliana's eyes sparkled. "It's a date, then."

Perhaps half an hour passed before the Viera returned. "Mjrn is ready for you," she said. "This way."

Penelo stood and, after quick glances to Leliana and Vaan, she followed the Viera up the path that wound up and through the trees, to the gazebo perched in high branches. She recognized Mjrn immediately, her shorter hair brushing just past her shoulders. Mjrn stood, hands held out in greeting, and Penelo laid her hands flat on Mjrn's palms. "Thank you for seeing me," Penelo said.

"The Queen's emissaries, and my sister's former traveling companions, are always welcome here," Mjrn replied. "We trust that you do not ask the way to be opened lightly, especially in such hazardous times as these."

"Of course." Penelo pulled her hands back, and Mjrn let her arms drop. "It's important, and we think only you can help."

Mjrn gestured to the bench behind her, and Penelo took a seat. "It regards the invasion of the vile beasts from underground?"

"So you do know about them," Penelo said.

Mjrn nodded gravely. "We received warning from the Garif, just before they were overrun." She lowered her head. "Their loss is a devastating one for us all."

"It is." The hard lump that had come into Penelo's throat as they flew past the ruins of Jahara Village returned. "I hope some of them escaped."

"We have had no word, yet some hope remains." Mjrn raised her eyes to Penelo. "After, we braced ourselves for attack. When none came, Jote sent scouts to investigate. I was among them, and so I witnessed the sickness of the land, firsthand. Felt it, deep in my soul." She shuddered, and Penelo had to resist the urge to pat her hand.

"It's called Blight," Penelo said. "The destruction you saw. The creatures are known as darkspawn, and they come from a land far away." She indicated Leliana, who lowered her head. "Leliana was with a group of warriors who followed them here: Grey Wardens, an organization dedicated to fighting darkspawn. And we're here because we're hoping you can help us fight them as well."

"Because they turned from the Wood," Mjrn mused. "Yes, it is a logical conclusion."

Penelo nodded. "And also because of Fran. She has a special sense of the darkspawn, and of Blight. Just like her reaction to the Mist, when it was tainted with nethicite. We thought there might be a connection."

"There might." Mjrn lowered her voice. "When I saw the destruction, this Blight, when I touched the land, it felt not unlike when I was in communion with the Occuria, Venat. It did not speak with Venat's voice, but I heard a voice, nonetheless. A song, of beauty and terror and death."

Leliana started, and Penelo cast her a look. "A song," she said, softly. "Some Grey Wardens speak of such a thing."

"And the Occuria keep coming up, too," Vaan added. "Lots of possible connections, here."

"A connection?..." Mjrn sat back against the bench, as though considering, then met Penelo's eyes with a spark of decision. "I will tell you a secret. But you may only share it with the Queen. Not beyond the four of you yet. Yes?"

"Yes, of course." Penelo leaned forward. "What is it?"

"My sister, Jote. She has withdrawn to speak with the Wood, to learn what she can about the creatures. She forbade me to interrupt her, but I fear I must. She must hear what you have told me, and perhaps she can assist you in return. Please wait, and I will return as soon as I can. I will have refreshment brought up." She stood up, nodded to each of them, and then vanished into the trees.

-x-

There was no question that the gentle ramps and twisting stairwells of Giruvegan were easier to traverse than the dank and chilly bog of the Feywood, but Zevran found himself missing the swamps nonetheless. At least there, he'd felt a sense of time passing as he glimpsed bits of light, then darkening sky through the Mist that swirled overhead, and there were natural things like rocks and trees, twisted and broken as they were. And there was a sense that eventually, it might end, or at least come to a break in the terrain. The byways of this ancient city were endless, and the black pit that yawned beneath the bridges might as well have no bottom.

After pushing through yet another knot of creatures -- the nasty malboros, stinking of poison and rot, and the leaping behemoths that could knock down even a man of Carver's strength -- he paused on a landing, next to one of the carved stone pedestals that marked the path. Once, Basch said, they had glowed with energy and had placed barriers along the walkway, but none of them were active now. Unlike the waystone they had used to transport inside. Zevran looked at the ancient stones, then turned to Sigrun. "An odd place," he said. "Does it remind you of the Deep Roads?"

"Sort of." Sigrun leaned over the railing and looked at the distant walkway below, then the eternal dark that yawned beneath it. "Old construction, clearly. And darkspawn, somewhere out there." She frowned. "But I don't feel the Stone at all. I don't think we're underground. It's more like being in a building. A really, really huge building."

"It's as likely an explanation as any." Balthier joined them at the rail, his gun propped on his shoulder. Zevran sidled up to him to take a closer look at the weapon. Imagine what an assassin could do with one of those! Especially if it could be made smaller and smuggled beneath a cloak, or in a pocket. Or you could hide in the shadows and fire from a distance, with much less fuss than a bow and arrow. The possibilities were endless.

His reverie was broken by Sigrun's incredulous laugh. "You mean, you don't know?"

"We know very little about this place," Balthier replied. "Where it truly is, who once lived here, why it was abandoned. It was built by the Occuria, that much is clear, but beyond that?" He shook his head. "It is, and shall most likely remain, a mystery for the ages."

Zevran rested an elbow on the railing. "I'd be happy with settling the mystery of why the darkspawn are here."

Balthier barked a laugh. "As would I. Considering that I have them to thank for a significant change in my life circumstances."

Sigrun chuckled. "I don't think there's a one of us here who doesn't have a score or two to settle with the darkspawn. Either they're the reason we're here, or they took someone we loved, or both." She pivoted to Zevran. "Except you, maybe?"

Zevran shrugged. "They have terrorized my homeland for generations, but it is true that I bear no personal ill will against them."

"Is that why you never undertook the Joining?" Balthier turned to him, eyebrow cocked upward, hazel eyes fixed on his.

"Ah, well." Zevran winked. "As an assassin trained, I make it my policy to never take a poison to which there is no antidote." Balthier's brow darkened, and Zevran realized his mistake. He clapped Balthier on the shoulder and grinned. "I'll leave that to you more heroic types. Like the Warden Commander." He turned to the approaching Elissa; at her side, Basch seemed to be swallowing a laugh. "What say you?"

"This seems as good a spot as any for a breather." The odd blue light of the waystone washed up on Elissa's face as she took up a position by it. "How long have we been moving?"

She looked at Sigrun, who shrugged. "Like I was telling the others earlier, Stone sense is no good here. Either we're not below ground -- that's my vote -- or the environment is just too unnatural. So your guess is as good as mine."

"It was afternoon when we left Rabanastre," Balthier said. "An hour or so past noon."

He and Basch both looked at Fran. "Early evening," she replied. "That would be my best guess."

"Let's press on, then." Elissa cast a baleful eye up to the dim light stretching above them. "I'd rather not be here any longer than necessary."

-x-

The afternoon passed into evening, sunset lighting up the trees a soft red, and then the sky darkening as the first stars peeked out from behind the canopy of leaves. Penelo and Leliana had spent the time mostly in silence, contemplating the forest and the task before them, while Vaan had wandered off, in his usual way, shortly after one of the Viera had brought a plate of fruit and a carafe of water, the refreshments that Mjrn had promised. Now, as twilight deepened into night, Vaan appeared from one direction and a different Viera from another, hands clasped behind her back. Penelo rose to greet her; the Viera made a slight bow.

"Mjrn apologizes for the delay," the Viera said, "and for being unable to come herself. She has offered the hospitality of the village for the evening, and promises to return in the morning."

Penelo shot a glance to Vaan, who bolted up next to her in surprise. Holding up a hand to forestall his inevitable clumsy reply, she stared at him until he nodded in understanding and sat back down again. "Thank you," she said to the Viera. "Shall we set up camp here?"

The Viera shook her head. "Quarters have been arranged for the night. Dinner awaits you there, if you would follow me."

Penelo curtseyed. "Your generous hospitality is deeply appreciated. Please, lead the way." The Viera turned with a nod of acknowledgement, then led them up the walkways, taking a turnoff that Penelo had never noticed on her previous visits to Eruyt Village. Soon they were passing a series of small wooden structures nestled on the larger tree branches, nearly invisible but for the torches that burned behind half-shuttered windows. Their destination was one of the brightest of these, a small house with a single door and two open windows. Inside was a table piled high with food and two bottles of wine, chairs scattered about, and four bunks in the far corners.

The Viera stepped aside and gestured. "Yours, for the night. My home is next door, to the left, if you require any further assistance. Please expect Mjrn shortly after daybreak."

"Thanks again," Penelo said. "May I ask your name?"

"You may call me Pija," she replied. "Sleep well."

Nods were exchanged all around, and then Pija stepped outside, closing the door behind her. As soon as she was gone, Vaan fell to his plate of steamed vegetables, and Penelo took a seat next to him, still too stunned to eat.

Leliana walked to the table. "You seem surprised," she said, pulling the cork from one of the two bottles of wine and pouring a glass, which she handed to Penelo.

She took the wine and sipped from it. "I'm shocked," she admitted. "As far as I know, no outsider has ever been allowed to pass the night in Eruyt Village. I wasn't even sure they'd let us past the threshold, remember? To be allowed to stay this long, practically unsupervised..." She shook her head.

"Then they must be really worried." Vaan completed Penelo's thought with a nod. "I felt it, walking around. The people who live here aren't super friendly on their best day, but it's tense in a way I've never seen before."

Leliana smiled, then lowered her voice. "We are not unsupervised. I noted at least six guards walking past us this afternoon, and another is now posted in one of the trees nearby." She lifted her eyes in a seemingly-casual glance through the open window, and Penelo followed her look to a small platform, high up, where a young Viera nearly blended in with the leaves.

"Damn," she muttered. "I should have caught that."

"I have an eye for secrets," Leliana said with a chuckle. "Do not feel bad to have missed this one." She tore a hunk of bread off the loaf and lowered herself to the floor of the platform, squatting on her heels. "So, what do you think has happened?"

"My best theory is that Jote is deep enough into whatever communing she's doing with the Wood that she's too far away to be found, either physically or in deep meditation." Penelo finally took her own plate of vegetables and began eating. "My money would be on the latter, but it could be either." She glanced at the plate. "I wish Fran were here. She'd know better. Might even have some thoughts on the situation herself."

"Yeah." Vaan tipped backward in the chair, until Penelo shot him a look, and he leaned forward, the front two legs crashing into the floor. "But I guess there's not much to be done except wait."

And you hate waiting. Penelo cast another side-eye at Vaan, but he didn't say anything, just kept eating. With a quiet sigh, she settled in with her plate, leaning back in her chair to relax as much as she could.

-x-

Nathaniel was awakened from a restless sleep by a cacophony of blaring horns and clanging bells. He ran to the window of the city guard barracks where he and the other Grey Wardens had been billeted and threw open the sash, leaning out to get a better sense of their location. The sky was still dark, the strange constellations giving him no sense of how far off sunrise might be.

Looking down into the courtyard, he saw a runner stepping up to a raised platform at the center. The boy raised a cupped hand to his mouth and shouted into the night. "Awake, awake, to arms! The darkspawn have come!"

Nathaniel leaned further out the window. "We will be ready," he called back, then pulled back into the room to see that the other Grey Wardens were already dressing, half into their armor. "Join me in the courtyard as soon as you can," Nathaniel said, throwing on his coat and pulling on his boots. Then he slung his bow and quiver over his back as he ran down the stairs. By the time he reached the runner, a few fully-dressed city guardsmen were already at his side. "I am Captain Howe of the Grey Wardens," he said to the boy. "Tell me what has happened."

"The darkspawn, they…." the boy swallowed. "They breached the line in Old Archades about an hour ago. Word is that they have nearly reached the night market. The night shift of the guard is fighting back, but at risk of being overwhelmed. We must send more forces now, or risk losing the whole city!"

"We will go right away." Nathaniel looked around the courtyard. "Anyone who wants to join us in the vanguard is welcome, but if you prefer to form a line further back, I understand, and that would be appreciated. You." He turned to the runner. "Find Judge Magister Casullia; I have a message for her."

"Yes, ser." The boy bobbed his head. "Go ahead."

"Tell her that we make for the market, and then the line in Old Archades, and that I hope she can see clear to lending the Grey Wardens a garrison of soldiers for backup. Because as soon as it's possible, we are going into that cavern, whether her people join us or not. Understood?"

The boy nodded again. "Yes, ser," he repeated, and then he was off like a shot.

Without waiting for further response, Nathaniel turned around to see the other Wardens gathered at the barracks door. "Which way to the night market?" he asked Restimon.

"Just down this alley," Restimon replied.

"Show me," Nathaniel said, and they were off, Restimon in the lead, Nathaniel a step behind, and the other three of his team -- Aloysus, Garron, and Yount, two Fereldans and a Free Marcher who had come to the Wardens in their own way, at their own time, for their own reasons, all now brothers and sisters in the order whom Nathaniel would trust with his life -- coming up behind, Yount holding the rear with a great-axe balanced on her shoulder.

As they broke into the market, the slight tickle of darkspawn in the distance that had been bothering Nathaniel for days now grew into a rumble, then a roar as it resolved into specific points of darkness as they stepped past a line of guards who had blockaded the market square. Without hesitation, Nathaniel swept his bow off his back and into position. "There," he called out, projecting his voice to be heard over the general commotion as he pointed the arrow in the position of a small knot of darkspawn. He fired and found his target, a hurlock that went down with the arrow between its eyes. The other Wardens hurried off to deal with the rest; at his side, Restimon turned and fired, the blast of his gun loud in Nathaniel's right ear.

"Look, guardsmen," Restimon shouted, gesturing with his free hand, then firing again. Nathaniel followed the pointer and saw three guards facing down an ogre, a fourth man flailing in the darkspawn's grasp. "We need to help them."

"Agreed. Yount!" He called out to her, and she changed trajectory to run toward the ogre, axe already readying for a swing. "Restimon, you hold position here; I'll come around to flank."

Restimon acknowledged with a nod, dropping to one knee to better target the ogre's face, and Nathaniel made his way around the edge of the square, firing strategically as he went. A moment later, and the ogre was down, crashing backwards into tents and barrels, opening his hand to free the crushed body of the guard. The other three remained standing, at least; the least injured of them turned to Nathaniel as he approached them.

"You are city guardsmen?" Nathaniel asked; the man nodded. "Good. Get the civilians out of the market, as quickly and cleanly as you can. We'll take care of the darkspawn -- only fight as much as you need to defend yourselves. Understood?"

The guard did not pause to question Nathaniel's orders, or any right he might have to give them, before gathering up his men and directing them toward the shopkeepers and patrons cowering among the booths and carts. Trusting the guard to take care of his charge, Nathaniel turned his attention to the darkspawn that Garron and Aloysus were fighting in the distance. Soon this spot would be cleaned up, and they could turn their attention to the real work of stopping the darkspawn incursion at its source.

-x-

The party had pressed forward, deeper down the slopes of Giruvegan, making camp on the last landing of the Aadha Water-Steps. Though still beset by plenty of enemies, at least the golems were absent, and the glyph doors remained open. Balthier remembered well the hours of backtracking required to navigate the ramps and landings on their previous visit to this place. This trip had gone much more swiftly, whether because of the larger party or less circuitous route he could not say. He had taken the last watch, and he sat alone with his back to the wall, keeping an eye on the small pools of green that would blossom into a walkway leading down into the last passage.

The group slept in the eerie silence, no scent of cook fire or ray of rising sun to awaken them. Balthier flashed to the dark days spent traversing the wreck of the Bahamut, he and Fran creeping through the bowels of the sky fortress with no glimpse of sky and nary a breath of fresh air, and he repressed a shudder. It was difficult, though, with the unease crawling through the back of his mind, the feel of darkspawn not unlike the near-madness of that dark time. He had hoped, then, never to feel so trapped again, and yet here he was: locked into duty by the taint in his blood. Shouldering the burden had saved his life; for the first time, he wondered if the trade had been worth it.

Across the landing, he heard Zevran shift position; the other man was watching in the other direction, back up the ramps, and had been completely silent. Balthier turned to look, and noticed Zevran looking at him, a placid smile on his face. He stood and walked across the platform, around their sleeping compatriots. Zevran hailed him with a raised arm. "How goes the silent watch?" he asked, sotto voce. "I must say, it is odd to be in a place so unchanging."

"I was entertaining a similar thought." Balthier sat on the floor next to Zevran, one eye still on the empty pathway before them. "Very different from the forest. Or the ever-shifting terrain beneath an airship."

"Yes." Zevran sighed. "I am most jealous of your airships. Such freedom of movement! Are there smaller vehicles that can be used for less obvious missions?"

"Indeed. When we get back to the Strahl, I shall have to show you my hovercycle." Zevran's eyes lit up, and Balthier had to smile before turning serious. "I have a question, if you would." Zevran nodded, and Balthier continued. "Yesterday morning, at the entrance to Giruvegan, when I saw the apparition in the Mist. How is it, do you think, that you're the only one other than me who saw it?"

Zevran lifted an eyebrow. "It was your father, you said? Your father, whom you killed?" Balthier responded with a bare nod. "Well, then. I know a little something about cutting down a person of importance to you, someone you once loved." He bared his teeth in a fierce, angry grin. "Not, I think, a pain many people share."

"No," Balthier murmured. "Interesting; on our past journey, the two people who saw the apparition were those who lost the person closest to them in the war." He caught Zevran's eye again. "I thank you. Now, I think we are past sunrise by now. Shall we wake the others?"

-x-

Penelo was awakened by a shaft of warm sunlight falling on her face. She opened her eyes, then squinted against the brilliance, hand shooting up to her forehead for shade. As she sat up, she thought she heard a soft giggle, and she twisted around to see Leliana, sitting in a corner chair with her legs tucked beneath her, a steaming mug of tea in her hand. "Good morning," she said, smiling.

"Hey." Penelo ducked away from the light so she could better see her companion. She settled back in a corner and stretched both hands over her head. "Did I sleep in?"

Leliana shook her head. "The sun only rose a few minutes ago." Penelo blinked the sleep and sun from her eyes, and as her vision adjusted she realized that the light was golden and low in the sky. "Unlucky that you just happened to choose a window with a clear line to the horizon. I only just awakened myself, when breakfast was delivered. And Vaan is still out cold." She gestured to the far corner of the room with her tea, and Penelo looked to see Vaan in a darkened corner, face turned to the wall and blankets pulled over his head.

Penelo shook her head with a fond sigh. "Might as well let him rest until we hear something." She stood up, yawned, and made her way to the breakfast table. "Did they say anything?"

"Not a word." Leliana sipped from her mug. "I begin to wonder if we are merely being put off to the side, in the hopes that we will get tired of waiting and go away."

"It's certainly possible," Penelo acknowledged. "Honored guests or no, we're still outsiders." She glanced down at Lente's Tear, still on the thong around her neck. "If no one is here by noon, I suspect I may have to go remind someone of our status as emissaries from the Queen, here on an urgent mission."

"There is no need." Penelo started at the unexpected voice that came from the door, and she turned to see Mjrn there, armed with a long dagger in each hand, the blades crossed over her chest. The viera bowed her head in greeting. "My apologies for the delay. I should have brought word sooner, but I had hoped to be more quick about it."

"'s all right." Penelo glanced across the room at Vaan, who somehow had managed to stay asleep. "Are we going? Should I wake him?" Mjrn responded with a slow nod, and so Penelo crossed the room to him and shook his shoulder. "Hey, sleepyhead!" He groaned and threw an arm across his face; she pulled it away and rolled him onto his back. "We're moving."

He opened his eyes and blinked up at her, then yawned. "Okay, okay." He stretched his arms over his head and then jumped up to his feet, snagging his sword from the corner of the room in one hand, a pear from the table with the other. "What's up?"

Mjrn nodded to him. "We have located Jote, and I am taking you to her. Come. Be prepared for danger."

Penelo caught Leliana's eye; she was already gathering up her things, slinging bow and quiver over her back, and Penelo followed suit, tucking her dagger into her belt before picking up her staff. "Does she need help?"

"Perhaps." Mjrn gestured them out the door, and Penelo went first, out the small hut and onto the pathways of the large tree branches. She started to turn back toward the center of town, but Mjrn shook her head and pointed the other way. "We go deeper into the Wood."

Penelo indicated Mjrn's blades with a jut of her chin. "Why the weapons, then?"

"Not all the byways of the Wood are as safe as the Village," Mjrn replied as she led them forward, higher up and further in. "The inner places, where our leaders go for wisdom, are beset with many dangers. Some we meet with blades, others with cunning, yet others with magic. Jote sought not only answers, but protection. Such requests come with a price."

"A price we ourselves must pay, if we seek the same protection." Leliana nodded. "A sacrifice, much like the sacrifices made by our Grey Wardens."

Mjrn inclined her head. "Just so." She resumed walking, face forward. "Though I have not spoken to Jote directly, I have heard her voice mingled with that of the Wood. She tells me that it is as you have suspected: the spirit of the Wood, and the connection we Viera have with it, is anathema to the darkspawn taint. But that natural protection alone is not enough. To extend that protection and keep the darkspawn from the jungle, Jote quested into the heart of the Wood for aid."

Penelo frowned. "Is she all right?"

"I do not know. I hope so." Mjrn looked up into the trees. "We will find her, speak to her, and discover what price the Wood has exacted. Perhaps then we can learn if, and how, that protection might be extended further."

Something prodded Penelo in the back; she turned to see Vaan, who had bumped her with the hilt of his sword. "I don't like this," he muttered. "If the leader of the Wood has to sacrifice just to protect the Wood..." He shook his head. "What d'ya think they'd ask Ashe to give up?" He lowered his voice even further. "Because you know, whatever the price is, she'd pay it."

"Yeah." Penelo looked back forward, keeping her own voice low. "Let's just hope it doesn't come to that."

-x-

"Your majesty? Your majesty!"

Ashe registered the hand lightly shaking her arm and forced herself to full wakefulness. "Yes?"

Rolling over and opening her eyes, she saw her maid, Lucie, looking down at her. "I'm sorry to wake you so early, my lady, but the Grey Warden is here. He says it's urgent."

"Yes, of course." Ashe sat up and rubbed the last bit of sleep from her eyes, then stood. "My dressing gown, if you would?" But Lucie was already holding it out, and she shrugged her way into it as she walked through her rooms to the semi-public sitting area. Alistair was already there, a book in his hand and a frown on his face as he paced in front of the fireplace. She entered the room, and he looked up, a flash of guilt replacing the stern look.

"I'm sorry to wake you--" he began, but Ashe waved him off.

"You wouldn't be here were it unimportant," she replied. "Now tell me."

"Right." Alistair sat down on the sofa and opened the book on the coffee table. "I couldn't sleep, so I started looking at this book on espers. Figured I ought to know a little more about how magic works here, after what happened with the gigas in the Feywood, and I found this." He flipped through the pages until he reached an etching of an esper Ashe had never seen before -- a gaunt figure, tall, with long arms and fingers and a piece of bloody gauze wrapped around its mouth.

She laid a fingertip against the image. "I am not familiar with this spirit, although there may be espers as yet undiscovered."

"You wouldn't be," Alistair said. "That's not an esper. It's a darkspawn."

Ashe raised an eyebrow and turned to look at him. "What?"

Alistair nodded. "The word isn't used in the text, but the description made it very clear -- a corrupt magical creature, leaving dead earth and destruction everywhere it walks. But it's a very particular sort of darkspawn. It's self-aware, and much more powerful."

"How do you know this?" Ashe asked.

Alistair frowned. "Elissa had dealings with a darkspawn much like this. Called itself the Architect. In Thedas, it tried to make a deal with her to experiment on Grey Wardens and darkspawn, eliminate the Calling. He bred new sorts of beasts and caused all kinds of trouble. And I've heard rumors of another one, locked away in a Warden prison. If there can be two, there can be others."

Ashe leaned over the book to look more closely at the caption. "Prophet of Razikale," she said, softly.

"I'm no expert on ancient Tevinter," Alistair said. "I'd need to check with Alim to be sure. But I’m pretty sure that's one of their ancient gods. And if one of the intelligent darkspawn acolytes came here..."

"They may have allied with the Occuria." She nodded. "I agree. It is the only possibility that makes sense."

"And if the darkspawn corrupt the magicite in the same way the Blight can turn blue lyrium to red..." Alistair shook his head. "Then the Great Crystal in Giruvegan may have been corrupted and the Wardens there are walking into a trap." He stood up and started pacing again "Dammit, we need to warn them. Do you think the Griffon can make it there in time?"

"There should be no need," Ashe replied. "There is a gate crystal in the heart of Giruvegan. With luck, the Warden Commander and her team will have already activated it. If not, there are other ways to break through. But we will be limited as to how many can travel."

Alistair nodded. "Maybe a small group can start, then the rest can follow in the Griffon, for backup."

"Excellent thinking." Ashe stood, one hand on the book, bracing herself. "Gather your people and some supplies and give Izidre the Griffon. I will ensure that a full complement of soldiers are on board. Meet me at South Gate in one hour."

He bowed. "Your Majesty."

-x-

Elissa stood at the very edge of the green glow, dubious. "I should probably be used to wonders by now, and yet a part of me still can't quite accept that this walkway is going to hold my weight. Even though we walked down one just like it yesterday." She raised an eyebrow and met Basch's eye. "But as I'm sure you know, the secret of being a leader is to move without hesitation, and I've trusted your miraculous devices this far. I'm not sure it's really that different from an airship in the end. So--" she shrugged, and began to walk forward, taking the lead despite her misgivings. After the first few times, she stopped noticing how she stepped off into thin air every few strides, and she turned her attention to the giant crystal that seemingly hung in thin air, pulsing with blue and red streaks.

"So." She pointed at the crystal. "That is magicite?"

"Yes," Basch replied. "The source of Mist, and thus of magical power. And also of the skystones that allow airships to fly. This deposit in particular is also the ancient home of the Occuria. Or so we believe."

"The people -- or whatever they are -- that we've come to see," Elissa mused. "I suppose rather a lot of creatures could fit in a crystal that size. I wonder whether that's the source of corruption that I feel."

"Does it always look like that?" Alim had stepped up to Elissa's other side, but he addressed the question to Basch. "The crystal, I mean, with the streaks of color throughout."

Basch paused to take a closer look. "No," he said with a frown. "When last we came, the crystal was a pale blue, and solid in color. Of certainty, it was not streaked with angry red veins." He turned back to catch Fran's eye. "What say you, Fran? Has it changed, to your way of sensing?"

"Yes." Her response was almost inaudible, and Elissa leaned closer to catch her next words. "It burns, as nethicite burns, as though the air is a tinderbox, set to catch fire at the slightest of match strikes."

"It must be corrupted," Elissa said. "Perhaps that's why I feel as though I'm surrounded by darkspawn, even though we have yet to catch a glimpse of one here." As she looked around the group, she could tell by the expressions that the other Wardens felt the same. "Well, we press on."

It took a good half hour to traverse the rest of the walkway. Despite her brave face, Elissa let out a small sigh of relief as she stepped on the flat stone plinth that meant the next large stairway. The platform was a broad one, made of the same odd dark stone as the rest, closed off by a tall, heavy door.

Which then cracked in two, shuddering under the force of a blow from the other side; another loud thud, and the stone splintered and shattered, revealing the form of an ogre, fists held high. The creature roared, and Elissa drew her sword, metal singing against metal. "To arms!" she shouted as the Wardens gathered round, and then she charged, shield high in the air.

Behind the ogre, she could see a mass of darkspawn, milling in an open space beyond the shattered door; she sensed Grey Wardens behind her and to the side, battle cries ringing to the ancient dark ceiling, and then she and the ogre met in the middle, her shield up, her sword arm swinging, finding purchase in the ogre's meaty bicep. The creature pulled free, then roared at her as it drew back its fist to swing, but she got her shield in position and took the worst of the blow, the vibrations shaking down her arm to her spine. With a grunt, she attempted to stab the ogre in the stomach. The tip of her sword first wavered, then slid past muscle into gut. She turned the blade sideways and back before pulling it free; a spurt of blood followed, and the ogre screamed in pain. As it howled, it grabbed her and yanked her upward toward its gaping mouth; instead of struggling, Elissa took the opportunity to bash it in the teeth with her shield. Its fingers loosened, and she wriggled away, hitting the ground just in time to see Basch rush to her side, leap up, and jam the tip of his spear in the ogre's neck. With that, the ogre fell, Basch's momentum toppling him over. Basch landed on the darkspawn's chest, pulled the spear out and twirled it overhead, then stabbed the beast in the eye for good measure.

Elissa wiped a bit of spittle from her face. "Thanks," she said. Basch looked to her with an acknowledging nod, then freed his spear from the ogre's eye socket before jumping back into the fray, slashing an approaching genlock in the face. She followed him in, the two of them fighting side by side much as she often fought with Alistair, each covering the other's weak spots without many words exchanged, finding a rhythm as natural as breathing. Slash, slam, duck, pause, stab and slash again...

-x-

When they gathered at the palace gate crystal, Ashe was startled to see Al-Cid there, arms crossed, foot tapping as he checked the sky.

"You are late, your majesty," he said.

"May I ask for what?" she asked.

"Our breakfast meeting to discuss the movement of Rozarrian troops to help defend Archades," he replied. "I waited outside your office for some time. Some discreet questioning eventually led me here." Tipping his head down, he fixed her with a stare over the top of his sunglasses. "I confess, my queen, that I would not have thought to find you stepping out of your city when threatened by the possibility of a siege."

Ashe sighed. "I am not abandoning my post, if that is what you think."

Al-Cid shook his head. "Never. Nor would I credit the suggestion with any merit, were it to come from another source. You would not leave without good reason." He gestured behind her, indicating her escort: Alistair, Wickham, and three members of her personal guard. "Nor, I think, would the Grey Wardens stationed here. So I can only surmise that something more pressing may have come up, and I wish therefore to offer my services."

Ashe exchanged a glance with Alistair, who shrugged. She turned back to Al-Cid and raised an eyebrow at him. "And what services might those be?"

He spread his arms wide. "Knowledge, of course, is my primary currency of trade. But as a royal son of Rozarria, I am trained in the arts of battle. I fancy myself more than a fair shot, and a decent hand with a short blade. And of course, my skill at talking my way out of trouble is unparalleled." He reached into his pocket and pulled out two teleport stones. "Have no fears, I shall pay my own way."

Ashe considered for a moment, then nodded. "If you can be spared, we would welcome another hand. But we need to leave immediately -- there is no time to brief you on the full situation."

Al-Cid smiled and pocketed one of the stones. "I have already directed my aide to schedule a meeting with your general. Regarding our new errand, a thumbnail sketch while we wait for the path to clear will do."

Ashe gestured to Alistair, who launched into the tale of their discovery; meanwhile she gathered her own stone in her hand and laid a palm flat on the crystal, willing the magicks to hurry their way along.

-x-

Once they had finished securing the market, it was two hours more travel through the city, Restimon leading the way through narrow alleyways and the chaos of a city waking up to an invasion, fighting a few darkspawn groups along the way. Nathaniel hardened himself to it all, trying not to remember Amaranthine and how close it had come to falling. Finally they reached the landing of a stone stairway. As they approached the top of the stair, and the group of grim-faced men in armor who formed a line across it, Restimon stopped the Wardens with a raised hand. "Hold," he said, and then he turned, raising his voice. "Oi! Who's in charge here?"

The shortest of the guards turned, showing a weather-beaten face, dark-skinned, deep with lines from age and a raised scar over the left eye. "That would be me. Captain Morano, city guard. You with the Judges?"

Restimon shook his head. "The Grey Wardens, under Captain Howe. You got the word on us?"

Morano responded with a deep nod of acknowledgement. "From Judge Magister Casullia. You're the specialists in how to take out these darkspawn bastards, and I'm to let you take charge."

"Correct," Nathaniel replied. "Thank you. You have been keeping clear of their blood?"

"Best we can," the captain said. "Not that it's advice we mind taking. I used to hunt marks in the Feywood for a living, so I've seen some shit in my time. None of it holds a candle to these foul beasts." He turned his head to the side and spat in the dirt. "I'm happy to have an excuse to keep out of the scrum. Wish the advice had come a little earlier, though." He turned his attention back on Restimon, looking his Judge's armor up and down with a scowl. "I lost half a dozen good guards to that sickness."

Restimon shook his head. "Terrible losses, ser, and I convey my condolences. Now, please brief us on the situation? We fought our way here through an incursion, but it looks like you've reformed the line."

"Not without trouble." Morano gestured down the stairway, which Nathaniel only now saw was streaked with blood, and a few darkspawn bodies lay across the tread. "Bunch of the little bastards broke through the line about three hour ago," he said. "See the bodies down there? We got what we could, but they broke the line with the help of that giant one." He glared up at Nathaniel. "You got him, I hope."

"The ogre, yes." Nathaniel nodded. "I saw it fall with my own eyes."

"Well, good." Morano returned to his story. "Anyway, we closed the line behind that lot, and stopped the next sortie before they made it halfway up the stairs, but it's only a matter of time before it happens again. We need to throw them all the way back to the cave if we're going to make any progress."

"Fortunately, that is precisely the plan," Nathaniel said. "I had hoped for a garrison; did they come?"

"Here, ser." He gestured to a knot of soldiers in the blue-black armor of the judges. "They'll be accompanying you on your next mission. Meantime, where do you want the rest of us?"

"Where is the line now?" Restimon asked.

"Just down the next alley, there. See?" Morano pointed almost straight outward, and Nathaniel peered in that direction, using a hand to shade his eyes from the morning sun. He could just make out a few soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder, pikes crossed to form a line, a teeming mass of darkspawn just beyond. The source of the taint he felt, almost certainly.

"All right," Nathaniel said. "Swords and shields follow us down the stairs, to back us up and keep anyone from flanking." He glanced around the railing, noted the strategic placement of a ballista and a row of men with guns. "Ranged attackers, stay up here and clear the path before and behind, then follow when you can. We will take the vanguard, then cut through to the caves. If the Judge Magister sends more troops, tell them meet us there. Any other city guard, they hold this landing." He caught Morano's eye. "You concur?"

The captain shrugged. "As good a plan as any. And I'd sure rather die cutting my way through or on that line than hanging around up here. Aye, we'll follow."

Nathaniel lightly clapped his shoulder. "Good. Thank you." He turned around and examined his small troop, guardsmen armed with swords, clubs, and spears lining up behind. The Wardens and the new garrison were fresh, but the other men seemed exhausted, nearly to a man, eyes bleary with days of fighting. At least two seemed to be suffering from Blight poisoning, faces sweating and patched with darkness, and Nathaniel caught the eye of one. "Are you ready to kick these darkspawn out of your city?"

The man raised his sword arm over his head. The arm trembled, but did not falter. "Aye!" he shouted, hoarse but strong, and his fellows joined him in a cheer.

Nathaniel smiled, then pulled his bow free and put a bow at the string. "Then follow me!" He paused on the top stair, long enough to fire his fleetest arrow into the distant darkspawn swarm. And then he rushed down the open stairway, another arrow at the ready to follow its mate, leading the charge forward.

-x-

It took Elissa and Basch together, one flanking on each side, to dispatch a particularly tough alpha; when it was down, she took a moment to breathe and look over the battlefield. "Well," she said, "at least now we know where the darkspawn are."

Basch grunted, a noise that Elissa suspected passed for a hurried laugh. He looked over her shoulder, then pointed; she glanced in that direction and saw a familiar dull orange light. "A gate stone," he said. "Cover me as I activate it." Elissa took a defensive stance with a nod, and he slipped behind her. A genlock tried to follow, but she clocked it with her shield and it fell with a scream.

"There." She turned in time to see Basch stepping back from the stone, which now glowed. "An escape, should we require one-- ahh!"

Together they took a leap back as the stone brightened yet more, and one, two, three figures began to coalesce into human forms. Familiar forms -- Ashe, Al-Cid Margrace, and... Maker's breath, was that Alistair? Elissa could only gape as the light cooled and fell into the planes of his face. The glow subsided and he was solid and real, a hand reaching out to her.

"Elissa!" Alistair's hand landed on her cheek, and from force of habit she leaned into his touch. "Thank the Maker we found you, we have news--"

"News later," she said, taking his hand and then letting it drop. "Darkspawn first."

Alistair tore his gaze from her face, and his mouth hardened. "Darkspawn first," he agreed; he drew his sword free and charged with a shout.

It took them another half hour of hard fighting to clear out the darkspawn from Giruvegan, or so Elissa reckoned -- even with all her experience in the Deep Roads, she had never gotten the knack of telling time without help from the sun. Regardless, it was a long, hard slog, pressing up and down stairs. Elissa was tired, sore, and covered in small cuts and bruises. She stepped over a genlock with an arrow through one eye and a gaping hole she presumed to be a bullet hole through the other, and she took a look around. This landing was like most of the others, except it ended in a ledge over the abyss. Looking down, she could see the small markers indicating that a glowing green walkway would appear if she approached; she kicked the genlock corpse over the side, and the first of the ethereal platforms sprung to life. She turned to look at Basch, then Ashe. "That way, then?"

"That is the path to the Great Crystal and the place of the Occuria, yes. Our intended destination." Basch looked to Ashe for confirmation. "Unless you have come to tell us otherwise."

Ashe nodded. "You must not enter the Great Crystal. We have found information in our research to suggest that it has been infested by the Blight, perhaps through an alliance with the darkspawn."

"We discovered records of darkspawn coming here before," Alistair said. "We think they must be back. Intelligent darkspawn, like the one you killed in Amaranthine."

"The Architect?" Elissa raised an eyebrow. "You mean, there are more of them?"

"There must be." Ashe gestured toward the crystal. "Do you see the corruption spreading through the crystal?"

"Yes. We noticed it as we passed." Balthier looked at Fran. "Some of us more than others."

"Well. I'm not sure what we should do next, then." Elissa turned in the direction of the walkway, where an oddly familiar shape caught her eye. "Where does this lead?"

"To a waystone," Basch replied. "Which transports you into the Great Crystal. On our previous journey, we battled our way through the mysterious pathways there, finding another waystone to the Occuria's dwelling place."

"So there's not usually an Eluvian there?"

Basch's brow furrowed. "A what?"

Elissa pointed toward the waystone. "An Eluvian. It's a sort of gate, used by the ancient elves of Thedas to travel long distances. Not unlike your stones, I suppose."

Fran joined Elissa at the edge and peered into the distance. "It looks like a mirror," she said. "And the waystone is gone. This Eluvian has somehow replaced it."

"We must investigate." Ashe stepped onto the walkway, and Elissa fell into step behind her, sword drawn. As they approached the final platform, the surface of the Eluvian shimmered, and Elissa stopped, flinging her hand out in front of Ashe to stop her.

"Wait!" she shouted. "Something's coming through."

No longer a cloudy mirror, the surface had turned a deep purple, a pattern of lines resolving into a swirl, and woman stepped out, her dark hair piled on her head, her pale eyes flashing.

Elissa took an involuntary step forward. "Morrigan."

Properly named, she nodded. Then she reached back through the mirror and pulled out by the hand a small boy, his hair as dark as hers. He immediately clung to her side, and she put her arm around his shoulders to pull him close.

Behind Elissa, Alistair took a sharp breath; without looking, she stilled him with a hand. "Morrigan," she said again. "What are you doing here?"

Morrigan raised her eyebrows with a half smile. "The same thing you are, Warden. Saving the world. Again." She nodded toward the rest of the group. "And I suggest we get started, before it is too late."