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Mind Games

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Emily gave the door a bit too much momentum as she got out of the car, and it slammed. The sound intensified the tension headache she’d earned earlier that day. It had set in three hours ago, a natural result of staring at a computer screen from breakfast until closing.

When she approached her doorstep, however, Emily saw a package rested next to the jute doormat. Anticipation soothed her headache somewhat, and she bent to collect the box.

<Is this it? Finally? Bah. No return address. Clearly not my Amazon order – and I’m not waiting for anything else, so it must be...> Excitement rising, she fumbled her keys from her pocket and unlocked the front door of her house. Emily hung them on her key hook, kicked her shoes off under the shoe rack, and dumped her backpack on the small table she reserved for that purpose.

Daily ritual complete, the last of the tension melted from her shoulders. Emily carried the box into the kitchen where she fetched a box cutter from the junk drawer. Laying into the package seals, she teased herself, <It could be a bomb, not some super-duper new technology product guaranteed to blow the minds of gamers everywhere...>

It could have been a bomb, but it wasn’t. The plain brown exterior packaging opened, and inside was a sleek, black cardboard box with a twisted infinity symbol etched atop it in laser foil. <Oh yeah! THIS IS IT! MY AURA!> She sliced the plastic circle tab that secured the inner box and pulled the thin band out of the protective foam lining.

The band was charcoal grey and shaped like a horseshoe. It felt flexible, a soft plastic over a solid inner-core of metal. At the open ends both flattened, exposing two inner pads. Outside, the same infinity symbol glinted, giving the user a stylish appearance. Emily’s new Aura looked like a Muse headband. Aura Co. probably even took the idea from them. Emily didn’t care where the technology came from, it was what this baby was designed to do that excited her. <Who cares if I’ve been staring at a computer all day? Time to check out my new toy.>

She checked the box for anything else and immediately found a user guide with a download address and application key stickered to the back. A wireless USB receiver and an inductive charging pad nested in the bottom under plastic. <Cutting edge,> she thought, impressed and already planning her review, <I have to give them marks for presentation.>

While she waited for the software to download and install, Emily made herself a cup of tea and read the user guide, jotting down notes about her first impressions. <Pre-charged. Do not use for periods exceeding four hours… leave feedback on the Aura website… hmm, different modes? Nice. During gaming sessions, it uses your subconscious to provide context and fill in blanks? That’s interesting…> Ten minutes later, her system was ready, and Emily slid the Aura on over her hair. Following the diagram in the manual, the contact surface fell naturally against her temples. On her screen, the setup wizard guided her through exercises to gain control over her system with her mind – opening and closing programs, inputting text into her word-processor by thought, and finally… the setup for Theta Mode.

Blinking on the screen, she saw, “ENTER EMERGENCY EXIT PASSPHRASE:”

Up until this point, the presentation of the Aura had been flawless. Even the user guide was upbeat and minimized the chances of experiencing dry mouth, sexual dysfunction, seizures, and/or death.

<Okaaay,> thought Emily, finding that blunt, crimson text strangely confronting.   <Bold, 24 point, bright red font. I guess Theta Mode is a big deal. Should we put it away?> Her internal dialogue didn’t seem to affect the Aura’s control of her system at all. In fact, it took effort and intent to make the system function, which was good. <No way. If this thing can do what the company claims…>

A frustrating circular process began where the Aura software first informed Emily that her passphrase was too short, then not complex enough, then suggested a fucking poem. Finally, she worked it out and settled on some Placebo lyrics she was pretty sure she wouldn’t forget. She input it three times.

Her chipper mood broken, Emily jotted down a few more notes for her review, then picked up her phone and called Lucas. He answered after a couple rings with paper rustling in the background, “Hey, Em.”

“Hey Lucas. You know that product- the one I signed the nondisclosure about? It’s arrived.“

“What is it, anyway?” Lucas asked, crunching on something while he talked. It sounded like an apple, and she tuned it out.

“I can’t tell you. Nondisclosure, remember? Look, the thing is – it’s got some pretty heavy warnings on it. Can you call me in an hour and check on me?”

“Sure thing,” Lucas replied, then asked with a grin in his voice, “If it’s anything like  that Japanese controller-“

“-No,” Emily chuckled, resisting the urge to tell him more, “Better.”

“What could be better?” Lucas demanded.

“Lucas-” Emily added in a warning tone, though she grinned even even wider, “Talk to you later. One hour!” She hung up before he could get anything further out of her. Two seconds later, she received an SMS - a poop emoji, courtesy of Lucas. She laughed as she turned back to her computer.

“Alright, Theta Mode... let’s see what you got. What to play…?” she asked herself aloud, scanning the heap of icons on her desktop. Her eyes fell on Dragon Age: Inquisition. Mentally, she both squealed and blanched at the same time – then opened the game.

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Character generation was a breeze. Eyes closed, somehow the game projected inside her head even as her mind sent signals back to control it. She no longer had to struggle with sliders or cycle through endless bad choices. She thought of what she wanted her avatar to be, and so it was.

She thought about being human, which was her natural inclination, but decided if she’s doing a review about a product like the Aura, she should try outrageous. <Outrageous but fun - so ew, no qunari. Maybe next playthrough when I’m feeling more adventurous. Dwarf? I’ll get a neckache looking up at everything… elf? Okay, that has a certain appeal.>

Emily stuck with the default name of Ellana Lavellan, pleased that she didn’t have to enter the text – her selections just happened. It was surreal.

<This thing is amazing. We’re not even in the game  yet…> Emily – Ellana now – giddily thought. Youthful vitality flooded through her as her mind accepted that this form was hers. She felt healthy, slender, and elven. She felt beautiful. In her mind’s eye, moonlight white hair fell down the right side of her face, the opposing side shorn close to her skull. Her chin was pointed, ears flat, mouth full, and eyes luminous. <Ahh, if only we could choose our appearance like this when we’re born in the real world…> she thought with a hint of melancholy.

She tried to go without vallaslin, and that was the first time the game didn’t cooperate. It didn’t hurt, she just knew she’d come up against a limitation the game wasn’t designed for. Finally, she selected the pattern of Mythal for aesthetic reasons and made the lines a pale cyan.

<You can’t create an elf without vallaslin in normal play either,> Emily reminded herself, rapt with what her Aura could do despite minor disappointment. <Moving on…> As simple as thinking she was done creating, the scene shifted.

And then the game was real.

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The crackling sound and phosphorescent light that blazed through her right hand felt hot but not painful as Ellana climbed up onto her feet. She felt sore while adjusting to her memory of the backstory, <I – that is Lavellan – just survived an explosion. I wonder if I can experience real pain here? Surely the game wouldn’t allow it…> her musings were interrupted by the sheer volume of sensory input. The air smelled and even tasted strange – like ionized silver. Pale green mist brushed against Lavellan’s skin, cool and moist. A soft hum irritated the back of her mind, source unclear. Ellana found it dizzyingly tangible, and this was the Fade.

Still taking it in and getting used to Lavellan’s body and… memories? <Memories? How the hell – oh, right. My subconscious is filling in the context. Well, what if my brain got it wrong somehow?> Ellana wondered, running the fingers of Lavellan’s right hand over the slash of light in her left. She felt the skin-on-skin contact with uncanny accuracy.

<This-> Ellana began to think, lifting her gaze to survey the strange stone stairs before her and the beacon of light above it. She heard a rustling behind her, and dread cut her off. Ellana knew what was coming, and she confirmed it with a glance over her shoulder. All thoughts of the Aura, product reviews, and Theta Mode escaped her as the skittering of giant spiders sent her pumping Lavellan’s thighs, running at a full tilt up the stairs with an undignified scream. At the top, the blinding figure of a woman outstretched her glowing hand, seeming to offer sanctuary. Desperately, Ellana closed Lavellan’s fingers around it.

She was pulled, then pushed through the rift.

>>><<<

A smouldering rush of scorching air, then Ellana fell several feet down and forward. Her hands failed to come up quickly enough to shield her, and she met the hot, crumbled earth face-first. <Oh. I guess… I really can feel pain here,> thought Ellana as her face bloomed into searing, white-hot agony, and her vision went dark.

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Glistening drops of water dripped from the grate above her. One landed on her cheek, and Ellana startled awake. Beneath her, a rancid mattress of hay uncomfortably prodded her skin. The mould in the cell, for a cell it was, palpably burned her nose and throat. The scents of decaying meat and blood worsened it. The mark on her left hand felt both raw and numb, like an electrical current was continuously passing through it, slowly building to some dangerous crescendo. <Okay, I don’t remember this part of the game. Do I just imagine scenes now? Is this my subconscious? Dark, Emily, dark. I can’t imagine actually wanting to wake up in a cold, stinking cell. Not even as something to file under ‘alternative experiences’.>

She felt surprisingly well, given the last memory she had was the sickening crunch of the cartilage in her nose as it impacted a rock. Concerned, she reached up to touch her face. As she did, heavy iron manacles spaced by a bar hampered the movement and made a loud noise. Having never been bound in her life, Ellana found it disconcerting, but her nose was healed – it didn’t even tingle. What she did feel was a deep exhaustion, like the energy had been drained out of the very cells of her body. Everywhere, except for her left hand. It cast a soft green glow in the cell, lighting it up.

Ellana noted that she was chilled to numbness. Sitting up slowly, she saw an empty wooden chair beside the low mattress on which she sat, itself on a wooden frame. There was nothing else in the tiny prison, not even a waste bucket.

It was a dank, six-by-nine stone room with a grate less than a foot above her, and an iron-barred door ahead. The only light came from her hand and the flicker of torches outside the cell. It was also disconcertingly dim to a mind accustomed to halogen lights. Despite wanting nothing more than to sleep again, she forced herself to her feet once she saw that there were guards outside the cell. <Oh thank god, people!> Lavellan’s mind rebelled, however, schooling Ellana to caution. She took little comfort in the presence of shems, even as Ellana identified the humans as her own kind. <This is weird. Will I always be so conflicted?> No answer presented itself.

Her movements alerted the guards that were keeping vigil outside. The middle-aged one said to his younger companion, voice natural but carrying in the stone chamber, “The knife-ear’s awake. Go alert the Seeker.” Whilst the junior man nodded and headed off, the older guard turned toward the cell and spat on the floor. Ellana grimaced with distaste, but the guard appeared undeterred as he addressed her, “Elf. You’re a long way from home. You’re gonna die for what you did.”

<A long way from home? You don’t know the half of it,> Ellana thought, considering if maybe this whole scenario was too real and if she might want to use her emergency passphrase to get the hell out. <No… it’s just a game. You’re safe enough. This is a sensory experience. Do it for the fans. I mean, it’s been gross, but incredible so far, right?> But also painful… she could feel pain here. What if she died? Mentally detaching herself enough to calm down, Ellana thought, <It’s a game. Aura Co. would never have released the Aura if true death was a possibility.>

<Prison cells are a lot more uncomfortable than I thought,> she thought only to notice the cell next door, <Jesus Christ, is that a f-f-flayed man?> It was like nothing she’d ever seen or felt before in any video game. Unable to control herself, Ellana bent over and vomited, splashing half across the mattress. The guard smirked, “What’s this? A weak stomach? You’re going to be sleeping in your own filth now, rabbit.”

Another guard approached the bars of her cell, making his comrades look nervous, “You don’t scare me, knife-ear. If you didn’t just vomit, I’d come in there and give you a kiss.” His threat, accompanied by pursed lips and a squeaky smooching sound, made the remaining four guards laugh.

Ellana sensed that the guard was earning some equivalent of street cred by approaching her cell. She yearned to talk back or punch him in the face, but self preservation won. She suspected fighting back would escalate the situation, and she was in no position to win a confrontation, <And this wasn’t in the story. Can I do things that weren’t in the story? How far can I deviate from the script I know? > It occurred to Ellana that she had never finished the game. There was a lot she didn’t know…

Her thoughts were interrupted by the younger guard returning, “The Seeker is coming. She wants the prisoner out of the cell.”

The older guard nodded, and all five started forward. Ellana wondered what kind of resistance they expected that they would need all of them to extract her, bound as she was. Lavellan’s memories rushed forward, providing answers to the questions as if she were a native born of Thedas herself, <Holy shit that is disconcerting. So they probably think I’m a mage or an abomination. Either one could account for their fear, not to mention that I fell out of the fade. And, well, I did select mage, so if that’s something to be legitimately afraid of… wait, do I actually know magic?> Her thoughts paused. <Okay, yes. I do know magic. Holy shit, I know magic! Okay, I am going to stick this through until I can at least cast a spell. I have to know what that’s like, even if vomiting in Theta Mode sucks, and I just smelled the actual smell of a rotting human body. I wonder if there’s a setting to block out the less pleasant experiences- >

The guardsmen drew their swords in unison, the ring of steel snapping Ellana’s attention to where the leader was saying, “Come out. And don’t try anything. Even squint at my boys here funny, and we’ll gut you. Right here, right now. Just give us a reason, mage.” A strange sensation filled Ellana with physical confidence. <Well, well, well. Apparently, I’m no stranger to combat either.> However, the weight of the spaced manacles on her hands and her sheer exhaustion still indicated it’d be a losing battle. <I don’t have any mana,> she realized, <And no weapons. Surrounded by five guards. I’m good, I can feel it, but the odds are clearly against me. Damn, that’s more tactical information than a game has ever given me before…> It also felt so, so natural.

Certain that her choices were a physical confrontation she was sure to lose or cooperation, Ellana stepped out of the cell without assistance, deciding to play it smart. She looked down and made her shoulders slouch, waiting for an opportunity. <See? No threat here.> Immediately, two of the guards on either side gripped Ellana by the upper arms. With bruising force, they dragged her slight, elven form to the centre of the room. They pushed her down there, and then rapidly backed away to where the others spread out, circling her with swords drawn. Ellana looked up just as the door opened once more. A compact woman with short, dark hair and a feral beauty stalked into the room, closely followed by a hooded figure in strangely silent chainmail.

<Cassandra,> Ellana recognized the warrior instantly, uncomfortable with the envy that blossomed in her belly, <Damn, what I wouldn’t do to look like that. Or move like that. Maybe I should have chosen warrior.> Of course, she realized, Lavellan was hardly inferior. As such, she slipped deeper into the game’s personae, looking for the confidence to get through this scene. Her character came to the rescue, taking on the servile posture elves often did. She hoped the Dalish vallaslin wouldn’t deter the shems too much from the image she was trying to project. <They all see an elf and cannot see past it. It doesn’t matter. Look small. Look meek, like the elves they know should.>  Behind Cassandra, Leliana’s  hooded face remained in shadow.

Three quick steps and Cassandra dispelled Ellana's fascination by the simple expedient of stepping into her personal space. “Tell me why we shouldn’t kill you now.” She then began the litany of accusations against Emily, stalking back and forth with her hand on the hilt of a sword that looked too large for her frame. “The conclave is destroyed. Everyone who attended is dead. Except for you.”

<That’s so much more intimidating in person,> thought Ellana, struggling to come up with a response. <Can I only reply using the pre-selected options? But I don’t remember any of them, and there’s no dialogue. Shit, how do I work this thing?!> The scene demanded an answer. Cassandra demanded an answer. Conflicted and trying to figure out how to select a dialogue option when she couldn’t see or sense them, Ellana sat rigidly on her knees, failing to respond. Frustrated, Cassandra accosted Ellana, grabbing her left wrist and wrenching both her hand up, “Explain this!”

The mark embedded in Ellana's palm blazed fiercely in response to her emotions, Emily’s internal conflict broken by physical touch. She jerked her hand out of Cassandra’s grip, snarling, “Don’t touch me!” <Oh shit, that was off script…and not in line with playing along.> Cassandra growled, lunging forward, and Ellana fell back, literally landing on her ass trying to get away. There was nowhere to go, however, and Cassandra grabbed Ellana viciously by the shoulders, fingers digging into the same bruises the guards had started earlier. For their part, the guardsmen remained in an alert circle around the women, but did not intervene – it was Leliana, stepping forward so the light struck her face, who did, “We need her, Cassandra.”  

Cassandra scowled, and Leliana came forward, her voice softer. Friendlier. “Do you remember what happened? How this began?”

<Wait, did they just good-cop, bad-cop me?> Ellana wondered, deciding to adlib what she knew of the responses that kept her alive, “Some… it’s a bit of a daze. I remembered… being chased. There were stone stairs, and then - a woman?”

“A woman?” Leliana interjected as Ellana congratulated herself on seemingly getting it right. <What happens when I can’t remember the dialogue though?> she wondered.

“Yes. She reached out to me… took my hand. Saved me from the demons...” Ellana cut off when Cassandra shook her head, addressing Leliana, “Go to the forward camp, Leliana. I will take her to the rift.”

Leliana tilted her chin up, and called back as she turned to leave, “Don’t hurt her, Cassandra.” The Seeker scowled.

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Travelling with Cassandra was not as fun as Ellana remembered. She still couldn’t help but watch the Seeker out of the corner of her eye. She’d already gotten over how real the woman and everything else around her felt and looked, and she was instead trying to reconcile the very different feeling she had from her first playthrough of the game’s introduction.

Cassandra wasn’t “a good, faithful holy warrior” in Ellana's perception, she was a downright thug. She had taken the manacles off Ellana's wrists only to tie them roughly together again with rope, then dragged her out before the people with hard, unforgiving hands. The stares were harsh and judgmental, and Cassandra’s monologue did nothing to assuage Ellana's anger at her treatment.

Icy air burned Ellana’s lungs as Cassandra led them along the path to the Temple of Sacred Ashes, and the crowd of commoners thinned away to nothing. As they came to a clearing, unobserved, Cassandra finally turned to Ellana and cut through the ropes that bound her. <Wait, was that a show?> Ellana rubbed her wrists, eyes narrowed on Cassandra, and followed her further up the mountain path.

Neither Cassandra’s words nor her internal dialogue were very reassuring, <What am I going to do? There are demons on this path, and the most real combat experience I have is karate class. I haven’t stepped in a dojo since I was eighteen, and it was hand to hand. Those are fucking swords. Cassandra’s walking around with an actual sword, which she actually uses to kill things. And people. I’m certain of it.> There weren’t many good choices though – run away and freeze to death? Not only was Ellana not sure what would happen if she tried to go outside the bounds of the game, she was no survivalist either. <I’m a goddamn inner-city girl who works at a computer all day and plays video games for kicks. A decade-old skim of the U.S. Army Survival Manual is not going to save my ass out here-> Then Lavellan’s memories come flooding forward, reminding her that she’s Dalish and a part of her has actually lived in the wilderness, <Okay, maybe I can use some of that. But I bet if I take off running, Cassandra will draw that people-killing sword and come after me. She looks better fed than I feel, and the mark is killing me. If I can shut down the breach, maybe I can run then…>

It didn’t even occur to Ellana to use her passphrase until the breach above pulsed, and the mark on Ellana's left hand surged as if she’d deliberately grabbed a live wire. Falling to her knees, she screamed, mind blanked by the pain and passphrase forgotten. When it eased off, Cassandra was helping her up, “-and it is killing you.”

<Passphrase, passphrase, get the fuck out now!> Ellana ignored Cassandra and groped for it, <What was it again? A Placebo lyric… let’s see…> She tried again and again, but nothing happened. Panic set in, <I know that lyric, why didn’t it work? How could I input it wrong three fucking times?>  Cassandra, oblivious to the source of Ellana's distress, awaited an answer. “I understand,” Ellana finally replied, sensing that Cassandra might turn violent if she didn’t stop internalizing and pay attention, “I’ll do anything I can to help.” That appeared to be enough for Cassandra whose face softened only a hint as she turned back to the path. Ellana followed her, much less content, in a lingering state of genuine despair.   

Terrifying balls of green fire fell from the sky as they climbed, and Ellana’s mind frantically trying to find a solution to her dilemma. Everything felt too real, too sharp, and she couldn’t get out of the experience. She could still taste ionization in the air. In fact, the atmosphere seemed to hum as they made their way closer to the breach, setting her teeth on edge. At least her body warmed from the exertion of climbing a thousand broken, treacherous steps up the side of a mountain.

Finally, they came to the bridge. Cassandra started across it, but Ellana shied away, knowing that a ball of green lightning would hit the thing and cause it to explode. Her despair was pushed aside momentarily for practical matters of survival. <I don’t want broken ribs, though come to think of it, how did my nose get healed? I’m certain it was smashed – oh. Of course. Solas. Well, if I didn’t have enough reasons to move forward, I guess meeting my favorite characters in person...> Cassandra turned around on the bridge and demanded, clear as day, “What are you waiting for?” <Wait… that wasn’t in the game script either.>

“Ah… nothing?” Ellana gave Cassandra an irritated look, not sure why she felt like she’d been caught with her hand in the cookie jar, but accepting that she wasn’t emotionally stable at the moment. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to calm and step onto the bridge. BOOM!

They both tumbled ass over tea kettle. Ellana landed face flat against the ice, wondering if that was  going to become habitual, and groaned. She looked to where Cassandra laid amongst the rubble, and noted that the guards at the top of the bridge were safe but in no position to help. <Ow. OW. So much for deviating from the script.> But they had deviated already. In little ways, sure, but they had definitely deviated. Whilst Ellana fought to bring herself back into focus, wondering how the hell the creators of the Aura thought it was okay to allow people to feel pain so acutely, Cassandra was already on her feet. Another strike of green lightning brought a demon into their midst, and she marched forward like a machine, saying, “Stay behind me.”

“Right, right,” Ellana replied, still on her hands and knees, fighting to draw air back into her lungs. Lavellan’s body felt younger and stronger than Ellana’s real one. She hadn’t gotten to her mid-thirties without several injuries, but even so – she had just got blown off a fucking bridge. She was dazed, and if she could avoid the fight by letting a seasoned warrior of Thedas deal with it, she sure as shit would. Unfortunately, Ellana forgot the second demon. As Cassandra was fully engaged with the first, the ground boiled between her and the Seeker. Ellana squeaked in panic, scrambling away from it across slippery ice. Just a few feet away, she spied a conveniently placed staff and scrambled to snatch it.

The moment Ellana’s hands closed around the staff was like a circuit closing. The force that had subtly surrounded her prior, which Ellana thought was just an unusual taste in the air, blazed. <Oh, wow, this is why they call a staff a focus…> Thankfully, Lavellan’s reflexes knew exactly what to do. Throwing up a hand, she siphoned some of that blazing aura into the palm of her hand. Flashfire coalesced in a point just beyond the center of her palm, roiling about itself like liquid flame. The heat blazed just long enough warm her fingers before it zipped across the space between Ellana and the rising demon, cutting an audible shriek through the air.  <I cast a spell. Fuck yeah! I cast a spell!> The fire bolt struck the demon unerringly. It screamed, turning towards her.

<Oh shit - did I just… attract it’s attention??> Cassandra dispatched the other demon just as Ellana allowed her body’s training to take over. She twirled and slung a bolt of ice off the knob of the staff. It curved an unlikely path through the air, striking the demon, and she reflexively sent another, then another, <One, two, three. Just like a rugby net with auto-refill. >

Cassandra turned to see the demon Ellana fought disintegrating between them. Lavellan standing there with the staff, chest heaving, caused a fierce reaction. Cassandra marched across the battlefield, pointing her sword at her, “Drop. Your. Weapon- Now!”

Ellana stared at the tip of the sword, pointed unwaveringly at her throat and realized, <She’s actually afraid of me. Well, maybe not scared precisely, but she sees me as a genuine threat .> It was hard for Ellana to digest that a woman like Cassandra, so vibrant and physically everything Ellana could wish to be, saw her thus. Ellana responded carefully, not remembering the dialogue, “You have nothing to fear from me, Cassandra. I will help you close the breach, but this path is not safe.”

“You do not need to fight-“ Cassandra began, gaze forceful and stance confident, the earlier glimpse of fear tucked out of sight. Ellana tapped the heavy staff in her left hand with her right, feeling its weight and interrupting, “Yes, I do. I took up this staff to defend myself, because a demon attacked me. Neither of us can afford to be unarmed.”

The blade at Ellana’s throat did not waver at all whilst Cassandra’s grey eyes stared into Ellana's own, willing the other woman to break her gaze first. After a long moment, Cassandra seemed to realize that Ellana was not the cringing elf she had appeared to be earlier. This did not seem to reassure the other woman, but she abruptly said, “You’re right.”

Turning away, Cassandra began to lead Ellana further into the pass, sword still held at the ready. Ellana followed, mind churning, <It’s close… but that’s not exactly what Cassandra said when I first played. I’m sure of it. I’m sure she sheathed her blade last time too. Is this just an option I didn’t select? … and what, now she just doesn’t trust me? How weird and off-script can this game get?> It occurred to Ellana that this version of Cassandra had already began to take on a life of her own.

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“They’re falling from the breach!” Cassandra shouted, running down a slope to engage the demons spilling out of it. Ellana felt a prickle of fear in her throat. She still felt weak, almost devoid of what she’d come to understand as her mana, but that weakness didn’t apply to the mark on her hand. Knuckles turning white around her staff, she spun it in the pattern Lavellan’s instincts demanded and threw cold blasts of energy with the staff’s support. The shimmering, silvery-blue bolts visibly distorted the air as they flew, pursued by a harsh, practically subsonic hum. Lavellan and Cassandra fought until icy sweat broke on their brows, and a momentary pause in the onslaught allowed them to break for the path. Demons touched down in green fire before and behind them, milling about aimlessly when the women went unnoticed, and giving chase until dispatched when seen.

Finally, the path up snow and ice-covered stairs became narrow and bent back far enough to hide them from the demons’ sight. Though wearing Lavellan’s body put Ellana into peak physical condition, she couldn’t help but begin to appreciate the reality of living in a world like Thedas, <Times a hundred with demons pouring from the sky and trying to kill you.> She placed the butt of her staff in the ice and bent over it, gasping whilst her heart hammered against her chest.

Cassandra allowed the moment’s rest, drawing in great breaths herself, then cocked her head as she heard something in the distance, “We’re getting close to the rift. You can hear the fighting.” Indeed, Ellana’s ears seemed sharp enough, though until that moment she hadn’t truly known what battle sounded like. Once the sound was identified, she could easily hear what Cassandra did.

Now that she wasn’t fighting for her life, Ellana wanted to take a moment to contemplate why her passphrase hadn’t worked. <Did I somehow mess up those Placebo lyrics when I put them in? Or does exiting Theta Mode just not work? If I die here, am I really dead?> She felt panic rising, but it was interrupted as Cassandra set off, beckoning with her sword. Ellana pushed it down, and trotted after the other woman, relieved for a distraction even as she thought, <Seriously?! I’m not a bloody machine like you, dammit!> but her heart had calmed enough that it probably wouldn’t explode if they continued. Probably.

The slipperiness of the ice hampered her progress in a way that Ellana hadn’t experienced since childhood, heading out into the cold to shovel snow. <And twisting stone steps up the side of a mountain are far more treacherous than digging out my mom’s poor Toyota.>

They reached the top of the stairs, the sounds the battle now loud enough to hurt Lavellan’s sensitive ears.  Ahead, she saw an elf and a dwarf fighting off a veritable horde of demons, alone. Hanging above their heads, an amorphous mass of chartreuse light splintered and sucked itself back like a solar flare battling a black hole. Each time it pulsed, the mark in Ellana’s hand crackled, attuning itself to the wavelength of the tear in reality. Ozone burned her nose.

<No one could survive that…> Ellana drew up short, throat closing with terror. The only thing between her and the battle was a wall that dropped off into a clearing below. Cassandra ran right past her, without hesitation declaring, “We must help them!”

Bending to put a hand down on the ground, Cassandra swung her body forward and gracefully dropped the scant five feet. Ellana stared for a split second, then allowed Cassandra’s bravery to urge her into the fray. Imitating the warrior woman’s descent, Ellana felt gratified that her elven body had managed the acrobatic drop without protest.

She ran towards the fight thinking, <Who knows? Maybe if I die in-game, I’ll wake up.>

It felt like a big maybe.

Chapter Text

The fight was brutal, but somehow Ellana managed to remain unscathed as they struggled their way to the Seeker’s allies. Cassandra was soon separated from Ellana by the tide of demons. As Ellana drew even to the tall elven man, whom she recognized from her previous play of the game, she was startled when he roughly grabbed her wrist with a strong, calloused hand. Dragging her palm upwards and angling the mark towards the rift, he shouted with desperation, “Quickly, before more come through!”

The elven man’s aura merged with hers at the point of contact. It felt wild, powerful, and more intimate than any stranger had a right to be. Ellana wanted to protest, but she could see how the battle was going. She was tiring, and no doubt the others were too. If something didn’t change, they weren’t going to survive.

So she let him.

The other elf rapidly twisted their auras into strands of power that wound together, forming an incredibly beautiful, intricate pattern invisible to mundane eyes. Their joined mana started where his grasp tightened about her wrist, but he slide it through her hand and into the mark. Abruptly, the elf pushed the plaited power through the mark, where the pattern warped. The paradigm of the working blazed in Ellana’s psyche as the energy jumped into the visible spectrum of light. A writhing green line that resisted control flung into the rift for all companions to see. Upon contact, the light snapped into place, struggling against her and the rift like lightning trying to break away from its tether. The man’s  aura withdrew from hers, but the process he started continued. Untamed power flowed from the rift into Ellana’s hand, rising in crescendo until the portal itself... failed.  

Silently, the rift exploded. A breeze spun away from it, ruffling everyone’s hair. Around them, the remaining demons fractured into motes of light, blowing away like ashes.

“What did you do?” Ellana demanded as she snatched her hand back, referring more to the elf’s competent violation of her aura with his own rather than the actual closing of the rift - she had seen the latter on a screen before, after all. In person, the elf’s presence was entirely different. Though his posture was politely reserved, he was tall enough to loom if he so desired. Ellana had to tilt her head significantly to demand her answer. His hair was shaved close enough to be nearly invisible and he was immaculately clean. He wore rough spun garb that wouldn’t be out of place in any rural village, and his attire belied the value of the magestaff that glittered in his hands.

“I did nothing,” the elven man claimed calmly in a resonant baritone. He weighed Ellana with his cool blue eyes in return as the others came within earshot, “the credit is yours.” Cassandra was the first to reach them while Ellana’s expression reflected both disbelief and suspicion. She opened her mouth to clarify her question to his actual magical intervention, but he seemed to sense where she was going and continued before she could speak, “Whatever magic opened the sky also placed that mark upon your hand. I theorized the mark may be able to close the rifts the opened in the breach’s wake, and it seems I was correct.”

Ellana decided to drop her query in the immediate, given Cassandra’s arrival. Instead, she investigated, observing the mark with the part of Lavellan that recognized itself as a mage and was able to ‘see’ auras. Rift energy swirled violently around her, lacing her aura with emerald veins, but the mark itself felt satiated, like a kitten slumbering after a feast. <Right. If a kitten had fangs as well as claws, weighed over 200 pounds, and had the worst disposition> , Ellana told herself, awed by the vibrancy of the experience. <Another win for Theta Mode.> 

Cassandra seemed hopeful rather than mistrustful, and brought Ellana’s attention back to matters at hand by extrapolating, “Meaning it could also close the breach itself.”

“Possibly,” the elven man allowed, clasping his hands before his waist. The set of his shoulders evoked Ellana’s memory of when she too had slouched and pretended to ‘be an elf’ in her cell. He also sounded a little too ingratiating when he dipped his head to Ellana and suggested indulgently, “It seems you hold the key to our salvation.”

As Ellana opened her mouth to respond, the rugged dwarf with the fine coppery blonde hair interrupted, “Good to know. Here I thought we’d be ass-deep in demons forever.” Ellana turned her unasked question into a smile, deciding not to be irritated on the account of just how entertaining his demeanor was.

“Varric Tethras,” the diminutive man said, swaggering up to Ellana, “Rogue, storyteller, and occasionally, unwelcome tagalong.” The last was said looking at Cassandra, though Varric offered his warm, gloved hand to Ellana to shake. <Okay, dwarves in Thedas? Nothing like human dwarves. Does that mean human dwarves exist in Thedas? Am I an asshole for even wondering?> Ellana accepted the handshake – which was firm, but not overpowering – and he winked at her.

<Varric is kind of hot,> Ellana grinned to herself silently, < Well, if you can get past the barrier of his being an entirely different species. Though… I guess technically humans are out for me as well at the moment...> She cast a brief speculative glance at the elven man, but tore it back before it became noticable. Lips curling into a wry smile just for Varric, Ellana wondered if the handsome-if-somewhat-dirty dwarf was flirting with her. <Did I give a false signal? Stare too long at his chest hair? If so, I only did because it’s like negative three degrees out here, and his shirt practically exposes his navel. Who wouldn’t stare at that?> Ellana, momentarily speechless, decided to fall back on good manners, “Nice to meet you.”

“You may reconsider that stance in time,” the elf jested good-naturedly, stepping up to the edge of Ellana’s personal space, “My name is Solas, if there are to be introductions. I’m pleased to see that you still live.”

Ellana noted that there was no handshake, but Solas did touch his upper left shoulder as he introduced himself. Elven manners, Lavellan's memories confirmed.

<Hmm. He is … extremely clean. Far cleaner than Varric or Cassandra… or me. Oh my god, am I as filthy as they are?> Ellana noted with absolute horror that she was covered in a good coat of dungeon, plus demon fighting sweat, plus general I-probably-haven’t-bathed-in-three-days grime. She couldn’t help but notice her own stench. <It’s not half so embarrassing to be dirty as when you meet someone that’s fastidiously clean.> Mute with embarrassment, she was grateful when Varric cut in again, grinning, “He means, I kept that mark from killing you while you slept.”

“-Right. Ma serannas,” Ellana remembered her broken nose also, hand coming up to unconsciously touch it. Solas smiled at her thanks, wrapping both of his long-fingered hands around the neck of his staff and listening attentively. Not entirely sure what she had done to earn such full attention, Ellana decided to remain courteous - at least, as well as she could manage from accessing Lavellan’s contextual memory. She copied Solas’ elven manner of greeting, “I’m Em- ah- Ellana. Ellana Lavellan.” She caught herself hesitating slightly on the name, used to thinking of herself as Emily despite what she had entered into chargen. She saw her mistake register in Solas’ gaze, but his smile wavered not at all. <There must be some secret elf pact, like ‘we don’t out each other’s lies to the shems when they’re surrounding us and armed to the teeth’ sort of thing.> Lavellan’s knowledge didn’t seem to cover anything of the sort, but it also didn’t rule out Ellana’s hypothesis. Two elven mages in their situation would probably cover for one another.  

“Cassandra,” Solas turned from Ellana to address the Seeker, using the familiar name and betraying their close relationship, “You should know, the magic here is unlike any I have seen. Your prisoner is a mage-“ he dipped his head towards Ellana in acknowledgement, and Ellana had the sense that he was trying to ingratiate himself again, “-but I find it difficult to imagine any mage having such power.”

Ellana reached up to pinch the bridge of her nose with her right hand, <What is going on here? Well, at least Solas seems to be doing me a solid by suggesting I’m not capable of being guilty of causing all of this.> Delving into Lavellan’s memory provided Ellana context, <This is so much better than wading through codices...> Cassandra was a Seeker, a high ranking official within the Chantry; something like their internal police force. They had a close relationship with the Templars, who were currently at war with mages. Solas was clearly a mage, representative of the Templar’s major adversary. Somehow, he had managed to gain the position of a trusted advisor, at least on matters of the breach, and potentially the arcane at large. <No small feat,> Ellana silently admitted. Cassandra certainly took what the elf said at face value, replying only, “Understood. We must get to the forward camp quickly.”

Varric, meanwhile, was clearly not in Cassandra’s good graces - the Seeker gave the dwarf a final, disapproving side-eye before turning up the mountain path, Solas falling naturally into step behind her. Ellana gave Varric her own quizzical, side-long look as they were left to their own devices. Varric chuckled at her expression, patting his sophisticated crossbow, “Well, Bianca’s excited.”

As he started to follow, Ellana fell in step beside him. She couldn’t help but ask, “What was all of that about?” She kept enough distance between herself, Cassandra and Solas to ensure that human ears, at least, couldn’t overhear. “What do you mean?” Varric responded, his short legs remarkably agile. He kept pace with Ellana easily enough, and whilst she wasn’t as tall as Solas, she had another third on Varric in height.

“Well,” Ellana tried to find words that wouldn’t betray that she’s not just an unfortunate Dalish girl caught in the middle of all this, “You all clearly know one another…”

“Ahh, indeed,” Varric nodded and cheerfully clarified, “The Seeker, well. She’s the Seeker. Imagine the Chantry in all its glory and that’s all you need to know.” Varric caught Ellana’s eye and widened his own just so, sending Ellana a subtle warning. <I see. Well, I’ll toe the line in front of her then,> Ellana nodded slightly to show she got the message as Varric continued, “Chuckles is an apostate mage. Showed up just after the conclave bought it. No idea why the Seeker trusts him, but he seems the decent sort. He certainly spent enough time patching you up.”

“Technically,” Solas called over his shoulder, proving that elven hearing was indeed more sensitive than human counterparts, “We’re all apostates now.” Cassandra ignored the talk, gesturing with her sword as they came to a tight pass barred by a door set into the base of a squat watchtower, “Demons ahead!”

“Already? Fenedhis!” Ellana swore, unlimbering her staff. Cassandra waded into the melee, shouting, “Another rift!”

“We must seal it, quickly!” Solas slung a ball of ice from his staff as a demon attacked, catching it as it moved in to flank the Seeker. Varric shot one dead between the eyes and reloaded Bianca with unusual speed.

There weren’t as many demons as there had been below, so Ellana decided to chance it. She slipped silently through the trees, past a broken cart. Pausing, she climbed atop the wooden structure and tried to remember what Solas had done through her before. Somehow, her mage brain remembered. With relief, she flung her hand to the sky, twisting her power alone into the intricate plait of energy that abruptly flared into verdant life when it anchored to the rift. It was easier for her to control when the power she channeled was her own, instead of the brutal river of her and Solas’ merged energies.

The rift exploded, ending the fight abruptly. The demons faded away as Ellana hopped down from the cart. Solas set the butt his staff in the dirt and declared with approval, “Sealed, as before. You are becoming quite proficient at this.” Ellana couldn’t help but wonder if he was trying to curry favor, <And in his shoes, I might as well. Mages are not liked in Thedas, nor elves. I suspect we’re both in a precarious position.> Solas simply smiled, mouth closed, and gestured for her to move ahead to where a wooden door stood, barring their passage.

Ellana returned Solas’ smile with a broader one of her own, and pushed the door open. Beyond it, the forward camp awaited.

Chapter Text

Ellana and her companions marched forth as one, coming within earshot a heated argument between the Left Hand of the Divine, Leliana, and a cleric of dignified years. “We must prepare the soldiers,” the woman opined to which her elderly adversary heatedly countered, pressing his forefinger to the map on the table, “We will do no such thing.”

Ellana was in the lead, with Cassandra just behind. As Leliana caught sight of them, the Left Hand of the Divine abandoned the quarrel to say with substantial relief, “You made it. Chancellor Roderick, this is-“

“I know who she is,” the cleric said, directing his words to Cassandra as he pointed vehemently at Ellana, “As Grand Chancellor of the Chantry, I hereby order you to take this criminal to Val Royeaux to face execution.” Ellana’s eyes narrowed perceptibly. Preparing to defend herself, she shifted her weight to the balls of her feet and reached a hand behind to grip her staff. She need not have bothered.

“Order me?” Cassandra scoffed, face twisting with derision, “You are a glorified clerk- a bureaucrat.” Ellana marveled at how the warrior’s face remained strikingly beautiful under layers of filth and an expression that could murder from six feet away.

“And you’re a thug,” Roderick shot back, gesticulating broadly, “but a thug that supposedly serves the Chantry.” Cassandra took a threatening step forward, right shoulder leading in a stance Ellana had already come to know meant violence.  

Leliana swiftly intervened, tone considerably calmer as she addressed Roderick, “We serve the Most Holy, Chancellor.” To Cassandra, she added a note of rebuke, “As you well know.”

Cassandra scowled, but grudgingly accepted Leliana’s wisdom and relaxed her stance, hand still resting on the hilt of her sword. Roderick was not so forgiving, however, and protested, “Justina is dead! We must elect a new Divine and obey her orders on the matter.”

Rolling her eyes, Ellana decided to seize the role of leadership rather than have it thrust upon her, which she knew would come soon enough. <Best to start showing I’m no wilting wallflower, particularly if we’re going to move past my being elven quickly,> she told herself even as she recalled her lines and observed aloud, “So none of you are actually in charge here.”

From the corner of her eye, Ellana saw Varric’s lips twitch and Solas’ head cock slightly towards her. Cassandra narrowed her eyes in thought, but Roderick redirected his tirade, “You killed everyone who was in charge!”

Ellana tilted her chin up, eyes unwavering on Roderick’s, and deviated from the script, “Your conviction does not make it so.”

The cleric let out a defeated breath, then entreated Cassandra, sounding old and weary, “Call a retreat, Seeker. Our position here is hopeless.” Ellana could see why he felt it so, given the story the map on the table told, and her heart softened.

“We can stop this before it’s too late,” Cassandra refuted, leaning forward urgently and pounding her fist into her opposite hand. “We must.”

How? ” Roderick shook his head in denial, clearly staring into an abyss of despair. His voice turned gentle, trying to coax Cassandra to listen to reason, “You won’t survive long enough to reach the temple, even with all of your soldiers.”

“Yes, we will,” Ellana interceded, daring the game to backlash her for straying off-script and stealing Leliana’s lines. She gestures to the map, “It will be a sacrifice, but your main forces can charge into the valley as a distraction, drawing the demons away so we can reach the breach.” Her fingertips touched the strategic points as she spoke, the vellum soft beneath her fingertips, “A small force can go through the mountains with me on this path here.”

“We lost an entire squad on that path,” Cassandra worried doubtfully at her lip with her teeth, but took Ellana’s suggestion at face value. Leliana stepped forward in support, “I agree. In fact, that is just what I myself planned to suggest.” The redhead's blue eyes passed a puzzled glance over Ellana. She was no doubt wondering how a Dalish elf was so in tune with her thoughts or even aware of military strategy, but she said nothing. It was the chancellor who pressed on.

“Listen to me,” Roderick all but begged, raising his hands together in prayer position before his heart and shaking them beseechingly to the Right and Left Hands of the Divine, “Please, abandon this now before more lives are lost…”

Cassandra gave the elderly man a cold look, “You think only of our lives, Chancellor. It is our sworn duty to give those very lives in service to protect others.” Ellana found herself nodding in agreement, hyper aware of Solas and Varric observing the exchange with twin stoic expressions. They too remained on the outside as Leliana, Cassandra and Ellana closed ranks to discuss the plan.

Seeing Roderick’s helpless discomfort, Varric seemed to make a decision. He circled around to Roderick, gesturing him aside and lending a quiet, sympathetic ear. Varric seemed to know just the right words to soothe the man. Meanwhile, Solas perched on the edge of a nearby supply crate, staff leaning in reach beside him. Around them all, the camp bustled with activity.

Above, almost forgotten in the background, the breach abruptly pulsed.

Ellana, who had been listening to Cassandra and Leliana intently, interrupted with an agonized scream. Her left hand flew into the sky towards the distant breach as if in the clutches of a powerful magnet, flaring with green ghost light. Her legs gave away, and she fell to her knees. Desperately, she grasped her opposing wrist and tried to stand, trying to distance herself from the pain. Solas reacted instantly, springing off the stack of supplies and bounding to Ellana’s side.

Just as he arrived, the breach released her and Ellana collapsed. Tears streaked down her face, and she repeatedly whispered her emergency passphrase over and over to no avail. The others gathered around as Solas knelt beside Ellana, oblivious to her mumbling, and grasped her hand in his. He turned it over in his grip, eyes intent on the mark - then Ellana felt his mana touch hers once more, intimately as if he was running his fingertips across her palm. Solas' examination was both cursory and clinical, however, and he said apologetically, “I fear your mark is now past the point where my healing skills will help you.”

The agony was slow to dissipate, and Ellana gulped down the useless words of the passphrase. When she had control of her muscles once more, she again pulled her hand from his grip. He let go easily, and Ellana took a deep, steadying breath. Wiping her tears away with her thumb, she forced herself to meet Solas’ blue eyes, and said quietly in elven, “[Please don’t touch me with your magic.]”

“Ir abelas,” Solas nodded, addressing her in kind and rising to his full height. He stepped back to give Ellana some space, “[I meant no offense. It was necessary to save your life. I did not think you would mind, given the circumstance.]” 

“Speak the trade tongue,” Cassandra commanded, eyes hard and fists still planted on the table. Solas merely inclined his head to Cassandra whilst Leliana passed a judgmental glance in the warrior’s direction. Silently, Leliana offered Ellana a hand up, which the still-shaking elf gratefully took. <I didn’t know that Cassandra didn’t like elves…> thought Ellana with mild chagrin.

It seemed like Ellana’s Theta Mode was going to reveal a far less sanitized version of what it was like to be an elf in Thedas.

Chapter Text

Cassandra led Varric, Ellana, and Solas up a narrow route along a ridge that forced them to walk single-file. Exposed to the icy wind, every inch of Ellana’s unprotected skin felt as if was massaged by steel wool, but distraction soon presented itself. Her breath was taken away by the sight that unfolded below.

Leliana was first into the valley that cut through the majestic, snow-capped Frostback Mountains. A mass of soldiers followed her, marching four-abreast in uniforms blazing with the Chantry sun. Though the wind swallowed the cadence of the drums they marched to, the troops raised each leg, placed each foot, and surged on as one. No one broke rank. <Is that what a real army on the march looks like, or just a figment of my own subconscious?> Ellana guessed the force was smaller than those she’d seen depicted in American Civil War reenactments, but she was still awed to see so many people move together with a single intent - close the Breach, save the world.

Cassandra called out something about hurrying up, and Ellana tore her attention away from the men and women headed to slaughter below. Intellectually, she felt safe in her assumption that this strategy would lead to success; after all, she had taken this route before. <But it feels so… heavy. I just sent a lot of people to die to ‘cover’ for me. Faces I can actually see now. Of course, if I’d chosen to go into the valley, I’d be putting myself in danger too – but how much danger, I wonder? Can I die here? Will I just wake up? Or will I have an aneurism and never wake up again?>

Questions unanswered, Ellana fought the mountain in silence, the cold seeping into her bones so deeply that her knuckles ached. Her chapped lips bled and she licked them, knowing full well it would only make them worse. <Dammit, Theta Mode, this is too realistic. Am I supposed to survive with frostbite that makes my fingers fall off? And how come Solas’ toes aren’t black with those leg wraps-sans-shoes and Varric isn’t blue and shivering in that shirt? Isn’t THAT unrealistic? It hardly seems fair.>

Eventually they circled the mountainside out of the howling gale and found a semi-sheltered niche. The march of soldiers had disappeared, and a wooden ladder stood against a vertical drop leading to a plank platform made “safe” by a rope barrier above. The ladder seemed a simple challenge compared to the treacherous path. Cassandra led the way once again while Ellana, just behind Varric, took a moment to call out to him, “Okay, how come you’re not freezing in that shirt?”

“What makes you think I’m not?” the diminutive man laughed as he swung Bianca onto his back to free his hands, following close behind Cassandra up the ladder rungs.

“Because you’re not blue,” Ellana replied wryly, wishing she could find a way to dislike him. <But you’d have to be dead inside to dislike Varric.> Shaking her head, she reached out to clasp the rungs of the ladder and followed. The wood felt rough and cold beneath Ellana’s hands, and within two seconds a splinter had skewered the pad of her finger.

“Consider it the benefit of having such an irresistible carpet of chest hair,” Varric paused to peer over his shoulder down at Ellana, either to watch her reaction or to observe her progress with the rungs.

“You’re shitting me,” Ellana blinked up at him, stopping because he had stopped above her. He grinned and answered back in his warm timbre, “That I am, kid; that I am.”

“Ahem,” Solas interrupted them both from below, “If you wouldn’t mind, it would be wise to keep moving.”

Cassandra’s head popped out from above the platform above, checking on their progress, clearly prepared to bark down her impatience. Before she could get a word out Varric resumed his ascent, chuckling to himself. Ellana also resumed, and made the mistake of looking up as she climbed, <I am staring directly at Varric’s ass. While it flexes. This angle was… never present in screen mode.> She was certain she coloured a new shade of red. Ellana wanted to laugh aloud, but figured it wouldn’t be polite, <I’ll count myself lucky that it doesn’t make me anything but embarrassed.>

Deciding that looking down was better than up, Ellana shouted down Solas, “What about you? How come your toes aren’t falling off?”

“Magic, naturally,” Solas responded conversationally, voice barely betraying any effort from the climb. To Ellana’s mild disappointment, he was concentrating on the rungs before him as he climbed instead of looking up, “I cast a barrier over myself, Varric and Cassandra to protect us from the wind. Between that and the warmth runes sewn into our clothing, it’s comfortable enough.”

“Naturally...” Ellana echoed, searching her mind. Lavellan’s contextual knowledge didn’t provide proactive information consistently. Everything that Solas said made sense, but the fact that he had to tell her made Ellana aware that she couldn’t rely on the game to provide all the answers. <He must think I’m stupid.>  Then again, she thought, <He’s a computer program. He isn’t real. So what if he thinks I’m stupid?> “Ahh. I don’t seem to have any warmth runes in my clothing, nor do I have a barrier.”

Solas did look up at her then, the shadow of his thoughts passing through his gaze. Ellana peered back at him, wondering what, if anything, he was thinking – not suspicious, but perhaps irritation? Pity? She had to hand it to Theta Mode, Solas’ expression was exactly like that of a real person, if elves actually existed, hiding their heavier thoughts. He responded in a neutral tone, “Very well. When we reach the top, I’ll do what I can to assist.”

Moments later, Ellana stood beside Varric and Cassandra. Cassandra pointed to an ornate archway carved into the mountainside and headed towards it.

Solas, meanwhile, addressed the stalwart Seeker, “A moment please. I need to recast our barriers. It seems your prisoner is freezing to death. Besides, we don’t know what we’ll encounter in there.”

“Please call me Ellana,” she muttered, wrapping her arms about herself for the insulation. She bit at the splinter she’d gotten earlier as Solas glanced at her. “My apologies,” he replied rather formally, then gestured with his staff. Abruptly the wind cut off, allowing what remained of her body heat to linger. “That will help for now. We should get moving.”

“Yes,” Cassandra replied irritably, hand on her weapon, “We should get moving. Leliana’s soldiers will be dying while we wait.”

“Right,” Ellana nodded, getting irritable herself and plunging forward to hide it. She was miserable with cold, everything hurt, and that damn splinter wouldn’t come out. The choices before her didn’t feel exciting like they did when playing through a screen; instead, they felt like a necessity of survival. She wanted to simply think of herself as Emily again, and figure out how to get back. The passphrase hadn’t worked. The Aura warned her not to play for more than four hours, and it felt like she’d been here for at least that long already, <Of course, time in dreams is supposedly much quicker, like days collapsing into minutes…>   

Around her, none of her companions seemed to notice her frustration or melancholy. At least, not immediately. Solas was asking Cassandra about the history of the tunnels through the mountain, but Varric hung back to fall in beside her, wondering, “You okay?”

She glanced sidelong at the handsome dwarf as they came up to the cave mouth. Around the entrance, intricate stonework framed the pathway into darkness. “I’m not warm yet, but at least the cold isn’t cutting through me.”

Varric nodded, absorbing her reply. He either accepted her account or decided let it go, commenting, “Looks like we’re about to be swallowed into the earth anyway.” He pointed to the blackness beyond an archway set into the mountainside, two torches standing cold in sconces on either side, and confessed, “I hate the underground.”

“Really? Why is that?” Ellana asked, following as Cassandra took one of the torches from a sconce beside the door and stepped out of the wind.

Varric gave Ellana a speculative look, then unslung Bianca as he followed the others, “I’ve travelled the Deep Roads. Nothing puts you off the underground more than fighting scary shit in the dark.” Despite his words, he stepped into the tunnel without hesitation.

<Either Varric’s very brave or he’s only saying he doesn’t like the dark to put me at ease,> thought Ellana. She wondered which it was, then decided probably both. Not to be left out of the show of bravery, she followed him, saying companionably, “I’m not a fan of the dark either.”

Just inside the tunnel entrance, sheltering her flint and a steel dagger from the wind, Cassandra knelt to try and light her torch. Noting her struggling to get a spark, Solas offered to help. It earned him a suspicious stare, but when he lit it with a wave of his hand, Cassandra stiffly bestowed her appreciation with a succinct, “Thank you.”

“Well,” Varric commented, “I doubt we’ll be unscathed up here with those lost troops.”

“Indeed,” Solas agreed, inclining his head and rubbing his thumb against the haft of his magestaff. Cassandra hefted the torch and stepped forward, saying solemnly, “Be ready.” 

>>>>><<<<<

The torchlight flickered, revealing wooden arches far above their heads. She recalled Cassandra telling Solas this was a part of a mining complex, but Ellana found that hard to credit – it looked nothing like a mine to her; far more like a medieval bunker.

The air was strangely dank and fresh at the same time. <Mould,> thought Ellana, glad she wasn’t in her Emily body – that one would be dashing for Benadryl.  

The “tunnel” opened into a wide chamber with walls of stone. It was difficult to see beyond the circle of torchlight, but Ellana detected a soft, green glow ahead. She barely had time to focus before the light rushed toward her colliding with the shield that Solas had provided. Someone’s voice shrieked, “Wraith!”

>>>>><<<<<

The fight through the “mining complex” wasn’t difficult per se. <Just a handful of demons,> Ellana snarked to herself, <Well, easy being relative. Compared to what it took to actually get here... what a cakewalk.>  Despite herself, Ellana forgot about the increasingly likely horror of a life trapped in Theta Mode and explored. Every new experience took her breath away. 

In the tunnels, vast chambers lit only by Cassandra’s torch were connected together by narrow stone bridges. Fresh, cold air wafted up from below, chasing away musty odors while hinting at the industry that was once here. At one junction, a circular well opened up in the ceiling, casting a singular shaft of light down into the chamber like a spotlight. Ellana couldn’t help but step into it and look up at the arching vault above, wondering at its purpose.

<A mine? Seriously? Where is all of the equipment to move things in and out?> wondered Ellana suspiciously.

Once she even noticed a Chantry banner in passing, hanging from a wall.  To be fair, Cassandra had said ‘mining complex’, but even if this was just the administration area, Ellana didn’t find herself agreeing with the vibe. In front of the Chantry tapestry, Cassandra didn’t respond to Ellana’s lifted brow, and neither Varric nor Solas appeared interested pursuing the unasked question. <The true power of the Chantry,>  thought Ellana, <Making people look the other way out of self preservation since the Divine Age.>

They came upon what looked like an office, flanked by two wooden shields bearing the Chantry sun. Inside were books that Ellana itched to thumb through, though now was clearly not the time. They quickly moved on, <And leaving coins just sitting there out in the open, waiting for someone to pick them up… somehow, it just seems less polite (or do I mean legal?) in Theta Mode.> She was willing to bet that Varric palmed a few on their way past, however.

Her companions were mostly silent, not wishing to attract the attention of more demons than necessary as they  passed through the darkness. It took them less than an hour to break into daylight, Cassandra firmly in the lead.

Bodies in armour lay scattered around the opening.

Chapter Text

The human corpses were literally in a semi-circle around the tunnel exit, at least nine of them. Glassy eyes stared at nothing, and blood froze on the ground beneath both men and women alike.Though the severe temperatures and wind thankfully kept the odors down, dead people splayed with limbs akimbo in unnatural ways were alien to Ellana.

“Guess we found your missing soldiers,” Varric sighed, slinging Bianca on his shoulder as he moved to kneel between two of the corpses. After a moment of investigation, he said, “If I had to guess, it looks like the work of demons.”

“Unsurprising,” Solas replied, gaze crawling over the deceased. Though he did not approach the dead, he also appeared entirely unaffected by the sight. “A force this small would have no chance without magical support.”

“That cannot be all of them,” Cassandra declared, marching over to Varric. She too knelt on the other side of the corpse the dwarf had chosen to examine. Varric offered an optimistic possibility to the Seeker, “The others could be holed up ahead.”

While the others spoke, Ellana herself stood still and pale in the tunnel’s opening, unsure how to respond. It hurt worse to see just how easy the brutal scene sat with Varric, Cassandra and Solas. Feeling more isolated than ever, nausea forced its way up Ellana’s throat. <They’re all so nonchalant,> she thought, pushing her retch back down. Tears for these unknown people threatened to spill, and she fought them also, telling herself, <It’s not real. None of this is real. It’s just a video game.>

“Our priority must be the Breach. Unless we seal it soon, no one is safe,” Solas gestured down the path ahead, urging them to put this scene behind them and resume their journey to the Breach. Acidly, Ellana thought, <Would he respond the same way if it were a pile of elves?>

“I'm leaving that to our elven friend here,” Varric indicated Ellana with a gloved hand, as he stood. It drew both Cassandra and Solas’ attention to her where she stood, pale and looking overtly sickened. Mortification set in on top of her discomfort, and Ellana reached out a hand to steady herself on the stone beside her. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to speak, “Solas is right. We need to move. I’ll do what I can when we get to the Breach.”

Her companions exchanged glances, each clearly unsure of what to make of her extreme discomfort. Varric started to say something, but Ellana made it clear she didn’t want to discuss her feelings with action; she waved him off and forced one foot in front of the other, stepping past the bodies and moving out into the lead.

They followed.

>>>>><<<<<

Once Ellana’s companions were far enough behind her that they couldn’t see her face, the tears that had been threatening spilled. <It’s just a goddamn video game! Stop getting so worked up. Fuck Theta Mode. I’m going to come out of this with PTSD. How’s THAT for a product review?> She ran her thumb over her eyes, wiping the tears away as quietly as she could and hoping that it wasn’t one of those ugly cries that tend to linger. She had managed to fight off sobs, at least, and hopefully none of her companions saw her crying. <You have time to break down later. In a private cabin at Haven, if things go according to storyline.>

As they walked on, whatever her companions said fell on deaf ears. Ellana was just too deep in her own head. This was her first encounter with violent death, and it was nowhere as staid as a ninety-three year old’s passage in a hospital bed surrounded by family. Ellana, as Emily, had never even experienced that.

A welcome distraction caught Ellana’s attention toward the bottom of the path. A lesser rift, much closer to the companions than the Breach, brushed against Ellana’s consciousness. As she got closer, the sensation became a tug at her mind as well as at the mark on her hand. The sucking sensation reminded her of placing her hand over a bathtub drain, if only it were siphoning her mana instead of bathwater.

“Rift!” Ellana announced with a shout, though she noted that Solas had already changed his grip on his staff before she yelled, confirming her suspicion that he too could sense them before they appeared. The companions charged down the path.

As the rift itself came into view, so too did more soldiers, wearing the same uniform as the scattered corpses whose images were still burning in her mind.  The live soldiers were in near equal trouble, fighting off a roiling mass of demons that showed no sign of slowing down.

Realizing that she could do something to prevent what she’d seen at the top of the path, Ellana threw herself recklessly into the fray. Her companions followed, and one of the warriors called in recognition as they came into view, “Lady Cassandra!”

More words were exchanged, but Ellana’s focus was on anchoring herself in Lavellan’s body. The Dalish elf’s combat instincts were sharp, even if her magic was somewhat limited. <Is everyone and everything in this world used to fighting, blood and death?> Ellana wondered as she cut down demons with alacrity and speed. Over and over they died; the battle became almost methodical. Finally, turning to confront the next enemy, she found that none were left - all the demons were gone, but the gaping rift remained. It fluctuated weakly, light so dim that she knew no more demons would come through it for some time. Teeth gritted, Ellana raised her hand and aggressively tapped into the rift’s energies, draining it faster and with more intent than any she had touched before. It exploded silently.

While Cassandra and Varric fanned out to take stock of the living, Solas quietly stopped at Ellana’s side, planting his staff. He didn’t look at her when he said, “That was an interesting display.” 

“I don’t know what you mean,” Ellana deflected, though she knew exactly what he was getting at. She’d rushed in without warning, forcing her companions to protect her. It was foolhardy and irresponsible.

Solas looked at her sidelong, his long fingers playing about the grip of his staff while he chose his words carefully, “I can tell that you became upset earlier, observing the dead. If it weren’t for how proficiently you fight, I would have guessed you’d never seen death before. Of course, that observation is contradictory. Regardless, if you throw yourself into battle recklessly, you won’t survive for long.”

Ellana mentally winced, but managed to hide it as she cocked her head at him, also planting her staff. He didn’t interrupt her thoughts, though he did turn to look at her fully, weighing up her response and not hiding the intensity of his interest. <He’s right. Even if it is just a game, you don’t know what will happen to you if you die in it. The passphrase not working indicates that things aren’t okay.> Finally, she sighed and nodded, meeting his eyes, “You’re right. I’m sorry. Ir abelas.”

Solas paused a moment too long before nodding back, and Ellana realized that he had expected her to argue with him. She wanted to say something more, maybe connect with the other elf somehow and fight back against the isolation she felt. Before Ellana could come up with the right words, Cassandra approached with the leader of the unit they’d saved in tow.

“Cassandra tells me that you chose to take this path,” the warrior said to Ellana, gratitude in her voice. “We’d be dead if it weren’t for you.”

Ellana felt a surge of humility, gazing at the woman’s face, <Game or not, I made a difference here. It feels good.> “It was worth saving you-” her gaze flickered to Solas, remembering his saying that the Breach was of paramount importance, “-if we could.” He caught her gaze, expression turning thoughtful. Ellana added, “We have to go.” Indeed, the mark on her hand, whilst satiated, was still growing along with the breach.

“The way into the valley behind us is clear for the moment. Go, while you still can,” Cassandra ordered the soldiers. They saluted and headed back up the path. Ellana felt a pang, knowing that they would have to pass by their dead comrades before finding safety. With little ado, Ellana and her companions pressed on.

Varric quickened his step to join Solas, asking him as they moved down the path, “So... holes in the fade don't just accidentally happen, right?”

“If enough magic is brought to bear, it is possible,” Solas replied absently, mind clearly elsewhere.

Varric persisted, keeping pace with the long-legged elf by means that Ellana couldn’t discern, “But there are easier ways to make things explode.”

Solas grimaced, the butt of his staff acting as a walking stick in the snow, “That is true.”

<I wonder what happened,> Ellana realized that she hadn’t played far enough to know what caused the Breach. In fact, they’re quickly coming up on the extent of Ellana’s knowledge of the game. She closes the Breach, wakes up at Haven… and… and then what? <I’m sure I played further than that. I just can’t remember...>

“We will consider how this happened once the immediate danger is past,” Cassandra stated firmly. Ellana wondered if the Seeker interjected just because it was Varric inquiring, or if she simply felt the need to control the party’s discourse. Ellana drew down a breath, prepared to say something in Varric’s defense, when view of the Temple of Sacred Ashes silenced them all.

It was the site of an apocalypse.

Chapter Text

“The Temple of Sacred Ashes,” Solas murmured by way of introduction, to which Varric replied, “Or what’s left of it.”

What was left, indeed. Ellana’s throat threatened to close against the acrid propane stench that rolled off of charred bodies. Many were fixed in eternal terror, caught in permanent stasis fleeing from the source of the blast. The chill of the Frostbacks abated with waves of heat still emanating from a landscape comprised of cracked, carbon char. High above, the Breach, a gaping vortex of putrid green, winded clockwise in the stratosphere. It made the rifts she had been dealing with thus far seem like specks of sand, and the mark in Ellana’s hand cracked painfully in proximity. It was nearing maximum charge again as well, the buzz in her molars mingling with the ache in her palm to cause generalized discomfort throughout her body. She caught Solas gazing at her surreptitiously, expression unreadable.

Ellana tugged her scarf up over her face, but it didn’t really help. Her eyes burned and watered, <Can you be smothered by a game?> The air certainly felt heavy in her chest, and her companions fared just as poor, coughing thickly. They too pulled articles of their clothing up to cover their mouths and noses. <Wait, that didn’t happen when I played… is this all my subconscious?> Ellana felt deeply doubtful that she was creative enough to imagine this. <Down to the tangy, bitter taste on the back of my tongue… pretty sure I never sucked on an exhaust pipe to know.>

Oblivious to Ellana’s thoughts, Cassandra’s boots crunched through the carbon crust as she led the party forward; the back of her gauntlet pressed over her nose and mouth. She pointed ahead and said, “Inside. That is where you walked out of the fade and our soldiers found you. They say a woman was in the rift behind you…” Cassandra sighed and added, “No one knows who she was,“ as if the suspicions of the people were somehow noteworthy.

Ellana grunted by way of reply. She couldn’t really care, not while navigating this apocalyptic hell - nowhere was safe to look. The smell of the dead and burning overwhelmed her, and tears once more rose to sting her eyes. <I may never sleep again when I wake up…> Though this was easily a thousand times worse than what she’d seen at the top of the mountain path, the prior experience made it slightly easier to cope here. That, and the dead looked less like real people and more like horrifically twisted statues.

Occasionally the breeze lifted ash from the outer shell of a corpse, revealing the still angry, burning core beneath. Ellana tried to distract herself with coffin humor, <The Temple of Sacred Ashes… is now entirely char and ash… there is nothing sardonic about that.> Her urge to giggle was edged with hysteria, and Ellana realized the fumes were getting her high. <Be sensible. Many, many people died here, and it’s still tragic.>

“Hey, Seeker,” Varric called to Cassandra as Solas and Ellana paused with him, looking for the source of the distraction,  “Check this out!” Varric pointed one of his stubby fingers at a corpse of unusual proportions. Easily seven feet tall, the misshapen corpse lay twisted on its back, which wasn’t unusual in comparison to the rest of the dead. Nor was its charred external shell, cooling slowly as the wind blew away motes of ash. No, it was- “What is it? We don’t have time for investigations now, Varric. We need to get to the Breach and close it before it consumes anything further,” Cassandra admonished them.

Ellana and Varric shared a glance. Cassandra was right, but this corpse’ eyes were glowing. Glowing hellishly, even in death. “The corpse will still be here to examine after we close the Breach,” Cassandra pointed out impatiently, demanding they follow her with a heavy swing of her arm. It was enough to hurry Ellana and Varric after her, but Solas knelt smoothly beside the corpse, letting his hand hover about an inch above it. Ellana couldn’t really make out what he was doing, but she felt the sensation of energies channeling from the Fade as he moved his hand down the corpse’s length. <Solas, the walking, breathing tricorder,> snickered Ellana mentally.

The scan only took a moment, but it was long enough that Cassandra stood waiting for him in the entrance of the temple beneath a squat, rectangular lintel. Ellana and Varric were with her by the time Solas moved to join them, a pensive expression on his face. He attracted a fierce look from Cassandra. <Maybe he’s not as secure in her good graces as I thought?> Ellana and Varric watched him approach, though he was too far away for them to read his expression on standing. She made a mental note to ask Solas what he was looking for, but for now, they were herded into the temple.

>>>>><<<<<

The Breach vomited an angry green light from the sky, merging tenaciously with a massive, open rift at ground-level. It was about the size of an in-ground swimming-pool, lazily exploding and contracting in on itself before a headless statue of Andraste. A continuous blast of ion-charged air twisted down from the source of the disturbance, swirling powerfully enough to hold the stone head aloft and flushing away the choking stench from outside. <Or maybe it was just an anti-gravity field?> Ellana wasn’t qualified to tell.

There were no signs of bodies, just smooth, carbonized bricks scattered about and around broken stairways. The companions were able to lower their protective garments from their faces, and Ellana spoke aloud without thinking, “The blast must have been so hot it vaporized organic life.”

Solas’ brow furrowed and Ellana realized that the term ‘organic’ was fairly modern, at least the way she had used it. Varric, the party wordsmith, confirmed her misstep, “Organic?” Cassandra didn’t seem concerned about vocabulary. Rather, she honed in on the chance to discover something about the blast, demanding, “How do you know?”

<Geez, Cassandra. Talk about wanting to find someone to blame. Organic… I’m sure it’s Latin. Wait, maybe Greek. What would the etymology be here in Thedas? Ancient Tevene?> thought Ellana, and she met Cassandra’s gaze head on. <Screw it, I’d better pretend like I didn’t make a mistake,> she thought, deciding to bluster through , “It’s obvious that anything living has been obliterated, as well as a good portion of the temple.” Varric shrugged both the question and answer off, turning in place and calling everyone’s attention to the swirling emerald vortex above them, “The Breach sure is a long way up.”

“You’re here!” Leliana dashed in behind them all, though Ellana’s gaze was too anchored to the rift and the Breach to acknowledge her. <What is that just beyond the sky?> she thought she saw images, perhaps even creatures, cavorting above them. <If I looked hard enough, would I see my study? Radio playing in the background?>

“Thank the Maker!” Cassandra nodded and gestured with a circular twist of her hand, drawing the attention of anyone not currently looking toward the rift., “Leliana, have your men take up positions around the temple.” The Left Hand nodded and turned, commanding her men to do as the Seeker ordered. Ellana couldn’t help but notice with chagrin that the army she’d marveled at in the sunlight, marching into the valley four abreast, was now a ragtag handful. Remorse burned in her throat, and she wondered why she cared, <They were just NPCs… right?> But they didn’t feel like NPCs. And if she were honest, neither did any of her companions. <Am I losing myself?> she worried. <Will I eventually forget that I’m Emily, and simply exist, trapped in my mind, as a Dalish elf named Ellana Lavellan?>

The fear on her face was misinterpreted by her companions; she was still staring up the Breach... time did not stand still for her to correct them. They took off around the mezzanine toward a deposit of red lyrium. From the lifeless fabric of the temple, bass voice intoned, “Now is the hour of our victory.”  

Ellana’s step faltered and she fell still, causing Varric to bump into her from behind. <That voice… oh my god.> It wormed its way into her mind, threatening to jog something loose.

“Bring forth the sacrifice.”

“What are we hearing?” Cassandra’s voice held a thread of fear that Ellana had not heard from her before. Varric backed away. Solas suggested something to Cassandra out of earshot while Ellana remained in stasis, rooted to the spot. It was only when Divine Justinia’s voice called out, “Someone, help me!” that she was pressed into motion. She broke out in a dead run towards the rift, and Cassandra and the others gave bewildered chase.

“What’s going on here?” Ellana heard her own puzzled voice, and it was clearly hers, even if it had that weird, tinny quality of a recording. Cassandra caught up and grabbed her arm, spinning her around to face her, expression demanding.

“Hey!” Ellana protested fiercely, her mana rising with her temper. Cassandra didn’t seem to notice, so intent she was at seeking answers, “That was your voice. So you were there!” she was harsh, “Who attacked? And the Divine, is she...? Was this vision true? What are we seeing?”

Ellana snarled, “I really don’t remember!” Nor did she have to - the rift in the sky seemed to peel away, revealing the memory of the Temple of Sacred Ashes as if through a window. The walls were whole and unscorched. Divine Justina, an old woman with more wrinkles than a neapolitan mastiff, floated in the air, arms bound by bands of magical light. The speaker with the spine-tingling voice remained out of view, obscured by smoke but for his glowing eyes… <Wait… is that his corpse outside?> Ellana stared slack jawed at the memory playing out in the rift above them.

The connection went unexplored. Instead, Divine Justina turned her head as Ellana Lavellan - the real Ellana Lavellan, if such a thing ever existed - dashed into the room. This was the first time Ellana saw herself since chargen, and she hadn’t exactly been provided a mirror.

<Wow, I look… well, mostly like myself, if I were a fan of punk hairstyles, bleach, and pointy ears...>  Actually, she looked amazing, even wearing the clothes and dirt of an elven servant as Divine Justinia called out, “Run while you can. Warn them!”

Ominously, the shrouded figure commanded, “Slay the elf.”

The scene exploded, then seemed to rewind, playing again and again.

>>>>><<<<<

“Most Holy called out to you. But…” Cassandra released Ellana’s arm, her face softening towards her for the first time in earnest. Ellana shook her head mutely, not sure what to say. 

It was Solas who deigned to comment, shifting his staff from hand to hand as he paced towards the breach, “This rift is not sealed, but it is closed... albeit temporarily. I believe that, with the mark, the rift can be opened, and then sealed properly and safely. However, opening the rift will likely attract attention from the other side.”

“That means demons,” For the first time, Ellana was gratified to see Cassandra looking towards her without anger. In fact, with a surprising gesture of camaraderie, Cassandra checked if Ellana was on board with a questioning glance. When Ellana gave her a brief, grim nod, <I have to try. Maybe I’ll get to wake up, like an intermission…> Cassandra turned to Leliana’s men, raising her sword, “Stand ready!”

>>>>><<<<<

Swords were drawn, arrows nocked, and Ellana examined Solas. He held his staff between his hands, the butt equidistant between his feet, and gave her an ambiguous nod. Brow furrowing, she turned towards the rift and held her hand up, calling to mind the braided pattern of light that Solas had shown her not three hours before.

The verdant lightning, anchored to her hand, shot out and plunged towards the rift. It slashed through it, whipping around wildly, finding purchase on nothing substantial. The tether of power whipped back towards her face. <Shit!> thought Ellana, abruptly killing the plait of power. <He should have warned me that opening a rift isn't like closing one!>  Embarrassed, she lowered her hand, sending a look like daggers Solas’ way. He took a step towards Ellana, seemingly intending to come help, but she shook her head to warn him away. She dug into Lavellan’s contextual knowledge of magic, raised her hand, and tried again.

The viridescent arc connected and power flowed out of her into the rift. It gorged itself on her mana, supplemented by the power of the rifts she’d earlier closed, until at last it overflowed, splitting open like a ripe apple. <Holy hell, did I do that?> The chain of power she’d fed into the rift sent ephemeral arcs shooting out from its core, like careless spillover. Where they touched down, demons coalesced.

<Yes! Go me! EAT YOUR HEART OUT, SOLAS! I didn’t need you! I’ve got this shit!>

And where the largest, most central vein of fade lightning struck, a massive demon took form: Pride.

<The irony,> thought Ellana with no small amount of guilt.

>>>>><<<<<

The demon coalesced not ten feet away. It was just about that tall and half again wide, with a glistening, off-white exoskeleton that layered over itself like serrated water. Multiple insectoid eyes flickered as they oriented on Ellana. Lavellan might be a badass, but in that moment her player practically pissed herself. <Thank god peeing requires relaxing,> she thought as she darted backwards, eager to get the hell out of the demon’s way. She ran behind the headless statue, pressing her back against the stone. When a moment passed without the demon crashing through it or reaching around to rip her head off, she risked peeking out to see her how her companions were faring against the fiend.

Cassandra was rushing in with her sword, brutally smashing the edge into the monstrosity’s lowest leg joint; Solas was throwing bolts of ice into its face. Varric and Bianca were shooting arrows unerringly at its eyes.

<They must think I’m a coward,> Ellana thought, knuckles white around the edge of cold stone she was peeking out from behind. <Well, fuck it, they’d be right. But… I’m actually… not being attacked.> Gulping, she tentatively reached up and closed her eyes, braiding her magic into the ‘close a rift’ pattern and pushing it through the mark.

The First Rift was a beast. While the battle raged with its demons,  Ellana faced down the largest rift she could ever imagine. It felt like climbing on top of a greased rodeo bull if it were made of lightning, hanging on for dear life, and trying to punch it into submission. It was probably the hardest thing Ellana had done in her life, even when she was Emily, <But at least it isn’t scary as a pride demon!>

Moment after moment passed, and Ellana clung to the fluctuating energies of the rift. They kept coming, pouring into her, and she kept clinging, punching away. Time stretched into an eternity, and Ellana’s jaw distantly ached, alerting her that the whole battle with the rift was happening on a strange plane just beyond the physical while the immediate battle took place in her mind.

Somehow, her companions kept the demon from interfering as she siphoned the rage out of the rift. Though at first every furious buck of energy felt like being intermittently electrocuted, her tenacious grip was noticeably weakening it. Grudgingly, the balance of power tipped towards her mark, and absorbed the rift’s flailing energy. The rodeo bull she wrangled was a little less greased, then a little less energetic. Her metaphorical punches stopped being a nuisance and began to pack the authority of the victor. With utter astonishment, Ellana realized… she was winning.  

She had no sooner realized it than the rift folded into itself, becoming a pinpoint of light. <Uh oh…> Ellana had no time to think before it erupted, and the explosion literally picked her up off her feet, throwing her against the unforgiving stone of the temple wall. Pain bloomed in the back of her skull as it cracked wetly against the stone, and Ellana’s vision went dark.

Chapter Text

Emily woke up in an unfamiliar bed in unfamiliar surroundings. She rested atop sumptuous quilts that appeared hand-stitched in a rustic wooden cabin that she vaguely recognized as the one given to her in Haven. The single room was considerably warmer in person than it had looked in the game. Heat radiated from a hearth only a few feet from the bed, and the air had the faint, welcoming tang of woodsmoke.

Lucas was sitting in a wooden chair beside the table, nonchalantly crunching on an apple. A t-shirt stretched across his muscular chest that declared “Sarcasm, just another service I offer” paired with jeans and once-white sneakers. She had always liked Lucas’ dusky Latin looks, even though they were just friends, but he seemed seriously out of place in her cabin at Haven.

"Hey, you're awake!" Lucas stood up, apple still in hand, and came to sit on the edge of the bed. Emily tried to figure out how he got here through her splitting headache. His dark brown eyes were concerned as they searched hers, and she found herself smiling into them as she gingerly prodded her temples, "My head hurts. What happened?"

“You used some new technology,” Lucas replied, scraping raven-black hair out of his eyes. Then he mimicked Emily in a poor falsetto, making air quotes in the air with his fingers around the half-eaten apple “‘Gamers gonna wet their pants about this one.’ ‘Non-disclosure Lucas, I can’t tell you anything’. Whoo… Remember?” Sitting the half eaten apple on a small table by the bed, he added, “You told me to come check on you in an hour?”

Emily sat up too quickly, wincing when her head spun dizzily and shot pain through the confines of her skull. She felt like it was made of glass. “Has it been an hour? This isn’t home. Why am I not home?” She gazed blankly at a picture of some nature scene hanging next to a bookcase she didn’t recognize, trying to find a steady point on the ‘horizon’ to ease her rising nausea. “I feel like barfing.”

“Not exactly. It’s actually been a lot longer,” Lucas sighed, shifting his weight to sidle up next to her. He took a moment to adjust, clearly preparing to tell her something weighty. Emily’s ears literally perked; Lucas in serious mode was a rare event reserved for ‘break-up cures’ and ‘family members in the hospital’.

“I’m not really here,” Lucas began, bravely settling his gaze on hers, “See… when I came over, you were just sitting there at your computer, staring into space. Like a total zombie. I didn’t know what to do, so I-I… I’m sorry, Em, I took it off. The device on your head. I shouldn’t have done that.” 

Lucas’ confession made her brow furrow. His angst was palpable, but she didn’t comprehend what he was trying to say.  Slowly, Emily asked, “So… you took the Aura off… and you shouldn’t have done that… wait, what happened?”

“Well,” Lucas nervously ran his brown hands up and down his thighs with a textured rustle, “I trapped you here. I mean, that’s what the company said. You’re in a coma…”

“I’m in a coma?!” she dropped her legs down over the edge of the bed and turned to face her best friend directly, “Then how come you’re here talking to me?” Emily saw a flicker of motion outside the cottage window and sensed a familiar presence, but she dismissed it in her agitation. She just wanted answers.

“Aura Co. set up a program that lets me interact with you,” Lucas reached out to place his warm hand on hers, giving it a squeeze, “They said that I had to come in because they weren’t sure what your mental state would be - that you’d respond to someone you knew best. And you need someone you trust to get you out.”

<So, knowing I was trapped in my own brain, you put an Aura on yourself and followed me? I don’t know if that's brave or just stupid> she thought, <But it sure is sweet… What will Maria say?> Not that Emily liked his girlfriend very much.

Curling her fingers around Lucas’, Emily found both comfort and a nervous reminder of the scar slashed upon her palm - it seemed she retained her elven form, <How does he recognize me? I guess my face is the same, but the rest of me is elvish. Does he see me as Emily with big, pointy ears and white hair?> Emily licked her lips, “Okay, I see. Well, I’m ready to go home. How do I do that? My passphrase didn’t work.”

“The program was uploaded to your mind, sort of like how a game is loaded into RAM. When I removed the Aura, I broke the connection that… well, that oversaw the process. The thing that allowed it to work safely. It was protecting you and designed to wake you up with your passphrase. You need to let me… access your mind so I can wake you up-” there was a heavy knock at the door, which snapped Lucas’ gaze to the wooden barricade. Solas’ voice, sounding calm, penetrated the wood, “Ellana? Please, open the door. You’re dreaming - we are in the Fade. It is not safe here.”

“Solas?” Emily’s brow furrowed, and she glanced at Lucas, who shook his head and drew her attention back with his earnest expression, “Em, he’s not real. He’s just a part of the program.” The knock came again, a bit more insistent. Lucas turned back to her, his hand still warm on hers, and met her eyes, “Just ignore him, Em. All I need to do is reach in and wake you up, then everything will be okay. You’ll be home.”

“Lucas,” Emily squeezed her best friend’s hand again, the ease his presence brought tainted by a thread of doubt, <This seems so real, but Lucas in the cabin in Haven? Then again, I’m a modern girl from the real world hanging out in Thedas through a juiced up mind-controlled mouse… > “I’m not sure…”

“Ellana, is there someone in there with you? I can hear voices,” Solas’s voice became concerned, and the knocking turned into a heavy handed thump, “If you’re with someone, they may not be who they seem. Please, open the door. You may be in danger.”

Emily reluctantly let go of Lucas’ hand to hold her temples, “I think I have a migraine-” then she raised her voice and shouted, “Ugh, it is so hard to think with that hammering. Solas, shut up!” Lucas drew Emily into his arms then, pressing her shoulder into the joint of his own. He smelled just like she remembered, a cross between clean, virile male and something else; something she never could put her finger on. <But we’re just friends… he has a girlfriend> Emily reminded herself, taking guilty pleasure in the companionable embrace.

The banging on the door stopped.

“Forgive me,” Solas’ resigned voice came to them, only partly muffled by the door, “This is for your own good-” the cottage door exploded inward off its hinges, remaining whole but bouncing off the floor at an odd angle. Solas stood there, tall form limned by a virulent green glow. He held his magestaff in his right hand, and he glared at her and Lucas - but mostly Lucas. A swirl of snowflakes stirred behind him as he stepped over the threshold.

“Begone, spirit,” Solas commanded Lucas, whose arm squeezed Emily even more protectively against his chest. She furrowed closer to the warmth of her friend, comforted by how real the soft weave of cotton felt against her cheek, and peered at Solas across the t-shirt. <It feels so good. Dammit, it feels too good to be true. Is it possible that this isn’t really Lucas?> She sat up slightly, pulling away at least enough to study Lucas’ face. She found nothing out of place.

He looked down at Emily, tucked under his arm, and then narrowed his eyes at Solas. Shaking his head, Lucas said to Emily, ”Ignore him. He’s not really here. Hell, he’s not even a person, Em. You need to wake up.”

Solas watched Lucas with a guarded expression and responded softly in a persuasive timbre, “I do not know the context of what this spirit is saying to you, Ellana, but I believe it seeks to possess your mind. You must resist.”

<Well… shit,> thought Ellana, <That’s a little too on the money in terms of what Lucas was asking for before Solas arrived... What are the chances that this isn’t really Lucas?>  Pause. <What are the chances that it is really Lucas? Fuck.> Emily didn’t want to decide if she was an optimist or a pessimist at just this moment. Reluctantly, she stood up.

“This is ridiculous,” Lucas let Emily go, but rose with her and entreated her further, “Em, I can wake you up. You need to wake up. You could die in here.”

She cocked her head at Lucas. She wasn’t sure if he was himself or not, and wasn’t quite ready to take the chance in a world where demons were known to make abominations of mages. <Once a demon gets in, there’s no going back… Game over. And I don’t know what happens if I die in here. Maybe there’s another way?> “Okay, how can I wake myself up?”

“I don’t think you can,” Lucas turned towards her protectively, “I only know what I was told to do. You need to let me access your mind.”

“I would not take this spirit’s advice, no matter how reasonable its story sounds,” Solas cautioned, shifting his weight. Though she wasn’t sure how she knew, Emily got the impression that Solas was prepared to intervene somehow, perhaps by casting a spell, “It clearly has an agenda, and spirits can often read your deepest wishes and desires.”

“You can’t be serious,” Lucas rolled his eyes Solas’ way, “You’re a construct. A fucking program. Emily builds things like you for fun,” then he said to Emily, “Come on, Em. Come home.”

Solas’ brows drew down, thoughts indiscernible. He spoke softly to Emily, past Lucas completely, “I do not need to enter your mind, but I can help you wake yourself up - if your will is strong enough.” Solas held out his hand.

Looking reluctantly over her shoulder at Lucas, Emily said, “If you’re real, Lucas, find me a way. A way to do it myself. I can’t risk giving you access, not here.” <Can you hack your own mind?> Emily wondered, reaching for Solas’ hand. His long fingers closed about hers, as real as anything she could imagine. They were strong, and just under his skin, she felt his mana resonating with hers - and with the mark.

Lucas opened his mouth to reply, reaching for Emily’s shoulder, but she’d already placed her left hand into Solas’ outstretched palm.

The cabin and everything in it fell away.

Chapter Text

When Ellana awoke this time, she immediately recognized Haven’s increasingly familiar cabin for what it was. It felt more real than it had the first time - heavy and solid in a way that was hard to put a finger on, but keenly felt on a visceral level, like instinct. Her mage self simply understood what she had been unable to from the inside: she was no longer in the Fade.

Her headache was gone, and so was Lucas. In fact, she was also very clean, as if she’d only just emerged from a bath. <Oh, thank the Maker!> she thought with a titter at the irony of mentally referencing a Thedan diety when she wasn’t even sure about her real life religion. She felt more like “Emily” than she had since she first stirred to consciousness in a prison cell, like speaking to Lucas had revived a part of her mind that had been slowly falling away. Despite Emily’s resurgence, Ellana was also back in full - securely coiled around her with all of Lavellan’s knowledge and memories. It was a disconcerting combination, intensified by the tangible sensation of the physical, elven body she identified as herself lying across the bed. <Am I losing myself in Lavellan?> she wondered with a bloom of anxiety. It was a scary thought, and nothing within rose to deny it.

Ellana sat up and pressed her hand to solar plexus, as if doing so could push the anxiety back down. The physical motion made her feel more in control, and brought her a brief respite of calm. Looking around, she realized that the cabin bore little similarity to the one she’d seen in the Fade. Instead of a sumptuous, hand-stitched quilt, several layers of warm woolen blankets lay heavily over her, their natural scratchiness soothed by the barrier of a smooth, if thin, sheet. The bedding smelled of hay and was nearly as hard. Instead of the welcoming crackle of a hearth fire, there was only a candle beside the bed, an iron brazier or two, and furs hung against the walls. The air was patently cool, though not as chilly as she guessed it was outside. There was a painting on the wall, not in the same place, of windswept mountains.

Remembering her first playthrough of the game, Ellana looked instinctively towards the door. She expected to see an elven servant that arrived with the box of bottles, but instead she found Solas sitting on a chair beside the bed, eyes closed, absolutely still. To her mage senses, he felt… absent. His body was an empty husk, and though his chest was rising and falling with the pace of his breath something about him seemed far away. Intrigued, Ellana reached out and waved her hand in front of his face. He didn’t react.

She withdrew her hand and ferreted through Lavellan’s knowledge - his spirit was missing; that’s what she could usually sense, but right now it was… not quite gone, but distant. <Hmm, so the spirit is separate to mana, and mages can sense other mage’s spirits? No… not quite. Many mages can, but not all. Okay… does that mean Solas can sense my spirit? Do I feel strange to him somehow, being from the real world?> Knowing he wasn’t entirely in his body, Ellana took guilty pleasure in studying his face close up for the first time. She admitted that she found him handsome, perhaps in part because of how uniquely inhuman the elven facial proportions were. <Mmm, maybe I find him attractive just because I’m an elf now too? His mouth is so full...> With no presence to deter her, Ellana’s gaze slid past his adam’s apple and down to where his roughspun tunic clung against comparatively broad shoulders, then dramatically narrowed to the slope of his waist. <No, those proportions are probably fairly universally admired, even by human standards. Damn, he’s tall… > She inspected from abdomen to lap, then lap to thighs... and it was in that moment, ogling his lap, that she felt the shift.

Her eyes snapped up to find his just opening upon her. He absorbed Ellana’s position, leaning half off the bed, studying his… thighs. His brows arched up just enough to ask what she was up to. Ellana froze, the blush beginning in the tips of her ears first, then flowing hot through her cheeks. <Seriously? Elves even blush differently?> she both wanted to laugh and sink into the ground out of sight, <If only I had a notepad for that review right now!> “Ahem,” Ellana drew back, straightening with as much dignity as she could muster, “My apologies, I was just, ah, noticing that you weren’t entirely here.”

Solas’ eyes twinkled in response, but that was all. “Not entirely,” he agreed, then graciously let her off the hook, leaning back comfortably in his chair and crossing his an ankle over his knee. “How do you feel? You woke more quickly than I expected. Quite the feat of mental fortitude.”

“I’m surprised I woke up first,” Ellana pursed her lips, pulling back from Solas and squaring herself up to face him. With a sigh, she gave up the warmth of the blankets and pushed them aside to engage him head on. She dropped her feet to the floor. It was cold, so she partly changed her mind and dragged the covers over her shoulders as Solas replied.

“As am I, but I stayed to ensure that you successfully transitioned,” Solas looked her over, though with nowhere near the intensity in which Ellana had been peering at him prior, “How do you feel? Such an abrupt awakening can be unsettling if you don’t expect it.”

“Fine,” Ellana replied, because it was true. Rest, cleanliness, mana crackling and roiling beneath her kin, the sensation that she associated with ions… she realized that she felt better then than she had at any time since she’d officially “entered the game”. “Do you, ah, remember what happened?”

Cocking his head, Solas’ lids shadowed his eyes and shielded his thoughts. <He doesn’t look very trusting,> Ellana fretted silently, < Is he on to me? Do I need to be worried about what a video game character thinks? Damn, he looks and sounds so real.> “Yes, though of course it was in the Fade. My perceptions likely colored my interpretation of events.”

“Oh,” Ellana tried to decide what to tell him and what to hide. <The video game character observed me talking to the real life person… or a demon dressed like a real life person. Shit. Either way… he probably saw or heard something that implies I’m an imposter.> Not sure what she could safely disclose, Ellana used questions to buy herself time,   “What do you mean about your perceptions colouring your interpretation?”

“Simply that, in the Fade, two people can look at a spirit of desire and see different things,” Solas replied easily, his left hand gesturing deftly in emphasis, “To me, it might be an elven woman, to you an elven man.”

“So… you’re telling me that you saw me cuddling up with an elven woman?” relief flooded through Ellana, and she almost glowed with mirth as she laughed. With a wicked glint in her eye, she teased, “Tell me, Solas, what did she look like?”

“I did not say that is what I saw,” Solas genially chided her, lips curving with suppressed amusement. A thrill warmed her, though, as she caught Solas’ gaze dip subtly to observe her form. <Did he just check me out when I was teasing him about what a desire demon might look like? That’s insane! Wait… maybe it’s not too insane… romances are programmed into the game, right? … just how easy would it be to get him into bed? These games are our playground, right?> She peered at Solas speculatively while he, heedless of her thoughts, adroitly redirected the conversation, “I did not recognize the spirit, though it appeared to have taken on a male aspect. How did you feel with it? That may tell us something of its nature, and perhaps even its intent.”

Ellana dragged her scrutiny to the wall while she thought about how to answer Solas’ question, <Am I prepared to tell him anything about Lucas? Hell no.> She worried at the question for a minute, Solas seemingly content to wait for her answer, before she settled with, “Ir abelas, it’s a little too private to share.”

“Ahh,” Solas nodded, and Ellana had the impression that he thought the spirit might have been masquerading as her lover, “Forgive me for prying.” He seemed about to continue when there was a knock at the door. Her eyes flickered toward it, but it was Solas who called, “Who is it?”

“It’s me, Master Solas,” came a feminine voice, “I’ve brought Master Adan’s potions for the Herald…” The door opens, and an elf with short, muddy red hair stepped inside, looking somewhere around sixteen. She was dressed simply in a soft cantaloupe-orange tunic and a pair of sepia leather pants similar to the ones Ellana herself was wearing. Upon seeing Ellana sitting up, the elf dropped the box, which cracked audibly with shattered glass. “Oh! I didn’t know you were awake, I swear!” the elven girl fell to her knees beside the box, pressing her forehead low.

Ellana glanced at Solas, both expecting this scene and acutely embarrassed that he was there to witness it. As the elven girl fell to her knees, Solas rose to his feet, and Ellana followed, interjecting, “Why are you frightened? What happened?”

“That’s wrong isn’t it? I said the wrong thing,” the elven servant rebuked herself, then tried again, lowering her head to the floor and avoiding Ellana’s gaze. “I beg your forgiveness, and your blessing. I am but a humble servant.” <That is so much more humiliating to see in person than it ever was on screen,> Ellana thought, unable to shake the feeling that, other than her memories, there was nothing, absolutely nothing that told her what she was experiencing wasn’t totally real. Here, she could even see the literal tremble in the serving girl’s hands, the cowed submission in her spine… “Please, get up,” Ellana scrambled over to the servant, kneeling beside her and touching her arm, trying to help her up, “Hey, it’s okay. Please don’t do that.”

Ellana could feel that Solas’ gaze on her back, watching them both intently, in silence.

“But…” the elven girl protested, touching her arm reverently where Ellana had helped her up, “They say you saved us. The Breach stopped growing, just like the mark on your hand. It’s all anyone has talked about for the last three days.”

<Oh, OH! She’s fangirling over me. I always thought she was just a whipped puppy or something, not celebrity dazzled.> “Three days…? Oh, well then.” No wonder she felt so well rested.

“I’m certain Lady Cassandra would want to know you’ve awakened. She said ‘at once’,” the elf began to back away towards the door. <Should I stop her? Demand answers?>  Ellana followed her a few scant steps, undecided, which ultimately led to the girl making good on her escape. Outside, Ellana caught a brief glimpse of the crowd milling about as the servant rushed towards the chantry to tell Cassandra that she was awake.  Ellana closed the door quickly, muttering, “Well, this is weird.”

“The Chosen of Andraste, a blessed hero to save us all,” Solas remarked from behind, the tone filled with something Ellana couldn’t identify. <Do I detect a hint of mockery? Irony? Well, I remember what to say to that, at least.>

Turning back, Ellana leaned against the door and forced herself to ask casually, adding a dash of humor, “Am I riding in on a shining steed?” <I feel like I’m manipulating him when I actually play the game. He’s not real, dammit. What am I doing?>

Solas’ laughed softly, “I would have suggested a griffon. But sadly, they’re extinct. Joke as you will, posturing is necessary.” He turned away, moving gracefully to look out the small cabin window with its thick, wavy glass, “I’ve journeyed deep into the Fade in ancient ruins and battlefields to see the dreams of lost civilizations. I’ve watched as hosts of spirits clash to reenact the bloody past in wars both famous and forgotten. Every great war has its heroes,” he turned back to her fully, head tilting with indulgent curiosity, “I just wonder what kind you’ll be.”

She didn’t feel like playing anymore, “Ahh. I suppose that’s a fair question, if I’m to be a hero.” <We all will have to wait and see… even me. I’m not sure I have a handle on all of this yet, let alone heroics. At least I know I’ve played past this part...> Pushing herself away from the door, Ellana headed back to her bed and sat down again. She decided to redirect the conversation just as Solas had earlier, “Tell me about these ancient ruins and battlefields? I would like to know more.”

“Any building strong enough to withstand the rigors of time has a history. Every battlefield is steeped in death. Both attract spirits,” Solas explained, coming to rejoin her by sitting back down on the wooden chair he had earlier occupied. “They press against the veil, weakening the barrier between our worlds. When I dream in such places, I go deep into the Fade. I can find memories no other living being has ever seen.”

“That sounds utterly fascinating,” Ellana admitted, and she meant it. “The Fade… in my dream, you said that is where we were. How did I get there? How did you know that’s where I’d be?”

“Surely you’ve learned something of the Fade from your clan’s Keeper?” Solas asked, but didn’t wait for the answer as he began to explain, “You are a mage, and quite powerful from what I can tell for this day and age. The power of any given mage is directly proportional to how strong their connection is to the Fade. I would have thought that you’d have been drawn into more than one dreaming as a child. When you were knocked unconscious without control… then failing to awaken once your wounds were seen to... Well, the chances were high. And when I came to tend you just as you sensed that I was not within my body, neither were you in yours.”

<Quite powerful? Well, thank you creators of Dragon Age,> Ellana’s lips curved into a smile, warming at the compliment. And she had to admit, it was nice to hear Solas speak with such obvious relish for a topic; he clearly enjoyed teaching others. As his words suggested that she could dig for specific types of memories from Lavellan, she did so. It was true - Lavellan had often had vivid dreams as a child, but her Keeper taught her how to speak with spirits and the rudimentary skills required to keep herself safe. “Yes, Keeper Deshanna taught me to guard my dreams and anchor myself to this world. I guess I was just caught off-guard. How did you find me? Isn’t the Fade vast and limitless?”

“Your aura blazes particularly bright in the Fade,” Solas nodded towards Ellana’s hand. <He means the mark,> she thought, noting that the comment didn’t really answer her question. She tucked her hand out of sight. Behind her, she gently ran her thumb against the mark. It tingled, seizing her fingertips like a jolt of electricity, and numbing them. She knew if she looked at it, it’d appear to be nothing so much as a slash of light with a faint, phosphorescent trail floating about it. <I’ll need leather gloves or something if I want to hide it. It will show through the weave of cloth.>

“... And you’re a master of the Fade,” Ellana offered, shaking her head with open wonder, “It’s amazing.” Her brow furrowed then, and she said firmly, “I have to go back.” 

“Why?” Solas inquired, ears perking as well as his posture. He sat up straighter, “Not to track down that spirit, I hope? There was something odd about it, and I believe it to be truly dangerous.”

A spark of hope lit within Ellana, <Odd how? Like it really could be Lucas represented in this world, odd?> “What do you mean?”

“I’m not entirely certain what you saw, but to me, it appeared to be a human male, perhaps Antivan or Rivain, wearing the most absurd clothing with writing upon its chest. Most things in the Fade have meaning beyond their surface,” Solas watched Ellana’s expression closely, “Perhaps you know the symbolism? The spirit seemed fixated upon you, after all.”

<Can I successfully just… lie to his face?> Ellana checked herself, the hope that he hadn’t actually seen Lucas crushed, <No. I’m not a good liar at the best of times. Then what. Deflect, that’s what.> “So…” she lowered her lashes slightly over her eyes, “You saw me, uh, snuggling up to a human. That must have been… quite the sight."

“It was not my imagery, but yours,” Solas replied coolly in response to her obvious discomfort, “It seems very counter to Dalish culture, though I’ve heard Clan Lavellan has more dealings with them than most. Afterall, your clan was unique in having enough interest in human affairs to send you to spy upon The Divine’s meeting.” 

“How did you know I was sent to spy?“ Ellana asked, glad for the change of focus and forcing her tone to be more curious than accusatory, <Solas knows how to move in and out of the Fade. Lavellan knows it can be done in dreams, and knows how to ward herself against such things, but not how to deliberately dream herself there. And if I recall correctly from Origins, it usually takes a major ritual or a sacrifice… so if I’m going to get back, and if “Lucas” can help me - either as the real Lucas finding a way inside or a demon that can unlock my subconscious - I’m going to need Solas to show me how. So how do I get him to want to help me?>

“Were you not? It is what Cassandra believes, and given how the Dalish tend to keep far away from human affairs, it seemed a reasonable enough assumption,” Solas readily replied, watching her with an amiable smile.

“Alright, I was,” Ellana laughed softly, slinging her elbow sideways across the headboard and leaning her chin on her forearm, “I didn’t expect you to be here when I awoke. You know a lot about magic, but you’re clearly not Dalish, but bare-faced or not, I still find it hard to imagine you in an alienage either.” Solas smiled faintly then, “Ahh, so you know my secret - I was born in a small village, and I spent most of my time pursuing the study of magic on my own. And, of course, travelling the Fade.”

“An apostate,” agreed Ellana with a brief smile,”So I heard, just as you heard I was a spy. You seem to know something of my people. How we must look to you. Tell me, what do you think of the Dalish?”

“I thought that you would be more interested in sharing your opinions of Elvish culture,” Solas replied with an arched brow, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms across his chest. <Ooo, touched a nerve, did I?>

“So it’s like that, is it?” Ellana glanced down at her hands where she ran the nail of her forefinger under that of her thumb to clear away debris, “What’s your problem with the Dalish? Allergic to halla?” 

Solas spoke with confidence and a hint of rebuke when he replied, “They are children acting out stories misheard and repeated wrongly a thousand times.”

<Ouch. I didn’t expect him, the only other elf here, to dislike me because of my … well Lavellan’s… culture? Race?> It hurt more than she wanted to admit, so she said nothing, simply listening to Solas as he continued. It seemed her silence urged him to justify his view. At least this time, he reigned in his temper and said more calmly, “While they pass on stories, mangling details, I walk the Fade. I have seen things they have not.”

Ellana took a deep breath and chased the sliver of pain away, <He’s not real.> But it felt so real, being rejected… however, she also saw when he registered that his words hurt her, and something else that followed. He was comparatively taciturn, but she still imagined she felt a vague sense of contrition from him.

Digging for an appropriate response from Lavellan’s mind, Ellana wanted to bridge the sudden distance between them. <What would a Dalish who wants to make friends say? Perhaps give his words weight even if I am not sure I agree?> She lowered her gaze and nodded to him, “Ir abelas, hahren. If the Dalish have done you a disservice, I would make that right.”

A faint widening of Solas’ eyes gave away his surprise at her attempt to reconnect despite his harsh criticism. <I wonder why that took him off guard. Was it the sentiment of wishing to make amends, or that I accepted his view and called him ‘teacher’ with respect? I hope he doesn’t feel like I called him old. He does seem older than me though.>  Ellana decided to test the waters, and offered Solas an olive branch - she gave him her full, undivided attention in much the same way he had days before when they were on their way to the Breach. It felt odd to give someone such focus, almost as odd as it had to receive it, and Ellana realized that it was not something commonly done, even in the real world. <Too many screens distracting us, I suppose. Is this what people were like before the smart phone?> Finding both the conversation and the sensation of connection fascinating, she asked, “What course would you set for the Dalish that is better than what they know now?”

“You are right, of course,” Solas replied quietly after a moment’s pause, blissfully unaware of Ellana’s thoughts. He sighed and looked away. <Right about what? What did he think I said? Or is it something he thinks I’m thinking?> She studied him while he looked out the cabin window once more. < Do I sense a hint of guilt? At offending me, or for thinking poorly of the Dalish…?> Ellana sensed that Solas’ response, somewhat illogical, was connected to a deep hurt of some kind. <Did he run away and try to join the Dalish when he was a kid? I think I read that, or maybe it was in one of the games - that the Dalish were not kind to outsiders, even other elves… and surely city elves seek them often, fleeing slavery… I probably would.> She knew from Lavellan that the Dalish often drove off such seekers, not only because city elves were almost human in their view, but also because nomadic life was harsh. The clans needed to feed their people, and an elf with no survival skills was a painful, perhaps even deadly burden. It wouldn’t have been personal, but it certainly would have felt so. She sympathized.

Solas was looking at her again when he added, far more kindly, “The fault is mine, for expecting what the Dalish could never truly accomplish. Ir abelas… da’len. If I can offer any understanding, you have but to ask.”

At ‘da’len’, Ellana felt an unbidden smile creep across her face. She didn’t feel like a child, but knew it as a term that acknowledged that he accepted her as a … mentee of sorts. To her surprise, Solas returned the smile.

“I will stay then, at least until the breach has been closed,” Solas decided aloud, standing up as if preparing to leave. 

<How did he go from smiling at me to … that? It seems so abrupt and even cold…> Ellana thought, sitting up straighter, “Was that in doubt?”

“I am an apostate mage surrounded by chantry forces,” Solas reminded her, adding, “and unlike you, I do not have a divine mark protecting me. Cassandra has been accommodating, but you understand my caution.”

“I do…” Ellana agrees, sliding to her feet as well, “But you came here to help, Solas. I won’t let them use that against you.” He didn’t step back, though she could feel her aura pressing against his personal space - the low level hum of Solas’ mana reverberated against her own energy field. The mark in her left hand itched, seemingly flaring at the proximity of another mage.

“How would you stop them?” Solas asked gently, tone somber. He seemed more melancholy than afraid. Ellana got the impression, even though his eyes never left her face, that he too sensed the power of the mark in her hand swell.

“However I had to,” Ellana declared solemnly, willing him to believe in her commitment to do just that, <And why not? Until this is over, this is my reality now. If I have a chance at friendship, I’ll take it.>

Both of his brows, fine slashes of brown, drew down in the center as Solas searched her face, seeking something. Not certain what he found, she was warmed when he finally chose to genuflect in acknowledgement of her pledge, “Thank you.” 

Ellana nodded and walked Solas to the door, his body language telling her that the visit was over. <Perhaps I could convince him to stay longer, but I don’t think he would appreciate it.> Whereas she could have happily spoken to Solas for much longer, she wasn’t offended.

“Hahren…” Ellana said, reaching for the door handle.

“Yes?” Solas asked, turning just slightly.

“May I visit you? I would like to hear more about the Fade, and maybe.. other things, if you have the willingness to share."

His face was heroically impassive, but Ellana still detected a puzzling burst of emotions. <Wait… am I picking that up off his… mana? Yes, but no… his aura maybe? Holy shit, I am!> She was still muddling through the sensation when Solas consented, “Yes, that would be fine.”

Opening the door for him, Ellana noted that the crowd had not dispersed one iota.

Chapter Text

Closing the door behind Solas, Ellana moved back into the center of the small cabin, trying to figure out what to do next. She knew that Cassandra was in the chantry, and suspected if Solas hadn’t been there when she awoke, the elven servant would have said something to that effect. Normally when she woke up she had a routine, but it didn’t seem appropriate here. <Not to mention, where am I going to get a toothbrush or a yoga mat?> Life without a toothbrush was daunting.

The cabin felt colder now that she was alone, and Ellana settled back on the bed, drawing the blankets up under her chin. <Should I be concerned that Solas was here? Most of the conversation went according to plot… but not all of it. He saw Lucas, and even asked me about him...> The idea of facing the crowd outside brought on a bout of low level of anxiety. <I cannot be what they expect me to be. I barely have the mental fortitude to cope with being stuck here. Here. Where it’s cold and people hate me just for being a mage. Or an elf. Fuck me twice for being both.> A part of her teased that she’d chosen to be as she was, and if she was going to play this game, she’d need to stop hiding under the covers.

<Okay, stop moping about having to play the game you chose to play, and start being practical. If Lavellan can accidentally dream herself into the Fade as a child and Solas walks the Fade for fun, it’s possible to just go there. Sans ritual sacrifice. I just have to figure out how.> Ellana felt a healthy dose of skepticism for her own theory, but decided not to dwell on it. She’d meditated before as part of yoga practice, and it seemed like a good place to start. <Surely entering the Fade has something to do with meditation…>

So it was that Ellana sat in bed trying different meditation techniques to get back to Lucas. First, she imagined a candle flame burning in the dark, but that didn’t work. Then she tried butterflies carrying away her thoughts to leave her mind blank, but that also didn’t work. Then she switched to the more physical methods of tensing each muscle from head to toe, then relaxing them…

KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK.

Ellana jolted to full consciousness, demanding in obvious irritation, “What is it?”

“Uh, Your Worship,” came the elven servant’s voice, “Lady Cassandra bids you join her in the chantry at once.”

Ellana muttered under her breath,“Lady Cassandra can fuck herself-” and opened her mouth to repeat the sentiment audibly when common sense set in. <Don’t be an idiot. You are stuck here for the moment. Without Cassandra and Leliana’s good graces, you’ll freeze to death in the snow. You don’t know how to hunt for yourself or build a shelter, especially not out here. You’ve only read about how to build a fire. This is the goddamn Frostbacks. You’d be lucky to survive them in summer.> Lavellan had some tactics on that front, but the memories also promised hunger, hardship, and a lot of cold. Far too uncomfortable to experience without compelling reason.

“Well, Solas said posturing is necessary. Certainly I’ve watched him do enough ingratiating himself, can I do less for myself? Fine...” With a sigh, she threw the blankets aside and called to the servant, “I’m coming! Just looking for something warm!”

She drew a fur-lined leather coat hanging on a peg over her shoulders before opening the door. The elven girl immediately bobbed a curtsey, which didn’t surprise Ellana at all. What did surprise her was the hush that fell over the crowd. Milling about outside her door were easily fifty or more people dressed mostly in rags, though a soldier or two was noticeable amongst their number. They all halted and turned towards her, staring with a weight of expectation. Ellana imagined for a moment that they were many of the same folk who had spat at her feet when Cassandra dragged her towards the Breach.

She drew her coat in tight against the chill, feeling the deep fur hood brush her vallaslin-marked cheek, and stepped out beside the serving girl. <That’s right, people. I’m an elf. A Dalish elf.>

“That’s her,” she heard someone whisper in the background, words quiet, but not quiet enough to evade her elven hearing. Ellana thought the speaker was human, but she couldn’t be certain, “That’s the Herald of Andraste. They said when she came out of the Fade, Andraste herself was watching over her.” <Herald? Oh yeah, Bioware likes to name PCs. What were the other two? Warden? No, Hero of Ferelden, and Champion of Kirkwall. Herald of Andraste, eh? Okay, I’ll roll with it, for now.>

The elven girl at her side directed Ellana a tentative smile, <Oh, I’ll bet she hears everything I can…> Ellana returned the smile, which triggered the servant to trot on ahead. The crowd parted like water, murmurs starting up as Ellana followed behind. She heard several of their words, but didn’t care to linger; the awe of the crowd was both warming and hollow. <A whole bunch of shems revering a Dalish elf who isn’t even really a Dalish elf, all because someone at the chantry said she’s the Herald of Andraste. How propaganda feeds people’s minds.> Then again, she reminded herself that she really did see a woman in the Fade. <But Andraste? Well, it’s a Bioware plotline. Still, seems flimsy to me.>

The first person who reached out to touch Ellana startled her, “Please, Herald, bless me!” “No, bless me!” “My daughter is sick! Please, Herald!” suddenly she was surrounded, jostled by the swelling crowd. The smell of unwashed bodies was unbearable. Dozens of hands were reaching for her, some successfully gripping her sleeve or patting her face. A bold one even tore several strands of hair from her head. The elven servant felt the tide turning and glanced back, eyes wide, “Stop it! No!” After trying unsuccessfully to push back through the crowd towards Ellana, she gave up darted towards the chantry, presumably after help.

Alone and surrounded, Ellana snarled low and gathered her mana to release a mind blast - barely recognizing in time that it would be a bad idea to injure her supporters. Abruptly, she changed the spell to a barrier, just as the mana released into the atmosphere. A pale green light limned her skin, tainted by the mark. Several of the peasants fell back, some simply startled, others clearly afraid of anything unnatural, and still others simply not certain if they were observing blessed power of Andraste. Regardless, the crowd peeled away as Ellana poured more and more power into the mark.

For a split second, she stood at a precipice - the crowd had the clear potential of a mob, she could feel it in her gut. Ellana knew for certain that if she antagonized them or pushed them the wrong way, she’d be lucky to survive the onslaught. <No, there has to be another way…> Abruptly, it clicked.

Raising her hands, Ellana said to them all, “People of Thedas, there is no need for this undignified rush. My blessings are neither meager, nor limited, though I cannot promise that the Maker will grant you what you seek.” On the stone stairs a level above where her cabin sat, Ellana saw a well-proportioned blonde man in full armor approaching, the elven serving girl in tow. Ellana ignored him, desperately praying that pandering to the crowd would work, “Please, step back, and form a line. I shall visit you each in turn. Go on.” She waved the people into a line, then lowered her barrier to approach the first - a man in his mid-fifties. He had missing teeth and smelled like sour urine, but Ellana forced herself to place her hands in his. <Oh gods, I need a bath already. I need a bath.>  Meeting his gaze, she forced herself maintain an outward calm, saying, “Andraste bless you, friend.” He bobbed up and down, having eyes only for the mark on her hand. Where the mark touched his paper-thin digits, he reverently brought them to his lips, saying, “Thank ye, Herald.”

<I think I’m going to puke. I don’t know which is worse - that I’m lying through my teeth to a huge crowd of people who think I’m somehow divine or that I just let a man that smelled like a sewer touch my hands. Or even that I’m about to let another fifty-odd people of varying levels of cleanliness do the same…> Ellana mentally sighed, moving to the next with what she hoped looked like a gentle smile. <I probably look savage to them with my vallaslin no matter how much I smile…> she thought. “Andraste bless you,” she said, and this pattern became an ongoing litany as she made her way down the line.

Above her on the mountainside, standing atop a stone retaining wall that overlooked the crowd, the blonde man and the elven servant looked on, watching Ellana from their vantage point. The litany took some time, and several minutes in, the blonde man said something to the elven girl that sent her scurrying away.

The crowd slowly dispersed once ‘blessings’ had been distributed, leaving Ellana alone to face the man in armor. As she approached, she was able to observe him at her leisure, thinking, <Damn, what is it with hot guys in this game? Of course, he’s not as clean as Solas, but…> He had a strong jaw, whiskey-brown eyes and locks the color of burnished gold. She suspected if she couldn’t smell him from where she was standing, his looks would have made her toes curl. As it was, she felt a curious mix of fascination and disgust, no doubt exacerbated by the crowd of equally smelly people she’d just had the outrage to touch. <Is this a human thing, or what?> Apparently, Lavellan’s memories confirmed, it was a non-Dalish thing. Though people bathed far more frequently than her modern mind might have thought, winter was not loved for it, and deodorant was not yet a thing. Body odors were common. Most people did use a basin of water and a cloth, provided the water wasn’t frozen in the morning - in this altitude and season, it frequently was. Soap was also a premium commodity, typically made with oil or fat, wood ash, and natural soda like alum. <Great. And toothbrushes?> Well, some, but mostly cleaning rags, toothpicks, and eating herbs. <Now I really want a bath. Or at least to wash my hands. And to know how I got so clean when I woke up.>

“Hello,” Ellana put her thoughts aside to greet him forthrightly, “Hello,” the man replied stiffly, eyes roving over her face while he decided what further to say. Ellana wasn’t sure, but she thought perhaps he wanted to take her to task for how she interacted with the crowd. Instead, he said, “I’m Cullen Rutherford, Commander of the army. I was told that the people had accosted you.”

<Cullen! I remember you from Origins and DA2! Okay, keep it together… don’t embarrass yourself on a first impression, the second one is early enough to start.> “Nice to meet you, I'm Ellana Lavellan," she replied in kind, then added, "Unfortunately, your information was correct.” She re-buttoned her coat and wiped her hands off on her pants, still wishing she had a basin and soap. With no help for it, she set off towards the chantry with Cullen at her side, approaching a heavy structure with a cream-colored marble facade and a gothic rose window depicting the rays of the sun. The walk would be short, but it was still up a few flights of stairs and the mountain’s heavy incline.

Cullen fell in beside her. Those who saw them walking together gave them wide berth, and Ellana wondered if the crowd ever would dared to touch her had Cullen been there at the start. <Probably not.>

“I’m glad that you were able to dissuade them without violence,” Cullen remarked casually, his hands resting lightly on the pommel of his blade as he walked, “I wouldn’t have expected an el- ah -you…” Cullen saw her expression cool, but didn’t seem to have the wit or social elegance to regain his conversational footing, “-to think so quickly on your feet.”

<Did he just nearly say ‘an elf’?> Ellana wanted to growl with frustration, knowing that is exactly what he nearly said, <First Cassandra, now Cullen? Maker have mercy-> The chantry doors arrived, however, preventing the silence from getting awkward. Cullen politely opened the door for her, then followed her inside.

The nave was empty of everything but voices coming from an open door to the rear of the chantry. Ellana recognized Chancellor Roderick demanding, “Have you gone completely mad? She should be taken to Val Royeaux immediately, to be tried by whomever becomes the next Divine!”

Cullen gave her an apologetic smile, which Ellana returned with a dour look, still miffed about his slip. Though she couldn’t sense his aura or emotions the way she could Solas’, she was fairly certain he was mildly embarrassed. <Interesting. Can I not sense him because he’s a templar, or just not a mage…?> Levallan’s knowledge clarified that it was because he was not a mage, though Templars were extra unlikely to carry a readable aura. Instead, they were like voracious holes that sucked the mana out of everything, including mages.

<He doesn’t feel like a voracious hole to me, but I guess he isn’t trying to drain me right now,> thought Ellana, a hint of fear setting in her gut. She wondered vaguely how long she could last, wound up with this low level of anxiety.

“Don’t worry about him,” Cullen offered, gesturing at the door ahead. Ellana admired the great polished marble sunburst affixed to it. “Chancellor Roderick is… well, if he was better at pretty much anything, he wouldn’t still be a Chancellor at the ripe old age of fifty-eight.”

“Hmm,” she replied, folding her arms behind her back <Fifty-eight is old, is it?> , “I’m not overly worried about him. At least, not yet. Do many people in the camp put their faith in him?”

“Yes,” Cullen nodded simply, “a good many do. Haven, despite being at the base of the Temple of Sacred Ashes, is too rural to warrant a Grand Cleric. He’s faithful and kind to the people of Haven, even if he doesn’t seem so under the circumstances,” Cullen’s earnest expression willed her to understand, and Ellana wondered why he felt defensive of the older man.

“You are close?” Ellana asked, tilting her head and observing Cullen with open curiosity. She saw his light brown eyes not quite focus on her face as they travelled over her vallaslin. <For heaven’s sake, look at me when I’m talking to you, not my tattoos!> Eventually, he did, however. Brown on blue, he confessed, “This is his chantry now. I pray here often. The Maker guide us all in such hard times.”

<He’s got to be kidding. It’s like talking to Aunt Cathy. Well, I know what happens when I have the temerity to be anything other than absolutely pious around Aunt Cathy…> “Indeed,” she nodded to him, deftly hiding her aversion to his devotion. He visibly relaxed. She inwardly fumed. “Best to get this over with, I suppose.”

Cullen smiled slightly, emphasizing a scar through his upper lip, and gestured forward towards the door. It was a silent ‘after you.’ Ellana obligingly led the way.

 >>>>><<<<<

Ellana stepped into the archway, Cullen at her heels. Before she could say a word, Chancellor Roderick ordered two guards, previously unseen by their position just inside the chamber, “Chain her! I want her prepared for travel to the capital for trial.”

Ellana lifted a brow as Cassandra, who had been leaning over a map on the table, calmly pushed away and said, “Disregard that, and leave us.”

Without hesitation, the guards saluted Cassandra and turned as one, forcing Ellana to take a few more steps into the room to evade them. Cullen shifted, fluidly moving into the previously occupied space and leaning against the inside of the door. <I don’t recall his being here when I played on the screen.> She wanted it to put her at ease, but all it did was remind her that this ‘game’ wasn’t entirely scripted, and that that meant outcomes were hardly assured. <Not that I got far enough to know what lies ahead. Hopefully I don’t die at the end like I did playing Origins…>

“You walk a dangerous line, Seeker,” Roderick’s brows drew down as the guards left, but Cassandra was already walking over to him, crowding into his personal space as she said, “The Breach is stable, but it is still a threat. I will not ignore it.”

Ellana decided to see what happened if she didn’t intervene, so leaned against the wall where the other guard had been, taking up a stance that vaguely mimicked Cullen’s, though far less threatening without plate armor and a sword. <I’ll bet their knowing I’m a mage makes them re-assess their threat evaluation though->

Sure enough, “She’s a mage! And an elf!” raged Roderick, jerking his open fist in Ellana’s direction, begging Cassandra to understand and act on his perceptions.

“Have a care, Chancellor,” Cassandra narrowed her eyes, “The Breach is not the only threat we face.” The shadows moved, and Leliana stepped forward, drawing attention to herself for the first time, though of course Ellana knew she was there… didn’t she? <Damn, that woman is creepy.>

“Someone was behind the explosion at the Conclave. Someone Most Holy did not expect,” Leliana’s chin tilted down, and Roderick took a physical step back, raising his hands in denial. Ellana marvelled at how easily the man was put into a panic by a few cold words from the Divine’s Right and Left hands. “Perhaps they died with the others - or have allies that yet live.”

I am a suspect?” Roderick demanded with disbelief. Ellana couldn’t help wanting to laugh, so she tucked her chin and cleaned her nails, pretending disinterest in the proceedings. She was very happy not to be Cassandra or Leliana’s focus at the moment.

“You,” Leliana pointedly confirmed, though she added, “And many others.”

“But not the prisoner?” Chancellor Roderick recovered enough to direct everyone in the room to look at her. Ellana straightened, <Oh, don’t bring me into this you coward.> She needn’t have worried, as Cassandra jumped to her defense. “I heard the voices in the Temple. The Divine called to her for help.”

“So her survival, that thing on her hand - all a coincidence?” Roderick demanded, gesticulating towards Ellana’s left wrist.

“Providence,” Cassandra returned firmly, tilting her head and sounding so firm in her belief that a mountain would quake to deny her. <Oh my… she actually believes I’m the Herald of Andraste.> “The Maker sent her to us in our darkest hour.”

<You’re all insane,> Ellana thought, stepping forward, “You realize I’m an elf. A Dalish elf?” Chancellor Roderick actually nodded, seemingly grateful for her support, but Cassandra would have none of it, saying simply, “I have not forgotten. No matter what you are, or what you believe, you are exactly what we needed when we needed it.”

Turning away, Cassandra left the conversation to Leliana while she walked over to a small table in the corner.

“The Breach remains,” Leliana added softly, her voice having a strange way of carrying throughout the room, “And your mark is still our only hope of closing it.”

Roderick unfolded his arms, emphasizing to everyone present, though directed primarily at Leliana, “This is not for YOU to decide.”

But Cassandra was back, having anticipated Roderick’s denial. She slammed a thick book onto the war table. A solid forefinger clad in a gauntlet stabbed the crest on its cover - the chantry sunburst with an eye in front. “You know what this is, Chancellor.” It was not a question, and Roderick paled.

Ellana found herself holding her breath, and even Cullen pushed away from the wall.

“A writ from The Divine, granting us the authority to act,” Cassandra tilted her head up, daring Roderick to challenge her, “As of this moment, I declare the Inquisition reborn.” Roderick actually made as if to protest, but Cassandra kept speaking, each step punctuated by controlled physical violence moving into Roderick’s personal space, “We will close The Breach, we will find those responsible, and we will restore order.” At the very end, she pressed that same gauntleted finger into Roderick’s sternum, “With or without your approval.”

Roderick looked into Cassandra’s face, then looked to Leliana. Finding no support there, he even looked to Cullen, who gave a small, negative shake of his head. Defeated, he glared at Cassandra and headed for the door, passing Ellana without once looking at her or saying another word. <Did he really think I was all that dangerous or a part of machinations to kill the Divine if he didn’t even look at me or spit on me on the way out? Well… I guess I can do without the spit.>

Cassandra’s gaze had fallen on Ellana even if Roderick’s had not, but it was Leliana who explained to her, “This is The Divine’s directive. Rebuild the Inquisition of old. Find those who would stand against the chaos.” Looking to Cassandra and Cullen, she added, “We aren’t ready. We have no leader, no numbers, and now - no chantry support.” That last was said with a faintly disapproving look at Cassandra.

“But we have no choice,” Cassandra waved away Leliana’s concern, “We must act now.” Turning to Ellana, she said, “With you at our side.”

<Shit, that doesn’t sound like an invitation, but an order.> Ellana glanced at Cullen, but saw that he wasn’t going to help. Leliana’s gaze was curious, but also guarded. She pursed her lips for a moment, and asked simply to take their measure, “And… if I don’t want to become involved?”

“You are already involved,” Cassandra pointed at Ellana’s hand, the intensity of her stare stronger for the ragged scar down her cheek, “Its mark is upon you.”

<I wish I had her conviction,> “Very well,” Ellana nodded slowly, deciding to make her position and interests clear at the outset, “If you’re truly trying to restore order…”

“That is the plan,” Leliana confirmed, giving Cassandra another firm look. The latter woman took it as a cue to step forward, offering Ellana her hand to shake, “Help us fix this before it is too late.”

Ellana looked down at the hand, feeling a mix of Lavellan’s Dalish discomfort and modern relief to see a gesture she recognized. After a moment spent deliberately giving weight to her answer, Ellana reached out and clasped Cassandra’s hand, giving it a firm shake.

Cassandra smiled.

Chapter Text

The Inquisition was declared that very hour. Ellana didn’t know how long they’d been hiding the proclamations, but it was clear that the ink had been dry for some time, ready to be nailed to the chantry doors.  

As much as she wanted to go back to her cabin for a number of personal endeavors - <Meditate into the Fade, play around with magic… man, there are a dozen things I’d rather be doing> -  Cassandra was having none of it. She led Ellana to a chamber on the west side of the chantry where she provided a cursory knock and pushed her way into the room.

“Josephine, this is Ellana Lavellan, the Herald of Andraste -” Cassandra baldly announced to a woman with angular features, dusky skin, and grey eyes. She wore a dress in cloth of gold and was seated at a wide mahogany desk. The desk, a rich red with ornate carvings and a glossy polish, was distinctly out of place when compared to the rest of the room’s stark decor. Nearby, an elven woman in Circle robes sat to the side of another, less remarkable table, examining a small, glittering green scale and taking notes. Gesturing to the woman in cloth of gold, Cassandra provided her name, “This is Lady Josephine Montilyet, our ambassador and chief diplomat.”

“Andaran atish’an,” Josephine welcomed Ellana, rising to her feet. Ellana admired the Renaissance baroque aesthetic in the woman’s dress. Rich, garish - as an artistic form of class warfare, Josephine would massacre all comers. <Well, it’s closer to a modern pantsuit than you’d see in the 16th century, but there’s just something about purple brocade on cloth of gold crowned by a livery collar that makes you go ‘ooo’... even as you cringe in horror. Nice work, Bioware. I wonder who was responsible for Josephine’s design…>

Ellana politely hid her thoughts on Orlesian fashion and said formally, “Ma serannas, mirthadra vhenallin.” She pressed her hand to her shoulder in greeting, playing up the idea that she really was a Dalish elf, not a corporate underdog. Josephine returned the gesture with grace, though she chuckled, easily admitting, “Alas, you’ve just heard the entirety of my elvish, I’m afraid.”

Ellana’s eyes twinkled  and she willingly translated, pleased to know more about something than a real resident of Thedas, “It means ‘Thank you, honored friend’. Have no fear, I’ll speak Trade going forward.”

Appreciation flooded Josephine’s face. She looked ready to respond when Cassandra cleared her throat and addressed the room, “Now that the greetings are over, we have business to attend. Your mark is now stable, as is the Breach. You’ve given us time, and Solas believes a second attempt might succeed - provided the mark has more power.” Josephine leaned against her desk and picked up a tablet that reminded Ellana of a modern clipboard, if modern clipboards were equipped with a lit candle. While the ambassador took notes, Cassandra continued, “It will require the same level of power used to open the Breach in the first place. That is not easy to come by."

“Clearly you have something in mind,” Ellana stripped off her fur-lined coat and hung it over her arm. She really disliked Cassandra’s habit of interrupting. Josephine didn’t bat an eyelash. Ellana wasn’t certain if the diplomat was extremely tolerant, accustomed to Cassandra’s habits, or very, very good at hiding her emotions. <Probably all three,> Ellanna decided. 

Cassandra glanced at Josephine and replied for them both, “We do. Let us return to the war room.”

<Here we go again,> thought Ellana with a mental grimace.

>>><<<

“You’ve met Commander Cullen, leader of the Inquisition forces,” Cassandra formally reintroduced Cullen as she, Josephine, and Ellana rejoined him and Leliana.

“Such as they are,” Cullen’s gaze raked over Ellana. She expected distaste given his earlier slip, but instead she found his scrutiny lingered just long enough to indicate a subtle, male interest. <I guess a human-elven romance is viable in this game,> Ellana thought with a sense of unease. She wasn’t sure if she should hold his programming against him, but on some level, she just couldn’t put the inequality between them away. <Being human in real life doesn’t really help me feel more comfortable with the human-elf divide...> Heedless of her thoughts, Cullen’s gaze didn’t linger long enough to be rude. He met her eyeline, looking past her vallaslin as he continued, “We lost many soldiers in the valley, and I fear we shall lose many more before this is through.”

There was a map spread across two tables in the center of the room, but Ellann hadn’t had time to identify it before. It was different than the one at the forward camp. This one was huge, containing all of Orlais, Ferelden, and more. Tokens littered it in what appeared to be strategic places.

“Indeed, we have suffered heavy losses, and not all of them soldiers,” Leliana removed a heavy brass raven from the table and gestured with it with gloved fingers. She fingered it while she explained, “My position here involves a certain degree of…”

<Discretion…? > Ellana mentally bet, having observed the other woman’s enigmatic manner on at least two occasions. <In real life, spies are supposed to just fit in without screaming ‘intimidating, super-secret mystery over here’, but not so with Leliana.> Meanwhile, Cassandra interrupted with her usual directness, “She is our spymaster.”

“Yes,” Leliana sighed, folding her hands behind her back, the token still clutched between gloved fingers, “Tactfully put, Cassandra.” Cassandra gave Leliana a bland look and forged on, “I mentioned that your mark needs more power to close the Breach for good-”

“- which means we must approach the rebel mages for help,” Leliana finished, wrangling the reigns of the conversation back from her comrade. <They clash a lot, but they finish each other’s sentences,> Ellana thought, <I wonder how long they’ve been working together. The Right and the Left Hand… are they lovers? I remember Leliana was perfectly happy to bed a woman in Origins... hmm.> It seemed like a fanciful notion; there just wasn’t enough evidence either way… yet. Ellana didn’t trust herself to read their relationship.

Cullen wasn’t distracted by such titillating thoughts, instead responding from across the table, “And I still disagree. The Templars could serve just as well.”

“We need power, Commander. Solas says that enough magic poured into that mark -” Cassandra gauntlets glinted in the dim candlelight as she lifted them in dispute. Ellana turned on her listening ears, very certain she didn’t have enough of a grasp of the situation or politics to interject. <Did I play past this point? I think so… it mustn’t have been very memorable.>

“- might destroy us all,” Cullen rejoined, adding with irritation, “I don’t know why you trust an apostate so much. Templars could suppress the Breach, weaken it so-” <I am an apostate,> Ellana thought, vexed, but kept silent. Herald of Andraste or no, she felt like a call center stiff in a meeting with the company executive. If she wanted a seat at the table, she knew she had to be viewed as good company, and it was clear she’d be stepping into a long-term disagreement by speaking up.

“Pure speculation,” Leliana interjected, stepping bodily forward. Ellana noticed that it was a trait of hers - when silent, Leliana faded into the background, quiet and disarming. When she spoke, however, she always moved, drawing attention to herself physically. It was commanding, and Ellana decided to learn from it. <I have a feeling that fading into the background isn’t going to be an option soon.>

“I was a Templar,” Cullen said softly, but somehow the lower tone spoke volumes more passion than had he shouted, “I know what they’re capable of.” Ironically, Ellana didn’t. Even Lavellan was unclear on the true capabilities of the Templars, but what she knew implied that Cullen’s suggestion was hardly out of the realm of possibility.

Gently, Josephine broke in, cooling the tempers of the others, “It is a moot point. Unfortunately, neither group will even speak to us. The Chantry has denounced the Inquisition - and you, specifically.” She punctuated that statement with an elegant slant of her quill point towards Ellana.

Ellana rested her hands on her hips and tucked her chin down as she shifted her weight, wondering if she looked as irritated as she felt, “Really? They still think I’m guilty?”

“That is not the entirety of it any longer, Mistress Lavellan,” Josephine’s tone held sympathy, “News has spread far and wide. Some are calling you - a Dalish elf - the Herald of Andraste. That frightens the Chantry. The remaining clerics have declared it blasphemy, and us heretics for harboring you."

“Chancellor Roderick’s doing, no doubt,” Cassandra opined, folded her arms and leaning against the wall. <What, not going to give the poor fellow the benefit of the doubt?> Ellana had to admit, she didn’t feel charitable towards him either. The chancellor was the only chantry official she had met who seemed openly against her. She’d seen two gossiping priestesses in front of the chantry on her way in, but had made no effort to greet them; their opinions of her remained a mystery. “The people have heard about the woman seen in the rift when we first found you. You stopped the Breach that threatened to swallow us all. They believe Andraste saved them - through you.”

“Even if we tried to stop that view from spreading-” Leliana began, only to have Cassandra grumble disapprovingly, “- which we have not.”

Ellana wanted to be annoyed with Cassandra for interrupting again, but couldn’t help feeling that this time it was with pertinent commentary. <They’re deliberately setting me up as a divine figure to leverage the Inquisition’s reputation. It’s hurting us with the chantry and loyal Andrastians, but the ultimate payoff… could be substantial.> Ellana admired their political acuity even as she wondered how dangerous it was to get embroiled in all of this. <Not to mention they’re supposed to be true believers. How does piety play into the plan? Can Cassandra convince herself to believe I’m really some divine figure merely because it is convenient?>

“- it limits our options,” Josephine gestured at her notes on the board she held, expression calm and eyes clear as she spoke, “Approaching the mages or Templars for help is currently out of the question.”

Leliana and Cassandra protested, redoubling the debate with Josephine. While it was going around in circles again, Cullen noticed Ellana’s quietude and came to stand nearby. “Quite the title, isn’t it? The Herald of Andraste. How do you feel about it?”

<You mean being an elf who would be lucky to be viewed as competent to serve a human master let alone some divine leader chosen by Blessed Andraste herself?> Ellana bristled, deciding right then and there that she’d seize whatever power she could and use it to change the plight of the elven people. Her eyes met Cullen’s and she said forthrightly, with confidence, “I don’t mind it at all. Do you?”

“No, of course not,” Cullen’s tone was even as he straightened, but Ellana read the gesture for what it was - recoil. He had been curious, yes, but he had not expected to be met with confidence. <What are elves truly like in this world that even looking a human in the eye and saying that you’re okay with being powerful is … an offense? Threatening? What was that?> She wondered if she was giving him too hard of a time. Cullen seemed to just be… socially artless, particularly when standing next to Josephine and Leliana. <He’s probably less inept than Cassandra though. What’s my problem?>

“People are desperate for a sign of hope,” Leliana added, having watched the exchange between Ellana and Cullan with speculative eyes, “For some, you are that sign.”

“And to others, a symbol of everything that’s gone wrong,” Josephine warned, punctuated by another dot in the air with the tip of her quill.

“There is something you can do,” Leliana placed her hand on Ellana’s elbow, guiding her to the war table. She brushed a finger over the location that read ‘The Hinterlands’, “Here. A chantry cleric by the name of Mother Giselle wishes to speak to you. She is not far, and knows those involved far better than I. Her assistance could be invaluable.”

<Are they sending me away to keep me occupied or because they really need me to do something important?> wondered Ellana, not really caring which it was. <They’re probably just doing it because that’s the script…> But looking into Josephine’s eyes, she could tell the woman had genuine concern for her and the burgeoning Inquisition. Cullen might be perplexed by Ellana’s authority and confidence as an elf, but how could a game know to inject such emotions into his eyes? <It’s not them, it’s you. It’s your subconscious filling in the blanks,> Ellana equivocated, knowing full well that as immersive as she’d found screenplay before, nothing held a candle to this. Everything, down to the last strand of hair on Cassandra’s head and the faint whiff of body odor felt perfectly real. “Very, well, I’ll see what she has to say.”

“You will find Mother Giselle tending the wounded in the Hinterlands near Redcliffe,” Leliana added, gesturing to each place on the map in turn. “She has a reputation as a good woman. I have no reason to believe that this is an ambush, though I hear the fighting in the area is bad. You should bring protection.”

“While you’re there, we also need agents to extend our reach beyond this valley. You are better suited than anyone to recruit them,” Josephine added with practicality. Ellana nodded and touched Josephine’s elbow, saying, “I’ll see what I can do.” Her mind turned to what Lavellan’s memories expected to find, <Bandits. Mages and Templars at war.>

“I’ll escort you, as will Solas. We will be your protection,” Cassandra decided, then beckoned Ellana to join her as the meeting broke up. Leliana approached Cullen, taking him aside, causing Ellana to wonder what the spymaster wanted to talk to him about.

“And Varric,” Ellana tore herself away from speculating on Leliana and Cullen’s conversation to interject. Cassandra scowled and protested, “Varric is a rogue and a liar. Hardly fit company-”

“He’s a skilled fighter, and a party of three is hardly enough to travel safely on the roads,” Ellana replied firmly, slipping the fur-lined leather coat back on.

“He probably doesn’t want to go,” Cassandra pointed out, “I would not be a party to forcing him.” <If your history with him is anything to go by, I highly doubt that is true. > Ellana thought, saying firmly, “Leave that to me.”

Cassandra threw up her hands, making a disgusted noise in the back of her throat, and stalked off. Behind her, a slow grin broke across Ellana’s face.

>>><<<

She caught up with Varric in the tavern. Unlike most of the places she had visited thus far, this one wasn’t dark and claustrophobic. It smelled of smoke, however, and her eyes faintly watered. She wondered if Lavellan suffered from hay fever, but Lavellen’s memories confirmed that she did not - this is just what it was like living in a place where fire was the main source of warmth.

Varric was sitting by the hearth, which crackled merrily and spewed firelight. Nearby a bard was singing a fluid ditty and strumming a harp. A small trencher covered with breadcrumbs and half a bread bowl sat before him, the thick stew long gone. Beside these sat a sharp-pointed eating knife and a dirty wooden spoon. He was carving notes into a waxed tablet.

“Varric!” Ellana smiled warmly at the dwarf, touching the back of a chair as if to ask if she could join him. “Ahh, Herald!” Varric called, a hint of cynical humor to the nickname, and spread his arms wide as if enveloping Ellana and half of the patrons in a boisterous hug. <So my reputation precedes me. I’d better get used to that.>

Settling back, Varric nodded his response to her silent question, and she seated herself. Gesturing to the woman behind the bar, Varric pointed at his bread bowl then to Ellana. “So,” he began conversationally, “now that Cassandra’s out of earshot, are you holding up alright? I mean, you go from being the most wanted criminal in Thedas to joining the armies of the faithful. Most people would spread that over more than one day.” The Innkeeper reached between them to place another trencher before Ellana, and Varric shifted back to make room. It smelled divine.

Warmed by the dwarf’s concern, Ellana chuckled, <You can’t dislike Varric!>, “I’m just happy to be alive.”

“I still can’t believe you survived Cassandra,” Varric continued, surprising Ellana with his talkativeness, “You’re lucky you were out cold for most of the frothing rage that ensued after you stablized the Breach. For days now, we’ve been staring at it, watching demons and Maker-knows-what fall out of it. ‘Bad for morale’ would be an understatement. It’s hard to imagine anyone was in there and lived.”

“Why did you stay?” Ellana took up the spoon provided and began to eat. Fatty and full of root vegetables, it still tasted amazing, just like what her grandmother would make. <I can feel my hips expanding as I chew. What the hell - I’m what? A tall size three now? I could probably use a bit of padding… nah.>

“I like to think I’m as selfish and irresponsible as the next guy,” Varric shook his head, “But this… thousands of people died on that mountain. I was almost one of them. And now there’s a big hole in the sky. Even I can’t walk away and just leave that to sort itself out.”

Ellana nodded slowly, letting Varric see the smile on her face, “I knew I could count on you.”

“Count on me for what?” Varric placed the stick he’d been writing with down atop his wax tablet, suspicion alighting his features, “Are you about to make me regret my altruism?”

“To come with me to the Hinterlands. You may not have heard yet, but Cullen’s probably nailing proclamations up as we speak.” <Ugh, what’s this?> Ellana dug a twig out of her mouth, examining it with shock, <Great. Contaminated food supply. When will this nightmare end?> . Varric didn’t seem to notice.

“I’ve heard something like that,” The dwarf folded his arms across his chest. Varric was quiet for a few moments before he finally nodded, “Okay, Herald. I’m in. But you gotta tell me something.”

“What is it?” Ellana cocked her head, shovelling food into her mouth.

“Will Cassandra be there?”

“Well, yes,” Ellana confessed reluctantly, mentally preparing herself for Varric to back out. <What other tactics of persuasion do I have?> she scraped her brain. She needn’t have bothered.

“Then I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” grinned the dwarf, reaching for his tankard of ale.

>>><<<

Ellana planned to spend that evening packing. Finding some gold coins left in a pouch left on the table in her cabin, she wondered if this was her official pay. They initially bought soap and a razor from a charismatic merchant named Seggrit. He seemed to be doing far better than the average local, and he was friendly too. Somehow, she had the sense that might be because she had no idea of the value of money. She paid his asking cost up front, and it was only as she was walking away that she heard the next customer begin to dicker over prices. Still, Seggrit kindly directed her to Adan with the suggestion of taking some healing potions on the trip, which Ellana wouldn’t have thought of on her own.

She was just about to knock on the alchemist’s door when she felt the current that constantly buzzed like low static in her left hand dial up a notch. She’d forgotten the mark was there for a time, it had been so placid.

Solas stepped out of a cabin immediately to the south, his back slightly turned as he brought the door closed behind him. She found herself turning slightly towards him even as his gaze lifted to hers. There was a very brief pause when time seemed to stop.

“Hello,” Solas greeted her, tone even and polite. Her brain was still scrambling to figure out what just happened. Ellana noted that he held a missive in his hand, and she offered him a friendly smile, “Hello. I was just coming to get some potions from the alchemist for tomorrow’s journey.”

“Of course,” Solas nodded, tapping his left hand with the missive in his right, “I shouldn’t keep you.”

“It’s no bother,” Ellana wondered if the crisp air of the Frostbacks made her cheeks appear red. She was was proud that she wasn’t blushing, but she didn’t want the weather to fake it for her. <Pah, he probably can’t see much beneath the vallislin. How I hate these tattoos.> Solas was looking at her with that same weight of attention she had found so disconcerting prior. Or maybe it was because she could sense his aura this close, <No one else’s conversation comes with an underlying sense of what they’re feeling, just flashes here or there.> Solas was feeling, well, interested. She couldn’t tell much more other than it didn’t seem to be romantic, “We’ll be travelling together soon, I hear. The Hinterlands.”

“Indeed,” Solas agreed, hefting the missive, “One of Leliana’s people brought me this just an hour past. I’ve just finished packing.” He considered her further before he ran his hand over his head and across the back of his neck, “Perhaps I might join you?”

“Of course, Hahren,” Ellana stifled a thrill and wondered if there was a way to hide her emotions completely. This crush could get embarrassing quickly. Lavellan’s mage knowledge offered up a solution, but it seemed both fragile and potentially unreliable. <But it will have to do - so long as he doesn’t catch me off guard, it should be fine. It’s not like he can read my mind,> she thought, weaving the diaphanous mental barrier into place. It would be mildly draining to keep it up, but worthwhile if it hid her burgeoning ardor.

Solas’ eyelids lowered, shading his thoughts, and Ellana realized he’d either felt her cast the spell or felt her shut him out. Unfortunately, the flip side of the barrier was that it also cut herself off from sensing him. <Well, he can hardly be mad about a little bit of privacy, right?> She offered him a smile and reached up to knock on Adan’s door.

A cranky voice responded, “Go away, I’m busy!”

“It cannot wait!” Ellana called back, “I’m here on Cassandra’s orders! We’re travelling to the Hinterlands at first light, and we need healing potions!”

A slit in the door at about eye-height snapped open. <Was that in the screen version of the game?> Ellana asked herself as two liquid brown eyes peered at her. “Oh, it’s you,” Adan muttered. Beside her, Solas had crossed his arms and stood with his hand covering his mouth. Aura hidden or not, his body language certainly wasn’t, and it appeared he was politely hiding a laugh. “Just a moment.”

A few moments more and the door opened. Adan, a fellow about five-seven in height - <No wonder he’s cranky, he’s got short man syndrome> - shoved a wooden crate very similar to the one the elven servant had carried towards her. Solas intercepted it, manhandling the box with ease, “I’ll take those.”

“Don’t care who takes them, so long as Therin pays for them,” Adan grumbled, one shoulder leaning against the opening and his other hand solidly gripping the door handle, as if prepared to defend his tiny cabin from the onslaught of their unwanted visit. <You’d think we were Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking at 6am on a Saturday.>

“I’m sure she will,” Ellana nodded, knowing no such thing. The shems wanted her to go out into the field, though, and healing potions were a must in the game. <Just how rude and irresponsible I can get before the game starts to punish me?> she wondered as Adan simply said, “Good,” and closed the door in their faces.

Ellana glanced sidelong at Solas, who hefted the case of potions easily, and she burst out laughing. “You find the alchemist’s demeanor amusing?” Solas asked, a smile curving his own lips.

“Somewhat,” Ellana admitted, gesturing to the door just a few inches from her nose, “It’s better than getting angry, and you have to admit, that was somewhat comical.”

“I don’t have to do anything of the sort,” Solas pointed out with a wry smile, hefting the crate of potions as they broke away from the door.

She hesitated to tell him what made her laugh, but decided it was probably generic enough to share. Besides, Solas hardly fit the profile to relate, being almost as tall as Cullen, “Where I’m from, it’s something of a joke that short men try to compensate for their lack of … ah, height... in a number of amusing ways. I was imagining that our good alchemist’s sour demeanour was a form of posturing. It was unkind."

“And kindness is important to you?” Solas queried without judgment, perhaps remembering her reaction to the corpses they found near the Breach. Ellana didn’t answer immediately, thinking the question through, “It is not without merit, at least. I believe that the truth and exchange of ideas, no matter how pleasantly they’re packaged, are more important. Still, it’s rare that one must be rude. I believe that if one resorts to unnecessary vitriol, it should be strategic or it is nothing more than an indicator of poor self control.”

The chill seemed to have burned off a bit with the morning sun, although it was still cold, and Ellana pushed her hood back to let the sun touch her face while he absorbed her answer. She was becoming used to the pauses, not particularly long, but still noticeable, as Solas considered before responding. It was a fascinating habit of his, both to feel as if her words carried weight, but also indicative that he did everything, including think, with deliberation.

“So self control is important to you,” Solas suggested, though it was not particularly firm. Rather, she sensed that he used the statement like a fisherman throwing a baited hook into water. <Am I a fish? If so, I pray to be something big, nasty, and not prone to fall for shiny distractions.> Dodging his question, she turned the tables by asking, “What virtues do you believe are important?”   

The wind picked up strands of hair from the long, right-side of Ellana’s hair, and the left side felt uncomfortably cold. <Hmm, this seems like one of those fashion aesthetics that’s better in theory than practice.> She was relieved when they entered her cabin, cutting off the windy chill.

Solas glanced at her sidelong as he carried the crate to the desk, placing it there. “Wisdom, freedom, independence.” The words roll off his tongue with a certainty she found admirable. <Throw away the wisdom, and he’d sound like any red-blooded American,> Ellana grinned from ear to ear.  

“I agree with wisdom, but it is so elusive. As for freedom and independence” she clucked her tongue, “No wonder you chose apostate. Thedas doesn’t seem like the right place for you. Society here seems so hierarchical, and the distance between rich and poor insurmountable.” It’s a modern commentary on these medieval structures, and from the sharpness of Solas’ gaze, Ellana realized her words gained his full attention in a manner that had nothing to do with simply being polite. <Uh oh, I think I’ve put my foot in it.>

“There are more reasons than fear of the Templars or being regulated to a Circle for me to avoid contact with the outside world,” Solas rested a long-fingered hand on Ellana’s desk, shoulder against the wall. His gaze moved over her in much the same manner as Cullen’s had in the chantry, but it did not pause with any signs of masculine interest. Instead, she felt like he had placed her on one side of a merchant’s scales and something unknown in the opposite pan to see if they balanced.  

“Why are you looking at me like that?” she demanded, hoping to draw him out and at least ease the tension rising in her stomach.

Solas softened the intensity with a smile, “It is not often that people surprise me.” It sounded like a compliment, perhaps the opening of a door between them - opportunity, if she seized it. 

“Solas… Hahren, may I ask a question?” Ellana hedged, trying to figure out how to get him talking about the Fade. <I need to know how to get back to Lucas, and your knowledge is the best lead I’ve got.>

“Yes…?”

“I find it extraordinary that you walk the Fade,” she began, deciding flattery was a good place to start. <Let’s butter him up a bit…> To hide her intent, Ellana began to pack, searching out a satchel and placing it at the foot of the bed. “What do you know about it?”  

“A great deal, from my wanderings. There are few hard facts, but I can share what I have learned,” Solas’ replied with a confident flick of the hand. He tucked one leg up, foot flat against the wall, and watched her work, seeming to sense that this was a one-person task that she did not want help with. “The Fade is the realm beyond the Veil. As for the Veil, Circle mages call it a barrier between this world and the Fade. But according to my studies in ancient elven lore, that is a vast oversimplification. Without it… ahh.” He sighed deeply, then painted a mental picture, even lifting his hands as if to display it in midair,  “Imagine if spirits entered freely, if the Fade was not a place one went, but a state of nature like the wind.”

Seeing no harm in it, Ellana willingly imagined what he suggested as she folded a spare tunic to stuff into her bag. In her mind’s eye, spirits were wisps of thought or emotion, twining through the trees or perching on a person’s shoulder. “It sounds like it would be wonderful…”

“And dangerous. But... yes. A world where imagination defines reality, where spirits are as common as trees or grass… I would kill to see that world,” Solas admitted, pressing his hands behind himself while he watched her. “Instead, spirits are strange and fearful, and the Fade is a terrifying place touched only by mages and dreamers."

“I suppose when one looks at it like that, if such a world could actually exist, the current state of affairs is indeed sad,” Ellana commented regretfully, tucking the tunic into her bag and beginning to fold a pair of breeches. She didn’t see Solas’ expression, but his voice conveyed a touch of companionship when he said, “I am glad that I am not alone in seeing the beauty of such a world, along with the obvious peril. Emily-”

“Hmm, yes?” Ellana automatically glanced at Solas, folding still in hand, then realized her mistake.

Chapter Text

Ellana’s distress tore through the mental barrier she’d brought up to shield her emotions from Solas. She felt it go down even as his satisfaction flooded against her aura. <You son of a bitch, you’ve been waiting to do that…> she thought, noting that his face hadn’t even twitched when he uttered her name.

Solas made a soft “ahh” sound, as if to say he had suspected as much, and … waited.

<Panic won’t help,> Ellana told herself while scrambling for a believable explanation; there was a strong chance he felt everything she did. <Even if he believed the truth, there’s no way he’d comprehend that I’m a programmer from another world that builds games like this… or that he’s just a figment of my imagination and someone else’s programming. No way, not in a million years. So, what would he believe? Think, dammit, think!>

The silence extended beyond comfort while Ellana frenzied through her options. Eventually, Solas took the lead, “Your fear is unfounded. I have no intention of sharing your secrets with Cassandra or the other leaders of the Inquisition.”

Ellana stared at him, her hands still gripping the breeches she’d been folding. <Surely you don’t think I’m just going to babble my secrets at you because you’ve filled the room with an uncomfortable silence?>

She came up with the least satisfactory answer she could think of, which was none at all. <At least it will give me time to figure out something plausible,> she groused, anxiety settling. Eventually, “Thank you. For keeping the matter to yourself,” found its way out of her mouth.

Solas’ frustration spiked, but he reigned it in. Intrigue replaced it. <Why isn’t he shielding his emotions from me?> As she reached for another tunic to fold, it clicked. Ellana couldn’t read his emotions when her barriers were up, meaning he couldn’t read hers if his were up... <You double son of a bitch!> “You’ve been probing me.”

His eyes widened slightly, telling her that not only had she nailed him, but that he also hadn’t expected her to. “Ir abelas, da’len,” he sighed, folding his arms and bringing his hand up to cup his chin. His blue eyes expressed sincerity as he added, “I meant no harm. I didn’t realize that you could read me, at first. For me, most people are like the tranquil are to you; even mages have such a weak connection to the Fade that they can get only rudimentary glimpses. Yes, I could sense you, but I can sense most mages to greater or lesser degrees. I did not realize how attuned you were until you shielded yourself outside of the apothecary.”

She weaved her mental barrier back into place, her half-folded laundry in hand. <How does a computer program - even a clever one - break the script? It’s one thing for me to do it; I’m a real person. I’m sentient and can think for myself. No matter how good Dragon Age Inquisition is, it is just a game. He’s acting like an artificial intelligence… > Ellana's unease dialed up several notches. <He can’t be sentient. Did he really trick me, or does simply look like he did because my subconscious dreamed it up?>

“You look troubled,” Solas’ posture uncoiled as he stepped away from the wall. Ellana back-pedaled until the edge of the bed connected with the back of her knees. Its heavy physical presence cut off her escape. He paused and spread his hands out at his sides, fingers open to demonstrate peaceful intent, “I will not hurt you, Emily.”

“Ellana,” she corrected him, “My name really is Ellana here.”

“Here? Have you been somewhere else before?” Solas inquired, linking his hands behind his back and searching her eyes. She wasn’t ready to tell him the truth. Not only was it too fantastical to explain, it was potentially dangerous to her wellbeing. Rummaging through her mind, she chose one of several viable lies, “You already guessed that I was a spy. That’s just one of my… longer term aliases. From another life.”

“You are not a spy,” Solas denied and stepped back to give her some space, sensing her discomfort from her body language, “- Or if you are, you’re not a very good one and would have ended up dead a long time ago.” He paused and added apologetically, “You are a terrible liar.”

“And clearly you’re a very good one,” Ellana mocked, sitting down on the edge of the bed and rubbing her face. She heard the bite in her voice and refused to feel sorry for it, even with the flash of anger in Solas' eyes. “Does it occur to you, Solas, that not everything is your business? This mystery you’re trying to get to the bottom of is neither dangerous to you nor as interesting as you suspect. It’s simply personal.” 

Weighing her words, Solas calmed and adopted a softer tone, “I’m worried that it is dangerous to you, da’len, not me. Your mark is the only way to close the Breach. If anything happens to you… the world is doomed. And if Cassandra or Cullen suspect for a moment that-” he cut off, looking to the side as he collected his thoughts.

“Wait. What do you think is going on that could be so dangerous?” Ellana perked up from her position, his worry translating to her. He paced with his arms folded, and his hand rose to clasp his chin once more. She was sure he wouldn’t answer; it was clear that he had been trying to elicit a confession rather than provide theories of his own. Having failed, he weighed his response before he gave in and advised, “If you are a spirit inhabiting the body of Ellana Lavellan, they will believe you are an abomination. At best they will attempt to exorcise you. At worst they may kill you outright.”

“You think I’m a spirit? In an Elven mage’s body? What kind, if I may ask?” She turned this over in her mind. Ellana wasn’t in there with her; the Lavellan memories were the game's… weren’t they? <I don’t feel like there’s any other personality in here, and mine certainly hasn’t changed or been melded with anything.>

“I’m not entirely sure,” Solas admitted, coming to a halt. He faced sideways to her, watching her obliquely over his shoulder,  “You are an intriguing woman, Ellana.”

The flood of warmth that washed through Ellana surprised her, <But, this is a fucking game. Why am I even doubting myself? I know who I am, I lived it!> “Well, either way, you’re wrong. I’m no Fade spirit who found a spineless mage to possess. I have more willpower than that.”

He came to stand before her, offering his hand to help her up, “That is true - you woke yourself up out of the Fade whilst in the grip of a spirit of Desire.” Despite his words, he didn’t seem convinced, “But your indomitable focus might be the side effect, not the cause, of such a merging.” Solas naming Lucas a Desire demon shook her faith somewhat, but she still thought that the Fade held the key to her escape. <Does it matter? Perhaps Desire can help me unlock my mind. Perhaps the Fade is close enough to lucid dreaming to give me access to the console. Either way, I need to get back, and Solas is the only link to the Fade I have.>

“Indomitable focus?” Ellana gingerly placed her hand in his, allowing him to draw her to her feet. Her hand tingled at the warm, dry brush of his skin against hers, and beneath that, the vibrant thrum of his mana. Perhaps six inches taller than she, Solas tilted his head to meet her eyes. His breath brushed warm against her cheek, “Presumably. I have yet to see it dominated. I imagine that the sight would be... fascinating.”

The words and his proximity melted through her, a liquid heat that rolled down her spine and tightened her belly. Heart pounding, Ellana’s tongue touched her lips and left them wet, “Are you playing with me? I am not a spirit, Solas.” <Has any man in my life ever made me feel like that with just a few, well-chosen words?> The answer was a resounding ‘No’.

“Are you certain?” Solas’ grip tightened on her hand. That his eyes darkened revealed that he was not unaffected by their proximity, “It will not end well if Cassandra or Cullen discover otherwise.”

Ellana wrenched her hand from his grasp, reiterating tightly, “I am certain. Now, if you’ll forgive me, I must finish packing.”

Partially obscured by his thigh, Solas rubbed the fingers of his now empty hand together, savoring the memory of her touch. The subtle gesture was so artless that it surprised Ellana to her core, <How can my subconscious come up with these things?> She didn't feel remotely creative enough, <Hell, how does one surprise one's self? I once read you physically can't tickle yourself, surely you cannot surprise yourself?> The ramifications of those thoughts were too serious, and Ellana shied away from analyzing them further. 

When Solas withdrew, the sudden space between them left her both relieved and longing. Placing his hand upon his shoulder, Solas inclined his head, “Very well then… Ellana.” He paused when he reached the door to say, “Dareth shiral.”

>>>>><<<<<

Ellana spent the night trying to get into the Fade, but thoughts of Solas persistently undermined her attempts. At some point she fell into a deep sleep, and when she woke with the sun on her face she sensed that there was something unusual about her dreams; the memory waned in minutes.

She did her best to follow Emily’s morning routine, though it took extreme effort in Thedas. First she used a small magefire to heat the frozen basin of water. Though the water was warmed, the act of bathing via sponge was by itself a cold, miserable affair in the frigid climate of the Frostbacks. She managed to clean her teeth almost thoroughly with a cloth, but she wasn’t as comfortable with the results as she would have been with her toothbrush. <I will make a mission of inventing a recipe for toothpaste,> she promised.

Once ostensibly clean, Ellana contemplated the straight razor on the table with trepidation. She knew it was how Lavellan maintained her aesthetic, but it didn’t suit Emily’s sense of self-preservation. Relying solely on Lavellan’s memories, she touched up the shaved side of her head to keep it from becoming  unkempt. The task was delicate. She nicked herself twice, and it took forever. Regardless, the job was done, and she proudly still had two ears. By the end, she was certain that Solas used magic to keep his head bald. <Does he do this every day? No one is that bald without upkeep, but I can’t imagine him shaving it literally every morning...>

Maintenance complete, she progressed through her exercises and yoga. She was wrapping up when a knock at the door announced her guide’s arrival. The elven servant led her to the stables where Solas, Cassandra, and Varric were already ready to go. Solas met her with a speculative nod, Cassandra with a cursory greeting, and Varric with a boisterous grin, “You look fresh, Herald. Ready to hit the road?“

“I was actually hoping for breakfast,” Ellana admitted, rubbing her tummy with an idle hand. Varric laughed heartily, “I brought enough rations to share.” He slung a saddle onto his … <Is that a pony >  Yes, Lavellan’s memories reassured her, it was a pony. <I thought ponies were, like, I don’t know, the stage between a foal and a horse. Nope. How can this game teach me things with my subconscious that I don’t already somehow know? Why am I learning instead of, I don’t know, just getting it all wrong?>

Cassandra led a glossy sorrel mare with a flaxen mane and tail from one of the stalls, mentioning, “This is Glory, your mount for the trip.” Ellana marveled at the beast’s placid obedience as she companionably clip-clopped over. “She is solid, swift, and docile. You could want nothing more.”

Ellana thought Glory was exquisite, but the closer Cassandra brought her, the taller she realized the horse was. By the time Cassandra halted the horse between them, Ellana’s hunger disappeared with a resounding flip of her stomach. <I can’t see over her back. How the fuck am I supposed to get up there?!> For once, Lavellan’s memories failed her; the Dalish elf rode halla, not horses. There may be some similarities, but the only thing Lavellan was certain of was that they weren’t close enough.

She cleared her throat, inadvertently drawing the attention of the group, “I don’t know how to ride… a horse.” She expected Cassandra to respond with impatience, but to her surprise, the other woman’s expression softened, “It’s okay, Mistress Lavellan. I’ll teach you.”

“What, now? Like, right now?” Ellana blinked, causing Cassandra’s mouth to stretch into a smile. The warrior woman scratched Glory behind the ears and beckoned for Ellana to do the same. “A few pointers now, but more while we travel. Fear not, Glory here-” that was said with an audible thump to the horse’s flank. Glory barely noticed, head down, sniffing at the ground, “-is perfect for a beginner.”

 >>>>><<<<<

It took most of the trip for Ellana to get comfortable in the saddle. Even when the fear that every tree branch she rode under would sweep her off Glory’s back faded, the physical pain of using muscles Lavellan rarely had remained - a horse’s trot was only superficially like the graceful lope of a halla.

Every night was painful and every morning such agony that her normal routine was hard to bear. Though she told herself that pilates and yoga would probably help, she couldn’t make herself do much of either. The first day was uncomfortable and the second worse. By the fifth day, she could barely move. <It’d be really nice if the Aura didn’t go into excruciating detail on all of the mundane and  painful parts of medieval life that the game usually glosses over in a matter of seconds.>

Curled up on her bedroll, Ellana tensely held herself still in hope of relief. As long as she didn’t move, the burning pain hovered just out of perception. She was sure the others had noticed her discomfort, but it was Solas who eventually came to stand outside her tent, asking for permission to enter. She gave it, and he came in to crouch beside her, “You look unwell. Can you stand?”

“No, I can barely move," Ellana gritted out, "The ground is so cold, and I’m so stiff...” She turned her face into the thickly woven wool blankets that did nothing to keep rocks and other debris from poking through. He nodded, then said, “I think you’re in spasm. I know you prefer that I do not use magic on you, but if you’ll let me, I have a healing spell that should help. That, coupled with a massage, should get you back onto your feet.”

“Anything,” Ellana agreed tautly, forcing herself to roll onto her stomach when Solas gestured for her to do so. She whimpered with pain from the movement, and Solas’ crouch shifted nearer. On his knees beside her hip, he placed his hands on her lower back. The mana beneath his skin stirred, then poured into her like warm, melted honey. She couldn’t help but moan with relief.

“You’re neither used to riding nor sleeping rough,” Solas observed in a whisper so the others could not hear, “Do you want to explain to me how a Dalish elf has to watch others to figure out how to put up a tent or fails to insulate their bedroll properly?”

“No,” Ellana murmured in a daze, “I only want you to tell me how to do it properly before the others notice… ah… God have mercy, that feels so good...” Solas pressed his thumbs into her back, then down her spine and into her hips in what Ellana was certain was a professional healer’s massage. Backed by magic, the sensation was incredible.

Solas became quiet, concentrating on his work. Just as the pain in her backside turned to something a little more intimate, Solas released her, “That should do for today. For tomorrow - the pelts go under the blanket, not on top.”

A cold blast of air announced his departure, and Ellana groaned. If she had a pillow, she’d have thrown it at him.

 >>>>><<<<<

She felt a little better when she noticed that Varric and Solas had similar, if lesser issues with long-term riding. The difference, she came to realize, was that both of them knew how to camp, though Lavellan did too once Ellana pushed through the haze of pain to access the relevant memories.

Despite the dangers and Cassandra’s excessive caution, they arrived at an Inquisition camp in the Hinterlands. The temperature was warmer in the lower altitudes, and Ellana was no longer as convinced that the vertebrae in her lower spine had fused. She could also climb onto Glory’s back without a fearful sense of vertigo, and she had yet to fall.

A dwarven woman with ginger hair, breath-taking green eyes, and a scattering of freckles approached the group as they dismounted. Cassandra recognized her, calling out “Scout Harding, it’s good to see you are well.”

“Seeker Pentaghast,” the scout acknowledged, then saw Ellana, “The Herald of Andraste!” She reached out to offer her hand to shake, “We know what you did at the Breach. Thank you.” Ellana accepted, noting that for such a diminutive woman, the dwarf had a remarkably firm grip. “Inquisition Scout Harding at your service. I - all of us here - we’ll do what we can to help.”

“Harding, huh?” Varric grinned, spreading his hands as he sidled over to get in on the introductions, “Ever been to Kirkwall’s Hightown?” From his tone, Ellana wondered if Varric was flirting.

“Can’t say that I have,” Harding replied plainly, “Why?” As Harding tilted her head Ellana saw a silvery, hooked scar that ran from the scout’s ear almost to her chin. <Wow, something got her good. I wonder what. I’ll have to ask sometime… if I can figure out a polite way to go about it.>

“You’d be Harding in…” seeing the quizzical look on Harding’s face, Varric relented, “Oh, never mind.” <Did I just see Varric fail a social check?> Ellana wanted to giggle, but it was Cassandra who vocalized with a disgusted noise. Solas merely tucked his chin to look down at Varric, then glanced back to Harding, weighing their reactions.

Scout Harding brushed it off, focusing on Ellana, “They say you’re the last hope of Thedas. No pressure, right?” Her eyes danced, “The Hinterlands is as good a place as any to start fixing things. We came to secure more horses from Redcliffe’s old horse master. I grew up here, and people said Dennet’s herds were the strongest and the fastest this side of the Frostbacks. But with the mage-Templar fighting getting worse, we couldn’t get to Dennet. Maker only knows if he’s still alive.”

“I’m here to see Mother Giselle,” Ellana confessed, uncertain what to do about Dennet; unsure if it was even her problem. <This is a game. Every wandering straggler’s missing socks are my problem.>  “Do you know where to find her?”

“Mother Giselle is at the crossroads helping refugees and the wounded,” as the scout spoke, she pointed to a narrow, rocky path that curled down the mountainside. Even Ellana could tell it wasn’t safely navigable for four horses with riders, “Our latest reports say the war’s spread there also. Corporal Vale and our men are doing what they can to help protect the locals, but they won’t be able to hold out very long. You’d best get going. No time to lose.”

<What? Not even a bath first?> She handed Glory’s reigns over to Scout Harding and nodded to Cassandra, “I guess we’ll be off.”

“A few of us will go with you,” Harding said, “Once the crossroads are secure, we’ll hold them against future attack. The area will be a little more settled, at least.”

 >>>>><<<<<

Rocks skittered as Ellana lost her footing for the third time along the descent, sliding a good few feet before she regained herself. “Watch your step,” Varric suggested after the fact, and Ellana cast him a grinning scowl. She was happy to be off the damn horse, even though it felt bad to dislike a mare as well-behaved as Glory.

“Mother Giselle can’t be far,” Cassandra said as she marched around a bend, drawing her sword and using it to point at the path below them. A low, half-overturned wall partially obstructed their passage, and Ellana noticed several corpses strewn about it. Though not as affected as she had been the first time they’d found remnants of violence, she still had to fight the urge to look away.

The sounds of fighting below beckoned them onward. “Inquisition forces, trying to protect the refugees!” Cassandra identified, picking up her pace to an all-out run and gesturing for Harding’s soldiers to follow.

“Looks like they could use a hand,” Varric swung Bianca off his shoulder, trotting readily after. Ellana felt Solas call upon his mana and twine it into a complex weave. Looking at her sideways, he lifted a brow. Somehow, she knew he sought permission, and she gave it with a brief nod. His mana surged; she felt barriers drop like gossamer around them both. The hairs on her arms stood on end; she somehow ‘tasted’ Solas in the spell.

“Go,” Solas pointed behind the ruined half-wall and ran towards the fray. She wasn’t sure why he wanted to keep her apart from the fighting, but she wasn’t suicidal enough to care. Moving to where he’d gestured, Ellana gathered her own mana. The fresh, electric scent of ions sprung around her as electricity rippled into her hands.

She identified the first target - a mage casting spells at Cassandra, the crystal at the top of the apostate's staff glowing an angry blue. Ellana released a crackling chain of lightning. Blue-tinged electricity arced through the air, slamming into the first, then split two bolts into the second, then split again, until a glittering spiderweb of energy dropped seven men. Smoke curled off their corpses.

“Hold!” Not far off, Ellana heard Cassandra call to one of the Templars as they came into contact, “We are not apostates!”

“I don’t think they care,” Varric retorted. Sure enough the Templar’s blade just missed Cassandra’s side as she reflexively deflected. Eyes narrowing, she sent an arc of Templar blood into the air and his body to the ground.

The fight lasted for several minutes, and it seemed to be concluding in their favor until an armored figure appeared on Ellana’s peripherals. Coming around the half wall, he raised his sword and brought it down squarely into her back. The barrier Solas had placed flashed, screeching with friction and sending a cascade of sparks into the air. Ellana turned to blast him, but as she did so, the figure reached out a mailed hand and touched her barrier. Like that, it was gone.

<Oh my god, he just… sucked the energy into himself…> Ellana screamed in fear, fell back, landing on her ass, and narrowly missed cracking her skull on the wall. The Templar advanced on the trembling mage before him, raising his sword again. Her next fire bolt smashed him in the face, but half of it disappeared into the voracious void before it even connected. She was in trouble.

Giving up the fight, Ellana scrambled to her feet and ran. Just as she cleared the half-wall, something whistled past her right shoulder. A heavy thunk announced the Templar’s fall behind her, and she slowed to an unsteady halt. One of Bianca’s quarrels was buried deep in the Templar’s throat. Ahead, Varric reloaded, sending her a wink.

The fight was over. The apostates and Templars that remained had recognized that their losses were too heavy for victory. Both factions took off running. There were corpses all around, but for once, Ellana felt relief despite her part in the carnage.

 >>>>><<<<<

Less than an hour later Scout Harding joined the Inquisition forces, bringing in people to secure and reinforce the refugee settlement. They placed banners to declare area under protection of the Inquisition, while others cleared the bodies and debris.

Ellana encountered Mother Giselle in her Chantry robes, tending to the wounded behind a rustic wooden cabin. A soldier with a gut wound curled about himself on a barren pallet, crying with his hands full of blood.

“Shh,” Mother Giselle whispered, gently touching his shoulder and offering him a cup of water, “There are mages here who can heal your wounds. Lie still.”

The man’s reaction was immediately fearful; he batted the cup of water from Mother Giselle’s hand in protest, “Don’t! Don’t let them touch me, Mother!” he demanded, pale as a sheet, “Their magic-”

With remarkable patience, the dark-skinned woman with liquid brown eyes spoke in a soothing voice, picking up the cup he’d batted away, “Turned to noble purpose, their magic is surely no more evil than your blade.”

“But-” he began, settling with her words and uncertainty creeping in. She continued to ply at him, “Hush, dear boy. Allow them to ease your suffering.”

Solas stepped forward to do just that, and it earned him a curious turn of Ellana’s head. Rather than voice her question, she addressed the priestess, “Mother Giselle?”

“I am,” the priestess stepped around Solas to greet Ellana, offering to clasp her hands between her own, “And you must be the one they’re calling the Herald of Andraste.”

“I’m told you asked for me,” Ellana found the woman’s hands paper-thin on hers, though soft and warm enough to be welcoming. She sensed no mana within her. Meeting the priestess’ gaze, Ellana absorbed that she seemed powerful regardless; something about a pristine white wimple and the high, triangular curve of her mitre invoked authority. <Those hats look ridiculous, but it somehow suits Mother Giselle.>

“I know of the Chantry’s denouncement, and I am familiar with those behind it,” Mother Giselle released her, clasping her hands before her waist as she drew Ellana away from the injured. “I won’t lie to you; some of them are grandstanding, hoping to increase their chances of becoming the new Divine.” She sighed, “Some are simply terrified. So many good people, so senselessly taken from us…”

“What happened was horrible,” Ellana agreed, providing an understanding nod. Her hands fell opposite Giselle’s, clasping behind her back as they walked together. Giselle paused, turning to Ellana to say, “Fear makes us desperate, but hopefully not beyond reason.”

The priestess took a deep breath before making her appeal, “Go to them. Convince the remaining clerics that you are no demon to be feared. They have heard only frightful tales of you. Give them something else to believe.”

“They want to execute me,” Ellana pointed out, shifting her weight from her right hip to her left, “I can’t just walk right up to them.”

“You are not alone,” Mother Giselle reasoned, gesturing to where the Inquisition forces worked, carrying barrels and tending to the wounded, “They cannot easily imprison or attack you.”

Ellana’s mouth curved into a frown, and she folded her arms, “Perhaps not, but they could try.”

“Let me put it this way,” Mother Giselle reached out to place a calming hand on Ellana’s shoulder, “You needn’t convince them all. You just need some of them to doubt . Their power is their unified voice. Take that from them, and you have the time you need to seal the Breach.” The hand on Ellana’s shoulder squeezed, then released. “I honestly don’t know if you’ve been touched by fate or sent to help us, but… I hope. Hope is what we need now. The people will listen to your rallying call as they would listen to no other. You could build the Inquisition into a force that could deliver us - or destroy us.”

Mother Giselle gave her a long look, then walked away and left Ellana to her thoughts. <The Herald of Andraste,> she puzzled, shaking her head, <Me. A religious icon. Is this how Jesus felt? Muhammad? I don’t think I’m ready to pretend to be one of those heavyweights, even in a game.> Regardless, Ellana recognized that what Mother Giselle said was true; after all, she’d thought much the same thing about how Leliana and Cassandra had treated the rumors. If nothing else, meeting Mother Giselle was an eye opener. <Let’s hope it translates into something of value.>

Chapter Text

To Ellana’s surprise, Mother Giselle accompanied the party back to Haven. The trip was far more comfortable this time around; Ellana was grateful that her rear no longer ached in the saddle. She knew how to pitch her tent and how to layer her bedroll so she didn't freeze overnight. There was something humbling about having a fifty-year-old priestess as a traveling companion. Ellana refused to complain if Mother Giselle didn’t.

Her nightly attempts to access the Fade were still failing, yet despite that frustration, Ellana’s mood increased across the board. One morning, after her frigid sponge bath, she tucked her bedroll under her arm and called to Cassandra, “I will need a few minutes of privacy before breakfast. I’ll be back soon.”

“Don’t stray too far,” Cassandra replied as she poured oats into a pot, hung it over the firepit, and added water to begin the morning porridge, “It’s not safe.” The Seeker wasn’t really paying attention, however; her back was turned as she angled a fresh log into the ashes below. With a scowl, she observed, “Maker’s balls, the fire’s gone out.”

“Language, Seeker,” chastised Varric. Patting Bianca with his dominant hand, he offered, “I’ll go with her. The Herald will be safe with me.”

“I said privacy ,” Ellana rolled her eyes, refusing to be coddled, “I’m not a prisoner anymore, remember? And I am Dalish. We’re not used to being up each other’s butts all the time. I’ll stay in shouting distance.” Solas overheard as he came out of his tent, rubbing at a nick by his left ear with the end of a towel hung about his shoulders. <Holy shit, he shaves his head with a razor!> Until now she’d been the last person to rise, and this was the first time she’d seen any of the others in less than full dress. <I guess if there’s anyone fastidious enough to frequently shave their entire head, it’s him.>

“Up each other’s-” Varric slapped his knee, “That a Dalish saying? I’m using that.” He rummaged into his rucksack until he found his quill and a roll of parchment. <Really?> she thought, wondering what type of story he’d fit the phrase into.

If Solas disapproved or even noticed Ellana invoking the Dalish as a cover to get some privacy, he gave no indication beyond a glance. Instead he crouched beside Cassandra at the firepit, offering, “Good morning,” while he gestured to the coals. The Seeker’s log burst into flame, long tongues of heat licking up under the pot. Cassandra startled away, giving him a tight-lipped smile that reminded Ellana that most people found magic nerve-wracking.

The distraction let her escape into the tree line. Finding a place out of sight of camp, but not out of shouting distance, Ellana faced east and unrolled her bedroll onto the ground. Tugging off her boots, she smiled at the crisp scents of evergreen and pine that tickled her nose, breathed deeply of the mountain air, and stepped onto the center of her bedroll. <This is how yoga is truly meant to be practiced,> she told herself.

She lifted her toes, grounding herself in preparation. The sun warmed her face despite the morning chill, and the wind teased back her hair. Bringing her arms wide and hands up above her head, she mentally repeated the Sanskrit names for each of the poses as she flowed from one to another. Surya Namaskara, the salutation to the sun, never felt better. After eight repetitions, Ellana lay down in Shavasana, the corpse pose, and easily fell into meditation.

>>>>><<<<<

One moment she relaxed in the physical realm of Thedas, and the next it fell away as another rushed in. Without even meaning to, Emily had slipped into the Fade. She knew it by instinct alone.

Though the same dappled forest scene surrounded her, the light was warmer, more yellow, and originated from an unknown, diffuse source. The morning chill gone, birdsong died away, replaced by faint, strained notes of music. Faeries danced in the tree leaves, and Emily recognized they were spirits. Wisps came to mind, provided by Lavellan’s recall.

Off in the distance, The Black City hovered ominously, provoking recollection of dark lore and fairy tales. <What an ugly vision amongst such beauty… >

She tore her gaze away, far preferring to explore the grounded feeling within. <Oh boy, this is different,> she thought to herself, looking down at her hands and flexing them. As she did, she imagined the Fade flexing around her fists. Sure enough, reality distorted with them. <I’m awake here. I know I’m here… it feels… amazing. Like I’m in perfect control.> She felt like she could create anything, summon anything; this world was fluid and would respond if only she flowed like water with it.

Emboldened, Emily focused her mind on what she wanted and called, “Lucas? Lucas, where are you?” The world spun like she was at the center of a gyroscope and halted after a full pass. Nothing had truly changed, yet floating before her was a strange spirit. <Well, that’s definitely not Lucas. And I guess it’s harder to flow like water than I thought...>

A humanesque figure made of pale blue light undulated not three feet from her, left leg tucked into right thigh and vice versa. Two hands lay on those thighs, forming a circle with forefinger and thumb. Six more arms sprouted from its back, each fanning out and balancing a lotus flower. Behind its head and between its brows a golden disk and blue crystal respectively shone. Thought it appeared otherwise human, Emily could not tell if it was male or female. Blinding levels of blue-white light emanated from its skin, but she peered at it with no discomfort at all.

“Who are you?” Emily asked, sensing no malice in the spirit before her. In fact, she found herself leaning toward it, feeling safe in its presence. No thoughts of possession concerned her.

“I am Peace,” the spirit intoned, speaking in syllabant layers. The music in the background swelled, resolving into something classical that Emily thought she recognized, but couldn’t put a finger on. It bled into the atmosphere, and Peace continued, “Your worship called to me.” <Worship? Wait a second, you mean my yoga?>

“Yesss,” the spirit replied to Emily’s thought, arms rippling as they floated away from its sides.

“Oh,” Emily murmured with wonder, lifting her hand as if to touch the spirit, but she stopped herself before she could. <I wouldn’t touch a stranger without permission, so I won’t touch… it.> Lowering her hand, she wanted to hide how the gesture made her feel sheepish, but she wasn’t sure how to when spirits could read your mind. At least the spirit didn’t seem interested in possessing her. For now. She searched her brain, then mentioned, “I’m looking for my friend Lucas. I saw him here once, and I was hoping to find him again.”

“Lucas,” the spirit repeated with its eerie, male and female voice, “I don’t know where to find Lucas. Or the spirit of Desire you called last time you visited.”

“Oh,” disappointment filled Emily’s chest as the spirit hinted that Solas was right; Lucas had never been here, and she’d nearly been possessed for believing it, “Well, I’m stuck in Thedas, and I would really like to go home. Do you know how I can get there?”

The spirit considered, flickering light and dark, then light again. It brightened when it said, “No, but Wisdom might know. Wisdom knows many things. We are close friends.”

<That sounds perfect,> as her excitement rose, Peace’s aura darkened in answer. <Oh my. No wonder the yogis say that detachment brings peace. I guess excitement is the opposite.>   Deliberately, Emily calmed herself so as not to scare the spirit away, “Will you take me to the spirit of Wisdom?”

“You need only ask,” Peace replied, offering one of its many hands. Without hesitation, Ellana took it.

>>>>><<<<<

With a whooshing sensation the scene shifted again. When Emily’s senses cleared, the music had stopped, and they stood in an ancient ruin with pointed arches high above - Lavellan’s memories confirmed that it was elvish architecture. Peace still floated beside her, and with purpose it pointed with four of its hands at a hooded woman sitting on a stone pew.

Brow furrowing, Emily glanced at Peace and whispered, “Is that Wisdom?” Her voice echoed strangely here in the Fade. Peace intoned, “Yesss,” and glided forward.

As they approached, the hooded spirit reached up and drew her hood back, exposing what appeared to be a mundane elven woman with auburn hair and hazel eyes. <She wouldn’t look out of place in a crowd…> thought Emily, glancing at the very much ‘not normal’ Peace. <I definitely filled in what that spirit looks like with my mind.>

“You expected something else,” Wisdom smiled gently, adjusting the hood until it rested comfortably upon her shoulders. Beneath the charcoal-colored cloak, she wore an unadorned green wool dress with a leather belt. Tilting her head, Wisdom studied Emily for a long moment, then said to Peace, “Thank you for bringing her to me. I had wondered. Now I know.”

Peace’s voice came from many directions as it replied, “Blessings be with you.” Abruptly, the eight armed spirit disappeared, and the atmosphere tangibly changed. Where a subtle awe had pervaded the site, now the hallowed walls felt ordinary.  

<She wanted to see me? What? Why?> in Peace’s absence, irritation found an opening in Emily’s mind. She accused flatly, “Peace brought me to you because you asked it to.”

“Something like that, yes,” Wisdom placed the tips of her fingers together, “Peace would not have found you if you were not a rare soul. And just because I was looking for you does not mean that I cannot also help.” She laced her hands in her lap.

Emily stilled. She felt no sense of enmity from the spirit, and she had no reason to believe that Peace had deceived her. Still, her experience with previous games made her suspicious of anything Fade-related, “Help me with what? How do you know what I need?”  

Wisdom paused before answering, “You would view it as reading your mind, although that is not quite what is happening.” The spirit rose from her seat and reached for Emily’s elbow, encouraging her to walk beside her, “You are not at all what I expected."

“You realize I’m just getting more and more lost in this conversation, right? How could you expect anything? How do you even know about me?” Emily allowed Wisdom to guide her down the center aisle. The ruins faded into an indiscriminate mist a mere three steps away, and a mirror easily three stories tall appeared ahead. Its surface shined like liquid mercury.

Wisdom leaned towards Emily, a secretive smile playing about her mouth, “I would tell you these things, but it would not be wise.” The spirit’s tone was kind, not mocking, when she added, “I cannot act against my nature any more than you can. Instead, I have a gift.”

Emily pulled away and folded her arms beneath her breasts, closing herself off physically. She knew what spirits wanted; she’d played this game before. Fiercely, she declared, “I will not allow you into my mind.”

Wisdom’s smile disappeared, leaving in its wake a mask of melancholy, “Not all spirits desire to cross the veil, Emily, and I am not one of those who do. Even you have been tainted by fears from the mortal realm. As for being in your mind, I have no need. I already vibrate on your wavelength, for I am a spirit, and you are a dreamer.”

“Isn’t everyone who visits the Fade a dreamer?” Emily’s thoughts turned to Solas and the knowledge he claimed he had of the Fade. <I bet he’d find this meeting fascinating.>

“Most who visit the Fade are dreaming,” Wisdom explained affably, without lecturing, “But that is not what I meant. You are somniari, with the potential to be every bit as powerful as the one you know as ‘Solas.’” <Was he that prominent in my mind? Damn, I need to crush that crush.>

“He would love to meet you,” Emily murmured, picturing Solas excited and smiling. She took a moment to study the spirit’s elven features. They were not striking, but they were pleasant. “I wonder what he would see when he looks at you.”

Wisdom’s smile widened, but she changed the subject; gesturing to the mirror, she advised, ”Let us avoid distractions. I said I had a gift, and I did not lie.” Wisdom’s gesture drew Emily’s focus to the mirror, and in it she saw herself and the spirit standing side-by-side.

“You want to access the command line. In your world, you are an artist and it is your chisel. The Fade is vast and not your realm, but you know how to shape and mould. Even in this world, it is your craft. What you do not understand yet is the form it takes.” Wisdom’s hand fell solicitously on Emily’s shoulder, “The command line creates through science and method. In this world, belief and willpower create through magic. You must learn a new language.”

In the mirror, Emily saw color ripple up Wisdom’s arm as if she’d dialed up the saturation on an image, but she felt nothing, “My gift to you,” the hand on her shoulder changed as the light advanced, becoming more familiar, “is perspective.” The color crawled over Wisdom’s shoulder, up her neck and down her chest. As it swept over her, the spirit transformed. In the mirror, Wisdom became Emily’s elven twin, identical sans the intricate patterns of her vallaslin.

She tore herself away again, demanding, “What did you do that for?” She retreated several steps, but stopped before becoming lost in the amorphous void. It hadn’t physically hurt her, but Emily felt violated, “I just want to go home!”

“You are home; this world needs you,” Emily’s doppelganger declared, pointing to her own chin, “Think! What do you see?”

“My… my own reflection,” Emily stammered, anger burning a knot in her stomach. This was not what she expected.   <I don’t get it. Is Wisdom being wise? Esoteric? Thieving? Is this spirit really Wisdom?>

With Emily’s voice and uncomfortably familiar gestures, Wisdom replied, “Is the suffering of these people any less than the people of Earth? Here you are the Herald of Andraste. There, you are one of many; a faceless creature subject to the will of others. You are the key to this world’s salvation. How can you forsake it?”

“I’m not!” Emily nearly shouted, agitated despite Wisdom’s calm demeanor. Her hands dropped and formed fists at her sides as she argued, “‘This world’ doesn’t exist! It’s a game. A fantasy! I belong in the real world, with lattes, Saturday nights, and pizza. And friends, like Lucas! It isn’t real!” She realized she was sobbing when she felt the wetness on her face and her stomach tightened to power the sound, “It’s just a game.”

“Oh, you poor child,” Wisdom spread her hands at her side, fingers out, in a gesture Emily recognized as familiar; it was something Solas had done in the cabin at Haven to plead his innocence, “I do not mean to distress you, but I must open your eyes… Please, Emily, I beg you. What does it mean to be real?”

<Child?! Who is she calling a child?> Outraged, Emily ignored everything else the spirit said. On off-kilter steps she staggered forward and stepped through the liquid mercury, passing without resistance. She wasn’t sure how she knew it was a portal, but she knew she had to get away.

The world rippled.

 >>>>><<<<<

Solas was frowning fiercely at her when her eyes opened. His head blocked out the sun above the forest, and his hands squeezed her upper arms painfully. Varric hovered over the elf’s shoulder, and Ellana noticed that he too looked worried. As she sat up, Varric's expression relaxed, even whilst Solas’ darkened.

“Well, I’ll be, Chuckles. You did it!” Varric breathed, “She’ll be okay.” Solas turned his head towards Varric, the fine slashes of his brows drawing down in anger, “We do not know that, Varric.” The dwarf raised his hands, patting at the air in a calming gesture, “Now now, I’m sure it doesn’t warrant scaring her to death right after you saved her.”

Her shields were down, but Solas’ were up - at least until he turned his gaze back to her and deliberately dropped them. The full brunt of his anger hit her, no doubt his intent, but beneath it, she tasted a metallic current of fear.

“I’m fine,” Ellana muttered, his genuine concern for her well-being humbling her to a degree. She made to sit up further, brushing Solas’ hands off as she did. She felt bruises forming already. The turmoil Wisdom caused still churned in her gut, and Peace left no trace to soothe her, either.

Solas shook his head, trying to clear it before focusing on Ellana again. The effort failed, and anger remained scrawled across his features, though his emotions abruptly disappeared from her mage senses, “What did you think you were doing? Are you trying to get yourself killed? I’ve spent the last two weeks keeping you out of the Fade, so you go behind my back and do it anyway? I told you the Fade was dangerous!”

Shock rushed through her, rapidly followed by rage, “What did you say?” Ellana’s mouth twisted into a snarl, “You knew I was trying to get back into the Fade, and you kept me out without saying a word? Without permission? What am I, a child?” As she spoke, her voice rose perilously loud enough to be heard back at camp.

“[That is exactly what you are,]” Solas switched abruptly into elven, cutting Varric out of the conversation and obscuring the meaning for anyone futher off too. The dwarf pursed his lips and slung Bianca up onto his shoulder, revealing little about his thoughts on being pushed aside. Ellana noticed the crossbow was loaded.

<I am not!> she nearly shouted in Solas’ face, but something held her in check. <That’s a child’s response,> she realized, <He’s baiting me into acting like the five year-old he expects. Well, I won’t prove his point.>  Ellana inhaled deeply and let the oxygen circulate through her system, bringing a pseudo sense of calm to her nerves. Instead of shouting, she demanded in a quiet, even tone, “[Why do you believe you have the right to decide for me? I am not a child, you’re simply treating me like one.]” <Had Wisdom?> she wondered, <Or did I forget myself and simply choose to act like one?> A mild sense of embarrassment flooded through her.

Solas’ expression abruptly cleared into a careful, schooled calm, and he rose to his feet. Without another word he stalked back towards camp, leaving Varric and Ellana behind.

“You know,” Varric watched Solas retreat, and opined, “I think he has a thing for you.”

“What makes you say that?” Ellana asked as she clambered to her feet, getting a fix on the sun by glancing upwards. Lavellan’s instincts told her that about an hour had passed. <No wonder they’re freaking out and hovering.>

“He watches you when you’re not looking,” Varric removed the quarrel from Bianca and placed it back into the quiver that sat behind his waist. “I thought at first it was because you’re a little odd, even for a Dalish, but lately…” he shook his head, “It’s more than that. I don’t think he really knows it himself.”

Ellana shook out her bedroll, trying to regain even a hint of the peace she’d enjoyed before she met Wisdom, “He’s just worried about the mark; he thinks I’m the only one who can close the Breach.”

“Yeah,” Varric nodded easily enough, “That might be true. I’ll bet he even tells himself that; but I don’t think that’s all there is to it. I’m just saying, you might want to cut him some slack.” His head angled to the side and slightly back, giving Ellana a broad grin, “Are you going to kick me if I mention that you like him too?”

“Yeah,” Ellana deadpanned, then slung the bedroll back onto her shoulder, following Solas back toward camp.

Varric’s whoop of laughter trailed behind, but he soon trotted up alongside her, “Oh, just one more thing-”

Ellana saw Cassandra as they stepped back into the clearing. The rage scrawled on the Seeker’s face would have sent an army scattering. Solas at least appeared calm, standing just a few feet away.

“-beware of the Seeker,” Varric finished.

 >>>>><<<<<

“You said you would be ten minutes,” Cassandra placed her gauntleted fists on her hips, “After twenty, I sent Varric to find you. What does he do? Comes back for Solas. What does Solas do? ORDERS me to remain here.” This was said with a fist jerked in Solas’ direction, who folded his arms. “Need I remind you all that I was put in charge of this mission?”

<Whoa, that got very pointed, very fast.> All three of the other party members exchanged glances. It was Mother Giselle who had the temerity to speak, “Ahh, Seeker Pentaghast, no harm was done. Everything is well. Everyone is just fine.”

Varric whistled low, then lied serenely, “It was an elf thing. You know how the Herald here has trouble with some human things? Well, she asked me to get Solas for, ah, a personal reason.” <What the hell is that supposed to mean?> Ellana wondered, even as she was surprised at how smoothly Varric dissembled.

“Oh,” Cassandra glanced at Solas, who coughed behind his fist, furthering the pretense that it was something too embarrassing to be shared. “Oh, I see.”

<What does she see?> Ellana wondered while Solas lowered his gaze and plucked something from the bottom of his wrapped foot. <VARRIC! WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?> Heat rose in her cheeks, embarrassment in reaction to the unknown implication Varric had woven. <Ugh, why is it worse when you don’t even know what it is?>

“Well,” Cassandra drew herself up, saying with gruff reluctance, “I apologize. I will… try not to be so hasty in the future.”

Varric nodded to Cassandra and gave Ellana a comforting pat on the shoulder. “It’s okay, I told you she’d understand.”

<Understand what??> Ellana noted that Cassandra also flushed beet red, but this time from shared mortification rather than anger. Wryly, Ellana looked down at Varric, “Thanks.”

 >>>>><<<<<

Despite the amazing natural vista on the horizon, the day took on a normalcy that gave Ellana the time to think as they travelled for Haven. She parked the pique at Varric’s lie and considered her encounter with Wisdom, <Why did she become me? Was she trying to tell me there’s some answer inside?> Ellana had always known that; after all, <I’m the player of this game, right? But it seems unnecessarily dramatic. Did it mean something?> She had the sense that Wisdom had a deeper agenda, but it was unclear what.

More troubling was the question of reality. Ellana kept circling back to it. She knew what reality was, didn’t she? Did the fact that she couldn’t sense, touch, taste, or see it… did that mean it wasn’t real? Did the fact that this morning’s breakfast tasted like snot mean that Thedas was real? The cold ache in her lungs from thin mountain air, the squeak of the saddle beneath her - did perceiving these things mean they were real? <But I remember. I remember my first kiss. Awkward, in a parking lot behind a grocery store. I remember midnight runs to McDonalds and pulling all nighters in my dorm to pass finals. I remember writing my first program and coming in third in a hack-a-thon. I remember being harassed online for being a girl. I remember the real world. Seamlessly. How can I accept this is reality?>

Answers didn’t come easily. For a lack of better options, she moved on to different thoughts. <Magic is the tool of this world - did Wisdom mean the waking world or the Fade? The Fade is fueled by belief and willpower.> Willpower she had plenty of, but belief? Her thoughts strayed back toward the nature of reality.

“You’re thinking so hard, I can see smoke coming out of your ears,” Varric announced, slowing down to allow his pony to fall in beside her. Ellana was still the worst rider of the pack, though Mother Giselle was a close second bringing up the rear.

“I’m just thinking about the nature of reality,” Ellana admitted, wondering if this were a better conversation to have with Solas. <No, you’re mad at him. And he’s angry with you, despite what Varric says. It’s not the time to ply him with questions about the universe.>

“That’s kind of heavy. And self-explanatory, don’t you think?” Varric scratched his mount’s neck as he clip-clopped along, barely bouncing in the saddle, “You’re not losing your mind, are you?”

Ellana glanced at the mark in her hand, then grinned, lifting it to where Varric could see it. She wiggled her fingers, “You’re the one who said you were surprised my sanity was still in one piece after this. Back when we started down this road.”

Varric chuckled, “I suppose you’re right. Anything change?” She kept grinning, and attempted to put him at ease, “I’m sane Varric, I promise. I’ll let you know if that changes.”

“Great,” the dwarf jovially replied, “I trust you won’t already be eating out of my skull by the time you notice.” His heels squeezed into his pony’s sides, urging her ahead towards the others.

“You really have a way with words and images, you know that?” Ellana called after him. Alone and undistracted, her ears caught hints of conversation between Cassandra and Solas, just detectable above the percussive gaits of their horses and the creak of saddles.

“Did you believe the Conclave could achieve peace, Cassandra?” Solas asked the Seeker, curiosity in his voice. Much as she could tell from across the distance, his interest sounded genuine.

Cassandra glanced at the elf sidelong, her body swaying in the saddle with each jolt of her horse’s hooves, “I had hope. As did we all.” <What a polite way to say ‘No.’> thought Ellana with admiration, <I need to learn to be evasive like that.>

“The Templars went to war to force mages back into their Circles, which the mages would never agree to. What solution could Divine Justinia have offered when all sides rejected compromise?” Solas pressed, and Ellana wondered if his earlier ill-temper was still at play. He almost never risked antagonizing Cassandra or the others. At least not in her experience so far.

Cassandra proved she had given this thought, even if the commentary was not particularly deep, “The war was going nowhere for either side. That they went at all showed that they realized this.”

“Or they believed the other side would relent, or could be made to,” Solas pointed out. Ellana’s shields were up, and he was too good at controlling his words and body language for her to read him without magic. Still, she imagined for a moment that on the outside he guided philosophically, whilst inside he must have found the Chantry’s naivete eye-rolling.

“We shall never know now,” Cassandra replied, looking off into the distance.

“I think we can assume,” Varric interjected as his pony finally fell into stride with Solas and Cassandra’s larger steeds, “What was the Divine's plan? Bring everyone together and hope really hard that they would all get along?”

“Most Holy did not confide her plan to me. Perhaps she thought they were tired of death and conflict,” Ellana imagined Cassandra’s fists tightening on her reins, but noted that despite the Seeker’s temper, her voice was even.

Varric took the low road and responded by needling her, “Oh? When has that ever been true? For Templars or mages.”

“I will not mock a dead woman, Varric. She did what she could, and that is more than most. She tried when nobody else had the courage,” Cassandra replied with audible firmness. <Have I misjudged her?> Silence settled over the travelers, and for the first time Ellana considered that what Cassandra lacked in tact, she made up for in honor.

The conversation petered off, and it surprised Ellana when Solas slowed to join her a few minutes later. He gave her an oblique look, and said in quiet Elven, “[You were right. I did treat you like a child.]”

Given she’d already been warned about speaking Elven, Ellana gave Cassandra’s back a nervous glance. The Seeker seemed lost in thought, and she was out of human earshot, anyway. “[Thank you for acknowledging that.]”

“[You are a child, however, at least in this,]” Solas’ certainty set Ellana’s teeth on edge. <Well, he’s doing a good job of curing my crush on his own,> she thought as he added, “[I mean no offense, Ellana. The Fade truly is dangerous.]”

“[Even non-mage children know that,]” Ellana pointedly replied, “[I’ll thank you to stop trying to block me from entering, however.]”

Solas took his time answering, “[Most mages cannot enter the Fade on their own. I was keeping watch to prevent the Desire demon you provoked from attempting to possess you in your dreams when I discovered you making a credible effort. It surprised me that I even had to block you. I had meant to speak with you about it, of course. I could hardly block you forever; I merely thought I’d have more time.]”  

“[I see,]” Ellana wondered what he was getting at, and she made no effort to hide that she was watching the wheels in his head turn. <Were you hoping that I’d slip up and reveal how I learned to meditate? Varric said you’ve been watching me.>

To his credit, Solas met her gaze, “[You are the first true dreamer besides myself that I have encountered in this world. You named me your Teacher once. If it was not in jest, I would teach you. There will come a day when I will not be there to protect you.]” His demeanor was studiously calm, and it occurred to Ellana that while she could sense nothing from him, given her suspicions about his attempt to join the Dalish in his youth… <This offer is probably far more vulnerable than he’s letting on. And isn’t this exactly what I wanted?> She no longer saw Lucas as a way out, and Wisdom had made it clear that she had something to learn. The Fade might still be her link to the command line… this whole “dreamer” thing hinted at unknown potential.

<What’s the catch?> Ellana wanted to ask, but in light of the possibility that this might be the only offer Solas would ever make on the subject, she stowed her suspicions and replied, “[I would be honored beyond measure, Teacher, that you would share such knowledge with me.]”

A subtle tension lifted from Solas’ shoulders. He nodded, “[Very good. Now, until we have covered the basics, and it’s at least as safe as is reasonable, you must not enter the Fade without me. Do you agree?]”

Relieved not only that she’d read him right, but also that he was offering to help her, she nodded easily to his demand, “[As you say.]”

Chapter Text

Throughout the next day Solas rode alongside Ellana. He was true to his word; even with the others within earshot, he taught her about the Fade. “This world, or its memory, is reflected in the Fade. Dream in ancient ruins and you may see a city lost to history.” At her arching brow, he grinned, “It’s true. Some of my fondest memories were made in crumbling cities long picked dry by treasure-seekers, but the best are the battlefields. Spirits press so tightly against the Veil that you can slip across with but a thought.”

“Battlefields...” Ellana repeated thoughtfully, <That’s dark. Seeking places of mass death and bloodshed to dream? Those spirits won’t be spirits of basket weaving that’s for sure. > For the first time she wondered if there was something sinister about Solas, chiding herself for the thrill the thought inspired. <Don’t be an idiot. Dangerous, no good men are trouble. You would do well to stay away.>

From a few paces to their rear Varric chimed in, notably riding as far away from Cassandra as he could, “Sounds interesting, Chuckles. Any place in particular come to mind?”

“I dreamt at Ostagar,” Solas replied, mouth curving. He noted the excitement that lit Ellana’s eyes and continued, “I witnessed the brutality of the darkspawn and the valor of the Fereldan warriors. I saw Alistair and the Hero of Ferelden light the signal fire... and Loghain's infamous betrayal of King Cailan's forces.” <He’s talking about my Warden! Would he believe that I was there too? Just not in the Fade…?> She wondered which ending was canon here. <I don’t remember loading up a world state, but I probably set up a default on my previous playthrough. If I recall correctly, I selfishly sent my ex-lover off to have sex with Morrigan in a spiteful response to being dumped. Guess Solas isn’t the only one with a “dark side”.> Ellana guffawed aloud, making Solas’ brows draw down.

“Oh, sorry. I, uh, choked,” She thumped her chest as if to bat away discomfort, but needn’t have bothered. Solas watched her flatly, his gaze indicating that she was a shitty liar. “I've heard the stories. It would be interesting to hear the truth.” <Except I know. I was there! For once, I feel like I know what the hell is going on in this game, and it’s like decade-old history. What was going on was my being a heartless monster...> A quick check through Lavellan memories confirmed that Alistair was king, but she didn’t know the particulars.

“That’s just it,” Solas’ hand came down to stroke his steed’s chestnut neck while he chose his words, “In the Fade, I see reflections created by spirits who react to the emotions of the warriors. One moment, I see heroic Wardens lighting the fire and a power-mad villain sneering as he lets King Cailan fall. The next, I see an army overwhelmed and a veteran commander refusing to let more soldiers die in a lost cause.”

Ellana nodded, appreciating both views. She thought the history books probably wouldn’t make it too unreasonable for someone to have an opinion, so she didn’t resist the urge to say, “Yeah, but King Cailan was a glory-hungry fool who refused to recognize that Ostagar was just a skirmish at the start of a legitimate Blight. And Loghain might have been an epic tactician, but his hatred of Orlais prevented him from making sound long-term decisions. Whether to bring the Wardens in to deal with it, for example.”

“Ouch,” Varric verbally winced, “Way to speak ill of the dead. Both Cailan and his father, King Marric, were pretty popular in their time. And Loghain… well, he was a hero before it all went down.”

Ellana saw Solas’ thumb stroke the leather of his horse’s reins as his ears twitched slightly in her direction, “You sound extremely certain. What draws you to these conclusions?”

“I saw it in the Fade,” Ellana replied sweetly, taking a light-hearted jab at him. Solas’s brows lifted in skepticism, not joining in her humour. Taking mock umbrage, Ellana pressed her fingertips to her chest and asked, “What? It happened over a decade ago; surely you don’t think I was there, listening to Cailan blather on about the glories of battle?”

“Well, I didn’t until you said it that way,” Solas remarked wryly, “You truly are a terrible liar. In fact, your deficit in deceit genuinely worries me, particularly while you are surrounded by seekers and spymasters. You would have been a child when Ostagar happened, I am simply curious how - or why - you formed such strong opinions about it.”

“Yeah, I’m going to have to teach you how to lie,” Varric was nodding along with Solas’ assessment. <Are they ganging up on me? Dammit, where’s Cassandra when you need her?>

“I read a book, okay? If you’re allowed to know history, so am I,” Ellana grumbled, hunching her shoulders down. <The elves didn’t join the battle until after Cailan had died, which I know because I recruited them, so I guess Solas’ suspicion is warranted. Though - come to think of it, Solas seems pretty well educated for an apostate that grew up in the woods; I don’t see how someone gets to be so articulate just from experiencing stories in the Fade...> It was something to ponder later. “We’re getting off topic. I want to know which you think was real. Was Loghain a veteran commander or power-hungry traitor?”

Solas let out an exasperated sigh, “Da’len, it is not a story, it’s a lesson. That’s the point. It’s the Fade. They were all real.”

>>>>><<<<<  

Lessons with Solas persisted across another few days. Sometimes Cassandra, Mother Giselle, or Varric listened in. Their interest was more common at first, when Solas was focused on illustrative stories, but when he delved into the more technical sides of magical theory, their attention waned. Ellana’s knowledge had dramatically increased, but she still had the sense that if she broke his rules, he’d stop teaching her. She stayed out of the Fade completely.

When the party returned to Haven, things fell apart. After dark had fallen on the previous evening they sat around the campfire, and Ellana began to play with magic. <Why not? Here I have this amazing gift I could never have in the real world. I want to see what I can do with it!> She dug into what Lavellan knew of magical theory and tried to piece it together with modern knowledge, using what she knew about the science behind sound to pluck musical notes out of the ether. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t precisely hard either. By bedtime, she could muster up a hesitant ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’. The notes she drew out of thin air delighted Mother Giselle and Varric, even as Cassandra quieted and turned pale.

The weight of Solas’ gaze lingered on her, and she resolved to corner him when she finished working out the song. Uncooperative, he said nothing but, “Good night,” and disappeared into his tent when she approached.

“Oh, good night,” she replied to his retreating back. Ellana was certain something had bothered him, but was unsure what it could have been. For a lack of better options, she let it go and went back to her experiment. By the time she retired for the night she had worked out ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’.

The next morning, Solas still hadn’t emerged from his tent even well after Mother Giselle made breakfast. He never slept in. Cassandra soon stuck her head into his tent shook his shoulder. “Solas, it’s time to-” There was a pause, then in a higher pitch, “Solas!”

The frantic sound of Cassandra’s voice brought everyone dashing over. The tents were five feet high, little more than canvas draped over a few poles, and there was no room for three people to crowd inside. Mother Giselle shooed Cassandra out of the way and kneeled over the seemingly lifeless elf. Checking his pulse at his throat, she assured the others, “His heart beats.” Mother Giselle looked to Cassandra, “Perhaps it is magical?”

Dropping her now-customary shield, Ellana brushed Mother Giselle back and knelt beside Solas. Sure enough, she found that he was absent from his body in the same manner as she’d experienced before. With relief she cast a smile at her spooked companions, offering consolingly, “He’s fine. Just dreaming. He’ll awaken soon.” She felt Varric squeeze her shoulder and withdraw. His footsteps trailed away, and Ellanna spotted him packing up his tent.

Cassandra observed Solas’ utter stillness for a moment, glanced at Ellana, and retreated. She said, “I hope he does not sleep much longer; I wish to make it to Haven by nightfall tomorrow.”

Ellana nodded. She was about to reply when she felt Solas’ spirit flow back to their world. She looked down to find his eyes opening, just in time to catch her hovering over him. For a moment, just coming out of sleep, his shields were not just down but absent.  

Though his expression was composed, a flash of anguish struck Ellana so powerfully that it took her breath away. Caught by surprise, she met his gaze. He tore his eyes away from hers and drew on his mana, preparing to shield himself and lock her out.

In that briefly unprotected moment, Ellana had never felt such lonely isolation; her heart quite literally went out to him. In this world as a mage and somniari, her feelings passed between them like the offering of a feast to a starving man. Solas watched her warily, but made no move towards her, neither physically nor emotionally.

She knew, though. She knew how he felt, what he needed, what he craved, and that he needed her to make the first move. “Hey. It’s okay,” she said, reaching out to brush his wrist with her hand. When he didn’t resist, she took it and drew him into her arms. After a moment of hesitation, Solas wrapped his arms about her and embraced her in return.

It was a tight embrace, warm and friendly. She was surprised to feel how lean and hard he was, and he smelled of clean, strong male; however, there was nothing romantic about it. <Thank God he takes cleanliness as seriously as I do.> Easing his loneliness, she realized that she was severely lonely too, surrounded by people she couldn’t tell who she was - people that weren’t even people, not really.

Solas was very convincing as a real person, especially with their auras mingling, then harmonizing. His mental torment abated when her emotions wrapped around him. She even felt the subtle shift when he realized that the hug wasn’t a one-way offer, that he was providing her comfort in return. His grip tightened, and she buried her face in the crook of his neck, soothed to the point of tears. He stroked her back, and a burgeoning desire rose within her. She lifted her head, running a smooth cheek up his neck, lips seeking his. As her need rose, his did also, coalescing into the most powerful craving Ellana ever experienced. Their breath mingled - then nothing. Rather than claiming her mouth as she expected, his shield dropped into place. He took her by the upper arms and gently extricated himself.

“We have to pack. The others will already be ready to break camp,” Solas rubbed a hand down his face, carefully avoiding her gaze.

“Um, right. Okay,” Ellana said, the chill air creeping around her a stark contrast to the warmth she’d just shared. It mirrored the chill that crawled down her spine. <What the ever-loving fuck? One minute you’re clinging to me like a lifeline, the next you’re kicking me out?>

Solas nodded vaguely, “Thank you. If you’ll excuse me…” Intimacy still lingered between them. If his shields had been down, he would have easily read the blossoming hurt in Ellana’s breast - even without a mage’s senses, it was probably scrawled all over her face.  To avoid seeing it, he reached over to pull something from his pack, feigning absorption in the task.

Ellana nearly asked him what happened, but an answer was clearly not forthcoming. In fact, she would do just about anything to turn the switch back in the other direction, before both the tent and Solas went simultaneously cold. <I will not humiliate myself for a few more moments in his presence,> she told herself firmly. She crawled out of the tent, brushing away a mist of tears that crept into her eyes.

She packed her tent more sloppily than she should have and turned the scene over and over in her mind. Something definitely wasn’t right. She was sure he spent most nights in the Fade, but he’d never awoken late before. <What was different this time? What did he see that triggered that kind of pain?> Whatever it was, it had been intense. If nothing else, realizing that he’d experienced something powerfully upsetting in the Fade eased her hurt.

Ellana kept her shields down. She hoped to reconnect with Solas when he felt more grounded, maybe talk more about the Fade, but he took care to avoid her. In fact, he avoided her all the way back to Haven.

>>>>>><<<<<< 

They were barely in Haven long enough to bathe and sleep; within a day they were back on the road, this time for Orlais. Mother Giselle elected to stay at Haven after she gave the names of the Val Royeaux Chantry Mothers to Leilana.

Solas had still scarcely glanced into Ellana’s direction, and she wondered if the exchange they’d shared had been the end. <Maybe he needs time alone? But what about my lessons? He offered, it wasn’t like I asked him. And this dawdling is delaying my return to the Fade.> Hurt consistently wavered back and forth with anger.

“You know, Herald,” Varric commented one morning, glancing around to make sure the others couldn’t overhear, “Between you and Chuckles, the Frostbacks feel even frostier... if you know what I mean. You want to talk about it?”

Ellana sighed, watching the lithe ‘V’ of Solas’ back as he rode ahead of her. “To be honest, I’m not sure. One minute we… hugged. The next minute, he’s avoiding me,” Sourly, she added, “Maybe I had bad breath.”

“Nah, I think you smell better than most of the Inquisition. Never seen someone insist on bathing as much as you do; well, maybe Solas. But a hug? That’s it?” Varric’s voice sounded dubious, but as he studied Ellana his raised brows slowly lowered, “You plan on getting some answers?”

She grimaced, “I’m not inclined to go where I’m not wanted, you know? Anyway, he’s been avoiding me. And I haven’t found the right moment since we started towards Val Royeaux.”

“You mind doing it soon, Herald? It’s a mite uncomfortable for the rest of us,” Varric tapped his cheek, not quite smiling, “Even Cassandra’s noticed, and I don’t think she’s good with people. Reading them or otherwise.”

“You’re looking after Cassandra now?” Ellana asked, eyes wide and voice laden with disbelief.

“Well, no,” Varric admitted, a smirk crinkling the corner of his mouth. It softened when he added, “I like people to get along. At least when there’s no good reason for them not to.” At Ellana’s look, he changed the subject, “Anyway, Val Royeaux. Shit.”

“Not a fan?” Ellana’s eyes twinkled with mischief, relieved that he got the message.

“If Val Royeaux were a person, she’d be a painted whore convinced she was the empress. I like my cities like Kirkwall; she might be a dive, but she is the dive, and she and everybody else knows it.” The dwarf gave her a good-natured wink. “You want to tell me what’s supposed to happen when we get there?”

“Cassandra’s sent ahead; we’ll meet the Chantry sisters in the marketplace the day after we arrive,” Ellana bit her lip, tearing her gaze off Solas’s back again, “I hope they don’t arrest us.”

“With what? The Templars abandoned them; they’re out fighting the mages, Chantry be damned. And you have an armed escort,” that’s said with a nod to Cassandra.

Ellana lifted a brow, “You have a lot of faith in just the four of us.”

“Not just the four of us, Herald. You’ll see,” Varric tapped the side of his nose.

>>>>><<<<< 

When the mud road turned to stone pavers, Val Royeaux became visible in the distance. It shone pearl-white even from far away, and as the pavers turned to cobbles, they found themselves at the gates. Compared to Haven or anything else Ellana had seen in Thedas, Val Royeaux was an amazing feat of human engineering. Built entirely of finely wrought white stone with bright blue and red rooftops dotting the skyline, the city was impressive even by modern standards. <Looks a bit like Florence,> she thought, reminded of a college summer vacation.

While Cassandra led the party deeply into the city, Ellana stared with appreciation at every street they passed. Marble statues and decorative filigree brightened everything from corner to curb. In her own terms, she labeled the architecture a modified baroque. There were no beggars on the main streets, only a bustling pageantry of colourful clothing and people wearing masks, some in wealthy dress and others in the bland garb of the masses.

Eventually they found the gates of an enormous property. The mansion brought to mind  southern plantations if plantation estates had been made of stone. Two wings fanned out along either side of the massive white building, and graceful pillars held up the veranda. Cassandra defined the location, “This is Vicomte du Angevin’s home. He is a friend to our good Ambassador Montilyet and has agreed to house us for the duration of our stay.”

An envelope bearing an unknown seal passed to the guards at the gate, and soon a servant was summoned to escort them. They passed through manicured gardens to stable their horses before they were led inside.

Obscene wealth practically breathed out of the walls. Texture and substance adorned everything from the relief carvings on the walls to the chandeliers high above them. It was as garish as it was beautiful, and Ellana struggled not to gawk. <Eh, a Dalish elf gawking would hardly surprise anyone.> Servants scurried everywhere though, and to Ellana’s chagrin she noticed that they were each one elvish. The skin between Ellana’s shoulder blades itched, and she swore it was their eyes following her when her back was turned. <I wonder what Solas thinks of this?> She looked ahead to find him, but he was stoically following a servant to their rooms.

Ellana was accommodated beside Cassandra in an airy bedchamber with gauzy white curtains. The servant who led her to it was young and elven. She placed him at twenty. He carried her saddle bags to a table near the four poster bed, but before he left turned with wide blue eyes. “You’re the Herald of Andraste, truly?” he asked hesitantly.

Crossing the room, Ellana unbuckled a bag he’d unloaded. She tilted her head at the servant and tried, “My name is Ellana of Clan Lavellan. What’s yours?”

“Padric, my lady,” bowed the man hastily, “I’ve never met a Dalish before.”

“I’ve only met a few elves from the city,” she offered by way of placing them on even footing, “Do you like it here?”

“Oh yes,” Padric nodded, placing his hands behind his back and rocking slightly on his heels, “It’s good to work for the Vicomte. I’m able to take care of my ma, pa, and brothers all by myself.”

Ellana nodded, turning that over in her mind, “Doesn’t it bother you that all the servants are elves?”

“Yeah,” Padric shrugged, avoiding her gaze “But what can any of us do about it? You’ll change it though, right?”

The question struck her, and Ellana wondered if this was what it was like for the poor in her own world. <Am I evil for thinking myself any different from them?> “Padric... my job is to close the hole in the sky.” <What kind of person would I be to ignore this though? Am I ready to do that?> Padric looked at her, gaze settling on her Vallaslin instead of her eyes. She pressed her lips together, gulped, then said, “I’ll do what I can.”

Padric grinned, heartening that easily, “You’ll win. You’ll see. Things have to get better with Andraste and the Maker on our side.”

“I’d settle for a bath,” Ellana leaned against one bedposts of the four poster bed with her arms folded, lips quirking wryly.

“I’ll show you the bathing chamber!” Padric rocked forward onto the balls of his feet with near palpable excitement and darted towards the door. He paused there with his hand on the ornate lever handle, and checked, “You meant now, right?”

“Absolutely,” Ellana agreed, grabbing a tunic from her saddlebag and trotting after.

>>>>><<<<< 

The bathing chamber at the end of the hall, was the closest thing she’d seen to modern amenities yet. A huge, circular in-floor basin beckoned with copper pipes that hung over its edges, the bath, its walls, even the floor underfoot was crafted of pure marble. Ellana’s eyes followed the pipes up the wall to where they vanished into the ceiling. She imagined they went either to the roof, or to a room above her.

Pots of unguents, bowls of fragrant flowers, and herbs waited around the rim for use. Padric blushed and stammered, “I’ll have the bath drawn.”

“Oh, uh, yes please,” Though she felt nervous about accepting the help of a servant, particularly an elven one, she wasn’t sure she knew how to work the mechanisms for herself. Padric didn’t hesitate to accommodate. He trotted off right away.

Minutes after his departure a pair of female elves wheeled in a tray towels and grooming utensils. They curtsied, and the taller claimed, “The water is heating, my lady. It will be but a moment.” While Ellana watched, they scattered rose petals into the basin and set the towels to the side. The shorter elf approached Ellana, reaching for her buttons. “Uh…” she said as the elf undressed her. <Okaaaay. That’s a bit… different.> She wasn’t exactly embarrassed. Her sleek Lavellan body was a machine compared to her real one. In fact, she was proud of it. Still, <I feel like a child.>

The other servant pulled the stopper away from the pipes and water crashed into the tub. Testing its temperature, she poured fragrant oils into the churning ripples; their scents tickled Ellana’s nose. When all was prepared they encouraged her to slide into the water, and she did so without hesitation. It was hotter than she expected, but it triggered a happy sigh. “Would you like for me to tidy your hair, my lady?” The taller servant asked, and Ellana glanced at her, troubled. The servant was gesturing to  the tray the towels had had brought in on. A straight razor and a comb sat amongst other things, some of them unrecognizeable even to Lavellan. Ellana bit her lip, <I guess they aren’t slaves. They’re being paid… it’s not much different from going to the spa and getting a pedicure...> She tipped her chin into a nod, decision made, “Thank you, yes.”

By the time the left side of her head was re-shorn several minutes had passed. The door opened to admit Cassandra, who immediately dissuaded the servant at her heels with, “I’ll be fine, thank you.” The servant looked bewildered, reaching for the straps that held the seeker’s armor into place. Irritation crossed Cassandra’s features, but she let it happen. Ellana tilted her head back and rested her skull against the edge of the tub while the shorter of the two servants picked up her hand to file her nails, “Hello Cassandra,” Ellana offered, “I didn’t know it was a Thedan thing for people to bathe together.” <And I dearly wish it wasn't.>

“You look more comfortable than I’d expect,” Once her armor was in pieces and absent of her body, Cassandra's patience expired. She shooed the servant away, reaching to unfasten the buckle of her own belt. “You have had an unhealthy fascination with bathing.”

“Unhealthy?” Ellana lifted her brow, “You’re here, aren’t you?”

“Yes, but this is different. I don’t tempt fate to give me Lung Fever every morning,” Cassandra drew her breeches off, revealing her long, muscular legs. Ellana didn’t consider herself interested in the same sex, but she had to admit that Cassandra was a fundamentally beautiful specimen. That point was driven home when she shedded her tunic. <I’m still not keen on sharing a bath with her; she’ll probably leave more filth in the water than I just washed off. Ugh.>

“You and Solas are both headed to an early grave,” Cassandra warned as she lowered her lean self into the water, either ignorant of or unworried by Ellana’s thoughts. “Elves and their death wishes...”

<She thinks our bathing is an elven thing?> It occurred to her after a simple Lavellan-memory check that both she and Solas were extraordinarily fastidious. The Dalish were clean compared others, but their daily ablutions involved covering their skin with oil and ashes, scrubbing with sand, then scraping themselves clean with specialized, curved sticks. It wasn't as effective as clear water with soap, but it still put human habits to shame.

“Are you aware that being dirty is more dangerous in terms of disease than being cold?” Ellana asked mildly, offering her other hand to the servant, “I was hoping to have the bath to myself, you know.”

“Preposterous. Were you?” Cassandra laughed, lifting the top of a clay pot and sniffing the contents. Satisfied with what she found, she again tried to wave the taller servant away, “That’s enough. Leave me be, elf. I’ve no need of you.”

“But, my lady, it’s my duty-” the elf protested, eyes flickering wildly from Cassandra to the pots she was opening.

“-I won’t waste all the olibanum, you have no need to fear. Begone, I wish to speak with the Herald alone,” Cassandra interrupted, her deadly glare sending the servant scurrying off to busy herself with towels. Ellana’s servant picked up a pot of oil and rubbed some of the contents between her hands before laying into the muscles of her shoulders.

“What do you want to talk about?” Ellana closed her eyes, sighing softly with pleasure.

“Besides your impious hedonism?” Cassandra asked archly, leaning back to wet her hair.

Ellana laughed, “Did you think I was immune to pleasure, Cassandra?”

“Hardly,” Cassandra’s voice dripped with practicality, “I was wondering how a Dalish elf could become soft. You’re built hard, but you remind me more of a Circle mage than a ruthless nomad.”

“You’ve met a lot of ruthless nomads?” Ellana was enjoying sparring with Cassandra, though it occurred she might be on shaky ground. <Solas warned me to be careful of her, and Varric did too. Maybe I should curb my attitude.>

“No,” Cassandra confessed simply, wetting her hair by tilting her head back and applying something from a pot. Ellana assumed it was similar to shampoo. “Dismiss the servants, Herald. Elves have big ears, and we have much to discuss for tomorrow.”

“I’m an elf,” Ellana replied flatly to Cassandra, then addressed the servant who had just finished shaping her nails, “Please, let’s give the Seeker what she wants before she becomes violent.” The elven servant nodded, picking up her tools. They filed out together.

Cassandra looked after them, “I wonder if they listened to you because you are the Herald of Andraste.”

“Perhaps, though maybe because I asked nicely, and you commanded. Not to mention you insulted their ears,” Ellana pointed out, lifting a leg out of the water and scrubbing at her foot. She admired the play of muscle beneath her own skin, still entranced with the Lavellan body. <No, not second to Cassandra at all,> she thought happily.

“It’s not an insult; their ears are bigger, and they hear better than humans,” Cassandra protested, folding her arms beneath her smallish breasts.

Ellana rolled her eyes, “They? Again, Cassandra, I am an elf. Pah. Varric would understand. Anyway, what did you want to talk about? And did it have to ruin my chances of a pedicure?”

“A pedi-what?” Cassandra’s brows drew down, then she gestured sharply with her left hand, “Forget it. I don’t care. We need to discuss tomorrow, and we need to do it without Chantry spies.”

“We don’t trust the Vicomte?” Ellana’s brows raise, rubbing something she was fairly certain was soap under her arms.

“Neither him nor his servants,” Cassandra confirmed, reaching out to claim the pot of soap from Ellana, “Though we don’t believe he will murder us or have us arrested in our sleep.”

“How comforting,” Ellana closed her eyes with exasperation, then opened them a beat later, “All right, you have my undivided attention. What do I need to know about tomorrow that couldn’t be said before?”

“Nothing. But you have been preoccupied with your lover’s quarrel,” Cassandra raised a hand to forestall Ellana as the latter opened her mouth to protest, “Not that I don’t approve. In fact, it is suitably romantic. Solas is attractive for an elf, and I appreciate that you have not attempted to copulate during our travels…”

Ellana abruptly lost her patience and snapped, “Cassandra, I am not sleeping with Solas. Get to the point.”

“My point,” Cassandra huffed sharply, “Is that tomorrow when you meet with the Chantry mothers, you absolutely must say nothing impious. They will use it against you. Us. The Inquisition.”

Ellana closed her eyes and mentally counted to ten while Cassandra waited. Patience restored, she said to Cassandra, “I am not an idiot, Cassandra.”

“I did not think you were, but you are Dalish. Our ways are foreign to you, and you have many gods. It is fundamentally opposed to everything the Chantry believes,” Cassandra rinsed her hair out while Ellana stood up, water sluicing down her body. She effortlessly drew herself out of the bath, spilling water all over the marble, and grabbed herself a towel. Shaking it out, she wrapped it about her torso, “What if I told you I believed in the Maker?”

Surprise scrawled across the Seeker’s face, and she asked after a moment’s hesitation, “Do you?” It was as if Ellana offered Cassandra a boon that the other woman hadn’t expected.

<No, not really,> Ellana didn’t want to lie, and she also knew she wasn’t good at it. Still, if any of her companions was a worse liar than she was, it’s Cassandra. Maybe she could get this one past her. <The Maker is the closest thing to monotheism in Thedas. I’m not terribly religious, but my cultural background aligns best to that. How do I play this one?> “Wasn’t it Varric who said that any one thing that happened to me thus far would be a miracle, but putting it all together must be divine intervention? I’m still alive. The Maker is the most likely explanation. Who am I to argue with that logic?”

Cassandra’s smile warmed considerably, making the scar on her cheek stand out, “Who indeed?”  

>>>>><<<<< 

After the bath, Ellana shrugged on a robe and found the three servants waiting for her outside the door. <Were they listening even though we sent them out for privacy?> The tallest curtseyed and said, “Please come with us, my lady, we’ve been assigned to help you prepare for dinner.”

“Dinner? Isn’t it just a bit after lunch?” Ellana asked, the elves glanced at each other and a stout one said, “It takes a while to prepare. We are in Orlais after all.” The other servants grinned at that, sharing knowing nods. They crowded around Ellana, escorting her back to her room. <So much for getting dressed and confronting Solas.>

In her rooms, another ornate two-tiered tray awaited. On the top, several pots of cosmetic and beautification tools rested. On the bottom, a series of masks posed in neat array, all the same beyond their sizes. A strange metal structure on wheels held a gay assortment of dresses. All of them looked like they belonged in a lolly shop. Ellana sighed and gave in to the loss of four hours of her life, the penultimate moment being literally sewn into a dress.

>>>>><<<<< 

If Ellana thought she was uncomfortable trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey in a cream-and-emerald dress, six layers of cosmetics, and a mask that covered the top half of her face, she had to admit she had nothing on Cassandra. Somehow the Seeker, whom Ellana understood was actually a Nevarran noblewoman, hobbled to her side. For her part, Ellana found the fan that accompanied her gown fascinating; she flicked it open just as Cassandra whispered, “Dinner with the Vicomte is the least we can do in return for his hospitality. Tonight will be your first introduction to The Game. It is a social dance that Orlesians hold sacrosanct. Mistakes can be deadly. Follow my lead.”

Ellana hid her guffaw by coughing into her fan. Turning her masked face to Cassandra, she peered at the Seeker with wide blue eyes under all the frippery, “Sounds intriguing. Lead on.”

Cassandra lumbered over to the dinner table, and Ellana followed sedately behind. Though the get-up reminded her of prom night on steroids, she wasn’t a stranger to looking good in stiff, uncomfortable clothing. <At least three inch heels aren’t the rage in Orlais yet. I wonder how rich I’d get if I ‘invented’ them.>

Neither did it appear were Varric or Solas. Both men entered the room accompanied by more servants, Varric in cream with emerald trim, and Solas in the opposite. Though they wore rich clothing with golden buttons, there was nothing quite as unwieldy about their clothing as the ladies’. <How unfair. Even so, I don’t think either of them would willingly choose such a get-up. Did the Vicomte waste money to procure outfits for a party for a single night?> He had indeed. 

From the corner of her eye, Ellana caught Solas’ gaze running along the lace of her neckline, tracing the swell of her bosom. Warmth rushed into her breast, and she purposefully leaned towards Cassandra, saying discretely behind her fan, “I take it we have Josephine to blame?”

“She thought you could use practice in a ‘safe’ setting,” Cassandra said stiffly, reaching for a cloth napkin, “We traded favors for the lodgings. They’re far better and more affordable than staying at an inn. All it cost us was introducing their family to my family.” <I’d heard she was a noble, but are they that important?> “Who is your family again?” Cassandra shot her a sidelong glance but didn’t have time to answer as the Vicomte and his entourage entered the room.

It was a small group of five. She identified the Vicomte easily by his especially ornate mask, and she suspected that the elven woman beside him was a mistress. This was reinforced by the voluptuous, masked Vicomtesse behind her. A slender youth somewhere between twelve and eighteen, layers of Orlesian fashion making it impossible to pinpoint beyond ‘young’, stood beside the Vicomtesse. Beyond them, Ellana saw two girls around the ages of six and eight. They were maskless, but draped in as much brocade as her aunt’s couch.

Clapping his hands, the Vicomte advanced upon them as he announced cheerfully, “Ahh, my guests! We are honored with your presence, and most exceptionally yours, Princess Cassandra Allegra Portia Calogera Filomena Pentaghast.” A picturesque bow accompanied the introduction, and Ellana felt Cassandra stiffen even further beside her. <Princess, huh? Not just Nevarran nobility, but an actual member of the Royal family… who would have thought?!> To her, Cassandra neither looked nor acted the part of a princess, <Well, not a fairy tale one, for certain. Disney, eat your heart out… But this is a dark, gritty realm full of wars and tough leaders, so why not?> Then again, the women with the Vicomte looked softer than any women Ellana herself had known, even in the real world.

The Vicomte didn’t react to Cassandra’s discomfort. He gestured for his guests to sit, “Come come, get comfortable. Tonight, we have a feast to befit your stations. Allow me to introduce my household-” Ellana learned that she was pretty good at guessing. The Vicomtesse’s name was Lady Delphine du Angevin, and their son - whom they shuffled to seat at Cassandra’s opposite side - was the young Lord Alicio. The elven woman, introduced as ‘Lady Sabella’ had no title, but sat at Lord du Angevin’s right hand, his wife at his left.

Throughout the meal, the Vicomte kept the conversation amusing, though he focused primarily on the weather. It wasn’t until the first course was brought on trays with covered plates that he addressed Ellana, “My Lady Herald of Andraste, we went through special trouble to ensure your comfort. My cooks scoured to prepare a Dalish meal of the highest order!” The elven servant reached past Ellana and drew the cover off her plate, revealing a plate of delicately organized offal on a leaf. Shock rocked Ellana from head to toe, and she glanced at Cassandra’s plate, which held a far more benign dish of richly seasoned meat and vegetables. <This is not a Dalish dish at all,> she thought after checking Lavellan’s memories. Scanning across the table to the Vicomte who folded his hands looking eager for praise. With an inward groan she realized that he really thought he had done something extraordinary. She also noticed that out of all the Vicomte’s guests, only she and Solas had been served the ‘alternate’ menu. <Damn ignorant shems,> Her gaze met Solas’ across the table, the first connection they’d had since that moment in the tent. <Help me not to laugh, cry, or kill the Vicomte. His racism is, like, atrocious, but…>

Swallowing her bile, Ellana forced herself to composure and said courteously, “What an extraordinary effort, and so well executed! I haven’t seen a proper Fenedhis in years-” only one of the servants behind her coughed, ”-but I must admit, I made a promise to our Lady Josephine Montilyet that I would behave in all regards as an Orlesian. If only to avoid her disappointment, I should very much like to try what Lady Cassandra is having. Solas, you will eat Orlesian won’t you? After all, in Orlais, do as the Orlesians do.” She raised her goblet in honor of the Vicomte.

Solas lifted his hands in a gesture of surrender. “As you will, Lady Herald.” It was a wonder there was nothing at all mocking in his tone.

“Oh, but of course!” the Vicomte adjusted smoothly, clapping his hands again. The servants came to replace Ellana’s and Solas’ plates. <Well, I hope that didn’t go off too poorly. I wonder about the servant who knows enough Elvish to recognize what I called the dish. Oh well, when it came to learning Italian, I mostly picked up the swear words too. Maybe it’s like that..>

Dinner proceeded without immediate disruption, and Ellana felt herself relax until the third course when the Vicomtesse spoke up, “We are truly grateful for the Lady Montilyet’s making the introductions between our family and yours, Lady Pentaghast. Alicio, in particular,  has been keen to make your acquaintance…”

“Y-you’re a beautiful woman,” Alicio stuttered in a manner that spoke of earlier prompting. Hands folded in his lap, the boy looking down at his fancy bowl. His acute embarrassment made it clear just what the Vicomte and his wife were hoping for in return for their lodgings in Val Royeaux. <Oh no… seriously? Anyway, how could a Vicomte of Orlais ever hope to marry his son to a princess of Nevarra? They’re both nobility, but the gap is the size of the Grand Canyon.>

Cassandra drew the same conclusion, perhaps even more quickly. Her knuckles were white when she picked up her wine goblet. Her voice was even, however, when she said without delicacy, “It is kind of you to say so. I should hate to disappoint you, but I am already betrothed to a prince.”

All hands stilled except for Varric’s. He glanced up from the spoon of dinner he held halfway between his mouth and his bowl. “Well,” he said, breaking the rigid discomfort in the room, “You have to admit that she lives up to Nevarran stereotypes.”

The elven woman at the Vicomte’s side tittered uncomfortably, and the Vicomtesse turned an interesting shade of purple beneath her mask. The Vicomte himself, seeing his wife’s building rage, quickly ushered the conversation onward to other topics. The rest of dinner was only slightly less comfortable than Ellana’s last urinary tract infection. By the end, it was clear that they were expected to leave first thing in the morning. <Well, at least we have a roof over our heads tonight. And the wine isn’t weak.>

>>>>><<<<< 

Ellana woke groggy, just a little hung over. Wrapped in the sheer bliss of a warm blanket in a room defined by shadows, she hated the thought of moving. She contemplated sneaking into the Fade as she was supposed to be making progress on her plan to get home. Solas wasn’t holding up his side of the bargain, after all.

A knock jarred her out of her reverie. “Who is it?” she called, and Cassandra’s voice answered, “It’s me. Get out of bed, we meet the Chantry mothers in an hour.”

“Ugh!” Ellana replied, throwing a pillow at the door. It hit Cassandra, who opened it at just the right moment to be pelted. Cassandra looked at the heavy sack of feathers that now lay at her feet, then back at Ellana, “Is this really what I have to work with?”

“Me? You’re the one who got us kicked out of this wonderful house. Why didn’t you play along and let Josie sort it out later?” Ellana rolled onto her side away from the Seeker.

“And force that poor boy to pander throughout dinner, which would have been extremely uncomfortable for both of us, until his parents ultimately blamed him for failing?” Cassandra arched a brow, her hand still on the door handle. 

“Why would they blame him? They had to know the chances of a Vicomte’s son marrying a princess of Nevarra...”

“People can be dreadfully stupid when they want something. Now get up. We have somewhere to be,” Cassandra marched over to Ellana and dropped a strip of bright yellow plaideweave on the coverlet, “If things go downhill in the marketplace, avoid killing anyone wearing this. Leliana’s people are there to ensure our safety, but they won’t expose themselves if they don’t have to.”

<Is that what Varric meant by we wouldn’t be alone? Decent plan, I guess. There’s no way in hell any of the Orlesian nobles would be caught dead wearing this.> Cassandra slammed the door on her way out.

 >>>>><<<<< 

An hour later, Ellana walked side-by-side with the Seeker into the marketplace. A well-dressed woman wearing a mask saw them coming, squealed, and skittered off. Ellana craned her neck to watch as Varric helpfully noted, “Just a guess, Seeker, but I think they all know who we are.”

“Your skills of observation never fail to impress me, Varric,” Cassandra replied sarcastically as a woman wearing a hood with a scarf of plaideweave trotted up to Ellana. She bowed, “My Lady Herald.”

Ellana opened her mouth to reply, but Cassandra’s eyes were already on the scarf. Before Ellana could respond Cassandra spoke, “You’re one of Leliana’s people. What have you found?”

“The Chantry mothers await you, but… so do a great many Templars.” The worry on the spy’s face infected Ellana, and she gave Cassandra a worried glance.

The Seeker didn’t hide her surprise, “There are Templars here?” Turning to Ellana, she said, “We did not expect it, but we prepared for it. There will be enough protection in the crowd to prevent them taking you.” Ellana wanted to trust her, but flashbacks of the Templar eliminating her barrier in the Hinterlands with a touch instantly played in her mind. She glanced at Solas, who had wrapped both his hands around the shaft of his staff, planting it in the dirt. His attention was focused on the scout who mentioned, “People seem to think the Templars will protect them from the Inquisition. They’re gathering on the other side of the Market. I think that’s where the Templars intend to meet you.”

Cassandra nodded, gesturing a dismissal, and the scout darted off. She turned to Varric, Solas, and Ellana, “There’s only one thing to do then.”

“Run?” Ellana folded her arms, left hip dropping as she bent her knee. Varric laughed, patting Bianca’s stock, “Give us a chance. I’ll bet Red has enough firepower crawling around the marketplace that all it’d take is a signal to wipe them out.”

Cassandra scowled, ordering Solas and Varric, “I’ll give the signal if it’s necessary. Just protect the Herald.”

“Very well,” Solas agreed, looking sidelong at Ellana, “Though there is the risk that Varric and I will fail.” He was hard to read, but she was getting to know him better, <He doesn’t approve; he wants to suggest something else, but is holding back. I wonder why?>

“You won’t be alone,” Cassandra promised, her hand caressing her own sword hilt, “Maker watch over us this day, and spare us all bloodshed.”

“Amen to that,” Ellana muttered, a buzz of low-level anxiety rising in her chest. The comment drew curious looks from her three companions. “Just a saying amongst Dalish kids. Okay, Cassandra, I’m ready. Lead on.”

>>>>><<<<< 

The marketplace was a crush of people and colorful clothing. There were a few guards around the perimeter, but enough city folk to trample them in an instant were a panic to ensue. Ellana noticed that every third or fourth person sported a plaidsweave scarf, and she wondered how the hell Leliana could command such numbers. <It’d take half the people at Haven alone… unless she’s made a deal with someone. Hmm.>

As Ellana, Cassandra, Varric and Solas approached, the crowd recoiled, giving way to their passage. <Do they recognize us the way that noblewoman did, or is it just because we’re armed to the teeth and no one else is wearing anything visible?> She’d lay money that the people wearing plaideweave weren’t unarmed though, regardless of appearances.

Standing on a platform to the north side of the marketplace, a woman wearing the full ceremonial garb of a Chantry Mother was speaking, “Good people of Val Royeaux, hear me!” Her hands raised to gather attention, “Together, we mourn our Divine. Her naïve and beautiful heart silenced by treachery. You wonder what will become of her murderer. Well, wonder no more!”

The crowd erupted into whispers, turning to one another. Some of them even noticed Ellana and her companions before the priestess threw her arm out to point at them, “Behold the so-called Herald of Andraste! Claiming to rise where our beloved fell. We say this is a false prophet! A wicked elf sent to subvert the Maker's word!”

Ellana stood her ground, noticing with relief that several of the people who pushed through the crowd to be closest to her wore the bright yellow scarves. The lack of the reported Templars made her uneasy, but she didn’t have time to contemplate that. <Let's throw the dice, as Lucas would say.> Chin up, Ellana called out in a voice that projected easily above the murmurs of the crowd, “And do you know everything the Maker commands?”

Stripping the leather glove from her left hand, Ellana ignored the Mother, assessing the situation as a battle for the hearts of the mob. <If they turn to the Chantry Mother, we’re lost. If they turn to me, the Chantry will see they have no hope to maintain the support of the masses against us. They wouldn’t dare anger so many.> She raised her hand high, the luminous mark glittering brightly enough to be visible in broad daylight, “Look up in the sky! I alone survived the Breach - and I can end it!”  

The crowd, seeing evidence of Ellana’s connection to the Breach, leaned in. “It is true! Help us close the Breach before it is too late!” Cassandra beseeched the Chantry Mother. Looking at the faces of the masses, Ellana knew she had them. Relief flooded through her.

The priestess felt the shift too, and she snarled at Cassandra, “It is already too late!” From behind the platform, a contingent of ten armed and armored Templars strode. The morning sunlight glinted off their breastplates and shields. They climbed the wooden stairs to the platform to join the Chantry mother as she declared, “The Templars have returned to the Chantry! They will face this ‘Inquisition,’ and the people will be safe once more!”

Peeling from the unit of men, a pale man with dark hair and a perpetual three o’clock shadow walked past the priestess. Following him, a beefy man stepped out and sucker punched the Chantry Mother in the back of the head. She went down like a sack of potatoes, but the dark-haired man laid a hand on his brutal sidekick, “Still yourself. She is beneath us.”

Ellana planted her feet, fisting her naked hand behind herself and clasping it with her other. The violence displayed by these men was appalling. She found no desire to engage with them, but owning the crowd was a must. <There are only ten. I’ve counted at least twenty-two with plaidsweave. God above, please do not let this end in bloodshed.> “So much for returning to the Chantry. I take it you’re not here to ‘deal with’ the Inquisition?”

“As if there were any reason to,” the Templar leader flicked a hand dismissively, gaze moving over the crowd. Cassandra stepped forward, “Lord Seeker Lucius, it is imperative that we speak with-”

“-You will not address me,” Lucius snarled at Cassandra, cutting his hand viciously back through the air as he accused, “Creating a heretical movement, raising up a puppet as Andraste's prophet. You should be ashamed.” Then he raised his voice, speaking to the crowd as a whole, “You should all be ashamed. The Templars failed no one when they left the Chantry to purge the mages!” <Well, accusing the crowd of crimes will hardly win you brownie points.> “You are the ones who have failed! You would leash our righteous swords with doubt and fear!”

A small smile played about Ellana’s lips as she rocked back on her heels, hands still clasped behind her back. She didn’t relax entirely, knowing the situation could still get bloody, but she heard the crowd’s dark muttering - muttering at Lord Seeker Lucius. <At least I’m not going to have to fight both the Templars and the mob. That’s one worry off my shoulders, and a significant shift in our favor.>

Lord Seeker Lucius wasn’t done though. He pointed at Cassandra and Ellana, declaring, “If you came to appeal to the Chantry, you are too late. The only destiny here that demands respect is mine.”

<No one likes an arrogant bastard. I’ll bet his own men don’t either,> thought Ellana, and she called out, “Templars, one of your own commands the Inquisition forces. Join us, as he did! Help us close the Breach!”

Rage scrawled across Lucius’ features, and he snarled at Ellana,“You're a mage! Your ties are worthless. They're all made traitors just by being in your company!” Fortunately, not all of the men standing behind him seemed to agree. A younger, handsome Templar with chocolate coloured skin and green eyes called, “But Lord Seeker... what if she really was sent by the Maker? What if-?”

The brute who punched the Chantry Mother pushed the younger templar’s shoulder, “You are called to a higher purpose! Do not question!”

Lucius capitalized on his second-in-command’s intervention to declare to the crowd, “I will make the Templar Order a power that stands alone against the void. We deserve recognition. Independence!” As he spoke, he pounded his right fist into his left palm, then headed down the opposite stairs of the platform. Ellana crossed her arms as he approached her, already warning herself not to flinch. <He’ll try to make you recoil involuntarily; no matter what, show no fear.>

He purposefully walked towards her, invading her space and looming over her. “You have shown me nothing, and the Inquisition... less than nothing.” He spat on her, but she knew something like that was coming and stretched her neck defiantly. Grinding his teeth, Lord Seeker Lucius gestured to his men, “Templars! Val Royeaux is unworthy of our protection! We march!”

As the Templars filed past, Ellana rubbed the spit from her face with the back of a fist, fighting down the urge to gag. The young Templar who had questioned Lucius to his face met her eyes as he passed, ducking his head in a brief nod. <Well, there’s one potential contact if I can figure out his name,> she thought.

When the Templars were gone, the crowd seemed to mill about. Some dispersed, but a few turned towards Ellana. Several people wearing plaideweave closed in, but she stepped through them to address the crowd, “People of Val Royeaux, I am sorry for the turmoil you have witnessed today. The Inquisition exists to restore order and close the Breach. We have no interest in politics beyond what it takes to bring peace back to Thedas. Please, in the name of the Maker, go home. Care for your families. We will not bring trouble to your door.”

Relief flooded her as most of them moved to do just that. Varric shook his head, “You sure know how to talk to people, Herald. You learn that in Keeper school or something?” Ellana released the breath she’d been holding, “Not exactly.” <Board room meetings and inspirational speakers. A TED talk or two.>

Solas’ eyes tracked Ellana closely, and she gave him a hard look in return. Her shields dropped, and she pushed a <Back off!> mental wave at him. Maybe his shields were up though; his gaze didn’t even flicker. He moved when she suggested to him, “Solas, won’t you help the priestess? A punch that takes someone down in one shot like that can kill.” A moment later he was on the stage, kneeling beside the priestess, his hands gently cupping her head.

Seeing the Chantry Mother cared for, Cassandra began to pace, “Has Lord Seeker Lucius gone mad?”

<How the hell would I know? He just seems like an asshole.> Ellana shrugged, “Do you know him very well?”

“He took over the Seekers of Truth two years ago, after Lord Seeker Lambert's death,” Cassandra replied a hint more calmly, “He was always a decent man, never given to ambition and grandstanding. This is very bizarre.”

“Well, it doesn't look like we'll be getting the Templars to help us after all,” Ellana commented, relieved that they’d taken the question out of her hands. The Templars flat out scared her ever since she nearly got cleaved to death in the Hinterlands.

“I wouldn't write them off so quickly. There must be those in the Order who see what he has become,” Cassandra sighed, rubbing her face. Ellana moved to her side, lightly placing a hand of comfort on Cassandra’s shoulder. <The Templars are her people, and the Seekers even more so. Lord Seeker Lucius’ accusations must have cut deep.> Cassandra gave Ellana a short nod, and she knew the gesture was appreciated.

Behind her, a groan drew Ellana’s attention. Solas stood up, giving the Chantry Mother some space. The woman’s eyes flickered open, and her hands came to her head. “Oh... “ Ellana climbed the steps while the priestess slowly pushed herself into a sitting position. Behind her, Ellana heard Varric and Cassandra follow. She asked the Chantry Mother, “Are you all right?”

“All right?” The Chantry Mother laughed bitterly, “No. Not at all.”

“I had no intention for it to go this way,” Ellana said, crouching to bring herself level with the woman. She felt Solas looming over them both and wondered if the priestess did too.

If so, she displayed nothing, addressing Ellana, “Perhaps. But do not delude yourself that you had no part in forcing our hand. Now we have been shown up by our own Templars, in front of everyone. My fellow clerics have scattered to the wind, along with their convictions.” Tears appeared in her eyes, and she softly demanded, “Just tell me one thing: Do you truly believe you are the Maker's chosen?”

<I’m the protagonist in this game, damn straight I am. I’d bet money I see my own face in Dragon Age 4.> “I do believe it. Do you have a better explanation?”

“Several, but... are they the truth? I am left to question all I have been taught,” the Chantry Mother looked down at the ground, “For you to be true, a great many things must be false. And if you are false, a great many things must have failed. There is chaos ahead, whatever your intentions.” She pushed herself to her feet, drawing Ellana to stand as well, “I suppose it is out of our hands now. We shall all see what the Maker plans in the days to come.”

“Will the Chantry continue to denounce me?” Ellana queried, eyes intense on the priestess’ face, but the older woman merely laughed, “We have already done so, and what good has it done us? Now it falls on us to select a new Divine, if we can, and leave the next step to her.”

“Thank you, elf,” the priestess directed to Solas. She looked weary as she bade Ellana farewell, “What becomes of us, and your Inquisition, is in the Maker's hands now.” Cassandra made as if to follow, but Ellana placed a hand on her elbow, turning her head to whisper softly, “Let her go. The Inquisition won this day; let’s not test our chances.”

Cassandra grimaced, “We should get back to Haven and report what happened here.” As Ellana took two steps back towards the way they’d come an arrow planted itself between her feet. She startled back, colliding with Solas. A quick glance around showed few people paying attention now that the Templars and Chantry had both left, and it was Varric who knelt to pull the arrow from the ground. A message was tied to its shaft, “Well, what have we here?"

Chapter Text

Varric unrolled a strip of parchment from the arrow shaft and read the message aloud: “'People say you're special. I want to help. And I can bring everyone,'" Varric paused to clear his throat, "'There's a baddie in Val Royeaux. I hear he wants to hurt you. Have a search for the red things in the market, the docks, and 'round the cafe, and maybe you'll meet him first. Bring swords.' It’s signed 'Friends of Red Jenny'.”

Ellana shielded her eyes against the morning glare and looked around, trying to locate the archer. No one stood out. <Friends of Red Jenny? Wasn’t there a door in Denerim with that moniker on it? I don’t recall doing anything with it, maybe a drop quest or something. Was there anything in DA2? I’m sure there was, but I can’t recall.>

“Ridiculous,” Cassandra declared, but Ellana was already reaching for the message, “We should go back to Haven immediately.”

“And miss out on the chance to meet the person who drew this…?” Ellana asked, holding the rolled paper stretched between two hands, displaying flower and bee doodles that bordered large, flowing script.

“It looks like a child drew it,” Cassandra folded her arms, “We don’t have time for nonsense. We must alert Leliana to what happened here.”

“Not just any child,” Ellana turned the paper to the light, giggling at an extra illustration hidden in the parchment, then passed it to Solas. He frowned at what he saw, saying, “I’m not certain that such astounding knowledge of the male anatomy implies maturity of any sort.”

“The female anatomy is there too,” Ellana pointed at the center of one of the flowers, “And I think that one’s a butt.”

“We can send a raven to Red; it will get there faster than we can,” Varric placated Cassandra, then ruined it by adding, “Have a sense of adventure, Seeker. Haven’s cold, and I for one wouldn’t mind a tour of the city.”

Ellana gave Varric an arch look, folding her arms and tapping a foot, “Yesterday, you said you didn’t like Val Royeaux.”

“Yesterday, I didn’t know we’d have a treasure hunt,” Varric protested, gloved hands spreading in a shrug, “Can’t a body change his mind? You know I’m a good shot. Trust me, anybody planting an arrow like that? Color me curious.”

“Leliana did say I should recruit people to the cause, and whoever this is, seems to think they can bring a lot of people.” Ellana tapped her chin, then suggested sweetly to Cassandra, “What if Varric’s right?” <Now this is the kind of quest you’d expect of a game. I hope I don’t spend all of my time running around chasing widgets or something.>

Cassandra grunted and looked to Solas for support. He hmmed, “I wonder what it is meant by they can ‘bring everyone’?” He tapped his chin with his finger, “I think I know where the first item is.” His hand brushed Ellana’s when he passed the parchment back to her, sending a thrill through her palm.

“Fine,” Cassandra unhappily relented, “But if this is a trap-“

“We know, we know; you’ll say ‘I told you so’,” Varric interjected with a twinkle in his eye.

>>>>><<<<<

They collected the clues in under an hour and sat down at the café to review their findings. Ellana enjoyed how modern it was. <Coffee! I have died and gone to Heaven,> she thrilled, reading the menu and saying to the wait staff, “Oh, I’ll have a coffee with milk and sugar.” <I’ll bet they can’t steam the milk, sadly.>

Their masked waiter replied in a heavy Orlesian accent that failed to hide his surprise, “Of course. We can provide both milk and sugar if my lady likes.” <Is that intended to sound like ‘I’m trying to speak around a sock I shoved in my mouth’?> She wondered if his discomfort was related to serving elves.

Ellana felt Solas’ eyes boring into her profile, and glanced at him in time to catch his attention returning to pieces of ‘Red Jenny’s’ parchment. Cassandra looked puzzled, but it was Varric who asked, “You like coffee?”

His surprise sent Ellana digging through Lavellan’s memories. <Right. Not a Dalish thing. Sugar is an expensive luxury and Lavellan’s never even heard of coffee. Pah! Do I have to fit a stereotype every moment of the day?> She folded her arms defensively, “Don’t look so surprised. I tried it once when a trader brought it to our clan a long time ago.” She then thought about the coins in her pocket and said regretfully to the waiter, “Forget the sugar, I guess.”

“Ahh,” Varric nodded, and Solas absently informed the table, “Coffee makes it more difficult to access the Fade.” <Speaking of the Fade, that’s the first bit of information you’ve shared with me about anything for days.> Ellana wanted to turn the topic to her recently dropped lessons, but as usual, Cassandra was already talking, “Is the Fade all you ever think of?” then she commented more congenially to Ellana, “Coffee is an acquired taste. Mostly Antivan. We should buy some for Josephine.”

“Is there anything else I can get you?” the waiter asked, studiously ignoring their conversation. He took Ellana’s menu and tucked it beneath his arm with all of the pomposity of a cartoon character.

“I’ll have a coffee too,” Varric decided, passing his menu over as if the waiter’s behaviour were perfectly normal. For her part, Cassandra ordered tea. Solas didn’t even look up, still focused on the clues, but said, “I’ll have one of those pistachio cheese cakes with the cherry glaze.”

“When did you read the menu?” Varric asked while Ellana rested her elbows on the table and leaned forward, ducking her head down to peer at the clues.

“It’s posted on the wall outside,” Solas distractedly replied, “Might I borrow your wax tablet and stylus, Varric?”

“What for?” Varric asked, digging into his pack to produce it, “There’s not much room left. Careful not to erase anything; that’s where I take my notes.”

Solas accepted the tablet and referenced the parchments as he wrote, character-by-character, into the wax on the tablet. “Ahh. A simple cipher. Here we are. Two nights hence, we are expected to show up at this address.” He passed the tablet to Ellana, who read it, but then noticed the content of Varric’s scribbles, “Hey! I am not an ‘elven pain in the Seeker’s left ear’!”

“Yes you are,” Cassandra thought aloud, without rancor, earning a pointedly disgruntled expression from Ellana. The waiter returned and placed their orders before them, “Two nights hence? The Inquisition hardly has the coin to keep us in inns. Let alone in Val Royeaux.”

Varric grinned at Cassandra, “Speak for yourself, Seeker. I have a tidy nest egg that will cover the Herald and I. Maybe even Chuckles over here. Don’t worry, though, I’m sure you can pay your way mucking out the stables.”

“That’s not funny, Varric,” Cassandra said, stiffly stirring her tea.  

Ellana let them bicker while she focused on more important things. “That cake looks so tasty,” she commented as Solas reached for his utensils. <It’d go great with my coffee…> He slid his plate a little closer to himself and gave her a withering look as he stabbed it with a tiny fork. 

Ellana tried again, licking her top lip, then smiling sweetly, “It’s a bit frilly for a badass elven apostate, don’t you think?”              

“Even you cannot wheedle me into sharing my cake,” Solas said pointedly, placing a bite of the delicate dessert into his mouth. Ellana pouted behind her grin, <Even I? That’s a promising turn of phrase.> “Not even one bite?”

“Da’len,” Solas leaned forward and gave Ellana an intense look, “The day I share my cake is the day I surrender my freedom.”

<Well, that’s an odd turn of phrase. Doesn’t sound like he’s budging on the point. Do I really want to spend money on cake? Yes, it seems that I do.> “Fine, I guess I’ll order my own.” She signaled the waiter.

>>>>><<<<<

Val Royeaux inns were luxurious, Ellana learned. Her eyes wandered about the main entrance, filled with tables and well-dressed clientele, while Varric negotiated their rooms at the desk. <Again, who would have thought it’d be so modern whilst still being so … middle ages?> The decorations, at least, were medieval - one set of crossed swords beneath a Templar’s shield made her back itch.

As they were led to their rooms, Cassandra said to Solas, “We won’t be secure here for long. The Chantry may not have the manpower to arrest us, but the Herald of Andraste’s reputation has spread; it will be impossible to keep her presence hidden, particularly considering her speech in the marketplace. The city is not united behind us.”

Solas glanced behind to see Ellana and Varric bringing up the rear, “Do you think we need to set up a watch?”

Varric shook his head, “You’re both too paranoid. First,” he ticked off fingers as he made his case, “Red has her people trailing us. I’ve seen a few, and for each one I caught, I guarantee there are three more. Second, this is a quality inn used to famous clientele; my business associates have had dealings here before. They’ll make sure we’re safe. Third… well, I don’t have a third, but they do have a bath, which I imagine our Herald here would literally murder for. Word might get out where we’re staying, but we’ll be safe enough.”

Cassandra scowled, “I do not like the idea of relying on your unsavory connections to ensure our safety.” Varric stopped at the door indicated by the porter and turned back to Cassandra to defend his point. As he did, Ellana touched Solas’ elbow, “May I have a word?”

Solas gave Ellana a wary look, and nodded, allowing her to follow him into his room.

>>>>><<<<<

Ellana closed the door behind them, thinking <Finally, I can talk to him alone.> Solas dropped his pack on the table across from the foot of the bed.

“You’ve been avoiding me,” she observed by way of opening the conversation, admiring the sinuous curve leading from the back of Solas’ neck to his hip as he reached into his belt pouch and tossed his remaining coins onto the table.

“Matters merely weigh on my mind of late,” Solas replied, walking to the window to open the curtains, “What would you care to discuss, da’len?”

“What kind of matters?” Ellana asked, leaning her weight against her left shoulder on the wall. <I bet he dodges the question.>

“Why, saving the world from the Breach, of course,” Solas allowed the late afternoon sun to caress his face for a moment, then his head tilted as he watched the bustle of Val Royeaux below. <Pah, I hate it when I win bets against myself. There's no loot to claim.>

Ellana folded her arms, digesting his off-hand demeanor. <You’re so adept at sliding around questions that most don’t notice you didn’t really answer. I, however, do.>  “I’m sure that’s true, and I’m equally certain that’s not the entire truth. Don’t dissemble, this is about us.”

“There is no ‘us’,” Solas turned back to her, folding his arms as well. His expression hardened when he said, “I’ve agreed to teach you, da’len. Don’t turn it into anything more. You’ll get hurt.”

<I’ll get hurt? We’ll see who is hurt when I punch you for being a prick,> Ellana forced down the urge to grind her teeth, “You haven’t exactly been holding up your end of the bargain there either. You’ve barely spoken to me in two days, and you promised to help me master my gifts.”

Solas coolly studied Ellana from a scant ten feet away. She waited for him to say something. When he didn’t, she pushed the envelope, “You can’t say you’re not interested. I saw you looking at my breasts at dinner.”

Solas’ jaw twitched, “It would be better if you didn’t notice such things, but they’re hardly unusual. You’re an attractive woman, and I am not dead. I am, however, much older than you are. It is entirely inappropriate.”

“Is that what this is about?” Ellana let the relief show in her voice. A spark of hope perked her up, and she unfolded her arms as she stepped towards him, <A few years between us is nothing. Besides, I’m really in my mid-thirties; I just look in my twenties.> “Would you believe me if I told you I’m older than I look? And… you’re not that old. Even if you were, it’s not your… well. I don’t care about your age. I like talking to you, learning from you…”

Solas’ gaze flickered when Ellana said that she wasn’t as young as she appeared, but he held up a hand to forestall her, “Ellana, that’s enough. You will embarrass us both. I am flattered, but it can go nowhere between us. Be content that I admire you and let it be.”

<Great way to take the hope swelling in my breast and stab it to death like the Psycho shower scene. He admires me? What does that even mean?> Ellana forced herself to breathe. When she was certain she could speak without her voice breaking, she asked, “And my lessons?”

“Will resume another time,” Solas ducked his chin in a brief, dismissive jerk, “Now if you’ll excuse me…” he turned his back to her, unpacking his neatly folded garments.

Ellana’s eyes flashed, but she didn’t move. She dropped her mental shields, but got nothing; Solas was locked up as tight as a drum. He paused when she didn’t move and gave her a disapproving look over his shoulder. She finally pushed away from the wall and headed to the door, “You can be a real asshole, you know that?”

She resisted the urge to slam the door behind her, closing the it softly instead. It allowed her sharp elven hearing to catch the faint tones of Solas swearing to himself as she left.

>>>>><<<<<

Ellana went directly to her room and locked the door. She paced for a few minutes, burning off nervous energy before she finally flopped on the bed. <He ‘admires me’. He finds me ‘attractive’. He’s a stuffed shirt who thinks I’m too young for him. But I’m in my mid-thirties… he’s barely forty if that...> The complaints circled in her mind, but she knew it was over. <I can’t force him to have a relationship with me. I just don’t get it. I know he’s interested; I’ve felt his interest in his aura. I’ve seen it in his gaze. Varric says he watches me…> and off she was again in another cycle of useless rumination.

No one bothered her, and night was falling. She tried everything to calm her thoughts, but they circled like vicious wolves. Finally, she got up and began a yoga practice, hoping to restore her calm.

>>>>><<<<<

Emily didn’t exactly mean to end up in the Fade, but she did. With detached interest, she noted how easily she could tell the difference between the Fade and the ‘real’ Thedas now. The room she sat in hadn’t changed at all, but something about her mind had.

She slowly stood up and walked to the door. Opening it, she stepped into the hallway. No one was there, but she felt something - a powerful presence - nearby. Concerned that if she could sense it, it could sense her, Emily drew her shields tightly about herself until the sensation faded, then cautiously headed in that direction. Unsurprisingly, it led to Solas’ door. Emily placed her hand upon the warm wood and pondered if she’d knock, or if she should make a hasty exit before Solas caught her. <He’ll probably use my presence as an excuse to stop teaching me.> Biting her lip with indecision, she battled with her anger to make a logical decision. As she did, her ears cocked, catching the murmur of voices inside.

Solas was definitely not alone. She couldn’t make out the words, but she was pretty sure the other voice was a woman’s. Curious, she knelt to peek through the keyhole into the room beyond.

It was strange seeing an elven ruin restored to full glory beyond the inn door, but Solas stood as if he fit there nonetheless. An auburn-haired woman that Emily instantly recognized as Wisdom faced him. She was holding his hands, and they were talking. Feeling guilty for spying, Emily was about to back away when he turned Wisdom’s grip to pull the spirit into a hungry kiss.

<Stop watching,> Emily ordered herself against the feeling of a knife twisting in her heart, but their passion drew her eyes like a train wreck. Wisdom returned Solas’ fervor, and it wasn’t long until her dress slithered to the floor. Solas’ tunic followed, baring a torso with long, lean lines that complimented Wisdom’s feminine physique. When he reached for the fastenings of his breeches, Wisdom clasped the angles of his face, whispering something indecipherable. Solas shook his head in the negative, face scrunching with pain, and said something back. Wisdom’s fingers stroked his cheek, but she insisted. Reluctantly, Solas nodded, sliding his hands about Wisdom’s waist and drawing her close. Only now, Wisdom’s features shifted and changed until Solas was holding a doppelganger of Ellana in his arms. He hesitated, but only a moment before he bore her to the ground...

Emily’s control slipped, a chaotic bloom of emotions battering her shields. The harder she struggled to hold them in place, the stronger she fought to impose her will on the Fade, the more it wavered around her. <Oh god, don’t let them sense me!>

Abruptly, she woke up.

>>>>><<<<<

She was sitting at the foot of her bed again in lotus position, heart pounding a vicious staccato. <Did he see me? What the hell was that?> She wanted to force the image from her mind, but she couldn’t unsee Solas making love to her doppelganger. <How could he reject me to go to another like that ?> Except that didn’t feel quite right, <He’s been involved with her for quite some time. I’m the ‘other woman’> It made more sense that way, and the realization eased her pain. Ruefully, she thought, <Still, what kind of person goes, 'You like someone else? Let me just wear their body for you tonight, babe'?>

Vaulting off the bed, Ellana tiptoed out of her room and to Solas’ door. Pressing her hands to the wood, she knelt and peered into the real keyhole in the physical world. She couldn’t see all of him, only from his bound calf down, but he was lying alone on the bed. <Still attending to his pleasures in the Fade...>  She shivered.

“Herald?” Varric asked, startling Ellana to her feet. Snapped out of her reverie, she muttered, face flushed, “Er, sorry. Just seeing if Solas is in his room.”

“Right. Well, I believe you could knock...” Varric offered with an arched brow, reaching into his belt behind his back, “On that point, someone knocked on your door about ten minutes ago. When you didn’t answer, they left this with me.” He held up a cream-colored envelope, trimmed in gold. It showed signs of having already been opened, “It’s from Lady Vivienne, First Enchanter of Montsimmard. She wants to meet you and has invited you to ‘a small party’ at her residence tonight. It’s short notice, but if we rebuff her we probably won’t have another chance. Still... I can pen a polite refusal.”

“A party?” Ellana nearly laughed, pressing her hand to her chest. She felt tears prickling the corners of her eyes, and pressed her lips together, <Why not? It’s better than moping alone in my room all night and trying to unpack… that.> “Why not?”

>>>>><<<<<

She was relieved to attend the party without a chaperone, though her independence hadn’t come without a fight. She and Cassandra arrived together in a hackney carriage, but were firmly told at the gates that the invitation was for Ellana alone. Cassandra wanted Ellana to turn back with her, but Ellana pointed out that she was no longer a prisoner and hopped out of the carriage to take the estate drive on foot, alone.

Her legs were burning by the time she arrived at the soiree, but she otherwise felt none-the-worse for wear. She passed over her invitation at the door and the herald announced, “Lady Ellana Lavellan, the Herald of Andraste.”

Her shoes clipped the black and white patterned floor in the brief silence the announcement engendered, and she was happy the Vicomte du Angevin had inadvertently armed her with a dress that met the party standards. Her mask disguised her Vallaslin, but she still drew eyes after the introduction; even after the guests had resumed their chatter, they still occasionally glanced her way. In the main hall she approached a man and woman idling at the entrance. The man wore a tight tunic edged in gold, with a golden half-mask and an odd headdress that reminded her of a hammerhead shark wrapped in silk. Beside him, a petite woman in a similar mask giggled at Ellana’s approach. <What is with that ruff around her neck, and is she wearing an upturned flowerpot on her head?>

“A pleasure my lady,” the man inclined his head towards Ellana, capturing her attention, “We so rarely have a chance to meet anyone new. It is always the same crowd at these parties. So you must be a guest of Madame de Fer. Or are you here for the Duke Bastien?”

“I was invited here by First Enchanter, Vivienne,” Ellana replied, flipping her fan open. It was still her favorite part of the dress.

“‘Madame de Fer' is a ... fond nickname the Court has given Lady Vivienne,” the man replied politely, leaving Ellana wondering who Duke Bastien was. She preferred not to reveal further ignorance given that she had the impression she was potentially standing in his estate, however. The petite woman spared her the humiliation by finding a more amicable topic of conversation, asking, “Are you here on business? I have heard the most curious tales of you. I cannot imagine half of them are true.”

“Oh?” Ellana decided that sounded like a promising distraction and asked with a teasing tone, “What have you heard of me?” <I may as well entertain myself with vapid tales. It beats thinking of Solas and Wisdom...>

“Some say that when the veil opened, Andraste herself delivered you from the Fade,” the woman whispered behind her fan, giggling again. Ellana wondered if it was possible to want to kill someone for giggling, then noted that she already did.

“Well, then,” Ellana grinned mysteriously and provided a decorative bow, “Everything you've heard? Completely true.”

“Better and better. The Inquisition should attend more of these parties!” the woman giggled again. Striding down the stairs, a man wearing an ornate tunic called out brashly across the hall, “The Inquisition? What a load of pig shit!” He had a garish yellow feather in his turban that Ellana had seen on several other guests, and she puzzled at its meaning. <I think I need to spend some time with Josephine when I get back to Haven. The ‘Game’ is afoot, and I cannot afford to be ignorant.> She wondered if coming was a bad idea, and the thought was reinforced when both of her new acquaintances turned away from her. The newcomer continued to run his mouth: “Washed-up sisters and crazed Seekers? No one can take them seriously.”

At the foot of the stairs, only four or so feet from Ellana, the man stopped, declaring, “Everyone knows it's just an excuse for a bunch of political outcasts to grab power.”

No one so obviously hostile had ever addressed Ellana in her life. Her chest tightened, but she was already in a foul mood thanks to how her evening started. <This is a damned video game. Who cares?> She threw caution to the wind and gave in to the urge to goad the the man. Mouth twisting, she said, “The Inquisition is working to restore peace and order to Thedas.”

“Pah!” replied the man, “Here comes the outsider, restoring peace with an army! We know what your 'Inquisition' truly is.” He made a spitting gesture, though Ellana noted with a mocking smile that he refrained from actually releasing sputum. His hand lifted and reached for his sword, “If you were a woman of honor, you'd step outside and answer the charges.”

Already on her last nerve, Ellana allowed malicious satisfaction to broil in her breast. She focused her magic into a dark mass that would rip the offensive fop to bloody shreds. Just as she brought the power to bear, an icy blue cloud swept through the room, leaving a chill in its wake. It outraced her and struck the braggadocio, crawling up his body, and freezing him in place with an audible crackle of ice.

Hips swaying, a masked ebony beauty in the pure white of a virgin snowfall descended the stairs with languid majesty. She announced, “My dear Marquis, how unkind of you to use such language in my house... to my guests.” She was about the same height as Ellana, though hers was amplified by the enormity of an ornate hennin. Ellana forced herself to choke down the sadistic weave she’d made of her mana when the woman glanced at her sidelong. She added to the Marquis, “You know such rudeness is... intolerable.”

“Madame Vivienne,” the frozen man squeaked out, voice distorted by the ice, “I humbly beg your pardon!”

“You should,” Vivienne replied succinctly, rubbing her forefingers and thumb together, “Whatever am I going to do with you, my dear?” She faced Ellana fully then, running her eyes down the other woman’s trim figure, “My lady, you're the wounded party in this unfortunate affair. What would you have me do with this foolish, foolish man?”

The twist on Ellana’s lips remained, but this time it was sensing Vivienne's aura. She knew that Vivienne was the First Enchanter, but standing so close to her in person drove home that Ellana had only met one other mage thus far - Solas. Vivienne's aura buzzed so loudly with frost that Ellana wondered if her own aura had a ‘flavor’ to it. <Does she even know how to shield?> Ellana gestured dismissively and released her grasp on the mana that had nearly torn the unfortunate braggart apart, “The Marquis doesn't interest me. Do whatever you like with him.”

Ellana wasn’t sure if Vivienne sensed her dropping the lethal aura she’d held, but she stepped back as Vivienne cupped the man’s chin. The two other guests had backed significantly away, “Poor Marquis, issuing challenges and hurling insults like some Fereldan dog-lord. And all dressed up in your Aunt Solange's doublet. Didn't she give you that to wear to the Grand Tourney?” She studied him momentarily, then released him, “To think, all the brave Chevaliers who will be competing left for Markham this morning... and you're still here.”

This time pandering more to the crowd, Vivienne asked, “Were you hoping to sate your damaged pride by defeating the Herald of Andraste in a public duel? Or did you think her blade could put an end to the misery of your failure?” She snapped her fingers, and the ice coating the Marquis shattered, “Run along, my dear. Do give my regards to your aunt.”

She beckoned Ellana to follow her, and she did, casting a lashed side-eye at the Marquis as she passed him. <Looks like the grown-ups are about to talk.> As they climbed the stairs, side-by-side, Vivienne said, “I'm delighted you could attend this little gathering. I've so wanted to meet you. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Vivienne, First Enchanter of Montsimmard and Enchantress to the Imperial Court.”

“It is my deepest pleasure, Lady Vivienne,” Ellana replied, thinking back on what just happened. Something about Vivienne’s demeanor struck her as dangerous and calculating, <I wonder how much of it was staged? Afterall, she clearly sensed that I was about to use my magic in a very bloody way when she stepped in…> “Your salon certainly has exceeded my expectations thus far.”

“I’m glad to keep you entertained my dear,” Vivienne’s voice held the sardonic laughter that Ellana had come to associate with Orlais; a mask the Orlesians used to disguise truer feelings. “I wanted to meet face-to-face. It’s important to consider one’s connections carefully.” The amusement disappeared as she led Ellana into a quiet hallway, away from her guests. Blue moonlight flooded the hall, and Vivienne rested her hand on a windowsill. She drew Ellana toward it, “With Divine Justinia dead, the Chantry is in shambles. Only the Inquisition appears capable of restoring sanity and order to our frightened people. As the leader of the last loyal mages of Thedas, I feel it only right that I lend my assistance to your cause.”

“The Inquisition would be glad to have your assistance,” Ellana mirrored Vivienne by placing her hand on the windowsill. She noted how the woman’s eyes followed it, no doubt looking for the mark she’d displayed so openly in the market square. Obligingly, she tugged her leather glove off and turned her palm up to display the phosphorescent slash that hummed in her hand. The light overpowered the moonlight and cast shadows beneath their jaws.

Vivienne’s eyes fell to the mark, then returned to Ellana’s face, “You are a mage that grew up outside the circles. I hear you that you are Dalish. Is it true?”

Ellana curled her hand into a fist, cutting out the light, “And if it is?”

“Nothing at all, my dear,” Vivienne replied, moving away from the window as Ellana tugged her leather glove back on. “You’ve moved remarkably well thus far. Your taste in dress, for example. I had not expected you to arrive so composed.”

Ellana followed Vivienne back to the party, stepping through, “I have some modest talents, Madame de Fer. One of which is having a good time at a party. I do appreciate your stepping in with the Marquis, by the way.”

“I figured it was best to intervene before I troubled the servants with cleaning up after your temper. You really should consider ice magic, my dear. So much cleaner when one wants to commit murder,” Vivienne replied, drawing a gloved finger delicately across the windowsill and checking it for dust.

“My lady is perhaps more fastidious than I,” Ellana’s eyes twinkled with genuine amusement, but it disappeared when she saw the banquet table. Laden with heaps of food, an entire section was dedicated to intricately decorated cakes. <Solas…>

Vivienne tilted her head, noting the other woman’s change in emotion, “If you are hungry, my dear, please do not spare yourself. I’ve some arrangements to make if I’m to join you in Haven. If you’ll pardon me?”

“Of course,” Ellana inclined her head and watched Vivienne saunter away. She told herself not to assuage her pain on the dessert buffet, but it was a challenge to follow her own advice. Surrounded by humans, the only elves about scurried in the shadows. She wanted to dance, but no one asked her to. <And there goes six years of salsa classes down the tubes.>

She drowned her sorrows in just a bit too much wine.

>>>>><<<<<

Ellana staggered back to the inn well after midnight. She carried two sweet, flourless orange cakes stashed in a decorative wooden box provided by Duke Bastien’s estate. The cakes still made her think of Solas, and she pondered throwing them away. Unfortunately, the value of such things in Thedas stayed her hand. <No reason to become ungrateful. I guess I could give them away.>

When she got to her door, she drunkenly paused. <Should I share them with Solas? He’d enjoy them the most, I’d bet. But… after what I saw?> Ellana wasn’t sure how she felt about it. Angry, yes - it was a massive violation for Wisdom to have taken her identity for such purpose. As for Solas - she just couldn’t figure out what he was thinking to indulge that way. Shaking her head, she banished the thought and tried to refocus on the outcomes of party. That’s mostly why she had attended after all, right? <And I did a good job, securing Montsimmard’s First Enchanter for the Inquisition. Maybe I should seek instruction from Vivienne instead of Solas.> Except Vivienne was a Circle mage. Ellana remembered the Circle’s approach to the Fade, particularly the Harrowing. <Um, nope. I’d rather not.>

Varric’s door opened behind her while she leaned her forehead on the wall. Ellana turned in time to catch him pulling Bianca down out of an ‘aim to kill’ posture, “Herald, you’re back. I thought I heard someone lingering outside your door.”

“Just me,” she confessed, tucking the wooden box beneath her arm. She reached up to unlace the ribbons that held her mask in place. “Returning from the party.”

“How was it?” Varric asked, leaning against the doorframe and slowly twirling the quarrel he’d just pointed at her spine in his fingertips, “You look flushed; happy, I hope?”

“I suppose I’ve had too much to drink. And eat. Um, would you like some cake? They were a party favor,” Ellana gestured to the box with her mask.

“If you need a taster, particularly when it comes to Orlesian cakes, you might be better off with Solas,” Varric grinned, though his neck stretched towards the box, “Though if you twist my arm, I could be convinced...”

Solas’ door opened, and he stepped out, freshly dressed in a plain loose tunic and breeches. They clung to him in ways Ellana found perfectly distracting, “Ahh, you have returned in good health; I-”

“Oh for-” Ellana pushed the entire cake box into Solas’ chest, thrust open her chamber door, and claimed, “Fuck elven hearing.”

“- what?” Solas grasped the box reflexively and gave Varric a puzzled look as she stepped into her room and slammed the door shut behind her.

“Let me guess, Chuckles,” she heard Varric’s timbre clear as day through the door, “You told her something about how it’s not her, it’s you?”

“That’s not funny, Varric,” there was a clatter as Solas opened the box, “Well, if nothing else, that woman has exceptional taste in cake.”

“‘That woman’ as you call her is in love with you,” Varric pointed out. On the other side of the door, Ellana experienced a full body wince. <Am I in love with him? No way. I barely know him. It’s just... lust. I’m a healthy woman in her prime who hasn’t had sex in literally months.>  She paused, almost forgetting, then added, <And he's not real.>

“Varric,” Solas sighed in response, “Are you aware of just how good elven hearing is?” She imagined the single arched brow he asked, and closed both eyes in search of peace.

“Shit,” Varric’s door slammed, too.

“I am pissing everyone off tonight,” Solas commented, and he didn’t even have the grace to sound perturbed by it. He even hummed as he closed his door.

Ellana walked over to the wall between her and Solas’ rooms, pounded it twice with the side of her fist, and declared in noisome elven, “[I am NOT in love with you.]”

Solas called back, “[I am glad to hear it, da’len. And thank you for the cake.]”

“Will you all shut up?!” Cassandra bellowed, her voice echoing down the hall far enough to penetrate the front room, “It’s halfway to daylight!!”

>>>>><<<<<

Ellana spent the next day avoiding Solas, not that she had to work at it as he kept to himself. Varric spent it profusely apologizing to the innkeeper for the previous night’s loudness. As other guests had complained, the dwarf put on the smoothness to ensure they didn’t get booted. Or maybe it was his business connections. Ellana didn’t care either way.

The first part of her day was spent in the bath, familiarizing herself with the unguents native to Thedas. <One day, I will be rich enough to have my own bath,> she promised herself, not realizing she’d slipped into thinking of Thedas as a potential long term home.

The second part she spent with Cassandra wandering the market. The Seeker refused to let her out alone, and Ellana wondered if she intended to be her bodyguard forever. Stopping in a bookstore, Ellana spent the last of her gold on Hard in Hightown by Varric Tethras, and she felt a bit sheepish doing it. Cassandra also bought a book, but seemed content to let Ellana have her space.

That evening, they geared up and headed to the location that the ‘Friends of Red Jenny’ led them to.

>>>>><<<<<

A masked ponce threw a couple of fire strikes Ellana, which bounced off her barrier and lit up the stone courtyard they’d let themselves get cornered into. <What the hell? How is this guy even a mage?> The strikes were barely enough to weaken the barrier, and she felt fairly confident she could take him out. He was extremely talkative though, "Herald of Andraste! How much did you expend to discover me? It must have weakened the Inquisition immeasurably!"

“Right,” Ellana called, filling her palm with her own fire strike and preparing to release it, “I don't know who you are. I’m looking for the guy who told us about you. Now that is someone I’m interested in.”

"You don't fool me. I'm too important for this to be mere accident! My efforts will survive in victories against you elsewhere!" Another flame strike hit Ellana’s shield, but it was accompanied by a thunk in the shadows beyond some crates to the party’s left. A scrawny elf with hacked off blonde hair stepped into the light, saying in the most garish cockney: "Just say what."

"What is the-" A choked gurgle accompanied the blossom of an arrow’s fletching in the man’s throat. He fell sideways and landed in a sprawl, dying quick.

"Ugh! Squishy one,” the blonde elf commented, bounding over to the man she’d killed. She addressed Ellana’s group: “But you heard me, right? Just say ‘What’. Rich tits always try for more than they deserve." She wiped the blood off on the crimson sleeve of her tunic, mimicking a pretend conversation with immense satisfaction, “Blah, blah, blah! Obey me! Arrow in my face!"

Arrow reclaimed, the teenaged elf swung around to focus on Ellana at the head of the pack, "So, you followed the notes well enough. Glad to see you're... aaaand you're an elf. Well, hope you're not too elfy."

Ellana looked to her companions. Cassandra appeared amused, and Varric had a thoughtful expression. It was like they’d traded faces. Solas, however, had a flare in his nostrils and a narrowing of his eyes in response to the ‘elfy’ comment. Ellana folded her arms, thumbs tucked into opposite elbows, and let her fingers drum while she lifted a questioning brow.  

The elven woman looked at Solas, then Ellana, and seemed to realize that might not have been the right approach. Trying to take the sting out of her words, she added, “I mean, it's all good, innit? The important thing is... you glow, right? You're the Herald thingy?”

“Some believe I'm the Herald of Andraste, yes,” Ellana confirmed, feet planted shoulder width apart, watching the other elf down her nose. “Who are you, and what is this-” she twirled a finger to encompass the courtyard, “-all about?”

“No idea. I don't know this idiot from manners. My people just said the Inquisition should look at him,” the blonde replied, fitting the arrow she’d cleaned to her bow. <You sure don’t know manners,>  Ellana mentally agreed, <Self awareness, for the win.>

“Your people?” Ellana cocked her head, not hiding her surprise. “Elves?” <As opposed to what? My and Solas’ people?> Solas’ expression only grew darker as Sera kept talking.

“Ha! No,” the blonde woman rocked on her heels, “People, people. Name's Sera.” She gestured to the crates she’d appeared from behind earlier with the arrow, “This is cover. Get ‘round it.” She paused when Ellana didn’t move, staring at her as if she were daft, “For the reinforcements…? Don't worry. Someone tipped me their equipment shed.” Sera knocked the arrow and turned towards a side gate; that’s when Ellana heard the footsteps heading towards them at pace.

With a wink, Sera declared, “They've got no breeches!” As she spoke, the archer lifted her bow, barely took aim, and loosed. With precision, the arrow cut down the leader of a line of armed men rushing into the courtyard almost two hundred feet away. They were nude from the waist down but for smallclothes.

Ellana ducked and got behind the cover damn fast, calling to Sera in exasperation, “Why didn't you take their weapons?!” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Solas draw a sigil on the ground with the butt of his staff. A weave of mana snapped into place, drawing a barrier over all of them except Sera. Cassandra drew her blade, barrelling ahead, and Varric took down the next fighter with Bianca.

Cackling, Sera let loose several arrows in rapid succession, “Because no breeches! Cheeky, yeah?”

<Cheeky? We’re down to puns now? Well, I guess that one’s commando is actually rather impressive… And dead. What a waste.> thought Ellana as she released a bolt of chain lightning that took the remainder down just as Cassandra reached them.

Sera cocked her head, listening with her big ears, then declared, “Friends really came through with that tip.” She straightened, sliding the loop of the bow’s string off the notch and relaxing it, “So, Herald of Andraste. You're a strange one. I'd like to join.”

“I’m the strange one?” Ellana asked incredulously, peeking from behind the stacked crates. “How about we get to know each other first? You know, like who the fuck the ‘Friends of Red Jenny’ are?” She walked over to a well-endowed corpse and toed it regretfully with her boot.

“Oh, thaaat,” Sera bobbed her head, counting on her fingers, “One name. No, wait, two. It's... well, it's like this. I sent you a note to look for hidden stuff by my friends. The friends of Red Jenny. That's me.” She jerked a thumb at her chest, then confessed at Ellana’s quizzical look, “Well, I'm one. So is a fence in Montfort. Some woman in Kirkwall. There were three in Starkhaven. Brothers or something. It's just a name, yeah? It lets little people, ‘friends’ be part of something while they stick it to the nobles they hate. So here, in your face. I'm Sera. ‘The Friends of Red Jenny’ are sort of out there. I used them to help you. Plus arrows.”

Ellana glanced dubiously at Cassandra, then Varric, and finally at Solas. She wanted to turn Sera away just for being crazy, but Solas looked like he’d prefer that… and besides, Emily had a weakness for comic relief. <Let’s be fair about this. She seems to have a lot of ‘friends’ that could be of use, and I did take Madame de Fer with barely any resistance.> “The Inquisition has spies already. Can you add to these professionals?”

Sera pursed her lips, “Here's how it is. You 'important' people are up here, shoving your cods around -” She puppeted an argument with her left hand, “‘Blah, blah, I'll crush you.’” then her right, “‘No, I'll crush you .’” She began to make kissing noises, fingers mashing together, but then gave up. Turning her attention fully to Ellana, she gestured at the dead mage, “Then you've got cloaks and spy-kings. Like this tit. All those secrets, and what gave him up? Some houseboy who don't know shite, but knows a bad person when he sees one. So no, I'm not Knify Shivdark, all hidden. But if you don't listen down here too, you risk your breeches.” She tapped the sole of her foot, “Like those guards. I stole their... look, do you need people or not? I want to get everything back to normal, like you.”

Varric commented with open admiration, “She’s the best shot I’ve ever seen, and that might even include me.” Cassandra shrugged, “It’s up to you. Josephine said we should collect allies.” Solas’ scowl grew, and he opined, “Skilled with a bow or not, she’s a child.”

“-hey,” Sera took offense, but Ellana cut her off, giving Solas a wicked smile, “Ahh, but teenager or not, her tip panned out. Alright, Sera. I can use you and your 'friends'.”

Ellana enjoyed the flush of red that crept up Solas’ collar.

>>>>><<<<<

Sera chose to travel with them, but Lady Vivienne agreed to meet them in Haven. They were themselves a day out of Val Royeaux when they came upon a dark-haired elf about Solas’ age resting beside the road. She wore a blue dress and a fur-lined cloak, watching passersby while nibbling on bread and cheese.

Upon seeing their party, she straightened and called, “If I might have a moment of your time?”

Cassandra drew the horses to a halt and dismounted, verbally recognizing her, “Grand Enchanter Fiona?” <Whoa, that’s Alistair’s mother?> Ellana rocked in her seat even as the rest of the party followed Cassandra’s lead. <She’s so… tiny and brunette. She also looks waaaay too young to be his mom... I wonder if she’d freak if she knew I slept with her son. Or read about her making him with Marric in the Deep Roads in a book...>

Solas’ hand touched Glory’s flank as he came around to see Fiona, “Leader of the Mage Rebellion?” He perked up in a way Ellana hadn’t seen since he figured out the cipher at the cafe, “Isn’t it dangerous for you to be here?”

“I heard of this gathering, and I wanted to see the fabled Herald of Andraste with my own eyes,” Fiona claimed, nodding to Ellana and suggesting, “If it's help with the Breach you seek, perhaps you should look among your fellow mages.”

“I’m surprised the leader of the mages wasn’t at the Conclave,” Ellana said, glancing to Cassandra who nodded, “Somehow, you avoided death.”

“As did the Lord Seeker,” Fiona dusted the last of the bread crumbs from her hands, “Both of us sent negotiators in our place in case it was a trap.” She drew her cloak close, preparing to leave, but looking Ellana in the eye, “Consider this an invitation to Redcliffe: come meet with the mages. An alliance could help us both, after all.” She paused, then added, “I hope to see you there. Au revoir, my Lady Herald.”

Solas watched after her, rapt. <Why is he so interested in the leader of the mage rebellion?> Ellana wondered, taking her foot out of the stirrup and nudging his shoulder with her boot. Looking up, his brow furrowed, and he rubbed vigorously at the spot her foot touched to rid it of imagined dirt, “What?”

“Nothing. Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Even as Varric and Cassandra slowly warmed to one another, the relationship between Sera and Solas noticeably soured. Those who got along often sat around the campfire telling stories late into the night with the company of ale. Ellana learned to play Wicked Grace, and while she didn't win very often, neither did Cassandra or Sera.

Not everyone was so social. Solas retired early, avoiding the evening revelries. <Meeting his girlfriend, I’ll bet,> she wished she could summon apathy, but knowing that he was involved with "someone" and unprepared to be a home-wrecker, she still struggled to put her interest in him away. <Dammit, just build a bridge and get over it already. He’s taken. Of course, he could have just told me he was taken… but an apostate involved with a spirit…?> She eyed Cassandra across the campfire, acknowledging that Solas had practical reasons to keep the relationship a secret. <She’d probably arrest him and have him killed.>

Varric nudged Ellana’s knee with his own, offering over his wineskin with his back against a tree stump, “You okay, Herald?”

She took a sip of the contents, telling herself the alcohol content will kill any diseases they might be sharing. She wasn’t sure she believed it, but the other option was to stand out as a recluse. It seemed like sharing alcohol was as much a bonding thing in Thedas as it was in real life. “How come you always notice when I’m feeling blue? You’re like a short mother hen with an amazing vocabulary.”

“Eh, you know,” Varric gestured vaguely, “Last hope of Thedas, best look after her-“ Ellana’s mouth twitched, and her forehead wrinkled in disbelief. Realising she wasn’t buying what he was selling, Varric corrected himself, “- Okay, okay. Honestly, you remind me of my friend, Hawke.”

Laughter burst out of Ellana’s mouth, <That might be because I was Hawke!> “How so? The attracting tragedy around every corner bit, or the penchant for sarcastic commentary?”

“You’ve read my book?” Varric’s brows shot up, and Ellana reached into her backpack, pulling out Hard in Hightown. “Not all of them, no. But I got this one in Val Royeaux the last time I visited. I’d say I was your biggest fan, but I think Cassandra might have picked something up with your name on it too.”

“Be still my heart,” Varric pressed his hand to his breast, “A sale! And here my publisher’s been saying my latest works are flopping big time.”

“Two sales, even,” Ellana corrected, wiggling her forefingers in a ‘V’. Her head cocked then. “Hey, you hear that?”

“Hear what? What’s wrong?” Varric asked turning to look around, his hand automatically falling to Bianca’s stock. Sera stood behind him, arms crossed and leaning against a tree, and gave them both a thumbs up, a wicked grin scrawling across her face. Varric frowned at Ellana, releasing Bianca, “What did you two do?” By this time, Solas’ swearing was loud enough for even the dwarf to hear.

“Me? What makes you think I did anything?” Ellana curled a finger through a lock of the long hair over her right shoulder, “In fact, I did absolutely nothing. I just… noticed that someone else might have.” She covered her mouth to hide her giggle and returned Sera’s gesture, “And I don’t entirely disapprove."

“Herald, you know I respect you, right?” Varric placed both hands on his knees and leaned forward.

“Why do I have a feeling a big ‘but’ comes next?” Ellana took another swig of ale, leaning back against her tree stump and crossing her ankles. Sera guffawed, putting her hand over her mouth, “Butt. Hehe. Oy, that’s right. A big butt c’min-”

“But.“ Varric ignored Sera, giving Ellana a stern frown, “Chuckles isn’t a bad guy. He doesn’t deserve to be singled out and picked on.”

“I didn’t say he was,” Ellana fingered the wineskin, tone flattening, “Seriously, Varric, I had nothing to do with whatever Sera did. In fact, I don’t even know what it was.” Sera flopped down between Ellana and Varric, supporting Ellana with a jerk of her thumb, “She’s telling th’ truth, ya know. Herald here didn’t have nothing to do with it, yeah?”

Inclining her head to the teenager, Ellana said primly, “Thank you, Sera.” Varric simply scowled and gave Ellana another accusatory look while Sera held out her hand. Ellana gave Varric an exasperated sigh, then passed over the wineskin to Sera, <What does he want from me? It’s not like I’m the boss or anything.> Sera took a swig as Ellana deliberately changed the subject, “So… I’ve been working on a new song. Want to hear it?”

“Song?” Sera crossed her legs, sitting up straighter and wiggling until she was comfortable. “You’re a musician? Or, what? Ooo, a bard, yeah?”

“Nah, not really. Definitely not a bard,” Ellana shook her head, scraping her hair out of her face, “I can play a few instruments, but nothing I’ve seen around Haven. No, I mean I’ve been trying to recreate some childhood songs with magic-“

“Magic… ? Eww!” Sera shuddered, making a ‘yech’ face, “That jus’ ain’t right, yeah? Magic’s evil-like. You gotta be careful with that shite, not go playing music with it. Get us all demoned or killed.”

Ellana gave Sera a good frown, “Pure superstition. I know what I’m doing, Sera. I’m a trained mage.” Sera’s face drew even more disturbed, and Ellana rolled her eyes, “What did you expect when you heard I glow?

“I dunno, right?” Sera let out a huff and shuffled, “Andraste’s blessing. Divine shite, not all magicked up.” Her expression remained distrustful.

“Magic, though dangerous, is a part of the natural order, and the natural order itself is divine,” Cassandra commented, coming to squat by the fire, “You are correct that it is dangerous, however.” She adjusted a log with an iron poker, and Ellana had a disturbing epiphany, <In the real world, the Inquisition tortured people with hot pokers into confessing to witchery. Magic really does exist here. Isn’t it wrong to be a part of a religious organisation that even perilously represents the horrors of that… what am I doing?> Shaking her head, she cast the thought off but saw Varric studying her expression.

“You just went white as a ghost,” Varric observed. Ellana stood up, brushing twigs and debris from her pants, “I’m fine. I was just thinking I’d go practice a bit away from the camp. Seeing how so many of you find my talents disturbing.”

“You don’t need to excuse yourself on my account,” Cassandra began, but Sera gave a firm nod, declaring, “Good. Magic smells like halla ass. Keep that shite away from me.”

“Magic doesn’t smell like anything,” Ellana grumbled, ignoring the classic scent of ions that constantly tickled her nose and trudging towards the perimeter. Cassandra shook her head at Sera, “The Herald is the last hope to close the Breach, Sera. You would do well to remember that.” Sera rolled her eyes, then made a farting sound with her hand in her armpit to show what she thought of the sentiment. This earned one of Cassandra’s now-signature disgusted noises, and Ellana heard Varric stepping in to calm things down. She barely managed to hear the first word out of the dwarf’s mouth as Solas came out of his tent not two feet from her.

She scooted back to make room, and he nodded to her. In his right hand, he held three black lizards wriggling by their tails. <Lizards? Where did he get those?> Ellana lifted a brow, and he fell into step beside her as she headed out of camp.

>>>>><<<<<

“Not avoiding me anymore?” Ellana asked as they escaped the circle of light shed by the firepit.

“I’d rather gotten the impression you were avoiding me ,” Solas replied calmly, lips pursed as he peered at the lizards. “I am, however, more than happy to provide you with the space you desire.” He paused to kneel near a bush, releasing the lizards back into the wild.

“Mmm,” Ellana stopped to stand behind him, watching how placidly he handled the creatures. She doubted they were dangerous given how calmly he managed them, but squirming, scaled wildlife made her urban-girl self distinctly uncomfortable, “Perhaps I was. I think you can imagine how embarrassed I was the other night.”

“And I was cruel, even with the best of intentions,” Solas acknowledged, rising to his feet and turning to her. His pale eyes were clear when he said, “I did not mean to hurt you, Ellana, merely to spare us both difficulty. I don’t think the matter requires further deliberation.”

<I think that’s as close to an apology as I’m going to get, and he clearly wants to drop it.> She took a deep breath and said, “I won’t trouble you further with my feelings. But-”

She heard, rather than saw, the creak of leather when Solas’ knuckles tightened on the end of his belt, “- you are my only hope of learning what it means to be Somniari. I’ve ended up in the Fade by accident twice recently, and both times have been disturbing for me in ways that I cannot easily share or explain. I need help, Solas. Please. I thought about asking Madame de Fer-” Solas’ expression darkened at that, and she hastily continued, “- but given how the Circle mages view the Fade and the practice of Harrowing… as ill-considered as my behavior may have been, surely I’ve not insulted you so badly that you’ve changed your mind about teaching me?”

Solas rubbed his hands on his tunic, then took the lead deeper into the thicket. “Come, I hear running water, and I’d like to wash my hands.” After a few steps, he said, “No, I am not at all insulted, and I know that you require my assistance. I’m glad that you’d prefer my instruction to this Circle mage’s. Such an education on these matters would be… misguided; they would try to suppress who you truly are, not bring your abilities to fruition. What happened between us was merely a complication I had not accounted for, and it required time on my part to think through.”

Ellana contemplated that, but his relationship with Wisdom kept clouding her mind. <I know it’s more complicated than it seems. How many other people do I know lead double lives?> Unsure, she settled for, “You’ve thought it through now?”

They broke out into the moonlight. A wide, shallow stream burbled across a bed of pebbles a few feet away, and Solas headed for it with Ellana in tow. “I have, and teaching you is -” he stopped, not quite ready to put words to what he was thinking, and instead said, “A friend of mine told me that you need my help.”

“A friend?” Ellana knelt beside him while he washed his hands in the stream, leaning forward to do the same for no particular reason. The water was bone cold, but fresh, so she washed her face too.  <There’s only one person that isn’t in the camp that we’ve both met. Wisdom. Is he about to tell me about her…?> Her heartbeat sped up.  

Solas took his time scrubbing at his nail beds while he answered, “A spirit of Wisdom. She is my friend, and I have reason to believe she has met you.”

“She? I thought all spirits were ‘it’?” <Is asking why he refers to Wisdom as female too provocative? Surely they didn’t sense me…> She kept her gaze about where his collarbone would be under the tunic. She was tall, but she was fairly certain he had at least an inch on Cullen.

“A technicality,” Solas’s tone chastised whilst he stiffened markedly across the shoulders. Ellana saw him force himself to relax before he asked, “You have met her, haven’t you?”

She automatically thought of the last time she’d seen Wisdom, and brought her shields tighter about herself, “Yes, I met her. We spoke once, and she tried to convince me of something that I found hard to believe.”

“Ahh,” Solas nodded, gesturing to a bed of grass beneath the canopy of a tree. He sat down, one knee up, and rested his elbow on it while Ellana joined him, “She does that. I take it she did not succeed? That’s unusual. Wisdom is… a subtle creature that knows many things. May I ask what she was trying to convince you of?”

Ellana sighed, not sure she wanted to tell him, then said reluctantly, “She attempted to convince me of the nature of this reality. And… the value of the people in it.” Solas’ gaze sharpened, but he let her continue when she wasn’t done, “She failed. I think I was a bit distracted by… well, she touched me and took my … I want to say ‘my face’, but it was more than that. I think she knows where every embarrassing last scar or unsightly mole I have is. I felt violated and didn’t really listen.”

Solas’ fingers froze on a blade of grass, and he licked his lips, looking up at the sky. Ellana thought he might say something, but instead, he simply wiped his hands on his breeches again. His gestures silently declared the extent of his disquiet. <What? He thought she had my image by consent? That’s interesting. Did Wisdom lie to him, or did he lie to himself, I wonder?>  Then Solas was speaking, “I am sorry that happened. It’s unusual that Wisdom would do such a thing without permission; I hope that she had good reasons.”

<As in something better than being your ultimate fuck toy?> Ellana wanted to snipe, but there was no way she was going to confess to spying on them. <I have every right to be angry from this angle,>  she thought, drawing up her feelings on the matter and examining them. Realizing that the anger had no outlet and that her rancor probably locked her into reactions she didn’t want to explore, she thought, <This is a debt owed to me that will never be repaid to my satisfaction. In truth, I shouldn’t even know about what Wisdom did with Solas. It’d be a mistake to let anger eat at me when there’s nothing I am willing to do about it, and my own knowledge of the situation is based on a wrongdoing on my part. Time to let it go.> The relief Ellana felt doing so told her that forgiveness was the right choice; it moved her to a serene place, and she was able to ask,  “You wanted to discuss Wisdom?”

“Yes. Well, no. But.” Solas rubbed his face, and it occurred to Ellana that this was probably the most agitated she’d ever actually seen him. He was usually so taciturn, no matter what happened. <He must care about her a great deal.> “Wisdom is … subtle. She has been a friend for many, many years. She has comforted me in grief and shared in joy. Guided me in action.”

Ellana nodded while she listened, pulling up her own blade of grass and tearing it into little parts, then tossing them away before repeating the gesture. She decided to be supportive, saying, “I’m impressed that you could become friends with spirits.”

“Anyone who can dream has the potential,” Solas sighed, looking off into the night rather than facing her when he spoke. <Do you mean me?> She knew he did even though he wasn’t looking at her.

“Do you wish I’d made more of an effort?” Ellana wondered, tossing away more shredded blades of grass.

“Knowing what she did to you when you met?” Solas shook his head, gaze dropping, “Not at all. In your position, I would be furious and untrusting. It truly wounds me to believe that my friend has done you harm. I simply find it… it goes against everything that I know of her.”

“And yet, I assure you it is true,” Ellana wrapped her arms around her knees, watching the two moons’ reflection waver on the surface of the stream. <Why is it hard to believe? Does he think Wisdom is beyond jealousy or wrongdoing?>

“I believe you, da’len,” Solas declared, reaching out to touch her elbow, “You do not need to convince me. In fact, your capacity for forgiveness is beyond any expectation I could rightfully have.” His simple acceptance comforted Ellana. Cautiously, she asked, “Solas… do you think spirits are people?”

Solas straightened with surprise, ears perking sharply. He dropped his hand and pressed it behind himself as he turned to address her fully, “That’s an observant question and one I had intended to address in your lessons. What makes you ask?”

“I was just thinking about what Wisdom’s motivations could be… and every other spirit I’ve encountered. And I think,” Ellana’s brow furrowed, and she shifted uneasily, “at a minimum, spirits are sentient. Furthermore, they are intelligent and have motivations. That in itself should be enough to imply personhood, but when you begin to take their ability to build relationships with others into account… “ she trailed off pressing her lips together, <I think Wisdom has an agenda. Maybe one I could uncover by simply placing myself in her shoes if I knew what she did. I can only do that with a person, right?> “I guess nothing else makes sense.”

“Yes, da’len,” Solas exhaled, eyes steady on her profile, “Spirits are, indeed, people.” She avoided looking at him, and picked up a rock, flicking it onto the surface of the stream. It skipped twice, drawing Solas’ attention, before sinking.

<I can’t hang onto this anger, it will eat at me.> Ellana decided, so she said at length, “I trust your judgment about Wisdom’s motivations as much as I would trust my own about my friends’,” she declared softly, thinking about Lucas. She picked up another rock and examined it for flatness, “I forgive Wisdom. I won’t hold onto it anymore.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Solas’s angular brows drew down into fine slashes of consternation, “I don’t support her behavior in this.”

“I know,” Ellana offered him an easy tone and a calming smile, “But what is the saying? ‘Bitterness is the poison you drink whilst waiting for someone else to die’? If Wisdom is the quality of person that you believe - and I trust you that she is -  then there must be a greater good to the effort, whether I know it or not. Perhaps my discomfort is a small price to pay. She told me something important, and I didn’t exactly give her a chance to explain it. Maybe if I had, I wouldn’t have been upset at all.”

Instead of replying, Solas shook his head and picked up his own stone. When he skipped it, it travelled a full twelve splashes before sinking. Ellana couldn’t help but ask, “You think I’m foolish?”

“No,” Solas rubbed the back of his neck, “I too believe that there are causes bigger than ourselves. I don’t know the truth of this particular case, but I trust my friend would only act thus in those circumstances. That said, I suppose I find it... interesting... that not only do you understand it, but that you accept it easily.”

“Why did you bring her up?” Ellana turned another smooth pebble in her fingertips, studying it.

“I wanted to know how you’d met her, and what she said to you,” Solas accepted the pebble when she passed it, then skipping it with as much skill as before. “She was unusually tight lipped on the subject. What else did she tell you?”

“Nothing you’d understand,” Ellana chuckled as Solas raised his brow, “It’s nice to hear that she’s kept my confidence though; a bit of evidence that I too can trust her intentions, I suppose.” Solas picked out his own skipping stone, asking lightly, “Secrets?”

“They’re not secrets anymore if I tell you!” teased Ellana with a smile, “You don’t still think I’m an abomination, do you? I thought we cleared that up?” Her laughter sounded too high, like bells, even to her own ears.

Solas skipped the pebble, pursing his lips instead of answering. Ellana sighed, “I trust you, but you still don’t trust me.”

“You openly admit to keeping secrets, da’len. I’m an apostate, and therefore suspicious by nature,” Solas acknowledged, a small smile cracking his lips apart, “It’s been an important part of my survival for many, many years.” He pondered, then said, “Wisdom is indeed protecting your secrets, but she told me one thing of interest.”

“What’s that?” Ellana’s brows made their own fine slash across her brow.

Solas’ smiled ingratiatingly and jested with a dismissive sweep of his fingers as he rooted out another pebble, “She said you’re ’not one of the Evanuris’.”

<Is he joking?> Ellana laughed aloud, “Wait, how did that come up? Did you actually think I could be an elven god? That’s immensely flattering. Completely wrong, but flattering. Dare I ask which one?”

The smile around Solas’ mouth stretched further as he watched her laugh off his suspicions, but she noticed that tension left his shoulders, <Oh my, he wasn’t being entirely facetious. What a weird thing to think…> Solas, however, replied gamely, “You’re the holy Herald of Andraste! Why should the human religion be the only one to recognize your divinity? As for which of them… you strike me as…” he thought for a moment, then gave up, “honestly, you don’t remind me of any of them.”

“Divinity?” A good, deep belly laugh burst from Ellana’s lips, and she wrapped her around about her middle, falling over onto her side and laughing as hard as she could, “Hahaha, I should absolutely hope not! So many of the stories about them are horrendous! Or at least sensational!” She got some control of herself, though she gasped a little, “I adore the one about Fen’Harel being forced to service Andruil in bed for a year and a day… hehe!”

Solas gave her a pained look, the laugh lines still faint about his mouth, “That’s a terrible story not worth repeating. Please tell me it’s not truly your favorite.”

“Sorry, it absolutely is,” Ellana’s eyes twinkled as she disagreed, clasping a hand to her heart and saying lasciviously, “Imagine an elven god so virile and handsome that a goddess demands sex to settle a bet. Isn’t that a god you’d like to meet?”

“Given that I’m not at all interested in handsome, virile gods? No,” Solas muttered, then pointed out in regular tones, “That story amounts to slavery. There’s nothing redeeming about it.”

“I think you’re taking it more seriously than I ever did. But - it’s hardly slavery if you have the free will to agree to it; hell, some people even like that sort of thing. If Andruil was a looker, in his shoes, I might have even thrown the bet on purpose.” Solas snorted, causing her to ask,  “What?”

“Your lore is off; it wasn’t a bet. She captured him and tied him to a tree for poaching her halla,” Solas thought the better of whatever he was going to say, and rolled his head as he stood up, “I think we’d better get back to camp.”

“Right, sorry.” Ellana sighed. It had felt so good to laugh so hard just a moment ago, but Solas was shaking his head. She acknowledged, It’s embarrassing that you know more about Dalish lore than I do.” Solas merely glanced at her sidelong, and she got the idea it was time to shut up. “So - about my lessons?” Ellana bit her bottom lip, hoping she hadn’t chosen a poor time to prod.

“They’ll resume tomorrow,” Solas replied, looking over his shoulder back towards camp. Ellana squealed with joy as she bounded to her feet. She was tempted to throw her arms around him, but his gaze swung back to her, more serious than she had expected. <Oh, for Pete’s sake, we were just talking about ancient mythology of all things. And we were having fun. Why is he grumpy all of the sudden?> It curbed her enthusiasm, so she clasped her hands together instead, “Thank you, hahren.”

“Of course,” Solas nodded. On their way back to camp, his long legs ate up ground so fast that Ellana had to trot to keep up, wondering where she’d gone wrong. 

>>>>><<<<<

The next day, Solas was in better spirits. He approached her on his own and they continued her lessons as they rode together on their way to Haven. Thrilled to be talking Fade, but annoyed that they still remained discussing theories rather than practicing hands-on, Ellana forced herself to be patient. <At least I’m learning again. He can’t keep me out forever,> she told herself, and threw herself into the discussions about magic with renewed vigor.

To Ellana’s endless fascination, Solas lit up as if the fires of life burned brighter within him whenever they talked magical theory. Cassandra gave them their space, and Ellana imagined Varric-turned-matchmaker was enjoying their reconciliation. Sera, however, made her disdain utterly clear, occasionally riding up and making disruptive comments. <I can’t believe how hard she’s trolling,> Ellana thought after one particularly hilarious incident when Sera asked, “You can make magic anywhere, Solas? Ever piss it by accident?” Solas, for his part, seemed incapable of leaving a question unanswered when he was in ‘teach Ellana’ mode. Distracted from a comment about how magic and the Fade were connected, therefore magic tended to be stronger where the veil was weaker and vice versa, Solas glanced at Sera. He gave the question serious consideration, stroking his chin thoughtfully, “No. Wait... no.”

“What?!” Sera waved her hands wildly, demanding, “How would you not remember something like that?”

Solas feigned disinterest, plucking lint from his sleeve and tossing it aside, “We were all young once. And, of course, you still are. What of you, Sera? Have you ever had any interest in learning magic?”

“Get off?” Sera gestured in a manner intended to be dismissive, but she had blanched as she did so, ruining the effect. <I really don’t want to share my lessons with her,> Ellana thought uncharitably. Not privy to his pupil’s thoughts, Solas offered solicitously, “While it has not manifested naturally, there are ways to determine whether arcane gifts lie dormant within you.”

“Ugh!” Sera produced a small mustard-colored pouch that looked like a beanbag. Waving it threateningly at Solas, she declared, “Don't make me think about that. I have to sleep at night!”

Undaunted, Solas continued, suggesting benevolently, “Sleeping would give you the chance to explore the Fade. I could introduce you to spirits...”

“Right,” Sera tucked the beanbag back into her belt and confidently stated, “You're messing with me on purpose.”

“Why would I do that? It is not as though I know who filled my bedroll with lizards,” Solas studied his nails as Sera frowned at him, working her way through what he was saying. Finally, she nodded, “Heh. Fair point. That was a good one, though.” Ellana finally relaxed and coughed into her hand to hide a laugh.

When Sera trotted out of earshot, Ellana chided Solas with a grin, “I’m pretty sure whatever’s in that pillow-bag-thing she had could melt your face.”

“Your concern is touching, da’len,” Solas stretched, catlike, in his saddle. She swore he almost preened, “Now, what were the transitive properties of magical elements when they relate to one another in a partial state?”

<Damn that’s hot, you smug son of a bitch,> thought Ellana as she racked her brain.

>>>>><<<<<

Cassandra began dragging Ellana to the chantry almost immediately upon their arrival at Haven, the latter protesting, “Come on. Can’t we at least take a couple of hours to bathe?”

“You’re the only person in the entire village who wants to bathe,” Cassandra replied in clipped tones, “It’s too cold for such things. And Leliana needs to hear what happened in Val Royeaux.”

“If she was a spy master worth her salt, she already knows,” Ellana pointed out, which earned her a glare. “Hardly,” Cassandra replied, pushing the chantry doors open before them, “She may have gotten reports, but she’ll still want to hear about it from those of us up front and in the thick of things.”

Ellana grumbled, following the Seeker, brushing imagined dirt from her clothing, “Fine, but if you want my cooperation, ask for it. No more dragging me places. I’m a person, not cargo.”

She spent the next four hours in the war room listening to Cullen, Josephine, Cassandra, and Leliana argue about what to do next. Finally, she got so sick of the circular arguments that she stood up. All eyes drew to her, just as Ellana expected. Once she had their attention, she said quietly to the room, “We’re going to Redcliffe to make an alliance with the rebel mages.”

Cullen’s eyes widened, and he opened his mouth to counter, but Ellana raised a hand to forestall him, “Don’t. I’ve listened to every argument the four of you have over the last several hours. I’m in this room for a reason, and I’m breaking the tie.” Ellana met the eyes of each of the others until they either nodded or looked away. When she was certain they’d each capitulated, Ellana said to Cassandra, “There’s no time to waste,” <and it’s colder than the Maker’s balls in Haven. Damn I hate this place.> “Can we be ready to ride at dawn?”

Cassandra nodded, and Ellana said, “Thank you,” gathering her things to go. As she did, Leliana followed Ellana out. The redhead's blue-grey eyes glowed with curiosity and her gait was a peculiarly eye-grabbing saunter. <How can she just disappear in a room when she does that?> Ellana made a mental note to practice the walk when alone in her cabin.

“Ellana?” Leliana asked softly, coming to walk beside her as she headed down the sunken planks that served as steps down the mountainside, “That was impressive. It is good to see the Herald of Andraste knows how to command a room, though I wouldn’t have expected it of a Dalish elf. How are you holding up? I heard Val Royeaux was more eventful than even I imagined.”

Glancing at the spymaster, Ellana slowed. <I remember her as one of my favorite companions in Origins. She looks so different now.> She offered a smile, “It’s been a long week. As for commanding a room - I learned it from you the first time we were in the war room together. You tended to be still until you spoke, then you’d move to draw attention. I think it has something to do with the predator brain being attracted to motion. It’s useful to get everyone’s attention without yelling.”

Leliana’s smile curved even more deeply, “So simple it is, and yet so few have the knack. Especially to pick it up simply by watching others. Are you certain you’ve no experience in this?”

“Don’t you already know?” Ellana laughed companionably, and leaned against a pillar in the chantry, “I imagined that you would have done a complete investigation into my background thus far.”

“Indeed, I have,” Leliana sighed, then detached a scroll case hanging from her belt. She offered it over to Ellana, “I didn’t have a chance to share this with you earlier, Herald, but I imagine you want to see it now.”

Ellana gave Leliana a curious glance as she shook the scroll out of its case and passed the latter back to Leliana. Unrolling it, her eyes scanned the writing. It was dated only two days prior, and it read:

Clan Lavellan offers greetings to the Inquisition and wishes it well in sealing the Breach that has opened in the sky. While some Dalish clans hate humans and wish nothing to do with them, Clan Lavellan has always dealt fairly with all and wished only for peace. That said, we have on occasion been forced to defend ourselves from those who saw us only as potential victims.

It has come to our attention that a member of our clan is being held captive by your Inquisition. She went to the Conclave only to observe the peace talks between your mages and templars, and we find it highly unlikely that she intentionally violated your customs. If she has been charged with a crime, we would appreciate hearing of it. If not, it would ease our concerns to hear from her to know that she remains with the Inquisition of her own will.

We await your reply,

Keeper Istimaethorial Lavellan

While she was reading, Leliana continued, “Josie suggests we should send one of our elven scribes to share news of your fair treatment at the hands of the Inquisition. I believe that the Dalish respect deeds, not words. With your permission, I’d like my elven agents to deliver something the clan needs as a show of good faith. Do you know what that might be?”

Ellana touched Lavellan’s memories for a moment, considering before saying, “A letter written in my own hand and a season’s worth of non-perishable food.” She passed the scroll back, “I will write it today and deliver it to you later. You will make a friend of clan Lavellan in this way.”

A warm smile accompanied Leliana wrapping her arms briefly around Ellana’s and giving it a warm, companionable squeeze, “Thank you, Ellana.” Her heart caught in her throat, and Ellana realized that very few people addressed her by name.

“Would you care to join me in my cabin for a cup of tea?” Ellana surprised herself by asking, trying to maintain the connection, however brief.

“Of course, it is a kind offer,” Leliana’s smile grew, and she didn’t release Ellana’s arm, walking with her companionably. Though Ellana didn’t consider herself attracted to women, she remembered that Leliana was open to relationships with both genders and pondered if she wanted to go there. <Solas… that is where I want to go, but… he’s taken. Leliana’s pretty, and smart…> Then she shook it off, demanding of herself, <What the hell? Are you that lonely? You care about Leliana, she was one of your closest companions in Origins. But you’re not interested in women. If you go there for the wrong reasons, you’re just asking for heartbreak.>

As they ducked in the cabin, Ellana withdrew to close the door behind them both. Leliana seemed comfortable as she pushed back her hood, and moved further into the cabin. Ellana gestured for her to have a seat at the chair beside the desk, and fetched water from a pitcher that was crusted over with ice. Thinking of what she knows of Leliana, her origins and the vision that led her to join the Warden against the Fifth Blight, Ellana found herself asking, “What do you think of the Inquisition? I cannot imagine you ever expected to be here.”

As she spoke, Ellana placed her hand on the bottom of the pitcher, drawing the familiar essence of mana that buzzed beneath her skin into a warm, then hot, vortex. The ice began to melt.

“On the contrary, I suspected we’d be here for quite some time,” Leliana confessed, not sounding very happy about it. She seated herself, saying, “Justinia would have started the Inquisition if the Divine Conclave failed to restore peace. I’m sorry to say that I suspect that was where we were headed from the first - but we had to try.”

Ellana turned over two mugs on her desk at Leliana’s side. Smiling, the other woman brushed her away, “Let me help. I cannot warm the water as you can, but I can prepare the cups. We should all work to our strengths, no?” Ellana smiled indulgently, and nodded, watching as Leliana sprinkled a dried herbal mixture into the cups, and continued, “Of course we knew we’d likely fail, which is why the Divine took the precaution of preparing the Inquisition.” She looked up, eyes somewhat dreamy, and said softly, “Justinia hoped that, with enough support, we could challenge the very tenants of the Chantry. She wanted the Chantry to treat mages fairly, but sometimes I wonder: why stop at mages? The Chantry has committed many injustices. If we’re going to change it, why not change the whole thing? Ah, it’s just a thought. None of this will be possible if we fail.”

“That’s admirable. You are one of a few that don’t flinch when I cast a spell,” Ellana observed, lifting the water in her hands, “Cassandra is wary, and Cullen... “ Ellana’s eyes cast down and she shook her head, “Even amongst my own companions. Sera wouldn’t drink tea made by water I’d boiled with my hands. I suppose Solas would, but other mages hardly count.”

As Ellana poured the boiling water into the cups, Leliana nodded her agreement, saying sympathetically, “How could they? Hatred and fear for mages is all most have ever known. It will take some work to change that, but I believe it is possible. Nay, more than possible, it is our duty.”

Sipping the tea that Leliana passed over, Ellana shook her head, “Do the others know your stance? I cannot see Cullen being receptive to it, even if Cassandra would reluctantly see reason.” The tea burned its way down Ellana’s throat. It tasted unpleasant, and she tried to hide her grimace by drinking it faster. Leliana lifted her own cup to her lips, tilting it for a sip, then replied, “Cassandra knows, of course. She’s a product of the same fear, but she’s come to know mages, and her reason prevails. Cullen… he is a different case. His history…” Leliana shook her head, “He has his reasons. Though I suppose both Cassandra and he have seen the horrors magic can wreck with their own eyes.” She continued to chatter while Ellana’s mind wandered.

It was becoming increasingly difficult to follow what Leliana was saying. She felt weird, too relaxed, even - like she couldn’t control her muscles. Leliana placed her own cup on the table, reaching out just as Ellana’s vision swam, and caught her as she fell sideways off the chair, “Wha- did you do?” Ellana’s tongue felt foreign in her mouth.

“I’m sorry, Ellana,” Leliana murmured in her ear, proving she was stronger than she looked by sweeping Ellana up into her arms and carrying her to the bed, “But I think you and I need to talk. You’re too clever by half to simply tell me what we need to know, and it’s been clear for weeks to my eyes and ears that you are not as you seem.”

“Drugged me?” Ellana’s head lolled. She wanted to be furious, but couldn’t quite reach the emotion. Her body felt distant, as if she were floating. <Eyes and ears? Cassandra? … who?>

“We should have simply done it when we captured you at the Breach,” Leliana said apologetically, “But you would have been useless for days. I’m sorry to delay your journey to Redcliffe, but ascertaining the truth of your loyalties is far more important. This concoction will not harm you, but it will make you lucid enough to truthfully answer a few questions.”

“F-fuck you,” Ellana managed to declare, her arm flopping back as she was placed on the bed, the back of her knuckles rapping against the cold wooden wall. “Trusted you…”

“If you pass this test, you most certainly can trust me,” Leliana consoled Ellana, picking up her hands and arranging them on Ellana lap. She even brushed the long hair on the right side of Ellana’s head from her face, and asked directly to the point, “Are you really Ellana of clan Lavellan?”

“Yes,” Ellana found herself responding, wondering how true that answer was. Clearly on some autonomous level, even though she was also Emily, in this world she knew herself to be Ellana.

Leliana relaxed a bit, drawing the chair she’d sat on only moments before next to the bed. Ellana almost wished she’d draw her hood up and look sinister instead of looking at her with the face she’d come to love and respect as part of Origins. “Well, I guess that was the important one, but… are you the Herald of Andraste?”

“Yes,” Ellana struggled to stay afloat, feeling as if she were sinking. She still heard Leliana’s breath catch though, and the other woman whispered, “I thought you didn’t believe.”

“Hard to believe,” Ellana responded without wanting to. Leliana reached out to brush the sweat that had appeared on Ellana’s brow away, but continued to ask questions, “Who was the woman behind you in the Fade?”

“I don’t know, maybe Andraste,” Tears leaked from the corners of Ellana’s eyes. <How could you, Leliana?> “How could you, Leliana…?”

“Cassandra suspected you might be an imposter. You don’t seem very Dalish in close quarters, a concern which is backed when asking the others who have been travelling with you,” Leliana’s brow furrowed, and she sighed, “I guess if you are truly Ellana Lavellan, I’ll stop questioning you now… just… you truly believe it was Andraste? Behind you in the Fade?”

“Most likely. Who else?” Ellana’s tears blurred the room, and she felt Leliana dabbing them away with a cloth, “Why, Leliana? You… were my friend. I trusted you.”

“Friend?” Leliana’s hand stilled, then withdrew. Quietly, she whispered, “You don’t know me.”

“Yes, I do,” Ellana tried to make her fingers obey to reach up and push the cloth away, but as far as she could tell, only her forefinger twitched. She also seemed to have developed a serious case of lucid speech, “Leliana, Orlesian bard, went to Lothering to become a Sister of the Chantry, where the Maker spoke to her and left a white rose on the dead bush, so she’d know that she was chosen to stop the Fifth Blight-”

Leliana rose to her feet, leaning over Ellana and staring her intently in the face, “How do you know this?”

“-nothing could stop her. The Guardian of the Temple of Sacred Ashes called her vision a lie, that the Maker only spoke to Andraste, but she refused to listen...”

“How do you know this?” Leliana demanded more intensely, pouring stress and urgency into the question. Ellana felt her rise and back away.

“... Leliana strode at my side when we conquered the archdemon-” Ellana’s mouth moved of its own volition, droning on with a dump of everything she knew about Leliana, which was quite a bit. She wanted to stop, but her brain didn’t seem capable of making decisions or analyzing, just spilling her stream of consciousness “Leliana became Sister Nightingale for her friend, Dorothea… I met Dorothea once, in Origins...”

Leliana gasped and Ellana heard her footsteps retreat, the cabin door slamming behind her. Ellana continued to babble everything she knew about Leliana to an empty room until she couldn't stay afloat anymore. Sinking into the abyss, she fell asleep.

>>>>><<<<<

Emily awoke in the Fade, absolutely rigid with the fury she’d been unable to feel whilst drugged. It took her a moment to realize where she was, but the cabin abruptly combusting around her drove it home. She thrust herself to a seated position, the conflagration blowing back around her. <No matter,> she knew it couldn't hurt her. She waved dismissively to clear a path to the door.

She threw her legs over the edge of the bed and fire roared as she headed outside. Looking up at the green-tinged blue sky, she screamed her fury into the dream, “Leliana, you bitch!”

Acrid smoke filled the air, obscuring her vision, but she felt dangerously exquisite release as the fire was sent racing from building to building, fuelled by her ire. Within minutes, all of Haven was burning.

Somewhat calmer, Emily wondered that she didn’t even feel winded. Turning in place, she examined her handiwork, <Well, I’m impressed.> She certainly felt like she could do anything here, had perfect control… she wanted to stay. <Let’s see anyone try to fuck with me here,> she thought with satisfaction, sitting down and gazing into the flickering flames.

Eventually, she relaxed completely, though the fires burned on. <I’d better get going before Solas catches me.> Placing her hands on her knees, she closed her eyes and willed herself to wake up.

Nothing happened.

“Oh shit,” Emily rubbed her face, then stood up. She tried again, but the expected shift to wakefulness just didn’t happen. The Fade reality felt ‘sticky’. <It must be because I’m drugged.>

Glumly, she sat back down and drew her knees into her chest. Intermittently, she tried to wake up, but still, nothing happened.

Ahead of her, a figure walked up the path, obscured by heat and smoke. Emily scrambled to her feet, <Shit. Caught red handed.>

Solas frowned at her when he stopped about three feet ahead, “What are you doing?” His gaze travelled around Haven on fire, and he planted his staff in the dirt, resting casually against it, brows raised.

“Ask Leliana,” Emily grumbled, then added defensively, “I didn’t come here on my own. She drugged me, then started questioning me. Please-” Emily reached out to grasp Solas’ forearm, “please don’t stop teaching me.”

A smile cracked Solas’ face, “I won’t.” His hand came down on hers, thumb caressing her knuckles. He leaned towards her, and Emily enjoyed the sensation for a moment, tilting her face up towards his. Then she sighed, drawing her hand back, “You’re not Solas.”

“No,” a wry voice came from her left, “I am.” A wave of dark green energy swept past her, striking the figure standing next to her. It happened so fast that Emily startled.

Sure enough, Solas stood there, arms folded. “Are you alright? You certainly seem to attract trouble.” His gaze flickered to the now-empty space where his double had stood.

“I’m fine,” Emily answered cautiously, turning her head slightly keeping him in sight while she took stock of their surroundings. She had the sense that whatever Solas had sent into the spirit she’d been standing close to blew it away instead of destroying it,  “How do I know you’re really Solas?”

“An excellent question,” Solas nodded, eyes steady upon her. Arms still folded, he asked, “How do you think you might go about it?”

<Well, at least he’s not dwelling on catching me intimately close with a spirit dressed up like him ,> Emily sighed, “Is this really the time and place for a lesson?” She turned her mind to answering it nonetheless.

“On the contrary, what better time and place could there be? You’ve been impatiently awaiting this chance. Now, here we are. How do you know it’s really me, Ellana?” Solas asked again, this time more forcefully.

Thinking she had the answer, Emily cautiously dropped her shields. Solas’ aura blazed against hers, the same unmistakably powerful presence she’d sensed in the Fade with Wisdom. His aura tasted like emerald darkness, like her mark, and she relaxed even as Solas nodded his satisfaction. His pleasure and pride at her accomplishment bled through his aura, warming her, “Well done, da’len.”

“I can’t wake up,” Emily said, tucking her hands beneath her armpits. She wasn’t at all cold, but she was very nervous this close and able to feel what Solas felt. <Why isn’t he hiding from me? Just to teach me to sense spirits?>

“I heard what you told the other me,” Solas nodded, beckoning her to join him as he walked, “It is most likely the drug. Did you do all of this?” He swept a hand to encompass the burning town. She sensed he was impressed, and perhaps a hint concerned, by the flavor of his aura.

“I’m sorry; I arrived very upset,” Emily confessed, drawing her hands behind her back and clasping them so she couldn’t wring them.

“Put it out,” Solas challenged, only acknowledging her by turning his head, then coming to a halt before the burning tavern.

Emily realized with embarrassment that it was childish to burn the town, even symbolically, so she waved a hand across the vista, and the flames blew back before guttering out.

Without even looking at Solas, she felt his reaction through his aura - surprise, increased interest, and something else… “Am I supposed to be able to do that?” Emily whispered.

“It’s certainly unexpected if you’re untrained,” Solas agreed solemnly, moving his own hands behind his back, “But a Dreamer in the Fade? It’s practically the definition of our abilities. What is your approach?” His curiosity - no fascination - caressed her senses, making her feel both self conscious and eager to please, “Describe how it feels for you.”

She thought about it, <It's what Wisdom told me.> Confidence built, flowing through her, and she realized, <Belief is the command line. So if I just look at it from a perspective I can understand and trust...> “I-” Ellana closed her eyes, summoning a shift. A black column rose from the ground between them. Sitting atop it was a blank, black screen with a qwerty keyboard beneath it. Solas stepped back warily as she opened her eyes and examined her handiwork.

Awed with her accomplishment, she reached out to touch the keyboard with reverence,  “I simply believe whatever I want to be true is… and it is.” On the screen, a white arrow appeared, then a flashing white box. It was awaiting input. Her fingers stroked the keys, a slow grin stretching across her face, “Ahh, thank you, Wisdom. This representation will do nicely.”

She had no idea what her aura felt like in that moment, but she certainly sensed Solas’ reaction. It was visceral and possessive. His hand clamped down on Emily’s shoulder, hard and insistent, “Da’len…”

She glanced at him, saying, “Not that belief is simple…” She gave him a grin, “I’ll miss you.” Her own hand rose clasp his in a warm, happy squeeze while her other hand plucked out symbols on the keyboard with ease. “Good bye, Solas.”

Solas’ mouth opened, but Emily was already done typing two words and pressing ENTER: “Wake up.”

Chapter Text

Ellana expected to wake up in front of her computer. Instead she awoke to a powerful hangover and the increasingly familiar ceiling of the cottage spinning above her bed. Her mouth rasped, dry as cotton, and her tongue carried a brackish, metallic taste. Nausea churned in her gut, begging for release. <No, no, no! I’m supposed to be awake in MY house!>

She toppled out of bed and crawled her way across the floor on hands and knees to the chamber pot. She vomited there and wondered whether it was the Fade or Leliana’s brew that had laid her low. <I am going to kill Leiliana. And maybe Cassandra too, if she put her up to it.> Ellana couldn’t imagine that Cassandra had. She might have tipped the Spymaster off, but Cassandra wasn’t the type to be underhanded.

<Stop. Think,> she told herself, wrapped her arms about her aching body. Stitches of pain lingered around her sides and back from forcibly expelling the contents of her stomach.  Too exhausted to rage, she forced herself to focus and work her way through the problem. <I did what Wisdom told me to, didn’t I?> She ran through her memory of meeting Wisdom again, cursing that it seemed distant now. Wisdom had told her that magic and belief were the command line, <And that’s what I did… I believed that making a computer, then executing a command would wake me up. And, well… it did. Sort of. It woke me up within the system.> She wiped her face, then poured herself water. <Solas is going to come looking for answers. I have to get out of here until I’ve found a way to explain without stamping ‘insane’ on my forehead.>

<Maybe I deserve it all for trusting Wisdom anyway.>

<Well, I'm clearly not waking up at home with that last trick.> Her expression hardened,  <If nothing else, I can go get answers from someone who owes me the explanation.> It’d serve to get her out of the cabin before Solas showed up to demand her confession, at least.

Ellana shambled into a heavy coat. Soon she trudged up the hill to Leliana’s command tent, eavesdropping by hanging onto the ropes outside. She recognized the the spymaster’s voice, murmuring the Chant of Light:

      “Blessed are the Peacekeepers, Champions of the Just."

      "Blessed are the Righteous, the Lights in the Shadow."

      "In their blood, the Maker’s will is written...”

Ellana wanted to storm into the tent, but somewhere in her core, she felt a surprising aversion to barging in on a prayer. While she waited for the Spymaster's murmurings to end, she reevaluated her stance.   <I’m not in a position to directly confront a leader of the Inquisition. My clothing, housing, and income relies on remaining in their good graces. Perhaps they need me to close the Breach, but I have no idea in what condition they imagine they need me to do it. Would Tranquil do?> Though she bristled, she knew she had to let her ire go - for now.

Ellana detected a pause in Leliana's voice. The other woman broke away from the Chant, continuing in a whisper: "Is that what you want from us? Blood? To die so that your will is done?" The Spymaster's voice darkened, and she snarled: "Is death your only blessing?"

Ellana found herself involuntarily stepping backward. Her boot crunched snow-crusted gravel, and she froze; if the sound hadn't alerted Leliana to her presence, running almost certainly would. Caught in stasis by her own indecision, she didn’t flinch when Leliana threw open the flap of the tent. Judging by the look on the redhead’s face, she knew full well that Ellana had been standing there for awhile. “You speak for Andraste, no?” Leliana demanded, “What does the Maker’s prophet have to say about all of this? What is His game?”

She analyzed Leliana’s stance. Her arms were folded and her expression fiercer than Ellana had ever seen. The woman's anger galled her to no end. If anyone had the right to lash out, it was the elf whose head was still pounding from an unexpectedly drugged teacup. Though her teeth set in her jaw, rigid practicality stayed Ellana’s hand. <If I respond in anger, this will spiral out of control. Life’s not fair; we don’t always get what we want… and that’s okay.> Ellana tempered her response, though her tone remained cold, “As far as I can tell, Leliana, you’re the only one playing games. The Maker didn’t drug me to question whether or not I’m Ellana Lavellan.”

Leliana’s face softened, eyes lowering, and she unwound the tightness in her stance, “Forgive me. I will never betray you in such a manner again. My grief affected my judgment.”

<You’d better not.> Ellana’s thoughts were written across her face, though she didn’t dare speak them aloud. The awkwardness was near palpable as they stood together, watching each other warily across the distance. Leliana's knuckles tightened; her gloves should have creaked, but Ellana long since determined that spells kept her armor silent. As the seconds ticked by they came to the same conclusion: neither of them had anything more to say. Ellana peeled away, turned her back, and trotted down the stairs. The sour taste of bile still lingered in her mouth.

>>>>><<<<<

Though some part of her wanted to return to her cabin, she had point two on her schedule to bear in mind - the second was avoiding her unattainable and probably ill-tempered romantic fixation. Instead of returning "home" she circled around to the steps and left Haven's wall, drawing in the crisp air that burned her lungs. A man about her height stepped into view, clad in utilitarian leather armor. He interrupted her thoughts, calling out a polite, "Excuse me?" She killed her momentum on the steps to turn and examine the stranger. <Not bad looking for a human. I love true hazel eyes.> Then, <Shit, when did I stop thinking of myself as human?> “Yes, what is it?”

“I have a message for the Inquisition, but I’m having a hard time getting anyone to talk to me,” he said, running gloved fngers through his short-cropped hair. Despite the frustrated gesture, his tone was diplomatic.

Ellana pursed her lips, pondering if she should take the message or not. <Well, let’s find out more before we decide, shall we?> “Who are you, soldier?”

“Cremisius Aclassi with the Bull’s Chargers Mercenary Company. We mostly work out of Orlais and Nevarra. We got word of some anti-Inquisition forces gathering out on the Storm Coast. My company commander, The Iron Bull, offers the information free of charge. If you’d like to see what The Bull’s Chargers can do for the Inquisition, meet us there and watch us work.”

“I’m not in a position to make agreements on behalf of the Inquisition, but I can carry the message to those who can,” Ellana looked to the horizon, checking the hour, “I see no harm in doing that much.”

“You won’t regret it,” Cremisius promised, a gleam of appreciation in his eyes. He offered his hand for a shake, “We’re the best you’ll find. We’re loyal, we’re tough, and we don’t break contracts. Ask around Val Royeaux. We’ve got references.”

Ellana nodded as she took his hand, cleaving her lighter fingers around his gloved ones. His handshake was firm without being overwhelming. She smiled and said, “We’ll consider it.” He nodded, wondering, “Who can I tell The Iron Bull I left the message with?”

Her smile broadened as she replied simply, “Ellana Lavellan.”

“Thank you, Mistress Lavellan,” Cremisius bowed. She had the sense that he knew exactly who she was, judging by the gesture. That kind of deference was not typically shown to the Dalish. “I hope to see you on the Storm Coast soon.”

She watched him walk away and rerouted, changing her direction for the inn. The meal that soon filled her belly calmed her nerves, but she wished Varric were present instead of Flissa and some bard she didn’t recognize. She appreciated the latter, but it made her homesick for her own music.

Once dinner was over, she headed back her cabin, hoping either she’d been wrong about the chances of Solas turning up or that the hour had simply grown late enough for him to have given up. Neither, as it turned out.

>>>>><<<<<

She spotted his silhouette before she saw him. Solas stood outside the door to her cabin, arms folded with a foot resting flat against the wood. He looked settled in. <Uh oh, how long has he been waiting there?> He detected her immediately, and she knew at once there would be no avoiding him. Summoning courage, she advanced on her door regardless. As she approached, he peeled away from the cabin’s exterior, suggesting coolly, “We should talk.”

She drew her breath in and held it, letting it out slow, then she feigned checking the door lever for security knowing it was unlocked. As she cracked the entrance open, she replied, “No.”

“Why not?” Solas asked, cocking his head curiously. When she moved to pass by him he extended his arm, reaching across the doorway to bar her. Her eyes narrowed as instincts took over. Her hand - the one bearing the glowing mark - jerked up and closed around the front of his tunic. "Let me pass," she snapped, and put her weight into shoving him away from the door.

Ellana’s muscles corded beneath her tunic, but he stood implacable before her, looking down at where she ineffectively gripped the fabric at his chest. His gaze anchored to hers and his nostrils flared, “I think not.”

Ellana glanced around. There were people going about their business, but no one was paying attention to them at the moment. <That can change.> She hardened her gaze and looked up at Solas. "Are you going to let me pass, or am I going to create a scene?"

Solas’ brow furrowed, but he dropped his arm, allowing her to step across her threshold. As she closed the door behind her, it encountered a stout barrier - his foot. He used it leverage the space wider, and glided smoothly into the gap behind her. "Much better," he remarked, refolding his arms, leaning against the door, and cutting off her sole means of escape.

White-knuckled fists settled onto each of Ellana's hips, and she sputtered, "What the fuck is your problem? This is my house, Solas. You have no right to barge in here, particularly when I said no." <And I don’t want you to see my smalls hanging off the basin.>

“No right,” he agreed, nodding, but still blocking the exit, “but I have a duty to both you and Thedas. That is more important than your preferences.” He hadn't so much as glanced at her laundry.

“Duty? Bullshit!” Ellana dropped her shields to blast him with her ire, but sensed nothing. Solas was locked up tighter than a kettle drum and wouldn’t be receiving anything from her soon. If anything, his barrier felt like an insult, and she felt her throat tighten as she snarled, “Get out of my cabin!”

“Please calm yourself, da’len. I mean you no harm; in fact, quite the opposite. Right now, I am your closest ally, except for possibly Varric, and he is in no position to assist you,” Though his voice was calm, she wound up even tighter out of spite. <Right, rub it in that I’m stuck here with next to no friends beyond a busybody dwarf and a crush who already has a girlfriend.>

Solas continued unfazed, ticking off points on his fingers, “First, you are my student. I have a duty protect you. The Inquisition just drugged and interrogated you, Ellana, and I understand the feelings you must be dealing with...” <Like you really know what it feels like to have someone you trust drug and interrogate you…!> Seeing the expression on her face, his reasonable mask slipped. Solas’ voice hardened with accusation, and his demeanor altered aggressively as he rounded on her, “I felt your intention to leave in the Fade, and you must answer for it. How can you abandon all of Thedas in its darkest hour? You are the only hope of closing the Breach!”

Shame swelled in Ellana’s breast on top of already broiling anger. Defensively, she fired back, "It's not like that; you just don't understand." <It’s just a game. I’d save it, and maybe return to save the day later - when I’m sure my body was fine. Well, maybe. Not sure if I’m up for this again...>

“Then clarify,” he instructed, brows arched skeptically and mouth set with challenge.

<That’s it. He barges into my house, acts all moral high ground, then presumes to give me orders? Teacher or not, fuck that.> “I don’t owe you an explanation,” Ellana spat, feeling her face twinge crimson, “and I sure as hell don’t take your orders. Get out!”

He didn't move. He didn't even twitch. Mana surged and spilled sloppily through her, washing around his barrier like the tide over sand. Where it found a groove, anger transformed it into a claw that hooked to the warp and pulled. His mental shield, fragile as any, tore like gossamer.

His mouth opened in shock or protest, but she gave him no time to speak. She immediately slammed him with every ounce of hostility she had. As she did, the complex, deeply layered weave of his emotions converged with hers. At the surface, she caught his surprise; deeper lay a rising fury at what she had just done laced with a genuine, acute fear for her loss. Beneath even that, the pain she felt before lurked, and the iron self-restraint that warred with his own raging desires. One such desire was standing right in front of him, guilty of ripping away his privacy.

<Oh my god, is he in - well, not love with me - but lust maybe?> The thought had barely registered with her when he returned the mental assault, his will crashing brutally against her own. A single backlash of magical force cracked through her mind like a lash of razors, striking her dumb. As she reeled back, crying out, he reconstructed his shield. Her hands flew to her face, feeling at the contours for blood she felt sure must be there, but there was nothing. <Ow that HURT. Was that a slap on the wrist…?> Blinking furiously, she struggled just to clear her vision. His voice cut coolly through the haze, murmuring, “That was unacceptable, da’len. How would you like it if I did that to you?”

<Which part? Ripping down your shields or smashing you in the face for it?> Though her head was throbbing, guilt still choked her. <I just stole very private feelings from him…> There was no denying that she was in the wrong, and she keenly felt it. When she could breathe again, she whispered a contrite, "I'm sorry."

Solas stood frozen, hand splayed over his mouth and eyes dark, processing what just happened between them. It took a moment for him to recognize the apology, but eventually a sigh spilled through his knuckles. He crossed the room, tentatively wrapping his arm around her shoulders. When she didn’t resist, he guided her staggering to the bed and sat her down.

"You're uninjured," he confirmed, crouching before her to study her face. She merely nodded, noting that while the agony had faded, the tears hadn't. She felt as raw as if he'd backhanded her, but he was right - he hadn't dealt any physical damage.

Satisfied with what he saw, he repeated an earlier sentiment. Though quieter now, his voice still possessed an edge of firmness, "You cannot hide from this forever. Leliana has already-"

"Believe me, she won't be trying anything like that again." Ellana interrupted ruefully. She licked her lips, tasting salt. <If anything, Leliana must think I’m the frigging reincarnation of Andraste.> She mentally winced at how lucky she'd been. With even the slightest nudge, the interrogation might have gone very differently. <Maybe the Maker is looking out for me after all. If Leliana hadn’t been so tunnel-visioned in her line of query…> She used both her hands to feel her face again, exploring lines with her fingertips. Almost wryly, she asked, “Going to teach me how to do that ‘whip-in-the-face’ thing?”

“Not right now; stop changing the subject,” He hooked the leg of the chair at her desk with his foot. Pulling it out, he sat and let his long legs splay, crossing them gracefully at the ankles. By the time he was settled, Ellana's pain had faded. The tears had also stopped, and she found her gaze delving lower than his face. <Dammit, he looks delicious, even when he’s being stubborn.> If he noticed her eyes straying, he showed no sign of it.

"You still intend to leave," he said with pointed irritation. She opened her mouth to protest, but he saw it and forged on regardless, “Don’t lie to me, da’len. Who will close the Breach when you go?” <Can I get a word in edgewise here? Just because he sensed it in the Fade doesn’t make it so.> She had to admit that were she in his shoes, she wouldn't believe her either. He had observed her intentions directly with his own senses, but he just didn’t have the context to understand the truth.

“I am not lying. Out of everything, that’s what you’re most focused on?” She dragged her focus up to his face and reminded herself to behave like an adult. A chaste adult, not a hormone-stricken teenager. <It’s hard when you know we could be together if he just...what? Dumped his spirit girlfriend?>

“Nothing is more important than the fate of the world. What did you expect me to focus on?” Solas asked, arms crossed and fingers drumming on his opposite forearm. The shift of his attention was so smooth, and in light of his earlier insistence that she stay on topic... <The keyboard and screen. Duh. Did he just try to lure me into exposing what I’m trying hardest to keep from him?>

“I don’t know,” she muttered, examining her knees with feigned interest, <That's not going to work, hahren. Bark up another tree.>

“I assume something to do with that strange pillar you summoned?” His ventured, the response striking her as too calculated and careful to disguise the topic's importance. He pressed with seeming off-handed interest, “Please, Ellana, tell me about the black pillar, strange tablet, and the rectangle with the letters on it.” 

“No. It’s none of your business. And you wouldn’t believe me anyway,” Solas speared her with a direct look of disbelief, but she met his stare intractably, <Too bad; that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.>

Sensing her determination, Solas looked away, mouth working into a flat line. She allowed her gaze to return longingly to the curve of his neck, the strain of the wool across his shoulders, and sleek lines of his chest down to his waist. This time, he caught her looking. When she flushed his features hardened, and he said tightly, “You cannot leave until the Breach is closed. Anything less is abandoning the people of this world, and I would not believe that of you.”

"I have and had no intention of abandoning anyone, or anything," she replied stiffly, struggling to banish the thoughts that she knew were only partly unwelcome. <It’s not like I know how to leave this world anyway. I just thought I could. And nothing happens to anyone if I just save my game and walk away. It’s just a story on pause… isn’t it?> “You just don’t understand.”

Solas was silently contemplative, weighing her answer for too long. She raised her chin, "You prefer to believe I'm the asshole that would abandon the world; it makes it easier for you to dislike me. Is that right?"

Solas’ intake of breath was audible, and his long-fingered hands came to rest on his thighs, “No, that is not what I am thinking. Please, explain to me what I don’t understand.”

He waited with more patience than she expected while she composed her answer. Eventually, her jaw set, and she reiterated, "It's none of your business, Solas. That's the part you're missing." Rising to her feet, she walked to the door and opened it for him. "Hahren, I will tell you when I'm ready."

Solas swiveled in the chair to keep her in his line of sight, but he didn't rise, "Will you ever be ready?" 

“Not while you're disregarding my wishes,” Ellana said tiredly, gesturing through the open door.

He rose smoothly and approached the exit. Pausing next to her, he placed his hand onto the door frame, using it as an anchor to support himself. "I have given you everything you asked for; stories of my experiences, lessons on magic, insight into the Fade." He hesitated. "What more could you possibly want from me?"

Her eyes darkened, and she moistened her lips. He was standing close enough that she could feel the warmth radiating off his skin. Ellana didn’t put words to her desires, but Solas read the answer in her expression clear enough anyway, “Ahh,” he said gravely, and stepped into the night.

She closed the door gently behind him, then leaned her forehead against it, wishing he'd return.

Chapter Text

The journey to Redcliffe began two days later after the initial delay. Preparations were isolated for Ellana, who was preoccupied with thoughts of what had failed her in the Fade. While it stood to assume that she could inquire of Solas, she worried what she might give away if she spoke with him. <He’s wily, that’s for sure.>

At least Vivienne offered her assistance with the mages, declaring, “I know Enchantress Fiona, darling. You may need my help with negotiations.” Grateful for any help she could get with Thedan politics, Ellanna accepted the offer. Vivienne had an air of regality that exuded “upper class,” and her opinions on the Circles were almost startlingly positive. Comparing her to Solas was like comparing night and day. <It’d be nice to have another mage around; somebody to measure Solas against. Is he “normal” for an apostate?>

She joined Cassandra in the stables at Haven, helping her prepare their horses. With their gear stowed in countless saddlebags Ellana grabbed a curry brush, joining the Seeker in labor. While Cassandra picked detritus from her horse's shoes, she commented off-handedly, "Leiliana says you're not talking to her." To Ellana's envy, the muscles in her arms stood out as she worked.

"I don’t know if I’d say that. Did she tell you why she thinks I'm not talking to her?" Ellana smiled as Glory nudged her on the shoulder, pushing her back a step. <I guess horses aren’t so bad. Halla are still pretty cool though. I hope I get the chance to see one in this game.>

"That she did," Cassandra said, setting aside her tools to stand up. She turned to Ellana and confessed, "I did not mean for that to happen; I only told her that you were unusual for a Dalish elf. After Val Royeaux, I didn't know what to think. Even Sera thought that you didn't seem, well... Dalish."

“Sera? Seriously?” Ellana noticed the Seeker’s gaze drop guiltily to the ground, but she wasn’t finished, “You took her word for what the Dalish ought to be?”

“She is an elf,” Cassandra muttered defensively, arms crossed, rubbing them for comfort. She looked everywhere except at Ellana.

“So am I! How many Dalish have you met, Cassandra?” Ellana forestalled her from answering with a hand, “Forget it. I don’t want to talk about it, or even think about it further. Leliana is responsible for her own choices. Any part you had in it is forgiven.” She knew she didn’t sound forgiving, and maybe a part of her wasn’t feeling it, but she was too over it to waste her time on the fight, <And I need a place to live and food to eat. If I can’t risk an argument going south, it’s best not to argue at all.> 

When her tirade was over, Ellana reclaimed the curry brush. Cassandra wavered, frowning as she said, “You are kind to forgive, but please… I have more to say. I did not intend for Leliana to drug you, and while I admit that I am largely responsible... Leliana is my friend, but since Justinia died…” she shook her head, “I heard her talking of executing a recruit for eavesdropping. We had no proof of spying, she merely deemed it ‘the elimination of a risk’. She is my friend, Ellana, but she has changed.”

Ellana stared, her brush forgotten in her hand, “Are you telling me she murdered someone on a whim?”

“No, no,” Cassandra hastily denied, head shaking again, “Of course I told her we would do no such thing. It seemed to snap her out of it for the moment.” She searched for another tactic to explain, and settled on, “Leliana has had to do many things for the greater good over the years. The demands of politics, or just playing the Game so Justinia could retain her throne,” Cassandra thumped the the pick against her opposite hand as if it could provide words, “Over time, I fear Leliana has become disconnected. Even jaded.”

<You’re preaching to the choir, Cassandra, but what do you want me to do about it?> As if she read Ellana’s mind, the Seeker reached into her pocket and passed over a note, “She asked me to pass this to you directly; perhaps it is an apology?”

Tempted to consign it to the flames unread, Ellana reined herself in and forced herself to skim it, if only for Cassandra’s sake. “It’s not an apology. Something about a Warden named Blackwall reportedly in the Hinterlands. She wants me to seek an explanation as to where the Wardens have gone; and of course, try to recruit him.” Ellana kept the exasperation out of her voice, but Cassandra didn’t hide her own. She dusted off her hands and said apologetically, “That is disappointing. Well, I suppose we can look for this Blackwall on the way to Redcliffe.”

“Right,” Ellana agreed, tucking the parchment away and turning to get Glory saddled. “Redcliffe.” <Where corpses once roamed, terrorizing a populace below the castle while I tried to defend it. I was labelled the Hero of Ferelden for that, among other things.> She tucked her pinky and ring finger into a mano pantea, for luck.

>>>>><<<<<

Despite lingering rancor for Leliana, Ellana couldn’t convince herself to miss out on recruiting a potential companion. For the first time she split the party by sending Varric to find Blackwall, instructing him to meet the rest of the group at Redcliffe. <Varric has a real knack with people. If anyone can convince Blackwall to join us, it’s him. I’ll concentrate on securing an alliance with the mages to close the Breach. Easy peasy, right?>

>>>>><<<<<

Those who remained with Ellana found rooms at the Gulf and Lantern, Redcliffe’s one and only inn. Exhausted from the many rifts they encountered along the way, they wasted little time settling in. The town had been locked up tighter than a chastity belt on a virgin. A massive rift had hovered before the village gates, hitting them with uncanny time distortions as they fought. Defeating it took all of their strength, but had gained them entrance and directions to where they now sat, recovering over trenchers of suspiciously unidentifiable meat.

Solas appeared preoccupied, hardly touching his meal despite his empty stomach. None of them had eaten since midday, and the energy it had taken them all to weaken the rift was enormous. Absently, Solas said, “The veil is weaker here than in Haven. And not merely weak, but altered in a way I have not seen.”

Vivienne snorted, making a dismissive gesture toward the elf, “I imagine the world is full of things you have not seen, darling. An apostate’s education is inevitably lacking.”

Sitting across from Solas, Ellana noticed the subtle stiffening of his shoulders. <Uh oh, Vivienne found the right buttons to push.> His response was mild, however, even inviting debate, “Your rigorous training lays a solid foundation, true. But it also creates boundaries, limits, where none need exist.” Solas picked up a two-pronged fork and speared a woeful vegetable as if it were actually hearty fare. <I don’t need his barriers down to see this could get ugly.>

Clucking her tongue, Vivienne gestured gracefully, “I do prefer to have boundaries between myself and the demons, my dear.” <Well, one can hardly argue with preferences. Is she trying to stir him up or put the argument to bed?>

“Of course. You endured the Harrowing, where your Circle teaches you that all demons attempt to possess you,” Solas’ disapproval hung palpable in the air, and he finally ate the green bean on the end of his utensil, grimacing.

“Not at all! Many of them simply want to kill you,” Vivienne laughed softly, leaning backwards and draping herself with queenly comfort over the backrest of their bench, “I suppose you would claim otherwise.”  <Sigh. Waving a red flag at a bull. I guess I’ll do Vivienne a favor and save her from herself.>

Ellana was getting sick of their in-fighting. Keeping things civil around the campfire had been an ongoing stress that Cassandra had done nothing about. She speared Solas with a look when he began to retort, interrupting him, “We’re drawing attention, and we’re here to meet the Grand Enchanter, not debate the merits of a Circle education. Please, drop it.”

Indeed, attention had been drawn, “First Enchanter Vivienne? What are YOU doing here?” The familiar voice held both shock and scorn. Ellana swivelled in her seat to see Grand Enchanter Fiona glaring at Vivienne, the wrinkle in her brow setting off the narrow edge of her ears. An unknown human companion in traditional Circle robes stood beside her, and Fiona’s upset was written in every line of her body.

Vivienne’s smile broadened as she languidly stretched, “Why, coming to see you, you silly thing. You did invite my companions after all.” With an upturned sweep of her hand she indicated the three at her table. Sera’s cheeks were puffed out like a chipmunk’s with food.

Fiona folded her arms, mouth twisting into sneer, but Vivienne wasn’t done, “My dear Fiona, it's been so long since we last spoke. You look dreadful. Have you been sleeping well?”

Ellana’s jaw dropped, and she hissed, “I thought you intended to help with the negotiations?”

Fiona looked like she was grinding her teeth, jaw taut. “You mean since that time you left oleander flowers on my pillow just to let me know you could get in and out of my chambers without being seen? I see through you and your machinations, First Enchanter, and I always have.”

Vivienne waved away Ellana’s concerns, wrinkling her nose, “Fiona-dear, you don’t truly believe I would sink to such lows? What other misinformation is rolling around in that brain, I wonder?” She crossed her arms and lounged liquidly against the back of the bench she shared with Cassandra, commenting to Ellana, “But of course I intended to help. You see the discourtesy I’m greeted with. Paranoia of the highest degree.”

Jabbing a finger at Madame de Fer, Ellana commanded, “Be silent.”

“There is no need to be rude, Ellana,” Vivienne turned her nose up, but sensed discretion was the better part of valor. She curbed her tongue.  

Fiona huffed and folded her arms in a gesture that plainly declared that they were on shaky ground, a message confirmed when she said, “Madame de Fer, were I in a position to boot you out of Redcliffe, rest assured I would do so. Your former colleagues want nothing to do with you or your precious Circles.”

<Dammit!> Before Vivienne could say anything further, Ellana stood up and stepped between the two women, cutting off Fiona’s view of her rival. She bobbed her head politely, “Please accept my apologies for the behavior of my companion. We are agents of the Inquisition, here because of your personal and direct invitation back in Val Royeaux.”

Turning her attention to Ellana without batting an eye, Fiona ran her gaze along the other elf without a hint of recognition. Stiffly, she said, “You must be mistaken. I haven’t been to Val Royeaux since before the Conclave.” <What? I saw you with my own eyes….> Ellana lifted a brow at Solas, who was frowning at Fiona also. Cassandra humphed softly, and Vivienne steepled her fingers.

“Well, that's very strange,” Ellana gestured to Cassandra and Solas, the former nodding in the background, “because someone who looked exactly like you spoke to me in Val Royeaux. To them, too.” She indicated Cassandra and Solas with a toss of her head. “You said your mages were willing to help us close the Breach.”

Grand Enchanter Fiona thought for a moment, then said, “Ignoring for the moment that I never made any such journey or invitation, were the situation different, the Free Mages would indeed be willing to help... However, whomever or whatever brought you here, it’s not possible. We have already pledged ourselves to the service of the Tevinter Imperium, and we are not at liberty to negotiate.”

Vivienne muttered flatly, without amusement, “Fiona-dear, your dementia is showing.”

<Wait, the ‘Free Mages’ aren’t free anymore?> Ellana gaped while Cassandra asked incredulously, “An alliance with Tevinter? Do you not fear all of Thedas turning against you?”

Even Solas wasn’t inclined to keep his opinion to himself, and he spoke in a voice laden with disapproval, “You and yours deserve better than slavery to Tevinter.”

Fiona’s eyes softened, and she sighed. “I’m sorry. As one indentured to a Magister, I have no authority to negotiate with you.” She looked ready to depart, so Ellana held up her hand, “A moment - who is in charge now?” This felt wrong, <Too bait and switch, if you ask me. Whomever lured us to Redcliffe had to know we wanted or needed the mages’ help, but how can I believe after meeting her doppelganger that she wasn’t actually involved? Too many damn doppelgangers in this game… I swear that’s going into my review.>

“Magister Gereon Alexius,” Fiona linked her hands behind her back and stood straighter about the shoulders. She was short compared to Solas and Ellana. “Given the nature of your business and its importance to us all-” Fiona gave Vivienne a critical glance, “-I’ll inform him of your presence and interest. I can promise nothing more.” <Why do I have the distinct impression that Fiona plans to take pleasure in this Magister's reaction to Vivienne's presence? He must be something indeed if the mages feel safe from Templars 'under his protection'.>

Relieved, Ellana nodded and gestured to their table, inviting Fiona to it, “Won’t you join us?”

“Forgive me, I have other business to attend,” Fiona declined with what Ellana was certain were traces of a scowl and a sidelong glance at Vivienne. Gesturing to the mage beside her, Fiona said, “Come, Connor. We’ll take our meal at the castle instead.”

When Fiona and the other mage were gone, Ellana plopped down in a seat beside Vivienne. Cassandra was already leaning forward, “What was that about?”

Vivienne flicked her fingers dismissively, ”Fiona’s always been touchy; probably embarrassed to have led her followers from the Circles seeking freedom only to end up enslaved to a Tevinter.”

“You lied to me,” Ellana said heavily, spearing Vivienne with an intent gaze. “Your relationship with the Grand Enchanter absolutely couldn’t help with negotiations; you wanted them to fail. Why?”

“Absolutely not,” Vivienne picked up a fork, taking more interest in her meal than she had earlier, “I did intend to help you with negotiations. I simply had no idea that her dislike ran so deep; I suppose it is mutual. But overall, I’m one of their own.” <Is she telling the truth? Could it have been just a mistake? I don’t think so - she came out of the gate with an insult; and she had to know Fiona didn’t like her.>

Solas snorted his opinion, reaching for his drink, “Hardly, you’re a loyalist.”

“Not this again,” Vivienne rose from the table with queenly grace and gazed down her nose at Solas, “I’ll take my leave, thank you. I’m tired of unpleasant meals with unpleasant company.” With that, she threw her gauzy white scarf over her shoulder and strode away.

Sera frowned at Vivienne’s trencher, still more than half laden with barely edible food. “Don’t mind if I do.”

“Sera!” Cassandra said, seemingly more out of reflex than genuine chastisement.

“Never waste food, yeah?” Sera replied, mouth full, as she scraped the remnants of Vivienne’s meal onto her own plate. Ellana felt a bit green about the gills, and not just because of her suspicion that Vivienne was trying to manipulate them into losing the opportunity to ally with the mages. <She’s pro-Circle and pro-Templar. I should have known.> Rather, her plate was full of boiled, flavorless mush. <How does this place stay open with fare this bad? You’d think my mom cooked it… sorry, Mom.>

Solas had a brow lifted at Ellana, and when he caught her gaze, he let his own trail after Vivienne. “What do you intend to do about that?”

Ellana forced herself to prepare a spoonful of food. Looking at it critically, she muttered, “Give the mages another, better option than servitude to the Imperium.”

>>>>><<<<<

Ellana expected no answer from Gereon Alexius, and potentially for it to take days for her to track Fiona down to further their conversation privately. It therefore surprised her when a polite knock at the door the next morning interrupted her daily yoga practice. Opening the door revealed Grand Enchanter Fiona, pale with dark hollows surrounding her eyes. <She looks unwell. I wonder how Alexius is treating the mages.>

“Magister Gereon Alexius awaits you downstairs… Herald of Andraste,” Fiona stepped aside, gesturing for Ellana to join her. There was a scowl on her face, which Ellana checked against her knowledge of the book character. She had to admit it was appropriate. <She’d be approachable, almost, if she just smiled.>

“Fiona-” Ellana warily began as she finished buckling her belt, “I can offer you a better alliance. One that doesn’t involve servitude. Won’t you think about it?”

The Grand Enchanter’s glower gave way to a tired sigh, “We’ll think about it, but I can promise nothing. To break our vow would injure the honor of us all.  In the meantime, my master calls, and it is my duty to bring you to him. Will you come?”

<Why do I get the feeling the arguing with her isn’t going to help my cause? Anyway, if Alexius is downstairs breathing down her neck with the expectation that she produce the Herald of Andraste right away, I guess I’d better get moving.> She reluctantly followed Fiona downstairs, noting with some relief that Sera and Cassandra were already there, tucking into their breakfast.

Fiona led her to a table where a dignified man in his late fifties sat. His silver hair was hidden by a ridiculous, triangle-shaped cowl. <He looks like one of Santa’s helpers.> It took every ounce of self control not to titter at the ludicrous appearance of elf ears sewn onto either side of his pointed hood. 

“Welcome my friend, I apologize for not greeting you earlier. I only just received word of the Inquisition’s arrival from the dear Enchanter Fiona; I came as soon as feasible,” Gereon wore a saccharine smile as he spoke, tone friendly; even slightly paternal. Ellana found his voice soothing and gave herself a mental shake, <Bad guy alert. He sounds too nice to not be a villain.>

Reluctantly, Fiona announced, “Herald of Andraste, Ellana Lavellan, allow me to introduce Magister Gereon Alexius. And his son, Felix.” A sallow youth standing behind Alexius’ shoulder bowed briefly, looking more like an attendant than a family member.

Alexius stripped his leather gloves from his hands and stated without arrogance, “Pleased to meet you.” As he spoke, he reached across the table with his left hand, as if for a shake. Ellana settled into the seat and accepted it, feeling the strange flow of his mana beneath his skin. <What does he sense shaking the hand with the mark?> she wondered. Alexius’ power felt nothing like either Solas’ or Vivienne’s - where Solas was midnight and Vivienne was cold, Alexius was a strange unravelling. <Atrophy, maybe?>

Ellana nearly snatched her hand back, and would have if she hadn’t seen the predatory widening of Alexius' smile, “And you are the survivor, yes? One who fell from the Fade? Interesting...”

“I am,” Ellana confirmed, glad when Alexius released her hand. She found herself inexplicably wishing that Solas were present, if for no other reason than to provide her confidence. <Whoa, what do I expect him to do? Jump in between us? I don’t need a man to back me up, dammit, particularly one that doesn’t even exist to protect me from another one that doesn’t even exist. This is a GAME.> She steeled herself for the encounter, then said directly, “I understand that the mages have made an alliance with you?”

Alexius inclined his head, “Indeed. The southern mages are under my command.” He then gestured to the innkeeper, snapping his fingers, “The house breakfast for my son and I, please.” Then to Ellana, “Would you care for anything?” <He might look like a pleasant old guy, but he feels like a snake,> thought Ellana, but accepted the offer to a limited degree, “I’ll have a cup of coffee, thank you.” <If you’re going to reject a gift at the start of a negotiation, do it gracefully.>

As the innkeeper went to work on their behalf, the magister continued, “When the Conclave was destroyed, the mages faced the brutality of the Templars who rushed to attack them. It could only be through divine providence that I arrived when I did,” Alexius steepled his fingers, and mimed a saintly smile. <I’m sure it was entirely altruistic,> quipped Ellana in her mind.

“Well, if you're leading the mages now, then let's talk. I'm sure we can come to an arrangement,” Ellana leaned forward, deciding that whereas the situation would undoubtedly find a way of biting her in the ass, her immediate goal had to be getting the mages’ help, not solving their autonomy problem, <Except, indentured servitude? It’s a lot like slavery… > The concept made her uneasy, but she didn’t think announcing a desire to free them would help her negotiate the current conversation, “We’re simply looking for help to seal the Breach. It threatens us all, even Tevinter eventually, I imagine.”

Alexius beamed, spreading his hands between them in a jolly gesture, “It is always a pleasure to meet a reasonable woman!” His gaze focused on Ellana’s vallaslin, however, making her fight not to grind her teeth. Willpower alone kept her still in her seat. Alexius asked Felix, “Would you send for a scribe please?” As Felix moved to do his father's bidding, Alexius continued, “Containing the Breach is not a feat many could even attempt. There is no telling how many mages would be needed for such an endeavor. Ambitious indeed.”

“Of course,” Alexius continued, “There would have to be certain favors traded in return-” but as he spoke, Felix stumbled over the table, the scribe behind him gasping. His hand flopped into Ellana’s lap, and she felt him drop something almost weightless as the magister immediately scrambled to his aid, “Felix?! Are you alright?” The concern in his voice was genuine, the difference between it and his prior feigned gestures startlingly stark.

“I'm so sorry; please forgive my clumsiness, my lady, ” Felix croaked miserably, his hand at his throat and looking wan. As Alexius endeavored to help him, Felix placed his now-empty hand on his father’s shoulder, “I'm fine, father.” Alexius ignored the placating and felt Felix's forehead and patted his cheeks. To Ellana's eyes, Felix comically craned his neck to get away.

Watchful, Ellana’s fingers closed around the parchment Felix had surreptitiously delivered into her lap. She palmed it in her left hand and slipped it into her right sleeve whilst Felix distracted his father by leaning heavily against him. When she felt the token was secure, she leaned forward with concern that she nearly felt. “If there’s anything I can do to help…?”

Alexius barely glanced at Ellana, honed in upon fawning over his son, “Come. I'll get your powders.” As he got his shoulder under Felix’s to lend physical support, he said, “Please excuse me, my friends. We will have to continue this another time. Fiona, I require your assistance back at the castle. I shall send word to the Inquisition. We will conclude this business at a later date.”

“Of course,” Ellana rose, glad she didn’t have to shake Alexius’ hand again, “We’ll be in touch.”

As soon as Alexius left, Ellana gestured for Cassandra and Sera to pay for their meals and follow her upstairs. In under ten minutes, everyone but Vivienne had convened in her room. There, Ellana pulled out the small cylinder of paper and unrolled it, passing it around to each of her companions in turn. It read: ‘Come to the chantry. You are in danger.’

“Aren't we secrety?” asked Sera after she squinted at the paper and handed it to Cassandra. Reluctantly, the Seeker ceded the message to Solas.

“Definitely a trap,” Solas said, holding it over the candle in the center of the table until it caught. He twisted it dexterously to avoid singed fingers and crushed the remnants into a fine ash with his thumb.

Ellana watched, placing her hands flat on the tabletop, “We need the mages to close the Breach. We'll be careful, but we need to figure out what's going on here.” <And ignoring clues in a game is a bad way to ensure a good outcome… though this is Dragon Age. I’m probably screwed no matter what I do.>

Cassandra uncoiled from where she stood, “I’ll send the raven.”

>>>>><<<<<

The Redcliffe chantry was beautiful; a stone-walled building that kissed the sky, its bone-white spires hugged the stained glass image of Andraste. The Maker’s Bride wore a crown, seeming to look down upon entrants with sword and shield in hand. Defiance flooded Ellana as they marched into the building, treading through that august figure’s watchful gaze, <Dalish and proud? Nah, just- whoa, what the fuck…?>

The first rift she had ever encountered indoors reacted instantly to her presence, a thunderous crack as it splintered in mid-air. Two demons tore through the veil, setting upon the closest prey - the unabashedly handsome man waiting for her. At a glance she mistook him for Felix, but closer examination revealed too many differences for certainty. He proved himself a mage by deftly spinning his staff and weaving mana into a powerful blast of electricity. Within moments, he had dispatched the two demons, calling with the heavy accent that she was starting to identify with Tevinter, “Good! You're finally here! Now help me close this, would you?”

His fitted leathers left one toned arm partially bare. He was grinning playfully at her as his glossy black locks fell into his eyes, perfect in symmetry with the luxurious moustache that graced his upper lip. Ellana stood transfixed, wondering if she’d ever encountered someone this good-looking in person. <He could have stepped right out of a movie…>  Solas’ hand touched her upper arm, jolting her from her stupor.

Ellana tore her focus from the grinning Tevinter and raised her hand, anchoring into the rift with increasingly practiced ease. Around her, distortions similar to those she’d encountered in the rift outside the gates flickered in the spaces between energy whorls. To Ellana’s mage senses, it felt like bubbles pushing up between the threads of a tapestry… <Am I seeing reality fray about the edges?>  It tasted of atrophy, like Alexius.

Risking glances at Solas and Vivienne, Ellana tried to get a feel for what the other mages sensed. Solas was already engaging a rage demon, but Vivienne’s eyes were dark with an emotion that Ellana suspected was fear. <If Vivienne wouldn’t rip out my spine for suggesting it…> Sera and Cassandra were wading into the fray.

It took barely two minutes to get the rift in hand. It left echoes of dark, emerald light that burned after-images into Ellana’s eyes when it failed; motes of demon ash collapsed into the ether. She was cursing when the mustachioed man sauntered up in the sudden quietude, gesturing to her left hand, “Fascinating. How does that work, exactly?”

“I- uh,” Ellana tried to blink her sight back to normal, but the man was already laughing, “You don't even know, do you? You just wiggle your fingers-” he demonstrated with a loose flick, “and BOOM! Rift closes.”

“Who are you?” Ellana asked a bit more sharply than she intended to, then felt herself rapidly blushing. She prayed no one noticed, but the man’s answering grin told her it was in vain, “Ah. Getting ahead of myself again, I see,” he said, bowing with a flourish, “Dorian of House Pavus, most recently of Minrathous. How do you do?”

As he spoke, Solas and Cassandra came up behind Ellana, leaving Vivienne and Sera guarding the chantry entrance. It was comforting to be flanked by people she was fairly certain could take the mage in front of her if it came to a fight. He radiated the vibe more of a lover than fighter, but his recent display of prowess warned her not to take him lightly. Ellana felt Solas’ gaze sidelong as she replied punctiliously, “Ellana Lavellan, which you already know. These are my companions, Cassandra, Solas, Sera, and Vivienne.” 

Clearing her throat, Cassandra announced gruffly, “Another Tevinter. Be cautious with this one.”

Solas said nothing at all, but his stoic facade bordered on stony and Ellana felt his fingertips touch her spine. She had the distinct sense that in other circumstances, Solas might have thought about turning her over his knee. <Is his shield bleeding?> cautiously, she lowered her own. Brushing her sense across Dorian and Solas, she realized two things - one, Solas’ shields were down because he was checking Dorian out the same as she was, and two, Dorian tasted of death. <Well, that’s enough to wither even my ardor.>

“Suspicious friends you have here,” Dorian sighed, laying a forlorn hand to his chest and seeming as unaware as Vivienne of the elven mages’ insight, “Magister Alexius was once my mentor, so my assistance should be valuable - as I'm sure you can imagine.”

“Can you blame them? Tevinter has a reputation here in the south,” Ellana warily replaced her shields as she shifted her weight to the side. <I remember elves being stolen off the streets of Denerim to be sold as slaves.> “I was expecting Felix,” she pointed out.

“I'm sure he's on his way,” Dorian replied, securing his staff in the sling on his back. “He was to give you the note, then meet us here after ditching his father.”

“Alexius couldn't jump to his side fast enough when he pretended to faint. What’s wrong with him?” She felt nosy asking, and wondered a bit why her companions were leaving all of the talking to her. To the last of them, they were watching Dorian vigilantly. 

Clearing his throat uncomfortably, Dorian said in tones Ellana recognized as ‘I don’t feel comfortable telling my friend’s personal health details to a stranger,’ “Felix has had a lingering illness for months. He’s an only child; Alexius is being a mother hen, most likely.”

“As you’re here, and Felix isn’t, I gather you are the one that sent that note?” Solas asked past Ellana’s shoulder with a tight-lipped smile. She noted his staff was still in his hands.

“I am,” Dorian agreed cheerfully, placing his own hands confidently on his hips and sharing a smug smile. A distinct feeling of déjà vu washed over Ellana, and she replayed the scene in her mind trying to figure out what triggered the sensation. Nothing stood out, and by the time she was done, Solas interjected a query into the pause.

“You're betraying your mentor because...?” Solas’ brows were both raised. Ellana nodded her agreement, <Good question.>

“Oh for - Alexius WAS my mentor. Meaning he's not any longer, and not for some time. Someone had to warn you.” Gesturing to where the rift was, the Tevinter mage said, “You know there's danger. Let's start with Alexius claiming the allegiance of the mage rebels out from under you. As if by magic, yes? Exactly right. To reach Redcliffe before the Inquisition, Alexius distorted time itself.”

“You’re suggesting he arranged it so he could arrive here just after the Divine died?” Ellana asked incredulously. <How would you detect a shift in time? Wouldn’t you be trapped in it too, just like Fiona…> Then again, Ellana and her companions remembered Fiona’s approach clearly enough, so perhaps it only affects certain people, or within a certain radius… <I’m getting a headache thinking about it, and that’s assuming the Tevinter is telling the truth.>

“You catch on quick,” Dorian approved, but Vivienne quipped with a disdainful snort, “Manipulating time itself? Many have attempted over the ages, but never once succeeded.”

“Fascinating, if true… and dangerous,” Solas murmur so low that Ellana knew he meant it solely for elven hearing. <I wonder if Sera…> Glancing over her shoulder, Sera was watching Solas and her stand not quite side-by-side with her brow furrowed, chewing on her lower lip. <Great.>   

Dorian was oblivious, concentrating on the issue at hand, “The rift you closed here, you saw how it twisted time around itself? Sped some things up and slowed others down?” Passionately, he declared, “Soon, there will be more like it, appearing further and further from Redcliffe. The magic Alexius is using is wildly unstable, and it's unraveling the world.”

“The whole world?” Ellana’s mouth hung slightly wider than was natural, and she closed it with a snap, “You're asking me to take a lot on faith.”

Dorian thrust his chin forward and said stiffly, “I know what I'm talking about. I helped develop this magic. Now, what I don't understand why he's doing it. Ripping time to shreds just to gain a few hundred lackeys?” His brow furrowed, “It boggles the mind.”

From the shadows at the rear of the chantry, Felix stepped into the light, pulling a cowl back from his face and explaining softly, “He didn't do it for them. Whatever he's done for them, he's done it to get to her, the Herald. My father's joined a cult. Tevinter supremacists. They call themselves Venatori.”

“Alexius is your father. Why are you working against him?” Solas asked, moving up close enough behind Ellana that she felt his body radiate heat against her back.

Felix assessed the tall elf’s protective stance behind her, then replied, “For the same reason Dorian works against him. I love my father, and I love my country. But this? Cults? Time magic? Madness. For his own sake, you must stop him.”

“I don’t understand,” Ellana forced herself not to lean towards Solas, “Why would he rearrange time and indenture the mage rebellion just to get to me?”

Felix frowned, playing with the edge of his belt uncomfortably as he asserted, “The Venatori are obsessed with you, but I don't know why. Perhaps because you survived the Temple of Sacred Ashes?”

“If the Venatori are behind those rifts or the Breach in the sky, they're even worse than I imagined,” Felix said, and Ellana saw that the admission both steeled his resolve and pained him in equal measures.

“What do you suggest?” Ellana asked, shoving her hands into her robes’ slitted pockets and peering at the two men. <They’re Tevinter. Have you ever seen a Tevinter man in any of the Dragon Age games thus far who wasn’t a villain?> She searched her memory, but came up spare.

“You know you're his target. Expecting the trap is the first step in turning it to your advantage,” Dorian shrugged, and gestured towards the rear side door that Felix had entered through, “I can't stay in Redcliffe. Alexius doesn't know I'm here, and I want to keep it that way for now. But whenever you're ready to deal with him, I want to be there. I'll be in touch.” As he walked away, he said to his friend, “Oh, and Felix?” Sentiment entered his voice, “Try not to get yourself killed.”

Dorian was already at the door when Felix said softly, so that only Ellana, and perhaps Solas, could hear him, “There are worse things than dying, Dorian.”

<You can say that again,> thought Ellana, feeling Solas’ hand subtly apply a squeeze at her upper arm. Gesturing to her party, they left the young Tevinter to his own devices.

>>>>><<<<<

Days went by without word from either Grand Enchanter Fiona or Alexius. Ellana found herself spending time at the docks, watching the people go about their business - mostly fishermen, merchants, and their patrons. She hadn’t worked up the interest to enter the Fade again; still deeply disappointed by her last experience and trying to work out a new plan, she couldn’t imagine there being any use for the risk. Besides, Solas had been retiring early, and she was wary of stumbling across him and Wisdom.

Varric found her sitting on the pier, her boots beside her and feet trailing into the water, “Blackwall’s joined up, I left him at the Gull and Lantern. Aren’t you cold out here?” He folded his knees and settled down beside her.

“Nothing’s cold after Haven,” Ellana pointed out, watching the bubbles of seafoam break around her toes. Her boots lay discarded beside her along with the remnants of a snack.

“True,” he agreed, reaching into his vest and pulling out a small scroll. He handed it over, commenting idly, “You spend so much time at the docks, I’m starting to wondering if you’re a sailor.”

“Me? No,” <Not in this world, and in my world, the boats I’ve been on mostly had motors, not sails.> Ellana shook her head and unrolled the tiny message, “I guess I just like the smell of the water.”

“Smells like rotten fish to me,” Varric retorted cheerfully, clapping Ellana on the shoulder, “Perfect for sitting around with friends grousing about the state of the world.” His feet didn’t quite reach the water, and he left his boots on, but it was nice to have company while she read.

<It’s a curious place; there’s so many things going on here that I know nothing about, even at home.> When she was done reading, Ellana sighed and drew her feet out of the water. Drying them off, she donned her boots before heading back up the hill to the abandoned chantry, Varric at her side. Approaching the doors, she whispered, “I take it this was from our chantry-friend?”

Varric nodded and pushed the doors open. Without the lurid green glow of the rift, the interior was dressed in shadows. Only when Varric closed the door behind him did the faint ‘pfflck’ of fire burst into life at the end of Dorian’s staff.

A figure stepped forward as the light chased away the shadows. “Leliana,” Ellana muttered without enthusiasm, “I didn’t expect to see you here.” 

“I received Cassandra’s raven, and I’ve come to help.” Leliana ducked her head, acknowledging Ellana’s irritation. Reading their body language, Dorian stepped in hastily, “Magister Alexius sent an invitation for you to Redcliffe castle - alone - to negotiate. Felix delivered it to the inn this morning. It’s an obvious trap, but your friend said the Inquisition can infiltrate the castle while you distract my old mentor, and put an end to the Venatori threat. What do you say?”

“I don’t care about the Venatori; we just need those mages to close the Breach,” Ellana found her eyes narrowing on Leliana. The latter shook her head, “If your reports are true, Alexius went through an amazing effort to lure you here, then deny you the mages necessary to save all of Thedas - including Tevinter. Something big is afoot, Ellana, can’t you feel it?”

Ellana forced herself to bury her anger. She didn’t want to admit that anything Leliana had to say was right, but she couldn’t deny it either. <Felix says he’s fixated on me, and Alexius definitely has a ‘big bad’ vibe about him. He’s messed with time, and I don’t think Dorian was exaggerating when he said it could unravel the world…> Grudgingly, she said, “Fine. What do you want me to do?”

“Go in and distract Alexius whilst my agents investigate and, if necessary, eliminate the Venatori,” Leliana smacked her right fist into her left palm, “It will be risky, but we have the opportunity to free the mages and gain their gratitude as well as find out why a cult out of Tevinter is obsessed with the Herald of Andraste.”

<Great, I get to be bait. Of course I do.> Ellana protested, “Leliana, Alexius is a mage with the power to literally affect time . Your spies will never get past his’ magic.”

“Fortunately, you’ll have help,” Dorian declared, capturing Ellana’s fingers. He brushed his lips playfully across her knuckles, “I know all of his tricks.”

She tensed even more as she drew her hand back, that previous sense of déjà vu returning, “Thank you, I guess.” <Do I have any choice? There’s always a choice… but I can’t walk away from Thedas right now, and no other path has presented itself.> “Do I have time to think about it?”

Leliana shook her head, “The invitation is for tonight. We are out of time. We strike now.” <The irony, being out of time when you’re dealing with a mage who can mess with time itself. I wonder if we win, does he just go back and change it? How many times have I stood here and had this exact conversation with Leliana?> Thinking it through, there was no evidence that it had been more than this once.

Varric caught Ellana’s querying glance, and shrugged, “I’ve got your back, Herald, whatever you decide to do.”

<Jump out of the frying pan, into the fire.> Ellana pinched the bridge of her nose, already knowing that she was going to say yes. <Let me guess… Leliana knows a secret way into the castle. And so do I.>

>>>>><<<<<

Knowing the family’s secret bolthole did her little good. Ellana, Solas, and Cassandra walked in the front doors while Leliana and Dorian led the others through the back. Every nerve stood on edge, waiting for a dagger in the back, and she hadn’t even set foot in the castle. <Bait. Shit, I already hate being bait.> 

Ellana didn’t smile at the guard in strange Tevinter garb that blocked their path. “I have an invitation,” she argued, but he dropped his halberd diagonally across the doorway and repeated himself for the third time, “Only the Herald enters.” 

“You already took all our weapons. What harm could they be? Listen you-” Ellana began, stepping up so she was in his personal space, almost nose to nose, “I-” but the door opened and a man with sandy blonde hair peered over the guard’s shoulder, “What’s going on here?”

“This guard is refusing to let my entourage and I pass,” Ellana declared, gesturing over her shoulder to where Solas and Cassandra stood. Cassandra’s face was stormy, but Solas maintained his quietly superior demeanor.

“The invitation was only for Mistress Lavellan,” the blonde gruffly insisted, but gestured for the guard to remove his halberd so he could step into the courtyard.

“Sorry won’t cut it; my attaches go where I go,” Ellana made it sound like the universe itself agreed, and the man pressed his lips together. A moment later, he gave a gruff nod, and they followed him past the guard. To her surprise, the castle looked familiar; almost exactly as it had been when she fought walking corpses, invested in a mad quest to free the Arl’s son Connor from a demon. <Is Connor around here somewhere, still possessed by Desire?> She found herself rubber-necking more than usual.

At last they came to the throne room, and she wondered where the Arl was. Sitting in the massive wooden throne in the great hall was Gereon Alexius with Felix beside him. Behind them, statues of mabari majestically growled, reminding Ellana that Alexius was an invader. Tevinter guards lined the pillars that held up the roof, the area lit only by the roaring fire behind the throne. The rest of the hall was cast in shadow. <Things are so much darker without halogens, even in the day.> It made her uncomfortable to think what might be lingering in the gloom, at least until she caught Fiona standing unobtrusively nearby.

“My Lord Magister,” the man announced as Ellana and her companions strode into the hall, “The Agents of the Inquisition have arrived.”

Alexius, his son ever-present beside him, stood up to greet her, “My friend! It is good to see you and your companions once more. I am sure we can come to an equitable arrangement about the mages.” Retaking his seat, he gestured broadly, and asked with a brief smile, “The Inquisition needs mages close the Breach, and I have them. So, what do you offer in exchange?”

“Actually,” Ellana cupped her chin as she stepped further into the light, “I was wondering if you could tell me about these Venatori I’m hearing so much about.” <All I have to do is distract him until Leliana can get here…>

“Where could you have heard that name?” Alexius asked, glancing over to Felix, his brows drawing down to shade the worry in his eyes.

“I told her,” Felix admitted, his left hand resting atop the high wooden back of the throne.

“What?” Alexius froze, the gears visibly turning. His surprised slowly shifted from shock to disbelief - he looked utterly heartbroken. Ellana’s compassion awakened and she attempted a word of comfort, “He’s concerned that you’re involved in something terrible.” Instead of accepting the proffered succor, Alexius’ knuckles whitened on the arms of the throne. A long moment passed before he spoke.

“Me? What of you, thief?” Alexius leaned forward, denial transforming as his lips drew back from his teeth with the first flash of outward aggression Ellana had seen, “You dare to try to turn my son against me?” Standing up, he took two stairs at a time as he approached, “You walk into my stronghold with your stolen mark, a gift you don’t understand and challenge me?” He jabbed a finger at her, “You’re nothing but a mistake.”

“If I’m a mistake, what at the Venatori hoping to accomplish?” Ellana asked, fingers itching for her staff. As she spoke, Dorian stepped from the shadows, gaining Gereon’s immediate attention, “Dorian. I should have known… Seize them, Venatori! The Elder One demands this woman’s life!”

Expecting the guards at the pillars to attack, Ellana pivoted, hands coming up and glowing with the force of raw mana. Instead of swooping down on her and her companions, they fell to their knees in near-synchrony, daggers shoved in backs and throats slit by Inquisition agents.

Alexius gaped as Ellana turned back to him, relief flooding through her breast, “Your men are dead. Surrender now.” But he was shaking his head as he tore a pendant from his belt, and Ellana’s heart sank, <Great, now he turns into a demon or something….>

“You are a mistake! You should never have existed!” Alexius snarled, the pendant erupting into blazing fade-green fire. It rose into the air as he declared, “I must unmake you! For the Elder One!” The pendant crackled as he directed its power towards Ellana, a verdant tether of aether whipping towards her in much the same manner as her mark claimed a rift.

“No!” Dorian shouted, whipping his fist into the air and sending a crackling bolt of lighting into Alexius’ chest just as the fade-tentacle touched her. The last thing Ellana saw was the magister stumbling back, then the world went dark.

Chapter Text

Angry red light brushed away darkness with the ease of a hand clearing cobwebs.  A foot of water sloshed around Ellana, soaking her through, and a surge of displacement followed immediately behind her. Dorian’s lurid swearing let her know she wasn’t alone.

"Where are we?" She demanded, pushing herself up onto her feet and looking around, using both her eyes and her mage senses. A distant sound caught her attention, followed by footsteps and a gruff voice rumbling, “Heard something in the storage room. I’ll check it out."

Dorian glanced at her, then around the room. Dull spikes of a glowing, orthorhombic substance latticed the walls, both illuminating and warming the chamber. “Is that red lyrium?” Ellana gasped, reeling as her mage senses felt out the aura around the formations. They read both alive and sinister at once. It left a brackish taste in her mouth, as if she’d licked an oil slick off the pavement. In the back of her mind, the faintest strains of soprano called to her…

The ‘schnick-hiss’ of a sword being drawn snapped her back to local awareness. A guard in full armor - probably the same voice she had heard from above - came into view from the stairs. He swore, “Blood of the Elder One! How did you get down here?”

Luckily, Dorian had no communion with the lyrium. He surged through the water and planted his hand on the guard’s armor, palm centered over his heart. Purple-black lines of void limned his fingers before they speared outward, forming a dark circle traced with strange geometric symbols. The guard stiffened, then collapsed at his feet. Dusting his hands off, Dorian glanced at Ellana, “Well, don’t look so surprised. I’d hardly be an Altus worth my salt if a single mundane guard stood a chance, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I suppose,” Ellana replied cautiously, giving herself a mental shake. <What is he talking about? What’s an Altus?> Lavellan’s memories held no clue. It seemed Tevinter lore wasn’t in a Dalish elf’s mental library. “Can you sense it? All that lyrium? What is it doing growing from the walls?”

“Interesting. I sense nothing but the heat it’s giving off. And I couldn’t say as to its growth,” Dorian studied the lyrium as she drew his attention to it, then alarmed Ellana by reaching up.

“Don’t touch it!” She quickly warned, voice tense. When Dorian obligingly dropped his hand, she explained more calmly, squeezing water from her shirt, “Red lyrium drives people mad, and I’d wager mages are even more susceptible."  

“Red lyrium, you say? Well, it certainly is red. Never heard of it though,” Dorian stepped back more readily than she expected. “As far as I know, lyrium - the blue kind that is - only grows far underground. Like in the Deep Roads. This bears no resemblance to anything I've ever seen. I wonder where we are...”

Ellana nodded and squelched her way to the stairs, careful to give the lyrium formations a wide berth. <I remember Bertrand all too well.> “Last I recall we were in the castle hall. This clearly isn’t the same place.” 

Dorian ran a fingertip along one finely manicured side of his mustache, “The rift must have moved us, but to what? The closest complement of arcane energy?”

“I think we’re still in the castle. I just don’t recognize where,” Ellana’s voice dropped to a whisper as she sensed another aura. Tilting her head, she placed her hand backward on Dorian’s chest to stall him and murmured, “The other guard is coming…”

He nodded, then pressed a finger to his lips. Kneeling beside the man he had killed, Dorian placed his hand back over the corpse’s armored chest. Purple-black tendrils again shot into the body, but this time the corpse’s back arched, eyes snapping open. Ellana stumbled back against the wall, which was luckily bereft of lyrium, and the corpse lurched to its feet. <Shit. No wonder Dorian’s magic tastes of death. He’s a necromancer!>

Dorian winked, immune to her obvious discomfort.  The corpse fished its sword out of the water and stumbled up the steps to intercept his former comrade. Ellana's flesh crawled as it passed. A moment later she heard the guard at the top of the stairs ribbing it, “Rats scare you enough to draw steel, Percy? Always knew you were a cowa-” then a gurgle as zombie Percy’s blade presumably found its mark.

Ellana’s eyes showed more white than usual as she looked back at Dorian. His smile twisted a bit cocky, and he asked, “Nifty trick you have there, knowing when someone is coming. How do you do that?”

“Elven hearing is pretty good,” Ellana lied, wiping her hands down the front of her wet tunic. She wasn’t keen to explain about sensing auras. Dorian arched an eyebrow in response, and she sighed.  <Why doesn’t anyone believe me when I lie? Is my eye constantly twitching or something?> She decided to deflect by asking pointedly, “How do you bring the dead back to life to kill for you?”

“Magic, of course,” Dorian adjusted his collar while she lifted a brow. “What? Oh alright, fine. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

“I don’t want to learn necromancy. That,” Ellana pointed up the stairs, “gives me the willies. Will the other guard still be standing up there, just waiting to follow us around?”

“If I so desire it, yes,” Dorian replied unapologetically, starting his way up the steps, but swiveling as he did so to peer down at her. “You have to admit, in our situation, it’s more than a tad useful, hmm?”

<Fair point,> Ellana thought, though ‘real undead’ still gave her the heebie-jeebies. Sure enough, when they achieved the top of the stairs, one guard lay dead in a pool of blood and the other … well, the other was standing dead, staring blankly at the wall. “I don’t have to like it. Isn’t it blood magic?”

“Semantics and technicalities. This form of magic is perfectly legal- well, mostly. The Mortalitasi have even made it socially acceptable in Nevarra, and precious little blood is actually involved,” Dorian knelt by the second corpse, and soon it rose to join the other. “In any case, I think you’re right; we do appear to be in the castle. I passed this hall on the way in, though at the time it had the tackiest carvings of wolves and dogs that I’d ever seen. Alexius has made a dreadful mess of this place, hasn't he?” Dorian brushed off his hands as if cleaning them of debris, “If my suspicions are correct, Alexius used the amulet as a focus for a spell; the same one he used to distort time to reach Redcliffe. I think it is not where we are, but when .”

Ellana edged cautiously around a large outcropping of lyrium spikes, arms out wide for balance. Her skin prickled where the heat from the crystals warmed her, all the tiny hairs standing on end, “I’m guessing we’re in the future, since red lyrium wasn’t a thing until Kirkwall, and only a few people knew of it.”

“How did you come to know about it?” Dorian inquired, but he fell silent when Ellana placed her hand upon the bare of his two shoulders. Her finger came to her lips. She strained her elven hearing to the max, and whispered: “Varric told me. And I think I hear something… or someone… that way.”

“It’s the dungeons. More guards?” Dorian gestured for her to follow him. His regnants shambled behind them both without any obvious communication from their master, gait strange and stilted.

“I don’t think so… “ Ellana peered intently ahead. Trying not to look back took effort, but she didn’t want Dorian to know how much his zombies terrified her. The urge to put her shields up and block out their dark, smoldering presence warred with the visceral fear of leaving herself blind to their interference, not to mention whatever else lingered just out of sight. <Damn, it’s just a game,>  she failed to convince herself. <A game about dragons, swords, and sorcery. When did I stumble into Resident Evil?>

“Through those dungeons is a staircase that leads up to the armory,” Dorian indicated the way with his chin, “We may not have encountered many guards yet, but I imagine we want to arm ourselves regardless.”

Ellana nodded her agreement and placed her hand on the nearby handle. There was a small window near the top of the door, and peering in offered a decent view of cells lining a long aisle. The space was lit by simmering scarlet formations. She didn’t want to go inside; the ambiance made her head ache. <Ugh, tainted lyrium. Except it’s out here too…> She pushed through the pain and tried to push the door handle down. “Locked.”

Dorian reached out to try as well, coming to the same conclusion when the handle didn’t budge, “That’s unfortunate. Well, stand back…” He lifted his hands, and she sensed his aura brightening as he tugged on the Fade.

“No, wait!” Ellana hissed, putting her hand on his chest. “An explosion could attract attention.” Her eyes rolled reluctantly to his zombie guards, “One of them has to have the key.” 

“Ahh, yes, of course,” Dorian coughed politely at her suggestion. He turned to the zombies and checked their belt pouches while they stood motionless. He was clearly unperturbed by his creations. A moment later he pulled back dangling an iron key ring with heavy black keys from his thumb, “You’re clever for an elf, aren’t you?”

A spurt of rage surprised Ellana, though she reigned it in by reminding herself that he was trying to be nice, <Some compliment. Your prejudice is showing.> “You do know you sound like ‘You’re clever for a Tevinter, aren’t you?’”

Dorian palmed his face with his unoccupied hand and sighed, “Quite right. I of all people should know the damage stereotypes do. For what it’s worth, I am sorry,” He offered over the keyring, and asked lightly, “Peace?”

Ellana’s ire died like a snuffed candle, surprised by his easy acceptance that what he’d said was wrong, not to mention the immediate apology. <I suppose it’s difficult being from Tevinter in Ferelden. Hard to imagine an attractive guy like him having problems with stereotypes though. Then again, I know jack about him. Who knows what his life has been like?> “Peace,” Ellana agreed, accepting the keyring after a moment of thought, “Our only way out of this is to work together.”

A smile curved Dorian’s lips, sidelong and wrought with twinkling eyes. He made a sweeping bow and an ‘after you’ gesture to the door. His sheer charisma drew Ellana in, and she found herself shaking her head with a silent chuckle as she inserted one of the keys. It didn’t work, but the next one did.

Together, they stepped into the ruddy glow of the cell-lined chamber.  

>>>>><<<<<

With every intention of simply passing swiftly through, Ellana couldn’t help but slow and stare at the prisoners. The first cell contained a corpse lying on its back in the middle of the floor, lyrium growing through the split flesh of its abdomen and jaw. <Oh my god, > She tore her gaze away from the gaping horror, only to have it fall on the prisoner in the cell across the way. She recognized her, even at a glance, “Cassandra!”

Dorian covered his mouth with his palm, still looking into the first cell even as his feet carried him after Ellana towards Cassandra. The Seeker hung propped up by the bars alone, forehead pressed to the iron. Her hair had grown longer, now an unkempt sable halo that bristled around her head. Though she looked unlike the spartan Navarran Ellana knew, she recognized her face. It was definitely Cassandra. She murmured the Chant of Light in the whisper that Ellana faintly caught earlier. "The light shall lead her safely from this world..."

Cassandra turned her gaze up and stared at Ellana, knuckles tightening around the iron bars. The Chant died on her lips. As they met one another’s eyes, she got a good look at Cassandra’s face. The Seeker looked wretched; years older than Elanna remembered. “Maker, what happened to you?”

Cassandra’s face was gaunt and pale, but that might have been expected after many months in a sunless dungeon. It was the black veins that pulsed beneath her skin, feeding red eyes, and the crimson mist that she exhaled that sent Ellana instinctually backward. Cassandra gasped in a low voice, “The Herald of Andraste? Have you returned? Can it be? Maker, forgive me. The end must truly be near if the dead come back to life.”

“Dear Maker,” Dorian gasped upon seeing Cassandra’s face, pressing near to Ellana without quite touching her, “What happened to her?”

Tilting her head to Dorian, she whispered, “I think she’s been blighted by red lyrium.” Cassandra simply stood there, skeletal fingers gripping the iron bars, “Please, Herald. Give me another chance.”

Before Dorian could respond, Solas’ voice rang out behind them, containing both shock and... hope, “You’re alive!”

Ellana whirled. Solas sat on a wooden pallet that served as the only furniture in each of the cells. His head lifted from where it had rested in his hands, and his gaze drank her in like water discovered in the desert, “We saw you die.”

“She is the Herald of Andraste,” Cassandra breathed, drawing herself up, “What could Alexius do against the Maker himself? Let me come with you; we will do something to end this.” An edge of steel entered Cassandra’s voice, making her sound more like the woman Ellana knew. <After everything she’s been through, she’s willing to take up arms again? I hate to say it, but with red lyrium growing all over the place, I don’t imagine our odds are good.>

Dorian interjected rationally, “We didn’t die; Alexius clearly sent us forward in time.” Ellana nodded her agreement, but she couldn’t take her eyes off Solas, nor had he looked away from her. Unlike Cassandra, he showed no signs of starvation, but the corruption was far worse. <His eyes literally glow red. And what is that miasma around him?> To her mage senses, he barely felt like a person, but rather more like pure lyrium pulsing from his corner of the dungeon. <It’s inside him,> she realized, <Just like Cassandra. It must have been forced upon them. But… Solas hasn’t gone all corpse-y, like Cassandra. She’s being sucked dry, but he’s just… riddled with it, like cancer, maybe. Is that because he’s an elf?>

Solas’ gaze only wavered from Ellana when he asked Dorian, “Can you reverse the process?”

“With Alexius’ amulet as a foci? Yes, I believe so,” Dorian replied after a moment of thought, “We’d need to retrieve it, however. I doubt he’s left it lying around.”

Ellana licked her lips and cautiously stepped closer to the bars, “You look bad, Solas. You feel so wrong…” She placed her hands on the bars and peered at him, wondering why it actually pained her to see him so. Her sadness reminded him of something, and his gaze softened, “I’m dying. The corruption has spread throughout my being. Hers as well,” he gestured to Cassandra, then the other cells, “And all the others.”

He rose from the pallet and came to the other side of the bars, reaching out to towards her cheek. Abruptly, he stopped, making a fist of his hand and placing it behind his back, “You must not touch any of us or the red lyrium. If you were to become infected, it will twist you, use you, and devour you as it does us all. You both must return to the past, uncorrupted, if you are to have any hope of preventing this future from coming to pass.”  

Ellana’s knuckles whitened on the bars, <The first time he ever reached for me, and he cannot touch me?> “What happened? To you, to the world?”

Solas gripped the bars opposite her face to occupy his hands safely, “Two years ago, the Elder One’s minions assassinated Empress Celine and used the chaos to invade the south with an army of demons. He reigns now, unchallenged.” His thumb caressed the bar, “You could return and obviate the events of the last year. Perhaps it is not too late.”

“In theory,” Dorian agreed, stroking his chin, “I was not joking when I said I thought that time was unraveling. If we don’t set these events on their correct course, we may do more harm than good. All of creation could come apart...”

Gaze still transfixed on Solas’ face, Ellana asked Dorian, “So… you’re saying because the universe hasn’t unravelled, this is what was supposed to happen? The Elder One is supposed to win?”

“This is no better fate for the world if it ends as it has now,” Solas turned a pleading gaze to Ellana, “Please. If you can undo this, they can all be saved.”  

“Not exactly, though I could see why you’d think so, and perhaps you’re even right. If time hasn’t unraveled by now, then presumably this is the correct and singular future. That said, it’s dreary, and I’d rather imagine it’s a bit more like the time bubbles we encountered in the rifts. This is but one version of reality; we may be in a bubble.” Dorian paused to consider his own words, then backpedaled a step, “Well, emphasis on the may. Time magic definitely has its issues and a number of untested ramifications. Quite frankly, what I know could be completely wrong. On every level.”

“I have no idea what you just said,” Ellana muttered tersely, “Are you seriously suggesting that we choose to believe this is not the correct future because it’s more convenient than believing the truth?”

“Ahh. The Tevinter mage is merely saying that we are playing with forces we know nothing about, or he knows nothing about. I do not know everything, but my magical studies imply that the latter theory is correct, or at least as believable as time unraveling. A fifty-fifty chance in this situation, whilst still a huge risk, is bearable.” At Ellana’s acerbic look, Solas released the bars and said bitterly, “You would think such understanding would stop me from making terrible mistakes. You would be wrong. This world is an abomination; it must never come to pass.” 

“My name is Dorian,” the necromancer corrected with a hint of irritation, “I won’t call you ‘elf’ if you do me the courtesy of the same.” Solas merely crossed his arms, but Ellana was preoccupied running through the scenarios in her head. <None of the options are good. Staying here and assimilating into crazy town? Go steal Alexius’ necklace, then travel back to the past?>

Cassandra called out, “This is hardly the time or place for petty squabbling. Let us out. If there is any chance - any chance at all - of preventing this future, we must try. No matter the consequences.”

Ellana bit her lip and looked to Dorian, “She’s right. We can’t just escape the castle and settle down here in the future like nothing ever happened. But as for letting them out, I don’t know. Red lyrium brings madness. They could attack us.”

Dorian’s gaze remained hard on Solas, but his reply was surprisingly moderate, “Like I said, this is the first time I’ve seen or heard of the stuff. Better you decide. As for me, I need to study Alexius’ amulet to even have a hope of getting us back to the past. Retrieving it is the first order of business, and… well, he’s either wearing it, or we need to confront him to find out where it is. If I were a betting man, I’d say the former.”

Ellana peered at Solas. His eyes fell partly closed, and he leaned forward until his forehead pressed against the cell bars, “You can trust me, Ellana. I would not do anything to harm you. Alexius is in the throne room, grown paranoid, no doubt due to the lyrium surrounding us. I can feel growing inside - it blurs everything. Calls to me… but I sense its influence and will not give in.”

<My soft heart is going to get me killed,> she thought, inserting the key into the lock. “Fine. You and Cassandra take the lead. We were headed to the armory. We’ll get weapons, confront Alexius, and take his time-travel necklace.” <I want red lyrium addled people at my back even less than I want the zombies.>

“Good plan,” Cassandra approved when she was released. “There are other prisoners that may help, but be careful. Solas and I have watched many people go mad before they died.”

“Why are you and Solas still sane?” Ellana asked as they headed for the stairs. Solas remained quiet, but Cassandra grimaced, “I am a Seeker, if you recall. Our training makes us immune to mind control, and we do not need lyrium to fuel our abilities. Such things have no power over me. As for Solas? I imagine he’s unconventionally stubborn.”

Solas' jaw flexed, but he merely looked towards the armory, "Perhaps. Come, we should arm ourselves quickly; we do not know how long until the alarm is raised."

 

Chapter Text

As they rounded a corner on their way to the armory, Solas held up a hand to still their progress and cocked his head to the side, “Do you hear that…?” They were in a long hallway with high ceilings and rows of wooden doors. Even upstairs, the dark glow of red lyrium ran through the cracks between stones and backlit worn tapestries of mabari on the hunt. 

Cassandra shook her head, “I hear nothing, Solas. It must be another trick of your mind.” It chilled Ellana’s spine that her lyrium-addled companions experienced hallucinations, but she heard what Solas did too - a voice with a familiar clarity, first crying out in pain then responding weakly to muffled demands.

“I hear it too, just ahead,” Ellana whispered, pressing her finger to her lips, then carefully maneuvered past Solas and Cassandra without touching them. <Is that Leliana…?>

Ellana perked her ears toward the sound, and she pressed one against the most likely door. While she had little basis for comparison, it sounded like torture. Remembering events in Haven, and the poisoned tea, Ellana glanced at her companions, then gestured for them to stealthily continue past the room. <Whether or not Leliana deserves this, I need to finish this quest, and I don’t trust her at my back.> She tried not to feel guilty, but she did anyway, just not enough to change her mind. <If I do this right,> she reasoned to herself, <it won’t matter. Only Solas and Cassandra are left out of everyone I knew, so a lot worse has happened than one woman being tortured. If we bust in there, we’ll raise the alarm, and maybe fail the quest altogether.> A nagging thought whispered at the back of her mind, <But what if it’s not a game? > That voice had been getting harder and harder to ignore lately. She told it to shut up.

When they were out of immediate proximity, Ellana answered Cassandra’s querying glance, carefully hiding her inner turmoil, “A prisoner being tortured. We could interfere, but we’d likely raise the alarm only to saddle ourselves with someone injured. Our best bet to save them is to make it to Alexius and get back to the past.”

Cassandra nodded, though her gaze seemed troubled. Dorian, quiet until now, beckoned them ahead with two crooked fingers, “The armory is through there.” He sent his undead servants ahead with a wave, positioning them defensively along the hall. Fearless to the last, Cassandra took point, marching through the single, iron-bound door with shoulders square. Dorian pursued closely in her wake.

Ellana started to follow, but Solas said softly, “Ellana.”

She drew up short, glancing at him. “You heard, did you? Who was in that chamber?” Folding her arms at his brief nod of acknowledgement, Ellana asked, “What do you intend to do about it?”

Solas scanned the hallway before striding quickly toward an smaller, unadorned door. He pressed his ear against its surface and opened it to reveal a broom closet, domestic odds and ends taking up most of the space. Even on his own, it would be a tight fit, yet he urgently beckoned for her to follow.

Ellana’s throat tightened. He was literally glowing with the corruption of red lyrium, and here he was trying to get her alone. With her jaw set firm she refused, “The hell I’m stepping in there with you.”

When she took too long to budge, his mouth compressed, “Ellana, this is important, and it must be discussed in private.”

Scowling, she drew her dagger and gestured for him to step into the closet first, muttering, “I don’t want to hear it, Solas. I don’t trust her, and I don’t want her at my back.”

“This has nothing to do with Leliana. What’s ‘hell’? No, don’t tell me. We don’t have much time,” Solas closed the door behind her and pressed his hands together in front of his face, expression contemplative as he mulled over what to say. When he spoke, it came in a rush punctuated by the graceful, quick movement of his hands, “Forget the spymaster, Ellana. You need to take a message to the Solas of the past. He will- I will listen to you.”

“What makes you think that?” Ellana felt her mouth twisting, but she relaxed slightly when no wild attack immediately came. Regardless, she still held the dagger as a ward between them, “Last we actually spoke to one another, you blew me off pretty hard.”

He thought about it - now a distant memory - and sighed, “I remember, da’len. And I’ve had years to regret it, but it doesn’t matter. I know the me of the past will at least hear what you say; though it’s hard to say what he’ll do about it. You must change things. I would go back and take care of it myself, but-” he gestured down his dimly glowing body. Unnatural heat rolled off his flesh, making the tiny space uncomfortable, “this corruption cannot go back. It would be the seed that undoes us all.”

Ellana’s mouth went dry under Solas’ gleaming, steady gaze. The admission that his younger self would listen to her made her heart flutter. <Great. The crush is alive and kicking, even with gross evil magic rolling off him. Gah! How can a video game feel so real?> She took his warning about the lyrium seriously and resisted the urge to touch him, <But oh how I want to… he’s never looked at me so openly before…> Cautiously, she sheathed the dagger. “Do you imagine we’ll succeed? In getting back? You won’t remember anything I say to you, will you?”

“I cannot guess, but life itself depends on your success,” Solas cocked his head, “If I believed I would remember, I wouldn’t bother with this message. Tell me the Elder One tore down the Veil, and that doing so released the Blight into every living thing. The taint spread until red lyrium wept from the earth’s pores, annihilating all that once was." Gesturing down his long, lean body, Solas squeezed his eyes closed in denial, "Tell him it corrupted him. Me."

“I will,” Ellana promised. The tiny space stifled her, and her chest constricted, making it difficult to breathe. She made as if to open the closet door, but his voice stopped her. “Ellana, you should know... my younger self has romantic notions about the Fade. And the Veil itself. If you don’t succeed in disabusing me of such things…”

Solas’ message clicked like the pieces of a puzzle snapping into place. “You’ll betray me?” A throb of pain hollowed Ellana’s voice, and she accused, “You’re Loghain ignoring the signal fire; Anders blowing up the goddamn chantry with explosives...” A smolder of anger ignited following the epiphany. She turned obliquely away from Solas, running her fingers through her hair and ensuring that he couldn’t see her face, “You’re the one.”

“What are you talking about?” He didn’t sound offended, rather suspicious instead. His hands were behind his back, and whatever semblance of self-control she was holding onto shattered.

<I am in love with this guy, and he’s destined to betray me?! That’s it. I’ve had it! Screw fucking up the storyline! Screw Dragon Age!> “ I’ve played this game before,” Ellana rubbed at the tears welling in her eyes, ”I was the Hero of Ferelden and the Champion of Kirkwall. I looked Loghain in the eye when I executed him for treason; only it wasn’t really for betraying the Crown, it was for betraying me . And here I am again, only this time... it’s much worse. It’s so real I can’t tell where Ellana ends and I begin. I’m losing my mind.” Glistening wet drops tracked through the grime that soiled her face, “ Every time I play, someone betrays me. And I can’t believe it’ll be you! After Anders...  and what about Morrigan? You’d think they wouldn’t try the same gimmick over and over; make you fall in love, then punish you when your sexy mage romance loves their secret agenda more than you.” She smashed the stone wall with the side of her fist, then leaned her forehead against it. “This game sucks.”

Solas’s expression progressed in stages as he watched her tirade; first a thoughtful pause, then suspicion and confusion, and a wince when she revealed that she loved him. When it settled, he had brightened with understanding, “Of course. The red lyrium is already influencing your mind. We can only hope that it is peripheral affects we’re observing and not genuine infection. We should move quickly; the hallucinations will only get worse. With luck it will fade when you get back to the past-”

“This is a game , Solas. A figment of my imagination; you’re not real. I’m not even a goddamn elf; I’m - you wouldn’t understand,” she wanted to reach out and shake him while she screamed the truth in his face, but restrained herself. She wondered if the Solas of the past would take the truth so blithely.  <Probably not. I suppose in Solas' mind, Occam’s Razor would imply red lyrium the likely cause of my otherwise ludicrous statements.>  Still, she had to give it one more try. Looking Solas directly in the eye, Ellana declared with passion, willing him to believe, “Solas, I am asleep, trapped in this nightmare.”

Solas stared at Ellana for a long moment, then queried warily. “You believe you are asleep…? That this - everything surrounding us - is not real?” His hand cupped his chin thoughtfully, then he turned his probing gaze to her, body drawing taut with emerging excitement. He quickly asked her question in a language she didn't recognize, leaning towards her. The words tugged on Lavellan’s memory with familiarity, but even digging around couldn’t pinpoint what he said to her. Ellana looked at Solas blankly.

Reading her failure to decipher what he'd said, the hope in Solas' gaze snuffed, and his expression closed. It was his turn to look away, gripping the wooden shelf behind Ellana’s shoulder with white knuckles. She knew she had deeply disappointed him somehow. <I don’t understand; what did I do?> She wanted the embers of anticipation back in his eyes, and reached for him, but stopped herself before he could see her uplifted hand. <The taint. I can’t take it back. I can comfort him and fix it in the past, if I make it. And I will, because this is a quest in a game. The player always wins.>

Solas eventually exhaled and looked back at her. He pointed at the ceiling at an angle, as if to the outside, saying firmly, “This is no game, Ellana. The Veil is sundered. Life itself is in danger. The Elder One is a corrupt Magister thousands of years old. You must get yourself together; get back to the past and warn my younger self what will pass if the Veil is destroyed.”

“So whatever the past ‘you’ wants has something to do with destroying the Veil?” Ellana interrupted, giving up on getting him to believe her and looking instead for information that might help her to understand his plans. <I’ll be damned if I’m going to get tricked into blowing up another chantry.>

Whether he’d listened or not, she felt strangely lighter for having told him the truth. With both hands she rubbed her tears away. <Maybe when I get home, I’ll convert to Catholicism. There might actually be something to Confession - wait a second. What if I am mad? Like what if, I really am Ellana Lavellan, and I’ve just come across red lyrium or something, and it makes me think I have another self named Emily…?> It felt all too possible; fit in all too well. <Whoa, come back from that ledge. If you step over the precipice, you’ll become irrevocably insane.>

Solas was looking at her with sympathy in his eyes, “Ellana, the other me - he wouldn’t betray you out of malice, only foolish ideals. I would never have hurt you, I was in- I thought a great deal of you. Even now, I-” At that he broke off, furrowing his eyebrows, “Even riddled with red lyrium, I would not harm you.”

Ellana blinked at Solas and stared for a long moment. She tilted her head up into the direction he had pointed earlier and pursed her lips, “You say the Veil is sundered? We’re in the Fade?”

“Not exactly. The Fade is all around us now, as real as the physical. Why?” Solas, usually smooth as silk, seemed to struggle to follow her as she bounced from subject to subject.

“Because, screw the armory,” Ellana waved a hand, “I just need a command line.” Reaching out with her senses, she tried to summon the pillar. As she did so, Solas’ face drained of color. He reached out, forgetting himself, and grabbed her leather-clad arm, “No! You mustn’t!” His grip prickled like acid, the leather barely enough to hold the crystalline red lyrium running through him at bay.

It was too late. The castle shook around them, dislodging streams of sand from between the stones as friction ground the mortar down. Something distant and evil oriented towards her through the ether and clamped down on her mind. Ellana fell to her knees, gasping in agony as Solas crouched beside her, “The Elder One - it’s him. He will have sensed your pull; I should have warned you. Come, our time is up.” Quickly, he pushed the broom closet door open, dragging Ellana up along behind him.

Outside, Dorian and Cassandra trotted out of the armory, each alarmed in their own ways - Dorian was wide-eyed and theatrical, gripping the wall at his side for support he no longer needed; Cassandra merely wound herself tighter, looking ready to spring at anything that fell into her path. “What was that? Where did you two go?” the necromancer asked, tossing a spare staff toward Ellana’s middle. He offered Solas a rather less impressive dagger. “Sorry, old friend, but I’m afraid there were only two staves to be had.”

“It’s of minimal concern,” Solas replied gravely, and he kept the dagger at the ready as he cocked his head to listen. Cassandra wore ill-fitting armor, but the sword she gripped looked natural as breath in her hand.  

The Seeker’s gaze fell to where Solas’ other hand held Ellana’s upper arm, then flicked to his face. Solas shook his head, releasing Ellana even as he said, “The Elder One knows. We need to get to Alexius now.”

>>>>><<<<<

Ellana was quiet as the companions trotted through the castle. The assault on her mage senses had made her shy of reopening them, but if this was at least partly the Fade… <I have powers in the Fade that I don’t in the waking world. I can access the command line. That’s too powerful a tool to abandon.> She momentarily speculated whether she had the same powers in the physical world. <Didn’t Wisdom say this world’s command line is belief? Maybe I’m only so powerful in the Fade because I believe I can access the command line there. If I can just believe it here...>

Her musings continued uninterrupted until they reached the throne room, running at a full pelt. A dozen guards stood between them and the room beyond, lined up two layers deep across the open double doors. Beyond, Alexius sat in the throne; a withered figure crouched beside him that vaguely resembled Felix, but more closely resembled Gollum from The Lord of the Rings . <He had the Blight,> Ellana realized, surprised she hadn’t figured it out before. <Except now he looks mindless…> She kept tabs on him even when she turned her attention toward the opposition.

<The odds are impossible,> she acknowledged, biting her lip. Cassandra was emaciated and Solas riddled with corruption. She and Dorian were mages in good health, but there was only two of them. Alexius had as much access to magic as they, perhaps more. <Or does he…?> Ellana wondered.

A deep furrow appeared between Cassandra’s eyes and she declared fiercely, “If I die today, at least I die free!” With a cry she charged the line. The brashness of the action startled the guard closest to her, and he went down choking on blood while next guard engaged her. They were going to swarm…

Alexius, upon seeing Cassandra’s mad dash, turned white. He stood up, shouting, “Surrender!” As he did, he flung his arms wide, sending an invisible blast of magic through the ranks, hitting both friend and foe alike. Ellana and her entire party were slammed painfully to the ground.

“Screw that,” Ellana panted, pushing herself to her elbows and fighting to drag air back into her lungs. Her left elbow felt deeply bruised, maybe fractured, but the Fade was here . Now that she knew where to look, she could feel it through the fiery lyrium haze, spidery wisps of power in the periphery. “If this Elder One wants a fight, he’s going to get it.” She gritted her teeth, climbed to her feet, and tilted her head towards the ceiling, shouting at the ether, “Give me a command line!”

The stones of Redcliffe castle began to shake once more as Ellana dropped her shields and attempted to seize reality itself. It fought back, ferociously resisting her efforts to mold it. Her companions climbed to their feet at much the same rate as Alexius’ guards, but it was Alexius who identified what she was doing. Pointing at her, he cried, “Stop! Usurper! Thief! Pretend god! The Elder One will exalt me upon high when I present your severed hand!”

Solas only regained his feet as much as required to crouch on all fours, pausing and scanning the vicinity. While he assessed the situation, Dorian’s zombies surged into the fray. Abruptly, a powerful ripple in reality washed over Ellana like the break of an ocean wave as Solas blasted away. <Fade step,> thought Ellana, wondering where the fuck he’d gone, but unable to wrest her attention far while trying to shape a command line out of thin air.

“That’s twisted, even for you!” Dorian snarled at his old mentor, but he was too occupied keeping Cassandra alive to engage. Dorian swept his staff across the ground, sending a crackling ribbon of chain lightning at the soldiers now surrounding Cassandra. Tevinter platemail proved to be an effective conductor, and the lot froze then in place with a static buzz that Ellana felt in her teeth. None of them fell, but it stunned them long enough for Cassandra to down another pair.

“Solas!” Cassandra cried, voice heavy with betrayal, “Damn you!” Dorian scowled and closed in on the fight, pressing his hand to the ground. A circle of strange, dark magic pulsed from his hand, then dark lines speared out across flagstones until they reached the guards Cassandra had dispatched. They too rose to join the fray, turning the numbers in their favor, discounting Alexius...

The Tevinter magister smiled darkly and took a step forward. Shields down, Ellana felt the Fade responding to his spell. Mana flowed out of her grip like water between her fingers to coalesce into a violent, crackling maelstrom around Alexius’ clenched fists. “Foolish elf! Inept mage!”

He took another step forward and raised his hands to unleash the seething spell… then crumpled to his knees, spell dissipating rapidly. His violent grip relaxed in surrender. Behind him, Ellana caught a glimpse of Solas, a fist clutching the cloth of one of the magister’s shoulders. The other hand held a bloody dagger to Alexius’ carotid. Solas whispered into into the magister’s ear. Alexius whimpered, then bleated across the room, “Stand down! Cease! Let them through!”

Everyone froze into place. Cassandra held a guard hostage at sword point. Dorian’s zombies held a screaming guard down, one quite literally straining to pull his head off while the others chewed into the softer flesh of his face.

“Give us the necklace,” Solas’ voice cut through the chamber. Shakily, Alexius complied, reaching down to pull the medallion from his neck. The chain scraped past the point of Solas’ dagger, and the elf grasped it. His gaze barely flickered as he called to Dorian, “You know what to do with this, I gather?”

Dorian pushed his way through the remaining guards, giving each of them dirty looks. As he came within throwing distance three things happened at once. Solas tossed Dorian the necklace, Felix leapt on Solas’ back, and the entire castle shook as a massive displacement wave rocked its foundations.

“The Elder One is here-” Alexius declared triumphantly, cut off with a gurgle as Solas buried the dagger in his larynx, snarling, “Shut up.” Both Alexius and Felix were blown back by a mind blast, and Solas turned on the guards, eyes blazing with red lyrium. The air crackled ruby-tinged emerald around him as he drew mana from the air. <I never saw Solas use the Fade directly before…>

Cassandra, reading the situation as it shifted, thrust her blade into the guard she held hostage and spun to engage the next. Ellana, not sure what had happened outside but able to sense the choking presence of evil roiling up the courtyard stairs, dodged past the fight and into the throne room, “Dorian, hurry!”

“I’ll do what I can, but normally this would take hours!” Dorian retorted, fingering the emerald amulet and holding it up. Slowly it rose from his fingers and twirled, disconnected entirely from the brunt of the blast that tore the inner portcullis apart.

“You have minutes, if that!” Solas barked, stabbing Felix twice with his dagger in a rapid move that surprised Ellana with its ease. <I had no idea he had hand-to-hand combat experience…> But he clearly did, running past Ellana and Dorian towards the fight Cassandra somehow still managed on her own.

“Demons!” Cassandra announced, cutting down the last of the guards. Solas grimly took his place beside the Seeker and looked over his shoulder. His eyes locked on Ellana’s and he said in Elven, “[Go back. Promise me this day will never come.]”

“Solas!” Ellana shouted, surging towards him and reaching out. Dorian’s hand on her other arm jerked her back. With Cassandra’s help, Solas closed the doors between them.

“No…!” Ellana protested, squirming in Dorian’s arms. The Tevinter mage swore in a language she didn’t understand, “Don’t be an idiot; they gave their lives for us. Quit fidgeting, I need to concentrate!”

The sense of his words penetrated her brain, and she stopped struggling, taking a ready stance with tears streaming down her cheeks. Outside, she heard the roar of demons and the doors shook as something heavy was thrown against them. Massive amounts of energy blossomed, then died while Dorian worked beside her. Ellana felt helpless, and Dorian swore several more times, “It’s the same weave Alexius used before, I’m sure of it, but I don’t have enough power!”

As he spoke the doors burst open. A demon with long, spindly legs led the way, carrying Solas’ corpse by the face. Nonchalantly, the beast dropped the empty-eyed elf like a discarded rag and stalked into the room, followed close by more of its brethren. Ellana’s heart crawled into her throat; she was unable to see anything but a mass of writhing demons beyond.

An arrow took the demon nearest to her in the side of its long, prehensile throat. Ellana grabbed Dorian’s shoulder as she watched a narrow figure with Leliana’s familiar red hair leap gracefully into the fray. <She didn’t need my help to free herself after all.> Guilt wracked her, and Ellana silently promised God that she’d be much nicer to Leliana in the future if they just managed to escape.

The heavens remained silent, leaving Ellana to watch Leliana’s last moments - poetry in motion, until the demons overwhelmed her and the spymaster’s severed arm landed at her feet, spattering her with a fine mist of blood.  Dorian’s failing efforts to invoke the amulet burned against her mage senses, and Ellana knew God hadn’t been in a bargaining mood.

“It’s over…” Dorian let his mana flow away, reaching out to grasp Ellana’s hand. He closed his eyes and turned away from the horde not twelve feet away, reorienting itself after falling upon Leliana in a frenzy.

“No,” Ellana whispered in sheer denial of Dorian’s surrender. Fighting down nausea, she let instinct take over. With the vast energy of the mark in her palm, she did the same as Solas had done to her when they first met, grabbing Dorian’s wrist and driving her aura into his. Using brute force, she recreated the weave he’d been working on, the mark in her hand linking her powerfully to the Fade around them. She didn’t know what she was doing or if it would work, <But I don’t give a damn, either. Anything is better than this!>

The hall went dark, the only light the faint green glow of the time amulet. With a kinetic whomp, a vortex exploded around her and Dorian, sucking them in.

Chapter Text

One moment, Alexius stood before the throne, dramatically intoning something about the death of the Herald of Andraste. The next, a blinding burst of light sent Ellana and Dorian spilling in a tangle of limbs atop the dais behind him. Dorian landed chest-down on the crimson carpet, and Ellana haphazardly half-splayed atop the throne; thankfully, rear first. The amulet dug into her ass, and her upper arm burned where the corrupted Solas of the future had gripped it. <Ow! Dammit.>

Still in survival mode, Ellana heaved herself to her feet and palmed the amulet before Alexius could complete turning towards her. The first thing she comprehended was the presence of several people around her; none of whom were dead, fighting, or demons. All stared at her and the throne she’d briefly occupied. <Well, we’re alive. But it looks like I’m not going to have a chance to curl up in a ball and give in to PTSD.>

Not certain what to say just yet, Ellana offered Dorian her hand. Her necromantic companion gave it a wary look, but clasped her forearm above the wrist and allowed her to lever him to his feet. < I remember when Solas violated my aura to close the first rift, and I didn’t like it. But we’re alive, Dorian. You can bitch at me for overstepping my bounds later.>

“It cannot be!” Alexius gasped upon Ellana’s manifestation, face turning an unusal shade of plum. He lifted a hand towards Ellana, causing her to tense in preparation, but Felix got there first. He grabbed his father’s wrist and wrenched it back, disrupting the spell. Gripping his father’s shoulders, he rasped, “I’m sorry, I cannot let you do this.” Tears welled in Alexius’ eyes, then streamed down his cheeks. The betrayal between the two cut deep, but Ellana reminded herself of the future Felix was averting. She turned away, thinking, <We still have the assassination of an empress and a demon army to solve.>

Pressured by the many eyes upon her, Ellana fortified her stance and called out to Alexius: “Put aside all claim to Redcliffe, and we let you live.” <Watch him throw a lightning bolt right into my teeth.>

Only he didn't. To Ellana's complete surprise, the Magister fell to his knees, still looking to his son, “Felix-”

“It will be alright, Father,” Felix crouched down beside Alexius and reached out to place a calming hand on his shoulder. His amber brown eyes were almost luminous to Ellana’s sight, full of compassion.

“You’ll die,” Alexius sniveled to his blight-stricken child, aimlessly patting his own shoulder until he found Felix’s hand and gripped it. Ellana saw the tendons in Felix’s hand flex as he squeezed back, “We all die, Father.”

The last breath of resistance escaped Alexius’ body. The tears were flowing freely down his face when his head fell forward in a defeated bow. Reluctantly, he withdrew from Felix’s grip and pressed his wrists together, raising them. Hoarsely, Alexius declared to Ellana, “You’ve won. I surrender.”

Ellana forced herself to remain detached from the scene before her, but Alexius’ weeping tugged powerfully at her empathy. <I am not going to cry in front of the entire room,> she admonished herself. Turning to one of Leliana’s men, identifiable by the black sword wreathed in flames sewn into his sleeve, she prodded him, “Take the Magister into custody.” The room-wide paralysis broke at the command, and Leliana’s people surged to obey. <Thank goodness Leliana brought Templars to back us taking down a magister.>

“Well,” said Dorian out of the side of his mouth to Ellana, “I'm glad that's over with.” Upon seeing a healthy Cassandra striding across the room toward them with Leliana trailing at her side, he hastened to add a wry, “Or not.”

Leliana was the first to speak, “What happened? We saw you consumed by magic mere moments ago, only to return covered in blood?” As she spoke, she watched her men drag Alexius from the room. If she had anything to say about Ellana ordering them around, she chose to say nothing about it.

<You promised God that if you made it out alive, you’d find a way to make it work with Leliana,> Ellana reminded herself, “Alexius sent us into the future; the one where the Herald of Andraste disappeared.” She wiped some of future-Leliana’s blood from her face, trying not to think about the fact that she was talking to the very same woman. <And the harder you try not to think about something… eww, I can taste it in my mouth!> She gave a weary sigh, “Short version - the Venatori are plotting to kill the Orlesian Empress and building a demon army. Dorian and I sorely need rest. And a bath. Can you arrange it?”

“We’ll stay the night,” Leliana agreed with a nod, watching her men escort Alexius away. The magister glared daggers at Ellana as manacles were screwed onto his wrists, “It will give us a chance to negotiate with the Grand Enchanter. Are you sure Felix wasn’t complicit in the Venatori plot?”

“Yes,” Ellana and Dorian said in unison, then glanced at each other. Dorian gave her a brief nod when Ellana reached over to squeeze his elbow. Just over his shoulder, she saw the dainty shadow of Grand Enchanter Fiona, and addressed her briefly, “We’ll talk later.”

“Of course,” Fiona replied solemnly, inclining her head. Ellana searched her appearance for some hint of Alistair, but there was nothing. With a brief nod, she bypassed Solas and headed for the great doors of the main hall. <I need fresh air and sun on my face. Just to prove it’s still there.>

She mentally swore when she saw Solas peel away from the pillar to follow her from the corner of her eye.

>>>>><<<<<

“That was some trick,” Solas called out to her as she trotted down the stairs in the courtyard, “Disappearing in a black rift for all eyes to see, murdered at the hands of the Venatori, only to reappear in a burst of light behind him on the throne. He bragged about killing the Herald of Andraste, you know.”

“My legend grows,” Ellana stuffed the amulet in her pocket and skittered down the steps even faster, hoping to outpace her mentor. <I should destroy this. It’s too dangerous to keep.> Solas’ revelations about his chances of betraying her for ‘foolish ideals’ made her cautious about sharing the knowledge of its continued existence with him.

“So it does,” Solas agreed, proving his long legs could eat ground faster than hers. He got a hand on her shoulder at the bottom of the steps, saying, “Ellana, stop.”

She wasn’t sure why she obeyed, but she did, turning to face him. His hand was warm, making her skin prickle. There was nothing malevolent about him, just the handsome apostate that taught her magic and how to dream. Searching the angular planes of his face made her heart clench. No red lyrium, no taint. No hint of the betrayal he’d warned her of, nor the ragged wounds she last saw on his corpse. The sun shone warm upon them both from a crystal clear blue sky. Around them, the day to day bustle of castle life continued. <The future hasn’t happened. Yet.>

It was idyllic for a moment. Then her upper arm throbbed, reminding her of a Blight-ridden Solas, hand burning acidically through her leather armor, <Oh no. Am I tainted?>

Terror constricted Ellana’s throat, and she felt tears welling in her eyes. Solas’ brow contracted at the changes in her expression, and his grip shifted. He wrapped a hand around her upper arm, somehow gripping in the exact same place, and drew her towards a servant’s entrance, “Come. No one should see you like this.”

She forced herself to relax and gather her thoughts as he bore her along. It would have been easy to take his gesture for kindness; one trip into the future earlier and she would have found his concern sweet, the potential for more between them. Now she sensed a hint of steel beneath the friendly gesture. <What would he do if I resisted? Try to persuade me? Throw me over his shoulder and carry me out of the courtyard? He wants me out of sight.> She struggled to keep her emotion from her face. The distraction allowed him to easily steer her out of the public eye.

Solas seemed confident in where he was going, and her feet followed, mind preoccupied. <Why does he care if anyone sees me cry?> The only thing she could figure is that it might affect how people see her. <So he has some vested interest in making sure everyone believes I’m the Herald of Andraste? What could that possibly have to do with the Veil?> It occurred to her that throughout their time together, she had been so preoccupied about getting home that she’d never really paid attention to Solas’ motives or behavior, except how they related to getting him into bed. <Great, I’m horny. And shallow... mostly.> She remembered the time she found him hurting in his tent and their embrace. <Okay, maybe not always shallow. I just had no idea there was more to him and took everything he said at face value. But…  gullible, that’s what I am.>

The opportunity to think disappeared quickly. One turn later and they passed the armory, moving down a familiar corridor. Ellana stiffened in Solas’ grip and slowed, hesitating near the wooden door of the broom closet. Solas turned when he sensed her resistance, asking, “What’s in there?”

“Uh, it’s a broom closet,” she said, removing her hand and tucking it into the pocket with the amulet. Caressing its surface with her thumb gave her courage, though she didn’t know why, and she met his gaze.

“Private enough, I suppose,” Solas reached for the handle, but she grasped his wrist to stop him. “No. Not in there.”

“Very well,” he allowed, curiosity sparking in his gaze, but he didn’t indulge it. Instead, he asked a passing servant where their party was quartered. Two minutes later, Solas walked her into her guest suite - it seemed all the castle minions knew who she was now - and settled her into a chair. She thought he seemed reluctant when he let her go. “Are you going to be okay?”

Ellana preferred the open sunlight to the large chamber that dwarfed the carved wooden furniture, mabari motifs featured everywhere. The air smelled stale with dust, but not red lyrium. <Well, that’s an improvement at least.> Her hand fell to the polished wooden surface of the vanity beside her chair, tracing the wood grain with a finger, while she mulled over what to say.

“I’ll function well enough once I’ve had a bath,” she decided was safe enough. Solas either didn’t get the message or felt she’d left him a grand opportunity. He sat down on an ottoman-like piece of furniture across from her. His hands dangled between his knees as he leaned forward, eyes studying her expression, “Do you want to talk about it?”

His tone was casual, friendly - hahren to da’len - and completely in line with their relationship prior to her visit to the future. Her eyes snapped to his face, and Solas’ head twitched to the side, clearly detecting that something wasn’t quite right between them. <Where are the signs? What is your plan?> She didn’t want to experience another betrayal. “What are you looking for, Solas?”

“I’m not sure,” Solas straightened, the fabric of his knit sweater pulling across his shoulders. “I’m concerned about you though. In less than five minutes you went from hale-but-dead to covered in blood and … is that ichor?” He gestured to her shoulder. When she looked, sure enough, black-green slime from a Fear Demon glistened sickly upon her leather jerkin.

“I didn’t notice,” Ellana admitted, rubbing her face. Dry flakes of rust-colored blood flaked off her cheek, and she noticed black grit under her fingernails with a scowl, “Leliana’s blood.” She looked down and realized her legs were vibrating, but she felt numb and couldn’t work out why her body was reacting that way. Solas’ expression was thoughtful, and she flinched when he stood up.

“It’s okay, da’len,” Solas said, looking around. He spotted what he was looking for walked towards the bed, adopting a business-like tone, “I think you’re experiencing emotional trauma. It sometimes happens to soldiers after particularly grueling battles.”

“I don’t know. I did more helplessly watching everyone die than much actual fighting,” Ellana admitted, but Solas had already pulled the pristine blue coverlet from the bed and was approaching her. He wrapped the blanket around her and crouched by her side, “Sometimes watching is the hardest part.”

Ellana’s fingered the fine linen, muttering, “This is never going to be clean again.”

A smirk played around Solas’ mouth, “I don’t think anyone would view the coverlet as more valuable than the Herald of Andraste.”

“Stop calling me that,” Ellana ordered, looking away. She pulled the coverlet closer, twisting a knot in it with her fist until it tightened about her like a hug.

“Only if you tell me what happened,” Solas offered lightly, a finger tucking a sticky strand of hair behind her long ear. She shivered at his touch, and his hand withdrew. <What? Did you miscalculate how friendly that gesture might appear, Solas?> Then she chided herself, <Stop assuming he actually plans to betray you. His future self was plain enough about his regard for you, and you’ve literally felt it through his aura...> A wiser part of her mind interjected, <Maybe, but don’t be foolish. He has an agenda to do with the Veil that he hasn’t told you about, just like Anders didn’t tell you about the bombs.> He was still talking, “You travelled through time? Truly? How?”

“Mmm? Oh. Alexius used the medallion to send us into the future. I think he just wanted me out of the picture long enough to deceive everyone about my death and let the Elder One succeed unchallenged.” Ellana rested her cheek against the edge of the vanity mirror, staring at Solas’ reflection in the glass. It felt hard to breathe, and her voice sounded hoarse when she asked, “What if you saw the future, and it was terrible?”

Solas’ mouth compressed into hard lines, but his eyes were unexpectedly compassionate. He placed his hand over hers, “I would fight it with every ounce of my being, da’len.”

“I believe you,” Ellana dragged her gaze from the mirror to peer at Solas directly and turned her hand over until their palms brushed. When he didn’t resist, she laced her fingers with his. “You and Cassandra were all that was left by the time I arrived. The two most stubborn of my companions.” His palm felt safe and dry against her clammy hand, and she brushed her thumb along the outer edge of his. <Ahh, he does have unusual calluses. Would fighting with a dagger make these?> They didn’t feel quite like when she shook Krem’s hand, but similar enough that Ellana decided that Solas possessed unknown martial prowess. <I don't think those are from a staff.>

Solas stiffened perceptibly at her caress. She felt him balance the decision whether to pull away again, but he relaxed after a moment with a laugh at her comment, “I admire your apt judgment of character. How did you get back?” His head cocked, and he placed his other hand over hers, putting a halt to her subtle exploration. <Dammit.>

“My judgement of character?” Ellana’s laugh came out more bitter than expected. She shook her head, “Cassandra’s, actually. You two spent a long time in the dungeons together by the time I arrived.” She sighed and closed her eyes, leaning her head back. The warmth of his hands on her own felt indulgent, “We used Alexius’ amulet. It took tremendous power, and we couldn’t do it alone. I had to tap into the mark, push the weave.”

“And… what happened then?” Solas was smooth, she had to admit, but being aware of a potential ulterior motive gave Ellana the hint she needed to detect the subtle tension she would have previously looked right past. This question had unexpected weight, <He’s digging for something. What is it?> Ellana straightened, not sure what he was looking for, and cautious of giving him what he wanted without her understanding. “I- I’m really not ready to talk about it,” Ellana said tugging her hands to free them from his grip. <Betrayer!>

Solas gave her a troubled look and squeezed her hands rather than releasing her, “Ellana… will you lower your shields for me?”

“What? Why?” < Solas always runs from intimacy of any sort… and I’m covered in yuck. This is the weirdest time ever to go soft on me. Unless he definitely wants something.> Her eyes darkened and she licked her lips. This time, she didn’t taste blood. <Don’t give in. Something tells me you’ll regret it.>

“When these things happen, it can leave a lasting wound in the mind.” Solas’ top hand fell to her knee, halting its nervous bounce, and she realized she was still twitching. “I merely wish to ensure you come through a clearly traumatizing experience with your mind intact.”

“I’ll be fine,” Ellana protested, “I’m talking to you right now, aren’t I? It’s not like nothing bad has ever happened to me, and I got through those things just fine. I just need a bath.” <Oh god, did I try to convince him by saying ‘I’m just fine’ twice aloud? I probably sound as coherent and trustworthy as the Mad Hatter.>

Solas looked sternly down his nose at her, as if the weight of his disapproval alone should convince her to change her mind. She gave his hand a final squeeze and drew hers out of his grip, “I appreciate the gesture, Solas, I really do… but I can’t.” <Because if I gave in, it’d just be throwing my good sense to the wind for personal gratification; I know something is up. I just don’t know what.>

“Can’t?” he asked, cocking his head, “It’d only be in the capacity of healing. I promise I will not take advantage or do anything untoward.”

It felt like donning armor when she straightened up, purposefully taking a deep breath and stilling her body. The physical act granted her clarity and faith that she was, in fact, okay. Shoring up her own confidence was the right way to treat herself, and while she wasn’t ready to fight a dragon, she could certainly handle a conversation, “Solas, the things I saw in the future were terrible. Worse than that were the things I sensed. Regardless, I am not near the breaking point. What I need is time to think, and-” she paused as a light bulb flicked on in her brain, “Actually, come to think of it, there is something you can do for me.”

“What is that?” Solas rose to his feet as she did herself, though he didn’t step back. His expression was open, seeking. <What is he looking for?>

Facing one another, Ellana looked up at him from a closer proximity than expected. His height was both disconcerting and alluring, and she had an inconvenient urge to furrow into his lithe chest. <I bet he’d push me halfway across the room.> She fisted her hand around the lingering warmth from his hand in hers and restrained herself, “I need to confer with Wisdom. Will you take me to her?”

Solas stepped back and folded his arms, expression closing down. His auburn eyebrows drew into two angry slashes, but his tone remained level as he asked simply, “Why?”

As calmly as she could, Ellana replied, “I told you, I’m not ready to talk about it. I need to think some things through, and I could use her guidance.” <I should give him his message. I promised.> “Your future self asked me to bring back a message.”

“And you need to confer with Wisdom before you tell me?” Solas seemed to be calculating a decision. His stance had shifted subtly, and she realized he was alert, ready to react instantly. <He’s expecting a fight?>

“No, but I’m not comfortable or ready to have the conversation that it will start. I’m tired and exhausted. Can’t you let me recover a bit before we go there? I promised to give you the message, and I keep my promises. A day or two won’t hurt,” Ellana vowed, scratching long strands of hair from her face. A few stuck to her cheek and peeled a lacy pattern of filth away from her skin. “I think Wisdom can help me.”

“Wisdom can help most,” Solas conceded, palming the bare flesh against his skull, “Very well, I will approach her on your behalf, so long as -”

“- I promise to stay out of the Fade on my own,” Ellana rolled her eyes just as a polite knock at the door and a voice heavy with city elf brogue announced, “Your bath is ready, my lady.”

Solas frowned faintly at her for predicting what he was going to say, but nodded his agreement, “I’ll leave you to your ablutions.”

She was relieved when he did.

>>>>><<<<<

As is the way with such things, the epiphany hit Ellana when she was in the bath. <Damn it, Solas was looking for Alexius’ amulet!>

She wasn’t sure how she knew, but it felt right. There was a certainty in her gut she couldn’t shake. <But why is he interested in time travel?>

The answer to that question eluded her, but she made very certain to hide the medallion well before returning to her chamber.

>>>>><<<<<

Ellana’s bath and a yoga practice left her feeling like an elf reborn. <If only rebirth really were that simple.> The tingling in her arm also subsided, though she probed the spot with magic to see if she could detect any blight. If there was anything there, it evaded her clumsy efforts.

That night, she slept like the dead, and her dinner congealed untouched on the nightstand. She woke well into the day. <So much for breakfast, just in time for lunch.> Paranoia about Solas found her running a roving eye across her room, searching for subtle signs of change. Sure enough, her dinner plate was gone, proof that she was a heavy sleeper. <Though I somehow can’t see Solas sneaking in here just to clean up after me.>

Disgruntled, and no more certain than before, she found the kitchens. She searched for Leliana and Cassandra, cradling a bowl of porridge and eventually finding them in the library. After a greeting, she wondered while she spooned hot oats into her mouth, “When will we meet with Fiona? She’s the person to negotiate with now, isn’t she?” Leliana and Cassandra exchanged glances, and Ellana tried to sound open and interested instead of irritable, “If you have something to say, it’s okay to just tell me.”

“There’s nothing,” Leliana offered a gentle smile, hands tucked into her pockets. Not being able to see the Spymaster's hands made Ellana’s nerves go haywire, but she buried the sensation to nod. Leliana glanced at Ellana’s late breakfast and noted, “You’ve been through quite an ordeal.”

“Don’t lie,” Cassandra bluntly countered Leliana, giving Ellana a weighing look, “Stories of your death and resurrection have already spread throughout Redcliffe. It wasn’t just our people in the throne room; several of the rebel mages bore witness as well. Many are clamoring to join our cause. Negotiation may be all but unnecessary.”

<How to become a Messiah 101. Fall into a magic hole, get covered in blood, fall out of another magic hole.> “Ah, right. Are you saying that people believe I’ve come back from the dead? Except that’s not what happened. I was launched into the future,” Ellana rubbed her temples, “One where the Inquisition failed to stop both the assassination of the Empress of Orlais and the formation of a demon army - both of which seem impossible.”

“Have you ever tried to tell a man that what he’s seen with his own eyes isn’t true?” Leliana inquired, nonchalantly unfolding her arms and crossing the room. One of the spymaster’s people, plaidweave at the throat, quietly approached and passed Leliana a note. As Leliana scanned the parchment, the messenger bowed and silently withdrew.

“No,” Ellana sighed, rubbing her face with both hands, “I suppose I haven’t. But it’s not true, and I don’t feel I’m doing anyone any service by playing pretend.”

Cassandra gently rebuked Leliana, “We’ve hardly fought to change people’s minds thus far.” Then her expression softened, “But… the Maker works in mysterious ways. Whether you want it to be true or not, we are all His children, and Ellana - there is too much coincidence-” then her face shifted into a scowl, “- no, to even call it coincidence ignores the patently miraculous. The Maker’s hand is at play.” Firmly, she concluded, “Leliana is right. Our energies are best spent elsewhere. You say the Venatori intend to strike at Empress Celene I of House Valmont?”

<The Maker’s hand or Solas’, I wonder?> She remembered how antsy he was when she looked weak out in the open. <Is he playing kingmaker?> She had a feeling it was another one of those puzzles she’d better solve before it was too late. <Mystery novels never give you the final piece of the puzzle until it’s all over.>

“And conquer the known world with a demon army,” Ellana drew her attention back to remind them, but Cassandra merely shook her head, “Cullen would say to fight what you can see. A demon army would be hard to hide, and there are no reports of any such thing. Celene, however… she is embroiled in a civil war, and her death would fracture Orlais. Weaken it to be ripe for such a force.”

“So you think we should focus on stopping the assassination?” Ellana asked, tossing her empty porridge bowl on the desk with a wooden rattle, “Great. Whatever. I’m in.” <Like, what else do I have to do, and where else do I have to go? Back home doesn't seem to be on the near-term horizon.> “Anything else we need to do?”

“Close the Breach,” Leliana inclined her head to Cassandra, interjecting and holding up the note she’d just read, “But planning will have to wait. My people tell me the King’s men were seen on the road, likely to arrive in Redcliffe within the hour. The contingent flies the King’s personal banner. By this time tomorrow, Herald, you can claim to have met royalty.”

<Wait, what?> Ellana straightened in her chair. The porridge in her stomach suddenly felt like lead, and it came out husky when she asked, “Alistair?”

Leliana and Cassandra exchanged glances, and the former asked carefully, “You know King Theirin?”

“Um,” Ellana bit her lower lip. <I can’t exactly say ‘Biblically’ now, can I? Besides, he wouldn’t recognize me any more than he would an actual Bible.> “No.”

“You are literally the worst liar I have ever met,” Leliana declared, flipping a palm up broadly and gesturing to Cassandra, “Don’t you agree, Cass?”

Cassandra’s tone soured, “You see shadows in every corner, Leliana.” Regardless, she advised Ellana with a grunt, “Even being Dalish will not excuse you from the affront of referring to the King of Ferelden by his first name.” Then to Leliana, “I will go and arrange the meeting with Fiona after prayers whilst you prepare our elven friend to meet a king. Don’t be late.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Ellana managed to sound just as sour. <’Elven friend’ indeed.>

>>>>><<<<<

Leliana urged Ellana back to her suite, all but dragging her through the castle the way Solas had the day before, <Everyone is getting fresh with me these days.> Ellana fought the urge to shake the spymaster off while Leliana explained, “We will discuss manners and Ferelden traditions while you change.”

“Change? Leliana…”  

“And we also need to talk. Somewhere more private than a library,” the redhead added, reaching for Ellana’s door handle and pushing it open. She held the door whilst pushing Ellana through it, then followed behind.

“Okay,” Ellana muttered, telling herself not to be jumpy as she passed the other woman by, “I’m just not used to holding court in my room.”

“No? Well, it will have to do,” Leliana closed the door behind them and placed her back against it, arms folded and ankles as well. Her lean had a casual look to it, but Ellana felt trapped; she couldn’t shake the sense that there was nothing relaxed about the spymaster’s stance.

“You look wary,” Leliana observed in delicate tones, “I cannot blame you. In your shoes, I too would be discomfited. But we do not have time for games, you and I. We must be allies; many lives depend on it.”

“I’m listening,” Ellana headed for the wardrobe, tugging at the scarf about her neck, “But do I have to change? I’m already wearing the best I brought with me; I planned to join the negotiations with the Grand Enchanter. What’s wrong with what I’ve got on?”

Leliana cocked her head, then reached past Ellana to pull a flimsy strip of silk out of the armoire, “Trust me. Gem tones make someone with your coloring look sallow. This dusky rose will bring out the blush in your porcelain skin; or the powder blue, a magnificent color to highlight the intensity of your eyes.”

<What? Gem tones make me look sallow? What’s next - don’t wear white after Labor Day?> Ellana lamented as she looked down across her attire. Noting the rich emerald she wore qualified as a ‘gem tone’, she gave a vexed mutter, and grabbed the powder blue tunic from inside the wardrobe.

Leliana clucked her tongue and shook her head, putting back the pink tunic she had selected, and forged on, “Colors aside, it is important, Ellana. How do you know the King of Ferelden?”

“He wouldn’t remember me,” Ellana waved off the question as she stripped her shirt off, “It was a long time ago, before he was king, even. We Dalish don’t interact with humans much, I doubt he even noticed me.” Pulling the powder blue into her shoulders, Ellana fiddled the seed buttons closed and tried to deflect, “Anyway, have you ever met Alistair?”

“I cannot figure why, but that question sounds disingenuous coming from you,” Leliana sighed and pushed away from the wall, “Yes, before he was king, he and I travelled together for a time. During the Blight.” Leliana lifted a brow and tugged a pair of almost-white leather breeches out and held them up before Ellana, “You call him Alistair with a familiar certainty. Most would not.”

She made a face, then took the hanger from Leliana’s hands and began to tug off her pants. “I thought we agreed the interrogations were over?” Ellana fitted first one, then the other leg into the pants with haste. “What do you want me to say? I don’t know anything that could leverage the king’s help-” <Well, maybe if you share a secret Dragon Age: Origins in-joke, he’ll melt at the knees, recognize me as the Hero of Ferelden, and we can run off into the sunset together? Right. More likely I’d be done in for blood magic and reading minds.>

Leliana’s gaze ran the length of Ellana’s features, and she wondered what signs of deceit the other woman was looking for - until Leliana stepped back and she realized that the gaze had instead been intimate. <Ahh, I forgot about… oh my.> Ellana cleared her throat, “I’m sorry, Leliana. I don’t know what to say to you; certainly nothing you would believe.”

“You should try me,” Leliana sighed, and sat down on the ottoman Solas had occupied previously. “I won’t bite, you know. Whether you believe you are the Herald of Andraste or not, Cassandra is not wrong. The Maker guides your hand, and He is here, with you even now.” The way Leliana gestured about the room, then settled back into her lounge, gave Ellana pause.

“And the Maker wants me to receive fashion advice when I meet the King of Ferelden?” Ellana quipped as she dressed.

“Don’t jest; the Herald of Andraste represents the Inquisition. Appearances mean more than you know,” Leliana tucked into her belt pouch and produced a pair of finely made silk slippers, “Here, put these on. They are comfortable; made for bards to move stealthily between trysts, but still carry that flare expected of the court.”

Ellana’s brows drew down with a mixture of surprise and sudden humility, <She brought me a gift? Didn’t I used to do that to curry favor with her? > Not entirely certain how to take it - Ellana was well aware of how much Leliana liked shoes, and giving away a pair designed for a bard… “Hankering to take a role as my stylist?” she asked with a nervous laugh.

“A stylist? I should give that serious thought when all these lives are saved, no? It would be a happy life,” Leliana’s expression softened, and she patted Ellana’s upper arm. The odd tingle was back, and Ellana felt the hairs at the nape of her neck stand up. To distract herself, she rubbed at the spot and asked, “Was that all you wanted? To know how I knew the King of Ferelden?” <I’ll remember not to call him Alistair going forward.>

Leliana sighed, “While I hoped to discover how it is you know His Majesty… I also intended to apologize again. I had hoped that perhaps time would bring forgiveness.”

“You’re forgiven,” Ellana affirmed, running her fingers against the shorn side of her scalp, and giving a coquettish grin, “But only if you make me memorable. It occurs to me that I’m meeting a king!”  <She died for me in the future and that was after she stood at my side as a loyal, capable companion when I was the Hero of Ferelden…>

“You do know that women throw themselves at Alistair’s feet near constantly?” Leliana picked up a brush and gestured for Ellana to sit down, “I’ll do what I can; I even know exactly what he likes - but please don’t embarrass yourself or the Inquisition.”

“Oh for-” Ellana sat down as indicated only to twist and grimace at Leliana, <I know what he likes too.> “I don’t intend to seduce him, Leliana.” The spymaster shook her head and gathered Ellana’s hair in her hand, replying cryptically, “If you say so.”

>>>>><<<<<

King Alistair Theirin’s men marched into the hall with military precision. Ellana wondered how long they had practiced the display to get it right. <It’s not like they had this particular hall to practice in.>

She sat stiffly on Redcliffe’s throne, Grand Enchanter Fiona at her left side, Leliana and Cassandra at her right. <I will NOT fidget,> she told herself firmly, and took confidence in the fact that she looked magnificent. True to expectations, Leliana not only had fashion sense, but Ellana felt superbly comfortable in the high-quality cotton tunic and form-fitting breeches. The long side of her hair formed a dense under-braid that trailed down her neck, weighed down with Orlesian ornaments. She sparkled when she moved, and had settled just so, in proportions intended to be regal. <After much prodding and a million corrections. Thank you, Leliana.>

Everything about this meeting was arranged according to Leliana’s plan. While Ellana quaked inside to see her former lover, she also knew that this was an important moment for the Inquisition. An audience with the King of Ferelden gave the organization a level of legitimacy, and it made sense to capitalize on the opportunity to use iconic Herald of Andraste to draw on the Maker’s authority. <I have to admit, the politics are far more entertaining here than at the office.>

She hoped that Alistair wasn’t as bumbling of a statesman as she remembered. <I really screwed up when I made him king. And not the least because he dumped me.>

“King Alistair Theirin of Ferelden,” announced the herald, and Ellana rose from her seat as he approached, announcing,“The Inquisition welcomes you, and gladly returns the liberated seat of Redcliffe to her rightful ruler.” With this, Ellana bowed and prayed the three-line speech Leliana made her memorize. It had the desired effect.

Alistair came to a halt at the foot of the dais, burnished copper flecks in his ruddy hair grabbing the torchlight. Leliana was more of a redhead, but she was far less painfully handsome in Ellana’s estimation. <And also far less angry looking. Luckily, Leliana seemed fairly certain that seeing a ‘pretty girl’ might mollify him. Does a tattooed face with a punk hairstyle fit the bill?> she wondered.

Alistair’s voice rang out in tones that were far more kingly than Ellana recalled, “And you are?” <Ahh the heartache of seeing that someone that you once loved - even if they’re not real - has changed.>  And changed he had. Though his eyes roved over her form-fitting blue tunic and white leather leggings, there was nary a blush to be seen, nor did his gaze linger until it hit her vallaslin. Just like everyone else, his gaze stopped there. <Great.>

Ellana opened her mouth to answer the question, but Leliana smoothly stepped forward with her classic ‘drawing attention’ tactic, and intoned, “Your Majesty, please allow me to introduce the Herald of Andraste, Ellana Lavellan.”

“She’s a Dalish elf,” Alistair protested to Leliana in terms far more casual and familiar than Ellana expected. <Well, that’s more like the Alistair I remember.> She buried her irritation at Leliana’s interruption, tempered by relief and approval, and let the spymaster take over.

“Be that as it may,” Leliana looked Alistair directly in the eyes, and visibly willed him to believe, “It is the truth.” Alistair kept the spymaster’s gaze for a moment before they nodded to one another with easy familiarity.

“As I understand it, you have no particular dislike of elves,” Ellana commented in what she hoped were diplomatic tones. It didn’t help she was suffering from a mixture of emotions she’d be hard pressed to identify, <Since I was an elf when we slept together!> She decided to launch into the story she and the Inquisition leadership had concocted - the absolute truth. “Please, Your Majesty; we did not come here to make trouble, but to seek the aid of the Free Mages in closing the Breach over Haven.” Ellana sent a nod to Fiona, “When we found Redcliffe captured, we liberated it, and now we happily return it. The Inquisition means only to seek the mages’ help to save lives.”

Alistair pressed his lips together, then reached up and pinched the bridge of his nose. Ellana took another opportunity to admire the deep glints in his hair, then to glanced at Fiona to make a direct comparison. Nothing. No similarities. <Is it possible for the books to lie?> When Alistair finally spoke, it was wearily to the Grand Enchanter, “I’d heard you’d given Redcliffe Castle away to a Tevinter Magister. Redcliffe belongs to Arl Teagan; what do you say to these accusations?”

Fiona clasped her hands before her waist and lowered her head. For the first time, Ellana saw something of the elven slaves in her. The Grand Enchanter’s shoulders hunched and nervous energy buffeted Ellana’s shield. “Your Majesty, we never intended…”

“I know what you intended,” Alistair interjected with a sigh and a shake of his head, “But this is going too far. The war between Templars and mages has taken more than its fair share of lives, and I understand the Free Mages’ position more than you might think - but this?” His brow wrinkled as his eyes met those of the Grand Enchanter, “It’s nigh treason. I wanted to help you, but you’ve made it impossible.” <The nobles of the Landsmeet would lose all faith in the throne if the seizure of their lands is not swiftly and decisively punished,> Ellana realized with only a minor ruffle through Ellana’s memories and a bit of real world history, <No man rules alone.>

“You and your followers are no longer welcome in Ferelden,” Alistair announced, turning his brown gaze back to Ellana. “And you and I shall discuss the intentions of the Inquisition further, over dinner.” 

<I should tell him I’m only a figurehead, and he really needs to talk to Leliana,> Ellana thought, trying to figure out a diplomatic way to say so without undermining her credibility. Leliana’s smile stretched wide, however, and she accepted graciously on Ellana’s behalf, “Of course, Your Majesty.”

Ellana turned just enough to arch a brow at Leliana, but Alistair was already turning to his men. He bounded up the dais and seated himself symbolically on the throne, steepling his fingers before him, “Fereldan accepts the return of the Arl Teagan’s property. This audience is at an end.”

Chapter Text

Ellana forced herself to take several deep, slow breaths before knocking on the study door. Alistair’s voice greeted her, beckoning, “Come in.” As simple as that, she found herself alone with the King of Ferelden, a man she recalled as her ex-lover but couldn’t picture his nethers. <He looks so much… older. Gosh, has it truly been a decade? I must look like a child to him.> Though Alistair still glowed with good health, laugh lines had appeared around his eyes; there was a dignity in his posture that implied maturity he certainly didn’t have the last time they were together. <He looks like he might still have the goods under that tunic though… how does a warrior king stay in shape?>

“Hello,” she greeted, drawing a chair opposite the sumptuous waste of food on the desk between them. When she grimaced, he laughed softly and played one of his pale hands, dotted with a lone freckle, across a bread roll, “What bothers you, Herald of Andraste? The bread not holy enough? You prefer peacock to chicken?”

“Really? I was hoping dinner would be congenial,” Ellana’s forehead wrinkled, and she gestured to the spread of food with her fingertips, “I just find it wasteful. All of this for two people? We’ll both be fatter than prize sows by dessert.”

“A good point, I concede,” Alistair's demeanor relaxed slightly, brown eyes warming as he reached for an unlabelled bottle of liquor, “Forgive me, I’ll be the epitome of chivalry from here on. I suppose I’m still a little sore that Leliana’s ravens left out that you were Dalish.” He poured an intensely garnet wine into two goblets and offered one to Ellana.

“Leliana set this up?” Ellana let her surprise show, then sighed, reaching for the wine cup and plucking it out of the King’s fingers. “Why did I even ask? Of course she did.” Twisting around, she ran her eyes over the richly furnished room behind her while Alistair laughed, “She’s not hiding behind the curtains, I assure you.”

He began to pile food onto his plate, gesturing for her to serve herself, “She warned me about the Grand Enchanter’s betrayal and Tevinter’s invasion before she departed Haven to join you here. I came as quickly as I could.” Ellana absorbed the plentiful platter of cheese on the desk, along with roasted chicken and colorful vegetables in fine sauces. “I should have known it would be resolved before I arrived.”

“Why the private dinner then?” Ellana cautiously picked up an apple and bit into it, ignoring most of the richer foods. Alistair had no such compunctions and even gestured for her to try the cheeses.

“Curiosity,” Alistair continued, producing a tiny scroll from inside his vest. "I figured up close, with the right lighting, I'd have a better chance of figuring this out." He passed the scrap over to Ellana and occupied himself with a generous slice of roast chicken.

Ellana unfurled the thin paper:

"Don’t be surprised when you arrive, my friend. It seems our Herald of Andraste knows you personally, though she declines to tell us from where.”

In lieu of a signature, a beautiful line art sketch of Andraste’s Grace with a long, leading stem crossed the lower right corner of the note. <So this is how she signs her personal missives.> Ellana memorized that tidbit as she passed the scroll back to its owner.

“And do you? Remember me, that is?” Her heart thumped in her chest as she asked, studing his expression for some sign of recognition. <Stop it. How could he possibly know you in this body? Hell, he’s just a character in a video game. It’s academic even if he did recognize you.> Her body ignored her mind, and she found her knuckles turning white on the arms of her chair.

Alistair paused on her stiff body language and ran his eyes up and down her. “I imagine you were one of Keeper Zathrian’s people?” There was a furrow in his brow, however, and Ellana spent a moment focusing on her apple to calm down.

“I’m from Clan Lavellan,” Ellana corrected serenely, adding to her air of indifference by washing down a mouthful with her goblet. The wine tasted rich, elevated with threads of cherries and plums, “We’re from the northern Free Marches, not the Brecilian Forest.” <Not even the King knows anything about the elves in his kingdom. Alistair, you disappoint me.>

“You know of Keeper Zathrian then?” Alistair asked with a playful quirk of his lips. He mirrored Ellana’s gesture, but sipped less cautiously than she. Not for the first time, she  wondered how Thedans drank wine like water. “Were you visiting when I was there last? You would have been, what…” He pursed his lips and guessed, “Ten?”

“A bit older,” <Lavellan would have been, anyway. If I were Lavellan.> ”Most of the Dalish know what happened with Witherfang and the werewolf curse. Folklore, you know,” Ellana licked the wine from her lips, and wondered if her answer had appeased him.

“I didn’t know,” Alistair countered with a grimace that told her he remembered their first visit. “In any case, it is a pleasure to meet the famed Herald of Andraste, but I still don’t know where we might have met. I’m gathering you’ve never been to court?”

“Oh, so that’s what this is about,” Ellana laughed, rotating her forefinger knowingly above the goblet at her side, “Leliana has decided I’m some sort of puzzle to be solved and gone the indirect route of interrogating me with handsome kings.”

“Handsome, eh?” Alistair’s mouth quirked once again into a smile, and she detected none of the awkwardness she expected. In fact, she saw a distinct spark alight in his eyes. <My my, we’re more worldly now, are we? Not so idealistic? I suppose being married to Anora would do it.> When Alistair leaned forward, posture adjusting, Ellana wondered if it was subconscious or intentional. “Leliana means you no harm. I do have some questions, however. Would answering them be too much to ask?”

“Sure, why not?” Ellana heard herself agree, but quickly stipulated, “I’ll answer, provided you agree to my terms.” <What am I thinking? Truth or Dare with the King?>

“Terms?” He rolled his goblet between his hands while he studied her intently. She noted that his gaze moved past the vallaslin this time, actually meeting her eyes, “What do you have in mind?”

“Nothing unfair,” Her lips curved into a reassuring smile, and his body language - stiffer than before - suggested that he hadn’t expected resistance. He seemed intrigued. <Oh, Alistair. Let’s have some fun.> “Ask me anything you wish, and I swear to answer truthfully, but for each question, you agree to do the same. Simple and equitable, wouldn’t you agree?”

“And if it’s something I cannot answer?” Alistair inquired, leaning back and getting comfortable again - appearing to, at least. She noticed that he was more attentive to the wine than his meal. <That’s right. Drink up. This game will be so much better with alcohol.>

“It’s not a game if it’s easy,” Ellana gently rebuked, lacing her fingers together and resting her chin on her hands, “But I’m not interested in state secrets, just in getting to know you. We can stop playing at any time.”

“Very well, but I have terms of my own,” Alistair’s watched her closely beneath a furrowed brow, “To start, I get to ask the first question. Second, nothing we say leaves this room, on pain of death. As king, I assure you that is no idle threat. Finally, if either of us refuses to answer a question, they must immediately scull their wine.” Terms established, he spat into his palm and reached across the table, offering it to her.

She stared at the wet hand with distaste she tried very hard to hide. <Well, I wasn’t expecting that. > It sort of made sense, though. Ferelden was nothing like Orlais, and hygiene, while not entirely absent, had a different set of standards. <I guess you have to really mean it to exchange spit by palm… keeping it honest. I probably wouldn’t mind too much if he decided to exchange spit another way, so I may as well get it over with.> With an only half-formed grimace she spat in her own hand, considered the globule, and clapped her palm against his.  She made a point of keeping her handshake firm and looked him in the eye. <Slimy.> “Agreed.”

“Perfect,” Alistair’s brown eyes twinkled as he topped up her wineglass; the rich scent of wine wafted into the air while he poured. He wasted no time cutting to the chase, “Are you really the Herald of Andraste?”

“Given that was a moniker placed upon me by others, I suppose I am. There’s no other Herald of Andraste running around,” Ellana began, but saw the lines of disapproval creasing Alistair’s mouth, and decided to be more candid, “If what you’re asking is whether I have a holy connection to Andraste or the Maker,” she surreptitiously wiped the spittle from her hand onto her pant leg, gesture hidden under the desk, “I don’t know. They don’t talk to me or anything; the most evidence I have either way is, as Varric says, uncanny bad luck. Or good luck, since I’ve survived everything that’s happened so far.” She paused, frowning, then added, “I’m not Andrastian. Not only am I a Dalish elf, I’m not an adherent of the elven gods even by Dalish standards. I seem like an unlikely candidate for divinity, but that doesn’t stop rumors or the Inquisition. Though I have a sneaking suspicion Cassandra, at least, is a true believer.”

“Ahh,” His face gradually smoothed throughout her explanation, and he established his satisfaction with a nod. <I guess I just set the bar for how open we’re going to be.> “Alright, Herald, what would you know about me?”

“Please, if you wouldn’t mind, call me Ellana,” she smiled, and was pleased when he smiled back with an indulgent nod, “What do you think about elves?”

“A worthy question,” Alistair nodded thoughtfully while he lifted a grape and popped it into his mouth, “Unlike most of the nobility, I have set foot in an Alienage, and I cannot ignore what I have seen with my own eyes. Your kin’s plight is terrible, but I hope it has been better under my rule. The Hero of Ferelden, my close friend, was an elf. It helps that I can establish schools and other uplifting ventures in her name. She would have wanted that.” The last was said with a nostalgic note, and he downed the last of his wine.

This time Ellana picked up the wine bottle and refilled his goblet, though she cautioned, “Easy there. We have the whole night to get into our cups. It sounds like you cared about the Hero of Ferelden.”

“Yes, I did,” Alistair fingered a flat, oval locket that she noticed glinting at his throat. When he released it he said, “It’s no secret Lyna and I were lovers before she disappeared. I’ve done everything in her memory.” Perhaps to lighten the mood, he lifted a plate and offered Ellana one of the bread rolls, “Don’t make me ask what your saddest memory is, I don’t have enough wine to cope with all that.”

“Alright, I won’t,” Ellana lightened the mood with a smile and reached forward to accept the roll, “But it’s still your turn.” The soft, nutty bread almost melted in her mouth, “This bread is fantastic.”

“It is, compliments to the cook - but on with it. Very well, if I cannot ask your saddest memory, I shall have to know your happiest,” Alistair smeared butter onto his bread before taking a bite. His interest at this stage seemed simply polite, and Ellana felt the need to get a rise out of him. <What if I joke about that time I licked a lamppost?> She mentally groaned, <Well, that wouldn’t be subtle.>

She thought for a moment, then said, “I suppose when I got my first dog.” <You might know him…>

“You like dogs? Proof that there are no savages amongst the Dalish,” he touched his heart and looked to the sky as if looking at the Maker, “I have a Mabari companion myself; creatively named ‘Dog’ by the late Lyna.”

“Sounds like a fine name to me,” Ellana muttered into her wine cup, and Alistair grinned, spreading his hands, “That’s what she said!”

“And she had excellent taste,” <She chose you, didn’t she? Well, until you dumped me. Her. Whatever.> Ellana grinned and gestured with her eating knife, adding, “It’s my turn. What is it like being king?”

“It has some perks,” Alistair smiled. She was surprised to notice that he only spoke between mouthfuls, “Mostly in the form of money and people doing what you say without question. Of course, that’s the downside to it too. I wasn’t born to this, and I could do completely without. But, duty you know. I love my country, and at the time I took the throne there were no options legitimate enough to stabilize the kingdom but me - ironic, given that I’m King Marric’s bastard and was entirely illegitimate at the time.”

“And so you married Alora, your brother’s wife? It doesn’t sound like the sort of marriage from which dreams are made,” <I hope I don’t give myself away with any of these questions-> But some part of her did want to give it away. She wanted to be noticed and remembered, and it took effort to ruthlessly squash it.

“That’s another question,” Alistair smiled kindly, but she also sensed that she had touched upon a topic that  he wasn’t keen to delve into. <Now just to ask him about it in a way that will have him drinking instead of murdering - timing is everything.> “It’s my turn. Okay, Ellana - you did say I could call you that - how do you know me? I must admit, you seem uncannily familiar. Maybe it’s your posture; you remind me of someone, but I cannot put my finger on it. We have met before, haven’t we?”

Ellana’s smile slipped, and her fingers fumbled with her fork, <Shit. I’m familiar to him. Do I lie? Call a halt to the game?> “You wouldn’t believe me.”

“Oh?” Alistair straightened, lifting his winecup to his lips. He hadn’t slowed down at all. “Now that sounds at least thrice more intriguing than ‘I passed you on my way to the privy while you were visiting Clan Mahariel.’”

Ellana’s throat dried, and she stared at Alistair’s half-grin without blinking. Answering the sting, she closed her eyes, “This has been lovely, Alistair, but I think it’s time to scull…” she reached for her wine.

“-Oh come on, surely it’s not that big of a secret?” Alistair cocked his head, a hand easing up to stroke at his perpetual three o’clock shadow, “I did swear, nothing you said would leave this room. On the Maker and my mother’s grave.”

<Your mother isn’t dead, she’s somewhere in the castle!> thought Ellana, though she knew there was no way Alistair was aware of that fact. “Well, I’ve had dreams about you.” <There, that’s a truth at least.>

“What kind of dreams? Divine ones from the Maker?” Alistair pressed, looking intrigued. The blush that crept up her cheeks was answer enough, and she cleared her throat, causing him to laugh. “Seriously? You’re not putting me on?”

“I’m a terrible liar,” Ellana mumbled, looking away. <Did he feel like this when I was flirting with him years ago? No. That was sweet, and innocent, and funny.>

“You know,” Alistair’s eyes twinkled, holding Ellana’s, and his voice dipped in tone, “I’m loathe to defy the will of the Maker.” He tapped the side of his goblet, “If you’re not going to tell me the truth… drink up.”

Ellana made a face, and announced, “Under protest - it’s the truth! I was going to drink anyway.” She took a deep draught of the wine, but Alistair tapped a disruptive rhythm onto the desk with his forefinger, “On your honor, woman! Scull!”

Ellana swore and forced herself to down the brew. When done, she gasped and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth, “Oh gods…” Alistair’s eyes twinkled as he refilled her cup, saying smugly, “Don’t worry. If you pass out, I’ll make sure you get safely to your bed.”

<Is he flirting with me?> She thought her way through their conversation thus far, <Yes, he is definitely flirting with me.> “Fine, if you want to see who can drink who under the table first… what is Anora’s favorite sexual position?”

Alistair let out a laugh so loud that Ellana imagined the iron-bound planks in the door quaked on their hinges. “You assume I sleep with my wife!” He cocked his head as if trying to decide, “I’m not sure if it’s fair to ask questions about someone else, especially private ones.”

“Does that mean you’re going to scull that wine?” Ellana lifted a brow and tried not to look smarmy. <Fail. I am smug as fuck.>

“Leliana was right -” Alistair mused, “You do talk as if you know us personally.” At that, he sculled his wine and asked shamelessly, “What is your favorite sexual position?”

Ellana laughed, “Oh no - I’m not going to poison myself over that one. Hmm, what’s it called… ahhhh-” she dug through Lavellan’s mind, then grinned slowly, “The Bridled Halla.”

“I’m familiar with it,” Alistair acknowledged with a dark gleam in his eye. <What? How? Oh… Lyna was Dalish. And Lyna was me…damn.> He shifted forwards towards Ellana and murmured with confidence that heated her nethers, “Intimately.”

“If you’re teasing me-” Ellana fell silent, wrestling with how fragile and conflicted his flirting made her feel. A brush of anger resonated in her chest right along with the distracting heat even lower.  <Dammit.>

“Of course I’m teasing you,” Alistair admitted, still wearing that half-grin and settling back to give her some space. She released a breath of relief, though she found herself shifting her thighs together to ease her arousal. Oblivious, Alistair continued, “However, I am serious about Anora. My wife and I are friends and allies, but she leaves me to my business as I leave her to hers. We are not in love, as I suppose you’ve surmised by now. I’m incapable of siring heirs, so there is no danger of my bastards destabilizing the kingdom. Anora has her lovers, and I am free to take my own, provided we’re both discrete. And I have, upon occasion. I’m not at all adverse to exploring that possibility with you.” He cocked his head, and added, “And … I find you strangely compelling. There is something extremely familiar about you.”

<Something? You once said I was the love of your life.> Ellana fiddled with the stem of her goblet, <That’s a far cry from who you were a decade ago.> “It’s not because I remind you of Lyna, is it?”

Alistair pursed his lips, considering her, “If it is, would that be so bad? But - that was long ago. What do you say? Do you want to sleep with me, Ellana? I assure you, I have everything on hand needed for a Bridled Halla.”

The tension in the room ratched up several notches, and though an image of Solas flashed through her mind, she pushed thoughts of the apostate aside, <There’s nothing there, really. Interest doesn’t mean commitment on either side.> She briefly wondered how he’d take it if she got involved with Alistair, or anyone else for that matter, <He’d walk away, of course. But since he’s pushing me away anyway, perhaps it’s for the best.>

Ellana watched Alistair as she sculled her wine.

>>>>><<<<<

She woke up the next morning, alone, in an ornate bathtub at the foot of her bed. The water was only about two inches deep and cooled to room temperature, presumably hours ago from her pruned fingers. She had one hell of a crick in her neck and a headache to conquer nations. Nausea roiled through her, agitated by the cloying scent of rose petals in the water.

Ellana dared to sit up and look around her suite.

<What the hell happened? My mouth tastes like rancid cottonballs.> The room didn’t give up its secrets. Water marred the floor, as did multiple piles of her discarded clothing.

She had to sink back down into the tub when the room resumed spinning, but sat bolt upright a moment later. She realized she couldn’t remember what had happened the night before.

Chapter Text

It would have been nice to stay in her room all day. Unfortunately, a very loud knock roused her from a sodden slumber at the crack of dawn. <Gah. Have I only been asleep for ten minutes?> “Ellana!” Cassandra’s commanding voice called out from the hallway, “I am headed to prayers. Won’t you join us? It would be good for the people to see the Herald of Andraste in the chantry.”

<Not in this state, it wouldn’t be,> thought Ellana as she half-groaned, half-called back, “Nuh uh. I’m Dalish, remember? I refuse to look anyone in the eye and pretend to be resurrected from the dead.” <Please stop shouting… please? Ugh, my head...>

“No one has asked you to lie about anything,” Cassandra pointed out in a reasonable tone, but her voice pounded through Ellana’s skull, “It will do you - us - good for you to be seen.”

Ellana ignored her, sitting up and looking at herself in the mirror above the vanity. Completely nude, her hair stuck to her cheek, plastered all over her head. Her eyes glittered, bloodshot and rimmed red. The worst, however, was how her complexion appeared both wan and tinged faintly green. <Oh yeah, I look like the aftermath of an epic party.>

“Ellana, I am prepared to drag you out of that room-”Cassandra announced, but gaped when Ellana forced herself out of bed to go and throw the door open. She clutched at the door frame to keep herself standing upright and panted from the exertion of keeping nausea in check.

“Cassandra, I said no.” Ellana wasn’t sure if it was her nudity or her general appearance that held Cassandra frozen, but the other woman’s face suggested she looked far worse than the mirror implied.  <What? Do I look that bad?>

“You’re naked,” Cassandra stated the obvious, then added unhelpfully, “And you smell like a brewery.”

“I just had a bath!” Ellana protested with a grunt and a gesture over the shoulder to the ornate hipbath still lingering at the foot of her bed. Her discarded clothing surrounded it like the centerpiece of a fancy cake.

“How much did you drink last night?” Cassandra inquired, folding her arms sternly. Ellana closed the door partially between them to hide her herself as two elven servants whisked past. She took a deep breath, then said primly, “I am a grown woman who does not need to report her leisure activities to anyone, least of all the Inquisition.” When Cassandra arched a brow, Ellana added darkly, “A grown woman who also is not going to prayers today because it would be disrespectful to show up in my current state.”

A knot appeared between Cassandra’s eyebrows before she conceded, “Yes, it would. Though this behavior proves you need them twice as much as I had previously supposed,” She then pointed to the bathtub, “Clean yourself up and meet us in the library in two hours. The Grand Enchanter has been given three days to leave Ferelden. It may take time to secure the Free Mages’ assistance, and we don’t have much to spare.” She tapped Ellana’s door with a knuckle, saying, “Don’t screw this up,” and stalked off down the hallway, leaving Ellana to flip the bird at her back.

>>>>><<<<<

Ten minutes later, Ellana reluctantly seated herself at a trestle table in the kitchens. Varric was just finishing up his breakfast, and Solas arrived just as she did. Wordlessly, he slapped a gluggy helping of porridge into a bowl. <Great. Another breakfast of snot. We’re in a castle for fuck’s sake, why is it always oatmeal?>

“Good morning,” Ellana cautiously offered, one hand shading her face while she poked at the contents of her bowl. She’d used the vanity mirror to tidy her hair before leaving her room, but she knew she didn’t look well. Her stomach rolled for emphasis, <What’s the medieval equivalent to Gatorade? I’ll bet their ideas of hangover cures are scary.>

“Good morning,” Solas replied succinctly, though he eyed Ellana as he shoveled a spoon of goop into his mouth. <Well, at least one of us has a cast iron stomach.> She imagined the angle of his features as faintly disapproving.

Varric spread his hands with more warmth and boomed, “Herald! Good morning! You’re looking- well, you look terrible. Hangover? A sip of whatever you were drinking last night should do the trick.”

“Sadly, we didn’t even have a sip left by the end,” Ellana winced at the sound, then mumbled, “I don’t think I can eat this… ” She stopped nudging the porridge around her bowl and pushed it away, “Solas, you wouldn’t have any healing magic that can cure a hangover, would you?”

“And allow you to avoid the consequences of your actions, da’len?” Solas inquired, rubbing his mouth with a napkin, “Far be it from me to interfere with folly.”

Ellana’s wrinkled her nose in preparation to argue when Sera plopped down beside her. The teenage rogue held a roll of crusty bread and hard cheese while she trumpeted, “Oi, there she is!” Ellana winced at the high pitched greeting, and covered her ears. Sera didn’t take the hint, asking cheerfully, “So, how was the Big Cheese?”

“Big cheese...? Oh, you mean Alistair. Dinner was fine. He was generous with the wine.” Ellana closed her eyes and rubbed at her temples, “I’ll be feeling it for awhile, I think, and Cassandra wants me to attend negotiations in less than two hours. Ugh.”

“Nooo, not dinner! You. And Big Cheese. And you. Doing it!” Sera accompanied her clarification with a hip thrusting pantomime punctuated with pseudo grunts. The whole damn bench shook beneath them. Sera licked breadcrumbs off her thumb and continued casually, “It’s all the servants are talking about, yeah? Not my type, but I bet most girls go ‘woof’. He’s rich and not half bad-looking for a nob.”

“Crass,” Solas declared with a dismissive flick of his spoon. Ellana wanted to sink under the bench. <Well, that’s hardly how I wanted this to come to light. Thanks, Sera...>

“Shut it, Elfy,” Sera turned her nose up and doubled down as per usual whenever Solas spoke, “The Herald here is famous, and so is Kingy. Their getting it on is everybody’s business.” <Oh, great logic, Sera.>

Ellana opened her mouth to intervene, but Sera’s rationale spurred Solas to instant rebuke, voice turning low and fierce, “A man should not resort to plying a woman with alcohol.”

Chest tightening with anger, Ellana forced a word in edgewise, “I’m pretty sure that’s not what happened.”

“‘Pretty sure’?” Sera made a rude gesture to Solas and put her chin in her hand, giving Ellana a super sweet, cheeky smile, “Sounds better and better. How did it go down, then? He romantic or more the ‘wham slam, thank you ma’am’ type?”

Ellana’s mouth dropped open. Everyone was staring at Sera, who responded with a defensive, “What?”

Clearing her throat, Ellana growled in undertone, “Firstly, this isn’t the place for any kind of discussion like this, and secondly, I don’t really remember what happened last night, so can we just drop it?” Varric and Sera exchanged a glance, and Ellana protested, “Whatever happened, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t that!” When her attention returned to Solas, he was contemplating his spoon, turning it this way and that. His demeanor was outwardly casual, but something was off…   <Is his shield leaking? What is that?> It was anything but calm, that’s for certain - it felt prickly and agitated, fading in and out.

Instead of dropping the subject, Sera cackled, “No way! You don’t remember?! Rubbish.” She then said to Varric, “That’s rubbish, right? Can’t be true. Or if it is true, rubbish for her right? Who wouldn’t want to remember that ?” Sera winked at Ellana, “Or do you just want to forget how bad it was?”

“Now, now, Buttercup, we all have drunken nights we’d rather forget,” Varric jested. Ellana couldn’t tell if he was amused or wanted Sera to drop it. <Maybe both?> Either way, Ellana’s scowl deepened.

Sera tucked her hands under her chin and said dreamily to Ellana, “Friends say he carried you all bride-like to your chambers and ordered a bath when you were done, well after midnight!” She giggled while Ellana groaned and hid her face, <He said he’d make sure I got safely back to my chambers if I overdid it. Damn, why did he carry me himself? Did I take him up on the offer? There’s no rope burns or anything…>

Varric’s chuckle strained about the edges as he chided Sera, “You shouldn’t repeat everything you hear, you know.”

“Sera-” Ellana warned, fingers curling on the wood surface of the table hard enough to split a nail. “I’m in far too foul a mood today to have gotten laid.” In that instant, Ellana believed it was true.  <Yeah, there’s no way I’d go crawling back after how he dumped me.>

Solas’ expression remained mild as he said pointedly to Sera, “Not that it’s any of our business if she had.”

“Aww, you’re all spoil sports. Ignoring it won’t make it go away, yeah? People talk,” Sera’s use of the word ‘People’ definitely had a capital ‘P’. “You need real People on your side, not just the nobs, you know.”

“How exactly does being the topic of scandalous rumors benefit my relationship with ‘the People’?” Ellana let go of the table to fold her arms, “I admit that my memory of last night is somewhat challenged, but I’d remember something like that, don’t you think?”

“Nope,” Sera smirked, humor glinting in her eyes. “Look at it this way, People can relate to you better if you eat, drink, piss and fuck like everybody else, yeah?”

Ellana growled, muscles tensing in preparation for springing across the table, but a long-fingered hand found her knee silently beneath the table. <Solas?>

“[Calm down, Ellana. She’s not worth it,]” Solas said in elven, then directed the brunt of his stare at Sera, “If you truly wish to be a part of the Inquisition, Sera, you would not tease the Herald of Andraste, but rather use those connections you’re so proud of to shut these rumors down.”

Sera replied with a huff, “I wasn’t having a go at her, though! I thought she’d be happy!” To Ellana, Sera continued with an advisory tone and a jerk of a thumb towards Solas, “If you want the Inquisition to succeed, you gotta be People, Herald. Not hold yourself above everybody else like Elfy over here thinks. That means talking and making friends.”

“Ahh, Buttercup, not everyone thinks the way you do,” Varric said in sympathetic tones, giving Ellana an awkward glance. <Whatever, Varric. I appreciate that you’re trying to keep the peace, but bolder backup is required.>

Sera folded her arms, “Well, they should. World would be a right better place for it.” She shoved her bread in her mouth, “Why is everybody against me on this? It’s not like I’m the one having it off with Kingy.” Still chewing, she added to Solas, “And you’re only siding with her because you’re hot for her, Elfy.”

“That’s enough,” Solas tossed his napkin down, “There are no other sides here but ours, Sera. Remember that.” He rose from the table. “I have business to attend to.”

Ellana rose as Solas took his bowl to the scullion's station, and declared, “Me too.” Sera rolled her eyes, and Ellana thought to Varric. <Please, talk some sense into her.>

She stepped into the hallway just after Solas.

>>>>><<<<<

“Hey, wait up!” Ellana dumped her breakfast bowl, still unfinished, next to Solas’. “Are you sure you can’t help me with my hangover? Please? The negotiations are important.”

Solas glanced sidelong at her, then sighed, “I suppose they are. Why did you drink like that the night before then?”

Ellana rubbed her face and sighed, “Things just… got out of hand. Look, Sera really, really misconstrued what happened.” She gestured back at the kitchen. “Sera’s just… Sera.”

“Out of hand,” Solas repeated slowly, arms folded across his body and looking the scant few inches down at her, “Sera may not know the facts, but we both know she’s not misconstruing the gossip.” Solas examined a point in space somewhere over Ellana’s shoulder, “This has nothing to do with me. Or Sera. It’s your reputation. I expected better of you, da’len, but your relationship with the King of Ferelden is truly none of my business.”

“Oh?” another voice called from several feet further down the hallway, “Whatever are the two of you chattering about, mm?” Dorian had been thumbing through a book while standing outside the library. He closed the book with a snap and declared, “Good morning, petunias.”

“Solas-” Ellana’s troubled gaze was met with a dismissive wave, and she felt her heart seize in her chest. <Oh no, I’m in deeper than I thought. I care too much what he thinks.> She spent a moment taking a deep breath to keep tears from spilling. At least Solas’ back was turned, effectively cutting off their discussion as he addressed the other mage, “Good morning, Dorian. Why are you lurking outside the library?”

“They’re preparing it for some sort of discussion later, so kicked everyone out,” Dorian tilted his book to display the title to Solas, “And it’s good to see a fellow scholar. Were you also coming to relax in the library?”

“No,” Solas shook his head, “I have rather pressing business to attend to, as does the Lady Herald. Actually, you’re no stranger to curing hangovers, are you? Perhaps you could assist Ellana.”

“Happy to,” Dorian replied, jauntily offering Ellana his elbow, “Such a pretty lady on my arm can only enhance my reputation.” Ellana’s brow furrowed, and she reluctantly placed her hand on Dorian’s forearm. Solas inclined his head, “Thank you. Now, if you would both excuse me…”

As soon as Solas was out of sight, Dorian glanced at Ellana, “Do you know what that was-?” Seeing her face, Dorian tucked his book under his other arm and placed his hand atop hers, “Forget that, are you okay? What happened?”

“No,” Ellana replied, fighting tears with calming breaths again, and still staring after Solas. Somehow, she won the battle and managed, “Sera popped up at breakfast talking about some ridiculous rumor going about the servants hall about me and Alistair. Solas had a few caustic things to say, but the two of them don’t get along at the best of times. It seems like whatever came up was spur of the moment. I have no idea what he’s thinking.”

“Well, he’s a cretin for distressing an enchanting woman of your stature,” Dorian let her go as they entered the sitting room. They were the only two occupants.

Ellana let out a laugh, happy to redirect her attention from her woe at Solas’ behavior, “I think you’re forgetting I’m an elf, Master Pavus.” <That’s right. Make me laugh, so I don’t cry.>

“Please, call me Dorian. Now, shall I do a little something for that hangover? Five minutes with me and my magic fingers, and you’ll be right as rain.” Dorian rubbed his hands together and lifted them towards Ellana’s face with a questioning look. She nodded permission, and the pads of his fingers settled on her temples, cheekbones, and chin. “The result of your dinner last night, hmm?”

“Mmm hmm,” She admitted, trying to pay attention to the weave as Dorian drew from his mana reserves to wrap magic around her head. It made her shudder, still flavored of death, but she held herself still as the energy flowed into her skull. It felt like a cool, dark rush of water sweeping away the dissonant tingle, starting with her headache, then down her throat and into her chest and stomach. Slowly, her nausea dissolved.

When it was over, Ellana pressed a hand to her sternum, “Life would have been so different if I knew that spell growing up.”

Dorian laughed, and said with a wicked smile, “An absolute must for any good Tevinter orgy.”

“Orgy?!” Ellana gasped. <Is this game rated R or X?> She would never admit the thought intrigued her.

Dorian seemed to think she was embarrassed, and just laughed harder, “So easy to tease! No, they’re not as common as I’m implying, but more so than most Southerners would like to believe. I hear Orlais has a clandestine syndicate amongst the nobles who puts on such events - perhaps even more than one.”

“Mmm,” Ellana replied, deciding to change the subject, “Dorian, do you mind if I ask you a question? I mean, not related to Orlesian orgies-” she coughed and commented, “I didn’t realize how well ‘Orlesian’ and ‘orgy’ went together until this very moment.”

“Of course, whatever you need,” smiled Dorian with an obliging flick of his fingers, “After all, you’ve been most accommodating, saving my life in the future and all.” He brushed pretend dust from his sleeve, then seated himself in a plush chair and beckoned for Ellana to join him. “What would you like to know?”

The solar was perfectly warm and the companionship welcoming, but Ellana had to reject the offer, “I shouldn’t sit down - I’m due at the negotiations in the library very soon.” She paused, “What I wanted to know is, when I cast a spell, what ‘flavor’ or ‘aura’ does it have?”

“Are you jesting?” Dorian cocked his head, “Magic feels like magic, regardless of the mage. It’s drawing energy from the Fade and channeling it. If we were to compare notes, I suppose it feels like- like electricity, but that’s not quite right- maybe more like-” Dorian trailed off when Ellana nervously shifted her weight to the other foot, “Wait, are you suggesting that you can tell which mage has cast a spell? My, how intriguing. You must tell me more.”

“Ahh, oh,” Ellana wondered if she ought to have kept that to herself. <Well, cat’s out of the bag now.> “When mages cast spells around me, I sense… I don’t know. There’s a sort of flavor to their magic. Vivienne’s is winter, Alexius’ is atrophy, and yours is death…”

Dorian leaned forward and inquired with vivid interest, “What does ‘atrophy’ even feel like? Or ‘death’?”

“That would be hard to explain,” Ellana said, hackles rising. <Am I different to other mages, or is Dorian simply less sensitive than most?> She felt exposed, as if she had accidentally let something slip. “Can we continue the conversation another time? It’s always good to speak with you, Master Pa- uh, Dorian - but I should meet Cassandra for those negotiations before she comes looking for me.”

“Oh, a fate to be avoided,” Dorian clearly both wanted to continue the conversation and sensed her unease. The gentleman won out, and he rose to offer Ellana his elbow once more, “Allow me to escort you, my precious summer flower.”

Ellana bit her lower lip while she decided if she was going to take Dorian up on his offer, but then smiled and laid her hand on his elbow, “You are the perfect gentleman, Dorian. Thank you.”

Dorian laid the fingertips of his other hand over his heart, “Alas, we cannot all be perfect. If we were, life would be boring. Don’t you agree?”

“More than you know,” Ellana sighed, her mind drifting back to Solas for the first time in several minutes. <Will he ever forgive me?> “But I wouldn’t mind life being a bit more boring than it has been recently.”

“Touché,” Dorian agreed as they made their way down the hall.

>>>>><<<<<

When they returned to the library, Cassandra paced outside the door while Leliana lounged against the wall, one leg cocked. As Ellana and Dorian approached, the Seeker slowed and called out, “There you are. On time, for once, if only just.”

“Thank you,” Ellana smiled to Dorian, releasing his arm and ignoring Cassandra’s bluster, “I enjoyed our conversation. Another time then? Soon?”

“The sooner, the better,” Dorian clasped Ellana’s hand and bent over it to brush his lips across her knuckles. <Oh wow. Quaint. Am I blushing?>

Cassandra cleared her throat, saying firmly, “Goodbye, Tevinter.”

Dorian winked at Ellana before releasing her hand and sauntering down the hallway with a jaunty wave. 

“Tell me you’re not becoming involved with him,” Cassandra commanded Ellana as soon as Dorian was out of earshot. The knot re-appeared between her brows, giving her a stern look.

Leliana pursed her lips, “You seem to be getting around a lot.”

<My, my, are they actually slut-shaming me? Like I care what they think of my exploits, exaggerated as they are.> Ellana lifted both brows and stared the other women down, “Should I be embarrassed that I enjoy the company of many fine men? Jealous much?”

“No,” Cassandra scowled, resting her fists on her hips, “I don’t care who you are enamored with; I care about your well-being. You cannot trust a Tevinter, and that’s not even accounting for what might happen if the people believe their beloved Herald of Andraste is subverted. And what if you get pregnant? We’re in the middle of a war.”

That gave Ellana pause. Despite the ‘mom-like’ superiority, she had to admit there was something to what Cassandra was saying. <I didn’t expect… she cares about me? And despite the clear xenophobia, she’s right. I’m used to thinking like a private individual with a personal life. I’m a public figure now. And I haven’t even considered how effective medieval birth control is… > Her irritation died down, mostly, “Cassandra, I’m sorry. For what it’s worth, the rumors of my exploits far exceed the truth of them.”

“Then we need to get on top of those rumors,” Leliana opined, releasing herself from the wall and heading for the library door. “I’ll handle it.”

Cassandra’s mouth tightened at Leliana’s words, but relaxed when she turned her attention to Ellana, “Forgive me. I should not let my fears turn me into a dictator. Come, we have business to attend to. Now, please, remember - your role here is as an incentive and figurehead. There is no need for you to become involved in the actual negotiations.”

“Of course,” Ellana agreed, following Cassandra into the library. <The things I agree to do for food and shelter.>

>>>>><<<<<

The negotiations never even started. Thirty minutes after they were scheduled to begin, King Theirin still had not yet arrived. Leliana politely excused herself, saying, “I’ll find his Highness and see what the delay is.”

Ellana found herself tapping her fingers on the arms of her chair, staring at Fiona, her mysterious mage companion with tawny looks and charming brown eyes, and Cassandra, over the large table set out in the middle of wall-to-wall shelves of books. Finally, Ellana said, “So… how is everyone today?”

“Well enough, considering that we’ve been exiled from Ferelden,” Fiona sighed, fingers fidgeting in her lap. She looked out the window. Her short, dark hair was cropped close to her head in a style that Ellana imagined Cassandra might wear, “You’re a mage. Surely you understand our plight?”

“I suppose I do,” Ellana acknowledged, drawing Cassandra’s grey gaze. There was a warning there that Ellana chose not to heed, “I didn’t grow up within the Circles, however. The Dalish are… different.”

“How-,” Fiona began, but was interrupted by Leliana throwing open the door.  An brunette elf wearing the patched, dun colored shirt and breeches of a servant stood at her side, Ellana failed to recognized him through the smattering of freckles, but didn’t really have time to try as Leliana declared with clear agitation, “Grand Enchanter, you are required in the study. Now.

“My Lady, this is highly unusual-” Fiona protested, rising to her feet, only to be cut short as Leliana crossed the room and clamped a hand down on her upper arm. “King Theirin is comatose in the study, and it’s clearly magical. Unless you want to be arrested for attacking the Royal House, I suggest you clear the Free Mages of this crime, and quickly.”

As Leliana bore the clearly confused Grand Enchanter from the room, Ellana and Cassandra rose to follow. <Comatose? I suspected he’d have a hangover, but... what’s going on?>

>>>>><<<<<

Leliana led them to the the Arl’s study, throwing open the door with an accusatory glare at the Grand Enchanter. The same opulent chamber Ellana and Alistair shared dinner in the night before greeted them, lit brightly by the large fireplace. They all approached the massive desk that shined with fresh polish, empty now save for the slumped form of King Alistair himself. He lay face down, cheek turned to the side. One arm draped above his head, but the other dangled limply to the floor. His brown eyes, warm and lively the night before, stared blankly at the wall.

Fiona’s eyes had grown wide as saucers as she approached, and her hand trembled as she hesitantly touched his throat. Her ears laid back flat, and she gasped, “He lives!”

“I could not awaken him,” Leliana confirmed with a nod as she crossed the room, “It’s a spell.”

While Fiona fussed, Ellana cautiously lowered her shield to see what she’d find. There was no sense of magic in the room, but rather - a familiar absence. As Fiona drew on the Fade, she reached out to clasp the other mage’s wrist, “No. Don’t.”

All eyes turned toward Ellana. Grimly, she met their gazes, “His Majesty is in the Fade.”

Chapter Text

“You’re certain?” Leliana frowned dubiously at Ellana as she surveyed the afflicted King, but Ellana could feel that the spymaster believed her; she was simply wishing that the diagnosis wasn’t so bleak.  <She was here with Isolde and Connor all those years ago…>

“What are we to do?” Fiona’s mage companion asked, eyes widening so that the whites showed brighter around his irises, “The only way into the Fade is with lyrium and a blood magic ritual.” <Is that common knowledge amongst mages?> Ellana wondered, checking Lavellan’s lore. <It isn’t amongst the Dalish, at least.>

“I have lyrium,” Fiona stated flatly, reaching into her belt pouch. She produced a small flask, easily concealable in a palm but for its lustrous, blue glow. “We can avoid blood magic with a fadewell used during a Harrowing.”

"The Circles are broken, though,” protested the yet-unnamed mage, “The Calenhad Circle is in ruins. Where could we possibly find a fadewell?”

“Let me worry about that, Connor,” Fiona laid a comforting hand on the fretful mage’s arm, and Ellana stiffened, comparing this slender youth with tousled blonde hair and warm brown eyes to the eerie killer-child she once knew. He had grown into a handsome young man with a haunted mien. And she knew why. In the body of Lyna, Ellana herself made a deal with a Desire demon to free Arl Eamon… for the time being. <What if this is the consequences of my actions finally coming home to roost? Is Desire whispering in his ear right now?> Her blood ran cold.

“There is another option,” Ellana stuffed her hands in her pockets and turned her gaze toward the wall, “We need to find Solas; he knows heaps about the Fade. I’m sure he can help.” <Maybe this is a second chance to destroy the Desire demon… to make it right.>

“I’ll find him,” Cassandra stated, hand falling to her sword. Her movement attracted Ellana’s attention, who said harshly, “There’s no need for that.”

Cassandra gave Ellana a long look as she headed down the hall, saying over her shoulder to Leliana, “Keep them out of trouble until I return.”

“I’ll ask the Free Mages if any of them brought a fadewell,” Fiona told Leliana,  voice weary. She directed a worried glance at Alistair’s slumped form. “Surely someone did, then we can rescue the King.”  <Is it my imagination, or did I hear a slight hesitation in her voice when she called him the King?>

“Very well,” Leliana agreed without even looking Fiona’s way, but Ellana interjected, “Wait! Doesn’t that-” She bit her lip when eyes turned to her, “I mean, I’ve heard stories of Harrowings - isn’t there always a demon?”

Fiona’s expression turned grim, “Yes. The most powerful demon in the vicinity will be summoned to the one who drinks from the well, but there is no need to fear. The demons that linger near Circles are more powerful than most, attracted to and feeding from the bright sparks of mage dreams. There’s unlikely to be anything so dangerous here.”

<That might be true, if the Free Mages didn’t bring their own demons. Shit, if that is the same Connor I knew, what would a Desire demon that’s been feeding off a single mage for years be like? A demon that was capable in its infancy of swamping Redcliffe village with nightly undead…?> Guilt wracked Ellana for a decision that left a vulnerable child at the hands of a demon. Worse yet, it had been a whimsical choice that made Ellana a heap of gold and offered no immediate downside. <It was a game!> It felt like anything but with Connor standing beside Fiona, color draining from his face.  <He knows. Won’t he say something?>

Unaware of Ellana’s inner turmoil, Fiona soberly continued, “I passed the Harrowing, and I can defeat whatever lies on the other side. Someone must have brought a fadewell. I will find it posthaste. In the meantime, Connor - watch over him.” Fiona’s voice was pregnant with emotion that Ellana felt certain she was the only one who understood. Without further hesitation The Grand Enchanter left the chamber, brushing Leliana aside.

As soon as Fiona was out of the room, Ellana swung her gaze on Connor. She addressed him fiercely, eyes narrowed and voice hard, “We cannot let her do that.”

“She’s the Grand Enchanter…” Connor protested from his place beside Alistair’s inert body, “If anyone is powerful enough to rescue the King from the fade, it’s her.”

“She doesn’t know what she’s getting into,” Ellana hissed back, causing Leliana to interject, “What do you mean, Ellana? Surely the Grand Enchanter is the most capable mage at our disposal for such a task. Well, excluding Solas, but we’re already looking for him.”

“What I mean is that Connor still carries Desire with him, has for the last decade, and is willing to let Fiona walk into a situation she’s completely unprepared for,” Ellana dared Connor to deny it with her eyes.

Perhaps used to Ellana knowing things she ought not, or perhaps due to innate distrust of magery - not to mention her own history here at Redcliffe with the very same Connor - Leliana turned to Connor and asked him softly, “Is this true?”

The bluster left the youth and his gaze dropped to the floor. The slumped lines of his shoulders spoke more of his guilt than words could have. Ellana turned from him, saying to Leliana, “Solas can fix this. We just need to stall Fiona until we find him.”

“I hope you’re right,” Leliana replied, still watching Connor with stormy eyes. Connor shook his head, raising both hands defensively “I had nothing to do with this, I swear.”

“I hope so too,” Ellana replied, thinking it’s damn dubious coincidence that Connor, potentially still bound to a desire demon, stands in Redcliffe once more beside Alistair’s comatose body. ”The longer Alistair’s trapped in the Fade, the more likely he’ll never wake up.”

>>>>><<<<<

Time passed slowly for Ellana, every minute endured with Connor and their unconscious charge dragging painfully on. Ellana alertly watched Alistair for signs of change, but there were none. She focused so hard that she startled when the study door slammed open and Cassandra announced, “Solas is nowhere to be found.”

Closing her eyes, Ellana sighed and uncoiled from where she sat on the desk, “Then I’ll have to do it.”

“How do you propose to do that without lyrium or this fadewell the Grand Enchanter is looking for?” Leliana inquired, hands falling to her hips. “I cannot let you resort to blood magic, and Connor is correct that the Grand Enchanter is probably the best chance Alistair has.”

“I’m Solas’ student,” Ellana answered, “He would be a far better option, but it looks like I’m all we’ve got.” <And I’m Somniari. Fiona, for all that she’s a powerful mage, doesn’t have that.> A creeping foreboding warned her against hubris even as Leliana shook her head in protest. Ellana forestalled her with a raised hand, “I know how to enter the Fade without a fadewell, lyrium, or blood magic. We don’t have time to waste, particularly if there’s a desire demon lurking about.”

“She’s right,” Connor spoke up suddenly, straightening, “If she knows about Desire, then…”

<That was a little too easy,> Ellana thought, suspicious of Connor’s sudden acquiescence. <Oh well, I volunteered.> She met Leliana’s worried expression with one she hoped was reassuring and sat down on the desk beside Alistair. Drawing one leg up, then folding it with the other into the lotus position, she said wryly, “I’ll try not to be long.”

>>>>><<<<<

Ellana expected to arrive in a Fade-distorted version of the study, but instead she opened her eyes to find the vast void between places unfolded around her. The eluvian that Wisdom showed her was nowhere to be seen. Two beacons tugged at her senses, not far away. The one that felt to her ‘left’, if directions existed here, she identified as Solas. The one to the right… she shied away and threw her shields up in the nick of time, just as its attention turned towards her. <Was that Connor? No. Desire.> It read similar to Connor though, and Emily only then realized she must have gotten a read on him earlier. <Where is Alistair? Why can’t I sense him?>

With no clues to the answers she needed, and having already sensed a malevolent presence, Solas presented as the safer option. She cautiously opened herself up, allowing just enough of a gap in her shields to sense his location. Closing her eyes, the universe shifted. Just like that, she stood behind him.

The void still stretched forever in all directions, but Solas sat comfortably on a wooden chair in the middle of it. He stared intently at a glowing half-dome. The hazy, greenish light that Ellana associated with the Fade emitted from it, glow ghostly against his skin. Despite the unearthly radiation, he looked relaxed. One ankle crossed over his opposite knee, and a goblet of wine dangled from his hand. Curious what held his attention so, Ellana stepped around him to see what was so interesting.

Fury blossomed in her chest as she realized Connor had nothing to do with Alistair’s present state and Solas’ inconvenient absence. Without any distortion, a smaller version of Ellana and Alistair sat on opposite sides of a familiar desk, drinking and laughing over a milieu of delicacies. The dinner they shared the previous night played out before Solas, and Ellana could finally sense Alistair, trapped in the bubble, reliving the past.

“What are you doing?” Ellana’s voice cracked like a whip. Her fists landed on her hips as she planted her feet in much the same way she imagined Cassandra might. <Is Alistair a prisoner in that bubble?>

Solas held a slender finger up away from the wine goblet, “You shouldn’t be here. We had an agreement.”

“That I’d stay out of the Fade? Oh, come on. You shouldn’t be here… holding Alistair captive so you can spy on me,” it struck her that Solas’ body language, here and now, was a far cry from the modest hedge mage she expected. He lounged with every bit as much composure as she’d ever seen in either Dorian or Vivienne.

“Technically, I’m spying on Alistair,” he pointed out, taking a sip of his wine and eyes never leaving the dome, “Believe me when I say the fact that I care to investigate this matter is more disturbing to me than it is to you. But those are considerations for another time.” In the dome, Ellana’s face was flushed, cheeks apple-red. Alistair smiled as he got up and walked around the desk, offering her double his hand. Solas observed the interaction impassively, “As I said, you shouldn’t be here. Time to wake up.”

He flicked his wrist and midnight magic washed over her. The wave caught against her, the drag triggering the memory of a real tide that nearly drowned her at the tender age of six. Gentle but relentless, it sought drag off her feet to a destination in the waking world. Desperately, she flung herself into the fight for footing, instincts screaming that her sheer survival depended on it. When the magic ebbed away, she remained standing, and the terror-filled metaphor was so strong that the void surrounding them restructured to echo that very beach.

Solas’s wooden chair legs ground into the sand, and the dome still glowed before him.

It took Ellana a moment for her to realize that she was still there. Wet silicon grit squelched between her toes; she was damp with salt-water up to her knees. The night sky burst with familiar constellations, and a single moon hung full in the sky, far off. Solas’ tore his gaze away from the dome and took in their new surroundings. His fine brows turned to slashes over his eyes, and he noted, “That’s unexpected.”

“Don’t you dare try that again,” Ellana said through a strangled breath, the panic of a near-death experience slow to abate. Solas cast her a frown, but his eyes soon dragged back to the dome, riveted on Alistair as he helped a staggering Ellana up toward the door. They leaned close, laughing and giggling like two drunken lovers. As she stepped over the threshold, she tripped, and Alistair swept her up into his arms in the bridal carry Sera had described.

Having no recollection of the events beyond a few blurry impressions, Ellana found herself ignoring the beach, drawn nearly as intently as Solas into scene inside the dome, <I’m not sure I want to see the next part.> Indeed, Alistair’s memory seemed different somehow, as if his perception didn’t quite align with how she viewed herself. She was very certain, for example, that her breasts weren’t that large. “You shouldn’t be watching this.”

“You shouldn’t be spying on me,” Solas took a sip from his goblet, watching Alistair kick open her bedroom door and carry her to the bed, her head lolling in a semi-stupor. It seemed she had fallen asleep in his arms along the way.

Ellana reached over and plucked the goblet from Solas’ hand, “You mean I shouldn’t be catching you spying on me, right?”

He glanced over his shoulder at her, mouth quirking at the corners, “As I said, I’m not spying on you, I’m investigating the King.”

“Right, I have nothing to do with the particular memory you happen to be investigating, do I? Well, turn around,” Ellana pointed with a finger at the dome just in time for Alistair to tuck Ellana, fully dressed, into the bed. He pulled the blankets up to her chin.

In the present, Ellana left Solas to invade her privacy while she sampled his goblet. It was definitely wine, but a vintage combining sweet and dry in a way her tongue had never experienced before. Her lips parted pleasantly as a flush crept up into her cheeks, all from a single sip. <This is nothing like anything I’ve tried. I wonder what it would taste like on his lips, in his mouth...>

While she puzzled over Solas’ drink, he observed the Ellana of Alistair’s memories. In the dome, her hand shot up from the bedcovers, and she said something to the departing King. Ellana knew what it was even though her memories were too fuzzy to make sense of it. <Bath.> As expected, the King ordered a bath. He waited until the servants came and filled it to shake her awake, then simply departed. He barely spared her a last look before the doors closed and retreated down the corridor for his own rooms. <Well, now I know why my memory is so bad - I was asleep through most of it.> “I never could hold my alcohol,” Ellana commented, then added irritably, “Now, do you believe me that nothing happened?”

“It was never a matter of believing you,” Solas declared as he stood up, waving a hand and banishing the dome. He plucked his stolen goblet back from Ellana’s fingers and caught her gaze, “It seems King Theirin is very kind. Kinder than I, at least. I suppose he lives to fight another day.”

“Lives? What’s that supposed to mean?” Ellana’s mouth fell open. “Surely you wouldn’t have killed him over this!”

Solas leveled a look upon her, “You are my student. As such, your welfare is my direct concern. I will protect you, despite your clear predilection for trouble.”

“That wouldn’t be protection; it’d be vengeance,” Ellana pointed out, hand rigid, and challenging him to deny it.

Silence met her observation. Her words made him tense, she could sense it even with shields up. Pleased she finally knew him well enough to read it, she systematically classified his tells, <Ears flicked back a fraction, the cords in his neck flexed. I just told him something he either didn’t think of himself or he wishes I didn’t know.> Not sure which it was, the silence stretched on. She found herself wanting to assuage him, so she changed the subject.

“You let him go?” Unbidden, a wave of sea water cascaded around their feet and ankles. Solas turned slightly toward the water, obscuring his expression from view. Then, looking away from her, he spoke. “Alistair is waking now, none the worse for wear, and with no memory of the Fade. Perhaps a dreadful headache as a parting gift.” He paused, gazing at the swirling black waters ahead, and asked Ellana gently, “Where are we?”

Hearing that Alistair was waking up, safe and sound, relaxed her. She took a moment to absorb their surroundings, <The beach I used to play at when I was little. But was I ever here at night?> “The beach, it seems.”

“Clearly, but where? There’s only one moon, and the sky is alien,” Solas looked up, moonlight limning his chiseled features. She admired him for a moment, but then turned her attention to the stars. Every night that she’d been in Thedas, she’d looked up at a star-speckled sky that was both subtly and unsubtly wrong. Here, in this moment, the sky was perfect. Homesickness washed through her so powerfully that her shields tore away.

In the distance, the demonic presence crouched, waiting to pounce. Sensing an opportunity, it oriented on her with a snap, then rushed at her through the night. Ellana raised a defensive palm and opened her mouth to scream, but it was too late.

>>>>><<<<<

Sunlight flooded her bedroom, rousing Emily gradually from slumber. The warmth caressed her cheek, and she smiled without opening her eyes. Crisp, four-hundred count cotton sheets and the weight of the blankets on her naked body comforted her. Even the fresh, environmentally controlled air smelled familiar. <Home. Everything in the world is right.>

Beside her, a body stirred. She opened her eyes to find Lucas grinning at her, an arm wrapped about the pillow beneath his cheek. His familiar face set her at ease, and she didn’t think to question why he was in her bed.

“You’re beautiful,” he told her, reaching over to pick up a lock of her moonlight hair and let it slide through his fingers.

“Am I?” she purred, his flattery turning her playful. He grinned and grasped her wrists. As he rolled atop her and dragged her hands above her head, he evoked a fit of shared merriment.

“What are you doing?” Emily’s heart pounded as she laughed at Lucas. They’d never been friends with benefits before, but she wasn’t exactly averse to the idea.  

He kicked her bedding to the floor, but she hardly cared, distracted by the sensation of naked flesh against her own. Lucas lay full-body atop her. He was long and lean with a fine dusting of body hair. Everywhere he touched, her skin tingled. Lucas’ lustrous eyes darkened above hers, equally vulnerable to the sensation. His naked sex began to harden between her thighs.

“Minx,” Lucas accused, “You know exactly what I’m doing.” It thrilled her to have such an affect on him, and Emily restlessly ran the arch of her foot along his calf, thrilling at the curve of muscle she explored.

“Mmm, okay, you got me. It’s just that I’ve been literally weeks without a proper orgasm-” His teeth nipped her lower lip before claiming her mouth, breath fresh and sweet. As he deepened the kiss, his shaft teased her apart to brush the pearl within. Into her ear, Lucas murmured, “Fantastic sex is just one service I offer.”

“Oh…” Emily arched while he held her down helplessly between the length of his stroke along her slit and the bed, collecting wetness to ease the way. “... Lucas, I-”  He silenced her with his mouth, urging a moan from her. <So hard to think…>

As amazing as this felt, something was off. Emily had always thought Lucas was hot, but he had been dating Maria for years. <Lucas is sexy, but he’s goofy and allergic to housework… why would I date him? He’s so firmly in the friend zone. When did he break up with Maria? ... Wait, how long have we even been fucking…?> She tried to remember when their friendship had changed, but his mouth drew along her slender, pointed ear and sent her thoughts scattering.

“Let me in, Emily,” Lucas murmured, grinding his now slick length against her. It felt so good, and it had been so long… the niggling concern disappeared when her rational brain shut down entirely. Lost, she wrapped her legs around him, kissing him deeply as he adjusted his angle, preparing to thrust deep.

Instead of consummating the act, a hand glowing baleful emerald clamped down on the nape of Lucas’ neck. With a wrench, Solas bodily threw him against her bedroom wall so hard that the plaster caved.

Emily gazed up at Solas, legs akimbo and skin flushed, dazed brain trying to comprehend what just happened. Solas’ nostrils flared at the sight of her, and he said tightly, “Get up.”

Behind him, there was a rustling as the Desire demon climbed catlike to her feet. Laughter twinkled in her crimson eyes, framed by long, curving horns, “Worth a try. Lyna, have you come to renege on our deal?”

Humiliation burned through Emily. She stared at Solas, abject horror coursing like acid through her veins. He wasn’t even looking at her anymore, fixated narrowly on Desire instead. The demon burned darkly at the foot of the bed, sucking in the light.

Seeing Desire in her true form shot adrenaline through Emily so fast that she didn’t notice how she ended up on her feet. Lightning crackled in her hands as she prepared for a fight, the final vestiges of cobwebs falling away from her mind. She snarled at Desire, “I let you live, and this is how you repay me?”

“What did you expect?” Desire asked, running her hand between her own thighs, then licking her fingers. Purple flames cascaded like hair behind her as she coyly tilted her head, “I can hardly act against my nature… and you are such a wanton little thing.”

The demon showed naturally pointed teeth as it sauntered towards a wary Solas,  “And all of those pent up feelings in you. I can feel the lust - dark, deep, and dangerous. Perhaps you both came to worship at my altar?”

“I have no desire for fantasies,” Solas deliberately stepped between Emily and the demon. <Liar. Your tryst with Wisdom in my form was hardly real.> The thought helped Emily regain a modicum of dignity, but Solas neither knew it, nor was he finished addressing Desire, “Unless you seek your own destruction, you will go now.”

“I don’t think so,” Desire’s demeanor changed, and she jerked her chin towards Emily, “She made a pact with me. If she breaks her oath, I can take her in ways far less pleasant than I proposed before.” The demon smirked at Emily, “Of course, you’d like it too much. I can see your deepest desires, child, and you are so, so dirty.

Emily took a deep breath and pushed the last scraps of her embarrassment aside to say coldly, “I’ll rip you to shreds first.”

“You’re nowhere near strong enough in this lifetime,” Desire purred, feet lifting off the floor, “But you are still more powerful than poor, poor Connor. And more imaginative too. That’s why I prefer to possess you instead. You would enjoy it even more than you did that little fantasy,” Desire flicked a hand in reminder towards the rumpled bed, then offered her gold-taloned hand in invitation for Emily to take, “I promise.”

“No thank you,” Emily retorted sourly, “Like Solas, I’m not interested in fake love, passion, or whatever it is you’re peddling.”

Solas slid a slender forefinger along his chin, other hand resting on his belt. <He seems too relaxed to be facing down a powerful demon...> He asked, “When did you make a deal with this spirit?”

Emily scowled, but Desire smirked, “Oh, the secrets you two carry. They’re delightful! Did you not know who she is? I- or rather Connor- didn't recognize her at first, but we do now. No wonder you find her fascinating. And you, dread-”  Desire cut off, looking down. A dagger protruded from her throat, crackling with green-black magic. Emily had barely felt him move.

With a snarl, Desire reached up and tore the dagger from her throat, stepping forward to plunge it into Solas’ midsection, but somehow Ellana got there first, grabbing Desire’s wrist and discharging every last ounce of fury and humiliation she felt into the demon in the form of lightning. Just as the last vestiges of mana left her, Desire’s spine arched. Solas had somehow maneuvered behind her and planted the crackling dagger between her slender shoulder blades.

The scent burnt jasmine scalded their nose as Desire fell to her knees, form flickering from demonic to Connor, then Lucas, and back again. Desire fell down face first in a billow of purple mist. When it cleared, she was gone.

“Fuck, what the fuck?” Emily pressed her hands to her face, mentally rejecting the violence as Solas bent down to pick up his dagger. He wrapped his other arm about her shoulders, drawing her against his side and pressed his chin to her cheekbone as he whispered, “Well done.”

Still shocked how quickly that had turned to violence, particularly how Solas had casually thrust a dagger into someone’s larynx mid-sentence, Ellana clung to him tried to think her way to calm, <Well, she was an extremely powerful demon; he probably just waited until the best possible moment. That it was just as she was about to spill his secret about what he dreads most is probably just coincidence…> Unfortunately, she didn’t believe her own thoughts for even a second. <There comes a point in time when even you know you’re making excuses for someone you love... shit. Double shit, I’m still naked.>

Solas released her, turning from her nudity and asking casually, “What was Desire talking about, Ellana?” He ran his thumb along the edge of the dagger, wearing his usual sweater and leg wraps, in the familiar surrounds of her room, waiting for an answer. <Great, he’s not looking at me. Probably because I’m naked. I hope he’s not planning on stabbing me too.>

“She was exaggerating to get into my head,” Emily muttered, turning her back on Solas. “We should wake up.” <Before he realizes just how far from Thedas we are.>

“Very well,” Solas agreed with a faint nod. Much as Desire had moments before, he held out his hand in invitation. Emily licked her lips nervously as she placed her hand in his. She was still naked after all, and despite himself, she caught Solas trying and failing not to look.

Her hand in his, mana gathered beneath his skin, dampened, but not completely dulled by his shields. Unexpectedly, Solas’ shields surged against her, then ruptured. A sensual ripple bloomed from his palm, spreading like wildfire from her fingertips up her arm, giving away the direction of his thoughts. He swore and jerked his hand away as if scorched.

Emily woke up.

>>>>><<<<<

 

Stacey Reilander (Morgalahan) - Fade Spying

Fade Spying by Stacey Reilander (Morgalahan)

Chapter Text

When Ellana opened her eyes, Alistair was wiping his mouth with a cotton handkerchief embroidered with a pattern of small, white Andraste’s Grace flowers. Connor hovered beside her, his brow drawn into a pair of deep wrinkles. He whispered quietly, “You survived.”

“No thanks to Desire,” Ellana replied wryly, unfurling her legs from lotus position and dropping off the desk onto her feet, “I guess it was me or her.” She rotated her ankles for blood flow; pins and needles hadn’t quite set in. Her vision blurred and she caught her balance with a hand on the study desk. <Oh boy. I hope I get my focus back before anyone notices how off-kilter I am.>

Connor licked his lips, and cautioned with a hint of worry in his furrowed brow, “It takes more than that to kill a demon.” Dread built in Ellana’s breast, “You mean she’s not gone?”

“She is gone. She ran to save herself, I think. It’s just… she can find me again. Maybe she can even find you. She’ll be back, I know it.” When the doors swung open, the Grand Enchanter strode through them, crossing the threshold with a dark, stone bowl tucked under her arm. Connor looked away, but all other heads swiveled in her direction. Her mouth dropped slightly open when she found Alistair among those now looking at her, "You're alive!"

Fiona rushed to Alistair’s side, placing the bowl atop the desk beside him, “But how…?”

“The Herald saved him,” Cassandra proudly declared, always keen to highlight Ellana’s role within the Inquisition. <Because she thinks I give them legitimacy,>  Ellana thought with a mental sigh.

“Saved me from what? Why are you all here?” Alistair reached up to rub his temples, “I fell asleep at the desk, and woke up surrounded by you lot. There’s no cause for alarm.” He chuckled ruefully, “There was a lot of wine at the dinner table last night, and though my headache threatens the next three generations of Therins, I imagine I’ll be fine.” He cast a grin sidelong to Ellana, and she coughed into her hand. Connor worried at his lip while Fiona glanced around those present, eying everyone individually before she explained, “You were trapped in the Fade, Your Majesty. It is good to see you are well, but we should have you examined…”

Alistair fell silent, looking between Leliana and Ellana for confirmation of the Grand Enchanter’s story. At Leliana’s grimace, he said to Fiona, firm and faintly hostile, “That won’t be necessary.” Fiona peered at Alistair, then protested, “You don’t understand, Your Majesty. There are only a few ways someone can end up in the Fade…”

<Holy shit, she thinks Alistair might be a mage.> Ellana thought, putting two and two together. To save them the dangerous argument she sensed brewing, she blurted out,  “He was targeted and drug into the Fade by-” <Solas-> “-a demon. The same one that hounded Connor all those years ago. We weren’t able to destroy her, but we chased her off.” <Why am I covering for him?> She knew why, though. <Great. Was I like this with Anders when I was Hawke? Always making excuses for his bullshit?>

Alistair lidded his eyes, murmuring, “Maker save me.” When he opened them, he said stridently, “I have an insane headache -” <At least Solas is true to his word.> “-but I appear to be hale and none-the-worse-for-wear at the moment.” Alistair narrowed his eyes at Ellana, “You seem to know what happened. And the culprit.”

“Yes,” Ellana wet her lips with her tongue, then explained, “When you, Leliana, and Lyna were here last, you failed to dispel the desire demon completely. It recognized you and sought revenge.” <I am the only one responsible for that decision. Connor was just a boy when I failed him.>

Alistair didn’t look satisfied, but he glanced sidelong at Fiona anyway, “We have negotiations to attend to; and you, Grand Enchanter, are on borrowed time.”

Fiona drew herself up, eyes flashing, “Very well then, let us begin.”

>>>>><<<<<

They retreated to the library so everyone could be seated around the same massive table. Shelves upon shelves of books sprawled out in labyrinthine rows around them, their bindings picked out in colors both vibrant and dull.

“Your Majesty,” Connor formally began, surprising everyone at the table. He had seemed meek before, but as he rose to his feet to speak to the King, he did so with a trembling confidence. “I am Connor Guerrin, upon whose ancestral lands we stand. Though I am a mage and therefore unable to inherit, this is my home. The Grand Enchanter,” he nodded to Fiona, “has given me permission to speak on behalf of the Free Mages. We wish to correct a grave misinterpretation of events and beg for your reconsideration.”

“Go on,” Alistair allowed despite his earlier animosity, settling back into his seat. Ellana admitted to herself that Alistair was far better king material than she have given him credit for a decade prior. <Probably all Queen Anora’s doing. I don’t think she would put up with ten years of a bumbling idiot.> Grateful that Alistair seemed inclined to at least hear the mages out, Ellana concentrated on being the silent presence that Cassandra had requested. She detected significant glances passing between Cassandra and Leliana, intensifying when Connor continued.

“The presence of the Free Mages here was at my invitation. Redcliffe is a fortress that has never fallen to assault. With the War of Templar Aggression-” Ellana saw Alistair’s eyes darken with disapproval at that choice of words, but Connor didn’t seem to notice as he continued, “-the Free Mages sought peace and safety away from the fighting. I invited them here as guests, to withdraw and protect the weak amongst us, such as the children. The Tevinter Magister- he used magic, your Majesty. We cannot prove it, but we believe it to be blood magic, known for controlling the minds of others.”

“So you claim it was blood magic at play?” Alistair asked, hands clasped atop the lustrous mahogany table. Ellana expected some fidgeting or twitch of expression to give away what he was thinking, but he was more stoic than she’d ever seen him. She couldn’t get a read. “But you have no proof?”

Fiona placed a hand on Connor’s shoulder, rising beside him to say, “Your Majesty, before I was the Grand Enchanter, I was a Grey Warden. I know duty, and I would never willingly abandon Ferelden or cede Redcliffe to our enemies. Even if you cannot believe that, can you at least believe that after declaring our freedom from the Circles, we would never voluntarily cede ourselves to Tevinter?”

“You were losing the war,” Alistair pointed out, then raised a finger, “Note that I believe you.” Relief washed through Ellana’s breast until he added, “but there’s nothing I can do about it.”

<What?> Ellana wanted to shout, glancing at Cassandra and Leliana, expecting them to intervene. They did not, and the King continued, “Tevinter’s invasion was a very public display. Most people fear magic and do not understand it. The nobles fear the throne will not protect their lands from foreign seizure, and my position would weaken if I allowed that fear to fester. Even if you had proof, it would be a hard ask and an even harder sell. Without proof, the evidence that the Free Mages made an alliance with Tevinter and gave up Redcliffe is overwhelming.”

<It’s so unfair!> Ellana silently screamed, but held herself still out of fear of Cassandra’s retribution. <I get that holding a sleepover for all your mage buddies ending up with inviting Tevinter to seize part of Ferelden is a massive, public faux pas, but that’s not what happened and Alistair knows it!>

Dissatisfied and anxious in her chair, Ellana forced herself to keep her palms loosely visible on the tabletop. She took a calming breath and focused on appearing serene.  

“Your Majesty, we may have a palatable solution that is less cruel, acceptable to the nobles, and uniquely beneficial to us all.” Cassandra rose to her feet and planted both hands atop the polished tabletop. She thought for a moment, then leaned forward, declaring in an authoritative tone, “The Inquisition officially petitions the throne for mercy on behalf of the Free Mages. Though their crimes are severe enough to warrant exile, we have the resources and expertise within our ranks to control them for the safety of all.”

“You mean you have Templars,” Alistair steepled his fingers. Ellana’s stomach flipped to see him nodding faintly to Cassandra’s logic. <What? Would you have ceded Lyna to a Templar’s mercy, Alistair? What’s happened to you? Bastard.> For the first time, she disliked this version of Alistair, preferring his idealistic, younger self. No one seemed to notice the creeping frown on Ellana’s face, either due to the obfuscation of her vallaslin or her general quietude.

“I do,” Cassandra nodded, gesturing to Fiona and Connor, “The Inquisition needs their power to close the Breach, and our need cannot be denied. It is the need of the world, or the Breach will swallow us all.”

“The Inquisition will become our Circles. Only you will call it something else and it will be twice as harsh now that we’re declared criminals!” Fiona fiercely objected with slanted eyes and a slash of her palm. She glanced Connor’s way. In contrast, the younger mage slumped, and he sat passively brushing a tear from his cheek as he stared off into space. The Grand Enchanter released a puff of air that might have been a sigh, but probably wasn’t, then turned to the King.

Alistair’s face could have been carved in stone, and he said, “Unfortunately, in the eyes of the world, you are criminals.” When Fiona dared to open her mouth, Alistair pierced her with a stare that could stop a charging bull and said deliberately to Cassandra, “The Throne accepts your petition. The Free Mages of Ferelden are hereby remanded into the custody of the Inquisition. Maker bless, it will be enough.”

Fiona’s scraped her short, dark hair from her forehead with shaking hands, then addressed Connor in tones of resignation, “It seems we have no choice.” Ellana’s ears perked. Something subtle that she couldn’t quite put her finger on… <Shit. She’s not committing to Alistair’s course, she’s invoking some sort of Plan B…>  Ellana sat up straighter, looking around the table. No one else appeared to notice, rather starting to talk about the logistics of transport around the three silent mages.

<This is fucked, and I have the strong feeling people are about to die,> Ellana thought, frozen in time for a moment as her thoughts raced. The crime the Free Mages committed felt ephemeral. That Alistair accepted Tevinter had cheated to force this outcome and was choosing to ignore it sat like a boulder in her stomach. The restrictions of the Templars and their brutality caused this mess to begin with, or maybe it was denying mages basic autonomy. <What? Are we no better than Tevinter with their slaves and indentured servitude?> In her life, her real life, all she had ever known was freedom. Freedom bought with the blood of men and women long before she was born, but even today, liberty and justice for all people was a cornerstone of her cultural identity. <I’ll be damned if I have anything to do with this.> The decision crystallized in her mind, and Ellana threw caution to the wind. Abruptly she stood up and declared forcefully, “No.”

All heads in the room turned towards her. She took a deep breath. “I will not be party to re-establishing the Circles or anything resembling them. The mages come to Haven as free men and women choosing to fight for our cause, or the Inquisition can find itself a new Herald.”

Fiona’s slight frame perked up towards her. Ellana saw her take Connor’s hand and give it a squeeze. Leliana exchanged a glance with Alistair, but Cassandra was the one who took umbrage, “You don’t have the right-”

“I am the Herald of Andraste,” Ellana deliberately cut off the scariest woman she’d ever known and silently told her stomach to mind its manners. <I’ll probably wake up with ‘GAME OVER’ floating over my digital corpse on a screen - but dammit, cut me down here and now if you must, but I will not be a party to re establishing the Circles.> Ellana fought for coherence of thought to express how repugnant the idea was to her in terms these people could understand. She seized on their religious fanaticism, “Andraste was a slave before she became Bride of the Maker. She stood against tyranny, and so do I.”

“This is not slavery or tyranny!” Cassandra snapped, thumping a gauntleted fist atop the table, causing it to reverberate, “The Circles are crushed, and we’re under martial law. The mages have shown poor judgment time and again. They require guidance-”

This time it was Ellana who leaned forward over the table, fingertips touching down on the rich red wood, to stare Cassandra down, “They require support, self determination, and justice; Freedoms long denied them due to fear.”

Cassandra gritted her teeth and prepared to respond, but Ellana forged on before the Seeker could interrupt again, "Martial law will eventually end, but the decisions we make here will live on. The mages must be a part of closing the Breach and maintaining peace. We need them. Even if we didn’t, the Circles are prisons, trapping innocent men, women and children, not for what they’ve done, but for who they are. They come as allies, not chattel; I demand it.” A blotchy, scarlet flush crept up Cassandra’s neck, and again she opened her mouth to interrupt. This time, Ellana held her up her left hand to stay the Seeker’s words - and to display the green fire spitting ethereally from the slash across her palm, “They come as allies, Cassandra.”

“You would endanger our entire mission?” Cassandra choked out, even as the scarlet drained from her face in favor of white. Her fists clenched tightly atop the table, and one even dropped to the hilt of her sword. Despite the fierce disapproval, Ellana was surprised to realize that Cassandra’s eyes held righteous indignation, not murder. <Fury, yes, and she wants to intimidate me, but she will not kill me. Wow. Why not, though?> It only took asking the question for the answer to be clear as day, <Because I am not her enemy, and she knows it. Holy shit. She’d never hurt an innocent.> The realization both elevated Cassandra in her opinion and empowered Ellana to relax. More self-assured than before,  she continued.

“I’m not endangering anything; your plan is short-sighted and will cost us everything in the long run - reestablishing the same institutions that led us here under a different guise will lead to the same end. Only a fool does the same thing over and over, expecting a different result,” Ellana turned to Fiona, calling on the Grand Enchanter to deliberately give them a voice, “Tell me I’m wrong. Would your people not give us far more of themselves as allies than as prisoners?”

“I swear it,” The Grand Enchanter replied solemnly, inclining her head. Ellana didn’t miss how white her knuckles were where her hand gripped Connor’s. “As allies, we will give our all. I cannot promise the same otherwise. The Free Mages have already put their very lives on the line to take their freedom. Many will accept nothing less. Even gathering our number for the journey would be a dangerous exercise.” Ellana got the distinct sense from how Fiona looked away in that moment that she would be one of those inclined to fight to the death against captivity, no matter how calmly she had entreated those present. The certainty that Fiona had a Plan B cemented, <And I bet that, whatever it is, it isn’t knitting mittens for the Templars.>

“They have no choice! If the world burns, so do they!” Cassandra waved a gauntlet fist in the direction of the Free mages, eyes glittering. She took a menacing step forward, unaware of Ellana’s epiphany about her posturing.

Calmly, Ellana folded her hands behind her back and lifted her chin, “Some people prefer death to captivity.” She willed Cassandra to understand as she stood her ground, “I prefer death. But betrayals are the least of our concerns. That’s not why I’m standing here, saying no. I won’t be a party to this because it’s wrong. What we do here is a statement to the world of who we are.”

Leliana’s hand landed on Cassandra’s shoulder and restrained her. The spymaster said simply, “I stand with the Herald of Andraste on this matter.” Ellana wanted to gape at Leliana in surprise, but instead she kept tight focus on Cassandra. Appreciation and the first true hint of forgiveness flowed through her, and she thought,  <I’ll have to thank Leliana for this.>

Cassandra’s head whipped around to glower at Leiliana, lines of disapproval carved deeply into her expression, “I cannot believe you side with this- this- folly .”

“She is the Herald of Andraste,” Leliana pointed out, spacing the rhythm of her words carefully, “And… she’s right. Andraste was a slave that fought a rebellion to free herself and the people from Tevinter. Justinia would have seen that, and you know it. We have an opportunity here. With Andraste representing freedom and the  help of her namesake, we can make the world a better place… Justinia would have wanted this.”

Cassandra worried her lower lip between her teeth for several moments, gaze fixed on Leliana’s face. Finally, she lifted her hands from the hilt of her sword in the double-handed gesture of defeat, declaring ominously, “This will not go well with Commander Cullen, the army, the Templars, and much of the common folk. We could find ourselves fighting on two fronts - against the Breach and our own cohesion.” Ellana refrained from rolling her eyes, <What makes you think the happiness of the Templars is more important than mage freedom? Besides, it’s the same problem the other way, Cassandra - the mages being collectively unhappy is the same problem.> She sensed it wasn’t the right time to interject her thoughts, however. Leliana had the Seeker well in hand.

“Perhaps not,” Leliana acknowledged without rancor, a soft smile creeping across her lips, “But it is the right thing to do. We do not shy from difficult things, you and I.” Somehow, her tone was both soothing and rallying, the exact right chord to move not just the Seeker, but the entire room. Ellana admired the deftness for a moment and marked it in her mind. <I want to be able to use that tone one day.>

“I hate it when you’re right.” Cassandra looked as if she’d bitten into something sour when she glanced at Alistair, “Your Majesty?”

“I don’t care what you do with them, just get them - all of them - out of Ferelden by first light,” Alistair grunted, thick arms folded and signet ring glinting. “If I find out any of your folk had anything to do with that demon, so help me, I’ll hold you accountable, Grand Enchanter.” <So much for thinking Alistair was being reasonable about all of this,> thought Ellana with dismay.

Cassandra sent Ellana a tight-lipped frown, “Very well, you’ve won. The mages come with us to Haven as allies.”

>>>>><<<<<

Shaken by the effort of her performance, Ellana knew when it was time to cut her winnings and run. She simply nodded when Cassandra ordered her and the mages to prepare to ride within the hour. The meeting broke and Ellana headed to her rooms, intent on packing. She should have known Solas would be waiting for her, lounging against the wall beside the door. “We need to talk.”

“Can it wait?” Ellana asked wearily, wiping her face with her hands… and quickly checked the strength of her shields, afraid he'd sense her rising shame. “We’ve orders to be packed and on the road in the hour.” Not good. She was exhausted on so many levels, and it wasn’t even lunch time yet.

“Not unless you enjoy the thought of another nocturnal visit from Desire,” Solas unwound from his position and opened the door to her suit, gesturing for her to precede him, “Your strength as a somniari is unquestioned, but your knowledge is limited and your technique raw. I must prepare you. Besides, you consistently put off my questions, and I think you know it is well past due.”

“Solas... “ Ellana eyed the doorway with trepidation and tried to summon the words to describe how she felt. Several thoughts came and went before one stuck, “I’m tired, and I’m utterly humiliated by what you saw in the Fade. I’m not sure I-”

“Herald!” a familiar voice called, drawing both Ellana and Solas’ attention. <Saved by the interruption. Thank the Maker. Or the Code. Or whoever engineered this perfectly timed intrusion.>  Ellana turned a welcoming expression on the approaching woman.

Fiona trotted up at a clipped pace. Upon seeing Solas she paused, allowing silence to fill the hallway. When no one spoke, the Grand Enchanter took a deep breath and addressed Ellana earnestly, “I hope I’m not interrupting, but I wasn’t sure when I’d have the time to speak with you privately. I, and the rest of the Free Mages, are grateful for what you did today. More grateful than you can know. It will not be forgotten.”

<Aww, that’s so sweet,> thought Ellana, and she found herself smiling, “No thanks are necessary, Grand Enchanter, though I appreciate the sentiment. I couldn’t stand by and watch that happen.”

“Please, I’m just Fiona, especially now that the Circles are broken. And be that as it may,” Fiona folded her hands, “there will be repercussions for what you did. There are many who will not take the freedom of the mages lightly. I saw the way the Seeker looked at you, and I want you to know you are not alone. The Free Mages will support your leadership within the Inquisition and will force the matter if required.”

“I-” Ellana thought better of asking if that was wise for Fiona and her people to do and shifted tact, “Thank you. You’re right; Cassandra was none-too-pleased, but she’s less fanatical than you’d expect. Still, I may need help in the future, if not in support, perhaps just with a way out.” <Who knows, they may be all that stands between me and being thrown off a cliff when no one’s looking. Not that I think Cassandra’s that dishonorable. Cullen though? He’s no friend of mine, and even less when he gets wind of this.>

Fiona glanced at Solas, who stood gravely at Ellana’s side, then said wholeheartedly to Ellana, “I suspect the resistance will be greater than merely the Seeker. Regardless, whatever you need, Herald, we are here for you.” She offered her hand, and Ellana took it. The handshake was firm, warm and dry. <Oh shit, did I just align myself to the first faction within the Inquisition? Well, I’m not in a position to stop them from forming, and as a mage, I prefer them to the Templars.>

“Thank you,” Ellana repeated, uncertain of what else to say. It felt as if anything further would diminish the moment, but she needn’t have worried. Fiona ducked her head with a last, curious glance at Solas, then took her leave. Free of social obligation, Ellana crossed the threshold into her room. As she did, Solas naturally followed her and closed the door, lips pursed and eyes calculating. She tried to put him off, “We don’t have time for a magic lesson. Don’t worry, I just won’t sleep tonight. Maybe we can do the lesson on the road.”

Solas made a non-committal sound that she took to be disapproval, but shifted his focus to ask, “What was that about?” Solas’ thumb indicated Fiona’s departure, “Did something happen at the negotiations?”

“You could say that,” Ellana started evasively, then covered her mouth with her hand as she let the confession spill, “Cassandra asked me to sit quietly and watch, but then… well,” Tension she hadn’t realized she carried released, and Ellana became more at ease with the need to purge, “She petitioned the King to release the mages into the custody of The Inquisition - as prisoners. I thought that would be… unwholesome. Coercion at best and re-establishment of the Circles at worst. So I interceded.”

“Why?” Solas frowned, tilting his head to the side, His eyes were bland, hiding his thoughts,  “Surely it would be easier to have full control over their doings - or did you anticipate the Free Mages’ reaction and subsequent loyalty? I admit, it was a clever move. You may need their support in the future.”

“What?” Ellana’s recoiled visibly at Solas’ penchant for conspiracy, “Of course not! I didn’t do it to be clever or get an ally; I did it because what Cassandra was proposing was wrong .” Packing forgotten, she swiveled to face Solas directly, and jabbed her finger at the floor between their feet, “Good things come by doing right. I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but not everyone is a conniving schemer!”

“Calm down, da’len,” Solas’ gaze had softened on her face, but his arms remained folded across his chest, “I merely asked why you chose the path that you did. I was curious.”   <You insinuated a lot of shit there, hahren.> Still… the wrinkle in his forehead had smoothed, and there was an unusual openness about his expression. The rancor left her; she was too exhausted for it anyway. <Shouldn’t I understand the guy I’m head over heels for anyway?> It occurred to her that there was something provocative about a mystery. <A mystery that’s easy on the eyes and could keep me listening for ages.>

“Well, now you know,” Ellana puffed out, crossing the room to the armoire to hide her thoughts, and threw it open. Solas followed her, remaining in physical proximity as she threw clothing over her forearm. She could sense him behind her, which alerted her that her shields were leaking. She wasn’t getting much from him beyond his presence, however, and purposefully avoided gauging his expression.

“You have nothing to be embarrassed about,” Solas finally commented from behind her. She glanced over her shoulder, and he clarified with a wave of his hand, “The Desire demon. You said earlier that you were humiliated, but you shouldn’t be. It could just as easily been me or anyone else in her clutches.”

“That’s not true,” Ellana grimaced over her shoulder, “We both know there’s no way a Desire demon would have gotten to you in that way. Not in the Fade.”

Solas chuckled, sounding relaxed, “You have a very high opinion of me, which I appreciate - but even I can be taken unaware, Ellana.” He placed a hand on her shoulder, gently turning her to face him. When he had her eye, he ducked his chin and repeated, “You have nothing to be embarrassed about. How could I think less of you? Desire is powerful, and you are young. There could have been no other result. I’m just glad I was there to prevent anything worse from happening.”

Her brow furrowed, and she muttered, “You saw me naked.” <And in a very compromising position with, not only another man, but a human. Lucas. My best friend. Ugh.>

Solas chuckled and gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze before releasing it, “It was not an unpleasant sight, Ellana. Come, let me tell you a story,” Ellana looked skeptically at him, fighting the urge to fish for more, until Solas lifted a brow. With a sigh, she tossed the pile of clothing she’d gathered onto the foot of the bed and curled up to listen in her customary pose. A grin at her obvious acquiescence drew the planes of Solas’ face into a pleased gleam and he leaned against a bedpost as he continued, “In a time long ago, before magic was despised, there was a youth. He was full of himself, having been born noble with neither mishap nor misfortune in his scant years, only many advantages. Not the least of which was capturing the eye of the Queen, who brought him into her retinue.”

Ellana giggled, and Solas raised a brow, “What?”

“Oh, nothing. I’m just imagining this kid walking through the halls of court and all the ladies tittering and batting their lashes at him - in his head.”

“And none too few of the men?” Solas chuckled, “Oh yes, the youth thought he had plenty of evidence to support his hubris. Several members of the court threw themselves at him, in some cases quite literally,” Solas’ eyes twinkled while he waited to see if she had more to add before continuing, but she simply rolled onto her belly and placed her chin in her hands to display he had her full attention.

“Now, the Queen was married to a King who was jealous of the youth, which made the youth more prideful and inclined to brash behavior. Several members of the court equally found reason to dislike him after his antics and pranks laid them low.”

“A prankster, huh? Sounds like my little brother,” Ellana opined.

“I didn’t know you have siblings,” Solas commented, leaving Ellana cold. <Shit, Ellana doesn’t. Shit. Well, it’s not like Solas can exactly run a background check on me now.> “ Anyway, the king had little trouble finding someone to help him exact a spot of revenge.

“Meanwhile, the youth found little time for the attentions of his gaggle of followers, for he had eyes only for the queen. To his immense surprise, she returned his interest. Over the span of a week, she seduced him in private moments, though she kept her distance in public. He took happily to her bed, though she cautioned him that their relationship must remain secret. Afterall, they both knew the wrath of the king would be great, and they would be lucky to survive it. So they met in odd and sometimes uncomfortable places, but the youth didn’t care. For him, it was all clandestine, exciting, and well… young love.”

Solas looked distant for several moments before he continued his story, “One evening, the queen suggested the youth meet her at the private palace theater. It was small and rarely used, so seemed an ideal place to meet.” At Ellana’s cocked head, he added, “-it had a bed. The lovers took to it with vigor, and … the curtain came down.

“The king had arranged for the entire court to catch the lovers in the act - but that wasn’t the quintessential pain of the moment. It was when the youth attempted to protect the queen’s identity from the onlooking court that she laughed and dispelled the illusion. The king’s accomplice was one of the admirers he’d scorned prior. The laughter would ring in his head for the next eon - paired with the expression on the real queen’s face where she sat next to her husband in the balcony.”

“That’s… damn,” Ellana muttered, a shiver running down her entire body. She blinked back the pain of sympathy, and asked, “How do you always know what story to tell? That makes my woe feel so small. Uh, thank you.”

Solas slid away from the bedpost to sit down on the bed beside her, then his arm curled about her shoulders from the side. She tilted her head up to look at him, surprised on every level. Solas had never attempted to comfort her before… leaning into him, she enjoyed the flood of warmth.

They sat like that for a few minutes before Ellana asked, “Did you know him? The youth?”

“I daresay after that incident, the entire kingdom knew him,” Solas’ replied with a short bark of laughter. “They shaved his head and paraded him through the streets. It took a long time for anyone to view him as anything but a broken nobody, lingering at court on account of blood right alone.”

“But it changed, right? That’s not the end?” Ellana demanded, <It’s too unfair.> "Surely someone stood up for what’s right and decent.” Ellana felt the faintest brush of his cheek against her hair.

“That’s not the end, no,” Solas reassured her, then he stiffened slightly and released her. “But Cassandra said we had to pack and go within the hour. The rest of the story and my questions will have to wait, but your training cannot. Ride with me today, and we’ll work on your abilities so you can sleep safely. Tonight, I’ll take you to see Wisdom.”

Chapter Text

Ellana somehow managed to make it to the castle stables within the hour. The whole of Redcliff buzzed around her, and she arrived to see hopeful lines of Free Mage refugees already on the move, a few on horses, but most afoot. The Grand Enchanter and Connor were nowhere to be seen, though Varric and Cassandra approached her, side by side, the former commenting, “You look exhausted.”

“I am,” Ellana agreed as she unhitched the door of Glory’s stall. The sorrel mare swiveled her head to see who poured the light into the stall, but then shoved her muzzle right back into her feed. “Between the last vestiges of a hangover, rescuing King Alistair from the Fade, and sitting through negotiations with-”

“Sitting is not what I would call it,” Cassandra interrupted, attacking her horse’s mane with a curry brush. “You meddled.”

Varric laughed and winked at Ellana, “I heard all about it on the way over. The Seeker has a better vocabulary than I’d given her credit for. ‘Interfering’, ‘derailing’, and … what was that last one? Ahh, my favorite - ‘sabotage’.”

Cassandra harrumphed and looked down her nose at the dwarf, “I have never met a gossip worse than you, Varric. That, if nothing else, convinces me that you have no idea where Hawke is.”

“Now, now, Seeker, I’m hardly the chief gossip around here. I heard it all from you, remember?” Ellana wondered how Varric’s smile managed to be genuine as he opened the latch to his pony’s stall. Killer greeted him with a chuff and nuzzle while Varric brushed his thick fingers down its nose. Cassandra’s expression darkened, “I did not tell you these events in complaint. You have a flair for twisting the facts.” <Good to see these two getting along.>

“We master wordsmiths rarely have trouble with witty repartee,” Varric proclaimed, fingertips brushing his chest above his heart. Killer bumped his shoulder hard enough to bowl a dwarf over, snuffling for scraps of food. Recovering himself, Varric palmed a withered apple out of his pocket.

“Or humility,” Cassandra noted, menacingly tapping the grooming brush against the palm of her hand. The mental image of Cassandra taking the half-pint Varric over her knee and liberally applying the brush convinced Ellana to clear her throat, “Cassandra… I’m sorry about upsetting you. It… it was important.”

A sigh escaped the Seeker’s lips, and she turned away from her horse to pack the brush into her saddlebags, “You were right, but that makes it no easier to accept. We are wedded to our prejudices, yet I have known good mages. Andraste spoke through you, I cannot deny it.”

<Okay, whoa. She really believes I’m some messiah figure. I’m not sure even I believe it, though I guess I am the player and therefore main character of the game… in Bioware land, it could be true.>  “Thank you? I think?” Ellana knelt to fiddle with the buckles on Glory’s saddle as Solas padded in, barefoot as usual. His expression held a brooding mask that only deepened when Sera chirped happily from behind him, “On our way to close the Breach and get everything back to normal, yeah? About time!”

>>>>><<<<<

After a long day of riding, Ellana’s party was still deep in the Hinterlands. It was a vast place of burning sun, bloody skirmishes between Templars and apostates, brown grass, and biting insects. She felt trapped by the expanse, foreign to her urban self. <How can an open sky feel claustrophobic?> she wondered, peering at the line of mages she and the other Inquisition leaders had joined. <Is it my imagination, or are our numbers growing? Heh. I’m sure that man with the braid and the two children with him weren’t there an hour ago…>

They travelled down a hardened dirt path wide enough for four to travel abreast, and had just entered the beginnings of a parched forest. Cassandra and Leliana rode ahead with Vivienne backing them up to provide security in case the Templars found the travelling body of mages too tempting a target.  

“Fenedhis, Ellana, you’re not listening,” Solas said sharply, drawing his horse ahead of hers and blocking her path.

“I’m exhausted,” Ellana trusted Glory enough to leave the reins to dangle, running her hands over her face and rubbing her eyes, “I can’t believe I’m still awake. I’ve been trying to stay that way for hours now, and I just can’t focus any longer.”

“You have to try harder,” Solas switched to his lyrical form of Elven, sounding firm but not unkind, “[You’re a dreamer; you’re lucky to have lived long enough to even find a mentor. If your Keeper knew what she was dealing with, she’d likely have killed you the minute she knew you were at risk of possession by a powerful spirit.]”

<Feynriel,> thought Ellana, stiffening. It was one of the more guilt-inducing decisions she recalled making as Hawke, and now the results felt even more damning. <He’s still alive, but Tranquil, and his Keeper actually thanked me for making that decision… right before his mother committed suicide.> She tried to hide her expression, not wanting Solas to know how his words affected her. <I’m not like Feynriel. I’m a fully trained mage, to start with.> To prove it to herself, she ran through each time she’d entered the Fade in her mind. Every every time she encountered demons in the Fade, Solas had been there to save her. The other times, she’d either strongly shielded herself from detection or, once, good spirits like Peace and Wisdom had intervened, and Solas had been angry with her for circumventing his attempts to keep her from the Fade. <Shit. Maybe I am in serious danger of possession. Shit.> Ellana twisted Glory’s reins about her fist, knuckles turning white, “[You wouldn’t kill me if that happened, would you?]”

“[It won’t happen,]” Solas replied tightly and flexed his thighs. His horse edged around beside hers, putting him within reach of Glory’s reins, “[Not if you allow me to teach you.]”

“[That’s not a ‘no’,]” Ellana pulled the leather straps out of Solas’ grasp, Glory shying away in response to her rider’s nerves. “[I’ve sought your training almost since we first met, teacher… eagerly, in fact. But I’ve been in danger of being possessed all this time, and you never told me? And you’ll kill me if it happens?]” She knew her face was ashen, and she gestured vehemently, “[Fine time to get into shielding now!]”

“[Your shields are adequate for avoiding casual detection. Even if I haven’t been watching over you, you would have been fine.]” Ellana’s heart softened when Solas mentioned he had been guarding her dreams. She felt herself relax, and she calmed Glory with a reassuring pat. In contrast, Solas’ mouth curled sharply down at the edges, “[But it’s one thing to avoid discovery by curious spirits, and another for inexperienced quarry to evade a master hunter. You have the attention of a powerful spirit now.]”

“[So today’s lesson isn’t just one-hundred-and-one tips about shielding?]” Ellana sent Glory pacing nonchalantly around Solas and his steed. “[Could have fooled me.]”

“[No, we will do much more together before the night is through,]” Solas replied, tone dark. On hand held his reins against his hip whilst the other stroked soothingly over the gelding’s neck as it pranced back. Hoofbeats behind him made Solas swear, protesting harshly, “[This is important, Ellana. It’s bad enough that we cannot enter the Fade on horseback, we also cannot suffer distractions from your companions.]” That said, he turned his scowl on the intruders, which turned out to be Dorian and Sera.

They approached, chatting amicably despite how their appearances opposed one another so extremely. Ellana often struggled to imagine them travelling together, and today was no different. Dorian’s dusky skin, handsome smile, and impeccable dress impressed even the wealthy while Sera’s hacked-at hair and patchy scarlet tunic placed her squarely amongst the peasants. <Unless you consider that Dorian is Tevinter nobility and probably has a dozen elvish slaves exactly like her.> Ellana decided the thought was unworthy of her, at least until she knew Dorian better, <He's talking to Sera as an equal, at least.>

“What are the two of you arguing about? Magic theories?” Dorian ran a finger over the glossy moustache that crested his lip as they came close, “Do tell! Solas, did you know that our Ellana claims she can tell which mage has cast a spell? Most fascinating.”

Sera made a face at the mention of magic, leading her horse up on foot beside the well-dressed Tevinter mage. “Magic? Pish, I ought to have stayed with the scouts. ‘Course, we’re surrounded by mages now, so I guess it doesn’t matter where I go.” Sera’s grimace held an edge of fear, a chop of her hand marking the straggling line of Free Mages.

“I was aware,” Solas looked down the razor edge of his long, once-broken nose at Dorian, expression impassive, “You are interrupting a private discussion. Please move on.”

“Private? In the middle of the road? Such a public place, surely it cannot be.” Dorian declared with exaggerated surprise, “And the tone of it - so strained. My lady, you do know that if this unwashed apostate bothers you, I’ll be happy to intercede.” His half-bow from horseback nearly made Ellana laugh, and she found herself smiling.

“Know your limits, Tevinter,” Solas advised, adjusting his seating on his saddleless gelding. The gesture implied a willingness to handle Dorian in a more direct way than Ellana expected, killing her smile. She wrinkled her brow at Solas and glanced uncomfortably between the two men. To Dorian’s credit, his manicured brow framed a gaze more curious than offended, though he too sat straighter in his saddle, instinctively preparing himself to intercept. Before he could respond, Sera piped up, “You two going to fight now? Give a girl a chance to sell tickets, hey?”

“Not on my account,” Ellana warned, though she was under no illusions that the dislike between the two had anything to do with her. <But perhaps they’ll both give it up if I strongly disapprove. Dorian doesn’t sound like he wants a fight anyway.> ”I’m in no distress, Dorian, though I thank you for your concern,” Ellana mustered up a blithe laugh for effect.

Sera wrinkled her nose, “Oi, you sound like a nob. Don’t tell me Dalish simper.” Naturally, she accompanied her complaint by clasping her hands before her heart, pursing her lips, and fluttering her lashes.

Ellana shushed Sera and explained, trying not to grit her teeth, “Solas is admonishing me- and legitimately so- for paying more attention to the scenery than our lesson. We’ve been working on some shielding techniques for awhile now, and I’ve simply had a long day.”

“Elven techniques? That sounds most interesting. I would be keen to-” Dorian began, looking down and reaching for his belt pouch.

“No,” Solas cut him off, eyes narrow and hard. He hadn’t moved a muscle where he sat atop his patchy, black and white gelding, but his frame remained poised.

“No? But I-” Dorian dug around in his belt pouch, causing his chestnut mare to stop and huff in complaint.

“No,” Solas repeated himself, crisp tone unchanged. The flat draw of his mouth and sharpening of his already narrow features clearly demanded that Dorian fuck off. At that moment, Dorian looked up, pulling a rolled scroll from his pouch, “-would be happy to exchange Tevinter techniques...” Confusion flickered across his face, a beat of silence following while absorbed Solas’ naked dislike. “There’s no need for hostility.”

“What I’m teaching Ellana is beyond you. Even if I wanted to teach you, which I do not,” Solas tapped his knee with a long finger and said succinctly, “Leave us.”

“Ugh, rude. That’s rude,” Sera jerked her thumb at Solas, ignoring how his ears laid back even further, “And that’s coming from me wots got no proper manners.” She threaded her knuckles through her short crop of hair, “You need a better boyfriend, Ellana. Elfy acts like a total nob, except he isn’t one, ‘cause guess what?" She cupped her hands around her mouth to amplify her words,"HE’S AN ELF.”

“Solas is not my boyfriend,” <He is involved with someone else.> Ellana glanced at Solas, who had shifted his thousand-yard-stare to Sera, “He’s my teacher, Sera. Would you stay out of my love life please?”  

“Right,“ Sera smirked, spreading her hands in conciliation, “Well, I just tagged along to ask if you wanted to help me make more arrows come camp. The wood ‘round here is good for it. You in?”

Ellana started to answer ‘sure’, but Solas gave her a significant look, “Um, tomorrow night is better.” Sera caught the exchange between them and sighed, “Okay, tomorrow. Hope we don’t need them sooner. Even I’m surprised the Templars haven’t attacked us yet.”

“I’m sorry guys-” She pressed her lips together and gave Solas a look that illustrated her disapproval. He simply folded his hands atop his horse and silently waited, apparently unmoved, “-but I’m fine. Please, we do need to work.”

At that, Solas twisted lithely onto his belly and dropped to the ground beside his horse. He held his hand up to Ellana, and this time she placed her reins into the palm of his hand. With a sigh, she addressed Dorian, “I can trust you to tell Cassandra that Solas and I paused to continue our lesson, right? And you’ll make sure no one comes after us?"

“I suppose,” Frown lines appeared between Dorian’s eyes, lingering while he stroked his chin. Solas ignored him and led Glory off the path and toward the forest. The dappled shadows of the sparse canopy fell over them like a shroud. Behind them,  Ellana’s elven hearing picked up Sera musing to Dorian, “Think it’s gonna really be a lesson, or-” and she glanced over her shoulder to see Sera looping the fingers of one hand and poking the circle with the opposite.

“Hmm...” was the only part of Dorian’s answer that Ellana heard.

>>>>><<<<<

“Why do you insist on antagonizing Dorian?” Ellana asked as Solas led both of their horses out of earshot of their cohorts and the winding snake of Free Mages. From a distance, she suspected again that the number of people on the road had expanded - by a lot, perhaps even threefold. Her eyebrows dragged together, but Solas distracted her with his response.

“He’s a Tevinter Altus,” He picked his way gracefully through the forest, bare feet landing against the soil without sound, “His family almost definitely owns slaves, and they are almost definitely elven.”

“So he’s an enemy of The People by virtue of origin and social class?” Ellana remained on her horse, trying to keep her voice curious rather than sarcastic. She compromised her efforts when she clucked her tongue, “The location and circumstances of his birth are hardly his fault.”

Solas shook his head, his attention was more on their surroundings than her, “He’s a grown man, da’len. At some point, regardless of your roots or past, you become responsible for your present. I would argue it’s much younger than most think.”

“Perhaps, but he left that life back in Tevinter. Who knows how Dorian feels about such things? He isn’t surrounded by wealth or slaves now, and we haven’t exactly asked,” she yawned whilst failing get her bearings. Surrounded by rabid Templar, the two of them on their own felt exposed, and she realized she had no idea which way to go to get back to camp. “Where are we going?”

“It’s unlikely that he thinks much about them at all,” Solas ignored her other question while he placed a foot atop a log and pushed until he balanced on one foot. Craning his neck to look for something she couldn’t detect, he dropped down the other side of the log and guided the horses through, “You’re right, nonetheless. I should consider that Dorian might be different - I truly doubt he is, though.”

“Solas,” Ellana chided with a teasing smile, “That’s the very definition of bigotry. You know I think highly of you. Please don’t disappoint me by embracing narrow-minded stereotypes.” <Well, I suppose I thought it too, when Dorian and Sera rode up together...>

“My opinion is not unwarranted, da’len,” Solas’ groused, then his voice took on a hint of teasing, “You see the best in people. I’ve never met anyone as tolerant of others, regardless of class or creed. But you are too soft hearted.”

“You think I have a soft heart? Or that I haven’t considered that Dorian likely owns elven slaves?” Ellana laughed aloud as Solas continued to pick his way through the trees, “I’m under no illusions. I know the world is cruel and I’m willing to make difficult choices. I just also know that someone has to take the first steps toward make it better. Thedas is filled with amazing, colorful people. They have so much to offer one another, if they could only see it.”

“Ahh, the idealism of youth,” Solas shook his head, but perked up upon seeing an odd, triangular jut of cliff, “Here we are.” He drew their horses to a halt as they approached. The precipice rose a modest two or so stories, and Ellana imagined that she could climb it, even as tired as she was. Solas continued, “It’s a never-ending battle to bring light into the darkness, and no one will thank you for it. In fact, you’ll be lucky if they don’t kill you as they did their precious Andraste.”

“Death isn’t the worst thing there is, Solas,” she performed the same dismount trick he had earlier, congratulating herself for sliding lithely off Glory’s back and landing neatly upon her feet, <That was easier than I expected.> “Everyone dies eventually. Someone has to show them the way,” she grasped Glory’s reins and looped them loosely about a tree, “Like it or not, I appear to be in a position to do just that. Be the change you want to see and all.” Ellana looked around, wondering where they were and how Solas had chosen this spot; it wasn’t exactly comfortable and there was nowhere to put a blanket down. The forest around them was sparse of trees, but the underbrush had a prickly texture that had her wincing in sympathy over Solas’ bare feet.

“Is that really how you see death?” Solas surprised her with the disapproving look he shot her, ears laid back and unusual sarcasm in his tone, as  he tied off his horse’s reins. “Everyone dies, so you may as well throw your life away? For someone else’s cause?”

“That’s not what I said, nor is it what I’m doing,” Ellana hid her frustration and met his gaze squarely, frowning right back, “I simply think living an unworthy life and contributing to evil is far worse than dying. As for causes, we both know I didn’t ask for this.” Point made, Ellana looked up the cliff face, rubbing her hands on her backside to clear them of sweat for the climb. “I’m just not going to shy away from it. It’s an opportunity to give the people of this world a gift it vastly needs. Like helping the mages. Leaving something better than the way you found it… that gives life meaning. Besides, who would want to live forever, even if they could?”

Solas took the blanket from his horse’s back, checked the hook of his staff on his simple baldric, and approached the cliff face below her. “I admire the sentiment, Ellana, but you are setting yourself up for an unending burden doomed to failure. People love their ignorance.” The words sounded bitter to her ears.

Instead of bunching his muscles to climb, Solas grasped the overgrowth with bare hands and tore it away. The action exposed an ancient sconce of some bluish metal she’d never seen before, secured to the cliff face. An unlit torch hung from it, designed to be lifted out.

“Is that why you’re so picky about who you teach?” She startled as he ignited the torch with cold green-blue flame, a flash of mana urging the fire to life. Wraithlike light raced across the rock face and highlighted both of their features in blue, <Reminds me of poltergeist - wait, these are the same lights that were in the caves on Sundermount, like where we found the maleficar Tarohne’s ‘evil tomes’...>

“Largely, but there are other reasons,” Solas offered her a tight smile. Detecting her curiosity, he passed the torch into her hand, “Veilfire.” He watched her run her fingertips along the odd metal, features softening. “It’s easy enough to spark if you know its quirks. Some ancient temples used it in secret patterns as magical locks. Can you feel how it works?” Before he even asked, she was already brushing the edges of her aura along the shaft and over the flame. A cool sensation radiated against her hand and the veilfire flared stronger.

At her delighted grin, Solas leaned over her shoulder to trace a rune on the torch haft, explaining, “It’s a form of sympathetic magic; you ignite the memory of fire where the veil is thin.” She turned her head slightly to look at him, and Solas added softly, “Dorian isn’t a dreamer, Ellana. He has no hope of mastering the skills we practice tonight.” He straightened away from her, tipping his hand towards the veilfire torch she held, “Perhaps he could light this, but he’d almost certainly fail to sense all that you can.”

“I’m sure he could have learned something from our the entire day of shielding pointers,” She screwed up her face to express her opinion of that extended lesson, but really, she just missed the warmth of his body when he stepped away.

Unaware, Solas conceded with a chuckle, “All right, yes. He probably could have. I far prefer your company, however, and rather we leave it at that.

“Come now, this way.” Deeper into the shadows, the veilfire torch revealed an inky crevice hidden by gloom further along the escarpment. Solas turned sideways to squeeze through, brushing away a low-hanging vine. On the other side, he stuck his hand out through the blackness. Ellana passed the torch back to him, but when she attempted to follow after, the narrow gap in the earth hugged her sides and clawed at her clothing. Before she could get stuck, Solas grasped her wrists and tugged fully her through, callused hands warm and dry. She wished his touch would linger, but it did not.

On the other side, her boots touched cold, cracked stone. The ceiling vaulted above them and carvings of fine, twisting vines curved gracefully to the floor. Crusted debris blew gently across the damaged stone from the wind funnel made by the broken wall. They had entered from a direction never intended, little more than a crack introduced into the structure an unknown number of years ago. A proper, fourteen foot door beckoned from across the chamber, barred by a massive, single stone pillar that had fallen across its path. The room was covered in vibrant images of cavorting elves, and a deeply sunken area implied that it might once have been a bath house.

Ellana brushed her fingertips across the damaged vermilion plaster of a fresco, mouth slightly open and eyes alight. <This reminds me of the frescos in the villages of Herculaneum and Pompeii, if the drawings were all elves instead of the Roman gods.> “This is amazing! Where are we?”

“I don’t precisely know, but it’s ancient elven,” Solas’ smile warmed with tolerant amusement at her open awe, “I found it exploring the Fade on our way to Redcliffe, but didn’t think much of it at the time. There’s a resonance here that suggests there could be an artifact nearby, perhaps even of the kind which can stabilize the veil. For our purposes, it should do nicely.” He moved confidently into the darkness and beckoned Ellana to follow.

“Solas, wait…” Ellana reached out to grasp his elbow. He paused easily, tilting his head. She jerked her chin towards the dusty floor, indicating the footprints that disturbed the thin layer of filth. Their own were there, of course, but another set trailed across the floor, several sizes smaller than Ellana’s boots.

Solas unlimbered his staff as he stepped forward and silently crouched. In hushed tones, he whispered as he rose, “These are fresher than I’d expect; we are not alone.”

“No, you’re not,” a feminine voice called from the darkness ahead, moving into the edge of their light. A spin of the woman’s staff ignited its tip with icy white light, revealing her as a young, Dalish elf close to  Ellana’s apparent age. She wore the elegant lines of June, sharp and dark beneath short, ash-brown hair. Her large eyes were deep and challenging when they settled upon Solas, reflecting their veilfire in greenish irises. She drew her mana into a combat-ready haze, “Come to steal from the Dalish?”

Ellana, slighter of frame and almost fully concealed behind her mentor, stepped out of the  shadows and into the light. Quickly, she addressed the Dalish mage, “Lethallan, please. I am Ellana of Clan Lavellan, and this man is my companion. Who are you?”

Surprise followed across the young woman’s face, “Aneth ara, lethallan. My name is Mihris; I did not expect that the other voice I heard belonged to one of the blood.” The painful buzz of gathered mana in Mihris’ staff slowly eased, though distrust still oozed from her stiff shoulders when she glanced at Solas.

The name sounded familiar, and Ellana struggled to remember where she’d heard it before. After a moment, it clicked, “Mihris, First of Clan Virnhen?” Ellana asked incredulously. <Mihris from The Masked Empire… the one who became possessed and tried to kill Michel de Chevin after Imshael slaughtered her clan… oh my.>

Mihris straightened, dampening her connection to the Fade and allowing her aura to relax. She met Ellana’s gaze with quiet confidence, “You’ve heard of me? I have heard of Lavellan, but they are in the northern Free Marches. What brings you so far?”

<How much knowledge is too much to reveal? And what are the odds that I’d encounter her playing Inquisition without significance?> “From what I hear, you’re a gifted healer.” Ellana decided that was neutral enough, probably in line with her reputation amongst the Dalish. A quick check indicated that Lavellan actually had heard of her - Dalish communities being small, and those with magic abilities even smaller. Solas watched the exchange curiously, staff betraying no gathered mana. She knew he could cast rapidly enough that he needn’t posture. “Keeper Deshanna sent me on a diplomatic mission, but now I am looking for a way to permanently seal the Breach. My companion is an apostate that I became friends with some time ago. We were simply looking for a safe place to spend the night.”

“I heard you talking,” Mihris gazed distrustfully at Solas, who now planted his staff between his feet, “He’s looking for artifacts.”

“As are you, I imagine,” Solas casually rolled his staff between his fingers, an eyebrow rising.

“Only because I too wish to seal the Breach. There is an artifact within these walls that can strengthen the veil. I have come to activate it, but a pillar of rock bars the path. It will need to be lifted,” Mihris admitted, gesturing to the blocked doorway. She ran her gaze over Solas and tilted her head, “Flat ear, can you manage it?”

Ellana didn’t like the gleam of amusement that sparked in Solas’ eyes, even as he bowed his head, “Ma nuvenin, da’len.” He walked past them both to the barrier while Ellana gritted her teeth, both at the way Mihris spoke to him and the ease with which he addressed another elf as ‘da’len’. <I’m jealous now? Great. Grow up. Not only is it highly unlikely that he holds a strange elf in any special esteem, particularly not one that just called him ‘flat ear’, you’re also not involved. He doesn’t owe you anything.> It did feel a little less special when he called Mihris da’len, though, and she took an instant dislike to the other mage, even as she knew the sensation was unworthy of her. <Here I am cautioning Solas to be kind to Dorian, and I'm judging a mostly-stranger on sight.>

Strolling to the blocked doorway, Solas planted his feet before it and raised his hands. An intricate weave of mana drew from his reserves into a net initially beyond mundane perception. As the power coalesced, blue witchlight limned his body, then the pillar flared the same. It rose slowly at an angle, rotating to sit almost politely against the wall. <He went out of his way to make that look easy,>  Ellana thought pensively, <If Mihris were powerful enough to raise that stone, she already would have. Is he trying to intimidate her?>

“Stones are far from the most difficult barriers you’ll face,” Solas casually remarked as he wandered back, dampening the twinkle of mischief Ellana had glimpsed earlier, “The ancient elves set up wards.”

Mihris hesitated briefly, then offered,“Perhaps we should work together, if we share a similar goal.”

“We have important business to attend,” asserted Ellana, glancing at Solas.

He stroked his chin thoughtfully, then surprised Ellana by saying, “We do indeed, but this should not take long. If it will speed Mihris on her way, then I will assist. Besides, activating the artifact within will strengthen the veil, which may help shield us further from what lies beyond it.”

Ellana pursed her lips, <I thought my lessons were the most urgent thing possible right now? What if I fall asleep and Desire just comes traipsing in?> Biting off a glare at Solas, she ran her fingers across the back of her neck and said a bit too brightly to Mihris, “I guess it’s your lucky day.”

>>>>><<<<<

Together, the three mages entered a wide, ancient hall. Frescos covered the walls from floor to ceiling, and the ground itself dazzled with a pattern in thousands of tiny mosaic tiles. Ellana couldn’t stop rubbernecking, which she assumed was the source of Solas’ persistent, cheshire smile. Mihris seemed to take it all in stride, but Ellana knew the other elf had been through eluvians in the company of Briala, Felassan, Celene, Michel, and Gaspard - a journey she wished she could have been a part of. Jealousy made her cranky on multiple levels, and an aggressive fatigue gushed through her veins. She wanted nothing more than to curl up and sleep.

“You’re laughing at me,” Ellana quietly accused Solas, but he shook his head, the twinkle in his eyes growing, “Not at all, da’len. It pleases me to see your interests are similar to my own.”

“So, you are a tomb raider, flat ear?” Mihris asked, tapping the floor with her staff as she walked.

Ellana immediately imagined Solas as Lara Croft, ponytail and all. It made her choke on a cough even as she rejected the image, and Mihris peered at her with concern. “I’m fine. Uh, it’s dusty in here.”

Solas finally lost that secretive smile he’d had for the last ten minutes, and she bit her lip, apologetic glance settling on his mouth. Truthfully, he was too tall, too lean, and too physically present for her to keep up the mental image, and looking at his mouth made her mind stray to other, more pleasant fantasies. She fought down a blush and turned her attention back to their surroundings, muttering, “It’s nothing, just fatigue, I promise.” <Ten to one we get attacked by giant spiders while I’m off with the fairies imagining myself kissing Solas.>

Solas nodded to Ellana and answered Mihris with a gesture, “I have been known upon occasion to ‘raid’ a tomb or two, but I wouldn’t call it a professional interest. Such activities are rather more Dalish, come to think of it.” His smirk told Mihris he meant her as a case in point. Ellana fake-studied another fresco on the wall while watching the other two elves sidelong, hating to admit that she was looking for any indicator that he was attracted to Mihris. Nothing suggested it in his behavior, so Ellana changed the subject, “What about you, Mihris? How did you come to be here?” She already knew the story, but figured it’d be interesting to see how much of her past the other elf was willing to tell.

“I left in service of my clan, like you,” Mihris shrugged, then gestured to the floor ahead of them. The tiny tiles were inlaid with pearlescent elven runes that glowed with the faintest sheen in the veilfire, “Perhaps these are the wards of which your flat ear friend speaks?”

“Perhaps,” Ellana’s eyes narrowed slightly as she tried to recall the specifics of the Masked Empire. <Service of her clan? But her clan is long dead… unless she found a new one? Felassan’s not-Dalish, perhaps?>

“Well spotted,” Solas congratulated. The Dalish elf took the compliment in stride and trotted ahead to kneel where the wards started. Solas leaned sideways to say very softly to Ellana, “I meant you. How did you know she was lying?”

“What?” Ellana’s clutched at the collar of her vest, shocked, “What makes you think I know that she’s lying?”  

Solas’ smile glinted mischievous again, and Ellana wondered what the hell had gotten into her usually stoic mentor. He answered teasingly, “Your mouth.” Her eyebrows shot up, and he tacked on, “You wear disapproval clearly, da’len.”

Ellana released her neckline, and displayed her disgruntlement with her tone of voice, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you having quite so much fun, and I can’t quite help but think it’s at my expense.”

“Not at all, da’len. I just didn’t realize how good you are at reading people. I ought to have, however, watching you manage the Inquisition, the King of Ferelden, and even, I suspect, me. Though you seem a bit off-mark tonight. Come now, tell me how you knew?“ Solas wrapped his arm sideways about her shoulders, giving her a brief embrace, and she relented, forcing herself not melt against him and let him know just how affected she was by such ploys, “Clan Virnhen is long gone, destroyed by a demon they summoned. Many of the Dalish know this, especially the Keepers and the Firsts.”

“And as a mage, if Deshanna is the clan Keeper, you are the First of Clan Lavellan. Hmm,” Solas nodded, watching Mihris prod the runes with a stubborn cast to his features. Abruptly, he released Ellana from his arm and informed her, “I don’t think you’re telling me the whole truth.”

Ellana gave him a hard frown, mulling over the list of half-truths he’d told her himself. <Son of a bitch. How dare he call me a liar when he’s the one who sent me back into the past to bring a message to him to dissuade him from whatever course he’s set upon?> “You know what?” She reached out and pushed the outer edge of his shoulder until he looked at her, “I don’t owe you my deepest, innermost thoughts. If you think I’m untrustworthy, you don’t have to stick around, okay? I’m not going to chase you.”

Solas huffed faintly with his own disapproval, then gestured to Mihris, “I should assist her before she sets us all aflame.” <Yeah, you go do that.>

>>>>><<<<<

While Solas knelt with Mihris, which Ellana told herself she would not be jealous of, she stood to the side and observed the frescos. They were so beautiful that Ellana wondered how the elves fell from a powerful empire to hiding in broken, nomadic bands, or worse- living in alienages in Thedas’ cities. <Well, even back in Arlathan, I’m sure they had laborers. Someone had to clean the streets.> She stared at a fresco of a woman that took up most of the wall, trying to decipher its meaning. The subject had her hands spread. A wreath of sun, like a halo, shone around her blonde hair, and wolves howled at her sides. Gold poured from the sky, through her hands, and dozens of people crowded at the hem of her dress, reaching for the fluid. <Is this Mythal, perhaps? How do these frescos retain their vibrancy so many thousands of years later? I suppose there’s no sunlight down here to fade them.>

She wasn’t sure if it was disrespectful to touch, but Ellana couldn’t help herself. The fresco felt as smooth as expected, until her fingertips caught against something. <What’s this?>  A crack in the wall made her pause; near-invisible to the naked eye, but detectable under her hand. Glancing over at Solas and Mihris, the former talking softly to the latter, Ellana followed the seam by touch. It made a perfect rectangle, about the size of a double-wide door. <It’s a secret passage! But… how does it open?>

Stepping back, she ran her eyes over the entire wall, looking for anomalies. <Okay, so this game really does have hidden doors and the like. What kinds do I remember being in Dragon Age? Hidden levers…> The wall was smooth except for the rectangle, so that was a no-go. <Trigger plates…> She swept her gaze around, but every tile of the mosaic pattern beneath their feet was no wider than a thumbnail, surely too small to be a credible possibility. <Maybe if I wander around and step on all of them? Wait. The door is double-wide. Counter balances.> Giving Solas and Mihris another quick look, she pressed the left side of the door with her full bodyweight. It was stiff as hell, but gave with the groan of stone against stone, turning on a central fulcrum. She turned and pressed her back to the wall to get her legs into it.

The loud scraping caught both Solas’ and Mihris’ attention. “What did you find?” Mihris called, abandoning her examination of the wards to jog to Ellana’s side. Solas followed at a slower pace.

“Not sure-” Ellana grunted and pushed harder, but it seemed to be stuck, “- secret door.”

“You have a good eye,” Solas commented as he nodded to Mihris. Both he and the other elf came to Ellana’s side, helping her push the door open. A wide, but plain hallway curved around the outer wall, and Solas said, “I think this leads to the heating chamber. This looks like a bathing complex. Servants would work out of patrons’ sight, heating the water.”

“It’s not likely to lead us to the artifact then, if that’s what we’re looking for,” Ellana commented, holding out the veilfire torch and craning her neck to peer into the darkness.

“On the contrary, these tunnels will link up to multiple parts of the complex, and I think you’ve neatly solved our ‘how to get around ancient wards’ problem,” Solas took the lead into narrow hall, devoid of frescos. The stone was traced by lines of pipes in the same strange, bluish metal.

<How lucky. Well, this shit never made sense to me in games either, and since I’m playing a game, why would it be any different now?> Ellana slipped into the tunnel behind Solas, Mihris following them both. Sure enough, they passed into a chamber where the pipes converged on large, beehive structures she imagined were ovens. Solas gestured to another passage leading off to the right. After another strenuous, hidden door was opened, they came out in a central chamber, shaped like an atrium. <I wonder how he knew which way to go… if I ask, I’ll bet he’ll tell me he explored it in the Fade.>

“This is it,” Solas nodded toward a pedestal that supported a dull, iron globe. It was covered with cubic protrusions that jutted from either side, reminiscent of fractals. “We’ll merely activate this artifact, which should strengthen the nearby veil and cease further rifts from forming in the area, then you-” he nodded to Mihris,”-can be on your way.”

Mihris scowled, but nodded, “That’s what I came for.” Ellana suddenly wondered if it was true, but didn’t ask. Mihris wandered around the chamber, running her fingers over carved stone benches while Solas approached the artifact and lifted his hand. Unlike the cool blue energy he’d summoned outside, when his power touched the artifact, it energized, sending out a burst of shining, emerald-black energy that tasted of midnight. Even when he severed the link, the strange globe continued to shed light and energy flavored of Solas. <Did that just magnify his power? Would it magnify mine if I were the one to activate it?>

“And it seems the ancestors have left something for me as well,” Mihris called from nearby, picking up a small metal icon. She folded her hand around it, and Solas crossed the room towards her. Ellana followed, and Mihris displayed a coin-sized object made of bluish metal in the shape of a wolf’s head with six eyes. Ellana’s brow furrowed, glancing uncertainly at Mihris, <That is clearly an icon of the Dread Wolf. Why isn’t she totally freaking out? Most Dalish would think it’s cursed and would never touch it.>

“I doubt you actually know how to utilize that,” Solas commented, lifting a brow and holding out his hand. Mihris stared down her nose at him, “And you do, flat ear?”

The exchange both surprised and puzzled Ellana, and she remained quiet to the side, observing. <We activated the artifact Solas was looking for; why does he care about that token? Surely there’s no reason not to let her take it?>

“More so than you, I am certain,” Solas declared flatly, hand still held out, “You wanted our help to activate the artifact that reinforces the veil, and you would not have succeeded in your mission but for us. The artifact now functions, and no new rifts will appear in this area. Therefore, you are in our debt. Besides, the trinket is of no value if you do not know its use.”

“You presume much, flat ear,” Mihris planted a fist on her hip and tapped the butt of her staff on the ground, “There’s no reason for me to let a piece of the Dalish history leave the possession of the clans. I’d be a poor First if I did.”

Mihris’ use of the ‘flat ear’ slur pushed Ellana’s irritation over the edge, and she stepped up to Solas’ side, holding out her hand for the artifact. “Then give it to me and stop calling Solas a flat ear.”

The Dalish mage inhaled sharply, gaze flickering between Ellana and Solas, presumably calculating the odds of herself against the two of them. Finally, Mihris placed the icon into Ellana’s hand, gaze narrow and exasperated, “You’re Dalish, why would you side with one outside the blood?”

“You’re Dalish, why do you want an icon of the Dread Wolf?” Ellana countered without pause, passing the icon to Solas. He lifted a brow and cocked his head, so Ellana clarified for his benefit, “It’s another name for Fen’Harel, the evil trickster god known for betrayal.”

“Ahh,” Solas curled his fist around the artifact, then said to Mihris, his forefinger pointing at the door, “When you leave, I will ward the exit; you won’t want to return.”

“You’ll regret this,” Mihris promised Ellana with a resigned shake of her head. She gave Solas a long look before turning and disappearing into the tunnels.

“She gave in too easily,” Ellana rubbed her palm against her tunic as if to brush away taint from the Dread Wolf icon, wondering when she herself became superstitious. <Well, I did just randomly encounter Mihris, a character I know only from a book. Coincidence? I think not.> She asked Solas pensively, “Think we have to worry about her?”

Solas shook his head, moving to the door. As he had promised, he placed a hand on the stone. A complex pattern of Fade-green light spun into existence around his fingertips, growing until it encompassed the entire entryway. “No, I don’t think so. Come, this was a pleasant distraction, but we have work to do. I promised to take you to Wisdom, and I need to show you how to defend yourself against Desire.”

<Will this game never cease to be weird?> she thought, taking Solas’ hand when he held it out. He drew her to settle down right next to the artifact that still crackled with midnight-tinged magic.

“I’m setting up a few more wards, and will meet you there.” Obediently, Ellana folded her legs into Lotus position and closed her eyes, slipping into the world of dreams.

Nipuni - Depiction of the Argument

The Argument by Nipuni

Chapter Text


The atmosphere clung to Ellana like a gauzy veil over her face. She coughed, trying to clear her lungs before she realized she didn’t need to breathe in the Fade. <What a fucked up day. And it was fucked up before we went ‘tomb raiding’ at an ancient bath house . >

The same locale shone brightly around her, a thousand years younger. Ample sunlight fell from the square in the atrium roof, highlighting curls of steam with warm beams. She thought she heard laughter echoing indistinctly from somewhere down the hall. The central chamber glowed, mosaics fresh - her surroundings were everything that their dark, lonely reflection in the waking world could no longer be. <So sad.>

“Solas?” Ellana unraveled her long legs and rose to her feet. Her voice echoed throughout the room, but it was no longer the cold reflection of sound in a long dead place, but rather animate vibe that caressed her ears.

“I am here, da'len,” Solas replied. One moment she was alone, the next he stood at her shoulder, rubbing the face of the wolf’s head icon with his thumb. His aura brushed hers, his sense of confidence and supremacy in this realm soothing her nerves, and the a faint caress of pleasure at her proximity drew a smile from her. <Somniari. Dreamers. Yes, we are. And this is our domain. I wonder how uncommon we are - I only know of Solas, Feynriel, and myself. Why did Bioware make the Herald of Andraste a dreamer? What if I didn’t choose to play a mage? Is it important somehow?> Her smile gravitated towards him like a magnet to a lodestone.

“You look preoccupied,” Solas commented, and she noticed that the humble homespun sweater he usually wore was tied about his narrow waist, leaving him in dark green pants and undertunic. There was something about Solas here in the Fade - he was subtly more intense and vivid, composed of saturated colors in a world of pallid on canvas. <I wonder if the washed out sensation of everything not real around us is why it’s called the Fade.> Indeed, both she and Solas were the only real things in the immediate vicinity. He wove his shields up, so she hastily followed suit.

“I suppose I am,” Ellana blew out her cheeks and ran her hand through the long side of her hair, <I wonder what he sensed from me just before we shielded?> “You said we were going to meet Wisdom? I’m really tired, Solas. What if Desire comes upon us unaware? I don’t think we should have stopped to help Mihris.”

“You should not worry,” Solas’ gaze was clear, and a hint of smile played about his mouth, “I had not expected to encounter anyone on our trip, but one of the reasons we went there at all was to specifically find and trigger that artifact. Its effect will obscure our location from Desire so I can teach you what you need to learn. Unfortunately, as a result, I must invite Wisdom to us and anchor her here. Don’t worry, I will keep you safe,” He stretched, long and catlike, “You are not tired. That is merely a memory of the real world. Here, the Fade is at our disposal.” He proffered his hand, and said gravely, “Ellana, Wisdom is a rare spirit; it is important that we do not-” he paused, “-pollute her.”

<Well, I guess that doesn’t include sexual purity,> Ellana drew her shoulders forward and felt her forehead crease, “So far as I know, I’m disease free, Solas.”

"That’s not what I meant,” Solas denied, moving his outstretched hand to massage the back of his neck. She raised a hand to forestall him, “Forget it, Hahren. I get what you mean.” <In the eyes of the Chantry, those touched by spirits are abominations. In the eyes of Solas, spirits touched by our kind are the ones corrupted. Figures.> “You recall that I’ve met Wisdom before?”

“I do,” Solas agreed with a sigh and an expansive gesture, “Forgive me.”

The scene shifted without changing. Wisdom sat on the edge of the pedestal, dangling her bare feet over the edge. Where her toes touched, the water spread until they stood ankle deep in a pool. Ellana watched the concentric ripples that followed. A smile split Wisdom's face when she looked up at Solas, quickly tempered into curiosity when she saw Ellana with him. “Solas. You’ve brought her. Why?”

“She asked to see you,” Solas indicated Ellana with a nod. Wisdom slid off the edge of the pedestal, into the waters of the fountain. Her dress caught slightly on the edge and drew up high enough to reveal slender thighs as she landed lightly on her feet, then dropped once more.

<How calculated was that?> Ellana wondered, getting the sense that Wisdom was laying a claim as she stepped close to Solas and laid a hand on his elbow. Her alto voice echoed in the chamber when she asked, “Both of you are tightly shielded. Should I be concerned?”

Ellana observed the auburn-haired spirit and Solas’ interaction, deliberately quelling her jealousy once more. <If I’m to be jealous of anyone, it ought to be her, but she’s literally a spirit of Wisdom. How can one be jealous of something practically holy?> Solas answered honestly, “Unfortunately, a spirit of Desire has ill intent towards us at the moment.”

“A spirit of Desire,” Wisdom repeated, a furrow appearing between her brows as she looked between the two elven mages. “Targeting the both of you... together?” <Uh oh, she doesn’t sound happy.> Solas sighed, ignoring Ellana’s frown to clasp Wisdom’s graceful hands to his chest, “It was not drawn to us, my dear friend, but rather attached to a mage named Connor Guerrin. They’d made a pact many years ago. Won’t you listen to what Ellana has to say? She carries a message from my future self that I believe may be important.”

“You are not given to inconsequential musings,” Wisdom agreed, fingers twining into Solas’. The lovely, auburn-haired spirit with color-shifting eyes let the silence hang for a moment before she said abruptly, “I will hear you out, Emily. What is it that you want?”

The use of Emily’s true name felt as if she were doused with a bucket of icy water. The scene around them snapped into focus, like someone twisting the lens on a camera when you didn’t even realize the picture had been fuzzy. Wisdom withdrew her hands from Solas’ who looked about with surprise.

“I’m not here to cause any trouble,” Emily promised, tucking the long side of her hair behind her ear, trying to hide how disturbed she was, “I was hoping to speak with you alone, however.”

“I have already helped you as best I could,” Wisdom’s gaze moved beyond Emily to take in the subconscious changes to their environment, “As I recall, you were quite… resistant to my assistance.”

Grave curiosity radiated from the tilt of Solas’ head and furrow of his brow, but Emily sensed nothing of his aura behind her shields. Nonetheless, she looked at him and bit her lip, before saying to Wisdom, “I am sorry about my behavior when we last met, but I know of no other to turn to.”

Wisdom shook her head, quietly chiding, “Emily, coming to me with your problems only when you need help hardly recommends your friendship. I gave you the gift of knowledge. You squandered it, and now-” she cut off, reaching up to eye level and turning away.

<Shit, is she crying? Did I make her cry? Why? Has this to do with Solas?> Emily lowered her shields and entreated Wisdom, “You can look into my mind, can’t you? This is no minor concern, but the fate of the world. Last time I came, you told me to care about Thedas and the people that need me. I’ve come to do just that. Please, can’t you help me?”

Emily watched from behind as Wisdom’s chin fell. Solas reached out to touch the spirit’s shoulder, then drew her into a hug, tilting his head at Emily, eyes troubled. Wisdom pressed her face to Solas’ shoulder as she released a pent breath. She said apologetically to him, “Please, give us some time alone.”

“You are certain? She is a Dreamer. You will not be safe alone with her,” Solas gazed steadily into Wisdom’s eyes as if Emily weren’t standing two feet away.

“I’m certain,” Wisdom agreed, “She intends me no harm. You will keep the demon at bay?”

“I will keep Desire at bay,” Solas agreed with a nod, sending Emily a sidelong glance, “Do not tarry. We have a lesson to attend to.”

“We won’t,” Emily and Wisdom said together, then glanced at one another.

>>>>><<<<<

Solas simply disappeared.

“So,” Wisdom began, drying her eyes, then allowing her fingertips to touch her full lower lip, “You have been spying on us and know more about Solas and I than he is aware.”

Emily winced, shifting her weight, “It was an accident, more or less. I couldn’t unsee what I’d seen, and I absolutely cannot tell him.” She drew her shields back around herself and hoped that Wisdom wasn’t angry.

“It’s not what you imagine between Solas and I, but that hardly matters,” Wisdom calmly folded her hands behind her back and met Emily’s gaze, “If he turned to you for even the barest moment, you would happily disregard what you believe we are to each other and pursue your pleasure.” At Emily’s frown, Wisdom smiled serenely, “I know. You think better of yourself than that.” Wisdom gestured for Ellana to walk with her as she began a smooth gait through the mist, “Likewise, Solas believes he is above betraying me. We are nothing if not best at deceiving ourselves.”

“I could be wrong about myself, but I’m not here to steal him away from you,” Emily replied, rubbing her face with both hands, “Listen, if you’ll tell me how to wake up, I can go away and never bother anyone again.” Ellana hoped she sounded persuasive instead of desperate.

“I am a spirit of Wisdom, Emily. Solas and I have a special bond that you could neither threaten nor understand, even if you were to bed him.” The spirit’s smile was wistful, “You think in terms too small, too personal. Haven’t you noticed events moving around you, shaped by your actions like a stone dropped into a still pond?

“Without what you will become, Thedas will burn. Even with you, its chances are poor,” Wisdom paused, looking off into the distance. She said, “I cannot betray the whole world, and nor should you. What started out as an exciting experiment now leaves you tired, scared, and alone, but you cannot abandon Thedas.”

“You won’t help me go home because you perceive I have a part to play in all of this?” Ellana reached out and grabbed Wisdom’s slender elbow, “You can’t hold me hostage into playing this game to the end. I am not a silver bullet for Thedas’ problems, I’m just a nobody playing a game. I’m only in these situations I am because I’m the player. I could have been anyone, and in millions of cases, it already has been someone else.”

Wisdom looked down at her arm until Emily released it, then calmly countered her, “You are not ready to accept the truth, and I do not have enough knowledge of the mechanics that brought you here to satisfy your skepticism. But nor am I holding you hostage, Emily. Here in the Fade, Dreamers like yourself are unstoppable once they believe it themselves. I suspect that Solas plans to teach you how to master those gifts. This brings me both great joy and terrible dread.”

“Why?” Emily asked, even as she realized that they hadn’t even gotten to why she came. <Wisdom reminds me strongly of Solas; I bet I could listen to her talk for hours>

Wisdom placed her hands on Emily’s shoulders, drawing her face-to-face. The color of the spirit’s eyes altered slowly from blue to green to purple, and Emily felt like she could drown in them, “Joy because my friend will no longer be alone in the waking world. Joy because it will give you another tool in which to face what is to come, and joy because it gives Thedas a better chance.” Wisdom paused, then added painfully, “Dread because you do not yet believe in this reality; the evil that you can perpetrate and justify is boundless. It’s a risk, trusting you with the fate of the world. But we have no choice; you and only you bear the mark now.” 

Reminded, Emily flexed her left fist, noticing the continual hum of the mark that glowed softly even here. <I guess that's proof you can get used to anything. I forget about it when it's not flaring up or aching.> 

Wisdom released her, lacing her fingers behind her back as she resumed walking through the mist, "You and Solas both look in the mirror and are fascinated by your own reflections.”

“I have no idea what you mean by that, but if we could just step away from the cryptic,” Emily clasped her own hands behind her back, mirroring Wisdom, and followed, “I actually did come here for a reason.”

“Solas’ message from the future? Another deception. You are both so good at it...” Wisdom’s mouth formed a gentle frown, “You already know what the future holds if he doesn’t hear the message, and you claim to genuinely believe in communication. You don’t want advice, Emily. You want me to solve your dilemma.” Wisdom lifted a finger, “First, you want to know how to tell him in such a way that he never learns your true identity, manipulate him into cooperation, and ‘win’ him like a prize.” The spirit lifted another finger, the gesture so natural that Ellana wondered if all spirits could present themselves like people, “Second, you want me to tell you Solas’ secrets, regarding me as some sort of hint book rather than a person.” Dropping her hand, Wisdom mused, “In all of these scenarios, the error you make is believing this is a game. I am a spirit of Wisdom, and I am unable to act against my nature. I cannot compel you to be foolish.”

“Well, when you say all of that aloud, I sound very Machiavellian, to which I would say I’m really not like that at all, and you’re lacking a lot of context,” Emily tucked her hands into her armpits, and added nervously, “I don’t think I’d like myself very much if that was all there is to it.” <But I can’t really deny a word of it either. She pulled all of that out of my head? Shit.>

“Let us hope so, Emily, but this is exactly what I mean when I say that believing none of this is real will allow you to justify incredible evil,” Wisdom then tilted her head and whispered mischievously, “But don’t feel too bad, I said much the same to Solas when he asked me for roughly the same advice about you.”

>>>>><<<<<

Solas reappeared momentarily, palming his staff. Ellana assumed that Wisdom had reached out to him. His gaze struck her as suspicious, and she wondered why, but he simply asked, “Are you two done?”

Wisdom smiled at Solas, nodding and placing her hand on his shoulder. With a final, significant glance at Ellana, she winked out of existence.

“Just like that,” Ellana sighed at the blank space Wisdom recently occupied. “Did Desire try to get through?”

Solas shook his head, and cupped his chin with a palm. “No, actually. All seems quiet on the front. Unexpected, but not unwelcome. We will put this time to good use.”

<Do not whine ‘do we have to’.> Ellana scolded herself as she toed the dirt, <He’ll probably disappear and leave you to deal with Desire by yourself.>

“You don’t appear as excited as you usually are about your lessons?” Solas waved a hand, a tree stump appearing. He settled onto it, drawing the soles of his feet against the bark and watching Ellana closely. In her mindseye, his relaxed posture gathered potential energy, like a coiled spring. <Your mind is playing tricks on you. Time to bite the bullet and confess.>

“Wisdom is an expert at convincing you to do things you otherwise might not,” she admitted, scraping hair out of her eyes. She took a deep breath to collect herself while Solas waited calmly, “This is harder because I put it off, but… please don’t be angry,” Ellana crossed her ankles and sank into a seated position at the foot of the stump. Rubbing her face with her hands, she met his silent scrutiny and said, “I’m going to tell you what happened in the future.”

“Right now?” Solas nodded briefly, then flexed his fingertips at the shadows beyond her. The Fade rippled around them, then hardened. A bubble similar to looking through an eggshell thin lens distorted Ellana’s vision. “There will be no prying ears. Go on.”

<Who could possibly be listening in here?> “Well, I suppose the worst of it is that you sacrificed your life for mine,” she started, twisting her fingers together while a burning sensation behind her eyes warned her that tears were on the table. She dropped her gaze, and chose her words carefully to prevent the spill, “I watched you die - to save me - and it was awful.”

A sound of cloth whispering against bark accompanied Solas’ shift on the log, but Ellana refused to look up, poking pensively at the grass that slowly curled up beneath her instead. A serene glade in a lush forest formulated around them, interrupted only by the odd, translucent barrier - Solas’ work, not hers. <Does he think I find it soothing, I wonder?> His voice seemed calm, somewhat detached, “I’m sorry that you experienced that.”

“Yes, well, the whole experience was awful. Everything about it was horrible. Everyone was dead or dying, it was frankly like stepping into an apocalypse. Everyone died, really, not just you. It’s just- it was different with you.” Her voice broke and she pushed the burgeoning runny nose away with the back of her hand,"I- I care about you, more than the others.”

“I see,” she looked up to see his brow furrowed, but rather than asking her to clarify, he asked, “What about the message?” His arms wrapped about one knee, staff resting between them, against his shoulder. She sensed him imposing his will on the world around them, preventing her brooding distress from affecting the Fade

<That’s it? I practically declare my feelings for him, and he’s just like ‘what’s the message’?> Ellana bit back pain, but the tears finally broke. She shrugged while she wiped her eyes, “The Elder One tore down the veil, releasing the Blight. It corrupted everything it touched. Every. Living. Thing. Including you. Everything. Red lyrium… it’s everywhere, in everything. All of the spirits-“ she cut off, knowing the last would upset Solas the worst, “tearing down the veil was so traumatic, they all become demons. All of them.”

Solas slid off the trunk and crouched beside her, body warm beside her where he hovered. “And something happened between us?” he guessed.

“No,” Ellana wiped her face, then screwed up her courage to meet his eyes. Shaking her head, she clarified, “Not exactly. The corruption had spread so much within you that you couldn’t even touch me, afraid it would corrupt me. You said I mustn’t bring it back.” Her hand unconsciously fell to where his palm had burned through her sleeve. It didn’t hurt anymore, but the memory made it tingle, “You said sending me back to fix it was the the world’s only hope. It’s just that, before you died… it was different. I guess when all hope was lost, you were different towards me, like whatever bothers you about me didn’t matter. You just made me promise to tell you what had happened.” <Do I tell him that he told me he might betray me?> She absolutely did not want to, and yet Wisdom had encouraged her to honesty.

“When you died-” the tears streamed freely down her face now, so she drew her knees up and pressed it into the hollow they created, “- you didn’t care about your death. You said I had to go back and stop it. Maybe even…” Ellana bit her lip, then willed a handkerchief into being to mop herself up.

“Maybe even what?” Solas’ hand came to rest on Ellana’s shoulder.

Ellana took a deep breath, then breathed the words out, “Stop you.”

“Stop me how?” Solas dropped his hand and stood up tall, folding his arms. Her silence in the face of his question sent several thoughts scrawling across his face, until he asked incredulously, “Death?”

“What? No!” Ellana clambered to her feet, nowhere near as gracefully, and took a pleading step towards him, “I wouldn’t! Only if there was absolutely no other way!”

His regard grew hostile and dark as the silence stretched on, and he finally swiveled away. The tension in his shoulders made the atmosphere taut between them. “So you do have it in you, or you think you do, anyway. I had wondered.”

“What are you talking about?” Ellana asked cautiously, every muscle preparing for the fight she sensed just waiting beneath the surface. She missed the Solas of the future who seemed to embrace his feelings for her. <After everything in the world was dead and all hope gone, I suppose then he could let himself care for me.>

“Your soft heart. You know, ‘let’s save all the mages in Thedas’ and ’Tevinters are people too’. That sort of reasoning.” Solas’ planted his magestaff in the dirt, chin lowering to his chest. “But when pressed, you admit that you care for me. In the very same breath, you reveal you are willing to kill me.”

<Uh , the same could be said of you going on about my Keeper and Dreamers earlier. What gives? But he’s right, I wouldn't put him first before the entire world, even if I loved him.> Ellana’s silence drew out too long for her to take it back, so she finally whispered, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be, Lethallan,” Solas waved a hand, the scene around them rippling and changing. The lens burst with without sound, shards winking into nothing. “I suggest you stop worrying about what I think and instead worry about what will happen when I catch you.”

Hefting his staff across the back of his shoulders, Solas turned back to toss the icon of the Dread Wolf at her. She caught it automatically as he goaded, “Run for your life.”

The predatory glitter in his eyes spooked her. She ran.

Chapter Text

The clouds broiled across the sun as Ellana ran, casting shadows over the glade around her. Once peaceful and straight trees leaned in while an unnatural darkness fell, branches cracking and twisting as they reached for her. The wind picked up, its howl almost obfuscating those of wolves in the distance. Their hungry snarls drove her to pump her legs for all her worth, dodging roots, branches and other obstacles that rose from the ground, malevolently seeking to trip her.

Each moment a new peril startled her, growing and multiplying like a kaleidoscope. She ran blindly through the woods, stumbling from one fear to the next. The howls were closing in. Flashes of golden eyes in her peripheral vision drove her onward, diverting her course like a scared halla. Moments later, another flash of tooth and fang sent her careening into a tree trunk, almost knocking herself senseless. She regained her footing, stains of fresh soil at her knees and palms, and ran until she thought her heart would explode.

Survival instinct warned her that she was being herded; she glanced over her shoulder. A wolf thrice the size of its canine entourage drew back its fangs as the pack fanned out to flank her. Off-balance, she tore her gaze forward just in time to throw her arms up to stop a sudden, headlong dash into a stone cliff face, almost bouncing off it. Cornered, the wolf pack encircled her, growling. Terror clawed its way up her throat as she glanced over her shoulder to see the immense wolf gathering itself - she flinched away as it leap onto her back.

Ellana screamed when the impact came, but it was far lighter than expected. A strong arm snaked around her waist and Solas’ voice whispered into her ear, “Panic is no way to survive the Fade, lethallan.”

“S-Solas?” Ellana closed her eyes, tears flowing down her face as she leaned back into the warm, masculine frame pressed against her. Slowly her trembling subsided, her fear replaced by relief. He let her relax until she tried to turn in his arms. Gripping her tighter and rubbing his cheek against her ear, he advised, “Recall where we are. What you are. You must not let me control your environment, nor your emotions.” He released her, slipping away, “Remember, your life is at stake.”

“Again,” he commanded, as she turned, barely catching a glimpse of his cheeks and jaw before the inky darkness swallowed him whole.

>>>>><<<<<

Twice more she ran, and twice more Solas caught her. No matter how fast or far she ran, he caught her. Each time, he chided her with some tidbit, teasing her with a hint of how to do better and escape next time. Then he’d let her go, saying, “Again.”

Small interludes were her only break, then the scene would change; the hunt would begin anew.

>>>>><<<<<

The Fade felt empty around her now, as if Solas were allowing her a moment of reprieve. Numbness calmed her heartbeat. She wasn’t sure how much time she had, but exhaustion broke the fear down. Thoughts crept into the void it left behind. <Was that really Solas?>

<Yes,> she decided, <It absolutely was. But why scare me? Why wolves?> The Dread Wolf icon drew her attention, still clutched tightly in her fist. She wanted to laugh, <Of course. He thinks I’m Dalish, and if I really was, the Dread Wolf would absolutely be amongst my worst fears. Heck, it is pretty damn scary even so.> She pondered throwing the icon away, but sensed if she did so, it would be lost to her forever.

<Great. Well, nothing like being a gamer to make you horde magical artifacts,> she thought, tucking it into her pocket. <So now what? Clearly, I lost round one. Best two out of three, I hope?> Looking around, Ellana tried to get her bearings before Solas returned. She stood back in the Fade’s echo of the bathhouse, now closely resembling its decrepit reality. The space where their sleeping bodies rested in the real world was empty, without trace. <Well, earlier he said that I’d have lessons tonight that would teach me how to deal with a demon. If that’s true, what did he teach me?> Thinking it through, she said aloud, “Okay, Ellana. The first rules of the Fade - don’t panic, and don’t let someone else control the environment.”

Saying it aloud made her feel better. Don’t panic - long ago, a chance reading of the US Military’s survival guide introduced the sentiment, so she could easily take it to heart. <Immoral of Solas to intentionally induce it to make a point, though.> She bit her lip, scouting the Fade for signs of the hunt. <Then again, what can I expect from Desire? A fair playing field? Also, he didn’t say don’t be afraid, he said don’t let someone else ‘control your emotions’. Alistair was once trapped by a demon pretending to be his sister to exploit his longing for a loving family, so I suspect any emotion that can be used against you is dangerous.> It was a frightening concept, but one she could see being central to survival in the Fade. <And one I can use to my advantage,> she quickly realized . <If I can figure out what someone wants, surely I can create a trap as good as any demon’s…>

Forgiving Solas, she bent her mind to the next task - controlling her environment. She didn’t feel like she had a lot of time to sort things out before he unveiled his next test, so she started by encasing herself in a simple vault. Six feet of steel in all directions, and a magical barrier on top for added security. <I have no idea how well this will hold up if Solas attempts to breach it, though. At least controlling a tiny space like this should be easier than reframing the entirety of the Fade. Still, if there’s one thing I know - Solas is cunning and he won’t give up. He’ll find a way to access this room. Hopefully it won’t be so quickly that I can’t prepare myself.>   

With no time to lose, she summoned the command line, this time imagining the prompt in her head instead of calling a computer into existence, just to see if it would work. It did. Relieved, she quickly ran through diagnostic commands she thought might provide information on her environment.

It was hit or miss - she didn’t work for Bioware or know their framework, and even if she had, debugging complex games was almost entirely a bespoke task. Programmers share thought patterns though, and she’d poked at past Dragon Age mods before, so Ellana was able to glean both more than she expected and less than she hoped. The results were… interesting, and not the least because they didn’t come back in the format she predicted. An explosion of information, only vaguely reminiscent of accessing Lavellan’s memories, assaulted her brain. Its enormity staggered her, and she shook her head violently, most of it washing over her, beyond comprehension. <Is that what it was like when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge?> Overall, it was far too complicated for her process in the timeframe she thought available, if the human mind was capable of it at all. Still, it wasn’t a complete waste, in fact-

<Oooh, what is this?> Both intrigued and frustrated by the complexity of the underlying mechanics of the Fade, she noticed the wolfshead talisman in her pocket ‘glowed in the code’. In her mindseye, the thinnest of filaments led off into the distance. Her brow furrowed while she worked through what it might mean, then she chuckled, <Of course, he gave me something he can track me with before sending me scampering through an infinite void. If I throw it away, will he lose me? Well, if I wanted to, I could just wake up and end this game… but there’s got to be something to learn here.> Figuring out that the icon was a tracker made her feel better, more in control of her situation. <And if I admit it, I sort of want to teach him a lesson for scaring the piss out of me. I may even have the means to do so now.>

Concentrating on the six-eyed icon, she imprinted slight modifications to its behavior, mentally ‘adjusting the script’. <Emotions are a trap here, are they? And there is more than one way to view a tracker - another way is a lure.> Smirking, she conjured up a bubble table setup exactly like the one Solas had drawn Alistair into the night before. Settling onto the chair, she considered the icon for a moment, then kissed it briefly to imprint it with a specific emotion. Task complete, she gently reached into the center of the dome to place her trap.

<All that’s left now is to wait,> she thought, even going so far as to imagine Solas’ cup of wine in her hand. She sipped, and it tasted like victory.

>>>>><<<<<

Just as she expected, Solas followed the tracker and appeared in the swirling bubble. Spying the discarded Dread Wolf token, he shook his head as she approached, “She figured it out. Clever as I suspected, lethallan.” He knelt to pick it up, and Ellana tensed, leaning forward in her seat.

There was a flash when he touched it, releasing the ambush. The bubble flooded with a dream scene, shelves of books painting across the walls until a library surrounded him. Dust motes danced in the air, and sunlight filtered in from a nearby window. A peaceful ambiance hung about him, but not solitude, for Solas was not alone.

“I love you, Solas,” Wisdom said, reaching up to cup his angular cheek. The auburn haired beauty with color-shifting eyes wore a gown of sheer cotton, pinned together at the shoulders. One side slid down to expose the milky golden skin along her collarbone. She held her other hand impishly behind her back, and a boyish smile cracked Solas lips. He asked, “Oh? What brings this on?” He hugged her as the spirit slid her hand from his cheek to embrace him about the neck, seemingly loose and comfortable.

“I have not seen you for awhile,” Wisdom confessed, bringing the hidden hand up to tap the center of Solas’ chest with an age-worn scroll, “But I found this in a hidden part of the Fade. I thought you might want to see it. I have already read it, of course; we can discuss it at length when you’re through.”

Solas closed his eyes, tilting his head back and chuckling softly. Wisdom wet her lips, then tugged his face towards hers to find his mouth, but Solas gently grasped her shoulders and pushed her away. The spirit tilted her head questioningly, but Solas only shook his head and laughed harder, reclining back against a bookshelf as the mirth crept forth.

>>>>><<<<<

“That was unexpected,” Solas announced genially from over Ellana’s shoulder, traces of amusement still lingering in his voice.

“Shit!” Ellana’s elbow toppled the wine she’d been drinking when she startled. The image of Solas and Wisdom locked in the dome froze as the deep, crimson wine washed over it like blood, “How the fuck did you get here?”

An eyebrow lifted at her use of language, and he cupped his jaw, “The trap was well laid, but you chose the wrong subject matter to imprison my mind.That, and I suspected that you would figure out why I gave you the artifact - I even expected a trap, just not one quite like that.” Circling her, he leaned a hip against the table, and observed how her setup mimicked his previous. “You learn quickly, and I salute your hypothesis regarding my interests; the assumption was understandable. You simply failed to surmise what truly fascinates me.”

“Oh,” Ellana bit her lip, not liking the stormy look in his eyes. It was almost as terrifying as when he’d told her to run, and she felt deeply uneasy looking up at him from her seated position, “I don’t suppose you’ll tell me what would better suit?”

She thought his expression took on a sly edge at the suggestion, but he didn’t answer, so she filled the silence with, “Well, um. I’m glad you’re not angry with me. It just… seemed like the thing to do at the time.”

“Did it?” Solas uncoiled, “It pleases me how rapidly you acquire skill, especially given how easily I caught you the first time, but this-” He held up the Dread Wolf icon, its six stone eyes glittering in his palm, “this is more than a surprise. You altered its nature. How?”

The silence drew out between them, Ellana worrying at her lower lip with her teeth. Not certain what to make of the smooth planes of his face, she thought, <Well, in for a penny, in for a pound.> “I opened it up, looked at the underlying script that defined its behavior, added a variable to hold the emotion trap, swapped the victim and the target, and committed the changes.”

Solas fisted his hand about the icon, “I have learned countless languages in the Fade, and I understand the individual meaning of every word you just used, yet comprehension eludes me. You say you ‘rewrote’ its purpose by changing a ‘script’. Did you use a quill?”

Ellana placed her hands between her knees, grasping the edge of the chair and gave Solas a sheepish look. She shook her head slowly, “Not exactly, though I suppose I could. It’s just a visualization technique Wisdom taught me.”

Solas looked deeply into her eyes; so deep that she felt herself shifting uncomfortably and tearing her gaze away. His fine-boned hand gripped her shoulder, nudging her attention back to him, “You say Wisdom taught you to do this? Do you even know the import of what you’ve done?”

“Perhaps,” Ellana replied cautiously, not enjoying the intense scrutiny. <Does he think I’m lying?> “I get the sense that I can control and alter anything here in the Fade, including rewriting fundamental natural laws that govern it.”

“And Wisdom told you that too?” the edges of his mouth curled down, and he released her shoulder. She wondered if he disapproved, “Not exactly, but it stands to reason. The Fade responds to me particularly well, and I can look under the hood, so to speak.” <This place is like my own personal sandpit environment. If the veil didn’t exist, like it didn’t in the future I visited in Redcliff, I could theoretically reshape reality. Doing so, or trying to anyway, is how I got you and everyone else killed. It attracted the Elder One’s attention.> Even having passed on the message from the future, that guilt exceeded what Ellana was willing to share. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“I’m not upset,” Solas dismissed the idea with his fingertips, before wrapping them around his chin, “I am, however, curious how you ‘look under the hood’. Is this ability the result of the mark?”

Ellana considered how to answer that question for a long moment. <Was Ellana Lavellan a Dreamer?> The memories she dug through didn’t say - she was definitely a mage, discovered early and young. She dreamed a lot, but so did most mages, and like most mages, she had to learn how to interact with spirits safely. <But what makes a mage a Dreamer? Lacking the vocabulary, would I have known?> “I was an imaginative child, and I have always had vivid dreams. The clan discovered my magic young, and our Keeper intervened to ensure I learned how to avoid becoming possessed. I’m sorry, I didn’t know what it meant to be a Dreamer. Well, I knew about Dreamers, but how could I know? I don’t recall feeling different or as if my abilities have changed.” She bit her lower lip, “I don’t think I ever tried to do anything like this until Wisdom told me how. So. I guess I don’t know…?”

His mouth pinched, and Ellana folded her arms defensively, “Really, Solas, I don’t.”

He seemed about to respond when he suddenly lifted a finger in a stalling gesture and cocked his head to listen. Not sure what distracted him, Ellana turned her ears to the void. She heard nothing but the faintest buzz of silence. Before she could ask, Solas declared urgently, “My wards in the waking world are being negated. Wake up .”

Chapter Text

Ellana opened her eyes in tandem with Solas, hand already reaching for her staff. The veilfire torch had gone out, but the wards that he had placed over the doors burned with encroaching purple-black light. A counter spell, she surmised, raced along the power lines, devouring them. Without preamble, Solas shoved the Dread Wolf amulet into her hand as he gained his feet, ordering roughly, “Behind me.”

She wasted no time following his direction, thinking, <I’m not sure I’m in the right frame of mind for a fight after that Fade lesson.> Though she felt physically refreshed and her thoughts were clear, she felt uniquely fragile. <I guess we don’t get to choose when to defend ourselves from attack.> Not enjoying the sensation of vulnerability, she knit delicate threads of energy into a brilliant, crystalline-blue barrier around them both.  It settled upon them like a gossamer kiss.

Solas also drew power, the sensation before like her a swirling suck on invisible strands; ether pulled toward a vortex that solidified once past the event horizon, then fractured into a pattern. Ellana recognized Solas’ weave as an immolation spell capable of super-heating the air until it combusted in a thunderous blast. Their enemy eased into sight, and Ellana placed her hand on her mentor’s shoulder to still him before the dwarf stepping around the tunnel bend could catch a fireball to the teeth. <I think that’s the Inquisition scout from the Hinterlands… the one who didn’t like Varric’s jokes.> She scraped her brain for the name.

“Lace? Lace, is that you?” Ellana grimaced when Cassandra and Dorian joined Harding, following her into the bathhouse heating chamber. It wasn’t lost upon Ellana that their weapons were drawn. <Of course. Just what we need.>

“Lady Herald, you’re safe!” Lace’s smile dazzled, utterly oblivious to the deadly pattern of energy that Solas held ready. Her smile was infectious despite the invisible threat that made Ellana’s lips tingle and molars buzz. Meanwhile, Cassandra’s stormy expression calmed when she caught a look at Ellana, none the worse for wear. Dorian sniffed deeply, folding his arms, “Well, there you are. Traipsing about in dusty ruins, I see.”

“Dorian…” Ellana greeted him as she circled around Solas to take point. Behind her, the spell eased off, mana recombining with reserves flowing beneath his skin. “I thought you were going to keep Cassandra away , not bring her here.” <Did you tattle to Mom?> Dorian’s nose wrinkled in a way that told Ellana that he perceived the shifts of magic, but the lack of alarm in his eyes made her wonder just how much of it he sensed.

“Keep me away-?” Cassandra’s features drew first into surprise, then tightened into fine slashes of anger. She lifted a finger to jab it towards Ellana’s chest, but Dorian intervened with a theatrical flick of his wrist, “I never actually agreed to that request, if you recall. When the Seeker asked where you were, I didn’t feel it overly wise for my health to lie.”

“I convinced him that if he didn’t help me find you, you’d likely get lost and starve to death,” Cassandra skewered Ellana with a pointed look. <Well, Solas, it’d be nice if you’d chime in about now…> He didn’t.

“A glorious end to the Inquisition,” Dorian wiggled his eyebrows and swept his arms wide, then closed them in a bow. “Pleased to see you still enjoy good health, my dear.”

<Well, I appreciate the attempt at levity,> she thought, though the urge to laugh irritated her. “That’s ridiculous,” Ellana’s hands fell to her hips, and she addressed Cassandra forthrightly, “I thought you said I’m not a prisoner?”

“A prisoner, no,” Cassandra’s exasperation escaped her in a huff, “But this is a land torn by war between the templars and apostates-”

“Mages,” Ellana corrected flatly, folding her arms, “Like myself.”

“-mages, like yourself,” Cassandra corrected, one foot taking up a steady tap-tap rhythm, “But nothing is as important to our survival as you and the mark you carry. Traipsing off alone to explore ruins is beyond dangerous. You’re lucky Scout Harding can track a sparrow in flight.”

Ellana closed her hand into a fist around the mark and thought her way through Cassandra’s comment. Harding reacted to the compliment by turning to examine the pipes above their heads. “Fine engineering…” A faint blush warmed her cheeks.

“I wasn’t alone,” Ellana jerked a thumb towards Solas, who had taken up leaning a hip against the altar where the artifact still spilled him-flavoured magic. He tucked his staff casually under the folded crook of his arm and listened.

“Ahh, yes. The one responsible for your hiatus,” Cassandra’s ire redirected, and Ellana enjoyed an instant of relief before taking a deep breath and drawing the Seeker’s attention back to herself. <I’d better nip this ‘the Inquisition controls the Herald’ in the bud before it becomes an expectation, or worse, subconscious behavior on my part.>  “I’m going to do as I please when I please, and you should get used to it. I’m not going anywhere unless I damn well want to.”

Cassandra’s mouth pulled into a flat line, “Don’t play games, Ellana, we have responsibilities. You’re a sworn member of the Inquisition.” Action followed the words as Cassandra marched over and hooked her free hand under Ellana’s elbow, “You’ve had your fun, it’s time to come home.”

“What? Let go!” Ellana tore her arm loose and skittered back. <No one touches people without permission, especially not like that.> At least, no one in the modern world. Cassandra’s grip reminded Ellana of steel, certain to leave bruises the next day. Rubbing her arm, she narrowed her eyes, “I may be an elf, but I don’t belong to you. Keep your hands to yourself!” She inwardly evaluated her chances; she was beyond rusty with the martial arts she’d studied as a kid. Magic was out of the question against a Seeker. If it came to a fight, Cassandra would make her eat dirt. <But letting her push me around seems like the worst thing to do, no matter how scary standing up for myself is. Time to roll the dice and accept the consequences...>  She held up a forestalling finger and warned Cassandra as the Seeker began to advance once more, “I’m not your prisoner anymore, and I’m sure as hell not a slave. One step closer, and I swear you’re going to eat a fireball.”

“You’re bluffing.” Cassandra slashed the point of her sword through the air, tone incredulous. “You don’t even use fire in a fight.”

“Try me.” Ellana replied, everyone else falling into the background as she palmed her staff, and summoned her own mana to the fore, “If I’m not a prisoner, then there is no reason to come dragging me home any time you lose track of me. So, if you’re really willing to try and control me, lets get it over with. I might lose, but at least we’ll know the truth.”

Lace’s voice cut nervously through the air, water pipes forgotten, “Uh, we’re all on the same side, remember?” The scout’s beautiful hazel eyes were wide and she had tucked her daggers behind her back. <I wonder what she’s got back there? One of Sera’s face-melting concoctions?>

Cassandra glanced at Lace, then she sighed and sheathed her blade, “She’s right. Our disagreement serves no purpose but to defeat ourselves. Put that away.” <Wait, what? That simple, I win?>

Ellana held her stance strong for a moment more without taking her eyes off Cassandra, then politely hooked her staff to the harness she wore. She looked down her nose at Cassandra as she walked past her to join the dwarf, doing her best to hide her shock at how easily Cassandra had backed down.

Solas uncoiled and followed silently, only to be stopped by the back of Cassandra’s hand against his chest, “We’ll talk more about this later.”

<Cassandra!> Ellana mentally snarled, ready to take up the fight again, but Solas simply inclined his head. His easy acceptance made no sense to Ellana, but she’d just managed to squeak out an unlikely victory for her freedom. She knew when to walk away, <Solas is more capable than most. He can handle Cassandra - and if he can’t, then I’ll step in.> Ellana swallowed her concerns and moved out with the rest of the party, right into the shields of a Templar patrol.

>>>>><<<<<

Ellana fought down nausea as she pawed at the stranger’s blood splashed across her neck and tunic, courtesy of one of her battle-side companions. She wasn’t even sure which. <Oh God, why does it have to feel so warm?> Blessedly, she felt less nausea than the first time she’d seen a horde of dead bodies, but guilt at her hardening state welled up replaced it. <Great. Modern sensibilities, the perfect Catch 22.>

Surveying the battlefield, she wondered if she’d ever become used to this. Ellana Lavellan was a killing machine, battlemagic woven into her reflexes like rogue AI. If she relaxed, she naturally flung magic from her staff. The Fade poured in to replace the minimum draw so quickly as to make the ability near inexhaustible, but predictable. She could take over with her conscious mind, but the resulting blunders proved dangerous thus far. She clutched her bleeding arm to her chest, case in point, and surveyed the Templar corpses strewn through the woods. The minute swords and staves were tucked away, reality hit. <God, these are dead people.> The stench of released bladders and bowels mingled with the coppery tang of blood, death far more palpable than in any video game. Guiltily, she wondered, <How could I ever embrace this kind of violence, even symbolically?>

“My lady, you look positively green,” Dorian sounded too cheerful to her ears, and she squeaked in protest when he approached one of the bodies. <And I triple-hate necromancy!> Looking over his shoulder, Dorian chuckled, “So squeamish, it really is adorable. Don’t worry, I’m making sure they’re actually dead, not making friends.”

Ellana flipped him her middle finger while Cassandra knelt over the remains of another Templar, checking for a pulse. When they turned out to be sufficiently lifeless, she gave Ellana a gruff nod. <I guess she feels like this fight made her point. And I suppose it did, though to be fair... Solas and I probably could have taken six anti-magic, mage-hating beast men alone.>

Across the way, she observed her mentor stamping a fire out before it could catch in the dry underbrush and set the whole forest alight. Fresh, healthy flesh peeked through a gaping hole in his singed leggings, telling her he had downed at least one health potion.   <Well, maybe not.>

The battle done, Lace tucked her twin daggers behind her back. She tossed Ellana a healing potion for the arm, then skulked ahead to take the lead.

>>>>><<<<<

Ellana quickly learned to sleep with one eye open on their way back to Haven. Despite the first day of relative peace, a massive group of mages on the move proved too alluring for Templar forces.  More than once it seemed to her that they spawned just out of sight. <Surprise! You’re in a video game,> she told herself, though more and more uncertainty tainted the thought. <Well, if they had any sense of strategy, they’d regroup and fight a pitched battle… maybe preventing them is why Cassandra and Leliana are forcing us to maintain this dogged pace.>

Leliana, Varric, and Cassandra stayed close by her side, none of them seeming to recognize that their presence displaced Solas. Ellana noticed, however, and she hid her despondence as best she could. <I bet Cassandra managed to ‘take him aside’ for that chat between skirmishes…> Forcing her mind to the present, she turned to Leliana, “So many Templars in the Hinterlands. Surely we’ve devastated the population of their order by now, and they’ll trouble us no further?”

Bell-like laughter tickled Ellana’s ears, and Leliana gestured to where Haven nestled on the side of a mountain, invisible through the shroud of trees. They only had an hour or two further to travel, “We killed less than three hundred total. The Templars are an order several thousand strong with a network of chapters across kingdoms. We have barely half the number we killed between here and Haven. Word has spread to the mage community though. It seems new refugees join us daily from afar.” <Nice to know I wasn’t imagining our ranks swelling, at least.>

The spymaster’s hair fell to frame her face as she leaned over to whisper in Ellana’s ear, “Speaking of our new allies, you should know - I now have multiple accounts of Apprentice Guerrin either following you or watching you from afar. Is there something I should know?”

<Desire,> thought Ellana instantly, a chill crawling down her spine. She’d seen neither hide nor hair of either Connor or the demon, the latter of which she attributed to Solas’ protection. <If I tell Leliana, she might do something rash. Friend or no, she’s a member of the Chantry and Connor would be an abomination if my suspicions are true. He’s suffered enough due to me…> “No, nothing.”

“The wrinkle in your brow betrays you,” Leliana patted Ellana’s shoulder, the gesture eerily silent, “I know we’ve had our differences, but I am your ally despite them.”

“He and I have some unfinished business, but it can wait until we reach Haven,” Ellana allowed the pat, though she arched her brow as she continued, “It’s private, and I’d appreciate it if you respected that.”

“If I were Cassandra, I would remind you that we have a shared duty that requires honesty and faith in one another,” Leliana’s smile reminded Ellana of a smirk, interrupted by the faint chuckle escaped that her lips, “But I know the importance of secrets, and I trust that yours will bring no harm.”

“Thank you,” Ellana held Leliana’s gaze firmly, “I appreciate your faith in me.” It felt inadequate, so she added after a moment, “And your friendship.” <Who would have thought I’d end up with a better relationship with Leliana than Cassandra?>

Leliana inclined her head, and guilt instantly spurted in Ellana’s chest. <Oh for - forget it. It’s just a game, and one that’ll be over soon at that. We’re in the last chapter now - close the Breach, wake up. Call Lucas, have a shower, order pizza, eat half of it, and wash it down with a tub of ice cream. Then maybe write my memoirs about that time I had to brush my teeth in the morning with a cloth.> A note of melancholy surprised her, and she turned her attention to the road, <I’ll miss these people. Some of them, at least.>

>>>>><<<<<

Naturally, Cassandra wanted to assault the Breach immediately upon their return to Haven, but Ellana persuaded her to let the exhausted mages rest for a few days to ‘regain their full strength’. Most of them had been walking at a grueling pace for a whole week. Even Ellana was saddle sore.

She spent the early part of the next day in her cabin, alone at last. Safety and solitude, both sorely missing the in past week, left her dwelling on Wisdom’s words. <Do I really only want to use Solas? For what exactly? Romance isn’t exactly a one-way street. Am I a terrible person?> She didn’t think so, but anything more would imply Wisdom had an agenda. <Is it possible that the spirit actually is jealous?> She truly didn’t think so. <Is it possible to be evil without knowing it?> That struck her as far more plausible, but depressing.

Distracted with self rumination until all her snacks were gone, hunger finally drove her out in search of food. Ellana decided to poke around Varric’s haunts, <He’s good at lifting spirits when you’re burdened with unshakable sadness.> She found him playing Wicked Grace with Sera and an attractive human woman in a roughspun tunic and leather breeches.

“Mind if I join you?” Ellana asked, drawing up to Varric’s welcoming gesture with a friendly smile and nod. Sera’s mouth pulled down at the edges, but she made room by scooting closer to the mystery woman while Ellana clarified, “Just to watch. I don’t know how to play.”

“Oh, it’s easy,” Varric reassured her, flicking a card up between two fingers before slipping it dexterously back into the deck, “Everyone just keeps drawing a card as the turns go by, then discards, trying to improve their hand. When the Angel of Death is drawn, everyone shows what they’ve got. The best hand wins.”

Ellana nodded absently as she listened to the bard she’d come to know as Maryden play. <The music here is so different, as are the instruments. I could probably play that lute though, close enough to a guitar…> She entertained herself thinking about what she might sing that wouldn’t give her away with modern references. The exercise proved mentally challenging, but the hubbub of the inn mellowed her mood.

Sera spread a twinkling smile across her plush lips, “You sure are pretty. Distracts a body playin’ cards.”

“What?” Ellana swivelled her head only to realize with embarrassment that Sera was talking to the attractive, brown-haired stranger at their table. The woman peered doggedly at the cards in her hand.

“Lysette,” she corrected on her own behalf. She lifted her gaze, caught Ellana’s eye, and reached over the table to offer her hand. After Ellana shook it, Lysette settled back on the bench, and gave Sera a side eye,  “Don’t think flirting is going to distract me from your cheating... I prefer men, anyway.”

“Sounds like she’s got your number, Sera,” Ellana gave up contemplating the music and ordered an ale with a bowl of the perpetual stew. Straddling the bench, she watched Varric deal the cards and order his hand while he explained which hand beat what. <So… it’s a lot like poker, but nothing like poker. Five suits, eh?> The cards lured her with their beautiful, vibrant colors painted by hand.  

“Got my numbers? What?” Sera asked, lifting her tankard and taking a swig as the tavern keeper, Flissa, plonked another full of dark brew at Ellana’s elbow. “Oy, nevermind. Dalish Herald never makes sense. I don’t have any numbers.” <Right. Modern reference. Well, at least that was a mild one.>

“You’re the Herald?” Lysette asked in surprise, spreading her cards in her hand while Ellana sampled the ale and tried not to make a face. <C’mon, this is probably quality alcohol, you’re just not used to drinking anything that tastes like a sock.> The second sip tasted noticeably less bitter, however. Intrigued, she experimented with a third sample while she answered, “Mmm, so they say. I’m Ellana.”

“Lysette here is a Templar,” Sera declared with deliberate glee. She was fully aware after their trip back that Ellana hated Templars with a passion suspiciously characteristic of Sera’s own dislike of magic - loathing born of fear. <Probably not too far off what many Templars feel for us, come to think of it.>

“I’m not even sure what that even means anymore,” Lysette exchanged a card and spoke conversationally, “Ever since the war broke out, the Templars have forsworn their duty to protect the mages, turning against our own charges. When we’re not doing that, apparently we’re declaring our independence and marching off to some hold to do nothing. Your turn, Varric.”

“Well, you’re Inquisition now,” Sera pointed out with what Ellana considered boundless optimism, “Part of putting it all back, right as rain. Then things will get normal again, you’ll see.”

“I love your positivity, Buttercup,” Varric reached out and nudged Ellana’s elbow just as she tipped the dregs of her ale into her mouth, “Easy there, Herald. Flissa’s not going to water your ale as much as she does the rest of ours.” As he spoke, the Angel of Death appeared on Sera’s draw to a stream of curses. Everyone turned over their hand, and Varric collected the pot. “You sure you don’t want in?”

“Sure. Beats sitting in my room trapped in an existential crises induced by a Spirit of Wisdom.” Several blank faces peered back at her, and she said flatly, “I’m not possessed.”

“Been hanging out with Chuckles again, I take it?” Varric asked as Sera took the deck from his hands to shuffle them with a bridge, “Hey, careful with those, Buttercup. A friend made them, and I’d like them to last.”

Ellana thought of Solas for a split second, which brought Wisdom back to mind. Frustrated, she waved the begloved hand with the mark, shoving the thoughts deep into a hole in the back of her mind, “Forget it. Deal me in.”

>>>>><<<<<

<Gamble and drinking go together like … like...> Nausea tightened Ellana’s throat, preventing her from finishing the thought. She had won a couple of hands, but her third ale tanked her luck. <Or skill. Whatever. I shouldn’t be trying to count cards in a deck I barely recognize. And I’m sure Sera’s cheating.> Not that it did her much good. A pile of painfully cheap trinkets had accumulated in front of Varric. Ellana’s fingertips brushed the Dread Wolf icon she’d taken to wearing under her tunic - Solas hadn’t asked for it back - then stood up, “That’s it, I’m out.”

“Aww,” Sera protested, but Lysette nodded, also tossing her cards down on the table, “Fair enough, It’s getting dark, and I should be getting back to camp.” She gave Ellana a sidelong glance, “Care for an escort, Lady Herald?”

“Uh, sure,” Ellana agreed, surprising herself. Playing cards with Lysette had pushed her Templar nature to the back of Ellana’s mind, at least until they stood up to head out the door together, <But I’m not going to let my fear get the better of me. Lysette seems alright.> “Thanks for the game, Varric.”

“No, thank you,” Varric tapped the cards together, pulling a wooden box from his belt pouch to store them, “You’re horrible at cards, Herald; therefore welcome at my game anytime.”

“Ha ha,” Ellana deadpanned, then followed Lysette out the door into crisp night air, sharply tinged by the scent of hearth smoke. It did absolutely nothing to sober her. “Did you want to talk to me?” she asked as she drew her hood up. The silkiness of the fur teased her fingers pleasantly, but an acrid odor emanated from it. <Probably cured in piss or some other unsanitary ingredient. A small price to pay for not having pointy, frostbitten ears.>

Lysette chuckled as she clasped her cloak and drew up her own hood, “No, my lady. But I am a Templar, and you are a mage. I just figured I’d do my duty to keep you from falling down a mineshaft. Haven is riddled with them.” Pointing southwest along the horizon at the fortifications, she added, “We nearly lost that trebuchet there to a cave-in last week, just cranking the frame around for repair.”

“Thanks,” Ellana shuffled after her, “I think.” The world abruptly tipped, and Lysette’s hand steadied her under the elbow while she gasped, “Oh boy. Okay. Varric’s right. Flissa really did let me have it.”

“You’ll be just fine,” Lysette promised, lightly looping her arm into Ellana’s as they walked. “I’ll bet you can even walk straight if I let you go.”

“Probably, but don’t. If nothing else, it’s freezing and you’re warm,” Ellana’s friendly expression disappeared as she noticed a shadow detaching from the side of the inn. The surrounding cabins were dark. “Uh, Lysette? Do you see-”

Lysette straightened immediately, pushing Ellana behind her with the same business-like aclarity that Solas used in the ancient ruins. Instead of drawing a staff, however, Lysette’s sword cleared the scabbard at her hip with a single, smooth stroke. “Show yourself!” she called. Rather than obeying, the figure took off into the darkness, snow crunching beneath its feet. Lysette took two steps to chase her stalker down, but Ellana grabbed her arm. 

Ellana shook her head, chuffing at the steam that blew from her mouth in the cold air. “It’s not worth pursuing. I’m pretty sure I know who it is.” <Is Connor stalking me or Desire? Is she back inside, controlling him again?>

“Very well, I’ll get you to your cabin safely, Lady Herald, and set up a watch outside your door.” There was a note of steel in Lysette’s voice, and Ellana decided that turning down the Templar’s offer would probably hurt feelings. <Besides, having a bodyguard will probably help me sleep at night right now.> She resolved to tell Leliana about her stalker in the morning, but for now, she forced down a cup of water and headed straight to bed.

>>>>><<<<<

Bright and early the next morning, Lysette proved that the Templars obey the Seekers. Pounding on the door interrupted Ellana’s pleasant, lucid sleep. <Does it say something that I recognize Cassandra’s pounding versus, oh, I don’t know, practically anyone else’s?> The door flew open just as she cracked an eye open, noting with gratitude that she didn’t have a hangover.

“It’s time,” Cassandra declared, grabbing Ellana’s coat from its hook beside the door and tossing it onto the foot of the bed, “We have things to do.”

“What’s this about we? I have a Breach to seal,” Ellana poked her nose out of the blankets, regretted it, and pulled them over her head, “ We agreed to wait two days. Go away.”

“Two days for the Breach, yes. There are other tasks to attend to. The Empress of Orlais is in danger,” Cassandra jerked a thumb over her shoulder, “Josephine and Vivienne have their work cut out for them, and so do you. Get up.”

<There goes all attempts at a weekend. Doesn’t anyone in this world ever rest?> “I hate you,” Ellana declared without feeling, tentatively exposing a foot to the air as she poked it out of her cocoon of warmth, “And Lysette sucks. She said she’d watch the door.”

“Have you been drinking again?” Cassandra’s gasp of surprise made Ellana sniff her armpit, then say, “Not excessively. I don’t even have a hangover.”

“You indulge far too much,” Cassandra watched Ellana grudgingly stand up, bundled in her quilt and sheets, hair sticking out in all directions.

“I indulge half what Sera and Varric do, and she’s still a teenager. Why don’t you go complain at  them?” Ellana made her way to her clothing chest, throwing it open. “So what do Josephine and Vivienne have to do with my getting dragged out of bed at the crack of dawn?”

“It’s almost morning tea,” Cassandra corrected, feet planted, and folded her arms disapprovingly, “You slept through prayers. Again.”

Ellana pulled her leather leggings over her legs, then a simple homespun tunic over her head. “I’m Dalish.”

“You’re the Herald of Andraste-”

“-and I’m hungry.”

“Food will have to wait,” Cassandra declared, pressuring Ellana to get moving by the simple expedient of standing expectantly by the door, “Josephine and First Enchanter Montsimmard await you in the Chantry. Our next steps in Orlais will by necessity expose you further to their nobility. As you learned in Val Royeaux, the Game is no simple matter. We’d be remiss to send you into that den of wolves without a blade.”

“A blade?” Ellana pushed her head through a clean tunic and reached for a wooden comb she kept beside her bed.

“Etiquette training. The Orlesian equivalent of a dagger,” Cassandra snorted, arms folding, “I don’t know. I’m Nevarran.”

“I’m pretty sure they carry around plenty of actual daggers,” Ellana opined, finally tugging on her boots. She’d slept in her tunic and breeches, “If I have to do etiquette training, so do you.”

Cassandra settled her weight onto one cocked hip, tossing her head slightly, “I’m well aware of Orlesian practices, thank you.”

“Oh? Do they know that?” teased Ellana as she slid her arms into her heavy fur coat. “You realize you just contradicted yourself?”

“You sound like an Orlesian already,” griped Cassandra.

 

Chapter Text

Ellana tossed and turned all night, unable to find restful sleep. The Inquisition would climb to the Temple of Sacred Ashes come morning, and she sensed that her time in Thedas was near its end. Closing the Breach was obviously the main quest, and it would soon be over. <Hopefully I’ll wake up in one piece. I never even managed to get kissed. Guess I picked an unavailable romance.> Even meditation failed to bring her a sense of respite. She rose out of bed early, dressed, did her exercises, and opened the door into the icy dark of pre-dawn.

Lysette straightened when Ellana stepped across the threshold, greeting her with a salute. “You’re up early,” the Templar said. <If this is what it’s like to be guarded by a Templar, I have to admit it’s far less burdensome than I imagined.> Though it had taken several beers, she trusted Lysette’s intentions were pure, unlike the Templars Ellana had faced on the battlefield. She wondered at her own double standard. <Well, Lysette represents the protective, good side of Templars. They’re not all that way. In some Circles they were systemic abusers - likely the type who’d have sided with Lucius. If any of those assholes in the Hinterlands decided to settle their differences by buying everyone a round, the world sure would be a better place.>

Ellana slipped her gloves on, cutting off the soft emerald glow of the mark on her hand. It plunged their surroundings into darkness, and she waited for her eyes to adjust, “Yeah, I just wanted to visit Solas before we begin… you know, make sure I’m really clear on what to do when the time comes.”

Lysette’s mouth indulgently curved, half hidden in the shadows. Ellana tucked her hands into her armpits for warmth, mentally grousing at the Templar’s expression. <Does everyone know how I feel about him?>

Rather than call her on it, the Lysette lifted her hands to exhale heat over her fingertips, “In good news, there’s been no return of your nocturnal stalker.” She rubbed them together for the friction and asked, ”Shall I accompany you to Solas’ cabin?”

“Um, no, that won’t be necessary. It’s not far, and I won’t be long. If I need you, I’ll just scream really loud,” Ellana waved over her shoulder as she trudged across the frozen ground. Passing piles of snow, she climbed the steps to Solas’ hut. The crisp air cleared her sinuses, a sensation she might have enjoyed in other circumstances. Today, she stopped outside his door, dwelling on the silence and dark windows.

<Why am I here?> she asked herself, standing within knocking distance of the door, <To tell him I’ll miss him? Or that I love him? That Wisdom is wrong about me? I know he’s kept secrets, but the Breach is almost closed; the game is almost over… it hardly matters now, right? I can finally go home.> She shuffled from foot to foot for warmth as much as the distraction, thinking about what she wanted to say to him. Struggling to figure it out, she gave up, <I should just go.>

The door opened just as she turned away, and she glanced over her shoulder. It took a moment for her brain to register the sight. Solas wore only his dark green leggings, and the odd, blackened jawbone necklace that hung above his sternum. His aura was calm, fresh from sleep, and he rested fingertips on the doorframe while he considered her, “It is very early for visitors.”

Ellana tore her gaze up from the flat planes about his navel, past a lithe, muscular torso and broad shoulders, to his face. <Okay, I knew he was harder under that shirt than expected, but … I think I need some air. Except I’ve got nothing around me but air; cold, nostril-burning air. Do not stare, this is not why you came.>  “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude. In fact,” she studiously examined the door lintel, gesturing back the way she had come, “I was just leaving…”

Curiosity and flattered amusement nipped at the edges of Solas’ aura, but he drew his shields into place and gestured her inside. “It is freezing out there. Come in.”

She hesitated, but then ducked past him into a balmy warmth that her cabin never experienced, “Thank you.” A glance at the interior door frame revealed the source - a warmth rune, along with a few partners. <Ahh, I must have tripped a ward. You’d think I’d have learned something after climbing that mountain, but nope. Not me. I guess asking Solas to teach me rune magic is next on the list.>   

This was the first time she had ever been inside Solas’ cabin, and she performed a slow, observant pirouette as he closed the door. Free of clutter, she supposed it reflected its occupant’s personality; precise piles of books and scrolls covered his writing table. His outer tunic hung neatly over the back of a chair, and his belt formed a compact coil beside the inkwell. A series of raw wool rugs insulated the thin wooden slats of the floor. Clay dishware sat on an open shelf above the writing table, and a wooden chest she imagined held clothing rested at the foot of the bed. Rumpled blankets reinforced her impression that he had been sleeping. 

<Functional,> she thought. <Is he really that… spartan?> Despite the evidence before her eyes, she didn’t think so, but she couldn’t pinpoint why the lack of decor surprised her. <Maybe it’s the way he speaks? There is poetry there. Complication.>

“I woke you up; I’m sorry,” Ellana forced herself to release her lower lip; she had begun to chew it.

“It’s fine,” Solas reassured her, closing the door. “What can I do for you then?”

Ellana offered Solas a harried smile, “Oh, I just thought I’d check in, you know - make sure I know what to do today.”

Solas’ eyes narrowed thoughtfully and he cupped his chin. He didn’t need to lower his shields for her to sense his skepticism, but he said nothing about it aloud. Instead, he arched a brow and waited.

“Okay, fine,” she muttered, splaying her fingers defensively. <I swear, Thedans are like walking lie detectors.> “I wanted to see you.”

“All right,” Solas ran a hand down his face, then admitted, “I am not yet awake, lethallan.”  So saying, he moved purposefully for the writing desk and the remainder of his clothing.

“Well, you caught me walking away right after I decided not to bother you,” Ellana folded her hands behind her back while he picked up his tunic. “I guess...” <What? I can’t tell him ‘Goodbye’. That’d seem crazy and weird from his perspective.> “I can go if you want. Let you get more rest.”

Solas popped his head out of the neckline and tugged the garment down along his lean frame, reaching for his belt, “As I said, it is fine. I planned to awaken soon in any case; we have much to do today. You are welcome to have a seat.”

She nodded, but didn’t move. He was standing too close to the only chair for comfort, and the other option was his bed.  He grasped her hesitation quickly though, and pulled the chair out for her. She sat down with an appreciative dip of the chin, and he stepped back, concentrating on looping his belt about his waist. The practiced motion and the flexion of his hands riveted her. <Okay, Wisdom, I take the point. I am completely and utterly lost in my base desires. That doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, though, just a horny one.> Uncomfortable with her feelings, she studied the ceiling, praying her thoughts didn't show.

Dressed, Solas perched on the edge of the bed, one leg curled under, and gave her his full attention.

Ellana lingered until he was settled, then said, “Wisdom said some things that I’ve been dwelling on, perhaps to an unhealthy degree. I don’t know what’s going to happen today, but I’m not afraid of it.” <Well, not of closing the Breach or the Elder one. I’m sure he’ll make an appearance, we’ll put up a fight, and he’ll be defeated. Game over.> “Things are coming to an end, and afterwards, I think… I don’t know what to do with myself when it’s all over. Or even who I’ll be.” <When I wake up, does this world instance simply cease? Or will the real Ellana Lavellan carry on smiling at him every day without my consciousness behind it?>  

“I’d think that’d be self evident,” Solas leaned a shoulder against the wall and casually folded his arms, “You’ll be whomever you choose to be. They cannot force you to remain the Herald of Andraste.”

Ellana suppressed a laugh, “Don’t you think you’re underestimating their powers of persuasion? I think they have a lot of leverage.”

“Not at all,” a glint appeared in his blue-grey eyes, “I am fairly certain whatever they think to do, they will underestimate you.” Ellana’s smile slipped. She nodded, looking away. Seeing his compliment fall flat, Solas pursed his lips, “That is not what you meant though. What is this really about?”

Ellana laced her fingers together over her knee and rested back against the chair. <How do I tell him what he’s meant to me these past several weeks? The teaching, the Fade rescues? Hell, even the fear when I worried about his agenda…> She opened her mouth, then clamped her lips shut, focusing on the darkness outside the window. <He already ignored me when I declared how much I cared for him. My feelings are unwanted, and I shouldn't burden him. Wisdom was right - that bitch.>

“I thought you were not afraid of accidentally tearing the sky open and raining otherworldly terror upon our heads?” Solas joked quietly. <Attempting to soothe me with humor? I guess I should at least meet him halfway.>

“That’s a possible outcome, huh? No, I’m not afraid. I’ll do my best, and we’ll succeed or we won’t.” <I’m the player, I’m going to win. We always do.> Shoving that thought aside, Ellana licked her lips and gauged his mood. He seemed relaxed, alert, but not unduly vigilant. <It’d be nice if he didn’t throw his shields up every time he sees me.> With no direction from his state of mind, she tackled her thoughts head on, "Look, it’s come to my attention that my behavior has been a burden for you. That’s the opposite of what I’d ever want. If you want me to put aside my interests, I’ll try.” A frown sketched itself across Solas’ mouth, so she hurried on, “I don’t know if it matters, but… I just wanted you to know  that I never meant to make you, uh, uncomfortable.”

“You have never made me uncomfortable,” Solas denied sharply, expression shifting to pure, thunderous displeasure. Ellana raised her brows to conveying disbelief, and he adjusted with a mutter, “Well, never in a bad way.” His irritation remained when he asked, “What did Wisdom say to make you think that?”

“Mostly that my perspective is…” she paused, formulating her words as calmly as she could, “Well, ‘limited’ would probably be the nicest way to put it. She considers me juvenile, and perhaps prone to atrocities.” Ellana hid the hurt with a wisecrack, “What do you say when the embodiment of Wisdom pretty much tells you that your priorities are shit, and your perception of reality makes you a bad person?”

“Atrocities? I’ve seen nothing to support that in either your behavior or your choices,” Solas waved a hand, dismissing her concern, “Certainly, you are young-” Solas began, but he huffed at her narrowing eyes, “Youth is not a sin. There is a beauty in innocence.” Solas leaned forward and spoke intently, “Did you know that in all my time in Thedas, I’ve never seen anyone simply play with magic - take joy in it - except you?” Her stomach tensed with pleasure at his words, and she scraped her hair away from her forehead.

“What do you mean?” Ellana sent her mind back to all of her time spent with Solas and couldn’t think of any time she’d ‘played’ with magic.

“At camp, when you plucked music out of the air,” Solas’ wiggled his fingers, mimicking the notes floating off. <The night he retired early. We almost kissed the next morning, but then he pushed me away.> “You were clearly playing with magic. I have not witnessed the like-” he hesitated, “- for some time.”

“Oh,” Ellana’s mouth broke into a hint of happiness, and she confessed, “I love music, always have.”

“I can tell,” he nodded simply, then opined with a lifted brow, “Though I had expected to hear something a bit more traditionally Dalish.”

Ellana laughed softly, but decided it was safest not to comment. His approval warmed her heart in itself, and she didn’t want to disturb it. To her surprise, Solas filled the void, “I cannot fathom Wisdom saying that you are a bad person. You are relatively young, yes-"

“There you go again; I am not a child,” Ellana interrupted firmly, irked that he’d brought up her youth twice in a row. She spread her hand upon his writing table for emphasis while she silently dared him to disagree. To her surprise, his gaze betrayed the direction of his thoughts. It slipped down her body, tracing the curve of her breast, her hip, then touched upon the juncture of her thighs. Seeing it tingled almost as much as an actual caress. Her fingers curled on the table and her knees went weak, parting a fraction of an inch.

His breath caught upon the subtle invitation, and the moment stretched between them. Abruptly, he drew a knee up to his chest and lifted long hands to his face. Rubbing it, he breathed a sigh into his palms before he confessed, “No, you are definitely not a child.” When he finished, he gazed at her firmly, “But you need guidance. We should focus on-”

“No,” she responded softly, without thinking. It started as a reflexive rejection of what she perceived - his attraction, denial, the conspicuous tactic to distract. Then she realized she meant it, and her voice hardened, "I do not ‘need guidance’ like that, and I am not a child .” Wisdom’s words about advising Solas also rang in her head. <He’s been acting as poorly as I have.> “I refuse to let you conveniently label me as ‘that Dalish girl’ then ignore whatever doesn’t fit the picture you’ve painted.” Ellana stood up and flashed angry eyes at Solas, “You diminish me whenever it’s convenient for you, and I deserve better - whether it’s from a friend, a teacher, or more.”

His ears flicked back, and his jaw flexed as he gritted his teeth. She refused to care, ”I accept that you are older and know things that I do not; so I try to learn. I accept that I’ve frequently been selfish in both my actions and desires; so I respectfully give you space. I even accept that I bring a lot on myself because I love your mind… but I absolutely do not accept for one moment that I am your lesser. I insist that you respect me, or I refuse to participate further in this farce of a friendship.”

He waited stonily, perhaps seeing if she was done. She was, and she returned his expression inch for inch. After the initial rage, he sucked his cheeks in, and rolled the corner of his mouth thoughtfully. She kept her feet planted and screamed through her aura that she meant every word of it, knowing he sensed none of it with his shields up.

Solas rose from the bed, coming to place his hand on the table where hers had been. His forefinger traced a pattern on its surface, and he finally spoke, “Ellana, you have displayed an unusual intellect and compassion. Ruthless practicality when called for. And you seem to know the difference. These are the qualities of a good leader. Sometimes-” he paused, shook his head, then continued, “There is an air about you, something ‘other.’ This world is not good enough for you.” Her heart stopped, <Does he know?> If he did, he said nothing more until he stopped caressing the wood and sighed. He turned to her squarely, and inclined his head, “You’re right, I have done you a disservice in treating you like a child. When you chose to call me hahren, I knew you were special. You have not disappointed since, and you are right to demand respect. Ir abelas, lethallan.”

<What? That’s it? I yell at him, he looks like he wants to murder me, then just a quiet apology? Who is this man?> The tension left her, and she nodded slowly, biting her lip again. Outside a horn blew, calling the Inquisition to assemble. <Prayers are over.> “It seems our time is up.” She hoped her sadness wasn’t too apparent.

“Indeed,” Solas scanned her face, reaching for his staff. “Are you ready to save the world?”

She nodded and he shrugged on his coat, then gestured for her to lead the way. She did, and they stepped out into the cold together. <It might not be the goodbye I wanted,> she thought, <but it will have to do.>

>>>>><<<<<

The Breach, stable for these past several weeks, churned above the Temple of Sacred Ashes. Ghastly green light spilled so strongly from it that it tainted the bright daylight of the sun. The mark in her hand ached fiercely as they approached. <At least the air is clear this time around,> thought Ellana. Carbon crunched beneath her feet and caught at the end of her staff, stirring motes of ash into the air as they passed. Beside her, Solas tilted his head to the sky. Behind him, Cassandra and Fiona directed an impressive mass of mages, now well over three hundred, to gather with their peers. They shuffled around the temple perimeter, the ruins now a makeshift amphitheater after the Conclave blast. Their positions were generally well away from the central vortex.

<I wonder how the Templars would have compared to this force?> Ellana took deep breaths of ion-heavy air. The chemical scent had long since dissipated, but the atmosphere still crackled with energy. Breathing alone rapidly charged her mana reserves. The surface strands of her hair lifted, straining towards the Breach. <It must be generating electrostatic particles like a pelletron.> Fascinated, she barely noticed as Solas left her side to stand by Fiona. It was only when he lifted his staff and called, “Mages! Focus past the Herald! Let her will draw from you!” that she glanced back.

A ripple passed through the multitude, mages kneeling with Fiona in preparation to focus. <Probably safer than standing should they fall,> thought Ellana. Many had staves for foci, but many more did not. Those without either clasped their hands in an attitude of prayer or curled their bodies, genuflecting towards her in a classic balasana, the child pose. The sight struck her in the gut. <Herald of Andraste indeed. These people are kneeling before me like I’m some sort of messiah.>  Steeling herself, she thought, <Well, it’s necessary,> and grimly turned back toward the Breach.

<Best tap into their power soon.The boss battle is about to begin.> She left the edge of the crowd, Solas and Cassandra following her this time. Fiona remained at the center mass, kneeling amongst the other mages. Several yards from ground zero, Solas placed his hand on Cassandra’s forearm and shook his head, “Only the Herald should go further than this, Seeker.”

Ellana’s hair whipped around her face as she looked back, taking in her companions for the last time. Varric stood guard near the red lyrium, Bianca on his shoulder. Dorian had taken Vivienne’s hand and was assisting her to her knees. Sera watched with her arms folded by a large, bushy-bearded fellow that Ellana had heard was Blackwall. <Guess I was a jerk and didn’t say goodbye to any of them. Too late for regrets.> Her last look was to Solas. Cheekily, she held up her right hand, splaying her index finger, pinky, and thumb, and tucking her two middle fingers. He cocked his head, but she dropped her hand and stepped into the circle. Directly below the Breach, she opened her senses.

The air around Ellana became physically thick, hard to suck into her lungs. Afraid to wait, she thrust her staff into the sky. The murky golden-yellow stone at its apex gathered light from its surroundings. First the anchor in her palm connected to the foci, then one by one threads of power from every mage in the vicinity joined in.

Her mage sense blazed, touched by colors eyes had never seen. Each formed a unique aura of an individual mage that she now knew intimately. An exhilarating river of energy flowed through her, exalting her. She felt she could fly. <This must be what it’s like to be a God.>

The Breach reacted to the power furiously, pulsing like a living thing. Her momentary egomania dissipated as the energies it expelled surged against her. She tumbled ass over tea kettle into the dirt.

<Well, shit, > she laughed at herself, climbing to her feet. <So much for dignity.> “Alright, you!” she shouted at the Breach, “It’s time!” Summoning up the same weave of magic Solas had once imprinted in her mind, just several hundred times stronger, Ellana cast the pattern into the heavens with her staff. It flashed emerald into the visible spectrum, pierced the veil, then spread like gossamer across the tear.

The Breach churned faster, shrieking a defiant whistle as ethereal winds blazed through the gaping maw above. The maelstrom almost picked her up off her feet, then it pulsed again and slammed her to the ground once more. The air left her lungs, but somehow she clung to her staff and kept the weave steady. It spread. The wind abruptly cut off, and she clambered to her hands and knees. Where her spell touched the sky, green Fade magic clung to the edges of the Breach. It stretched like taffy, fighting the screeching tempest, but she finally had air in her lungs. Raw energy flowed through her hand to her foci, all she needed to do was flex. Hard.

So she did.

Inelegantly, Ellana drove the edges of the tear together, using the brute strength of several hundred mages and her own sheer willpower. Her mind felt on the edge of fracture, but she gritted her teeth and screamed, sending a final surge of energy into the sky to cauterize the wound.

The crystal in her staff exploded above her head. Distantly, she felt shards slash into her cheek and chin. Sound disappeared as a supernova of searing blue-white light punched through the kneeling masses.

>>>>><<<<<

For several long moments, Ellana remained huddled beneath the Breach, fighting for her bearings. Blinking away afterburn, she saw bodies prone all around her. Her ears rang with the shrill note of tinnitus. Terror that she’d reenacted the explosion of the Conclave eased as Cassandra sat up, then Solas rolled to his hands and knees. Further out, the mages recovered fast, clambering to their feet. They pointed to the sky, expressions shifting to joy, and Ellana looked up - a green scar shimmered there, but the Breach was closed.  

Cassandra got to her first, clapping Ellana on the shoulder. It was hard to make out the Seeker’s words, but she thought they were, “You did it!” Then the cheers began.

Ellana nodded numbly, staring at the sky, <But the Elder One didn’t show, and I didn’t wake up. >

Chapter Text

Climbing to her feet, Ellana pressed a finger into her ear and rubbed, trying to regain her full hearing. It didn’t help, and she scowled at Solas as he approached. He took in her expression, tucked his hands behind his back, and asked something indulgently. The high pitched whine in her ears muffled the words beyond comprehension, so she smoothed her face, “I can’t hear you.”

Before he could respond Cassandra joined them, speaking rapidly. Her features lit with excitement that faded at Ellana’s blank look. Eyes narrowing, Cassandra clipped a few words off at Solas, a hand slashing sharply through the air. Solas’ visage smoothed into what Ellana recognized as his ‘hiding anger’ face, and he slipped a hand about Ellana’s elbow. Ellana looked between the two as they fired a quick sentences back and forth, wondering what they were saying. A moment later, Cassandra nodded slowly and gestured commandingly towards the Temple door.

Solas drew Ellana through the crowd towards the damaged entrance, Cassandra close at their heels. Their procession met with cheers and small favors tossed at their feet, mostly cloth handkerchiefs and bits of ribbon, but the occasional trinket also. It sounded far away, underwater, but with the bulk of the Inquisition focused on her, Ellana forced herself to composure. <I must look a sight.> The blood from the cut on Ellana's cheek tickled her face, right to her collar. She lifted her hand to wave to the crowd, imagining she appeared like a war-won hero. The acknowledgment swelled their appreciation, and a virtual blizzard of favors fell around them. Some devotees even pressed out of formation towards her until Cassandra - then suddenly Cullen - interceded to push them back.

The tug on her arm intensified as more people pressed closer, and Ellana realized that Solas intended to evacuate her before the crowd became unruly. She submitted and Solas, Cassandra, and Cullen formed an escort, pushing her through the joyful assembly without incident. The cheers reminded Ellana of a stadium full of adoring fans, all too eager to trample one another - and her - to get close. <Is this what it’s like to be a pop star?> She shivered at the thought and appreciated her companions as they navigated her safely through the horde.

Her entourage descended the windswept steps, Haven already coming into view. Curious civilians lined the streets, some staring at the faintly shimmering remnant in the sky, but many reaching out as she passed, hoping to touch the fringe of her garments. While not entirely sure she deserved the adoration, Ellana secretly admitted that it flattered her ego. Her fingers brushed the hands of those close enough until they broke away just before her cabin.

Cassandra engaged in further conversation with Solas. His responses seemed negative and firm, and the line between the Seeker’s brows scrunched up in response. When Solas shook his head, Cassandra gestured to Cullen, and they took up a defensive station outside the door. Whatever their source of their disagreement, it was settled. Solas guided Ellana into her cabin, closing the door behind them, then led her to the foot of her bed. Obediently she sat and said, “I can hear sound, just everything sounds muffled. There’s a screeching in my ears.” At least, that’s what she thought she said.

Solas nodded and reached up, wordlessly waiting for permission. She nodded eagerly, and he placed his fingertips against her skin. His thumbs brushed the corners of her mouth, rough with callus, and his little fingers slid along the pointed tips of her ears. He said something, eyes intense - a warning perhaps - then gathered mana, sending tendrils of magic through her face and head. The cool sensation of water trickling across her face became a low buzz that increased in intensity until it became a hard current. It seized her face and eardrums like an electric jolt, and just as she opened her mouth to protest, her ears popped. Rather than pain, the wet sensation flooding her ear canals was acute relief.

“Better?” Solas asked, lowering his hands. Her eyes traced the spatter of freckles across his nose and cheeks, and she marvelled at how flawlessly translucent his skin appeared. She nodded, inhaling and wetting her lips with her tongue. He released her, standing up and putting distance between them before replying perfunctorily, “Good.”

Accustomed to this behavior, Ellana smirked and occupied herself with her ears. She used a knuckle to wiggle her left ear, commenting, “Glad I’m not deaf forever.” Wiping her hands on her pants, then resting her forearm on her leg, she muttered, “It appears I’m stuck here for the time being, though.”

“What do you mean?” Solas inquired, taking up some space against the wall all the way across the room. He folded his arms and relaxed, full body, against the wall.

“Oh, the crowd outside seems intense," she replied vaguely, rubbing her hand over the coverlet on the bed. She loved the softness against her palm. "For now, it's rest.” She glanced at Solas. He leaned indolently against the wall, but she knew she had spooked him into retreat. Keeping her amusement to herself, she stretched instead, “I wouldn’t mind company.”

“That hardly sounds restful,” Solas observed, folding his arms loosely. He didn’t budge, but Ellana entertained herself imagining him calculating the distance between her, himself, and the door.

“Suit yourself,” Ellana shifted until she was lying on her back, one arm tucked under her head and the other hand resting on her flat stomach. She spoke in the direction of the ceiling, “Thank you for the heal by the way - but if I’m honest, channeling that much power is a rush. I’m not really tired. Just… worn.”

“I suppose that makes it a good time for a lesson; rift dynamics, perhaps?” Solas asked, “We could discuss the nature of your work today.” When she turned her head, he was using his long fingers to adjusting the sleeve of his woolen sweater.

Ellana groaned, tilting her chin towards the ceiling, “You want to have a lesson. Now?"

"Perhaps not a lesson," Solas curled a knuckle against his chin, eyes sparkling, “The opportunity to witness such an event comes only once a lifetime. You stood at the very epicenter. Surely you would not begrudge an old apostate their curiosity?”

“You make yourself sound decrepit. But fine,” Ellana sat all the way up, letting out a puff. Her fingers flew to the buttons of her tunic, and she threw her legs over the edge of the bed, declaring, “I’m changing though. There’s blood on my collar.”

“Very well,” Solas smiled politely, inclining his head as he reached for the door, “I shall return when you are composed. An hour, perhaps?”

A sensation of desire washed over her as she released the buttons of her tunic, now open to just below her cleavage. Looking down at the wooden discs in her fingers, she felt perplexed, <Huh? My buttons are not sexy- oh.> It took a moment for her to realize that, despite his serene demeanor, the emotion she felt was not her own at all. She stilled, afraid to draw attention to his fluctuating shield, “It won’t take that long, you could just turn around.”

He pursed his lips, then dropped his hand away from the door handle with subtle reluctance. “Very well.” Turning, Solas faced away, linking his hands loosely behind his back. Relieved, she disrobed behind him while he said, “What you accomplished today was extraordinary.”

“Was it?” Ellana finished unbuttoning her shirt, sliding it off and tossing it onto the foot of her bed. “I pretty much did what you’ve spent the last month or more teaching me to do, if you’ll recall.”

“Yes,” Solas acknowledged, nodding slowly at the wall, “But few mages could channel that much energy without searing themselves out of the fabric of existence. In fact, I suspect the power donated by the Free Mages rivaled only that of whatever created the Breach in the first place.”

“I understood the dangers, Solas, and we agreed it was necessary. I went of my own free will.” Ellana drew on a new shirt, the crisp scent of linen thrilling her nose. Deftly, she fastened it while she spoke, “What are you getting at?”

Solas took his time responding, and she finished changing. While she couldn’t read his mind, she had the faintest sense of his emotions, a trickle through the tiniest crack. <Admiration, maybe? Much warmer than I imagine him from the outside.> Instead of answering her question, he asked his own, “What was it like, channeling so much power?”

She pondered her response, looking for words. Nothing seemed adequate. “I don’t know if I can describe it,” she said, twisting the long side of her hair and pulling it out of her collar to rest over her shoulder. “Trying is like-” a blush crept up her cheeks, “-like describing sex to a virgin.”

“Exhilarating? Intoxicating? Invigorating?” Solas seemed to sense she was done dressing and turned to face her, the corner of his mouth drawn into the hint of a smirk.

<Oh, he’s a thesaurus now?> Ellana grabbed her pillow and threw it at him. He caught it deftly, while she shrugged, “Sure. All of that, and more.” He stepped closer to pass the pillow back, and as he did, she suddenly felt shy, “I guess, if you really want to know, maybe I could, um, show you in the Fade?”

Solas rolled his mouth, turning serious while he considered her suggestion. The trickle of emotion coiled in her stomach, and she identified it as his reluctance. Finally, he nodded, “I’ll meet you there tonight.”

>>>>><<<<<

Anticipation made time crawl, exacerbated by her subsequent, reluctant agreement to write down her experience for the Inquisition. By that evening, Ellana’s high sunk to a dismal low, and she tossed aside the journal adopted for taking notes. The self reflection was killing her. <I shouldn’t even be here. What does rift magic have to do with the real world? The information is only useful while I’m trapped here. Solas only cares because he loves this stuff, and Cassandra wants it written because Josephine suggested it would bolster the Inquisition’s legitimacy.>  Deciding her cabin was claustrophobic, Ellana stepped outside for respite.

She emerged a massive, town-wide party. Folk music, at once both simple and clever, wafted through the air. Crowds of common folk laughed, drank, and danced beneath the shimmering green scar in the sky. Every so often a couple paired up and stumbled through open doors, stoking her irritation at her failure to seduce Solas yet again. <I suppose we’ll see a lot of babies joining the Inquisition in some nine months… >

She herself stood alone, isolated from them all. <I could kill whomever is playing that flute.> She wasn’t angry at the musician, however, but herself. <Why did I even think I’d wake up? How could I deceive myself so blindly? There was no evidence- no proof- that the game was almost over.> There was no one else to blame.  <I’m such a fool.> She had simply wanted to go home so badly that she had convinced herself that closing the Breach was the end of the main questline.

The crunch of boots in the snow drew Ellana’s attention. She half expected it to be Varric - he had a sixth sense for when she needed coddling - but it was Cassandra. She approached alone, still wearing her armor as comfortably as the townsfolk wore their rags. Wordlessly, she took in Ellana’s stance and leaned her elbows on the wall beside her, “Solas confirms the heavens are scarred, but calm. The Breach is sealed.”

Ellana nodded, hefting herself up onto stone wall beside Cassandra. It sapped the warmth from her buttocks and she immediately regretted the choice, “I was just thinking about the Elder One. Wondering why he or she blew up the Conclave and tore the sky asunder. I mean, we heard it - Justinia was a sacrifice. What if they all were? Blood magic to destroy the veil…” <Like Solas. But he wouldn't resort to blood magic, would he?> She didn’t think so. He’d expressed a disinterest, even disdain, for blood magic during their lessons.

“Stop,” Cassandra placed a companionable gauntlet-covered hand on Ellana’s shoulder, saying gently, “This was a victory. Let us celebrate it while we can. There will be time for worry soon.”

Ellana expected to stiffen at the touch, but she didn’t. <Surprise, Cassandra’s made it into friend territory despite her lectures. A prickly, bossy friend to be sure, but at least I don’t feel like punching her.> Ellana chuckled and spun a finger in a circle, indicating the jubilant townsfolk below, “I can’t see myself dancing amongst the merry makers, can you? They’d run from my vallaslin as fast as the glow in my palm.” Referencing the mark made her flex her other hand. It  remained as calm as the sky, eddies of magical current swirling without the pulsing buzz of the Breach to drive it to frenzy.

Cassandra laughed and straightened, slipping a knee onto the same stone wall Ellana was perched upon. “Josephine tells me you’re unusually graceful. She was surprised at how readily a Dalish picked up the steps of formal court dances; it has been only a day, and she is already confident that you will be ready for Halamshiral… at least in so far as the dancing is concerned.” <For a Dalish? For anyone, Cassandra. I took years of music and dancing lessons in real life.> She forced herself to let it go, <It’s not Cassandra’s fault that she’s ignorant. She was literally programmed that way.>

“Josephine and Vivienne are remarkable teachers,” Ellana replied evenly, too weary to correct the inherent racism. Really, she appreciated that Cassandra was the only companion oblivious to it when Ellana sidestepped the truth. <The Orlesian court dances are not all that different from ballroom dancing. Though this body doesn’t have the muscle memory, I know what to do.> “I’m more worried about the conversations, to be honest. Did I tell you that a man challenged me to a duel when I first met Vivienne?”

“I knew I shouldn’t have let you attend that party alone-” Cassandra began, but she was cut off by the sudden ringing of bells in the distance. Ellana saw one of the watchtowers at the top of the neighboring mountain light its flame, then the next and the next.

Shouts carried over Haven, indistinct until many more took up the chorus, “To arms! Forces approaching! To arms!” Ellana slid off the ass-chilling stone as the alarm spread. <Great. My staff was destroyed when I used it as a foci to stitch the Breach closed. I’m helpless.> Cassandra had no such trouble; her sword practically leapt to her hand as Cullen skidded to a halt from a pelting run up the stairs.

His cheeks were pale and his eyes faintly red from what Ellana assumed was a lack of sleep. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and addressed the crowd again, “Forces approaching! To arms!” The villagers reacted more speedily than Ellana expected. Cullen turned to address her and Cassandra together, “Word just arrived by relay. The watch guard reports a massive force, the bulk over the mountain.” <Hmm, maybe I’ll get that boss battle after all.> She craned her neck, looking for a weapon. The requisition tents were only a few feet away, and she was sure she’d seen a magestaff… As she knelt beside Therin’s tent, flipping open a storage chest, the chantry doors swung open behind her.

Framed by the arched entryway, Josephine caught the tail end of Cullen’s report, and questioned, “Under what banner?”

Cullen’s mouth pressed into a grim line, and he shook his head at her, “None.”

“None?” Josephine shaded her eyes with a hand, as if the gesture could help her see further into the moonlight, “That’s insane. You are certain?”

“Very. Get the civilians into the chantry. We’ll oversee the closing of the gates,” Cullen waved Josephine back, and the Antivan ambassador obeyed without question. Ellana found what she was looking for - a plain iron staff - and followed the Commander and Cassandra at pace. Her legs pumped as her boots rapidly pedaled over the cobblestones, and she felt better with something to focus on - maybe even a guilty twinge of excitement.

Leliana slipped into existence from the shadows peripheral to Cullen, pausing only to finish tugging a sinew string onto her bow. The speed and competence with which she did so reminded Ellana of the badass who slaughtered a half a horde of demons in future-Redcliffe before being overcome. <Well, I’m glad to have the level 24 bard with us in this fight… particularly with me swinging a basic metal stick.> Leliana returned her acknowledging nod.

In moments, they arrived at Haven’s front gates. As Ellana stepped through, a voice spoke up from behind her, “I’m Cole. I came to warn you. To Help. People are coming to hurt you.”

Ellana whirled, leveling her staff. A tall, lanky blonde teenager flinched back, twin daggers falling loosely from straps tied about his wrists. She took in his watery blue eyes and washed out color, crooked teeth and floppy hat, breathing heavily with the shock of being snuck up upon. The youth cocked his head as if listening, then lowered his hands, saying with certainty, “You already know.”

“I know we’re being attacked,” Ellana replied, not budging on her self-defensive position. Cullen and Leliana rounded on Cole with sword and bow held at the ready. “What I don’t know is who they are or why they’re here.”

“The Templars come to kill you,” Cole palmed his daggers and rubbed his arms as if cold - which was certainly understandable given that he wore the thinnest of threadbare brown tunics in the early twilight of the Frostbacks, “I don’t like Templars.”

Cullen scowled, head shaking in denial, “Templars? I don’t believe it. The Order wouldn’t respond to our talks with the mages by attacking blindly.” Ellana thought his declaration both misplaced and naive, and narrowed her eyes at Cullen.

“Not all. The Red Templars went to the Elder One,” Cole’s voice struck Ellana as eerily one-dimensional, flat even. <Tranquil?> When she cautiously lowered her shields, his presence slipped across her senses, inverse to what she expected. <Something is definitely off about him. The Elder One, maybe, come disguised as a young boy to stab me in the back at the height of the battle?> The hairs on the back of her neck stood up when Cole addressed her specifically, “You know him. He knows you. You took his mages.” Cole’s gaze moved beyond her, and he pointed, “There.”

Ellana didn’t see the Elder One. It looked like Cole was simply pointing across the lake where a speckled cascade of torches poured over the mountainside.  <Candles at a rock concert, dotting the forest.> The horde flowed around the first watchtower, and its fire winked out. She looked at Cole, the realization of the fate of the lookouts who raised the alarm creeping over her.

Cole nodded to her, though she had said nothing, “He’s very angry you took his mages.”

“Oh Maker,” Leliana said, tone flat and eyes flinty as she too looked on. Then she shook her head and twisted her lips into a humorless smirk, “Remember when you thought some three hundred were the might of the Templar Order?”

“There are thousands,” Ellana whispered, surprised at how normal her voice sounded. Her fist slackened around the haft of her staff, and she knew her face had drained of color.

“If Cole’s report is correct, then those forces must have travelled directly from Therinfal Redoubt,” Leliana shook her head and gave Cole a suspicious glance, “If it is correct.”

Ellana stared at Cole, something about him still niggling at her. Reluctantly, she acknowledged that if he planned to attack her, he could have done so without revealing himself. “I think we can trust him. For now.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Cullen’s pupils, wider than Ellana would have thought the evening warranted, flickered to take in the descending army. “Haven has no hope against such a force.”

“Well, if it’s fight or die, I know which one I prefer,” Ellana tightened her grip on her weapon, regaining control of her senses. “There must be a way. Haven is on a mountain in the middle of the Frostbacks; that in itself should make it defensible.” She arched a brow at Cullen, “You’re the military genius. Give me a plan, Commander.”

Cullen opened his mouth to respond, but abruptly closed it and scanned the dark. Ellana observed the wheels turning in his head while the army streamed down the slope like fireflies swarming through the trees. Finally he lifted his finger and pointed to the peak above, “Avalanche.”

“That could work,” Leliana agreed, latching onto the idea, but her brow was knotted with worry, “We need to get to the trebuchets, aim them at the mountain peak, and loose - before they get here. There’s no way we can withstand such a force.”

“Set off the five trebuchets on the cliff face to the southwest - all at once, and backed by magic. That will give us the best chance.” Cullen swung his arm and pointed to the siege weapons, “If we use the internal ones, we can only hit the closest mountain; an avalanche there would bury Haven and all of us forever.”

“No time to waste then,” Ellana muttered, drawing the hood of her cloak over her ears, “Let’s go.”

>>>>><<<<<

Cassandra peeled off and took command of the bulk of the soldiers, issuing orders to get the villagers to safety. A small force accompanied Ellana and her companions as the bulk of the army sought refuge behind Haven’s walls, ready to defend it from within. This plan only required a handful of men.

Cole stayed close to Ellana’s side as she made her way to the war machines. His slippery presence in her mind jarred her, a too-convenient a deux ex machina to lead her to the final battle. <He could have just stuck one of those daggers in my kidneys rather than tell us that the army outside our door are Templars,> she told herself, still tense against betrayal. <Leliana can take him if he becomes a problem.> What worried her most was the fact that a whole army of Templars would be upon them soon - far too soon. Fighting them in the Hinterlands had imprinted a visceral fear upon her.

“Hope we don’t get caught between that army and our own walls,” Ellana thought aloud as they climbed up the stone platform toward the closest of the trebuchets.

“Let us think happy thoughts; if we are to die, I prefer to contemplate the beauty of the stars at twilight than the blood in the snow,” Leliana puffed, her voice accompanied by the swirl of her breath steaming in the cold.

Ellana gave Leliana an incredulous frown, but said nothing. <And there you have it, folks - the mind of a bard. I don’t see how imagining rainbows and sunshine while we’re gutted in the cold helps.>

“There!” Cullen’s gesture led Ellana to a small ladder at the base of the gargantuan contraption. It smelled of pitch and looked fairly complicated; a skeleton of wood beams strewn in ropes. As she achieved the top of the ladder, Ellana shouted over her shoulder to Cullen, “I have no idea what to do!”

“They do!” Cullen called back from below, jerking his head towards the foot soldiers. A swirl of snow tore at his cloak. He held onto the ladder tightly, calling to his men, “Crew the trebuchets!” then turned to Ellana and Leliana, urging them with a gesture to stop blocking the way, “Move; we don’t have a lot of time!” Leliana cupped Ellana’s backside and pushed her up over the ledge before following herself.

The Inquisition soldiers followed, swarming up to the war machines like ants, operating in tandem. Their daily drilles had paid off;  Ellana had mere minutes to stare at the army in the darkness before the soldiers’ calls began to ring down the lines: “Ready!” “Ready!” “Ready!”

Cullen’s gaze was serious, “Like I said, we need magic. These boulders on their own may or may not be enough to trigger the required concussion. Can you spell an explosion on impact?” <I don’t know . Can I?> She dug through Lavellan’s repertoire, looking up. The wooden structure above her head reminded her strongly of the scaffolding used to build skyscrapers, suspending a massive boulder only twenty feet directly above her head. <I need a timed spell, like Walking Bomb, only less fleshy...> She squinted at the target, but Cullen’s hand clamped around her elbow.

Shocked by the touch, Ellana noted Cullen’s face had gone white. Across the ridge in semi-darkness, at the head of the advancing army, glowing crimson armor highlighted the features of a man in obvious Templar armor. “That’s Samson.”

“The addict from Kirkwall?” Ellana blurted, straining her neck. She supposed it could be, but he was too far away to make out much more than a head of scraggly, black hair. Cullen’s brow furrowed, and he looked at her questioningly. She huffed, “I read Varric’s book! Anyway, who cares who it is? He’s leading a damned army down here!” Ellana shook Cullen’s slack hand off her elbow and raised the iron staff.

Gathering her mana burned like dipping her hand into molten wax, the Fade seething when she pulled upon more and more power. <Something’s not right. What is that?> She didn’t have time to stop and explore. Faint blue lines reminiscent of veilfire cut through the night around the stones in the two closest trebuchets. “They’ll explode on impact - it’s the best I can do.” She rubbed at her left hand, the one with the mark. <Oh yes, something is definitely wrong.> In the distance, she sensed something seductive, Cole’s queer presence a sheer barrier between it and her.

Cullen nodded, still staring at the ridge where the man he swore was Samson stood. He lifted his sword, then called down the lines, “Ready!” a chorus of approval greeted him, then he slashed his blade down, “Fire!”

In near perfect synchrony, the Inquisition released the tension lines. A crack like thunder accompanied the dark flight of stones, two lit sparkling blue. They hit the farthest mountaintop with a concussive BOOM while the soldiers watched expectantly. Dust billowed in the distance, and Leliana whispered, “Maker protect us.”

Even in the dark, Ellana saw the first spits of snow tumbling; the entire right side of the mountain simply crumbled away. Snow, dirt, and debris flowed faster, reminiscent of a wave crashing toward the beach. Hundreds of the approaching army’s torches winked out beneath the onslaught. <I thought it’d be louder…> Not that she could hear much; the Inquisition’s forces were cheering. Several thousand enemy soldiers wiped out in one hit; the bulk of the rest were trapped behind impassable depths of snow.

Samson turned atop the ridge, spared by the natural shape of the precipice, and peered down at the army. If he wore any expression, Ellana was too far away to see it.

Cole, whom Ellana had lost track of in the chaos, startled her when he appeared at her side, “It is not over.” Indeed, while the Inquisition soldiers around her cheered, a high pitched, screeching roar swelled to pierce the air. From the false dawn of twilight just over the mountain's peak, a tattered dragon shot into the sky.

The beast flew straight up into the darkness, almost black against the deepening, purple velvet of night. Soon it was a mere speck in the darkness. At the crest of its upward flight, its wings flared. The dragon dove toward Haven.

“Archdemon!” the men shouted in terror as they scattered.

The speck fell upon them rapidly, straight and direct as bullet. One moment it was an outline above the mountaintop, the next a wave of displaced air crashed over them. From mere meters away it opened its dark maw to expose a pinpoint of fiery light. “Shit!” Ellana, like the rest of them, dove off the trebuchet platform, just in time for a ball of fire to engulf the war machine. Wooden shrapnel the size of human limbs exploded through the super-heated air at her back.

The splinters and debris somehow bypassed her, and she landed face first in the snow, intact. <Holy motherfucker - did a fucking freight train just drop a bomb on our heads?> Above, the dragon circled to make a second pass, roar reverberating off Haven’s stone walls.

Ellana scrambled to her feet, brushing away the ice and snow, and told her fearful mind top stop trying to shut itself down. The cold barely registered, and the dragon simply moved too fast for elven senses to cope. Around her, Inquisition forces milled about like sitting ducks, equally impacted, and she couldn’t get eyes on Cullen. Shoving hysteria aside, she reminded herself that a panicked person is a dead one. She shouted forcefully to the soldiers, “Everyone! To the gates!”

To her surprise they obeyed; even Cullen, who rose out of the chaos ashen. He nodded and beckoned the men nearest to him, raising his voice to echo her command, “To the gates!”

As they ran the archdemon descended upon the war machines once more, spewing down a blast of fire that destroyed another trebuchet. <Thank goodness that thing isn’t smart. We’ve already done all the damage we can with those.>

She made it to Haven with the soldiers. Behind them the dragon effortlessly annihilated the remainder of their external war machines before banking back towards Samson and the summit.

Her chest burned from the effort of dragging freezing air into her bruised ribs. When the village gates slammed shut behind her, she bent over placing hands on her knees and stole a few gasps of breath. Cullen herded people towards the chantry, “Move it! Move it! Everyone get to the chantry. It’s the only building that might hold against that... that beast!”

Ellana wiped snot from her nose and chuffed, forcing herself to rise and trot up alongside Cullen. They followed the Inquisition soldiers toward the chantry, Cullen glancing obliquely towards her. Ellana filled the silence with a question, “What do we do?”

Cullen's mouth thinned, and he replied quietly for her ears alone, “With an Archdemon? At this point, just make them work for it.”

He moved ahead as she faltered, his words like a slap across the face. She stared at him, stunned, then hurried to catch up. As they crunched through the snow toward the chantry, the dragon’s roar vibrated through her chest cavity and shook the ground beneath her. Looking back, she caught a glimpse of it circling above the ridge and wondered how in the hell they were going to fight that.